The Curmudgeon

YOU'LL COME FOR THE CURSES. YOU'LL STAY FOR THE MUDGEONRY.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Split

A Tale

The three liked to play with an old man who lived nearby. Every couple of days the old man shuffled forth from his home and, just as grimly coated in summer as in winter, made his muttering way to one of the three small general stores which inhabited the next street. The street was also home to three dry-cleaning establishments, an electronics repair shop and two cafés whose varied and authentic ethnic cuisines were varied further by the frequency with which successive proprietors followed one upon the other; but the old man patronised none of these establishments. He went only to the smallest of the three general stores, which also happened to be the one closest to his home. Entering, he shuffled down one aisle and then up the other, inspecting everything on display as if searching for discrepancies before picking up bread, tinned meat and a carton of milk. The bread was always white and medium sliced; the tinned meat was always the same brand; and the moment the old man had counted out the necessary money and shoved the groceries into his murky satchel he took leave of the friendly Indians behind the counter with foot-shifts and mumbles like those of a boy caught shoplifting and dragged back to pay.

It was on his way home that the three liked to play with him. Two of the boys would approach him from the front, the first blocking his path with ostentatious friendliness and keeping up a flow of chatter as the second hovered and grinned at the edge of the old man's vision, distracting his attention with implied threat of ambush; while the third came up from behind and gradually opened the satchel on the old man's back. The satchel fastened with a zip, and it was a matter of some finesse to open it all the way without the old man's feeling anything, particularly after their first few successes. The three boys took turns in their separate missions, which they named Engage, Wingman and Stealth; the shout of "Split!" from the one assigned to Stealth duty was cue for the three to make their escape as the old man's satchel flapped all the way open and disgorged its load of groceries onto the pavement with a dry clatter of metal and plastic wrapping.

On the occasion of their last bit of fun with the old man, the boy assigned to Engage was the largest of the three. It was short-sleeve weather, and the brand name of a notable sporting goods outlet sweated to contain his paunch. Although not the best talker on the team - his bulk and his cheerful if somewhat vacant expression made him most effective in the Wingman position - he had, over the past few months, gained more than enough experience for the job; and he chattered away with a will, complimenting the old man on his dress sense and consistent choice of groceries, and asking whether he needed any windows washed for cheap, while the other two hovered about their tasks.

Just as the boy assigned to Stealth duty was about to make first contact, the old man disconcerted them all by pushing one of the satchel's straps off his shoulder and tugging his arm from the loop. The old man's arms were stiff, so the action was far from rapid; but since he had never before taken any action beyond muttered monosyllables and nervous glances, the three were as nonplussed as if he had suddenly sprouted a cape and begun throwing vehicles at them. The boy on Stealth duty instinctively stepped back a few paces, in case the situation should turn unpleasant; the boy on Wingman duty saw this and moved to join him.

The boy assigned to Engage was left staring the old man in the face. As he observed his two friends in retreat, he found his flow of conversation drying up. The old man swung the satchel off his back and held it tight against his skinny coat-front, his small colourless eyes never leaving the boy's. One of the old man's hands moved out of sight behind the satchel. Perhaps it went inside the old man's coat. There was a small, discreet sound. "Split," the old man said, and the two boys behind him rushed to make their escape as the front of their friend flapped all the way open and disgorged its load of groceries onto the pavement with a wet splatter of liquid and meat.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Manners, and Other Ghastly Stuff

Government plans to introduce "emotional intelligence" into the national curriculum have met with derision from Daveybloke's spokesbloke on schools, Nick Gibb: "This kind of stuff is ghastly. Schools have really got to focus on the core subjects of academic education and teaching children how to learn," he said. Apparently the programme of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) has had "a dramatic effect on improving behaviour in primary schools, including on attendance records and marks", which doubtless lies at the root of Gibb's abhorrence. When one has no particular policies of one's own to hawk, the last thing one wishes to see is the success of a policy adopted by one's frère and semblable on the other side of the looking-glass. A little more to the point, perhaps, is the speculation by the Independent's political editor that "the policy is likely to provoke accusations that this is the latest example of the nanny state, and that the Government should leave it to parents to drum into their children moral values"; but then, the main objection to the nanny state is surely that it is inappropriate in the case of adults. Children have to be socialised one way or another; and as long as fools continue to reproduce themselves, and parents have to work full-time in order to make ends meet, somebody else will have to help the process. An obsessive focus on "core subjects" and "teaching children how to learn", whatever that may mean, is unlikely to do much for anyone's academic achievement if classes are thinned by nonattendance or disrupted by rowdy behaviour. How much help their new-found emotional intelligence will be to the children themselves, once they inherit the world which the generation of Tony has built for them, is a different matter. "We are gentle, we are kind, we work hard, we look after property, we listen to people, we are honest, we do not hurt anybody," may be a handy enough mantra for keeping order in the classroom; but it is to be hoped that its introduction into secondary schools will be accompanied by some sort of perspectival enhancement on the potential for problems for business and humanitarian interventionism should ideas like "we are honest" and "we do not hurt anybody" be taken to unnecessary extremes.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Anyway, China Isn't Doing It

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about to publish another report about global warming. Previous instalments have analysed the scientific evidence and the probable effects of climate change; the new report, which comes out on Friday, focuses on "possible" solutions. As one would expect, it is thoroughly pessimistic, noting that "It is technically and economically feasible to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere ... provided that incentives are in place to further develop and implement a range of mitigation technologies". Among its other derelictions, the report also implies that "better public transport can make a significant contribution"; that there should be "new controls on industrial pollutants"; that "active policy involvement" may be necessary to ensure the continued social responsibility of energy companies; and that, despite American plans for putting big mirrors in space, "there's no blue sky technology to ... provide all the energy for your house". All this is, of course, a vast, transparent euphemism for government interference in the free market, and will thus achieve little except to provide yet further proof of the UN's irrelevance to Britain's nearly independent weapons of mass destruction, to the Surveillance Makes You Free Project, to the 2012 Olympics and to all the other concerns and aspirations of real people.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Major Phish

From: "daveybloke"@londonbloke.co.uk
Date: Fri Apr 27, 2007 1:00pm Europe/London
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: you Too can be Hevyweight Contender
Reply-To: daveybloke@londonbloke.co.uk

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Little Doctor: an extract

2002
A story of fundamental human values


By the time the Archbishop visited us, in the third or fourth year of the war, we had made substantial progress. We were no longer trying to rearrange the grammar of the genetic sentence; what we were attempting was merely an editorial chore: take out a word or two here, emphasise another word there. Eureka! The best eyesight, the most sensitive fingers, and a docile brain. We also perfected, or at any rate made workable, a process for accelerating the onset of maturity so that Ghober wouldn't have to wait fifteen years for his recruits.

Our first major success was Eugene. At the time of the Archbishop's visit, Eugene was six months old. Six months out of his incubator, that is; the time between then and his conception, if such a term can be used, was something approaching two years. To confuse the issue further, Eugene was "born" at a somewhat later stage of his development than a normal human infant; he remained in the incubator until approximately the equivalent of his fifth year.

At six months of age, Eugene resembled a rather gangly ten-year-old. The hands at the ends of his smooth child's arms were disproportionately large, and the backs of them were matted with fine but copious hair. The fingers were stubby and strong. Lisa Faig said sourly that he could probably strip, clean and reassemble an army rifle in a hundred seconds by instinct alone, but although it might have made good publicity, this was not the case. However, the instincts Eugene did have made him dextrous and mechanically adept. He could not strip and reassemble a rifle without first being shown how; but once he was shown, he learned quickly.

He was also a very good shot. At the end of the Archbishop's visit, we arranged a small publicity stunt in the form of a rifle competition between the members of our own military contingent and the Archbishop's honour guard. We set up targets, stationary and moving, and invited every soldier in the place to participate; all told, about a hundred men and women must have entered the first round. The winner of the contest got to shoot against Eugene. The results were not quite as spectacular as we might have hoped - the soldier, an experienced trick-shooter as well as a competent sniper, achieved a close victory - but, given his age and his slightly freakish appearance, Eugene's performance was impressive.

His head was small, and had a slight air of deformity about it, although most of our modifications had been internal. The nose and mouth were undersized, and made to look tiny by the large protruding eyes. But to the observer, Eugene's eyes were unusual less because of their size or shape than because of the rarity with which they blinked or moved. When Eugene wished to look aside, he would move his whole head rather than just his eyeballs, so that anyone who attracted his attention received not a casual glance, but the full force of his slightly unsettling stare.

Eugene could talk, but he could not use language. That is to say, he could use words and sentences in context, but he could not make up new sentences of his own. His utterances were restricted to a few - few in comparison to a normal human being, that is - stereotyped phrases which could be varied according to circumstances. He was able to say yes, no and thank you, and he was able to ask for things that he needed. He was able to learn people's names and address them properly; he understood rank. He was able to learn the names of parts in a machine, and the names of the actions required to assemble those parts and make use of the machine. He was not able to argue, discuss, make up new names. When shoving a magazine into a rifle for the competition, he would never spontaneously toss the magazine up so that it spun in the air, and then catch it before loading it into his weapon, as was the habit of the woman who defeated him. Eugene had some spontaneity and initiative - he was, for instance, a superlative thief - and there were times when he even seemed to have a sense of humour; but he had not the slightest interest in imitating those around him, except with regard to his own narrow field of specialisation.

There was some debate among the scientists as to what we should call these creatures of ours, this new breed of which Eugene was the Adam. We could not think of them as human beings, even in the sense that the most deformed and imbecilic "natural" infant is a human being; yet at the same time they certainly were not animals. Someone suggested calling them grunts, but the nobody had the courage to repeat the suggestion in Lisa's presence. Lisa herself thought we might call them Tophetans. Others suggested simply robots, but this was unsatisfactory because it was obvious the creatures were not machines. Given the name of Project Anthill, Crick thought we might call them formicans, and classify them according to a caste system similar to that used by ants and termites. I still feel that this suggestion might have had potential.

Had Eugene and his kind ever been used in the field, no doubt the ordinary soldiers would have conferred some pithy epithet upon them; a name that would have subsumed and outlived our prim scientific classifications. The Allied propagandists, who never even saw one of Tophet's children, had no doubt of their nature: mutants, monsters, idiots, perversions, horrors.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Don't Be Afraid, Just Think of the Devastation

A decade of smouldering hostility between New Labour and the English language flared once more into open conflict today at the mouth of the Minister of Owlishness. The Vicar of Downing Street himself may also have been a little surprised, since Reid's latest emission appears to overturn six and a half years of accepted Government policy by stating that Britain's security policy should not be based merely on scaremongering. "Security policy fed only on fear would debase the values and ideas the British at their best" - Wilberforce, Cavell, Tony and Gordon, for example - "have advanced for centuries," he said.

Fortunately, the Minister was quick to regain the level of incoherence appropriate to his place and person. "For all its uncertainties, our future has to be about advancing liberty and security not liberty or security," he went on. For the benefit of the simple-minded, he paraphrased this mot as "scaring people does not produce security"; apparently freedom and fright enjoy a rather intimate connection in whatever passes for the mind of John Reid. "We are led to value security through what our liberties enable us to appreciate," he next pronounced, quoting his much-rejected draft script for the film 300; whereupon he proceeded to demonstrate the benefits of security without scariness by conjuring up a picture of the devastation al-Qaida could cause by attacking our new, safe nuclear power stations and crippling our generous, socially responsible and divinely deregulated financial markets.

"I believe it is crucial that the home secretary wakes up and thinks about the security of the nation first and foremost every morning," Reid informed. The bit about waking up is certainly reassuring. "That is what I do now," he concluded. He was speaking to a counter-terrorism conference at the Royal United Services Institute, which according to its website is the leading forum in the UK for national and international defence and security and the oldest institute of its kind in the world; so presumably his audience remained sufficiently calm to avoid doing anything that might provoke him.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Printing the Legend

Well, here's a thing: Jessica Lynch, the former US army private and Heroine of the War on Evil, has insulted the American people and accused the Pentagon of trying to turn her into a "little girl Rambo" with "elaborate tales" about her fighting to the last cartridge against hordes of Saddamite orcs (or perhaps it was foreign fanatics) when she was captured (or possibly kidnapped) in Iraq. Lynch was severely injured, and several of her comrades killed, when their vehicle was hit by a rocket early in the war. She was rescued from hospital (or maybe a fate worse than death) by US commandos, who by a happy chance were able to video their mission of mercy for the Pentagon to release at what Mark Tran refers to as "the height of the conflict". It appears that Mark Tran believes the conflict has eased off a bit since 2003. The Pentagon also claimed that Lynch had been abused while in the hospital.

Lynch testified today that her gun jammed, so she never fired a shot at the Ba'athist cadres, who must have been prevented from putting a mushroom cloud over New York by some other means. Lynch also said that she had been well treated in the hospital and that the Iraqis had tried to return her to her own forces. She then roundly abused the American people, claiming that "American people don't need to be told elaborate tales" about their military personnel. This is, of course, an outrageous calumny. If the Pentagon had not told its elaborate tales about Lynch, Pat Tillman and others, there is every chance that the American people might have objected rather strongly to the War on the Abstract Noun. In that case, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan might well be in nowhere near the state they are in today; and we all know what that would mean.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Helping the Natives with their Sums

The Ministry of the Rest of the World has displayed an uncommon enthusiasm for helping the United Nations with its paperwork. It appears that the United Nations Compensation Committee miscalculated payments to certain British citizens, whom the Ministry has now given thirty days to pay back the difference. The sum involved is £391,000, divided between a hundred and thirteen people, which means that the average repayment will be something like three thousand, four hundred and sixty pounds and seventeen point seven pence.

The difficulty is that the payments were made seventeen years ago. The people involved were held by the late and, thanks to our brilliant adventure in Iraq, increasingly lamented Saddam Hussein, during the First Great Iraqi Freedom Turkey Shoot in 1990. Still, better late than never, what? We might be rather a duffer at keeping up with international law; we might not be terribly brainy about peacekeeping and torture and so forth; but as bailiffs we're the best.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Interesting Interactivity, Exciting Communicativity

Peter Watt, the General Secretary of the Labour party, has emailed to inform me of an exciting broadcast which is to take place in a couple of days on New Labour's YouTube channel, Labourvision. Peter Watt informs me: "The Labour Party is always pioneering new ways of communicating - whether through websites, YouTube, podcasts and interactive broadcasts." But not through sentences, apparently; at least, not the non-penological kind. "We want to communicate with people in ways they want through the many channels and media now available to us all," Peter Watt wants to inform me, in a veritable orgasm of choice-oriented communicationality. The excitingness of Monday's broadcast stems from the fact that "Tony Blair will be giving his first ever Labourvision interview to John O'Farrell, the writer and broadcaster". As if that were not exciting enough, "both Tony and John have already filmed clips promoting the interview". Barely giving me time to still my fluttering heart, Peter Watt informs me, in the very same sentence, that the clips can be seen by visiting the Labourvision site.

A whole host of questions have already been sent in "on domestic and international issues, as well as a number of more personal questions about what it is like to be the Prime Minister". It appears that, even after ten years of policy clarification and voter-directional closeness initiatives, there are still some people who do not know what Tony Blair thinks about domestic and international issues, have not heard what a solemn yet lonely privilege it is to be at the top, yet nonetheless wish to forego this blissful ignorance. De gustibus - as with privatisation, ID cards, NHS databases, war and all else which is Tony's idea of a healthy democracy - non disputandum. "It will be up to John O'Farrell which questions he asks", but given the degree of respect which John O'Farrell has shown in the past for the intelligence of Labour's humble ground troops, I am sure Tony will find it a rewarding experience.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Just Running Over the Bleeding Obvious, Dear

The great British tradition of Applied Positive Psychology Conferences got off to a roaring start yesterday at the first Applied Positive Psychology Conference in Warwick, where researchers from Nottingham Trent University presented their revolutionary discoveries about commuter stress.

Glenn Williams and Rowena Hill, from the social sciences faculty, found that some commuters dislike such things as "insufficient room, loud music, delays, and personal odours", while others object to "smelly foods, terror alerts, unreasonable employers, lack of facilities for people with disabilities, and being molested". Effective methods for avoiding such disagreeable experiences included "singing or talking to oneself, doing laptop work, reading, making plans for after work, and 'oral gratification' - which includes chewing gum" and hence providing a free extra soundtrack of gloppity-gloppity to counterpoint the tinny mutterings of headphones, the melodious peaceability of mobile telephones and the inevitable quadrophonic sniffing chorus.

On the other hand, some methods "had little success"; strange as it may seem, there are methods less effective than singing or talking to oneself in order to overcome lack of facilities for the disabled, and even some methods which are not quite as successful as doing laptop work in order to overcome the problem of insufficient room. Such lesser methods included "venting anger at other commuters, smoking, or drinking alcohol on public transport", and hence, according to the findings of Glenn Williams and Rowena Hill from the social sciences faculty of Nottingham Trent University, probably ought to be avoided if at all possible.

They also found that "those individuals with high levels of resilience to stress were most likely to have the inner-strength to master their commuting environment", which sounds jolly useful, too.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Save Time and Money - Tag Your Gran

The science minister, Malcolm Wicks, has raised the possibility that elderly people could be tagged and tracked by satellite - purely as a compassionate measure, of course. "People wander out of care homes", despite tens of millions of extra staff employed under New Labour, "and go down to the beach, or they get lost. With more and more extended families, we have these things happen. This is a realistic social concern," Wicks said. Go down to the beach?

Anyway, with regard to tagging, not only will it help to detect elderly bathers who have been carried off by sharks, but "People may want this for a family member, and the family member may think it is appropriate." Wicks does not appear to have made clear if either of these necessary conditions would be sufficient on its own. He told the Guardian that his aim was "not to be Big Brother-ish or tag people like criminals", which may well be true. If New Labour wished to treat the elderly like criminals, it would pay a bunch of crooks to lock them up, in the hope of creating a vibrant mixed market in pension crisis unit management.

Instead, Wicks claims he wishes to "bring some security, safety, dignity and independence to a frail group of people"; and, Wicks being a New Labour minister, of course we must believe him. A spokeswoman from the Alzheimer's Society said the idea "could potentially have some benefits", but unfortunately this would be contingent upon its being "managed very sensibly" and not becoming "a substitute for good care"; which shows a surprising lack of concern for New Labour's idea of bringing security, safety, dignity and independence to a growing, vulnerable and potentially disaffected group of people. According to Wicks, the government has "no concrete plans to pursue the idea", which presumably means that appropriate legislation will be in place by the autumn.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Milestone Round Their Necks

The surge is going about as well as can be expected, it seems. Announcements by the United States, through both Iraqi and US officials, that the new influx of meat for the block was reducing sectarian violence have been greeted with four bomb explosions and a hundred and sixty deaths in Baghdad. "We've seen both inspiring progress, and too much evidence that we still face many grave challenges," an American military spokesbeing responded; apparently the symptoms of progress were too inspiring for him to specify just then. Perhaps he was referring to the latest milestone in the facilitation of the people of Iraq along the road to self-reliance: the province of Maysaan has been transferred to the control of the Iraqi authorities as part of an ongoing demonstration to the rest of Iraq of what is possible when the people of Iraq work together, according to one Major General Shaw. The Coalition of the Invited "will continue to train and mentor Iraqi security forces", just in case the people of Maysaan are not working together quite as we would like; and they will also "patrol Maysaan's border with Iran" to prevent illegal incursions by foreign military personnel.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Environmental Emissions

I have received another email in my capacity as humble, fraying thread in the Labour Supporters Network - that vast and increasingly silent majority which believes that the present Labour government has given us somethingty-three new schools and umpty-five new hospitals for every half-day it has spent in office, that virtually everyone who matters is more or less better off than at some time in the past if only the poor fools knew how blessed they were, and that Toppling Saddam was a Good Thing to do. This new email is from the Secretary of State for Doing Nothing Much about the Environment, David Miliband. Today David Milibaland launched Labour's new climate change pledge card, which sets out how the Labour Government, working in partnership with councils, energy companies and the Energy Saving Trust will help households take simple steps to cut energy bills by up to £300 per year and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, and he did it all in bold type, too. David Minabanal's pledge card highlights five simple actions that households can take in order to cut energy bills by up to £300 per year and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. These include turning down thermostats, turning appliances off when they are not in use, replacing light bulbs with energy-saving ones, doing washing at a lower temperature, and getting a "home energy check". Despite the simplicity of these measures for households to take, the Labour Government is offering help, just in case the households are even simpler. The Labour Government is offering "home insulation programmes" and "home energy ratings" and phasing out those light bulbs which it considers inefficient. It is offering "free electricity monitors". I am not clear whether these are some sort of device which is simpler to read than an electricity meter (an electricity meter has numbers which go up according to how much electricity is used, which might well baffle a sufficiently simple household) or, perhaps more likely, a sort of New Labour school prefect who goes around knocking on doors, monitoring electricity use, and reporting users of excessive heating and old-fashioned light bulbs for a black mark against their name on the National Identity Database. The Labour Government is also offering "higher product standards and labelling" so that everyone will know just how much higher product standards have become, thanks to the Labour Government. "Every part of society has a role to play in tackling climate change," profundifies David Milibalabaland, in the course of not explaining what results the Labour Government's partnership with energy companies will have in terms of getting energy companies to clean up their act. David Mandibilin is proud of the work Labour is doing domestically and internationally to combat climate change and hopes I will join with him in doing my bit reduce emissions at home (sic) and encourage my family and friends to do the same. David Minibland is Labour's Secretary of State for the Environment.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Getting Down in Tony's Bunker

There are some people whose privacy even the Vicar of Downing Street respects: rich and famous people, for example. The breakup of the relationship between William Windsor and Kate Middleton has "stunned the world" (with one or two exceptions) and has given rise to the usual crop of fascinating theories, including "Kate's background, William's army career, the Royal Family and the pressure of intense media attention". Appalled by the media intrusion into the lives of people who, after all, have contributed so much good to our society by providing fodder for Sky News and its ilk, his reverence has decreed, in characteristically joined-up prose, that the sundered lovers "should be left alone now without reams of stuff being written that I can assure you, from my experience of royal stories, most of which will be complete nonsense". People in public life, his reverence said, are generally prepared to accept a certain amount of press attention: "My experience of it actually", from long chats with the likes of Bono and the Bee Gees, "is that what concerns people is not so much the invasion of their privacy as such, because I think most people in public life accept that you are bound to be a public issue and item in that sense." Sounds jolly sensible of them. Many even put out press releases to facilitate the process. The real problem, his reverence said, is "more that usually whatever is discussed about you publicly is surrounded by a whole lot of other stuff that is either unfair or sometimes completely untrue and that is the thing that really gets people down".

An example of this very process emerged on the very same programme, namely the BBC's Politics Show (a title eminently suited to the New Labour style, not to mention the discussion of the affairs of William Windsor, who has presumably been specially bred to be above politics). Some beastly non-managerial types at the Royal College of Nursing are spreading the vile rumour that more than twenty-two thousand NHS jobs have been lost over the past eighteen months and that almost seventy-five per cent of newly-qualified nurses are unable to find work. Eighty-seven per cent of specialist nurses claimed that cuts are affecting patient care; forty-seven per cent claimed they knew of cuts in their particular specialty; and almost a fifth claimed to be at risk of redundancy. Of course, this is all either unfair or sometimes completely untrue and that is the thing that really gets his reverence down: "Actually, there have been only about 300 clinical jobs lost. "The fact is, today we have a workforce which is 300,000 more than it was in 1997." As a result, in a little more than eighteen months' time the issue of waiting lists will be "effectively dealt with", actually.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Passenger

Andrzej Munk et al 1961-1963

On a holiday cruise, some years after the Second World War, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska), an expatriate German, accidentally encounters a woman she recognizes as Marta (Anna Ciepielewska), who was an inmate at Auschwitz when Liza was a guard. The bulk of the film consists of the story of the two women's relationship in the camp, in two versions. In the first, Liza tells her husband that, while other guards were "drunk with power", she just did her duty, was in many ways just as much a prisoner as the inmates, and indeed did all she could to help Marta survive; in the second she gives a more detailed, and presumably more truthful, account of events.

Liza's reasons for giving this second statement are left obscure; indeed, it is not even certain whether she actually speaks it to another character or whether the sequence is some sort of interior monologue. After completing most of the Auschwitz scenes, the forty-year-old director Andrzej Munk was killed in a car accident in September 1961; the film was brought to its present form by a number of his friends and collaborators, using still photographs and a commentary for the shipboard scenes, and aspiring less to "complete" Munk's work than to pose the questions he was trying to ask. Accordingly, the commentary makes no attempt to fill in the gaps in the story, merely noting them where they occur.

At the start of the Auschwitz flashbacks, grainy monochrome shots show the railhead littered with clothes, panning to a pile of suitcases topped with frost; then the short stubby tubes through which a bored soldier will later be seen feeding the Zyklon-B crystals, and an upward pan to the chimney belching black smoke. In another sequence, as people wait in an orderly queue for their showers, a young guard permits a little girl to pet his Alsatian. The guards are fond of their dogs; one of Liza's colleagues, who has no compassion at all for the prisoners, suffers genuine grief when her own dog is killed. The bleak, muddy landscape of the camp, fenced in with barbed wire and machine-gun posts, parallels precisely the bleak, muddy, fenced-in emotional landscape of those trapped inside.

The area where Liza and Marta work is a grimy warehouse, in which the first things shown are a battered cardboard box filled to overflowing with hairbrushes, and a silent pram. Liza provides the voice-over, telling her husband how she selected Marta, a Polish political prisoner, to assist her as a clerk in picking over the belongings of the camp inmates: the work was less arduous in Liza's command, and the treatment more humane. In her first statement, Liza recounts her pleasure in seeing Marta return to some semblance of health and femininity; in her second statement, she expresses the envy and resentment underlying her charitable do-goodery. Catching Marta with a bunch of roses which she claims are a birthday present, Liza angrily confiscates the flowers, jealous and furious because no-one remembers her birthday. It seems clear that Liza's self-serving idea of herself as a prisoner does have some truth to it, though not necessarily in the way Liza would have her husband believe.

In the camp, as befits a slave, Marta gets to say very little, and nobody knows what Munk intended her to do on the boat; but her courage and resilience shine out of Ciepielewska's performance. As the prisoners are marched into the camp at the end of the day, they pass a woman who is being humiliated, apparently for some sexual misdemeanour: she is forced to stand naked, with a scrawled sign announcing her crime, while the other inmates march by. As the woman hangs her head, Marta calls her by name from the ranks and gestures encouragingly: "stand straight!"

There are altogether too few films like Passenger. Much has been made of the peculiar circumstances of its release, with critics drawing parallels between its fractured, indeterminate storyline and the supposed impossibility of encompassing the catastrophe of the Holocaust in a more formally complete work of art. I don't find this a particularly fruitful line of analysis; it seems to me that the importance of Passenger lies in its focus on the mentality of Liza, and in its lack of caricature. In our present interesting times, in the wake of Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Abu Ghraib, Falluja, the dawn raids and deportations and the rest, identification with the Schindlers, the Stauffenbergs, the people who sheltered Jews and the brave camp survivors, is no longer possible; at least, not if one is honest about the society in which one is living. It is the guards and other dutiful citizens, the ordinary decent folk who piped gas and wrote denunciations, at whom we should be looking, since theirs is the perspective that is closest to our own.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Bit of a Problem

The Vatican's ambassador to Israel has been called upon to make a hard moral choice: is the commemoration of a few million murders more important than the reputation of one religious politician who died of natural causes? The Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust museum, notes that Pope Pius XII, on his election in 1939, "shelved a letter against racism and anti-semitism that his predecessor had prepared" and "did not protest either verbally or in writing" about reports of the murder of Jews. The text also notes that Pius decided not to sign a declaration by the Allies in 1942 which condemned the extermination of Jews, and that he did not intervene to keep Italian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. The Vatican ambassador, Monsignor Antonio Franco, has taken exception to all this and has refused to attend the annual Holocaust memorial service in Jerusalem, calling this approach one "of dialogue and research and discussion". Pius' policy was "not really silence, it was a policy taken to avoid worsening the situation," the Monsignor said. A few million Jews and assorted other undesirables are one thing; a few million Jews, assorted other undesirables and one martyred Pope would clearly have been quite another. "When there were public statements and declarations there would be a huge number of people who were simply eliminated," the Monsignor observed. "Repression was the response to any kind of public position taken"; obviously it might have been a bit of a problem if, after 1939, Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy had started repressing or eliminating people.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

That's another one gone. I think Slaughterhouse-Five was the first Vonnegut I read; I was a teenager at the time, and like most teenagers somewhat puritanical, and even less tolerant of post-modern hi-jinks than I am now. I took a very dim view of Vonnegut's writing a long introduction to his novel and calling it "Chapter One", and I must have been almost as unhappy with the occasions in later chapters where the narrator declares "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book", and the famous "So it goes". After I read a few of his other books, I was also disturbed by the reappearance of characters like Eliot Rosewater and Howard W Campbell Junior in Slaughterhouse-Five. The terms postmodernism and intertextuality had not yet obtruded themselves upon my consciousness, so I think the problem may have been that I expected the author to do all the thinking and imagining and suchlike hard work, and this business of recycling characters from other books made me suspect that Vonnegut wasn't trying quite as hard as I deserved.

Nevertheless, there must have been something to the fellow, for I kept on reading him: his first book, Player Piano, which is more or less a conventional science-fiction dystopia; Cat's Cradle, also more or less science-fiction but rather less conventional; The Sirens of Titan, an epic work whose action takes place on Earth, Mars, Mercury and a moon of Saturn, and which includes such phenomena as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum which swallows up a man and his dog and spreads them out across time and space, and the "hypnotic anarchy" which is the government of the planet Tralfamadore. Vonnegut had a superb talent for the concrete; the workings of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum are explained via a children's schoolbook, while the Tralfamadorean Salo explains his planet's government as being like a cloud to which everyone has contributed a puff of mist, and then the cloud is made to do all the heavy thinking. When I read The Sirens of Titan I knew, as with Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, that here was no ordinary, unambitious science-fiction writer. So Vonnegut stopped writing science-fiction.

At first this did not affect me as badly as it might, since Mother Night, the morally convoluted confessions of American traitor, Nazi propagandist and Allied agent Howard W Campbell Junior, was one of his best-ever books and remains my personal favourite of all his works; and God Bless You Mr Rosewater was very enjoyable too. However, Breakfast of Champions, featuring the terminally underappreciated pulp novelist Kilgore Trout and a lot of drawings in Magic Marker, failed to engage the enthusiasm of a teenager who still thought that fiction should have a beginning, a middle and an end, in that order, and above all should be able to make up its mind whether it was serious or not. Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard likewise escaped my enthusiasm by varying margins; but Galápagos, which treats of the evolution of the human race into a harmless, seal-like creature with far less brain-power and consequently fewer troubles, appealed despite its cerebrally incorrect premise. I never did get around to Hocus Pocus or Timequake, but I did re-read Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as the books I'd liked better, and found that they improved with better acquaintance.

And somewhere in there I also read some of Vonnegut's short stories, and his superb, sensitive and scrupulously fair-minded essay about Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In fact, there is a section about Céline in Slaughterhouse-Five, which is undoubtedly the first I knew of him. Between his admiration of the French writer's relentless honesty and disgust at his anti-semitic ravings, Vonnegut claimed that writing about Céline was the only thing that gave him a headache.

Although Vonnegut had retired from novelising (and a few novels before the end had terminated the "By the same author" list with the words "Enough! Enough!"), the theft of the 2000 election provoked him into applying his particular brand of sardonic rumination to the antics of the Bush gang, than whom few have been more worthy of the effort of outliving. Then again, outliving one lot of thugs means merely that one lives to witness the ascent of the next lot; or, as Vonnegut himself observes in Slaughterhouse-Five, "if wars didn't keep on coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death".

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Behold, We Are A Novelist

In 1998, I wrote a horror-fantasy novel called Beelzebub, about a society of Satanists isolated in a gigantic fortress some four thousand years after the Rapture. It was, and remains, the biggest (95,000 words, give or take a few), longest (three months at a thousand words a day for the first draft), and by far the most troublesome single project I have ever undertaken; nothing else I have done, literary or otherwise, compares remotely with the accomplishment of having completed the damned thing. Unfortunately, quite apart from whatever literary flaws it may have, it suffers from several crippling faults which make it unsuitable for commercial publication: it has less than four hundred pages; it is not part of a series, or even a trilogy; there aren't any elves; it offers only one proper in-joke (which, for those interested, is evident in this extract) and no moral guidance whatever; many of its sentences have semicolons; and it is by an unknown author.

So, being nearly as vain as I am curmudgeonly, I have published it myself, using the excellent services of Lulu. Their paperbacks are very well made; their publication process eliminates all the usual inconveniences like illiterate copy-editors and talent-scouts hunting for the next Dan Brown; and for this particular book I found a cover design in their gallery which couldn't have been better if I had commissioned it myself. Beelzebub, my first novel, is now available for purchase at £6.95 a copy. Should you decide that it's worth your money to read it, I thank you. Reviews, free publicity, expressions of undying admiration will all be more than welcome.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Point of Principle

The only member of the Axis of Evil which is known to have tested a nuclear bomb is to be allowed access to twenty-five million dollars which had been frozen in Macau amid the usual US accusations of counterfeiting, money laundering, organised crime and all those other things with which the Bush administration would never dream of soiling its pristine economic and moral record. In return for the release of the money, which North Korea was "seeing ... as a point of principle" (as opposed to claiming to see it as a point of principle, which is undoubtedly what those filthy Iranians would do), North Korea will close its main nuclear reactor; and in return for doing this it will receive "economic and political concessions" by agreement with South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the leader of the Coalition for Democracy, which has thereby given Iran yet another demonstration of the advantages of possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Beelzebub: an extract

1998
An epic horror fantasy not in the Left Behind tradition


After Wheatley cleaned up the chalk marks, I gave it leave to go on its rat hunt. As with so many of Wheatley's habits, I had always been unable to tell whether the major motivation was physical necessity or mental enjoyment, or merely the need to be out of the cell once in a while. It is just possible that the habit was a socially useful one, in that it kept the rats' numbers down; but it is at least equally possible that there weren't very many rats anyhow. Certainly on my walks around the corridors I saw very few animals of any kind whatever.

Of course, one reads in the history books about animals - cats and toads especially, since apparently they were the favoured animals of the ancient witches; and dogs, horses and ravens, which according to legend were beloved of the warrior king. None of these creatures is extant today, at least inside the Redoubt; and although there are plenty of theories about what exists outside, there are very few facts. The theories tend towards either of two extremes: a featureless, utterly barren desert, devoid of life; or a seething mass of predators, constantly devouring one another.

The familiars we use today are not animals as such; we have advanced, much as transport once advanced beyond the horse. At about the age of twelve one is taught, along with the other facts of life, that everyone's familiar is different and that no two are ever alike. Almost everything else one knows about them comes of personal experience with a single specimen, since no-one ever sees anyone else's. This is not a taboo, except possibly among the familiars themselves; they simply do not let themselves be seen by anybody other than their symbiote.

Symbiosis begins at the age of twelve, three years before one leaves the juvenile dormitories to take up residence in one's own cell. During those three years, the cell stands bare and empty, unvisited by anyone except its future resident, who looks in as often as is necessary to fix its disposition and atmosphere firmly in the memory. One is awakened on the morning of one's twelfth birthday to be taken there for the first time. Nothing is inside, not even the Pact engraved upon the wall. I can still remember my own excitement as the teacher accompanied me from the dormitory to the sixty-ninth floor, and my disappointment at the anticlimax of this first concrete symbol of approaching maturity.

I was instructed to stand in the centre of the room and turn, very slowly, in a leftward direction, through three hundred and sixty degrees, keeping my feet as far as possible always in the same place, and memorising every detail of what I could see.

"All I saw were the walls," I said, when I had done this for the first time.
"That's what you'll keep on seeing. You must learn every detail of them."
"But there's nothing there!"
"The walls were there. They weren't made of glass, were they?"
"Of course not. They were pitted, and blistered, and there were even a couple of dents."
"Then you'll learn all the pits and blisters and dents. You'll stand in the middle of the room, and turn around, always at the same speed and always in the same direction, until you know every detail of those walls. They won't change; the cell is closed except to you. You'll get there in the end. And when you do, it'll be time for the next stage."
"And what will I be memorising then? The floor and ceiling?"
"Don't be facetious."

So twice a day from that day forth I stood in the middle of the cell and revolved as observantly as I could. For the first few months it was hopelessly boring, and even worse was the second major task, that of recollection, which was just as tedious as observation but frustrating besides. At first I couldn't remember anything at all, only a vague grey vision of blank walls; then my mind started making details up. I saw pictures of wolves and birds of prey. Half a year elapsed before I began to make steady progress; and by the time I could stand in the centre of the cell and close my eyes without altering what I saw, I was almost fourteen years old.

Then followed a brief period when I would visit the cell once or twice a week just to stand and concentrate; voluntary practicing, since I no longer had to keep recalling the walls to mind as part of my daily duties. I stood in the cell and slowly turned, and watched the walls pass before my sight indifferent to whether my eyes were open or shut.

One day I experimented, turning rightwards instead of leftwards. My eyes were closed. When I opened them, according to my calculations, I should have been face to face with a particularly large and distinctive flaw in the concrete which I often used as a landmark. It resembled a long, mournful face: a donkey's face, but earless, and with the eyes to the front instead of at the sides.

But when I opened my eyes, I found the mark was further away than before. My mind's eye had assumed a leftward turn even when my body was turning to the right. It took a further eight months of work before I was able to orient myself properly in the cell with my eyes closed, no matter how many times or in what direction I turned. It was at this point that the cell itself began to change, so that in order to remain properly oriented I had to bring the number of my visits back up to four or five a week instead of one or two.

"Don't worry about it. It's perfectly normal."
"But I'm losing concentration all over again."
"Nothing of the kind. It's concentration that has brought about the change. This is the next stage in making the cell your own."

In fact I was far from certain by that time as to whether I particularly wanted this cell for my own; not only did the surface of at least one wall keep changing, but the whole cell had grown unreasonably cold. One is taught about this, of course, but being told is quite different from the actual experience, much as learning the facts of life in a biology class is different from losing one's virginity. One hears about "mnemonic pressure" and "psychosomatic temperature differentials", and that favourite of adolescent graffiti artists, "mural metamorphosis"; but this is hardly an adequate preparation for the sight of one's familiar emerging day by day from the dead concrete of a cell wall; or for the text of the Pact, the final and irrevocable contract of one's maturity and eternal damnation, appearing through the grey of another wall like blood squeezed out through satin.

The forty-nine days it took Wheatley to emerge constituted the first of those rare but always traumatic periods when I heard it make a sound - this in addition to the psychic signals, which at that stage of Wheatley's development were tempered by neither respect nor the wish to communicate. There was only raw pain, raw fear, raw servitude, and raw confusion at the condition of being half-alive; the so-called familiar condition. The psychic interference alone cost me seven weeks of sleep; the audible shrieks could be heard by anyone passing by the closed door of my cell, as well as by me in the dormitory, fifty floors below.

It was only when the last of Wheatley had bulged from the wall, when it became obvious that there was no more to come, because none of the wall was Wheatley's colour or vice versa, that I was able to introduce myself. Again, there are formulas and guidelines for this ritual, including the one every child learns to recite: "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..." but the parts that really matter cannot be taught or even, quite possibly, conveyed. The promises and favours which are extracted at this time (once the familiar's initial hatred and resistance have been overcome) are made once and once only, are unique to that single symbiosis, and are binding for life and possibly longer. It would be impossible to discuss one's familiar in any depth (in depth enough, say, to compare its little quirks and habits with those of someone else's) without going into the details of those promises and favours - details which, however petty in themselves, must always involve and invoke mutual vulnerability. Since one's familiar is in part derived from oneself, its vulnerabilities tend to reflect one's own, which fact is in itself a source of vulnerability and thus feeds the symbiosis, but does not make for open and frank discussion with other human beings. Not if one wishes to get on in life and avoid being controlled by one's familiar more than is absolutely necessary.

Wheatley was serviceable enough, I supposed: obedient and reasonably communicative, and malicious only within certain mutually accepted limits, at least for most of the time. Symbiosis always contains a fairly large component of hatred, particularly on the side of the slave. This makes for a certain amount of inconvenience and mental discomfort, but it does help one's self-discipline, not to mention one's self-reliance; and if one is forced into the very last resort, there is always the threat of communion to force them to behave.

Doubtless the familiar too gains something from the relationship. The most widely accepted theory at the moment is that their servility is designed to relax the human partner's mind in order to throw the familiar's acts of malice into sharper relief, and that the familiars then draw sustenance from the psychic energy set in motion by their provocations. Like everything else to do with familiars, this theory is far from scientific, and just about as far from being a subject of polite conversation.

Buy the book

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Telly

The British sailors who were captured by Iran, forced to undergo humiliating television appearances, and released after thirteen days in a cynical publicity stunt, have been given permission by the Ministry for Helping Little Brown Foreigners to keep the media frenzy going by selling their stories. Because of the "exceptional circumstances", the Ministry has apparently urged them to "go out there, tell the truth and make the money", presumably so that the sailors can show to maximum advantage the contrast between their dignified professionalism and the transparent posturing of the evil Ahmadinejad. The female of the party, whose equal status under Enlightenment values was rudely shattered when she was made to wear a piece of cloth on her head, is "said to have sold her story for £150,000 in a joint contract with a newspaper and ITV"; while the other fourteen are expected to make about a hundred thousand between them. Equal treatment is a wonderful thing when you can get it.

Even Liam Fox, Daveybloke's spokesbeing for Supporting Our Boys and hence not exactly the most venerable of floaters himself, finds the spectacle "somewhat undignified"; while Rose Gentle, who lost a son in Iraq, observed: "None of the parents who have lost loved ones in Iraq have sold their stories". It is not clear whether this deplorable lack of parental dignity and professionalism has been condoned by the Ministry of Pre-emption.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Born Free at the Point of Use with a Full Range of Birthing Choices

Well, here's a thing: Patsy Hackitt, the Nurses' Friend, who has been promising home births, midwife services and choice, choice, choice whether you like it or not, has been talking a special delivery of warm, brown nappy filler. Two thirds of English regions don't even have enough midwives to cope with present demands, which means that the Government's promise to offer all maternal resources in Tony's Choice Emporium three glittering, spangly possibilities by 2009 starts to look a bit optimistic. The Royal College of Midwives has said that there would need to be a "radical recruitment programme" and "an onus on health authorities to employ more midwives", and Patsy Hackitt, the Nurses' Friend, has said that the budget for maternity services will not be increased; so it is difficult to see where all the extra midwives will be found. Perhaps, as so often, the Government plans to draft in uterine contractors from the private sector; or perhaps the existing midwives will be expected to reorganise their rotas for the convenience of the Ministry of Health and Profit. "In some parts of the country we must and will do more, like developing more training places, bringing in flexible working and finding innovative ways to fill hard-to-fill vacancies," a spokesbeing said, which seems to confirm the worst.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Rays of Sunshine

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that between a fifth and a third of all species are "at high risk of irreversible extinction" and that there is a fifty per cent chance that the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets could be "committed to partial deglaciation". A draft of the report says that there is an eighty per cent chance that human activity has had a "discernible influence on many physical and biological systems". Presumably, this explains why "scientists and officials from world governments have spent the last few days negotiating the final wording", and why the Russian, Chinese and American delegations have been busy lodging objections. "The US delegation is really making its presence felt," somebody said.

The report notes that "poorest countries will suffer the most, with famines, water shortages and floods all increasing" and opening up new markets for GM foods, water privatisation and Scientology. Aside from the Arctic, the most affected region will be sub-Saharan Africa, "where people are least able to adapt" and hence will be crying out for appropriate management training. It is possible that the US delegation feels the positive aspects of climate change have not received sufficient emphasis.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

News 2020

PM vows to continue fight as terrorists' cynicism shocks world

The Prime Minister said today that the fight against terror would continue "despite the breathtaking cynicism of those who would use British servicepersons as pawns in their violent and greedy power game".

He was speaking as it became clear that the Iranian government-in-exile had freed fifteen British hostages in what the Prime Minister described as "a gesture of breathtaking cynicism".

The hostages, who were all British navy personnel, included several teenagers of strikingly noble aspect and two grandmothers with histories of emotional problems. Their kidnapping was described by the Prime Minister as displaying "a cynicism of breathtaking gesturality".

The hostages were kidnapped as they cruised the Ben-Gurion Canal in search of opportunities to be of service to local people. The Iranian government-in-exile, which refers to the canal as the Shatt-al-Arab, claims that sovereignty over the waterway is disputed, but the international law which agrees with them is only recognised in parts of the world outside Britain, the US and Israel.

As the hostages were bundled onto a flight to London, the Prime Minister warned that the situation was "extremely serious". When the aircraft reached the former Iraqi border, he said that the crisis was "undergoing a considerable increase in seriousity" and that efforts were being made.

As the plane entered European airspace, the Prime Minister rushed to lay fifteen specially manufactured navy-blue poppies at the cenotaph in London and stated that Britain was willing to be reasonable with the Iranians provided the Iranians showed a willingness to abandon their "ridiculous attitude of gestural escalativity".

When the flight carrying the ex-hostages was over France and approaching the British mainland, the Prime Minister described the situation as "grave" and warned the Iranians that unless our boys and girls were "delivered unto my servants unharmed and unmolested and free not to wear headscarves", there would be "consequences".

As the aircraft's landing gear touched the runway and the ex-hostages were reunited with their loved ones at Heathrow's Clean Air Terminal 17, the Prime Minister told reporters that he hoped the terrorists had learned a lesson from the crisis.

The terrorists might "feel they had gained the upper hand" with their gesture, the Prime Minister said, "but I must assure them that when the free world is on the ropes, a few more spins of the chessboard will leave the team of human values in possession of the field."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Phishing to Bust

From: "jreid"@unfit4p.co.uk
Date: Wed Apr 4, 2007 1:00pm Europe/London
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: big B_U_S_T intorduced into 20 places
Reply-To: jreid@crimebusters.co.uk

Dear Sir or Madam

I am DOCTOR john Reid (Dr.) i am Home Secratarary i have database I know where you live. I Bust crime. I wish to infrom you of my Planns for future securioty adn Justice and Bustting crime. i Wish to wrok together to portect the Innocnet lawabadiding manjornity against the Evil mijnorinty with you The customer. I know where you live.

i am Doctor John Reied and i bust Crime. my Fitttting of camaras to counter Litter Gangs drunkennnes dissorder conmgragarting Hoods kidnaping British Troops and Forcing woemn to wear the Veil is beter than not tackling it. Now i Bust yet More by Fiting of Lodspeakrses to cammra. i have got More powers tyhan ever before more resorces than ever before. Tihs is just abd an aditional Thing iKnowwhere you live i am Home Sectarary.

iam dr DocTor John Ried. i am Homsecrrrrtry for Busting. the Vast manjinorinty of Poeopole are pretty Decent. But if pople persistantley refuse we have got Pictures we have got Evidence and the Police can be called instantly adn Utterly i know where youu Live and hope it doessnt come to That. it is another way og Using technololgy which is why we are Introducing it for pruposes of Bust in 20 Sensitive spots.

I Am Doctor Ried i am a John. i Like Bust. i dope ho dodo do hope yo can hlep. And i Know where you live.

Yorus incerely

DR. jnonh Reid (Doctor)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Duty of Care

Kim Howells, the underling at the Ministry for Lesser Breeds who gained some attention last year with his dramatic nearly-lukewarm semi-qualm over the Righteous State's rampage in Lebanon, has displayed a similar degree of plain speaking and ethical rigour in answering a parliamentary question about the Government's hiring of private security companies - mercenaries, in Oldspeak - to help with the crusade in Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain has spent a hundred and sixty-five million pounds in Iraq and forty-three million in Afghanistan, "mainly for guards for British staff and facilities"; which means, of course, that the money comes out of the aid budget. After all, the soldiers are there to help the natives (the overthrow of Saddam and the Taliban being a Good Thing and all), so spending twenty-five per cent of the Iraq aid budget on armed troops to deal with the "deteriorating security environment" which has resulted from our occupation of Iraq with armed troops is almost virtually no different from spending it on fripperies like food, medicine, and all that other stuff which the term aid connotes to the vulgar imagination. Howells was careful to note the ethical dimension in his answer, stating that the Ministry for Lesser Breeds "has a duty of care to its staff and to ensure all contracts are subject to rigorous selection so that we obtain full value for money". It is particularly gratifying to note that one of the rigorous selections for ensuring the fulfilment of the Ministry's duty of care is the British aid company ArmorGroup, which gained half its revenues last year from philanthropic activity in Iraq. ArmorGroup is "headed by the Conservative MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind", who demonstrated his disinterested benevolence thirteen months ago by cheerleading for an attack on Iran.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Thinking of England

Given the current situation in Zimbabwe - "the near collapse of the country's economic and political stability and increasing state-sponsored violence" - the reaction of the Ministry of Unfitness for Purpose should of course be fairly predictable; and of course the Ministry has come through splendidly. Having been prevented by the Appeal Court from forcibly availing Zimbabweans of Robert Mugabe's tender mercies, the Ministry has taken out "a series of adverts in the Zimbabwean expatriate press in Britain urging asylum seekers to return to their home country" and is sending letters to hundreds of people, thus ensuring that they are aware the Ministry knows where they live while telling them they "should consider" going back.

Coincidentally, the Ministry is also seeking to deport the nineteen-year-old who was at the centre of last year's revelations about the ways in which certain immigration service members were processing their material. The Conservative MP Richard Benyon contrived to miss the point spectacularly when he said that "the person who decided to send Tanya back does not understand the political situation in Zimbabwe", since the Ministry of Unfitness for Purpose is presumably concerned more with the political situation in Britain. You can say what you like about the political situation in Zimbabwe, but at least those who return there will not be returning to a country swamped with asylum seekers. Kate Hoey, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, asks: "What message does this send to vulnerable women around the world, let alone in Zimbabwe, about attitudes to victims of sexual abuse in the UK?" Well, Make Love Not Trouble would seem to be the obvious one.