Friday, 23 March 2018

How to insult 145 million people - all at once

I once read that diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they actually look forward to the journey. On that basis, it is clear that our Foreign Secretary is about as diplomatic as a heavy metal band in a Trappist monastery. His comparison of Russia holding the football World Cup with Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympic Games is crass, undiplomatic and deeply offensive.

In the UK, we have a judicial system based on the principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. I am not an uncritical supporter of our Establishment, but this is one idea that I tend to support. Our government has repeatedly stated that Russia is probably responsible for the poison attacks in Salisbury, but they haven't produced a shred of evidence. Not only that, they haven't even claimed that they do have evidence but must withhold it on the grounds of national security. While I wouldn't necessarily be convinced by such an assertion, the fact that they have made no claim to holding any evidence whatsoever makes me very suspicious. I therefore conclude that it is highly probably that they have none.

I am not a Putin apologist, and I am not saying that his government is innocent of the attack; I am simply stating that our government's assertions would not stand up in a British court of law.

Boris Johnson' comparison with Hitler is deeply offensive as well as being quite inaccurate. This doesn't surprise me: the last senior Tory politician who had any true historical understanding was Winston Churchill. Hitler intended the Olympic Games to demonstrate the innate superiority of the Aryan Master Race, a doctrine ultimately derived from a distorted view of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. We all know what Hitler did to the various peoples whom he regarded as inferior. Putin is no Hitler, he has no comparable philosophy of racial superiority and he has initiated no holocausts. He quite deliberately appeals to the patriotism of the Russian people, but then so do national leaders everywhere, to varying degrees. Every country that hosts world sporting events likes to show itself in the best possible light: the UK certainly tried with the 2012 Olympics, and I see nothing remiss in Russia trying to do the same with the World Cup.

The Hitler comparison demonstrates how Johnson has little or no understanding of Russian history and the sensibilities that to this day derive from that history. The USSR suffered at least 25 million deaths as a direct result of the Second World War; this terrible statistic still resonates with Russians today. To put it in perspective, 25 million would have represented more than half the UK population at the time. Total UK deaths from the war were 265,000, which means the USSR lost 94 people for every one the UK lost. At that time, the population of the USSR was at most four times the UK population. *

As those 25 million Soviet lives were lost resisting and, ultimately, defeating Hitler, it not hard to see that the Russian anger generated by Johnson's crass comments is not the synthetic indignation of diplomats. No, a country that suffered greatly - still just about within living memory - has been compared to the Nazi monster who caused all that grief.

I have watched RT, the Russian TV channel, and Johnson's comments have, unsurprisingly, been extensively reported. I have little doubt that they will have caused some Putin detractors to rally behind him in the face of such a slur against their country. If Johnson has any understanding of what the term 'diplomacy' means, he should realise he has just scored a massive own goal, but instead he has stated that he stands behind what he said.

Johnson should be sacked, but he won't be because Theresa May is a lame duck prime minister whose survival depends on keeping all the potential leadership challengers in her Cabinet. A PM who was forced to give the magic money tree to the DUP will not jeopardise her government by doing anything to alienate Johnson - not even a reprimand.

The Russians have just re-elected Putin as president. Whatever you think their leader, the Russian people do not deserve the vile insult that Johnson hurled at them.

* Source of casualty statistics: The Guinness Book of Answers,

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Jon Venables and Two Awkward Questions

I was on holiday when Jon Venables, one of the two killers of James Bulger, was arrested for the second time. Despite being far away, I was able to view some news items and learned of the heated arguments that ensued about whether or not he should retain his anonymity. According to a tabloid newspaper, Venables can expect a hard time in prison, where inmates will soon see through his false identity. Both James Bulger's parents, who have conducted themselves with admirable dignity while fighting for justice for their son, believe that Venables should either lose his right to privacy or be placed under 24-hour surveillance. MPs are due to debate a petition on this matter. Meanwhile, Robert Thompson, Venables' co-murderer, appears to be living a quiet and blameless life. There are no calls for him to be outed, which is ironic, as he is said to be in a stable gay relationship.
I was teaching in Liverpool when James Bulger was murdered, and remember the pervasive collective shock that existed when it was realised that the crime had been committed by two young boys. Sadly, neither myself or my then colleagues were completely surprised. All of us privately watched the infamous film of James being led away to see if we recognised his abductors. I have maintained an interest in this case which is constantly refreshed by the antics of Venables and I retain a sense of horror and outrage at what was done to poor James. Most people do not know or want to know the full details of the killing on that railway bridge back in 1993. I do, and can assure you that they are unforgettable in their horror. If you become familiar with those details, you will understand what drives Denise Fergus and her ex-husband, Ralph Bulger, in their campaigns for justice for their murdered son.
Feelings apart, I am left with two unanswered questions about this crime: 1. Why did the two boys, Thompson and Venables, commit the crime? 2. How long should children who kill be incarcerated?
In answer to Question 1, there have been a number of attempts to explain the boys' actions. In his book, "Destroying the Baby in Themselves", David Jackson postulates that they were trying to destroy the softer side of themselves and become "hard". They may have been taking out on James their own resentment felt against their own younger siblings. Jonathan Paul, in "When Kids Kill", suggests that there could have been a sexual motive - recent revelations might point to this.
The problem with theories such as this is that, worthy and accurate as they may be, they do not explain why the boys did what they did when they did. Why that particular day? Why did they take James in the direction they did? Albert Kirby, the detective in charge of the investigation, was struck by the degree of planning that Thompson and Venables employed. Why, for instance, did they choose to head for that particular stretch of railway? Why did they persist in their efforts to snatch a child, despite being noticed? Why was the violence of the boys towards James so extensively and comprehensively sadistic? Why did they try to conceal their crime?
Teaching in Liverpool at the time, I was told of a theory, supposedly being examined by Merseyside Police, that answered these queries. According to a very good source, the police were working on the theory that an adult was involved. The adult was a pervert, who wanted to make a "snuff video" of a child being murdered. It was thought that he had bribed Thompson and Venables to snatch a child and take him or her to the railway sector to be killed by them. He would have filmed the whole horrible event and rewarded them handsomely, or so they would have expected. When the adult did not show on the day, the boys took out their disappointment and anger on James before murdering him anyway. Nothing was heard of this theory, so it must have been discounted. It did, however, provide a plausible explanation for the boys' actions. Thompson and Venables have never fully explained their motives for acting as they did, when they did, but, if they ever do, we might find that they had a more straightforward rationale than previously thought.
Question 2 is a more vexed question, and may never be satisfactorily answered. The vast majority of people thought that the 8-year sentence given to Thompson and Venables was too lenient. Interestingly enough, the two brothers who murdered Damilola Taylor, Danny and Ricky Preddie, received exactly the same sentence. Compare this however, with the sentences handed out to child killers in the USA. One example is that of Eric Smith of New York, who murdered a 4-year old boy in 1993, when he was 12 years old; he is still in prison. Another is that of Joshua Phillips, from Florida, who strangled an 8-year old girl when 14 years old in 1998. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to Life without parole. The best-known of such cases, however, was that of Jesse Harding Pomeroy (aka "The Boy Fiend") of Boston, who, at the age of 14, attacked a number of younger children, murdering two of them, in 1874. He was imprisoned, mostly in solitary confinement, from 1874 until his death in 1932. So which is the better course of action - a lengthy period of therapy and reformation, followed by release (which seems to have failed with Jon Venables), or sentencing such offenders to life imprisonment into adulthood and beyond?
This is not the place even to attempt to provide a definitive answer, however, and bearing Jon Venables' recent offences in mind, should we not be asking ourselves how justice may be served in dealing with children who kill?

Jesse Harding Pomeroy

Friday, 23 February 2018

Is 30 days in prison for a rape enough?

Geoff's most recent blog post concerned the release into the community of mentally ill offenders who go on to offend again, referring specifically to John Worboys and Theodore Johnson. I intend to revisit the Worboys case in the light of recent developments.

My starting point is: why do we impose judicial sentences on people found guilty of crimes? There are four possible reasons:
  • Protection of society.
  • Deterrence.
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Retribution.
These are not isolated reasons and they should ideally interact with each other. For example, protecting society can be achieved by locking up criminals and taking them out of circulation. Successful rehabilitation protects society by making released prisoners not want to re-offend. Retribution should protect society by deterring, not only potential offenders from committing crimes, but also actual offenders from repeating their crimes. In the eyes of many people, retribution is a sufficient reason in itself - you should pay for your crime - without reference to the other 3 reasons. 

More than 100 women came forward with reports of rape and sexual assault by Worboys, although only a small number of charges were used by the CPS, who state that a case can be lost if it becomes overloaded. Many of the women whose complaints were not taken forward were reassured that there was enough to lock Worboys away for a very long time. I don't blame them for being shocked that he has been granted release after a mere eight years. 

The facts are: Worboys consistently protested his innocence and had appeals lodged against his conviction throughout most of his prison sentence. About 18 months before the date when the parole board could consider his case, he changed tack and withdrew his protestations of innocence and his appeals. In other words, he went from defiantly proclaiming his innocence to humble, repentant offender almost overnight. 

I doubt I am alone in believing that a serial offender whose assaults on women go back decades to the days when he was a male stripper has been rehabilitated in 18 months. The fact that he has formed a close relationship in prison with Levi Bellfield, the murderer of Milly Dowler, should in itself set the alarm bells ringing. Like Worboy's victims, I am convinced his transformation from ruthless abuser of hundreds of women into a harmless, responsible and remorseful member of society is utterly implausible.

Ultimately, I must return to retribution. Even if the requirements of protection of society, deterrence and rehabilitation had been met, people expect an element of punishment: you've done something horrible, so something horrible must happen to you. 

I don't believe that those three factors have been satisfied in the slightest in the Worboys case, but even if they were, eight years for his horrendous crimes inflicted upon hundreds of women are not enough. It works out at less than 30 days for each reported rape and sexual assault.

Worboys is 60 now, still able to have something of a life if he were released. In law, the maximum sentence for rape is life imprisonment. The minimum sentence for rape is not defined, although some custodial sentence will apply. The sheer numbers of victims in this case must surely count as an aggravating factor that justifies a life sentence.*

I wish the victims who have been granted the right to challenge the parole board's decision - a legal first - every success.

* More on rape sentencing here.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

New Year, Old Problems and Feminist Issues

It's a shame that the hopes of the festive season don't last, but that's nothing new. In the past few days, hardly into 2018, we have been presented with two failures of the judicial and mental health systems by the Parole Board's decision to release the multiple sex offender, John Warboys and the belated permanent incarceration of the triple murderer, Theodore Johnson. As regular readers of this blog know, I have written many times about the iniquity of releasing violent mental health patients who kill again. During 2015 and 2016, I wrote about this issue so much that I decided not to touch upon it at all last year.
The case of Theodore Johnson, however, is so shocking that I feel I must comment upon it. What staggers me is not simply the horrific murder of his former partner, Angela Best, but the fact that his two previous killings were classed as manslaughter. Take, for example, his first slaying: the killing of his first wife, Yvonne Johnson in November, 1981. They lived on the 9th floor of a block of flats in Wolverhampton until one evening when they quarrelled. Johnson hit his wife over the head with a vase and shoved her over their balcony. Incredibly, he was able to plead provocation and serve a sentence for manslaughter. Had he simply lashed out in anger, something could be said for it, but shoving someone from a balcony requires some forethought and, I think, should have been classed as murder. 
When he murdered by strangulation another woman, Yvonne Bennett, in 1992, alarm bells should have rung loud and clear about Johnson, but the response of the authorities was approaching complacent. Even though he had killed before, and his justification for the crime was absurd - he said she had provoked him by refusing a box of chocolates he offered as a "let's make up" gift - he was able to plead diminished responsibility and released after just two years in a secure mental health unit. And, as we know, he murdered Angela Best in December, 2016, after she left him for another partner. From previous study of violent mental patients, this repeated violence is no surprise to me, nor is the failure of Johnson's supervisors to find that he was in a relationship with Best.
Nor is Johnson the only serial killer of his partners. Paula Cocozza, in The Guardian, highlights the fact that one in every four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. This, then, is not simply a mental health issue, but a feminist issue also. Professor David Wilson, who specialises in the study of serial killers, says that this statistic reveals something about murder in general:
"There is this unreflective acceptance that violence towards women is normalised".
Whether Johnson was simply misogynistic or mad (I suspect both!) is now an academic matter, but the wider issue of violence against women is something we urgently need to address.
The case of the other misogynistic thug, John Worboys, raises the other criminal issue that affects women (and sometimes men): that of rape and sexual abuse of all kinds. The controversy over his release is hot news at the moment and there is no need to go over it here. What we can examine is the issue raised many years ago by Lenny Bruce when he said that the difference between rape and seduction was one of technique. There is no doubt about wrongdoing in Worboys' case, of course. When the police arrested him in 2008 after a six-year spell of attacks against female passengers in his black cab, they found a "rape kit" in his car containing champagne miniatures, plastic gloves, a torch, vibrators, condoms, sleeping tablets and an ashtray he used to crush drugs. How this man can be thought eligible for parole is beyond me. However, is this not simply an extension of candle light, soft music and  sparkling champagne (or their equivalent) as a seduction technique? I would say "not really", but I can see why many women might say it was.
To conclude: I am happy that Theodore Johnson is now in jail for 26 years and thus unable to kill any more women. Thanks to a suicide attempt, he is physically incapacitated anyway. The BBC says:
"In mitigation for Johnson, Annette Henry QC said: "He does not wish to be alive. He hates himself for what happened".
Whether this was a plea for sympathy or euthanasia was not made clear.
As for Worboys, he will be a marked man on his release, although there might be a chance of his being prosecuted for previous offences against women, and for which he was not charged. Worboys is 60; Johnson was 64 at the time of his latest murder. That means, should Warboys be paroled, he is still young enough to re-offend. It is all too easy to imagine the furore in the media and the reaction of the mental health authorities should that happen: 
"Sympathy for the victim... failure of inquiry will be held...lessons will be learned..."
Yes, I can hear it now...

Friday, 29 December 2017

Reflections on 2017 - the Blogmeister's New Year Message

I'm slightly early, but I thought I'd use the inter-festival break to reflect on 2017, and some matters arising for me to address. One of these matters is to try and answer a question that two good friends asked me a couple of years ago. Both these gentlemen work with me on musical projects, and are very knowledgeable about my lyrics and poetry. As such, they were both well-informed enough to ask me why I write so much about the dark side of life. One had said previously that my works were about as cheerful as a combination of episodes of Coronation Street and Eastenders - neither of which I ever watch, as I find them too depressing. 
Looking back over my blog posts this year, I suppose the same could be said about them. Terrorism features largely, as does OFSTED, army veterans and Mack the Knife. Personalities mentioned include Teresa May, Diane Abbott and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Some people may well find this a recipe for depression, but first, I must answer my friends' question. When they first asked me, I own up to having been evasive, largely because I hadn't thought about it seriously.
When I first began writing lyrics and poems, I did try to include lighter themes. I wrote a number of pieces which covered such humorous areas as jealous hedgehogs, Liverpool pub singers, jilted birdwatchers and oversexed bus drivers. One of the main reasons I began writing serious stuff only was hearing a recording of myself narrating a poem called "The Caller's Lament", which made me cringe. I determined never to write anything so embarrassing again. And I didn't -I began to write on serious themes only from then on, as it seemed to me that I wrote far better on such subjects.
Well, that's one reason. However, writing exclusively in such a way can lead to some people forming a superficial impression that the writer must 1. be a miserable so-and-so and/or 2. deliberately out to depress and sadden people.
In the case of 1, I don't know whether people find me morose personally or not (I can imagine the comments coming on!😃😃), but this can be easily disproved by referring to an artist who faced similar accusations in his lifetime: Leonard Cohen. He was constantly ridiculed for the supposedly depressing nature of his lyrics. His critics (and admirers) called him "Laughing Lennie" ; Clive James described his work as "Doom from a Room". Yet, people who worked with him spoke warmly of a friendly, humorous man whom they were happy to work with. The author is not his or her body of work.
On the second count, I think it absurd to suggest that any writer gets out of bed in the morning saying to him or herself: "I must write something depressing today". For instance, when, on November 16, I wrote a poem which I posted on this blog about the murder victim, Kaan Aslan, I wanted to mark this terrible event and honour his name. To suggest that I wrote that poem simply to depress people is both ridiculous and highly insulting to both myself and the memory of Kaan Aslan. Writers write on serious themes because they are moved to do so, because they care about an issue, not because of a desire to spread unhappiness for its own sake.
Returning to 2017, and to the picture of Santa above, I am reminded of an email that I sent, partly in jest, earlier in the year. In the message, I said that I was writing from a front-line city. After sending it, I suddenly realised that London really is a front-line city. So is Manchester, New York, Berlin, and so are many others. In the UK this year, 37 people have been killed by terrorists and 350 injured, many with what are euphemistically described as "life changing" injuries. I am glad to have remembered them on this blog, and do not intend to stop writing about such events.
Far from wishing to sign off the year on a mournful note, I would like to end positively, by paying tribute to two heroic people who stood up to terrorists in 2017: PC Keith Palmer, who died defending the Houses of Parliament on March 22, and the brave young Australian nurse, Kirsty Boden, who died trying to help the wounded and dying during the London Bridge atrocity on June 3rd. Along with many others who fought back and defied the terrorists, their deeds inspire us to face the future bravely.
Have a Happy and Courageous New Year! 
PC Keith Palmer, on duty outside the Houses of Parliament.
Kirsty Boden, who died trying to help others.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message, 2017

With some reservations, I have decided to publish this Christmas message from a statesman whose government has banned Christmas. Our Christmas message this year comes from the Chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un.
He-he-he! How you like my silly hat? Pretty, yes? You like the scene behind me? That place is Hiroshima, but is how New York will look one day. And London! Don't think you are safe, Britishers. You sent soldiers to invade my country in 1950 as well as USA and others. We don't forget easy, let me assure you.
Now, just cos I wear Santa hat, no go thinking I change my mind on Christmas. I banned it some time ago. I don't like it, because I am the main man in the world, not some Israeli baby born 2000 years ago who oppressed the Palestinian people in a manger... And he couldn't speak Korean! What kind of saviour is that? Anyway, you got me instead.
I am very offended that I got to send my message on some lousy little blog, but British newspapers they not like me for some reason. Blogmeister seem like some kind of reactionary liberal socialist vermin and Rednev some tired old man who don't write much. (Ah, such flattery! - B)
I guess you all wondering what I am going to do about Donald Trump in New Year, 2018. I not scared of him! If he drop any of his missiles on us, I will destroy the world. Well, some of it anyway. I have to be careful not to destroy my country, cos suicide is against the law. If anyone does kill himself, his family are sent to camps to teach them a lesson. When life here is so wonderful, why commit suicide? (Agreed, Mr Chairman, escape is far better. 26, 854 people escaped from North to South Korea between 1953 to 2014 - B)
Donald Trump is a nasty old man who I have outed as a lunatic. He insulted me saying I was short and fat! Do I look like that to you? If he said that to me here, I would put him in prison. No way is it true, no matter what lying British press says.
Anyway, I want to stop now. I am tired. However, I say to the British people that I am not planning any nuclear attacks on them. I have no such intention and I don't have the missiles yet. When I do, I send you a little warning, nothing much. Have nice Christmas - it may be your last! Funny joke, eh? He-he-he!
As Blogmeister, I feel I must thank Chairman Kim for his festive message. His goodwill shines through his words - or is that radiation glow?

Evidence that Donald Trump's description of Chairman Kim as "fat" is wide of the mark. Surely "working on obese" would be more accurate? No wonder Kim is upset!

Friday, 15 December 2017

President Putin, Trump and a Spare Book Token

After Christmas, if you are left with a book token that someone has given you, you might consider buying the latest book by Luke Harding: "Collusion - how Russia helped Trump win the White House". There is nothing ambiguous about the title, and you might think it an unnecessary purchase. After all, hasn't the topic been covered extensively by the news media? Well, yes, it has, but Harding's book provides us with greater detail and insight into the nature of the issue, providing us with overwhelmingly incriminating information about Trump's relationship with Putin's Russia, financial and political, and also, in my opinion, pointing to some similarities between the two men themselves. But I'll save that for later.
We need to be clear from the outset that Trump denies any wrongdoing with matters Russian. It also needs to be said that the book does not provide the "smoking gun" evidence that would prove Trump a liar. That is the first similarity between Donald and Vladimir - there is no conclusive proof of nefarious activity by either of them, despite strong circumstantial evidence to the contrary. In "The Threepenny Opera", Mack the Knife always wore white gloves. Both Trump and Putin vehemently deny any truth in the secret report by Christopher Steele, the former MI6 man who once served in Moscow, despite Steele having an outstanding reputation as a private intelligence operative. In any case, the revelations in Steele's dossier, leaked online, detailed how the Russian regime cultivated Trump for a number of years in order " encourage splits and division in the western alliance".
In the dossier summary, Steele says that "...he (Trump)and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals". He goes on to say that the FSB compromised Trump by secretly recording his engaging in "perverted sexual acts" while in Moscow. The summary also mentions "... a dossier of compromising material on Hilary Clinton". The sources of these revelations appear to have been Russian intelligence officers and/or Kremlin insiders. Sinister repercussions followed.
Harding lists a number of mysterious deaths of Russian government officials and diplomats following the publication of Steele's dossier. Harding says:
"There was no obvious pattern: the deaths took place in Moscow, the United States, South Asia."
It is not known if these deaths were of Steele's sources, but Harding says, rightly, that it looked as if a spy network was being rolled up. Someone in the Kremlin was clearly upset.
As for Trump's election campaign, Harding demonstrates that Russia was actively operating online to discredit Hilary Clinton (I myself remember videos on YouTube making salacious claims about Clinton's sexuality). The US security agencies put out a report to this effect and, as Harding states:
"From June 2015, Russian operatives purchased a series of advertisements on Facebook...they pretended to be American activists...Facebook would eventually admit that Russia had employed 470"inauthentic accounts and pages" as part of its influence campaign".
Other strange events, like the sacking of FBI Director, James B. Comey and the links of Trump loyalists with Russia are examined in great detail. We learn of Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who worked in Ukraine to elect a pro-Russian president. There is also much to learn about Michael Flynn, the former National Security Adviser, so well thought of by the Russians they called him "General Misha", who has recently agreed to testify to a forthcoming inquiry.
In the last part of Harding's book, we learn of Donald's relationship with Deutsche Bank. Charles Kaiser in The Guardian writes:
"... Trump’s incredibly convoluted relationship with the German bank, which included defaulting on a $330m loan from its real estate division – and then settling that default by borrowing hundreds of millions more from the bank’s private equity division. Asked if “it was normal to give more money to a customer who was a bad credit risk ... a former senior Deutsche bank staff member said: ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’
More grounds for blackmail by the FSB, in other words. And Trump has still not published his tax returns.
Aesop, he of the fables, once said: "A man is known by the company he keeps". If that be true, what are we to make of the fact that Harding is able to list seven known pro-Russian figures in the Trump administration, serving or former members? Besides this, there is the matter of Trump's financial interests in Moscow. As Charles Kaiser says here:
"Trump has repeatedly tweeted that he has no financial connections to Russia. But in 2008 Donald Trump Jr said in Moscow: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” A Reuters investigation revealed that individuals with Russian passports or addresses had bought property worth $98.4m in seven Trump-branded towers in Florida."
And, as Harding points out in his book, some of these individuals who bought property were neighbours in Trump Tower - many with links to organised crime.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I find Trump and Putin to be two of a kind, despite many obvious differences. They both like getting their own way, which needs no exemplification. They both detest all opposition, the difference being that Trump sacks his critics and defames his opponents, while Putin takes more drastic action. We can only be glad that the USA is a democracy with a system of checks and balances on presidential power. Without them, the resemblance between Trump and Putin would be stronger.
The only problem with Harding's book is that, like all other books dealing with current affairs, it could be overtaken by events. It might yet be conclusively proven that Trump was fully aware of contacts with Putin. But, I doubt it. As I said, both these men are adept at covering their tracks. They have both learned from Mack the Knife. Still, this book is a rattling good read and I recommend it unreservedly. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Playing With Dice - for Kaan Aslan

Two days ago, a 21-year old Deliveroo driver, Kaan Aslan, was returning to his east London home just after midnight when he was attacked and stabbed to death. His cousin said of him:
"'He was a good person. He was a kind caring boy, no way was he ever in any trouble. He has a younger brother who is 11. Kaan was his role model, he is heartbroken.'
One more tragedy, we could say, but for some reason this one got to me, and I wrote this poem about it:


(For Kaan Aslan, murdered 14/11/2017)

Roll them once,
Roll them twice,
An unknown gambler 
Plays with dice.

A life of hope,
A life that's gone,
A young man dead
At twenty-one.

Into the darkness
You drove alone,
Close to safety,
Yards from home.

Cold steel flashed like dragons' teeth
In gaping metal jaws;
A life that has no meaning
Put an end to yours.

We never hailed your triumphs,
We never heard your song.
Indifferent silence claimed you,
A dark and bitter wrong.

The gambler rolls his dice again -
Sixes, threes and fives,
With odd and even numbers
That rule and end our lives.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Contacting Donald Trump - Compassion and Eccentricity

I never thought that I'd have reason to contact Donald Trump, other than possibly writing to him on behalf of Amnesty International. That changed on October 31, when an Uzbek immigrant to the USA called Sayfullo Saipov (pictured below) drove a rented pickup truck into cyclists and runners in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Unlike other perpetrators of such attacks, Saipov was taken alive. His FBI interrogators were thus able to establish that he was a supporter of ISIS/Daesh and that he was happy with the results of his murderous attack.
His "results" include eight dead innocent people: two Americans, five Argentinians and one Belgian. Twelve others were injured, including Saipov himself. One victim had two limbs amputated. This attack happened close to the site of the World Trade Centre, destroyed on 9/11, and it seems to me that Saipov was trying to contact President Trump on behalf of ISIS. The message sent, I think, being something like this:
"In spite of all the billions of dollars you have spent trying to destroy us, despite your sophisticated weaponry, we can still hit you in exactly the same place as Al-Qaeda hit you sixteen years ago".
Saipov's weapon of choice was a humble truck, not a plane, but the terror and publicity his crime attracted was every bit as sensational as that engendered on 9/11.
We in the UK, and especially in London, have suffered from similar attacks this year, and I have been moved to lay flowers and a card at the sites of two of them. After Saipov's lethal rampage, unable to lay flowers at the scene of the incident in New York, I sent a message of condolence via email to a New York radio station and to the President himself, Donald Trump. I have received no reply, but that really wasn't expected or necessary. At least I felt that I'd done something worth while.
It will come as a surprise to some to learn that I have been sending similar messages to other countries that, like us, are suffering from terrorism. The first time I did this was in an email sent to the Norwegian Embassy in London, following Anders Breivik's killing spree in Norway in 2011, and I have sent other sympathy messages to diplomatic and political representatives after similar incidents in other countries. I haven't always received a reply, but have been gratified by notes of thanks from the German, Swedish and Russian embassies and from the Canadian Prime Minister's office.
I never talked about this to friends or family. Not that I was ashamed or embarrassed about it; I simply didn't think of it as being of much interest. That changed on June 7th, when I went to lay a floral tribute to the victims of the London Bridge attack that had happened four days previously.
While I was laying my flowers and standing in silent contemplation, I was unaware that I was being photographed by two Norwegian journalists: one male reporter and a female photographer. After I finished my moment of silence, they approached me and asked a good deal of searching questions (eg. "What were you praying about?"). They were very curious as to what had motivated me to travel into central London to lay flowers. Perhaps unwisely, I told them of my practice of sending sympathy emails to foreign embassies and politicians, and how Norway had been the first recipient. They conducted what seemed to be a fair and friendly interview, and promised to publish the article online. When it was published (link lost, sorry), the Google translation, which admittedly is not always the most accurate, made me sound rather like a typical English eccentric. I have no doubt that a few other people, reading this, will hold the same derogatory opinion. How sad it is, when small gestures of compassion can be dismissed as bizarre and eccentric!
This does not discourage me in the slightest, and I shall continue sending messages of condolence to other countries when terrorist incidents happen. If anyone else feels encouraged enough to do similar, I wish you well. It costs little in the way of time to send a short email, and only a little more time than it takes to sign an online petition. As Margaret Mead said:
 "Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have".
But... let's not forget one thing. This really is not about me, a few scoffers, or even the possibility that some people will be motivated to join me in my emailing endeavours. Let's keep our focus on the people who matter here: the victims of terrorism, whatever their country of origin or domicile. They have faces, names and people who care for them. And we could so easily become victims ourselves... I leave you with a photograph of a floral tribute laid at the Monument for the London Bridge victims. It is short, but eloquent.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Bonnie Prince Charlie - Difficult to Admire

When it comes to disliking historical figures, we are sometimes told that we should not judge them by the standards of our own time, but by those which existed in the period when they lived. This is all eyewash, in my opinion. No amount of mental time-travelling can dispel detestation of Hitler or Stalin. Some famous names from history, of course, are not so easily dismissed as "good" or "evil". One particular example of a man who does not, apparently, fit neatly into a black or white category is the young man pictured above: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie, (1720-1788).
For some reason, I could never take to the Young Pretender; he always struck me as being a slick operator, acting out of self-interest. I did not have much in the way of indisputable evidence (or so I thought) but I recently took an online course on Charlie and the 1745 uprising, which caused me to revisit the events of the rising, and Charlie's role in the affair. 
The Prince is very much a divider of opinions when it comes to the views of historians, film-makers and the popular image that many people have of him. There is a pervasive romanticised image of him that began with Sir Walter Scott in his novel "Waverley" , which first promoted the idea of the prince as a romantic, dashing horseman who came to liberate the people of Scotland from English tyranny. This false image (he came to recapture the crown of the whole of Britain for his father, James the Third, "The Old Pretender") has persisted down the years. Two flattering films have been made about him, one in 1923 (now lost) and another in 1948, starring David Niven. A much less sympathetic (and far more accurate) presentation of Charlie is found in the film "Culloden", made in the 60s, by Peter Watkins, based on John Prebble's book of the same name. A new film about Charles and his escape from Scotland after Culloden, "The Great Getaway", which will star Mhairi Calvey and Jamie Bacon is being produced, but has hit funding problems.
The legend lives on, also, among historians. The Prince has many latter-day supporters among people I think should know better, but they don't. The historian Christopher Duffy, for instance, presents Charlie as being what I can only describe as a sort of aristocratic version of Che Guevara.
I'm afraid that I don't buy into this fantasy. There are many reasons for doubting it, and they're not too hard to find, either. Fortunately for sceptics like me, there are some historians who see through the tartan mist. One notable name here is that of Stuart Reid, whose book "1745: A Military History" is a refreshing alternative to the sentimental gush of other books on the Jacobite putsch. More recently, "Bonnie Prince Charlie: Truth or Lies" by Roderick Graham has given new information about what Charlie got up to after the failure of the '45. I am grateful to these authors for some valuable information and insights unavailable elsewhere.
Let's get down to brass tacks: the '45 was the latest in a series of attempts to regain the crown of Britain for the Stuart dynasty, booted out of power by a backstairs conspiracy and the Dutch Army in 1688. The Stuarts tried a number of times to regain the throne, most notably in 1715 and 1719. Britain was at war with France during most of this time, and the French military probably saw the Stuarts as a potential "Fifth Column" who could be useful in their efforts to knock Britain out of the war. The French were preparing to invade Britain in 1744, but abandoned the enterprise. Charlie, who was to participate in the invasion, was left standing.
He didn't stand around for long. With the help of a bunch of crooked Brittany ship owners and slave traders, and ignoring the plea of otherwise sympathetic Highland chiefs to stay away, he sailed for Scotland, landing at Eriskay in the Outer Hebridies, 23 July 1745. He then began his campaign (aka attempted coup d'état) to reclaim the British crown for the Stuarts, and the myth-making began at the same time. There is little point in detailing the whole campaign, which can be studied elsewhere, but some myths can be dealt with here.
1. Charlie was not welcomed by the whole of Scotland, still less the whole of the Highlands. Many clan chiefs declared against him, founding Independent Highland Companies. Even less warmly than that was he welcomed in England. The "invasion" of England was supposed to have ignited an uprising by English Jacobites. When this failed to materialise, the rebels wisely retreated from Derby on the 6th December, 1745.
2. Not all Jacobites were Roman Catholics, as many believed at the time, and many still believe.  Among the Scottish Jacobite army commanders of the 1745 rebellion, James Drummond, Duke of Perth, and his brother Lord John Drummond, were both Scottish Catholics raised in France. But other commanders, such as Lieutenant-General Lord George Murray and the Life Guards commander David Wemyss, Lord Elcho, were Protestant.
3. Not all of Charlie's army were Scots. At Culloden, there were Irish Picquets, French troops and a number of English volunteers, some of whom had deserted from the royal army. There was even a "Manchester Regiment" of 200 men who the Prince left to garrison Carlisle when he invaded, and later fled, England. When the Prince arrived in Manchester, his recruits, drawn from Manchester's unemployed, ingenuously told him that they would have joined the first army to reach Manchester.
4. The "harrying of the glens", which followed Culloden, can largely be blamed upon the clan chiefs who wished to continue the Rising after the defeat of Culloden, and Charlie had done a bunk. As Stuart Reid says:
"In Badenoch and elsewhere in Scotland, the process of "pacification" was much more lenient in character and it is clear, therefore that much of the responsibility for the sufferings of their clansmen must be borne by Lochiel and the other chiefs, for wantonly attempting to prolong the rebellion".
5. The Prince's supporters stridently condemn the ill-treatment of Jacobite prisoners after Culloden. They do not mention the fact that royalist prisoners were equally badly treated in many places following capture. It is true that 120 Jacobite soldiers were executed and 936 transported to the American colonies or the West Indies (John Prebble, in his marvellous book "Culloden", says that many of their West Indian descendants came to Britain as part of the post-WW2 wave of immigration). What they don't mention is that 1.585 rebel prisoners were released, conditionally or otherwise. A further 700 are thought to have been "persuaded", by a variety of threats and incentives, to join King George's army.
6. The affection in which many Scots hold Charlie (many don't) is difficult to understand when you learn that after Culloden, Charlie was said to have asked after the welfare of Irish and French officers, but not the Scots. During the Prince's lengthy exile after fleeing Scotland, he is not on record as expressing any sympathy for the Scots who suffered for his ambition. As observes: "Charles' thanks for such unwavering loyalty and sacrifice was to blame his treacherous "mountaineers" for the failure of the rebellion until his dying day".
7. One key element in the maintenance of the Charlie legend is musical, in particular the beautiful "Skye Boat Song", which has been recorded by a wide variety of singers, including Tom Jones and Rod Stewart. It comes as a surprise to learn that it was written by an Englishman, Sir Harold Edwin Boulton (1859–1935) of Copped Hall, Totteridge, Hertfordshire, who first published the song in 1884. 
8. Another much-loved song about the Prince is "Will ye no come back again?", written by Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne). Until recently, I was unaware that Charlie DID come back again. He slipped into England in 1750, and stayed long enough (six days) to convert to Anglicanism. He was also involved in what is known as The Elibank Plot, which was foiled by the timidity of the plotters and the fact that one of the chief plotters was a government spy. Undeterred, Charlie tried again in 1759 during the Seven Years War, when the French were planning an invasion of Britain. He met with, but failed to impress, the hardbitten French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul. Wikipedia says:
"Charles failed to make a good impression, being argumentative and idealistic in his expectations. Choiseul was planning a full-scale invasion of England, involving upwards of 100,000 men[16]—to which he hoped to add a number of Jacobites led by Charles. However, he was so little impressed with Charles, he dismissed the prospect of Jacobite assistance".
By 1759, Charlie was an alcoholic partial to (among other refreshments) Madeira wine, a taste for which he had acquired during the '45 (his soldiers drank water or beer at best). As he is reputed to have quaffed six bottles of wine a day, there is every chance that he was drunk at the meeting. Small wonder, then, that the Duc was unimpressed. When France signed a peace treaty with Britain, the Jacobite court, including Charlie, had to leave for Italy.
9. We can thank Roderick Graham for dispelling the other abiding myth about Charlie: that he was a handsome, chivalrous gallant who captured the hearts of young women with ease and returned their affections with courtly love - a "bold chevalier". This myth lives on in songs such as "Charlie is My Darlin'" and others. It is true that Charlie had a long-term Scots mistress who fled Scotland with him and bore him a daughter. He had many affairs post 1745 and, in 1772 at the age of 52, he married a 20-year old princess. The truth is, however, that Charlie was a wife beater with a grim history of violence against women. His Scots mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw, fled to a convent in 1760, leaving Charlie a letter saying that he should not be surprised:
"...when you consider the repeated bad treatment I met with these eight years past and the daily risk of losing my life".
The Prince seems to have regularly attacked all his mistresses, including a cousin of the queen of France who he beat up so badly that he was forcibly ejected from her lodgings. His abusive behaviour worsened when he married, inflicting regular beatings on his young wife and accusing her of being unfaithful. This culminated in a murder attempt on his wife on St Andrew's Night, 1780, when the servants had to rescue her from an attempt at strangulation. The marriage ended soon after.
Charlie died, an embittered alcoholic who blamed everyone but himself for his misfortunes, in Rome, January 31, 1788.
In conclusion, this is my view of the Prince: he was an egotistical, irresponsible adventurer who cared nothing for the lives and welfare of either his supporters, lovers or opponents. Thousands of ordinary men and women suffered exile, torture, wounding and death because of him, and the blame for their misery can be laid fairly and squarely at his door. As Brecht says:
"When the house of a great one falls, many little ones also perish".
Instead of the sentimental ballads sung about him, I prefer this great shout of condemnation: "Bloody Charlie". Please click on the link and decide for yourself.
Not-so-Bonnie Charlie in old age.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Dunkirk and Dunkirk - Two Accounts Compared

Recently, I was trying to order a DVD of the Christopher Nolan film "Dunkirk", starring Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles. As it was not then available, I bought a DVD copy of the 2004 BBC TV series of the same name, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, among others. I haven't yet bought the film on DVD, but followed a friend's advice and watched it in the cinema. It was good advice. The film needs to be seen in an auditorium, not a living room; only then can you appreciate the amazing sound and visual effects.
For those people who have seen either or neither, I think it worth doing a comparison of the two. They are both fine productions, but in two distinctly different ways. Put succinctly: the BBC series is informative and factual, while the film is powerfully and profoundly experiential.
The TV series consists of three episodes: Retreat, Evacuation and Deliverance. The first episode details how Captain Bill Tennant of the Admiralty began the organisation of Operation Dynamo to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk, or at least some of them. Simon Russell Beale delivers a splendid performance as Winston Churchill defying Cabinet members, most prominently Lord Halifax, who want to negotiate peace with Hitler. It also features the Wormhoudt massacre of captured British soldiers by the Waffen SS. A number of such massacres happened in 1940 and later, but this is an effective presentation which stands for them all.
The Evacuation episode is about just that: by Day 6 of the evacuation, two-thirds of the BEF have been evacuated. The role of the famous "little ships" is highlighted by the fate of the cockleship Renown which, with a largely civilian crew, successfully rescues a number of soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches, carries them safely across the Channel, but is later destroyed by a mine. It was one of 200 or more ships sunk by the Luftwaffe; about 3500 soldiers and sailors are said to have died during the evacuation.
The final episode acknowledges the heroic contribution of the rearguard troops who held the Germans at bay for so long. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Lt. Jimmy Langley of the Coldstream Guards, who is wounded and captured by the Germans. There is a memorable scene where Langley and a German soldier exchange gifts. The German gives Langley a cigarette, while Langley, to his huge amusement, presents his captor with "marmalade" (jam). By Day 10, all unwounded BEF have been evacuated. Captain Tennant takes a train journey during which he collapses with exhaustion.
The three episodes are absorbing and informative, without being didactic. I would have liked to see more details of the massacres of British soldiers, and more details provided about the contribution of the French Army to the evacuation. By Day 10, only French troops were holding the Dunkirk perimeter. Another thing not mentioned is the fate of the 80, 000 French and British troops who were left behind in Dunkirk. However, it has to be said that it is just not possible for a TV series or film to give all the facts about an event in History - that's what books are for. 
The film, which covers the same wet and sandy ground, takes a far less informative approach, and some critics have been very unkind. Here is the jaded view of Richard Brody, in the New Yorker:
"Nolan's sense of memory and of history is as flattened-out and untroubled as his sense of psychology and of character."
Jonathan Romney, in the same publication, praises the film, saying:
"It's not always easy to know what's going on in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk-which makes the film seem all the more convincing as an evocation of war."
These two differing views have some validity, in my view. I certainly am in two minds about the film. On the credit side, it is superb at conveying the action scenes. When an evacuation vessel is hit by a torpedo and causes panic among soldiers and crew, I was looking round for the exit.  As Christopher Hooton says in The Independent:
"The Spitfire dogfights in the sky are particularly gorgeous, unfolding most of the time from a cockpit or first-person perspective and making it feel like you're playing a video game 10 generations of console into the future. On land, the sea foam shivers on the beaches around the dead, even the howling wind not seeming to want to let the soldiers escape, while at sea the desperate situation on sinking destroyer boats is depicted with gasping grit, the camera being flipped on its side and stationed in unusual places in order to capture the mania as the troops struggle to extricate themselves from the water's embrace."
I endorse that opinion, but have a number of reservations. The beach scenes are thinly populated with troops, and look more like a Territorial Army exercise, rather than the desperate exodus of a beleaguered army. Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton, the pier master during the evacuation. I found it remarkable that Bolton manages to do so much, evacuating over 300,000 men as the only senior naval officer on the beach. Obviously, this is artistic licence, and Bolton symbolises all the Naval officers on duty, but I found his dominance of the action irritating. Another jarring factor happens when a civilian sailor, captaining his own small craft, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) rescues a traumatised soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a wreck. The soldier turns violent and injures Mr Dawson's son's friend, George, so badly that he dies of his injuries.  Incredibly, Mr Dawson does not turn the soldier over to the authorities when he makes his final return journey to Dover. I realise that Christopher Nolan meant this as a sympathetic portrayal of the effects of PTSD on soldiers in combat, but, to me, it beggars belief that the soldier could walk free. Neither the BBC production or the film acknowledge the contribution of the contingent of Indian troops who maintained their discipline during the retreat to Dunkirk, unlike some BEF units whose morale and discipline broke down completely.
One good thing that both productions have in common is that they convey a profound sense of relief when the BEF is finally evacuated. This is not just as a conclusion to the film, but, for British audiences of all ages, a thankful feeling of reassurance that the BEF really was evacuated intact. Their escape kept Britain in the war against Hitler, and many returned to help in the liberation of Europe in 1944. The Dunkirk evacuation deserves to be remembered by all generations; both these productions assist in doing that.
For those interested in buying the DVDs of either one or the other of these presentations: I recommend that you buy both.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Narrative of Failure – 3 Para in Afghanistan

Recently, a friend lent me a book that he’d just bought – “3 Para”, by Patrick Bishop. The book covers the six-month deployment of the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, beginning in April, 2006. I was a little reluctant to read this book, as I knew the ending of our military adventures as part of the so-called “War on Terror”: failure. The failure in Helmand Province was much less ignominious than that in Iraq, but a failure it was. Nonetheless, I resolved to give the book a chance.
The Paras set off for Afghanistan following a month’s training in Oman, expecting to see little combat, if any, while aiding in reconstruction projects. They soon changed their minds about that; things went wrong from the outset. As Bishop says:
“The size of the “force package”…had been the subject of long debate in London. Men and material were in short supply owing to commitments in Iraq.”
Besides this, there was no worse place in Afghanistan for British troops to be stationed. As Frank Ledwidge says in his book “Losing Small Wars”, the local Helmand populace had long memories of previous British incursions into their land:
“…the British were simply sticking to their role as the regular invaders of their country.”
James Fergusson, in his book “A Million Bullets” says:
“To the Afghan mind the return of the Brits looked like an Allah driven invitation to a punch up”.
If the Paras went to “Afghan” expecting a said punch up, they got one. By June, conflict with the Taliban had begun. All “hearts and minds” activity ended, and the Paras, together with some Fusiliers, Irish Rangers and Gurkhas were engaged in desperate defensive actions against continuous Taliban attacks. Most of Bishop’s book is devoted to descriptions of these attacks, and little purpose is served by detailing them here. Even Bishop admits that the Taliban showed remarkable tenacity in continuing to attack, despite severe losses. Inevitably, the Paras suffered casualties as well. Fourteen were killed, two of whom, Corporals Brian Budd and Mark Wright, were awarded the Victoria Cross and George Cross respectively. Forty-six soldiers were wounded, many suffering life-changing injuries. The Taliban succeeded, by their constant, if costly, attacks in thwarting the principal stated aim of the Paras’ mission. Bishop again:
“The reconstruction mission had become a memory. 3 Para and their comrades were fighting a desperate war of attrition. Most of them were besieged in…”platoon houses”…fighting off daily attacks by the Taliban, who, despite taking murderous losses, kept on coming”.
Unsurprisingly, these constant battles were highly destructive of the towns and villages in which our troops were stationed. They also served the purpose of further alienating the local civilian population by destroying homes and livelihoods, and by being seen to support a corrupt local government, the worst aspect being an unbelievably corrupt police force. Ledwidge again:
“Most police posts had their “fun boy” – child catamite – and the British estimated that over 80% of policemen were regular smokers of hash…”
Small wonder then that, towards the end of the Paras’ tour, as Bishop comments:
“…the attitude of the local people seemed to have turned to one of indifference or hostility”.
The Paras themselves seem to have sensed the futility of their activity. Bishop quotes a Para officer as saying:
“What was it all about?...Well, I flattened the town and I killed a lot of Taliban…did that achieve a good effect? I don’t know”.
After six months and 498 engagements, the Paras and their comrades were withdrawn. Writing in 2007, Bishop ends the book by observing that the Paras were getting ready for another deployment to “Afghan”, as they did in 2008. Bishop went with them, writing yet another book about the conflict: “Ground Truth”. I shan’t be reading it. I might not know the details, but I know the ending for the British military. I know that the Taliban changed their tactics, resorting to less costly (for them) planting of multiple IEDs. I know that many of the places in Helmand that the Paras fought so hard to hold have since fallen to the Taliban. President Trump’s decision to continue to deploy US troops might stave off defeat for the Afghan government. How long for, no-one knows. I finished this book full of admiration for the Paras and the other soldiers and equally filled with anger at the people who sent them on an ultimately futile mission. Our memories of our Afghan adventure, and the names of those who fell in action, are slipping into history as something we would rather forget. I shall return the book to my friend when I see him, with thanks. He bought it – a hardback- in a charity shop for £0-99. Somehow, that seems to speak volumes - a sad commentary on our contribution to the "War on Terror".
3 Para soldiers in Helmand Province.