Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hell hath no fury like a leftie scorned

The reaction to "What's Left" mirrors that to the Euston Manifesto, an unreasonable anger about a statement of the obvious.

The most furious is Edward Pearce in an awful piece. "All of this, every death, every amputation, is the fault of the American government". Don't you think that the people actually doing the arbitrary killing might bear some of the responsibility Edward? Then, from Beatrix Campbell, there is the sound of a firmly closed and locked mind refusing to budge even slightly open. There is also a strain of patronising criticism that Cohen has 'failed to understand imperialism', as if complex international issues can be reduced to a single ideological formula. The majority seem to criticise him for saying something that he does not say at all, a position beautifully demolished here by Norman Geras. The other line taken is one of apostasy. Nick Cohen has been described as a Blair apologist (have they read "Pretty Straight Guys"?), a neo-conservative (yawn) and even compared to the climate change denying Melanie Phillips (yikes!). It is only when you go back to the blogosphere that you run into some sanity. I liked Terry Glavin's review. "I think What's Left? is a brave book, a smart book, and damn well-written, in the bargain".

The most remarkable aspect of the apostasy argument is that "What's Left" is the most unambiguously left wing book I have read in yonks. This isn't just because of its commitment to liberal values, international solidarity, anti-racism, female equality, etc. It is for the reason that it is one of the few tracts that have not abandoned the concept of class. Class runs through this book as a central theme. It is the middle classes that have embraced relativism and abandoned universalism. Anti-Blair anger is self-righteously focussed on Iraq, an anger that conveniently leaves the other left issues that might just discomfort them – housing costs, low wage domestic labour, progressive taxation, equality etc – firmly out of the equation. This is best summed up as a tale of two trade unionisms. The UCU, the union for college and university lecturers, solidly middle class with a Trotskyist element amongst its activists, has affiliated to the Stop the War coalition. The TUC started the Aid Iraq Appeal, "raising money for Iraqi trade unionists to rebuild a free and independent trade union movement, and strengthen civil society in Iraq". I know which one I would rather support.

Actually, Cohen's thesis is not new, nor are the phenomena he described. I remember going to a meeting on Palestine in 1981 organised, unbeknown to me, by some strange Trotskyist sect. I had just returned from teaching on the West Bank and was appalled at being faced by a deranged rant about the "Thatcher/Reagan axis dominating the world" whilst watching the discomfort of two intelligent Palestinian guests being unable to get a word in edgeways. The nadir came when the speaker harangued an audience composed partly of Iranian Marxist political exiles about the importance of lending full support to the revolutionary theocracy in Iran. When they politely interrupted him to point out that leftists were being tortured and murdered by the regime, which was why they were in Salford after all, he turned to them sorrowfully and, in a tone of voice that would be used to address a child, explained to them that the Iranian revolution was "objectively" anti-imperialist and therefore served the cause of progress. They walked out making some very un-fraternal gestures.

In addition, some of the themes Cohen discusses were brilliantly dealt with in 1977 by Jean-Francois Revel in his book, "The Totalitarian Temptation", whilst you can find the same attitudes back in the radical movements of the 19th Century. In my research, I discovered nauseating anti-Semitism in the 19th Century Individualist Anarchist Henry Seymour's newspaper, "The Revolutionary Review". The Anarchist terrorism of the 1880's drew numerous apologias blaming society, not the bombers. There were also those who stood against the consensus. In an earlier post I pointed out that Josephine Butler supported the British in the Boer War, her hatred of Boer racism was greater than her colleagues' uncritical "anti-imperialism". Similarly, Peter Kropotkin lost many friends by insisting that German militarism and authoritarianism needed to be defeated in the First World War and thus supported the Allies instead of lapsing into pacifism.

Nothing is new, but every era needs someone to point out that the Emperor has no clothes and that it is not a pretty sight. Thanks Nick.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A quote without a context …

When reading Nick Cohen's book I found this passage on page 76.

Said was a Palestinian and in a small way his viciousness and betrayals of principle were excusable. For the early Zionists to say that Palestine was 'a land without a people for a people without a land' was not so much to look down on Palestinians from a position of colonial superiority, as to look through them and deny their existence.

This is one of the examples in history where a quote can take on a life of its own independent of its intended meaning. It is attributed to Israel Zangwill, the novelist, radical and Zionist, although he was paraphrasing a comment from earlier in the 19th Century by Lord Shaftesbury.

Shaftesbury was the chair of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, more commonly known as the Jew's Society. Founded in 1808, it was a curious mixture of Anglican evangelism and proto-Zionism. Zangwill picked up this quote in a particular context, his breach with mainstream Zionism over the rejection of the offer of Uganda for possible settlement by the British government in 1905. Zangwill was alarmed at the movement's determination to settle in the historic territory of Palestine and nowhere else. He had visited Palestine in 1897 and was struck by the density of its population and felt that there was little chance of peaceful co-existence with the existing population inside a Jewish state.

Zangwill's response was to form the Jewish Territorial Organisation to search for 'a land without a people for a people without a land' elsewhere in the world. Thus, the quote was not meant to be a description of Palestine but of an alternative to Palestine. What has happened is that a statement that was rooted in an affirmation of the existence of the Palestinians is now used to demonstrate their denial.

Without proper research, it is difficult to ascertain how the quote was transmitted. Certainly, it fits neatly into critiques of Zionism as colonialism and racism. Perhaps it absolved the Zionist movement of anything other than a casual ignorance of conditions in Palestine. Probably it was just too good a sound bite to be ignored. However, through constant repetition, not least by myself until I read more widely, it has not only lost its context but become an historical distortion.

Maybe too, the earlier quote was tied up in knowledge of Zangwill's later career. He returned to mainstream Zionism but still faced the reality of the existence of a Palestinian population, only this time he advocated "transfer" of the Arabs from the area of the Jewish State.

The outline of Zangwill's life and ideas is a perfect illustration of the fact that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a localised one between two aspiring nationalism over territorial sovereignty and is not reducible to abstract notions with universal significance as so much of the 'left' seems to think.

Get fat, not fit

Sarfraz Manzoor indulges in some sympathy for those that suffer anti-fat sentiment (Society does not mock skinny people, and in particular skinny men, with the same ferocity it does fat people.) but then spoils it all by using it as an incentive to get fit and thin (actually the two are not necessarily synonymous).

Of course he is failing. My advice is give up and fight for equal rights to esteem and dosh for people of girth. There is solidarity in size; let yourself go Safraz. It is more fun, cheaper and one hell of a lot easier. I guarantee you will succeed. You too can have a body like mine.

Uncomfortable truth

Martin Kettle can't quite bring himself to fully agree with Nick Cohen:

Moreover, those who think like him have explaining to do. This book would have been easier to write four years ago. Cohen saw the Iraq war as a drive to replace tyranny with something approaching justice. That was a reasonable thing to believe once, but it has turned out disastrously wrong - an all too familiar pattern on the left. Iraq does not necessarily invalidate the policies of humanitarian intervention or internationally sanctioned regime change - and it certainly does not negate the power of much of what Cohen writes. But Robert Burns would surely have seen Iraq as a classic foolish notion - or worse - and it sure as hell carries lessons to which the believers have not yet faced up.

This ignores Cohen's main point that there were perfectly honourable reasons for opposing the war in Iraq but that once it has happened all the support of the left should have swung behind the democratic forces in Iraq instead of willing failure in order to bolster their own self-righteousness. This analysis may be uncomfortable but it is true.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

It's too easy

But I can't resist. Take this from Neil Clark:

The Radicals, with 28.3% of the vote, could reasonably be expected to form a government with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's DSS party and the Serbian Socialist party. Except that this coalition - the best representation of the people's will - has been ruled strictly verboten by the self-appointed apostles of democracy.

Now, let's take these sentiments back to 1933.

The Nazis, with 43.9% of the vote, could reasonably be expected to form a government with the Catholic Centre Party and the DNVP. Except that this coalition - the best representation of the people's will - has been ruled strictly verboten by the self-appointed apostles of democracy.

Don't you think that these "apostles" might just have a point?

And for good measure he continues,

Although the Radicals' leader, Vojislav Seselj, currently on trial for war crimes at the Hague, is an anti-Yugoslavia Serb nationalist with a history of ugly chauvinist rhetoric …

That is one big "although", Neil, one very big "although".

What's Left

Apologies for a lack of recent posts. On Monday Amazon did me the favour of delivering Nick Cohen's new book early. The official publication date is not until next week. All my spare time has been spent reading and re-reading it. I have just finished it and this is simply a highly personal initial reaction. I will probably post more substantial comments later.

It is a magnificent book from a journalist who is an accomplished writer of fine prose. The intellectual clarity and the emotional commitment to universal values are convincing. Even though the arguments are now familiar, they still have the power to shock. Inevitably, I have some minor quibbles. The main one is that he is slightly unfair to some Anarchists and parts of the Green and Global Justice movements as he is less familiar with non-Marxist radical thought. Some, though by no means all, are better than he gives them credit for; others are far madder but arguably more benign than the Galloways of this world.

But this is nothing and I feel bad writing it. Perhaps I need some quibbles just because of the unease of seeing in clear, logical, reasoned and impassioned prose just how wrong I have been in the past. I have taken positions which I would now reject. At least my conscience is assuaged by the doubts that assailed me as I sought desperately to accommodate to orthodox positions. Nick Cohen has taken all my misgivings and explained why I was right to have them and wrong to suppress them. His journalism has helped me on a path on which I have been travelling; I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, as I do to Norman Geras, whose blog has become a central part of my daily routine, and all the other inhabitants of the blogosphere. My research had led me to libertarian ideas and I have now continued to anti-totalitarianism, I am grateful and proud that I discovered both.

I urge everyone to read What's Left. Even in January I can say it is my book of the year.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Education, education, education

More on education now and three things have caught the eye this week.

The headline today is about predictions of sharp rises in University fees. As always the old argument is dragged out.

… the present loans system in effect provided "a huge subsidy to the well-off middle class" because students are benefiting from a generous low-interest loans while pursuing careers that offer salaries well above the national average.

Leaving aside the argument that giving subsidies to the middle class is actually rather effective politics and thus likely to continue, this is only true if working class students are excluded from the system. It is an argument for widening participation, not higher fees.

Arguably, the current loan and fee system is the most regressive of the funding options. The repayment amounts are the same regardless of the benefits, so that a student who qualifies, say, as a company lawyer and earns a fortune, pays back exactly the same as someone who uses their qualification to enter the caring professions, or even non-graduate employment, at a fraction of the earnings. The tiny minority of students who use higher education to get elite jobs are hugely subsidised – the average student debt is a tiny percentage of a City bonus. The majority feel student debt as a colossal burden and obstacle to be surmounted. It is incontestable that the prospect of debt does deter low income students. Of course, part-time students are left to largely pay their own fees up front too, but then they only make up 40% of the total number!

I would have thought that a system that brought benefits to the few at the expense of the many would be inimical to a Labour government. However, political cowardice means that the government has shied away from the two logically consistent models. The first is a fully commercialised system where the risks and costs are met by the student and the cost/benefit analysis about how much to be spent on their education is theirs and theirs alone. I would argue that such a system was likely to entrench, rather than erode elitism and restrict social mobility. The other is a form of universal support, means-tested if necessary, financed through a graduate tax, thereby ensuring that those who benefit the most pay the most and vice versa. The latter is surely the best policy for a social democrat, removing social barriers to education whilst ensuring that those who benefit do pay. What the attraction of the current complex mess is, I do not know.

The second is a one of the rarely reported positive stories from Iraq.

A college in Iraq is trying to steer men away from violence with an approach to further education based on the British model.

The Najaf Technical Institute has begun training programmes aimed at giving skills to unemployed former members of militias, which, it is hoped, will lead them out of trouble into employment.

This is the type of initiative in Iraq the UCU should be promoting, helping and supporting rather than demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of troops.

Finally, the Telegraph reports that another of John Betjeman's lovers has come to light. Margie Geddes met him when he was a teacher at her brother's school. What I liked was the description of his teaching method.

"He climbs through the classroom window, and lies on the floor to teach; he says this is to make sure he's got control."

Don't you think that through the tyrannies of OFSTED and lesson plans we might just have lost something?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Did I read this right?

There are times when I get confused. Richard Gott seems to argue that we should downplay our commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 because a) there was a trade to abolish; b) it took rather a long time; c) there were slave rebellions as well as William Wilberforce; and d) it led to the invasion of Iraq. Curiouser and curiouser.

Headline of the day

From Tuesday's Guardian

"One in five Home Office statistics are unreliable, says department head"

Is he sure?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Depressing and predictable - again

My Union, the UCU, is urging support for the Stop the War Coalition demonstration on Saturday 24 February 2007. UCU has affiliated to the StWC.

So, we have an educational union that can affiliate to a body some of whose leading members have defended an insurgency that murders academics and teachers. Interesting.

Paul Mackney is quoted as saying, "I urge UCU members to promote understanding of these issues in every college and university". In fact, what he is urging is the unconditional acceptance of a line as laid down by a dubious Trotskyist/Islamist alliance, not an "understanding", or a even an open debate. Whatever your own view on the war, there is a nagging question for educationalists. Is this a position that an academic union should be taking?

Depressing - but predictable

According to the Times Educational Supplement the number of places in adult education fell by a massive 675,000 last year. Apparently, the government had been expecting a fall of "only" (!!) 200,000.

If you wish to read about this act of cultural vandalism you can do so here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Conformism masquerading as profundity

There was a wonderful example of just what Fred Halliday was talking about (see below) in the Guardian last week by Liam Byrne and Bill Rammell. These Blairites wrote to emphasise the importance of "the politics of aspiration" to Labour's electoral strategy.

I have only seen Bill Rammel in operation once, giving a spectacularly inappropriate address to an Adult Learners' Awards event in London and it showed his deep attachment to conventional wisdom. He had just come back from China and had not been appalled by the oppression, the pollution, the corruption or the other aspects of Chinese development that Will Hutton wrote about earlier. Instead, he clearly had "seen the future and it worked". The bewildered award winners were then harangued on the reason for the fact that the funding for their courses was to be cut was so that cash can be concentrated on level 2 skills so that we can compete with China!

This column was in a similar vein. There is an element of truth there. They claim that the next election will be decided by 48 constituencies and that, "Sophisticated research tools mean we know more about these seats than ever - they tell us that in these constituencies, it's the votes of four or five groups that will decide the outcome". They are right. However, rather than questioning a system that renders the interests of 99% of the electorate irrelevant and forces us to bow to the desires of four or five groups in 48 constituencies and thus talk about the need for reform, they embrace the situation and see "aspiration" as the way that New Labour will win again. "The politics of aspiration is quite simply the common denominator of the New Labour coalition".

What on earth is "aspiration", other than another example of New Labour's rhetorical vacuity? At least they accept it isn't a static concept, "aspiration in 2009 will look different to 1997". That aspiration has aged doesn't give anyone much of a clue. Is it less "modern" or more so? We all have aspirations. For some of us it is to retire to Greece and to write. For others it is to see every ball in an Ashes series in Australia. Some look for promotion at work, others try to avoid it. Aspiration is meaningless unless it is defined.

The nearest they get to clarifying what they mean is another generalisation, "an ambition to get on in life". Ah, I suppose they mean careerists. Hang on a second. Haven't I just blogged on that? Isn't careerism Arendt's "banality of evil"? Well I never, New Labour's target voter is Adolph Eichmann.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Robin on Arendt

The London Review of Books has an idiosyncratic review by Corey Robin of works on and by Hannah Arendt. It is worth reading though I do not agree with the import of what he writes, in that he tries to draw a picture of Arendt as someone who would have been a supporter of his particular stance against Paul Berman and others of the anti-totalitarian left. His own position, nicely summarised in his article in The Nation of September 2005, actually seems to engage in the very type of psychological speculation that he accuses Arendt of in her work on Totalitarianism.

For example, his main claim is that liberals are driven by fear.

"… liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes."

This ignores a few simple facts. The collapse of liberalism in Germany gave us Hitler. It is infinitely better to live in Hull than in Harare. The brutal murder and torture of those who carry out the offence of teaching girls is a crime against humanity, that essential liberal concept. Opposition to tyranny abroad is both rational and moral and cannot be traduced as a form of "moral exhilaration". The desire to confront and ameliorate these crimes might just be a better way of explaining the reasons for liberals' engagement with the world.

Whilst he is right that Arendt wrote on Imperialism and Racism as well as Totalitarianism, by dismissing the latter and selectively emphasising elements of the former he is as guilty of distortion of those who simply focus on Totalitarianism to the exclusion of the rest. I am not well versed in Arendt's work and it is a long time since I read any so the review has achieved its primary purpose to make me want to go back and read more.

When he writes on Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" he is much more incisive. The point he makes is that the banality of Eichmann's evil was not submersion in a bureaucracy but relentless self promotion.

"The bureaucrat is a passive instrument, the careerist an architect of his own advance. The first loses himself in paper, the second hoists himself up a ladder. The first was how Eichmann saw himself; the second is how Arendt insisted he be seen."

This emphasis on what he sees as critique of careerism is a real insight, and much more impressive than his attempt to enrol Arendt in the "Stop the War Coalition". Sadly, this is not explored in greater depth before he goes off on another anti-liberal rant.

"In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism."

Hopeless liberal I may be, but as a careerist I have never been a great success. I share his concern about those who promote themselves in organisations at the expense of others but feel that it is a universal of any power structure, something that was noted by Bakunin to Marx's enduring anger. How do we confront it? Corey Robin sadly brings us no closer to an answer.

Down with conventional wisdom!

There is a good New Year's list by Fred Halliday in the current Open Democracy, "A 2007 warning: the world's twelve worst ideas".

As he says, "The world is full of conformism masquerading as profundity". And he goes on to expose the ideas that irritate him the most. It is a game we can all play and I fully approve of his choice of this,

"We have no need for history

In recent decades, large areas of intellectual and academic life - political thought and analysis, economics, philosophy - have jettisoned a concern with history. Yet it remains true that those who ignore history repeat it … "


"Religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life

the claim about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the middle east, fought to push back the influence of religion on public life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in modern political life, from California to Kuwait, it is an essential bulwark."

This too is one of my bugbears from enthusiasts of modernity (to which I would add many others such as "weightless economies", "knowledge societies", "portfolio careers", & etc.)

"The world is speeding up

This, a favourite trope of globalisation theorists, confuses acceleration in some areas, such as the transmission of knowledge, with the fact that large areas of human life continue to demand the same time as before: to conceive and bear a child, to learn a language, to grow up, to digest a meal, to enjoy a joke, to read a poem. It takes the same time to fly from London to New York as it did forty years ago, ditto to boil an egg or publish a book. Some activities – such as or driving around major western cities, getting through an airport, or dying - may take much longer."

Finally, though I tend to be anti-utopian in my outlook in the sense of opposing grand ideological plans, I still like this,

"In the modern world, we do not need utopias

Dreaming, the aspiration to a better world and the imagination thereof, is a necessary part of the human condition."

It is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's famous quote from "The Soul of Man Under Socialism"

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisations of Utopias."

Read all twelve here


I have just had the first instalment of a very welcome Christmas present, a subscription to the London Review of Books.

I had only ever read some of the articles that they release on-line before so it is a real pleasure to read the whole magazine. Amongst the gems was a series of diary entries by Alan Bennett – "My 2006". (Sorry the copyright is reserved so that it is not available from the web site). I particularly liked this entry:

14 August. A year or two ago the National Parks were complaining that their visitors were predominantly white and that the Asian population of Leeds and Bradford, for instance, left them largely unvisited. In this morning's Guardian it's claimed that would-be terrorists learned some of their skills in camps in national parks in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. So some improvement there.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Hordes of fans and admirers ...

Or one anyway. One of the people who has posted some comments has linked to my blog in a post here. Apart from feeling surprised at having a reader in the US military, I thought he answers those 'blogging is the end of civilisation as we know it' critics beautifully.

I've learned a great amount from blogging … What has been very interesting is how I feel in touch with people I hardly know. Reading someone's blog can draw you in and make you use your brain. ... I want to be challenged in what I feel and think. Yes, if my beliefs can't stand under a little intellectual sparring then what are they made of.

He is right. At its best, blogging is a conversation and a completely free exercise in intellectual liberty. It is not a democracy but an anarchy, in the best sense of the word.


Just emerging from the cocoon of the virus and so all I am doing is a token blog to alert readers to a marvellous book review on Harry's Place.

This is how the blurb describes "When the Angels Have Risen" by Andrew Feder:

Jerry Fletcher is a down-on-his luck man from Los Angeles who, after unpleasant clashes with government suits and contemptuous authorities, has become decidedly bitter against the establishment. During a trip to Las Vegas, he is mysteriously transported to an alien spaceship. On board, he meets an otherworldly being named Yoshu’ah, who confides that many of the Judeo-Christian teachings were actually provided by the alien angels. In addition, Fletcher learns that an alien war has been waged for thousands of years for control of Earth. The aliens send him home to explain his new knowledge, and the previously apathetic man assumes the enormous challenge of spreading this important message.

Yes, a classic and Harry quotes from it one of the worst sex scenes I have ever read. It looks mad, unreadable and almost irresistible. I will have the free copy if you don't want it Harry, but I don't think that even I, as a connoisseur of the truly terrible, will buy it – its tempting though.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A touch of the flu

This is what people say they when they have a cold. Flu is not the same as a cold, I now know only too well. I have flu; blogging will resume when my immune system does the business.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Normblog draws our attention to a chilling piece on Zimbabwe by R W Johnson.

"A vast human cull is under way in Zimbabwe and the great majority of deaths are a direct result of deliberate government policies. Ignored by the United Nations, it is a genocide perhaps 10 times greater than Darfur’s and more than twice as large as Rwanda’s".

Read it all here.

After reading it, I looked back to an old prospectus from our Centre documenting our work as part of a British Council link programme with the University of Harare a few years ago. I was not involved, but my good friends Gill and Daniel were. Part of what my colleagues did, in partnership with Hull's Developing Our Communities, was to deliver participatory appraisal training courses. One of the groups they worked with were displaced women living in Hatcliffe, a township outside Harare. The women identified the production and sale of hand-made textile goods as a way of beginning an independent micro business and they made two bedspreads which were brought back and raffled for funds to invest in their new business. Despite Gill's attempt to fiddle the raffle by putting my winning ticket back first time, the second ticket was also mine and she gave in to fate. The bedspread sits resplendent in my house in Greece. Then I read this.

I see Trudy Stevenson, an MP for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, who has carried out her own survey of Murambatsvina victims in Harare’s Hatcliffe Extension township, work that earned her a brutal assault by Zanu-PF thugs from which she narrowly escaped with her life. Stevenson estimates the death toll there at around a quarter.

I go out to Hatcliffe and talk to some of the survivors. One of them, Philomena Makoni, tells me that her family had a legal lease for their dwelling but this did not prevent the police from tearing it down.

“They came at night, shouting and yelling, made us get out of the house and just levelled it to the ground. “Then we were carted off into the countryside and dropped there. The president had said that people like us had lost our roots and that we must rediscover them.

“My baby that I was nursing died — I had no food and could give her no milk. We buried her in the bush. My other two children are terribly thin and sick. “We walked all the way back to Hatcliffe, it was many miles, but things are much harder even than before. My husband lost his job through being sent away and we have no income.

“We are only alive because the churches give us some food, but I am very frightened for my children. They are no longer in school and they are now begging at the roadside. I cannot see what will become of us.”

Now, rather than a symbol of hope for the future of a group of poor, but enterprising and positive women, my bedspread has a sense of poignancy, of hope destroyed under an unceasing oppression and institutionalised, systematic violence. Are the women who made it still alive? I don't know. Mugabe most certainly is.

Friday, January 05, 2007


On the same topic the Iraqi author Haifa Zangana finished her contentious piece with the following statement:

"The resistance to occupation is a basic human right as well as a moral responsibility".

To claim that an historic or political situation evinces an absolute moral responsibility without resting on moral principles is abhorrent. Under this general rule, Nazi resistance to Allied occupation would be moral, as would be the resistance of the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese intervention that ended the genocide. According to this argument, anyone who resists, however they choose to do so, in order to re-impose brutality, oppression and genocide are exercising a moral responsibility.

Historical and political circumstances do not confer moral imperatives; only moral principles can do that. This means that motives and actions need to be judged against ethical values and intended goals rather than simply, for example, the American and British presence in Iraq. Much of the murderous insurgency in Iraq would fail that test abysmally.


The furore over the Saddam execution is odd. The event sounded grim. I only read about the pictures that were released, they sounded awful and the papers were delighted to flex their hypocrisies by plastering them over their front pages.

However, as I read the editorials and the political and media comments, I am assailed by questions. Why this anger? Whoever thought that executions were nice? Instead of creating a martyr, it might make those who advocate capital punishment face the reality of the death sentence. But Saddam? What respect did the thousands executed under his direct orders get? Why such surprise at his treatment? Was Mussolini a martyr because of the way his corpse was treated? I doubt that there were disapproving editorials about the partisans. Nor can I think of any fury at the worse summary trial and dispatch of the Ceaucescus. Hated tyrants tend not to get respect, but revenge. It isn't pleasant but he never suffered the horrific tortures he visited on others. I oppose the death sentence and did not want him, or anyone, to be executed, but I am not surprised that he was or that the process wasn't a model of clinical efficiency. Remember his crimes, those are what should spur our anger.


Back in England, I suppose I will get used to it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Balkan Trilogy

The Internet is a wonderful source for the discovery of new reading. Norman Geras has sold me Sophie Hannah's poetry which has been a mainstay of this year's Christmas presents. I read James Hawes thanks to Nick Cohen. I agree with both Oliver Kamm and Johan Hari's choice of Why Truth Matters as their neglected book of the year, first recommended on blogs. This time though my holiday reading came from one of those idiosyncratic book lists posted by customers on Amazon. This one was of books about Greece and this was the last entry, even though two thirds of this particular novel is actually set in Rumania. The novel is Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Originally published as three separate books, it is really one very long one. The author makes only the most perfunctory attempt re-introduce the characters at the start of each new volume and the plot flows seamlessly between them.

Set at the outbreak of the Second World War there is a strong narrative thread and at first it seemed a little dated and almost too conventional. However, the sparse, precise prose drives the reader through a compelling story and you are quickly hooked. I knew nothing of Manning before but I am distinctly impressed. The themes are both big and small. If anything, the novel is about individuals and the complexity of their relationships, but there are two grand themes running through it as well, the war and liberal individualism's conflict with collectivism.

The focus is on the wife, Harriet, of an outgoing and gregarious English teacher, Guy, who is totally unprepared for marriage. This is especially so as Harriet is politically out of sympathy with Guy's Communism and combines sensitivity with close observation and intelligent judgement. Just as there is a struggle for power in Rumania, so there is in the marriage. What is curious is how passionless their love is. Harriet is deeply passionate about cats, a young Jewish army deserter, and comes close to an affair with an army officer. Marriage is more calculating, more about partnership and solidarity than passion. It is, in an un-didactic way, a feminist novel. Harriet is central, independent, an outsider, an observer and fiercely intelligent. The themes are semi-autobiographical and Harriet is clearly Manning. Whereas Guy is the critic, teacher and producer, Harriet is the writer, the one who sees. Manning, who died in 1980, teases the reader, there are possibilities that are never fulfilled, relationships and personalities are constantly shifting and they are revealed piecemeal, so that there is always a sense of future discovery and intrigue.

The final volume is set in Greece up until the Nazi invasion and the picture of the country that emerges is one that will be familiar to all of us who love this country. It is a warmer and far less uncomfortable one than that of Rumania. I sensed a fellow Greekophile in Manning. Whereas Rumania ended by embracing Fascism, Greece succumbed through invasion alone after fierce, undivided resistance.

I am not sure whether I have read a great novel or merely a very good one, but as I finished it tonight, I contemplated my own far less dramatic departure with a sense of poignancy. Tomorrow the house will be packed up and the day after a long journey will bring me back to Hull. Greece is a hard country to leave and saying goodbye to Pelion is always sad. The Easter return will be eagerly anticipated and I might just get hold of Manning's The Levant Trilogy to accompany me.