Put the flags out!

November 18, 2018

I have recently finished reading Tim Marshall’s book Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags. I am not an expert in vexillology, the study of flags, but I find it a really intriguing topic. The author delves the origin stories of flags for countries, terrorist groups and supranational organisations, as well as others you might not expect such as the Jolly Roger, the Olympic and the Rainbow. National flags, the main focus of Marshall’s book, have frequently been born in violence, and their origin stories tell us a great deal about identity, culture, and nationhood. The use of flags as we know them today goes back some 3000 years to China. There had been symbols and painted cloth before, but silk proved to be a game changer; you could paint them in your colours, taking them long distances, and, of course, carrying them into battle. This material would travel along the aptly named Silk Route, where it would be adopted by the Arabs and then the Europeans. There are so many flags that Marshall tells us about – I cannot do justice to them here. Nevertheless, here are a few of the more interesting stories I found in Marshall’s book and from my own research online:

The Dannebrog

The flag of Denmark, the Dannebrog, was created in 1219 and was flown during Battle of Lindanise of 1219. It holds the world record of being the oldest continuously used national flag. It was in 2006 that it became the world’s most burned flag after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bosnia, Gaza, Iraq, Kashmir, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria are among the countries that saw the burning of the flag. According to Marshall, the flags of Switzerland and the Savoy were also set on fire. This may have been due to the fact many of the flags were home-made. There was also, according to Slate magazine, alternatives provided by the market:

Doing it yourself may save you some money, but you can also try to grab a Danish flag at your local flag store. Reuters interviewed a shopkeeper in Gaza who stocked his PLO Flag Shop with 100 Danish and Norwegian flags when he heard about the cartoons. He gets his flags from Taiwan and charges $11 for each. Flag manufacturers in China and Thailand might also be able to provide Danish flags on short order.

Marshall also writes about the other Scandinavian Cross flags. All these countries use this basic traditional design on their flags. The cross design represents Christianity and in all of them it is shifted towards the hoist side. What varies is the colour scheme.

The Stars and Stripes

At one time “Old Glory” actually had 15 stripes after Vermont and Kentucky were admitted as states in 1795. It was this 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which later became “The Star Spangled Banner.” In 1818 it was decided that the flag would have 20 stars, with a new one to be added when each new state was admitted. The number of stripes, however, was reduced to 13 to honour the original colonies. The current 50-state version dates from 1960. Robert G. Heft was a 17-year-old high school junior back in 1958. As part of a history project he designed a 50-star flag. He spent 12 hours cutting out stars.

His teacher was not impressed. Mr. Pratt pointed out to Heft that that he had too many stars on the flag – “You don’t even know how many states we have.” He also claimed that it lacked originality and that anyone could make a flag; he gave him B- for his efforts. Yet, Heft’s design is what we see today. Here he explains what drove him:

As the designer of our Nation’s current flag: the flag I made in 1958 has taken me to all 50 states and 57 countries, promoting the country that I love.

I followed a dream and turned that history class project into a history making event. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone believe in you?

That very flag is now being sold to help me on medical bills and to establish educational funds for my little great nephews and great nieces.

I love the freedoms we got in this country, I appreciate your freedom to burn your flag if you want to, but I really appreciate my right to bear arms so I can shoot you if you try to burn mine.

 Alas, Mr. Heft died of a heart attack in 2009.

The European Union

The European Union has its own blue flag, complete with twelve stars, which dates back to 1955. The twelve stars do not represent member states, as there are currently 28. Rather, it is thought to be a symbol of unity and perfection.

Once the flag appeared other more bizarre interpretations began to gain currency.

The University of Luxembourg’s CVCE.eu research unit has this about the religious symbolism of the number twelve:

Twelve is also a number in Judaeo-Christian symbolism. The tree of life has 12 fruits; there are 12 sons of Jacob, 12 patriarchs, 12 tribes of Israel and 12 gates of the New Jerusalem. Moses sent 12 explorers to the lands of Canaan, the bread multiplied by Jesus was placed in 12 baskets and Jesus speaks of 12 legions of angels after the kiss of Judas; lastly, there are 12 apostles. The number 12 is also the product of multiplying three, always a divine number (the trinity), by four, the number of the earth with its four cardinal points; 12 is therefore the symbol ‘of the union between the divine and the terrestrial world’, which, as we know, embodies the central mystery of Christianity.”

Marshall himself quotes Revelations, 12,1:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.

Does this Marian reference explain differing religious sensibilities towards the EU? Public opinion surveys going back as far the 1970s show that Catholics tend to favour European integration, whereas Protestants are more prone to resist it. Europe may be becoming more secular, weakening the effect, but it has not disappeared altogether. In 2005 Adrian Hilton, a Tory candidate standing in Slough, argued  the EU was a Catholic plot to impose Vatican sovereignty over Britain and would result in “the subjugation of Britain’s Protestant ethos to Roman Catholic social, political and religious teaching“.

Catholic conspiracy theories aside, it is also the flag of the Council of Europe, the 47-member state organisation, whose aim “to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.”

The Flag of the Arab Revolt

The Flag of the Arab Revolt was used by the Arab nationalists during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It was the idea of the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement) in order to create a sense of “Arab-ness” to fuel the anti-Ottoman revolt. This flag would inspire the flags of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestine among others.

ISIS

One of Isis’s most recognisable symbols is its black and white flag adorned with Arabic lettering. The white banner at the top of the flag reads: “There is no god but Allah [God]. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.” This declaration of faith is known as the shahada and is used across Islam.  Underneath is a white circle emblazoned with black writing reading “Mohammed is the messenger of God”. This is a copy of the Seal of Mohammed, which the prophet is believed to have used to seal letters he wrote to foreign leaders when he asked them to join him. It is designed to give the organisation a veneer of religious and historical authenticity. They have cleverly appropriated the flag from other Jihadi groups and made it their own.

China

The flag of China was officially adopted on October 1, 1949. The red of the Chinese flag symbolizes the communist revolution, and it’s also the traditional colour of the people. The large gold star represents communism, while the four smaller stars represent the social classes of the people – the working class, the peasantry, the urban petite bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie)

The Black Liberation flag

The Black Liberation flag is also known as the UNIA flag, Afro-American flag, Black Liberation Flag, Marcus Garvey Flag and various other names – is a tri-colour flag consisting of three equal horizontal bands of (from top down) red, black and green. It can be seen as a riposte to a popular turn-of-the-century racist song “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”:

“Bonny Scotland loves a thistle,

Turkey has her crescent moon,

And what won’t Yankees do for the old red, white and blue?

Every race has a flag but the coon.”

At that time, the goal of the movement, which was led by Garvey, was to establish a political home for black people in Africa. He was heavily influenced by other nationalist movements at that time – Zionism, Irish Republicanism to name two, as well as the Russian Revolution.  It would later become a black nationalist symbol in the 1960s.

The flag was adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) on August 13, 1920 in Article 39 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. The Universal Negro Catechism, published by the UNIA in 1921, explains the meaning of the colours of the flag:

Red is the colour of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the colour of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the colour of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.

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In a sweet spot

November 4, 2018

A celebration of the glorious world of observation hobbies.

What an absolutely delightful video!

Why do people love plane, train and bird spotting? This was the question posed by the BBC’s The Why Factor podcast. The topic has come up in my classes and students tend to be baffled. A case in point is trainspotting. The first confusion arises with the Danny Boyle film. Once we get past that, they really do struggle to get the idea why people would go to a station to watch trains and record the number of each railway engine you see.

One thing I learned from the podcast was that this hobby is not confined to the UK. In Japan trainspotters are called tori-tetsu. The Washington Post had a fascinating feature on the country’s vibrant trainspotting subcultures. There is one enthusiast who has devoured 660 volumes of train timetable books dating back nearly four decades. He uses the latest one to plan imaginary journeys. The article describes the different subcultures:

…But there are also nori-tetsu, people who enjoy travelling on trains; yomi-tetsu, those who love to read about trains, especially train schedules; oto-tetsu, the people who record the sound of trains; sharyo-tetsu, fans of train design; eki-tetsu, people who study stations; and even ekiben-tetsu, aficionados of the exquisite bento lunchboxes sold at stations.

And that’s not even getting into the subcultures of experts on train wiring, the geeks who intercept train radio signals or the would-be conductors.

 It’s not just planes, trains, and birds that people like to behold. Humans are fascinated by the natural built worlds, and actively seek out buses, butterflies, canals, football grounds, storms or even whales. These types of pastime are known as observation hobbies.  Wikipedia has 16 separate pages in this category.

In the programme we hear about Noel Marsh-Giddings, who has a YouTube channel called InflightVideo, where he shares full length flight videos:

Every moment of the flight included from terminal to terminal making this the world’s longest aviation video – so sit back, relax and enjoy the longest flight in the world!

Alas, the 18-hour video didn’t work on my computer and I was deprived of the pleasure.

One famous case is that of the British plane spotters arrested in Greece. There were in fact 12 Brits, as well as two from Holland. Eight of them were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to three years in jail. The rest were convicted of aiding and abetting and received a one-year suspended sentence. Finally they were able to get their convictions overturned. You can hear their account of their ordeal in an interview they gave to the BBC. If there was ever a case of cultural misunderstanding, this was surely it; plane-spotting was almost unheard of in Greece

What motivates people to engage in such activities? The first thing is to say that the devotees are heterogeneous. Observation hobby covers a multitude of sins. It is all too easy to fall into stereotypes. In the programme they talked about an interest in quantification. They went on to mention obsessionality, perfectionism and a preference for systems. It has echoes of the work of world authority on autism, Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of Sacha. In his book The Essential Difference Baron-Cohen posits that in general, men are better at systematizing (analysing and exploring systems and rules) while women are better at empathizing (identifying with other people’s feelings).

Personally, I don’t want to pathologise these activities. If it is something that gives you pleasure, what’s the problem? There is no doubt that at the extreme end they can be harmful. It should never be the organising principle of your life. There can be the danger of going overboard. In particular the quantification element can mean you have to see and log everything. What I did notice from the podcast is that many of the hobbyists spent larger amounts of money. Then again, if they can afford it, it’s your business.

I do think it is good to be passionate about something. And I can listen to someone talking about anything if they can transmit their enthusiasm. There is also value in celebrating the mundane. That’s why I love the BBC’s Boring Talks podcast. So, let’s celebrate these hobbies. If it’s what floats your boat, why not?  It gets you out of the house. These days we all have so much stuff, many of us are looking for images and memories. What’s more you can become an expert in your field.

I will finish with an example – Lester Drake’s Football Pirate is a Facebook page where you can you can see give photo accounts of a fan’s footballing adventures in Spain, England and beyond. It is not just about football – it’s a window onto the world.  I love looking at the photos of obscure football grounds. I celebrate those people who get enjoyment out of life in unexpected places. There is surely enough misery around already.


The paradoxes of the Kibbutz

October 28, 2018

What do Bernie Sanders, Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen, Noam Chomsky, Sigourney Weaver and Boris Johnson have in common? Well, they all volunteered on kibbutzim in Israel. The word kibbutz comes from the Hebrew word for gathering. It was in 1909 that the first one was established in Degania in Palestine by a group of young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The kibbutzim were inextricably entwined with the Zionist project and the creation of the state of Israel. The Kibbutzniks dreamed of reclaiming the soil of their ancient homeland and starting a new way of life, the living embodiment of the Marxist axiom, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” They were run on the principle of joint ownership of property. Kibbutzniks would eat together in a communal dining hall and wear the same clothing. Such was their commitment to equality, they shared responsibility for bringing up children. Kids lived outside of their parents’ homes. They would only see their offspring a couple of hours a day.

These young Jewish immigrants were inexperienced with physical labour and also lacked knowledge about agriculture. Their ultimate goal was to create a new human being. Given this and the evidence of the last century, you would have thought that it would be a recipe for disaster in such a hostile environment. Nevertheless, the kibbutzim thrived for multiple generations. There are still some 230 today. I may be a sceptic, but I have always been fascinated by man’s quest to build utopias on earth. What is different about the kibbutzim is that they were never at the margin of society. They always influenced and were influenced by society as a whole. This is very different from Oneida or the town of Pullman, which I mentioned in one of my earliest posts, Utopia is not an option. This week I was pleased to hear this week’s EconTalk podcast. In it host Russ Roberts interviewed Ran Abramitzky about his book The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World.

The study of the kibbutz is a case of applied microeconomics. According to the laws of economics kibbutzim shouldn’t work at all. There is that famous adage in economics that people respond to incentives and that the rest is commentary. People do undoubtedly respond to incentives, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The kibbutz lasted successfully as social institution for 70 or 80 years.

How did they survive so long? There were a number of reasons for this. Abramitzky argues that thee way they were actually well- thought out in terms of what economics tells us about human interaction. The most valuable thing that the kibbutz provided was an invaluable insurance against economic shocks. In the kibbutz you know that that you and your family will always be getting paid the same. Members do not depend on the skills of one profession, they do various occupations. They were able to succeed in part as well because of their idealism, which they were able to inculcate in the young through the schools. The voluntary aspect of this experiment is important. This was not the forced collectivization of the Kulaks in the Ukraine by Stalin. But idealism is not enough. This will tend to dissipate each generation. You need other mechanisms.

When I think of the kibbutz system, the first problem that comes to mind is the free rider problem. How do you motivate people to study and work, if they don’t receive all the fruits of their labour? How do you avoid attracting people who want to live off what does work is social sanctions and peer pressure. If you are perceived to be skiving, nobody will want to sit next to at dinner. This kind of social sanction works best in relatively small groups; everybody knows everybody. Consequently, you need to sacrifice some privacy, but you are able to get people to co-operate.

The rotation of power is also used in many posts. No one has power indefinitely and it is also used to reward those who contribute most.

Another danger is the brain drain. This is especially relevant in a world in which wealth increasing and mobility has become much easier. One way to control it is to make leaving costly. Remember that all property is collective. Once you leave, you can only take your knowledge with you. What’s more much of this is kibbutz specific. And finally they have a tough screening program for new members. You would not be allowed in if you couldn’t get a job in the kibbutz. There was even a probation period of one year to see if you were a good fit.

Homogeneity is a necessary ingredient of kibbutzim. The vast majority were Ashkenazi Jews, émigrés from Eastern Europe. They created a socialist utopia, but they were less inclusive of Arabs or even other Jews. There was between socialism and Zionism. For socialists the Arab was a fellow worker. However, from a Zionist perspective, they could be seen as the enemy.

Abramitzky tries to extrapolate wider conclusions. He suggests that it can be challenging to create an egalitarian society when societies are not homogenous. And these difficulties increase the larger the political unit. This explains the success of the welfare states in Scandinavian societies and how it has proved more complicated in the United States.

In recent times the kibbutzim have been in crisis. Over time, the kibbutz members’ sense of identification with the kibbutz and its goals has declined. This is probably down to societal change and the fact that they are living in a capitalist society.  When they were started, Israel was a relatively poor undeveloped country. By the 1990s it had become, one of the world’s most innovative high-tech economies. Staying on the farm is inevitably going to be less appealing. Nowadays farming has been partially supplanted by other economic activity including factories and high-tech enterprises. They have been forced to adapt in other ways too. The equal sharing is no longer dogma. The demise of the Communist bloc led to the weakening of Socialist beliefs around the world; the kibbutz society was not immune to this process. Another growing trend has been privatization. Zionism is no longer well-seen on the left. Nevertheless, the kibbutzim represent a fascinating experiment. Will they be around in another 100 years?

 

 


Men behaving badly

October 14, 2018

Monicagate, Lewinskygate, Tailgate, Sexgate, and Zippergate. The sexual relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky which took place between 1995 and 1997 and its aftermath is the subject of a podcast series, which has just finished. A sitting president was being investigated by an independent counsel. There were a number of women accusing this president of sexual misconduct. There was a lot of cynical political opportunism and moral posturing. It was premonitory of the increasingly sectarian politics that have afflicted America in the next twenty years.

After dealing with Watergate in the first season, Slate’s podcast Slow Burn, devoted eight episodes to look at the scandal of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Alas, neither Lewinsky nor Clinton agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. Nevertheless, it is well worth listening to. Leon Neyfakh, an American journalist, radio host and author, has produced an engrossing story.

The saga ended in Clinton being acquitted by the US Senate of four articles of impeachment involving charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. As Neyfakh tells it, it is an ethically ambiguous case. In the concluding episode he asks if it’s possible to be framed and be guilty at the same time. I haven’t changed in my contempt for the Republicans. Independent counsel Ken Starr’s treatment of Lewinsky was disgraceful. But the Clinton White House threw her to the dogs her to protect his presidency. At the time I felt ambivalent about Clinton. Now he seems more sinister. The final programme features an interview with Juanita Broaddrick. She has alleged that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978. This extremely serious charge was barely investigated, an afterthought in the Starr report; it was not among the articles of impeachment. Curiously, she is now a Trump supporter and on Twitter she has rubbished Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh:

How can I, as a victim, not sympathize with Dr. Ford?? Plain and simple. I do not believe her. She has cast a dark shadow on real victims. Democrats have already convicted this honourable man. What about Judge Kavanaugh and his family?”

The series also looks at the role of feminism: how would this scandal have played out in the age of #MeToo? Neyfakh does not want to come across as morally superior to those unenlightened people at the turn of the century. He wants to understand why they reacted in the way they did. There was and is a tension in feminism. This is between a woman’s right to sexual agency and her right to be free from sexual predation. Lewinsky was not a teenager at the time of the relationship; it began when she was 22. Nevertheless, can a 22-year-old intern consent to sex with her 49-year-old boss, or do the power dynamics mean that the relationship is by its very nature coercive?

There was a sense of political expediency here. Is it okay to overlook a president’s personal failings if you agree with his policy agenda? Bill Clinton was seen as a champion of women’s issues. We have a similar opportunism now with Trump. We can say that he is not a paragon of Christian virtues. However, in 21 months Trump has appointed two Supreme Court judges and evangelical Christians seem to have forgotten all their moral qualms. This hypocrisy is epitomised by William J. Bennett. I can remember hearing him at the time with his moral indignation. The author of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories and The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals is of course a Donald Trump supporter. If outrage died with Bill Clinton, then Trump has nuked it to make sure that it can never be resuscitated

One aspect I found interesting was Clinton’s bizarre legalistic arguments in his denial of sexual relations with Miss Lewinsky. He was not claiming that oral sex didn’t count. He was  apparently employing the idiosyncratic definition of “sexual relations” that Paula Jones’s lawyers had provided to him during his deposition that led to all his problems. Sexual relations involve touching someone in a manner intended to arouse or gratify them. According to this definition of “sexual relations,” Lewinsky had had sexual relations with Clinton, but not vice versa.

The story comes back with the recent hearing involving Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The freshly minted Supreme Court justice has a connection with Bill Clinton. He spent over three years working for Kenneth Starr, including the Clinton investigation. He laid out the line of questioning the special counsel should use with Clinton. He began with three normal questions:

  1. Did you tell Monica Lewinsky that she should deny the nature of the relationship that you and she had?
  2. If Monica Lewinsky says that you agreed to lie about your relationship with her, would she be lying?
  3. Would Monica Lewinsky be lying if she said that you told her after her name appeared on the witness list: “You could always say you were coming to see Betty or that you were bringing me letters”?

Then, however, Kavanaugh began an increasingly graphic series of questions:

  1. If Monica Lewinsky says you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?
  2. If Monica Lewinsky says that you had phone sex with her on approximately 15 occasions, would she be lying?
  3. If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions in the Oval Office area, you used your fingers to stimulate her vagina and bring her to orgasm, would she be lying?
  4. If Monica Lewinsky says that she gave you oral sex on nine occasions in the Oval Office area, would she by lying?
  5. If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated into her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?
  6. If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions you had her give oral sex, made her stop, and then ejaculated into the sink in the bathroom off the Oval Office, would she be lying?
  7. If Monica Lewinsky says that you masturbated into a trashcan in your secretary’s office, would she be lying?

I have a couple of observations about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I did find Christine Blasey Ford a credible witness, but I think it’s such a long time ago – I don’t see how you could establish Kavanaugh’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. My other conclusion is that given his performance under scrutiny, this man is not suited for this vital job. He came across as an arrogant, entitled man, who repeatedly misrepresented the truth. How many more justices will Trump get to name? He is currently averaging over one a year.


Last post of the season and my summer reading

June 17, 2018

So summer is almost here once again. In Madrid we haven’t reached 40 degrees, like last June. I normally finish at the end of June, but this year I need to start my reports and the World Cup has just started, and so this will be my last post until the autumn. Now is a great time to catch up on reading. Here are some of the books I am thinking of reading over the summer:

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – Anonymous

I love law and am looking forward to this critical insider’s account of the current state of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Writing under the pseudonym of The Secret Barrister was originally a successful blogger. It is not a positive view:

Walk into any court in the land, speak to any lawyer, ask any judge and you will be treated to uniform complaints of court deadlines being repeatedly missed, cases arriving underprepared, evidence lost, disclosures of evidence not being made, victims made to feel marginalised and millions of pounds of public money wasted”.

Chicago – David Mamet

David is better known as a playwright and screenwriter. I haven’t read of his three previous novels, but I have seen a number of the films he’s been involved in: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, House of Games, Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, State and Main, Heist and The Winslow Boy. His fourth book, his first in 20 years, is a story set in prohibition era in the Windy City.

Heavens on Earth – Michael Shermer

I am a big fan of the sceptic Michael Shermer’s work. Since reading Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time some twenty years  I have read The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths and The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Apart from liking long titles, he is an excellent proponent of the sceptical point of view. In this book he goes in search of what drives our belief in life after death. He does explore religious worldviews, but he seems especially interested in the scientific quest for immortality, the world of extentionists, extropians, transhumanists, cryonicists, and mind-uploaders. I did read Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death last year, but I am looking forward to getting Shermer’s take on this. In last year’s summer reading I mentioned that I had been panning to blog about the singularity. I still haven’t got round to it and at this rate I think it may arrive before I actually write about it.

The Black Book – Ian Rankin

I am gradually working my way through Rankin’s oeuvre; this is the fifth Rebus novel, which came out in 1993.  After one of his colleagues is brutally attacked and left in a coma John Rebus finds himself in a case involving “a hotel fire, an unidentified body, and a long-forgotten night of terror and murder”.

The Vietnam War-  Ken Burns

This is the companion book to the Ken Burns’ Vietnam War ten-part documentary series on PBS. I am a big fan of Burns documentary work and this will help me remember this powerful series, which looks at the conflict from multiple perspectives.

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash – Alexander Maters

The author Alexander Masters is an author, screenwriter, and worker with the homeless. I haven’t read Stuart: A Life Backwards, his unconventional biography of Stuart Shorter. As the title implies, the book begins with Shorter’s adult life, going back in time through his troubled childhood, examining how his family, education and disability shaped his life.  The book I’m planning to read, A Life Discarded is from 2016. The source of this biography was the 148 diaries that Masters’ friends Dido Davies and Richard Grove, both Cambridge professors, found in a skip. The anonymous author was a prolific diarist, who averaged 2,500 words a day.

Rethink – Steven Poole

I am really interested in innovation and have done a number of posts about its importance. In this book The Guardian’s Steven Poole argues that innovation and progress are often achieved by going back to old ideas and revamping them. The ultimate message seems to be if you want to change the future, you need to begin by looking at the past.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Skin in the Game is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book, and I think I have read the previous four – Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes and Antifragile. In his latest work Taleb argues for the importance of players having skin in the game. This is the idea that they should have something at stake, something to lose.

Taleb is not a fan of fund managers that get a percentage on wins, but no penalty for losing, or the war hawks don’t themselves bear any risks of dying during a war which they have championed.

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

I don’t know too much about this book, but it seems to have transferred Mary Shelley’s work to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. The main character Hadi is a junk peddler who starts to bring home body parts, left in the streets from the day’s explosions. Feeling they deserve a dignified burial, he begins to stitch these bits together. If he can create a whole corpse, he hopes someone will bury it.

 

Anyway have a great summer and I’ll be back in early October.

 


Notes on a scandal

June 10, 2018

Nobody does political scandals quite like the English. I live in Spain and we’ve had our share over the last few years, but for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to compete with the Profumo Affair, Labour MP John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, Jeffrey Archer and the prostitute, Jonathan Aitken and the Paris Ritz Hotel bill allegations, and David Cameron’s notorious university initiation ceremony involving inserting a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig. It is such a competitive field, but I still feel pride of place goes to the downfall of the charismatic leader of the Liberal party.

The story was told in a 2016 book called A Very English Scandal by John Preston. Curiously, in Wikipedia it is called it a true crime non-fiction novel. But no it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a real page turner with an amazing cast of characters. It was recently adapted into a three-part drama series by the BBC, which I can thoroughly recommend.  Jeremy Thorpe was an MP by 30, and just seven years later he became one of Britain’s youngest ever party leaders. he was a brilliant politician, who had an eccentric fashion sense and according to Preston, “favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” There was his lover, Norman Scott, who was mentally unstable and had a tendency to blame everyone but himself for his problems. There was Peter Bessell a fellow Liberal MP and a failed businessman, who took money from party funds to hire a hitman. The professional killer, Andrew Newton was known to his friends as chicken brain.

After a chance meeting in a friend’s stable in 1960, Thorpe commenced a sexual relationship with a young man who was then called Norman Josiffe. He subsequently changed his surname to Scott, which was how he was known when he became famous. At the time homosexuality was still against the law. Once the affair was over Thorpe saw Scott as a blackmailer who could wreck his political career. The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott.

After the break-up Scott found employment here and there, but he never really stuck at anything.  He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt. Given his financial difficulties, he would look to Thorpe, the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life. He was particularly obsessed with his National Insurance card, which he needed to get a job or benefits. Thorpe would wash his hands of his erstwhile lover and he would leave it all to Peter Bessell. By 1974 Thorpe was on the verge of joining a coalition with the Conservative leader Ted Heath, where he might have headed the home or Foreign Offices. That did no happen. Norman Scott would not go away. There were compromising letters and journalists sniffing around. Something would have to be done. Thorpe wanted to have Scott killed.

This is where it all descends into farce. Andrew “Gino” Newton, the man Thorpe’s men chose for the job, was so incompetent that he went to look for Scott in Dunstable instead of Barnstaple. The former town is in Bedfordshire, where Newton would spend a couple of days before he was told he was in the wrong place. He then had to drive 230 miles to the north Devon town, where he finally found Scott. He persuaded him that he had been hired by an anonymous benefactor to protect him from a hired hitman

He too him in his car out to Exmoor First he shot Scott’s Great Dane. He was then going to shoot his intended victim, but his gun jammed and Scott was able to get away. Newton had to speed off and Scott was able to hail down an approaching car. The first thing he said to the driver was that it was Jeremy Thorpe who was behind it all. The shooting of Rinka the Great Dane on October 23 1975 at a wet and windy lay-by on Exmoor had the opposite effect to what was intended. A scandal that may well have gone away would now wreck the career of Jeremy Thorpe. He would subsequently be arrested and would appear in court.

The trial began on the 8th May 1979, just five days after the election that saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Incredibly,       Thorpe had stood in his own North Devon constituency, where he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. Another of those standing was the satirist Auberon Waugh who campaigned against Thorpe representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. In an election address declared: “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.”

There were four defendants, but only Thorpe faced two charges. Thorpe hired a superstar lawyer, George Carman. He did a brilliant job of discrediting the three star witnesses – Bessell, Scott and Newton- as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars. Well it is true that they were not perhaps the most credible of witnesses to start with. His other stroke of genius was to persuade Thorpe not to testify. That could have been a real disaster.

The star of the show was the judge, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley. His fair and ballanced summing-up has entered the annals of legal history:

“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”

This summing up was brilliantly satirised by Peter Cook in his Entirely A Matter For You sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyos-M48B8U

After deliberating for 52 hours, the jury unanimously acquitted all four men on all charges. The previously impassive Thorpe broke into a broad smile, tossed the three red cushions on which he had been reclining out of the dock, then leaned over and kissed his wife. ‘Darling, we won!’ he exclaimed to her, while he congratulated his old Oxford chum Carman with the words: ‘Well rowed, Balliol!’

Despite his acquittal, Thorpe’s reputation never recovered and he faded into obscurity. Had all this not happened, Thorpe would now be remembered as one of the most of the great politicians of his era. In an interview not long before his death in December 2014, he remarked: “If it happened now, the public would be kinder.” He is surely right about attitudes to homosexuality – the past was another country. Yet it is amazing that the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe seemed blithely unaware that murdering someone might actually be wrong. In 2014 Michael Bloch published biography of Thorpe, which had had to wait until after his death. He said that Thorpe was a man with a massive sense of entitlement, who thought who thought the rules were for little people. He also had a penchant for illicit sex and got a thrill from being able to escape the consequences; he had a Houdini complex. In the end though, Scott would be his nemesis.

 


Real Madrid’s three-peat

June 3, 2018

Just one week ago in Kiev Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 to win their third European Champions League in a row, and their fourth in five years.  In American sports this is known as a three-peat. And a team with multiple successes is a sporting dynasty. Real Madrid are surely this. To put all this in context, until last season no team had been able to win back-to-back Champions League titles. 24 years of intense competition under the revamped format had produced a different winner every time. Not even Barcelona at their most brilliant managed to win the European Cup then do it again the following season. Last year’s demolition of Juventus saw them break the champion’s jinx. And now they have broken their own record. The recent burst of titles means that Real Madrid actually have a higher success rate – seven wins in 26 attempts than they did under the original format, where after winning the first five and one in 1966, they endured a drought of 32 years before winning their seventh title.  That makes a record of six wins over 37 seasons. Indeed, the last time Real Madrid lost a European final was against Alex Fergusson’s Aberdeen in 1983 – 35 years ago. Since then they have been in two UEFA Cup and seven Champions League finals winning all of them.

This success of the last 20 years is put in perspective by their role in the in their own league. Seven Champions league wins have been accompanied by “just” six league titles. In the same period Barcelona have four Champions leagues but eleven league titles. Bayern Munich have two Champions leagues and 14 Bundesligas. Juventus have just one Champions League, but they have won ten Serie A titles. This number would be twelve, but after the Calciopoli scandal they were stripped of the two titles won under Fabio Capello in 2005 and 2006. They were also relegated to Serie B for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, they won four more league titles than Real Madrid. How can a team that dominates in Europe not dominate at home?

A number of pundits have been less than generous in their appreciation. They are said to be lucky, but no team wins this tournament without a dose of luck. This fortune included the odd refereeing decision and Sergio Ramos injuring Mo Salah. Former Barça midfielder Xavi has invoked witches. I would agree that this is not a team like 1970s Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan or Guardiola’s Barcelona. But this team is different – they have not revolutionised football. But they do have the greatness of being competitive. They don’t mind if other teams punch them in the face – they just get up, dust themselves off and keep fighting. Their German midfielder Toni Kroos summed it up before their semi-final tie in Munich:

Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”

After their unexpected debacle in this year’s league the Champions League was their only chance; failure was not an option. This competitive DNA can sometimes seem to affect opponents three of their last four goals came from horrendous goalkeeping errors.  Sven Ullrich must have thought that he had the worst goalkeeping error against Real Madrid in the 2017-18. Of course the second goal by Bale was out of this world.

Then we have the manager Zinedine Zidane. I have to say I wasn’t especially optimistic when he was appointed. His results with Castilla were distinctly underwhelming. It shows how difficult it is to judge what makes a manager successful. Curiously he doesn’t seem to fit the profile of what club chairman Florentino Perez wants. He seems to want the authoritarian types who crack the whip with their players. The chief exponent of this style was José Mourinho. But what seems to work are the more easy-going types, such as Del Bosque, Ancelotti and Zidane. Florentino has won 23 titles, 19 of which have been with these three trainers. I don’t know if he is tactical genius, but he is an excellent man-manager. And after all the sterile controversies of the Mourinho years, Zidane was just the opposite, a wonderful ambassador for the club.  In over 300 press conferences and in all his other dealings with the media he deployed his considerable charm. His skills will be sorely missed.

The future suddenly looks a bit more complex. It started minutes after the final whistle last Saturday, with Bale and Ronaldo both asking to leave. We will see who the new trainer is. Now Florentino will be coming to the fore. I can’t say that fills me with optimism. I do rate him more in terms of the business and marketing areas, but I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the first team. Recently there haven’t been all these marquee signings so beloved of Florentino. There has been a more rational policy and this has coincided with the success. If you look at the Real Madrid midfield, it probably cost more or less the same as Pogba. I have a feeling that with a World Cup this summer the chequebook will be out again. Still, Barcelona with the great Leo Messi have won just one champions league since 2011 and are now eight trophies behind Real Madrid. And we have the three-peat to keep us going.