Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How convenient

This morning I was wondering why the Remainiacs have not come up with the great theory that it was really Mr Putin wot won the Brexit vote through some nefarious intervention. Right on cue, we have Ben Bradshaw MP coming up with that particular theory for which he admits having no evidence at all but it stands to reason, innit.

Mr Bradshaw seems to think that it has somehow been proven that Donald Trump won the election (through the electoral college, let it be noted, not the popular vote) because of some complicated behaviour on the part of the Russians in revealing e-mails that had probably been leaked. Nothing much has been proved yet though it might be in future. Incidentally, I can recall a time when journalists would have been asking why the CIA or, at least, some unknown and unnamed operatives of it were intervening in the electoral process and, apparently, trying to force a re-run. As to Brexit, this is what Mr Bradshaw said [scroll down in Hansard as the Huffpo quotations are wrong and semi-literate];
We have not even begun to wake up to Russia’s cyber-warfare. Its interference in the American presidential elections is now proven. It probably interfered in our own referendum—we do not have the evidence for that yet, but it is highly probable. It will certainly be involved in the French presidential election. There are already serious concerns in the German secret service that Russia is already interfering in the upcoming elections. We have to wake up to this, but when?
Hmm. Convenient. Even the American intervention is not actually fully proven and it is not clear what was achieved by any of the Russian actions, assuming they had taken place and the information had not simply been leaked. To say that it is highly probable that Russia interfered in the referendum though there is no evidence is, to put it mildly, irresponsible. And it will "certainly be involved in the French presidential election"? How does Mr Bradshaw know? Has Mr Putin consulted him?

Still, now we have a great story: when the people decide that they do not want to vote the way they are told by their betters, such as Labour MPs, they are not simply displaying signs of populism (my smelling salts, please); it is all arranged by the Russians because people would never act this way themselves. What it really echoes is Putin's own accusations against all the coloured revolutions on the Russian borders: none of them could have been carried out by the people, they were all organized, funded and carried out by the evil Americans. Mr Bradshaw and his ilk are merely echoing Vlad and his propagandists. Should we be listening to them?

Monday, December 12, 2016

And so we return

This has been a very long gap for tedious reasons to do with health problems. Let us not dwell on them. The blog is back and it seems quite unnecessary at this stage to become involved in the discussions around the various legal cases (another one coming up, I understand) to do with Brexit or with the Prime Minister's leather trousers. Why she shouldn't wear leather trousers if she wants to, I cannot even begin to understand. In fact, I rather approve of a British politician of either gender being interested in clothes and dressing well.

Enough of that.

I am the bearer of sad news. While I was away from this space I heard that Dr Ljubo Sirc has died, peacefully after a long and very full life. Last April when Ljubo turned 95 I wrote a posting about him and do not think I can add anything. He was a man I admired unreservedly, one of the great fighters against tyranny and the various horrors of the twentieth century. Much of what he created, including the Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies has survived and the fight will go on. But we shall miss Ljubo with his genial smile and his steel-like determination.

Rest In Peace, Ljubo.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Multiple Mask Murders

It so happens that I have fairly recently read two detective novels which revolved round multiple masks. To be quire precise, one, Josephine Bell's Death in Clairvoyance was about six people dressed as clowns in green and white costumes and masks at a fancy dress ball and the other one, Mavis Doriel Hay's The Santa Klaus Murder, was about two (as it turns out) people dressed as the not so jolly fat man in red costume and lots of facial hair.

Josephine Bell is one of the underrated writers of both classic detective stories and thrillers. A physician as well as a prolific author, she co-founded the Crime Writers' Association in 1953 and was later its Chair. A number of her books take place in and around hospitals and one of her series heroes is a medical student, later ever more eminent doctor, David Wintringham, who is the semi-amateur detective in Death in Clairvoyance as well.

It is 1949, the war is slowly receding into memory though there are still mined areas along the coast and, naturally, rationing, and the Wintringham family, David, his wife Jill and their four precocious children are on holiday by the sea when they become involved in the murder of one clown by, it seems, another clown. Seems is the right word since the murder is either sighted ahead or seen as it is happening in another part of the hotel by a clairvoyant. The victim turns out to be the clairvoyant's husband who had introduced distinctly cheating methods into her seances and caused her imprisonment. In the meantime, there are several chapters of people trying to sort out all the different clowns, who they were, when did they collect their costumes and putting the general mayhem into order.

The Wintringham children go off to investigate on their own and very nearly end up dead - the description of them being caught in a cave after an explosion and having to escape is taut and terrifying. There is another murder, an attempted murder, a seance and the criminal is unmasked.

Fascinatingly, the whole question of clairvoyance is treated with seriousness, leaving the reader to decide whether it is real. David and others spend some time thinking about the subject and wondering whether they believe it but it is clear that Odette Hamilton is not a fraud and does, indeed, see certain things. In fact, she is of some help to the investigators. This is rather different from the usual description of seances, for instance in Sayers's Strong Poison or A. E. W. Mason's At the Villa Rosa, both assuming that such practices are fraudulent though the intentions can be good.

Mavis Doriel Hay wrote only three detective novels in the thirties and these were forgotten until the British Library decided to reprint them. The Santa Klaus Murder is the last one she wrote (in 1936) and is, in my opinion, the best. They are all very well written (Mavis Doriel Hay was also an early graduate of Oxford, attending St Hilda's College about the same time as Sayers was at Somerville) but the other two have an ai of facetiousness that is absent in this novel, though the descriptions are still amusing.

The plot revolves round a possible new will to be made by a very rich man, a Christmas party with lots of incongruous guests as well as obnoxious children and two Santa Klaus costumes. There is a map, which is quite useful though the various comings and goings in the crucial half an hour are almost impossible to follow, a locked room as well as an impossible murder and a story written quite deliberately from several points of view. All very clever and enjoyable.

Though Santa Klaus does not wear a mask, it is a fair point that the hood, the whiskers, the eyebrows (very important) and the heavy dab of rouge makes it very hard to identify the wearer of the costume. Very hard but not impossible, I am glad to say, though I share the view of many children that there is something sinister about that fat man in red.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Sixty years ago


The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (known throughout my childhood in that country as the Counter-Revolution) lasted such a short period that people tend to get the dates wrong. I have seen comments yesterday about the anniversary of the Soviet tanks invading the country to put the uprising down. That did not happen till November 4 and they did not exactly invade as they had never left. The tanks and the troops had withdrawn from Budapest but fighting had gone on in other cities such as Győr in north-west Hungary. What happened on November 4 was the arrival of huge reinforcements and a move back into Budapest.

Back to October 23. Tens of thousands of people came out to demonstrate for a variety of related causes - from free elections to the abolition of the hated socialist symbols, imposed by he occupying Soviet power; from extra holidays to the return of Transylvania and many others. But overriding all this cacophony was the call for greater freedom and greater national independence.

The picture above is of the original demonstrators, staff and students, from the Budapest university filing past the 1849 Polish and Hungarian hero, General Bem. Somewhere in that crowd are my parents. My brother and I (once I came home from school soon after noon) were looked after by my grandmother. They did not return till late in the evening by which time the demonstration had become an uprising: fighting had broken out by the Radio Budapest where the soldiers, sent to help the ÁVH (the secret police and its troops) joined the crowds, and elsewhere. As demonstrators broke off and approached military barracks, gates were opened and arms surrendered. During the night Soviet military help, which was not that far away, was requested by the government and Soviet tanks entered Budapest. The fighting spread.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

So it can be done

Now that the great Marmite row has been settled, at least temporarily, with Tesco emerging as the unlikely champion of the ordinary shopper, we can all turn our attention to other matters related to Brexit, however distantly. This story must annoy the Remain campaign a lot as David Cameron's inability to secure a five year moratorium on welfare for EU migrants was one of the Leavers' best arguments. You see, we all said, nothing can be done, nothing can be achieved. Apparently, this is not so or belatedly not so.

On October 12, the German government approved a law
to curb social benefits for EU citizens who arrive in the country without a job, as it responds to pressure to get tough on migrants.

Under the draft legislation, which still needs to go through parliament, EU nationals who have never worked in Germany will have to wait five years before they can claim benefits.
One of the mysterious aspects of the whole process that eventually led to that vote on June 23 was Cameron's lack of success in his negotiations with his EU colleagues. We all knew or, at least, suspected that he would come back with a fudge but he came back with nothing. This would have been a popular agreement and would have been very useful to the Remain camp. Given what has just happened in Germany, it could have been pushed through Parliament but HMG, as usual, decided not to antagonize the EU.

Why exactly could the colleagues give Cameron more help? Did they not care what would happen in the UK or, more likely, could they really not believe that the people of this country would vote against the European project? One wonders what kind of regrets may have been voiced privately on June 24 about those negotiations.

Of course, there is a history to the problem in Germany as well.
The strict new measure comes after a federal court ruled last year that every EU citizen had the right to claim benefits once he or she had resided in Germany for six months.

The ruling sparked fears of “welfare tourism” from countries with a lower standard of living, and angered German municipalities who were already struggling with the financial burden of caring for last year’s record influx of migrants and refugees.

“It’s clear that anyone who lives here, works here and pays their contributions is also entitled to the benefits of our social system,” said Labour Minister Andrea Nahles after the cabinet adopted the legislation.

But for those “who have never worked here and rely on state financial aid to survive, the principle applies that they should claim livelihood benefits from their home country.”
Interestingly and annoyingly for the Remain camp,
A European Court of Justice legal adviser said on Tuesday that Germany may refuse nationals of other Member States ‘social security benefits for jobseekers who are in need of assistance, on the basis of a general criterion that demonstrates the absence of a genuine link with the host Member State,
So there we are. I can be done or that is what it looks like at the moment. But it is all too late for the Remainers. Perhaps they should turn their attention to matters such as this instead of trying to overturn the results of the referendum.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Death Wears a Mask

A new month and a new theme. We are coming up to Hallowe'en (which I tend to ignore as my house is protected by my black cat who sits on the window sill and glares at all potential trick-or-treaters) so it was decided to deal with murder in costume. As before Kate Jackson is collecting all the contributions on her blog. They are very well worth reading.

Several people wrote about Agatha Christie in the first week. It is, in fact, almost impossible to produce a clutch of blogs about classic detective stories (let us not get into an argument as to what is and what is not Golden Age) without mentioning that lady and her output. Despite the fact that it is fashionable to dismiss her work (a trend that, I am sorry to say, the Baroness James strongly contributed to) the truth is that it was often of the first order on many more levels than just clever plots, Several aspects of crime and detective fiction were pioneered by her.

My colleagues among the Tuesday Night Bloggers  covered a number of Christie's novels and short stories in which people wear masks in the sense of masquerading as someone else. Off the top of my head I can refer to A Murder Is Announced (in which only about two members of a household are what they say they are), After The Funeral (in which we see the same person in two guises without realizing it) and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (about which I cannot say anything without giving away the plot). There are others but I want to look at a slight adventure, one of the Beresfords' about whom I have written before here and here.

One of their adventures in Partners in Crime, which spreads over two stories, Finessing the King and The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper, deals with murder committed by a masked man with the victim also being masked. The crime is committed in a private room of a rather shady cafe, called The Ace of Spades, to which the Beresfords go at midnight, having attended (in Tommy's case reluctantly) The Three Arts Ball. They hear a cry and sinister laughter in the room next to theirs and go in to find a dying lady dressed as the Queen of Hearts, who manages to whisper that Bingo did it. Nothing is exactly straightforward and Tuppence manages to work out the truth because she remembers something Tommy had told her about differences in newsprint from day to day in what must be their favourite newspaper, The Daily Leader. That and the killer's sinister laughter.

Masquerading as another person or wearing a mask to hide the real personality is a frequent Christie device. In this story, the mask is physical - the killer assumes another's outfit in order to confuse both victim and police.

Like most of the stories in Partners in Crime this is clever but skight. As so often with Christie's work, it gives a delightful picture of life in London of a particular period, in this case, the mid-twenties - the fancy dress balls and the caffs one can go to for bacon and eggs or Welsh rabbit [that is the original spelling, by the way] afterwards; the ladies and gentlemen who manage to live on private income, which causes criminal problems and the ease with which one can acquire just the right fancy dress costume.

This is a McCarty Incog. story with Tuppence managing to get the right clothes for them to wear at the ball, pointing out that it is time they studied and imitated some American detective methods. (Their original plan or, rather, Tuppence's original plan is to work out what a particular personal ad means as a kind of practice as business is none too brisk. Actually, business for Blunt's Brilliant Detectives is never too brisk, which is surprising in the light of their success.) Tuppence is McCarty the former cop who usually solves the problem because of some simple comment by his friend Dennis Riordan, the fireman. That is what happens here.

The 1983 - 1984 TV series with Francesca Annis, James Warwick and Reece Dinsdale, a more successful version than the 2015 one abandoned several aspects of the original. There was no question of Soviet espionage, which made some of the introductory comments by Inspector Marriott (Mr Carter, the Chief, was dropped completely) somewhat incomprehensible and it was clearly decided that the audiences will not manage to understand the references to classic detective stories. No mention of McCarty and Riordan and Tuppence's costume is a rather poor version of somebody's idea of Sherlock Holmes while Tommy swelters away as Dr Watson. To be fair, none of the other detectives are mentioned either, which makes the Beresfords' lunch at the ABC Corner House (The Sunningdale Mystery) also incomprehensible. One can hear a subtext but there is no explanation.

I can't help feeling that is rather a pity. In the first place, one or two of the references would be comprehensible and, secondly, even if they are not, the idea of imitating great fictional detectives is a highly amusing one. You never know, some viewers might try to find out more.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

More about what is going on in Hungary

That referendum in which everyone was victorious has been superseded by other news. The first I heard of it was through an e-mail from a friend who is the Director of the Free Market Foundation in Hungary.  [The website is in Hungarian but if you ask Mr Google nicely he will give you a rough translation.] This is what Máté Hajba wrote:
Today is a dark day in Hungary's history. The already battered freedom of the press has suffered yet another blow, this time with the suspension of the biggest and one of the oldest Hungarian daily newspapers, Népszabadság.

The newspaper was a prestigious news outlet with excellent pundits. Free Market Foundation didn't agree with the position of the paper all the time, nevertheless we were on friendly terms, and they often reported on our activities favourably.

The publisher of Népszabadság has been recently bought by someone close to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who allegedly directed the purchase and the suspension of operations, as the newspaper had been uncovering sensitive details regarding corruption in the governing party Fidesz.
According to the Agence France-Presse story as published in the Telegraph, the sale is merely being rumoured.
On Saturday there was speculation that Népszabadság might also be soon sold to an Orbán ally, but Mediaworks, owned by a Austrian media magnate, made no mention of any sale.
Mediaworks is insisting that the decision to suspend the newspaper's publication has been made for entirely business reasons as the newspaper, despite being Hungary's biggest-selling broadsheet is a loss-making enterprise and some rethinking is necessary.
Mediaworks, which bought Nepszabadsag and several other Hungarian titles in 2014, said that its circulation had tumbled by 74 percent in the last 10 years, racking up losses of around 5 billion forints (16.4 million euros, $18.4 million).

The title must try to find a business model appropriate to market trends, the company said, calling on "all affected by the move to concentrate on that task".
Curiously enough, nobody really believes that and the ineffectual socialist opposition has called for a demonstration outside the newspaper's offices. If it happens, it is likely to be joined by people who do not support the various left-wing parties but are, nevertheless, alarmed at another example of the Hungarian government's propensity to control the media.

Meanwhile, here is a statement from Zoltán Kész who was Director of the Free Market Foundation and is now its Honorary Chairman as well as an independent MP [and a friend of mine]:
Hungary must unite and put an end to this rampage. Enough is enough. The government is disregarding European values and common sense. It is only power that matters to them, as with power they can steal as much money as they want. Corruption is running high in Hungary and the governing politicians are getting rich on the taxpayer and the EU, while the former gets nothing in return and the latter is being attacked by Viktor Orbán.
As a matter of fact there is a good deal of EU money being poured into Hungary but its destination is often mysterious and Hungary's economy is in a parlous state as witnessed by the huge exodus of young and not so young, often highly qualified, people.

Nevertheless, Orbán is not Putin and opposition figures are not exiled, imprisoned, beaten up or murdered. Whatever people thought of that referendum, there were no complaints of stuffed ballot boxes and nor have there been any about past elections. So why is the opposition not capable of organizing itself adequately?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Everyone claims victory

The extraordinary outcome of the Hungarian referendum last Sunday about the supposed plan to settle a definite number of migrants in the country is that everyone is claiming victory.

Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, has claimed victory because 98 per cent of those who voted did so to reject the EU plan. The EU's various politicians and spokespersons have claimed victory because the low turn-out meant the vote was legally invalid though it is not clear what it could have achieved in legal terms. The Economist is celebrating because the low turn-out is a defeat for populism despite the high level of vote for Orbán's proposal and despite his assertion that he will now take steps to change the Hungarian constitution to take account of the vote. The Economist is, in fact, trampling triumphantly, or so they think on Mr Orbán and his reputation in Europe.

All this triumphalism is problematic. One can see why Prime Minister Orbán's assertion of victory is a problem with a turn-out of about 44 per cent and valid votes at about 40 per cent. On the other hand, turn-out has never bothered EU politicians or their acolytes before. Indeed, this is the first time I have seen publication of the proportion of spoilt ballot papers. In other elections, such as the ones for the European Parliament, such matters are passed by without any comment. Besides, abstention is not the same as voting against. If Mr Orbán's proposals were that unpopular why did people not turn out to vote on the other side? Could it be that the motivaation was somewhat different and there was a fear that the EU might punish the country if it voted the "wrong" way? There were people who disliked Orbán's idea of a referendum but did not entirely disagree with the notion that the National Assembly should be making decisions of this kind, not the EU. And there were many who thought that as this matter is not in the Hungarian government's competence, there ought not to be a referendum about it.

There is another interesting detail that is being carefully avoided by both sides. Mr Orbán, as it happens, did refer to the referendum thirteen years ago when Hungary voted to join the European Union. He has pointed out that the vote this time was higher than in 2003. Those rejoicing in the non-legality of the 2016 referendum did not refer to the previous one for good reason: that, too, was illegal as the turn-out was under 50 per cent but, somehow, nobdody at the time bothered to talk about it.

Results in 2016 were: turn-out 43.42 per cent, that is 3,561,735 out of an electorate of 8,272,625 and as we knowjust under 4 per cent of the votes were deemed spoilt. The question was: "Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?" 98.34 per cent of those who turned out, that is 3,282,928 voted no and 1.66 per cent, that is 55,555 voted yes.These figures do not seem to include the spoilt ballot papers and they prove nothing because a 50 per cent turn-out is required and the government had been hoping for a 70 per cent one.

Let us now look at the 2003 referendum, the one that proved oh so joyfully that Hungarians overwhelmingly wanted to join the European Union. Then, too, a 70 per cent turn-out was hoped for and a 50 per cent one required constitutionally. They got 45.6 per cent, that is, 3,666,715 out of an electorate 8,042,272. We were not told about the spoilt ballot papers amidst the general rejoicing that the Hungarians voted the "right" way. 83.8 per cent, that is 3,056,027 voted for and 16.2 per cent, that is 592,690 voted against.It is hardly surprising that there is little reference to those somewhat embarrassing figures.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as detectives

This is the last posting in this series of blogs about Children in Crime and as ever Kate Jackson is collecting links on her blog crossexaminingcrime. There have been some cracking submissions.

As for me, I decided to have a look at children as detectives. I thought about Roy Fuller's With My Little Eye but decided against it precisely because of what is in that brief analysis: it may be narrated by a teenager who is the detective but it is really a book for adults. Nothing wrong with that but it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

So I had a look at some of the Famous Five books, which are really adventure stories or thrillers for children. They are not as bad as some people make them out but they are not very good either. Incidentally I was delighted to see that the rather precious attempt to "update" the language of those books flopped miserably and the publishers have gone back (more or less) to the originals, which are once again being reprinted. It just goes to show that children are not as stupid as some adults think, something I never doubted.

Nothing for it, I decided, but to go back to the best of those children's detective stories, written for children and enjoyed by them for generations (even when they have grown up) and in many languages. I am talking about Erich Kästner's great book: Emil and the Detectives. Written and published in 1928 it is not, strictly speaking, a detective story but a thriller about a group of children stalking, pursuing and capturing a villain who had stolen Emil's money and who turns out to be a bank robber as well.


The book was illustrated by Walter Trier and those drawings have never been bettered. It remained in print since then not just in Germany but in many other countries and read by generations of children. The Nazis listed Erich Kästner as a decadent and burned all his books except for Emil as it was too popular. One would like to think that the Nazi thugs were terrified of the howls of outrage from their own children.

On a more tragic note, it was also the book that was most frequently found among the last treasured possessions of children who had been transported to the camps and sent off into those showers. When Kästner was told about that after the war, he burst into tears. Not much more one can do.

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden in 1899, spent some time in the army in First World War and after finishing his education moved first to Leipzig where he became a journalist until he was sacked for being too frivolous and occasionally near-pornographic. He moved to Berlin in 1927 but continued to contribute to Leipzig publications under various pseudonyms.
Kästner's years in Berlin, from 1927 until the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, were his most productive. He published poems, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews in many of Berlin's important periodicals. He was  regular contributor to dailies such as the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung, as well as to Die Weltbühne. Hans Sarkowicz and Franz Josef Görtz, the editors of his complete works (1998), list over 350 articles written between 1923 and 1933, but he must have written even more, since many texts are known to have been lost when Kästner's flat was burned down during a bombing raid in February 1944.
He was also a poet. Indeed, his first published work was poetry and he never stopped writing that (as what poet does?), producing a particularly moving poem on his return to the destroyed city of his childhood, Dresden, in 1945.

So, in 1928 he wrote Emil and the Detectives, the story of a boy of probably twelve or thirteen travelling from Neustadt to Berlin to stay with his uncle, aunt and grandmother as well as his cousin Pony, who turns out to be a great character. Emil's father is dead and his mother supports them through hairdressing. She and Emil are very close and support each other unobtrusively or so they think. In some ways, this reflects Kästner's own situation. His father was around and was a saddle maker but it was his mother he was close to (perhaps suffocatingly so, judging by the letters he wrote to her from Leipzig and Berlin). She had been a housemaid but in her thirties she trained to be a hairdresser to supplement the family income.

Thus the money Emil is taking to Berlin to give to his grandmother, who lives with one daughter but also receives help from another, as well as to spend is not a great deal but means much to the family. They are not well off. When the villainous Max Grundeis takes advantage of Emil falling asleep and steals the money it is a tragedy and Emil chases after him. Alone and a little frightened in the big city he meets Gustav who proclaims his presence with a honk on an automobile horn he carries everywhere, then Gustav's friends who immediately form themselves into a group of detectives, lay out a plan and keep Grundeis under observation until he goes to the bank the following morning where he is confronted by Emil. There are wonderful descriptions of Berlin, of the food people consume and of the conversations they have. But above all, there are the children who form a bond of loyalty immediately and who work out a series of quite remarkable plans under the guidance of the Professor who spends a good deal of time imitating his father, a judge.

Kästner stayed in Germany through the Nazi period, deciding that emigration was not for him. He was interrogated by the Gestapo several times but not arrested and managed to earn some living by publishing books in Switzerland and at home under various pseudonyms. In 1944 he left Berlin to escape the the final Soviet onslaught and his flat was bombed while he was in the country. After the war he settled in Munich but for one reason and another (the latter being alcohol consumption) he wrote less and was known as a children's writer for which he received a number of decorations including, in 1960, the most prestigious of all: the Hans Christian Medal for writing. He died in 1974 and while his career as a journalist, adult novelist (just one book) and poet may not be well known, his child characters live on in many countries, in many languages and for many generations.

Let me end on a happier note: part of the research consisted of me taking another look at Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books. I was going to add a few paragraphs about them but have really run out of space. Nevertheless, I shall return to the Lone Pine books. They deserve reprinting and re-reading, also reading for the first time. There is a curious parallel between the characters of the very English Lone Pine books written by the very English and somewhat conservative Malcolm Saville and the very German children of Emil and the Detectives.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Yes, we shall control the past

Some time ago I wrote about the trial of Vladimir Luzgin from Perm who had the unparalleled audacity of writing on a social media outlet that in September 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland, admittedly more than two weeks after Germany had done.

Slightly belatedly I have found out that the conviction has been upheld by the Russian Supreme Court.
It is probably no accident that the ‘offending text’ should be Ukrainian, and fairly nationalist, however it was specifically over the following paragraph in the repost that the criminal proceedings against Luzgin were initiated:

The communists and Germany jointly invaded Poland, sparking off the Second World War. That is, communism and Nazism closely collaborated, yet for some reason they blame Bandera who was in a German concentration camp for declaring Ukrainian independence.

Russia’s Supreme Court has now agreed that this paragraph constitutes “the public denial of the Nuremberg Trials and circulation of false information about the activities of the USSR during the years of the Second World War”.
The trial, appeal, the various testimonies and final decision are so bizarre as to defy any kind of sense.
It is hard to know what is most shocking in all of this. A prime contender must be Alexander Vertinsky, dean of the History Faculty of the Perm Humanitarian-Pedagogical University. He proved willing to appear for the prosecution and claim that the paragraph really did contain “statements that do not correspond with the position accepted at international level”.

There are also two Russian courts willing to agree that since the Nuremberg Trials did not mention the Soviet invasion, the information was ‘knowingly false’. With the Soviet Union as one of the victors exerting considerable influence at Nuremberg, it was highly unlikely that Soviet collaboration with the Nazis and its invasion would get a mention.

The rulings are extraordinarily cynical. Whatever was said at Nuremberg, any genuine historian will confirm that the Soviet Union invaded what was then Poland on September 17, 1939.

To deny this is absurd when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols which carved up Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany have long been in the public domain, and can be read about in any history book.
The notion that history is to be written according to what was and what was not said at the Nuremberg Trials that were nothing more than the victorious powers finding a way of dealing with the defeated enemy and an otherwise intractable situation is preposterous. A great deal was not said at those trials.

Nobody talked about the Katyn murders though there had been a Soviet suggestion of introducing those as part of the indictment. The other Allied prosecutors refused to support that, thus proving that they and their government knew at the time who was responsible and the idea was dropped. Nobody was tried for those, not at Nuremberg, not anywhere else. Are we not to mention Katyn in history books?

As I have mentioned before (probably a few times) the Great Patriotic War remains the one great untouchable myth in the Russian psyche and in order to preserve it they would prefer not to know how much of the death and suffering was the outcome of Stalin's policies. Most certainly, there can be no discussion of anything that might throw a negative light at the country or any of the people, either at the top or lower down.

Without acknowledging the truth, which will show the people of the Soviet Union (not just the Russians but many others) to have fought and suffered with great courage as well as having committed various war crimes as a country and as individuals, Russia cannot move forward.

Meanwhile, Luzgin's lawyer, Henry Reznik is promising further appeals, probably to the European Court of Human Rights.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as witnesses and victims

I came across Mabel Esther Allan's Murder At The Flood by accident in a second hand bookshop and was attracted by the title with its echoes of Christie as well as the placing of the story, a huge flood in a Norfolk village (based on the devastating floods of 1953) with its echo of Sayers and Nine Tailors.

The book was published by a firm I had never heard of, Greyladies, which is an imprint of The Old Children's Bookshelf, a children's bookshop in Edinburgh. Altogether an intriguing set-up. They publish what they call "Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone", reprinting novels fallen into oblivion or never published in the first place. Among them are detective stories by children's writers, such as Noel Streatfield and Mabel Esther Allan who was extremely prolific under her own name and pseudonyms, writing stories about schools (usually rather advanced coeducational ones), ballet and many other subjects that would interest children and teenagers. Often they had a detective or mystery flavour to them, as children's books in those days tended to.

Doing some superficial research for this posting I found that there is some interest in Mabel Esther Allan out there on the internet.

There is a website called The Mabel Project, which set out to cover all Mabel Esther Allan's books but seems to have lasted only two years though it is meant to be a "long-term" project so it might be resurrected.


There is a website dedicated to her papers that are in the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, something else I knew nothing about. This tells us that she was the author of over 170 published novels for children and what we are supposed to call young adults but I still call teenagers because adults of any kind they are not. There were some privately published books (how lowly that sounded then and yet how important it has become), four volumes of autobiography and eight unpublished novels. Some of these must be for adults.

Murder At The Flood, originally published in 1957, was reprinted in 2009 and is described as Mabel Esther Allan's only published novel for adults. Fantastic Fiction tells me that in 2011 Greyladies published another of her adult detective novels, Death Goes To Italy and from the publisher's own website I learn that Death Goes Dancing, which combines Ms Allan's love for and interest in ballet with a detective plot was published in 2014. Apparently she wrote only three detective stories, all in the fifties and only one of those was published in her lifetime. Rather a pity if Murder At The Flood is anything to go by.

Time to turn to the book and the children in it. As one would expect from an experienced writer for children and teenagers, the author does not simplify either their characters or, most importantly, their relationship to the world around them especially their families and other adults. They are both witnesses in different ways and one of them ends up being a victim.

The story is told from the point of view of the vicar's wife though it is in the third person. She is also a detective story writer though the village does not know this and this becomes the subject of possible blackmail by the man who, understandably, becomes the first corpse. As the story progresses we find out, naturally enough, that he had several victims or potential victims, people he was just approaching. Some of the blackmailable "offences" seem rather silly even by the standards of small Norfolk village of the 1950s, others more important. The one basic problem is that Thomas Long, the blackmailer and first murder victim, is also a malevolent drunkard who could not control either his tongue or his behaviour. This is hardly the stuff blackmailers are made of but his body is found at the end of chapter one and we do not really see him in action.

The flood and the village's behaviour are not dissimilar from those we find in Nine Tailors but while Sayers described the creation of a microcosm that is almost utopian, led by the near-saintly rector, the church and the vicarage is filled with the inevitable dirt, smells, wailing children, complaining old women and, as the news of the first and the second murder spread, pure nastiness. It would seem Mabel Esther Allan did not have a high opinion of humanity, not even in pretty villages set in lovely countryside.

Perhaps she had a low opinion only of adults; the two children are sympathetic characters. Betony Long, daughter of the victim is a bright girl with a deep love of poetry who has been bullied and abused by her father, whom she hates, and stifled by her mother whom she adores. In her early teens, she has been a witness to far too much and is finding it more and more difficult to cope even with the help and support of Emily Varney, the vicar's wife. She knows about violence, anger and hatred; and she knows about profound unhappiness. She is, as we find out at the end, a witness to the murder itself and that destroys her inside before she, in turn, is killed by the murderer.

The other child is Peter Love, the doctor's son, clearly brighter than his contemporaries and many adults who treat him with the sort of condescension that seems to have been the norm but not brighter than his father. That makes an enormous difference between him and the unhappy Betony. He is a witness at several crucial moments. He finds Thomas Long's body and proclaims that fact in the church as people are arriving from their flooded houses. Those who had known about the body had thought to keep it quiet for the time being but Peter puts an end to that and, unintentionally, starts all the vicious gossip about who might have killed the man.

Peter finds a letter that the vicar had dropped, which is taken rather swiftly from him by the self-important Mr Pyke who is "investigating" the crime and is putting everybody's back up. Nobody is too surprised when his dead body is found.

Finally, it is Peter who directs Emily's attention to a pile of very damp books among which Mr Pyke had been rooting not long before his death and where he found some crucial information. Emily finds it, too, but, in some ways, it is too late. Undoubtedly, Peter Love is going to do well at his school but whether he will become a detective is unknown.

In many ways this is a grim tale though there is a happy and summer flower filled last chapter and, in particular, the life and fate of children is not shown as being particularly rosy. One can but hope that Richard and Emily Varney, whose first child is due a few months after the last chapter, will have learnt some lessons.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

But 'twas a famous victory

Well, a victory, anyway. The "crushing" victory of Putin's party, New Russia, is possibly the least surprising news item of the last six months. What is slightly more surprising is that the Russians have decided to vote with their feet, about the only way they can do so in any meaningful fashion. According to official figures, turn-out was 47.81%, down from the 60% of 2011, in itself not all that high.
The preliminary results announced in Moscow early on September 19 by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) showed United Russia with 54.28 percent of the party list vote, under which 225 Duma seats are assigned to candidates listed by political parties winning at least 5 percent of the ballots cast.

Candidates from United Russia, which is backed by President Vladimir Putin, also were leading in most of the 225 "single-mandate" constituencies, where the candidate with the most votes wins.

Unlike the last two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2007, this year half of the mandates were distributed according to national party-list voting and the other half were contested in single-mandate districts.

TsIK Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova said United Russia was on track to win 140 Duma seats by party ticket and another 203 in single-mandate constituencies.

Only three other parties were on track to surpass the 5 percent threshold and secure party representation in the legislature. All regularly vote with United Russia on key issues and all are represented in the outgoing Duma.

They include the Communist Party with 13.45 percent (42 seats), flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with 13.24 percent (39 seats), and A Just Russia with 6.17 percent (23 seats).

Pamfilova said final results should be announced on September 23.
I am not expecting any surprises. Not even an announcement that an opposition candidate from either Yabloko or PARNAS has won a seat. Given that they were not really allowed to campaign it is quite likely that the vast majority of the Russian population has never heard of the two parties. Even in Belarus two opposition politicians won seats in the recent parliamentary election.

Meanwhile both Radio Liberty and Reuters are reporting that the fraud was even more widespread than we first believed. That "biggest majority", touted by the Telegraph among others is something of a myth.
When liberal rights activist Ella Pamfilova was named to head Russia’s election commission in March, she promised to clean house and oversee transparent, democratic elections.

“We will change a lot, and radically, in the way the Central Election Commission operates. A lot and radically -- this is something I can promise you,” she said at the time.

However, a statistical analysis of the official preliminary results of the country’s September 18 State Duma elections points to a familiar story: massive fraud in favor of the ruling United Russia party comparable to what independent analysts found in 2007 and 2011.

“The results of the current Duma elections were falsified on the same level as the Duma and presidential elections of 2011, 2008, and 2007, the most falsified elections in post-Soviet history, as far as we can tell,” physicist and data analyst Sergei Shpilkin told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “By my estimate, the scope of the falsification in favor of United Russia in these elections amounted to approximately 12 million votes.”
Who, you might ask is Sergei Shpilkin?
Shpilkin, who in 2012 won the independent PolitProsvet award for political analysis for his statistical work on the 2011 vote, posted his examination of the latest election on his blog on September 19.

Using data from the Central Election Commission’s website, Shpilkin organized all 95,800 polling stations on a graph according to the turnout that they reported.

In fair elections, the graph would form a bell curve, with its peak indicating the average turnout for the entire election. Reading from left to right, Shpilkin’s graph shows a relatively normal bell curve that peaks at about 36 percent turnout and then, as it moves right, shows a jagged curve that dips unevenly and then begins rising again, as vast numbers of polling stations begin reporting turnouts of 70 percent or more.

Moreover, Shpilkin shows that almost all “extra” votes from polling stations reporting higher-than-average turnout went to United Russia. That is, a party such as ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR received virtually the same number of votes from polling stations reporting a turnout of 95 percent as it did from stations reporting turnouts of 65 percent. United Russia, by contrast, received about four times as many at the 95 percent stations.
I admit, this is largely for election geeks but the various examples given by Reuters reporters confirms the statistical analysis. Even without fraud we can say that the Duma represents less than half the country's population and the winning United Russia party represents a minority. You could say the same for almost any government in almost any democratic country. Except that Russia is not one of those but a country that has had its opposition stifled, with the media being controlled by the state, the opposition parties not allowed to function and individuals either hounded out of the country, if they are lucky, or murdered.

This raises the subject of Putin's much vaunted popularity, something that was raised during the discussion of David Satter's book at the Henry Jackson Society. That popularity, said Mr Satter, accurately enough, is based on lies and suppression of information. That's as may be but it is also a doubtful concept.

In the first place, reliance on opinion polls is usually misplaced even in Western countries, let alone in Russia where people are understandably wary of answering official sounding questions truthfully. In fact, on a number of occasions, that was the question put to people by Levada, the only independent polling organization and the answer was usually overwhelmingly the same: of course we are not going to answer truthfully but as we think people expect us to answer.

In the second place, voting results have not shown Putin's popularity for quite some time. Turn-outs are low and even with the control exerted over any kind of an opposition fraud and falsification is required to achieve the necessary results that are, as it happens, not particularly impressive.

Thirdly, if Putin is so popular why has the Ministry of Justice launched an attack on the only independent polling organization, Levada? Having been named a "foreign agent" it now faces closure. The reason could not possibly be that, even with all the problems mentioned above, their opinion polls did not show that Putin's popularity was sinking very rapidly?

There is an additional item of news from Russia itself (this blog is not about the mess in Syria) and that comes from Kommersant, which is still independent, via Radio Liberty. Their journalists have found out that there is a plan to consolidate and strengthen all the various security forces and organizations before the presidential elections of 2018 in a Ministry of State Security or, in Russian, Министерство Государственной Безопастности (МГБ or MGB). And why not, you might ask. No reason except for the historic resonances. We've been here before. The MGB was Lavrenty Beria's all-powerful security apparatus from 1946 to 1953 when it changed its name again and Beria was disposed of. What goes around, comes around, especially in Russia.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

FGM has been illegal for thirty years and no prosecutions

Actually, that is not quite correct. There was one prosecution of a case that was clearly not going to result in a conviction since the doctor in question was not exactly accused of female genital mutilation. We hear a great deal about various new initiatives in healthcare, in education, whatnot but what we do not hear about is people who carry out this ghastly torture of children being taken to court, tried and sentenced.

From the BBC news item I find out that we have a Minister for Safeguarding, Vulnerability and Countering Extremism and her name is Sarah Newton. Ms Newton, Minister for all the above said rather pompously:
This government is clear that FGM is a barbaric form of abuse that has absolutely no place whatsoever in a Britain that works for everyone, and the criminals who perpetrate it should be brought to justice.

That's why we are taking world-leading action to tackle FGM by strengthening the law to improve protection for those at risk and remove barriers to prosecution.
World leading action? What kind of world leading action? Ms Newton, Minister for all of the above was responding to a Report issued by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that castigated the judicial system for not prosecuting successfully a single case in the UK. Not a single one. How is that world leading action?

I cannot quote all the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Report on p. 22 do I suggest readers of this blog turn to it (so to speak) themselves. They are hard hitting, I am glad to say. Here is the BBC's summary:
The committee said the poor record on prosecutions and convictions would "deter those brave enough to come forward" to report FGM and "result in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls".

The scale of the problem remains unknown because of a lack of reliable data, but the government estimates 170,000 women and girls in the UK have undergone the procedure.

The first ever recorded figures for FGM, reported in July, showed that between April 2015 and March 2016 there were 5,702 new cases in England.

Most of the women and girls were born in Africa and underwent the procedure there, but at least 18 were subjected to FGM in the UK.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have not collected any figures on FGM.
Will anything come of this Report beyond more initiatives and more discussions? Oh yes, and yet more strengthening of the law, which was strengthened two years ago? Rather despairingly, I do not hold my breath.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep"

This is the title of David Satter's most recent book, a translation of the Russian saying: Меньше знаешь, крепче спишь. Some might argue that this is a saying that sums up a good deal of Russian history and, alas, the Russian people's attitude. The book is about the transition from the Yeltsin era to the Putin one and deals, particularly, with the infamous apartment block explosions in 1999, which launched the second Chechnyan war and brought an unknown politician and former KGB and FSB officer, Vladimir Putin into prominence.

I shall be writing about the book at a later stage but now I shall concentrate on David's talk given yesterday to the Henry Jackson Society. (Full declaration of interest: David Satter is a good friend.) To anyone who has looked at that terrifying story and at the extraordinarily high death rate among people who tried to investigate what happened when those four apartment blocks blew up and when the fifth one did not, the answer seems obvious: it was a provocation organized by the FSB in order to get Yeltsin off the hook (his popularity had sunk to about 2 per cent), get a "reliable" person into the presidential seat and divert attention from all Russia's problems to just one, Chechnya, where the first war had been a costly and vicious disaster. (The second one is no better only with greater levels of cruelty.) While 9/11 truthers are coming up with ever more bizarre stories, this remains the reality but the breathtaking cynicism behind it and the readiness on the part of the Russian political elite to kill their own people in order to achieve their particular nasty aims makes it difficult for many to accept that this is what happened. In fact, I have heard at least one person who is well in with officialdom proclaim that he knew nobody, nobody at all who believed that it was the FSB. My reply was that I knew nobody, either Russian and British who did not believe that it was the FSB and that happens to be true.

David Satter started with the Yeltsin years and the catastrophe they turned out to be. This, I think, is a tremendous shame as the beginning of the period did seem quite hopeful. Indeed, looking back on those years from where we are now, they still seem quite hopeful. I agree with David that Yeltsin was not a democrat in any real sense and was, in many ways, an inadequate leader and wrote so when he died.

The problem, David Satter said, is the strong misunderstanding of what was required to extirpate the Marxist/Communist system, which grew out of a misunderstanding of the system itself. When the Soviet Union collapsed the assumption was in the successor states as well as the myriads of Western advisers and, let us face it, people who were hoping to benefit personally, that the main problem was economic and privatization of state property, which was practically everything, will solve it all. Of course, some of us said even at the time that privatization without an understanding of the rule of law will not work.

Communism first and foremost was a system of morality that had led to complete immorality and criminality. There is no place here to discuss all that but it is clear and was even in the early nineties that to overcome its noxious effects, another system of morality had to be established. Sadly, there were very few people who could produce this (the Russian Orthodox Church being notoriously deficient in ideas that oppose the state) and even fewer who could put them into practice. The great academician Sakharov died far too early.

So privatization proceeded with little regard as to who benefited and far too many people lost out economically and intellectually in that what they had been supposed to believe disappeared almost overnight with nothing in its place. To some extent people gave up and that explains Putin's early popularity: he was going to hand something back to Russia and Russians. For various reasons, not unconnected with the rise in oil and gas prices he also presided over a period when more people had a materially better life than anyone in Russia could recall.

Putin's present popularity, which, inevitably was raised in discussion is based on the various lies and distortions that the now almost completely state controlled media pours out but it is also questionable. The recent news that the only independent polling organization, Levada, has been named "a foreign agent" by the Ministry of Justice thus making its work well-nigh impossible indicates a fear in the Kremlin that their polling results will not be the ones that are wanted.

One could say that they are lucky. The infamous census of 1937, which showed a far lower population in the USSR than expected (after collectivization and the attendant famine as well as the early purge arrests) the results were destroyed and those who conducted it arrested and sent to the Gulag. A new census was conducted in 1939 after two more years of frenzied arrests, deaths and executions with the figures coming out considerably more favourably than in 1937. Go figure.

David Satter's view is that Russia is now in a grip of a mass psychosis and he speculated what would have happened if the explanations for the explosions (it was the Chechnyans though there was a complete denial on their part and the explosions did not bring about a favourable situation for them) and, especially, the fifth would-be explosion (it was just a test to see whether people are aware of the danger) had been met with the sort of open scepticism in Russia and abroad that they deserved.

Would Russia have avoided the Nord-Ost siege of 2002 and the Beslan school siege of 2004, both started by Chechnyan terrorists but both witnessing a far higher number of hostages killed by the OMON personnel? Would we have seen the invasion of Georgia, the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine that has already claimed something like 100,000 victims? Impossible to tell. But as Putin has started so he has gone on and the ending of the story is not going to be good for anyone.

It is, as David Satter said, and I entirely agree with him, the duty of Western politicians, writers, journalists, analysts and intellectuals (whoever they may be) to tell the truth about the regime and about its origins. That includes not "forgetting" about those apartment blocks as too many people seem to.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Flag-waving in the worst possible taste

Yes, the Last Night of the Proms is upon us and the usual rows have emerged in the newspapers: is it a nasty chauvinistic flag-waving event or is it just a jolly party for people who have attended many if not most of the Proms concerts?

The only time I went to the Last Night was in the summer after my A levels when I had a season ticket for the second half of the series and, whoever was in the seats, the Arena and the Gallery was filled with people like me. That is, the second half really was just a party for people who loved music, went to the concerts and were celebrating the end of another successful series.

Since then, the Proms have gone from strength to strength but, in my opinion, unfortunately, the Last Night has become an institution on its own. There are people all over the world who are a little hazy what the Proms are but know for certain that there is a Last Night and it is wonderful or quite wonderful or whatever. The Proms in the Park all over the country is not a phenomenon I welcome - it erodes the quality of the music and makes it impossible to watch or listen to the Last Night in the Albert Hall. Still, many other people like the whole development and it is only one night of the year. I can ignore it all and usually do though I do listen and even go to some of the concerts. (Not the Arena any more but the Gallery sees my presence.)

This year another ingredient has been added to the brew of insane discussions: the anti-Brexiteers who are still fighting a lost battle. Various groups have raised money to buy lots of EU flags (because the Common Fisheries Policy and the European Arrest Warrant and the Common Agricultural Policy and legislation that can be initiated only by the Commission are essential to good music) to hand out to Promenaders. They can then wave them to their heart's content while everyone sings Rule Britannia to prove how much they hate nationalism and flag-waving.

The Guardian reports today that the plan seems to have gone ahead though how many of those blue flags with gold stars will be waved in a few hours' time is unknown. The comments made by the organizers (who do not care to give their names) are priceless in their stupidity:
In a statement, the organisers, who want to remain anonymous, said: “Music doesn’t recognise borders, religion, gender, age, status or creed and most orchestras, shows and music schools rely heavily on talented musicians from inside and outside the EU.”

They added: “Accordionist Romano Viazzani summed it up perfectly when he said: ‘Music is the universal language. It builds bridges and tears down walls’.”

On Saturday morning the team tweeted a picture of concertgoers with EU flags gathered outside the venue. They captioned the image: “First prom-goers arrive with EU flags in solidarity with musicians and music.”
Um yes. Musicians inside and outside the EU. So why do we need to wave EU flags and set up those walls and boundaries that the blue and gold flag signifies. And how does the Common Fisheries Policy fit in with music being international?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as witnesses to crime

Yes, dear readers, we are back. The Tuesday Night Bloggers had a month off and are back with the creepy theme of Children in Crime. That could be anything: children as detectives (and this may be a good time to re-read some Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville), children as victims (tends to be very grim), children as criminals (from Fagin's gang to The Bad Seed) and children as witnesses. I am being a little lazy and turning to the obvious source, Agatha Christie.

Famously, Christie was no respecter of persons. Anybody could be a victim and anybody could be a criminal though she was writing at a time when some decencies were kept by most writers. I am a great fan of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver books but one knows for certain that the young and not so young couples are going to turn out to be innocent. Not so with Christie. Nothing of the kind can be assumed. That nice young man who sits opposite you on a train or an aeroplane? I wouldn't trust him any further than I could throw him. The delightful young lady who appears to be victimized by nasty bullies? Make sure you do not stand between her and a fortune.

There is no protection for children in any way. Most readers can remember the child victims of Hallowe'en Night (1969) but what of the boy who cleans windows in Murder is Easy (1939) and the very ordinary girl guide in Body in the Library (1942)? All disposable. One particularly grim but excellent novel has a child of about twelve as the murderer and I am not stupid enough to tell you which one it is.


In this posting I intend to look at one of Christie's books in which children are witnesses to a series of crimes, which take place in Meadowbank, a very select and highly regarded girls' school, Cat Among The Pigeons.

The slightly chaotic plot starts in Meadowbank school, moves to Ramat, a fictional Middle Eastern country where a routine coup is taking place, the prince is being flown out with his personal pilot and British tourists are being shepherded out by harassed embassy officials and returns to Meadowbank with few necessary interruptions. The start is the first day of term with new girls arriving, being assigned to rooms and unpacked with their parents handled firmly if tactfully. The headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, temporarily distracted by the unexpected appearance by the dipsomaniac Lady Veronica Carlton-Sandways (Christie had a good ear for names and no respect for the aristocracy) misses something the very sensible Mrs Upjohn says, something that she will much regret missing.

Missing and not noticing things is one of the novel's themes: Miss Bulstrode misses Mrs Upjohn's story, Adam Goodman the gardener at the school (who is neither Adam Goodman nor a gardener but a Special Branch agent sent by our old friend Colonel Pikeaway) does not notice Princess Shaista's knees thus causing Poirot annoyance and Jennifer Sutcliffe manages not to notice anything while believing anything anybody tells her at any time. One cannot help wondering what possessed Miss Bulstrode to give such a dimwitted child one of the school's much sought after places.

On the other hand there is Julia Upjohn, daughter of the woman whose story Miss Bulstrode misses at the beginning, who has, as her mother says, quite a good brain. She notices things and, more to the point, she puts two and two together, getting four, which puts her ahead of the police and Special Branch. It is something of a truism in numerous detective stories that children have sharper eyes and ears and often notice things that adults miss. Not in this novel: Jennifer is positively deaf and blind while Julia works out things because she has extra information purely because of her friendship with Jennifer. No adult could have worked it out where the jewels (not a secret, as it happens) might have been.

When she does find them she very sensibly takes them to Poirot, knowing about him from Maureen Summerhayes of Mrs McGinty Is Dead, who happens to be her mother's friend. She explains to George, Poirot's servant that she has come to talk about some murders and a robbery and adds to Poirot himself that there is also the kidnapping but she does not think that is her business. Naturally, Poirot is fascinated but he had already read a certain amount of what has been going on at Meadowbank in the newspapers, which have been carefully refolded.

The kidnapping is that of Princess Shaista and the trick is the same Christie had used in The Girdle of Hyppolita, one of The Labours of Hercules. In that story Miss Pope, the headmistress of what is little more than a finishing school, is treated with amused irony; Miss Bulstrode is taken far more seriously as is her school. The differentiation is quite interesting as Christie herself did not attend a school at all and is usually seen as someone who held somewhat old-fashioned views about women's education and careers. As ever, she manages to confound the various assumptions made by critics about her.

In fact, headmistresses apart from Miss Pope are seen as highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Poirot asks the advice of Miss Emlyn in Hallowe'en Party and it is absolutely sound. She knows exactly who can and who cannot be trusted. More than that she is the only person who understands the significance of one particular detail about the party and urges the witness to tell Poirot who also works out from that who the killer must have been. None of the children, one may add, have noticed anything. So much for their sharp eyes. Miss Emlyn is also an old friend of Miss Bulstode who has, by the time of of Hallowe'en Party retired (she is on the verge of it in Cat Among The Pigeons) but the Meadowbank has gone on, changed but also with its traditions.

Poirot also consults Miss Battersby, the former Principal of Meadowfield school and present tutor of mathematics, in The Third Girl. Again, he receives a no-nonsense, accurate assessment of the girl Norma Restarick and her family. Altogether, headmistresses are a good thing in Agatha Christie's novel.

Cat Among The Pigeons ends with a different child, the boy Allen, son of the late Prince Ali Yusuf, whose life is about to change drastically as his mother inherits the jewels that had been put aside for her. Julia Upjohn acquires one emerald, green for mystery. It is no more than she deserves.

Monday, September 5, 2016

And now for something jolly

Before I turn my attention to the dire European Arrest Warrant and some of its particularly noxious effects, I shall post a link to a rather jolly site that was called to my attention by one of this blog's readers.

It's called The Neglected Books Page and is just that: a blog that deals with books and writers that have been neglected over the years though they were reasonably well known when they were published. One could (and one often does) argue that most neglected books and authors are that for a good reason: they are simply not good enough to remember for any length of time. But that ignores fashion, laziness, political thinking, ordinary changes in taste. Some neglected books and authors are revived to great acclaim.

I actually do recall the literary periodical that asked various writers and critics which authors they thought had been unjustly forgotten. Two people, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, picked Barbara Pym, who was still around but unpublished and attracting no interest. Barbara Pym, an extremely good writer, immediately became known, published and reprinted. There has been a biography as well and it would be rather difficult to write about the British literature of the second half of the twentieth century without mentioning her and her characters.

Who knows, maybe The Neglected Books Page will revive many more Barbara Pyms.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Yes, it is about politics

So far I have kept out of the burkini row, considering it as a vast red herring, designed to take our attention away from more important matters, such as the spread of of Islamist ideology and also of unacceptable aspects of Islamic community behaviour such as the growth of Sharia courts. However, it has become such a big question that some comment needs to be made even though the Economist thinks that the row will now start dying down with the holiday season coming to an end. The Economist has been known to be wrong before in its predictions and, in any case, also thinks that this issue, which has now become linked to the whole subject of French identity in the light of terrorist attacks is likely to be important in the forthcoming presidential elections.

They are not wrong on the latter. Nicolas Sarkozy, who has announced his candidature, seems to be proposing a change in the French Constitution with an article that would ban burkinis. I cannot help feeling that is going a little over the top even by Sarkozy's standards.

First of all, I should like to get this out of the way: those burkinis are truly hideous and stupid garments. Why would you go to the beach or into the sea if practically every inch of you skin is covered? Possibly because you have been bullied by the men in your family and community (who, incidentally, do not cover themselves up but prefer to wear cool and open garments) or possibly because you have somehow accepted that this is of vital importance to the Muslim religion. Certainly, the link that has been displayed by protesters between a ban on burkini on beaches and Islamophobia would indicate that those people certainly believe that covering women from top to toe is central to their religion. A good many non-Muslims, either on the left or among supposed liberals and libertarians appear to support this point of view.

Apart from many articles on the subjects there were a few interesting developments. Hizonner the Mayor of London took it upon himself to lecture the Mayor of Paris (who, not having a beach handy, had not actually issued a ban) that women must not be told by anyone what they can and cannot wear. That is, of course, absolute piffle. Women and men are frequently told what they can and what they cannot wear in public places. I am sure Hizonner would not be too happy if any women decided to wander round in Nazi uniforms or KKK hoods (not that I am advocating that they should) though, I am equally sure, he would see nothing wrong in them wearing Maoist caps, Red Army insignia or t-shirts with pictures of that mass murderer Che Guevara.

In any case, is this the same Mayor of London whose first decision was to ban certain ads on the tube because he did not think women could be trusted to be able to deal with certain images of bodies without either getting impossibly depressed or rushing off to emulate the pictures? It would appear that Hizonner's thinking on the subject is somewhat erratic while his understanding of his own position and of the French constitutional structure non-existent.

So then we had the supreme French administrative court overturning the ban at Villeneuve-Loubet, which could have had implications for the other towns where it had been imposed except that those Mayors insisted on it continuing. Most people will leave those beaches this week-end at the latest with les vacances coming to an end, but not all. Will the row continue despite the Economist's prediction?

There is many an indignant comment from human rights organizations, Islamic groups and various so-called liberals and libertarians as well as those on the left who can be relied on to produce the usual waffle that these bans have nothing to do with security and everything to do with politics. Indeed so. But then the wearing of the burkini is a political decision. You may think that it is not worth getting excited about but let us not pretend: it is not a fashion or lifestyle choice, it is a political point made rather obviously and forcefully.

Consider some other garments whose use has grown in the last ten - fifteen years. It so happens that I have lived for years in areas where there have always been many Muslim families, shops and businesses. Most of them are either immigrants from the Indian sub-continent of their descendants. Until about fifteen years ago the women often wore traditional clothes that were light and comfortable and covered their heads, if at all, with a loose scarf. We did not even know the words hijab and niquab as they were of no importance in the societies we lived in. Any women in veils (niquab) or burquas (another word we have had to learn) were to be seen around Harrods or Harley Street. They were visitors.

All that has changed, partly because there are now more people here who have arrived from the Arab Middle East and North Africa but most importantly because clothing is being used to make political points. Far more women now wear tight scarves and even veils; even little girls are now covered up and wear those scarves. Those are not fashion choices. They may be lifestyle choices but, above all, they are political statements, as are the burkinis. They say something quite definite: we do not want to integrate, we insist on keeping in our separate communities and, most importantly, in those communities women are hidden away one way or another, unequal in their lives.

As it happens, there are certain complexities even in that. There are a good many young Muslim women of different backgrounds in Britain who do wear often highly colourful and excitingly patterned headscarves and wear what might be called "modest" clothing, i.e. trousers and long coats and jackets. They are also highly educated, in jobs and careers. It seems that hose headscarves are a matter of identity for them and the way they can reconcile their integration into British society with their background. This is a relatively new development and one cannot quite predict how it will work out. One knows young women who then marry equally advanced Muslim men or even men outside their religion and continue along the path of complete integration; one also hears stories of young women of that kind being put under pressure and worse by thir families and being forced to retreat into oppression and backwardness.

Should we fight the burkini? It's not precisely a problem in Britain but France is not that far away. On the whole, it is not quite as poisonous as the wearing of the niquab, that should be, at the very least, considered on the same level as any other clothing that hides the face. People are not allowed to wear motorcycle helmets? Then they should not be allowed to wear niquabs either. That seems fair enough. Of course, the veil is a symbol of the oppression of women and always has been. Should we legislate against it? That raises all sorts of other issues but the general move in opinion in a number of European countries is towards legislation, precisely because it is a political issue.

What of the burkini? My argument with people who are determined to get that hideous garment banned is that this is not a battle we could ever win. So, do not let us fight it. Beyond that, while I dislike the garment and really dislike the political point it makes I cannot help feeling that the women who go to the Riviera do have more privileges than most of their co-religionists. If they do not want to use those privileges to fight for their own and others' freedom and equality, as many very courageous women do in far worse circumstances and if they want to look like particularly inelegant versions of seals, maybe we should just leave them to it and concentrate on other battles.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process

The House of Lords European Union Committee has produced a report that is for information only about the necessary parliamentary scrutiny of the forthcoming Brexit process. In Scrutinising Brexit: the role of Parliament they refer back to their previous report, The Process of Withdrawing from the European Union, in which the committee had made two very important points. Firstly, the withdrawal negotiations should be conducted in parallel with the negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU (once we are out, that phrase will become accurate) and, secondly, Parliament must be able to scrutinize every stage of the proceedings whether through Ministerial statements, debates or committee enquiries. The latest report, published on July 22 is the first of the reports dedicated to that task. It is for information only but there are several important proposals.
We emphasise that the substance of what is under discussion, rather than the formal stage in the withdrawal process, should be reflected in an appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny. Effective scrutiny, if it is to achieve the objectives we have described, will be essential at all stages, including:

during informal discussions prior to notification under Article 50, should they take place;

during formal withdrawal negotiations conducted in accordance with Article 50; and

during any negotiations on a new relationship, whether these take place before or after the completion of UK withdrawal.
At the same time
We acknowledge that certain elements of the forthcoming negotiations, particularly those relating to trade, may have to be conducted confidentially. We would expect parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations to strike an appropriate balance between transparency and confidentiality, while achieving the overarching objective of holding the Government effectively to account.
There will have to be some flexibility and some discretion and to that end the report suggests that scrutiny through committee enquiries and reports may well be the best way forward, though ministerial statements and debates will be essential. Committees are more flexible and more used to separating matters, which are necessarily confidential from those that the government simply wants to keep quiet.

The House of Commons departmental Select Committees will probably go through some rearrangements in the near future to allow for the new, vitally important Department for Exiting the European Union and for scrutinizing the process.
We are also aware of suggestions that a Joint Committee might be established to scrutinise the withdrawal negotiations, though we do not believe that such a Joint Committee is necessary. In committee scrutiny, as in the scrutiny of primary legislation, there is a distinct role for the House of Lords as a revising chamber. The House of Lords could bring significant added value, not only through the expertise of many of its Members, but as a result of its long tradition of politically impartial, thoughtful committee scrutiny.
This is eminently sensible and indicates quite clearly the difference between the two Chambers, their separate roles and their different approach.
We believe that the House of Lords can best contribute to effective parliamentary oversight of the forthcoming negotiations by charging the European Union Committee with explicit responsibility for scrutinising the negotiations. This will require revised terms of reference for the European Union Committee, possibly underpinned by a new scrutiny reserve resolution. We look forward to engaging with the Leader of the House and with domestic committees in developing more detailed proposals in coming weeks.

Withdrawal from the EU is arguably the most complex, demanding and important administrative and diplomatic task that the Government has undertaken since the Second World War. Parliament, if it is to undertake its scrutiny role effectively, will need additional resources that are proportionate to the scale of the challenge. We invite the domestic committees of the House to address the question of resourcing as a matter of urgency.
In the meantime, the Committee proposes to carry on with its work of scrutinizing EU documents though with attention to the withdrawal process and to produce a number of short reports on the various subjects that will be negotiated on. These are promised for the near future, even before the actual negotiations begin.