Sunday, January 31, 2016

Declaration of neutrality

It is not often that this blog declares neutrality on any subject but I feel that there is no alternative. No, it is not neutral on whether Britain should exit the EU, which is really what matters, but it is hard to work up enthusiasm for any of the Brexit organizations (and I mean any) who are competing for the trophy of being acknowledged by the Electoral Commission as the leader and for all that lovely money.

The news that yet another cross-party, grassroots organization, supported by Kate Hoey, Liam Fox and Nigel Farage has been launched (actually, I knew it was coming) left me neither shaken nor stirred but rather depressed. It's not that I mind different eurosceptic organizations; I have written often enough about the advantage of guerrilla warfare. Having a Conservative and a Labour group for Brexit, or Historians for Britain or Better Off Out who do a good deal of campaigning around the country and have restarted (after a fashion) the Save Britain's Fish campaign that I was involved with some years ago is, I think, a good idea: people can concentrate on their own work. Nor do I find anything wrong with Get Britain Out, which is campaigning specifically among the younger electorate, though they share my view on whether 16 and 17 year olds should be given the vote. There are various others and I shall link to them in future postings. They all have their role to play and we all need to work together while concentrating on our own patch. (I shall also try to catch up with the opposition groups but I do wish at least some of them would admit that they are campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union not in Europe. One wonders why they cannot bring themselves to do so.)

What causes problems is the proliferation that is likely to continue of the overall Brexit campaigns, each one of which claims purity of vision and decries its rivals as being heretics at best and The Real Enemy at worst. I shall say it before anyone else: yes, the small and ever fissile left wing groups are like that. Mostly this does not matter but at present we do have an important issue at hand and a highly important referendum to win.

So whom do we have? This will go over some well known material but I think it might be useful to have a kind of a summary of where we are. While we are on the subject here is a somewhat inadequate but quite amusing article in the Grauniad that mentions Month Python (no!), leaves out several groups and manages to fit in Nigel Farage (complete with a pint) as a group or something of the kind.

Well, there is Leave,eu founded a little while ago by former UKIP donor Arron Banks. It has an exhausting website (but so many of them are these days because they let all those techie whizz kids run riot), the usual set of semi-accurate facts and an unfortunate image of being linked to UKIP and its campaign that concentrates on one subject: immigration. Being linked to UKIP or perceived to be so will mean that they will not be designated as the lead campaign.

It also means, alas and alack, that the other Brexit campaign, VoteLeave, wants to have nothing to do with it. VoteLeave has a slightly less frenetic website (could someone have been controlling those whizz kids?) and a greater emphasis on people joining the campaign. I presume they use material supplied by Business for Britain.

Here is Guido's first summary of the fight between those two organizations and here is a more recent account (that, necessarily, leaves out the juicier bits) of that feud. And so it has been going on, as many of us know: more heat and ammunition spent on fighting each other than the enemy. It often is like that in politics, especially in campaigning, but this is becoming an embarrassment.

The feuding has now become internal to VoteLeave. I trust everyone who, being a complete geek, follows these matters, noted the attempt to unseat Dominic Cummungs, Campaign Director of VoteLeave and Matthew Elliott, its Chief Executive by a cabal of Tory MPs (egged on by others who stayed nameless for the time being), led by Bernard Jenkin (who thinks that President Putin is not such a bad chap really and was only trying to help the Ukrainians), which seems to have failed. At present Messrs Cummings and Elliott are in place, Mr Jenkin is not returning calls and a still unnamed board members is about to tender his resignation. Things may change by the time I finish writing this blog in which case I shall update it all.

Then we have Grassroots Out (GO), alluded to above as the new kid on the block. They will, incidentally, be having a public meeting in Manchester in February 5; some of this blog's readers might like to go along. Can't do any harm. Here it is being advertised n Twitter and I do hope the link takes you to the right place. They are on Facebook as well.

What is its aim? Well, rather bored with the infighting (and who can blame them) a few MPs (and Nigel Farage who is merely an MEP) got together and decided to form a purely campaigning organization with the intention of doing so constituency by constituency, which is not such a bad idea. Fifty MPs of various parties (not, I presume, the SNP or the Lib-Dims) signed up immediately and there are hopes of more joining. They assure us all (yes, I did talk to the founders) that they have no desire to supplant any of the other organizations, no intention at present to produce their own material but use what the other groups produce and co-ordinate campaigning activity at the grassroots level.

ConHome is supporting them though their first love is VoteLeave, as you would expect.

So is that it? Well, not quite. Another Brexit organization is lurking in the grass somewhere and is ready to be launched soon. They call themselves the Independent Leave-the-EU Alliance and, at present, they are not supported by any MPs because they are also hoping to get some independent ones into Parliament.Or so it would seem but their website is still under construction so one cannot tell for certain.

Where does all this and, possibly, more to come leave this blog? For once in the neutral position or maybe even sitting on the fence. It seems to me to be a waste of time to get involved in all the fighting. I am prepared to work with and for any, some or all of these organizations. Given the shortage of women anywhere near the top of them they ought to welcome that offer but, somehow, I do not think they will. So the blog will go on and will fight its corner despite .....

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: So what is it about Rex Stout?

Sooner or later one has to look at Rex Stout's biggest character (and at one seventh of a ton that is le mot juste for him) and that is Nero Wolfe. Looking at Wolfe means looking at Archie Goodwin, the entire household in West 35th Street and other recurring players: Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather and the police officers: Inspector Cramer, Sergeant Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff as well as assorted patrolmen.

For various reasons I did not take part in the group blogging last Tuesday but others did and they can be read on Noah Stewart's blog and, indeed, he is in the process of collecting this week's contributions.
As this is the last week of the Rex Stout Tuesday Night blogs I thought I'd go back to the very first novel about Nero Wolfe that I read. I had heard about Rex Stout, of course, and about Nero Wolfe but was not altogether clear about things. Soon after I went to Oxford I set up an account at Blackwell's (can one still do that, I wonder) and spent some time wandering round the shop. On my second visit I came across a recently reprinted Penguin version of Murder By The Book, originally published in 1951, a good many years before it came into my hands. It cost 40p (oh those halcyon days!) and the copy is still in my possession.

I was lucky with my first Nero Wolfe novel - it has a reasonably good plot that stands up to scrutiny even after we know the not particularly surprising solution. In any case, one does not read Stout for the plots. For the style, yes. It has a light crispness and speed that is hard to find in other writers' work. There is a similarity with Chandler but Archie Goodwin has no pretence to being a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Nor does he find life a hardship. His account of events is blithe but never off the mark.

Consider this as a novel read by someone who is a stranger to the great world of Nero Wolfe. Within two pages we establish the relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and between either of them and Inspector Cramer, who is, it is clear, a reluctant admirer of the large detective. Within the next few pages we have a clear idea of the household, of Fritz Brenner, the Swiss chef who is a genius and of Theodore Horstmann, the orchid man; of the fact that Wolfe hates working though rather likes displaying his superior mental powers (Archie goofs a couple of times in this one, which is unusual); that the entire household revolves round Wolfe's timetable and that revolves round his food, his orchids, his books and the London Times crossword All this is conveyed in taut prose though with many details (who would not like to try Fritz' breakfasts or go dancing with Archie?) and around a fairly complicated plot that involves a trip by Archie to Los Angeles as well as an inebriated dinner party for all the secretaries in a law firm. All in 188 pages.

Beyond the style, the characters, the ambience and, in this case, a decent plot there are some fascinating glimpses. A number of times various people, including Archie, when challenged by the police demand to know whether they have somehow been transported to Communist Russia? From a basically left-wing writer like Stout that is interesting.

Then there is the attitude to women. Throughout the novels we know that Wolfe is a misogynist and there is some kind of a ridiculous reason for it that goes back to his youth in Montenegro. But Archie, who likes women or, at least, pretty young women, shares his contempt. Women, according to this novel, are incapable of thinking, tell lies as a matter of principle and find it impossible to appreciate good food and good wine. If a married woman in her late forties is working then her marriage must be very unhappy. Whereas a perfectly intelligent young woman whom Archie goes to see in LA appears to spend her time at home doing precious little while her husband is at work. Of course, the book was published in 1951, the beginning of a decade that some people seem to want to go back to.

Finally, the lawyers. About a third of the way through it becomes obvious that at the heart of the crimes there is the year-old disbarment of a trial lawyer who had bribed a juror. The question is who reported on him and how did that develop into a badly written novel whose author, editor and typist have all been murdered. Without giving away the ending I have to say I found it a little odd that the trial lawyer who had been disbarred is viewed by most as something of a victim, someone to whom a rather serious misfortune had happened. This, I could not help thinking, was a very odd way of looking at events.

So that was my introduction to Rex Stout and the brownstone in West 35th Street (no, there are no brownstones in that part of Manhattan so Archie must have been misleading readers for all those years) and I was hooked. Many Stout novels and novellas later I can recite with ease Wolfe's time table and Archie's peculiar likes and dislikes. I can remember quite a few of the meals and Archie's quips as well as his rows with the police officers. What I quite often forget, however, is the plot. They are not always and not even usually memorable.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Baroness Cox's Bill goes to the Commons

Baroness Cox's Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which I mentioned in December, has cleared the House of Lords. The Third Reading was a formality and it has now been sent to the Commons for their consideration, which may take some time.

To my certain knowledge this achievement (and it is still a partial one) is the fruit of enormously hard work for a number of years by the Baroness and her team. For a long time it seemed that this perfectly reasonable Bill will never get beyond Second Reading in the Lords but there are definite changes in the air and many things that were not to be discussed now are and quite openly, including the fact that Sharia courts (as opposed to arbitration tribunals that still abide by English or Scottish law) are a very bad idea in many different way.

Monday, January 18, 2016

We have a problem

It is one of the assumptions of most of the eurosceptic wing that as far as possible (allowing for international agreements and so on) legislation and regulation in this country should be carried out by our elected representatives within certain constitutional boundaries, which, in my opinion, includes a role for the House of Lords, chosen on a completely different basis and one for and independent judiciary. MPs must, in that system, be of huge importance.

Nothing wrong with that, you might say. After all, MPs can always be voted out (though many people who live in safe constituencies might disagree with that); they can be challenged while they are sitting though I dislike the idea of recall as we do vote for our MPs as members of parties and a recall can so easily degenerate into one particular group re-fighting a perfectly valid election. Anyway, there we are: MPs rather than the various levels of eurocracy.

Then we get the spectacle that is going on in the Commons right now: a debate on whether Donald Trump, an American businessman and a candidate for the Presidential nomination, should be excluded from the United Kingdom. Why? Well, he said a few things we do not like or some of us do not like and, in any way, his behaviour is boorish. Not only are those not reasons for excluding someone from this country but it is an obvious waste of time for MPs even to debate it.

Now admittedly, this is not happening in the Chamber but in Westminster Hall. It is, nevertheless, taking up a great deal of Parliamentary time. The debate is taking place at the instigation of the Petitions Committee, which has had to deal with two e-petitions, 114003, with 500,000 signatures that is in favour of the ban and 114907 with 40,000 signatures that is against it. In neither case are the numbers big enough to make it a matter for Parliamentary debate.

As it happens, the Home Secretary has the powers to exclude people from entering the country and this power has been exercised at various times - some of those we know about, many we do not but we must assume that the reasons had to be more than just unpleasant and boorish behaviour.

Let me just add that so far as anyone knows no UK variant of the US Magnitsky Act with its list of people who were responsible for the torture and death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who had been employed by a British firm exists.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tuesday Night blogs: Rex Stout's other detectives

Before I go into the main body of the posting, I need to point out that, although the Rex Stout blogs are collected by Noah Stewart, as I wrote last time, the wonderful logo was created not by him but another of our merry band, Bev Hankins, who writes the fascinatingly titled blog, My Reader's Block

I am still working round the edges of Rex Stout's work, in that this posting is not about Nero Wolfe and his household or his assistants, although one of his other detectives, Theodolinda Bonner, a she-dick as Archie Goodwin disrespectfully refers to her, and partner in Bonner and Raffray Detective Agency, does appear a few times in the main body of work. 

Theodolinda "Dol" Bonner is a disappointment though her appearances together with her assistant Sally Corbett in several Nero Wolfe novels are satisfactory enough. Wolfe thinks highly enough of her and her agency to employ them at the same time as Saul Panzer and his other agents. The disappointment lies in the one novel about Dol Bonner, The Hand in the Glove. The plot is odd though at times credible and Dol Bonner's much discussed hatred of men turns out to be based on something completely piffling. The arguments about whether the two young ladies should be running something so disreputable as a detective agency are entertaining enough and strike a chord. (How different from our own Miss Maud Silver, well established as a private investigator by 1937.) But on the whole, it is far inferior to Rex Stout's other books.

About the same time, that is in the late thirties and early forties Stout also experimented with another detective, William Tecumseh Sherman Fox, named after the Civil War general of controversial fame and known as Tecumseh or Tec Fox. So far I have managed to read only one of the Tec Fox novels, the last one, as it turns out, The Broken Vase.

Its plot is a little bonkers and involves fabulously beautiful and expensive Chinese vases, one of which is broken and one stolen as well as a very special Stradivarius violin, which is wrecked beyond repair by the end of the book, a number of varied murders and a cast of characters all of whom act in the stupidest way imaginable except for a Hollywood star of great beauty who seems completely dulalee. The only people who appear to keep their senses are Tec Fox himself, Mrs Pomfret (allowing for overwhelming grief) who hires him and, surprisingly, Inspector Damon of NYPD homicide. 

Readers who are used to the sparring and snarling that goes on between Wolfe and Archie on the one hand and Inspector Cramer and his subordinates on the other, will find the open and friendly collaboration between Tec Fox and Inspector Damon rather surprising. 

In fact, Fox is altogether surprising. He appears to own a farm in Westchester County where there are livestock, strawberries, vine and other fruit and vegetables as well as mostly random human inhabitants. Whether his main income is from the farm or from detecting is not made clear in this book but one suspects the latter. He drives into New York or anywhere else he needs to get to and frequents places that are mentioned in the Wolfe stories as well. In The Broken Vase, for instance, he and his buddy Diego (who also behaves like complete idiot) go for a late night drink and sandwich to Rusterman's. There are, apparently, other links in the other two novels though the two detectives never meet and never mention each other. 

Tec Fox is not a genius but is knowledgeable about a number of unexpected subjects and solves the crimes in The Broken Vase through his ability to play with words and some knowledge of Latin. That and the inimitable Stout writing style, toned down a little as it is not Archie who is supposedly telling the tale but a narrator, make me think that I want to read the other two Tecumseh Fox novels and regret that there were only three. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Some thoughts on recent events

No, this is not about David Bowie about whom my feelings are lukewarm, at best. I refer to the events of New Year's Eve in Cologne and other Continental, particularly German cities as well as subsequent developments. My intention was not to write about it because there were so many people pontificating already but an exchange I had with a very well known journalist (no name, no pack drill, as they say) who thought that the official report, which confirmed that the Cologne attackers were "of migrant origin".When I asked why that is a surprise, given what we had heard from the women victims and why is it worse than if the attackers had lived in the country for a while, the reply was "because it plays into the hands of those wanting to sow division".

What can one make of that attitude? Can this journalist really think that the crimes are less important than the need to prevent "dissension", which cannot possibly be sown who think it is all right to attack women in the streets? Could this journalist have possibly preferred that the story of Cologne as many other similar but smaller stories had been buried by unsympathetic police officers and politicians? One cannot help suspecting that with this and many other journalists. After all, the media has been entirely complicit in the mess.

Other discussions I have had yielded some interesting moments as well. On a personal basis I can confirm that a good many people on the left are or are trying to be in denial about this. The number of assertions I have seen that this must have been a plot put together by the extreme right and other opponents of immigration is extraordinary. What that shows is the usual left-wing contempt for the people they allegedly support and a reluctance to understand that there are other cultures around and some of them are incompatible with ours. The notion that only Europeans or Americans are capable of deciding to do anything and everyone else simply follows instructions or gets caught up in a conspiracy is laughable but also dangerous. Yet there are many people around who do not even see anything wrong with that.

There have been the inevitable comments and articles about "feminists" being ready to sacrifice other women for their own rather skewed politically correct attitudes. That, I keep pointing out, is true only if we all accept that Guardian-type definition of a feminist being left-wing. Then it all becomes a general problem for the left. There are, however, many of us feminists, who believe in freedom and equality and who are not on the left. We have been discussing these issues for some time and intend to go on discussing them. Nobody, in my opinion, is more of a feminist than the Baroness Cox, who is fighting for the rights of women against Sharia law and who is much disliked by the left, including the so-called feminist left.

There are the inevitable arguments that we should look at male violence in general and not assume that some cultures encourage it more than others. Any discussion of that kind would take away attention from recent events and criminal activity and bog us down in pointless meanderings. Of course, there is something to be said for looking at the male violence angle but not quite what these people mean.

One of the big arguments against the decision to allow in refugees/migrants in large numbers (a decision that almost all European countries have been rejecting) was the fact that the majority of them were young men though enough women and children could be found for moving pictures in the media. Not only does that raise uncomfortable questions as to whether these are really refugees but should remind us that a sudden influx of tens of thousands young men is not that good a development and is unlikely to be conducive to keeping peace and law and order. When those young men come from societies, which have a very different attitude to women, then big trouble could be expected.

Unfortunately, having committed themselves to a certain series of actions, politicians together with the media that supported them and those entrusted with the preservation of law and order, preferred not to acknowledge that trouble was on its way. When it came (and that happened some time before this last New Year's Eve) official reaction was to dampen the fires, dismiss complaints, bury the news story and hope it will all go away. They may have feared a backlash, dissent, even violence aimed at the migrants but most of all it is their own position that was at risk and up with that they could not put.

As my friend and wise mentor John O'Sullivan put it on his Twitter feed:
Official silence, meant to prevent a backlash, fueled a backlash which, btw, is a racist term for critical opposition to foolish policies.
The story of violence against women at various occasions and in various parts of Europe (with Britain not exactly being exempt, what with our tales of gangs grooming young girls and years of official denial) has now become too big to suppress. The Police Chief of Cologne was thrown to the dogs and the Mayor of that city, having made some very stupid statements that basically blamed the victims, is whining that she has been attacked and criticized. The interview is well worth reading in full to see the political helplessness and need to blame everyone else. None of it is new but people have become less tolerant.

What we see here is quite normal for the political establishment. They make a colossal mistake or two, refuse to look at valid criticisms and discard any opposing ideas. When those criticisms turn out to be correct they find it impossible either to acknowledge it (with some exceptions) or to admit that the mess is now too big for them to deal with and they have no idea how to get out of it.

This has happened over and over again, the whole appalling mess of the eurozone being just one example. In the case of this particular mess there were two catastrophic decisions: one is to take in very large numbers of migrants/refugees from societies that are run on different principles without even a perfunctory check beyond the odd newspaper story; the other, older decision (and really it is hard to tell whether it was a decision or something that just happened) was not to insist that those who come to our countries and societies abide by our laws and our own cultural norms. That does not mean people cannot worship in their own way, wear clothes they prefer (though I have a rooted objection to the veil) or eat the food they like (that, above all). But there are more important issues such as the position of women in society. The decisions were challenged and criticized all along and these criticisms were dismissed as emanations of racism or xenophobia. Well, now the whirlwind is upon us.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Was Rex Stout right about Watson?

Another month, another writer: this time it is Rex Stout and the blogs will be collected by Noah Stewart who also designed that very fetching logo for the blogs. Eventually I shall get round to writing about Nero Wolfe, his assistant and general dog's body but every woman's dream Archie Goodwin, the brownstone house in West 35th street, which has not brownstones indicating that a misleading address was given, Fritz Brenner the astonishing cook and Theodore Horstman, the orchid expert who seems to live at the top of the house, never making an appearance anywhere else. Eventually.

First, let me turn to Rex Stout the innovator in Holmesian studies. Let me call attention to a couple of modern works. First, there is the series Elementary, according to some experts far better than our own Sherlock (go tell that to the Cumberbitches), which is an updated version of Sherlock Holmes with a female Dr Watson, played by Lucy Liu.

Secondly, there is a whole series of novels by Laurie R. King about Mary Russell (more here), whom we first meet as a difficult teenager, helped in life by a certain bee-keeper on the Sussex Downs. In subsequent novels she grows up, acquires an excellent education, becomes said bee-keeper's assistant and wife. Guess who the bee-keeper might be?

So there we have it: a series about Dr Watson as a woman and a series about Sherlock Holmes married. But who thought of that first? That's right, Rex Stout. At a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars on January 31, 1941, Stout made a speech that became infamous among Holmesians and, we are told, he could attend subsequent meetings only when accompanied by a personal bodyguard.

He refused to join in the traditional toast "The Second Mrs Watson" because, he explained, there was no such person. Nor was there a first Mrs Watson. In fact, the Watson person, as he said was a very different entity from the one we assume.

Going through the Sacred Texts, as he refers to them, Rex Stout proves that Watson could not possibly have been a man. Mind you, I cannot quite see why a man should not ask a good violinist to play some of Mendelson's Lieder, that being one of Stout's arguments. Others stand up a little better.

Next, he says, we have to ask whether the Watson person was his wife or his mistress. Well, that's easy: no man would go on crunching on his toast when his mistress finally appears at the breakfast table. It had to be a wife.

The Great Hiatus? Piffle. That was Holmes wanting to escape from a marriage he hated but deciding to come back after all. And so on. There is an interesting explanation as to when Holmes married. It was, of course, during the only wedding that he attended in the entire canon. He was not, apparently, a happy groom.

Well, maybe. But where Stout falls down, in my opinion, is in his analysis of what Watson's real name might be.
Let us see what we can do about the name, by methods that Holmes himself might have used. It was Watson who wrote immortal tales, therefore if she left a record of her name anywhere it must have been in the tales themselves. But what we are looking for is not her characteristics or the facts of her life, but her name, that is to say, her title; so obviously the place to look is in the titles of the tales.

There are sixty of the tales all told. The first step is to set them down in chronological order, and to number them from 1 to 60. Now, which shall we take first? Evidently the reason why Watson was at such pains to conceal her name in this clutter of titles was to mystify us, so the number to start with should be the most mystical number, namely seven. And to make it doubly sure, we shall make it seven times seven, which is 49. Very well. The 49th tale is "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client." We of course discard the first four words, "The Adventure of the," which are repeated in most of the titles. Result: "ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT."

The next most significant thing about Watson is her (his) constant effort to convince us that those things happened exactly as she (he) tells them; that they are on the square. Good. The first square of an integer is the integer 4. We take the title of the 4th tale and get RED-HEADED LEAGUE."

We proceed to elimination. Of all the factors that contribute to an ordinary man's success, which one did Holmes invariably exclude, or eliminate? Luck. In crap-shooting, what are the lucky numbers? Seven and eleven. But we have already used 7, which eliminates it, so there is nothing left but 11. The 11th tale is about the "ENGINEER'S THUMB."

Next, what was Holmes's age at the time he moved to Baker Street? Twenty-seven. The 27th tale is the adventure of the "NORWOOD BUILDER." And what was Watson's age? Twenty-six. The 26th tale is the adventure of the "EMPTY HOUSE." But there is no need to belabor the obvious. Just as it is a simple matter to decipher the code of the Dancing Men when Holmes has once put you on the right track, so can you, for yourself, make the additional required selections now that I have explained the method. And you will inevitably get what I got:
You can find the answer in the text of the essay here. It will not surprise anybody. However, I cannot accept the explanation above. For one thing, the numbers are far too randomly chosen and many others would have done just as well with the answer being very different. Most importantly, however, would anyone in England of that time know anything about crap shooting? This was long before the film of Guys and Dolls remember. Rex Stout's case remains unproven.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A sad ending to the year

Naturally, I wish every reader of this blog a very happy, prosperous and satisfactory 2016. For those of us who are concerned with the future status of this country, this will be an important year though, for what it's worth, I still think the referendum will be in 2017. But the various players in the campaign are emerging and lining up. There will be many other things to blog about as well and I have a few projects lined up that will take up time. I do, however, intend to be a little more attentive to Your Freedom And Ours.

In that connection I must turn to the sadness that overwhelmed many of us who care about that concept in the last few days of 2015. A couple of days after Christmas I was told of the death of Leonid Finkelstein (Vladimirov), a man who was well known among those who fought against the Soviet Union and have, more recently, resumed that battle against the Putin regime.

I have known Leonid for many years, first as a friend of my father's, then as a remarkably lenient boss at the London office of Radio Liberty, where I had a summer job in my undergraduate years, and for a good long time as a close friend. In fact, if it had not been for Leonid, his wife Kira (a colleague of my mother's when they were working on the Oxford English-Russian Dictionary and a good friend of mine) and, above all, their cat, Billy, my doctoral thesis might not have been completed. At a crucial moment in its writing when I was desperate for time and space they asked me to spend two weeks in their house cat sitting. Those two weeks gave me the time and space to write the missing chapter without which the thesis could not stand up. Billycat, as he was known in my family, did not complain.

Leonid came to London in the summer of 1966 as part of a journalistic delegation and found a suitable moment when he could move away from the group, walk into a police station and ask for asylum. For Soviet citizens to do so in the mid-sixties was hazardous business as the Soviet authorities were capable of almost anything to prevent such events. There were cases of failed and successful kidnappings, traffic accidents and even mysterious illnesses, sometimes fatal. Attempts to return Leonid were made but he managed to evade them though his desire to live and work in England meant that he did not see his family again for a good many years.

Using the name Leonid Vladimirov (from his patronymic Vladimirovich) he worked as a broadcaster for Radio Liberty in London and in Munich and for the BBC Russian Service; he reported on British politics as well as led discussions and compiled programmes about British life; he wrote articles and two highly regarded books, The Russians and The Russian Space Bluff. As a science journalist in the USSR he was particularly well placed to reveal the truth behind that country's space programme.

In fact, it is hard to overestimate Leonid's contribution both to Western understanding of the Soviet Union and, perhaps more importantly, Russian understanding of Britain.

Even after his retirement from the BBC he contributed various programmes, such as this short talk about his imprisonment in Stalin's gulag (oh yes, he was, just like many millions of people). He attended various events and contributed to talks and discussions. I particularly remember a discussion we had at the Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies (CRCE) in 2004 about Samizdat in the Soviet Union. Leonid was not on the panel but he might as well have been, considering the importance of his contribution. The paper was published. [Scroll down] Other people will have other examples.

In the last few years Leonid and I met at events in Pushkin House as well as CRCE and at demonstrations outside the Russian Consulate. Once again, we all had to join the fight for the freedom of Russia against its state.

Let me not forget chess - one of Leonid's crucial interests. If I happened to call his home to find out how he was after an operation or an illness, I could find him only to be told that he was suffering from an incurable disease - age - or, much more likely I found his wife, Kira, who told me that he was not at home as he was taking part in some chess tournament, possibly in London, possibly somewhere else, near or far. Don't believe me? Here is an interview on the Hamilton-Russell Chess Cup site.

Though I have seen Leonid more recently, my best last memory is from the year before last when my daughter and I took Leonid and Kira out to Ognisko Restaurant in Kensington to celebrate his 90th birthday. It was an extremely jolly evening during which we all had ferocious discussions about Russian literature about which we all disagreed. (No point in discussing Russian politics - we all agreed on that.) I do not have photos from that event but here are two of Leonid and Kira from another dinner in the Polish restaurant, Patio, in 2010:

Rest In Peace, Leonid Vladimirovich.