Monthly Archives: January 2010

Clear away the rust

Sunday clears away the rust of the whole week

– Joseph Addison

Blair is on the front pages, Terry on the back ones.  It snowed again, so a good, long walk might be out of the question.  Still, you don’t want to spend your whole Sunday looking at a screen.

Except that I would recommend you take a look at this from The Onion and allow yourself a wry chuckle.  I think Mr Salinger would approve.

Then, have yourself a read of this excellent post and, feeling inspired, turn off the computer, recline on bed or sofa and listen to an album from start to finish while reading a book.  Perfect rust-clearing for the week ahead. 

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Justice League

I wrote earlier that Amir Choudhary was ‘wrong, plain wrong’ and was rightly called up on it by this bloke over here in the comments. Rightly because, in one important aspect, Mr Choudhary is right, for reminding us of the non-British war dead, albeit for some very wrong reasons: getting his name in the papers. We lost count as the Afghani and Iraqi body counts increased far in advance of our own, widely mourned, totals. Except that is too kind an analysis, because we didn’t lose count, we decided not to count. Partly out of embarrassment and partly because we found it more convenient to turn the dead into terrorists:

The problem is: in Afghanistan the peasants do suspicious things, too. Some then die because they are indeed Taliban, while others become Taliban for being dead

There is a road safety ad on TV at the moment which shows a man haunted by the mangled body of the dead child he hit with his car. Everywhere he looks he sees the broken, twisted limbs. You have to wonder if that’s what Tony Blair’s dreams are like. Except there’s not just one child, there are hundreds, all eyeballing him through the dark nights, silently demanding to know why they couldn’t be allowed to live.

Over Christmas I watched the film Frost/Nixon, the showbiz and glitz world of the interviewer warily treading onto the unfamiliar territory of dead Vietnamese and Laotians. We all want a Frost/Nixon moment, where the wrongdoer looks at the camera and it hits him, that there is so much blood on his hands he is looking at about 200 billion years in Purgatory. That he caused all this pain because he couldn’t admit to being wrong. It is probably too much to hope for that we get such a moment on Friday afternoon. As Blair realises that he, like Nixon, is now tainted unto death and probably in his obituary too, as a man who waged an illegal, doomed war when all sensible advice counselled against it. Then he looks straight to camera as a single, unwiped tear drifts down his cheek and finally, we have our absolution.

I don’t expect it to end so neatly. Real life has a tendency to be, of course, less dramatic than dramatists would hope. However, the Iraq Inquiry has gone about its work with a calm dedication that, although I almost hate to admit it, has done more good than throwing Blair, Campbell and Straw into the Coliseum and releasing the lions.

Banning dissent, ignoring international law, disregarding Parliament. For a bunch of lawyers, New Labour has shown a strange disrespect for all things legal. Speaking truth to power is never a comfortable job, but good counsel has rarely been at such a low premium, at stages ignored, disregarded and, a final humiliation, ‘encouraged’ to provide more favourable advice. The Guardian’s legal affairs correspondence, Afua Hirsch:

What also came across with fresh clarity was the government’s dismissiveness of the legal expertise in its own departments… In his evidence, Wood said Straw’s dismissal of his advice was ‘probably the first and only occasion’ that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way

So it is all the more heartening to see the forces of justice fight back, not like the superheroes Blair and Bush imagine themselves to be, but via calm reasoning and careful sifting of the facts, the Supreme Court and the Iraq Inquiry have, this week, given a small glimmer of hope that the rule of law still prevails.

Picture from the Hollywood News, with thanks!
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The offence of being cocky

I suspect that some Police Community Support Officers (PSCOs) might need retraining if, as demonstrated in this Guardian video, they believe that being “cocky” is now an offence and  justification for arrest.

Italian student Simona Bonomo was stopped under anti-terrorism legislation for filming buildings in London. She was later arrested by other officers, held in a police cell and fined for the offence of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress in a public place’.

It is interesting that although Bonomo was stopped under anti-terrorism legislation, she was charged under the rather more everyday Public Order Act 1986, under s.5, which reads:

5. Harassment, alarm or distress

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling.

(3) It is a defence for the accused to prove—

(a) that he had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, or

(b) that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling, or

(c) that his conduct was reasonable.

(4) A constable may arrest a person without warrant if—

(a) he engages in offensive conduct which [F1a] constable warns him to stop, and

(b) he engages in further offensive conduct immediately or shortly after the warning.

(5) In subsection (4) “offensive conduct” means conduct the constable reasonably suspects to constitute an offence under this section, and the conduct mentioned in paragraph (a) and the further conduct need not be of the same nature.

(6) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale


Amendments (Textual)
F1S. 5(4)(a): by 1996 c. 59, s. 1 it is provided in s. 5(4)(a) the word “the” shall be amended by being left out the word “a” inserted

Interesting because I believe she might have had a defence under s.3, either (a) or (c), that there wasn’t anyone else around, or that she wasn’t being unreasonable.  Unless there is additional footage where she rants and raves at the PCSO, and despite his assertion that she is being ‘cocky’, she seems calm, measured and polite throughout.

I would be grateful if any readers with a less rusty legal knowledge would care to comment!

If it seems harsh to censure the individual PCSO, with the UK threat level now showing that something bad is ‘highly likely’ to happen somewhere soon, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he thought he was dealing with a real threat.  Although, it is telling that his colleague seems more reluctant to get involved!  That said, I think some urgent training on the law is required, not least because the blanket targeting of anyone with a camera will allow the real threats to slip the net.

People not being allowed to take medicines on planes, elderly relatives being asked to remove belts and shoes at airports, photographers being treated as terrorists, we all have tales of officialdom getting it wrong.  We would also be the first to howl when they didn’t stop the real terrorist, so it is important to acknowledge that there are no easy answers.  But to give up too much freedom in the name of safety, is to be left with neither.  To become suspicious of people going about normal activities is to lose any hope in humanity.  And if being cocky is indeed now an offence, then it is only a matter of time before they come for us all.  Simon Cowell should be very, very worried.
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Say what you see

All looks a bit silly now, doesn't it chaps?

Despite earlier proof of arse-elbow location difficulties, Rod Liddle was caught in a rare act of sense-speaking this weekend in his Sunday Times column. He hasn’t always used his own freedom of speech in such a sensible manner, but his argument that banning groups for being obnoxious or unpleasant is a crass method for combating them, is sound.

You may also have heard Pat Robertson’s measured commentary on the Haiti disaster coming as a result of a ‘pact with the devil’. Is this callous? Yes. Stupid? Very much so. Worthy of banning? I would say, absolutely not.

I am lucky enough to have people in my circle of friends and family with whom I do not need to adhere to many niceties when speaking. Our debates and conversations often seem like arguments to the outside observer, because no holds need to be barred, no punches pulled, all is up for grabs. It is true freedom of speech – you are soon told if you are going wrong or being foolish, but you won’t be censured for it – so it allows for true freedom of thought as well.

We must have the courage to allow our national conversations to display the candour of a group of friends gathered around a table after a few too many. Words are not our enemies. There is no idea, which by being voiced, can take your life, rob you of your money or cause your hair to drop out. I am confident that the sky won’t fall in because a group of people walk through a town holding empty coffins, however repugnant the idea of that is.

I believe that allowing Islam4UK’s march to go ahead would have done more to condemn the group than banning them can ever achieve. Wootton Bassett is not sacred ground, nor has it been consecrated or designated as an official monument. It is a place in our country where people have chosen to make their own personal tribute to the dead. I support this completely. We should all remember the (often young) people who fight for our freedoms, some being left horribly scarred, in such a personal, reflective and dignified way.

What we shouldn’t do is give away so cheaply the freedom that we require our armed services to defend. What sets us apart from the Taliban and their ilk is our belief in freedom. This includes, but should not be limited to, freedom to protest, freedom to speak and, crucially, the complete and untrammelled freedom to make a right arse of ourselves on a national stage so that other people can point out our errors.

Also in Sunday’s Times, you see, was an interview with the, well, I hesitate to call him a ‘mastermind’ but for want of a better word, the ‘mastermind’ behind Islam4UK and, it should not surprise anyone to find out, he is an absolute, 24-carat, idiot of a man. Inconsistent, stupid and wrong, plain wrong. From watching the news, you might have suspected he was evil incarnate, read the interview and he comes across in a very different way. Make your own mind up here.

There was once a similar debate about banning marches by Fascists in the 1930s. Then, it was decided that to allow them to go ahead was to reveal the movement in all its goose-stepping, uniform-wearing stupidity. A ban was only imposed when it became too difficult to police the inevitable battles with anti-fascists that would ensue. So, while it is tempting to want to turn up to any future march and throw bricks at ‘the group formerly known as Islam4UK’, might I suggest that a better response would be to show them on heavy rotation across all channels instead. That was an effective strategy with Nick Griffin, as it was previously with Oswald Mosley, and no doubt will be again, so long as we manage to resist the urge to ban everything we don’t agree with.
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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

If any budding dramatists are reading this and would like to see in action an expert blending of political, social and personal history, they will go a long way before seeing a better example of it than in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Mantel’s novel doesn’t shrink from the eternal jurisprudential questions: who rules?  And where does their authority to do so flow from?  All the important dates and major events you might recall from school are here: the break with Rome, Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragorn’s bitter divorce, the ransacking of the monasteries. However, the personal is never neglected: the King and his new Queen are by turns argumentative and affectionate; the grief of losing family members to an epidemic is powerfully realised; and younger characters are as consumed with the same preoccupations for their future careers and romances as today’s school leavers.

This is a time where everyone is fighting for freedom.  Henry to free himself from the Pope’s control, the first Protestants for freedom to worship and Tyndale for the freedom to publish the Bible in his own language.  There are also the Duke of Norfolk‘s serfs: their lord is prepared to grant their liberty, but only when a price is paid by the King for the loss of their labour.

But then, as now, England is broke.  Surrounded by hostile countries and facing ruinous wars if a male heir can’t be produced to hold the kingdom together.  Victories cost money and no one likes paying taxes.  Disputes between kings also risk the valuable trade with the merchants of Antwerp and Italy, further depleting the Treasury.  And although the printing press is revolutionising Europe, England is still a place where sorcery and fairytales are taken as true.

At the centre of it all is Thomas Cromwell:  fixer, lawyer, former soldier and textile merchant but, crucially, not a gentleman.  He is more upwardly mobile than any City yuppie but, like them, never allowed to forget his roots.  Power stems from birth and patronage and to be ‘in trade’ is to be valued not much higher than the serfs.  The battle of wills between Thomas More and Cromwell is given a powerfully human dimension, shown to be two competing intellects, both convinced of their absolute superiority to the other.  The consequences for ordinary English people, many of whom will go to a fiery stake over that battle of wills, are rendered in tragic, and occasionally gory, detail.

Wolf Hall is a book of stunning ambition.  The cast of characters and the world of the court are conveyed in breath-taking detail, but deftly, so that it never feels as if Mantel is beating you over the head with facts as your history teacher perhaps did.  Instead, she almost makes you feel sorry for poor Henry, having to deal with his many troubles when he would rather be bedding the Boleyn sisters, jousting and hunting.  It comes across as a rough deal being king, with one eye on the future succession and  the other on your illustrious forebears, lest you disgrace Tudor honour.  Cromwell appears as a more sympathetic, rounded and reasoned character than he has been given credit for by other writers, still with the looks ‘of a murderer’, but one you are happy to spend 600 pages in the company of.

It is testament to the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing in Wolf Hall that on finishing the book you feel both bereft and eager for more.  A second volume is promised and all I can gushingly say is, more power to her elbow, I can’t wait to read it.
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Lark Pies to Cranchesterford

It has almost become a new blood sport to bait the BBC for its perceived failings. Left and right, Christian and atheist, lovers of Terry Wogan and those of Chris Evans, it seems hardly anyone is content with the organisation we were once happy to call ‘Auntie’.

And ten minutes hate is no different. Except that, being particularly sensitive to historical revisionism, I count expunging the records of some of this country’s most radical writers to be amongst the Beeb’s greatest misdeeds. Half-comatose on the sofa this Yuletide, unable to muster even the energy required to battle with an Aged Relative for the remote control, it was my misfortune to watch some truly insipid programming. My disappointment was made much the greater because of a betrayal of works which should leap as boldly from the screen as they did from the page before they had the choice meats of their stories reduced to a spam sandwich of an adaptation.

"Miss Matty, I'd like time off on Sundays and the right to vote, ta very much." "The impudence! I'll have you shot!"

At first glance, Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford would not, I am sure, strike you as being hot-beds of radical thought. In fact, I am certain that you saw them in the schedules and thought ‘oh no, another bloody historical drama of no significance to me in my 21st century battle to keep the wolf from the door, the central heating bills paid and the snow from blocking the driveway’. But you would be wrong, dear reader, you would be very wrong.

The writer of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, was no romance writer. She counted amongst her friends some of the most important thinkers of her day and was herself no slouch in the brains department. Her books were not set in some sleepy, picturesque hamlet but in the North West of England, at that time the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, home to ‘dark, satanic mills’ and the people who manned the machinery within them. She was no passive observer of the rich-poor divide but passionate in her support for education and other means to bridge that gap and outspoken in her fears for the future if it was not reduced.

John Barton, trade unionist and Chartist father of Mary, is a typical Gaskell character; mourning his wife and son he first forbids his daughter from working in a factory and is eventually reduced to extreme action by the poverty and inequality surrounding him. Barbara Cartland territory, it ain’t. Instead her tales are firmly rooted in the city where troops once fired on peaceful protesters, where a local girl founded the first Suffragette society and where conditions prompted two Germans to write books that would change the course of history.

Because, before it gave us evil football franchises and the near-nightly hysteria of Corrie:

Manchester changed the world’s politics: from vegetarianism to feminism to trade unionism to communism, every upstart notion that ever got ideas above its station… was fostered brawling in Manchester’s streets, mills, pubs, churches and debating halls

That eulogy from ‘Pies and Prejudice’, Stuart Maconie’s excellent tribute to all things Northern.

Admittedly, Cranford is set a little distance away from the belch and smoke of the factories and mills, but not too far: it is based on Knutsford in Cheshire, where Gaskell grew up. Cranford is an adept skewering of the attitudes of those who are not as close to the top of society as they would like to be and just a few slips or financial missteps away from the bottom. The ladies of Cranford would sooner die than admit to poverty and work hard at maintaining their values of ‘elegant economy’. However, to think of them as the idle rich would be a mistake. The mills of ‘Drumble’, the Manchester stand-in, loom on the horizon ‘distant but only twenty miles on a railroad’.

By contrast, although Flora Thompson, writer of Lark Rise to Candleford, did set her stories in a sleepy, picturesque hamlet, she was no writer of cosy, bucolic romances either. Writing from a perspective of 40 years after the events she was recording allowed her tales to demonstrate the seismic changes to a rural life previously anchored by the same seasonal events throughout generations. Mechanisation, better communication and urban expansion were to alter the countryside of Thompson’s childhood beyond the imagining of most of its inhabitants.

These changes were faithfully recorded and the stories shaped by Thompson’s background because, unlike many of the rural chroniclers, she was a member of the working class. Her father was a labourer in possession of thwarted dreams of becoming a sculptor and an interest in radical politics which occasionally made him unpopular with the neighbours. Some of her first stories and poems were printed in the socialist Daily Citizen. Instead of going off into service like so many of her peers, she began working for the local postmistress, a career woman with some daring ideas by the standards of the time, who would lend the young Flora ‘On the Origin of Species’ by that other higher thinker, Darwin.

For the characters of these two unconventional writers to be reduced to bonnets, forelock-tugging and ‘yes ma’am’-ing for a sleepy, Sunday audience is a travesty. The firebrands on the page are now simple creatures, homespun and happy with their allotted status in life. Perhaps the powers-that-be are hoping that a little of it will rub off on any potential modern day troublemakers? The nineteenth century saw a deluge of ideas in politics, science and literature alongside improvements in education, health and living standards. Ordinary people fought for, and gained, lasting social reforms that we enjoy the benefit of today, perhaps less valued as we don’t recall the manner of their winning. It is a shame and we are left all the poorer for this two dimensional view of life in that vibrant and radical time.

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Ross Kemp: Middle East

If you were disturbed last night by a noise you couldn’t identify, it was probably the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those who would consider themselves proper, serious journalists, having just watched the Ross Kemp documentary on Israel. The programme was screened over two weeks, with last week’s showing the situation in Gaza and last night’s that in Israel. Like those journalists, I confess, I was prepared to be cynical.

Within minutes of the start of the first programme, Kemp was having his bag searched by a member of Hamas at the border, before embarking on a trip to watch terrorists set roadside bombs, which the voiceover assured us were later removed without causing injury. So far, this ticked all the adrenaline-junkie boxes. However, his savoir-faire was further ruffled, and the journalistic corps given additional cause for heart failure, when he interviewed a young lawyer who had decided to become a suicide bomber. Complete with crudely-made face mask and explosive belt, he was a picture out of any bus traveller’s worst nightmare. Even the normally gung-ho Kemp looked stunned. Resolute of stare and sure of voice, the young man set out his reasons for choosing this terrible destiny.

This, for me, was where the documentary jumped light years ahead of Kemp’s usual bullets and glory soirees into dangerous territory.

War brings war

the terrorist told him, taking Israel’s strikes on Gaza in early 2009 as his justification for action. This tied in with a comment from the UN Director of Operations for Gaza, who warned:

if you treat people as hostile, they will become hostile

I was once a 24-year-old lawyer and I knew plenty of others, from all faiths and classes. None, I am certain, had ever contemplated suicide attacks on civilians, unless perhaps on a specific group of recruitment specialists keeping us out of the Magic Circle firms and away from the six-figure salaries therein. When you are young and idealistic, the urge to be a lawyer usually stems from, according to my own unscientific straw-polling anyway, a desire to change a bad situation for the better, to seek to help your fellow humans order their affairs, as well as to bring resolution and be an arbitrator of disputes. The lust for money and terrible taste in ties comes later, while deciding to blow yourself and others up shouldn’t feature at all. If even the lawyers are now militants, we have a serious problem.

It seemed as if Kemp agreed. However, he didn’t go to Israel for the second part of the programme looking to tag them as the perpetrators. Instead, he spoke to people who had lost family at the hands of terrorists and also elicited opinion across a spectrum of Israelis, from those who want to ‘seize every hill’ to others who prefer hanging out in Tel Aviv and shopping. Kemp did an excellent job in resisting the temptation to glamorise or ignore the futility inherent in the conflict. As Palestinian teenagers rained down rocks on Israeli troops and they slung back tear gas, unfortunately our brave lad caught downwind of it, he turned to camera without any of the drama common to news stories on similar confrontations, to ask: ‘what’s the point?’ It was difficult to disagree with the man as his eyes streamed. It was also difficult to disagree with his conclusion to the programme, that:

the majority on both sides must speak with one voice to negotiate a lasting peace

However, it was near impossible to think other than well, nice one, but how does that get us anywhere? In Israel, as in many other conflicts, a refrain has been: it’s a minority causing the problems; ordinary people are the key to peace. How helpful is it? Viewers hoping for an easy checklist of actions to bring peace were surely disappointed. However, Northern Ireland offers one example of two opposing peoples facing down the crazies to bring peace, with a new shopping centre and ‘Titanic Quarter’ where once was bombs and savagery. The inhabitants of Tel Aviv would no doubt approve. So it appears that in Israel, as in Northern Ireland, all that Western governments can do is get out of the way and not do anything to make peace less inevitable. Atrocities must be condemned evenly. Projects like these supported. Hopefully one day Ross Kemp will have to seek out alternative locations in which to get an eye and lungful of tear gas.
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A couple of innovations to make your experience of ten minutes hate a more enjoyable one:

First, I am now on twitter, so there are even more opportunities to see inside the workings of my brain.  Updates on politics, books, music and occasionally football can all be yours by clicking on the icon on the left hand side of the screen.  You can view some of my recent updates further down as ‘telescreen updates’ if you want to see what you will be in for.

While you are scrolling around in that part of the site, take a look at the list headed ‘The Brotherhood’.  Here you will find some of my favourite writers on all aspects of modern life.  Take a look and let me know what you think!

Finally, I have updated some of the tags on earlier posts, so it should be even easier to find the particular brand of spleen you are seeking vented.

Ignorance is NOT strength, apparently.
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Do it if you must, Labour, but make it quick

So the chickens might be coming home to roost for Gordon Brown. There I was, half-heartedly watching Andrew Marr on Sunday, when the great man himself appeared groaning on about something. It sounded like ‘…targets met… investment not cuts… we offer leadership for the future…’ and then I managed to rouse myself from the early morning torpor in a hurry to switch it off.

The worry for Labour must be if I, a life-long labour voter (yeah, sorry about that now. I’m repenting at length) who learnt at my Grandad’s knee that the Tories were no friends to the likes of us and who didn’t have that notion knocked out by the years at private school and university, can’t watch Gordon Brown on the telly for five minutes without thinking:

  1. what a liar!
  2. … and a bully…
  3. hang on, didn’t you help create our current financial doom?

then what hope do Labour have with the floating voters? The ones who vote because they like the guy’s smile are not going to save him at the polls.

That said, who amongst the intellectual pygmies would you see rule? Milibland Major or Minor? That guy who resigned?* God help us all – Harriet Harman?? Given that those who wield the knife never get the top job it’s unlikely to be Hoon or Hewitt. Again, thank any deities you care to mention because, given the mess they made of Defence and Health, any Labour troops they lead into battle are going to get shot down for lack of body armour and then left to die on a hospital trolley in a corridor while all the doctors fill out forms. Just like real people!

Maybe Labour goes down without a fight or maybe they should be concentrating on the opposite benches. But either way, it’s probably too late. A hung parliament would be the best they could hope for but even the Libbies don’t want to cuddle up to them. In addition, the scheming required to work around an inconclusive result in the election will mean that key financial decisions which are likely to be unpopular will be ducked. Aged relatives who remember the late Seventies and early Eighties are offering this advice: get out now if you can, because it’s going to get painful.  Not least because you’ve got six months more of this to look forward to!

* Just saw him on Channel 4 News. His name’s Parnell. Oh yeah, you don’t say.

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