Thursday 27 September 2012

To Carthage I go

I take the Golden Road
Dear readers, this will be the last article for a bit.  I leave for Tunisia this coming Sunday and will be away for just over three weeks.  I’m so looking forward to it, my third trip to North Africa, following Egypt last year and Morocco a few years before.

I simply love to travel; it’s in my blood.  We had some wonderful vacations when I was a child, visiting quite a few unusual places.  I’ve continued this family tradition. The more unusual the destination the better I like it.  I’m not a travel snob, though; I’m as capable as most other people of doing touristy things and visiting touristy places.  I like to be pampered and I’m most assuredly not into any form of asceticism or personal hardship.  I go for pleasure, not for penance! 

Having said that, I do sometimes feel that I was born too late, at a time when the world gets smaller by the day; a time when all the great adventures are past; when all the trails are blazed and all the paths found.  I would simply loved to have been alive in the great age of exploration, which for me is the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when the maps were being filled out. 

Have you heard of Gertrude Bell?  She is a particular heroine of mine: the first woman down from Oxford with a degree in Modern History; an independent scholar, an archaeologist, and expert in several Middle Eastern languages, a writer, a political specialist, a traveller; a friend of sheiks and kings - the female Lawrence of Arabia!

In 1900 she dressed herself as a Bedouin man, riding alone into the dangerous Hauran Plain, still under the control of the Ottomans, in search of the Druze, a militant Muslim sect, which had been fighting the Turks for two hundred years. She made contact with Yahya Beg, king of the Druze, and conversed with him in his own language. Some weeks after he was to ask another visitor to his domain 'Have you seen a queen travelling?'

I’m no queen; I’m just a footloose English girl, going where the fancy takes me, hoping to understand other people and other cultures just a little better; hoping at the same time to understand myself a little better, my mind deeper, my horizons broader.

Why Tunisia, you may wonder?  In part because I have a fascination with past cultures, with the history of a country that once contained Carthage, the realm of Queen Dido, more completely lost than mere time would suggest.  I will be there, among the fragments and those later left by Rome, fragments upon fragments, traces upon traces.  Perhaps I shall find Dido, with Aeneas by her side. (I saw Anna Karenina this afternoon.  My present mood is fey and romantic!)

But my African adventure is deeper.  It will take me from Tunis and Carthage in the north to the oasis of Tozeur in the far south-west.  From there I’m off into the Sahara and also to see the great salt lake of Chott el Jerid, with mirages dancing in the sun! 

OK, there is a slight concern going to a Muslim country at this time, a time when things are so unsettled, a time when Tunisia itself is unsettled.  But I was in Cairo last November, leaving just before the latest round of trouble started on Tahrir Square.  If one worried about danger one would never travel at all.  Besides life is all risk and I am a fatalist, a jolly one at that.  I shall, in my own way, spread as much peace and light as I can…and keep my golden locks well tucked under a headscarf.

So, that’s it.  My next piece shall be a postcard from Tunisia.  

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Eliza Doolittle Plays Hedda Gabler

When I was little we had a dressing up box in the playroom.  For me this was a dragon’s horde of old clothes and shoes, things that mother no longer wore, things I could adapt to my own imaginative ends.  It was such fun.  I used to clunk around on footwear several sizes too big, dragging the tail of some long dress or other behind me!  It was fun pretending to be what I was not, bigger than I was.

I went to London’s Old Vic Theatre on Saturday more or less to see an actress doing the same thing, pretending to be bigger than she was, draped in a costume several sizes beyond her.  The play was Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and the actress was Sheridan Smith.

I should make it clear straight off that for me the play is the thing.  That’s what I went to see, not Sheridan Smith, apparently unlike a number of people in the audience.  Hedda Gabler is one of my favourite dramas.  The central figure, Hedda herself, is a complex character, who weaves a tragedy, partly out of frustration and boredom, partly out of malevolence and spite.  She is at one and the same time a victim and a perpetrator.  For me she is another dimension of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, except she is Madame Bovary with brains. 

Her dilemma is the same as Flaubert’s bathetic heroine: she is full of romantic sensibility while married to a commonplace mediocrity.  Otherwise Ibsen’s femme is a fatale contrast.  While Emma Bovary is stolidly petty-bourgeois, Hedda is full of aristocratic hauteur.  The daughter of a general married to Jørgen Tesman, an insufferably dull academic, Ibsen emphasises her independence by allowing her to retain her maiden name.  She is her father’s daughter, not her husband’s wife. 

The one thing that Sheridan Smith assuredly does not have is hauteur, aristocratic or otherwise.  She is more Bovary than Gabler.  Actually I had another part in mind for her as I watched her strut and fret her hour or two upon the stage – that of Eliza Doolittle in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  She was really a lot worse than she aught to be!  But, my, how she has shot up, from such delights as the musical Legally Blonde and telly sitcoms like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin and Stacey, shot up, well beyond her talent and her capacity

She was clearly selected for the lead in Hedda Gabler, a play which she disingenuously admitted in interview that she had not previously heard of, because of her star rating.  It was most certainly not for her star quality.  She was simply too little for the part, a littleness that even carried touches of comic absurdity, like me in mother’s shoes.  Quite simply she could not occupy Hedda's spirit, causing many of the nuances and all of the subtlety to be lost.  In short, she was hopelessly out of her depth, the depth being Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

Then there was the play itself, a new interpretation by Brian Friel, the great Irish dramatist.  Great?  Well, he has to be; it said so in the Daily Telegraph!  And here is a measure of his greatness, a sort of free-flowing English that I feel sure Ibsen would have loved – “What a corker, as I think the new-fangled American expression is.”  Yes, indeed, what a corker.  It takes real greatness to produce a great line like that!

Oh, I'm being super bitchy tonight, a real Gabbler, bored by timidity and littleness.  It wasn’t all bad.  Actually most of the cast were really quite good and some even better.  Special honours go to Adrian Scarborough as Tesman, Hedda’s devoted husband, devoted also to researching the domestic crafts of medieval Brabant.  Simply thrilling!  Daniel Lapaine was reasonable as Ejlert Løvborg, Hedda’s old amour and her husband’s chief rival, and Darrell D’Silva was on top form as a sinister Judge Brack, her would be amour.  But the real star, certainly the real female star, was Fenella Woolgar as Thea Elvsted, Løvborg’s new love and bourgeois amanuensis. 

But these were just fragments that simply gave no coherence to the whole.  Without a strong Hedda, the spider weaving the web, the play just falls flat, sluggish and underpowered, with all psychological tension and insight lost.  For me the whole thing was just hopelessly one-dimensional, the greater the pity because, as I say, Hedda is one of my favourite female parts.  The other is Strindberg’s Miss Julie.  I should have gone to see Juliette Binoche play her in the new French production at the Barbican instead, if only my French had been up to the experience!  

Tuesday 25 September 2012

School for Scandal

Has it never struck you as odd that the world’s oldest profession has no professional qualification?  If doctors and lawyers, the second and third oldest, have recognised occupational standards why not prostitutes? 

Well, yes, I know; the intuitive response must be - who needs this?  Sex, after all, is the sort of thing that comes naturally.  We all like to think we can do it, free of instruction, at least with a little, ahem, hands on practice.  In prostitution practice surely makes perfect. 

But this is all wrong; at least it is according to Trabajo Ya! (Work Now), a prostitution school set up in the Spanish city of Valencia, the first in the country.  It offers, according to its prospectus, a “basic instruction in professional prostitution with maximum discretion”, all at a reasonable $120 fee for a week-long course. 

Students of both sexes are offered training in the Kama Sutra, the use of sex toys and the best posture to please clients.  Daily two hour theory and practice session, the script goes, “will almost certainly guarantee work afterwards.”  Yes, of course, the more discerning clients are bound to want to examine the graduate diplomas.  After all, those who dabble in the complex contortions of the Kama Sutra (have you looked at it?) really have to know their stuff, otherwise serious injury may result. 

Alas, no sooner had the school opened, attracting some ninety-five students, than it occurred the ire of the Valencian regional government, who filed a case with prosecutors.  The allegation was that the school promoted prostitution, which is illegal in Spain.  A school for prostitutes that promotes prostitution; my, how shocking.  Next the accusation will be raised that medical school promotes doctoring! 

Actually, like across so much of Europe, prostitution is one of the grey areas of the law.  Paradoxically prostitution itself is not illegal, just the promotion of prostitution.  In Spain the women and men in the trade are not generally penalised, though pimps can be fined or jailed. 

Last week the Valencian case was thrown out by the courts after prosecutors said there was not any evidence that a criminal offence had been committed because advertisements for students did not promote prostitution, constitute fraud and were not aimed at minors.  Perhaps the local government went about things in the wrong way.  They may have had better success if the school had been accused of pimping! 

Brendon Morales, one of the teachers at the school (or is that professor?), who has been in the trade for nine years (prostitution, that is, not professing), says that the course is positive.  “I want to give a guide to people who want to join this profession”, he said.  “Prostitution is still a taboo in Spain, but the whole world knows it exists.  I want to inform prostitutes so they don’t depend on anyone but they do it for themselves.” 

The promise is that what the students learn in class will enable them to earn a lot of money, very easily (easily!) and very quickly.  “Although 'the beautiful get more work, don't count yourself out if you're ugly; the important thing is attitude.”  You bet it is!   

The attraction is obvious, given the level of unemployment in Spain, given that a struggling and low-value economy is absurdly tied into the inflated and high-value euro.  Perhaps a case could be made that the biggest pimps of all are those who manage the European Central Bank. 

Anyway, the school for scandal is true to its word.  Graduates are offered immediate employment – they become teachers in the school, where they can help in the ‘practical’ classes.  Practical classes? – hmm, no, I think it best if I don’t go there.  I’ll leave it to your imagination.  

Monday 24 September 2012

With a Whimper

In his end was his beginning.  We had plenty of warning about David Cameron, plenty of warning that he was the worst possible choice, a bad leader for the Conservative Party who has proved himself to be a bad leader for the country, weak and shifting, a rudderless sailing boat, drifting in whatever direction taken by the wind.  He is the hollow centre of a hollow government.

The auspices were there at the outset.  He declared himself the ‘heir to Blair’ in the 2005 leadership election.  That really should have finished him.  But by this time the Party was desperate for a winner and, by whatever perverse chemistry, the morally bankrupt and intellectually vacant Blair had won three elections in a row, an unprecedented record in the history of the Labour Party.  The Conservative Party, the natural party of government, seemed to be in fixed in unnatural opposition. Winning was all that mattered, and so the ‘heir to Blair’ it was.

But he could not manage even that much:  he did not win.  Even against that charmless old ogre Gordon Brown, even against a government marked by stunning levels of incompetence, even against a ministry that reached a nadir only to reach another, he could not win an outright victory.  With all the pointers in his favour he could only manage second best, a coalition with Liberal Democrats, a sort of political glee club, contemptible in their perpetual theory, even more contemptible in their present practice. A flawed mandate and a gay bargain; that was the best he could manage.

It was one flawed mandate built upon another, a mandate to ‘modernise’ the Conservative Party, or the ‘nasty party’, as the absurd Theresa May described it, measured against what I can’t be at all sure. Oh, yes, measured against Margaret Thatcher, measured against the most successful peace-time leader and Prime Minister in the party’s history.  Margaret Thatcher understood ordinary voters in a way that Cameron and May never will. 

Instead of clear policies on the economy, on home ownership, on privatisation, on trade union reform we have had a lot of metro-land political pap.  The ‘nasty party’ has become the ‘nice party’, all part of the Cameron modernisation drive, a sort of Chairman Dave Cultural Revolution that took in all the fashionable panaceas, a big tent, Big Society jamboree. 

The Conservative Party was to modernise by becoming something else, though lord alone knows what.  It was to move into ground occupied by tofu-eating, tree-hugging lefties.  No wonder his 2010 ‘victory’ was such a damp rag.  It even looked at one moment that Gordon Brown might hang on! 

It was all there, all on board, all the neo-Islington panaceas, whether it’s green energy, foreign aid, rainbow liberation or Dutch cyclists.  I guarantee not one Conservative voter in ten cares about the Big Society; not one person in ten understands what Cameron is about.   I will say this for him, though: he is the best recruiting agent the United Kingdom Independence Party never had.

Does he understand himself, this silly self-conscious old boy, terrified of being perceived of as an old boy, so much so that he could not even go to a wedding in proper attire, least the Bullingdon Bull escaped from the pen of his past. 

What a contrast he is with Boris Johnson, who wears his past lightly, with no apology and no retreat; and how we love him for it.  Yes, we love Boris, I love Boris.  Not that I hate Dave.  I think I probably feel as most other people do, Conservative or not – on the whole I’m indifferent to him.  He is in the worst possible twilight zone, neither positive nor negative, neither hated nor loved. 

Thinking hard about him there is a terrible littleness about the man.  He has no courage, he has no principles, he has no conviction, he has no ideas because, well, he has no idea.  He is simply 'the heir to Blair', a clone, a manqué who even brought us another ‘glorious’ episode of post-colonial noblesse oblige in Libya, with consequences that we can all see.  It’s a wonder that we are not also bogged down in Syria

Tim Yeo, a former minister, described Cameron’s heart “as an organ that remains impenetrable to most Britons.”  That, I suspect, is an exercise that most Britons would not care to undertake, a journey to the centre of nothingness.  Like his intellect and his character, it’s hollow. He is the Hollow Man.  This is the way his premiership will end, this is the way his premiership will end, this is the way that his premiership will end, not with a bang but a whimper.  

Sunday 23 September 2012

Not Just So

I have my favourites just as I am sure you have yours, those tales, told in childhood, which have a lifelong resonance.  My grandfather was a particularly good story-teller, both in fact and in fiction, meaning that he could tell true stories and tall stories with equal verve and conviction! 

Those I liked best he told me time and time again.  I loved them, so much so that I would not tolerate any deviation.  Like Josephine, Rudyard Kipling’s lost daughter, for me the tales of a grandfather had to be ‘just so.’  He was my best beloved; they were my best beloved. 

It was this ‘just so’ attitude that came increasingly to mind as I worked my way through Philip Pullman’s recently published Grimm Tales for Young and Old in a New English Version.  I enjoyed it…up to a point, though I have to say more for his approach than for his telling.  Hold on a moment or two.  I promise to become a little less cryptic!

The Grimm Tales, which I also know from childhood, are likewise in the ‘just so’ category of narration.  When I was learning German, getting to the stage just beyond the foothills of grammar and parsing, it was to the Grimm Brothers I turned, those beautiful, simple stories in beautiful and limpid prose, as clear as glass.  Even in another language they were just as I remembered, though perhaps a little darker, a shade or two grimmer. 

What I love about them most of all is their child-like simplicity, though these peasant folk tales were not devised for children.  The point is, I think, that the outlook of an older, rural and less complicated world is not that far removed from the outlook of children. There are no shades of grey.  Good is good and bad is bad. And the really bad are made to dance to death on red hot iron slippers.  Quite right!    

It’s a world of bright light and sinister shadows, of handsome princes and ugly witches, of forests and of towers, a wonderful, wonderful enchanted realm.  The imagery is simple and stark, the psychology non-existent.  Things are as they should be, as red as blood or as white as snow.  It’s a pre-Christian world, a pagan world, a world where justice comes as retribution and revenge. 

It needs no explanation; the tales contain their own morals and their own simple truths.  There is no need for metaphysics and metatheory; all judgement, all adult preconceptions, have to be abandoned.  The paradox here is that Pullman’s theory that is not a theory for me was the best part of the whole book! 

Now I open my copy at his introduction.  Here I see one passage, heavily underlined, an expression of my papal imprimatur.  Pullman says he is not interested in the “ponderous interpretations” to which the tales have been subjected.  He is not interested in the “…Freudian, Jungian, Christian, Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, post-modernist and every other kind of tendency.” 

Spot on!  I have no time for all of this sub-Jungian twaddle either.  The point is that this entire ponderous explanatory superstructure is not just so; this is just so much extraneous rubbish; this is the tendentious uses of enchantment school.  Pullman believes that most of the interpretations offered are little more than seeing pleasant patterns in the sparks of a fire, doing no harm.  Well, perhaps, though for me much of the over-intellectualising is little better than a verbal form of the Emperor’s new clothes.  There is simply nothing there. 

Pullman is interested in the stories as stories.  Yes, yes; that is how it should be.  He came to my bedside.  I lie down, tucked-in, cosy and warm, under my duvet, waiting once again to be thrilled, charmed and beguiled. They are mostly there, the familiar like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood – a particular favourite -, along with the less familiar like Gambling Hans and Godfather Death

But, please, hold on: this is not quite right; this is not just so.  It’s clever, yes, but cleverness is not what I want.  The author has taken the tales at face value, part of an oral tradition, subject to change, variation and retelling over time.  The Grimms were guilty, if that is the word, of their own adaptations, which took a more gentrified form in their later collections.  Now Pullman has his spin, his retelling. 

But I want familiarity, I want to take the paths I remember; I do not want innovation, no matter how clever the story teller. I can’t say to Pullman, stop: I want it like this, not like that.  I can’t say that’s not what happened.  What works well for you does not work well for me.  That is the biggest disappointment of this book – there is simply too much Pullman.  The materials are beautifully dark enough without his over-voice and polish.   

Thursday 20 September 2012

The Witch Camps of Ghana

An article of mine on the scandal of witch refugee camps in the African country of Ghana has headed the most read list on BrooWaha for the past few days.  It was published there under the title No Country for Old Women.  I feel sure that it will also be of interest to my blog readers. 

Perhaps you’ve visited Salem in Massachusetts. If not, you may have been to Pendle in the English county of Lancashire, another northern community. Salem is well-known, Pendle less so, but both have a common link: they were the location of notorious seventeenth century witch hunts.

Now, of course, it’s all good fun, an opportunity for witch tourism. In Salem one can enjoy the Haunted Happenings; in Lancashire it’s possible to ride every Witch Way. Both places have recreated the trials of the accused for visitors, interesting, educational and diverting.

It’s all past; it’s all innocent fun. There are places, though, where witchcraft is neither new age nor diversion. There are places where accusations of malevolent magic can rise with shocking suddenness, often with fatal consequences. There are places where our past is their present.

In Ghana in West Africa up to a thousand women, most of them elderly, have been banished to remote camps in the north of the country. They include eighty-year-old Zeniebu Sugru, accused of being a witch after her nephew took ill and died. In fear of her life, she was obliged to take refuge in one of the six northern camps. Some of the women who live in these primitive places, without electricity or running water, have been there for thirty years or more.

BBC Radio recently highlighted the problem in a broadcast entitled No Country for Old Women. A number of people were interviewed, Zeniebu among them. Of the accusation against her she said “I knew it wasn’t true. I have never used witchcraft. But when I heard that they were planning to bury me alive in the boy’s grave, I knew I had to escape.” She did, eight years ago, leaving behind her grandchildren and all her possessions. There is little hope that she will ever be able to return to her former home in safety.

Samata Adulai is also in her eighties. She used to live in the village of Bulli in the south of the country, where she cared for her twin grandchildren while her daughter worked in the fields. One day her brother came to visit, telling her that her life was in danger: she had been accused of bewitching her niece after the girl died.

There was no possibility of facing down the charge: no, it was flight or death. “I was confused and filled with fear because I knew I was innocent. But I know that once people call you a witch your life is in danger and so without waiting to pick up any of my belongings, I just fled the village.”

Conditions in the witch camps are deplorable. Those who live in the settlement at Kukuo have to walk three miles each day to the River Oti for water, elderly people carrying heavy pots up and down hills. They survive by collecting firewood, selling bags of peanuts or working in local farms. “What is happening is an abuse of human rights”, said Adowa Kwateng-Kluvitse, the country director of ActionAidGhana. “The camps are effectively women’s prisons where the inmates are given a life sentence.”

These witch camps seem to be unique to Ghana but the accusations of witchcraft are not. And it isn’t just a problem for women; children are targeted too, across large parts of Africa: in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and the Central African Republic. Lynchings are commonplace. The problem has even made it to England. Two years ago in Newham in east London fifteen-year-old Kristy Bamu was tortured and drowned in a bath by his sister and her partner attempting to exorcise ‘demons.’

There are some comparisons with past persecutions in Europe and America. In Ghana most of the women in Kukuo are widows, accused and banished after their husbands had died. The suggestion is that an accusation of witchcraft is an easy way for other members of the family to take control of the property. “The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana”, said Professor Dzodi Tsikata of the University of Ghana, “Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.”

The government, which sees these places as a blot on the country’s reputation, is anxious to disband the camps. There is one thing preventing this: the safety of the women returning home cannot be guaranteed. One form of insurance is to undergo a ‘cleansing’ ritual. At Kukuo, Samata Adulai obtained the services of one of the local fetish priests, to determine her innocence or guilt. In a special ritual a chicken has its throat cut. As it flutters around people wait to see how it will fall. It lands on its back, beak in the air. Smiles all round: the woman is innocent.

So much depends on the chicken. If it had fallen in any other way the ritual then proceeds to a potentially fatal level. If Samata had been declared guilty she would had to have undergone a cleansing ceremony, drinking a concoction of chicken blood, monkey skulls and soil. The exorcism is only considered effective if the woman does not fall ill within seven days. If she does, and survives, she has to do the whole thing again.

But even after this there is no guarantee that they will be accepted. So great is the fear of witchcraft, or the love of property, that not all communities are prepared to accept the return of the exiles. Once a witch, always a witch, so the view sadly goes.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The King of King's Code

Mr and Mrs Jesus
You know it all already, don’t you?  You know that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, having penetrated the code and read the gospel according to Da Brown, or at least seen the movie of the gospel of the code of the book.  Even so, it might interest to know that a far older code has been discovered proving the same point…or proving that Dan Brown is a lot older than he pretends!

I fragment of papyrus has been discovered, an ancient Da Vinci Code, which makes the ‘explosive suggestion’ (that’s Daily Mail, not Ana speak) that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were man and wife.  The report I read in the Mail pompously declares that the discovery “undermines centuries of Church dogma by suggesting that the Christian Messiah was not celibate.” 

Au contraire, monsieur le Mail; this undercurrent has been around for centuries, part of a Gnostic tradition, text that did not make it into the official text, Satanic Verses, if you like.  The Gospel of Philip promoted the marriage claim centuries before Dan Brown.  But the Gospel of Philip, along with that of Thomas and Mary Magdalene herself, is among the scriptural also rans.  In other words Christian dogma trumps the other dogma; the Nicene Creed trumps the Gnostic heresy!  

Anyway, this in the cryptic script, translated from ancient Coptic, the language of Biblical Egypt;

…not [to] me.  My mother gave me li[fe]…
The disciples said to Jesus,
deny.  Mary was worthy of it
Jesus said to them, My wife
she will be able to be my disciple
Let wicked people swell up
As for me, I dwell with her in order to
an image.

An image?  What image!  Hmm, yes, well, you can make of that what you wish. What Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, wants to make of it is quite a lot.  She recently told the Smithsonian Magazine that the fragment casts doubt “on the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’ celibacy.”  Oh, really, more so than the far more complete Gospel of Philip?  In time to come we may have the Gospel of Karen to add to the unofficial canon, or a new cracking bestseller – The Da King Code.

Hey, let’s get our feet back on the ground and look at the picture a little more soberly. To begin with, Jesus was a practicing Jew, a rabbi.  There is nothing in Jewish tradition and law that would proscribe marriage for such a person.  More than that, an unmarried rabbi is likely to have been considered as a bit of an oddity. 

The other thing is that the Catholic Church itself did not always insist on priestly celibacy.  That came later, when the performance of sacred duties was felt to be incompatible with carnal marriage.  When the Church decided on the purity of the priesthood it was easy to fall back on the canonically accepted Jesus as the avatar of perfection. 

There was no problem in this.  Scripture is completely silent on Jesus’ marital status, pointing neither one way nor the other.  But the whole point of Christianity is its novelty – it took a rabbi and prophet and turned him into the Messiah and the Son of God.  The Son of God as a carnal being? – never in a month of sexless Sundays! 

I always find it amusing when an academic advances a bridge too far, when making a mark rather than scholarly probity and caution becomes the important thing.  It’s like the silly fuss over the ‘discovery’ of the remains of Richard III in the archaeological dig at Leicester, a conclusion trumpeted before the facts have been fully established.  Wait and see, always wait and see.  

Professor King does not wait.  She goes that much further.  Never mind dead bones; she has the living text!  There she is, a more fatal Martin Luther, ready to shake the Catholic Church to its foundations with an enigma that is no enigma, a revelation that is no revelation!  It’s such a pity that Philip and Dan got there first.  It makes her dramatic dénouement look just a tad derivative and oh so passé.  

Stop Press!

There have been developments.  This ‘explosive’ evidence has been systematically rubbished by other specialists since I wrote this story at breakfast time this morning.  Now the King herself, in the light of this, is backtracking, at least to a point. 

With the stable doors creaking and groaning in the wind she says: “We still have some work to do, testing the ink and so on and so forth, but what is exciting about this fragment is that it's the first case we have of Christians claiming that Jesus had a wife.”  To this she adds that the papyrus itself provides no evidence (what?!) that Jesus was married, merely that ‘some Christians’ believed he was two hundred years after his death. 

Yes, and would ‘some Christians’ go by the name of Philip; would some Christians be considered as Gnostics?  She has also revealed – what a surprise – that the unnamed owner wants to sell it. 

"There are all sorts of really dodgy things about this,' said David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk.  "This looks to me as if any sensible, responsible academic would keep their distance from it.”  Ouch!  Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first turn into the Hollis Professor of Divinity. 

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Dumb for the Dumber

It’s as predictable as spotting the first cuckoo of spring.  No sooner has the television news broadcast students celebrating success in the annual school examination round than a reaction follows, a wave of laments over ‘dumbing down’ and the general decline in standards.  The whole thing is just too absurdly easy, the cry goes up, as universities struggle to winnow out a superabundance of hopeful candidates.

Now Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has said hold, enough!  The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), taken at the age of sixteen, is to be replaced with an English Baccalaureate, placing far greater emphasis on traditional ‘hard core’ subjects, away from the soft social studies porn favoured by school boards anxious to make their mark on league tables, things which measure quantity rather than quality. 

It’s a start, I suppose.  The aim, apparently, is to restore faith in the examination system, to stop schools ‘teaching to the test.’  “It is time for the race to the bottom to end,” said the Education Secretary. “It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. It is time to raise aspirations, restore rigour to our examinations and equip children for the 21st century.”

I admire his courage.  He has set himself a Herculean task that will need more than a little labour to compete.  Ah, Labour, yes, there is Labour, slavering away in the wings.  Falling off the tree, Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, contradicted Gove, saying with machine-like predictability that the plan will not work, that it does not meet the needs of society or the modern economy.  “We need to face the challenges of the 21st century,” he said. “I don’t accept that we achieve that by returning to the system abolished as out-of-date in the 1980s.”

Instead we will have more of the same, those pictures of jubilant students, with excellent grades in all sorts of media studies, who turn up for employment, fully armed…and unable to express themselves in the most rudimentary forms of written English.

Yes, a Herculean task because the damage goes back decades, further back than the 1980s, right back to the trendy educational theories of the 1960s, right back to a wholesale campaign to destroy the grammar school system, no more than an act of petty spite which, paradoxically, reduced the life chances of so many talented people from modest backgrounds. 

I know that GCSEs were introduced by the Tories but the greater harm was the work of successive Labour administrations from the time of Harold Wilson onwards.  As one respondent to the Daily Telegraph report noted, it was Tony Blair’s government that reduced examination standards to the point where even that grade-A thicko John Prescott could pass.   If iron rusts what will gold do? 

Passing, that was the thing; everyone should pass; no-one should fail.  But examinations are as much about failing as passing, otherwise why have them at all?  In passing almost everyone on the nod the whole point of an examination is lost, measures that measure nothing other than mediocrity and the great spirit of collective stupidity.  The best are not raised.  They are taken, rather, to the lowest common denominator, because common denominators are all that matters.  Whereas the Germans have been able to separate out academic and technical ability for over a century, with no loss to either, we could only cook up a soggy porridge, with loss to all. 

University is not for everyone, academic excellence is not for everyone.  Let me be even more candid: there are those born to failure and no amount of tinkering and social engineering will alter that basic fact.  But this is a truth that dare not speak its name, at least in political circles, and of course among the wretched teaching unions, the dumb for the dumber. 

Good luck, Mister Secretary; you will certainly need it.  Just one piece of advice – please be mindful of the fact that you cannot build a cabin without breaking twigs. 

Monday 17 September 2012

Last Man Standing

For the last two weekends I've almost given up my usual Friday social whirl.  Why, you ask?  Simply because I've been seduced and beguiled by the BBC's adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford's novel Parade's End.  It's brilliant television, with an excellent cast and a hugely impressive script by Tom Stoppard, all the more impressive given the complexity of the novel (actually its four novels in one).  If I describe the production as Downtown Abbey for grownups that might give you a little flavour.  It's Downton Abbey in that it covers much the same period, but Parade's End is as clever and commendable as the former is risible and second rate. 

Actually my engagements were too pressing to forgo, so thank the gods for iPlayer, knowing that it was there waiting for me to savour at my own leisure.  And how I savoured the delicious Benedict Cumberbatch as an eatable Christopher Tietjens, the book's saint-like and suffering hero.  I would have watched it simply for his beautiful English, for those wholly delicious vowel sounds, unpolluted by dirty estuary waters.  But along with that comes a performance just as immaculate as his speech.  

That would be well enough, but the second barrel of the gun is Rebecca Hall playing his wife Sylvia, just as excellent in every way, cool, detached and calculating.  While the other characters are not quite in the same league as these two, they are only a shade or two short of superb, especially Roger Allam as General Campion and Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop, Tietjens’ lover who is not a lover, because circumstances have a fortunate tendency to postpone consummation!

I actually started Some Do Not... (yes, the three dots are in the title), the first of the quartet, a couple of years ago but then was sidetracked by other things.  I took it down from the shelf to see my place marker still there, some sixty pages in.  I so regret not persevering at the time, which would surely have added to my enjoyment of the television drama.  I intend to make good soon, just as I intend to order the series when it comes out on DVD.

Christopher Tietjens, as I say, is a kind of saint; Sylvia Tietjens a kind of devil.  He is Saint Anthony; she is the demon sent to taunt him.  With the action opening shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, we are introduced to Tietjens as England's last gentleman, a Tory, as he describes himself, of an exact type.  With his standards of decency and impeccable code of honour he is out of place in his time.  He would have been even more out of place in our time, set against a moral and political caricature like David Cameron, a Tory of a wholly inexact type.  

Sorry; I'm getting away from the point.  Tietjens is out of time.  His time, be believes, was the seventeenth century, "the only satisfactory age in England."  Actually he would have been just as out of place then as in his Edwardian twilight.  A victim of social malice, he would have been an even greater victim in the morally debased court of Charles II, a place where it was as well to take religious conviction and personal probity so far and no further.  I just imagine the saintly Christopher set against a notorious rake like John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, whom Sylvia would surely have taken as a lover!

And she does take a lover, less for the pleasure it gives her (she actually treats the benighted man as a bit of a joke) and more for the pain it gives her husband.  If he belongs to the past she is very much is a girl of the present, or even the future, anticipating the racier standards of conduct that were to follow the War.  Despite her adultery (he is not even sure if his son is his) Tietjens refuses to divorce her because, well, gentlemen don't do that.  She can, if she wishes, but she won't because she is a Catholic, a very flexible Catholic, I should add, mindful of the interdicts against divorce, ignoring those against adultery.  But they complement each other beautifully, just as Cumberbatch complements Hall.  

He is a masochist; she is a sadist. The more he suffers, the more she tortures, almost ruining his reputation and standing in society in the pursuit of her whims.  The paradox is that he is the only man whom she admires, the only grown up, such a contrast with her lover, the ridiculous and melodramatic Potty Perowne, well played by Tom Mison in the Beeb adaptation.  There was a really amusing scene in the most recent episode set in Rouen during the War, Christopher now being at the front.  Potty is in the same hotel.  Sylvia has denied him sex, her room locked against his urgent pleadings.  She tells him that it will be unlocked on this particular night, though he may not like what she has to offer.  He doesn’t - box in the ears from Christopher, who also happens to be there!  

This episode, the penultimate, concluded with a terrific scene between Tietjens and General Campion, a man who has acted as his frustrated protector against all the forces that would pull him down.  Now he has no choice but to send him to almost certain death at the front.  "What is a man to do when a woman is unfaithful, sir?” asks Christopher "Divorce the harlot", the general replies, "Or live with her like a man.  What sort of fellow wouldn't see that?”  Christopher falls back on his antique standards "There used to be, among families, a position...a it parade", he manages to say.  "Was there?", returns the general, "Well there are no more parades for that regiment.  It held out to the last man but you were him."

I shall be sorry to see this parade end.  I expect it will be some time before I almost stay in on Friday night again.

Sunday 16 September 2012

A Warrant for Lawlessness

Rimsha Masihi is of uncertain age.  According to her parents she is only eleven.  According to a report submitted to a court in Islamabad in Pakistan she is ‘about’ fourteen.  In a way her age is irrelevant; eleven or fourteen, she is a juvenile under the law.  But that did not stop her from being held in a maximum security jail, all the while in solitary confinement.  It would be traumatic for anyone.  It was all the more traumatic for this underage girl because, according to some accounts, she has Down’s syndrome.

The present riots across much of the Islamic world over an insult to the Prophet Mohammed show how seriously people take their faith, and how seriously they react to any perceived offence.  It’s particularly serious in Pakistan, a country where the vast majority of people are Muslim, a country where blasphemy is punishable by life imprisonment or even by death. 

There is a paradox here.  Pakistan, as the Economist noted in a recent report, takes its religion seriously, yes, but it’s also a country where the Quran is routinely desecrated and the Prophet insulted.  Or at least it is judging by the number of cases brought before the courts under the blasphemy legislation. 

Rimsha is one such accused.  Vulnerable, educationally sub-normal and illiterate, she was accused of blasphemy in August after a neighbour and a local imam claimed that she had burned pages of the holy book.  Given that little girl is a Christian, part of the country’s tiny and cowed minority, the alleged offence was all the worse. 

She is the most unlikely and yet the most likely victim imaginable.  No sooner had the accusation been raised than a mob gathered outside her home in a slum district of Islamabad, threatening to burn her family to death.  The whole Christian community had to flee in terror of reprisals, as the girl was taken into custody.

The threat against Rimsha and her family was real enough.  In 2009 accusations of blasphemy against Christians living in Gojira in Punjab province saw eight people being burned alive by a mob.  More recently, a mentally disturbed Muslim man, arrested for blasphemy in the city of Bahawalpur, was dragged out of prison by a 2000-strong lynch mob and set on fire. 

In a recent article for BrooWaha detailing the plight of elderly women in Ghana accused of witchcraft (No Country for Old Women, 6 September) I made the point that there was some similarity in these cases with older forms of persecution in Europe and America.  Superstition is only part of the explanation; the rest is made up of more venal motives, often centring on personal or material factors

A similar process seems to be at work in Pakistan, where false accusations made under the blasphemy laws are used to settle personal scores or to lay claim to property.  In the case of Rimsha it gives all the appearance of pure sectarian intolerance, a convenient way of clearing out all of the local Christian families in the area where she lived.

She has now been released on bail.  Not only is the case against her weak in the extreme but her treatment also provoked an international outcry over the treatment of minorities in Pakistan.  More than that, two weeks after Rimsha was detained, Mohammad Khalid Chisti, the local imam and her chief accuser, was arrested after his deputy at the mosque claimed that he himself had secretly planted the pages of the Quran in her bag to make it seem that she had burnt them. 

But the case has acquired implications going beyond Pakistan’s borders. For some questions of innocence or guilt are clearly irrelevant.  There are those in the Muslim community prepared to speak up for Rimsha.  There are others, like a university student quoted in a recent Times report who said that the bail decision was wrong and against Islam – “As Muslims our goal should be to please God and not the US”, he said, “This decision may force people to take the law into their own hands.”  The threat could not be clearer. 

There have to be questions raised about the mentality and the morality of people who find injustice and persecution ‘pleasing to God.’  There have to be questions about a country that allows blasphemy law to be used as a tool of repression and mob violence.  It’s certainly true that there are those in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party who recognise the problem but they raise objections at their own peril.  Last year two of the party’s leaders were gunned down after criticising the law. 

In the end I think the case against Rimsha will be dropped, after the present national and international fires have damped down.  But no matter what the outcome she and her family are unlikely ever to return to their former lives.  For them there is never likely to be justice, just law that acts as a warrant for lawlessness.  

Thursday 13 September 2012

Nick Clegg the Flip Flop Man

I’m a bigot; it’s official.  Nick Clegg said so, or he did not say so, or he intended to say so but would now like to pretend that he never intended to say so, or he is not really sure what he wanted to say or how to say it.  Well, that’s our benighted Deputy all over, as stupid is as stupid comes, and they do not come any more stupid. 

You see, all those who have raised objections over gay marriage are ‘bigots’ or not bigots or pretend I never said bigot or whatever.  I know, I know; I’m in danger of tripping up in verbal gymnastics.  It’s that silly ass Clegg’s fault!  He has me thinking like him.  I don’t know which is up and which is down and which way is which.

I oppose gay marriage in my bigoted way not because I have an in principle or moral objection to same sex partnerships, though many do.  No, I oppose it because, as I have argued previously, it’s the worst kind of empty gesture politics, policy for the sake of policy, doing for the sake of doing, something I associate with the intellectually barren Liberal Democrats. 

Anyway, here is the former Thought of Chairman Clegg, something he would now rather you never saw, sludge that leaked out of his office:

Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we “postpone” the equalities agenda in order to deal with “the things people really care about”. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

That’s the way to do it, to dismiss much of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church for holding to centuries of Christian teaching about marriage.  They are bigots who simply refuse to drift with Clegg’s moral tide.  Then there are the Conservative MPs, Clegg’s Coalition ‘allies’, who oppose it as a diversion and a massive waste of Parliamentary time.  They, too, are bigots.  This is liberalism new style, an illiberal dismissal of all opposition.  Oh, incidentally, gay marriage is not exactly favoured by Muslims either.  Is Clegg guilty of hate crime? 

No sooner had the pearls of Clegg dropped than his office went on an urgent damage limitation recall which, as these things do, simply amplified the offence.  A new version of the speech was issued, Stalinist style, with bigots airbrushed out.  In their place came ‘some people.’  Yes, I am some person! 

Colin Hart, of the Coalition for Marriage, was one of those who leaped at the Clegg throat, accusing him of intolerance.  He accused him of more than that.  “If he believes that 70 per cent of the population who oppose his plans are bigots, he should say it, rather than trying to withdraw this disgraceful comments after press-releasing them.” Downing Street sources insisted that there was no Tory involvement in the withdrawal.  “This is all their own mess”, one helpfully added. 

The backtracking is getting more and more vigorous.  Apparently the ‘bigot’ text was not Clegg’s at all.  Yes, I know that politicians have others write their speeches for them, but they generally know what they want to say.  Not Clegg, apparently.  Bigot slips in and out with commendable ease.  Actually I’m quite disappointed.  I wish he had gone the all the way, accusing all those who take a different view from him of being fascists.  A bigot and a fascist, how I would have loved that! 

It’s obvious that bigot really was the word of choice, not just the slip of some pathetic ghost writer.  On big matters like this there is no mistake.  It takes us right to the heart of the whole stinking modern liberal project.  Theirs is the way, the only way.  The others can be shouted down and dismissed.  Clegg and his gang have the mentality of petty bullies, whose only mode of debate is name-calling and insults.  More than that, their inconsistence, Clegg’s inconsistency, shows them to be the worst kind of flip-flopping hypocrites. 

I begin to hate this government as much as I hated the previous government, and oddly enough for many of the same reasons; there is no principle, there is no substance, there is only the shallowest opportunism, the silly politics of the metro chattering classes.

Islington Man lives; he lives in the debased form of Nick Clegg, the Little Corporal of contemporary British politics.  For once I agree with the New Statesman.  Clegg has one commendable achievement in this affair – he has managed to unite the right and the left in the loathing they have for him.  I used to think that John Prescott was the stupidest deputy in Parliamentary history.  I was wrong.  

Wednesday 12 September 2012

The Mighty Pens

Madonna and Marine le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, are not exactly on kissing terms.  During her Paris concert the singer performed against a background video which at one point showed the politician with a swastika superimposed on her face. 

At once Ms Le Pen’s lawyers got to work.  A lawsuit for public defamation and insult was filed.  A just let her try that again, the message went out.  Madonna appeared in Nice.  She did not try it again.  Marine was still in her video, aimed at promoting tolerance, so I understand, though this time the swastika was missing, a question mark in its place.  The inference here, of course, is she or isn’t she?  I can’t be sure if Madonna was intimidated by the lawsuit or by the people of Nice, much more pro-Marine than the cosmopolitan capital.  So it was nice in Nice! 

The conservative Le Figaro, for some bizarre reason, chose to describe the vanishing swastika as a sign of ‘appeasement.’  There is no reason to suppose that Le Pen is a Nazi and every reason why she should object to being associated with a Nazi symbol.  Defamation is defamation, something even Madonna recognises, though not, apparently, the editor of Le Figaro

Image is such a sensitive thing, particularly for Marine, busy updating and modernising the National Front, away from the days of Jean-Marie, her politically antediluvian father, an echo of Vichy in the modern age, or, better said, for those who know their French history, of the infamous Paris collaborationists. 

The daughter is not the father; she wants none of this past baggage.  The skinhead entourage has gone.  The nostalgia for Vichy and for French Algeria, the vanished paradise of the Pieds-Noirs, has gone.  The Front now looks to the front, which is to the future.  The right-wing causes are still there, the concern over the effects of mass immigration, the concern over culturally alien elements and the deracination of France is still there.  But the Holocaust is no longer a ‘detail of second world war history’, as Le Pen père once said; rather it represents the ‘summit of human barbarism.’

Less macho and less brutish in its political ways, the Front is now appealing to more women voters.  Nonna Meyer, a university professor, in a study of French voting patterns argues that the increase support for the National Front can be explained by a shift in the allegiance of women, working-class women in the main.  In the first round of this year’s presidential election approximately 30% of women working in non-manual professions voted for Marine, compared with only 13% for her father in 2007. 

So, it’s onwards and upwards, possibly through the invisible wall which has traditionally ensured that the far right, and the communist left, has never managed to escape from a ghetto percentage of the vote: fifteen percent here, fifteen percent there, always fifteen percent!  Now the heights of twenty do not seem impossibly out of reach. 

The new face of the Front is not the ugly skinheads of the past - it’s female; it’s twenty-two-year old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece and Jean-Marie’s granddaughter, who was elected to the National Assembly in June.  A law student, she is the youngest representative in France’s modern political history. 

There is a problem; there is a muttering in the background; there is Jean-Marine Le Pen, hanging around like the ancient mariner.  One is tempted to say with fathers like this who needs enemies!  In his political dotage, he was recently heard to mumble that his daughter’s moderation on certain issues was due to her petit-bourgeois upbringing. “Marine’s strategy”, he said, “is to give our adversaries as small a target as possible to attack. For instance, all those courageous and dynamic activists who get noticed because they have shaven heads have been pushed aside.”

So, it’s all a front Front, is it?  Yes, the blonde tresses in place of the shaved heads, in everyway more appealing, but is it just the same old same old?  Personally I think not, not matter what the old Banquo says at the feast.  He really is the past; the future might very well be something quite different.  There are views than can no longer be ignored in our brave new European world that would brush democracy, along with the Pens, under the carpet of history.  I personally believe that the Pen is mightier than the Bureaucrat.  

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Lawrence and Lovers

I was asked recently for my view on the writer D. H. Lawrence, particularly in reference to his perception of women.  This is my view, uncompromising in my inimitable, no prisoners fashion.  If you admire Lawrence and his writing what follows comes with an apoplexy warning! 

Sons and Lovers was one of the set texts in my English Lit class at high school, really my first acquaintance with Lawrence. I didn't like it at all. More than that - I hated it. But, since it's wrong to judge a writer on the basis of one book, I persevered, reading Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as well as some of his shorter fiction.

Evelyn Waugh said that Lawrence could not write for toffee, which is far too mild a criticism; he could not write for anything. As far as I am concerned he is a complete literary fraud, one who managed to achieve a fashionable notoriety. His prose is cloying, indulgent and wholly inauthentic. I've likened it to wading through treacle. I particularly despise his bogus metaphysics, his soft-soap spirituality. I remember in Sons and Lovers stumbling over 'soul' in every other sentence, as if using the word ad nauseum somehow gave his writing soul. It most assuredly did not.

I'm getting away from the point, which is his perception of women. He knew absolutely nothing about women. His understanding of feminine psychology is impoverished in the extreme, rather odd in that he gave women a leading part in a number of his books. But these are not women as women; these are not people as people. They are manikins; women reflected through a particular set of male attitudes; women there, if you like, not in their own right but to affirm and reassure men. They are objects, not subjects.

Let's look specifically at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Poor Connie; a sexually impotent husband and a brutish lover like Mellors the gamekeeper, a sort of avatar of Lawrence himself. For all its explicit sexuality it's a completely unerotic book, as lifeless as the products of modern day pornography. Women only exist as submissive chattels. If they are in any way sexually assertive, well, then, they must be lesbians. Otherwise it's lie back and think of England; no love, no passion, no intimacy, no tenderness; just pointless animalistic thrusting.

Is it really a surprise that the only intimacy Mellors is able to achieve is when he is sodomising Connie? And as far as Connie's own attitude towards sex is concerned you have the Mellors/Lawrence commandeering her point of view: "And how, in fear, she had hated it! But how she had really wanted it." There you are - the literary justification for rape. No really does mean yes.

Then there is Mellors wife, who can only get sexual satisfaction through masturbation. He, in his disgust, "took her by the neck and squeezed the life out of her." You see the only women who get satisfaction out of sex, according to Mellors and Lawrence, are black - more like animals -, but they are a turn off for white men because they "look like mud." Quite frankly there is more sexual sadism than love in Lawrence's oeuvre. He knew nothing of women and less of love. He is the last person I would trust to say anything meaningful about real women and real love.

I hope in time more and more people will understand just what a phoney he was, just how worthless most of his writing is insofar as it touches on genuine human feelings and emotions. There is a lot of soul, though.

I wrote about him here a couple of years ago, a piece I headed A Load of Balls (November 4, 2010), which really sums up my view. And here is my summing up -

The thing is I think Lawrence is a grossly overrated writer. I’ve read his main novels, beginning with Sons and Lovers, and I’ve hated them all; hated his overripe metaphysics, his bogus and insincere spirituality, his inflated and unlikable characters and his florid use of language. There is nothing in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that could possibly ‘deprave and corrupt’…it’s just an overblown mess, a bad book by a second rate writer. All the naughty words, all the ‘arse’, ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’, ‘shit’ and ‘balls’ will never make up for the fact that Lady Chatterley, like the rest of this unpleasant man’s canon, is, well, a load of balls.

The prosecution rests.

Monday 10 September 2012

King Tony’s Head

Seemingly Tony Blair is to be honoured with a portrait bust in the Member’s Lobby of the House of Commons.  It’s difficult to see how this could be avoided, in that many other former Prime Minister are present, going right back to the beginning of the last century.  Baroness Thatcher is there, the only person to be so honoured in her lifetime. 

There are other times in history when Blair’s head might have regaled the Palace of Westminster – outside on a spike.  I know it’s wrong of me but I simply can’t take an objective view of this man, this hypocrite who drips his Christian faith, all the more hypocritical for that. 

He seems to me to be a morally debased figure, a man who did untold damage to this country, through reckless expenditure, through uncontrolled immigration and through pointless and unwinnable foreign wars.  It will take generations before his baleful and malign influence is fully assessed and understood.  He came to power in 1997 with no greater agenda than power.  His policies thereafter were based on expediency and opportunism, devoid of all guiding principle.  The Labour Party was no more than the debased vehicle of his ambition. 

He still haunts his old party, although he seems to be a less than welcome guest.  Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, apparently looks on him with some favour, though.  There was even some speculation that he may have been brought into the shadow cabinet in some role or other.  Yes, a shadow among the shadows. 

All is not lost.  Millipede intends to draw on the former PM’s experience both in governing Britain and more recently as a Middle East peace envoy in the run up to the next general election.  Governing Britain; that’s easy, just spend, spend and spend, oh, yes, not to forget the introduction of a lot unnecessary legislation, the pursuit of one politically correct chimera after another, a case of hunting the political Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Middle East peace envoy, well, yes, there’s a thing, a real measure of the Blair Witch Project, flying in , flying out, casting few spells, leaving things just as they are.  Saying peace, peace, when there is no peace.  He’s accumulated lots of air miles, though; I suppose that’s an expertise of a kind. 

Britain is doubtless too little a pond for this big fish.  Apparently he sees himself as a future president of Europe, though not quite yet, not for the moment.  What a pity.  For once I actually want him to get a job; I would welcome him as Mister Europe.  My greatest delight - assuming the Europeans could be sold the package - would be for him to become President of Europe just as this country withdraws from the Union. There is that, or his head decorating the Palace of Westminster.    

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Monster in our Midst

We all have our favourite monsters from childhood.  One of mine was Captain Hook from J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan.  It was a tingly delight to see him brought to life by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Hook.  My, look, see that big iron hook in place of his missing hand; that was the stuff of nightmares.  Wake up!  Monsters don’t exist; they are all in the imagination.

Oh, no, they are not, I retort in my best pantomime style.  Childhood fears give way to adult realities.  Monsters do exist.  They are here, living among us.  There are few more monstrous than Abu Hamza al-Masri.  Like the fictitious Hook, Hamza has a hook.  But the Captain, for all his wickedness, has a certain charm; Hamza has none.  He is nothing but a nightmare, unrelieved in any way.

He is in our midst at the moment.  He has been for years, presently in prison, fighting deportation to the United States on terrorism charges.  He only has one hand and one eye, though where the missing appendages went is a matter of some dispute.  He says that they were lost in Afghanistan, the result of an encounter with a landmine.  Others say that the injuries were sustained while he was practicing bomb making. 

A supporter of Osama bin-Laden, Hamza was formally an imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, which under his care became a setting for bile and hate, the message of a lesser God.  It was there on the first anniversary of 9/11 that he co-organised a conference praising the hijackers.  It was from there that he called for the creation of a caliphate and the destruction of democracy.  He was just another vampire, prepared to suck the life from the very system that guaranteed his freedom and his right to speak. 

But there are limits to tolerance.  In 2004 he was arrested for various offences under the Terrorism Act.  He was eventually found guilty of soliciting the murder of non-Muslims and incitement to racial hatred.  In sentencing him to seven years imprisonment, Mister Justice Hughes said that he had helped to “create an atmosphere in which to kill has become regarded by some as not only a legitimate course but a moral and religious duty in pursuit of perceived justice.”  

The judge went on to say;

No one can say what damage your words may have caused.  No one can say how often or widely your preaching was repeated. You are entitled to your views and in this country you are entitled to express them — up to the point where you incite murder or incite racial hatred.  You commended suicide bombing, you encouraged them to kill in the cause you set out for them. 

For years Hamza represented a clear and present danger, effectively ignored by successive governments, more attuned to ‘human rights’ than to human safety, the safety of the people of this country.  No action was taken despite mounting evidence of his involvement in international terrorism. 

We want rid of him.  The sooner he goes the better.  The sooner he is extradited to the United States, where he is wanted on various terrorist offences, the better.  Nothing could be simpler. 

Alas, when it comes to European law, ‘simple’ is a word that should never be used.  We in England come under the purview of the European Court of Human Rights, which really should be called the Terrorist Court of Last Resort.  People like Hamza know how to play the system.  He and his lawyers – it’s a really big earner - have been playing it for years, launching appeal after appeal with Strasbourg. 

In Hamlet the Prince muses on the law’s delays.  Shakespeare did not know the half of it.  The law’s delays?  Extradition has now been delayed for five years, the judges previously blocking his removal to the States just in case of… in case of what exactly?  Was the fear that he might not get a fair trial, that he might be tortured, that – God forbid – he might be executed?  No, none of this; the concern was that the poor creature might not live in the manner to which he had become accustomed; that the American prison system might just be a tad ‘too harsh.’ 

But at last came the dawn of reason.  In April of this year the judges ruled that he, along with other alleged terrorists, could be deported to the States because their facilities are better than our facilities.  Hamza – thank goodness- would have access to all of the things that make life worthwhile, like television, a telephone, and arts and crafts. 

That’s alright then; off you go Captain Hook.  So, why is he still with us?  Why?  Because – wait for it – another appeal, an appeal beyond the final appeal, has been lodged.  His lawyers have now applied for the case to be heard before the European Court’s Grand Chamber, twenty-four hours before the deadline for his removal had passed.  This consists of a panel of five judges, not due to assemble now for at least two months.  If they conclude that there is a case it may take another year before they reach a decision.  Yes, it is a joke, but I for one am not laughing.  

Hamza, of Egyptian birth, has cost this country millions, in welfare payments, in state housing, in health and prison bills, in trials and in appeals.  Up until April the legal bill alone amounted to £1.5million, that’s about $2.4million.  There are other costs, too, that he has brought to us, costs associated with his wretched family. 

The hook-handed, one-eyed imam was in the habit of preaching against the moral laxity and the ‘decadence’ of the West.  He would know all about moral laxity and decadence, not from looking at Western society.  No, it comes a lot closer to home; it comes to his home.  In 2009 three of his sons were imprisoned for fraud involving stolen cars.  The following year another son was jailed for violent disorder and yet another for armed robbery.  Now, Imran Mostafa, (yes, yes, still another son; will the line go on to the crack of doom?), keeping the family tradition, has been convicted for his part in an armed raid on a jewellery store. 

Amongst other things Hamza wanted the introduction of Sharia law in this country, with the strictest of interpretations, I imagine.  One handed bandits might then also have become a tradition in his family, like father, like sons.  But we, in our decadence, do not descend to barbarism.  We just allow barbarians to live among us.