Monday 27 June 2016

Fuchskind von Annette Wieners

An einem nebligen Herbsttag kommt Friedhofsgärtnerin Gesine Cordes einfach alles unheimlich vor. Der Pförtner scheint nicht zuhause zu sein obwohl das Licht an ist, irgendwo im Zaun muss ein Loch sein, denn ein Fuchs ist in den Friedhof eingedrungen, und es klingt, als schlich da jemand durchs Gebüsch...

Zu ihrer vollkommenen Überraschung findet sie dann ein unterernährtes, frierendes Baby. Kaum gefunden, erleidet es dann Krämpfe, as wäre es vergiftet.

Unterdessen findet man um die Ecke eine nackte Frauenleiche, und als kurz danach auch noch ihr Ex-Mann auftaucht, passt gar nichts mehr zusammen.

Fuchskind ist ein Krimi-Thriller, der zweite in einer Serie. Man merkt schon, dass es nicht der erste Roman über Gesine und eine ihr inzwischen befreundete Komissarin ist. Es wird oft auf die traumatischen Ereignisse des vorherigen Sommers hingewiesen.

Am effektivsten ist der Roman, wenn Gesine sich um das Baby kümmert, denn die Empfindlichkeit des schwerbehinderten Babies und die Fürsorge der Friedhofsgärtnerin, deren Sohn in ihren Armen verstorben ist, wirken zusammen sehr Einfühlsam (obwohl ich selber Babies nicht besonders mag).

Allerdings gelang es dem Roman in anderen Gebieten eher weniger zu überzeugen. Die Sache mit dem Ex-Mann klingt eher nach Seifenoper als nach Krimi. Zudem gibt es viel zu viele Täter und nicht genug Gründe für ihre Taten. Das Netz der Verbrechen, das die Autorin hier gewebt hat, hält leider nicht zusammen - es zerfällt wenn man es mit dem geringsten Zweifel anhaucht.

Das hochspannende Finale kann den Roman daher leider nicht retten - er ist zwar mehr oder weniger unterhaltsam, aber letztendlich nicht sehr befriedigend.

Bewertung: 3/5

Friday 24 June 2016

If the electorate hands you lemons...

So, Brits actually voted for Brexit.

Britain, to Europe

My (and most of my friends') reaction...

They voted Lemons. Let's make Lemonade.

I don't believe in asking for a second referendum (though if you do, there's a very popular petition for that). But I do believe that, after the initial shock has worn off, there's no reason to lose hope.

Here's why hope is warranted:

I still believe that the Brexit scenario the UK will end up with is to continue its EEA / EFTA membership (the Norway model). I outlined why in my very long first Brexit blog post, but here's a refresher of what it would entail:
  • Continued access to the single market.
  • Continued free movement of people (i.e. no changes to immigration, still the same rights for Brits to live, work and study in European countries)
  • Continued acceptance of most EU regulations (though without input into shaping them)
  • Financial contributions to the EU under the Norway grants scheme - probably a little less than the UK currently contributes to the EU. This would go to recipient EU countries in need of development (but not to recipient UK regions in need of development), so Greece, Bulgaria, Portugal etc. would not be out of pocket by the UK's departure.
  • No Common Fisheries Policy (i.e. no fishing quotas)
  • No Common Agricultural Policy (UK farmers on anything but industrial scale farms are going to be screwed)
  • No votes in European Commission, Council, Parliament etc.

At this point, this scenario is the best that Britain can hope for. However, I no longer believe that it is certain to be the outcome, just that it is still likelier than any other alternative. Several politicians (in the UK and in the EU) have openly declared intentions that the UK should leave the single market. 

Here's why I think the Norway model is more likely than leaving the single market:
  • Every other instance of countries having referenda about membership in European markets, where the referenda came out negative, has resulted in arrangements that are as close as possible to EU membership while still honouring the democratic decision. Iceland, Norway, Switzerland: the two former countries are in the EEA, the latter has replicated almost all of EEA through a batch of "bilateral" agreements that are all linked together. Basically, political leaders faced with a population that is eurosceptic have almost always ended up putting their countries as close to the EU as they could. 
  • Politicians want to be (re-)elected. Leaving the EEA would throw the UK into ten years or more of economic chaos, with a lengthy recession at the start. Any government proactively causing not just a brief stock market crash, but actual long-term recession, would severely scupper its chances of getting re-elected.
  • Aside from the SNP, politicians want to preserve "the Union". If the UK remains an EEA member, then most benefits of being in the EU still apply. For the fishing industry, there'd be fewer restrictions. Any second Scottish referendum would therefore have to present "EU-accession" (which includes eventually adopting the Euro and continuing to abide by Common Fisheries Policy) as the "Independence" option, while the "staying together" option would stick with the pound and stay out of fishing quotas. Basically, if they want Scotland to stay, they have to keep Britain in the EEA.
  • The referendum wasn't won by the "Leave" extremists. It was won by confused, mostly undecided voters who want "change" and were shown a long list of (semi-fictional) grievances and who were promised the world. Now they see the first shockwaves of their decision. They also see how quickly the promises are being abandoned. Staying in the EEA is the UK's best chance of preserving its economy (and JOBS), and of not completely alienating the bulk of the electorate. 
  • It'd be the quickest solution and actually achievable within 2 years. (The main sticking point would probably be just how much the UK would have to put into the Norway Grants). 
Will Boris turn the UK into The Black Knight?

Likely, however, is not the same as assured. If, post-Cameron, the more far-right elements take over government, the UK could continue shooting itself in various limbs (the foot having already been shot yesterday) until none are left.

So, my request for friends and readers who opposed Brexit is this:

Please start writing to politicians NOW.  Please keep writing to them (and feel free to write to more than one, and perhaps even to write to MPs where your families live). Please tell politicians what your priorities are for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. 

If you don't want to spend a long time writing your own letter, I've prepared two for you to copy, paste into the contact form online, and adapt. Delete stuff you disagree with, add stuff of your own.

Tell them what you value.

  • As a Brit, do you value the right to travel, live, work and study in other EU countries? Do you want children / future generations to have that right?
  • Do you value the contribution of immigrants to UK society?
  • Do you value access to the single market (and how appealing this is to major manufacturers and employers)?
  • Do you value solidarity with nations hit hard by the recession and decades of underdevelopment (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania etc)? Do you think they should suffer financial losses if the UK leaves?

  • As (non-UK) European, do you value Britain's inclusion in Europe?
  • Do you value being able to travel, live, work and study in the UK?
  • Do you value a quick resolution and return to economic stability?
  • Do you value solidarity with the 48% of the British electorate who want to be part of the EU?

Please, write to your MP. Write to your AM. Write to your MEP. Write to your Abgeordnete/r, your sénateur, your deputati, ...

We can stop the UK from slipping further towards insanity, and we can stop the EU from crumbling. We just need to make sure that common sense prevails among the people who implement Brexit.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

There are a small handful of authors who are widely seen as the Greats of fantasy literature. With his highly influential, much beloved novel 'The Last Unicorn', Peter S Beagle is one of those Greats. So, when I saw on Netgalley that he has a new novel coming out this year, I obviously had to give it a try.

Summerlong is a slowly building, highly atmospheric read set in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, on a commuter island near Seattle. There, retired historian Abe Aronson lives a pleasantly cantankerous life, joined regularly by his girlfriend Joanna, a stewardess nearing retirement. Together, they have a wonderfully sardonic, yet very comfortable relationship, which has grown very close over the twenty years that they have been not-married and not-officially-dating (but sleeping together nonetheless). It's rare to see such a curiously uncategorised couple in literature.

One day, they go to their usual local restaurant, where a new waitress catches their eye. Lioness is special. She has a classical look about her, as if she belongs into antiquity. Somehow she shines and draws everyone's attention without meaning to.

It is Joanna who offers her a chance to stay in Abe's garage when Lioness complains of the cold of her current bedsit. And so Abe gains a lodger who leaves an impression on him, Joanna, and Joanna's lesbian daughter, and who appears to be on the run from something vague and undefined.

The novel is richly evocative and atmospheric, slowly building a sense of the unreal from subtle beginnings to ever more archetypal, mythical proportions. It's full of detail that adds to the atmosphere, but lean and not bloated with a single unnecessary word. The human relationships, dialogue, habits - they are utterly authentic, as if taken from real life.

If you like mythical fantasy, it is a wonderful treat. Even if that's not a genre you're familiar with, you'll struggle to find a more absorbing, beautiful novel this year.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Brexit 3.0: My Case for Remain

One of the most frustrating things about the EU Referendum is that it is hard to argue for the status quo. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” situations. But, let’s have a go, anyway. Unlike my previous Brexit post which went a little viral, this one is not trying to be unbiased.

1 Economics

Economics isn’t as ‘pure’ a science as maths or physics or even climate change, so it’s natural that people don’t trust economists as much as, say, your friendly neighbourhood scientific genius. However, when 90% of economists agree on a prediction, it’s worth paying attention. They might disagree about how bad the economic impact of Brexit would be on Britain, but they all agree that there would be a significant cost. The British economy would shrink, by between 0.5% and 3%. The Economist predicts a rise in unemployment of 380,000 people by 2018.

For comparison, the 2008-13 recession saw the British economy shrink by 6% and unemployment rise by about 1 million people. So the best guess for the short term impact of Brexit is that it would be about half as bad as the 2008 financial crisis - not the end of the world. What happens after that is pretty much anyone’s guess.

Some of the very few pro-Brexit economists believe that it would hurt Europe more than Britain, so there could be job losses and economic plight in Europe. I have to admit, I’m not entirely clear on how this is an argument for Brexit – in a vote between “no additional economic harm” and “economic harm for us, or, if we’re lucky, for others”, the second option does not hold all that much appeal whichever way you cut it.

That’s just the immediate impact. In the longer term, no one knows. Some pro-Brexit economists believe a long rise, but simulations are impossible: everything depends on how well Britain is managed and what happens elsewhere in the world and what sort of deals get negotiated.

One of the effects of this immediate, fairly certain Brexit recession? The UK government would suffer a tax income reduction (and increase in jobseekers’ cost) that equals or exceeds the savings it would generate from not being a member of the EU anymore. All those promises about using the money the UK contributes to the EU now to prop up the NHS, Make Britain Great Again, replace the lost Regional Development income, keep funding British farmers? They’re demonstrably wrong, as the UK government would, by the reckoning of the vast majority of predictions, lose more money than it’d save.

So, in the short to medium term, Brexit would be a punch in our economic face. Even prominent Leave supporters and funders acknowledge this. Some even celebrate it: Peter Hargreaves, a billionnaire who has put millions into the Leave Campaign, is so excited about the prospect that he compared it with Dunkirk (the infamous military retreat Britain suffered early in WW2):
"It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had. It will be like Dunkirk again. We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.”

2 Leadership

Churchill? Methinks Not.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, agree with him. Let’s see Brexit as an opportunity that could enable the UK’s fortunes to soar in the long term. It’s not entirely unrealistic. On average, UK people already work more hours than Germans, for lower wages. So there’s obviously a different philosophy in place in Britain – wages could sink lower, hours could increase, and the Amazon model of employee performance management could become universally adopted among employers and finally kick our lazy butts in gear.

But, and it’s a huge “but”, where is the Winston Churchill of the Dunkirk metaphor? Would anyone honestly compare Cameron, or Johnson, or Gove, or Duncan-Smith, or May, or Corbyn, or even Farage with Churchill? In what universe? 

British people may be hard working, but this isn’t WWII: the survival of Britain is not at stake (no matter what Leavers might claim). This referendum will not be decided by die-hard Leavers or Remainers – it’ll be decided by the previously undecided voters. When the recession starts to bite, when a few hundred thousand people find themselves out of work a couple of years from now, when big multinational corporations pull out of the UK, do you think any of the current crop of politicians will be able to rally and motivate the population to pull through and turn the UK into a fiercely competitive tiger economy? Which of the politicians do you believe will be that leader – I’d really love to know.

My point is this: without a great, effective, competent and trusted leader, the Brexit recession will lead to political instability in the UK, and that in turn will make it much more likely that the economy will stay in the doldrums than that it should recover. With the current crop of politicians, the economic punch to the face could turn into a knock-out blow, rather than the punch that enrages the UK into a ferocious comeback.

3 Stability

Someone famously asked “What is the problem to which the EU is the solution?”

The answer is “The vulnerability of individual nation states to become politically unstable”

It’s hard to believe that Spain and Portugal were dictatorships in living memory (though not within my own lifetime). I do remember Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany being dictatorships. Watching as Poland’s current government is drifting towards authoritarianism is scary – and watching the EU push back against that is actually a big comfort.

The Troubles
This is an argument British people don’t really believe applies to them. Britain has been fairly stable for centuries, so there is a deep-seated belief that instability and political conflagrations are something that happens elsewhere, to other nations. It could not happen here, could it?

2011 Riots
Unfortunately, I think that’s an unfounded sense of superiority. It can and sometimes does happen to the most stable of nations. In the UK, The Troubles in Northern Ireland are not that far ago. They were in decline when I was a child, but people who lived through them in the 1970s and 80s may tell you that, at times, it did not seem as if a collapse of order was inconceivable. Similarly, the 2011 riots fizzled out quickly enough, but surely I can’t have been the only one watching the news open-mouthed, horrified, and beset with an uneasy sense that we’d be in real trouble if they’d continued much longer.

Look across the Atlantic, as Donald Trump is now one of only two candidates with a shot at the White House. Just because a democracy has been working for a hundred years or more does not mean it can never lead to disaster.

The EU is really a checks-and-balances operation, and sometimes it acts as a check and balance to its member states. As I mentioned in a previous Brexit blog post, it’s the ultimate centrist institution. The big decisions only come into effect when all member countries agree – and that means the EU is a beast of compromise, as there will never be a scenario wherein all member states lean to the left or to the right simultaneously.

Stability may not be exciting, and it slows down change (which is frustrating if you want to make big changes to society), but it can be a real benefit. Don’t undervalue it. 30p a day is pretty good value for that.

4 Clout

The EU is slowly establishing itself as a superpower. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it looked like America was going to be the sole superpower for a while. Now, the balance of power has shifted, and the superpowers are America, China, the EU and Russia. (Putin is staying uncharacteristically quiet, because he very obviously wants Brexit to happen. He’s keen for the EU to collapse, resenting its rise and eastward expansion, so a Brexit would suit him nicely).

While there are lots of countries in the EU, when it comes to negotiations and diplomacy, most of the decision making is heavily influenced by the big three – Germany, France and the UK. Whether it’s negotiating with Iran about its nuclear ambitions, or agreeing trade deals, or responding to the Arab Spring or the refugee crisis – the EU amplifies the UK’s clout in the world enormously. (If you think some of the global events are all being mishandled, you’re not the only one, but the handling of all these is more or less in line with the UK’s policies and wishes…)

Britain’s membership of NATO and its nuclear arsenal may be significant, but they will not guarantee a seat at the table in discussions about world events. Geopolitically, Turkey is probably more important to NATO right now than Britain. As a member of the EU, the UK has almost a third of the clout of a superpower. On its own, it’d have roughly the same influence on global events as Canada, with or without Trident.

5 Idealism

Of course the EU is partially built on idealism. I happen to share the ideal of a world (or at least a Europe) without borders but even if you don’t, there are bound to be some European ideals that you do believe in.

Culture: the EU is about multiculturalism (with exchange projects like Erasmus to expose people to other European cultures) and about local culture (funding the arts, supporting language & heritage preservation).

Education: thanks to the conditions created by the EU, most higher education systems in Europe have adopted the British qualifications. Bachelor degrees and Masters degrees are now the norm across most of Europe! Come on Britain, YOU’VE WON. Most of Europe is following in your footsteps when it comes to the way universities operate. Also, the EU supports and funds education and research initiatives.

Protection of Heritage Produce: It might have all started with champagne, but these days there are dozens of British small and medium sized companies that flourish because their regional produce is protected. From Stilton to Cornish Pasties – various British regions have become valuable brands.

Environment & animal rights: The EU could and should do more to protect the environment, wildlife and animal welfare. But even so, air quality standards, water quality standards, the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides for the protection of bees, banning animal testing for cosmetic purposes, improving the conditions for factory farmed pigs and chickens…  they might not always go far enough, but there are significant achievements that affect the environment and animals across Europe. There are certainly ongoing efforts to keep improving environmental protection and animal welfare.

Privacy and Consumer Rights: British people feel less protective of their (digital) privacy than Germans, but most will recognise that Facebook, Whatsapp, Snapchat etc. have a lot of sensitive information about all of us. The EU does work to protect people’s rights, including privacy. As for Consumer Rights, as far as I know any electrical product sold in the EU has to have at least two years manufacturer’s warranty, which is why crappy junk products are sold by scamsters from the back of vans, rather than on the high street. European air passengers are the best protected in the world (in case of cancellation or delays), European airspace is the safest in the world (there are lists of airlines and individual planes owned by certain airlines which are not allowed to fly into European skies), and, much as in-depth labelling of allergens might be a headache for small businesses, European food labelling is among the best in the world, giving consumers the power to make informed choices.

6 Potential

Maybe you’re  not planning to move abroad, or to retire in a warmer climate. Maybe you don’t have children, or your children won’t ever want to study or work abroad. Maybe Europe is of as little interest to you as Argentina, or Botswana, or Antarctica.

However, many people quite would like to head somewhere warmer when they grow old. Children and young people have more potential within the EU than outside: university education is free in some European countries, and many courses in continental Europe are now taught in English, so young people don’t even need to be fluent in a foreign language to save £30,000 of tuition fees. And, in an increasingly globalised world, having the right to live and work in many countries automatically is actually a pretty massive opportunity. An open door is open in both ways. I believe there is value in preserving and maximising one’s potential.

7 Scab UK?

The EU is not just a European Free Trade Union. In some ways, it is also a European Trade Union, with a membership that's made up of countries, not employees. It uses collective bargaining power to negotiate with outsiders. It brings in regulations to protect the interests of its member nations and citizens. That stuff Leave Campaigners decry as protectionism? That's the foundation of what trade unions do: protect the (perceived) interests of their  members.

That doesn't mean it's great, but the Leave Campaign's position can be seen as "let's be a scab: the UK might benefit (at the expense of other EU members)".

The problem with that sort of approach is that, if the Leavers turn out to be right (which I seriously doubt), then this could lead to a race to the bottom. If the UK does well out of a bonfire of regulations and by becoming a sort of Wild West for businesses and capitalist barons, then chances are, other European countries will follow the UK's lead. If the competitive advantages are as big as the Leavers claim (and, again, they are almost certainly not), then the UK would be leading the charge into lower protection for workers, natural environments, consumers... basically, all the stuff that was not great about the Industrial Revolution and its robber barons, all the stuff that makes China not just economically successful but also an inhumane mess (where people in cities have to wear breathing masks, employees are driven to suicide by working practices, where species go extinct and entire ecosystems die)... all of that could be headed our way.

So, do you see the UK as a scab? 

8 Insurance

Some people buy optional insurance, others don’t. To me, the EU has always seemed to be the biggest insurance safety net that I have.

If I get sick or tired of Britain or too depressed by the Welsh weather, I can leave and start a new life elsewhere without a problem.

If the British economy goes to pots and I lose my job, I can leave and start a new life elsewhere without a problem.

If some cataclysmic events occur (Chernobyl-style reactor meltdowns, tsunamis, intemperate climate change, fracking-related poisoning of drinking water, an invasion of spiders, the reintroduction of the military draft, a UKIP general election victory), I can leave and start a new life elsewhere without a problem.

To me, 30p a day seems a pretty good bargain for that sort of insurance.

9 Questions to ask of the Leave Campaign

The pro-Remain rhetoric, spin and fearmongering are annoying and embarrassing. The pro-Leave lies, meanwhile, are stomach-churning.

But, should you encounter Leave campaigners, ask them some questions.

  • They complain of EU over-regulation. Ask them for a list of the regulations they intend to scrap.
  • They promise how they’d spend the money Britain would save if it left the EU. Ask them where they’d get the money from if Britain entered a recession. 
  • They complain the EU is undemocratic. Ask them whether they voted in the last European election. Ask them whether they personally voted for any of the members of the House of Lords, or the Privy Council, or High Court judges, or any of the ministers in the current cabinet. Ask them whether the UK is undemocratic if its government has policies that they didn’t personally agree with. 
  • They complain that immigrants steal jobs. Ask them how the UK has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe.
  • They complain that immigrants are to blame for the housing crisis and put strains on services. Ask them why the UK government didn’t build more houses, or increase service provisions. (After all, immigration has been happening for years – is it the immigrants’ fault that UK governments haven’t been managing supply properly? Immigrants pay more into the UK in taxes than they take out in public services – without them, austerity would have to be more austere than it already is! Britain imports profitable working people and exports loss-making old retirees, in terms of public service / tax balances!) 
  • They complain that the UK has lost sovereignty. (It hasn’t, according to law professors / experts). Ask them why they don’t want any say at the European level. 
  • Ask them to explain to you in detail not what is wrong with the EU, but what they believe the UK’s post-Brexit arrangement with Europe and the world will be, and why. 
  • Ask them who they believe will be in power in Downing Street for the next few years, and whether they are confident that Britain will be sufficiently well-managed by its governments to avoid economic stagnation, and why they believe so. 

Compare the answers you get from different Leave campaigners. Do they match? Do they sound convincing? Which ones do you believe in?

10 If Remain Wins

All of the above is necessarily talking about existing achievements and policies of the EU. But, for a moment, let’s daydream about the potential for the future.

It’s Friday. The results are in. “Remain” has won, but over 40% of votes were for “Leave”. David Cameron breathes a huge sigh of relief as the nation sides with the least worst option in spite of his staggering incompetence in how he’s been handling the EU. (Meanwhile, Britain First alleges vote rigging, Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins imply that the referendum would have had a different turnout if Jo Cox had not been assassinated / the government had played fair / British voters weren't all mindless sheeple, and proceed to whine like crybabies).

So, what next? Well, if David Cameron were a competent leader, here’s what he would do:

  • He’d take the results back to the EU and point out that Britain came to within a whisker of leaving.
  • He’d not put the UK’s relationship with the EU back on the agenda, but instead focus on EU reform, to benefit not (just) Britain, but people and nations across Europe.
  • He’d point out that the EU has a problem of rising extremism, and that the problem is growing in violence and danger, which requires addressing, not just with rhetoric and lots of educated people sitting around a room looking baffled and despairing, but with looking at how the EU should be reshaped to be less abstract and more palatable to people across Europe.
  • One of the EU’s problems is that there are many people making a living coming up with new regulations and adding to the bureaucracy. The first thing that should change is that some of the existing committees and groups should have their mission changed to scrap and condense regulations, rather than come up with new ones. (No new people should be hired – there simply should be a reallocation of existing EU resources to trimming, rather than growing, the regulations)
  • A new EU law / directive / whatever should be proposed (and passed) which demands that any subsequent new regulations and laws must undergo iterative testing before they are approved EU-wide. I.e. designated “pilot areas”, one in each member country, should apply any new law. Then, someone should assess in each area what worked, what didn’t, how it was enforced (if at all) and what difference it made. Only once there is demonstrable evidence that there’s a difference, that the law works, that it has benefit, should it pass through the EU parliament for a vote.
  • Cameron should propose a complete restructuring of the EU, to make it more transparent, democratic and efficient. The negotiations to restructure it would last about 10-15 years and far exceed his time in office, but the key thing is that EU reform should be a long-term objective on the agenda of Britain (and the EU). 
  • There should be some changes to secondary education in the UK. Every pupil should have the opportunity (and be very much encouraged) to learn two foreign languages, and European ones (especially French) should be promoted. A scheme to promote language courses to be provided to university students studying any subject should also be conceived. Why? Eurocrat jobs require as essential requirement fluency in two languages and some competence in a third. I believe one of the fluency languages must be either French or English. One of the reasons Britain doesn’t have as strong a voice inside the European Commission as it could is a lack of people who have good foreign language skills. Britain is a leading voice on the European Council, but the European Commission could really benefit from more British perspectives being present.
  • Finally, the migrant question. Britain could take a number of approaches. For example, the UK could negotiate with the EU a temporary moratorium on free movement EU migration to the UK in return for offering to take as many Syrian refugees as there were EU immigrants last year. It’s quite possible the EU might be open to such a deal. Alternatively and somewhat less nobly, the UK could implement immigration-reducing policies as outlined in my last ranty blog post...
  • Oh, and he really needs to start working on solutions to the disgusting nature of political discourse (and debates about immigration) in the UK. 

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there's work ahead. If the next ten years aren't spent negotiating Brexit, then there should be initiatives to improve the EU and make it more accountable, representative and palatable to its people. Because fundamentally, the principle of working together with other countries, trading freely, protecting consumers and human rights and the environment, and stabilising nation states is actually pretty damn sound, whatever flaws currently beset the implementation.

Saturday 18 June 2016

The Tragedy of the Incompetence of David Cameron

Do you ever feel like having a long, incoherent rant? No? Well, after the events of this week, I do.

Let's start with the basics: I still think Brexit is unlikely to be the economic end of the world, and I still think Brexit is unlikely to deliver any of the things Britain really wants. For that analysis, written when I was in a somewhat less grim mood, see my Politics Special: Brexit.

Now, on to the Tragedy of Incompetent Leadership in the UK.

Act 1: Incompetent Negotiation

In the UK, everyone will tell you that the EU is resistant to reform, a juggernaut, laden down with inertia, unable to change. There is an element of truth in this: the EU does operate on a slower timescale than most national governments. But that is a very different beast from "impossible to reform"

When David Cameron was elected for a second term with an outright majority, he had to deliver on his promise of a referendum. Here's his phenomenally obvious strategic mistake: he promised to negotiate with the EU first, and then hold a referendum.

What utter idiocy.

Think yourself into the shoes of other European leaders for a moment. Imagine negotiating with the promise of a referendum in the future. Cameron's intent is pretty clear: he wanted to put the EU in crisis mode, to get it to come to agreements as quickly as it did for bailouts. However, the difference is that the bailouts were negotiated precisely to ensure a (supposedly) guaranteed outcome of retained EU membership. You can't negotiate when the outcome on your side of the table is a big fat "maybe". That's like trying to sell a car and telling the buyer "pay me, and maybe you will get this car". It's a terrible negotiation strategy (unless you happen to be the lottery, in which case your argument is "pay me a tiny pittance and maybe you will get this fortune". No wonder the EU offered Cameron tiddlywinks)

What should he have done? Run the referendum as soon as legally possible after the election, on a premise of reforming the EU if "Remain" wins (and hinting that a second referendum towards the end of the next Parliament would be on the cards if he got re-elected for a third term, thereby giving himself several years to reform the EU)

If "Remain" had won, then this would have enabled him to negotiate with the EU on much stronger legs: he could have shown the evidence of all the "Leave" votes as a shot across the EU's bow, requiring genuine and deep-reaching reform. He would have had realistic timescales to negotiate meaningful reform, and this would have been his central political objective for his term in office.

Act 2: Incompetent Definitions

The Referendum campaigns have been absolutely abysmal. Lies, dishonesty, hyperbole, spin, distortions, publicity stunts... I cannot recall ever witnessing as shameful a farce in a functional democracy as the debacle we have been living through these past few months.

One of the key reasons for all this farce is that Cameron has chosen, quite intentionally, to leave "Leave" a blank slate. The only thing he has stated is that a referendum would be....
a) binding (i.e. no re-negotiating with the EU and no re-referending)
b) resulting in invoking Article 50 & exit from EU.

The strategy, presumably, is to paint "Leave" as a dangerous leap into uncertainty. What a colossal miscalculation. Of course "Leave" is fraught with uncertainty, but the electorate can see through his scheming, and no one is impressed at feeling manipulated by dodgy Dave.

Here's what he should have done: he should have set out a scenario for "Leave". That scenario should have been explicit and clear. Namely, he should have stated outright that his post-referendum strategy would be for the UK to remain in the EEA / EFTA but exit the EU, as a first step on a potential journey of distancing.

Why? Because this would have allowed a debate framed by some semblance of clarity. Sure, there would have been arguments that "maybe we'll kick Cameron out and put in place a new government" or similar, but at least the electorate would have an ability to make an informed decision.

The point of not defining what a "Leave" outcome would entail is to prevent informed decision-making. What wonder is it that, lacking information and clarity, the resulting public discourse has turned into a farce filled with so many lies that even experienced politicians are sick of it?

Act 3: Incompetent Argumentation

Two words: CAMP FEAR.

Plus, letting the referendum descend into a "Tory Game of Thrones" which only serves to convince the electorate that NONE of the f***ers currently in government can be trusted with so much as the responsibility over managing a lemonade stall, let alone a country.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the House, the entire debate is being framed as "if we leave, we'll get extra ultra Tory policies!!!" and "don't trust those toffs!!!" which is hardly likely to win the debate considering that the electorate actually ELECTED those same Tory toffs.

Due to the fundamental mistake of Act 1 (see above), we're now in a situation where "Vote Remain" is a vote for a status quo no one is particularly excited about, with nothing much to promise, while, thanks to the huge mistake in Act 2, "Vote Leave" is a vote for a change that is so vague that no one can really know what it would mean. Therefore, while Cameron & Co threaten everything they can think of, the Leave Campaign can promise everything, too.

Dear Cameron, a hint: remember how Obama won? It was on a platform of "change". Noticed how Trump got to be the Republican candidate? It was on a platform of "change". What on earth made you think that framing the other side of the debate as blanket "change" would be a good idea?!?

Act -1 (Prelude): Failing to Meet Promises

The number one promise that the Tories have broken is, of course, the reduction of net migration. I happen to be an immigrant and a big fan of free movement, so I can't say I'm heartbroken over that failure. However, despite what they may claim, they could have done something to deliver on that promise.

Here's the argument: Free Movement of People means that they cannot prevent people from anywhere in the EU to move to the UK. This is true.

Here's the counterargument: Actually, the Free Movement of People specifically states that any EU member state must treat EU citizens equally to its own citizens, which includes the right to move and reside etc. This sounds like it's the same, but it isn't. If the government wanted to reduce the flow of EU migrants, it could do so by creating a Catch 22 obstacle that any existing residents could meet easily, but which would be difficult for outsiders to overcome. While this means some inconvenience for the existing population, who would obviously be annoyed, if the feeling about immigration is that strong, it would enable the government to deliver on its promise to reduce net immigration.

Let's take an example. Imagine the UK introduced a UK Residency Identity Card (UKRIC). Imagine it also introduced a law that says landlords can only rent properties to people with a UKRIC card, and also imagine that you could only acquire a UKRIC card by providing evidence that you've been living in the UK for at least 6 months (or 12 months, or whichever threshold you want to set). The law could include some exceptions (student halls etc.), and undoubtedly there'd be loopholes, but it would clearly be an obstacle to moving to the UK. Incomers would have to choose whether to stay in a hotel, or with family / friends, or buy a house (of course, you could also make a UKRIC card a requirement to allow someone to buy a house...), or whether to come here to study. Would it stop EU immigration? Of course not. But it'd be a pretty big filter. It would reduce net immigration and go some way towards delivering on the Tory election manifesto promise.

Of course, there might be legal challenges to such a law, and who knows, it might even be deemed against EU rules. However, it takes about 5 years for any case to get to the EU courts, which would be enough to give the government some breathing room in terms of meeting its promises and the wishes of its electorate. It would also enable the government to negotiate about EU reforms in the meantime, from a very different position; one of having already reduced movement of people...

I'm not saying I would have liked such a policy. In fact, I would have been the first to decry it as vile and xenophobic. I'm just saying that Cameron could have implemented policies to reduce net immigration from Europe if he'd wanted to. Considering the UK government is being very creative with the custom-made obstacles it keeps introducing to naturalisation of residents who are already here, it's hard to believe they would not have had similarly creative ideas to obstruct people wishing to move here from elsewhere.

The reason I'm including this here is because this phenomenal failure of having made promises that they then did not deliver on, has completely wiped out any trust in this government on the far-right. They pandered to far right voters, and then they betrayed them.

[I really wish they hadn't pandered to the bigots and xenophobes to begin with... and this is something Labour are guilty of, too: there has been woefully little leadership and hardly any standing-by-one's-principles, with EU immigration being a popular scapegoat on both sides of the house.]

Act 4: Anger Mismanagement

The mood in Britain has been darkening these past few years. When I moved here, in 1999, the British tabloid press was already significantly more xenophobic and bigoted than the German one. I hope the German one hasn't caught up, but walk past any British news stand these days, and it's impossible not to be affronted.

I imagine right wingers find the Guardian and the Mirror and the Socialist Worker as much an affront as I do the Daily Vile and The Sun and The Express. The key point here isn't the flavour of the politics, it's the dominance of opinion telling us what to think, and the popular tone of RAGE and FEAR and complete and utter poison. Newspapers are not really newspapers, they are, at best, Opinionpapers, and, at worst, OUTRAGEpapers.

So, David Cameron's first key incompetence is his lack of enthusiasm for press regulation and reform. His second key incompetence is to not insist on law enforcement. I'm actually in favour of free speech (even extreme free speech), but if there are laws banning hate speech, then it's deeply hypocritical to not apply them consistently. This isn't even about whether Islamist hate preachers should be treated the same as far right extremists (which they should), it's the staggering imbalance between the way Joe Public is treated compared to Celebrities and VunIPs. If some small town twerp makes hate speech and offensive comments on social media, he or she might find themselves arrested. Meanwhile, Katie Hopkins is writing the sort of stuff that would make Goebbels proud, but gets a free pass. No wonder small fry hatemongers feel hard done by.

Another thing which has been growing rapidly during Cameron's time in office is the popularity of a social media savvy, paranoid, fascist hate group...

...but, though they've risen under Cameron's watch, he's done nothing at all to tackle the problem.

Over this background of constant toxicity comes the referendum, and the series of failures, backstabbings, campaign lies, fearmongering, propaganda etc during the campaign. It's a tornado of crap. Voters are not just suffering from referendum fatigue, they are actually getting very frustrated and in some cases quite anxious - whichever side they're on (or even if they're undecided).

A brief excursion into anecdote: I'm a political person and occasional activist. I happen to campaign for the human rights of Palestinians and for solidarity with them. The Israel/Palestine discourse is one of the most anger-filled, troll-rich ones you can find on the internet (or outside of it). So, when I found myself manning a Boycott HP / pro-Palestine stall in central Cardiff the other day, I was anxious and expected some blowback. Indeed, one woman walked past, telling us "I really don't agree with you", shaking her head. Another man with an opposing viewpoint stopped to spend half an hour discussing the topic with one of the people at the stall. Two other men expressed degrees of disagreements with our positions. In short: it was a more civilised and safe experience than I'd feared. Then, after spotting someone in a "Stronger In" T-shirt, I walked to the other end of town to a "Vote Remain" campaign stall. There, only two people were left after a couple of gruelling hours, which apparently included a deranged woman kicking their banner and counter-shouting abuse at speakers. I joined them for a bit, and another furious woman approached the stall, shouted abuse, and ultimately walked off shouting angrily to herself. The EU referendum campaigns have become more toxic than the Israel/Palestine one - that should tell you a lot! (I'd also walked past "Vote Leave" stalls in the city centre the week before: those seemed to be calm affairs featuring tea, biscuits and cheerful chats with passers-by without attracting any significant blowback).

What has David Cameron and his government done to address the rage and passion? Has he been calm and statesmanlike, or has he threatened economic collapse and war? Has he framed the debate to allow people to become informed, or has he intentionally created uncertainty to foster a culture of fear (which is now backfiring)? Has he conducted an honest campaign, or has he been as dishonest as Gove, Boris & Farage? Has he tried even remotely to stick to fair play, or has he tried to jump the campaigning queue with a brochure sent to UK households? (Incidentally, a brochure I have never received, so I have no idea what it says). Has he done anything, anything at all, to build up the public's trust in politicians and government?


Act 5: Tragedy

This is not Cameron's fault. But unless he starts being a much more competent leader, it could just be the beginning of a slide into catastrophe.

Act 6: Catastrophe?

Now we come to the reason for this entire bloated blog post. In the aftermath of this week's devastating events, my mind has been ruminating. I don't believe the assassination of an MP by a terrorist was Cameron's fault. I wouldn't even blame his spectacular incompetence and mismanagement of the referendum.

However, it illustrated something which I had not previously fully realised. I knew that there is rage and distrust among Brexitters. I saw how the Brexit movement has attracted frustrated, unstable people, and amplified their frustration into rage. Even so, until this turned into a gruesome terrorist attack, it never occurred to me that we may be witnessing the lead up to a genuine catastrophe.

No, not Brexit. No, not Bremain. I think the catastrophe could happen whichever way the referendum turns out.

I think this referendum could become the catalyst for long-term violence. I feel reminded of reading about the referendums that led to the creation of the Republic of Ireland - and the split with Northern Ireland. The most passionate of the losers of that referendum in NI ultimately turned into the IRA and caused The Troubles.

The worst thing is, I'm not sure the outcome of the referendum matters:

If Vote Remain wins, then Britain First et al could turn from mostly hooligans to a large number of violent terrorists.

If Vote Leave wins, but politicians pick the EFTA option to preserve jobs and the economy and their own re-electability (as they would), then Britain First et al will see this as a betrayal (as free movement of people would still apply & UK would still pay heftily into the EU), and so they could turn from hooligans to terrorists.

There are already quite a few actively violent far-right terrorists in the UK, for example

So far, they have been targeting Muslims, and so far, they've been largely incompetent. My worry is that this referendum - and the way it has been so utterly mismanaged - could lead to a catastrophic growth of far-right violence and terror, and to a new era of Troubles for the UK and Europe.

Britain First alone has 1.4 million fans. That's 1.4 million radicalised extremists with terrorist sympathies. (For comparison, the radical extremist Anjem Choudary's following is in the tens of thousands, not millions). What is our government doing to prevent a total catastrophe?

Considering how incompetent David Cameron has been at handling the EU referendum so far, and how his incompetence has allowed it to become a farce festering extremism, I am deeply worried about the prospects of the UK. A few weeks ago, I thought the main consequences of the referendum were likely to be economic. Now, I am wondering whether we're on the cusp of something much worse.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda by Ahmed Masoud

Vanished is part mystery thriller, part coming of age tale and part chronicle of recent history. Ahmed Masoud, a Palestinian ex-pat living in the UK, set out to introduce readers to a part of the world that most of us will never set foot in: Gaza.

The novel is framed by events of 2014: our protagonist, Omar, leaves his wife and son in London to make his way to Gaza during the bombardment of the strip by Israeli forces. Having had news that his former home has been bombed, and unable to reach his remaining relatives and friends by phone, he feels a strong obligation to return, no matter what the cost. En route, he begins to write down his life story, so that his toddling son might one day understand what drove Omar to leave him behind, should he not return.

Omar starts his life story with the year he decided to become a detective and find out what had happened to his own father. Omar was a baby when his father disappeared one night, and by the time he is eight years old, he wants nothing more than to find out how and why. His investigations are dangerous, however. Over the course of his quest, he finds himself embroiled with the Israeli security forces, rebel fighters, nationalist and Islamist politics, the peace process and the intifadas.

Vanished is a very readable novel. The prose is plain and matter of fact. The narrative moves briskly even when events don't (sometimes, years pass between significant events and paragraphs of text). Our protagonist's struggles are all too authentic. However, in its desire to present 25 years' worth of history alongside the mystery plot, the novel inevitably loses focus as time goes on - just as Omar's quest becomes sidelined in his life as larger events take hold of him.

There are many things about life in Gaza that seem a little surprising to outsiders like me. Though it's densely populated, there is a very strong sense of community in each street. People know each other. Similarly, everyone knows who runs the Israeli army in Gaza, and everyone refers to him by his first name. I cannot be the only one who is constantly perplexed that Benjamin Netanyahu is referred to as "Bibi" by politicians and media alike. After reading Vanished, I must conclude that this way of talking about people, which sounds overly familiar to my ears, must be the norm in that part of the world. Perhaps most importantly, the Gaza in this novel is a living, breathing enclave, with people leading everyday lives and having everyday concerns. Children go to school, treats, sweets and beatings are dished out by the grown ups, young people head to university and make plans for their futures and careers, while dreaming about and trying to hang out with members of the opposite sex...

However, the book does have its fair share of flaws and problems. Perhaps the most unsurprising is the way Israelis are portrayed: monstrous child-raping killers, nameless oppressors, bullies. There is no Israeli character with any redeeming features in the book: they are clearly the villains of the piece. For a book which handles shades of grey and complexities between the different resistance groups and political factions among Palestinians quite well, this treatment of Israel is a little too simplistic. Then again, I doubt the citizens of occupied France / Poland / Czechoslovakia / Jersey during WW2 had many nuanced things to say about the German occupation forces...

Towards the end, the story loses drive a little bit. Events speed up radically, to the point of becoming a little confusing. At one point, I really struggled to understand whether I was reading the framing narrative or the life story narrative. The ending feels rushed, as if the author had grown tired of the book and just wanted to get it out of the way. Or, perhaps, as if it received less editorial TLC than the start of the book.

For me, the most problematic aspect of the book lay in its gender politics. I have not read (m)any novels written by Arab authors. I tried reading one (HWJN), but gave up on it, due to problematic gender politics in that novel.

For most of its length, Vanished treats female characters as any other novel would. I can't really discuss the problematic aspects, but I do know that any feminist friends of mine would read certain elements with their teeth very firmly clenched, and even I felt quite uncomfortable.

Vanished does a good job of being entertaining. It is educational in the way it depicts Palestinian society, though very simplistic beyond that microcosm (Israel BAD, Palestinians OPPRESSED). It's worth a read for anyone who wants to know what living in Gaza must have been like in the recent past.

Rating: 3.5/5

PS: For a very nuanced, intelligent and nevertheless thrilling and exciting novel handling the effects of oppression on oppressors and oppressees alike, I would heartily recommend Kindred. Perhaps such things can only be written about with such masterful nuance a hundred years after the fact...

Sunday 12 June 2016

The Last Mermaid by Charlotte Church, Jonathan Powell & Sion Trefor

The Last Mermaid is a new production commissioned by the Festival of Voice - a Welsh cultural festival. I'd seen the posters for it, noticed it being tweeted about (I follow Charlotte Church on Twitter because of her political activism), but only made up my mind to go and see it after reading a lacklustre review in Walesonline. This might seem perverse, but the review actually made me very intrigued about the show. Normally, any production with a famous person staged in the WMC for a Welsh festival would automatically get 5 stars in Welsh media, and the review praised the production values, choreography, staging, voice / singing... It's the story Walesonline chose to be scathing about, as "No words are spoken for 30 minutes, and it’s not easy to decipher exactly what is happening pushing the audience’s powers of interpretive detective work to the limit."

So, armed with that review and a determination to be a better story detective than the Walesonline reviewer, I was eager to give The Last Mermaid a try.

First things first: I strongly recommend buying the booklet that accompanies The Last Mermaid. As is often the case with opera (or opera-like) productions, the booklet isn't a list of the cast, but a synopsis of the story, a written overture, if you like. In The Last Mermaid's case, this is done in a semi-poetic way, rather than as a simple summary, but even so, if you read the booklet, you'll get the story easily. However, you might want to buy it about half an hour to an hour before the production starts: due to its style, it is a much longer read than usual. The poeticness was not to my personal taste, but the book serves its purpose very well.

The production itself starts in the sea, where merfolk exist in peace and fearlessness. However, a cataclysm eradicates them (the book indicates an oil spill, but in the staging, this was not obvious: they just seemed to have passed away in their sleep). After the sea has mostly died, the Mermaid hatches from her egg / clamshell, born into a lonely world full of floating plastic. She keens for others like her (a sweet and heartbreaking "Nnng, Nnnng" sound) and explores her world with a newborn's fascination. When a whale finds her, he is overjoyed and deeply saddened - she is the last of her kind; he is the last of his, and to free her from the loneliness she is fated to suffer, he turns her into a human, to the chagrin of the (not entirely gentle) waves.

The Last Mermaid is not a straightforward narrative. It is surreal, full of symbolism, and a distinct artistic streak. There is singing throughout (the first word might be spoken about half an hour in, but there are plenty words sung before then!), accompanied by masterful choreography and beautifully visual, hypnotic staging. It's more operatic in its influences - and modern opera at that. The music is never boring, but neither does it move into catchy pop tunes or stand-out arias. Accompanied by electronic backdrop that wouldn't be out of place in a Gorillaz or Moby album, the musical aspect of the production is intriguing.

I will be honest: as a child, I would not have enjoyed The Last Mermaid. I hated opera then, too. I was never comfortable with the surreal as a child, and the underlying bleakness of the story would not have worked for me.

As a grown-up, however, I enjoyed myself immensely. I did wish that the songs were a little more catchy, with more pronounced refrains, but that's because I have a corny taste in music. I did wish that the lyrics (and booklet) had been smoothed out a bit - they didn't roll of the tongue or flow as they should have done. And I did wish that the smell of brand new plastic/rubber stage props had been avoided, and replaced with a smell of the ocean. But compared to the visual extravaganza, the energy on stage, the sheer variety of dazzle, and the richness of the atmosphere that was being evoked, these are fairly minor points.

It's not a simple fairy tale, it's not for everyone, and I would only recommend it to families / children with a taste for high arts, patience, and an appreciation of opera. That said, if you can appreciate art for art's sake, and if you want to see something visually stunning, musically intriguing and hugely energetic; most of all, if you can enjoy having a story evoked rather than told, then The Last Mermaid is perfect.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday 5 June 2016

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye

A few weeks ago, the shortlist for the Wales Book of the Year Award was announced, alongside the public vote for the 'People's Choice Award'. Among the shortlisted books, the title Losing Israel grabbed my attention (despite the rather bland cover image).

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, so naturally I take an interest when a book about Israel is in with a shot at a literary award in my own backyard.

Here's the book's cover synopsis / blurb:
"During a phone call to her mother Jasmine Donahaye stumbled upon the collusion of her kibbutz family in the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 - and earlier, in the 1930s. She set out to learn the facts behind this revelation, and her discoveries challenged everything she thought she knew about the country and her family, transforming her understanding of Israel, and of herself.
In a moving and honest account that spans travel writing, nature writing and memoir, Losing Israel explores the powerful attachments people have to place and to contested national stories. "
It's a promising description, as it offers a personal perspective of a complex situation. When I started reading, however, I very quickly found myself far away from my usual reading habits. As you might expect from a reader primarily interested in science fiction and fantasy, I enjoy stories with a plot and some exciting premise that takes me away from the everyday world. I do read occasional literary fiction and, less frequently, non-fiction books, but they often require a change of mental gears.

Losing Israel required a bigger gear shift than the other non-fiction books I've read: I found it very slow to begin with. The best nonfiction hooks you from the first page - like The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, and good travel writing usually lures you in with an intriguing, evocative start (e.g. the Wales Book of the Year Award winner Cloud Road, which then lost a lot of the momentum of the start of the narrative). Losing Israel, on the other hand, has a very slow, meandering beginning. The first quarter of the book is not very engrossing, which does not bode well for its chances at finding a large audience.

Once I got used to the nonlinear, meandering literary rambles, the book did become interesting. It never really moves beyond the cover blurb in terms of events, so whether you find it absorbing will rely heavily on how interested you are in getting a glimpse of another person's life and views. I would recommend the book to other people who have never themselves been to Israel or the Palestinian territories, but who want to understand the issues that cause the conflict in that area, and to readers wishing to glimpse the conflict through the eyes of a liberal Jewish Israeli Expat.

The book also stands out because it isn't biased and one-sided, unlike most things written about Israel and Palestine. Jasmine Donahaye interrogates the history of Israel through the microscopic perspective of her own family history, and then maps that onto the larger history. She goes out of her way to find truth and reality, and wrote as truthful a book as she could. However, it is very much a book about the past, with comparatively little interest in the present, and virtually no interest at all in the future. It's good background reading, but won't help anyone trying to imagine a different future for Israel or the Palestinians, and to me, that was a little disappointing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Commentary / Spoilers / Arguing with the text

I'm not sure whether a Spoiler Warning is necessary for literary non-fiction, but I felt a desire to discuss aspects of the book in more detail, or rather, to argue with the text. I think as a reader, I would not have wanted to know more than the back cover already reveals about the book's events, so: SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this blog post / review. I would only recommend reading the rest if you've already read Losing Israel.

One thing that struck me is that Jasmine Donahaye's ignorance of Israel's history was not wholly due to indoctrination and selective information. The blurb and the book present her realisation of a gap in her own narrative of Israel as an awakening, an accidental epiphany, triggered by a phone conversation with her mother. I'm sure that's true, but when you read the book, it also becomes clear that this revelation only really sank in because of the particular timing of that conversation.

There is a fascinating article about advertising, of all things, which relates to this: "How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did". The article explains how researchers have found that humans become creatures of habit, including their consumer behaviour. The habits become so strong that it's very, very hard for advertisers to effect any changes. However, during certain periods when we go through big life changes, humans suddenly become incredibly flexible. All their habits are suddenly fluid and up for grabs. Getting married, having children, getting divorced, leaving university, starting university, moving to a new city, getting or losing a job. It seems self-evident that all of these would involve some changes, but on a purely intuitive level, you might wonder why, say, your shampoo or toothpaste brand choices should become more flexible just because you happen to have graduated from university. Advertisers don't care about the reasons, what they care about is the opportunity, and in this case, one particular period of pattern fluidity turned out to be identifiable to a chain of shops based on the things people bought using the reward cards - and once identified, those shoppers were targeted with extra and personalised advertising to tap into this flexibility.

Jasmine Donahaye had the conversation with her mother shortly after a tragic bereavement - her sister had died from cancer, not having told Jasmine about her illness until a few days before her death. Following on from these devastating developments, the author was clearly in one of those periods of being shaken and suddenly fluid and flexible in all aspects of her life. So, when a phone conversation turned to her grandfather's scars and her mother mentioned "villagers" and "Arabs" who probably caused the scars, her brain just happened to be receptive to change, and she suddenly found herself asking "what villagers?" because she did not know of any Arab villages near her grandfather's kibbutz...

She does mention the massacre at Deir Yassin, and a wider awareness of the Nakba: 
"What I knew about the Nakba I knew in a broad, general sense. Even though I had learned a little bit about this other history, about people fleeing their homes in fear, I knew and didn’t know, just as many Jews, many Israelis, deliberately or otherwise, know and don’t know. The details of who and how and where are passed over or sidelined in the ongoing argument about why people left, about what created the Palestinian refugee ‘problem’. There are exceptions, like the massacre at Deir Yassin, although I had never heard of Deir Yassin as a child or a teenager. In many ways it is the argument over such extreme cases that has allowed the particular stories elsewhere to be lost in the broad generality of the term ‘Nakba’ or the ‘War of Independence’.  
When, earlier, I had learned in a general sense about Palestinian Arabs fleeing the threat of war and then fleeing war, about villages being destroyed to prevent their return, and to erase their memory, I had been outraged, and am still outraged. Nevertheless, there was always something detached about my reaction; it was always an outrage that had happened somewhere else. But here it was close to home, not in the abstract: here it was near Beit Hashita, in the place my mother came from. What had happened there? How had it happened – and how was it that I could not have known? All the many times I’d visited the kibbutz, all the long weeks and months I’d spent there, nobody had ever mentioned the villages. I’d never heard them spoken about, never heard the story told – and hearing nothing, knowing nothing, I’d never had a reason to ask. " 
 ...and this is where I simply cannot agree with the author. To say she'd "never had a reason to ask" is not quite right. To know about a massacre and ethnic cleansing, and about outrageous deeds committed by one's country is a reason to either ask, or at least to not treat it as "abstract" and something "that had happened somewhere else". It seems to me that her ignorance prior to the period she describes in this memoir was not purely other people's fault: not to interrogate the past had simply been her routine, and when her sister died, that routine collapsed, became fluid, and she suddenly became open to a radically different view of her own family history.

The book is a story of a woman trying to find herself, to gain an understanding of the history that shaped her, her mother, and the way her family shaped the history of a land she'd loved and worshipped. There's quite a lot of navel-gazing introspection, a heavy dose of Weltschmerz, a great dollop of uncertainty.

On the one hand, I want to applaud the author for bothering. Her efforts to seek out Palestinians, Arabs and their views are commendable. Going through a reassessment of one's sense of belonging must have been traumatic. And I also want to applaud her braveness for daring to write about a topic that frequently results in bullying and hate campaigns against anyone who dares to say anything at all.

However, having found her world view changed, it's disappointing that she does not seem interested in taking much action to affect the world in turn. The very existence of the book is clearly an achievement, and months of work must have gone into it, but I can't help wondering, is that it? Will she be sending a copy to the racist aunt whose deeply racist proclamations about Arabs and Africans she did not dare challenge at the time due to being a guest and bound by the rules of hospitality? Probably not.
"What can I say to Myriam? I know that if I were to describe the hospitality I received from Abu Omar, from Randa and Ghaith, she would surely say, as she said about the man who changed my tyre the previous year, ‘Nu, so there are some good Arabs.’ It would not affect her feelings about the undifferentiated mass of ‘the Arabs’. What I am doing and where I have been travelling is a provocation to her – and it is therefore harder, and it costs more for her to offer me hospitality than for me to accept it. She welcomes me into her home despite what she herself is appalled by in me, despite what I am doing, which to her is treacherous and dangerous. She must be raw with aggravation, but she does not tell me to go and never come back – I am family. She welcomes me because hospitality is, to her, something unbreakable. Also, I realise, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, that she loves me. I watch her, sitting exhausted and shrunk in the huge chair, with her tired, angry face, and she looks up at me and gives me her ironic, lopsided smile and that ineffable Israeli shrug, and the breach, the gulf, is sealed up, and none of it matters, because I love her too."
Having just searched for the name Myriam in my Kindle edition, about half the instances of the name ask "What can I say to Myriam", and in the end, the author never says anything. This, the end of a chapter and final appearance of Myriam, shows the exact thing I found so frustrating: an unwillingness to challenge the darkness, and an overly conciliatory attitude: that sense that Myriam must be even more appalled by Jasmine's actions than Jasmine is by Myriam's attitudes, so therefore, despite their differences, everything is somehow alright, and family ties and love matter more than right and wrong. This is simply not a perspective I can sympathise with. 

Finally, towards the very end, Jasmine Haye seems to be making her uncomfortable peace with Israel:
"It is a bad sign, I think, if I can begin to use the word Palestine without discomfort and uncertainty. None of the approximations or conjoined names that attempt to repudiate that future deliberate amnesia are satisfactory – 'Israel/Palestine' or 'Israel-Palestine', or their reverse. Better that the name Palestine remain bulbous and burgeoning with ambiguity; better that the landscape remain complex and difficult; better that I hesitate between naming this tiny iridescent bird an orange-tufted sunbird, or a Palestine sunbird."
"My country Israel is leaving me too, but not 'into the hands and possession of another country and another civilization', as J.R. Jones saw the predicament of Wales, and as is the predicament of Palestine. My country is leaving me because its story is ceasing to exist, and because of what it has strangled out of existence. I grieve the loss, I grieve its departure from me, but it’s a grief coloured darkly by shame.
"Love of a person, of a place – the more you know, the more complicated it is. The knowledge that the person is wounded, that the place is stained doesn't diminish your love. The person and the place matter less, perhaps, than your need to love,"
These three passages struck an unhappy chord for me. I am glad the author expended the energy to look into Israel's history, and her own family history. I am very glad that her certainty in the Goodness of Israel has been shaken, that she has grown sympathetic to the Palestinians' perspective. But the world does not need her to feel "discomfort" about terminology. The world does not need her to grieve for an Israel that never really was real, or to wallow in shame. Neither does it matter whether she feels a need to love the place, tainted though it may be.

The world needs people to care, to talk, to speak out. It needs people who can see different sides (as the author does) and who can advocate for empathy and justice and decency. I was initially quite excited about the book, hoping that it might be a useful one to recommend to people as a nuanced, truthful and worthwhile introduction to the Israel / Palestine issues. And the book is nuanced, truthful and worthwhile about the events of 1948. So it's a shame that it ends with more introspection, with wallowing, seemingly without any desire to work towards any change. Does Jasmine Donahaye join Jewish Voice for Peace? Does she share the work of Breaking the Silence? Does she take any interest in the present and the future? (In the postscript she talks about "another war between Israel and Hamas", which suggests not: it's the Israeli government's narrative that it is fighting "Hamas". It uses the phrase "Hamas" the way the author's racist aunt uses the word "Arabs". Israel does not fight Hamas, it fights Palestinians. As even-handed as her take on the past is, the book doesn't suggest she takes any strong interest in the present.) The book makes it seem as if all she really got for her research were mixed feelings about the past, rather than any drive to try and fix the broken land of Israel and Palestine, and that is heartbreaking. What good is shame, if one does not take any action as a result?

And, to be honest, I'd hoped for a more accessible text, too. The book, written for a Welsh audience, uses the Welsh word hiraeth a few times - as a non-Welsh person, I know it's a unique word in the Welsh language, without a direct English equivalent. This, I guess, limits who the book it is written for. It's written for the Welsh literati. It's not written for Israelis or Palestinians. It's not written for Joe Public in the UK or America, or for politicians and leaders. I had hoped this book would be great to make people think, perhaps re-evaluate and change their minds, but, with its niche audience, I fear that it will struggle to get enough readers to make much of a difference.

There is a lot to like about the way the book handles history, but I, personally, did not like the way the book sees the present or the future. History is there to be learnt from, not to be discovered and filed away.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley

Stiletto is the eagerly awaited sequel to The Rook, which introduced readers to the fun world of The Checquy, the UK's magical spy agency. The Rook could be summed up as Hogwarts meets James Bond via Terry Pratchett: it's full of suspense, humour and magic. A masterpiece of fun. So, naturally, I've been very, very keen to get my mitts on the sequel.

The first thing that struck me about Stiletto is the shift in perspective. Myfanwy Thomas, the heroine of the first novel, still appears in the story, but she is no longer the focus. Instead, our main protagonists are Felicity (a combat Pawn of the Checquy) and Odette Leliefield, a Grafter.

The Grafters are the Checquy's oldest enemies: where the Checquy are supernaturally gifted and born special, the Grafters come from a clan of elite scientists who developed near-miraculous surgical and medical techniques, which enable them to modify their bodies in line with their personal preferences. They can be super-soldiers, or they can fill themselves with handy and useful tools and features, ranging from immunities and super-senses all the way to utility skin pockets that also keep their contents sterile.

Compared to the first novel, Stiletto did not have quite as strong a hook. In The Rook, your attention is grabbed from the first page, with a strong mystery at the heart of the plot. Stiletto takes a different approach: there are thrills and mysteries, but this is a story about characters on the periphery of negotiations between two former enemy organisations who seek to form an alliance. Stiletto takes a little longer to find its feet. The story switches between viewpoints, and sometimes it feels like the reader is getting perhaps a bit more detail and background than was strictly necessary.

That said, Stiletto is laugh-out-loud funny and hilarious. The humour ranges from dry wit to potty humour - it should work well for a British audience. Stiletto also succeeds at feeling more true to its setting: The Rook didn't quite feel like a novel set in the UK. Stiletto, on the other hand, feels much more convincing about the UK, Belgium, Europe... there are some rare slip-ups (for example, I think the term "Eurotrash" is more common in America than in the UK or anywhere in Europe), but on the whole, Stiletto is a book that's easy to like, set in a world that is easy to feel at home in, and delivered with an easy-going, tongue in cheek style.

If you've read The Rook, you will undoubtedly enjoy Stiletto too. If you haven't, then I would recommend reading The Rook first. It isn't required reading to understand Stiletto, but it's huge fun, and a slightly superior novel.

Rating: 4/5