Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Lady Tonge, Some Subjects are Off Limits!

The British political class, currently headed by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, define some subjects and opinions as off limits. You get kicked out of this Masonic club if you fail to recognise that. Lady Tonge, a plain speaking Liberal Democrat, has just had that happen to her.

The basic solidarity is around the notion that on an agreed list of topics the electorate is told what to think; suggesting that their views might be canvassed is off limits.

I identify the following as among the off-limits topics:

1. The Monarchy. It would be a sensible and reasonable thing to suggest that the electorate might like to consider whether it wishes the Monarchy to continue after the death of Elizabeth II. Maybe the issue should even be put to a Referendum. It would be suicide for an aspiring member of the political class to propose any such thing. The political class exists to defend the Monarchy and the line of succession. You are going to get Charles III whether you like it or not.

2. Northern Ireland. The political class agrees that Northern Ireland should remain in Union with Great Britain until such time as its voters decide otherwise. It would be out of order to suggest that voters in Great Britain might also have a legitimate say in the matter, not least because it is realised that they might cheerfully vote to quit an unwanted Union with a troublesome and expensive province.

3. The Special Relationship. We have a Special relationship with the United States. We do as we are told. You are not allowed to ask if this is really such a good thing, even after the disaster of the Iraq War - well, you are not supposed to call it a "disaster" either.

4. The Two State Solution. Lady Tonge had to fall on her sword for failing to start from the premiss of Israel's right to exist. That is something which cannot be questioned. In contrast, North Korea's "right to exist" can be questioned and, indeed, it is true that the world would be a better place without it, just as the world is a better place without the German Democratic Republic. Some people think the Middle East would be a more secure and prosperous place if we had a One State solution rather than a Two State [one-of-which-isn't-going-to-happen] Solution, but that view is off-limits.

5. Equality. Bit by bit, the political class has grouped around the notion that certain kinds of discrimination, in attitudes or policy - notably racism and increasingly sexism and homophobia - are not only not acceptable but cannot legitimately be argued for. It is one of the achievements of the political class to have enforced this position and is a very good argument in favour of "managed democracy" rather than "populism". Compare how in Israel the political class has failed to hold the line against the expression of the most crude racism towards the Arab population.

But the downside is that this Masonic clasping of hands around Agreed Positions is one of the things which detaches the Political Class from the population it rules over. Lines of communication on the Forbidden topics are closed down, producing at least some degree of alienation, resentment and periodic anger.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Thinking of Making a Will? Don't! It's a very bad idea!

Wills make money for lawyers, who tirelessly promote their virtues. But, basically, they are a scam. Like "Payment Protection Insurance", they are unnecessary; like "Divorce Settlements", often botched or unfair.

The Wills which used to annoy me were made by those with no idea how much they were worth, how much longer they might live, or what inflation does to the value of money. Solicitors do not judge it their business to interfere with stupidity; it is, after all, a fine source of income.

People would go through all the rigmarole at the solicitor's office and bequeath £500 to their Loyal Housekeeper / Companion / Dogwalker and the rest to the Dogs' Home. They would then live for another twenty years by which time the moderately generous £500 had turned into an insult and the Dogs' Home would pick up an astonishing quarter of a million thanks to rising house prices. This explains why there are so many Dogs' Homes.

There are alternatives. My Mother (legally separated from my father) bought a Will from Woolworths for sixpence and left me, her only child, everything. It took one sentence and two witnesses. My Father, who outlived her by many years, died intestate but since I was his only child too, I simply applied for Probate and inherited his Estate. Had he had two children, we would both have applied for Probate and been entitled to half each.

Neither of my parents put any money into the pockets of solicitors.

My Auntie Nellie did, and caused a lot of disappointment because she said or implied one thing to her relatives and did another in the solicitor's office and never got round to bringing her Will into line with what she was (sometimes) saying, or vice versa.

I got the lot, much to the fury of two relatives who thought they were also in line. (They learnt they had been tricked a week before she died since they had gone in to her home and hunted around for her Will. Rather than let me know that she was gravely ill (would I like to visit?), they hurried to the Hospital and pressed her to make death bed changes. The Hospital ruled that she was incapable of doing so. None of this did I know until she was dead.)

Anyway, I have just recently INVENTED an alternative to the Solicitor's Will, the Woolworths Will, and the Intestate Solution.

On my computer desktop, there is now an Icon labelled "Letter of Intent". Click to read it and it tells you (my children actually, since I am divorced and live alone) what I want to happen when I die and what I want to happen to the money and the knick knacks. I don't expect them to click on the Icon until I am dead. There ought to be some surprises in life - and death. But I can assure them of this: the Dogs' Home is getting nothing.

One advantage of this Desktop Solution is that I can tinker with the Letter as and when. My Aunt's problem was partly that she became too old and frail to want to bother with another trip to the Solicitor. At some point, she realised that her neighbours were being very helpful to her and so she scribbled a little list of Bequests on a scrap of paper (which I found later). In order that the Bequests did not have the character of insults, I had to add a nought to every figure she had specified.

My children can find the Desktop Icon easily without having to root through drawers (I have many more drawers than Nellie had) and they can print it off, forward it and so on. Probably I should keep a hard copy just in case of Hard Disc Disaster.

There you are, free gratis and for nothing an alternative to putting on a tie, polishing your shoes and heading off to the Solicitor.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Crayford Northend Primary School, Kent 1953






This is autobiography.

The funeral of King George VI was on 15 February 1952. I watched it on TV and it's the first TV programme I recall seeing. I was four and a half years old. I made the adults laugh: repeatedly hearing the word "coffin", I enquired how if he was dead he could be coughing.

In the autumn of that year, I started school at Crayford Northend County Primary School, located between Slade Green and Erith, and stayed there until my parents moved to Dartford in 1955.

It was a school for poor and rough children. In morning Assembly when we stood, children often fainted onto the wooden floor. They were hungry. I developed a fear of fainting - in fact, I have never fainted in my life. Some children smelt. Some children had gentian violet painted on their faces to treat impetigo.

Of course, the school did The Coronation of June 1953 and every class had a Coronation photograph taken and every child received a Coronation mug (I still have it). In the photo, I am one of the better dressed pupils - my mother was "respectable" - back row, standing next to a girl. (The photo calls the school "North End" and locates it in Erith, but from my school reports and Googling, the school was technically a Crayford school and "Northend" is one word)

I was very keen on the Coronation: I was always being told in later childhood that I had marched up and down our road proclaiming "Here comes the Coronation" and remonstrated with workmen digging a hole: I told them they would spoil the Coronation. I also got to dress up as a TV - a television not a transvestite - for Slade Green's Coronation Fancy Dress competition. I guess it was my parents who collected the autographs of the local MP (Norman Dodds, Labour) and the journalist Hannen Swaffer, the day before my sixth birthday.

Northend was a mixed school and I do not recall any activity which was conducted separately for boys and girls. So I got to learn needlework and you can see my handiwork at the top of this Blog. I am sure I made this for my mother and inside there is some of her tatting - something she was introduced to in convalescence from one of her mental breakdowns. My mother and my Aunt Nellie taught me to knit and my Uncle Ben (about whom I have written before on this Blog) taught me simple leatherwork.

I have already made my plans for the next of the Queen's many Jubilees. I will leave the country for a week and take a holiday in a nearby Republic. The atmosphere here will be intolerable.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Peer Review - Peer Acceptance & Peer Rejection



More from the Archive ...

I always kept Rejection letters from book publishers and from editors of academic journals, the latter usually enclosing the solicited opinions of peer reviewers.

There are an awful lot of them coming out of the boxes I am currently sorting - and now they are going off to recycling. Well, most of them.

I guess someone has made a study of what people say in Peer Reviews; I always felt that these anonymous critiques often told you more about the reviewer than the work reviewed. They were sometimes entertaining - especially when the reviewer knew your name as author of the work submitted but also knew that their own name would not be disclosed back to you.

Here are a couple of peer reviews of my essay "Lifelong Unlearning" which you can now find on my website www.selectedworks.co.uk. It was submitted to the British Journal of Educational Studies back in 2001 and the casting editorial vote, following receipt of the two peer reviews, was not to publish the essay.

I don't find either review obviously unfair or hurtful (one reason I have selected them and not others about which I felt more strongly at the time), but I think they both illustrate ways in which peer reviewing - often held up nowadays as a bastion against the horrors of the Internet - can be a fairly subjective, conversational activity. It's not as hard-edged as outsiders may sometimes imagine. One of the reviewers of my essay quite liked it and the other quite disliked it. On another day, I could have had two Likes or two Dislikes. That's academic life.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

How the Cobra Stopped Discriminating on Grounds of Sex


Abortion: Sex or Gender?

This is how two news organisations report some allegations this morning:

The Guardian:
Headline: "Sex - selective abortions investigated"
Story begins: "Secret footage shows consultants at British clinics agreeing to abort foetuses because of their gender"

The BBC:
Headline: "Probe into gender abortion claims"
Story begins: " The Department of Health launches an inquiry into claims that doctors agreed to carry out abortions on the grounds of the sex of the unborn babies"

Here are two claims I think worth making:

"Sex" and "Gender" are not synonyms, though in some circles "Gender" is a euphemism for "Sex" (as when I am asked to tick a box to indicate my "Gender")

A foetus or unborn baby [ note how the Guardian uses one expression and the BBC the other] does not have a Gender, or at any rate a known Gender. All that probably comes later. In 99% of cases, though, a foetus or unborn baby has an unambiguous Sex and it is on the basis of that Sex that some people will be seeking abortions.

How we got into this mess of using "Gender "when we mean "Sex" we must leave to the sociologists, though I fear they were the ones who actually got us into this mess.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Guineas



More from my past...

Here I am, a long-haired student radical vintage 1969, being paid in guineas by the BBC.

I did a bit of Googling. The UK finally decimalised in February 1971 and that finally killed off the guinea in all but the most closed circles (livestock, horse racing).

The guinea was a mark of social distinction; as one website (www.clarahost.co.uk) puts it, "You paid a tradesman in pounds but a gentleman in guineas".

Thus, the BBC treated me as a gentleman - though it felt the need to spell out what ten guineas amounted to and I guess that by 1969 sometimes it did employ persons who had not been well brought up and who needed the explanation. Despite my lack of upbringing, I am sure I behaved well on screen; I have no memory of the occasion.

At the bottom of the contract, my name is given as "Trevor Pateman, Esq." You still occasionally see that and you even see worse:

Go to easyjet or Ryanair and you can book yourself in under a rather limited range of titles - not much more than Mr, Mrs and Ms. Go to British Airways and you can luxuriate in 14 choices of title. It's almost worth booking just to be a Lord for a day.

The guinea may be dead, but Ruritania still knows how to do social distinction

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Signing the Official Secrets Act



This is autobiography

I am currently clearing a small room of the hoarded papers of fifty years - expect more Posts in this vein - and turned up this 1972 Declaration. I think it's the only time I signed the Official Secrets Act.

I had come back from a year studying in Paris and had moved to Exeter prior to taking up a teaching job at Exeter College (sixth form and technical - I was Liberal Studies for the technical students). I probably had no entitlement to unemployment benefit and must have gone to claim Social Security, at which point I was offered a job working for the Ministry's local office.

I was happy to take the job. My mother was largely dependent on social security payments from the time she left my father, in 1961, until her death aged 71 in 1978. Mental and physical ill-health meant that she worked for only a few years of that period.

We had had mixed experiences of the SS, still the National Assistance Board at the beginning of the period. On the down side, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, my mother's payments were reduced when I came home for vacations on the grounds that I should contribute to the rent on her flat. On the up side, the NAB / SS took over full responsibility for providing my mother with a regular income when my father became a serial defaulter on his Court-ordered maintenance payments. The NAB / SS recouped what it could from him by taking him periodically back to Court.

In Exeter, I prepared pension books for postal despatch and I have no memory of doing anything else, though maybe I did. I can't think of any wikileakable Secrets that I learnt.

I did learn one thing which made me feel that a sense of humanity was somewhere at work in Social Security's bureaucratic body.

If you were terminally ill and dependent on benefits, then these could be increased (at discretion) to enable the purchase of alcohol. Perhaps you were given cash, perhaps vouchers. I don't recall but there was a schedule of allowances. But whatever the details, it was somehow comforting that the State accepted this carefully measured responsibility to enable some everyday oblivion in the face of extinction.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Mikhail Eisenstein and Sergei Eisenstein: Father and Son



In the mid 1990s, I made a trip to Riga and wandered the streets taking photographs. The photograph above shows detail from a Jugendstil building in Elisavetes iela. The building was designed by the architect Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 - 1921) - you can find better, more recent images of the same building on his Wikipedia page.

Mikhail Eisenstein was the father of the Soviet film maker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898 - 1948) who began his career as a student of architecture, but parted ways with his father during the Russian Revolution.

Looking at the enormous heads atop the building in Elisavetes iela, I imagined that despite their political differences, the son owed to his father the idea of using - in Battleship Potemkin and other films - images of vast and sometimes grotesque heads.

No Valentine's Day Kiss for Smokers

That's one of today's News reports: most people find the taste of tobacco offensive. They also find the smell of tobacco offensive.

One of the unintended consequences of the splendid ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has been to make people more aware of tobacco smoke in other environments. When I walk down the street now, I am sometimes astonished at just how strong is the smell from just one whiff of smoke from a passing smoker's cigarette. And queueing in the Post Office the stink coming off the person in front's clothes can seem overwhelming.

In the past, you were so used to smoky environments that you noticed such things much less. You probably smelt of tobacco smoke yourself. That's no longer true.

And watching old Hollywood films I am sometimes distracted now by the thought that those chain-smoking hunks and heroines stank.

The cultural change which has nudged smokers into the role of outcasts and losers is something from which one may derive some comfort.

Maybe there will come a day when public stag or hen party drunkenness will also mark someone as a pitiable object.

Or a day when anyone who follows behind a dog on a lead, picking up its shit, will be seen as only a plastic bag away from insanity.

Or when we will shake our heads at Baroness Warsi off to plot reaction with the Vatican.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Robert Goff at Brighton Museum



Robert Charles Goff (1837-1922), Hotel Metropole, Brighton, Evening c 1895. Etching

Yesterday, my friend Alexandra Loske invited me to a gallery talk in Brighton Museum. She has curated a small exhibition of the work of Robert Goff (1837 - 1922) a long-term etcher and long-term resident of Brighton & Hove: he had a studio in Holland Road and a house in Adelaide Crescent.

Goff was one of those soldiers who found something else to do after being a soldier and in his case it produced a significant body of work, popular in its time (when it was exhibited and sold in London galleries) and largely forgotten since - nowadays, the etchings can be picked up for modest sums in antique shops. His personal archive ended up years ago in the basement of Brighton Museum and has been dusted down and researched for this exhibition. Alexandra Loske has also discovered some entirely forgotten aspects of his work, including illustrations for books on Victorian London's teeming underclasses.

I liked the etchings of Brighton and of London, where the influence of Whistler is readily seen. Goff stays out of the picture, very much a quiet and patient observer and it is this which is partly responsible for the subdued atmosphere of most of the work. There are no faces, no personal encounters. You imagine a man smoking a pipe working unobtrusively at the edge of the scene he is sketching.

The exhibition, entitled Robert Goff: An Etcher in the Wake of Whistler runs at Brighton Museum until 29 April 2012.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The National Secular Society v. Bideford Town Council

Congratulations to the National Secular Society! It has won a High Court ruling that the saying of collective prayers during Council meetings is not lawful, though prayers are lawful if conducted prior to the start of official business.

Such collective prayers have nothing to do with religion; they are designed - like similar rituals in other areas of public life - to enforce conformity and conformism. It is a bold spirit who declines to participate, vacating their place and leaving the room. Essentially, they are a masonic ritual designed to expose anyone who is not One of Us, those dangerous people who think for themselves. The majority of those praying on such occasions will be without any belief in the God they are supposedly praying to.

When I had religious leanings I always leant to the view that religion was an intensely private affair, not something you show off. To this day such things as the designer costumes of the Pope, worn to symbolise power and encourage deference, anger me.

In America, it is unAmerican not to do God and all politicians have to do him. Here in the UK, it is not much better: Clegg and Miliband may say they don't believe in God and Cameron probably has no personal beliefs worth the name. But when it comes down to it, in the House of Commons, before the Queen, before the Pope who was shamefully invited here - yes, then they all do it. We don't have religious liberty here; we have a political class who feel obliged to toe the God line.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

William Wales, Harry Wales and the British Empire

The sun never sets on the British Empire - and Mr Cameron's government intends to use William Wales and Harry Wales to prove it.

Prince William to the Falklands to show the Argies we mean to defend those rocks to the last drop of some poor squaddie's blood (there are 1 400 troops garrisoned at Mount Pleasant). Prince Harry to Afghanistan to show the tribes that there is no escape from our Apache helicopters.

By all means let otherwise unemployed or unemployable princes and princelings serve in the armed forces, but under no circumstances allow them to serve overseas. All it does is prove to the world that we have learnt nothing from history and intend to continue that way. All it shows is the United Kingdom, Great Britain, as a bastion of reaction. All it shows is that our government and our Royal Family are eager for photo ops for domestic consumption - move out of the way of the cameras, you Argie bastards and fucking Afghan peasants.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows & the Holodomor

Some time ago I read Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War 1941-1945, a book of extraordinary reportage from the Red Army front line. So when I saw Everything Flows in the bookshop, I bought it.

Written between 1955 and Grossman's death in 1964, but first published (in the Soviet Union) in 1989, it is part fictional story of a man just released, after many years, from the Gulag and part political essay about the Russian soul, about the Russian experience of serfdom, about Lenin as begetter of Stalin.

There are two chapters (14 and 15) which provide a detailed, precise and harrowing account of the artificial famine (the Holodomor) which killed millions in Ukraine in 1932 - 33. The narrative is written as if from the knowledge of a (female) eye-witness. I was astonished that Grossman knew so much about something which in the Soviet Union of the Khruschev years was still barely acknowledged. But then I discovered from the biographical notice that Grossman, who I had previously thought of as a Russian Jew, was in fact a Ukrainian Jew from Berdichev (its Jewish community was finally exterminated in 1941). And I guess as a major figure in Soviet literary life, people told him things.

Though there is ongoing and highly charged debate about the Holodomor (see the Wikipedia entry for example), these two chapters by Grossman astonished me as evocations of what it is like to die of starvation and in pinpointing details of what was involved in engineering it or allowing it to happen. I felt these chapters deserve to be read.

When I got to the end of the book and read the Afterword by Grossman's daughter, I found her saying "I have always thought that the two chapters about the famine...are the most powerful in all Grossman's work" (page 288). So now you have two recommendations.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Felix Ehrenhaft and Paul Feyerabend





At some point when I was a graduate student in London (1968 - 70), Paul Feyerabend came to lecture, maybe at LSE maybe at UCL. Imre Lakatos was lecturing in London at the same time and on at least one occasion, Feyerabend and Lakatos argued together at the blackboard, each armed with a piece of chalk, and in front of a large audience. Both were remarkable lecturers and experts in showmanship.

I have just begun to clear out my papers from that period and doing so, came across a large envelope mailed to me by Feyerabend from Berkeley (where he was a Professor) and postmarked 1971. Inside, there is a Mimeo "Single Magnetic Northpoles and Southpoles and their Importance for Science. Ten lectures delivered at the University of Vienna during the summer semester of 1947 by Dr Felix Ehrenhaft ... with an appendix: Ehrenhaft in post-war Vienna". The Mimeo is described as a "tentative translation / 1967 PKF [Paul K Feyerabend]"

I browsed through the Mimeo. The seven page Appendix II, "Ehrenhaft in post-war Vienna" is written by Feyerabend and gives many clues both to the origins of his later preoccupations as a philosopher of science (science and charlatanism, for example) and to that teaching style which I remember from London. He writes for example of Ehrenhaft:

"His method of teaching was unusual also. It was quite possible, in physics, in mathematics, in astronomy to interrupt the lecturer and to ask for the clarification of a doubtful point (the situation was very different in philosophy and in the humanities where many lecturers rejoiced in giving sermons and where interruption was almost an act of sacrilege). But Ehrenhaft challenged us to criticize him and criticized us for just listening to what he had to say. I can still remember him exploding at one point and shouting at us: "Are you dumb? Are you stupid? Or do you really agree with everything I say?" The question was quite justified for there were large chunks to swallow. Relativity and quantum theory were rejected at once ..." [emphases in the original]

Later, discussing Ehrenhaft's effect on his students in Vienna, Feyerabend asks
"Were we corrupted by him?" and later concludes, " every physics department should at least have some Ehrenhaft among its members"

In this very brief selection of quotations, I think a lot is revealed about the origins of Feyerabend's teaching style, his theoretical contribution to the philosophy of science and some of the difficulties of his professional life.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Origin of Books: Writing and Desire

Some years ago, I wandered around the Tropical Greenhouses of Hamburg's Botanical Gardens. On the way out I bought a book, Die Goldene Äpfel, a history of citrus fruits edited by Carsten Schirarend and Marina Heilmeyer.

I discovered that books had been written about citrus fruits as far back as 1178 when the Governor of Wenchou City in China, Han Yen-Chih, published Chü Lu. His preface about the Origins (Entstehung) of his book is translated in my German botanical publication. I was touched by it, and tried to render it (freely) into English. Here is what I wrote, followed by the German I was using.

The Origin of Books

Ich bin ein Mann aus dem Norden - I am a man from the North
He wrote. Und mein ganzes Leben lang - And my whole life long
I had never seen a land where the Orange Trees blossom

Strolling in our Northern markets I would always buy the fruit
But it was never of the best kind which comes from Ni-Shan -
- I already knew though barely able to imagine

Last year it was my luck to be made Governor of Wenchou
I travelled South - yes - to the land where the orange trees bloom
I slowed my journey - gazed like a lover - tasted the fruit

*

The Governor must not leave his City - that is our firm Rule
Not even to walk among Ni-Shan's fragrant orange groves
Where others drink wine among the trees of which I must dream

A friend brings me their fruit, tells me about scholars' studies of
the Li-Chee, the Mu-tan, the Shao-yao - though none of my fruit
Gently he jokes that the Orange Tree has waited for me

Also schrieb Ich das Buch - And so I came to write this book

________________________

German text (page 46 of Die Goldene Äpfel):

Ich bin ein Mann aus dem Norden, und mein ganzes Leben lang habe ich es bedauert, nie ein blühenden Orangenbaum gesehen zu haben. Immer wieder habe ich auf dem Markt Orangen gekauft, aber nie waren es die besonders wertvollen, sog. Ni-shan-Orangen. Letzten Herbst kam ich als Gouverneur hierher (nach Wenchou), und ich hatte das grosse Glück, endlich Orangenbaüme blühen zu sehen und auch ihfre Früchte zu essen. Da es dem Gouverneur nicht erlaubt ist, sich von der Stadt zu entfernen, war es mir leider nicht möglich, mit meinen Gästen zu den duftenden Orangenhainen von Ni-shan zu gehen und mit ihnen dort Wein zu trinken. Deshalb hat ein Freund die Früchte zu mir gebracht und mir gesagt: "Die köstliche Qualität der Chü-Orange ist nicht geringer als die der Litchi-Frucht. Jetzt gibt es ein Buch über die Litchi, ebenso wie über die mu tan und die shao-yao. Nür über den Orangenbaum, den Du so liebst, gibt es kein solches Werk! Ist es nicht so, als hätten die Orangen auf Dich gewartet?"
Also shrieb ich das Buch ...

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Review: Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover

We need to talk about America.

Reading this very carefully researched book, I began to understand how 9 / 11 conspiracy theories could hold such appeal.As well as delivering the dirt on Hoover, who spent a lifetime delivering the dirt on anyone who aroused his dislike, it chronicles conspiracy after conspiracy, cover up upon cover up, negligence and downright corruption extraordinary at the highest levels of American executive and political life. Very few people emerge with much credit left (President Harry Truman appears an exception and, in some respects, Robert Kennedy). To a greater or lesser degree, all the others are crooks.

As a teenager, I was much affected by the death of President Kennedy: I can still remember hearing the news on the old valve wireless in our living room (there wasn't a television) and I recall it as the last time in my life that I prayed in any conventional sense.

There was a conspiracy to assassinate John Kennedy, almost certainly involving senior Mafia figures feeling betrayed by Kennedy and his brother,who as Attorney General had made the FBI tackle the problem of organised crime. The Mafia (with whom the Kennedys' father had a long association) had given campaign money and other help to the younger Kennedys and they did not like being kicked in the teeth.

Almost certainly, FBI reports brought in enough prior intelligence to indicate that something was about to happen to Kennedy. The Secret Service should have been alerted - the FBI was tasked with doing just that. But Hoover as Director of the FBI sat on the information. In effect, he let the assassination happen - rather as the FBI in a later incarnation let 9 / 11 happen.

After the event, the FBI ( = Hoover) sought to close the file as rapidly as possible: Lee Harvey Oswald did it and he did it alone. They had ample evidence to lead to the conclusion that this wasn't the case, but Hoover was compromised by his own links (extensive) to the Mafia and he had no inclination to dig dirt on his cronies.

When President Johnson set up the Warren Commission to produce a definitive account of the assassination, the FBI obstructed and misled it. The Commission's report was a British-style whitewash.

When Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the FBI ( = Hoover) did not want to know. Hoover had only been interested in their marital infidelities, on which he kept bulging files.

Summers focusses on Hoover's vulnerability as a gay-hating closet homosexual who converted the FBI into a witch-hunting and blackmailing right wing organisation with files on everybody of importance. Congress could never touch him - he died in office, back in 1972, at the age of 77 - because he had files on all of them and knew how to use them when it suited him.

What Summers does not try to do is place this corrupt work in the context of the other activities of the FBI. He occasionally indicates the proportion of FBI time devoted to witch-hunting rather than criminal hunting, but I end up with no real sense of how the FBI functioned day to day and whether there was a routine and effective side to its work alongside the corrupt practices directed by Hoover.

Reading this book, I smiled at the thought that the America Summers describes, starting back in the 1920s, is the America with which British politicians insist on having a "Special Relationship". Maybe they would like to be as corrupt as the Big Boys in America.

The Shetlands and the Channel Islands

Argentina claims the Falklands (partly) on the basis of geographical proximity. By that logic, says a correspondent in today's Independent, France should get the Channel Islands - Les Iles Normandes - and Norway the Shetlands.

To me there is a big difference between the Shetlands and the other two. Shetlanders pay UK taxes and are entitled to all the protections which UK citizens expect until such time as Scotland votes for independence (as I hope it does).

In contrast, Falklanders and Channel Islanders do not pay UK Taxes - indeed, in the latter case they pay very little tax because their main industry is defrauding the UK Treasury of tax revenues. In similar fashion, the Falklanders flog flags of convenience to merchant ships.

Since they do not pay taxes it is unclear why they should benefit from any kind of protection or assistance funded by UK taxpayers. Mr Cameron has made commitments to the three thousands Falklanders which imply an uncapped budget: if the Argies invade again, we will spend as much as it takes to get them out (again). It is unclear why.

When the Germans invaded the Channel Islands in World War Two, enabled by their proximity to occupied France, the Churchill government made no effort to kick them out. That the Islands weren't part of the UK was one of the reasons for not immediately resisting.

The Islanders didn't seem greatly troubled by the Occupation and the Germans felt secure enough in their hold on the place to open a small concentration camp on Alderney. It was from the Germans that the Channel Islanders got the idea that there is money to be made from issuing postage stamps from which they nowadays derive a supplementary source of income. The stamps specialise in reactionary Royalist themes, as befits places the status of which is essentially feudal - "Crown Dependencies" is the term used in law.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Slow Photography







In the old days when travelling alone, I would quite often pass a day wandering and loitering and taking black and white photographs with an old Pentax. Like anyone using black and white film, I tried to edit before shooting - moving around, kneeling, waiting for the sun to move. Even then, you knew you were only going to get one picture in every dozen (if you were lucky) worth having printed and enlarged. But the pictures that worked worked.

For the black and white photograph above, I hung around for a couple of hours in a street in Riga - I guess in about 1997; the street is Albertas iela.

I found it hard to adapt to digital cameras and to colour. I made a few attempts and gave up. I still used my technique of hanging around in a place, taking lots of shots. My screensaver is the soft focus colour image above, from Prague's beautiful Vojanovy Sady, an old monastery garden turned into a peaceful and very informal place to wander and sit. I took maybe a hundred photographs.

Today, the Internet is a riotous celebration of what you can do with a digital camera. I do hope some of the images are being edited into slow coffee table books.