Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Elegies and Evening Classes

Taking time off from Brexit and all its problems, I turn once again to murder and education, this time to murder in the Extra-Mural Department of the university in Bantwich, a city that bears some resemblance to Liverpool, where the author of Words for Murder Perhaps, Edward Candy or, in reality, Barbra Alison Neville (née Bodson) attended evening classes at the Royal Institution at one stage of her varied career.

The novel, first published in 1971, is not nearly well known enough though it was republished in 1985 by The Hogarth Press. It is a highly literate novel with an excellent plot in which people who share names with addressees of well known poetical elegies, human and feline, are killed off. Could it be someone obsessed with this rather dark but beautiful form of poetry? Could it be Mr Roberts, lecturer in English Literature and part-time tutor in the Extra-Mural Department, who has unexpectedly decided to give a course on Crime Fiction, Past and Present? Certainly Inspector Hunt, who cannot quite make up his mind whether he feels inferior to all these intellectuals he has to talk to or not, is inclined to think so.

After all, the first person to disappear is William Harvey, namesake of the famous Dr William Hervey or Harvey to whom Abraham Cowley addressed a fine elegy. The Bill Harvey of the novel is a more successful labourer in the Eng. Lit. field than Gregory Roberts who had, moreover, walked off with the latter's wife, thus causing a nervous break-down. No wonder Inspector Hunt becomes interested though he can prove nothing and other bodies multiply, each accompanied by a quotation from the appropriate elegy. Arthur Hallam, an Egyptologist, is poisoned and lines from Tennyson's In Memoriam are quoted; a young man, called Edward King is knifed and reference is made to Milton's Lycidas; even a cat is found drowned in a gold fish tank and the killer (as we know by then) writes out a line from Thomas Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.

What makes the novel pleasant to read is that, while there are a great many literary allusions, to elegies and to novels of crime, there are adequate explanations of the more obscure ones. In general, the description of the Department and its denizens, the swiftly drawn portraits of many characters and the clever description of police procedures and the relationship between Inspector Hunt and Superintendent Burnivel, who had appeared in Edward Candy's previous novels, are all excellent.

There is, however, one problem: there are no clues for the reader. But none. We know about the elegies, we know that Roberts, though a somewhat nervous person with a load to carry from the past, probably did not do it (no Christie, this), we know that there are some other shenanigans going on in the Department but what we do not know and do not find out until the very end is any connection between the characters who appear in the novel and the victims. Even when the killer's name is pronounced by someone in some other connection and the Superintendent reacts unexpectedly, we do not know why. What is it about that person's name that has sent Burnivel helter-skelter in pursuit? And that is something of a fly in the ointment.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Well I was wrong ....

... but for once I am very pleased and feel that many years of work have not been wasted. Brexit has been voted for by just over 51% of the electorate with a nearly 72% turn-out. Some anomalies, of course. London voted to Remain, as did Northern Ireland and Scotland. All that will have to be sorted out though I am quite happy to start campaigning for independence for London. No, not to rejoin the EU but to begin the formation of the Anglosphere.

I shall be spending most of today broadcasting to Russia about the result on various channels so will not have time to blog again till much later or tomorrow morning. I see my job now as a continuation of the past: providing information and analysis as we move towards and into negotiations.

Yesterday I was thinking about my first meeting with Alan Sked in 1991 at the house of Eva Taylor, widow of A. J. P. Taylor, our common supervisor and what came out of that. What a long way we have come. I claim some credit.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

My last rant

Not my last rant in general, of course, but the last one before the vote. After this I intend to say nothing on the blog until the results come through. As before, I have a bad feeling about it all and not just because of the many problems with Remainiacs, the government and the completely irregular use of the civil service to provide propaganda, not to mention the dreadful murder of Jo Cox MP, but because, as I have pointed out once or twice, our campaign was badly run and focused on the wrong issues.

I fully intend to rant about other subjects and, in due course, about the result and future plans.

Before I begin, I should like to link to Lord Ashcroft's explanation as to why he is voting Brexit and to Sam Bowman's (of the Adam Smith Institute) as to why he is voting Remain.

First of all, let me explain that I do not have a particularly high view of Lord Ashcroft's or anybody else's opinion polls but his own view point was interesting to read as I agreed with a great deal of it.
Forget the hysteria. Leaving the European Union would not put a bomb under the British economy or end western political civilization as we know it. But nor would it mean another £350 million a week being spent on the NHS, and staying does not mean that 80 million Turks will arrive at Dover. For voters struggling to make sense of the referendum campaign, this sort of thing has hardly helped.
Indeed not. While I see nothing wrong with the fact that the campaign on both sides was heated (though more light would have been welcome) I do think the hyperbole, to put it at its most polite, has been appalling. I am not impressed by politicians, who know that nothing they say can every excite the sort of fervour that remaining or leaving the EU has done, whingeing away about the coarsening of political discourse. Coarsening? Have a look at the discourse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now, that was coarse. But one look at both campaigns makes one despair of human reason.

Lord Ashcroft makes the point that to remain in the EU is not to choose stability as developments will happen and they will not be of our making. Therefore, the choice is between two kinds of instability and which one would you prefer?
Of course leaving would create uncertainty; any worthwhile venture carries some risk. There will be new deals to negotiate and new relationships to form, and it may be rocky to start with. But when it comes to trade with EU partners, and other areas where cooperation is vital, pragmatism will surely win the day – and as I know from my own business career, there are plenty of opportunities outside Europe.

But most importantly of all, this is a decision for the long term future of the country. The question is not whether the world’s fifth largest economy could prosper outside the EU – of course it could – but whether we should tie ourselves to a union whose ambitions are so very different from our own. Maybe our future governments will be able to protect Britain from the worst of them. But why take the risk?
Sam Bowman takes a different view though not in everything. He, too, dislikes many of the arguments used by the Leave campaign about immigration and about the economy. Then he tackles the main issue:
I like and respect many Leavers, but I’ve never shared their enthusiasm for democracy – I want liberty and prosperity, and I don’t want to trade that in just to give my stupid next-door neighbours more power over my life. To the extent that the EU does restrict democracy it is often for the best, preventing governments from doing nasty, illiberal things (like restricting immigration or subsidising domestic firms). There’s a small chance that a Jeremy Corbyn could be elected – if he is, under the British political system he would have basically unlimited power to do whatever he wants. The EU limits that power, and in my view that’s a good thing.
Why limiting the power of the people, often expressed in a remarkably stupid way, should be a plus in an organization where other bodies have no limits is not something I can understand. But I think that people should be able to read the liberal/libertarian argument for Remain. Mind you, I have no desire to hear complaints from Mr Bowman either when he finds that what he gets is not what he voted for.

I have written before about a number of things I have found wrong with the Leave campaign but did not mention that I disliked the focus on immigration and the endless chanting about Turkey coming in. What started as a perfectly sensible point about controlling our own borders, part of democracy and accountability and on being able to decide who can get welfare and social housing became a distasteful attack on immigrants, not really softened by the occasional comment about a points system or rational immigration. The issue became central to the campaign to the exclusion of almost all other matters. As it happens, I do not think that has won any votes apart from people who were already going to vote Leave. Oh, and Turkey is not coming into the EU any time soon. What David Cameron does or does not say about it is irrelevant - he will not be Prime Minister by then.

What of the event that was supposed to change everything and give Remain a great advantage, the dreadful murder of Jo Cox MP. Any words one uses about the actual event will be trite and inadequate but, moving on to the political significance of it, I do think that my first instinct that it will make no real difference was correct. The swing back to Remain would have happened, was going to happen and was predicted by many of us: it is the natural move towards the status quo that we all expected. It was obvious that the 6 to 10 points' lead was not enough to counter that. On the other hand, the swing was no bigger than expected either. Despite a number of efforts on the part of the Remain campaigners, the electorate, so far as we can tell, did not fall for the narrative that this was all caused by the nasty Leave campaigners. Can any of them be really as nasty as Alistair Campbell in this tweet sent two days after the murder?

Once again, we can be grateful that we live in a country where such an event is so rare as to be unthinkable (until it happens, of course). Curiously, though over the last few months I have overheard many discussions on the referendum and Brexit, as well as taking part in many such, often with casual acquaintances from a non-political world, I have heard nothing around me about the killing. It is as if people cannot quite believe it has happened. What one did hear was strange sentimentality from the media, politicians and political geeks. The idea that an MP is honoured by the people of her constituency being deprived of the right to vote for a candidate from the other main party is bizarre and yet there were people tearfully asserting that David Cameron made the right decision in denying that democratic right.

The number of sitting British MPs assassinated since 1812 is eight: Spencer Perceval, who was also the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, by the somewhat unhinged John Bellingham because of private debt; six from Lord Frederick Cavendish, killed in Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1882 to Ian Gow in 1990 by Irish terrorists of various organizations; and now Jo Cox, whose murder is still being investigated. That, thankfully, is a very low number.

That the Remain campaign tried to cash in on the event has been well documented here, here and here  Will Straw (son of Jack), who is apparently campaign chief for Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) was particularly obnoxious in his instructions to his troops as reported by Guido and, surprisingly, the Evening Standard. Of course, we shall not know until tomorrow (and really not even then) whether the secular canonization of a fairly average left-wing MP of whom most of us had never heard before will succeed. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, they say, but surely that does not apply to politicians. Therefore, I have great pleasure in linking to a somewhat tart but entirely accurate account of the real Jo Cox and her husband here. I do not suppose it will affect anybody's voting intentions but do read it if you can. I do not necessarily agree with everything the article says but it is true that Jo Cox was not among those politicians who had tried to unravel the deeply unpleasant saga of the gangs who were grooming children and teenagers and she, together with her husband, were there on Bob Geldof's boat, shouting abuse at the fishermen. Yes, I know they thought it was a UKIP stunt and I was outraged by Niger Farage hi-jacking the flotilla for his own purpose (it had been agreed that he would not be seen to be leading it but the only way to ensure that would have been not to allow him on it) but the boats were full of fishermen who, we all agree, suffered mightily from the EU. In the case of the Coxes', people of the Labour and NGO elite, sympathy begins a long way from home.

And that, I think, is enough about that. I have also said enough about the campaign to make it clear why I have not been happy with it and why, I suspect, it will not be successful. I may be wrong but would it really matter if we lost this referendum. I have never been a great fan of plebiscites and the dire level of the campaigning justifies my wariness. It looks like the result will be close and that will mean the the winners will not be seen as enjoying legitimacy. If we win, we shall need to make sure that the victory will have some kind of meaning and is not frittered away by unhelpful politicians and civil servants; and if we lose we shall have to start thinking of the next stage: prepare for intellectual guerrilla warfare.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Gervase Fen makes his appearance

Well, here we are back with murder and education than which there cannot be a more obvious link. And talking of links, Bev Hankins is collecting them all on her blog, My Reader's Block.

So, Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, a man who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about English literature and many other things. His outward appearance, with the ruddy face and the spiky brown hair that is slicked down with water but fights back, appears in all the books. He shuffles and fidgets when he is bored, he is rude to everyone unless he happens to feel particularly sorry for them, he goes through various stages of sulking, boredom, excitement and an uncontrolled desire to quote from Lewis Carroll in every investigation.

The first one, The Case of the Gilded Fly, published in 1944 and taking place in October 1940, also tells us a lot about his personality.
Nigel [the Watson of this novel, a journalist on holiday] reflected, as he turned in St Christopher's at twenty to six that evening, that there was something extraordinarily school-boyish about Gervase Fen. Cherubic, naive, volatile, and entirely delightful, he wandered the earth taking a genuine interest in things and people unfamiliar, while maintaining a proper sense of authority in connection with his own subject. On literature his comments were acute, penetrating and extremely sophisticated; on any other topic he invariably pretended complete ignorance and an anxious willingness to be instructed, though it generally came out eventually that he knew more about it than his interlocutor, for his reading, in the forty-two years since his first appearance on this planet, had been systematic and enormous.

If this ingenuousness had been affectation, or merely arrested development, it would have been simply irritating; but it was perfectly sincere, and derived from the genuine intellectual humility of a man who has read much and in so doing has been able to contemplate the enormous spaces of knowledge which must inevitably always lie beyond his reach. In temperament he was incurably romantic, though he ordered his life in a rigidly reasonable way. to men and affairs, his attitude was neither cynical nor optimistic, but one of never-failing fascination. this resulted in a sort of unconscious amoralism, since he was always so interested in what people were doing, and why they were doing it, that it never occurred to him to assess the morality of their action.
In fact, Fen spends several chapters wondering whether he should tell the police who the murderer is, something he had worked out within a few minutes of finding the body. The victim had been a poisonous creature and the murderer is, in many ways, an admirable one. What to do? The problem is solved by the murderer who repeats the crime in a far more gruesome fashion with and an innocuous victim. Fen decides that justice must take its course.

The plot takes place mostly in Fen's college, St Christopher's, which has a surprising affinity with St John's, where Crispin or, rather, Bruce Montgomery, had been an undergraduate and organist. Not all the novels or short stories do take place there but several include it, as well as the theatre and Oxford in general, together with the appalling railway system.

Crispin was a great admirer of John Dickson Carr and this, his first novel, was a "locked room" or "impossible" killing. The solution, which Fen realizes a little later than he would have liked, is not entirely credible but that matters little. What is of far greater interest is the reason why the shot is not heard (apart from the inevitable silencer): two young men are listening to the radio, the Third Programme, to be specific, where very loud music is being played. The music is the Overture to Die Meistersingers, which is followed by Ein Heldenleben. These are staples of concerts nowadays but did the BBC really broadcast music by Wagner and Richard Strauss in October 1940, the height of the Blitz? I presume, Bruce Montgomery, the musician, knew whereof he wrote but I still find it hard to believe.

There are other interesting aspects in this novel, some to appear in later work, some not. There is Fen's relationship with the Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman, who is an amateur but highly regarded literary critic, while Fen is an amateur and highly regarded detective, the only literary critic who is also a detective in fiction, as he puts it. Each prefers to discuss their own amateur and the other's professional work and each is periodically thwarted, except that Fen does actually solve cases, as is mentioned in The Case of the Gilded Fly. Indeed, he solves this one, causing himself and others great unhappiness.

Crispin also steps outside the conventions of the detective novel slightly by having Fen gloomily hope that Gideon Fell will never hear of his slowness in recognizing a clue. In subsequent books there will be bolder conversations between author and character and hilarious references to the publisher.

Then there is Dolly Fen, Gervase's very practical and down to earth wife with whom he has several children. Dolly and the children are referred to in other novels and short stories but never really appear again, which is rather a pity. She is a delightful character who keeps him under some sort of control and whose opinion he values highly.

And finally, the references to English literature and, especially, Shakespeare. It is hard to get through these witty novels without having to look up at least one reference, maybe more. In some ways these books are even harder work than Sayers's, also full of quotations and allusions. The gilded fly? It's from Act 4. Scene 6 of King Lear:
Ay, every inch a king:When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause? Adultery?Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:The wren goes to 't, and the small gilded flyDoes lecher in my sight.Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard sonWas kinder to his father than my daughtersGot 'tween the lawful sheets.

Just a couple of links that might interest readers

On my agenda is the next Tuesday Night Blog about murder in education (and who wouldn't) as well as one final pre-referendum rant that should include some comments about Jo Cox, about the horrible murder and about the way it is being used by the Remainiacs. But first a couple of links from different parts of the Leave spectrum.

All sorts of people are now stating in public whether they will be voting Leave and Remain, often giving reasons, some of which are interesting while some less so. Some kind of a report produced the result that people with better education and better jobs and generally more hip and outward looking are more likely to vote Remain. Leave is for the uneducated oiks and people who are grubbing around in their memories. I am afraid I am finding it a little difficult to find the exact report, having seen merely references to it on social media (oooh, hark at her - she uses the social media at her age!) but I find this sort of argument a waste of time. Having a degree does not mean you are particularly intelligent of politically savvy and that is before you even start looking at what kind of degrees and well paid jobs we are talking about.

Indeed, bearing that in mind, what are we to make of the news in today's Evening Standard that David Beckham is passionately in favour of Remain? And that Victoria Beckham is so proud of hubby for backing the Remain campaign? Yesterday we were told that Premier League bosses are in favour of Remain as well as some business leaders and an assorted number of Nobel Prize winners in economics. A random collection, one must admit and not one to inspire one particularly, especially when one recalls the luvvies.

Meanwhile, here are two links to pieces some readers might like to have a look at. The first is by a young man, aged 30. He was, according to his mother, from whom I have the link, undecided but thought that instead of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch or David Beckham he would find out more about the EU before making up his mind. I have already written about the stupidity of simply accepting that "young people are going to be pro-Remain because they look outwards". Well, here is what happens when they or members of other age groups find out the truth. Read Costas's piece about his research. As it happens, I do not agree with all that stuff about the Bilderbergers and share one friend's view that life would have been much easier if Prince Berhardt had held the first meeting at the Palm Court Hotel but I do agree with his point about the left. There is still some left-wing opposition to the EU but it tends to be on the edges and the far left. What happened to it?

My second link is to a piece from one of those uneducated oiks, the well known historian, journalist and author, Tim Stanley. As a sort of historian myself I entirely agree with all his points, especially when he says that Brexit is about the future not the past, let alone nostalgia. When people mutter about uncertainty, I point out that there is always uncertainty and why is that so bad?

Tim Stanley destroys both Leave and Remain myths, and how right he is.
Let’s not talk about the past but the future: the EU is planning to create a unitary state. Its leaders have said as much – higher taxes, an army, greater authority for the bank are all on the table. The EU has decided that only faster integration will see it through the present crisis. They might be correct: what the EU wants to be it can only be if it is effectively one country. But that is not in Britain’s national interest, something we’ve signalled by remaining outside the Eurozone.

So we can either ride this train as far as the driver wants to go or we can jump off now. A so-called leap in the dark actually gives us back control of our policy making. It's a vote for democracy, a vote to say: "We govern, we are in charge." We can make the choice of whether to take more or less migrants; we can write new trade agreements and we can reaffirm our strategic interests in the developing world.

For Schama is right: I am a European by historical chance. But my great-grandfather also worked for an Indian nobleman and my mother was raised in the Caribbean. When I was at university my first specialism was Kenyan history; then I switched to the study of the USA, a country I regard as my second home. I am not a little Englander. But I am also not a little European. We are shaped by history but need not be imprisoned by it. And one thing I find most exciting about Brexit is it gives us the chance to start over again, to write a new chapter in our country’s history. Brexit isn’t nostalgia. It’s ambition.
Enjoy both pieces and spread them widely. We still have a very little time.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Because Putin is terrified of the EU

Are you one of those people who has been accused of playing President Putin's game by supporting Brexit? If you support it then probably. There have even been attempts to accuse me of promoting Putin's interests. A curious notion, considering my writings on the subject but there we are.

The argument goes: Vlad and his chekists are so afraid of the EU (reasons unspecified) that he will do anything to break it up and Brexit is a wonderful first step in that direction. Oddly, enough, I have heard an alternative version of this theory, which says that the one thing Vlad desperately wants is to keep Britain embroiled in the hopeless EU, which among other things is undermining NATO, the organization he is really afraid of that he will do anything to prevent Brexit. To that purpose the Kremlin has started a false flag operation or as it is known in certain circles, maskirovka, which pretends that he wants Brexit in order to get people to vote Remain. Well, there you are, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Whichever of the two alternative theories one favours, it is hard to explain what it is about the EU that Putin might be afraid of. The closest to a suggestion I have seen is somebody explaining that the EU by its very existence presents a democratic alternative to the beleaguered people of Russia. Yes, dear readers, I did laugh. I also asked whether they seriously thought that outside the EU Britain would somehow be less democratic but even Remainiacs are finding that one a little hard to argue.

Meanwhile, there is news of the French showing us all how much they wish to keep Putin and his camarilla on the straight and narrow.
The French government is trying to pass a law that would help Russia to protect its assets from being frozen in business conflicts.

A government amendment to a bill on transparency and the fight against corruption says that assets could be frozen only if the state that owned them "has expressly agreed to the implementation of such a measure".

The amendment also says that assets can be frozen only when they are "specifically used by the state for other purposes than non-commercial public service".

The bill comes after former shareholders of Yukos, the giant Russian oil firm broken up by Russia more than 10 yes ago, won $50 billion in damages from Russia in an arbitration tribunal in The Hague last year.

Judges said Russia had violated the Energy Charter Treaty, an investor protection pact, when they dismantled the oil company, which had been run by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Naturally, stories of the Russian government threatening France with various retaliatory actions are circulating. That is all Putin has to do, threaten people and they will jump to attention. Or he could bribe them and that applies to high up politicians as much as less important groups that the Remainiacs so love talking about.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Is this where it started?

This month's theme is murder and education - schools, colleges, academics and other animals. Bev Hankins is collecting them on her blog and I hope that my late (as usual) essay will be accepted. Honestly, the cat sat on it and I could not do any work.

What is it about academics and detective stories? The question has been asked on numerous occasions and noted sourly or with amusement even more often. At the end of Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding, which takes place in a school (well, two schools, really) rather than a college, Professor Gervase Fen (one of my favourite sleuths but more of that in the next posting) wants to tell his friend Horatio Stanford, the Headmaster of Castrevenford School, about his idea for a rather exciting detective story (not like those insipid ones written by Edmund Crispin) but Dr Stanford is not persuaded:
"Oh Gervase," he said, "if you must write a detective story - and far too many dons write them as it is - why not use the events of this week-end?"
This, naturally, is dismissed by Fen as being piffle. He wants to write about a girl in the Catskill Mountains. So far as we know, he never does, which is just as well. His friend puts his finger on something important: far too many dons write detective stories.

That is still true though with the various reforms in higher education has taken away a good deal of their spare time. You cannot write too many detective stories if you have to fill in forms and deal with administrative matters. But back in the good old days ....

As far as I can tell the first person to note the link between academia and detective stories was Marjorie Nicolson, the first woman President of Phi Beta Kappa among other achievements. She it was, who in April 1929 published a sharp-eyed essay in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled The Professor and the Detective. In it she dealt with the dual question of why academics like reading and writing detective stories so much, insisting that it was not about escape from life. Au contraire.
Yes, the detecitve story does constitute escape, but it is escape not from life, but from literature. We grant willingly that we find in it release. Our 'revolt' - so mysteriously explained by the psychologists - is simple enough: we have revolted from an excessive subjectivity to welcome objewctivity; from long-drawn-out dissections of emotion to straightforward appeal to intellect; from reiterated emphasis upon men and women as victims either of circumstances or of their glands to a suggestion that men and women may consciously plot and consciously plan; from the 'stream of consciousness' which threatends to engulf us in it Lethean montony to analystes of purpose, controlled and directed by a thinking mind; from formlessness to form; from the sophomoric to the mature; most of all from a smart and easy pessimist which interprets men and the universe in terms of unmoral purposelessness to a rebelief in a universe governed by cause and effect. All this we find in the detective story.
So, no, it is not simply an expression of the basic futile nastiness that envelops academic life.

Marjorie Nicolson also adds that the new form is being turned into art, which may produce classics, and among them are
... Oxford and Cambride gons, a distinguished economist, a supposedly distinguished aesthetician (we have only his pseudonymous rod for his identity), an historian, and a scientist...
I assume the economist is G. D. H. Cole, who had already started writing his detective stories as well as his works of economics but the others are a little vague, though later on she might have listed J. C. Masterman as one of the distinguished Oxford dons, author of An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933 and of the slightly odd The Case of the Four Friends, published in 1957. Masterman was also immensely influential in the world of intelligence but that is another story.

So far as I can make out An Oxford Tragedy is the first detective story that takes place actually inside an Oxford college, St Thomas's in this case. Julian Symons certainly dismissed Michael Innes's claims to have invented the sub-genre in Death at the President's Lodging, by pointing to Masterman's novel. Indeed, the first Appleby story in which he comes back to Oxford to investigate the rather convoluted murder of the President of St Anthony's College, was not published till 1936. (I think we can dismiss that charming pretence that the events of the novel take place in some weird place, called the University of Bletchley, the one created by undergraduates escaping from Oxford, who did not get as far as Cambridge. Nobody who has ever spent any time in Oxford can fail to recognize the place in Innes's first novel.)

To use Symons's classification, Appleby is a farceur. The novels about him tend to be complicated, full of ridiculous converstaions and even more ridiculous characters. Death at the President's Lodging is no exception. Appleby refers several times to the strange and subtle working of the most brilliant minds that have collected in St Anthony's College but as one deciphers their actual thinking and behaviour, one cannot help being struck by the sheer foolishness of these highly regarded dons.

Not so with An Oxford Tragedy. For one thing, it is written from inside, by the Senior Tutor and Vice President, a more or less contented man who has clearly not made much of a mark, academically speaking. It is notable that Masterman was an Oxford don when he wrote the novel whereas Innes (or J. I. M. Stewart, to give him his real name) was an academic in various universities, not returning to Oxford till 1949. His convoluted farcical situation was produced from outside and his detective, Inspector Appleby, is also an outsider though he had studied in one of the colleges. Masterman, on the other hand, sees the tragedy that might be inherent in the somewhat closed life led by dons in a college.

Masterman's narrator is an insider but his detective is far more of an outsider than Appleby is: Dr Ernst Brendel, a Viennese lawyer and criminologist, who sometimes acts as an amateur detective. He speaks English very well but many of his attitudes and approaches are hopeless Continental, which is what enables him to solve the slightly ridiculous puzzle very quickly. Left to themselves, one feels the dons and the police would have gone on floundering.

It is in the two endings that the books differ most considerably. The crime has been solved, despite the various obstructions, the murderer has duly committed suicide and the colleges try to pick up the pieces. St Anthony's, Michael Innes's college, will do so without the slightest difficulty and, indeed, we are due to meet one of the characters, Gott, clearly a rather amusing self-portrait, in the second novel, Hamlet, Revenge. Masterman's picture of a devastated college and tragically displaced lives is far more affecting - not really a farce, at all.

They are both academic books, to be read, savoured and cherished.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Here is another "good" idea from the EU

It really is worth remaining in that political structure as it comes up with such brilliant ideas. Yesterday I saw on EUObserver that the EU intends to put culture at the heart of its foreign policy. Well, naturally, as an EU foreign policy is impossible in the normal course of events because the various member states have different and conflicting interests, it has to be created through other methods and putting "culture at the heart of it", whatever that might mean is as good an idea as any other.
"In the era of social media and shrinking distances, our cultures are bound to meet," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The plans will be implemented via 139 delegations and offices already operating around the world,
This is not the first time that "culture" has been invoked to create a single policy or a single "European" identity. The whole idea is barmy: the whole point of European culture is its diversity (it's a real word if you use it correctly), not some state sponsored structure though that, too, has been tried before.

Here is the press release on the subject and it enlightens us a little bit:
The strategy adopted today is in line with the Commission's priority to make the EU a stronger global actor. Culture can play a crucial role in strengthening international partnerships.

The 'Strategy for international cultural relations' presented by the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy aims at encouraging cultural cooperation between the EU and its partner countries and promoting a global order based on peace, the rule of law, freedom of expression, mutual understanding and respect for fundamental values.

EU High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini said: "Culture has to be part and parcel of our foreign policy. Culture is a powerful tool to build bridges between people, notably the young, and reinforce mutual understanding. It can also be an engine for economic and social development. As we face common challenges, culture can help all of us, in Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia, stand together to fight radicalisation and build an alliance of civilisations against those trying to divide us. This is why cultural diplomacy must be at the core of our relationship with today's world."

European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Tibor Navracsics, said: "Culture is the hidden gem of our foreign policy. It helps to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. Culture is therefore crucial in building long-term relationships with countries across the whole world: it has a great role to play in making the EU a stronger global actor."

European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, and Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, welcomed the Strategy, in line with the recently adopted 2030 Agenda acknowledging global citizenship, cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue as overarching principles of sustainable development and for the EU's neighbourhood and enlargement policies.

Culture can play an important role in the EU's foreign policy. Cultural cooperation counters stereotypes and prejudice by nurturing dialogue, open-mindedness, dignity and mutual respect. Inter-cultural dialogue can help prevent conflicts and foster reconciliation within and between countries. Culture can help respond to global challenges such as the integration of refugees, countering violent radicalisation and the protection of the world's cultural heritage. Culture can also be a tool to deliver important social and economic benefits both within and outside the EU.
The lack of meaning in that gobbledy-gook will not prevent large amounts of money being spent on this propaganda campaign - you like Michelangelo's work? well, he would not have been able to do that without the EU. As to freedom of speech, I am not sure the EU and Signora Mogherini know what that means.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

That very expensive poison

Last Friday I went to the Open Russia Club in London, specifically in Hanover Square, usually an elegant Mayfair space but currently a building site that requires careful navigation. I think it is Crossrail that is causing the havoc but one can never be sure about these things. The Club was co-hosting an event with the Russian Political Club: a discussion led by Luke Harding and Marina Litvinenko about the Litvinenko murder and Luke's book about it and about the inquiry that finally concluded with a very detailed and accurate report.

I assume most people remember the murder of Alexander Litvinenko on November 1, 2006, his slow death in the hospital during which he managed to give detailed information to the police and the public about those responsible for his sufferings. We can recall the various theories, some completely mad, which were often fed to unsuspecting hacks by President Putin and his chekists. There was a real outrage that such an event could happen on British soil to a man who had become a British citizen. Whenever I was asked on the BBC Russian Service what I thought about Anglo-Russian relations and attitudes, I pointed out that however positive most people in this country feel about Russians the murder of Alexander Litvinenko shocked everyone. I also recall my favourite Itsu outlet on Piccadilly being closed for several weeks because of suspected Polonium on the premises.

It took years for an inquiry to take place with many difficulties placed in the way, not least by the FCO (well, there is a surprise) and successive politicians who did not like to upset dear old Vlad and his mates of whom Andrey Lugovoy, the man accused of the murder together with Dmitry Kovtun, is one.

The campaign for the inquiry was led by Alexander's widow, Marina, a lady of steely determination who was finally vindicated earlier this year. She is also extremely photogenic though the light on the stage at Friday's event was such that I could not take any pictures with any hope of them coming out. So, instead, I am putting up a photo of Marina Litvinenko speaking at a meeting outside the Russian embassy on March 1, 2015, which was a time for mourning as it was a few days after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and a time for protest about Russian activity in Ukraine. The picture, taken by Katharine Szamuely (relation) caused something of a twitter storm and I am happy to reproduce it again.

A few interesting points were raised. One of the questions many of us ask is whether the long-drawn out and very public death was part of a deliberate plan or a complete mess-up by incompetent agents. I have always held the view that this was deliberate (though the agents who left traces of Polonium 210 all over London were clearly incompetent) to frighten any potential FSB agents who might think of rebelling and abandoning the Putin gangster state. "Don't even think of it. This will happen to you." A threat also to those who might have thought of investigating those apartment block explosions though, given the death rate among potential investigators, there cannot be many people left with such weird ambitions.

Marina Litvinenko thinks otherwise. In her opinion, the whole thing went badly wrong as there were several attempts before they finally succeeded and the intention was for Sasha Litvinenko to die quickly of some mysterious illness. Instead, he lingered on in hospital, horrifying everyone with his appearance and spending many of his last hours being interviewed by officers of the Metropolitan Police who then followed up his evidence. Well, maybe. I am still not sure.

Luke Harding agreed with that analysis, telling stories about the two hapless murderers, particularly the second one, Dmitry Kovtun, who told his friends in Germany that he was carrying strong poison to Britain though he did not know exactly what it was. He also tried to get a friend of his who was a chef to add the poison to Litvinenko's food. The friend who was not in London anyway, refused and reported the whole conversation to the police. I don't know. Maybe the FSB does hire incompetents.

Lugovoy had his children with him when he met Litvinenko and introduced them so clearly he had no idea that there was a possibility of radiation. Luke Harding described the presence of the younger Lugovoys as an act of consummate cynicism but to me it seems quite sensible behaviour (assuming there is no knowledge of what the poison was): after all the more normal everybody's behaviour is, the less likely the victim is to tumble as to what is going on until it is too late.

Incidentally, Lugovoy, according to Luke who interviewed him a couple of times, is a great Anglophile, possessing, among other books, the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Russian and sending his daughter to study in Cambridge. It is obviously, something of a personal tragedy that he cannot come back here without finding himself in the dock, charged with murder. (And my heart bleeds for him.)

Finally, there was praise meted out by the author: firstly to Marina who fought that long and hard battle, then to Sir Robert Owen, the Inquiry Chairman who listened carefully and produced that well argued report, and to Scotland Yard who had continued to investigate the crime even though, officially, the case had been suspended. At the inquiry many hundreds of pages of evidence was produced, including some from the late Boris Berezovsky, written, it seems, in his own inimitable English, and over sixty witnesses. Chapeau bas. Oddly enough, I had personal knowledge about Scotland Yard beavering away. Some years after the murder I was cat-sitting for my good friends, Kira and Leonid Finkelstein and one of the telephone messages I had to take was from a detective sergeant in Scotland Yard who wanted Leonid to call him back in order to discuss some matters pertaining to the Litvinenko case.

We may never know everything about the murder and events around it but we have come close to that.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Books I have been reading: Joshua Rubenstein - The Last Days of Stalin

One cannot live by Brexit alone. There will be postings on other subjects. I have decided to start a new thread - books I have been reading (and not just detective stories). To start with, a fascinating new volume by Joshua Rubenstein about the last year of Stalin's life, his death and the months immediately after. So you can all wait for part 3 of my rant, my piece about the latest House of Lords reports and my views on David Cameron's extraordinary pronouncements (though I cannot help wondering whether he is secretly a Brexiteer).

Recent years have seen various biographies of Stalin and some books that concentrate on the last period of his life. This is justified: Stalin's rule and the legacy he left have been crucial to modern history. Also, certain new documents have become available but, more importantly, new analysis and thinking have to produce new books.

Professor Rubenstein starts his book with a detailed description of the tyrant's very last days, from his massive stroke on March 1 to his actual death on the 5th. The story is well known in general but it is good to have it retold in detail, based on various accounts. And a very bizarre story it is, too. Stalin, possibly the most powerful man in the world, so feared assassination that he created rings of security around himself wherever he went and even in one dacha he changed his bedrooms in order that nobody should know where he was sleeping. What it actually created is a situation in which he was safely protected from any help he might have had after his stroke.

Members of his personal guard did not dare to enter his bedroom though they suspected that something must be wrong till the evening of the day after, that is probably about twelve hours after the stroke. When they finally managed to send in a servant who found "Uncle Joe" on the floor, unable to move or to speak or even to control his bladder, they went through a number of stages before a doctor could be called. By that time the various Politburo members who were mostly terrified that Stalin was about to start another major purge had arrived and began their jockeying for position. And so on, and so on.

The book leaves the non-grieving colleagues, the permanently drunk son and the genuinely grief-stricken daughter to wait for the old man's death and moves back to take in the last few years of the great dictator's life, his worsening health, his growing paranoia, the new purge that focused to a great degree on Jews and the threat to his immediate colleagues with whom he played a cat and mouse game. Nobody knew for certain who was in favour and who was out of it. It is no wonder that for many years a story was going round that they actually finished him off when they found him incapacitated. A nice story like the various ones about Beria's end but the evidence is non-existent and Professor Rubenstein will have no truck with it.

There is at least one new aspect: at the time and in the decades since then an assumption has reigned that Stalin was meditating on a plan to exile all the remaining Jews who did not end up in the Gulag or the execution chamber to some part of Siberia with one or two suggestions as to where that might be. Professor Rubenstein has not been able to find any direct evidence that such a plan existed though people spoke of it unofficially and even, occasionally, called for such an act. Had it been Stalin's intention or was he merely encouraging rumours to create even more terror in people's minds? Impossible to tell.

Finishing Stalin off, so to speak, the author moves to the post-Stalin era, analyzing the immediate developments inside the country and in the world, the possible missed opportunities though these were somewhat chimerical. Inside the country and the Soviet colonies there were several developments: there was the inevitable struggle for power, which first destroyed Beria, leaving Malenkov in apparent command until he was outmaneuvered by Khrushchev and Bulganin. The book does not go far enough to show Nikita Sergeyevich emerging as the undisputed leader. It is worth noting that the people Khrushchev pushed aside with the exception of Beria and his immediate acolytes were not even imprisoned, let alone murdered. About Beria he was clear and his colleagues agreed: it was either him or them. Curiously enough, what Khrushchev said and thought about Beria echoed Bukharin's comments to the Menshevik Dan about Stalin. The difference was that Bukharin did not seriously try to prevent the destruction that Stalin, he knew, was planning; Khrushchev preferred to move in first.

There were some economic reforms, and gradual release of prisoners, first criminals, which was not exactly a huge success but, after a few months, politicals; there was the abrogation of the Doctors' Plot and the release of those medics who were still alive (if only just after the torture and maltreatment).

Then there were the uprisings in the camps, put down ferociously but they did signify that some changes would have to be made. There were riots in several East European colonies, culminating in the East Berlin uprising on June 17. After that the more open attitude to the West became once again closed but cautious changes inside the country continued: a slight weakening of censorship, a slightly different economic outlook, a possible greater openness towards other countries. The book stops with all these tentative steps being taken and with the power struggle gearing up. One cannot help hoping that Professor Rubenstein will pick up the story in a following volume that will take in the uneasy years that led up to the Twentieth Congress and what happened then. Meanwhile, let me recommend this book to anyone who seriously wants to understand events in the second half of the twentieth century (and, let us face it, the beginning of the twenty-first). It is informative and moves at a thriller's pace. What more could one want?

Joshua Rubenstein:           The Last Days of Stalin
2016                                   Yale University Press

Friday, June 3, 2016

Tax Freedom Day is later than before

We have the annual press release from the Adam Smith Institute, which tells us that this year Tax Freedom Day falls on June 3, four days later than in 2015. Oh the joys of having a socialist governments. Oh wait, what am I saying? Well, you know what I mean.
British taxpayers have worked a gruelling 154 days this year just to pay their taxes, four days more than in 2015. This year also sees the date creeping into June for the first time in fifteen years, a red flag that Britons’ tax burden is moving in the wrong direction.

Whilst net national income has increased by £34.6bn from 2015, government has actually gobbled up £35.4bn more in taxes, meaning the government has actually left Britons £1bn worse off than last year, a reminder that tax reform must remain a priority.
I am afraid even if the country does vote for Brexit on June 23, this is not going to be solved unless this or a future government starts thinking seriously about tax reform and about what it is government needs money for.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Twitter has odd ideas about freedom of speech

Apparently, mocking President Vladimir Putin (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler - there I said it) is akin to hate speech. How else can one explain the fact that Twitter suspended indefinitely the account @DarthPutinKGB. In the past they suspended an account that was mocking the Kremlin run media outlet Sputnik (@SputnikInt) on the spurious excuse that the name was too similar and could confuse people. Actually, it could, as the tweets put out by the official Sputnik are so preposterous.

The mockery was resumed under a new handle, @Sputnik_Not with a strap line: We're Not Tellin' The Untold. Twitter might decide to ban this one as well but they cannot pretend that it is too much like the official account.

Now they have decided to suspend @DarthPutinKGB though there has been no explanation even along the lines of it being just like the real account, whatever that might be. The whole thing has been put into perspective by Brian Whitmore on the Morning Vertical, RFE/RL. A sad state of affairs.

UPDATE: Apparently it's back:

But just in case it disappears again, here is the hashtag to use: #NoTwitterGulagForDarthPutinKGB