Archive for November, 2007

Against religion, not Muslims

November 29, 2007

Just read a great interview with writer and secularist Aayan Hirsi Ali:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s eyes are now aglow. She is a terrific believer in reason. For her, Western civilisation is built on the bedrock not of Judaeo-Christian values, but of logic. After seeking asylum in Holland, she spent five years at Leiden university studying political science, absorbing the Enlightenment philosophers — Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire — and she mentions them fondly, as if they’re family. But there’s a steely side to her atheism, which says with Voltaire: Ecraser l’infâme! During a recent debate with Ed Husain, as Husain was explaining his moderate Islam, she began to laugh at him, saying: ‘When you die you rot, Ed! There is no afterlife, Ed!’ And it makes me wonder whether, for Hirsi Ali, Islam’s crime is as much against reason as humanity; whether she sees the point of spirituality at all.

Are you so sure you understand what is at the heart of Islam? I ask her. Isn’t there a peaceful prayerfulness — apart from the politics — that an atheist might not understand? ‘I was a Muslim once, remember, and it was when I was most devout that I was most full of hate,’ she says. OK then, you talk about your conscience, and how your conscience was pricked by 9/11. But if there’s no God, what do you mean by a conscience? And why should we obey it? ‘My conscience is informed by reason,’ says Hirsi Ali, surprised I should ask. ‘It’s like Kant’s categorical imperative: behave to others as you would wish they behaved to you.’

Now that’s something I’d like to see on a banner.

As you’d expect, Hirsi Ali’s views have offended some religious people to the extent that she has been under round-the-clock protection for several years.

Unfortunately, the Dutch government are cutting off her protection outside the Netherlands. As Hirsi Ali now lives in America, this is tantamount to ‘advertising her vulnerability to the world.’

The Dutch Parliament will be debating Hirsi Ali’s case this week. As it stands, the government’s decision to protect her only within the borders of the Netherlands is genuinely perverse. While the Dutch have complained about the cost of protecting Hirsi Ali in the United States, it is actually far more expensive for them to protect her in the Netherlands, as the risk to her is greatest there.

Having recapitulated the Enlightenment for herself in a few short years, Hirsi Ali has surveyed every inch of the path leading out of the moral and intellectual wasteland that is traditional Islam. She has written two luminous books describing her journey, the most recent of which, “Infidel,” has been an international bestseller for months. It is difficult to exaggerate her courage. As Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New York Times, “Voltaire did not risk, with his every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantaneously with people who aspired to assassinate him.”

There’s a petition to protect Hirsi Ali here.

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‘Return to Zimbabwe? They never left’

November 28, 2007

Every day there are horror stories in my inbox:

Nya Yakam Moise Vidal (known to his friends as Vidal, pictured with his partner Catherine) is an asylum seeker who fled Cameroon in 2003. Vidal was known to the Cameroon authorities for his political activities with the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF). A protest he led against the bulldozing of a number of shops and market stalls was brutally suppressed by state authorities. He was arrested with other traders, imprisoned and tortured over a three-week period.

He is currently in Dungavel IRC with removal directions set for Monday 26th November via British Airways Flight BA302 leaving Heathrow at 06.20am, to Charles de Gaulle airport France for onward flight to Douala, Cameroon. Moise Vidal Nya Yakam, who was President of an association of traders at Ndokoti in June 2002, saw his shop crushed by Council bulldozers purportedly because it was built on a drainage line. Many saw in the demolition as intimidation of SDF militants ahead of 2002 municipal elections. Yakam who led a protest by the victims and sympathisers of the destruction, was arrested on June 29, less than 24 hours to the municipal election, by the police and detained. He was reportedly subjected to severe torture.

Since living in Middlesbrough, Vidal has found security and happiness with his partner, Catherine. The couple have been together for 4 years and Vidal is like a father to Catherine’s 3 children; Laveneur aged 16, Chanel aged 14, and 7-year-old Lauryn.

The UK Immigration Service refused Vidal’s application for asylum and on 20th November he was detained when he and Catherine went for his monthly immigration signing at Stockton Police Station. Vidal was handcuffed, leaving Catherine standing in the reception area totally distraught.

Vidal was not receiving any support from the government, and has been supported by Catherine and her parents, who are paying for him to do a plumbing course at Redcar and Cleveland College.

Vidal fears for his safety if he is forced to return to Cameroon and desperately wants to stay with his family. If he remains in the UK he will be able to complete his course and support his family once he has completed his training to be a plumber.

The local press and media have highlighted Vidal’s plight, and the couple are asking the public to support their campaign for Vidal to be allowed to remain in the UK.

The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns is a body set up to fight against the deportations of refugees to countries where they will be tortured, murdered and/or destitute. They’ve also highlighted some of the shocking conditions in ‘detention centres’, and refugees’ disgraceful treatment by escort services.

I’d urge you to read Alistair Burt MP’s statement that I have linked to above.

The reason that I have spoken out in such a way today is that when a woman from a far country, with a black skin, is shunted around the detention estate, having committed no crime, in a situation in which the system does not believe that it owes an explanation to her, to citizens or to representatives, all our civil liberties are at risk. These women have been assaulted by the state’s escort service, prevented from completing a degree, prevented from seeing an investigation completed into an allegation of assault, picked on perhaps for talking to an Opposition MP, and removed at night for no reason at all. Return those ladies to Zimbabwe? Some of them probably think that they have never left.

Their work has led to some successes and small victories– astonishing given that NCADC has received no core funding for two years.

The problem is that, as a political organisation, it can’t bid for funding from charitable trusts. And lottery providers are wary because of a general culture of hate towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Maurice Wren, director of Asylum Aid, said the problem was a climate of conservatism among grant providers. “It’s harder for [community refugee charities] to get the kind of funds they used to get five years ago. Big institutional funds, like the Big Lottery Fund are going to be mindful of the demonisation of refugees in recent years, which leads to conservatism and a risk-averse culture.”

Mr Wren said this attitude was partly a result of the upheaval caused by funding being given to anti-deportation campaigners. “It would be interesting to look at what proportion of community grants that were going to asylum agencies in 2002 before the Community Fund (now the Big Lottery Fund) came under pressure for giving money to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns”, he said.

“They got their fingers really burnt and as a result, the Big Lottery Fund has been nowhere near as brave. There is a need for funders to set aside money to support community-based agencies, because if they cease to function nobody else will pick up the slack.”

NCADC’s donate page seems to be down, but you can contact them here.

We still can’t turn them away

November 27, 2007

You may have heard something about this campaign regarding Iraqis who have worked with the British army.

Iraqis who work with the armed forces have been targeted by death squads. Many have been murdered and others have gone into hiding.

Read this chilling account of what happened to Mayada Salihi, a translator for coalition forces.

A month after the fall of Baghdad May was volunteering, working as a translator for a succession of US and Iraqi forces…too many it seems. Living in Baghdad she got one warning note, ignored it, and was gunned down and left for dead by masked men in the alley beside her house just two days later. That was in the Spring of 2004. But May would not die.

Whisked to a hospital where her identity as an American translator was revealed, she was declared dead back in her neighborhood for the safety of her family, while in reality she went into hiding. Ultimately she recovered in Jordan, but the recovery took months. She could have stayed in Jordan, but in the end, she found that her heart would not let her. The two nations she loved most were now fused in a death-love struggle, she could not leave them alone. Besides, working for us paid better than just about anything else a divorced woman could legally do in Baghdad, and that allowed her to support “H” (her son), “M” (her daughter) and her mother. So she came back.

Living now in another neighborhood, May thought she was safe. But as any New Yorker will tell you, even seven million people can make for a small town in some ways. By late summer they had found her again. A note at her home, I have a copy of it which she gave me, told her to stop working with the Americans or she would be killed. But May would not, and I now think perhaps could not, stop. A few nights later she slipped her mother and kids into the Green Zone, buying off another family who had themselves received an eviction notice from the Iraqi government.

While driving through the city to see her kids, May was intercepted and kidnapped by Ansar Al Sunna. Their standard tools are the AK-47, rape, and the power drill (with which they torture their captives, drilling holes through body parts until finishing them off with a drill-bit to the head). The day before the e-mail, the police found the husk of my friend’s body in downtown Baghdad. Ansar Al Sunna had taken full credit.

People like Mayada Salihi are risking their lives to build a better future for their country.

They are working with UK forces and the least this government can do is offer them asylum in Britain.

This campaign has been going on since the summer and has involved people from all over the political spectrum. Lobbying MPs has resulted in a mean-spirited and half-arsed change of policy from the government. They will now offer exceptional leave or resettlement packages to Iraqis who have worked with coalition forces for over twelve months.

As Dan Hardie says, this is effectively playing a numbers game with people’s lives.

It is important to write to your MP to press for the government to fulfill its moral duty to its Iraqi employees.

Dan, the man behind the campaign, gives a list of talking points here.

On October 9th David Miliband announced that the British Government would assist former employees in Iraq, so long as they had worked for it after 1st January 2005 and for 12 months or more. That abandons several hundred Iraqis who have been targeted for murder because they worked for the British before that date- and in 2004 fighting between the Mahdi Army and the British was at its peak- or because they worked for less than that period, often leaving their jobs at the end of a British battalion’s six-month tour. The British Government must help Iraqi employees on the basis of the risk they face, not according to an arbitrary time stipulation. This only affects a few hundred Iraqis, whom we are well able to shelter, and for whom we have a direct moral responsibility.

Even those Iraqi employees who qualify for assistance are not being properly assisted. Iraqis in Basra are not able to apply via the British Army in Basra Interational Airbase, since it is ringed with militia checkpoints. Iraqi ex-employees in Damascus are being screened by Syrian policemen guarding the British Embassy and delayed by lengthy bureaucratic procedures when they apply for asylum, although many of them are illegally overstaying their Syrian visas and face deportation back to Iraq.  

A blogger called Dan Hardie is directly in touch with a number of Iraqi employees via email and phone. He is willing to brief MPs- as concisely as possible- either over the phone or via email. He can be reached at danhardie.blog@gmail.com.

You’ve heard this before, but it’s now more important than ever. The last lot of letters and emails got the Government to announce a change in policy: an inadequate change, badly implemented. The next lot of letters and emails will force the Government to announce another change in policy, one that will be properly implemented and will not be based on leaving people to die.

Your MP’s address is The House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA. His or her email address is probably SURNAMEINITIAL@parliament.uk (eg BROWNG@parliament.uk ).

Please use the talking points above to send an email and a print letter to your MP, and chase them for an answer. And be courteous: an insulted MP will not raise this matter with Ministers, and that will lead to more avoidable deaths.

Via Rachel North.

The end of comedy

November 26, 2007

A laugh-out-loud email from the guys at London’s Smoke magazine.

[If this unsolicited e-mail has left you worrying that all your personal details have been randomly posted to a small magazine in Vauxhall by someone at HM Revenue & Customs who confused it with the National Audit Office, then please rest assured that they almost certainly haven’t. Also, if you e-mail smoke@smokelondon.co.uk, we’ll make sure that you’re removed from this mailing-list that we found last week in the back of a taxi in Whitehall.]

And a laugh-out-loud column from Armando Iannucci:

When the government loses the personal bank details of 25 million people by sending a pair of CDs unregistered in the post without encrypting them first, then a point of mindless stupidity has been reached that becomes physically impossible to satirise. I’ve racked my brain over ways in which I can exaggerate this cack-handed event for comic effect, but, after many hours’ trying, have realised the event itself is so enormously gormless it’s impossible to conceive of anything bigger than it in its inherent idiocy. Like the speed of light, it’s an absolute value that cannot be surpassed. Like a black hole, it is a point of inanity so dense that nothing can escape from it, least of all words. In comic terms, we have witnessed the splitting of the humour atom.

It reminds me of the time Dick Cheney shot an old man in the face. The US Vice President did that, by accident, last year, when he was out shooting with a party of friends and one of them got in the way just as Cheney was blasting some pellets at a duck. The American TV satire The Daily Show found it got the biggest laughs that night simply by saying over and over again, ‘Dick Cheney shot an old man in the face.’ The event was naturally funny. Naturally funny happenings stay funny, no matter how many times you mention them. Dick Cheney shot an old man in the face. The government put half the country’s bank details in the post and lost them. This is unpasteurised comedy.

For a couple of serious looks about what this means for the government’s useless and sinister ID card scheme, see here and here. As Henry Porter says:

Each of us should understand that personal information is exactly that – personal – and that the government has only limited rights to demand and retain it. The scale of its operations and the innate weakness of the systems is a very grave concern to us all.

What is needed – and here I hope someone is listening – is a mass movement on the lines of the Countryside Alliance, which goes across all parties and absorbs the skills and expertise of countless activists. Now is the moment to create a movement in defence of our privacy, security and freedom.

‘Vicious propaganda based on utter bullshit’

November 26, 2007

I have just read Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust – a fascinating history of holocaust denial.

Denial was originally the preserve of Neo-Nazi cranks but is slowly seeping into the mainstream. Fascists originally defended the Holocaust as right and necessary, but came to realise that the genocide is one of the main reasons that fascist ideology has such a bad name in democracies. If the public could be convinced that the Holocaust did not happen, or wasn’t as bad as we thought, maybe fascism could have another chance.

Over the next few decades the denial movement did a PR job. It put on a suit, phrased its arguments in pseudo-academic language, and set up respectable-sounding bodies such as the Institute for Historical Review. (I’m not linking to that body or any of the other fascists I’m talking about here; you can find their websites easily enough if you’re that interested).

Lipstadt has a fascinating chapter on the denial movement’s attempt at entering universities in the early nineties. Bradley Smith, of the Committee on Open Debate on the Holocaust (again, note the innocuous-sounding name) attempted to place a full-page advert denying the Holocaust in campus newspapers across America. He was a Neo-Nazi who had been active on the far right for years. Yet in the publicity that followed, Smith claimed that ‘his sole objective was to uncover the truth through an open debate on the Holocaust – debate that had been suppressed by a powerful and secret group on campus as part of their larger political agenda.’

Smith also used our old friend the political correctness conspiracy to bolster his arguments.

Conservative political groups have accused the ‘liberal establishment’ of labeling certain topics politically incorrect and therefore ineligible for inclusion in the curriculum. Smith framed his well-worn denial arguments within this rhetoric, arguing that Holocaust revisionism could not be addressed on campus because ‘America’s thought police’ had declared it out of bounds. ‘The politically correct line on the Holocaust story is, simply, it happened. You don’t debate it.’ Unlike all other topics students were free to explore, the Holocaust story was off-limits. The consequences, he charged, were antithetical to everything for which the university stood. ‘Idelogy replaces free enquiry, intimidation replaces open debate, and… the ideals of the university itself are exchanged for intellectual taboos.’ While most students who had to decide whether the ad should be published did not succumb to CODOH’s use of the political correctness argument, many proved prone to it, sometimes less than consciously – a susceptibility evident in their justifications for running the ad.

Many uni presses did run the advert on First Amendment grounds. It’s not that we agree with these people, the editors argued – but not to run the ad would be to deny the fascists their freedom of speech. If we censor the fascists, we are no better than they.

This justification had holes you could drive a bus through. The deniers’ freedom of speech wasn’t going to be affected if their advert was turned down by a student publication – after all, there were tons of other newspapers they could try. Moreover, the papers’ criteria for publishing ads were often stricter than those of the commercial press. Student publications had refused adverts for beer and cigarettes before. Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee you a right to have whatever you want published in any news outlet that you choose. As Lipstadt says:

Given this position one should logically expect to find op-ed columns, letters to the editor, and advertisements claiming that women should be kept barefoot and pregnant, that individuals of African descent should be physically separated from America’s ‘European’ population, that the moon landing was staged in Nevada, and a variety of other nonsensical positions that are held by some portion of the population.

No one had an obligation to print, as the Harvard Crimson described the ad, ‘vicious propaganda based on utter bullshit that has been discredited time and time again.’

Now, thirteen years after Lipstadt’s book, a couple of Holocaust deniers have been invited to speak at the Oxford Union.

The president of the Oxford Union Debating Society has said that:

‘the men were not being given a platform to extol their views, but were coming to talk about the limits for free speech. They will be speaking in the context of a forum in which there will be other speakers to challenge and attack their views in a head to head manner.’

BNP leader Nick Griffin and disgraced ‘historian’ David Irving will speak at something called a ‘Free Speech Forum’ at the union. A BNP spokesman said that, ‘this event is a big breakthrough for our party to spread its message in democratic surroundings.’

The fascists are delighted, as so they should be. An invitation like this legitimises their prejudices and makes it seem as if they are holding up one end of a debate rather than disseminating Nazi propaganda.

As David T of Harry’s Place says, mainstream politics is turning into a freakshow. How did we get to this state?

Lipstadt identifies a partial cause as the academic postmodernist fad, and the fashionable disillusionment with Enlightenment rationalism. Deconstructionism, which held that there was no fixed objective truth and that every interpretation was valid, sounded radical. However, there was a catch:

But because deconstructionism argued that everything was relative and nothing was fixed, it created an atmosphere of permissiveness towards questioning the meanings of historical events and made it hard for its proponents to assert that there was anything ‘off-limits’ for this sceptical approach. The legacy of this kind of thinking was evident when students had to confront the issue. Far too many of them found it impossible to recognise Holocaust denial as a movement with no scholarly, intellectual, or rational validity. A sentiment had been generated in society – not just on campus – that made it difficult to say, ‘This has nothing to do with ideas. This is bigotry.’

Postmodernism is what makes it possible for people to argue that biology teachers should be able to tell their pupils that evolution did not happen, and to argue that New Age quackery like homeopathy should be available on the NHS at the taxpayer’s expense.

I have a couple of other theories.

One: as Lipstadt says, the rationalist tradition is taking a beating in polite society. Enlightenment values are seen as a phoney justification for the Iraq war, imperialism in general, experiments on animals, and all sorts of horrible things. I have a mate who constantly argues that the Enlightenment is directly responsible for the Holocaust. (I try and point out that at Auschwitz the SS said, ‘here there is no why.’)

Increasingly, parts of the left are taking on the view that the whole concepts of democracy, rationalism and human rights are just a smokescreen for a shadowy conspiracy – a view that, as Nick Cohen points out, slides easily into classical antisemitic discourse.

For the second point, let’s welcome back another of our old friends, the moral equivalence argument. It’s common now to hear that George Bush is the same as Osama bin Laden, and that passionate atheists are the same as religious fundamentalists. It’s the same kind of argument that deniers use about World War 2. Here’s the pro-Nazi Austin J App (quoted from Lipstadt):

Just as the Germans who put Germans of Jewish descent into concentration camps should be tried so Americans who put Americans of Japanese into concentration (relocation) camps because of their race must be tried; just as Hitler was to have been tried for attacking Poland (to rectify the self-determination principle violated at Versailles regarding Danzig) so Stalin must be tried for invading Finland (without any justification at all); just as Germans who raped and looted must be tried so the troops under General Eisenhower who raped 2000 Stuttgart girls in one weekend and hundreds of others since and the Russians, who… raped… looted and pillaged… must be tried and if found guilty treated just as you say, according to the Golden Rule and impartial justice, Germans must be treated.

This argument is bolstered by general hostility to Israel, the growing popularity of 9/11 conspiracism and an antiwar movement that holds conferences with the Islamic far right.

And finally (and I think this is the OU’s motivation for inviting Griffin and Irving) people like to seek out what is ‘alternative,’ ‘daring,’ ‘controversial.’ People like to highlight alternatives, without discriminating as to what these alternatives are.

Better and more intelligent people than the OU President have been fooled by Holocaust deniers before. Number one intellectual Noam Chomsky once defended the denier Robert Faurisson, describing him as a ‘relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.’ The late, great novelist Kurt Vonnegut used David Irving’s line on Dresden and reproduced a long passage by Irving in his book Slaughterhouse 5.

Holocaust denial will make more inroads into the mainstream as time passes and more survivors die. This is a bad state of affairs, and it doesn’t help when universities give deniers a platform to spread their vicious propaganda and their utter bullshit.

‘Life with no off button’

November 24, 2007

Succour contributor Ray Robinson has been nominated for a World Book Day award.

From the email:

“ELECTRICITY’ by Ray Robinson has been selected for a longlist of 100 books in a new promotion called ‘Spread the Word’ which is organised by World Book Day in association with Book Tokens Ltd. The idea is to promote paperback fiction from living authors – books which haven’t won major prizes, but which deserve wider notice. The judging panel for the longlist comprised World Book Day staff, retailers as well as representatives from libraries and reading groups.

A shortlist of ten will be announced around 1st February, and a winner announced on World Book Day, 6th March. The winner will receive an award of £5000.

The longlist of 100 titles will be listed and the initiative promoted via the website below and by participating publishers. Reading Groups and individuals will be invited to discuss, comment upon and vote for their favourite title. This activity will be incentivised by a weekly draw to win £100 worth of National Book Tokens and books from the participating publishers’ lists. Libraries across the UK will also participate in promoting the books to their users. For the ten shortlisted titles, Waterstones has committed to promote the books instore; other retailers may also come aboard. Authors featuring in the top ten will be invited to participate in events in bookshops or libraries on or around World Book Day. Further online voting will result in the announcement of a winner, ‘The book to Talk About 2008’.”

You can vote for Ray at the link above (registration required).

The interview is worth reading as well.

I have a very blue-collar approach to my work. Writing isn’t some esoteric art; I don’t sit poised, quill in hand every morning, waiting for my monkey muse to throw some peanuts of inspiration at me. Writers block is a lazy-arse middle-class excuse to read the papers or watch Tricia. Writing, like every other art form, is a craft, and all novelists are apprentices because there’s no such thing as the perfect novel. You have to write your balls (or tits) off, all of your life, and you still might be shit at it. But that’s the thing I love about novel writing, as opposed to short stories or poems; it’s that their size, the sheer amount of words they contain, permits imperfection. I can think of a handful poems and short stories that ache with near-perfection (and by perfect I mean that if you removed a single word they would collapse; think Paul Farley; think Raymond Carver), but this simply isn’t the case with a novel – it can carry exiguous or bad writing if the bulk of the narrative is strong enough.

I try to do a nine-to-five, five days a week, and I find it helps if I leave the flat. I like working at the British Library; I find the diligent atmosphere refreshing. This is always difficult because usually I wake up (mentally, creatively) about 10 p.m. I’m preternaturally nocturnal and I rarely switch off. I find everything inspiring, and like some sick, sad pervert, I have to write for life to mean anything. So no, it’s no easy process. It’s a distorted and voyeuristic way of life with no OFF button.

So go on and vote (and thanks, Ray, for emailing the link!)

Polish immigrants eat royal swans – on YOUR money

November 23, 2007

Here’s a hypothetical for you.

You’re an investigative journalist on a paper that has an ideological hatred for immigration and immigrants. Your proprietor and readers believe that Polish layabouts are flooding into Britain to steal our fish, clothes and jobs.

You’re about to expose the Poles’ latest scam – parking illegally and going over the speed limits in unregistered cars. Unfortunately, you can’t find any photo evidence to demonstrate this. Clearly the political correctness conspiracy has been at work again.

No problem. You simply email a guy in Warsaw with the following request:

I am overseeing an investigation into how foreign drivers in Britain are evading fines. We want to prove it by having a foreign car here with a foreign driver for five days and driving/parking in London, Kent, East Anglia and Portsmouth. We would hide your identity and the number of the car when we publish the piece, which would be lots of pictures of the car in various situations and my story about what we found. Obviously, if you do get a ticket we will pay it immediately. We will pay you £800 and we will pay you to come over. If you wish to have accommodation in London itself then please do stay at my house in Fulham, London, which has five bedrooms and very central.

A couple of days later you find another couple willing to take part and therefore don’t need the original Polish guy anymore.

Unfortunately, the original Polish guy is in fact a British blogger who puts the whole thing online.

D’oh!

(Via Private Eye, which superfluously adds: ‘Thus far, the Mail has failed to print any story about Poles evading parking tickets.’)

Jimmy Corrigan

November 22, 2007

Raymond Briggs, author of The Snowman, wrote:

In this country there is a hierarchy of snobbery in the arts. Opera, of course, is at the top, then theatre (count the knighthoods), next literature, with poetry hovering uncertainly in the background. Below that comes film, followed by painting, which few people understand. Below that comes illustration and respectable political cartooning such as that of David Low. Further down comes very un-respectable cartooning such as Steve Bell’s, and then right at the bottom, in the gutter, is the strip cartoon, a medium for children and the simple-minded.

I think he’s right – although the beautiful and breathtaking Ghost World by Daniel Clowes should have dispelled any elitist ideas of the comic book as a ‘low’ artform. (And let’s forget that ‘graphic novel’ bollocks, shall we? We’re talking about comics.)

I have just finished reading Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. ‘Just’ is the operative word here. I actually put the book down, halfway through, and couldn’t come back to it for weeks.

The reason? Jimmy Corrigan, a ‘lonely, emotionally-impaired human castaway’ is contacted out of the blue by his estranged father, breaking a thirty-year silence. The story begins with a guy dressed as Superman jumping from the roof of Jimmy’s apartment building. The dead man has left Jimmy a note, ‘I sat across you for six months and you never even noticed me.’ The superhero recurs as a symbol throughout the book; here it encapsulates the failure of childhood dreams.

As Jimmy goes off in search of his lost dad, the story segues from his current adventures into flashbacks and surreal nightmares. We get a long diversion into the childhood of Corrigan’s grandfather, who like Jimmy was abandoned by his own abusive father and, like Jimmy’s father, abandoned his son. Jimmy himself is stumbling, inarticulate, almost autistic, alienated from women. (He reminded me of another famous loser, Mark Corrigan from C4’s Peep Show).

Reviewing the book, Tom Paulin said that. ‘The colours are dreadful, it’s like looking at a bottle of Domestos or Harpic or Ajax. Awful bleak colours, revolting to look at; it’s on its way to the Oxfam shop.’ Although visually the book is intricate and well-crafted, Paulin has a point: the design is full of stale pastel, faded chrome, objects cut from felt. (And it’s so complex that you’ll be twisting the book upside down and inside out trying to make sense of it.) But these bleak colours reflect Corrigan’s life and his mental world; it’s a world of lonely cityscapes, unrequited love, unrequited lust, missed opportunities, the hum of desperation, the hum of empty lives.

The sadness is so deep it is frightening. Which is why I had trouble finishing this. This is a book that gets worse before it gets better, but it is worth the struggle: the hope at the end of Corrigan’s story makes us feel that he will be the one to break the cycle of lovelessness.

Romance at short notice

November 21, 2007

I’m reading the complete works of Saki, aka Hector Hugh Munro. It is excellent.

Saki was a writer working in the early twentieth century. He’s best known for his short stories, and in a climate with so much whining about the neglect of the short form, it’s worth turning to him as a master of the craft. His stories are elegant, compact and with a beginning, middle and end. As Thom Sharpe said: start one Saki story and you will finish it, finish one and you will begin another. The introduction to my edition advises that:

Saki’s short stories of urban malice are like a fine dessert wine – they should be sipped, and savoured slowly; so intense are they that to read them in one sitting may induce a kind of literary dyspepsia.

Creative writing students and people who submit to literary magazines can do a lot worse than to read Saki.

Saki is like Oscar Wilde in many ways but does not enjoy Wilde’s posthumous fame. Like Wilde, he satirised the hypocrisy and stupidity of social convention and the upper classes. Like Wilde, he can deliver lines which are both superficially witty and contain drop-dead insights into the human condition. Like Wilde, he was an outsider; a gay man and a lover of life.

The introduction traces Saki’s view of life to his terrible childhood. After the death of his mother, the young Munro was raised in the countryside by two tyrannical aunts. It’s clear from the stories that Saki’s only source of happiness came from the countryside and from his pet animals.

The story ‘Sredni Vashtar,’ concerns a dying child stranded in the care of an authoritarian relative:

Mrs. DeRopp was Conradin’s cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things – such as illnesses and coddling restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago.

The boy secretly adopts a polecat which he conceals in the shed and comes to worship as if it were a god. When Mrs. DeRopp finds out about the polecat and announces that she wants to have it destroyed, Conradin goes down to the shed and says, ‘Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.’

Conradin’s guardian goes down to the shed that night… and never comes out.

Like all the best short story writers, Saki is a master of the killer last line.

‘Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn’t for the life of me!’ exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.

The introduction talks of Saki’s ‘sympathy with the oppressed, in particular children. He recognises the terrible hegemony that adults wield over the young.’

The author could have included animals. Animals are also oppressed creatures; we castrate them, restrict their movements, hunt them, eat them, perform experiments on them. But in the world of Saki, the animals are fighting back.

Saki’s work abounds with animals; cats, otters, pigs, birds, wolves, great charging bulls. His underlying theme is that humanity and its society has little protection against the beautiful roaring chaos of the natural world.

We try to impose our order upon this world, but it always defeats us. Like Carl Hiaasen’s Skink, Saki has a faith that nature and Darwinism balance all accounts, and put everything right. The only religion in Saki’s works is the religion of Pan, the god of the physical world. Pan rules over everything; we hear his laughter, ‘golden and equivocal.’

The stories I recommend are ‘Tobermory,’ in which an upper-class family’s pet cat gains the power of speech – whereupon the family realises that it knows all their affairs and secrets and decide to have the cat poisoned; and ‘The Way to the Dairy,’ in which an elderly aunt discovers a passion for wild living – to the distress of the three nieces waiting to inherit her fortune. The horror is as fine as Stephen King’s, the social commentary as acute as anything in The Importance of Being Earnest.

In many ways Saki was ahead of his time. The story, ‘Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger,’ concerns a society woman who organises a big-game shoot, solely to inspire envy in her friend and rival Loona Bimbleton. She arranges a safe hunt in a safari park, with a tiger that is senile and half-dead. Packletide shoots and misses the tiger by a mile – but the report of the gun causes it to drop dead of a heart attack.

Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy introduces us to the lobbyist Palmer Stoat, who shoots tame animals shipped in from Africa on a private game reserve – similarly, to impress women and clients. As with Saki’s story, Hiaasen’s novel ends with one of these ‘hunts’ going disastrously wrong.

Mrs. Packletide gets her tiger, but her travelling companion later threatens to tell all her friends the real story of the killing. Another classic Saki last line:

Louisa Mebbin’s pretty week-end cottage, christened by her ‘Les Fauves’ and gay in summertime with its garden borders of tigerlilies, is the wonder and admiration of her friends.

‘It is a marvel how Louisa manages to do it,’ is the general verdict.

Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting.

‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.

I wonder if Carl Hiaasen has ever read Saki. It wouldn’t surprise me; there is the same wit, harsh observation and dark laughter in the works of both men.

Many of Saki’s stories are narrated by Clovis Sangrail, a dissolute hedonist who acts as a kind of link piece between them. Clovis comes into his own, however, in ‘The Unrest-Cure,’ where he overhears a suburban man confiding to his friend that he is getting into a bit of a rut.

‘What you want,’ the friend says, ‘is an Unrest-Cure… you’ve heard of Rest-Cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.’

Whereupon Clovis goes to the man’s house disguised as a bishop’s secretary and tells them that the Bishop is planning to massacre all the Jews in the neighbourhood:

‘By the way, I’ve sent some photographs of you and your sister, that I found in the library, to the Martin and Die Woche; I hope you don’t mind. Also a sketch of the staircase; most of the killing will probably be done on the staircase.’

Several days of chaos and deceit later, Clovis muses to himself: ‘I don’t suppose that they will be in the least grateful for the Unrest-Cure.’

After an eventful life as a writer, journalist and foreign correspondent, Saki joined the army in 1914. He was way above the age limit and turned down an officer’s post; he chose to enlist as a private soldier. He was killed by a sniper in 1916. His last words were, ‘Put that bloody cigarette out.’

The pseudonym is thought to come from a character in an Eastern fable; however, an alternative theory (which I prefer) is that Saki named himself after a type of monkey.

In my darker moments I wonder where the next Saki will come from. We are living in the early days of another century with its own pieties and hypocrisies. Marriage, home ownership, stability, careers, homeopathy, smoking bans, fruit and vegetable quotas – what our world is crying out for is another Saki, to laugh at our gods.

Ice cold

November 20, 2007

Mark Thomas reveals that Coca-Cola is about as ethically produced as the illegal drug that it used to contain.

I thought I’d become inured to the fantastical viciousness of multinational corporations, but this is hair raising.

The documentary explores Coca-Cola’s links with the Nazis (it used to advertise on official Hitler Youth service diaries) and its racist hiring policies at the time of the civil rights movement (Martin Luther King urged people to boycott the product in his famous Mountaintop speech – which didn’t stop the company using his name in its 21st century series of ‘Coke: Celebrating Black History’ adverts).

Its present-day activities are no less horrifying. Coke uses child labour and sinister neural marketing techniques, dumps pesticides in local rivers at five times the safe level, and drains water from aquifiers that people need for drinking and washing. For me the most shocking was the murder of Colombian trade unionists carried out by rightwing paramilitaries. The murdered men were Coca-Cola employees and some of the killings happened in Coke bottling plants. An independent report has speculated that these acts happened with the tacit acquiescence of local management.

This documentary is well worth an hour of your time. Unlike so many on the organised left, Thomas is a serious activist who puts in the time and research.

And you’ll never look at a can of Fanta the same way again…