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.