Friday, 28 November 2014

Andrew Mitchell is innocent

and that is why he sued for libel. Nobody would sue if they knew they had done what they were accused of. I have written many times publicly that former MP Martin Salter took over 40K of public money to pay for a non-existent London property. He has never even threatened to sue me, because it is true. UK libel laws are problematic, and also controversial. My personal view is that there should be a privacy law, as there is in France, which would protect private individuals from unwarranted publication of details of their personal life, family matters and so on. Public figures would also be protected, but less so, because there could be a public interest defence. I barely knew Andrew Mitchell during my time in the House of Commons, so I have no personal interest to declare. He had the reputation of being irascible, and I have no reason to doubt that he is. If he did shout and swear at police officers on the day in question, and it is not seriously disputed that he did, then that was bad behaviour, and behaviour not befitting a chief whip (bullying and psychological torture is more their style), but it does not merit two years of personal hell and career and possibly financial ruin. Andrew Mitchell may have the personal wealth to pay the enormous legal bill he now confronts, or he may not. I have no idea. But there is no doubt that his political career is over. He appears to have been personally tormented by the accusation - which amounts to the use, or not, of the word "pleb" - in a way that some other politicians facing media storms of this kind have not been. I maintain that this is because he was innocent of what he was accused of. It has been suggested that he brought this matter on himself by refusing to walk away from the issue, and by suing for libel. This of course is what brought down Oscar Wilde over a century ago. Contrast with Chris Huhne, who went to prison for an offence he knew he was guilty of, and who appears to be relatively unscathed by the experience. Andrew Mitchell is not going to prison, but unscathed he is not.

It seems clear that there was some kind of conspiracy by more than one police officer to stitch Andrew Mitchell up. Probably because they didn't like him, and if the police decide to do you over they can usually manage it. The judge seems to have known this, and to have deemed it not especially relevant. He chose to believe the police officer at the centre of the case, Toby Rowland, who said he didn't know what the word "pleb" meant - probably not, because that briefing came from elsewhere in the police - because he thought Rowland was not the kind of man to make things up, and so Andrew Mitchell must be either lying or amnesiac to deny having used the word "pleb". Well, that is what judges do. They make judgments.

In his very interesting book on UK political scandals, 'Eye of the Storm', Rob Wilson MP (my successor as MP for Reading East, to no one's surprise, and likely to retain the seat next year) chronicles the personal and emotional crisis Andrew Mitchell experienced as a result of this accusation. He indicates that those who feel they have been unjustly accused are likely to suffer more than those who know themselves to be guilty. Conscience is a real thing, but so is justice. Andrew Mitchell has been unjustly treated. Justice is real, but only if those who are unlikeable or unfashionable have the same entitlement to it as everyone else does.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

did this picture get someone killed?

the regime in North Korea is both barmy and savage, as any fule kno. Its ruling dynasty and the elite that surrounds it cannot afford to move on from the worst extremes of the Cold War in which its people are still living, even though they must. The regime's pronouncements read like a bad joke, most of the time, and its leaders, since the nation's founder Kim Il-sung ("Kim: The Early Years"), to his allegedly playboy son Kim Jong Il ("Bad Elvis", as John Sweeney dubbed him) to today's Dear Leader Kim Jong Un ("Fatboy Kim", ibid.) have looked increasingly ludicrous with each generation. One day the regime will come crashing down, and the Kims with it. But until then the people of North Korea live in a tragic parody of a socialist paradise. And yet, look at this picture. It is an official photograph taken of Leader Kim's visit to an orphanage (one with no children in it, but that is the way of things in the Democratic People's Republic). It appears not to have been photoshopped or tampered with. Someone in that place has (or had) a subversive sense of humour. The picture is from KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, the sole official news agency.
fatboy kim look behind you
I am not one to subscribe to the notion that totalitarian or fascist regimes can be brought down by ridicule - look how effective the satirical cabarets of 1930s Berlin were against Hitler - but there is a place for taking the piss. The worker in the orphanage, the member of Kim's entourage, the humble official, whoever it was who had the notion of placing the two stuffed toys behind Kim in the compromising position they are in has a juvenile sense of humour, but a subversive one. It's good to see that subversiveness is alive and well and living in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, where there's not much to laugh about, most of the time. The joke that is Fatboy Kim's haircut has probably worn a bit thin by now.

Of course, this picture may be fake. I don't think so, but it may be. Of course, if it's real the person responsible for the placing of the animals may have been identified and terminated by now. Commenters on Mashable, which is where I first saw this picture, seem to think so.

For those who care, the stuffed animal in the, er, submissive position in the picture is a Japanese manga character. He is a blue cat with no ears called Doraemon who has come back from the future to help a little boy called Nobita live a better life. I think he is fab and I have got several pieces of Doraemon merchandise at home. And, why, pray tell, can the Glorious People's Republic not create their own stuffed animals, but instead use ones imported (we suppose) from Evil Imperialist Japan?

Leaving quite aside the notion of being pictured smoking a cigarette in an orphanage. Or anywhere, really, these days.
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

sickness and health

those who know me, are friends with me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, etc, know that earlier this year I was involved in an accident (no one else involved, I fell over while stepping over a low fence in the street in a town in England) in which I not only broke my left leg rather badly and now set off alarms at airports because the leg has a lot of metal in it, but subsequently experienced scar-tissue adhesions in the left knee which required further surgery to enable me to bend the knee, and meant that I had to learn to walk again. I haven't blogged about it, because while my recovery was interesting to me most of the time, I thought and think that it was and is deeply boring to everyone else. But then I discovered this column by Rebecca Armstrong, who is features editor of the Independent newspaper, and whose husband was hit by a car earlier this year and seriously injured. She doesn't describe his injuries in detail, or not in the columns I've read, but it appears that he is not mobile, or not yet, and that he has had some kind of brain injury. She says that since his injury she has had to deal with his personal paperwork and administration, as well as with the various kinds of health bureaucracy that are inevitable in this situation. She had never done this before, and it is making her miserable. That's what got me thinking.

I have been wondering why, now that I can walk again, though slowly and with a limp (thank you to the Clemenceau rehabilitation hospital in Strasbourg, France, where I live) I have been feeling so much sadder about the situation than I was six months ago. At the hospital I saw people trying to learn to walk on two prosthetic legs; my room-mate couldn't stand up at all; there were people doing wheelchair sport in the hospital gym (yes, this is France, where high-end health care is available to everyone) who would always have to use those wheelchairs; and my only problem was having a gammy leg that ached a bit sometimes. So, I felt quite good about it all really. Once I could get rid of the wheelchair, in May, throw away the crutches, in July (a wonderful moment, that) and use an exercise bike, in August (next goal a real outdoors bike) I felt able-bodied again. So why am I sad now?

Being immobilised as I was and as Rebecca's husband is messes up your life in more than one way. I have salaried employment that comes with health insurance, so the six months it took for me to be ready to go back to work didn't mess me up financially. I was lucky, you could say, and I have said so many times. But Rebecca is dealing with her husband's paperwork (and apparently he was not very organised) and feeling very lonely as she does so. If the boiler leaks or the pipes burst she has to deal with that too. My husband looked after me as best he could, but he is not a nurse. All the non-physical aspects of my life were put on hold while I was bed-bound. If I hadn't been able to do online shopping from my bed I'm not sure how I'd have managed. And the downside of France's magnificent health care system is the vast amount of bureaucracy it brings with it, as do other aspects of life in this country. And it's bureaucracy in a language which is not my first, which adds to the challenge. So I am still tying up loose ends of bill payments, insurance paperwork and so on that no one else could do for me and that I couldn't cope with myself for quite a long time. And it's depressing. French bureaucrats are an unforgiving breed. So that, I believe, is why I am sad.

Never underestimate the psychological after-effects of an accident. The fact that it was an accident, that it could not have been foreseen or planned for, messes with your head. And it always comes back to your brain, and your emotions, and your spirit, no matter which part of you has been physically damaged. A nurse in the UK hospital said to me that men deal with injuries much better than women do. They are more demanding, asking for painkillers and for things to be done for them much more than women do, but they don't agonise about the injury itself; they think of it as they would a car that needed repair. Women, on the other hand, agonise forever about how it happened, could it have been prevented, is it their fault (I did and do all these things) have they got arthritis now (in my case, yes, probably), have they passed on hip problems or brittle bones to their children, and so on. A physiotherapist in the French hospital said to me "Vous marchez avec la tete" ("You walk with your head") and she was right. To learn to walk again I had to believe I could. But no one else can do the paperwork for me. So, forgive me.

When I was using crutches people gave up their seats for me on the bus or tram. Now I'm not, they don't - and standing for any length of time is still difficult, especially on a moving vehicle. So, travelling is harder work than it once was. So, everything takes longer. I can't quicken my pace to catch an approaching bus or tram. I just have to miss it and wait for the next one. I can't yet ride my bike. I can't go to a concert or show unless I have a booked seat. I don't drink a lot of water any more, because if I need to dash to the loo - well, I can't. These are small negatives, but they add up over time.

This year I missed the spring altogether (the accident happened in early February and I was immobile for seven weeks afterwards). I was in hospital for almost the whole of June and July. The late summer I could go outside for wasn't enough. And now the days are shorter and darker, I still have paperwork to do. And it's making me sad.

If someone close to you goes through something like this, remember that it's when they are well recovered, some months later, that they will need support, when the professionals are gone but nothing will ever be the same again. I'm only sorry it took this to teach me that people do have needs which aren't visible - that even once you can walk again the path is stony, and you are afraid of falling.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

music in your pocket, and a watch

the iPod Classic (you know, the chunky thing with the click-wheel) is to disappear. Those who still use one may do so until it dies, and then, oblivion. I have been reading with some interest some online debates about this. A lot of chaps, especially those of the family-man car-driving persuasion, are miffed at this move by Apple. When it's pointed out to them that they are not being deprived of music-on-the-go but can listen on their phone, and that most people can't fit their entire music collection on any iPod, they get even crosser. That's not the point, they say. My music identifies me. I say to that, if you need an iPod to have a sense of identity you are more of a slave to the capitalist conspiracy than I am. And I am. My first iPod, in 2010, had a click-wheel, and while I wasn't sorry when that was phased out, I really somehow liked the sound of that little wheel. After that iPod died I listened on my iPhone, and that was great. I needed to make playlists, but I rather enjoyed thinking each morning what I wanted to listen to on the way to work and putting a playlist on. I liked timing the playlist so the last track, played as I was walking into the building, was a punching, up-yours kind of thing. A favourite was "My Name Is Stain" by Shaka Ponk, or "Batard" (no translation needed I fancy) by Stromae. Is this a gender thing? Because chaps I know seem to HATE doing this. They want ALL THEIR MUSIC RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. I managed to drop and break my iPhone about 18 months ago, and couldn't afford a new one, so now I have a Samsung Galaxy and I like it quite a lot. But I also now have a simple iPod Nano, for music only. Because iTunes.

Yes, iTunes is horrid, we all agree. But what else is a girl to do? You like a track, you get it for a euro. And no Wall of Plastic. Sig other has one of these walls, because he has many many CDs and is still adding to his collection. So I have to buy Billy bookshelves from IKEA to put the CDs on.

A watch. You know what I'm talking about. I have wanted one of these ever since I first heard about them. I just rather resent having to get a new phone so I can work the watch off it. Samsung do a stand-alone one. But the Apple one is a thing of beauty... What would you do?

Apple Watch
Samsung Gear Watch


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Good King Richard

Richard III
this picture of King Richard III is quite well known I think, though it was not painted in his lifetime. It seems to be a copy of one that was, but is now lost. He's one of the better known kings of England, largely because of Shakespeare's play and the numerous subsequent film adaptations, especially perhaps Laurence Olivier in the part, with his hunchback and tights. The title of this post makes my view of Richard clear - he has been maligned throughout history, and the record should be set straight - but the story is not a simple one. Shakespeare was hired to trash his reputation, because the grandfather of Elizabeth I, queen in Shakespeare's time, was the usurper of the throne victor in the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, at Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. Shakespeare wrote about other kings, but it's only really Richard, and to some extent Henry V, who are remembered because of him. Shakespeare had to trash Richard's reputation, because even then, a century later, there were still people who knew, or suspected, that Richard was not the villain his Tudor successors had called him.

I came to Richard through the Shakespeare play, in my schooldays. The cartoon villain that play makes him uses such glorious language that I started wondering why he needed to be trashed. He was king for only two years, after all. He was defeated in battle. Why was he not forgotten? So I got to reading other things about him, and a teacher pointed me at Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time", most editions of which use this picture on the cover. I discovered that he was the last king of England to be English. The last king of England to die in battle. And the first one to have the laws of England written in English so that the people could understand them.

Nobody knew then that the remains of Richard, the only king of England not to have a marked grave, would be found underneath a car park in Leicester. But they were, in 2012. Something that was so unlikely that it's still hard to believe now, but it happened. I went to Leicester last month to see the visitor centre they have created, and to see the grave site in the former car park. It was rather affecting, like going to a funeral can be. But I was impressed. Richard is to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral next March. I shall be there to pay my respects to his coffin, which will lie in the cathedral for three days before the burial. They are building him a tomb there now, and I hope it is fit for Good King Richard, which is how the north of England knew him.

Who killed the Princes in theTower? Nobody knows. Possibly no one did.

Did Richard have a hunchback and a withered arm? No, the bones establish that. He had scoliosis, which would have made one shoulder higher than the other, but the clothes of those days, and especially armour, would have disguised that very effectively.

The visitor centre in Leicester has a terrific display of pictures of actors who have played Richard. I never saw Kevin Spacey or Antony Sher play him, and wish I had. I saw the film with Ian McKellen, which is my personal favourite, and is quite terrifying. The display includes a picture of John Lydon in his Johnny Rotten days, and says that Lydon modelled his physical stage persona on Richard as played by Olivier. Really?

Things not many people know. When Richard was killed on Bosworth Field, his crown was found under a bush. I remember that from school history. But the crown was placed on Henry Tudor's head, then and there, by Stanley, who was supposed to be Richard's ally and had betrayed him. When Henry was king he got an Act passed declaring his kingship to have begun the day before Bosworth, which made Richard guilty of treason. So Henry Tudor's reign started with a lie.

Rest in peace King Richard.

After the bones were found, a camping equipment shop in Leicester put a sign in its window for its January sale: "Now is the winter of our discount tents". Oh, please yourselves. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

P J O'Rourke and the boomers

Ghastly right-winger that he is, I have always found P J O'Rourke hilarious. I particularly loved that his book on international conflict and crisis was called "Give War A Chance". Anyway, his latest tome, "The Baby Boom, How It Got That Way And It Wasn't My Fault And I'll Never Do It Again" is a bit variable. You have to love a writer who puts in ahead of the foreword a quote from Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha bit of the Bible (I always used to get him mixed up with Ecclesiastes, because I could never remember which one you were supposed to read and which one not, but Ecclesiasticus is the Wrong One) "How can he get wisdom... whose talk is of bullocks?"  But a lot of this is a description of a 1950s-to-early-60s childhood in Ohio, attracting the reaction "So what?" And why do Americans have to refer to brand names all the time? For us ration-book Brits the only brand names with any nostalgia quotient are probably Spangles and Golden Wonder, neither of which exists any more. He refers to Depends and Levitra, both of which I had to look up (incontinence pants and Viagra variant, since you ask, neither of which probably existed when US boomers were children).

But O'Rourke's boomer credentials are impeccable. He used to be editor of National Lampoon. Largely because he was/is funny. He took a lot of drugs, at the right time. He lived in a shared house called Big Green.

Who are the boomers? Opinions differ. Most agree that the oldest ones were born in 1946, conceived usually by returning soldiers. The youngest, however, were born anywhere between 1959 and 1964, depending who you believe (O'Rourke goes for 1964). What did boomers have that was cool, and that has lasted? Our music, of course. We had the Beatles. We had the Rolling Stones. We had the Kinks. We had the Who (none of these American, just saying). Except that all these people are/were war babies, born in the 1940s. Not boomers. Who are the boomer musicians? The late Sid Vicious? Morrissey (at the younger end)? Elvis Costello? Well, I grant  you him, but it's not the same, if you get my drift. So what did our generation produce? We went into politics, some of us. The Clintons are boomers, at the top end of the age group, and so may Barack Obama be, at the bottom end. Tony Blair definitely is. Angela Merkel. But the boomers' time in the political sunlight was brief. David Cameron is younger than that. Nigel Farage doesn't count. Our time there is over. Fun while it lasted. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Like the rest of our lives really.

Artists? Writers? Not that many. Martin Amis, if  you like him (I do) scrapes in (born 1949). Jonathan Coe. David Mitchell is too young. Margaret Drabble is too old. The writers I choose to read, mostly, are older or younger than the boomer generation.

But P J O'Rourke is funny. And concise. He notes, rightly, that the tax bills to fund the boomers' retirement are barely starting to come in, adding that that ought to galvanise those Generation X slackers into doing some work, besides which it would help them get over the death of Kurt Cobain. Just as well, then, that we don't want to retire. If we did, we'd have to admit we were old. Our parents wanted to retire. Some of them did so in their fifties, because their working lives were quite hard, and they were glad when they were over. Us, no. We've been having a pretty good time, all told. Quite a lot of us died young without any wars to kill us off, unlike now (I've lost several friends my own age and younger), but (and I'm talking about Brits, here) we had home cooking not junk food when we were children, we played out, we were not driven around, we were allowed chips only once a week, and we acquired self-reliance by being outside the house without adults from early on. We never grew up, and we are going to live for ever.

That's not an indictment of my generation, it's a snapshot opinion of it. Will later generations think of us kindly?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Desert Island Discs in Yorkshire

Yes I know, posting your desert island discs is frivolous and shallow, but hey, I'm on holiday.  In Yorkshire, since you ask, for the walking, to help mend my leg. It's so cold for August I've had to buy warm clothes, even though I knew the summer clothes I would wear in Alsace would not do in Leeds. The tracks are in no particular order.

1. The Moody Blues, 'Nights in White Satin''. Tune of my teenage years, and I have never tired of it. One of the great swooning ballads of all time.

2. The Rolling Stones, 'Paint It Black'. It's not the greatest thing they have ever done, but I think it is the clearest and the most powerful. Most pop songs, rock anthems etc are not about death, or not entirely, even the girl-group tragedy ones (see below), but this one is.

3. The Hollies, 'Bus Stop'. A near-perfect pop song, with the then-great voice of Graham Nash.

4. The Shangri-Las, 'Remember'. The best of the girl groups. 'Rock Dreams', back in the day, called them "three schoolgirls in black leather". I love the pauses in this. I will never get tired of it as long as I live.

And now, moving a little nearer the present day:

5. Stromae, "Formidable". He sings only in French. The most famous Belgian. All human life is there. And every line is simple, as Brel was. "Tu etais formidable, j'etais fort minable".

Back again to the past:

6. Jacques Brel, "Amsterdam". A dead famous Belgian. He of course also sang only in French, but nobody asked about that then. A perfect chanson. "Comme des oriflammes, le long des berges mornes."

7. The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields For Ever". For the nonsense of it, though I suspect John Lennon took the words a little more seriously than I do.

8. Tom Lehrer, "The Periodic Table". Just because. No one else could.

A bit old, all these. And yet I like a lot of today's modern beat combos. I'm sure these favourites will change over time, but that is what I would take if I had to go today.

Book? To Kill A Mockingbird. (Tussle between that and Wuthering Heights, but the latter has too much property in it, which wouldn't really do on a desert island.)

Luxury item: Tussle between a supply of Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream and pen and notebook to write with. The latter wins, by a whisker.

The one record I'd choose of them all? Difficult, but it's the Brel.

Just a bit of fun. You? Love to hear it.

An artificial water war

David Aaronovitch, writing in today's Times (£) expresses concern at recent statements and lobbying by the Angling Trust and (allegedly) other organisations promoting angling. Their stance, he writes, is that other river users, and specifically canoeists, are damaging the riparian environment for anglers. This may of course be true, though it does seem to me that it is not canoeists who leave tangled lines on riverbanks which cause injury and death to water birds and other animals. I therefore took the opportunity to cast a cursory look at the document Aaronovitch refers to, namely 'Conflict on the Riverbank', published late last year by the Angling Trust. My attention was drawn to these words:

Angling Trust National Campaigns Coordinator Martin Salter said:
"The Angling Trust has been challenging the claims being made by militant canoeists that they should have
a right paddle up every river, stream or brook in Britain irrespective of ownership or the impact this has on wildlife or other people's enjoyment. The rights of navigation are clear in law and there are thousands of miles of navigable rivers and waterways to which canoeists have legal access. We also have well worked voluntary access agreements in place which allow canoeing on some rivers such as the Dart and the upper Wye at times of high water when fishing will not be affected.

"They should have a right paddle"? Who edits this stuff? John Howarth?

Be that as it may,there are voluntary agreements in place in respect of various of the rivers of England which aim to secure harmonious use of the rivers by various users - walkers, including dog walkers, cyclists, anglers, canoeists, and, oh I don't know, hang-gliders and aficionados of naked riverbank yoga for all I know. So it's surely possible for everyone to play nicely together. And as Aaronovitch points out, even if canoeists do damage the experience of fish-torturing that anglers enjoy, those canoeists have precisely zero influence on the leisure experience of walkers, runners, cyclists and (probably) naked riverbank yogis. So this is anglers trashing canoeists. Now I am neither an angler nor a canoeist, but I am a user of the riverside, as an occasional walker and cyclist there, and in the past few months I  have become a gardener on a riverside plot in my home country of France (where the rules are a bit different - let's not go there). I see canoeists and anglers apparently happily coexisting on my local rivers.

Anyway Aaronovitch's piece (he declares an interest as a sometime canoeist but is fairly even-handed on the whole) is helpful in drawing the nation's attention to this piece of meretricious bollocks.
The rights of navigation are in fact not very clear in respect of a great many rivers and other water bodies in England. Where they are they tend to favour canoeists, as Mr Salter knows, perhaps because canoeists have no effect on the wildlife ecology, as Mr Salter should also know. Banning canoeists from rivers, including school groups and children's holiday clubs, would be SUCH a popular cause in an election year, hein?
And "We" have well worked agreements? Who's "we"? This is a manufactured and artificial conflict. Mr Salter has form on this, going back to his time as Labour MP for  Reading West, and before. First it was "Trash the Cormorants!" (He urged mass culls of cormorants by shooting, attracting the ire of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, among others). Then it was "Trash the Otters!" (Little Tarka Must Die!) and, at least as worryingly, it was "Trash the East Europeans!" (who apparently don't torment fish for pleasure as True Englishmen do, but often fish just for some dinner (perfectly legal on most English rivers most of the time)). Leaving aside the question of how he could tell when it had been East Europeans doing Bad Things (did the fish report that a Nasty Polish Man Did It And Ran Away?), this last attracted the enthusiastic agreement of Joe ("Send 'em Back!") Baker of the Reading  Anglers' Association,  so I think we know whose vote was wanted there.

As the election approaches, what do the candidates where you live think about banning canoeists, otters, cormorants and East Europeans from the rivers?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Rob Wilson, 'Eye of the Storm'

A long and tedious period of recovery following an accident in early February this year has curtailed my activity somewhat, but I am mending and back. A sick bed gives plenty of time for reading. Even more, it gives the opportunity to read the new books as soon as they come out. I do tend to try and do this anyway, rather than leaving them on a reading pile until everyone has forgotten why they might have been interested in the first place.  Dickens and Austen, by contrast, won't mind if it thus takes me a bit longer to finish reading them.

I do take an interest in the career of Rob Wilson, elected for the constituency of Reading East in the Conservative interest in 2005, and representing that constituency to this day. That is largely, but not entirely, because he was my successor as MP for that constituency. He has written a couple of interesting books, and this is one of them. People at the centre of events seem to be willing to talk to him. This book is about political scandals, and those at the centre of them, hence its title. For those readers who don't remember what the scandals were all about, be assured, it doesn't really matter.

Andrew Mitchell, who was innocent of what he was accused of ("Plebgate", anyone?) handled his scandal much less well than did Chris Huhne, who was entirely guilty. Probably because MItchell really did not imagine, to begin with, that accusations could simply be made up out of nothing. Well, yes they can, Andrew, and that is why most people still have some vague notion that you spat in the face of a serving police officer, or some other such poor creature. Whereas Chris Huhne, who was guilty of perverting the course of justice and went to prison for it, has been more or less forgotten, and if he is remembered no one is quite sure what if anything he did wrong. Mostly when people say there is a conspiracy against them they are not believed, as Mitchell wasn't. But sometimes it's true.

On the Jeremy Hunt affair, who seemed to me, as an outsider to all this, like a scandal that never was, Wilson cites a senior Tory as saying that the subsequent Labour motion, on which the LibDems abstained, although they were and are in government, was "typical LibDems - a high moral tone and low politics". Wilson describes Hunt's political survival as "a testament to his temperament and his resilience". It is the psychology of those in the eye of these storms that is beginning to emerge as interesting here. Those who can compartmentalise, and those who can stand outside their own emotions, seem to survive best.

Some language issues with the book ("steely" is rather too much of a favourite word); use of cliches ("little did he know": surely only used ironically these days?) and some iffy use of modals (a linguist writes).

Note that Jacqui Smith would not have been done over if it had not been for a malicious neighbour in London. This is how it always happens. "Officials took the unusual step of removing all the newspapers from Smith's sight" - hah! Porn films, we all remember. But I never claimed for any of this stuff, only rent. Why did these people do it? We got paid enough to buy all the DVDs we wanted. Smith said, allegedly, that sometimes when she meets people she thinks "Where were you when I needed help?" What did you expect, Jacks? For Smith "throughout the difficult period, her sister Sara would look after her in London, and would cook for her after work". Oh really? Where are the tears for the rest of us, who had no such creature to look after us?

He's a big fan of Stewart Jackson, the Tory MP for Peterborough since 2005, clearly. I've never been able to afford a house with a swimming pool. Others. John Swallow. Phil Jeffery. Nadhim Zahawi, quoted on his expenses scandal, "For two and a half weeks everything stopped." Really? I had this stuff for seven years. Very nearly non stop.

Charles Clarke, he says "made little attempt to reach out to backbenchers". I think that's wrong. He did. What he didn't do was call that in when the time came. Why not? He had more history in the party, and in various left groupings from NUS times on, than most did.

When you are at the eye of the storm, most of your friends will turn against you. Your family will undoubtedly turn its back on you. Your spouse won't, unless there were pre-existing problems. That's just how it is. This book doesn't analyse all that, but the psychology of scandal is ripe for a book. And this one will be part of its source.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Balkans: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Rebecca West, writing just before the Second World War, on her travels in the Balkans. I have done my own little bit of that travel, which is why this book took my interest. This edition, too, is introduced by Christopher Hitchens, but despite that I still think West is dodgy politically, and possibly intellectually too. However, this is the best travelogue I have ever read, by quite a long way. Studded with gems, such as this on the divide between peasants and bourgeois (which still meant something in the 1930s) "there is no man in the world, not even Stalin, who would claim to be able to correct in our own time the insane dispensation which pays the food-producer worst of all workers". She's right about the last bit, but - Stalin, the peasant's friend? In 1937?
On the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then existed in living memory: "Such a terrible complexity has been left by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which some desire to restore; such a complexity, in which nobody can be right and nobody can be wrong, and the future cannot be fortunate". Look forward to the 1990s and that is true, but I do not think I blame the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the Yugoslav wars of that time.
A little politically incorrect by the standards of the left of today, I am glad to see: "the people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broad-minded ... would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today."
Things not a lot of people know: Robert Adam was inspired by the Roman Emperor Diocletian's palace at Split: "When we look at a facade in Portman Square or a doorway in Portland Place, we are looking at Roman Dalmatia."
She talks to a Dalmatian professor in Split who had been a friend of Admiral Lord Fisher, about whom I learned, as often in my young days, from an Al Stewart song: "Admiral Lord Fisher is writing to Churchill, calling for more dreadnoughts; the houses in Hackney are all falling down."
She's a bit odd on sexuality; perhaps because she was a renowned feminist she felt the need to keep putting things in about it. But they are strange (to our ears now) sweeping statements, such as "But of course in a country where there is very little homosexuality it is easy for girls to grow up into womanhood."
On the culture and religions of the Balkans the book goes from marvel to marvel. In Kotor, where suddenly there are Orthodox churches, in contrast with most of Catholic Croatia, she notes "the dark, hugged mystery of the Eastern Church and the bold explanation proffered by the lit altars of the Western Church".
She is totally pro-Slav and pro-Serb, and sees Gavrilo Princip as a kind of hero. Those killers could not be sentenced to death, because they were all under twenty-one. But 13 conspirators were sent to Austrian prisons, and by the end of the war, three years later, nine of them had died in their cells. The three young men who were convicted of the killing are buried in Sarajevo. Are their graves still there? Are they still marked? West and her husband went to see them. I wish I had.
She is impressed, as most are, by the relentless, almost hilarious good looks of the people. "... one of those pale women with dark hair who even in daylight look as if one were seeing them by moonlight".
Elsie Inglis's Scottish Women's Hospital was in Serbia in 1914-15. Who knew?And what courage those women had. I'm glad she mentioned it.
Boy is this a long book. Knocks Patrick Leigh Fermor into a cocked hat though, and that's not something I thought I would say. "If Protestantism has done much harm by making religion identical with ethical effort of a limited kind it has done a great deal of good by putting down in black and white the ideas of Christianity, and showing us what life will lose if we abandon them."
Social history in the small mentions. She travels with a work-basket with silks in it. Did they have huge trunks and an army of bearers? Perhaps they did.
She describes the blood sacrifice of lambs and cockerels on a particular rock in Macedonia on St. George's Day, for women's fertility, in fairly nauseating detail. She is utterly disgusted by it, and says, rather oddly, that she has been living in the shadow of that rock all her life.
Byzantine titles are just wonderful. Sebastocrator and Grand Logothete, Grand Domestic and Sacellary.
The old Serbian poem about the battle of Kosovo Polye in 1389 (that battle was treated as a recent memory when I first went to Kosovo in 2001) tells West that "what the pacifist really wants is to be defeated". Not to avoid war, not to prevent bloodshed, but to be defeated. "Kill us, we deserve it."
And then "We said goodnight and stood in the porch under the Dorothy Perkins roses." How does she even know a Dorothy Perkins rose to look at? And why are they called that? And what do they  have to do with the shop?
This is a wonderful book. There is much more in it than I have been able to describe. The lives of the bloody and not so bloody Serbian kings, especially; the Austrians and Germans who treat the Balkans as their colony (she is not very pro-German), the architecture, peasant and bourgeois life, the Jewish and Greek minorities, and much much more..

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

do we do God?

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, had a reception for Christian leaders in the UK just before Easter. His speech there was reported in the Church Times, as you might expect, but quite widely elsewhere too. He said he appreciated Christian values, which he characterised as hard work, humility, giving and social action. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Perhaps slightly more crowd-pleasingly, he said "Jesus invented the Big Society". Alarm bells sound. Jesus did no such thing. The notion of the Big Society (not a new one of course) may to some extent have been informed by what are described as Christian values. I would suggest that subscribing to such notions is in culturally various ways part of all faiths, and that those of no faith also very often live by a similar moral code - which David Cameron did say. He also, and this is a little more worrying politically, described himself as a "member of the Church of England". Well, fine. So am I. Although it's not a body you really "join", other than to be baptised and confirmed. I am never sure how much you are a "member" if you have been baptised and confirmed but never go into a church.

Where I would question Cameron's wisdom in this speech is in his including mention of his own faith. That is a matter between him and God, as it is for us all. It is not, and never should be, part of any political strategy, still less a plank of an election platform. Cameron came dangerously close to making it so in that speech. Alastair Campbell famously said "We don't do God". Tony Blair of course does very much do God, though even he does it quite politically - he waited until he was out of office to go over to Rome. But maybe that is because there is an established church in England, something I personally would like to see abolished - any political leader has to work with that, and so there is an MP who is the member for God in the Commons, and there are bishops in the House of Lords. Anyway, David Cameron talked about Christian values and praised his local vicar, as well as indicating that the Church had helped him when his son died some years ago. Nothing wrong with that. David Cameron has a reception for Eid and for Diwali, and nobody thinks there is anything wrong with his doing so. At those receptions he does not describe the UK as a Muslim country or a Hindu country, even though there are millions of adherents to both those faiths in the UK.

Now a "group of 50" cultural luminaries have written a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which they bemoan, as they put it, Cameron's designation of the UK as a "Christian country", which they call divisive and wrong. They say he should not appropriate Christianity as representative or descriptive of the UK. You may agree with them. (I always wonder how these open letters get produced so quickly. Do the luminaries all text each other and get together in an Islington wine bar the same night to thrash out a text? I fancy not. Perhaps one of them would like to get in touch and tell me how they do it). But David Cameron did not call the UK a Christian country. What he did was allude to the extent to which Christianity has been woven into the fabric of British life, and to refer to the unique liturgy of the Church of England, the beauty of its churches, and so on. So, luminary brothers and sisters, what you did was set up a straw man "We are a Christian country!" and knock it down "Oh no we're not!" A venerable political tactic, but not a very respectable one, and thus not much respected by the voting public.

It has been reported that Cameron's "Christian" focus is intended to win back the mostly older demographic which has moved from the Tories to UKIP. I do not imagine that that demographic is especially devout. Listen to Nigel Farage's utterances,and look at his personal style, and you would take his constituency to be an utterly materialist ("He's after your job!") and a frivolous ("Mine's a pint!") one.

In short, I think all this "controversy" is just rubbish. Manufactured. Dreamed up. And the public Do Not Care. So, "group of 50", you have wasted your time. No one cares what you think about what Cameron thinks about the Church of England.

Oh, by the way. I am an Anglican. I attend the Anglican church in Strasbourg, France. At one time I didn't like some of the things that were being said and done there. This happens in all organisations. Not all members are pleased with everything they do all the time. So I thought, could I go somewhere else. Not being a Roman Catholic, I could have gone to one of the French Protestant churches, which in this part of France are quite numerous. But I am not a Protestant. "The Church of England by law established" is a reformed Catholic church. So there. Not a lot of people know that.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sarah Wollaston, Nigel Evans,and "blog bullies"

Nigel Evans MP was accused of rape and sexual assault. There was a trial, and he was acquitted of all charges. End of story, you'd think? He walks free, with his name cleared? Not so fast.When the allegations first emerged he resigned the Tory whip. At the time of writing it has not been restored to him. Why not?
One of the key witnesses for the prosecution was one Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, a person I do not know, unlike Nigel Evans, whom I count as a friend. Sarah decided not only to support the allegations made against Nigel, without evidence (and yes I know evidence is difficult in cases of rape and sexual assault) but to be a witness for the prosecution and to call him a drunk and a debaucher of young men. I think this is a disgrace, to her personally, to the office of MP, and to the polity of England. Fortunately the judge and jury rejected this poison. Now Sarah has been given a big piece in The Times (£), with a nice blonde smiley photo of her above it, in which she complains about "male blogger bullies" who were HOWWID to her about her hate-filled outpourings. Well, diddums, Sairs. In fact the remarks made were rather mild, though of course "blogger bullies" do exist. I should know. Well, I'm not male, and I used to be an MP, but some years ago when the online climate was rather different from now, and I'm having my say. You want some, Sarah, you can have some. 
A prominent Tory backbencher has hit out at “aggressive male bloggers” who, she claims, target female MPs.
Sarah Wollaston said that certain parts of the political blogosphere were “quite aggressive in their approach towards women”, particularly when discussing sexual violence or gender. “If you stick your head above the parapet you can expect some quarters of the aggressive blogging community to go for you,” she said. Yes, Sarah. It's called having your say, and other people having theirs too. Freedom of speech, dontcha know.
Dr Wollaston, the Totnes MP, faced a barrage of criticism last week after Nigel Evans, the deputy speaker, was cleared of a string of sex charges. One of the alleged victims was in a Westminster bar with the former GP Like a drink do you Sarah? If not, what were you doing in the bar? when an “off-the-cuff” remark about an alleged assault triggered a sequence of events that led to the court case. Dr Wollaston was contacted by a second man — a friend of the first — who alleged that he had been raped. Ah I see, you were drinking with the alleged victims and winding them up to make police complaints.
The MP listened to their complaints and took them to John Bercow, the Speaker, who said that he could not help. She then passed on police contact details to the alleged victims, who contacted the officers, prompting the arrest last year of Mr Evans...
In an interview with The Times, Dr Wollaston was keen to stress that she was in no way challenging the verdict in the case, adding that she empathised with Mr Evans and his ordeal. Oh yeah?
She confessed, however, that the fallout from the case had been “very difficult”, particularly in the online sphere. Did you CWY, Sarah? Did you THCWEAM and THCWEAM till you were THICK? Nigel's life and career have been ruined. Nothing will ever be the same again for him, personally or politically. And he is innocent. How do you sleep, Sarah?
She singled out The Daily Telegraph writer Dan Hodges, the libertarian blog Guido Fawkes, and the Tory publisher and writer Iain Dale, saying that she had been reading their “really quite aggressive attacks” about her handling of the allegations...
Wollaston said that it was striking that much of the criticism of her had come from male bloggers. “I haven’t had any women writing critical articles and I do think that’s very interesting,” she said. You have now, Ms Wollaston. “I think there are some very aggressive male bloggers out there and they target women MPs.”...
Well, I hope you're happy now, Sarah Wollaston. I hope your constituents are happy with your spending your time and your MP's salary trashing a colleague's life and career. Wetting your knickers now because not everyone likes your pretty blonde hair and sweetie campaigns against booze and fags? It could get worse. And if you think that's a threat, it is. Oh, not from me, you understand. From the nasty horrid "male bloggers" who have been so BEASTLY to the lovely Sarah. But still, Ms Wollaston, next time you are in Strasbourg, do come and say hello. Perhaps we can have a refreshing glass of mineral water together.

Sue me.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

John Campbell, 'Roy Jenkins, A Well-Rounded Life'

this has been, kind of, the political biography of the moment. Everyone's attention was drawn to it by the reviews noting that Tony Crosland was a gayer in his young days (maybe people knew that, but it was before my time), and for a while turned Woy that way too. But there's a lot more to the book than that. Campbell sets out his stall at the beginning by saying that he was and remains an admirer of Jenkins. Fair enough. And that he got access to letters and papers and so on, and cooperation from Roy's widow, Dame Jennifer Jenkins. (I like that even after Roy went to the Lords she preferred to use the title she had won in her own right). You therefore get some tired LibDemmery early on, "ill-advised attempts to play the world's policeman" and so on. He never goes as far as Blair-hating, because of Jenkins' documented admiration for Blair and the considerable work they did together, on electoral reform, but also, and perhaps more significantly, the mentoring work Roy did with Tony before 1997.

Denis Healey is quoted, splendidly: "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Liberals, and possibly your Social Democrats!" This was over Finland in World War II. Healey was a communist at the time. Campbell wonders if Healey remembered those words in 1981.

Jenkins did his officer training at Alton Towers! Not then the place it is now, but a genteel establishment of tea rooms and pleasure gardens. There's a lot of good social history nuggets like this.

Campbell is well edited, only a few infelicities spotted, though he does misuse metaphors rather irritatingly: "the socialist millennium ... had run into the sand." Grrr.

Both Roy Jenkins and Harold Wilson were committed to a European single currency, with the UK being part of it, in the 1970s, and had discussions to this effect with their French counterparts once de Gaulle had packed up his veto and taken it back to Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises. Did you know that? I didn't. Pity it didn't come to anything.

By the time Jenkins wrote his memoirs, in 1990-1, he had (rightly) taken the view that political parties "cannot resist returning obsessively to the issues that most divide them". This seems both percipient and prescient.

I did not like Roy Jenkins. He was easy to mock, at least from the late 1970s on, with his drawling artificial accent and his speech impediment and his fondness for claret. I did not like what I saw then, and still do, as the "Gang of Four"'s betrayal of the Labour cause, enabling the Thatcher years and everything that meant. It was not attributable to the Gang of Four that the Labour Party failed to implode, moved towards the centre, and gave us the Blair years. But Roy Jenkins was an interesting politician. Socially liberal, when not all government ministers were, even in the late 1960s - his numerous affairs, tolerated by his wife, were another matter, and perhaps typical of the times - an intellectual who was not as clever as he thought he was, pompous and affected, but he held the great offices of state, and made a difference. He failed to take out Harold Wilson and become Prime Minister, which he thought ever afterwards was the greatest political mistake of his life. I disagree. It does not seem (and Campbell's book is very interesting on this) that it would have been possible for Jenkins to do it. The numbers simply were not there. Well, we'll never know. But I am a Wilson woman, and remain so. If anything, this book reinforced me in that.

The votes on Europe, the "Common Market," as it was known at the time. (I voted yes in the referendum). Jenkins said, "People didn't want to say, when asked in the future, what did you do in one of the great divisions of history, 'I abstained'." No, of course they didn't, and don't. But this is rhetoric. Any MP who has abstained on one of the crucial votes in parliamentary history (Iraq 2003, anyone? So-called rebel Martin Salter, anyone?) is going to want to cover up the fact. And everyone else is going to throw it back at them. It is routine to note that MP X voted against reducing the age of consent, that MP Y was a rebel on Europe, and so on.

Campbell reminds us that when Dick Taverne, a sometime associate of Jenkins', was deselected in Lincoln (for voting against the whip, not with it as it would be today), and stood as an "independent" candidate calling himself "Democratic Labour", he soundly defeated the official Labour candidate, Margaret Jackson, who later became Margaret Beckett. She hasn't reminded the world of that fact in more recent years.

Interesting times. An interesting man and an interesting politician. A miner's son from South Wales who went to Oxford and reinvented himself as a claret-swilling posh bloke. Er, not quite. His father had been a miner, sure, but quite early on became a full-time union official and councillor, and became an MP (Arthur Jenkins) and even a government minister.

This isn't a great book, but it's a fascinating one, and it's one of the best things I have read on the history of the left (well, the mainstream left, anyway) in Britain in the 20th century.

I have decided I would like Roy Jenkins' death. He lived into his eighties, although he had developed health problems linked with fine eating and fine drinking. His wife came into the bedroom one morning and asked what he would like for breakfast. He said he would have two lightly poached eggs. She went away to the cook them, and when she came back with them he was dead.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Mother's Day?

Tomorrow is Mothering Sunday, and in church I shall probably be given a flower, perhaps a daffodil, as will all the women there, by one of the children. I find this charming, but also noteworthy that the women who are not mothers (there must be some) receive flowers, without discrimination. This is presumably intended to protect non-mothers from feeling discriminated against, which in some ways they are. In others of course they have many advantages, not least financial - nobody ever got rich having children, and today perhaps more than ever it is mothers who put their careers on hold, often for ever, rendering themselves dependent on a man for their lifestyle. Childless women I know and have kmown seem to live quite enviable lives, and certainly have freedom of choice that those with children do not.

In some ways I live the life of a childless woman now. I had my two children young, so that in my twenties, when my friends were travelling and doing as they chose (or so it seemed to me at the time), I was going to work by day and washing nappies by night (or so it seemed to me at the time). But having them young (of which I am now deeply glad) means that now, as I approach my 60th birthday, my children are in their thirties, long since financially independent of me, and I have two grandchildren who are the light of my life. I am still working, and likely not to retire for the best part of another ten years, when my grandchildren will be in their teens or approaching them. So I am never likely to be Matriarch Granny. I am in the fifteenth year of marriage to my partner, who is not the father of my children, and who has no children of his own. So we have been able to spend such money as we have as we choose. One of the things we have chosen is to live in a modest two-bedroomed flat - why pay for a house that is just rooms to clean? The childless life is good. But that's not how I saw things in my twenties.

Some childless women feel that they are unfairly asked to account for their choice not to have children. Maybe so. If that is so, then things have changed. I had an aunt who had no children - I thought she was great - and I don't think it was by choice, but it would have been impertinent to ask her that question.

Something that has changed is the involvement of parents in the lives of their children. I walked to school and back on my own at five. I walked my children to school and back, or someone did, until they were nine or ten, giving them the top end of primary school to develop the independence they would need for the solo journey to and from secondary school. That was the idea anyway. I never shared any school issues I may have had with my parents. They wouldn't have been interested. If I had a bad report they blamed me, not the school. My children didn't share much of that with me either, but I involved myself quite a bit - and I was ready to blame the school, some of the time, if things were not going well. Now, with my grandchildren, we'll see.

Because I had children younger than my contemporaries did, I have friends my age who have teenagers. I am regularly amazed at how much their children involve them in their lives, daughters especially. It seems routine for a daughter to text or call her mother to seek advice on any decision, from a a haircut to a job interview. My daughter grew up before mobile phones, but I don't think she would have done it anyway. Both my children talk to me regularly, and tell me about what is happenng in their lives - but they inform me after the event, once a decision has been made. Will today's teenagers still text their mothers when they are in their thirties and not sure what to have for dinner?  I don't say this to be judgmental, just to note a social change.

The lack of involvement of adults in their children's lives I grew up with has its downside. A male teacher at my school was what we called "a bit funny" about the girls. He liked us when we were twelve and thirteen, which in those days was before we started to look like young women. We joked that he could tell when we'd started our periods, because then he stopped leaning over us in class and breathing funny. (Girls often started later back then than they do now). We would not have dreamed of reporting him, although some of the behaviour was really quite inappropriate - we'd have been sure we wouldn't be believed. But that man (he's dead now, allegedly by suicide) was not a fit and proper person to be around young girls. And when I think back, one of the girls he made a particular favourite of, which went on long past the age at which he usually stopped, later developed anorexia and other mental health problems and was given electric shock treatment (they wouldn't do it now, but this was in 1971, not that long ago). I met her a few years later, and she was a dull creature who dragged her feet and spoke too slowly, all the spark and liveliness gone. If I had got wind of anything remotely like that at my children's school, higher authorities would have been called in pdq. But it's quite likely that there was at least one teacher there who was "a bit funny" - but they were probably more circumspect about their behaviour, because people were watching.

And now?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

North Korea - Lankov and Sweeney

North Korea has for many years been something of a hobby of mine. My uncle was in Korea during his national service in the Navy, but would never talk about it. when I was a child I was curious. Much later, when I was at the BBC Monitoring Service as a foreign affairs editor on what was at first a print publication called the Summary of World Broadcasts, later on line and these days much changed of course (I started that job in 1984) I was given responsibility, kind of, for North Korea. Understanding what its news media were saying, keeping an eye on what they were putting out, that sort of thing. I began to study Korean in the late 1980s and went to South Korea for a while too, but that is another story. North Korea was a hoot, at times. The language used by KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's English-language voice, was especially colourful. They would refer to the South Korean media as "venal trumpeters" and "corrupt penny-a-liners". The South generally were "splittist flunkeys". You get the kind of thing. Now, after the Cold War, North Korea seems even stranger. Huge triumphal arches, miraculous happenings to do with the Kim dynasty, and so on.

So, I was interested a few months ago to read a book written in English by a Russian, Andrei Lankov, who lived and worked in North Korea for years, called "The Real North Korea". Leaving aside the inevitable infelicities in English, especially in the use of articles (he is a Russian after all - Andrei, let me edit your next one: I understand the grammar and structure of Russian and Korean and I'm a native English professional editor, you won't find another one like me) it was utterly fascinating. North Korea, he tells us, when formed in 1945, had to be communist of course, but there were no communists in it then. So they had to find some, and bring them from the USSR and other places where the likes of Kim Il Sung were hanging out. He it was who called the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in a private conversation with Brezhnev in 1966, "idiocy". No flies on Kim the Elder, I've always thought. North Korea remains the only country ever to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as not a lot of people know. It is worth reading this book for the vignettes of life in that secret state, for the pictures never seen elsewhere, some of them taken by the author, of the lives of ordinary North Koreans - and for a different perspective. It is especially worth reading for his analysis of what has kept the Kim dynasty in power for all these decades against the odds, why the regime, entirely rationally, will not change, and, also entirely rationally, why it must. He has added to the sum of historical knowledge.

A different perspective again is to be found in the book by the journalist John Sweeney, "North Korea Undercover" which chronicles a visit he and others made as tourists. He says "understanding North Korea is like figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in the library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that's no gun and it isn't smoking and this isn't a library." The book's working hypothesis is, Sweeney says, "that Kim Jong Un's talk of nuclear war is a confidencc trick and that the Pyongyang bluff is blinding us to a human rights tragedy on an immense scale." That seems about right, and it is time more of the international community took an interest. Though I can quite see why the international movers tend to discover a prior appointment and scurry away when the subject comes up.

Sweeney is not immune to the desire to take the piss that often comes over those who encounter North Korean propaganda - I certainly succumbed to it regularly in the 1980s - he calls Kim Il Sung, rather splendidly, "God the Mother", Kim Jong Il "Bad Elvis", and the current incumbent, Kim Jong Un, "Fat Boy Kim". He too though, like Lankov, glimpses what he calls "the survivalist logic lurking in the dark". No one knows for sure what the elder two Kims were like. Sweeney cites "someone" as saying that the best book about North Korea was written in 1592, and is called "Richard III". I lay my cards upon the table as a passionate Ricardian, and move on. Although I note, and recommend, the film version of that play which stars Sir Ian McKellen, is set in a totalitarian regime of some kind, and has the Lady Anne a junkie.

What is particularly to be recommended about Sweeney's book is the fact that he includes interviews with many North Korean defectors to the South, and this book brings their stories together in one place in readable English, which I do not think anyone else has done.

Read both these books - you will understand totalitarianism a little better. It has not gone away from this world, despite the grounds for optimism I believe there are - death-squad regimes have largely gone from South America and the Iron Curtain is down, but let's not all relax quite yet - and the fact that such a regime can still exist when we all thought it could not is all the more reason for finding out more about it.

As an aside, the official ideology of North Korea, called Juche or Chuche, depending on which transliteration system you prefer, is known in North Korean propaganda as "the Chuche idea". There is no exact translation of that Korean word into English, but it has almost the exact same meaning as a name in the Irish language - Sinn Fein. Not that...

I once had a grey tomcat I called Chuche. He had to go to another owner after a while, who changed his name to Freddie. Pity really.

Friday, 14 March 2014

the will of the people, then and now

what is the name of that rule about the length of time it takes in any online debate before you get called a Nazi? No doubt someone will remind me. I don't really care though - either what the rule is called or whether anyone calls me a Nazi.

The notion of democracy often comes into those debates too. Hitler, it is said, was democratically elected. Er, so that's all right then? The Holocaust and all? Hamas, it is said of more recent times, was democratically elected too. Oh, OK. So the terror attacks - oh, please yourselves.

Let's shed a little light. It is interesting to discover, as I have this week, that the 1930s President of Germany, Hindenberg, who died in 1934, left a will, later destroyed, whose contents were known to at least one person other than the Nazis, and whose contents, as reported, have now come to light. From The Times (£) today, this: (editorial errors - were the subs having an off day, or don't they have subs any more? all theirs)

Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934. A few hours later, the Reich Government announced that the offices of president and chancellor would now been combined under Hitler, as the supreme Führer. A plebiscite was called, to allow the German people to express its collective opinion of Hitler’s unprecedented new role as both head of the government and head of state.
Hitler got wind of the existence of the will, and gave orders to “ensure that this document comes into my possession as soon as possible”. Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg, son of the late President but a loyal Nazi, duly handed his father’s will over. It has never been found.
Four days before the plebiscite, however, the Nazis announced the discovery of Hindenburg’s “political testament”, which gave an account of his political career and included complimentary references to Hitler; it may have been a forgery.
Hindenburg’s apparent endorsement of Hitler from beyond the grave came at a crucial moment. On August 19, 1934, a fortnight after Hindenburg’s death, some 38 million German voters approved Hitler’s usurpation of power, with fewer than five million voting against it. The following day, the Nazis brought in the mandatory oath of loyalty for every member of the German army. Hitler was now all-powerful.
Why then, Hitler's assumption of absolute power was done by the will of the people, through democracy, I hear you cry. (Hamas did it by throwing the opposition out of windows, but that is another story). Er, no. Democracy and a plebiscite are not the same thing. That is why in a more banal but also important context, a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union would be wrong. I am against referendums in principle (though if one is called I vote) because governments are there to govern. Candidates get elected, or should, on the basis of their policies and what their parties stand for, or are perceived to. And some at least of that depends on how engaged the electorate are with the democratic process - how interested they are in what their elected representatives do on their behalf.
I don't know who elects the President of Germany, in the 1930s or now, but whoever does or did what did they think about Hindenberg's naming of Hitler Chancellor of Germany, apparently against his better judgment, when old and ill and perhaps under pressure? These things can happen in democracies.
A plebiscite, a referendum, is a platform for ranting demagogues. I'm against them.
Postscript: does anayone remember Al Stewart's history songs from the 1970s? Not being a historian, I learned a lot from them. There was one called "The Last Day of June 1934", which conotained the lines "On the night that Ernst Roehm died the voices rang out... grown strong like the joining of wills".
Yes. Think on. Democracy or demagoguery? Good faith or bad?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

assisted suicide - some thoughts

the notion of assisted suicide has been in the news lately, and Tim Montomerie, currently of The Times (£) though not for much longer - what role will he play in next year's UK election, readers? - has written a column about it. He is against it. He thinks giving the State the power to kill people will drive "fleets of hearses" though medical ethics. I don't think the issue is so simple. To be fair to Montgomerie, he probably doesn't either, but that is what he writes. He writes also, alarmingly, of people in the Netherlands with early dementia being visited by "mobile euthanasia units". This has the whiff of an urban myth. Certainly on a quick Google around I couldn't identify anything credible that stood it up.

I ive in France, where, it appears, the health care, including palliative care, is the best in the world. In 2009 I accompanied (as the French say - a good word to use, I always think) a friend with terminal cancer in the last months of his life. He died alone, as everyone does, but in the hours before he went there were friends around him, and although he could not communicate with us he clearly had no pain. Measures had been put in place to ensure that he did not. Hospital staff assured us that in the developed world it was completely unnecessary for anyone to die in pain. I hope that is true. But it's not the whole story.

I saw a (French) film a year or two ago which affected me greatly. It was called "Quelques Heures de Printemps" ("A Few Hours of Spring") and it concerned a 70-something widow, luminously played by Helene Vincent, with a degenerative brain disease, unnamed, who had a troubled relationship with her 48-year-old  son, who had moved back to live with her after spending time in prison. It's not a spoiler, should you be minded to seek out the film, to note that a clinic in Switzerland is involved. Well, the woman in the film was compos mentis, though would not necessarily always be, and there was only one family member to consult, which might not always be the case. After watching it I drew the conclusion that in certain circumstances a clinic in Switzerland might be the answer for me, but that I would want to be the one making the decision, and to be capable of doing so. Life is not always so neat.

Attitudes change over the generations. My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer in the 1960s at age 71, and was never told his illness was terminal. He probably worked it out for himself, but was given no real opportunity to prepare for his end. My paternal grandmother, by contrast, died in 2002 of nothing in particular at the age of 96, having spent about three years in a care home before that. My mother often said of her in the last few years of her life "She's lived too long". But who is to be the judge of when a life should end?

When an MP I voted for a "Doctor Assisted Dying" bill, which did not become law. A colleague who was a doctor himself, and with whom I was on friendly terms, voted for it too. Several attempts have been made since to get such a bill on to the statute book, and all of them so far have failed. Mary Warnock, the political philosopher, is convinced euthanasia will be legal in the UK in due course. I am not so sure. Nor am I so sure how I would vote today on such a bill. Probably in favour. But I cannot be certain. This is not an issue for easy certainties.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

who can you trust on race?

Labour MP Sadiq Khan is going round stirring up the notion that the Tories are a bunch of racists. But was this the wisest move? I do not think any party is immune from the charge of racist language or behaviour. Guido certainly has found plenty of evidence that the Labour party is not. Naturally he chooses, citing LibDem Voice, the racist leaflet put out in Reading in 2012, promoting their white candidate in Church ward Reading against the sitting councillor, Azam Janjua, who had been a Labour councillor but had crossed the floor after one of the most disgraceful assassination attempts it has been my misfortune to witness. I could say more.


Monday, 3 March 2014

Christopher Meyer is wrong

well, he generally is. I read his book about his time as ambassador in Washington before the second Iraq war, and it was fascinating - also adding some factual wisdom to the torrents of slime from the pro-slaughter commentators, of the "Don't Attack Iraq" and other wings. He has this to say in The Times this morning (£):

"As Putin knows, the US and Nato are not going to war to stop Russia turning Crimea or the eastern Ukraine into another South Ossetia – nominally independent, but under Russian control. To quote former US Secretary of State Jim Baker, speaking in the 1990s about the Balkans, “We ain’t got no dog in this fight.”

No, the US and NATO are probably not. As they did not in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, a sovereign nation, to maintain South Ossetia as its puppet. Nor, arguably, should they have done then, and should they do now. But the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and other international bodies tied themselves in knots rather disgracefully on South Ossetia at the time, when a moment's thought makes clear that the invasion of a sovereign nation by another is to be justified on only very few grounds. One of those grounds is Responsibility to Protect. Which, for those who may be struggling to keep up, is broadly this:


  1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility.
  3. If the state manifestly fails to protect its citizens from the four above mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.
While R2P is a norm and not a law, it is firmly grounded in international law, especially the laws relating to sovereignty, peace and security, human rights and armed conflict.[6][7] 

Meyer, by contrast, says this about foreign policy in this context:

Foreign policy is not an edition of Radio 4’s Moral Maze. It should be based on a cold calculation of national interest.

Really? British national interest was not served by intervention in Sierra Leone. Does that make it wrong? Christopher? Christopher?
Russia did not invoke R2P in South Ossetia in 2008, and is not doing so in Ukraine now. The people of Ukraine are not being slaughtered, it would appear. Not now that Yanukovych has been ousted, and is under Russian protection in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, it is believed, leaving Ukrainians to count his chandeliers and marvel at his private zoo. But it remains a fact that one sovereign nation has invaded another. Now I do not expect there to be marches against Russian imperialism in Western cities, because those anti-imperialist marches only happen when it is the US doing the imperialism. I do not expect a NATO task force to go steaming into the Black Sea. But I do expect Russia to account for its actions. I do expect Russia to explain internationally precisely why Crimea needed its presence. Who was killing the people of Crimea? Who was threatening to do so?

In the meantime, I feel sorry for the paralympic athletes who will not have international support for the Games due to take place in Sochi.

Mother Russia, tell us what you want and why you are doing this. You know you must. Vladimir Putin, if you ever were a world leader you have lost that privilege. You are a dictator lashing out at apparent erosion of privilege.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Ukraine - looking back a bit

On New Year's Day this year sig other and I were invited by some friends to meet three young Ukrainian women who were staying with them. Communication was difficult, as the three did not really speak English or French. They could all understand Russian however, and one of them spoke it quite well (Ukrainians are mostly not bilingual, whatever you might have read recently), so I was recruited to speak my bad Russian and native English and aid communication. The three were from Lviv in western Ukraine, were Catholic, and were in Strasbourg for the annual pilgrimage of young people associated with the Taize community. Even then they were horrified by what was going on in their country. They were keen to be part of the EU, although when it was mildly suggested to them that they would be poor relations as new members, and quite possibly subjected to discriminatory rulings by some member states, as Bulgaria and Romania have been, they were given pause. They felt that Russia was interfering in their country. On the regions and people of the east and south of this big country, who mostly speak only Russian, these women had no view. It was another country to them. I was interested in that. (It's how I feel about Scotland).

Ten years ago, in 2004, there were three elections in Ukraine. For the first of them, in October, I was part of the election observation team. I was deployed in a village not far from Kiev, where people spoke Ukrainian and where the cows came home at night. In the distance, on the horizon, shale oil was burning. No fracking here. Nature has already done it. Kiev itself was given over to propaganda banners and displays for Yanukovych. The Orange Revolution was starting. That election was inconclusive. By then I had acquired some experience in election observation. You report what you see, and what people say in answer to your questions, not what you have read in the media is going on. There was a second election, in November, at which I was not present, and a third, on 26th December, for which I was part of the team, and was deployed to Odessa. In the south, mild weather, no snow, forever linked in my mind's eye with the Eisenstein film. Everyone spoke Russian. No sign of the Orange people. A strange Christmas it was. Of course, it was not Christmas there. That happens in January.

Back in Kiev, the streets were camped out with Orange people. A seductive movement, but it was clear to me from what was being said (I can mostly understand Ukrainian though can't speak it) and from the literature on the stalls, that the European far right were friends to this movement, that Holocaust denial was present, and that the fever-eyed young men shouting in the streets were fuelled not only by whatever uppers were available in Ukraine at that time but by a measure of Jew-hatred along with nationalism. Not a pretty sight. And not what was mostly being reported in the West at the time.

"Orange gangsters", someone at a polling station described them to me.

Back in the UK I wrote something in my column in the local newspaper, noting that the election was about the freest and fairest I had seen. Boy was I denounced. A most unpleasant fellow named Peter Shutak stopped only just short of a public death threat. He had not been there of course, but knew far better than I did what had been observed there.

A little later, a delegation of Ukrainian MPs visited the UK. Cross-party. I invited them to the constituency, and they were pleased to visit. We took them to the Loch Fyne restaurant in Reading, which they enjoyed very much, and to the Ukrainian club. Also invited was a nice Ukrainian lady called Snejana who lived in Reading and who helped with interpreting, and a Reading trade unionist and Labour Party member named Mick Pollek, Ukrainian by family origin and associated with the Ukrainian club, also a Ukrainian speaker.

The meeting at the Ukrainian club in Reading was an interesting one. Mick Pollek dashed in with some Orange banners with the slogan of the time, "Tak!" ("Yes!"). What he had failed to ascertain was that the cross-party delegation of Ukrainian MPs included no Orange members. Not one. It did include a communist, and a member of what is now the Party of the Regions, neither of whom was exactly enamoured of the Orange people. Coffee and Ukrainian snacks were consumed. Speeches were made in Ukrainian, which were not fully understood by all the delegation. Then the Reading Ukrainians began to sing nationalist songs. The communist and the Regions bloke stood stony-faced and silent throughout. How to get it very very wrong. I didn't care. I had simply offered the hospitality of the constituency to visitors from Ukraine, whatever their political complexion. Pollek and his ilk had never even asked about the make-up of the delegation, and had not put a single question to me as a recent visitor to Ukraine who had had meetings with both government and opposition. Part of the political establishment in Reading got it very very wrong.

That was ten years ago. Do we understand Ukraine any better now? Does it matter?  The political establishment then had made up its mind what was going on. They got it wrong. Ukraine was not helped by that.

I would say this to those who are in politics - go there. Go to Ukraine, go to whatever place you are minded to pontificate about. Learn its language. Read its history. Talk with those who know about these things.

How much has changed in ten years?

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Ingrid Betancourt, 'Meme le Silence a Une Fin' (Even Silence Has an End)

Do you remember the story of this woman, a Colombian senator, captured by guerrillas in the Colombian jungle and held for over six years? This is it, as told by her. Read my Goodreads review.

A little background perhaps: Ingrid Betancourt was born in Colombia and grew up in France. In adult life she returned to Colombia and became politically active. She became a senator, and then a candidate for president of the country under a green and anti-corruption ticket. She was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and spent over six years as a hostage in the Colombian jungle. She and others were freed in 2008 in an operation by the Colombian military, after a long campaign by hostages' families and various senior figures in Colombia and France, including then President Sarkozy of France. This is a long book, and could certainly have been shortened, but I was never bored, and in fact found it utterly compelling. I'm not sure why. Constant route marches, changing of camp commandants, shifting relations among the FARC and also among the hostages, the death of her father while she was in captivity, her husband's abandonment of her, which she learned about on the radio - none of this should have kept me hooked, but it did. She is bilingual in Spanish and French, and wrote the book in French, the language I read it in - it has been translated into several other languages, including English and German -  and her writing has the slightly unnaturally bright clarity of that of a person who is focusing on the language itself as well as on the story being told. I would say - read this book,and make up your mind. A faraway country of which we know little, indeed. Betancourt herself is not an especially attractive character; she certainly seems to have a sense of entitlement and to hav failed to understand other hostages' resentment of it, and mostly not to have seen her captors, at least the male ones, as human at all. Her possible lack of self-awareness permits her to portray all this very frankly and not to try and make herself out as less selfish and arrogant than she was. All told, fascinating, and I am glad I read it. I'd like to know what she is doing now.




Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Anthony Trollope, 'Barchester Towers'

I have read 'The Warden', the first in the Barsetshire series, and thought it was OK, a good taster. This however is hilarious. Here is my Goodreads review:

Splendid stuff. Hilariously funny at times, superbly plotted, highly political. Sexy too, a bit to my surprise. No way of understanding the Church of England without reading this - even though it was written well over a century ago. I loved it. His editorialising took some getting used to to begin with - he indicates from time to time that such and such a character is expepcting this or that to happen but is bound for disappointment - but I grew to expect and enjoy it.  This is one to come back to. But not least, I shall be reading on. There should be a Facebook quiz "Which 'Barchester Towers' character are you?" I want to be Madeleine Neroni or Bertie Stanhope.