Sunday, 12 November 2017

Ken Clarke, 'Kind of Blue'


An accomplished, and at times very interesting, political memoir from a politician who said he would never write a memoir. No surprises here, but why would there be, from one of the few politicians of any party who is instantly recognisable by the public, and whose views are well known by everyone – or so we the public think. There is a bit too much I Was Right All Along, but you always get that with political memoirs. Ken Clarke seems, it emerges from this book, to have been oddly distant from most of his family for most of his life. His marriage, he says, was a long and happy one. He mentions outings with his son during the latter’s boyhood, and says family holidays were always enjoyed, but nothing more. This is contrary to the public image Ken Clarke has always had, but then this is true for almost all politicians.

He is not perhaps a very complex political thinker, but complexity is not a virtue in a politician. He is not dull, and dullness is most certainly a vice in one. He is an admirer of Iain Macleod, who was Foreign Secretary at the end of Empire, and who was criticised, Clarke says, for giving the British Empire away, which he says had to be done “if we were to avoid the post-colonial wars in which the French had been immersed”. Well, I guess. But we did have them, in Malaya and Cyprus, and Burma wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, and there was that little matter of Partition in India, and – oh, please yourselves.

On Europe, of course, Ken’s position is clear and well known, and he has never wavered from it. (Not always a good sign in a potential political leader: ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeremy Corbyn). Ken Clarke is the go-to pro-European Tory, and that being so it is perhaps surprising that he has been in Tory governments as much as he has. Here at least he has the benefit of clarity, and it is welcome: “People had been told that the Community was intended to be a free-trade area only, without any political commitments. This is wholly without foundation; a total fiction.” Thanks, Ken. That’s how I remember it too.

He can be patronising, especially to women: the In Place of Strife debate “did succeed in bringing the best out of Mrs Castle as a parliamentary performer”, which seems at best unfair to Barbara.

The title, ‘Kind of Blue’, is a splendid one for the memoir of a jazz-loving Tory who has often seemed semi-detached from the party. But of course he never was so. He was, and remains, a true Tory. Another reviewer has remarked that his memoir shows Clarke, surprisingly to the reviewer, to “lack empathy for the poor”. Well, of course he does. He’s a Tory, innit.

“The Thatcher government never cut public spending on any mainstream public service such as health, education or welfare”, he proudly asserts. If he says so, and in monetary terms I am quite sure that this is true. But it is not how it felt at the time.

He can be waspish. He appears to have got on rather well personally with Margaret Thatcher, despite their sometime differences and their avowed occasional stand-up rows. He says his losses of temper on those occasions were acting, as his temperament is too equable for them to have been real. And also that “Margaret Thatcher was always very lucky in her political opponents.”

On the NHS (after all he was Health Secretary for quite a long time), he says “there would be riots if we were plunged back now into an NHS that looked as it did in the 1980s”. Probably true. But that would also arguably be true of a lot of other aspects of society in the 1980s – when there were quite a lot of actual riots. But for myself, having lived outside the UK now for over 10 years and experienced a health service which is probably the best in the world (the French), I’m quite surprised nobody riots now at the abominable care they receive.

He points out, perhaps rather irritatedly, that his shoes are not Hush Puppies, but are hand made by Crockett  and Jones in Northamptonshire. Shoes are often an issue in politics (leaving aside the current prime minister) – I had some yellow Clarks suede desert boots I was rather fond of at one time when I was an MP, and used to wear them when out knocking doors as they were comfortable and took me many miles with never an itch or a rub or a blister, and was roundly castigated by the local LibDems for wearing them. I was never quite sure why. I always liked them. I wish I still had them now.

A word on Ken Clarke the politician – we were colleagues in the House, and although we never had anything much to do with each other he always knew my name when we passed in the corridor – and why should he know the name of a humble and obscure Labour (then in government) back-bencher? Well, because politics. Fibromyalgia is a health issue which is a very severe and debilitating one for those who suffer, and there are many local support groups for sufferers, usually membered by the sufferers themselves and their immediate families. I was often surprised by the energy and fortitude displayed by the fibromyalgia lobby, this being the case. The two strongest local fibromyalgia support groups in England were in Reading (which I represented) and in Nottingham (which Ken did). I therefore found myself chairing the group, and most of its meetings. True to form, the other Reading MP, Martin Salter, trumpeted in the Reading media that he was “spearheading” the lobby for fibromyalgia sufferers. However, Salter was so rarely in the House, choosing to spend most of his time in the Reading constituency that I and not he represented (the reasons for that are a matter for mental health practitioners rather than for politicians I fancy) that he did not actually attend any of the meetings. Ken Clarke also rarely attended, but he had better excuses, with front-bench and other responsibilities Mr Salter has never had. Whenever he could not attend he would put “on the board” (an actual pinboard at the time that MPs could use to send each other direct written communications) for me any communications from his constituents he thought relevant for the meeting, always with a handwritten compliment slip from Ken. Good politics, man. The other Nottingham MPs were similarly assiduous, but it was only from Ken that I got the “on-the-board” letters – and these are delivered personally to the Member addressed, by the House badge messengers, rather than going through the internal mail system office to office.

Of his time at the Ministry of Justice, which seems not to have been a very happy one, he notes that all three of his challengers on law and order matters, namely David Cameron’s erstwhile director of communications Andy Coulson, Michael Howard’s former special adviser at the Home Office Patrick Rock, and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, have faced criminal charges: Of the three, only Brooks was acquitted: Coulson did time and Rock has been convicted on child pornography charges. I suspect a very sweet moment or moments for Ken.

He doesn’t have that much to say about the Brexit referendum, perhaps wisely. His position is well known, and has always been clear. Always an advantage for a politician. He does describe David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum, which he says he discovered by reading about it in the newspapers in January 2013, as “reckless and irresponsible”. Which, of course, it was.

Ken Clarke doesn’t have much to say about the illness and death from cancer (lymphoma) of his wife Gillian. Perhaps rightly. He does say that when she died, in July 2015, a few hours after a bedside gathering of himself, his son and daughter, and his granddaughter, “We were devastated by the loss but I think that I was made closer to my children and grandchild by our bereavement.” Not much of a loving tribute to Gillian, I churlishly surmise. And is it my nasty suspicious mind, but WHAT does he mean by this: “I had lost my lifelong companion and beloved wife who had been so important to me in her more active days.” Is there more to come? Does Ken suspect there is?

He ends, self-importantly, with the Hansard of his speech in the Brexit debate. But then again, why shouldn’t he?

Ken Clarke is a kind of National Treasure. He knows this, and has built himself up to it over the decades. I’m not sure if he meant to shore up that image with this memoir. Perhaps he doesn’t care. It’s an interesting read, and sometimes a very entertaining one. I am sure it will be cited, in years to come. I am not sure it will ever be a political science text or a sourcebook. But then, why should it?










Monday, 21 August 2017

Stanley Karnow, 'Vietnam, A History'

Here is my review of this commanding history of Vietnam by Stanley Karnow .Read on.


This is a comprehensive history of Vietnam by Stanley Karnow, a historian (died 2013) who is viewed as somewhat to the left of others such as Michael Lind (my reviews passim). This means fairly simply that he is not very pro-US, whatever the US might do.
Although the book takes us through Vietnam’s history from prehistoric times (the heroic Trung sisters, anyone?)
the Trung sisters, heroines of the Vietnamese revolution c 940 AD. Note the elephant.
it is perhaps most interesting on the lesser-known aspects of that country’s 20
th-century history. Such as the fact that the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, was in close touch with Ho Chi Minh, as were various American generals, as early as 1946. And that between 1945 and 1954 France got more finance for its military efforts to retain its Indochina possessions than it did in Marshall Aid for its shattered postwar economy. But at the same time the OSS was supplying the Vietminh (Vietnamese Communists) with weapons for their battles to drive out the French colonialists. So, US covert forces were colluding with Vietnamese communists to drive out the French, while its overt forces were helping France battle to hold on in Indochina. Or so it would seem. None of this worked, of course, and the Americans legged it out of Vietnam, not for the last time. And then – WHAT a story this is – the BRITISH were brought in to restore order, under a certain General Douglas Gracey. Predictably, things got worse.


 Also, like many Americans of all political stances, Karnow did not view Great Britain as heroic in World War II, as I was brought up to believe we were, fighting on alone (but for the mighty USSR) after France collapsed and the smaller European nations either were overrun or changed sides. On LBJ’s formative experiences which led him to oppose withdrawal from Vietnam, Karnow cites “the Munich pact, Britain’s capitulation to the Nazis”. This is not how Munich was seen in Britain at the time, nor, mostly, since, including by its opponents. But it appears here to be an uncontroversial statement. Karnow does not say whether LBJ actually held or expressed that view. Perhaps though if he did it was utterly unremarkable.
Karnow does not take issue with the assessment by Michael Lind that the 1960s escalation of US involvement in Vietnam was about US prestige and position in the world. Not one bit. So right and left are united on this point.
The advice given to LBJ in preparation for the debate on the South-East Asia Resolution, which, only arguably, rendered US actions in Vietnam constitutional, included this answer to a FAQ: “Does South-East Asia matter all that much? Yes – because of the rights of the people there…”. This would not be said now, and certainly not on the left. Brown-skin people in far-off countries are not judged as deserving of rights as white westerners, these days. Ernest Gruening of Alaska, a “veteran liberal” said in the debate “All Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy”. No change on the left there, then. Although, as indicated above, Karnow does not try to say the war was about anything other than American prestige, he does use emotive language on the subject: “dutifully recited the dogma of the domino theory”.

It’s interesting how utterly chaotic and corrupt the various governments installed in Saigon were, and not all of them were installed by the US. South Vietnam at this time was rapidly becoming a failed state, and while this wasn’t the fault of the US, they weren’t helping either.

Karnow is clear that “the Vietcong” (a South Vietnamese nickname intended to be derogatory) were not, as many in the West believed they were, an indigenous insurgent population. In fact they were a trained militia funded and directed from Hanoi, and via them from the USSR and China. But, Karnow notes, North Vietnam, after the start of the Rolling Thunder operation, did not have its cities carpet-bombed as Dresden and Tokyo were in World War II. You only have to visit Hanoi, as I did in April this year, to see that Hanoi still looks very much like the French colonial city it once was.

 “And the marines, as one of their commanders put it, will henceforth ‘start killing the Vietcong instead of just sitting on their ditty box’”, quoted without comment. This remark by the marine commander is of course absolutely correct. If you are going to go there, go there and get the job properly done. Otherwise those who die there will have died senselessly and in vain.
Karnow continues with the emotive language throughout: “the hopelessness of the American cause”. Well, we know how it turned out, of course. We also know, or think we do, that the domino theory was incorrect. Indonesia and Malaya did not go communist, despite various attempts and uprisings. And this was not just because the Chinese hordes did not pour across the border (figuratively speaking) – when they did pour across the actual border, in Korea in 1950, the end result was not a communist Korean peninsula, but a stalemate and an uneasy partition.

 Karnow ends the book in a curiously sentimental fashion, with Bui Tin, former Vietnamese army colonel and the man who took the surrender of the last South Vietnamese leader, Duong Van Minh, in 1975. Tin has been a dissident since the mid-1980s, and is an old man now, latterly living in France. Karnow, who knew Tin quite well personally, has him flinging himself elatedly on to the ground and gazing into the sunlit sky as North Vietnamese forces take Saigon. But this, as the coda, is the only real moment of weakness in this magisterial work: Karnow was too rigorous a historian to allow whatever personal and emotional fealty he might have had to the North Vietnamese cause to subvert the history.











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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Michael Lind, 'Vietnam, The Necessary War': A Neocon Writes

This is a very interesting historical analysis of the Vietnam war from what might be called a neocon perspective - if you think not opposing all America's wars because they are America's makes you a neocon. To Lind the US adventures in Vietnam were not, or not especially, about anti-communism, but were especially about US credibility, not just in the region but in the wider world. He seems to say that, in terms of a military campaign, the job should have been done properly: "Kennedy and Johnson should not have allowed an unrealistic fear of Chinese intervention to prevent them from invading North Vietnam, or at least cutting it off from its Chinese and Soviet sponsors by measures such as mining North Vietnamese ports." After all, he says, the threat of Chinese invasion was real at the time. It had happened in Korea not that long before. A Chinese Party Central Committee document of 1965 declared that the top priority for the Chinese government was supporting North Vietnam against the United States." Therefore, Lind concludes, "the argument that Johnson could have brought the war to a quick end by invading North Vietnam has been completely discredited". Slightly contradictory, no?
Lind even tries to rehabilitate the reputation of LBJ by saying he was undermined by RFK and his associates, who went as far as to meet the KGB (this apparently was revealed in Soviet archives) to indicate to them that RFK was at one with JFK, unlike LBJ, and would be the USSR's friend if he became President.
Lind explains the change in the Democratic Party (away from interventionism and towards isolationism) by the core constituencies of the party ceasing to be much Southern or Catholic and becoming Greater New England Protestant, Jewish, and black. He makes comparisons, again and again, for example to the assassination of President Park of South Korea in 1979, which he says would have put a stop to then-active attempts at Korean reunification if it had happened in 1972. But it didn't, so it didn't. He especially compares, again and again, the situation facing LBJ in 1965-6 with that facing President Clinton in Yugoslavia in 1999. It's fair, but as a device gets a bit tedious after a while.
Far from stating that the US bombing of Cambodia, always intended to disrupt the passage of materiel through Cambodia from Sihanoukville, and the effective occupation of the ports of eastern Cambodia by the North Vietnamese, Lind says "the banning by the US Congress of further US air support for the Lon Nol regime ensured victory for Pol Pot and his followers." That, and Sihanouk immediately declaring for the Khmer Rouge and urging all Cambodians to join them. Also, "the Khmer Rouge owed their victory to the North Vietnamese military." He rejects the position of Cambodia scholars such as Ben Kiernan, namely that the US bombing of Cambodia somehow drove the Cambodian peasantry collectively insane and spawned the Khmer Rouge. He goes as far as to argue that Sihanouk, by allowing the passage of weapons and materiel through Cambodia to the North Vietnamese from the port of Sihanoukville "became a co-combatant" in the Vietnam War in the mid-60s.
"The only two presidents to have waged major wars in defiance of the US Constitution have been Harry S. Truman (in Korea) and Bill Clinton (Kosovo).
On the Clinton presidency's foreign policy and adventures, not a glorious episode in anyone's estimation, he goes further too. President Clinton's publicly ruling out the use of ground troops in Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was "the single greatest act of incompetence ever committed by an American commander-in-chief." He's probably right about that, though it all came right in the end (sort of). As he says: "fortunately; the capitulation of Serbia averted what might have been a disaster for the United States."
For some reason he quotes Churchill on Dunkirk "We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory." He uses this quote to introduce a section on history's verdict on Vietnam. Whatever, the old boy's quotes certainly have stood the test of time.
"The Vietnam War was neither a mistake nor a betrayal nor a crime. It was a military defeat." I now agree with him that it was not a mistake. But disastrous mistakes were made in the execution of it, and also of course in its presentation.
A non-conventional perspective on the war, and a highly commendable contribution to the history of that conflict, still very much in living memory.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

ah yes, I remember it well

sqwawkbox (never quite sure how to spell that thing) has been banging on about deselection of Labour MPs for being insufficiently loyal to JC. Some of this will of course happen. First they will come for the Jews and for the women, preferably both at once. And then - well, you know how it goes. But may I point out that it is perfectly possible to deselect a sitting Labour MP now, with no rule change, and that this has been done a number of times in fairly recent years. But it is seriously hard work, and in my case took seven years' campaigning and briefing. Most Labour members, even today, do not want to see their MP deselected, and it takes a long time to fill their ears with so much poison that they are prepared to vote against the MP, or not to vote for her, which usually amounts to much the same thing, because they have started to think "no smoke without fire". In the case of Reading East, after a failed deselection attempt in 2000 which resulted in the ouster of one party chair and the flight of another to Australia in fear of his kneecaps, the renewed efforts were still not working as well as the small group of "criminally insane" (says a very senior party organiser)  party members had hoped, following my re-election in 2001 with an increased majority. So they enlisted the help of the now disgraced former Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, a crabbed virago who acquired the parliamentary seat she held for many years by sheer nepotism, with no discernible merit or hard work on her part. She has recently been compared (by one who knows) with Nurse Ratched in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'  - but I fear the former was cleverer. Hills however was well schooled in psychological torture, and you don't have to be clever for that. Anyway, she surfaces in the revisiting of earlier deselection schemes, as well she might. The Telegraph piece from 2004 however mentions my name, and strongly implies that I was deselected for being some kind of Corbynite lefty, which I consider a slur and a calumny, and urge all concerned to withdraw the remarks. Sqwawkbox, it wasn't quite like that.

In other news, it was nice to get a mention in the House this week when the Labour MP for Reading
East, Matt Rodda, made his maiden speech. It was very sensible and mentioned Reading and housing a lot. Jolly good for him.




Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Donald Ray Pollock, 'The Heavenly Table'

Southern American hillbilly outlaw gothic. What's not to like? Some, actually. Too much fecal matter for my squeamish soul. And the death of Pearl's wife will stay with me for - well, too long. Set in 1917, but could have been set 50 years earlier or even 50 years later for its take on poverty in America. A new voice to me, and one that is likely to stay with me for probably too long. Anyway, very funny in places, which I did not expect. It's crying out for a film to be made; quite possibly with Daniel Day-Lewis.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Who is being undermined here?

On Thursday the Reading East constituency was retaken for Labour after being represented for 12 years by Rob Wilson in the Conservative interest. I was quick to congratulate Matt Rodda, the new Labour MP for Reading East, as I am the only person in the world who has ever previously known what it is to represent the Reading East constituency in the Labour interest, and to send him an open letter. That's more than Reading Labour Party did. Their tweets were all about Olivia Bailey, the defeated Labour candidate in Reading West "you should have won"; "all hands to Reading West next time" (hah! I bet!) and from the party only "What can we say? Matt Rodda MP!" clearly signalling the subtext "THAT wasn't supposed to happen". Well, matey boys, it has. Contrast Plymouth, where they also elected a Labour MP for one of the city's constituencies, and party officers and councillors were tweeting in delight and excitement about their new MP (Luke Pollard since you ask, a fine fellow in my limited acquaintance). I am sure they are doing the same in Ipswich and Canterbury, among other places. But in Reading, no.

So, Tony Page, a councillor for approximately 103 years, currently deputy leader of the council, was chosen to issue the customary counterblast to Labour victory in Reading East. He did this by attacking Rob Wilson. Well, I am not going to join him in that. If you get re-elected, twice in Wilson's case, when you just scrape in the first time because the voters are not sure about you, it means you have earned those votes by gaining the trust and confidence of the voters. Hey, Tony? Well, you wouldn't know. You were the Labour candidate in 2005, the compromise candidate who could get support from party members to deselect that pesky Jane Griffiths who keeps winning elections and NOT DOING AS SHE IS TOLD and NOT BEING THE CREATURE OF READING BOROUGH COUNCIL. Well, the Reading East electorate disagreed that year, and chose Rob Wilson. Who is, of course (says Tony Page), a bad person, because he too refused to be the creature of Reading Borough Council. You can read the "story" here. It is in the Reading Chronicle, so it must be true. See this:

THE DEPUTY leader of the borough council hailed last night's election result as a big leap forward for local government. (you what? this was a parliamentary not a borough council election Tone)
Councillor Tony Page, labour (sic - is John Howarth moonlighting as a sub?), was elated after candidate Matt Rodda pipped former MP Rob Wilson to the Reading East seat with an (sic) 3,749 majority.
Note the "pipped", as if 3,749 was not a respectable majority, especially in a seat which will always be marginal if held by Labour, and especially in a seat which had a candidate who was not the favourite of Tony Page, Jan Gavin, and their various henchpeople. Imagine the briefings. Here is Cllr Jan Gavin (Lab, Redlands, Reading East, former teacher, played a murky role in ousting the head teacher of the school she taught at, which happens to be the one my children attended) hearing the Reading East result: 


Pic Reading Evening Post  (so it must be true). Cllr Page continued: 

I have every confidence that Mr Rodda will work closely with the council and he has already made that clear."
 "Having an MP in Reading who will work with the council as opposed to undermining them is very important."

Is that a threat, Tony? It reads very much like one.

And where, in all this, is the delight and excitement at the election of a Labour MP - because after all it was the election of Labour MPs that denied Theresa May the mandate she hoped for in her snap election? You may well ask. The Observer does, in a big piece today, where they quote Cllrs Tony Jones (whom I do not wish to undermine at this stage) and, you guessed it, Jan Gavin - both of whom fail to enthuse about the election of Matt Rodda. You can read the piece here.

Well, Matt, you do not need them. Great news that you have been elected. A fresh new voice for "Reading, Woodley and Caversham". I wish you all the best, in every way. Step over the tired, corrupt clique of old people on Reading Borough Council and go forward to the future. The scores and scores of mostly young people who campaigned for you want you to do that, and I know you will. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Open letter to Matt Rodda, Labour MP for Reading East

Open Letter to Matt Rodda, elected Labour MP for Reading East on 8th June 2017

  
Dear Matt

We don’t really know each other at all, but I wanted to write and say how delighted I am that you have been elected to represent Reading East for Labour. Until your election yesterday I was the only Labour MP the constituency had ever had, and I was very proud to hold that office from 1997 to 2005. I’m so glad that the people of Reading East again have a Labour voice to speak for them in Parliament.

I was once told “The House of Commons is a great megaphone: use it so your constituents can be heard.” Good advice, that was. Your place is on the green benches, speaking, petitioning, debating, giving the government a hard time if need be – at the time of writing we don’t know who is going to form a government, nor what its party composition will be. Your place is in the constituency too, and it isn’t either/or – being an MP is two jobs. Your constituents will expect to see you in person and hear from you regularly, and they will also want you to contribute to debates and speak in the House, and not just on the high-profile causes.

You are Labour, but you are no one’s creature. You will need to work cross-party from time to time, especially now that Reading’s two MPs are of different parties. Don’t tell anyone I told you, but sometimes it’s easier that way. You need good relations with both the councils whose areas you represent parts of, but you are the tool of neither, nor can you (as your constituents sometimes believe you can) overturn the decisions of either.

You are your constituents’ representative, and not their delegate. How else can you represent constituents who hold diametrically opposed views – and I promise you they do. You represent a relatively highly educated, fairly diverse, urban and suburban area, with quite large disparity of income and wealth. But all your constituents, whatever their situation, share the general human needs and concerns we all have. I was once remonstrated with by a former government minister for not tabling Agriculture questions (as it then was). When I said that was because I didn’t represent any farmers, she said quietly “Your constituents eat food, don’t they?”

Table questions. All the time. Get involved with causes which are precious to you, to your constituents, or both, through All-Party Groups and committees. If there isn’t an All-Party Group on something that matters to you, start one. It’s one of the ways a back-bencher can have some real influence over policy.

The House of Commons Library is better than Google, for almost everything.

Travel, on your own account and on parliamentary visits. Keep it to the recess, but don’t be hair-shirt about it. You will learn from it, and you will learn from the colleagues you travel with, and maybe they will learn from you. Be discreet (you know this) – a backbencher of another party (unnamed here) once passed out from unwary drinking of toasts next to me at a dinner on a parliamentary visit to (country name redacted). No media (this was before Twitter et al) found out about it through me. Make time to read, in the recess and in the evenings. This is advice I was given and should have followed but didn’t. You probably have a special skill or talent your colleagues don’t. Perhaps you are fluent in Basque, or play a mean harmonica, or win prizes for growing tomatoes. Whatever it is, use it. Show off a bit.

Woodley is one quarter of the constituency by population. Spend more than a quarter of your constituency time there. I promise you you won’t regret it. A little piece of my heart will always be there.

If you ever want a chat, pm me and I’ll be happy to. Best wishes and give my love to Reading East.

Jane Griffiths
9 June 2017

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Helen Small, 'The Long Life'

A fascinating literary and philosophical meditation on ageing and the end of life. I came to it through the bibliography of Margaret Drabble's latest novel 'The Dark Flood Rises', which itself deals, not with ageing exactly, but with late life. Helen Small parallels 'The Old Curiosity Shop' with 'King Lear', and Aristotle with Samuel Beckett. She notes that ageing and the old person are not much dealt with in literature, but that it is often through literature that we come to our view of the world and our place in it and in our lives, especially as those lives lengthen. She discusses most interestingly the notion of life as a narrative, and wonders therefore which parts of that narrative are the most important and valuable, and thus worth giving the most attention and resources to. In short, do we live our lives preparing for a good old age? Answer, no, or not perhaps until the generation (mine) that is now preparing to be old. And should we? And if we develop dementia and can no longer grasp the concept of our lives as narrative, are those lives thereby worth less, for example in terms of whether life-extending medical treatment should be extended to us?
Small, Helen. The Long Life (p. 115). OUP Oxford. Édition du Kindle.

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.
 
Notes

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

logic?

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.