Archive for January, 2010

Hookline and Sinker?

January 31, 2010

My old uni occasionally sends out details of opportunities for writers.

Recently it passed on details of something called the Hookline Novel Competition.

Apparently, for just £50 you have the chance of giving up your first rights to a publisher that you have never heard of, and whose distribution is questionable.

Today is the last day for fiction entries. Don’t all rush at once!



Kerbside International Lawyer

January 31, 2010

Yeah we know we can’t have a better world
But at least we can be right

The Indelicates, ‘The British Left in Wartime’

Following on from Comrade Denham’s post, I’ve been pondering one of the more confused of the antiwar arguments: the legality or otherwise of the Iraq war. The idea that the invasion was wrong because it was ‘illegal’ is frequently levelled, often by people who have a negligible understanding of international and war crimes law, and sometimes by people who belong to political groups dedicated to the armed overthrow of parliamentary democracy. If the war had been declared ‘legal’; if some attorney general had said, ‘Yes, this is okay, go for it’ would the antiwar faction have turned round, admitted fault and supported the war? If we’re going to talk legality, surely war is a crime in and of itself.

But the charge of illegality serves one purpose – to turn an argument about human rights, democracy and the responsibility to protect into an argument about boxes checked, hoops jumped and resolutions passed. It allows you to sidestep the complex issues of solidarity and internationalism and to retreat into a position of abstract judgement. But it can also make you look incredibly silly, as George Monbiot is finding out with his ludicrous ‘Arrest Blair’ campaign, the object being to make a citizen’s arrest of Tony Blair for war crimes. (Why does no one try to citizen-arrest Omar al-Bashir or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?) Unfortunately the law is a double-edged sword and Norman Geras has passed on words of caution from a legal professor:

What Monbiot is urging would still be a tort. Even though he is not suggesting imprisoning Blair, what he is suggesting would be a tortious battery, as it is an intentional unauthorised touching without consent. (In many day-to-day touchings – e.g. tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention – there is implicit consent, but not with regard to what Monbiot suggests, as Blair would obviously not consent to it.)

Amusingly, if someone did act in this way as a result of Monbiot’s urgings, Monbiot would also be liable, as he would have procured the wrong and the wrongdoer’s actions would also be attributed to him. I would suggest, as well, that his employer, the Guardian, would be vicariously liable for Monbiot’s wrongdoing.

For the record, I do think there is a case for trying people in the Blair and Bush administrations for war crimes, but it would rest on the complicity in the torture of detainees, rather than the facilitation of a war that, despite everything, got rid of one of the worst fascist dictatorships on the face of the planet, and gave Iraqis the right to vote and hope for better times.

The antiwar faction is currently trying to turn Chilcott into a show trial – it will not happen. Blair is too clever and confident to let this happen. And yet the antiwar movement has won the argument. Liberal interventionism is discredited. It is dead. Pacifists are right to claim that the general public is against going to war. This is not so much out of concern for the welfare of soldiers and civilians, but from a resentful feeling that money should not be spent on foreigners when there are troubles enough at home. (I’ve heard people explain their opposition to government aid for Haiti in these exact terms.)

I repeat, Seamus Milne, George Galloway, Noam Chomsky and all the other isolationists and doctrinaire pacifists have won this argument. There is neither the cash nor the political will nor would there be the public support for an attack on Iran or Sudan, no matter how many times John Pilger says it’s going to happen. R2P is fucked. Leaders of fascist states all over the world can breathe easy in the knowledge that they can do anything they like to people – absolutely anything – as long as they keep it within their borders.

Reality Hunger

January 30, 2010

My review of David Shields’s literary manifesto is now available at 3:AM.

Minding the Deathwatch

January 28, 2010

Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s news-sheets I see that controversial author Martin Amis has got into trouble again. This time the old rogue has been upbraided for some remarks on euthanasia:

The novelist Joan Brady has accused her fellow writer Martin Amis of ‘flippancy’ and ‘prostitution’ over his controversial call for euthanasia ‘booths’ on street corners where the elderly and demented can end their lives with ‘a martini and a medal’.

US-born Brady, 70, the first woman to win the prestigious Whitbread book of the year award, told the Guardian: ‘Trivialising a subject of enormous magnitude just to flog a book? How can a man prostitute himself like this?’

Brady, whose husband died from a degenerative disease, added: ‘Amis’s schoolboy flippancy leaves euthanasia proponents – serious people, thinking people – open to the attack that they understand nothing about death, that they see it as something out of a TV ad. Your head lolls to one side and it’s over, all neat and tidy: a martini and a medal on a street corner, no need even to bother with closing credits.’

Amis, 60, whose latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, is shortly to be published, drew criticism from anti-euthanasia organisations over remarks made in a Sunday Times interview in which he predicted a ‘silver tsunami’ of ageing people, ‘like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops’.

I am sorry for her loss, but I can’t help thinking Brady has overreacted: if Amis is just an ageing provocateur, why not ignore him?

But the silliest reaction has come from the Guardian‘s Michael White. In a riposte to Amis’s theory that ‘novelists tend to go off at about 60’ White points to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report that argues that old people should be able to keep on working way past retirement age. He gives the following ‘cheerful vignette’ about a guy called David Buckley: ‘Made redundant at 60, he found new life as a call centre customer adviser and is still going strong at 73. No one has yet written a good call centre novel – a stint with the gas board might get Amis’s juices going again.’

I can’t imagine a less dignified old age than working in a call centre – fuck me, it’s bad enough when you’re in your twenties. Geriatric phone monkeys for equality! Jesus, shouldn’t we be making sure old people have decent pensions to live on, rather than encouraging them to spend their twilight years rotting in some industrial outpost for seven pound an hour. I don’t know what life will be like when I’m approaching the clearing at the end of the path but if Buckley’s is the fate on offer, then I’ll be happy with Futurama’s suicide booths. Just make sure there’s a cigarette and a shot of JD on hand before I pull the lever.

The problem faced by advocates of euthanasia is that we sound like heartless bastards at best, fascist engineers at worst. It wasn’t just the Nazis who talked of getting rid of the lives unworthy of life. If and when euthanasia is legalised there will be unscrupulous relatives conning grandad into signing on the bottom line so they can cash in his premium bonds. We must guard against the ugly opportunism of human nature.

Writers tend to be preoccupied with death and Amis is not some Fabian hack from the 1930s – he is a sixty-year-old grandfather. He’s facing some hard choices in his life, and I feel for him. And I feel that people on the other side of this argument fail to appreciate that quality of life is just as important as quantity of life, and that we should not only live well, but die well.

In an inspired article, Nick Cohen adapted the myth of Tithonus for a warning to a culture that puts longevity before quality:

His lover, Eos, asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus lived forever ‘but when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.’

If Tithonus is not to become a 21st-century deity, we may have to accept that an end to suffering is better than suffering without end.


Changing My Mind

January 27, 2010

My review of Zadie Smith’s essays is now available at 3:AM.

Haiti: the vultures descend

January 22, 2010

There are faith-based humanitarian organisations who are in Haiti now and are doing a brave and necessary job. And then there are the Scientologists. It appears that John Travolta has pledged supplies, medics and ‘volunteer ministers’ from the Church. Apparently these last will be there to provide ‘spiritual assistance’ to earthquake victims.

Now, the history of Scientology suggests that any aid the Church provides will be extremely conditional. Marina Hyde provides the context:

L Ron [Hubbard] personally decreed the strategy he called ‘Casualty Contact’, in which he advised Scientologists to scan newspapers for reports of accidents or bereavements, searching for ‘people who have been victimised one way or another by life’.

Stipulating that one way to do this was to trawl hospitals, Hubbard declared of the ambulance-chasing Scientologist that, ‘He should represent himself . . . as a minister whose compassion was compelled by the newspaper story concerning the person [. . .] However, in handling the press he should simply say that it is a mission of the church to assist those who are in need of assistance. He should avoid any lengthy discussions of Scientology and should talk about the work of ministers and how all too few ministers these days get around to places where they are needed. It’s straight recruiting!’

Casualty Contact has since modulated into the Volunteer Ministers programme, whose yellow tents are increasingly visible at high-profile disaster sites, and often enlivened by special appearances by their celebrity adherents. Within these tents Scientologists administer the aforementioned Touch Assists, whose purpose is to ‘speed the Thetan’s ability to heal or repair a condition with his body’.

After 9/11, aid agencies at Ground Zero voiced concern that the Volunteer Ministers had displayed their leaflets around the disaster site and operated in the restricted area without authorisation until this was pointed out to the police, who then denied them access. Two days after the tragedy, and presenting themselves as an organisation called National Mental Health Assistance, representatives of the Church of Scientology duped Fox News into running the church’s freephone number for five hours on the bottom of the screen, apparently in the belief that it was the official outreach hotline. Fox News removed it after an irate intervention from the real National Mental Health Association.

‘The public needs to understand that the Scientologists are using this tragedy to recruit new members,’ the president of the NMHA stated. ‘They are not providing mental health assistance.’

Au contraire, say the Scientologists, who claim they provide a unique brand of ‘meaningful help’ during catastrophes. They were there after the tsunami, after Katrina – with added Travolta – and in Beslan, before being asked to leave after the local Russian health ministry judged their techniques unhelpful to already severely traumatised children.

And of course they were there after the 7 July attacks, when an undercover BBC investigation taped the leader of the London branch of the Church’s anti-psychiatry movement laughing that their role in the immediate aftermath of the bombings was ‘fighting the psychiatrists; keeping the psychs away [from survivors]’. One survivor who happened to have mental health training voiced his shock that Scientologists had attempted to recruit him and others.

What sort of numbers they’ll do in Haiti remains to be seen, but hats off to Travolta and the church leaders for deploying in this way. As for Scientology’s most famous face, do recall ‘the Mr Cruise response to 9/11’ – setting up the First New York Hubbard Detox project where firemen who had breathed in the World Trade Centre dust were encouraged to submit to the ‘Purification Rundown’, discarding their medication and taking endless saunas along with high doses of niacin, much to the despair of their doctors.

From the creepy to the ridiculous, there’s this item on ABC about an American group called Faith Comes By Hearing that is sending Bibles – ‘solar-powered audible Bibles that can broadcast the holy scriptures in Haitian Creole to 300 people at a time.’

The Faith Comes By Hearing organisation says its Bible, called the Proclaimer, delivers ‘digital quality’ and is designed for ‘poor and illiterate people’.

It says 600 of the devices are already on their way to Haiti.

The Albuquerque-based organisation says it is responding to the Haitian crisis by ‘providing faith, hope and love through God’s word in audio’.

The audio Bible can bring the ‘hope and comfort that comes from knowing God has not forgotten them through this tragedy,’ a statement on its website says.

Apparently, this gadget will work in jungle, in desert, and on the moon.

(This is the link to donate to Haiti earthquake relief)

Update: Jon from Faith Comes By Hearing has appeared in the Shiraz comments:

Thanks for your thoughts on the solar-powered audio Bibles.  I can see where you may think this is not a good approach, but our organization has been working with the Haitians since 1986, providing them free audio Scriptures in their own language.

The moon comment was someone making mention that they didn’t require electricity.  That was a dumb bullet point on the website, thanks for letting me know.  We took it off.

Besides, these audio Bibles are still in the states enroute to dozens of relief groups who have called ASKING for them.  The Haitians have been preyed upon for a long-time by those interested in exploiting their natural resources and impoverishing their people.  We believe the people of Haiti are that nation’s most precious resource and we desire to empower them with the Scriptures in which they believe in a format they can use.  Roughly half the nation is unable to read, so giving them the Bible in a format they can use–audio, is completely reasonable.

Faith Comes By Hearing

Are You Distinctive?

January 21, 2010

The Guardian books blog alerts me to an outburst by the author Susan Hill. Hill has been asked to contribute a story to an anonymous exhibition of short fiction. This was the response:

I`m furious. I`m hopping mad. I`m spitting venom. So this will be a rant. I feel like ranting. One way or another I have been a published writer for 50 years. I also have a good degree in English from the days when you had to read difficult writers to get one, a lot of difficult writers, writers who are better than I could ever hope to be.  I  read them, studied how they did it, learned my craft from them because that’s how it works.

Today I was asked if I would write a short short story. It would be part of a Fringe Festival – dread words – and would go up on some walls in an exhibition of similar short short stories, but without my name attached to it.  Names, you see, are invidious. They might indicate to people that the story was worth reading. There would be others writers up there… well known ones, but none of their names would be visible either and there would also be stories by any old body who thinks they should be up there, nay probably has a human right to be up there,  and who has written a short short story – with special emphasis on those who have written them and who are marginalised, displaced, disadvantaged, bottom of the heap, discriminated against, asylum seekers. Oh  yes,  and school children of course, though probably with priority given to those from sink and failing ones. It’s all part of the democratisation of the language and of literature and of writing and of fiction. Alice again. ‘All have won and all shall have prizes.’  But language is already democratised, each of us claims to be part of that great free world of speaking words every time we open our mouth.

But in the mad world of those with well-meaning but lunatic desires for egalitarianism in absolutely everything my fifty years writing 43 books, learning my trade and re-learning it, practising my craft, hoping to improve, reading the best to learn from them,  putting out words in a careful order every day of my life, working with the talent I was given by God – none of that matters a jot. Every one of those others has just as much right to have their stories up there as I do, because, you see, they have written them – oh yes, and they’re disadvantaged. Maginalised. Whatever.

Give me strength!

An anti-PC diatribe – how daring that is in 2010! But surely a simple ‘no thanks’ would have done?

Don’t get me wrong – some of the worst ideas in the arts (not to mention politics) have come from posturing anti-elitism, from poetry slams to self-publishing. But this exhibition – and we’re given no details of it, we can’t verify whether there is a selection criteria or not – sounds like an interesting idea, with good precedents. Fiction competitions are routinely judged blind. So what’s the problem with anonymous short stories exhibited in a building, with a mixture of published and nonpublished authors?

You can’t argue that bad authors will get exposure they don’t deserve, because visitors to the exhibition won’t read past the first para of a bad short story. There is a good chance that talent will shine. It could also provide an insight into how many writers truly have developed what everyone says a writer needs – an original and distinctive voice.

Would you be able to recognise an extract of Susan Hill’s fiction if it was taped to a wall full of extracts from other nameless authors? Of Toby Litt’s? Of Julie Myerson’s? Of your own? I think that’s the question that has sent Hill into such a breathless frenzy.

Carey on migration

January 16, 2010

Ex-Archbishop George Carey has used the Times to suggest, obliquely, that the BNP should be given a veto over British domestic policy.

He’s worried by the prospect of the UK population reaching 70 million by 2029. This ‘will put our nation’s resources under considerable strain, stretching almost to breaking point the enormous reserves of tolerance and generosity of the British people.’ Of course, the general trend in the UK population is one of growth. Is Carey worried about high birthrates in the country? No: of course, he’s worried about people coming to live in the UK from outside.

Not, of course, that Carey has a thing about migrants. In fact he goes out of his way to clear his throat: ‘we welcome the contribution of both economic migrants and asylum seekers to our lively cosmopolitan culture.’ However, he fears that the BNP will ‘exploit genuine concerns about both overpopulation and the ability of this nation to integrate new communities whose values are sometimes very different, even antithetical, to our own.’

Now Carey doesn’t think very much of the working class and is convinced that the poor labourer is so ‘alienated’ by mainstream politics that he has buried his tear-swollen face in the apron strings of British fascism. Carey doesn’t seem to know that in fact the BNP vote went down in the 2009 local/European elections. Sure, there are scum (and yes, they are scum) who will vote for Holocaust deniers and criminals. But not as many as you might think: in fact, a clear minority. It’s extraordinary that Carey seems to think that this minority should be appeased.

Praising the UK’s liberal democratic values embodied by the judiciary, the Houses of Parliament and the Church of England (surely some mistake?) Carey gives a warning:

Some groups of migrants, however, are ambivalent about or even hostile to such institutions. The proposed antiwar Islamist march in Wootton Bassett is a clear example of the difficulties extremists pose to British society.

Another thing Carey appears not to know is that Anjem Choudary, who leads the marginal Islamist group Islam4UK, is not a migrant. His privileged life in the London suburbs is half a world away from the experience of your average impoverished Nigerian or Iranian refugee. I suspect that part of the reason that Muslims flee Islamic countries is to get away from people like Anjem Choudary. And by the same token the Pakistani who runs from sharia law is hardly likely to want it taken up in his adopted land.

The real point for Carey, though, is not that we’re getting too many migrants: it’s that we aren’t getting enough Christians. ‘But what I am saying is that those who seek to live in this country recognise that they are coming to a country with a Christian heritage and an established Church.’ Although Carey can’t say so, a cosmopolitan Britain is his true fear. It’s the cosmopolitan and multicultural society that has weakened his pathetic, irrelevant and unheeded church.

Now let’s see that by some miracle we got immigration down to Carey’s preferred level of the 40,000 new migrants of the early 1990s. Do you imagine for a second that the far right would thank us, or stop its racist campaigns? No, I’m sorry, but the BNP is not a rational political party that responds to changing circumstances. It is a totalitarian cult. It would fight to have every last migrant sent away. And then it would go after the second generation. And the generation before that. What concerns would we have to address, after the far right and its voters have been pacified by a Britain cleansed of migrant influence? The ‘concern’ of Jewish control of the media, for instance. The ‘concern’ of the drain on the state of the sick, disabled and unemployed. The ‘concern’ of British ‘living space’.

My experiences living and working in cities with big migrant populations suggest to me that people tend to get along better than the Archbishop thinks. I wonder if recent events in court have made any impact on Carey’s conviction that appeasing British fascism is somehow an option.

More ridiculous libel bullshit

January 16, 2010

Crime publisher John Blake has given us a fine insight into defamation law before. Now it seems he’s going to be on the wrong end of a writ himself. Private Eye reports that Blake has been threatened with a lawsuit over one of his titles, Face to Face with Serial Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee.

A guy called Kenneth Bianchi, also known as the ‘Hillside Strangler’, has written to Blake from the Washington state penitentiary where he’s serving life for the murder of seven young women in Los Angeles during the 1970s. He wants to sue because Berry-Dee apparently wrote that Bianchi had confessed his crimes to the author in correspondence. To compensate for this Blake must withdraw the book from sale, pulp all unsold copies and give $1.5 million to a convicted killer.

Blake is not impressed:

There’s something ridiculous in the state of this country where scum like that can come and waste our time. We recently had a rapist from Broadmoor objecting because a chief superintendent referred to him as a drug-taking bisexual. We had to go to the high court to get him struck out. More time wasted, more money wasted.

It really is time something was done about our libel laws, no?


‘Don’t worry, we’ll take it to Mr Justice Eady’

Understanding Drink

January 16, 2010

Richard Reeves is one of a few writers who seem to get it on the alcohol issue. He understands that booze does bring significant benefits to society in the form of employment and taxation. He understands that prohibitionist policies always hit the working class harder than anyone. And he rightly identifies the media meme of a ‘binge drinking epidemic’ as just the latest in a sorry line of moral frenzies, influenced not just by puritanism but by certain Victorian ideas of a woman’s place. (As Juliet Nicolson shows, conservative newspapers were complaining about women smoking in public and going to dance-halls as late as the 1920s.)

Finally, Reeves understands that some things in life simply can’t be quantified in terms of health or wealth. Read the whole thing and know the threat posed by contemporary puritanism.

‘Who does not love wine, wife and song/Will be a fool for his lifelong!’