Friday, 4 December 2015

the haters are here

After the vote this week on action in Syria, the result of which I was very pleased to see (and Jeremy Corbyn was not, it appears) Labour MPs who voted with the Government, and some others who did not, have received death threats. Oh yes, pictures of guns and such like. One at least is under police protection now.

Do they think this is new? It is not. I was sent pictures of guns and knives, and gun-related pornography, and threatened with rape and murder, a number of times when I was an MP, and not to do with my vote on action in Iraq (in favour, since you ask). On the latter I had a lot of tedious whining from people who read the Guardian and didn't give a stuff about the slaughter in Iraq, and also some pacifist representations from people who thought there should be no military action anywhere, ever, by anybody. This last laudable, but impossible. No, the death threats came - you are ahead of me - when I mentioned Israel, which I did not do very often. I am a Zionist, but did not and do not go on about it. Also, ten years ago and more Jew-hatred was not so much in evidence on the left in the UK as it is now. But it was there. The death threats also came, slightly to my surprise, after I left Parliament (in 2005), and related to my support for Hillary Clinton rather than Barack Obama as Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 2008. I didn't expect misogynist hatred from that quarter, but I got plenty, and it was pointed out to me that Americans have guns, and that those guns would be used on me if I didn't shut up.

Well, I didn't cry about all that. I didn't like it, but I didn't cry. I certainly didn't ask for police protection. How wimpish is that? In my time an MP was seriously injured and his staff member killed by a mentally ill constituent with a samurai sword. Anyone in public life puts themselves in that kind of danger, and of course precautions must be taken, especially to protect staff. But - if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen, as someone once said. And if you don't make any enemies, it means you've never done anything. I don't know where the idea came from that we should all live and work in safe spaces. There are no safe spaces, and arguably if we try and keep ourselves safe all the time we place ourselves in more danger than if we don't - because we then think that nothing will ever happen to us. Yes, it might.

In my time communication was by email, and not everyone used even that. But I saw straight away that people were more willing to use hate speech in an email than they would have been in a letter, on the telephone or in person - though there was some of all that too. Even more so now, on Twitter. In public life you just get used to it. There's no rule that says everyone should be nice to you if you are an MP. In fact, to think that people should be nice to you borders on the narcissistic.

On Iraq (and there are similarities with the situation today as regards Syria, whatever anyone says) I voted with the Government, for military action, and never lost a moment's sleep over it, because I believed it was right, and was glad to have the opportunity to vote that way. I was very clear about that publicly. But there were still foolish letters in the local newspapers berating me for not voting with my conscience. As if voting with your conscience always means voting against the Government. I am glad I did not have to suffer the torments my neighbouring Labour MP Martin Salter had to at the time, desperately juggling two conflicting stories - in Westminster he said he was trying to persuade recalcitrant Labour MPs not to vote against the Government, because he wanted a government job to be helpful to Tony, and in Reading he said he was voting against the Government in line with his convictions and to appease the mosque show the people of Reading that he was on their side and not the Government's. In the end he was forced into the impossible position that everyone is forced into who tries to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds - he abstained on the vote, lied publicly in Reading about how he had voted, and was forced to stand down in 2010 when the issue refused to go away. I had none of that. I pretty much always tell the truth, not because I am especially virtuous but because it's so restful. You never have to keep your story straight or remember what you told the last person.

So, MPs who are worried and upset about the hate they are getting, and about possible threats to themselves and their families - relax. You probably don't need police protection. Once your home address becomes public you must either move house or put in very serious security measures, naturally. And vote with your conscience. It's the easiest way.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Eve Babitz

photo Julian Wasser
I confess I had never heard of Eve Babitz until just recently. But I had seen this picture before, "Nude Considering Her Next Move", by Julian Wasser, Eve Babitz is the woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She bowled over just about every man she met in Hollywood in the 1960s. Including Jim Morrison. Harrison Ford. Oh and of course Warren Beatty. Parents a Jewish violinist and an artist from Texas, Eve grew up in Hollywood, and has never really left it. Igor Stravinsky was her godfather. She graduated from Hollywood High and became, in her words, an adventuress. What distinguishes her from, eg, Edie Sedgwick, is that she wasn't daft enough to OD at 27. Nobody's fool, talented, witty, never pretentious or self-pitying, the woman can write. I am at present gloriously wallowing in "Eve's Hollywood", a book of very short autobiographical essays first published in 1972 and 1974. What a terrific broad she is. She doesn't write any more - she is in her 70s now - since a freak accident in 1997, in which the cigar she was smoking set fire to her skirt and burned two-thirds of her body. But she has written a lot, and she gets it like most never did. Here:

"The best capsule description of F. Scott Fitzgerald I ever read was a brief biography which began 'Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and died 44 years later in Hollywood.'"

Read Eve. I'm your fan, Eve.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Shawcross and his unfashionable views

This book, by William Shawcross, who is an intellectual and (kind of) a part of the Establishment in the UK - I know there are many who do not like his writing, but I do - was published rather a long time ago, after 9/11 and after the invasion of Iraq by the US-led Allies, but not long after. It took some work to track it down once I became aware of its existence. The views and ideas it contains were unfashionable at the time, and not only among the complacent chattering Guardianistas, who unfortunately are still with us, but broadly unfashionable in every sense, which is why the book sank without trace. I think I paid about a euro for it from some obscure book dealer, after Amazon tried to tell me it was unobtainable. A pity. I don't like buying second-hand books, especially if the author is still alive, as the creator of the work gets nothing from it, and Lord knows it's hard enough to get paid to write anything at all. But it is worth reading this book, I promise you, even if your prejudices, fully formed beliefs, intellectual worldview, whatever, compel you to think he is wrong.

It starts this way: "The Arab narrative of the 'Fallujah butchery is ... pernicious nonsense." About 270 were killed in Fallujah, almost all of them fighters, almost all of those former Iraqi army officers under Saddam. He quotes the Iranian journalist Amer Taheri on the killing of the American hostage Paul Johnson at that time: "Paul Johnson was killed by lies spread by Arab elites ... he was killed by the over 1,500 Arab lawyers who have volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein but who were nowhere to be seen when he was engaged in genocide against the Iraqi people." Shawcross says "Saddam may not have been an immediate threat but he was an inevitable one." He notes (in his preface to a later edition) that the Arab Spring had its harbingers here, in 2003.

UN weapons inspectors were banned from Iraq in 1998, and the Allies bombed Iraq that year. Remember that? Remember the millions marching against it? Nor me. One member of my local Labour Party at the time timidly approached me to express disquiet about the bombing of a sovereign nation. But only one. UNSCOM's final report on this, in 1999, said that vast numbers of WMDs could not be accounted for. Shawcross goes so far as to give the need to contain Iraq in the 1990s as the reason for the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia.

Shawcross is good on the humbug there is about the "neocons". At the time of that liberal hero JFK's presidency, in 1962, a legal opinion given by the Justice Department noted "the UN Charter does not prohibit the taking of unilateral preventive action in self-defence prior to the occurrence of an armed attack." No. It did not so prohibit then, and it does not now. Shawcross concludes "Surely everyone would agree that it would have been better if the United States had pre-empted 9/11 by confronting Al Qaeda and the Taliban before September 2001. There was ample cause." Yes.

Very few European intellectuals saw 9/11 as a threat. One who did was Ralf Dahrendorf (contrast the late Gunter Grass) who said that first, Western values do exist; second, power is needed to defend them; third, defence might have to be done by force of arms. Michael Ignatieff and Bernard Kouchner were two others who took this view.

"The Iraqis could not change their own tyrannical government; only outside intervention could do that. There was no better case in the world for such intervention. Tony Blair himself put the issue succinctly later when he told the House of Commons, 'When people say to me, why are you risking everything ... on this issue? I say I do not want to be the prime minister at whom people point a finger back in history and say: 'He knew perfectly well that the threats were there and he did not do anything about it.'"

I cite this book, and quote from it, to indicate that what "everyone" knows, and what "everyone" thinks do not really exist. What you think, and what I think, may differ. We may both find equally sound and convincing bases for our views, and argue them effectively. But a plurality of views there always is, and this must continue. At this time, soon after the savagery of the killings in Paris, and as I write in France under a state of emergency, there is a dismaying chorus of voices, at least in English, informing us what "everyone thinks" and what "everyone knows" - usually that such killings are the fault of "the West". That the Bataclan murders are France's fault for conducting air strikes on Islamic State. Leave them alone and they'll leave us alone. Idiocy. they have already declared war on "us". Hoping they'll leave us alone is like feeding a lion, in the hope that it will eat you last.

The West is at war,whether it wants to be or not. That war started a long time ago. It was formally declared much later, in the 1990s, and Bill Clinton did more or less nothing about it. It was stepped up in 2001, and it has been going on since. You and I cannot save ourselves from attack by Islamist terrorists. But if we shut up, if we blame the West for the attacks, if we say in Nick Cohen's ironic words "Kill us, we deserve it", we are complicit in the ultimate victory of the death-loving barbarians.

As I write there is a hostage crisis in Bamako, Mali. It is taking place at the Radisson Blu hotel in that city, whose guests are not that likely to be Malian farmers or workers. There are signs that it is about to be resolved without the bloodletting we saw in Paris a week ago. I hope so. But hey, that's only over there in Africa.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

downsizing life

a lot of people downsize some time after their children are grown and gone. Move to a smaller house, move away from where their children grew up, perhaps take early retirement. That last is less likely for my generation - we are fitter and healthier than our parents were at our age, for the most part, because we were better nourished as children than they were. We boomers were pre junk food, remember, and we played out unsupervised for hours every day in almost any weather. Our own children (I had mine when I was young, and they are in their 30s now) were more supervised than we were, and their physical activity was more organised - things like swimming club and gym club, which my siblings and I did not have. Mine played out, and rode bikes on the road on their own, but a lot of their friends did not, and of course we lived an urban life. Even then rural children were less likely to be physically active than urban ones, and more likely to be driven everywhere. It's much more so now. My two granddaughters are in outer London, and are lucky enough (because their parents were committed to the idea) to live in a housing development where there are safe places for them to play more or less unsupervised.

I am likely to be forced to retire in three or four years' time. I don't want to. I want to work until I really need a rest, and/or until health problems force me to stop. But I work for an international institution that is not subject to EU law and has a fixed retirement age. This is pernicious, but is how it is.

The cancer I had a scare about a few months ago may become a reality: my French gastroenterologist has told me he thinks it will, in that cheery way they have, and if it does I may have five years maximum from that point. But if, as I think is more likely, it does not (oesophagus, since you ask, caused by smoking), I may have getting on for 40 more years to live. As I now have arthritis, kicked off by the accident I had last year (nobody knows why this happens, but it nearly always does), the quality of that life may deteriorate unpleasantly as time goes on - or I may have one joint replaced after another as technology improves, and still be riding my bike when I am 100.

Whatever happens, one lesson I have learned in recent years (I learned it from my daughter, but that is another story) is that if you are going to make a change in your life, make it when you choose to and when you can control the process - don't make it when you are in a cleft stick and have no other choice. This applies to the ending of a relationship or a marriage (and no one says "bravo" to  you about that one, no matter what the outcome or prior situation) and to moving house/changing the way you live. Move from a house with stairs to a flat on one level before you start falling down the stairs and breaking your hips. Move to within walking distance of shops and public transport before you are forced by health problems to stop driving. End a bad relationship before it damages you so much that you're no longer capable of positive action of any kind, and don't worry about "whose fault" it is that the relationship is bad. Become an accomplished online shopper and consumer of services before health problems make you housebound.

All this means that you will often be seen as doing things "too soon", or that those around you will be bemused as to why you are doing them at all. I am currently in the process of selling my home. Well, I think I am, but you know how these things are. I know that some around me think I am crazy for doing this. I intend, not to buy another place, but to rent, at least until I have the retirement plans I am being forced to make firmly in place. In any event the place I live in after this will be smaller than my current place, which is too big to live alone in. Why live with rooms you don't use but have to clean?

Alone. Yes. Significant other has departed. Not from me, but from Europe, to work in Cambodia for at least a year. This has been part of the inspiration for me to make these changes. But not the whole of it. It's time to do it. Live in a clean, clear, smaller space, and use the income I have to do things rather than to have things. As part of this I will be working 90% instead of full-time from 1st January, which will give me enough time (I'm using the pay cut to buy more holiday) to travel. First, of course, to Cambodia, where I have never been. I'll be there in January and will stay for six weeks. Part-time, but keeping up full pension contributions. I'm not THAT daft.

No one was ever on their deathbed saying they wished they'd spent more time scrubbing the skirting boards.

I'm 62 next birthday. It's time to live.   

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Stephen Kotkin, 'Stalin, Paradoxes of Power'

This is a splendid book. Apparently it is the first of a trilogy, and I for one am eagerly anticipating the next one. Highly readable, and brings out the humanity of Iosip Vissarionovich Jugashvili, though it is far from an apology for Stalinism. (I shudder when I think of the apologist for Stalinism I was at times in my youth, but we learn). He has excellent contemporary sources, available of course only some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia's first genuine universal suffrage election took place in November 1917. Lenin had been "against the whole notion of elections ", but changed position at this time. The country voted Socialist. The Constituent Assembly thus elected met for one day. Then the Bolshevik members walked out. The next day, when delegates arrived to resume the session, armed guards refused them entry. Trotsky wrote of the Constituent Assembly just before this "We are not about to share power with anyone". Lenin then named the Petrograd Soviet "a higher form of democracy", and later all mention of the Constituent Assembly was erased from Soviet sources. I didn't know any of this, or I have not retained it from what I read in earlier years, and I should have, because I purported to study Soviet history at one time. But I actually think the Soviet history I was taught at university never told us that. Those were different times, and this is a major contribution to the history of the early 20th century.

There are splendid small reminders in this book that also help us to understand the politics of today, such as "Poland did not exist between 1795 and 1918" *ducks for cover*. And not least that Lenin's cook was Vladimir Putin's grandfather! Imagine, as I do, the infant Vladimir hearing at his grandfather's knee tales of the Lenin kitchen!

It seems that Kotkin has understood, as most other historians do not seem to have, perhaps because they are usually not politicians, why Stalin became the ultimately unchallenged leader he did, when he was not the most intelligent, nor the most erudite, nor even the most politically committed or passionate, of the candidates for that role in the burgeoning Soviet Union. When the gamble [of forced collectivisation of the countryside, about which the late Robert Conquest wrote magnificently in Harvest of Sorrow, please read it] met mass resistance and unfathomable ruin, Stalin saw it through to completion". Those are the politicans we remember. The ones who do it ALL.

Kotkin tells us that Lenin's 'Testament', which appeared not to endorse Stalin as Lenin's successor, was used against Stalin, as you might expect it to be. So Stalin picked up his enemies' strength and used it against them, word by word, line by line. And won. This is the counter-intuitive aspect of political life - use your enemies' strength against them. Drew Westen has written an impressive book about just this, called 'The Political Brain'.

Kotkin refers to Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s as "pretzel logic" - both participating in and working to overthrow the capitalist world order. Some might call this running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, and that is a recipe for downfall, though it usually takes a long time. "Pretzel logic" is an expression I first came across in the 1970s when it was the title of a splendid album by Steely Dan, the thinking rockers. But I didn't know what it meant then, and I don't think most people who bought the record did.

Still and all. In 1927, it was said by those who liked to coin such phrases "Moses took the Jews out of Egypt, and Stalin took them out of the Central Committee."

The first official (ie Soviet) biography of Stalin was published in 1927. It was 14 pages long.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015


a far-off country of which we know little. Not. Back in 2011 I advocated air strikes to stop Assad slaughtering his own people, some of whom had risen up in the Arab Spring and were looking for freedom. It didn't happen. Obama too fearful and pusillanimous, Cameron wanted to do it, sort of, but couldn't get it through Parliament because of an outbreak of silly not-in-my-namery (they're only brown-skin Ay-rabs, so it's not our fight, says the Left). France actually did do it, and has continued to do some of it. Whatever Francois Hollande might lack, it is not political courage. And, of course, Russia has got involved. Now why might that be? Ah yes, those pesky Chechens and Dagestanis and Ossetians. Muslims, every man jack of 'em (the women don't count, natch). Putin, and to some extent his predecessors, didn't dick around when it came to dealing with those towel-heads, oh, no. Invade Georgia? Sure, why not? Did that, in 2008. The world said nothing. Crush the Chechens? Yeah, after all you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Chechnya, Dagestan and both Ossetias are corrupt hell-holes where human rights are non-existent. The world said nothing. Putin installed a tame warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, there in 2007. He has red hair, see?
pic Oleg Nikishin/Getty
Kadyrov likes wrestling and Kalashnikovs. So, where was I? Ah yes, Syria. Russia wants to keep Assad in power there, because the savage civil war has allowed that thing sometimes called ISIS to rise up (funded by Saudi Arabia), which is a Bad Thing. So ISIS should be trashed, so that Muslims in Russia remember who's the Daddy and don't get any funny ideas about taking over the country, or bits of it. Oh and Russia has always been mates with Syria and the Assad family, largely because they're not mates with some of the others in the region. Do try and keep up. And ISIS, as I said, has got to be trashed. Well, of course, ISIS would not even be there if there had been proper clinical strikes and Assad had been got rid of four years ago, with a post-Assad regime (done right this time) under international control. But Obama was too pussy, and it didn't happen. So we are where we are. But ISIS have still got to be trashed. And quite frankly I don't see any way other than by (for now) keeping Assad in place until ISIS have been pulverised. And then, well, then, we'll see. Sometimes, you have to  hold your nose and take the side of the odious and the dictatorial, against some who are worse.
Refugees pour out of Syria. Well, you would too, if you could. But of course not everyone seeking asylum in Europe who says they are a refugee from Syria actually is. It's quite a handy way to insert Islamic terrorism into the heart of Europe, where a welcome may be found in the tougher banlieues of Paris and Marseille, and in the Guardian-reading dinner parties of Islington. I write this as JC Superstar is making his keynote speech to Labour Party conference. JC, if another 7/7, or worse, happens on your watch, who will your friends be then?
Make no mistake, there is a war going on. And it is a war against "us". The West. Europe. America. Those of us who think democratic values may not be perfect but are kind of a better thing to have than everything else that is out there. So, what are you doing in the war? 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hanya Yanagihara, 'A Little Life'

has now been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I am not one of those who reads every book on the shortlist, though I usually read one or two, plus the winner, because I know I will fail, and if reading ceases to be a joy and becomes a chore, then why do it? I do have my reading tasks (we firstborns are goal-oriented, and I am very Type A) - a chapter a day of non-fiction (currently 'The Third Reich, A New History', by Michael Burleigh, lorra laughs, NOT), one of something in French (currently 'Congo, une histoire' by David van Reybrouck, translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin, interesting) and, when I can, something in Russian, currently an odd little fable called in English 'The Garnet Bracelet', by Alexander Kuprin, seems to be about love. Oh well. Although some writers subvert the "system" by having very long or very short chapters, or no chapters at all. The swine. And then after I've read all that I indulge myself with fiction in English. I have my to-read list, both of print books and on the Kindle, about 30 of them at the moment. It stays fairly static, approximately one in and one out. When I see something reviewed that interests me, or a mention in another book, I write it in a notebook and buy or download two from that list a month. But every now and then I see a book mentioned that catches my interest, and I download it and put it to the front of the queue. One such was 'A Little Life'.

Boy did I not know what I was getting into. For a start it's 700 pages long (you can't tell so immediately on a Kindle) so took a while. It's about four young men starting out in New York, and their lives thereafter. It's deliberately non-specific as to when it takes place, clearly from about 30 years ago until about now, but there are no events, no politics, no 9/11, not even any named artists who are "real" (a lot of it takes place in the art world), so it is kind of affectless. There are four of them, but gradually two of them fade into the background (in one case with a bang), then there is a significant plot development with the third, and this leaves the fourth. The one no one, not even those closest to him, knows anything about. No spoiler to say that he suffered horrific abuse throughout his childhood, and that this is why he cannot form relationships. Three of them are creatives - an artist, an architect and an actor - but not this one. He likes mathematics for its purity, and the law for its rigour.

It's not flawless - two of them are from very modest backgrounds, but somehow end up wealthy and living in fabulous apartments, just what all ambitious young people who go to New York think is going to happen, and it never does, and some of them get taken up by rich benefactors, which also never happens. But hey, maybe that's the can-do of American life. I wouldn't really know. We Europeans know that our background and culture define us. That is our misfortune, perhaps. It's a bit implausible like that. And would someone with the emotional and physical health problems that Jude St Francis (how about THAT for a name?) has really be able to have such a brilliant career in law? Well, perhaps.

It's quite gay, but it's not a "gay novel". I think younger writers are more like that - sexuality as a continuum, not a state. Perhaps. I seem to be saying "perhaps" a lot about this book.

There's a good review here. Its headline says "subversive brilliance", and I think that's right. "Of course", children who have been abused grow up like - what, exactly? What do the first fifteen years of your life say about the rest of it? "Of course" people who have been abused look for love in the arms of an abuser. Except that they don't, not always, and sometimes they may find it in the arms of someone who actually loves them. Oddly for a book with an abused child as its centre, this book is about happiness, and friendship, and love. And here, the greatest of these is friendship.

This book made me think about friendship, and about kindness, and decide that without these two there is not much that is worth while in this life.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

the haters on the left up their game

the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and thus of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, has had at least one apparently unintended consequence. Not of course the emergence of links to theocratic haters and approving references to the oppression of women and gays in various places - we all knew that parts of the left were happy with that - but personal hate speech directed against those who did and do not support Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Unfairly, often, because most UK Labour Party members are decent people who are prepared to work with and support a party leader they did not themselves vote for. I know I have heard from many who take that view. I do suspect that the haters may not even be long-standing Labour Party members themselves, but may be "three-pounders" (like me) who signed up just to vote in the leadership. But haters there are. Now we know there is plenty of hate on the left. As there is elsewhere. But it interesting how and where it tends to manifest itself.

Back before the 2008 US Presidential election I supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, not that I had a vote or the remotest scintilla of influence in that process. I received a flood of messages, over several weeks, containing fairly extreme hate speech, much of it to the effect that I would like to have sex with Barack Obama but that he wouldn't be interested in me (they didn't put it quite so politely as that) which explained my support for the somewhat older and female Hillary Clinton. It was all entirely personal, and as far as I know it was all from people I did not know personally. Most of it didn't appear in the comments on this blog, because I don't want to include hate speech in my publications if I can help it. It didn't bother me (I have had the great freedom for many years now of not giving a stuff what anyone thinks of me), but I found it interesting that a public, perhaps in US terms not dissimilar from those who chanted "Jez we can!" in the UK more recently, would engage in extreme ad hominem language rather than pointing out why and how their preferred candidate was better than mine. Well, we know what happened in that contest, and though I am still hopeful of Hillary for President, we shall see.

In the Labour Party leadership contest, things were a little quieter. But as election day approached, the volume went up. Shouts of "Tory, Tory, Tory!" at anyone who was not supporting Corbyn and who dared to say so publicly. No one seemed to be saying why Jeremy Corbyn was better than the others. Well, I voted, for Liz Kendall as it happens, and I put Yvette Cooper second. No other votes in the leadership contest. I was quite public about that. Then quite suddenly I found myself attacked. Because of Israel. When I hadn't been mentioning Israel. Now why would anyone feel the need to discuss Israel in the context of the Labour leadership election? Your guess is as good as mine, and I imagine our conclusions would be the same. Unfriended, left, right and centre. Though more friends were also gained by me as a result, if you treat Facebook as an index of friendship (which might be unwise).

So, why, when people discover that I did not support Jeremy Corbyn, do they start attacking about Israel? Even some who (self-declared) didn't vote Corbyn either have been doing this. And some I considered intelligent people are quite capable of calling me a "Zionist bitch" - thanks guys! and one said that the "considered view" (he didn't say by whom) was that the Israel-Palestine situation had not been resolved because of Israel's fault - but did not of course say why. The same person, in rather queeny petulant fashion (entirely in character) said "This is goodbye!" and gave as the reason that he had "dared to criticise Israel". Perhaps unwisely he used an email address that included his workplace letterhead, so that an unwary person might think he was writing on their behalf. Not me, don't worry. I won't grass you up.

On the whole, calling me a "Zionist Tory bitch" and sending me a picture of a gun and saying they know where I live is preferable to the above. Because it's honest.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

everybody hates the Jews

as the great Tom Lehrer once sang. Does Jeremy Corbyn? I think not, not personally. I think perhaps he is rather simple-minded on these matters. America, bad. Therefore, Israel, bad. Therefore, enemies of either one, good. I think it really is that simple. And it is for too many Labour Party members. Lack of thought results in howling denunciations of Israel "the apartheid state". That is Jeremy Corbyn's electorate for now. He doesn't need to pretend that he's not in bed with Jew-haters, because too many Labour Party members, and the "anti-politics" younger people many of whom have signed up as Labour supporters, have no problem with Jew-haters. Not because they are Jew-haters, but because they hate America. But Jeremy is not an idiot. He knows that if/when he wins he will have to face the Tories at the ballot box. They will not hesitate to throw the Jew-hating, terrorist-loving and dodgy associates in his face. So, he's equivocating on his support for those who thought the 9/11 slaughter was a good thing - oh but hang on, are they the same people who think it was all done by Jews, because Everybody Knows thousands of Jews stayed away from work at the World Trade Centre on 9/11 - it all gets so confusing - let's just put it down to What Everybody Knows.

What Everybody Knows. There is far too much of this around. Everybody Knows that Gaza is a prison camp. Er, no it's not. Everybody Knows that Hamas was democratically elected there. Er, no, they took power by throwing the other lot out of windows. Everybody Knows that Gaza is cruelly blockaded by Israel, starving its people. Er, no, Gaza is blockaded by Egypt.

And solidarity with women and gays in the Middle East? Don't look for that from Jeremy. His policy statement "Working With Women" says it all in its title. We, that is us Chaps, look for ways to "work with" those silly girls so they don't get all uppity and hormonal and start crying and stuff.

Everybody Knows. As so often, Lenny has the best words.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Fathomless Riches

Most of the popular tunes and fashionable beat combos of the 1980s are a closed book to me. But I do remember the Communards. Jimmy Somerville had the voice of an angel, and a rather spotty chest - I really don't like V-neck tops on men with nothing underneath - and that high-camp yearning they went in for spoke to me. That was the decade when it became OK to be gay and a pop star, among other things. It was also the decade when to be a gay man quite often meant you were dead, rather soon. I didn't remember the other half of the Communards, Richard Coles, at all. But he does have a rather good twitter feed, and now those tweets have been made into a book, which is his memoir. @RevRichardColes, which gives you a clue as to what he is doing now. Like most memoirs the good bits are at the beginning, about his childhood and family, and the dramatic moments in the middle. When he was a drug-addled star, he says, he might have bought a speedboat. He might have, but he isn't sure, and he doesn't know where it is now, if he did. I liked quite a lot in this book. It is relentlessly honest, as Coles has to be, at least now that he is an Anglican priest. He even admits that at one time he pretended to be HIV-positive - that shocked me. He said later in an interview that it was only his sexual timidity that kept him alive. Although I must say I don't think it is particularly sexually timid to drive out into the countryside and have sex in laybys with men you have never met before. Coles lives, allegedly, a celibate life these days, as the Church of England says its gay ordained must (impertinently, in my view). For me there wasn't quite enough in his book about his life in the Church (which came after the drugs and the stardom), but I guess he thought his pop-picker readers wouldn't be interested in that. On the contrary, I contend. I hope Coles writes another book. Oh and nice reference to Gilbert and George (isn't it?) on the cover.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

turning Japanese

Seventy years ago Japan surrendered after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This remains controversial. There are many historians and scholars (the late Norman Geras was one) who think that that act was a war crime, and many (Oliver Kamm is another) who think (as did and do a number of respected Japanese scholars) that the bombing was justified on the grounds that both American and Japanese casualties were thereby avoided. Well, we'll never know. Whatiffery helps no one. Norm and Oliver were/are in other ways part of the same strand of politics, what has been called the anti-totalitarian left, and that is where I locate myself too. I can strongly recommend Kamm's 2005 book "Anti-Totalitarianism", which is one of the early works in this canon. The different arguments they both put forward - was Hiroshima/Nagasaki the end of the Pacific war or the start of the Cold War? make endlessly fascinating reading.

The UK's role in what happened in Japan was rather minimal. There was little input from the UK during the ten years of US occupation of Japan. But, then as now, the UK's role in Allied intelligence gathering was a key one. So Japanese experts were needed as soon as Japan entered the war in 1941. And there were none. Just about no one in Britain could speak or understand Japanese, and Japanese studies had not been especially popular among intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by contrast with, for instance, Arabic studies, which remains highly popular to this day among the top mandarins of Whitehall and, until the welcome advent of Tony Blair, had a significant influence on UK policy in the Middle East under successive governments.

What was to be done? The men were at war, and the men who knew anything about East Asia or spoke any of its languages had gone to work in places like Singapore and Shanghai, and most of them were now prisoners of war. I know, thought the government, we'll get some boys (not girls, obviously) out of the schools and fast-track them in the Japanese language. They did just that (they did it with Turkish and Persian too, because, well, you never know which way certain cats will jump), and within a year or two they had their Japanese experts. Some of them went on to be academics in the field, and one of them went on to be chairman of British Rail. A great piece about all this in the BBC Magazine here. Thanks Neil for pointing it out to me.

What might be a surprise is that the fast-track programme for Japanese still exists, though not quite in the same way. I went through it myself in the late 1970s when I was working for British intelligence (sssh!) and they still couldn't find Japanese linguists in the UK. The programme however took place largely in Japan, which obviously in 1942 it did not, and that is where I spent my time in 1979 and 1980. At the time the British Embassy language school in Kamakura, Japan was shared with the then West German government, so for three British students there was one West German. Usually these students were diplomats near the begining of their careers, but exceptionally (I'm not sure this was ever done again) there were two students, me and a colleague from GCHQ, who had diplomatic cover for the duration of our studies. An interesting time. I was examined orally for the interpretership by the then Emperor's personal interpreter, and *modest cough* got the top mark that year.

the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kamakura

Sir Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, is writing a history of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and this is what has apparently inspired the BBC to take a look at these matters in the piece linked to. I hope he also takes a little look at the links which certainly existed at one time, and may still do for all I know, between SOAS and British intelligence. While the schoolboys referred to above were being fast-tracked in 1942 or thereabouts, SOAS was not using its Bloomsbury building where it still is today, but premises above St. James's Park Tube station. Those premises used to be called Palace Chambers (you can still see the faded sign if you look carefully, I went past there not that long ago) and were used by GCHQ for some of its activities. I have worked there myself.

I fled GCHQ in 1984 when they banned the unions, and joined the BBC World Service. I worked from time to time at the BBC Japanese Service, closed down in the 1990s, which was one of the few Japan-related organisations not headed by a graduate of that fast-track service. Its head was John Newman, who had acquired his Japanese by being a judo champion and studying judo there, and by being coach to the UK Olympic judo team in Tokyo in 1964. I always thought John was regarded with faint suspicion by the establishment fellows. John Newman died in 1993, aged only 57.

Tendrils of connection. Would make a film, the story of the above.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Go Set a Watchman

the title is from the Bible (Isaiah 21,6) and in I think all the English versions has a comma: Go, set a watchman. The text is about conscience, and that is what the title of this book means. The watchman is your conscience, so you will know if you are doing something wrong.

There cannot be many who have escaped the publicity around the publication of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set A Watchman. It is the one she wrote first, 55 years ago, and her editor preferred the back story, of Scout Finch's childhood, and her father's defence of a black man accused of the rape of a white girl. So she wrote that instead, and the world got To Kill A Mockingbird.

I have read Mockingbird at least a dozen times since I was about ten years old. I read it in different ways over the years, as you do. When I was ten I enjoyed the child's-eye view, and I envied those children the father they called by his first name and who never came into their rooms without knocking. I don't mean anything sinister about my own childhood by that, it's just that the notion of personal autonomy for children didn't mean that much to my parents until we children reached our teens, and sometimes not then. Later I loved the notion of respect for all people as individuals that is at the heart of Mockingbird. But as I grew older I began to worry about the book . I began to see that something was missing. There was a mystery at its heart. This was not helped by the film, excellent though it was, which showed Atticus Finch as a strong and sensitive hero played by Gregory Peck. Many of those who have complained about Watchman for its portrayal of Atticus as much more flawed and complex than he appears in Mockingbird are thinking about the film and not the book. The complexity is there all right in Mockingbird, it is just portrayed as a child would experience it, so it is not to be explained.

When I first knew that Go Set A Watchman was coming out, my first thought was that here was a predatory publisher/editor looking to make some money from a vulnerable elderly woman before she died. My second thought was that maybe now we would learn something about the mystery at the heart of Mockingbird (critics never seemed to talk about any mystery, but I always found it mysterious). My third thought was that maybe she would address the notion of race, because if you are a white Southerner as Harper Lee is you probably have to. In particular the notion, archaic now but surely normal in the 1950s, that if black people are to be saved from injustice and terrible fates then white people must do it for them. Well, address the notion of race Harper Lee does, and it is shocking.

"If the Negro vote edged out the white you'd have Negroes in every county office"... "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" This is Atticus Finch speaking. And yet nothing in Mockingbird contradicts this. Atticus Finch says in Mockingbird you need to get inside the skin of another person to see things as they do. But - now Scout realises - he meant another white person's skin. The fact that racist language wasn't used by her father when she was growing up meant that she grew up colour blind. And in the South of the 1950s that is very blind indeed.

A US bookstore called Brilliant Books is offering refunds to people who bought Watchman and found it not what they had expected. I think this is a mistake. Because what do we "expect" when we buy a book? To enjoy it? To respect it? That it should be just the same as everything else that author has written? I submit, none of those things. The most interesting writers are those that make you wonder, when a new book of theirs comes out "What have they got up to this time?"

The (mostly) science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin writes about Go Set A Watchman on her blog. She wonders, as I have over the years, why Harper Lee never wrote anything else after To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe, she says, because that book wasn't true. Because it was dishonest. Maybe, I wonder too, if Harper Lee was a bit dismayed by the huge international bestseller status Mockingbird immediately acquired and has never lost. That people regularly put it down as their all-time favourite book (I have done this too). Le Guin ends by saying that Harper Lee "wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill A Mockingbird evades."

Go Set A Watchman is shocking. Such a book could not be written now, I am quite sure. The South, just at the start of civil rights, knowing that everything was about to change and fearing chaos, and yes, being swamped. Class, and race, and how we fail to see what is before our eyes because it does not fit with how we have decided things and people are. All these are timeless matters. And not that many writers have seriously tried to ask questions about them.

Harper Lee, I salute you. If you can, please tell us more. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Labour leadership: Corbyn to storm in?

So they say. The party membership, as so often in its history, has gone bonkers. Now I am not so sure that Corbyn will in fact storm in to the leadership of the Party That Prefers Opposition, as party elections are carried out in the Alternative Vote system, so while it may appear that Corbyn has a majority of first preferences, that may quite well not add up to 50%, and second and third preferences may give it to Andy Burnham, or indeed one of the others. Incidentally it is Yvette Cooper who has made the best joke of the campaign so far, calling the candidates "ABBA" - the blonde one, the dark one, the bearded one, and the other one. *Resists temptation to use pic of ABBA in this post* and anyway they are super-strict with their legals, and it's actually quite hard to download a free-to-use picture of the Swedish foursome that is any good.

Yes. The bonkers party. It is well known that the activists - those who attend the monthly General Committee (GC) meetings, the GC being the sovereign body of a constituency or other local party, are almost all clinically insane, and those that are not are swiftly hounded out, and routinely denounced in the local media. Read Robert Conquest on Stalin's years in power, as I am currently doing, and you will recognise your GC. It is also well known that the "grass-roots" members (this means the mad ones) prefer being in opposition. They HATED Tony Blair, and they HATED the 13 years of Labour government we had from 1997 to 2010. There were HORRID things like the minimum wage, like money for working families, like free TV licences, like - oh, please yourselves. I was a Labour MP for eight of those years, and not once did anyone at the GC say it was a good thing that we had the minimum wage, or Sure Start, or any of the other goodies Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown as Chancellor made sure the people had. No. But they moaned and carped and nitpicked endlessly, mainly about foxhunting and the Middle East. After a while it got so that Jewish members had to stay away, as they were howled down whenever they tried to speak. It was that bad. And this was in the late 1990s, when the economy was pretty strong, when my constituency had zero structural unemployment, and when the world was a bit more peaceful than it appears now.

What a waste. In the good years - yes, the Blair years, or go back to the Wilson years if you are old enough, those years when we had Labour governments - the party right up to the top was pointlessly distracting itself with petty infighting, persecution and bullying. The whips bullied, not the rebels, but the loyal backbenchers. Ann Taylor and Hilary Armstrong as successive Chief Whips took particular pleasure in this, and where are they now? Oh yes, in the Lords, being smug on £300 a day. Taylor in particular is rather stupid, well you'd have to be to think Roy Hattersley was hunky at any time in history. Local parties persecuted, not the corrupt and the racist (all parties have those) but hardworking councillors and MPs. And no one cared. The great resource the party had in those days, its people who were not part of corrupt cabals but who worked hard as volunteers for the cause, or who had been elected because the British people wanted a Labour government led by Tony Blair, whether Labour members liked that or not, was wasted. Most of us came through it more or less in one piece. Some did not. Margaret Moran is a broken woman. Fiona Jones is dead. Anne Moffat was deselected by a small cabal of corrupt men (there is always a small cabal of corrupt men, the trick is not to let them take charge) and the party leadership laughed in her face.

So let's bring it down on their heads. I disagree so profoundly with most of what Jeremy Corbyn has to say that it's not even worth my while deconstructing any of it. But part of me says - serve them right. Destroy the party. You might as well, now that between Gordon Brown and the mad GC men you've contrived to keep Labour out of power for at least a generation, if not for ever. Scorch the earth, and start again.

And the people, in all this?

Friday, 22 May 2015

Tabloid Secrets

I was most interested to read this book, largely because the News of the World, whatever you thought about it, was a phenomenon. I think that's the right word. There never was another paper quite like it. I used to read it regularly. Even in the fairly short time since the paper closed, at the behest of its owner, well I won't bore you with why that happened, but there was phone hacking and a whole bunch of stuff, and I suppose the brand finally became tainted, the dead-tree press has become less relevant, and less important to people's lives, and perhaps as a consequence, people have become more credulous.

My grandfather, a butcher by trade who was of Welsh heritage and worked in the Harrods food hall in the last years of his working life, used to read the Daily Mirror. He read it every day, and was highly sceptical about what he read there. He thought the government mostly lied to the people, and that most of the papers copied out their lies most of the time. He was probably right. He used to like the News of the World too, but my grandmother wouldn't have it in the house because of its raunchy content, and because she thought reading it might give my grandfather "ideas" - what sort of ideas, she never said, though my brother and I used to try and persuade her to.

My parents used to read the Daily Sketch, and later on The Times. Most of the rest of our family thought they were getting above themselves for reading the "Top People's Paper", as it styled itself at one time. My father was fairly sceptical about what he read too, but less so than my grandfather had been. He used to wonder aloud about what was "meant" by what was published. He knew there was another message there under the headlines, but he wasn't quite sure what it was. My mother very rarely commented on the news. When the Profumo affair broke I was nine years old, and my parents got their "information" about it from the newspapers they read. I remember their rather clumsy attempts to use coded language when they talked about that story in front of their children. I think they were trying to avoid one of us asking "What's a call girl?"

I read newspapers when I was younger, to my shame the Guardian at one time, poisonous racist rag that it is, and I read The Times on line sometimes now - I get bored and let my subscription lapse, and then I start again - but newspapers aren't part of my life any more. I use public transport every day, and you never see people reading newspapers on there any more. Freesheet giveaways, maybe.

Neville Thurlbeck, sometime news editor and chief reporter on the News of the World, describes the old Fleet Street and tabloid reporting as a "vanished world", and so it is. Twitter and so on have more or less put paid to it. And we are all the more gullible as a result. Retweet something when you have no idea whether it is true or not, which people do every day in their millions, and where in all that is knowledge? There used to be a saying up north "some folks'll believe owt" I think it was, perhaps regional linguists can correct me (I'm from London and the South). And so they will.

If you read this book expecting to discover the vanished dark arts of story-getting, you will be disappointed, although the blurb tells you that is just what you will get. No. It gives you background on the chasing around that goes with breaking a tabloid story, David Beckham's affairs, that sort of thing. And as such is good fun, and rather interesting. I remember a lot of stories from the NotW (I was even in one once, the headline was "Woman On Top"), and it would have been great to find out some of the back stories, but most people are more interested in David Beckham than they are in some choirmaster being caught out fiddling with a choirboy. though they shouldn't be.

Of course, there was "the one that got away". A senior politician, whose sexuality was not what he made it out to be, allegedly, but who was never exposed. If he had been, the political landscape would have been "radically altered", we are told. Well, who might THAT be, then?

I think this book is rather a valuable contribution to the history of the media. Journalists, other than very pompous ones who think themselves historians and so on, don't usually write books that make a contribution to the sum of human knowledge. This one has.  

Friday, 8 May 2015

two blues in Reading

is this 1992 all over again? It has been suggested that it is. A Tory leader, slightly unexpectedly to be Prime Minister again when the polls said he probably wouldn't be - a Tory leader the people don't exactly loathe, as many of them did Thatcher, but don't warm to either - a Tory leader, however many of his party do loathe, cordially or otherwise - and Europe the Big Issue. The only difference seems to be that John Major didn't know to begin with how much of an issue Europe was for his backbenchers and members, and David Cameron does know. Well, 1992 was a tragedy for those of us who were Labour activists at the time, but after all it was 23 years ago, and surely things must have changed since then? Not for the Tory backwoods, it seems. A referendum on membership of the EU there shall be, we are told. A profound mistake. Cameron surely knows this, but has to do it anyway. If the UK leaves the EU, will it leave the Council of Europe too? (Google it, ffs.) The European Convention on Human Rights? Will it have the choice?

Both Reading's Conservative MPs were re-elected yesterday. Not a surprise. Victoria Groulef in Reading West was the better prospect for Labour, and there is no real evidence that the Reading party bigwigs put any effort or resources into Reading East, so nothing has changed there since approximately 1993. As recently as Tuesday this week the Reading Evening Post told us (so it must be true) that former MP for Reading West Martin Salter had personally written to everyone in Reading West asking them to support Victoria Groulef. Must have cost him a hell of a lot in stamps. Because he'd have to have paid the postage personally, and then it would have to have been declared as a donation, or - oh, please yourselves. However, getreading's @LindaAFort tweeted that Martin Salter had started briefing against Groulef during the night: this was confirmed by BBC South. Both used a picture, now mysteriously vanished from their Twitter feeds, showing Groulef leaving the count alone, apparently in tears, with a number of Labour councillors with their backs to her. All that is now to be found from that time from the sainted Linda Fort is "Labour's Victoria Groulef is now nowhere to be seen after looking close to tears". Well, yes. that's what the Reading boys are like, people. Victoria should have expected it.

Linda Fort also tweeted overnight "Former Labour councillor John Howarth said he predicted Labour's loss at the General Election a couple of months ago". That would be early March or so, then. Now usually I avert my eyes when Howarth tweets anything, as I have a sensitive nature and he seems to like tweeting revolting photographs of glutinous carb-rich meals, but I have taken the trouble to look back, and he has tweeted nothing of the kind in the last three months. So, perhaps he wrote it on his political blog? Nope. He doesn't write anything much on there. On 5th January he said Labour was "hanging on". Then nothing until 29th April, when he said Miliband was looking "more plausible". And - that is it. Silence. It was all lies.

I think I shall pay more attention to Linda Fort in future. She is often the bearer of delightful news, such as that Martin Salter is about to become a TV presenter. My first thought, as I am sure was yours, was that he is to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, Salter being a notorious petrolhead and lover of the blacktop and all things motorised. But, sadly, no. Still, nearly as good. He is the new presenter of a show called "Fishing Britain". You can find it on YouTube here. It's not actually about fishing, it's about Martin Salter. He tells us he's been to Argentina and he's going to a place he coyly calls "the foothills of the Himalayas". So there you are, fans, it's not all politics, the delights just keep on coming. He shakes hands with someone in a shop! He walks past the camera wearing an anorak! This is cutting-edge home video  television. If you miss it, you miss out.

Now, in newly Tory Britain, wish the new MPs well. It's not an easy job. I was doing it back before social media, when all we had was email and letters. This is what the people said they wanted when they voted, so give it to them, please. A better Britain. Er...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Reading Evening Post says vote Martin Salter

You can see the whole piece from His Master's Voice (including the picture if you can bring yourself to) here, but I shall do a little light fisking below. For a local newspaper which is not supposed to have a party political affiliation to press a candidate's case in this way, and to ask no questions, awkward or otherwise, is more than disgraceful, it is corrupt. But the Post under the editorship of Andy Murrill, the graduate of a Kent secondary modern, was ever thus. Not Labour, but Reading Labour. Not Reading Labour but what the corrupt little clique at its heart tells it. Not the clique, but What Martin Salter Wants. Here is some of the text anyway. My fisking in red.

Former Reading West MP Martin Salter has written to thousands of constituents there are no constituents, idiots. We are in a General Election campaign. Parliament is dissolved. There are no MPs, and therefore no constituents. Even if there were, whose constituents would they be? to ask them to join him in voting for Victoria Groulef . Who bought the stamps? About £40K's worth by my calculations - an expensive vanity publication by anyone's standards.

Mr Salter, who represented Reading West from 1997 until he stepped down in 2010, has come out of retirement to campaign for Ms Groulef saying he wants local people to have an MP who fights long and hard for their constituents. Unlike his own 13 years of treating Reading West as a personal vanity project, funded by the council tax, during which he spent most of his time in Reading East anyway

He has agreed to work with The Labour candidate – should she win the General Election – to rebuild an efficient, responsive local constituency service. How exactly? Answering the phone in her constituency office? Or gurning for the cameras? Tell us, do. Or didn't the Post ask that question? Or did they just copy out Salter's press release? Tell me it ain't so.

Mr Salter wrote: “I want an MP with passion and principles who will work for us all without fear and favour. Victoria will be that MP and I back her 100 per cent. As ever, Reading West will be a straight fight between Labour and the Tories. I hope you will join me in electing Vicky on May 7th and give Reading West back the type of MP you deserve and have not had for five years.” ME! ME! It should have been ME!

Drawing on his successful lobbying for funding to rebuild the Royal Berks and build a new hospital at Prospect Park, Mr Salter has deep concerns about the long-term safety of the NHS in Conservative hands Illogical, Captain. Why would successful lobbying (if there had been any, but there wasn't) lead to concerns about the NHS? and is pleased Ms Groulef has already proved to be a champion for better health services.

She this is Victoria Groulef, do try and keep up. She is the Labour candidate for Reading West. You didn't think this press release newspaper article was all about Martin Salter, did you? Oh.  has raised awareness of the lack of understanding of relatively unheard of medical condition leaving aside the poor subbing, which medical condition?, which included a debate in Parliament noting her advocacy, and closely worked with local small businesses to produce Labour policies such as a small business rates freeze and cut. So Victoria wrote the policies in Labour's national manifesto relating to business, did she? Really?

Mr Salter, who still lives in Reading West, served for 12 years as a Reading borough councillor and deputy leader of the council before becoming an MP. He currently works for the Angling Trust as their national campaigns co-ordinator. That makes him how important, exactly? Nowadays?

Thursday, 30 April 2015

women and politics

Jenni Russell, writing in The Times (£) today, seems to be of the view that the only way for there to be a decent proportion of women in the House of Commons is for there to be quotas. If she really does believe this, and it is not just the subs (do they still have subs at The Times?) writing a headline that says so, she might do well to look at countries (like Bangladesh!) where there are significant numbers of women parliamentarians. Yes, quotas it is. This is where a number of seats are reserved for women, and they are allotted to parties in proportion to the number of "real" (ie male) candidates elected. That's one way of doing it. As Russell writes, the only reason that getting on for a third of MPs in the UK after next week's election are likely to be women is that Labour has a policy of having all-women shortlists in half of its winnable seats. How you define winnable, though, is another matter. And Labour is known to have evaded this policy where it wants a seat for a particular favourite, almost always a chap.

Russell cites the biopic of Margaret Thatcher "The Iron Lady", which I have seen twice. It notes the isolation of Thatcher when she first went into the House. Well, of course she was isolated. But she acquired allies, as you do. How else do you suppose she became leader of her party? Russell says Thatcher was shut out from the "gossipy conviviality of the members' room" (there's no such place; perhaps she meant the Smoking Room,which is open to all members) and "exiled to the emptiness of the lady members' chamber". Yes, the "Lady Members' Rooms" of which in fact there are several, are often empty, but there's no "exile" about it. I used to use those rooms quite a lot. You could have a quiet sit down, watch the news, read the newspaper, make phone calls if you wanted. It was a perk not an exile. I thought the men should have their own rooms too.

Forty years on, Russell writes, parliament is still male-dominated, and "surprisingly hostile to women". Male-dominated, yes, like the rest of the world, but I never found it hostile to women when I was a Member, from 1997 to 2005. Some juvenile behaviour, yes. But hey, we girls had all experienced that before. Russell says that Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010, and a politician with a fairly high profile, has been challenged for taking the member' lifts. Really? In her first week there, possibly - although I found parliamentary staff, and the police, fantastically good at knowing members' faces within days of their arrival. Parliamentary staff assume that young women cannot be MPs, she says. Oh yeah? NO. Parliamentary staff are highly professional. I have been out of the House ten years now, and when I went back there for lunch with a former colleague a few weeks ago (I have a pass that allows me in, and to book a table for lunch on certain days) both the police officer I spoke to and the waitress in the Members' Dining Room recognised and remembered me by name.

When the House was prorogued last month for the General Election, there were 502 male MPs. How many women do you think have EVER been elected to Parliament? I got it wrong too. The answer is 370. Ever. In history. When I stood down in 2005 my successor was a man, of course.

In 1997, the year I was first elected, Labour used all-women shortlists. At that time local parties were allowed to choose whether they wanted them or not - mostly. My own party at the time, Labour in Reading East, chose not to have one. My four fellow shortlisted candidates for selection were all men. In that year, a landslide for Labour, how many Labour women do you think were elected for the first time who had not been selected from all-women shortlists? I got that one wrong as well. Six. Of whom I was one. Parties who think the seat is winnable want a man. They'll only select a woman if they have to, pretty much. But hey, the world of work, business, academia, journalism, whatever line you're in, is all like that. Anyone who's not so over-privileged that they can recognise reality when they see it knows that.

Next week the UK will have a new Parliament ready to go. I'm sometimes surprised that so many good and talented young men and women still want to go into politics. But they do, and that's a good thing. Those already pontificating about the results may get some surprises. In Reading, my man in the smoke-filled room says Labour know that they have no chance in Reading East. True. That chance was blown a long time ago, quite deliberately. In Reading West they think they have a better chance. They certainly have an apparently good candidate in Victoria Groulef, who appears to be her own woman (though not so much as to get on the wrong side of the Reading boys, naturally, or she will be deselected pronto) and who has now realised that being photographed with Martin Salter, former Labour MP for that constituency, is doing her no good with the electorate. But on my aforementioned visit to the House of Commons a few weeks ago, I ran into Alok Sharma, who has been MP for that constituency since 2010. We had an interesting chat, and I would not be so sure that the usual Reading Labour bluster, intimidation, dog-whistle racism, use of council facilities for election campaigning, and pictures of fat people holding up pieces of paper, that has been their campaign strategy since the 1980s, is going to do it for Labour in Reading West this time. We'll see though. Labour will have to win back a lot of seats like Reading West to compensate for the wipe-out that is coming in Scotland.

Me, I'd like to see a Tory/Labour coalition. That would actually be a better democratic solution than anything the "journalists" have been blethering about in recent weeks.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

King Richard, long lost, forever found

Kevin Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard
as the poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has it, rather beautifully. I do believe the finding of Richard in 2012 was providential. It is so unlikely that the redevelopment (and destruction) which happened on the site in Leicester, most recently a council car park, over 500 years managed to do no worse than cut off the feet of King Richard's skeleton (we think that is why the feet are missing). It was so unlikely that the remains would be found, when there was so little evidence to go on that the likelihood of the remains ever being found was pooh-poohed even by ardent Ricardians over the years. But found they were, by a melange of scientific rigour, evidence, and personal intuition. And it is only now that it is possible for DNA evidence to establish that the bones are Richard's. And only now that the identified descendants are here to act as confirmation - because none of them has children, and the mitochondrial DNA line dies (it appears) with them. Although, Benedict Cumberbatch is apparently a descendant too, but his DNA has not so far as I know been sampled. He read the Carol Ann Duffy poem quite beautifully at the reinterment ceremony.

I went to Leicester for King Richard. Once it was clear - and I will not bore you with the various opinions, lawsuits and other controversies on the subject which have emerged since the discovery of the remains in 2012 - that Richard's remains would be buried in Leicester, near where he was killed, and very near the site of his hasty burial by the Franciscans at Grey Friars in Leicester, I knew I would not want to miss this occasion. Me, and many thousands of others. The Leicester city and Leicester Cathedral authorities have counted those who were there, but by no means all of them. They did not count the retired Caribbean widow who lives in Surrey and who took the the train to Leicester on impulse on Wednesday. She was too late to file past the coffin, as by the time she got there they were closing the Cathedral to prepare for the reinterment ceremony on Thursday. But she was there, and wept as she told me her late husband would have loved to be there. They did not count the Polish family from Nottingham who turned up for the light and firework display on Friday evening - the parents thought the children would enjoy it and that it would be good for their education about English history. There must have been many many others.

This week I have spent a LOT of time queueing at the Cathedral. But I didn't mind. And neither did anyone else, from what I saw. It was a very English queue - no one pushed in, there were stewards with not that much to do - although far from everyone was English. I heard American and Australian voices in quite some numbers, and on Friday while waiting (barely two hours this time) to see the finished tomb, got talking with some Canadians. I met an American playwright named Nance Crawford who grew up and still lives in Hollywood and has written a book in verse about King Richard (I bought it, natch). I met another American lady, age about 70, called Maggie Thorne, who wore a baseball cap to the Bosworth battlefield and who said "Richard has been my king since 1976". There were white roses everywhere. The wooden coffin looked small and lonely last Sunday as it was brought into Leicester by black horses. Thirty-five thousand people, including me, lined the streets to see it pass. We all die alone, even if we are remembered by multitudes.

Why were the events of the past week so important? There have been carpers and nitpickers. Polly Toynbee, inevitably, in the Filth, said it was ludicrous to pay tribute to Richard, because he was a king. Some tosser, writing in some rag or other, called Richard a "psychopathic killer". Jon Snow did himself no favours when he called the church services "mumbo-jumbo", to the disapproval of a Hindu gentleman to whom he addressed those words. There have been those who objected to the church services (most of them) being Anglican, because Richard was a Catholic. My view is that if Richard had had a burial with due dignity and honour in 1485 it would have been in a Catholic church, because that was what there was in England at the time, and after all no one makes a fuss now about any royal grave pre Henry VIII being in an Anglican church, as they now are. One otherwise sensible historical blogger referred in passing to  "Protestant" rites. No. The Church of England is not a Protestant church.

But ordinary people, in huge numbers, came spontaneously to pay tribute, and many more who were not present posted their feelings on line. This was a moment in the history of England. The last English king, and the last king of England to die in battle on English soil - and no one disputes Richard's bravery - and the first to be DNA tested. Plantagenet is not, as some think, a French name, but an English one, derived from the Latin for the native English plant broom - Planta Genista. It was Richard's ancestor Geoffrey of Anjou who adopted the name. It works as well in English as in French. An important moment, and one the ordinary people of England and more understood better than those writing in the Guardian and its ilk who claim to speak for them. The lost king, who is now found. He has had a media profile that almost no other king has had, thanks to Shakespeare, who was hired as a propagandist against him by the Tudor usurpers (100 years later, why did they still think it necessary?) but whose spin ultimately failed as the truth began to come out.

Laws in English. A Bible in English. The precursor of legal aid. The abolition of benevolences. In less than two years on the throne, and having to deal with rebellion and plotting in that time, to say nothing of losing his beloved wife and son, and thus leaving no heir. I'll defy most rulers to do as much. This is the best-known portrait of Richard, though it is from long after his death, and is thought to be a copy of a now-lost portrait made during his lifetime.

I went to Bosworth. It is a Leicestershire field. It looks like this now. There would have been no trees or hedges in Richard's time.

Bosworth, edge of the battlefield

The tomb made for Richard is of Swaledale stone (from Yorkshire), and is so designed, with a deep cross-shaped cut, that the light of the rising sun will make a glowing cross when it strikes the tomb through the stained glass window. Remember what happened to the winter of our discontent? Made glorious summer by this sun of York? Yes, Shakespeare had the words, all right. I came to Richard first through Shakespeare, at the age of fourteen.
Rest in peace, King Richard

Leicester City Council (Leicester became a city, and St. Martin's Church a cathedral, in 1927) did not put a foot wrong. Thank you Leicester for your welcome, and for the dignity and honour you have given King Richard. Thank you too for not trying to appropriate, or even comment on, his reign, his political base, anything he did, but for doing the right thing and giving him the honourable resting place he deserves. Thank you Leicester Cathedral for your commemoration of him. Thank you for using the theme of defeat (for after all Richard was defeated in battle at Bosworth in 1485, and that is how the usurper Henry Tudor got the throne) and death, in what your preachers said this past week about Richard. Many of us are defeated in life, or at the end of it. And all of us die. And that makes us all the same, at the end, king, or priest, or commoner. Rest in peace King Richard. I consider myself blessed to have been in Leicester this week. Loyaulte me lie (Loyalty Binds Me, Richard's personal motto). 

This is how Leicester ended the week - with thousands of lights, and fireworks from the Cathedral roof.

Friday, 27 March 2015

rubbish about Richard

People who know me know that I am a Ricardian, namely someone who thinks King Richard III has been unfairly maligned over the centuries. I am in Leicester this week for what is being called locally The Return of the King. Wrongly, because this is where he was killed. It is beginning to look as though we have got our king back. More on this to come, but in the meantime here are some intelligent remarks.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

fisking the Salter

well, he should keep quiet about things that don't concern him if he doesn't like it. Now he has instructed His Master's Voice, aka the Reading Evening Post, to publish the following. A little light fisking is, I think, in order.

the body language is hilarious
Former Reading West MP Martin Salter has launched an attack on his successor Alok Sharma for being a “party political clone”. Pots and kettles, anyone?
The former Labour MP, who stepped down and then tried to un-step-down when he realised the seat was not necessarily lost for Labour despite his having spent most of his time in Reading East while an MP before the last General Election in 2010 in which Conservative Alok Sharma won the seat, has written to his former constituents what, all 70K plus of them? with a second-class stamp at - oh, you do the math. The Angling Trust must be paying him better than their website indicates if he's got around 40K to spend on postage saying: “I fought long and hard for my constituents and you recognised that with your support at three General Elections for which I’m profoundly grateful.
“I had hoped that my Conservative successor, Alok Sharma, would do as he promised and put local people before his party interests and his own career.
“Sadly, he has turned out to be a big disappointment and has spent five years toeing the party line so he can occupy a minor role in government as a bag carrier for a junior minister. Pots and kettles, again. At least Alok Sharma has kept the job. When Salter got his first taste of life as a ministerial bag-carrier, he lasted five weeks before being sacked
Reading West deserves better than this and I know that Vicky Victoria Groulef, a business woman who seems to be a sound candidate. She ought to stop having her picture taken with Salter if she knows what's good for her will be an MP that puts you and your families first and who will fight day and night for the best deal for her constituency irrespective of party politics.” She won't, you know, for the simple reason that she would be deselected if she did

Mr Salter went on: “When I stepped down as MP five years ago, I had hoped my Conservative successor would continue the tradition hollow laugh of putting the people of Reading West before the wishes of the party whips which Mr Salter did not do, voting precisely as the whips instructed him to do on Iraq, which was not to vote at all. Yep, a noble tradition of abstention and cowardice. Don't go there Victoria

Mr Salter still lives in Reading West, was a Reading Borough councillor and deputy leader of the council before becoming an MP, and currently works for the Angling Trust as campaigns co-ordinator. gushes the Post. How about coming up with a reason for publishing this muck produced by a nobody and a has-been, or better still, investigating who paid for the 70,000 letters we are informed have been sent to people in Reading West?

update: the Reading Chronicle says (so it must be true), the following:

Martin Salter, Reading West MP from 1997 to 2010, launched the scathing attack in a letter which is to be sent out to all 73,000 constituents.

So, tell us, who's paying for this bilious self-serving pyramid of piffle to be mailed on behalf of a clapped-out former politician whose career ended in ignominious failure? Huh?

anyone notice there's an election coming? it's time to kick a teacher

aaaand here we go again! It's election time, so I thought I would cast an eye into the pit of darkness that is Reading, UK. Well, a pit of darkness politically, anyway, otherwise it's an OK town, and one I was pleased to live in for 21 years, still the longest I have lived anywhere. My children went to the excellent E.P. Collier primary school there, and went on to the comprehensive school north of the Thames called Highdown. I thought the school was OK, but neither of them did. My older one had left by the time Tim Royle took over as head. He was excellent in my view, and I was very pleased to be able to introduce him to the then Education Secretary David Blunkett back at the end of the 1990s. Later (I do not say the two events are connected) Tim Royle became a national leader in education, and the school improved a lot under his leadership. Well, there were those who did not like that, and Tim Royle found himself accused of fraud. Fortunately the charges were thrown out, but the darkness remains. Tim Royle was not the first head teacher of that school to be pushed out and accused of misdeeds. When that happens (a previous head this happened to, Alan Furley, is now dead, and the things that were said at his funeral (I was there) would make your hair curl) there is dark muttering in Reading Labour Party (a number of teachers are Labour Party members, and one former Highdown teacher, Jan Gavin, is a councillor) from those who claim to know all about What Has Really Been Going On. You'd think, wouldn't you, that if councillors had real concerns about what was happening at a school they would investigate and try and do something about it, in the interests of the pupils and of education in the town? No, it doesn't work like that. So, only a few people at the heart of Reading Labour Party know why two head teachers have been variously attacked, dismissed, and dragged through the courts on trivial and trumped-up charges. I think they should tell us.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo - more bellendery

Some bloke called Des Freedman, who apparently is professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths College (yes I know) starts off a piece on openDemocracy like this (hat-tip Anthony Posner):

"The horrific killing of ten journalists and two policemen in Paris on Wednesday has been widely described in the mainstream media as a ‘murderous attack on Western freedoms’, notably freedom of expression and the right to satirise. In response, some bloggers have insisted that the ‘attack had nothing to do with free speech’ but was simply part of the ongoing war between Western governments and jihadists.
The reality is that the killers did single out journalists and timed their attack to coincide with the weekly editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo in order to secure maximum impact. The cartoonists now join the growing number of journalists killed ‘in the line of duty’. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that over 1100 journalists have been killed in the last twenty years (with 60 killed in 2014 alone). They include not simply the high-profile murders of reporters by Isil in Syria but also cases like the 16 Palestinian journalists killed by the Israeli army in Gaza together with the 16 reporters killed by US military fire in Iraq. Strangely enough, these latter killings do not seem to have generated the same claims from leading commentators that they constituted a ‘murderous attack on Western freedoms’. Yet the fact remains that it is an outrage – whatever the identity of the assailant or the victim – that a single journalist should have lost their life simply for covering or commenting on a conflict."
Sigh. Yes, the Charlie Hebdo killings were indeed a "murderous attack on Western freedoms", because that is how they were described, by their perpetrators and by those who laud them for it. Does Prof Freedman know better than the killers did what they had in mind? (He also forgets to mention the Jews killed in Paris the same week for being Jews, but hey, that's a whole other story, n'est-ce pas?) The killings of the Palestinian journalists and the reporters in Iraq have not been so described, because that is not what they were. How could the US military, or the Israeli army, have been setting out to "attack Western freedoms"? What nonsense. Intellectual dishonesty, or rank stupidity, I am not sure which. Both, probably. Journalists who are brave enough to go to war zones to report quite often do get killed, not usually (though sometimes) by people who want them dead for being journalists. But hey, let's not let the facts get in the way. Those who thought killing the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their colleagues was just fine think this. The message is fairly clear. Or are these just brown-skin people who need to be told what to think by London "academics"? (Picture

Monday, 19 January 2015

how to be an apologist

yes, from Harry's Place - and add to it if you are in France that Charlie Hebdo wasn't very good anyway, and some of it was racist, and they were being offensive for the sake of it, and, and, and go a bit quiet when anyone mentions the Jews who were killed in Paris for being Jews, and then brighten up when you remember that it was a Muslim who rescued a lot of them.