Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Syrian

I read this because she lives/has lived in Lebanon for many years and has written on the Middle East, so I thought a political thriller by someone like that might be interesting. How wrong I was. Clunky cliched writing, no sense of atmosphere or place, a love story that was embarrassingly unreconstructed (Boring Good Girl v. Sultry Man-Eater Bad Girl), and no disguise at all for the anti-Israel tract it actually is. Apparently Israel killed the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, she says, despite there being no evidence of or motive for this. Oh and Hezbollah, despite their Nazi salutes and gay-killing, are Not So Bad Really. Disgraceful.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Margaret Drabble, 'The Dark Flood Rises'

I love Margaret Drabble anyway, and this was no exception, and also a new development. It is a novel, and it is also a meditation on ageing. It is about three women (all her books are, pretty much) and, by the end of it, two of them are dead - not a spoiler. Other ageing people are there, and some younger ones too, who contemplate the ageing and approaching deaths of those around them with varying degrees of equanimity and fear. There is Sir Bennett Carpenter, the terrifyingly selfish old scholar, who doesn't seem to have much wrong with him but who is cared for in the Canary Islands by his long-term partner Ivor - of whom I hope we hear more, as he is very interesting. Francesca Stubbs, the "main" character, is still working in her seventies, and travelling around England as much as she can, staying in Premier Inns and striking up unlikely friendships.There are the indigenous people of the Canaries (or if they were not, how did they get there?), there is an Edwardian lady novelist, there are Jose Saramago and Yves Bonnefoy, and human selfishness and greed and kindness, and Midlands girlhood memories, and - oh, it's all fascinating, go and read it.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Anthony Doerr, 'All The Light We Cannot See'

Here is my Goodreads review of this book, historical fiction which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. No spoilers.

Very beautiful writing. I like historical fiction, and I liked the characters, but the character tropes - the blind girl, the good German, the precious jewel, are a bit of a cliche, are they not? It made me cry a lot because it was so beautiful, but all the time I felt manipulated, and was actually relieved when it was over. But I still recommend it, because it is compelling, and others may not respond as I did. I loved some of the themes - the voice going out on the radio explaining light, the model houses, the women. The little snails.The key, the bakery, and the smell of the sea. And how can a chapter even be called The Blade And The Whelk? Ah well, there it is. You can read my notes and highlights from Goodreads here too, I think - this is a new feature.

the only Jew in the village

Ben Coleman is Labour councillor for Fulham Broadway in the constituency of Chelsea and Fulham. A fellow ward councillor is Alan De'Ath, who is Labour parliamentary candidate for the Chelsea and Fulham constituency. More than 20 years ago Ben Coleman was shortlisted for selection as Labour candidate in Reading East. The shortlist was four. Three were men, and Ben was the only non-local. He made quite a good impression on party members, and picked up some nominations, and plenty of votes, among the more affluent wards and branches - the northern fringe of the constituency is on the edge of the Berkshire celebrity belt and contains several prestigious private schools, while in the south there are many low-income families in present and former council housing -  but ultimately he was unsuccessful. They selected me, and I won the seat for Labour in 1997 and held it with an increased majority in 2001, standing down in 2005 when a group within Reading Labour Party decided they would prefer a Tory MP to a Labour MP who would do the bidding neither of then Reading West MP Martin Salter nor of Reading Borough Council's Labour group. The seat has remained Tory, and MP Rob Wilson is likely to be re-elected with an increased majority on 8 June.

But back in 1995 Ben was sent on his way with good wishes and the belief that he would soon find a parliamentary seat which would suit his talent and ambitions. It hasn't happened, and I have no idea why. I have not followed Ben's career in recent years, though I had heard that he was a councillor in London. Quite a long time ago then Swindon Labour MP Julia Drown, who described herself as a friend of Ben Coleman's, said to me she had not thought, although she liked Ben, that he was the right candidate for Reading East. I got the impression that she thought he didn't have the common touch in sufficient measure, but I could have misunderstood. Whatever.

I am indebted to the eagle-eyed Harry Phibbs for his recent alert to a speech made by Ben Coleman in October 2016, apparently following an account by a fellow councillor of harassment that councillor had experienced outside a synagogue. In that speech Ben Coleman was highly critical of the anti-extremism Prevent strategy, introduced by the last Labour government (how long ago it seems!) and still in place today. He followed criticism by fellow councillor and now parliamentary candidate Alan De'Ath of Prevent as "Islamophobic", and also used the following words:

 “Sometimes people in the Jewish community think they are the only Jew in the village."

 For good measure he then said that concerns about anti-semitism in the Labour Party were “overblown”.

Well, I don't know. This stuff undoubtedly goes down well with those around JC. But with the electorate?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

War, what is it good for?

Here is my Goodreads review of 'War, What Is It Good For?' by Ian Morris.

It is an interesting and counter-intuitive piece of historical writing. Morris indicates that casual violence has reduced over history, and that this is because societies become more stable as they become more prosperous, and that they only become more prosperous once they have been subdued - by war. And that this has always happened, and probably always will. A fascinating read. He is not afraid of big ideas, or of uncomfortable ones; and that is always a good thing.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Robert Harris, 'Imperium'

This is a cracker of a read, as Robert Harris always is. A political thriller, and a courtroom drama, and while there are crucifixions and other kinds of torture aplenty, Cicero (for it is he the hero) does not perpetrate or get involved in any of them. Ancient Rome was bloody, but Cicero changed the world with words, and wit, and the lowest of cunning. This book, the first of a trilogy I am eager to finish reading, has been called "Labour in togas" and it's easy to see why. For anyone who was around the Palace of Westminster during the Blair years the parallels are unmistakable, and perhaps reveal more about Harris than he would like to have revealed. "If you find yourself stuck in politics, the thing to do is start a fight - start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through."

Rather fun on political hatreds, too. There have always been politicians who simply hate each other. Of whichever politician it was said "He is his own worst enemy" and of whichever politician it was said that he replied "Not while I'm alive, he isn't" - well, that has been around down the ages, and still is today. In this he gives the lie to the Stoics, of whom Cicero, it seems, was a fan. I certainly am. Epictetus, my hero.

Thursday, 6 April 2017


Now I am not a logician or a philosopher, but I know an argument that does not stand up when I see or hear it. I also know a person who is prepared to believe the impossible or the ludicrously improbable to suit their ideological purpose when I see one. There has been too much of this lately. Down with this sort of thing, say I. Example (admittedly from the deranged wing of the so-called left): Israel has denied licences to "Palestinian" fishermen to fish in the Dead Sea, thus depriving them of a livelihood and confirming Israel's status as an "apartheid state". There are people out there who actually believe this, and who have not been sectioned or otherwise dealt with by mental health services. There are no fish in the Dead Sea. Never have been. The clue is in the name, folks. The Dead Sea is so saline that it can support only certain microorganisms. Not fish. The Dead Sea is fed by the Jordan, and fish are carried into it from that river, but they die almost immediately. These are facts.

I remember a line from 'The Golden Notebook', the seminal political feminist novel by the late Doris Lessing, a great influence on me when I was young, where a woman in East Germany informs a (German) visitor from the West that " they [the West] have no consumer goods". She leaves, and he tells his (non-German) companion "That used to be an intelligent woman". So what is it that makes a consequence of the acquisition of ideological conviction a loss of the ability to think or argue rationally?

I was told by someone who when very young was tempted by the far-left political groupings of the 1980s in the UK that he was told by an activist, when there was a steep rise in the price of gold, that this would result in " armed workers' militias on factory gates". Er, no it wouldn't, my interlocutor knew. But the activist who told him so genuinely believed it. So this is not new. Doris Lessing was writing in the 1950s about communist activists and ideologues in the eastern bloc that she actually knew. The 1980s political activist really said that about the workers' militias (in Thatcher's Britain!), and really believed it. The "pro-Palestinian" ideologue condemning Israel for the Dead Sea meant what she said. None of these people are trying to fool anyone. They believe they know the truth, and they want others to know it too.

Is it possible to combat this? Has it ever been? I only ask.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

I didn't think I could

Two years ago I was working in Strasbourg. France, for an international organisation, a job I found interesting, and was reasonably happy with my life. I wasn't especially looking to change things. We owned an apartment, and under the rules I was going to have to retire in 2019 (which is still the case). I didn't especially want to live in France after retirement. Not in Strasbourg anyway, beautiful though it is, because the weather is crap. Nobody should live in a cold dark place after retirement if they don't have to. It was tempting to stay in France, but somewhere warmer - the Rhine Valley is dank - for the sake of French healthcare, which has to be the best in the world. But France is hardly the cheapest country to live in, and one's pension goes a lot further elsewhere. What to do? Well, no need to decide right now. Cyprus is the island of my heart, and I dreamed of living out my old age there. But Brexit. Yes, a tragedy, and we will see.

Then, suddenly, we decided to sell the apartment, to make ourselves free. No sooner had we made that decision than significant other (this was in 2015) got a job in Cambodia. Someone, somewhere, was putting a rocket underneath us and saying, get up, move on, change your lives. So we did. To cut a long story short, sig other has been working in Cambodia since 2015, the apartment was sold in January 2016, and I took sabbatical from Strasbourg and joined him in Phnom Penh in October 2016. I even got a teaching job there, so not requiring another income to support me in Cambodia. Providential or what?

Living in tropical South-East Asia, for the first time in my life at age 62, learning Khmer, teaching. Sig other teaching, developing academically by studying for a Master's, which I had thought he should do a long time ago but only now is he galvanised to do it. Both of us doing things we thought we couldn't do, or would never do. My personal possessions and our household goods savagely culled. Sig other is a hoarder and will not cull his, so has a storage unit in Strasbourg all to himself, which is another story, and he will be the one to end it. We live the expat life in Phnom Penh, an easy city to live in. Teachers are not rich, but life is good. Mostly.

Both of us have been picked up roughly and set down in another part of the world to do different things. Where will it all end? We don't know. I thought I was having a gap year at 62, and sig other thought he was taking a job in Cambodia to get Asia experience to help him to develop his work in his field in the UK. But it isn't quite like that. There's more to it than that.

None of this comes free. I have no home, and no real legal identity any more. I miss my family. I hope some of them will visit. I'll be seeing most of them this summer, and expect to be teaching for six weeks in darkest Uxbridge, which will help to finance a summer in the UK. Then - well, anything could happen.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Gibraltar near Spain

as John Lennon once sang. A very long time ago. I visited Gibraltar once, also rather a long time ago, and I remember that the Gibraltar government spokesperson continually referred to members of the delegation I was with as having "flown down" to Gibraltar - i.e not having gone in through Spain. One or two members of the delegation did in fact choose to enter Gibraltar through Spain, to demonstrate that they believed Gibraltar was part of Spain. But they could only do this because both Spain and the UK were, at the time (1998) members of the EU and thus obliged to keep their borders with other member states open. Before that, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the UK was a member of the EU but Spain had not yet joined, there was harassment by Spain at the border, with consequent difficulties for the Gibraltar economy. Before that, when neither the UK nor Spain had yet joined the EU, the border was blockaded and there was regular sabre-rattling by Spain. But at no time even then did Spain actually try to occupy Gibraltar militarily by force. They didn't dare.

As soon as the UK formally leaves the EU Spain can close its land border with Gibraltar and also blockade it by sea. The UK would then have to respond in some way, in the interest of the British people of Gibraltar, who have as we know chosen to remain British whenever their opinion has been asked. However, that does not mean war. One Spanish soldier's boot across the border, or one shot fired into Gibraltar from a Spanish gun, would however oblige the UK to retaliate on behalf of its citizens. As Michael Howard said yesterday, Theresa May as prime minister would have no choice. This is simply how it is. Spain knows this very well. Why has Spain never tried to take back Gibraltar (ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht) by force before? And what happened when another state occupied a British territory, 35 years ago this week? Some of us remember the Falklands.

I make no remark on the merits of all this, or indeed of the Treaty of Utrecht. Bismarck I think it was who coined the term Realpolitik. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

RIP Darcus Howe

I was sorry to read today of the death of Darcus Howe, aged only 74. He was one of the great activists for black rights of his (very big) generation. Like most of that generation he had been a collective activist, and was an intellectual. Things have changed a bit in recent years. I wouldn't presume to say much about the politics of race, in Britain or anywhere else, but I'd like to say that I read the New Statesman for many years, and was always stimulated, often entertained, and sometimes educated, by Darcus Howe's weekly column in that organ.

At a certain point around the year 2000 Darcus Howe began to cooperate and work with Blue Sky, an arts and cultural organisation based in Reading. I had some concerns about this organisation, not especially about its activities as such but about the transparency of its funding, and relayed those concerns, not publicly but to Reading Borough Council, which supported Blue Sky at times and in various ways at the time. I had no issue at all with the work Darcus Howe was doing with them.

For context, there was a shooting in 2002 from outside a Reading nightclub, The Matrix (since closed) which put a member of club staff in hospital for months. Following this, Blue Sky hosted a debate on guns, in Reading, presided over or spoken at by Darcus Howe, to which I was invited as the then constituency MP. I accepted the invitation but subsequently had to give apologies, for reasons I cannot now remember but which had nothing to do with the merits of the event. Another Reading MP, Martin Salter, got wind of the event and did attend. This was his first recorded interest in any issues of interest to Reading's black communities, despite the fact that the vast majority of those communities lived in his constituency of Reading West, which is not where the shooting took place. Mr Salter had a word with Darcus Howe, whose next New Statesman column informed his readers that I had refused to attend the event as I disapproved of Blue Sky and its work on guns and race. Darcus Howe went on effectively to call me a racist. You will not find the article on the New Statesman website, not surprisingly. However, once I had contacted libel lawyers Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners Darcus Howe published this column, which ended thus:

Further to last week's column, I wish to make it clear that Jane Griffiths MP did not express reservations about Blue Sky Arts's guns debate in Reading. On the contrary, Ms Griffiths accepted an invitation to attend. I apologise to her for my error.

An apology and costs.

I happened to meet Darcus Howe at Labour Party Conference later that year, and he treated the matter with dignity and humour. I just wanted to place that on record.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Harriet tells it

Here is the short review of Harriet Harman's memoir 'A Woman's Work' I published on goodreads recently.

This is readable and engagingly written, which is more than can be said of all, or even most, political memoirs. It's also less self-serving than most of them are. At times I was a little exasperated that she was so down on herself. Yes, she was sacked from the front bench, but most government ministers get fired in the end, either by the prime minister or by the electorate. She did it all for the cause of women, and has been utterly honest about that throughout, which again is more than can be said for most politicians.  She is of the same generation as me - I am four years younger - and she is a better and more dedicated feminist and politician than I have ever been. Harriet I salute you.

She writes: "the reality is that an MP who gets in with the help of people higher up in the party is not as good an MP as someone who's fought their own way in. You'll never be up to the task of standing up for your constituents if you can't stand on your own two feet to get selected." And on all-woman  shortlists: "it was definitely one of those things when the end justifies the means". In later years, as she herself has aged, she has begun to take up the cause of older women, and notes, interestingly; that "often, as older women, we are invisible even to ourselves". The younger front-bench women are much more noticeable, not just to the media but to their own colleagues, than the older ones even though the younger ones are in a minority.

I would say to any young woman who is considering going into politics, read this book. Harriet Harman was clearly mercilessly and misogynistically bullied throughout her career, and this is quite likely to happen to you too. But Harriet Harman has been instrumental in some of the cultural changes that make life better now for women in politics. We push this boulder up the hill, and at times it falls back on us and threatens to crush us, but with each new heave it gets a little further up that hill.

No one said it would be easy. But it has always been easier for men.