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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Portnoy's Complaint: the case against Creative Writing courses

It was Carmen Callil who made me go out and buy a Philip Roth. When she resigned as a judge for the Man Booker International Prize, just awarded to Philip Roth, she complained that all his books were the same. Well, I thought, then I only have to read one.

I bought The Human Stain, on table display locally, and thereby plugged a gap in my reading. I had now read all of Philip Roth. I could see Carmen Callil's real issue. He's an all-American Male Writer. He's not doing polite fiction, he's doing a bar room brawl.

Unfortunately, I did enjoy the book, even when it punched me in the gut: there's a scene where, as part of his rehab, a traumatised Vietnam veteran - one of the principal characters - is taken to a Chinese restaurant to sit down and eat a meal. It's a long, drawn-out passage and reading it is like watching a horror movie. In a Creative Writing class you could use it as a model of craftsmanship.

I went out and bought another Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, a book I could have read at any time in the past forty years but hadn't.

In the second half of my University career, I drifted into teaching Creative Writing. There was a demand for it, people would pay (if you gave them an MA), and I could do it well enough. The basic formula is that you sit around and people read excerpts from their work in progress - or they pre-circulate it - and everyone joins in to comment. It was certainly easier than the foundations of linguistics.

The main source of anxiety in the Creative Writing class is that some (male) student will produce his equivalent of Portnoy's Complaint. And though I can sit and laugh heartily here at home, my toes would curl if someone did it (as they occasionally did) in a CW class. The atmosphere is just too polite, too politically correct and too feminine. At worst, it's Sunday School.

Maybe it was me. Maybe I didn't know how to make the setting into one which could accommodate masculine (or maybe male) rampage, masculine (or maybe male) tirade. Blogger can't accommodate it either, it seems - it refused to autosave the first draft of this Blog the moment I started to quote Roth F- ing and C - ing. (I wouldn't even dare quote him Jew - ing).

But I don't think it was just me. Portnoy's Complaint could not come out of a nice CW class and that, I think, is probably Carmen Callil's problem with Roth. But if so, I think it is the CW class which has to go, not Roth or Roth's genre of writing.

Shops will not be shutting down in Knightsbridge this summer

This story seems to have disappeared rather quickly from the News sites, so I will repeat it and leave you to savour it:

Yesterday, a man with two suitcases leaving the National Bank of Dubai branch in London's Knightsbridge was held up by robbers armed with a gun. They grabbed the suitcases.

In them was £2 million pounds in cash - apparently, spending money for the "Royal Family" of Qatar who like to pass part of the summer in London.

Two of the three thieves were very rapidly caught and the money retrieved - the man with the suitcases was no ordinary courier and was able to use his mobile phone to get immediate help from a Police diplomatic protection unit in the area. Had he to dial 999, and spell out his name and address and all the rest, the thieves would have got away, back to Croydon where they came from.

It may be the revelation of this detail about the phone which led to the rapid disappearance of this story. Next time around, robbers would know to take the mobile too.

But today's story is, I guess, good news for the owners of Knightsbridge boutiques. Not so good news for Croydon's IKEA.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Gerald Steinacher, Nazis on the Run (Review)

This is the most unsatisfactory academic work that I have read for a long time. I will explain why shortly.

At the end of World War Two, hundreds of thousands of people were on the move right across Europe. As Allied soldiers in vast numbers moved deeper into Italy and Germany, vast numbers of people moved in the opposite direction.

Who were they? There were civilians trying to get back to homes they had left, either as forced labourers or refugees. There were Jews who had survived the Holocaust, many or most of them traumatised, not trying to return home but instead looking to find a route out of Europe and - generally - a route to Palestine. There were those who, for many reasons, did not want to end up in Russian-occupied or Soviet-subservient areas, including not only those from eastern Germany and central Europe but also from the Balkans. There were "ordinary" criminals who had pursued regular criminal lives, thieving and profiteering, under the shelter of Nazi criminality. There were probably some ordinary German soldiers who had done nothing particularly wrong but who did not want to live in Germany any more. And there were SS and Nazi personnel, including war criminals, large and small.

Many of these very many people gravitated southwards, down into Austria, across the border into Italy and then, quite often, out of Europe altogether through the northern Italian ports: their destinations were Latin America, the Middle East, North America, Australia.

Steinacher is primarily interested in those who were wanted or who knew they should have been wanted by the Allies: the criminals and the war criminals, high-ranking and lowly, many of whom evaded justice and emigrated, mostly to Latin America and mostly to Argentina. But some of them just hid out in Italy and, in due course, made their way back to Austria or Germany with new identities.

Steinacher's book fails for a number of reasons.

First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph. D.

Second, though it points the finger at the civil authorities in South Tyrol, at the Vatican, at the International Red Cross and at the US intelligence services as aiders and abetters of criminal escapes, the finger wobbles. Steinacher gives us no precise idea as to the proportion of criminal elements among the many thousands of people on the move who sought help from these agencies. He simply fails to paint the larger picture, clearly and in detail. At the end of the book, you have no idea whether the criminal element was one in two or one in two thousand desperate people knocking at those doors (except that you can figure that the US intelligence services were in a different position - they knew who they were dealing with and they only wanted to deal with dodgy characters, especially after the anti-communist dynamic came to dominate after 1947).

Third, the book is largely useless to anyone of a straightforward lawyerly frame of mind. Steinacher constantly suggests answers, but rarely can one pin down a clear answer to these kind of question (let's use the Vatican as an example):

What civil or criminal offences , if any, did Vatican official X commit in rendering assistance to a fugitive of justice or as-yet uninculpated criminal, Y?

Was the whole Vatican orgnisation implicated in the activities of its individual officials, so that it should be regarded as a criminal organisation rather than just as an organisation which housed criminal officials?

To answer these questions, you have to work out if official X knew or had good reason to suspect that Y was being sought for crimes committed or was on the move because of such crimes, even if not yet inculpated. Steinacher simply doesn't work it out for most of his illustrative cases.

And you have to look at funding decisions and at euphemisms and "Confidential" markings in official correspondence.

True, there is the obstacle that the Vatican archives for this period are still closed to outsiders - the best evidence for the claim that they will incriminate, all the way up.

Some of the things Vatican officials did can be explained without imputing criminal intent. Many people had no documents and officials were willing to take your word for who you were and give you a document saying that you were who you said you were. This then allowed you to present yourself to the International Committee of the Red Cross who would furnish you with a one-way travel document to which you could then get a Latin American visa affixed.

The slackness of these procedures can be explained both in terms of having to work under pressure - there were a lot of people knocking at your door - and as a basically charitable, humanitarian response to human distress.

But when someone told you they had been born in A when you could tell from their accent (or their mother tongue) that they had never been near the place, then you became a party to fraud when you helped them fabricate a new identity for themselves. Even more so, when you suggested a suitable identity. (South Tyrol figures largely in Steinacher's story because its unsettled legal status meant that if you claimed to have been born there, you could also claim to be stateless and that meant the Red Cross, rather than the International Refugee Organisation, could deal with you).

In addition, Steinacher is able to claim that when high authorities in the Vatican and ICRC were told that their on-the-ground bureaucrats and systems were allowing wanted war criminals to escape from justice, they did little or nothing to change personnel or tighten up procedures. In both cases, it began to look as if the only "identity" you needed was that of being anti-communist.

All this said, Steinacher leaves us in no general doubt that in 1944 - 47 there were numerous Nazis and Nazi-sympathisers in South Tyrol, in the International Committee of the Red Cross and in the Vatican, who helped Nazi war criminals escape from Allied justice. This included people in senior, powerful positions - like the Pope's friend, Bishop Hudal - who knew exactly what they were doing and why.

Many Nazis ended up in Latin America, especially Argentina. Some ended up working for the CIA. It would be another book, but an interesting one, to trace the part they played in the reactionary politics of their adoptive countries and the amoral realpolitik of the CIA. Perhaps the invasion of the Falkland Islands was not just about Argentinian nationalism but also about Nazi revenge.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Blood Money. Not such a bad idea?

An Indonesian maid is awaiting execution in Saudi Arabia. She killed her employer when he tried to rape her. She will have her head cut off with a sword.

It may be that the Indonesian government will be able to save her by paying blood money to the dead man's family. We are talking six figures. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is trying to stop its nationals travelling to Saudi Arabia to work. There have been too many similar cases. Saudi Arabia is not a nice place for a migrant worker.

In this case, if blood money - and only blood money - will save this woman's life, then it seems right that it should be paid over.In civilised countries, she would not be facing the death penalty. Probably she would not have been charged with any offence.

But what about the principle of blood money? Would it work in Europe?

Suppose a drunken driver collides with a husband on his bike and he is killed. The driver faces a few years in prison and, of course, a driving ban. Should he be able to buy his way out of the prison sentence? The cyclist's widow might find six figures rather more attractive than the knowledge that her husband's killer is kicking his heels in prison for six years, especially if her husband was the breadwinner and she has young children.

There would be cases where no one would want to see a blood money settlement: serial killers need to go to prison for public protection. But killers who are unlikely to repeat their offence don't.

Burglary would be a very good arena to try out the principle. Someone steals £10,000 worth of jewellery from me, gets nicked and gets sentenced to six months. As an alternative, they hand back the jewellery and £10,000 blood money.

I can't really see anything wrong with this, not least because it saves tax payer money on prison space. It is often distressing to be a victim of crime and distressing again to go to court and give evidence. The sentences handed down often seem light in relation to the distress the crime has caused. Some decent compensation might well feel better to a victim of crime.


Added 24 July 2018: The argument of this Blog is developed in the chapter "Blood Money" in my hardback book Silence Is So Accurate (degree zero 2017), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Friday, 24 June 2011

Something for Nothing II: why the world feels different to the self-employed

In Greece, the worst tax evaders are the self-employed. This is hardly news.

The world feels different to the self-employed. This has a lot to do with the way they earn and the way they pay taxes.

Most self-employed people earn by the hour or the day. If they don't work, they don't get paid. That's not true for the average employee.

Studies show that in the private sector, employees spend about 40% of their paid time "on task"; in the public sector, this drops to about 30%. In most cases, their pay does not go down or up as a function of the amount of time "on task".

In addition, time off for sickness or holidays normally makes no difference to their weekly or monthly income flow. Of course, liability for such time is factored in to the employer's calculations when offering a wage or salary, but that factoring is not visible. In contrast, when a self-employed person goes on holiday, they have no income flow - unless, at the top end, they are being paid a "retainer". You could say that self-employed people should factor into the rates they charge their holidays and no doubt some do. Many don't and in any case it doesn't feel as if it is factored in.

Employed people are "taxed at source" - they receive an income flow from which tax has already been deducted. They can see how much has been taken away, but they don't feel it. That's one reason they are easier to tax than the self-employed.

A self-employed person has to pay tax by writing a cheque or authorising a transfer out of their bank account. In the UK, most self-employed people have to do this twice a year only, so large lump sums are paid over. The self-employed person feels the money going out. Ouch!

As a result, they are very sensitive to how the money is used. They will be particularly aggrieved when they feel it is used to give other people "something for nothing" - whether MPs claiming bogus expenses, or benefits scroungers, or fancy consultants charging fancy fees for A4 drivel, or large corporations and wealthy individuals negotiating derisory tax payments. Every self-employed person will have their own pet grievance and the grievances translate into tax evasion or populist right-wing politics or both.

So governments really do have a motive to convince their citizens that "we are all in this together". They need to persuade one lot of people not to milk the system (sometimes, they need to stop encouraging such behaviour) and they need to persuade self-employed people not to withold their milk.

Whether governments are also prepared to make tax compulsory for large corporations and the very wealthy is another question. In the UK, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has made it quite clear that for the very big people, tax is a voluntary matter. Read Private Eye!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Something for Nothing: Greece is not alone

Anarchists believe that there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. Yours.

That really is the only belief anarchists have - but there are lots of anarchists.

In poor and unhappy countries, when public order breaks down, the first thing people do is loot what they can. This is called anarchy and this anarchy is understandable. The hugely unequal distribution of wealth and income in such countries is the result of huge injustice supported by state repression. Looting brings about an immediate, rough and ready re-distribution. Unfortunately, shop keepers who aren't the worst criminals (and may indeed be victims of the local regime's protection rackets) are usually the biggest victims - though occasionally looters get into presidential palaces - they did in Iraq. But they can't get into bank accounts held in the tax havens for crooks created (mainly) by the US and UK governments.

Unfortunately, looting works in favour only of the young and fit - and male. In the same way, Greek anarchists fighting the riot police are young, fit men.

If you don't fall into that category, and have no talent for burglary, your only hope of getting something for nothing is to get it off the state and get the state to make others pay. In Greece, this system broke down primarily, it seems, because the state was useless at getting others to pay - too many tax breaks and too many tax evaders and, secondarily, because the state indulged the desire for something for nothing on an unaffordable scale. Borrowing to pay benefits was doomed to come to a sticky end (though you do wonder why BNP Paribas and others went on lending to Greece way past the point when it became seriously sub-prime).

To those in receipt of "something for nothing" it does not always feel like that. A civil servant with a sinecure probably feels he has a job (sinecures usually go to men, especially in countries like Greece).

British MPs clearly feel a sense of entitlement to putting everything on expenses, whether required by their work or not.

And those with inherited wealth - what used to be called "private means" - never consider that someone else is working to keep them in the style to which they accustom themselves.

In this way, you can be an anarchist without being a young, fit male. And you can begin to see what a lot of anarchists there are in the world.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat : American Foreign Policy as it was and may always be

This second book by Alex von Tunzlemann, like her first (Indian Summer) is well written, fascinating, troubling and - this time round - chilling. It basically tells the story of how through the 1950s and 1960s, America screwed up over Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti and in doing so ensured that life in the last two of those countries remained nasty, brutal and short. In Haiti's case, it has never recovered from the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The US repeatedly sided with the worst actors in the Caribbean's tragedy - the murderous regimes of Batista, Trujillo and Duvalier; it made policy on the back of pathetically inadequate intelligence-gathering and analysis; and it never managed to get to the position where the left hand knew what the right was doing. It's scary.

Von Tunzlemann doesn't link past to present in more than a minimal fashion, but it's not hard to expand from her history into contemporary politics.

The obsession with the Communist Threat blinkered and distorted information gathering, analysis and policy. Worse, bad practices such as appointing ambassadors for political services (and donations) rendered rather than their diplomatic skills meant that some of them actively distorted reports to Washington as they cosied up to dictators and furthered their own personal interests.

Today, obsession with the Terrorist Threat - Al Qaeda and all the rest - has been marked with more or less identical failings, of which George W Bush's desperate need to believe Saddam Hussein in bed with Osama bin Laden is just one example. Bush's taste for appointing cronies to positions for which they had no qualificatins or talent condemned (among other things) the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to dismal failure (chronicled in such works as Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an out of control and morally blank CIA did enormous harm. Von Tunzlemann chronicles it working with organised crime syndicates, pouring money into subversive groups lacking any popular support, plotting criminal acts aimed against the USA itself (and potentialy involving civilian deaths) with the aim of blaming them on Castro, all the time unperturbed by the horrific tortures practised, often personally, by its favoured friends.

That legacy of the CIA is still with us. It led - for example only - to Colin Powell going to the General Assembly of the United Nations with a cock and bull slide show about Iraq's mobile WMD capacity - all of it made up for the occasion with the help of an unreliable "informant", the now notorious "Curveball".

Goodness knows what the CIA is up to today in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and a host of other countries. Of only one thing we can be sure, it is unlikely to bring increased personal security or economic well-being to ordinary citizens of those blighted countries.

The world described in Red Heat is unremittingly masculine. Women have only bit parts. The men chomp on cigars, shoot from the hip, are insufferably vain when they are not paranoid and megalomaniac, demand that women service them (JFK), and so on and so forth. Maybe the only change fifty years on is that there is Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.

One other - perhaps smaller - thing. The Kennedy brothers - JFK and Robert - come out of this book very badly even though von Tunzelmann does not aim at that. Neither appears to have been fit for high office, any more than Johnson or Nixon. Both appear to have been without guiding principles, political or moral. JFK took crucial decisions under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Robert was prepared to contemplate murder and mayhem in pursuit of impulsively-chosen goals. Both appear to have had some links to organised crime. Perhaps it is not so surprising that they were both assassinated.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Details of City Life: Bottled Water in Paris

Go to Paris in summer and you will see young men selling bottled water around Metro stations and outside Galeries Lafayette. They try to keep the bottles cool in plastic buckets. They charge just one euro so they aren't going to get rich, though they are probably going to get moved on.

Strolling the other day on the Champs Elysée, it struck me that very few tourists were carrying bottles of water. That's odd, I thought. In London, everyone - certainly every young tourist - walks round with a bottle of water in hand.

Then I began to figure it out. Big streets in Paris have plenty of big kiosks selling newspapers. The kiosks have signs reading "Presse" and "Journaux", they have always been there and they do indeed sell a wide range of publications. They don't sell bottled water. Likewise, there are quite a few tobacconists attached to cafes and bars - but the "Tabacs" sell nicotine (and that other drug, lottery tickets), not bottled water. To get bottled water in Paris, you will have to find a (North African) convenience food store in a side street and in the more expensive districts there aren't many of them.

Hence the shortage of bottled water in Paris. By contrast, in London bottled water is sold from all kinds of storefront.

Neither city can hope to emulate Zurich, where water from the mountains pours out non-stop from city drinking fountains. If a restuarant is nearby, you may even see waiters going to the fountain to fill their water jugs.

I am not going to Google this to find the answer, but I wonder if the Paris Presse kiosks and the Tabacs are simply conservative or, alternatively, don't actually have permission in their licences to sell water. Retail activity is minutely regulated in France and you can see how restrictions on water selling would advantage the cafes, since some people will sit down for a drink when none is available to walk around with. But I leave it to Evian and Vittel to find out. Either way, they should launch a campaign to make their products as accessible in Paris as they are in London.

The War on Drugs - How to Marginalise Your Citizens

Not for the first time, reports, panels and experts are trying to tell the US and European governments that, as far as Drugs are concerned, they have got it badly wrong. Expect deaf ears. Politicians are professionally obliged to believe that being Soft on Drugs will endanger them as a species in the same way as would being Soft on Terror - and, in the past, Soft on Communism.

Illegal drugs have been freely available in the US and Europe for decades at least. As a student in the 1960s, I never really got beyond cannabis since I disliked the idea of swallowing pills of unknown composition. So I never tried LSD. But both cannabis and pills of all kinds were around for the taking and you didn't have to be a hippy or a drop-out to come across them.

Drugs are now even more around. In the 60s, alcohol was our drug of choice for discos. Now when young people go clubbing, it is ecstasy or MDNA or cocaine or .. whatever is flavour of the times.

One consequence of the politicians' stance (they are all in this together, remember) is that they have marginalised a significant proportion of young citizens, all of whom are at least weekend criminals: that's what recreational drug use implies.

And once you become a weekend criminal, you are going to be suspicious of those out to get you - the police and those who direct their clumsy efforts, the politicians.

To put it bluntly, for this and other reasons, the political classes of Western countries do not connect with the next generation of citizens. The gap is huge. Like that (but for different reasons) between rulers and youthful ruled in countries of the Middle East.

That is why decriminalising drug possession for personal use (or however it is phrased) might be quite a big step towards reintegrating anyone under 25 (30?) into the politics and civic life of their country.

It may be reintegration that politicians would be most uncomfortable with: their comfort zone is a world which consists of ordinaryhardworkingfamilies and seniorcitizens.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

If Greece should sell its Islands, then we should sell Whitehall

I am coming round to the idea that every European government should be aiming for Zero Public Debt. See how the bankers like that! (Estonia is pretty close, by the way - last time I looked their debt stood at around 6% of GDP. Greece is currently at 154% and rising)

It has been suggested that Greece should bail itself out by selling some of its many spare islands, for which there would be billionaire buyers. Over here, the Barclay Brothers own Breqhou (in the English Channel) and if the English can put up with that surely the Greeks can put up with something similar.

Thinking along these lines, it occurred to me that there is a lot of valuable real estate the length of Whitehall, from Trafalgar Square down to the Houses of Parliament. Now the Parliament buildings themselves are probably not much use to anyone - a bit like the Millennium Tent - but Whitehall is full of potential luxury hotels and exclusive apartments. There is an insatiable demand for up-market London accommodation and Whitehall would be a very desirable address.

I don't actually think many people work in Whitehall - mainly senior people with big offices - and my guess is that they would all fit into an office block in Croydon.

So that's my Big Idea for today. I will pass it on to Mr Osborne. It could make his life a lot easier.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Greece: Tragedy or Farce?

The public sector unions are striking today in Greece. They are opposed to the new round of austerity measures being put to Parliament - so opposed that they are trying to stop MPs getting in to debate them.

Opinion polls show the ruling Socialist party, bearer of austerity, with less support than the opposition conservatives. Does this mean that Greek conservatives are in favour of deficits and street violence? I doubt it. It just means Greek voters don't want to face up to the reality of their predicament.

And does anyone outside Greece feel sympathy for that predicament?

Outside Greece, there is unaminity: you spent more than you could afford, to no good purpose - bribing voters with benefits you could not fund and public sector workers with perks ditto - and now you want other people to foot the bill. Who do you take us for? It's not as if you spent the money trying to strengthen your economy and it didn't work.

I have read the arguments that the €uro is to blame because it prevents a Greek devaluation. But what would Greece export more of if it had a currency it could devalue? I hear only the word "Tourism".

I wish there was another story.* There don't seem to be any local Bankers to blame. You can blame Standard & Poor or Moody - but all they are doing is warn Greek government bond holders that they may not get back the money they lent. And today's strikes simply make that possibility more of a probability.

Sometimes you do wonder. Public education, a free press and media, democracy - yes, but also corrupt political parties and citizens who think that they can have something for nothing, forever. A bit like Northern Ireland?


* Today's Guardian gives a column to one Costas Douzinas, "In Greece, we see democracy in action", which is worth a read for its starry-eyed avoidance of reality. Maybe it's a hoax.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Slutwalks don't have much to do with the crime of rape

In recent years, historians and human rights organisations have shown that rape is a major instrument of war, and perhaps always has been. It is in war conditions that most rapes occur. In the past century, it's connected to the fact that most wars are conducted against civilians or are civil wars, but soldiers in old-style wars between male fighting forces also found time to rape: that's what the old song "Three German Officers crossed the Rhine" is unashamedly about.

Stalin's armies raped tens of thousands German women as they entered eastern Germany in 1945, a fact which took quite a few years to find its way into the history books. Stalin knew and approved: the troops deserved some reward.

In the Congo and other parts of Africa, rape on an even larger scale has been central to the conflicts of recent years. Sometimes raped women are then murdered, sometimes not.

Women who get raped in wars are usually poor, poorly dressed, and they probably haven't had a bath for a week.

In countries at peace, women get raped by ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends and - the ones we most often read about - by strangers. Age is no protection: there are rapists who favour elderly women asleep in their beds. Dress seems irrelevant.

The Canadian policeman who linked rapes to provocative dress got it wrong. A provocatively dressed woman is very, very unlikely to get raped. The provocation may even be a deterrent since it expresses both sexual confidence and personal assertiveness. Rapists are not confident men, just violent ones.

Slutwalks are a great day out for exhibitionists and newspaper photographers, but don't have much to do with addressing the causes of the crime of rape.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Future is Like The Past - and vice versa

Writing my previous Blog - its brevity reflecting the unimportance of the subject - I was however reminded of that great achievement of 19th century geology, Charles Lyell's uniformitarian principle that whatever processes we see at work today in carving out our landscapes are the same as those which operated in the past, and vice versa. There was no "catastrophe", no act of creation, which disrupted the inexorable operation of geological processes.

What is true in Nature is, unfortunately, largely true in Culture. Those who expect liberal democracies to emerge from the current "Arab Spring" will surely be disappointed. The most likely sequel to forty years of tyranny is another forty years of tryanny, however dressed up in new garb.

As for the UKs tiresome Labour Party, it is quite clear that the adrenalin flows only when the ferrets find themselves in a sack. The draw of the plot and the briefing against is too strong. After all, there are no political principles to uphold, no vision of the future, no moral outrage.

What is true in political life is also largely true in personal life. If you have been a heavy drinker for ten years, chances are you will be a heavy drinker for the next ten years. Only with the greatest difficulty do human beings change the habits of a lifetime. That is why they are so easy to predict - once you have identified the patterns at work in their lives.

Sometimes, it is true, an external catastrophe will provoke a crisis - your wife leaves you because of your drinking, let's say - and things may change. Sometimes, but I think rarer, some hitherto suppressed internal drive will seize control of the wheel and steer someone into a different direction in life.

But most of the time, Charles Lyell is the man who got it right.

Plot to Oust Gordon Brown - er, I mean Ed Miliband

Q: How many years did it take Plotter Brown and his cronies (remember Damian MacBride?) to oust Tony Blair?

Q: How many years did Paranoid Brown survive plots (and resignations) to oust him before being ousted by voters (and Nick Clegg)?

Prediction: Ed Miliband will still be there at Christmas.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Minor Road Works Conspiracy: David Cameron's Secret

When David Cameron became Prime Minister he was sworn to many Secrets in a ritual that takes place after every change of PM. Nowadays, the ritual has been stripped of its more overtly Masonic elements, but it is still, in reality, an initiation into the secrets of the Masons.

One of the secrets is about building. Not about building houses and certainly not about bridges or tunnels or flyovers. It's about Minor Road Works.

David was told this secret: local government Highways departments exist to ensure that every year in every part of the country, one million holes are dug and then filled in again. This, he was told, is what keeps the British economy working.

To work in a Highways department you must be a Mason and your contractors are all Masons too: all those Bodger & Sons who have existed from before remembered time. Some of them know how to take six months to dig one small hole and fill it up again in such a way that road subsidence occurs allowing the task to begin again. That is Masonic craft.

Back in January, I blogged about the ongoing Minor Road Works here in Brighton. With money in the Masonic chamber pot, the Council decided to change the traffic lights and the pedestrian advice lights which go with them. The work is now done and the lights are carefully out of phase - pedestrians stand around waiting to cross when all the traffic lights are red and no traffic is moving. Then they are given ten seconds of go ahead only to find themselves chased by traffic. It's perfect. When an accident occurs, that will be the green light for a new round of work by Bodger & Sons.

I'm not even making it up. I'm just telling you, it's not a Cock Up. I'm a Blogger and therefore know that it's a Conspiracy. If anything happens to me, you already know why.


Postscript. As soon as this Blog was published, up popped Google trying to sell me Masonic cufflinks. See what I mean?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Pound against the €uro: a handy guide to the state of the UK economy?

This morning, the FT foreign exchange rates show £1 at 1.12 €uros. Six months ago, it was 1.17 and I made a prediction then (on this Blog) that by end December 2011 that would be (roughly) unchanged. In other words, I reckoned (and still reckon) that whatever "crisis" the €uro goes through it will be no worse than the British crisis - so nothing much will change.

In general, I use the exchange rate as a rough guide to the state of the UK economy.

I know that the £ is falling right now partly because demand for sterling is damped by a belief that in the short term UK interest rates will not rise - and the short term is getting to be quite a long term. I still can't believe that until 2013 I have a mortgage at 2.99% - nearly 2% below the rate of inflation.

But the belief that interest rates will stay low is fed by the belief that the weakness of the UK economy - its refusal to GROW - will continue to be the central underlying problem, so significant that some inflation will be tolerated. (Inflation will be tolerated for other reasons - for example, it shaves the real cost of servicing government debt).

At the same time, the markets don't believe that UK demand for €uroland products will collapse, however expensive they become. How could it? The very weak UK economy simply does not produce the range of goods which €urope does - whether Spanish fruit and vegetables or German cars.

Shortly after it was introduced a decade ago, the £ reached a high against the €uro of 1.60 - yes, you actually got 1.60 €uros for a £. Those were the days when British pensioners emigrated to Spain for a life of cheap luxury, funded by converting sterling pension income into local €uros. Those were the days.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Whatever happened to Prince Andrew?

Back at the beginning of March, Prince Andrew was in all the newspapers. His role as UK's volunteer Trade Ambassador (£500,000 a year in expenses) was under threat both because of criticisms of his behaviour in Wikileaked US cables and because of his links to convicted sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein. There were photos of him on the tabloid front pages, posed with one of Mr Epstein's young masseuses. There were Bad Form questions in Parliament and critical assessments in the quality press.

Google "Prince Andrew News" and nothing shows on its front page after 10 March when the BBC News website carried a lengthy summary of the case against him.

What has happened? The newspapers have, of course, had a wonderful three months of feel-good stories about the Firm: the Wedding, the Queen and Prince Philip's visit to the Republic of Ireland, the State Visit of the Obamas, and now the beginnings of propaganda preparations for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June 2012. ... So it has been an easy time for Prince Andrew to keep a low profile and the press has been in an indulgent mood.

Alternatively, as a matter of simple logic, he must have a superinjunction.

And that deduction reveals an interesting and unintended consequence of superinjunctions: if someone with a high-media profile, especially if it is a negative one, suddenly and totally disappears from view - well, what else can it mean but that he or she has a superinjunction? You don't need metropolitan gossip or Tweets, you just need to make deductions. And probably reach the wrong conclusion.

In other words, superinjunctions will feed the world of speculation for which digital media are criticised, especially in cases where - as with Prince Andrew - there has been no "closure" of the story. I think you will search in vain for a subsequent story which answers the case set out by the BBC on 10 March with a documented "case dismissed". Something funny must have happened and the Courts have provided a currently-favoured theory of what something funny might be. There's Logic for you!


Postscript 21 July 2011. Prince Andrew has re-appeared. Today's Daily Mail (followed by The Daily Telegraph where I saw it) says that he is stepping down from his role as Trade Envoy. Watch this space.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Tragedy and Carelessness

This is autobiography

To lose some of your relatives suggests a tragedy; all of them, carelessness.

My mother was 40 when I was born in 1947, her only child apart from a still birth, and her mother was 40 when she was born in 1907, the youngest of seven surviving children.

As a result I grew up with dead grandparents, ageing and dying aunts and uncles, and cousins all much older than me. But my mother talked a lot about her family and as a child I took an interest; this is what I can do from memory (I haven't even looked at the family photographs - Note added 14/02/2012: but as I happen upon them I will add some photographs at the end of this Blog post):

My maternal grandfather, Thomas Redsell Stevens 1861 - 1925, born Crayford, Kent. Father a carpenter who did the carvings in the Parish Church, mother Irish (maiden name Redsell). Joined the Royal Navy, served during the Battle of the Nile (1881 - 2?), employed as a gun tester by Vickers, Crayford, working at the Butts in Sutton at Hone, lost an arm in this job. Lived in a (tied?) house at Shirehall Road, Hawley.


Eliza Turner 1867 - 1941, possibly born in Buckingham, some family connection to paper mills - father posibly a wheelwright or mill wright.


Thomas Turner Stevens, eldest son, died about 1945 in his 50s (heart). Travelled in South America selling armaments in the 1920s -1930s, working for Vickers, later (previously?) Landlord of a Pub [the Lamb?] in Shoreham, Kent. Married Mabel, alive when I was a young child, no children.

Leonard Stevens, died 1950s (stroke), lived in the Dartford - Sutton at Hone area, worked for Garretts agricultural engineers, twice married (first wife died; second wife, Ethel(Auntie Ethel)). One son from first marriage, David.

Godfrey Victor Stevens (Uncle Goff), died 1960s (heart), worked in paper mills ending his working life doing shift work as a gatekeeper. Lived in a tied house at 42 Green Walk, Crayford [ where I lived for a year in 1961 - 62]. Married Lavinia (Auntie Lena),a nurse at Stone House [mental] hospital, where my mother was [twice, I think] a patient. Two sons, John and Roy, both of whom married and had children. Roy was my cousin nearest to me in age - about 10 years older.

Blanche Evelyn [ Queenie] Stevens, died 1950s (heart), married about 1918 John [Jack]Ashton,an Armenian who had changed his name from Mostichian. Lived in India where her husband worked for the Indian Railways. In retirement, lived in Birchington, Kent where he built model trains. One daughter, Dorothy, married Pat[rick] Mather, an architect, and emigrated in the 1950s to Phoenix, Arizona.No children.

Gertrude Nellie Stevens (Auntie Nellie), born about 1898, died 1979 (senile dementia), married about 1920 Benjamin Streeton (Uncle Ben) whose family came from Northumberland Heath / Erith in Kent. Lived at Delma, Howbury Lane, Slade Green, Kent where I spent happy parts of my childhood [see my Blog, "Uncle Ben" for his life]. No children. Ben and Nellie were my favourite Aunt and Uncle and my mother remained close to this sister.

Wilhelmina Stevens (Auntie Winnie), died 1960s (cause unknown), married Jack Burke (Uncle Jack), lived at Eynsford, Kent where Jack worked in a mill producing expensive hand made paper, the edges so sharp that they cut your fingers. One daughter, Eileen, married a Royal Navy officer in 1953, he served on Christmas Island during the 1950s nuclear bomb tests,divorced, three children.

Hilda May Stevens, 1907 - 1978, my mother, worked as a paper mill girl in Hawley after leaving school, lived with her widowed mother in Shirehall Road before (and after) marrying my father, Albert George Pateman, 1912 - 1997

It may be that I still have cousins living and, no doubt, children of those cousins. But I have sought no contact with any of them for around thirty years.

Added 31/08/2012

Thomas Redsell Stevens and his wife Eliza (née Turner), backyard of 1 Coles Cottages, Shirehall Road, Hawley, probably about 1920

My mother Hilda May Stevens, 3rd from left in the back row, with other Horton Kirby Paper Mill workers, early 1920s

Mill Girls, Horton Kirby Paper Mill, about 1918. Nellie Stevens, back row, second from left with large necktie; Winnie, seated, second from left

Added 14/02/2012:

The Two Brewers at Shoreham, Kent, standing in front Thomas Turner Stevens, his wife Mabel and their cat and dog (they had no children), postcard to Tom's parents postmarked September 1921


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published memoir of my childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Babyland, 68b East Hill, Dartford, Kent

This is autobiography.

My father spent his war time call-up years repairing things like tanks; he rose to the rank of Sergeant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Demobbed, he set up in business with the help of the small war time savings which nearly everyone had accumulated. There was a shortage of everything, including furniture, and he started out with a furniture repair workshop over a shoe repairer's in Lowfield Street, Dartford. Then he added two lock-up shops (in Kent Road and Lowfield Street market) selling carpets and linos. He employed female assistants to sell the stuff and in the evenings, after a day in the workshop, he did the carpet and lino laying. When I was about four years old, he bought a new green and yellow van with his name on the side and I was woken one evening to go outside and see it. PKM 672.

Furniture repairing and carpet laying was hard work and my father's fingers were mis-shapen from the hammer blows struck on them when a tack or a nail was missed. Later in life, his fingers curled inwards from the damage carpet stretching tools had done to tendons in his palms.

By the time he was 40 he decided it was time to look for work that was physically easier - and also for something which might engage my mother who had been hospitalised after a recent (and second) suicide attempt. So he bought (or bought the lease of) a pram and toy shop with a maisonette above: this was Babyland. I lived above the shop with my parents from 1953 to 1961, attending first York Road County Junior School in Dartford and, from 1958, Bromley Grammar School for Boys.

Babyland represents both the affluent period of my childhood and a prolonged experience of marital disharmony, only brought to an end when my mother fled in 1961 taking me with her to refuge with an Aunt and Uncle.

Affluence 1950s-style meant that my mother was at the outset allowed to have the sitting room decorated and carpeted to her taste. That involved panels of wallpaper in the corners of each room being of a different pattern from the rest of the room and carpets being plain. There was a TV, a very large stereogram and a growing pile of records drawn from the Hit Parades of the 1950s. The three piece suite was in uncut moquette - I don't now know what that is but it mattered.

Upstairs, I chose maroon and yellow for the colours of my walls, carpet and eiderdown. By the time I was 11 or 12, I owned a Raleigh Triumph bicycle with white wall tyres and - the request coming from me - an adult, portable typewriter.

There was a telephone, which I must have used; a budgerigar and, in the garden, a horribly neglected rabbit in a hutch.

When my parents were Getting On with each other, my mother would come down and work in the shop. When they weren't, she stayed upstairs. When my father employed female assistants, my mother was jealous. I don't know if I was prompted or did it on my own initiative, but I recall an occasion when I eavesdropped behind a door on my father's conversation with an assistant.

Arguments between my parents consisted of my father shouting abuse and my mother generally saying nothing. I was reluctant to bring home friends from school in case an argument was raging. When things went from bad to worse, as they often did, my father cut off housekeeping money. My mother had war time savings in her Post Office book and drew down her balance to buy food. Just once I remember her refusing to feed my father. He responded by giving me some money and telling me to go down to Penney Son and Parker and fetch him some bread and cheese. Towards the end of the marriage, my father became violent and, on one occasion at least, my mother took her bruises to the local police station, though she got her formal separation on the grounds of mental cruelty and neglect to maintain.

When I started travelling to Bromley Grammar School, depending on the state of our relationship, my father would sometimes keep me waiting in the morning for my bus fare so that I had to hurry for the bus. Throughout his life my father punished by witholding. He never hit me.

I spent a lot of time in the shop and there were toys which interested me - Corgi and Matchbox. But the franchises for Dinky and Hornby were held by a bigger toy shop in the centre of town. Likewise, my father sold Pedigree but could not get the right to sell Marmet prams.

I listened to him selling prams to young couples. They would pay a deposit for the pram to be kept and my father would then say that, of course, if anything "went wrong" the deposit would be refunded. At the time, I did not know that before the War my mother had gone to full term with a baby which was still born, after which she had cut her throat. When she told me as a teenager about this, leaving me with the feeling that I had once had a sister, she added that my birth was "God's forgiveness" for her suicide attempt. My mother was never light work.

My parents' arguments affected me in various ways over the years in Babyland, eventually affecting my school performance and behaviour. Before that stage, I recall night sweats, digestive problems, difficulties swallowing, and disturbed religious fantasies. At one point, maybe I was nine or ten, my mother took me to the doctor saying that I was "highly strung". "They sometimes play the best tunes", he replied, but still prescribed phenobarbitone which I could only swallow when it was crushed into a jam sandwich.

The nearest I got to an appropriate protest was, on one isolated occasion, to hurl a cushion at the sitting room's three flying ducks, breaking one. I saw them again, the broken one repaired, when I cleared my father's belongings after his death.


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Friday, 3 June 2011

Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: or the Big Society?

Subtitled "Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age", Clay Shirky's book selects and discusses in depth examples which show the capacity of the world wide web to improve the quality of private lives and to transform public and civic life.

At the individual level, powerful home computers plus amazing software plus the web has allowed people to break the divides between producers/consumers and professionals/amateurs. People have discovered ways of using their free time (what Shirky calls their "cognitive surplus") that are more participatory than sitting watching TV. You don't have to slump there watching sitcoms and soap operas; you can dramatise your own life on Facebook or YouTube or Blogger.

Shirky is positive about all this, though I note that the word "pornography" does not once occur in his book. But pornography and, in general, the search for sex, are absolutely central to private use of the web - and in ways which have probably transformed millions of people's lives. It's another book but it might be a less consistently feel-good one than Shirky's.

At another level, Shirky describes many uses of the web to connect people with shared concerns (such as illness) and to mobilise them for charitable giving, for civic action and for political protest. As events in the Middle East currently demonstrate, when everyone carries a camera - and now usually a video camera - in their mobile phone, when most young (and not so young) people know how to upload to the web - well, then there is no way that a regime can hide its brutality. You can keep the journalists away, but you can't keep the people away - they are the ones you are attacking.

In England, the only reason that PC Harwood will face a charge of manslaughter for the death of Ian Tomlinson is that a visitor to London pulled out his mobile phone and filmed the assault.

Repressive regimes and London's police may resort to desperate measures - banning phones, seizing them. But, like drugs, there are too many people using them for there to be any chance of success. Even in North Korea daily life has been filmed and the resulting pictures of appalling misery smuggled abroad.

Shirky does not foreground these most overtly political uses of connectivity. He focusses on examples of do-gooding which fit comfortably into David Cameron's vision of the Big Society - and which show how that idea is realisable.

The key point is that the barriers to entry into the public sphere, both financial and organisational, have been dramatically lowered by modern "connectivity". Not only that, when you are once connected, you are in principle connected to the whole world. Set up a website or a Yahoo! group or a Facebook page for people suffering some rare illness and immediately you can connect to anyone anywhere in the world who is connected to the web.

The "Professionals" point to loss of control over "Quality" and they will attempt to re-assert control. They will award Kitemarks of quality and at the same time put anything so Kitemarked behind a Paywall. I think - I hope - they will lose the battle. Other solutions to the problem of Quality will be found.

This Blog was supposed to be a spin-off from my main website, though there is no link either way.

When I stopped teaching in 2000, I thought about the published and unpublished work I had produced over the thirty five years in which I had been "connected" to the university system - I went to University in 1965 aged 18. I toyed with the idea of putting together an edited collection - my Selected Works - and then trying to find a publisher for it. It would have been a long and probably fruitless enterprise.

Instead, I had a professional-looking website created for me and, bit by bit, with profesional assistance, published and re-published work that I thought was of interest. All of it could be downloaded, printed off, for free.

As a result I have undoubtedly had more readers than I ever had in my paper-based university career. As of today, the Flagcounter installed a few years ago shows visitors from 127 countries - the latest, Iraq. Alexa currently ranks the site at 4 627 553, which makes me laugh, though since there are over 100 million top level domains in the world, it ranks the site inside the top 5%. From emails I get, the people who appreciate the site are students in countries and institutions where getting access to academic work they need is still not easy - either because their libraries don't have it or because it's behind paywalls. I am pleased to have made it easier for them.

I still buy the books I want to read. I live within two hundred meters of a public library in a fine building, but I never go into it nowadays. If I want to find out something, I go on the web. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Kleptocracies and Kleptocrats: New and Old

Half the world's nastier regimes are often described as kleptocracies. Those in power are motivated by a desire to steal money.

So money coming in as foreign aid is siphoned off to private bank accounts and income generated from oil or mineral exports likewise. It's as easy as this:

An aid agency contacts the local Ministry of Finance and asks for bank account details so that it can shell out. Back comes the numbers of half a dozen accounts, no names, but actually: the President's personal account, his wife's personal account, his brother-in-charge-of-internal-security's personal account ... and ten percent to an account from which the Ministry of Health will spend money on the projects for which aid is being granted.

Much of the money will then be transferred abroad to countries like Switzerland and the UK from where it can be accessed if the Day of Downfall ever arrives - but also, just for shopping trips abroad to buy new houses, cars, yachts, shoes .....

It's gone on for decades like that since the End of Colonialism and is part of the deal by which the West has kept oil- and mineral-rich regimes on side. France is one of the worst offenders: for fifty years, its governments have supported any regime in ex-colonial Africa so long as it is uncontaminated by any belief in Liberty, Equality or Fraternity.

But kleptocracies are nothing new. They have dominated world history.

I just finished reading Tony Faber's Faberge's Eggs, a careful and well-written study of the famous Easter Eggs which the Court Jeweller, Carl Fabergé, prepared for Russia's last two Tsars to give to their wives and mothers at Easter.

The Romanov family held on to absolute power in Russia for just over three hundred years - from 1613 to 1917. The veil they passed over their own kleptocracy was ingenious: since their word was law (that's what "Autocracy" means) whatever they did couldn't be stealing, could it? You can see where the communist idea came from.

Old style kleptocrats were less likely to keep their money in bank accounts, but they liked to keep a lot of it portable - just in case. So when in 1918 the Bolsheviks took the last of the Romanovs down in to the cellar of the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg and lined them up to be shot, the Tsar's daughters obstinately refused to fall down dead from the bullets and required additional bayoneting and beating. Why? "The reason only became clear when Yurovsky [ in charge of the operation]began disposing of the bodies. The corsets of three of the grand duchesses contained eighteen pounds of jewellery, enough to make them armour-plated" (Faber, page 148).

But the jewellery they had smuggled into their final exile was no more than a grain of sand from what the family really held.

Lenin famously sent out instructions to "Loot the Looters" - the modern equivalent would be "Freeze their Bank Accounts". And so by the beginning of 1919, "thirty-three warehouses around Petrograd were filled with antiques and other objets d'art", the contents of which were sold off over many years to supply the new regime with much-need foreign exchange. There was much more besides, more valuable items, kept in secure vaults rather than warehouses.

Carl Fabergé's son, Agathon - a gemmologist - had been imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and eventually saved his life only by agreeing to describe and value the jewels the Bolsheviks had amassed. He eventually fled to Finland and passed the rest of his life as a stamp collector - my own work as a stamp dealer often brings me into contact with material from the vast collections he accumulated.

Occasionally, kleptocratic families harbour real kleptomaniacs, though they might be able to pass a veneer over their habit. Faber writes this about Queen Mary of Teck, wife of Britain's George V: "Owners of private houses were said to dread a visit; they would prepare by hiding whatever they had that was valuable or beautiful, for they knew that if Queen Mary saw an object, she might well admire it with open covetousness, dropping heavy hints until the treasure was offered to her. She would take it away with her there and then" (page 194)[ For more insight into the Royal Family's Grandma Swag, Jane Gardham's Old Filth has some entertaining details of her war-time evacuation to Badminton]

Kleptocracies are nearly all family affairs - modern ones are often called "republican dynasties".

There is one important exception: the Vatican. This is an institution which has sucked blood out of rich and, mainly, poor over centuries and has accumulated fantastic wealth, much more opaquely held than that of, say, our own Royal Family *. But it cannot be passed on as in a family because of the rule of priestly celibacy. You only get life-time enjoyment. That's not the kind of enjoyment the rulers of North Korea are interested in.

* On the Sunday Times Rich List, the Queen is currently in position 257 with personal wealth of just £300 million, including a stamp collection, jewels, cars, horses, shares and properties personally held (Sandringham, Balmoral and others). Excluded is the Crown Estate (valued at £6.6 billion but controlled by the Treasury) and the Royal art collection (valued at £10 billion)