Tuesday, 25 August 2015

everybody hates the Jews

as the great Tom Lehrer once sang. Does Jeremy Corbyn? I think not, not personally. I think perhaps he is rather simple-minded on these matters. America, bad. Therefore, Israel, bad. Therefore, enemies of either one, good. I think it really is that simple. And it is for too many Labour Party members. Lack of thought results in howling denunciations of Israel "the apartheid state". That is Jeremy Corbyn's electorate for now. He doesn't need to pretend that he's not in bed with Jew-haters, because too many Labour Party members, and the "anti-politics" younger people many of whom have signed up as Labour supporters, have no problem with Jew-haters. Not because they are Jew-haters, but because they hate America. But Jeremy is not an idiot. He knows that if/when he wins he will have to face the Tories at the ballot box. They will not hesitate to throw the Jew-hating, terrorist-loving and dodgy associates in his face. So, he's equivocating on his support for those who thought the 9/11 slaughter was a good thing - oh but hang on, are they the same people who think it was all done by Jews, because Everybody Knows thousands of Jews stayed away from work at the World Trade Centre on 9/11 - it all gets so confusing - let's just put it down to What Everybody Knows.

What Everybody Knows. There is far too much of this around. Everybody Knows that Gaza is a prison camp. Er, no it's not. Everybody Knows that Hamas was democratically elected there. Er, no, they took power by throwing the other lot out of windows. Everybody Knows that Gaza is cruelly blockaded by Israel, starving its people. Er, no, Gaza is blockaded by Egypt.

And solidarity with women and gays in the Middle East? Don't look for that from Jeremy. His policy statement "Working With Women" says it all in its title. We, that is us Chaps, look for ways to "work with" those silly girls so they don't get all uppity and hormonal and start crying and stuff.

Everybody Knows. As so often, Lenny has the best words.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Fathomless Riches

Most of the popular tunes and fashionable beat combos of the 1980s are a closed book to me. But I do remember the Communards. Jimmy Somerville had the voice of an angel, and a rather spotty chest - I really don't like V-neck tops on men with nothing underneath - and that high-camp yearning they went in for spoke to me. That was the decade when it became OK to be gay and a pop star, among other things. It was also the decade when to be a gay man quite often meant you were dead, rather soon. I didn't remember the other half of the Communards, Richard Coles, at all. But he does have a rather good twitter feed, and now those tweets have been made into a book, which is his memoir. @RevRichardColes, which gives you a clue as to what he is doing now. Like most memoirs the good bits are at the beginning, about his childhood and family, and the dramatic moments in the middle. When he was a drug-addled star, he says, he might have bought a speedboat. He might have, but he isn't sure, and he doesn't know where it is now, if he did. I liked quite a lot in this book. It is relentlessly honest, as Coles has to be, at least now that he is an Anglican priest. He even admits that at one time he pretended to be HIV-positive - that shocked me. He said later in an interview that it was only his sexual timidity that kept him alive. Although I must say I don't think it is particularly sexually timid to drive out into the countryside and have sex in laybys with men you have never met before. Coles lives, allegedly, a celibate life these days, as the Church of England says its gay ordained must (impertinently, in my view). For me there wasn't quite enough in his book about his life in the Church (which came after the drugs and the stardom), but I guess he thought his pop-picker readers wouldn't be interested in that. On the contrary, I contend. I hope Coles writes another book. Oh and nice reference to Gilbert and George (isn't it?) on the cover.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

turning Japanese

Seventy years ago Japan surrendered after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This remains controversial. There are many historians and scholars (the late Norman Geras was one) who think that that act was a war crime, and many (Oliver Kamm is another) who think (as did and do a number of respected Japanese scholars) that the bombing was justified on the grounds that both American and Japanese casualties were thereby avoided. Well, we'll never know. Whatiffery helps no one. Norm and Oliver were/are in other ways part of the same strand of politics, what has been called the anti-totalitarian left, and that is where I locate myself too. I can strongly recommend Kamm's 2005 book "Anti-Totalitarianism", which is one of the early works in this canon. The different arguments they both put forward - was Hiroshima/Nagasaki the end of the Pacific war or the start of the Cold War? make endlessly fascinating reading.

The UK's role in what happened in Japan was rather minimal. There was little input from the UK during the ten years of US occupation of Japan. But, then as now, the UK's role in Allied intelligence gathering was a key one. So Japanese experts were needed as soon as Japan entered the war in 1941. And there were none. Just about no one in Britain could speak or understand Japanese, and Japanese studies had not been especially popular among intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by contrast with, for instance, Arabic studies, which remains highly popular to this day among the top mandarins of Whitehall and, until the welcome advent of Tony Blair, had a significant influence on UK policy in the Middle East under successive governments.

What was to be done? The men were at war, and the men who knew anything about East Asia or spoke any of its languages had gone to work in places like Singapore and Shanghai, and most of them were now prisoners of war. I know, thought the government, we'll get some boys (not girls, obviously) out of the schools and fast-track them in the Japanese language. They did just that (they did it with Turkish and Persian too, because, well, you never know which way certain cats will jump), and within a year or two they had their Japanese experts. Some of them went on to be academics in the field, and one of them went on to be chairman of British Rail. A great piece about all this in the BBC Magazine here. Thanks Neil for pointing it out to me.

What might be a surprise is that the fast-track programme for Japanese still exists, though not quite in the same way. I went through it myself in the late 1970s when I was working for British intelligence (sssh!) and they still couldn't find Japanese linguists in the UK. The programme however took place largely in Japan, which obviously in 1942 it did not, and that is where I spent my time in 1979 and 1980. At the time the British Embassy language school in Kamakura, Japan was shared with the then West German government, so for three British students there was one West German. Usually these students were diplomats near the begining of their careers, but exceptionally (I'm not sure this was ever done again) there were two students, me and a colleague from GCHQ, who had diplomatic cover for the duration of our studies. An interesting time. I was examined orally for the interpretership by the then Emperor's personal interpreter, and *modest cough* got the top mark that year.

the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kamakura

Sir Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, is writing a history of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and this is what has apparently inspired the BBC to take a look at these matters in the piece linked to. I hope he also takes a little look at the links which certainly existed at one time, and may still do for all I know, between SOAS and British intelligence. While the schoolboys referred to above were being fast-tracked in 1942 or thereabouts, SOAS was not using its Bloomsbury building where it still is today, but premises above St. James's Park Tube station. Those premises used to be called Palace Chambers (you can still see the faded sign if you look carefully, I went past there not that long ago) and were used by GCHQ for some of its activities. I have worked there myself.

I fled GCHQ in 1984 when they banned the unions, and joined the BBC World Service. I worked from time to time at the BBC Japanese Service, closed down in the 1990s, which was one of the few Japan-related organisations not headed by a graduate of that fast-track service. Its head was John Newman, who had acquired his Japanese by being a judo champion and studying judo there, and by being coach to the UK Olympic judo team in Tokyo in 1964. I always thought John was regarded with faint suspicion by the establishment fellows. John Newman died in 1993, aged only 57.

Tendrils of connection. Would make a film, the story of the above.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Go Set a Watchman

the title is from the Bible (Isaiah 21,6) and in I think all the English versions has a comma: Go, set a watchman. The text is about conscience, and that is what the title of this book means. The watchman is your conscience, so you will know if you are doing something wrong.

There cannot be many who have escaped the publicity around the publication of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set A Watchman. It is the one she wrote first, 55 years ago, and her editor preferred the back story, of Scout Finch's childhood, and her father's defence of a black man accused of the rape of a white girl. So she wrote that instead, and the world got To Kill A Mockingbird.

I have read Mockingbird at least a dozen times since I was about ten years old. I read it in different ways over the years, as you do. When I was ten I enjoyed the child's-eye view, and I envied those children the father they called by his first name and who never came into their rooms without knocking. I don't mean anything sinister about my own childhood by that, it's just that the notion of personal autonomy for children didn't mean that much to my parents until we children reached our teens, and sometimes not then. Later I loved the notion of respect for all people as individuals that is at the heart of Mockingbird. But as I grew older I began to worry about the book . I began to see that something was missing. There was a mystery at its heart. This was not helped by the film, excellent though it was, which showed Atticus Finch as a strong and sensitive hero played by Gregory Peck. Many of those who have complained about Watchman for its portrayal of Atticus as much more flawed and complex than he appears in Mockingbird are thinking about the film and not the book. The complexity is there all right in Mockingbird, it is just portrayed as a child would experience it, so it is not to be explained.

When I first knew that Go Set A Watchman was coming out, my first thought was that here was a predatory publisher/editor looking to make some money from a vulnerable elderly woman before she died. My second thought was that maybe now we would learn something about the mystery at the heart of Mockingbird (critics never seemed to talk about any mystery, but I always found it mysterious). My third thought was that maybe she would address the notion of race, because if you are a white Southerner as Harper Lee is you probably have to. In particular the notion, archaic now but surely normal in the 1950s, that if black people are to be saved from injustice and terrible fates then white people must do it for them. Well, address the notion of race Harper Lee does, and it is shocking.

"If the Negro vote edged out the white you'd have Negroes in every county office"... "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" This is Atticus Finch speaking. And yet nothing in Mockingbird contradicts this. Atticus Finch says in Mockingbird you need to get inside the skin of another person to see things as they do. But - now Scout realises - he meant another white person's skin. The fact that racist language wasn't used by her father when she was growing up meant that she grew up colour blind. And in the South of the 1950s that is very blind indeed.

A US bookstore called Brilliant Books is offering refunds to people who bought Watchman and found it not what they had expected. I think this is a mistake. Because what do we "expect" when we buy a book? To enjoy it? To respect it? That it should be just the same as everything else that author has written? I submit, none of those things. The most interesting writers are those that make you wonder, when a new book of theirs comes out "What have they got up to this time?"

The (mostly) science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin writes about Go Set A Watchman on her blog. She wonders, as I have over the years, why Harper Lee never wrote anything else after To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe, she says, because that book wasn't true. Because it was dishonest. Maybe, I wonder too, if Harper Lee was a bit dismayed by the huge international bestseller status Mockingbird immediately acquired and has never lost. That people regularly put it down as their all-time favourite book (I have done this too). Le Guin ends by saying that Harper Lee "wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill A Mockingbird evades."

Go Set A Watchman is shocking. Such a book could not be written now, I am quite sure. The South, just at the start of civil rights, knowing that everything was about to change and fearing chaos, and yes, being swamped. Class, and race, and how we fail to see what is before our eyes because it does not fit with how we have decided things and people are. All these are timeless matters. And not that many writers have seriously tried to ask questions about them.

Harper Lee, I salute you. If you can, please tell us more.