Category Archives: Politics

Lenten Fast

If you have followed or read any previous posts, you may know that in Lent I eschew fiction. So far, my copy of the Archbishop’s Lent Book has failed to arrive, though according to the publisher has been sent. So in the meantime, I have been flitting between the Middle Ages in Britain (and France); nineteenth century poetry and painting through the life of Edward Lear and the twentieth century through the lens of Stalin.

Weir Queens 1So in that order. Queens of the Conquest (1066-1167) is the first part of Alison Weir‘s study of the female counterparts to England’s kings from William the Conqueror presumably to Richard III. The first volume begins with Mathilda, wife of William I, she was regent for him in Normandy while he was conquering England, and she was then crowned in her own right in 1068 in Westminster Abbey. It concludes in 1167 with The Empress Maud (also sometimes called Mathilda as these names were interchangeable, as were Mathilde and Mahaut). I have a slight failing here, as I find Maud endlessly fascinating and frightening. Her life spent fighting against Stephen for the right of her son Henry (II) to succeed to the throne led to a civil war in England that caused famine and destruction on a vast scale, a time which contemporary chroniclers described as “a time when Christ and His saints slept”. [Incidentally also the title of a book by Sharon Penman which describes in fiction this whole messy period – see my posts written in July 2013 and January 2014 ].

LearWhen not immured in the lives of the queens, I travel forward several centuries to Edward Lear, poet and artist through a new biography by Jenny Uglow. Mr Lear A life of Art and Nonsense is infinitely readable and enjoyable. Lear lived in a golden age, a man of great simplicity and charm whose rhymes have enchanted children for years, and for years to come but who was also an accomplished water colourist, a traveller and adventurer in Egypt, Corfu, Italy, Palestine and India; contemporary of  Darwin and Dickens; teacher to Queen Victoria to whom he gave drawing lessons; and friends with Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. But he fits uneasily into all these categories. His nonsense verses and limericks set a tone of frivolity not usually associated with Victorian England; his paintings are naturalistic, empty of humans – exquisite renderings of landscape – but devoid of any hidden message, so neither romantic nor mysterious, in a age of photography they would be described as photo-realism.

Stalin 2Both these volumes might be described as frivolous compared to the other book I am reading, of which I can only read around one chapter at a time. This is the second volume (and there is at least one more volume pending) of Stephen Kotkin‘s magisterial and forensically researched biography of Josef Stalin. This volume Stalin Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941 covers probably the bloodiest, most unforgiving section of Stalin’s dictatorship: ruined by paranoia, betrayals, executions and gulags. It brings us teetering upon the German invasion. Two terrible dictators pacing their rooms, playing the waiting game. Each entrapped in their own logic and about to descend into the furious, destructive and, ultimately, final stages of the Second World War.

MaiskyAnother marvellous volume, The Maisky Diaries, edited and compiled by Gabriel Gorodetsky fits neatly into this period and expands the horizons. Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador to London at this time, 1932 to 1943.  At a time when most people even remotely associated with the Stalin regime kept no written records of their activities for fear of reprisals, the Maisky diaries are remarkably frank and intact and shine a searching light upon a volatile and crucial period of European history.


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61st London Film Festival – Day 7


A film by Sally Potter with a stellar cast is always going to be a winner. The Party is one such. By modern standards, quite short – it runs for 88 minutes and was shot in two weeks. This is a political thriller with a twist. Kristen Scott Thomas plays Janet, a married woman whose whole life has been devoted to politics and the Party; her husband, Bill, Timothy Spall has evidently supported her along the path, and finally she has made it to the top.

Bill is monosyllabic for most of the film, and yet it is a very powerful performance, in some ways it is he that is the central character, not Janet. Mr Spall brings this off quite marvellously.

So a small group of close friends are celebrating, but the rooms are full of secrets.  Lives are imbalanced and are about to unravel, so this is both a tragedy and also comedy, at times extremely funny. There are moments of shock, frequently de-fused by a caustic aside from Patricia Clarkson, who plays April one of Janet’s true friends. April is married to Gottfried, lugubriously played by Bruno Ganz as a mystic faith healer, the relationship between them is clearly close, though she is impatient with his endless aphorising clichés. Many moments between them made the audience laugh.

There is a lesbian couple, one of them, Jinny has just discovered she is with child, April reminds her each time “children”, as she has announced that she is having triplets. This sudden addition to coupledom freaks out her older partner, Martha. This couple, played by Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer are both conflicted and yet very solid together.

Finally there is a drug fuelled financier…

Filmed in black and white, on a single set – three rooms in a terraced house, mostly interiors (kitchen, bathroom and sitting room) plus a small terrace garden – it is closely and superbly observed, and the gradual reveals that rupture the party mood are both immensely disturbing (to the individuals) while seeming extraordinarily funny to the audience.

The music is unusual, there is no “sound track”, Bill plays an endless series of vinyl records, good jazz and this shows quite subtly his life, and the way it has changed. In the Q&A afterwards, Sally revealed that they were her vinyls…

This will be in Picturehouse Screens almost immediately – I strongly recommend it, possibly followed by A Comedy of Terrors!

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It is good to be flexible

I have completely revised my opinion of Robert Harris, and to this I owe a debt of gratitude to a friend who has maintained faith with him. Independently, I thoroughly enjoyed An Officer and a Spy, his novel about the background to the Dreyfus Affair, an army scandal that rocked France in the 1890s and which led to Victor Hugo leaving France for exile after his rampant j’accuse campaign. The fact that Dreyfus was exonerated did not alter the opprobrium heaped on VC.

Then I was persuaded to read Robert Harris’ trilogy about Cicero, Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, my icy heart slowly melted and I have enjoyed each of his latest, especially this last novel Munich.

As the title suggests, this is a novel about the historic, and fatally flawed, Munich Conference in September 1938. Switching between the lines of communication, both official and unofficial, of the German government of Adolf Hitler and his fascist partner Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, and the British government of Neville Chamberlain, with a walk on part for the French president Eduard Daladier (whom it has to be said, even historically, took a very passive position at this stupendous meeting), Robert Harris has constructed an almost hour by hour drama beginning at the point at which Hitler announced his intention of taking Sudetenland by force. This in spite of misgivings by his advisors some weeks before,  but after his first meeting with  Chamberlain at which he became convinced that Britain, and therefore France, would do nothing.  Robert Harris,  while outlining in detail the verifiable historic members of the process, has added two fictional characters whose actions played a small but vital part.

One of them, Paul von Hartmann, is very lightly based on the real life conspirator Adam von Trott. In this novel, Paul is part of a group of anti-Nazi Germans who intend to prevent war by stopping Hitler in his tracks, preferably by means other than outright assassination, which would only have created a martyr. Paul’s contact on the British side is a fellow Balliol graduate, Hugh Legat who is a parliamentary secretary, and both of them in this novel get themselves on to the teams that are travelling to Munich.

I suspect that it is not a plot spoiler to say that their attempts failed. It does not, one whit, alter the extreme tension of the novel, and the very near misses and subterfuges that went on as part of their story.

Even more compelling though, is the fleshing out of the real players, Chamberlain and his team, Hitler and his, because this story is told from the point of view of “before the worst happened”.

We all know now, that the annexation of Czechoslovakian Sudetenland was the prelude to a much wider land grab which precipitated the Second World War. But this novel takes us back to the moment when given different characters, or a different mind-set, or a different something, the catastrophe could have been avoided. Indeed, Neville Chamberlain thought that he had avoided it – “peace in our time” – his famous, now much derided, naïve belief after his private meeting with the Chancellor.

This is a most interesting, exciting and insightful look at those momentous weeks.


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Something rotten…

In Act 1, Scene iv of Hamlet, the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost prompts an officer of the watch, Marcellus, to say “something is rotten at the heart of Denmark”, if you replace Denmark with Russia, then the book I am posting on now, will tell you why.

Red Notice by Bill Browder reads like a typical Russian thriller, the difference is that this is non-fiction. For what he did and why he did it, and lastly for the reasons for this book, Bill Browder takes full responsibility, and because this led to the death of a good man, and led to Bill becoming Number 1 enemy of Russia, this book above all, in one that you should read.

BrowderIt is not often that I put a large chunk of quoted text at the beginning of a blog…

I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed some day. Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can’t mention most of the counter-measures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further that any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.

With today’s internet reach, you will be able to follow the steps that led to Sergei Magnitsky’s torture and death by the simple act of clicking on Google; you can look at YouTube videos of some of the perpetrators if you click on Pavel Karpov or Artem Kuznetsov; I think you could even click on the name Alexander Perepilichnyy and something will come up.

But to link all these names together with Bill Browder, you need to read the book.

Bill Browder started life as a man with a mission: to make money, as much and as fast as he could, and he looked to Eastern Europe as a place where that ambition could be realised. Naively, though, what he did not realise is that sometimes making huge amounts of money in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia, does not always go according to plan.

What happened to Hermitage Capital Management, then to his investors but tragically to the lawyers who helped him, is the stuff of nightmares and turned Bill Browder from a capitalist super-rich hedge fund manager into a human rights activist.

Once his lawyers were being targeted, Bill Browder did everything he could to persuade them to leave Russia, two of them made it out safely, but Sergei Magnitsky determined to fight on as “he had done nothing wrong”. But doing nothing wrong is not enough to keep you out of the hands of those who wish to do you harm: Sergei was arrested, subjected to unlimited cruelty and medical neglect and finally beaten to death.

From this black and terrible seed there has arisen a mighty tree.  The United States of America have passed The Magnitsky Act, this act prevents anyone on The Cardin List (the Senator who proposed the Bill) from travelling to America and was signed by President Obama.

Sergei Magnitsky had a young family, as has Bill Browder, if reading their story does anything at all, it will serve as a monument to the appalling situation in Russia, for Putin’s riposte to America’s passing of The Magnitsky Act went beyond even the bounds of cruelty – he passed an act that prevents any American family from adopting a Russian orphan…thereby condemning millions of innocent children to a life that will be short, brutal and miserable.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 11

“The story of Antigone re-written for the twenty-first century”, this is part of the blurb that accompanies the new novel by Kamila Shamsie. Anyone familiar with Antigone may wonder whether one single, notable and noble act replicated in the narrative of Home Fire, it quite sufficient to say that this is Antigone re-worked.

Antigone demonstrates a wilful disregard for the wishes of King Creon of Thebes in demanding a decent burial for her brother, Polynices, after both her brothers have been killed fighting about which of them should be on the Theban throne. Creon, who takes the throne after the death of these two, decrees that there should be no mourning for Polynices, or burial, on pain of death. Of Eteocles there is no mention!

KamilaKamila Shamsie‘s book has much more to it than this single demonstration of rebellion. The novel is divided into five parts, the first deals with the meeting between Isma, elder sister of the twins Anneka and Parvaiz, and Eamonn the only son of Karamat Lone, a British MP; the second part is Eamonn’s story and how he gets involved with Aneeka, or her with him; the third is the story of Parvaiz; the fourth is Aneeka’s story and the final part is Karamat’s take on the whole situation.

This is the experience of British Muslims living today in a Britain of jihadi terrorism, suspicion, rejection and distrust; it is also the life of a close-knit family who have endured terrible, frightening and fracturing experiences and it is also the story of the lies and misrepresentations that recruiters to The Caliphate use to persuade young people to join the jihad and go to Syria to fight or work or marry into The State and at the same time, it is also the story of how the police, the politicians and indeed the families try to prevent this happening.

In this novel, all these factors clash around the lives of these young people. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz have no parents, their father was being taken to Guantanamo from Bagram, but died suddenly before he was put on the plane; their mother diminished by this event keeled over dead while at work; Isma becomes de facto mother to the twins and they live with a neighbour in Preston Road, Wembley, Aunty Naseem.

At the beginning of the novel, Isma has won a scholarship to an American university and she is in the airport being interrogated.  Her passport, ticket and boarding pass taken, her bags searched and her plane taking off without her – but her visa and everything is in order.  So finally, having caused her to miss her plane, the authorities come back and breezily tell her that it all checks out and she is free to go – knowing all the time that the boarding pass which they return to her is useless. This may not be typical for every British Muslim from Pakistan leaving this country, but it does happen to a few (and worse).

It is, in many ways, the tone of the whole book: how white British people, especially those in authority, treat people who are different. Karamat Lone, also a Muslim as it happens, voices these positions in his capacity as an MP, sometimes saying that if “they” want to be British they must give up all their foreign practices and ideologies and worse yet, saying about the family that Eamonn has become involved with:

“I know their names. Where they come from. Who they were before they went. There’s only one Preston Road. It’s the last place in England I’d expect to find that kind of thing happening. But that one [Parvaiz], he had exceptional circumstances. Terrorism as family trade. Illustrative of how much you need to do to root out this kind of thing. I mean, literally, grab by the very roots and pull. Pull the children out of those environments before they’re old enough for the poison to seep in.”

Karamat’s intransigence leads inevitably onwards to the final denouement. His misplaced condemnation of his son’s character, his chronic misjudgement of Parvaiz and of his twin sister, Aneeka, and everything about who they really are leads back to his expressed belief in the roots of terrorism. Even when confronted with an alternative narrative, Karamat refuses to move to defuse an appalling situation.

This ought to be deeply moving, but somehow didn’t quite manage it. Shocking certainly, and in places disagreeable to read but it never engaged me emotionally. Which is not quite to say that it was not worth reading, but compared, say, to Jean Anouilh‘s Antigone or The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney it does not hit the mark. I am not sure why.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 9

I think that while authors like Mike McCormack are still writing it is safe to say that the novel is not dead. That said, Solar Bones, his latest title is quite some read.

Solar BonesFirst of all, the book has no dust jacket, and seen in a pile from the angle of the cut page, it could be mistaken for a prayer book, as the pages are gilded. Then on opening the book, the reader becomes quickly aware that there are no full-stops, not just on page one but throughout the whole book even to the end.

So with no stops and no chapters and virtually no breaks in the prose, except for spacings, what exactly is this? A train of thought or stream-of-consciousness? Is it spooling backwards even though we are reading it forwards?page

The big question though is what is the relationship between the situation we find on page one to the events we experience in the last seven and a half pages. Is there a caesura somewhere that brings us into the present, and if so where?

These questions are important, but not killing. This is an extraordinarily rich, complex and wide reaching river of words describing the marriage and family life of one, Marcus Conway, civil engineer and father to Agnes and Darragh, husband to Mairead; the thoughts and ramblings of this one man, Marcus from the ringing of the Angelus bell at midday on 2nd November, to the pips signalling the one o’clock news on 21st March. That is to say, the thoughts range over this man’s childhood, various national events and some personal ones that eventually converge in the sickness of Mairead who is a victim of a Clostridium poisoning which takes down over six hundred inhabitants, and probably more, in an un-named Irish city, when the water supply is contaminated with human waste.

Meanwhile, we come back again and again to this same kitchen table with Marcus sitting at it, thinking and feeling a slow, unidentified dread.

The novel is full of humour, Darragh is quite the joker although we only meet him on Skype as he is currently the other side of the world; Marcus himself is not without a sense of the absurd, but also a sense of his own worth, which comes out in one train of thought about some work he is meant to be signing off, and cannot because the work is sub-standard: his civil duty and a quiet life for the politicos involved being at odds with one another.

I have never come across a novel quite like this one. It is not, even by a stretch of imagination comparable to Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s experiences cover a single day and 260,000 words but it is clever and challenging in exactly the same way, and leaves you thinking about it for hours after.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 7

Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.

RoyThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.

Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.

Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra.  Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.

Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.

For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.

The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.

Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.

At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:

“How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.


By slowly becoming everything.”

The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.

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