Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Cars and Murder in 1935

This is the last of the May Tuesday Night blogs about travel and holiday. Next month we shall be covering academic institutions - plenty to choose from there.

I have chosen to write about something slightly unusual and that is a motor rally, partly because I am impressed by any writer who can hold my attention on any subject to do with cars, even those of the thirties and partly because John Rhode is a seriously underrated Golden Age author. Curt Evans has written about Cecil John Charles Street who was John Rhode as well as Miles Burton and it would be good to see some of the books back in print. The British Library is reprinting at least two of Miles Burton's books about Desmond Merrion and his talentless policeman friend, Inspector Arnold (this and this), but so far there is no sign of any John Rhode books.

This is all a matter of personal taste, of course, but I marginally prefer John Rhode's Dr Priestley to Burton's Desmond Merrion.

He is a scientist and mathematician though it is not always clear which but on all subjects he gets into ferocious arguments with his colleagues. Where his income is from remains a mystery as he does not hold down an academic position and his books are not exactly best sellers. A side line writing successful detective novels, perhaps? He is often rather annoyed by other people's stupidity and most people treat this characteristic with a pleasant shrug of the shoulder. Oh it's just the old man being his usual self.

There is a secretary-cum-assistant-cum-general slave, called Harold Merefield who is occasionally allowed to find things out for himself but only if he brings it all back like a good dog to the master. Actually, the relationship is a little odd. In the first book of the series, The Paddington Mystery, Harold is a young ne'er do well, who has squandered his money, fallen out with his father's friend, Dr Priestley, and, more importantly, his daughter April and is clearly sleeping with a woman who is not his wife. Well, naturally, he is suspected of murder. Dr Priestley sorts it all out and at the end of the book Harold is about to start working for him and to marry April. Thereafter April disappears. She is mentioned in the second book, I am told, as being on a round of family visits but never seen or heard of again. This I find slightly sinister. Has anyone thought of checking the garden or the basement of that large house in Westbourne Terrace?

John Rhode produced many books between the wars and afterwards as did Miles Burton. In 1935 he sent Harold Merefield off to be a navigator for a small team who have entered the Torquay Motor Rally that involves two people driving alternately for something like forty hours with hardly any stops. By the time our friends find the car that has crashed and left two dead bodies they can hardly stand or see straight themselves. As Sergeant Showerby says when he sees them, unshaven, exhausted, barely conscious: "Well, some folks have queer ways of enjoying themselves, that's all I can say."

Naturally, the accident turns out to be anything but and Dr Priestley has to sort things out again, though none of the young men are suspected of the murder. Other people are, though.

Wait a minute, I hear people cry, a motor rally? A motor rally? How does that fit into the pastoral, romantic, utopian golden age detective genre? Well, it doesn't because that is not what the genre was, regardless of what people who should know better say or think and regardless of TV dramatizations. Cecil Street was an engineer; he had also served in Royal Artillery. He was fascinated by matters to do with engineering, particularly electrical and motor cars. In fact he was responsible for Eric the Skull who lit up at meetings of the Detection Club.

The Motor Rally Mystery is all about times of driving and various aspects of car mechanics but also about the correct reading of clues, something that apparently only Dr Priestley is capable of. There are certain untraditional aspects to the book. The local police, both sergeant and inspector are really very intelligent though the three young men make snide comments about them. The coroner, on the other hand, is an ass. Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard, a frequent character in the novels, is largely an idiot. He manages to invent several theories that he describes as facts on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Hanslet's career is a mystery and I can only surmise that he progressed to Superintendent under the rule of Sir Henry Clithering as Commissioner.  That man was notoriously incapable of seeing the most obvious of clues.

The plot is a bit weak. There are clues galore but no explanation until the very end when there is a great car chase, a near crash and Dr Priestley pulls several rabbits out of a hat. One could also do with a few maps - three to be precise, that would show clearly which routes were followed by our team, which by the victims and which by the murderer.

The book ends with something of a threat. The owner of the Armstrong Siddeley Saloon intends to enter the following year's rally and wants Dr Priestley as the passenger. Will the organizers allow it?

We face serious problems - 2

There is no getting away from it: one has to look at the Brexit campaign and what is wrong with it and I suppose the fact that it has taken me this long to get to my second rant is indicative of some of the problems. We cannot just go on blaming everything on the fact that the other side has more money and is dishonest in using hyperbole as well as taxpayers' money. Which brings me to my first point: why exactly are we so surprised and so angry by the fact that from the Prime Minister down (or the Governor of the Bank of England down or the egregious Director of the IMF down) anyone who has a political vested interest in not rocking the EU boat too much and anyone who can be put under political pressure has been taking part in a somewhat dishonest campaign against Brexit? Did we not expect this? Why are so many of the Leave campaigners unprepared for the nastiness and do nothing but wring their hands or get furious with the other side doing exactly what they were expected to do?

There has been some criticism of my first posting on the subject, the first of which was a reminder that one complaint about the Brexit or Leave campaign is people spending more time attacking each other than attacking the enemy. Am I not doing the same thing?

My response to that is I do not propose to mount personal attacks. Nobody is going to be named and shamed (not now, anyway) but if things are going so badly wrong that we all have a duty to try to correct them as there are still four weeks to go till the Referendum, which we must win.

There are two tactical problems that I have been complaining about since before the campaign began to those who were organizing meetings to discuss the campaigns and to anyone else who would listen (as well as many who preferred not to). I am still complaining about them but to no avail and it is my opinion that these problems will lose us votes.

Firstly, the grave shortage of women speakers at events and women anywhere near the top of the campaign as a whole. Yes, yes, there are pretty girls handing out leaflets but almost every meeting one looks at has an all-male line-up some of whom ask plaintively how they might gain the female vote.

At a pre-campaign meeting I raised this subject (I was in the audience and the panel was all-male) and received no real answer. The chairman (no names, no pack drill) had already pronounced that it would be important to gain the female vote and "we" must thing how to do this but the simple solution of having at least one woman speaker and preferably two as this was quite a large panel had not occurred to him. To add insult to injury he subsequently smiled patronizingly at me and said "oh there is a lady who comes to all the meetings". Yes, dear readers, he escaped unharmed, which just shows that I can control myself.

I have raised this subject a few times since and my comments were either greeted with stony silence or with grumblings about how "we do not have positive discrimination". Two points need to be made in response to that: is it really impossible to find women who are knowledgeable and articulate without positive discrimination and are all the men who keep appearing on these platforms or are quoted on YouTube so wonderfully knowledgeable and articulate? To those questions I get no response at all.

Not only is it ridiculous to be fighting those battles in the twenty-first century but we must also remember that half the electorate are female. Naturally, women do not vote simply because there is a female speaker or not but appearances are important in politics. Consistently, Brexit line-ups look like pictures from 1950s political metings and not that many people want to go back to that decade. (I am prepared to argue that one in another posting if any reader is interested.)

My second tactical complaint is about that particular demographic group that is referred to as "the young" or "young people" who, according to both sides, are much too sophisticated and forward looking to vote for Brexit and are unhappy because a lot of old people might spoil their lives by doing just that.

What sort of ages are we talking about? There are the 18 to circa 23 year olds, many of whom are at college or university and are notoriously bad at registering or turning out to vote. Get Britain Out has been doing sterling work there as well as (indirectly) the various free market organizations but one must admit that most students, if they bother to think about it, tend to stay well within the safety zones.

Then again, neither they nor the next age group of, say, 23 to 30 enjoy being taken for granted or pontificated to. So, the Prime Minister's assumptions may not be all that popular.

My problem is with our campaign: why exactly do we accept without too much arguing the strange idea that "young people" are too outward looking for Brexit? Why do we not turn it round and say that "young people" are too outward looking to want to Remain? For them, unlike the generations of the fifties, sixties and seventies, Europe is not the most exciting place in the world. Europe is where you go for the week-end if you cannot think of anything better to do. Their gap years, working ambitions, ideas for studying or just holidays are spread all over the world: the Commonwealth, the Americas, the Far East. What's the EU to them?

Yes, dear readers, I did raise the point with those in charge of campaigning (once again, no names, no pack drill) and my point was comprehensively dismissed. Mind you, when I said this during a debate to Sir Simon Hughes, in response to him making just that point, he mumbled that "young people" are interested in both the EU and the non-EU. Well, fine, but how does that translate itself into votes?

[I was going to go on and tackle some of the arguments - well, one particular one - that seems to me to be a huge mistake but then I shall have to produce some ideas of my own. Therefore, I shall leave that for a third part.]

Friday, May 27, 2016

More on Putin's hostage taking politics

We interrupt our postings on the Referendum campaigns to bring you some information about President Putin and his hostage taking campaign. Here is an item on today's Daily Vertical
Russia may have released its most famous hostage, but it is still holding dozens more.

According to human rights groups, as many as 30 Ukrainian citizens remain in Russian prisons on what appear to be very flimsy charges.

Among them are Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpyuk, two Ukrainian nationalists who were sentenced yesterday to long prison sentences on dubious charges that they fought alongside Chechen separatists in the 1990s.

There are allegations that the two were tortured.

Their conviction was largely based on the testimony of one man.
The witness in question appears to be in prison himself and, therefore, subject to some pressure. Were the two even in Chechnya? Who knows?
The hostage list also includes the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, Crimea residents imprisoned on absurd terrorism charges after they openly opposed Russia's forceful and illegal annexation of the peninsula.

And then there is the 73-year-old Ukrainian pensioner Yuriy Soloshenko, who is suffering from cancer. He's serving a six-year sentence in a maximum security prison on clearly absurd spying charges.

Numerous Crimean Tatars, including the deputy head of the Mejlis, are also incarcerated on fictitious terrorism charges.

Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin's Ukrainian hostages were all abducted after Russia's seizure of Crimea and its intervention in the Donbas.
Let us not forget various Russian political prisoners, foremost among whom is Oleg Navalny, Alexey Navalny's brother, also a hostage in a manner of speaking, though his imprisonment did not achieve the desired result.

[Referendum campaign anger service will resume forthwith with the criticism already received taken into account.]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

We face serious problems - 1

The Leave campaign has been depressingly bad: lacklustre, limited, too reliant on not very attractive and badly argued slogans and incompetent in its arrangements. On the other hand, the Remain campaign with its outstanding hyperbole (if we leave there will be another world war is not particularly rational) and reliance on such things as letters from ridiculous luvvies has been even worse so that cheers me up. Not for long. The accepted opinion on all sides is that we shall probably lose and I have to admit to having had a bad feeling about this referendum for some time.

It is, therefore, a great pleasure to read a rational and well-informed article on our side by Allister Heath (who else?) in the Telegraph. He attacks the outrageous, dishonest and hysterical pro-Remain reports, such as the one produced, quite against the rules by the Treasury and says:
As it happens, such studies are a farrago of nonsense, based on question-begging, unrealistic assumptions designed to lead to a pro-Remain conclusion. In some cases, especially the Treasury’s analysis of the short-term consequences of leaving, they are a scandalously unethical concoction of a kind eerily reminiscent of Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier prior to the Iraq War.

But the fact that they are flawed doesn’t mean that their arguments can be ignored. It is desperately important that the economic case for Brexit be made much more vigorously. It needs to be divided into two components: a takedown of the EU as an ultimately doomed, job-destroying, declining and mismanaged behemoth which stands no chance in an increasingly agile, globalised world; and the mapping out of a clear exit strategy, compatible with Leave’s objectives, that shows how we would maintain and enhance our openness to the world. The message must be clear: we would be better off out – in terms of jobs, wages and growth. The costs of leaving will be smaller than the benefits, and this would become evident within a few years of leaving.

The core assumption of the anti-Brexit economists is that leaving would erect damaging barriers to trade; the pro-Brexit side must take on and demolish these arguments. The good news is that it’s quite easy to do so. The Leave campaign’s long-term aim is to break away completely from the EU. But there is no doubt that, were we to vote Leave on June 23, the UK would seek to adopt, as an interim solution, a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU which ensures that we remain in the single market, giving us plenty of time to work out new arrangements with the rest of the world.

That is both the only realistic way we would quit the EU – the only model, that, plausibly, MPs would support as a cross-party compromise deal – and the best possible way for us to do it. The Norwegians would welcome us with open arms, as their own influence would be enhanced, and other EU nations would seek to join us. Such a deal would eliminate most of the costs of leaving, while delivering a hefty dose of benefits as a down payment.
The Adam Smith Institute has looked at the Treasury "report" from another angle.
The Treasury are playing a key role in the referendum campaign. They have published two reports which explicitly campaign for remain. The first looked at the long term impact. The second report published yesterday, looks at the immediate impact. Both reports are all doom and gloom. They claim our economy will quickly be pushed into a recession and we will be £4,300 poorer in the long term.

Like the Government’s referendum leaflet (which cost £9m to publish), this analysis isn’t balanced. It is openly designed to promote Project Fear. It also cost taxpayers’ money to produce. Civil service staff are being diverted to fight the remain campaign. These are vast resources which aren’t at the disposal of the other side, essentially circumventing the funding limits. A team of 20 treasury wonks would cost around £1m a year.
So how much did the Treasury spend on the exercise?
As a concerned taxpayer, I submitted an FOI request to the Treasury. We have a right to know how much this all costs. I asked them how much they are spending on the EU referendum and in particular for staffing numbers. Their (late) reply speaks for itself.

“It is not possible to identify full time equivalent staff numbers involved in the production of HM Treasury’s analysis because of the range of staff who contributed on an ad-hoc basis from across the Department. We have not yet received the publication invoice.” Information Rights Unit, HM Treasury.

It is not possible to count up the team involved. But it is possible to predict the next 30 years to the nearest pounds and pence, complete multivariate macroeconomic modelling, and work together as a pan department team to quickly turn this around into 290 pages of reports. Either they can't do basic arithmetic or they are hiding the amount they are throwing at the campaign.
This is not really surprising to many of us but is not as convincing to the electorate as one would like it. Sir Alan Sugar says we must stay in. Oh my gosh! He is a businessman, he must know whereof he speaks. Well, other businessmen say otherwise and, in any case, Sir Alan has just been appointed by David Cameron's "Enterprise Tsar", whatever that might be. In parenthesis let me say that I have never quite understood this obsession with naming people as tsars of something or other. Do they not know what happened to many if not most tsars, particularly the last one? The job will end badly - they all do. But in the meantime does this make Sir Alan an independent businessman to whom we must listen? I think not.

[As ever, I find that what was going to be a shortish posting has acquired a longish preface. So, I am making this part 1. To be continued. Part 2 is here.] 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Detective Stories as Aspirational Travel Guides

Yes, yes, it is Wednesday but my colleagues in the group are a remarkably tolerant lot. At least, I hope so.

The two novels I want to look at came out after the war, in 1952 (John Bude's Death on the Riviera) and 1959 (George Bellairs's Bones in the Wilderness). The first was written at about the grimmest time of Britain's post war history - the rationing was worse than it had been during the war, the Labour government had raised taxes to a phenomenal level, rebuilding was not going on fast enough and the unions were flexing their muscles. By the time of the second one, life had improved considerably. Rebuilding had proceeded apace, rationing had gone but the food remained as limited as before and various price controls prevented growth and development in retail. People had begun to travel (almost exclusively to European countries unless you were in the military or the diplomatic) and noted that the countries that had been occupied or defeated in the forties were faring much better than Britain, unoccupied and victorious.

These were also the years when Elizabeth David published her first few highly successful books: A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), French Country Cooking (1951), Italian Cooking (1954) and Summer Cooking (1955). Slightly less well known but equally important was Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd.They all brought the joys and pleasures of exciting and colourful food to the British feeling, many of whom were somewhat oppressed by the reality of eating in this country. Two other books need to be mentioned in this connection: Nancy Mitford's completion of her saga of English aristocrats before and after the war: The Blessing (1951) and Don't Tell Alfred (1960).

What these books had in common was the glowing depiction of France, particularly its southern parts, though Paris as well in Nancy Mitford's novels, the colours, the scenery, the food and, not least, the drink - wines, brandies, liqueurs, aromatic coffee - so different from the watery beer and undrinkable muddy slush that passed for coffee in English inns and restaurants.

The two detective stories I have just read and referred to above fit into this category very neatly. They are tales of murder and detection but they are also travelogues of the Riviera, other parts of France and glorious accounts (especially Bones in the Wilderness) of the most wonderful meals and wines. Death on the Riviera has less of that but there are references of breakfasts on the terrace with coffee and rolls, the odd lunch of a fluffy omelette aux fines herbes and glorious wines. Indeed Bellairs's Superintendent Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell (who is interested enough in everything he sees and tastes to make copious notes) find themselves several times somewhat the worse for wear.

Interestingly, both these books talk about people being allowed to take £100 abroad in cheques or cash and this is not seen as being very much despite the overvalued pound sterling. After the Labour victory in the mid-sixties, this amount was reduced to £50 which was worth even less after the devaluation of 1967. (Though the French devalued in 1969 so what went around came around.)

It's hard to find out anything about George Bellairs except that his real name was Harold Blundell, that he lived from 1902 to 1985, was a bank manager from Rochdale until he gave that up to write detective stories when he also moved to the Isle of Man. The English Wikpedia does not mention his travels in France, which judging by this and at least one other book that is referred to, must have happened several times. For that one must turn to the French entry, which tells us of his degree from the London School of Economics, his success in the banking business, his move to the Isle of Man and his travels in Europe. Inspector, later Superintendent Littlejohn, we are told is sometimes assisted by his wife Letty as crime happens when they travel to France or the Isle of Man. Not in Bones in the Wilderness, where he is assisted by Sergeant Cromwell but the descriptions of travel, of scenery and of food remain as luscious as ever.

Here is just an ordinary luncheon:

"Excellent eel soup, Barbecue steaks and rice, after an hors d'oeuvres of tomatoes, peppers, green olives, sausage and fish. Then, fruit and goat's cheese. All washed down with the fulsome red and white M√Ęcon from the vineyards of Pont de Veyle." Even in 1959 most readers would have found this overwhelming and unreachable.

The plot, which is secondary to the travelogue and gastronomic description is quite good and tightly put together, despite the endless dashing across France and back again. Curiously, the characters are either extraordinarily good looking or quite appallingly repulsive.

John Bude (1901 - 1957) is also a pseudonym, in this case of Ernest Elmore, a theatre producer and director who did go to southern France quite a few times, as Martin Edwards explains in his excellent and highly informative introduction.

 A number of his detective stories have been reprinted by the British Library and, speaking quite honestly, I am not sure he deserves such accolade. They are good enough but the plots tend to be convoluted with loose ends while the character of Inspector, later Chief Inspector, then again Inspector but of Scotland Yard Meredith is one of the most humdrum of the humdrums. In one of the earlier novels he has a wife and a son who add a bit of colour to his personality but these disappear not even to be mentioned in the later ones.

Death on the Riviera, which does give a glorious picture of Menton and its environs consists of two plots really, one to do with a gang of money forgers, the other with a more domestic murder, and somehow never quite unites them. The same people are involved but at least one of the gang is forgotten in the general round-up and the highly complicated murder and alibi creation appears to have a very weak reason for it. Still, there are splendidly amusing French police officers and Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang, who is allowed to be quite bright, finds true love. And there is that fluffy omelette.

Rejoice but do not forget

Two good news items today: the release of Nadiya Savchenko and of the investigative Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismajilova. Of the two, oddly enough, straightforward rejoicing is in order more with the latter.

Khadija Ismayilova was released on probation by the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan on appeal after a world-wide campaign. (An addition source of satisfaction is that this was not achieved by the egregious Amal Clooney who was taking the case to the ECHR.)
Ismayilova, who had delved into the wealth of the country’s first family, was arrested in December 2014 and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail in September last year.

The supreme court ruled on Wednesday that her sentence would be changed to a three-and-a-half-year suspended term. A group of wellwishers gathered outside the court with balloons to celebrate the verdict, which has come two days before Ismayilova’s 40th birthday. She is expected to leave detention later in the day.

Her trial, on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, was widely seen as politically motivated, and revenge for her award-winning reporting. In her work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), she carried out a number of investigations that linked president Ilham Aliyev and his family to alleged corruption scandals.

At the same time as Ismayilova’s arrest, Azerbaijan’s authorities also raided RFE/RL’s Baku bureau and sealed it shut. The oil-rich country is run by Aliyev, who took over when his father died in 2003, and little dissent is tolerated. A number of other rights activists, journalists and lawyers have been imprisoned in the country on charges widely decried as politicised, though a group of them were released earlier this year.
Either the Supreme Court in Azerbaijan is more independent than any of us had believed or, much more likely, the Aliyev family is relatively sensitive to Western reactions and attitudes.

One cannot say the same about Vlad and his Chekists who are about as sensitive as a rhinoceros is to tickling (don't try it at home).

Nadiya Savchenko, Russia's most famous hostage, as RFE/RL says, was also released today, having been pardoned by President Putin after fairly long imprisonment, stretches of hunger strike, a show trial overwhelming in its ludicrousness and a twenty-two year sentence. She is not simply being released, though, but exchanged for two Russians, Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, who had been described during their trial in Ukraine as being
elite members of Russian military intelligence - but Russia insisted they were not on active duty when they were captured in eastern Ukraine.

They were sentenced to 14 years in jail last month after being found guilty of waging an "aggressive war" against Ukraine, committing a terrorist act and using weapons to provoke an armed conflict.
They, too, have been pardoned by President Poroshenko.

So Savchenko's release is a little more complicated than Ismayilova's conditional one. As Brian Whitmore says on The Morning Vertical
And as for Russia, Savchenko was just the most high-profile example of Moscow's recent habit of hostage-taking: of snatching foreign citizens from their homelands and forcing them to endure ridiculous show trials in Russia. That list runs from Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver, who has been released, to Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who has not. For those released, the pattern is similar: the abduction, the transparently absurd charges and cover story, the show trial, and finally the exchange for Russians who have committed actual crimes.
Expect more of the same in the near future.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Seasoned travellers at home

It seems that the first half of the twentieth century was the golden age of the individual amateur traveller, explorer, archaeologist, plant and animal hunter. Transport had become much more efficient and convenient, the British Empire was still in place for a long time and in many places, local governments did not as yet yearn to compete for the glory of geographical and other discovery and the political divisions, though nasty in many places, were under greater control than they are now. Plenty of opportunity, also, for the likes of Colonel Race to go on shooting expeditions in places like Baluchistan.

As we know from various detective stories, many crimes happened on those tours as well, particularly on archaeological digs. If one is to believe Ellis Peters in her Felse novels that remains true decades after that period. But many travellers and explorers survived and came home. What happened then? Well, all too often they became involved in crime, specifically murder, as witnesses, occasionally perpetrators and even victims.

The victim in E. C. R. Lorac's Death Before Dinner, whose body is found at the beginning of chapter three, is Elias Trowne, a traveller and explorer but also a charlatan of some standing and a fecund producer of trashy books on many subjects. Trowne would have been right at home in the exploration with the TV crew mentality of today.

This is what Vardun Comeroy, another and more respectable explorer, writer and scientist and, incidentally, one of the suspects says to Chief Inspector Macdonald:
Trowne might well have been killed in Shanghai or Singapore, or chucjed into the harbour of any easternport. He wasn't. He survived the most improbable risks in places where violence is the norm and met his death in a place which is peaceful and law abiding. He was killed in this place, on an occasion when a group of people were met together all fo whom knew something concerning the parts of the world Trowne wrote about.

Death Before Dinner, published in 1947 is an amusing book with one or two problems, the main one being that all the characters in what becomes the Octagon Club appear at once and it remains very difficult to remember who is who and what they specialize in. But the plot holds up well and there are some delightful digs at the literary world in the repeated reference to the periodical Scrutator, made up of Scrutiny and Spectator, the Central London Library with an extra word and the Literary Review with one word missing.

At the beginning the various travellers (good and fairly well known but not the very top of their profession, which is crucial to the plot) have been summoned to receive the ultimate accolade, a membership of the Marco Polo Club. This turns out to be a hoax but before those present work that out they speculate on what the ritual might be.

Althea Cheriton, a lone sailor, says: 
Someone told me there would be a procession, and the President would arrive in a costume so terrific we should be overcome with awe and amazement. 
To which Basil Leete, a former mountaineer and present day literary agent and reviewer, replies:
I believe there's some hocus pocus with the lights but that's not until after dinner, and this Clube has never condescended to the costume game ...
What could they be discussing and making gentle fun of if not the Detection Club, of which Lorac had been a member since 1937?

I shall return to Death Before Dinner but, first, let us look at some other books in which travellers return from the wild to find themselves embroiled in murder and mayhem at home. There is, for example, Lady Harte in Georgette Heyer's They Found Him Dead, mentioned again in the second book about the Kane/Harte family, Duplicate Death and, above all, there is Georgia Cavendish,who will become for a few years Georgia Strangeways.

She first appears in Thou Shell of Death in an elderly car with bits of luggage tied to various parts of it, with her older brother, a blood hound and a green cockatoo, throws herself into the main character's arms, "her dark, monkey-like face chattering with excitement". A wonderful though slightly incomprehensible image.

She is apparently a well known explorer though her own account of her last expedition from which she is rescued by the airman Fergus O'Brien with both her companions dead on the debit side, shows her to be somewhat incompetent or, at the very least, not very good at thinking ahead.

Fergus O'Brien, the main character of the novel is also a traveller of a kind, a former World War One fighter pilot, responsible for shooting down sixty-four German planes, solo pilot to Australia on a decrepit machine, flying stuntman for a Hollywood film company, a man who took a whole native fort single-handed and, last but not least, rescurer of Georgia Cavendish who had got herself into a mess in the Libyan desert. Surely that counts as traveller if not precisely an explorer.

Julian Symons describes how excited he was when he read Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death, with its title and theme from Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, since then attributed to Thomas Middleton, and its main character Fergus O'Brien, who reminds one of T. E. Lawrence though he is much more likeable. This is Nigel Strangeways's second adventure and in it he is still full of various behavioural quirks, described as amiable but, in fact, varying from mildly amusing to downright irritating. The truth is that, no matter how left-wing C. Day Lewis (a.k.a. Nicholas Blake) might have been, it is clear that the reasons Strangeways gets away with what he describes as good manners by stretching the concept beyond belief is because he is a "gentleman", one of the officer class, as the local Superintendent realizes and the nephew of the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. This does not seem to bother the author at all though he does make mildly ironic comments about Strangeways's other uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Marlinworth. Surprisingly, Julian Symons does not express his disappointment with the politics of the book, finding himself, perhaps, too overwhelmed by the intellectual underpinning. It is a little unusual at any time in the history of the detective story to have, as a main clue, lines from a lesser Elizabethan tragedy.

Norma Harte, wife of Sir Adrian Harte is very different from Georgia Cavendish. One cannot ever imagine her ending up in the sort of pickle that Georgia has to be rescued from (neither can one imagine any of the explorers in Death Before Dinner in that situation) but she, too, bursts onto the scene laden with packages though in a taxi. She is strong-minded, outspoken, very forthright and just a little bit silly. Her first husband was killed in the First World War (the book takes place in 1937), her second husband loves her in his own etiolated sort of way and her two sons adore her in a highly exasperated sort of way, at least in the second book as the younger boy, Timothy is too young to have any emotions but those of a teenage boy in the first one.

There is murder and mayhem in Thou Shell of Death, which is really a double locked room mystery with an ingenious solution that might actually work (unlike the solutions of some of my favourite John Dickson Carr books). There is also murder and mayhem in They Found Him Dead with Lady Harte repeatedly urging Superintendent Hannasyde not to spare her feelings as she has knocked around the world and seen most things. Despite her lack of sensitivity she is a little shocked by the cold-blooded brutality of the killer who is, from the point of view of the reader, the only possible person.

In Duplicate Death, very much a post-war novel that takes place thirteen years after the first one, Lady Harte is mentioned a great deal but does not appear. She it is who sends her elder son, Jim Kane, to sort out the younger's love life. Jim arrives the morning after Timothy had been present at a bridge party during which a rather nasty person had been killed and their old acquaintance Sergeant Hemingway, now "masquerading" under the title of Chief Inspector is investigating.

Lady Harte has to be kept informed and placated though she appears to be more interested in Timothy's intended than the rather vulgar murder mystery. She is also an off-stage source of a great deal of information about the various society characters, relayed by Timothy.

Heyer had an excellent sense of dates and timing, probably because she was primarily a writer of historical novels and the progression of her two young men, Jim Kane and Timothy Harte between the two novels is entirely accurate.

By the end of the novel Lady Harte has found out that Timothy's intended, Beulah, has had the "rawest of raw deals" and has been
seized by crusading fervour, and was not only determined to spread the mantle of her approval over but was already formulating stern, and rather alarming, plans to bring her [Beulah's] late employer to belated justice ...
But, at least, she has stopped travelling. The reason is, of course, the war though one would like to know what happened to her plan, announced in They Found Him Dead of standing for Parliament. Wars do interrupt travel and exploration. In Duplicate Death we find out that
Timothy shared with his half-brother the ineradicable conviction that the Second World War had been inaugurated by providence to put an end to their beloved but very trying parent's passion for exploring remote quarters of the globe.
Luckily for their if not other people's peace of mind she does not resume her travels in the post-war period. Georgia Strangeways who appears in several books and has an adventure all by herself when she pursues and is pursued by a Nazi group in Smiler With the Knife, is killed during the Blitz, while driving an ambulance. But most of the travellers and explorers of Death Before Dinner resume their normal state of peregrination after the war, undeterrred by the changing political situation.

Despite the weakness of Death Before Dinner mentioned above, it has a good plot that actually hangs together (not always the case with Lorac's books) and the clues, as they so often are with this author are there in personality and, above all, living conditions. The story takes place in 1947, during the first post-war fuel crisis and the ongoing housing crisis, which was considerably worse than anything politicians might mention now. The characters, returned travellers and explorers, however, are in a position to have reasonably comfortable billets though only one of them chooses to do so and therein lies the main clue. The others live in attractive but functional rooms that are clearly temporary abodes whence they might take off at any minute, unless murder and mayhem prevents them from doing so or gets them fascinated with detection. Those tough, strong-minded individuals fall for the lure of clue-hunting just like ordinary human beings and make the same mistakes. One even gets coshed for his pains.

 This is a very superficial survey of returning travellers who become embroiled with crime. I have even resisted the lure of discussing various wanderers in Christie's books who come home and come up against the stay-at-home siblings. One never knows which one will turn out to be a criminal and whether everyone is who they say they are. Then there is the completely different category of people who return (allegedly) from the war to claim this, that and the other. They might be who they seem but then again, they might not. All that is for another blog.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A really shocking indictment of our police force

This comes from the New Statesman but for once I have to admit with that hoary old leftie periodical. In fact, I am rather surprised they did publish this, as the subject of the piece is more likely to crop up in the Spectator or, especially, Standpoint: the outrageous truth that most of our police force ignore such matters as forced marriage and "honour" based violence, despite taking the first step towards making it a bureaucratically acknowledged crime, creating an acronym, HBV.

The article, The majority of of police forces' failure to tackle honour-based violence is punishing victims, as clumsy a title as I have ever seen, was sent to me by Detective Sergeant Pal Singh, a good friend of mine, who is mentioned and quoted in the text.
Detective Sergeant Pal Singh has worked on some of the most high-profile “honour” killings in Britain to date, gaining a Metropolitan Police Service award for “Outstanding Individual Contribution to Victim Care” during HBV investigations. He is one of only a handful of people that I believe are truly able to understand the challenges we face and provide the real, practical solutions needed to tackle “honour” crime in all its forms. After spending many years bearing witness to the fatal consequences of inappropriate police responses to HBV, Singh has some important ideas on how to tackle the issue, which have yet to be acted upon.

He suggests that, to begin with, a specialist HBV unit covering the whole of London should be set up as a priority, which makes sense given that most recorded incidents take place there. Other high-risk areas include the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Manchester. Underreporting of “honour” crime is not based on speculation, it is a reality deduced through analysis of poor and inappropriate recording of crime data.
We have heard of too many cases of women denied justice when they go to the police, being sent back to meet more violence and even murder; we know it is happening but we refuse to deal with it because we refuse to acknowledge that certain ideas are superior to others and refuse to accept the basic fact that the law of the land should be the same for all. That means the most important entity is the individual not some community, based on religion or so-called culture.

Read the whole article. It is worth it.

And speaking of Pal Singh, here is one case in which he and his colleagues managed to achieve the result they wanted: the saved the woman from an abusive husband and family as well as putting him in gaol, though possibly the sentence was not quite long enough. That, as we know, is not the province of the police so, possibly, other institutions need to start thinking about the problem as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Not a good beginning

Let us be fair to Mr Sadiq Khan: he has not been the Mayor of London for very long and is probably dazzled by his sudden transition from a little known mediocre politician (for that is what he is) with a penchant for turning up to left-wing meetings into the politician who walks on water. The last time we had the media getting into such a state over a politician's slightest move was in the first few months of Tony Blair's premiership. (For some reason Conservatives never walk on water.) There were pictures of Mr Blair riding a bicycle and smiling at the same time, which caused ooohs and aaahs from the assembled hacks; there were pictures of him and Cherie in Beijing kicking a football and eating with chopsticks though not at the same time, causing even louder ooohs and aaahs from the self-same hacks. Well, we know the ending of that story and it is not pretty.

At the moment it is Mr Khan who is walking on water. Melanie McDonagh thinks that a Great Smug has settled on London but, actually, it is only on the media and those who take their cue from them. Most of us are waiting to see what will happen.

The omens are not good. Pace Ms McDonagh Khan's campaign was not that much better than Goldsmith's and involved several apologies for past actions that he had conveniently forgotten as well as the suspension of one adviser who had tweeted extremely unpleasant homophobic, racist and sexist comments. And, of course, we heard a great deal about him growing up on a council estate and his father being a bus driver. With hindsight, one realizes that the Conservatives should have picked Syed Kamall as a candidate not because he is far more conservative in his politics and economics, which he is, but because his father was a bus driver, too, though not from Pakistan but Guyana.

In so far as Hizonner the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has made any political statements they have been rather worrying even when somewhat vague. He proposed to crack down on Uber, to introduce rent controls, something that has never worked in favour of those who rent and never will, and has been rather vague on how he would deal with the transport unions.

Since his election he, understandably, has been putting together his ream (all of whom are very highly paid and get very generous expenses so let them not fool you when they talk about inequalities in London) but also having various photo opportunities and making statements. There were photo ops with him arriving at City Hall, being accompanied by ecstatic supporters (representatives, one assumes of the 25% of the electorate that voted for him in first and second preference) and a very important one of him attending Holocaust Memorial Service. I was roundly attacked by some of the Great Smuggers when I laughed and reminded people that Ken Livingstone, whose views on Jews are reasonably well known, also shed crocodile tears at the annual Holocaust Memorial in the Great Glass Egg (a.k.a. City Hall) in January. One year, as I recall, he even quoted from the Hitler diaries, long ago proved to be a forgery. How could I be so cynical, I was asked. It's very easy to be cynical about politicians, especially mediocre ones, I replied.

The Mayor's second public act was to produce a wish list of what he would like to do for London, has promised to fight with David Cameron to keep Britain in the EU, has met the Mayor of Paris (that must have been entertaining) and has taken on Donald Trump. Admittedly, it was not particularly bright of Trump to suggest that when he is elected Hizonner the Mayor of London can have an exemption from the ban on Muslims but for the said Mayor to launch into a major attack on a potential presidential candidate was not that smart either. He was elected to be Mayor of London and will be getting a handsome salary as well as even more handsome expenses to do that job. It does not involve comments about other countries' political events or personalities. Ken Livingstone used to do that a great deal and it was usually the US he attacked and especially the Republicans. Does Sadiq Khan aim to be another Ken Livingstone? I hope not. It would be disastrous for London.

One thing I can predict for certain: if Hizonner the Mayor, apparently intoxicated by the media hailing his as a kind of a Saviour, thinks that this will last, he will very soon become a sadder and wiser man. Any more travelling with a huge team to meet different Mayors of different cities and the grumbling will start.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Coach Tours to Crime

There has been a change in the Tuesday Night Bloggers' community: we are now writing about a theme every month rather than a particular author and this month's theme (which I managed to miss last week) is travel and holidays. There is so much one can say about that as so many of the Golden Age Detective Stories are set on holiday resorts, domestic and foreign, or on ships, trains and aeroplanes. One Gladys Mitchell story, Daisy Bell, involves a tandem bicycle as well as Mrs Bradley being driven along some rolling English roads by her chauffeur George.

So, let us consider coach tours. Whenever I hear of a friend deciding to go on a coach tour for holiday I try to warn him or, more likely, her: if one of your fellow passengers is a rotund little man, with an egg-shaped head and luxuriant moustaches or a tall, thin, elderly lady with snowy hair and surprisingly shrewd blue eyes, do not go. Ask for your money back. They mostly think I am mad but humour me and promise to do so.

After all, if one of those people is on a coach tour (or a ship, train or aeroplane) there will be crime, probably murder and you will be lucky to get away with only one. The 1974 collection Poirot's Early Cases includes Double Sin, first published in Sunday Dispatch on September 23, 1928 and in the US under the title By Road or Rail in the March 29, 1929 edition of Detective Story Magazine.

Poirot, on a brief holiday in Ebermouth, in south Devon, is asked by his friend the theatrical agent Joseph Aarons to visit him in Charlock Bay in north Devon to discuss certain confidential matters. Poirot, who prefers comfortable and, above all, warm travel is reluctantly persuaded by Hastings to join and a motor bus tour and what happens? Well, no murder but certainly a crime, which involves a pretty young girl whom Hastings, needless to say, had noticed at boarding. I rest my case. And don't think him feeling travel sick will save you, as Death in the Clouds makes clear.

Let us move to Miss Marple, who, as it happens, travels from St Mary Mead quite a lot. She goes to neighbouring towns and villages, she goes to London (in one story Sanctuary she seems to be staying in London for some time) and she goes to the Caribbean. She also joins a coach tour once though not to take a holiday but to respond to a posthumous request from the millionaire, Jason Rafiel, whom she had met in the Caribbean.

The book is Nemesis, in which Miss Marple investigates a murder of which Mr Rafiel's unsatisfactory son has been found guilty; during the coach tour another murder happens and she finds out many things. Undoubtedly the other passengers did not take the sort of advice I hand out to my friends, either.

There are interesting aspects to Nemesis, though it cannot be called one of Christie's better novels - the coach tour seems a bit of an anomaly. It was published in 1971 and was the last Miss Marple book Christie wrote. The last one to be published was Sleeping Murder, which was supposed to have been written during the war and hidden away, like Curtain. Both were supposed to be the final novels in their respective series though the Miss Marple series hardly existed at that point. There was a collection of short stories, one early novel, Murder at the Vicarage and one published in 1942, Body in the Library. Why would Christie be thinking about an ending to the series?

John Curran showed quite conclusively in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks that Sleeping Murder was written in the late forties, possibly in 1950 though that still does not explain why it was put into storage, not to be published till after Christie's death. Unlike Curtain, the ending of the Poirot series, Sleeping Murder does not give that impression. It ends with the solution and a clever explanation by Miss Marple and the young Gwenda and Giles Reed settling down in their home. Nemesis, on the other hand, has the definite feel of a final episode. At the end, Miss Marple, having successfully fulfilled Mr Rafiel's request, inherits a large sum of money and refuses to to invest it. She is going to spend it and have a good time. Undoubtedly, the good time will involve treats for various members of the family such as her super-generous nephew Raymond West and his wife.
She looked back from the door and she laughed. Just for one moment Mr Schuster, who was a man of more imagination than Mr Broadribb, had a vague impression of a young and pretty girl shaking hands with the vicar at a garden party in the country. It was, as he realised a moment later, a recollection of his own youth. But Miss Marple had, for a minute, reminded him of that particular girl, young, happy, going to enjoy herself. 
It is pleasant to think of Miss Marple going out to enjoy herself and to have fun in a much pleasanter ending than that of Curtain. Had Christie perhaps forgotten that she had written an end to the Miss Marple series and wrote another one? Or did she think that Sleeping Murder was unsatisfactory and decided to improve on it? Because the odd thing is that those two books have exactly the same plot. Christie often used similar plots but gave them different twists. Not in this case. It was exactly the same: Miss Marple is called upon to investigate a past murder where a young girl has been killed, as it turns out, by her guardian whose love for her was unhealthily possessive. The young girl's fiance or husband is assumed to be the killer and is suitably punished. Everyone assumes that justice has been done until something happens to revive the case and bring Miss Marple in, at which point one or two other murders happen and the killer is unmasked in a final attempt.

[Let me now put in a SPOILER ALERT: if you have not read these books, skip the next paragraph.]

There is, however, one big difference: in one the real killer is a man, in the other a woman but what Miss Marple sees as wrong is the unhealthily obsessive love, not the gender of the person who feels it. Christie showed several times that her attitude to lesbians was considerably more tolerant than that of many of her contemporaries. In A Murder is Announced the gay couple are seen as just another village household and when one is murdered, her friend's desperate grief is not stinted or criticized by anyone. In Nemesis, Miss Marple is not in the slightest disgusted by Clotilde's love for Verity that turns her into a murderess; on the contrary, she feels very sorry for her. Curiously enough, she has very different feelings for Dr Kennedy in Sleeping Murder, whom she describes as mad and wicked.


Where does all this get us? To the beginning of my discussion and that is, if you happen to be going on holiday on a coach tour, do be careful about your fellow passengers. You just never know.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Some thoughts on the results

It is a good thing that I made no predictions as the only one that other people made that came true was Sadiq Khan becoming Mayor of London. I did say that it was unlikely for UKIP to get three seats in the London Assembly and I was right. They now have two, Peter Whittle and David Kurten, one more than the Lib-Dims, which says something about the latter. The Greens also have two members (as they always did) but they seem to have got more votes. None of it matters in the slightest as the Assembly has no real power and role beyond writing reports nobody reads and have its members prance around in all importance.

I wish the UKIP members luck but I have no clear idea what they intend to achieve - the London Assembly has no control over immigration; nor will it have any even if we come out of the EU. As that seemed to be their only campaigning issue I cannot quite envisage their future political activity.
The last time there were two UKIP members in the Assembly, Damian Hockney and Peter Hulme-Cross in 2004, there was a split in the party very soon after the election. The UKIP group became Veritas under the leadership of Robert Kilroy-Silk, then One London without him. It continued to be One London until it was voted out in 2008. The basis of the split, readers of this blog will not be surprised, was personal clashes between the UKIP/Veritas/One London group and the Dear Leader of UKIP, who is still there in that position. [I was there and could tell many tales.] Judging from this year's election campaign, the same problems will not arise with the latest UKIP Asssembly Members but, of course, one can never tell.

One thing did intrigue me: the UKIP mayoral candidate's somewhat poorer performance than predicted by himself and many others. Instead of third, he came fifth. Was that because he had allowed the Dear Leader to muscle in on the campaign? Well, he can't say I didn't warn him. 

There is some jubilation about the fact that More Britons Voted For Sadiq Khan Directly Than Any Politician In British History. This is a meaningless statistic as London is the largest place for direct voting. We vote directly for MPs but no constituency is as large as London and neither is any other city with a Mayor. As it happens the turn-out was still 45.30%, exactly the same as it was in 2008. Of that 56.90% voted for Khan, which still makes it only 25.78%, just over a quarter of London's electorate. As it happens, there are constituencies where the winning MP gets more than a quarter of the electoral vote.

Altogether Sadiq Khan got 1,310,143 votes; in 2008, with the same turn-out, Boris Johnson got 1,168,738 votes, undoubtedly the highest number at the time of what any British politician had got in a direct vote. I do not recall anybody mentioning this.

It has also been pointed out to me by a reader of this blog that it is not " right to give the winner credit for 56.9%. That's on the basis of his 1st and 2nd preference votes. But what is a 2nd preference vote?" What, indeed? Ought we have a two turn election - with the top two having a run-off vote a week later? I do not think even that will bring the turn-out to over 50%.

I shall pass over the various predictions, both of the horrified kind (a Muslim elected Mayor of "one of the major European cities") and of the cheerful, happy-clappy kind (we have a working Mayor who will deal with issues and not be an international star). There are very few issues the Mayor can deal with and with the ones he can Mr Khan's promises bode ill: he is unlikely to stand up to the transport unions, he wants to control Uber and anything else he can lay his hands on, he has not explained how he is going to be able to afford a freeze on transport fares and so on, and so on. I fear the worst, not because he is a Muslim (is that really worse than a buddy of Yussuf al-Qaradawi or of the IRA leaders, as Ken Livingstone was and is, of course) but from his stupid, ignorant socialist ideas. I rather suspect that the new Mayor is going to be more cautions than our Ken about whom he will invite to City Hall and with whom he will share a platform as he is looking to a post-London political career.

Meanwhile, what of Zac Goldsmith, the loser? He was chosen as candidate because the Conservatives, knowing that London does incline to be pro-Labour, wanted another charismatic person, like Boris. Zac's main rival, Syed Kamall, a good chap and very sound in his politics, appeared to lack charisma (and, I was told quietly by his own supporters, performed poorly on the hustings). In hindsight, the party should have realized that Kamall had one enormous advantage: he, too, was the son of a bus driver, though he did not grow up on a council estate. His parents bought a house and let out rooms. These were the two points with which Saddiq Khan started every single statement, speech and piece of electoral literature. It worked. People voted for him. Probably they would have voted for Syed Kamall as well.

There seems to be a general assumption that Zac Goldsmith's campaign was terrible, lacklustre and negative at the same time. Here is Tim Montgomerie putting the boot into Lynton Crosby, who has just been knighted. His opinion is that Zac should have campaigned as himself (an already known quantity) not as a Lynton Crosby candidate and there is a great deal to that. We certainly saw nothing of that charisma for which he was chosen though, I have to add, Saddiq Khan's campaign was also dull as ditchwater as was that of most of the other candidates.

Andrew Roberts thinks differently and blames the Consrevatives who sniffed nastily and distanced themselves from Zac when he attacked Saddiq Khan for sharing a platform with some very foul people, indeed. This was turned into Islamophobia by people like Andrew Boff, who had lost to Zac in the nominations and the ghastly Baroness Warsi as well as a number of commentators. I agree with Mr Roberts: in itself there is nothing wrong with pointing these facts out but there ought to have been more. A couple of interesting comments from Andrew Roberts's piece:
Full disclosure: I know and like Zac, contributed to his campaign financially and – despite not agreeing with much of his green agenda – was proud to be among the more than 994,000 people who voted for him last Thursday. That total was not that much fewer than the 1.3 million who voted for Sadiq Khan in what has been a pretty uniformly Labour city since before the 1970s, once the unique personal phenomenon of Boris Johnson is taken out of the equation.
When Baroness (Sayeeda) Warsi – a semi-detached Tory at the best of times, though still nominally one – then also jumped on the bandwagon and denounced Zac on Twitter as “Britain’s Biggest Bigot” for his “Dog-whistle, nasty politics”, it was clear that the Left was having its job done for it by Zac’s fellow Conservatives. Ditto Ken Clarke’s negative comments on Zac’s campaign. In fact, Zac was perfectly right to point out, for example, that Khan had employed someone who believed that Private Lee Rigby’s murder was fabricated.

Of course these people will have to eat their words over the coming months and years when Sadiq Khan’s former political acquaintances continue to spout their repulsive Islamist comments about the subservience of woman and the evils of homosexuality, whereupon Zac’s warnings about Khan’s lack of judgement will be proven right. His denunciation of Khan “giving platform, oxygen and cover to extremists” will be seen as prophetic, and we’ll see if the likes of Boff, Warsi and Clarke – and indeed Zac’s own sister Jemima – are then big enough to admit it.

I predict that the day is not far off when many more than 994,000 people will wish they had voted for Zac Goldsmith.
I cannot imagine any circumstance in which people like Baroness Warsi will admit that they are wrong.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Local elections are hard to predict

Predicting the outcome of a general election is considerably easier than that of various local ones, particularly as different local elections take place in different years. I was very proud of telling everyone very firmly that the Conservatives would win in the last general and UKIP will have one seat. So it came to pass. But I am a little wary today.

Will the Labour row about the anti-Semitism in that party (something that many of us have known about for some time but has now become front page news) affect votes? Maybe. Then again, turn-out in local elections tends to be so low and rock solid Labour supporters tend to be so impervious to any facts or arguments that one cannot be absolutely certain. As the numbers of suspended councillors multiplied in the wake of Naz Shah's outrageous tweet (no, it was not a criticism of Israeli government policy of which, I suspect, she is completely ignorant) and our Ken's bizarre performance, I was astonished to see the number of people who talked about "dirty politics" and "smear politics", pointing out that many of those statements and tweets are several years old (though there is no evidence that there had been any change of mind or heart) and darkly blaming the Tory media (always a good bogey) and Lynton Crosby. These people, one assumes will vote Labour, no matter what and no matter who. But there are others who might have done so. Will they still do so? Will they turn out at all?

I doubt if the coming referendum and the whole argument about Brexit will have any effect. UKIP are, as ever, prancing around, telling all and sundry that they will do extremely well in the locals. Every now and then one reminds them that they said the same about the general election but water off a duck's back is the best way of describing their reaction. This time, they maintain, it will happen; this time we have captured the public mood with our emphasis on immigration rather than the EU.

UKIP in London (the place where I have followed events reasonably closely to the point of catatonic boredom) the EU makes barely any appearance in UKIP electoral literature and if it does, only in connection with borders. In fact, the Mayor of London has zero power over borders and that will remain true even if Brexit triumphs on June 23.

The UKIP mayoral candidate, Peter Whittle, is a considerably more attractive personality than his predecessors or most of his colleagues. [Declaration of interest: Peter is a friend of mine and has been for some years.] He has managed to garner a good deal of publicity and has been level-headed in his predictions. No, he is not going to be Mayor, he tells journalists but if he does well (and he has been doing well in opinion polls) that may well bring in UKIP members into the Assembly from the party list. He is top of the list so the chances are he will get in with possibly the next on in line. Peter is talking about three members but that sounds unlikely to me. Apart from publicity value, it will make no odds. I know enough about the Assembly, having worked there for four years as researcher to UKIP/Veritas/One London to be absolutely certain that it is a completely pointless and highly expensive institution.

The last time UKIP had Assembly members they very swiftly fell out with the leadership and there was a split and a fairly bloody civil war. At present, it looks unlikely that Peter Whittle will follow that line, seeing that he has allowed the Dear Leader, a.k.a. our Nigel to muscle in on the campaign in a very big way. When the collection of election manifestos arrived on  my doorstep I was amused to see that one party produced a picture of its mayoral candidate together with its Leader. I am sure my readers even if not Londoners will have guessed which one. Furthermore, the candidate's manifesto was not allowed to stand as his statement. About half of it was by the Leader who endorsed the candidate and, incidentally, actually referred to the EU in the last sentence, in connection with border control. (See above.) Will this emphasis on immigration actually be of any use in London? And will Farage's muscling in have the usual effect of putting people off? We shall know late this evening.

Meanwhile, what of the two main candidates? The accepted wisdom from opinion polls is that Sadiq Khan will win. Of course, polls have been wrong before and Khan himself seems less certain: on Tuesday he was calling rather loudly on Jeremy Corbyn to get a grip on the anti-Semitism scandal in the Labour party, though why Corbyn should be able to do so between Tuesday and Thursday having done nothing about it before, seemed a mystery. Nevertheless, one has to admit that so far Khan has been a teflon man and all stories of him making comments about moderate Muslims being Uncle Toms (has he read that book?) and him sharing a platform with some very unsavoury characters have done him no harm with a good many people yapping about Tory tricks, smear politics etc, etc.

Personally, I am not sure everything is over bar the shouting as much depends on the turn-out (usually fairly low) and what is known as the Bradley effect:
The theory proposes that some voters who intend to vote for the white candidate would nonetheless tell pollsters that they are undecided or likely to vote for the non-white candidate.
That is America but, given growing British reluctance to tell the truth to opinion pollsters, it is not to be excluded here either. After all, we definitely have the Shy Tory Factor, which may also work in Zac Goldsmith's favour.

As we look across the Pond and watches the political antics there we can be thankful that however unpleasant and harmful some of the people we elect today will be (and some, including the socialist control freak Sadiq Khan, will be harmful) their power and control is very limited.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Something pleasant

It sometimes feels as if the only time I manage to write pleasant posts is when I take part in the Tuesday Night Bloggers' collection (missed it this week and last but will return next week).

Today I shall break that curse and write something many will be happy to read. May 4 marks the 90th birthday of one of the longest serving and doughtiest fighters against the European project, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. He is, as I can testify from personal experience, as capable and active as ever and is greatly looking forward to the culmination of his fight. If there is any justice he will be proclaimed as one of the heroes of the independence movement - but there is no justice. Those titles we go to the busy little lads who are jumping around now. All the same, this is the time to wish Lord Stoddart a very happy birthday and many more to come.