Monday, 9 July 2018

Rudyard Kipling the Warmonger - a Charge Examined

The picture above shows the writer, Rudyard Kipling (RK), speaking at a recruiting rally in my home town of Southport, Lancashire, in 1915. I discovered this photo on the Facebook page of a Southport history group, where Kipling received some harsh criticism. I cannot now locate the link, but as far as I can remember, one group member dismissed RK as being one of those people, like Tony Blair, who send others (not identified by the member) off to war while remaining safely at home. 
Now, it is undeniable that RK supported Britain's war effort in WW1, but, to fully assess the charge of warmonger against him, we really should examine the historical context. 
First, we should remember that Kipling was an influential writer in his day, writing many books, short stories and poems about the British Empire and Britain's manifold destiny as an imperial power, in which he passionately believed. As this viewpoint has long since vanished with the Empire, it is only too easy to sneer at RK, misquote him, or quote him out of context. Just one example will suffice: "Lesser breeds without the law". This is usually interpreted as flagrant racism, but it is the wrong interpretation. It is taken from his poem "Recessional" and almost certainly refers to Germany, for which country RK had an abiding aversion. This is not to say that RK was without the imperial prejudices of his time. As George Orwell observed in his 1942 essay on RK:
"It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' order to get money...he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes".
Orwell is right, but Kipling was more than the author of "Gunga Din" ("I've belted you and flayed you"). Although he never fought in a battle, he wrote with sympathy of the fate of the ordinary British soldier, and he wrote a penetrating critique of expat life in late 19th century India in a book of short stories called "Plain Tales From the Hills", which is emphatically not a glorification of British India - even though RK approved of "The Raj". 
Returning to the warmonger charge, we need to understand the international political situation before and during WW1. The arms race between Britain and Germany was a constant cause for concern to political conservatives such as Kipling. When war began in 1914, the German invasion of France and Belgium must have seemed a vindication to Kipling of his anti-German views. If we dismiss him as a simple warmonger, we forget that he was not alone in his anger over German aggression and (admittedly exaggerated) atrocities in Belgium. Professor Peter Simkins has said of recruitment in 1914: 
"In all, 478,893 men joined the army between 4 August and 12 September, including 33,204 on 3 September alone – the highest daily total of the war and more than the average annual intake in the years immediately before 1914".
Kipling supported the recruiting effort wholeheartedly, although it is difficult to say how many men joined the army in 1914 because of his efforts. He is thought to have been the first person to refer to the Germans as "Huns", further expressing his hatred in lines such as this:
"There are only two divisions in the world, human beings and Germans".
This view is shocking to us nowadays, but it was widespread in the early years of WW1, and Kipling cannot be blamed for his views in isolation. This is not to say he was right, but we have to allow for popular sentiment at the time. There was widespread support for the war in every combatant nation, and did not decline for several years. We forget, also, that political personalities of all shades of opinion supported the war. One notable left-wing supporter of the conflict was trade union leader, Ben Tillett. As Spartacus International says:
"Unlike many socialists, Ben Tillett fully supported Britain's involvement in the First World War. His enthusiasm for aerial bombardment of German civilian centres and his views that pacifists should be severely punished, made him unpopular with many people in the labour movement. Tillett travelled throughout Britain and helped to recruit a large number of industrial workers into the armed forces."
As a recruiter, Kipling was only one of many celebrities of the day to assume this role. We are familiar with the impact of Lord Kitchener's poster, and the influence of the popular press at the time. This is now thought of as the start of the age of "spin". But there is another factor to be included here, and that is the music hall. In an age without cinema and TV, the music hall provided popular entertainment for the masses, reflecting and reinforcing popular attitudes. Hours after war broke out in 1914, songs supporting Britain's entry into the war were being composed and sung. As John Lewis Stempel has written:
"Music Hall’s support for the war effort is sometimes interpreted as a ruling class conspiracy to “sell” the war to the workers, but the British elite was never that organised. Music Hall reflected and enlarged popular attitudes. Where Music Hall did consciously “sell” the war it did exactly that; it made money from it. Music Hall was always good at cashing in. In the August 13, 1914, edition of the trade newspaper, The Encore, songwriters advertised they would add “a war verse” to any given song: For a fee".
The cross-dressing singer, Vesta Tilley, would invite young men on stage and invite them to join the forces; those who refused were handed a white feather. The music hall legend, Marie Lloyd, sang to young men a song called " I Do Like Yer, Cockie, Now You’ve Got Your Khaki On". The double entendre would not have been missed!
In short, if Rudyard Kipling was a warmonger, he was not alone in this, and can hardly be singled out for vilification. He shared popular sentiment, but did not create it. If he is to be condemned, what are we to make of Ben Tillett and Vesta Tilley?
Kipling did not serve in the front line. He was too old and had poor eyesight, like his son, Jack. John Kipling should never have been allowed to join the infantry because of this, but RK pulled strings to get his son a commission in the Irish Guards. John was killed at the Battle of Loos in September, 1915, shortly after the photograph above was taken. Like thousands of other families, the Kiplings were victims of the First World War. Instead of hatred, Kipling poured his grief into his poem, "My Boy Jack":
"Have you news of my boy Jack? Not this tide When d’you think that he’ll come back? Not with this wind blowing, and this tide."
Vesta Tilley

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Tommy Robinson, Terrorism and Hearts That Change

Repentance is not a word used much nowadays outside a theological discussion. Basically, it means to feel regret for one's actions and to make an effort to do better in future. As Wikipedia says:
 "Today, it is generally seen as involving a commitment to personal change and the resolve to live a more responsible and humane life".
In a religious context, of course, repentance involves sorrow for sinful behavior, confessing that sin to a priest or to God himself in prayer, as laid down in the Bible verse, 1 John 1:9: 
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
 Divine forgiveness is freely given, but the repentance must be accompanied by genuinely sincere attempts to never repeat that particular sin, or it is worthless. Evangelical Christians call failure to do this "backsliding". 
In a political context, repentance is probably not a word that should be used. After all, I could be a Communist secret policeman who, when times change, becomes a vocal supporter of liberal democracy. If, as a secret policeman, I am a serial adulterer and continue engaging in infidelity following my political conversion, then I am still, by religious standards, an unrepentant sinner. Changing political behaviour is not the same as a change in moral behaviour. 
Nevertheless, I think we can legitimately accuse Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, pictured above, of political backsliding and false repentance. Back in 2013, he resigned as leader of the English Defence League, and announced his intention to work with Quilliam to counter extremism among Muslims. At the time, Esther Rantzen made the very valid point that if we treated Robinson with overt cynicism, we would only discourage others who wanted to come in from the extremist fringe.
Sadly, that cynicism was not misplaced in the case of Tommy Robinson. He did work with Quilliam for a while, later claiming that he was being paid £2000 a month, which the organization denied. Whatever he was paid, it did not stop him from pleading guilty (confessing his sin?) to two charges of mortgage fraud in 2012, for which he received a prison sentence of 18 months. Robinson is no stranger to the judicial system and has a number of criminal convictions, including being jailed for passport fraud in 2013. In 2015, he returned to his anti-Islamic campaigning by founding a UK branch of Pegida, the anti-Islamic movement founded in Germany. He then became a correspondent of Rebel MediaUK in which he features strongly, propounding his anti-Muslim views. He is now in prison, as we all know, for contempt of court. A disturbingly large number of his supporters demonstrated in London calling for the government to "Free Tommy".

So - what price repentance or changes of heart by political extremists? One of Lee Rigby's killers, Michael Adebolajo, has expressed remorse for his actions. As the Sun said:
 "The killer has finally admitted his guilt and expressed "regret" in a bombshell jail confession, adding that he plans to write a letter of apology to the soldier's family."
Safaa Boular, the 18-year old  girl convicted on terrorist charges recently, has also expressed remorse for her actions. As The Guardian says: 
"In the witness stand, Safaa appeared as a typical teenager, having discarded her strict Islamic clothing for pencil skirts and Nike tracksuit tops.She told jurors she had ditched religion after speaking to other young people behind bars, having spent her schoolgirl days knowing “Islam and nothing but Islam”. She said watching the Isis videos now reduced her to tears because she “could not believe” she was capable of watching them before."

Now, if these declarations are sincere, they are to be welcomed. But this is similar to what happened with Tommy Robinson back in 2013. Robinson is utterly opposed to Adebolajo and Boular, but his "backsliding" will make people very suspicious of the true aims of them both, and of others like them in the future.

Tommy Robinson will like that.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Israel - Mass Killing No Massacre?

It will come as a surprise to some people to learn that I was appalled at the recent fatal shootings of 60 Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and the more than 2,700 who were shot and wounded. The IDF have said that their response to the mass Palestinian  demonstration was proportionate to the threat they faced, and all shootings were "surgical". Plenty of surgery was needed in Gaza's City Hospital:
 "Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital received 284 injured people Friday, the majority with bullet injuries, said spokesman Ayman Sahbani. He said 70 were under the age of 18 and 11 were women."
This does not sound like surgical shooting to me; indeed, it sounds as if the IDF soldiers lost their heads and shot indiscriminately. The Israelis seem incapable of seeing how their heavy-handed reactions to Palestinian attacks bring international condemnation not just from their enemies, but, increasingly often, from their friends and independents like me. I totally endorse criticism from Amnesty International, Save the Children and other NGOs on this issue and believe that an independent international inquiry is needed. As Amnesty says:
"While some protestors may have engaged in some form of violence, this still does not justify the use of live ammunition.Under international law, firearms can only be used to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”
At this point, anti-Zionists who have read my previous blogs on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict will be saying: "At last! He's seen the light! He's on our side now!".
Well, no. Sorry to disappoint, but I remain on the fence, because I believe this issue needs less emotion and more analysis. Last night's "Question Time"  on the BBC was a good example of raging emotional discussion, with pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis haranguing and interrupting each other. The debate didn't get out of control, but it could have done, with neither side attempting to understand the other.
And there was something that everyone on the programme and everyone else in the media missed. No-one questioned the role of Hamas, who the IDF blamed for the violence and mass shooting. That might or might not have happened, and it is for a future inquiry to find out.
What no-one has said, or is saying, is that these killings represent a huge propaganda victory for Hamas. It is a standard tactic of guerilla organisations to provoke occupying powers into committing atrocities. It was used by Soviet partisans in occupied Russia during WW2, by the FLN in Algeria against the French during the War of Independence, the IRA after Bloody Sunday and Hamas, it seems to me, are using it now. Hamas knew, I believe, that any Israeli response would be excessive and that is exactly what happened. If Hamas were concerned about their own people, they could have stopped, or actively tried to discourage, the protests. They did not, the IDF have acted predictably, with clumsy excess, and Hamas have profited massively from their mistakes.
I look forward to the findings of any international inquiry, which I believe will find both sides at fault. Having said that, of course, neither side will accept the findings of the inquiry, and the conflict will continue.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Anjem Choudary - an Ominous Silence

After his conviction on September 6, 2016, we have been spared the bombast of Anjem Choudary, pictured above. In case forgotten, let's remind ourselves why he was sent to prison for five and a half years. Choudary was charged with one offence under section 12 of the 2000 Terrorism Act for inviting support of a proscribed organisation, namely Islamic State, between June 2014 and March 2015. In short, he swore an oath of loyalty to Daesh, aka ISIS. He is currently held in HMP Frankland, County Durham.
When I first learned of his conviction, I admit to having been elated. At last, I thought, a troublemaking fanatic had been placed where he could do no harm. It did not take long for my elation to turn to bafflement. The more I thought about it, the more it did not make sense. The authorities had been trying to nab Chaudary for years, and yet failed to pin anything on him.  He is a trained solicitor who knows how to stay within the law.Why then did he do something so blatantly illegal that it would automatically lead to a conviction? Had he suddenly suffered an attack of stupidity? 
I do not believe that Chaudary let his guard down. I think that he knew what he was doing, although my guess of his intent is just that - a guess.
Before I discuss my theory, I think we should remind ourselves what Choudary was up to before he made his apparent blunder. Before he became an Islamist, Chaudary was a bit of a lad, as we know. He then encountered Omar Bakri Mohammed, who converted him to Islamist radicalism, and co-founded al- Muhajiroun. 
He was a vociferous critic of the UK's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides this, he praised those responsible for the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, and he refused to condemn the killers of Lee Rigby., saying:
 "I'm not in the business of condemnation or condoning. I think if anyone needs to be condemned it is the British government and their foreign policy"
According to Chaudary, one of the two killers, Michael Adebolajo, who he knew personally, was a "nice man".
He regularly called for  the implementation of Sharia law throughout the UK.  He marched in protest at the Danish cartoons controversy, following which he was prosecuted for organising an unlawful demonstration. During a protest outside Westminster Cathedral in 2006, Choudary even  told demonstrators that the Pope should be executed for insulting Islam. In 2010, he was fined for burning poppies on Armistice Day.
Because of his legal training, Choudary evaded prosecution on any serious charge. He also showed himself to be adept at using the media. As Nesrine Malik says in The Guardian:
"The first time I encountered Anjem Choudary in real life, I was struck by one thing: how good he was at creating a spectacle and attracting attention, given his own lack of importance. He knew how to play a media that was begging to be played. He gave them what they wanted – a show".
He was a regular on news programmes, "The Big Questions" and Fox News in the USA. On Fox News, one presenter called him a "sick son of a bitch" and cut him off. All this was grist to the mill for Choudary, who loved a platform for controversy and winding up opponents and critics - even fellow Muslims. Far less newsworthy, still less mentioned, was the fact that most Muslims deplored Choudary's antics and condemned him. As Nesrine Malik says:
"It doesn’t feel gracious to say this, but we told you so. Muslim journalists and activists spent years tearing their hair out in frustration at the platform Choudary was given. Many spoke out against this disproportionate exposure and boycotted shows he was invited on. In 2010 Mehdi Hasan condemned a “sensationalist and irresponsible media” that had been “deeply complicit in the rise and rise of this fanatic”.
Since his conviction, of course, he has been silenced. But it would be a mistake to think that Mr Choudary has been squashed. I believe that he deliberately broke the law, hoping to be imprisoned, for two reasons:
1. He wished to become acquainted with de-radicalisation techniques, to see if he could devise counter techniques for imprisoned Jihadis.
2. Choudary knew that ISIS/Daesh began in prison in post-invasion Iraq - Camp Bucca to be exact. Two years ago, there was talk of moving all Islamic radicals to a single prison here in the UK. Choudary might have liked that idea, hoping to create a British version of ISIS/Daesh in the same way as the evil Iraqi version.
Fanciful? maybe, but not impossible.
In any case, it is a fact that Choudary has been moved to a special unit in HMP Frankland for hardened Jihadis. As "The Telegraph" says:
"Anjem Choudary has reportedly become the first known Islamist to be moved to a “separation centre” at HMP Frankland in County Durham...The centres, also known as “jihadi jails”, were proposed after a review into prison extremism recommended preachers and terrorists who tried to convert or incite others should be kept separate from mainstream prisoners."
Well, I wasn't too far wrong. The unit in HMP Frankland will be one of three such units in UK prisons. Choudary, however, will not be in there for very much longer. He has been astute enough to behave in prison, and could be eligible for early release. As soon as this coming December, we could be dealing with a newly released prison-smart Anjem Choudary. He will be difficult to ignore, and will have much to say about life in prison. The ominous silence will be broken. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Alfie Evans - a battle with no possible winners

The long, convoluted saga of Alfie Evans has finally reached its sad, but scarcely unexpected, conclusion. The constant press coverage of the lengthy series of court cases as far as the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights has ensured that very few people in the UK can be unaware of his parents' struggle to be allowed to take him abroad for treatment.

At the core of the dispute was the medical profession's view that, not only was Alfie's condition incurable, but that to move him abroad was likely to cause the little boy unnecessary suffering for no possible gain. The parents, on the other hand, maintained their own conviction that he could be helped. I'm sure that we can all understand their desperation.

Many people demanded that the hospital and the courts should 'do the right thing' and allow the parents to take him abroad, but the question the courts had to deal with was not what was best for the parents, but what was best for the little boy, even if that meant making a decision that was contrary to the parents' wishes. Children are not the property of their parents but are individual, though immature, human beings in their own right, which is why the final decision was not the parents to make.

The deliberations of the doctors and courts must have been heart-rending; any suggestion that these devoted parents were hitting a brick wall of medical and legal officialdom is wholly misplaced. Medical professionals are often deeply moved, upset or, on occasion, traumatised when patients die, and such emotional responses tend to increase the younger the patient is. I've no doubt that the courts found it difficult as well.

My sympathy for the parents was severely tested when we heard the news that their lawyers from the Christian Legal Centre were talking about taking out a private prosecution against three doctors for conspiracy to murder. According to the Liverpool Echo, this legal centre is a branch of Christian Concern, an anti-abortion organisation which says “divorce, homosexuality and transsexualism are the three most significant challenges to God’s pattern for family in today’s society.” They are a group that very much has an agenda of its own and were using this case to further it.

Then we have the phenomenon of Alfie's Army, a large, vociferous group of supporters who demonstrated outside the hospital demanding Alfie be allowed to go to Italy. Staff received abuse, personal threats, and even threats to burn down Alder Hey Hospital. As a result, staff were warned to hide their uniforms and ID badges when in public. Such behaviour is both disgraceful and unforgivable, and I hope police IT experts are trying to trace those responsible.

I read today that it is intended to 'light up the sky for Alfie' in Southport in a few days' time. This has been enthusiastically received by some, while others, myself included, have pointed out that sending up balloons and lanterns can kill wildlife and cause fires when they come back down to earth. Others have replied that it's just for one day, so presumably that's all right then. One young woman became abusive while saying that she simply wanted to show respect - the irony was completely lost on her.

Sadly, on the news today I heard that several children had been among among the 25 people in Afghanistan killed by a suicide bomber. I also learnt today that, on average, in every week in the UK 50 children under a year old die in England and Wales*. Why are there no ceremonies to mark the deaths of all those lost children? Their parents' grief will be no less.

The story of Alfie has certainly provoked a huge emotional response in the country. There's no doubt it's an unusual case, very newsworthy with a series of dramatic court cases, appeals to the Pope, and a stream of photographs for the public. I don't blame the parents for using the media to try to achieve their goal with Alfie, but in the process something of a monster was created. Abuse has been heaped upon NHS staff and upon people who reasonably object to a commemoration that might endanger wildlife. It seems that Alfie's Army, having got the bit between their collective teeth, are determined to let nothing impede them. They talk about paying respect to Alfie, but show none to anyone who dares have a different opinion.

Whatever our views on what should or should not have happened, I think all reasonable people can understand the parents' anguish, and deplore the disgraceful treatment of medical staff by certain intolerant 'supporters' of Alfie. The parents dissociated themselves from the worst of the behaviour, even a fortnight ago urging Alfie's Army to stop protesting outside Alder Hey Hospital. Unfortunately, the genie was well out of the bottle by then.

One thing is certain: Alfie's parents left absolutely no stone unturned in their quest to achieve what they considered was right for their son. That they did not succeed was definitely not through any lack of effort in their part. I hope the fact that they did their absolute best for him provides them with a degree of comfort as they grieve.

* Source: Office of National Statistics.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Beyond the War Memorials - My Experience

The Waterloo and Seaforth War Memorial

Recently, I took part in an online project run by Sefton Library Service called "Beyond the War Memorials". This involved a number of volunteers, including me, compiling a database of all the men of the Sefton area who fell in the Great War, and whose names are listed on local war memorials. For those who do not know, Sefton MBC is located in the north-west of England, and incorporates Southport at the north end of the borough, stretching south in a coastal strip through Formby, Waterloo and Seaforth, down to Bootle in northern Liverpool. Thousands of men and women from this area died on active service in WW1, and there are a number of memorials to them, as happened everywhere in Britain in the post-WW1 years.
With one other volunteer, I was allocated the "5 Lamps" memorial seen above. My estimable fellow volunteer, Laura, had the arduous task of listing the names and brief biographies of the fallen while I was on holiday in the Philippines in an area badly served for internet provision (Laura, I salute you). Consequently, I could not start until mid-March. Now, I was told by several people not to make the biographies of the men too detailed and, before I started, I looked at the number of names on one panel, and thought "I'll never manage this, anyway!".
Well, I was wrong about that, happily. I volunteered for the task as I have an interest in WW1. I have read a fair number of books about it, and even written and recorded several poems about it for my charity albums. In a very short time, I became absorbed in the project, and the details of how these names on a wall came to be there. I accepted the need to avoid too much detail, but it would be a hard hearted person who could read the brief biographical details available on the Merseyside Roll of Honour and not be moved. 
The more I worked on these names, the more I engaged with the feelings of the families and, after the passage of a century, to share something of their grief and bereavement. For, behind the panel, there is a wellspring of pain of family members whose relatives never came home. There were widows left with large families, parents who lost their only son, some parents who lost more than one, and children who lost their fathers. Again and again, I shook my head in sadness when I saw the ages of most of the 438 fallen men. For the most part, they were young, some as young as 17, losing their lives in battles that now belong to history: Loos, Aubers Ridge, the Somme, Arras, Gallipoli, Passchendaele, Mesopotamia. In an age when most people never travelled far from home, the knowledge that your relative was lost far away must have been unbelievably painful. A deeply moving example of this is found in ''The Bootle Times'' of July 11th, 1919. Mrs Catherine Cunningham of Seaforth placed a memorial tribute to three of her sons, killed in the war: Andrew, Robert, and William Charles Cunningham. Included in the tribute is this short couplet, perhaps written by Mrs Cunningham herself:
"To graves far away, a mother's sad heart wanders to-day"
A few simple words, inspired by what must have been immeasurable grief.
All too many of the men have the bleak epitaph "No known grave" or "No grave but the sea". It does not require much to imagine what might have become of them. For me, having read a good deal about the first day of the Battle of the Somme, I had a fairly good idea of why so many men who fell on July 1st, 1916, had no known grave. When I read of the men who were lost at sea, however, I learned something new: nearly 90% of the crew of the Lusitania, sunk on the 7th May, 1915, came from Merseyside, and a number are listed on the Seaforth and Waterloo memorial. Tragically, several were no more than boys.The youngest, a "steward's boy" named Harold Joseph Wright, was only 14 when the Lusitania was sunk.
So many of the brief biographies were painful to read, such as that of Matthew Robinson, 17 years old, who was aboard the SS Ausonia, torpedoed in 1918. Both of his legs were broken in the attack, and he died in hospital in Ireland after eight days in an open boat, before being rescued. Two women are listed: Florence Jones, a nurse who died of pneumonia in 1918, and Agnes B. Hird, a 42-year old stewardess, lost on the SS Ava in January, 1917. Sadly, Agnes's husband, Anthony, was killed on the Western Front later that year.
There are also inspiring stories of courage. One is that of the gallant Lieutenant Walter Duncan of the Kings Liverpool Regiment who was captured during the Somme battle in 1916. He escaped from his POW camp in February, 1918, and returned to duty in England, only to die of pneumonia in the December of that year.
Particularly poignant for me was the fate of  Second Lieutenant Francis Zacharias, of the South Wales Borderers, who died heroically while fighting on the Somme in 1916 ("No known grave"). The Merseyside Roll of Honour quotes "Liverpool's Scroll of Fame" as saying: "He gave his life for his men". Zacharias lived in Victoria Road, Waterloo. His mother was British, his father was German by birth, but a naturalised British citizen. Like many Germans resident in Britain during WW1, Francis's father was loyal to Britain, and many sons of German families, including Francis, fought in the British armed forces. 102 years after the death of Francis, I find myself hoping that his father was spared the irrational, populist hatred of all things German that swept Britain at that time.
When I first started this project, I was daunted by the size of the task. Instead, I found it a rewarding and humbling experience.
Men of the King's Liverpool Regiment, 1915. Many men from Seaforth and Waterloo served in this regiment during the First World War; 13, 795 Kingsmen died in the conflict.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

President Assad and Reasons to be Cheerful

You might expect President Assad of Syria to be smarting with pain after receiving a good licking from the recent air strikes on April 14 against his (alleged) chemical warfare establishments. I am sure that many people in the West believe that. Unfortunately, TV footage of Assad shows him remarkably calm and unflustered following the US/French/British punitive action. In fact, he has a lot to smile about, as we shall see.
In the first place, he has seen relations between the West and Russia worsen, which means that he can expect even more support for his civil war from Russia and Iran, who will undoubtedly help Assad rebuild the chemical weapons capacity that he denied having. The airstrikes may even increase support for him within Syria. In any case, as "Private Eye" magazine has pointed out:
"... there have been 34 chemical attacks in Syria since 2013, to most of which the US has not retaliated" 
All of which makes the recent airstrikes against targets in Syria look like a very expensive token gesture.
Secondly, the airstrikes have created dissension and argument in the three countries that launched the attacks. In Britain, as we know, there has been fierce debate in the House of Commons. Last night saw the Prime Minister under fire for joining in the attack without consulting Parliament.Jeremy Corbyn has secured an emergency Commons debate tomorrow on the convention that parliament should have to approve military interventions.
So far, so good. This is enough to make most politicians smile, but the knock on effects of this affair spread wider and deeper. Consider this question asked by Donald Trump:
" To Iran, and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?"
Oh, blimey, that was a blunder! So far they have not replied, but Russia might respond by pointing out that the US military is no stranger to mass killing. They could mention the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, 1890. They could bring up the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam, which happened on 16th March, 1968, and has just passed its 50th anniversary.
Then, of course, they could point to the US-led invasion of Iraq, in which at least 150,000 Iraqis died (some say many more).
In contrast, no more than 70 people are said to have died in the recent chemical attack in Syria. President Assad's smile is beginning to broaden.
The Russians may then turn the critical spotlight on us here in Britain. We have a number of bloody incidents in our military and political history that could be dragged up. There is the Irish Famine (1845-52), to begin with, which caused a million deaths in Ireland and an exodus of two million people by unwilling, but desperate, emigration. Then there are the concentration camps of the Boer War (1899-1902) to be accounted for, and the notorious Amritsar Massacre of 1919, which saw at least 379 Indian civilians shot dead - some say many more.
Then of course, we should remember the post-colonial campaigns following the end of WW2, culminating in the Bloody Sunday killings in 1972. 
President Assad will be positively beaming by now.
As for France, they could be discomfited by being reminded of the Setif Massacre(s) of 8th to 22nd May, 1945, in which at least 6000 Algerians were killed by French troops. Then there is the Paris Massacre of 1961, in which up to 200 peaceful Algerian civilians were shot dead or drowned by French police.

The Russians could draw attention to these incidents, but it would be unwise. They would be better leaving such condemnation to Iran or their apologists in the West, such as George Galloway and Peter Hitchens, two disparate commentators who are highly critical of the way the West treats Russia and Syria, despite their divergent political views.
For Russia, as would be very quickly pointed out, does not exactly have an unblemished record when it comes to indiscriminate slaughter. There are the million people who died during the Red Terror (1917-22), the millions who disappeared and perished during the Stalinist Purges and the horrific Katyn Massacre of April and May, 1940. President Putin's crackdown on Chechen rebels in the 1990s also produced mass killings - the most bloody being the Samashki Massacre of April 7th and 8th, 1995, in which up to 300 civilians died.

 All of this would give President Assad much satisfaction; it shows that no major power involved in this dispute has the moral high ground. Both his allies and foes have much to regret in their pasts. 
However, it is the actions of the present that will most please Assad. President Trump has categorically stated that he will not interfere in the Syrian Civil War. That will be good news for Assad for one simple reason: he is winning. Russian and Iranian help is bringing about a slow victory. He will have no need for any further deniable chemical attacks as he knows he can wage war without any undue interference from the West. When it is over, the Russian, Iranian and Syrian military will rejoice over their defeat of what they (and others) say are barbaric Islamists. At some time after that, the West will have no choice but to recognise Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria, and the recent chemical attack will be a distant memory - like all the massacres mentioned above.
No wonder President Assad is smiling...

Friday, 13 April 2018

Raphael Callaghan at The Islington - Reviewed

On Tuesday evening (10th April), I travelled into central London for an old friend's gig. Raphael "Raph" Callaghan, pictured above, was playing his first London gig for a while at the Islington - a café bar close to the Angel tube station. I have known Raph for a number of years and worked with him on a number of projects. I know him to be an outstanding performer, guitarist and harmonica player, an knowledgable exponent of the blues and an all-round good guy.
Well, now - do I need to write more? Well, fortunately, yes, otherwise this would be a very short blog entry. Most of Raph's songs were taken from his latest cd "Said and Done" which is selling well, has impressed reviewers and been played a number of times on the radio, including Paul Jones' blues programme on Radio Two. 
Raph's songs fall into three broad categories: Personal/reflective, Gospel and songs by artists he admires, and he performed a selection of all three. "Sugar no More" is typical of the first category, which he describes on his cd inlay as: "...a bitter sweet song of regret over a break-up". Great song, but lacking in bitterness, which is probably explained by the fact that Raph has been in a happy relationship with his partner, Christine, for 47 years, as he said on Tuesday evening. His memory of his last break-up must be nearly 50 years old. He showed his tender side with his performance of "Silk for Skin" and his social consciousness side with "Too Much Rain, Too Much Water", which expresses his anxiety (and ours) about global warming.
Now, it's an established fact that many of the older blues singers (not so much the modern blues rockers like Robert Cray and Joe Bonamassa) included gospel songs as part of their sets. Raph followed in their footsteps by performing two of his own compositions: "Do You Know What Time it is?" and "Don't Let the Devil Drive" (has he passed his test? - sorry, couldn't resist it). On a reflective note, I have always smiled at how blues singers can sing gospel songs in the same set as songs about the pleasures of the flesh (Keith Richard once said that when he first encountered blues music, he was delighted to find "Hey! This is about gettin' laid"), but they do, and do it well. Raph is no exception.
Raph included a number of songs by other artists for whom he clearly has enormous respect. He speaks with special warmth of the preacher blues man, Skip James, and sang James' "Special Rider Blues" with conviction. You can hear the original HERE. I especially enjoyed Raph's version of the old Marvin Gaye classic"Abraham, Martin and John", which Raph sang to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King. On a personal note, I was disappointed that Raph did not sing "The Storm is Passing Over", one of my favourites of the songs in his repertoire.
To sum up, this was a great gig which was hugely entertaining for what Raph himself has described as a "small, but perfectly formed audience". As for The Islington, I hope it stays in business, as there were only four people in the bar, and two of them were staff. Keep rollin' on like the blues, Raph, and may you enjoy many more gigs, radio plays and cd sales - you deserve any success that comes your way, and thanks for all you have done for me and my projects.
Spot the young Raphael! Both photos pinched from Raph's website.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

How to Mishandle a Crisis: The UK Government and the Salisbury Chemical Attack

As my colleague, Rednev, observed on March 23rd, the UK government has been less than adept in the way they have dealt with the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. As Nev points out, our government has accused Russia of being responsible for the crime without a shred of evidence. There is also the absurd posturing of Boris Johnson's comparison of Putin to Hitler and the implied insult to the Russian people, who lost millions of people during WW2. Then there was the Cold War rant of the Defence Minister, Gavin Williamson, who said that Russia should "go away" and "shut up" (Russian commentators thought that hilarious). Now, Porton Down has said that  it can not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. President Putin must be very pleased by the whole sorry mess.

But - is there another way of looking at this affair? I believe there is, but it takes a leap of the imagination, and I have no proof of my theory (I had to get that out of the way).
Let's start with one indisputable statement: the Russian secret services are very good at assassinations, and quite good at disguising their handiwork. Wikipedia lists a number of such killings, both in Russia/USSR and abroad. Victims include: Leon Trotsky: Stepan Bandera (Ukranian nationalist, murdered in West Germany, 1959); Georgi Markov (The KGB used the Bulgarians - allegedly); Alexander Litvinienko, killed in 2006. Most such murders were KGB operations, but more recently, the FSB, successor to the KGB, has taken up the mantle with mixed results (the FSB hit on Alexander Litvinienko was not exactly a model of efficiency).
It hardly needs to be said, that if the FSB is prepared to carry out killings abroad, it is unlikely to have reservations about assassinating dissidents in Russia itself. It is undeniable that a number of critics and opponents of President Putin have met violent deaths. It is also undeniable that, as far as President Putin's involvement is concerned, nothing has been proved (cue Dusty Springfield). Mack the Knife, as we know, always wore white gloves.
As an example of Putin deniability, we can see it in the murder of the journalist and bitter critic of Putin, Anna Politkovskaya. After years of publishing books attacking Putin and harassment from the FSB, she was found shot dead in the elevator of her apartment block in central Moscow on the 7th of October, 2006, which, coincidentally, was President Putin's birthday. She had been shot four times in the head. Arrests were made, and several Chechens have been convicted of the murder - but the instigator, the man who ordered the operation, has never been identified. What puzzles me about this case is the fact that the FSB monitors foreign diplomats, journalists and domestic opponents rigorously. That being the case, Politkovskaya must have been under surveillance at the time of her murder. It follows, then, her assassins must have been observed by FSB watchers - and yet, incredibly, the murderers escaped. Even after being caught following a long and laborious investigation by the Russian police, they have not named the instigator, certainly not President Putin.
Hopefully, whoever carried out the attack in Salisbury will be caught. If that happens, it is extremely unlikely that the culprits will have any direct link to the Kremlin. If, hypothetically speaking, Putin ordered this hit (and others), he would have used "cut-outs". That is to say, he would have relayed the order through a succession of people "A orders B orders C orders D, etc", which would make it very difficult to trace back. It may be that the putative assassins have already fled the UK, as did the confirmed killers of Alexander Litvinienko. That being the case, they will never stand trial here, or in Russia. No wonder opponents of Putin living in the UK are nervous.
So - do I believe the UK government have made a good case against Russia over the Salisbury poisoning? Er, no. But - do I think the Russian secret service smart enough to plan and execute a hit without leaving evidence of involvement? Yes. Do I have evidence of this that relates to the Salisbury chemical attack? Er, well, no.
Like Dusty sang: nothing has been proved.
Anna Politkovskaya

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Easter, Labour Anti-Semitism and the PPL

Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, seems a good time to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and the coming actions of the PPL (pro-Palestinian Lobby - my invented term), following the latest killing of unarmed Palestinians by Israeli Defence Forces.
It could be argued that anti-Semitism is 2018 years old, if we take the Bible literally. According the Gospel of Matthew, 27:25, Pontius Pilate released a convicted thief, Barabbas, to placate an angry Jewish crowd. Pilate had declared Jesus an innocent man, but, the Bible says:
"Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children."
This Biblical quote, along with others, was used to justify anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms for hundreds of years. In the 19th Century, Houston Chamberlain (not Nietzsche, as popularly supposed), developed anti-Semitism as a pseudo-scientific theory which inspired Hitler's "racial theories". Modern neo-Nazi "theorists" still include Chamberlain in their booklists.
This potted history of mine is not strictly relevant here, but needs to be borne in mind when considering the "anti-Zionist" position and the fact that anti-Semitism as such does still exist. 
The PPL will soon be organising mass protests against the recent killings of Palestinians. The PPL celebrity line-up, which includes George Galloway and other dubious characters, will be making impassioned speeches via any and every media outlet. They will piously deny being anti-Semitic, chanting the ancient mantra: "anti-Zionism is not the same as Anti-Semitism" (I wish I had ten quid for the number of times I've heard that), and accuse their critics of everything from being accomplices to murder to being agents of Mossad.
I'd like to pick up on the last point here: the PPL members I've talked to cannot endure the slightest criticism and usually overreact. Simply saying something innocuous like "my Mum went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year" draws vitriol from the mouth of a hardline PPL member. All of which, I think, points to a sense of insecurity on the part of the so-called "average" PPL member.
For there is no average PPL member. The PPL, as I have said before, contains a wide spectrum of opinion, ranging from people who are genuinely concerned for the Palestinian people to fanatics who oppose the very existence of the state of Israel, across to the neo-Nazis (the rest of the PPL don't like talking about them) who want to continue where Hitler left off. This can lead to confused reactions when you question PPL supporters. Here are three gems I have gathered, after conversations with PPL believers.
1. "I like Jews, but not Israelis".
The idiocy of this is obvious; most Israelis ARE Jews.
2. "Zionists control the US media".
This questionable belief could have been said by a neo-Nazi - even without changing "Zionists" to "Jews".
3. "Holocaust denial is wrong, but it's all right if the Palestinians do it, because they're being oppressed by Israel".
This fatuous statement is so ridiculous as to need no further comment.
But - do I believe that the PPL section of the Labour Party are anti-Semites, along with Jeremy Corbyn? Well, no, although I have no doubt that some are. Fascist infiltration of Labour has happened before, the most famous case being that of  British Movement member Peter Marriner, back in the 70s. And there is electoral opportunism to consider. As Baroness Deech has said: 
"Too many Labour politicians cravenly adopted the anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Israel demonization they think will get them British Muslim votes, rather than standing up to the prejudice that exists in the community".
To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn has said that more needs to be done on this issue. I wonder how Hamas and Hezbollah supporters of the PPL in the UK, who have marched with Corbyn on pro-Palestinian demonstrations, will react to that.

committed PPL members in Labour's ranks will continue acting as a pressure group for their cause, whatever initiatives Corbyn may devise, and I think that this calls for a deeper analysis of the Left's antipathy to Israel. This antipathy is peculiar to Israel, as there were no protests from Labour PPL supporters  against Russia's campaign in Chechnya, Assad's crimes against his people in Syria and no sympathetic vigils for the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians, when persecuted by ISIS.
So what's the real beef of the far Left and the PPL when it comes to Israel? Well, I do not think that it is exclusively anti-Semitism (although anti-Semitism is certainly present among this section of the Left).Rather, I believe it to be anti-Western in motivation. Occasionally, the mask slips on this issue. I have seen Israel labelled in a PPL leaflet as "the West's attack dog". Now, that explains a lot, if it is a widely held belief among the PPL. In future, I believe that we should ask: who seeks to benefit if the West's attack dog is neutered or destroyed? I have answers already...
Happy Easter, everyone!