Sunday, 31 January 2010

Invading Iraq: Unwavering Politicians Are Dangerous

Strangely, seeing coverage of Tony Blair's testament to the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's involvement in the war in Iraq, the one which is still going on, I found myself believing in divine vengeance.  I have noted in the past that many elements of the Bible as they have been filtered and interpreted by those in authority in the Middle Ages encourage a stable society.  The emphasis that vengeance is God's is a good way to stop vendettas and people taking the law into their own hands, but this week I recognised that it can also be a bit of a consolation to people who feel wronged.  The sense that 'well, I can do nothing to get back at him for what he has done, but he still has to face God's judgement'.

I suppose what brought me to this kind of last resort when seeking justice is how unwavering Blair was.  I had always expected the politicians wheeled in front to the enquiry to say what they had done was right, and have actually been heartened by the legal officials and even Lord Goldsmith showing the confusing and uncertainty around the legality of the war.  What cut most deeply with Blair, however, was his total lack of regret for anything he did.  We always knew that he was arrogant, but this emphasised that now, even out of office and earning millions of pounds, he will not concede he has ever made a mistake.  I once attended a speech by former prime minister (1970-4) Edward Heath in which he reflected on his term in office, a very troubled period in British society and wryly he argued that it might have been bad but was nothing compared to what came later under Callaghan (1976-9) and Thatcher (1979-90).  Blair seems to believe that he ruled over a golden period in British history in which we, the public might have got things wrong but he was perfect in every way, and our problem was that we did not listen to him enough.  Blair is supposed to be a Christian.  He is now a Catholic, so I suppose he has been able to confess his sins and get absolution for them.  However, surely to be a Christian of any sort you must be able to reflect on what you have done and see your errors in order to repent and seek absolution.

Blair can argue that invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussain was the 'right' thing to do.  No-one would argue that Hussain was not evil and was killing many of his own people and using torture.  However, so are many other leaders around the world and we seem to be taking no efforts to depose them.  Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe would seem a good place to start as we know he does not even have the suggestion of weapons of mass destruction.  Yet, Blair does not take this line, so we end up with fudged explanations around misunderstandings about nuclear or chemical or biological weapons, some partial legal approval from the United Nations and the UK's connection to the USA.  Perhaps the motivations were this confused mish-mash.  However, if they were, this seems to suggest a weak, confused prime minister, that Blair certainly does not portray himself as.

Saying this, the concessions that Blair has allowed are that he never expected Al-Qaeda to become involved in Iraq after the USA had conquered it and neither did he expect Iran to destabilise the state either.  A student of GCSE level International Relations, could have told you to expect these things.  First of all, one of the reasons why George W. Bush emphasised the need to invade Iraq was because he felt it was a base of Al-Qaeda activity.  Of course, Hussain, was in fact an opponent of the movement, whereas Saudi Arabia, the USA's ally in the region has always been a place where Islamist terrorists have thrived.  The second point is that there was the example of Afghanistan.  When that had been destabilised by the Soviet invasion and occupation (1979-89) it opened the door to the Taleban to take power and created a regime in which Al-Qaeda was able to operate, probably not as this supposed international terrorist structure somehow resembling the fictional SPECTRE, but as an association of small radical groups connected by a desire for promoting Islamist regimes through terrorism.  In Afghanistan they were labelled the 'foreign fighters' and in many cases would be simply volunteers looking to fight to defend what they saw as the correct form of Islamist state that the Taleban had established.  So, there was a clear example of what was liable to happen in a primarily Muslim country once a superpower had invaded; it encourages religious fundamentalists rather than weakens them.

As for Iranian intervention in Iraq after the US invasion, again, a teenager who had read 20th century history, could have predicted this.  Even if this had not been a correct prediction, it was something the USA and its supporters should have prepared for.  Iran and Iraq were at war 1980-8 and have continued to have border tensions since.  Iran, itself a dictatorship, would never pass up the chance to keep Iraq weak and then to create a regime sympathetic to Iran if not a puppet state.  Knowing the Iranian regime as well as the USA does due to its bitter relations with the country since 1979, surely it could have been foreseen that the Iranians would not have stood by passively.  Their pursuit of nuclear technology suggests that the regime is not currently adopting a passive stance.  From the Iranian perspective, look at a map and see that Iran has Afghanistan to its North-East and Iraq to its West, two places that by 2003, the USA was militarily involved with.  Iraq under Hussain had been supported militarily by the USA, so is it no surprise that when the Americans are running it the Iranians would feel that they might be next on the list for invasion.  If Barack Obama had not won the US presidential election, perhaps they might have been.
What has not come out in the Chilcot Inquiry are the real motives for the war, rather than the mixed up approaches that were supposed to win public support.  This comes back to US concern about oil resources especially in the light of China's aggressive search for control of raw materials and a regime in Venezuela, the USA's prime short haul supplier of oil, that was unfriendly to US imperialism.  I think George W. Bush probably believed, as he was told that Al-Qaeda, the imagined organisation that gave so many of his authoritarian policies some form of perceive legitimacy, was in Iraq.  However foolish Bush was, as a former oil man, I imagine he must have seen the value of the USA holding Iraq.  Of course, this explanation for the war is the least palatable to the public of all of the excuses put forward and this is why it will not be heard at the Chilcot Inquiry or anywhere else public.

This then brings us back to Blair and his mish-mash explanation. for going to war.  He said there was no plot or conspiracy to bring about war, but the problem with the approach that was adopted was that it was a shabby collection of reasons.  At least, to some extent, admitting that neither the USA and especially not the UK was ready to go to war in terms of forces and equipment, he said a military build-up could not have begun without alerting Hussain to the potential of invasion.  I think Hussain probably had already seen the UN resolution and the weapons inspectors.  His country had been invaded by the USA and UK back in 1990-1 and it was clear they had been disappointed that he had not fallen at the time once they had expelled him from Kuwait.  So, Hussain was as ready as he could have been to face the invasion. This issue about trying to keep preparations low key, is something that Blair can be blamed for directly as it meant the UK forces were ill-equipped and this has meant far higher casualties than needed to be the case.  If you are going to be a militarist state in the way the UK has been in the 2000s you need a strong military and not to be involved in two wars on the cheap.  Skimping on equipment means paying a higher price in casualties.  For the British public this is on charge that Blair really needs to be held accountable for, because unlike with US global political approaches, he had direct control over it.  The excuse that decent preparation could have given the game a way is pathetic.

In fact, a strong, visible military build up would have helped remove Hussain.  By making him feel under threat and so keeping his military expenditure at a maximum, the West could have brought down the regime through economic chaos the way the USSR dissolved after years of sustaining its side of the arms race.  However, that would not have served the USA as there was no knowing who might have got control of the oil, possibly the country with the greatest foreign currency reserves in the world, China, though effectively supporting Hussain's regime financially as they are backing those regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe.  All superpowers, including the USA, prefers to deal with dictatorships than democracies; China, however, has fewer qualms over human rights records.  Of course, ironically the USA's invasion of Iraq moved it into an era in which it adopted torture as an approach it was happy to use.

So, what we got from Blair, was probably what we expected, though, I, like many headline writers was stunned by how unwavering Blair was in seeing himself as having done precisely nothing wrong.  I suppose unrepentance is the luxury of retirement.  The fact that he has gone on to be a Middle Eastern envoy on the basis of his career is sickening.  Blair's attitude is very like that of the politician he most resembles in policies and attitude, Margaret Thatcher.  She famously said 'this lady's not for turning' and saw any critics of her sledgehammer policies as 'moaning minnies'.  The UK likes politicians of this ilk and they serve long in office, whereas their more human successors, John Major and Gordon Brown are portrayed as weak and vacilliating.  However, for one, I would rather have a politician aware of his flaws because that means s/he is aware of their humanity.  Humanity is what connects them with not only the entire electorate, but more broadly people across the world.  It is fine to admit you have made mistake, but for some reason we want politicians who will never do this.  As a consequence we end up with policies, which may appear needful and strong at the start but usually end up leading to years of suffering for ordinary people.  To anyone who favours unwavering politicians, with no regrets at all, just like Tony Blair, I would point to the politician who took this to the extreme, who continued to blame everyone else for what ruin he had brought to his country and the world, right until his death: Adolf Hitler.

P.P. 01/02/2010: An interesting twist in this story comes from former minister Clare Short who is apparently going to claim at the Chilcot Inquiry that Gordon Brown, long Tony Blair's rival in government, was kept out of the inner circle that decided on the UK's involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Short believes that on the back of the glory of the expected quick victory Blair would have moved to remove Brown from his position as Chancellor of the Exchequer effectively marking a coup against his rival and ultimately his successor.  We know that Blair postponed stepping down as prime minister as long as he could and went much later than Brown had been led to expect.  Brown did become prime minister, in 2007, as Blair had promised him back in 1994, but in harder circumstances and with the troubles in Iraq dragging on after the war and the UK still suffering casualties.

For Blair it seems the invasion of Iraq had the potential for a 'Flucht nach vorn', in the style of Fritz Fischer's explanation of the domestic reasons for the German triggering of the First World War, i.e. using overseas success to resolve domestic political pressures.  I was very suspicious when in his testament to the Chilcot Inquiry last month, Blair's henchman Alastair Campbell emphasised that Brown had played a full part in the discussions about war.  I did not see why Campbell made this emphasis and assumed he saw it as a chance to get a bit of revenge on Brown.  This may explain why Brown is happy to testify to the Inquiry before the election. 

Even if Short's accusation is exaggerated, it seems that Blair's arrogance was straying into a whole other field, and he saw domestic political gain to be had from the war, no matter what else he got from backing the USA's approach.  Perhaps it anticipated receiving the large popularity boost of the kind his heroine, Margaret Thatcher had received after the Falklands Conflict of 1982.  It shows that not only was he willing to play with Iraqi lives for personal political gain but British ones too.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Pay & Display Dismay

One section of the UK population which irritates me immensely, as anyone who reads this blog knows, are those people who believe in a 'freer' Britain in which they can speed around , use their mobile phones and park where they like with impunity.  This is primarily associated with driving, whether in a car or a commercial van or lorry, but in fact this is simply because they feel they can talk about outrageous things in that sphere whereas in others such as re-introducing the death penalty and castration as sentences for courts and expelling any immigrants, would be challenged more vigorously.  In the field of regulation of driving and parking they constantly portray the rules as having nothing to do with safety but simply as a form of taxation.  I constantly come back to the fact that if you do not break the law, then this is a tax you are exempt from.  However, it is clear these people think very individualist behaviour in vehicles, which puts others' health and lives at risk is not a crime so they should face no charges.

Another issue has come up in this regard, brought into view by the Breakfast programme run on BBC1.  This is the rule that even if someone has a valid ticket to park in a particular location, if there are numerous other ones on display, they can still be fined.  The response has been vigorous, that this is another tax.  I am marginally more sympathetic to this argument because if these people have actually got to a car park, rather than believing they have some exceptional God-given right to park on a double yellow line with their lights flashing while they do the shopping, as I see so often, then that is a good step.  However, if your car, van or lorry is full of different, similarly looking tickets, why should you compel a parking warden to read them all to find if one is correct or not.  They complain about traffic wardens anyway, so why are they happy to give them more work.  Perhaps councils and the government should adopt the same approach and never bother taking down road signs when the road layout is changed.  Perhaps they should simply stick up signs that they have lying around rather than ones that actually relate to the towns that can be reached from the location where the sign is.  Maybe we should put up a selection of speed limit signs and say that drivers have to comply with whichever one is correct for the particular road.  This would be a major challenge for many drivers given that many cannot adhere to the speed limit even when there is a single clear sign.

I think, that if you cannot be bothered to keep your vehicle sufficiently tidy so that anyone can see simply whether you have the correct ticket or not, then you deserve to be fined.  The UK is better than some countries anyway.  I remember in France in the 1980s seeing people with a string of road tax stickers down their windscreen, but no-one in the UK would complain that we have to show only the current one on our windscreens.  Potentially I could have thirteen different road tax discs on my windscreen making it a challenge for anyone to spot if I had a current one, but, of course, that is seen as a silly approach.  Simply chuck away old parking permits.  Or, if that is really too much trouble, at least shove them off the dashboard on to the floor!

What this whole complaint stems from is the unhealthy characteristic that seems to have taken root in the UK and is growing like mold throughout our society.  This believes that the individual's desires (not even just their needs) must be satisfied and not constrained, certainly not by the safety or interests of anyone else, and certainly not policed by any state authority (just by who can shout loudest).  This is already impinging on road safety but is likely to spread into other aspects of society effectively implementing 'mob rule' in many things.  Examples of this spread can be seen in Simon Cowell's desire to have a political show that makes decisions by people telephoning in.  Of course, tabloid newspapers have long done this, I remember an opinion poll in 'The Sun' newspaper of the 1980s which told you to ring one number if you wanted the minimum sentence for certain crimes set at 20 years and another if you wanted it at 25 years.  There was no option for no sentence or 10 years or 15 years.  What can be seen as a 'free' choice can easily be engineered to channel you into backing a policy which has already been established (just ask any of the dictators who have run 'free' elections) and so seemingly giving it popular support.  Of course, the people peddling this kind of approach see what they do as simply based on 'common sense' whereas in fact it is based on assumptions and prejudices and excludes so many options that fall outside the very individualist approach they advocate. 

If you want to see this in action just watch an episode of 'Live from Studio Five' which is made by SkyNews (owned by Rupert Murdoch) and shown on Channel 5, Monday to Friday evenings.  It features former model Melinda Messenger, former footballer Ian Wright and a runner-up on 'The Apprentice' television show.  It is a magazine programme which mixes coverage of celebrities with discussion of news items.  This is where it is most dangerous as it presents a very right-wing perspective especially on social and legal issues in a light manner with the presenters indicating that they see pretty extreme views as somehow 'common sense'.  Fortunately it only attracts 230,000 viewers.  However, it is a good example of how the 'me first above anyone else' attitude is being fed into the popular consciousness and it is on this basis of assumptions about 'common sense' that more extreme steps are made to seem unassailable by those of us who would like an inclusive society that does not value freedom to behave how you like over the right of people to live in safety.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Contradictions of China

It is no surprise that China has become such a potent force in the 21st century world.  Even Napoleon characterised the country as being a sleeping giant even more in his times of the late 18th and early 19th century.  It can easily be argued that China would have assumed its role of a Power in the world far sooner if it had not had a string of poor rulers and policies which have disrupted its economy and led to starvation and millions of deaths.  China was a victim of imperialism both in the 19th century from European powers notably the British, French and Germans and in the 20th century from the Japanese conquest of much of the country 1931-45.  However, it has long had the largest army in the world and exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967.  It was a superpower alongside the USA and USSR but aside from small conflicts with the USSR which fortunately did not escalate into anything larger, its focus was generally internally, especially when the ideology and internecine fighting of the Cultural Revolution 1966-76 disrupted so much of the economy and society of China.

With the death of Mao Zedong and leaders from the era of the final phase of the revolution of 1945-50, China began to look out into the wider world and effectively became a Communist state with a capitalist economy.  Its huge resources notably of workers meant that it was destined to always be a strong player in the world an if it had not been for Mao's insanities it may have reached this position in the 1960s rather than the 1980s and 1990s.  What has not changed is the political structure which has overseen this vast economic growth.  There has been the liberalisation of things such as where people are allowed to live, necessary to allow the rural-urban migration which has brought cheap workers to the cities though periodically older regulations are enforced to clear out slums.  Anyone who has done business in China knows that influence with leading local members of the Chinese Communist Party is vital for achieving anything.  This political power over economic activity unsurprisingly, as in so many other states, has led to corruption.  Again periodically the corrupt are purged (often facing the death penalty) in some propaganda seeking attempt to reassert the supposed values of Communism but this does nothing to reverse how corruption is an integral part of the economic boom of China.  Of course, there is a lot of ingenuity and hard work done in China, most of which was choked off in the past, so it is unsurprising that the economy prospers.

Despite all the economic shifts in China it remains a totalitarian state that Mao would still recognise.  The suppression of the Tianamen Square protests in 1989, continued occupation of Tibet, suppression of the Falun Gong religion and of Uighur nationalists are all characteristic of a country unwilling to tolerate any political shift especially from ethnic and religious minorities.  People forget that China has 56 ethnic minorities which are highly over-represented in terms of absolute poverty, i.e. earning less than equivalent to US$1 per day.  Thus, while people become multi-millionaires in Shanghai, in Xinjiang province they are as poor as in Third World countries.  Despite the strength of its military and its vast economy, which is now the second strongest in the world, China continues to pretend somehow that it is a poor, defenceless countries bullied by the old Western imperial states.

This dichotomy between China's real strength and how it expects to be treated in the world has come out on a number of occasions recently. In the 1960s, despite being a Communist superpower, China tried to present itself as being in the 'non-aligned' group of nations.  However, it was as happy to spread its ideology, a rural-focused brand of Communism to developing countries, feeling it was more appropriate than the heavy industry focused Soviet Communism.  Similarly these days China still portrays itself as a victim of imperialism, though the last imperial forces left in 1945 and even if you count the British and Portuguese leaving Hong Kong and Macao as late as 1997 they have all gone now.  Chinese people become indignant if you suggest that actually China is behaving like a (neo-)imperial power.  They characterise their investment especially in African states like Zimbabwe and Sudan as being utterly different from the neo-imperialism through investment that the USA, Britain, France and the USSR adopted in the 1970s, when in fact it is no different.  Chinese staff supervise Zimbabwean workers on Chinese projects in the country.  The Chinese steps to secure raw materials across the world even in developed countries does not differ from the efforts of the UK, France and the USA to secure natural resource supplies.  However, always, China says that it is different and is still a victim of imperialism when in fact it is now an imperialist power itself.  Do not even mention the Spratly Islands where the imperialism is even more old fashioned.

China is a totalitarian state.  People seem to keep forgetting that so it is worthwhile emphasising.  It has possibly over 1.6 million prisoners, second only to the USA, with 2.3 million, which has about a quarter as many people.  The difference for China is that the 'crimes' of many of these people are political and they are being 're-educated'.  Bizarrely unlike the US system that seems to think people cannot be changed, the Chinese prison system believes that they can, though to the bulk of us the methodology would appear like brainwashing and certainly involves torture which the USA has only comparatively recently adopted as a method and then only for its political prisoners.  The US population should be utterly ashamed that, as a supposedly liberal democracy, they can be bracketed with a totalitarian regime in this respect.  Anyway, China has censorship, it always had.  With the expansion of the internet promoted in a large part by the rapid economic growth the country has experienced in the past three decades, this censorship has had to expand to the internet.  Singapore has struggled to maintain its censorship system when dealing with the internet.  China with its vast resources has been more successful using a combination of electronic means such as the police officers that appear on screen when you access certain websites, to arresting blogging dissidents, to compelling Google to ban the searching of certain phrases.  Now, in its hacking into Google accounts of dissidents and the launching of a sophisticated cyber attack the Chinese authorities have even angered Google which is now holding back on introducing a new generation of mobile phones to the country.  The Chinese have found that there are sometimes limits even to the powerful renminbi (the Chinese currency often still called the yuan).  The Chinese have not said 'well, we are a totalitarian dictatorship, so we censor' again they have whined that they are victims of imperialism.  They complain that there is an imbalanced 'global information order' again in favour of the West which is trying to impose its culture on China.  In fact China is giving heart to those who want to censor internet activity (of course, leading this is the USA with its desire for a war on terror in all facets) and the UK which has long monitored all email traffic.  China whines that it is being bullied, when in fact we are suffering as a result of the dictatorial, suppressive measures it is pressing on the world.

At the recent Copenhagen climate change conference, powerful China was again portraying itself as the weak country in need of support from the supposedly rich West (even though China's economy is now more powerful than all Western states bar the USA).  It was seeking financial support for steps to ameliorate the impact of climate change, despite China having US$2.272 trillion in foreign currency reserves in September 2009.  This tactic help divert attention from China's appalling record on industrial damage to the environment which has caused poverty and disrupted the lives of millions of its citizens and no doubt contributes heavily to global climate change.  The fact that the government ceased traffic flow during the Beijing Olympics because the air pollution was so severe, indicates the impact of China's booming industrial and transport sectors that have barely been affected by the global recession.  China should be one of the industrialised states looking to reduce its pollution but instead it whines that it is only a developing country which needs support to do this.  The amount of money the USA owes China is sufficient for China to effectively buy the whole US economy and close down every factory and stop every vehicle there, that is not a country which needs help reducing its pollution impact on the world, it is one that needs to be leading the way.

China is immensely strong in so many ways, but it seems constantly to pretend that it is the victim and rebuff any claims that it should comply with international standards on the basis this is bullying by other states.  I have not even mentioned its unwillingness to comply with copyright law.  There is unsurprisingly, given the nature of the regime, an immense arrogance from China that it can behave with impunity in the global context and that its stated values, i.e. censorship, freedom to exploit people and the environment, imprisonment on issues of conscience, continued occupation of a foreign country, should not even be challenged by the world community.  Of course, many powerful states engage in these kinds of policies, but perhaps the irritation with China is that it somehow pretends that it is the best society and that any criticism is based on myths and motivated by a desire to imperially suppress China.  It attacks other states for in fact things it is doing itself.  I guess this is one reason why we find taking official China's statements so hard.  They are both hypocritical and seek to conceal atrocities that we all know are going on beneath an incredibly pathetic line that China is weak and a victim of bullies.  All of us who support freedom of thought, contact, communication, conscience, must keep challenging China (as well as the USA, UK and other states that are doing wrong) and one first step is for the Chinese state to actually admit it is a bully, not a victim.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

What If the UK had Handled the 'Oil Shock' of the 1970s Differently?

This is not really a counter-factual more a discussion about energy policy.  As had been foreseen on the drama series 'Spooks' at the end of 2009, the UK has been facing a shortage in its supply of fuel, primarily because the country is so dependent on imported gas.  Half of the gas the UK uses is imported and gas burning provides 40% of the UK's electricity.  The concerns that have been rising in Britain, at least since 1956, if not since the 1910s when the Navy became interested in oil supplies from what was then Persia (now Iran), regarding 'fuel security', seem to have been neglected in recent years and so have left Britain very vulnerable to increased demand or any disruption in supply.  In the past the concern was whether the oil could be obtained safe from Great Power rivals, Cold War rivals or local nationalists or religious fundamentalists.  Some of these issues remain and to some degree warming relations with Colonel Gadaffi are about securing short haul oil for western Europe just as US intervention in Iraq, reassurance of Saudi Arabia and dismay over the Chavez government in Venezuela has been concerned with oil supplies to the USA. 

Back in the 1970s it appeared the UK would be exempt from worrying about securing oil from uncertain regimes in Africa (not just Libya but also Nigeria), the Middle East and South America because oil and gas was found in large quantities in the North Sea.  Whilst it was difficult to access, the rise in oil prices from 1973 onwards certainly made it economically viable.  The peak production was in 1999 at 6 million barrels per day but now has fallen to 1.9 million barrels per day and in 2007 the UK became a net importer of oil for the first time since the 1960s.  Oil-burning power stations only contribute 1% of UK electricity but oil is vital for powering vehicles.  Gas production remains high at 280 billion cubic metres in 2001 and is increasing, but the amount extracted by the UK compared to the Netherlands is falling and instead imported gas (making up 50% of UK supply, up from 27% in 2007) is being used.  It is estimated that since large scale North Sea oil extraction began from the mid-1960s onwards half of all the reserves in the North Sea and neighbouring sea regions has been removed. Of course, unlike Norway which has a population of only 4.7 million (and where, despite its oil 99.3% of its electricity is generated by hydro-electric plants), the UK with about twelve times as many people has not seen a rise in the standard of living and in fact the boom years in oil production in the 1980s coincided with periods of sharp industrial decline and mass unemployment.  In addition, the privatisation of BP the previously state-owned oil company in parts between 1979-87 meant that the profits went to shareholders rather than the British state just at the first peak of production which came in 1985.

Of course, in terms of generating electricity rather than powering vehicles, the UK should not need to worry for centuries to come.  When the bulk of British coal mines closed in the mid-1980s the UK still had reserves of coal that could have lasted 300 years.  However, it was comparatively expensive to extract compared to cheap Polish and Australian coal and prime minister Margaret Thatcher anyway wanted to smash the coal mining workforce as an element in British society.  In addition, there is a newish factor which is the concern regarding carbon dioxide pollution connected to the warming of the climate which predicates against power stations burning fossil fuels.  Coal burning still provides 33% of UK's electricity and there has been discussion of new coal-fired power stations to fill the UK's gap in power.

Britain has long flirted with nuclear power, with its first commercial power station being built in 1956.  Currently 20% of UK electricity is generated by nuclear power stations (3% of it by French nuclear power stations and imported via cables under the English Channel) all of which will be decommissioned by 2035, all but one by 2023.  By 1988 nuclear power was increasingly seen as too expensive and dangerous to be viable and with electricity generation privatised in 1989 there seemed no point in the government investing in nuclear power any longer, the last nuclear power station was Sizewell B started up in 1995.  Up until 2003 the British government was reluctant to build more nuclear power stations due to the dangers of leakages and the waste they produce.  However, from 2006 onwards, looking for ways to have power generated in ways that did not increase carbon dioxide, they came back in favour in policy and 10 nuclear power stations have been planned for 2019-25 were announced in November 2009 providing 25% of UK electricity, but not starting for almost another decade.  France has always been a greater enthusiast for nuclear power despite generally easy oil resources coming the short distance from Algeria even after that state cease being a French colony in 1962 and now 78% of France's electricity comes from nuclear power (11% from hydro-electric) and some of this is exported.

Hydro-electric power is interesting.  Some states who have fossil resources, such as Norway, Canada (where 61% of power is hydro-electric, i.e. HEP), Venezuela (67% HEP) get a lot of electricity from hydro-electric, other big users are Sweden (44%) and Brazil (86%).  Britain has been building hydro-electric plants since the 1930s but they only contribute to 1% of UK electricity less than biomass and wind methods which provide 3.5% at present.  Globally HEP provides 20% of the world's electricity and it is estimated that a third of potential sites have been used.  It seems ironic that even heavily nuclear France has more power from HEP than the UK.  HEP does not necessarily need mountain valleys, many French rivers have HEP installations on them.

Given that fuel, power and energy are all up for discussion now, why do I hark back to the 1970s?  This is because I feel that this was the time when the UK had its first real shock around its energy supply and could have taken steps to secure it, not only in political terms but in moving towards more sustainable, less polluting sources.  The so-called 'oil shock' hit the Western world in 1973 when Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC - Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates; 'radical' Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Syria had just joined in 1972) announced in October 1973 an oil embargo on states seen as backing Israel in the Yom Kippur War of that year.  This was an extension of the policy of oil embargo imposed for a short period in summer 1967 in response to supposed US and British involvement in the Six Day War of that year.  In 1973 this affected the USA but also impacted on the Netherlands, Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa depending on individual states' policies.  The broader impact even for countries not embargoed was a 70% increase in the price of oil anyway, seen as effectively ending the post-1948 economic boom, though this had begun to slow from 1971 onwards and the US stock market suffered a crash for almost all of 1973 and 1974.  By the end of 1974 oil was four times its pre-October 1973 price.  For the second time in six years, Britain had had its oil supplies from the Middle East threatened.  Whilst this encouraged the British to look at new supplies such as from Nigeria which had been a British colony until 1960 though it was just recovering from the 1967-70 civil war, from Canadian oil shales, from the North Sea and through alternative power sources.

The second 'oil shock' caused by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war had an immediate impact but this was comparatively short lived as during the mid to late 1970s oil supplies had been diversified, many Arab states increased production and Venezuela, Mexico and Nigeria were able to expand their production to fill the gap left by the loss of much of the Iranian and Iraqi supplies and by 1980 the oil price went into a slump lasting until 1986.  The 1979 crisis raised oil prices sharply in the USA and threatened rationing.  The UK was less affected because North Sea oil had increased in quantity of supply over 1973/4.

The UK had had additional 'shocks' from its domestic politics.  The rise in the price of coal as an effect of the oil price rise, rising inflation in the UK in 1972-3 in part provoked by an era of prosperity and consumption (1974/5 was to see the highest level of sales of cars in the UK that had been yet seen) and by the knock-on effects of oil price rises (which, for example made plastics more expensive) led to work-to-rule and then strikes by coal miners leading to fall in coal supplies which at the time was the main source of fule for generating electricity.  From December 1973 to March 1974 a three-day week was run meaning electricity was only available for industry for three days of the working wait and there were power cuts at other times; television stopped broadcasting at 10.30pm, which given that it usually went off air sometime before midnight most days (and sometimes in the middle of the afternoon too) when there was normal electricity supply was less of a change than it would be nowadays with 24-hour television broadcasting.

In the 1970s, especially from 1973, there was naturally interest in moving away from the consumption of coal and oil to more sustainable supplies that were not dependent on foreign governments.  For a small country, the UK was at the leading edge of wave power development with Stephen Salter and Michael French ranking alongside US, Norwegian and Chinese scientists in developments.  At a popular level I remember programme after programme about developments of wave power devices of different sorts, notably 'Salter's duck' formally known as the Edinburgh Duck after his university, those that bobbed on the waves.  Other designs aimed to use the force of waves coming into shore.  Of course, the UK had a history of tide mills; there were 6000 across England as early as the 12th century.  One from the 8th century has been found in Northern Ireland and a Roman one may have been found on the River Fleet in London.  One found recently at Greenwich in East London had a wheel of 5.2 metres in diameter and was constructed of wood felled in 1194; tide mills were still in use in the 19th century.  Given the extensive coastline the UK would seem a suitable place for wave power now as it was eight centuries ago.  It has come to light that the UK Wave Energy Programme was closed by the UK government in March 1982, not surprising given that Margaret Thatcher has never appeared a fan of sustainable energy perferring to favour profiting her friends in the oil multi-nationals.  Salter's model was very energy efficient, but needed large scale investment to be put into practice.  However, other designs around at the time were similarly shelved.  The fall in oil prices in the 1980s seemed to make them unnecessary.

The first windmill to generate electricity in the UK was built in 1887, yes, 1887, not 1987.  As I have noted before in the 18th century the UK had hundreds of windmills in every county.  Developments in wind power especially in Denmark and the USA continued through the 20th century.  Again it was the oil shocks of the 1970s which stimulated even the huge fossil fuel consumer the USA to begin taking the approach seriously.  However, it was not until 1991 that the UK got its first onshore wind farm and 2003 its first offshore one.  The lateness of this was because it was only in the face of pressure of carbon dioxide emissions (commonly called 'carbon footprint', in fact though carbon particulates pollute the atmosphere this cools the global temperature, it is the emission of carbon dioxide following the burning of hydro-carbons, what make up fossibl fuels, which is what is contributing to global warming) that government funding went into such initiatives.  There are now £75 billion of contracts to build windpower facilities around the UK, but the bulk of the tendering companies are dominated by German firms.  This is unsurprising as after the USA, Germany has the second largest number of wind farms of any country in the world as anyone driving down as German motorway in recent years will know.  There seems to be less issue there with locals refusing to have them and it seems sensible to put them alongside motorways which would already be considered an eyesore.  Again, back in the 1970s the British were looking at wind farms.  Along with Denmark, a leading advocate, we had joined the EEC from EFTA in 1973.  Designs such as the vertical wind turbine from the UK company Alvesta were certainly being publicised in the 1970s but again it needed another 30-35 years before any steps were taken.

Of course, sustainable energy does not mean ending use of hydro-carbons and biofuels are a form of hydro-carbon that is sustainable but is still troublesome in terms of carbon dioxide production.  Again in the 1970s biofuels were seen as a solution, though back then we did not know that recycling fat from chipshops would do the trick if properly processed.  Given how much more fried food the UK consumed in the 1970s it would have been a rich source.  Biofuels such as the use of ethanol, hemp and peanut oil have been around since the late 19th century and biodiesel mixes were in common use until the1920s.  Biofuels are seen as balancing the carbon dioxide situation because plants absorb carbon dioxide, though I and many argues that burning any hydro-carbons worsens the situation unnecessarily, but yes, biofuels have less overall impact than fossil fuels.  The other key problem with biofuels is that they now tend to be grown in regions where growing enough food is a problem.  The world can produce more than enough food to feed the entire population, as the mountains and lakes of food stored by the EEC in the 1970s and 1980s showed.  However, economically big business makes more money growing such fuels in places with cheap labour.  In the 1980s, with the EEC countries being dependent on imports of food oils they promoted the cultivation of rape seed which can be crushed to produce oil.  This policy was incredibly successful changing the UK arable landscape entirely and you now see field upon field of this bright yellow crop.  The UK along with many other EU states was producing 'too much' food and so adopted policies like 'set aside' paying farmers to leave fields fallow.  Instead it could have developed a biofuel industry on the back of the rape seed and sugar beet that grow in so much of the UK.  This could have started in the 1970s and made the UK have 'fuel security' at least for powering cars and lorrie.  Part of the problem is the reluctance of the British public to engage with non-standard vehicles, which is ironic given our steering wheels are on the opposite side of the car to most in the world.  Hybrid vehicles are in place for those reluctant to move entirely to move away from petrol or diesel.  Hybrids with electric propulsion have been around more than twenty years.

The UK, like many Western countries, had the opportunity to respond positively to the oil shocks of the 1970s in developing better fuel and energy policies.  However, once the immediate threat was over they simply let these developments slide.  Partly, I imagine, this was because multi-national oil companies are immensely wealthy and incredibly influential.  As we saw in the USA in response to the Kyoto Agreement, lobbying from the fossil fuel sector is far more powerful than that from environmentalists or even specialists favouring fuel alternatives.  Oil companies like the wealth they have and like a drugs dealer will push hard to make sure that we remain addicted to their product and keep paying them for it.

The UK, in particular, allowed its leading position in such developments to go to the USA and to Germany.  In many ways I wish that the OAPEC action had gone on longer to the extent that the oil companies actually began to feel the pinch.  They shifted sources and traded internally and among themselves.  Though oil companies always whine when supply prices rise, in fact they always come out of these things very successfully.  However, if the prices to the consumer had persisted at a high level for longer, then governments may have persisted with pursuing the alternatives to oil and coal which seemed to be the future in 1973.  The advent of New Right governments, wedded to big business did not help this.  As a result, rather than steadily moving into sustainable energy in the 1970s to an extent that by the 2000s the UK's carbon dioxide levels would already be lower, we kept on giving away our advantages and ignoring the methods our scientists and technologists had developed.  We even ignored easy gains such as biofuels. The UK probably got North Sea oil at the wrong time.  If we had not found it until the 1990s then we would have used it more sensibly and not allowed it to blind us to the other developments we could have pursued.  The UK is now incredibly vulnerable in terms of fuel security, highly dependent on imported gas and is also weak in meeting carbon dioxide emission targets and so is rushing with little thought into any feasible route, such as new nuclear and even new coal-fired power stations.  The public resistance to wind farms is insane, but the people who resist their construction will have to put up with the nuclear powered stations built instead.  I know which of the two I would prefer in my back garden.  I fear that faced with challenges in terms of fuel and energy the UK will continue to simply stick to 'business as usual' for as long as it can rather than properly engage with better, safer approaches.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Extreme Weather; Extreme Behaviour

As many commentators have noted during the recent snowy and icy weather, the trouble in the UK is not that we experience extremes of weather, and in fact what we have seen is considered normal in many neighbouring states (remember London is as far North as Moscow), but that we do not experience them often enough.  For comparisons we have to look back to 1981, 1963, 1947 and beyond rather than, say, 2006 or even 2001 which other countries could draw comparisons with.  This applies to all 'extremes' of weather in the UK.  The hot summer of 1995 could only be compared to 1976, 19 years earlier.  The bulk of the weather in Britain is tepid and this allows us all to forget how to cope when it gets a little colder, hotter, wetter or drier than has been the case in the past decade.  Combined with this is the tightness of public funding especially at a local level as councils have been facing constraints really non-stop since the mid-1970s when 'cuts' first became a common phrase for British local authorities.  So, given that you are likely to only have harsh weather in winter one year in twenty or thirty, it is clear that it is a gamble they are willing to take to save a little money in not buying salt or grit and keeping it in storage and the necessary lorries maintained. 

The other factor is the privatisation of so many public services in the UK. Why would a train company risk being sued by stranded customers or penalised for a string of late arrivals by trying to run a comprehensive train service.  In a hot summer, it is far easier for water companies to declare restrictions on the use of water and to reduce the water pressure than for them to spend money to repairing the high level of leakages in the British system which means around 25% of British water is lost compared to 14% of French and 10% of Dutch.  Greed and penny pinching make it far harder for the UK to be adaptable when something slightly different occurs.  Of course, we have just finished one six-year war and are still in the middle of one that has now be raging for coming up to its ninth year (almost as long as the First and Second World Wars combined) so costing millions of pounds in resources and a constant haemorrage of British people through death and injury.

Anyway, given the context that the weather and the response of the local authorities, who I acknowledge do the best they can with the resources they have, creates, how do the British people respond to it?  Well, this goes to 'extremes' as well.  People talk of the 'Blitz spirit' or the 'Dunkirk mentality', once again having to rely on nostalgia for a war that ended 64 years ago (in fact going back 69-70 years to those specific events) rather than finding anything of merit from the British public in those intervening years.  It is fascinating how with a single snowfall British people suddenly start talking to each other.  I know the weather is a common topic of conversation but it seems that it needs to really begin disrupting people's lives before they break through to talking to their neighbours let alone strangers.  Even among colleagues I have seen a change.  Those stranded at home yesterday did not sit in front of their radiators whining they were out checking on elderly people, fetching food and helping people dig out their cars.  In some ways the British cannot be stirred from their apathy unless it is by a 'crisis'.  It has to be a tangible crisis, as the failure to alarm us all about terrorists in the early 2000s showed, something which is intangible will not stir us, it has to be immediately visible and physical and so snow and floods in particular flick the switch in the average Briton's head.  Ironically, it seems, in my experience, and I accept that is very limited, to even push aside the usual whining about immigrants, dole 'scroungers' and so on and emphasise for many people the commonality of humanity. 

A new focus of complaint, however, are those who warm us about global warming.  There is a saying 'one swallow does not make a summer' and the same can be said in this case 'one snowfall does not mean there is no global warming'.  The climate does shift steadily, we know the 11th century was warm enough for people to farm on Greenland and the 17th century cold enough for people to have bonfires on the River Thames but within those periods there were hot or cold, dry or wet seasons.  As a spokesman for the Met(reological) Office noted on BBC1 yesterday, even if in 20 years when the global temperature is 2-3oC warmer we will still get snowy winters.

This beneficial, communal spirit which gets turned on by 'extreme' weather does have a counteracting behaviour too, sometimes among the very same people.  Britons are, on the whole, very selfish and often find it difficult to comprehend that anyone else may have equal and/or different needs that have any validity let alone greater validity than their own perceived needs.  This is most apparent when British people drive.  The bulk of British drivers want no-one else to be on the road and if there are other drivers, for them to get out of the way.  They see themselves as driving in a bubble, looking only a short distance ahead rather than what they are in fact, a cog in a complex machine of traffic.  This situation has worsened and drivers now often do not feel obliged to signal, they complain at attempts to make them stick to a speed limit, and in my experience, these days occasionally feel it is appropriate to drive on pavements if it can get them where they 'need' to be, that little bit quicker.  They take no responsibility for their actions, always blaming the others, especially if those others are cyclists or pedestrians. 

Rather than tempering this behaviour the snow has apparently exacerbated it.  Partly, I think, it is accentuated by the fact that 4x4 drivers, who assume they should be granted a superior position on the road at normal times, actually have it in such slippery conditions so apparently legitimising their arrogant attitudes and the fact that they are driving so far removed from the road.  Ironically, talking to a man this week who lives in rural Devon, he said that now the 4x4 drivers have conditions which suit their vehicles many drivers are too afraid and lack the expertise to use them properly and so end up blocking village high streets.  Despite the conditions many drivers are going too fast and are impatient with people trying to get over icy patches or going up and down hills cautiously.  In my office we discussed how one car was tipped on its side on a road.  Even stunt men find this a challenge, it is not the result simply of ice and snow unless the vehicle has slid sideways off a particular camber, it is achieved by driving too fast.  Too many people in the UK speed in normal conditions and apparently have no appreciation of the stopping distances needed even on dry roads let alone on icy ones.  Speeding among too many people, including, it seems newspapers like the 'Daily Mail' (complaining this week about the £15 increase in speeding fines to pay compensation to victims of other crimes, seemingly forgetting that speeding is a crime and that people who speed are criminals), is not seen as a criminal offence, rather it is perceived as a right, one that even outweighs commons sense.

The occasions on which such behaviour becomes insane is in the attacks on workers driving snow ploughs and gritting lorries.  Interviews last night with such drivers showed that they had had objects thrown at their vehicles on some occasions smashing the windscreens.  Apparently this stems from frustration that the roads have not been sufficiently cleared or not soon enough or that side roads are neglected or routes in rural areas cannot be kept open constantly.  Attacks on the gritting vehicles is like shooting yourself in the foot because you are tired from walking.  Yet, to too many people it apparently seems rational behaviour.  However, perhaps it is unsurprising in a country where ambulance and fire fighting crews are attacked when carrying out their duties.  If you have a problem with the services protest to the people who actually control it, vote for someone who will adopt a different policy, do not attack the people trying to deliver a life saving service, doing an ordinary job like the rest of us, under tough and dangerous circumstances anyway.  Think about it, someone who drives a gritting lorry has to get up early on the coldest days of the year and drive constantly in the most hazardous conditions.  Less severe, but equally moronic is the people who rush to overtake gritting lorries and snow ploughs.  Think about it.  If the road did not need a plough or gritting, the lorry would not be there and before a lorry has passed over a particular section the road is likely to be even more dangerous than usual, and you want to hurry on to that untreated road surface?

The other unhelpful thing is the attitude of employers who are given privileged opportunities to whine about how much the weather is damaging the economy.  It is the same whenever there is a bank holiday, they are allowed to come on to radio and television and produce some huge figure about how badly industry is missing out by people being off for a day or two (in the case of bank holidays, of course, the UK has five fewer than the next nearest number in the EU and many of our competitors have many more than us.  I imagine only the fact that the additional 2012 bank holiday is linked to the Queen's diamond jubilee that has meant no complaints from business leaders about it).  Apparently the snow is losing business £600 million per day.  Of course fuel utility companies and even many supermarkets (given the British tendency to stockpile food at any hint of a crisis) are actually benefiting from the cold weather.  The new twist is the complaint from employers that too many schools have closed too quickly and so compelling parents to take time off to look after their children. 

What the employers forget (or choose not to notice) is that often teachers cannot afford to live anywhere near the schools they work at because house prices have risen far faster than teachers' salaries over the past forty years and schools are fearful of being sued if any child has an accident even in good weather so are terrified they will get a slew of litigation if children slip over in the snow.  Added to this, much investment in school buildings and heating facilities has been neglected over the past thirty years, there are regular reports on the poor conditions many schools actually are in, so it is unsurprising when their aged boilers pack up or single-glazed classrooms are too cold to study in.  None of these considerations is allowed to get in the way of employers yet again telling us we are lazy and negligent and so are costing the country money (though of course not reducing their salaries or bonuses a jot).  Hassle from employers makes many people feel they must get on the road to reach their work, often adding the hazards and accidents.

Extreme weather shows how shabby the UK's infrastructure has become from decades of cuts and when this is combined with an unassailable belief that satisfaction of all individual wishes is the only legitimate concern, it creates 'crisis' that neighbouring states must look upon with bemusement/amusement. I wonder what happens in places like western Normandy and Brittany which, like the UK, benefit from the Atlantic warm currents that stop the climate being as cold, most winters, as, say, northern France, the Benelux countries and Germany.  In these regions of France they must have mild winters but the occasional harsh ones too, yet I never hear Cherbourg or Rennes or Brest grinding to a halt when this occurs.  I suspect it means keeping things in store that you might only use once per decade, but at least you know they are there.  I guess to it stems from an attitude which is not all 'me, me, me' when harsh conditions bite.  I may be wrong and would be interested to hear from people who have had experiences in these regions.  I have certainly travelled around Belgium in the winter when the temperature is often -10oC or worse without difficulty and without the madness that seems to affect too many Britons whenever snow comes.  The weather might be extreme for the UK but let us hope that negative extreme behaviour can be moderated and the positive behaviour become normalised rather than needing extreme weather to trigger it.

P.P. 12/01/2010: One contributory factor to schools closing that I had missed, but is now being reported widely, are the league table ratings around percentage of attendance.  This means that if a school opens and say, even a third or a quarter, in fact anything more than about a tenth, of its pupils cannot get in then it slides quickly in terms of its standing for attendance.  I should have remembered the messages that I have seen coming home from the school that the 8-year old who lives in my house attend.  The headteachers writes of figures like 92.4% attendance and a drive to get this figure higher.  It is unsurprising then, that heads shut the school and so have that day null-and-void for the statistics rather than risk dropping even a 1-2% and so looking worse than last year when we had a mild winter.

Another point of behaviour that I forgot to mention is drivers using their fog lights when visibility is good.  Many drivers, even now where there is a lot of thawing going on, certainly in the counties I have been driving through, seem to assume these lights are simply 'bad weather' lights.  They forget that on frosty days often the air is far clearer than even on rainy days and so there is no need for fog lights.  You can be fined if you have them on when visibility is more than 50-100 metres.  On the back fog lights can be up to 30 times more powerful than normal rear lights.  I know when you are driving up and down valleys on foggy days you go in and out of fog and may be excused for leaving them on in clear patches, but some people switch them on just when it is cold and frosty, every one car in ten I passed this morning had them on and there was not a scrap of fog on the 190Km I covered.  I do wonder, if, as with drivers who keep full beam on at all times, whether these drivers actually know how to operate the functions on their cars or get stuck with a certain setting.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Books I Read in 2009

This is the third year I have looked back at the books I have read in the previous year.  You can see my previous reviews at: and

As in 2008, in 2009, I seem to have fallen below my normal quantity of reading.  Partly it was because I was unemployed from June to October and I never read or write much when I am out of work.  I did try in the dying days of my job before I was made redundant not to work through my lunch breaks and to read instead, but I do not seem to have been that successful, still only getting through 16 books compared to 15 in 2008 and 31 in 2007.  This contrasts to when I lived in London in the 1990s and sometimes would read 1-2 books every week.  I suppose driving places rather than going by train plays quite a part in this drop off.

Given the complaints of the woman who lives in my house about the number of books I own, I have been trying to get through as many as I can as quickly as possible.  I am loath to throw away books that I have not read.  I have deliberately concentrating on the heaviest books so that if I am compelled to move house again, the boxes will be lighter.  On the last two occasions I have moved house the removal company has refused to touch any of my books.  So, weight has now become a factor in which books I pick to read.  As before, the bulk of what I read still comes from charity shops, so there is another factor shaping the kind of things I have to hand.  I still read three fiction books, from different genres for every non-fiction book I read.  As before my review here separates the fiction and non-fiction books and whilst it is roughly chronological I group together books I have read by the same author so that I can comment on the author's work in general.  I do like gathering as many books by a single author as I can and working through them over a year.

Anyway, this is the review of what I read in 2009.

'More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' and 'Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' ed. by Hugh Greene.
These are two more anthologies from the 1970s collecting detective stories from the mid-19th century to early 20th century.  As before they tend to show up why Sherlock Holmes has survived while these other stories have fallen into general obscurity.  However, the most interesting ones are those from outside the UK notably Denmark and Canada and there are detectives which are different to the kind you have seen before with stories which are pretty engaging compared to some of the rather sterile, mechanical ones from Britain itself.  Interestingly, you can see in the Danish detective elements that seem to be precursor to the Wallander mysteries and other Scandinavian writiers so popular today.

'Timeline' by Michael Crichton
I have said quite a bit about this novel in an earlier posting:  It is a pretty interesting story about a group of archaeologists time travelling through bubbles in the expanding universe back to medieval France.  There are some flaws in that method in that really they are going to an alternate universe though changed events there impact on our history.  In addition, Crichton seems to present a critique of modern men, especially academics, as being feeble and unworldly compared to their medieval counterparts and he lauds masculine physical activities.  These things aside the story is adventurous and with all of Crichton's work, well researched and detailed without drowning the reader in that detail.  Overall, I enjoyed this book.

'The Winter Queen'; 'Murder on the Leviathan', 'Turkish Gambit' all by Boris Akunin.
Russian author, Akunin's hero featured in these novels, Erast Fandorin, has been likened to a secret agent as much as a detective.  Akunin (real name Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) has been publishing through the 2000s not only Fandorin novels, but ones featuring other characters too.  These three novels have already been made into Russian movies.  The Fandorin do combine elements of murder mystery (especially 'Murder on the Leviathan' set about an ocean liner), police procedural and spy stories (notably in 'The Winter Queen'); 'Turkish Gambit' also has elements of war fiction too.  The stories are set in the 1870s and feature Fandorin, a member of the Third Section of the Russian state security machine.  He is an amenable young man (he is only 20 at the start of 'The Winter Queen') with common Victorian manners and habits (such as exercise programmes and a particular diet).  He is touched by tragedy at the end of the first book and this importantly gives some of the depth that I cry out for when encountering yet another amenable detective.  I guess this pedantic nature concerned with food and the tragedy are what allow some readers to see parallels with James Bond as seen in Ian Fleming's novels.  These novels have done deservedly well.  Akunin has a real attention to period detail and the imperatives that different times and places have on the actions of characters.  I am more than happy that he is willing to straddle different genres to bring an engaging adventure story.  I look forward to reading many more of these books.  I hope someone produces a movie in English of one of them at least, or we can have a subtitled version of the Russian movies to rent.

'Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas' by Michael Bishop
I have said quite a lot about this book already when looking at counter-factuals featuring US President Richard Nixon:  It is an interesting exercise about a USA with a dictatorship and an approach to the Cold War which has made it very much like the Communist regimes it sought to oppose or at least contain.  In Philip K. Dick's own counter-factual, 'The Man in the High Castle', I disliked his sense that there is a more 'real' reality than the one the characters were experiencing and so people struggled to shift their world to that version.  Bishop subverts this well, not only exploring the counter-factual but also showing the characters shifting it through mental force to a different version.  I do not know enough Dick novels to spot other references.  However, though a little irritated when the story shifts to the Moon, I generally enjoyed the story and thought it effectively written.

'Death at the President's Lodging' and 'Hamlet, Revenge!' by Michael Innes.
I have no idea why these 1930s detective stories are rated.  The first is set in an imaginary university, modelled on Oxford and Cambridge universities but located at Bletchley mid-way between the two.  This is ironic given that Bletchley Park was the centre of code-breaking by the British during the Second World War, in which many academics were involved and for the past forty years the campus of the Open University has been a short way from Bletchley.  Neither of these stories is terrible, but they have far too many characters and far too many twists in to make comfortable reading.  After a while you lose interest in the motives of all the different people and the minutiae of who was where at each phase.  Unlike some novels from the period these two really show up how manners and attitudes were different then to today.  I would not say I wasted my time reading these books, but I felt it could have been spent better if I had the choice again.

'Roma Eterna' by Robert Silverberg.
This is an episodic novel featuring short stories across the centuries set in a Roman empire which endures at least until our 19th century.  There is quite a lot of coups featured and Romans with a little advanced technology.  However, Silverberg does this with a light touch and aside from showing a Roman invasion of North America he does not draw out huge differences from our world.  Even the assassination of Mohammed so preventing the development of Islam, seems to have a muted impact only allowing the Romans to hold on more easily to their Middle Eastern territories.  It is not a bad book, just it feels a little bland at times and for a counter-factual fan like myself, I think I missed greater evidence of the divergence from our world, but maybe that was the point.  However, it rather takes the edge of the novel.

'The Empire of Fear' by Brian Stableford.
This is an interesting story set in the early 17th century but in a world where the monarchs and nobility are vampires.  The hero aims to overthrow them and bring about dominion of the humans who at best hold a second class status to the vampires.  The book is rather fragmented and you feel that Stableford could have produced a triology from it.  A lot of the book is taken up by a quest to a crater in West Africa where vampirism was brought to Earth by a meteorite.  This section of the book is far too long, very bleak on the journey and then unpleasantly visceral as the hero uncovers how local witch doctors are made into vampires through mutilating their genitalia and being buggered by vampires.  With this knowledge he returns to Europe leading to a continent wide battle between the established vampire forces and their opponents, though by now many of these are humans turned into vampires. 

The idea is a great one and could have been explored in more depth.  The problem is, that the bits which really interest the reader, the hero's father being a former lover of a vampire, plots at the English court and a pirate bent on killing vampires at the start of the book, then the attempt to overthrow the various vampire kingdoms (far larger than states in 17th century Europe in our world and ruled over by people like King Richard I, Charlemagne and Attila the Hun, many centuries old by this time) are all only briefly touched on or rushed through.  The bulk of the novel is really 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad (1899/1902) only with vampires at the end of the adventure.  That is not the kind of novel I was looking for.  I like how Stableford subverted the vampire stories and recast them in a fascinating way to create an alternate world, but was very irritated that he gave us so little of the plotting and combat elements that I was looking for and instead gave a travelogue of West Africa which I could have read in many other places better done.  This novel is a real wasted opportunity.  I am glad I read it but recommend people read only the first and last tenths of this novel and leave the rest out.

'Musashi' by Eji Yoshikawa.
It had been 17 years since I last read this book and it certainly bore re-reading, something I very rarely do.  I had forgotten so much of the story.  It is a rambling tale (970 pages) about a reprobate, Musashi who having fought on the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 sets out to become a leading swordsman of his era; developing a style using two swords at once.  In doing this he makes numerous friends and rivals especially among leading martial arts schools.  In addition, he has an on-off relationship with a woman from his village who carries a torch for him over many years.  He is pursued across Japan by the malicious mother of an old friend of his, because she blames him for the failure of her son to marry a particular woman.  This friend's story is also followed and you see him struggling to make his way and suffering lots of set-backs down the years.  All the characters keep running into each other.  Ultimately it is a story about the development of the lead character and in particular learning about responsibility.  It is also a gentle romance, though by the end you get frustrated that it takes so long for Musashi to come to his true love. 

About three-quarters of the way through there are so many characters in different locations looking for Musashi (he adopts two apprentices in the course of the story and ends up losing both and we follow their stories as well as the old woman's, the love interest, the priest that put Musashi on the right path, Musashi's main rival and so on) that it becomes bewildering and you lose sight of the drive of the story.  However, the climax pulls it back together very well and the last eighth of the book is as good as the early sections.  You can see why this book has been a Japanese classic since it appeared in the 1930s as it has every element you might want from romance to exciting combat scenes.  It tells you a lot about Japan at the time the Tokugawa Shōgunate was just becoming established and still under threat from rivals unhappy with the outcome at Sekigahara.  Even the nasty characters are well drawn, though sometimes you want to get into the book and have a go at them, but I suppose that level of engagement is a good sign for a novel.  I do recommend this book.

'The Strange Death of Socialist Britain' by Patrick Cosgrave.
I have commented at length about this book already, see:  I feel there is little to add.  Even on its own terms it is a poor book.  I suggest you go and read 'The Strange Death of Liberal Britain' (1935; reprinted 1966) by George Dangerfield instead, it is vastly superior. 

'The Rhineland Crisis. 7 March 1936' by J.T. Emerson.
This is an interesting book which certainly reads like someone's doctoral thesis simply published.  Whilst explaining the inaction by Britain and France to the remilitarisation of the Rhineland by Adolf Hitler in 1936 is a challenge, this book gives you the minutiae of all the back and forth discussions and yet from the mass of information seems incapable of drawing broader analysis and conclusions.  Consequently the reader is lost among the detail, not really able to identify the crucial points in the process.  Stepping back a little from the range of data Emerson had gathered was important.  The book is good if you want a day-by-day account but weaker as a historical analysis.

'Be Your Own Napoleon' by William Seymour.
This is almost a 'game book', in that it presents details of various battles then gives you a series of options to take each with a potentially different outcome.  It then tells you what actually happened and the consequences of having followed one of the other options.  For counter-factual fans this is an interesting exercise, though handled in a rather dry way.  It is a good book for getting inside battles that you might not know well.  I found the ones about battles of the American War of Independence very interesting and found that the book contextualised each very well allowing me a better understanding of that war.  I do not know if that was the intention of the book, but it worked for me in that way.  This is a good book to dip into especially if you are looking for mental distraction as well as an interesting read.

'Students and National Socialism in Germany' by Geoffrey J. Giles.
Like Emerson's book above this felt like another thesis published, again with immense detail but weaker on analysis.  It was interesting, though, by looking at the microcosm of university students and their organisations to be reminded how chaotic and contradictory Nazi thinking was.  The students were supposed to become the Nazi elite, but at the same time were encouraged to be storm troopers and work in manual jobs to connect with ordinary people.  The Nazi regime was one of competing agencies and this comes out in terms of universities and student bodies too.  In that context you see the Nazi organisations come up against the entrenched fraternity system developed in the 19th century, which was ultimately to outlive the Nazi regime and is still around today.  Despite Germans seeing 1945 as Year Zero, the prevalence of bodies that pre-dated Nazism indicates the continuities in German society and this snapshot of one area of that society adds to that view.  Again, as with Emerson you feel that a book another step away from the raw material would be more engaging and provoke real discussion.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The 'Real' Sherlock Holmes

Naturally there has been much discussion about the recently released movie 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009) directed by Guy Ritchie, well known for British-set gangster movies notably 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' (1998), 'Snatch' (2000) and 'Revolver' (2005).  He does seem to have suffered from diminishing returns and whilst he has a loyal fan base notably among men living in London, he has never recaptured the success that he achieved with his first feature movie in 1998.  Moving from contemporary Britain to the 1890s might be a sensible step for him to break away a little from seemingly repeating the same formula over and over.  He has managed to keep attracting high profile actors, Brad Pitt appeared in 'Snatch' and for 'Sherlock Holmes' he has Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson.  Downey Jr.'s comeback which really got going in the mid-2000s has continued and does not seem to have suffered from appearing in Ritchie's movie, there is already talk of a sequel.  Unsurprisingly for a Ritchie movie London is the setting and there is a lot of action.  Interviews with the leading actors, notably, Law, have emphasised, however, that though the movie has the feel of something very 21st century, in fact in characterisation it is taking steps back to the original stories.

In the very hot summer of 1995, for £1.99 I got a complete set of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1887-1927 and set 1875-1904/14.  I have also read a couple of the pastiches, possibly the best known 'The Seven Percent Solution' (novel 1974; movie 1976) by Nicholas Meyer and 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' (1978) by Michael Dibdin.  There were four novels and fifty-six short stories written by Doyle.  This is one reason why Holmes is such a good character for television serials.  A short story is sufficient for an hour long television drama.  As the 'Inspector Morse' (1987-2000) and 'Poirot' (from 1989) series have have shown a short novel generates a decent two-hour programme.  Many modern detective novels are far longer and so cannot be as easily made into one-hour programmes.  Doyle began the Holmes stories in the era when serialised stories in magazines were incredibly popular and, even as late as the 1920s, this format had not really died away.

Holmes was in fact in a very crowded markeplace.  If you read collections of other genuine Victorian and Edwardian detective stories, notably in the collections, 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1970), 'More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Cosmopolitan Crimes' (1971), 'The Crooked Counties: Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1973), 'The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1979) all collected by Sir Hugh Greene and 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (1982) and 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: 2' (1980) [this was a US publication hence an explanation for it being published in reverse order in the UK; no doubt there were difficulties in the similarity in title to Greene's books] both by Alan K. Russell and more recently, 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' (2008) by Nick Rennison, you can find dozens of fictional detectives from different countries, even a couple of female ones like Loveday Brooke, who have been severely overlooked, but none of them have endured like Holmes.

The reason why Holmes stuck out from the crowd at the time and still does today, is very much due to the elements that Ritchie has brought out in this latest movie.  One element is the action.  I have been rewatching the Jeremy Brett (1933-95) portrayal of Holmes in the television series that ran 1984-94 and Holmes is often pulling out his revolver (as does Watson) or at least a weighted cane.  He also demonstrates knowledge of bare-knuckle boxing and bartitsu, a martial art developed in Britain 1898-1902 based on jujitsu.  In the novels he is also described as a singlestick (i.e. staff) fighting specialist, it was overtaken by fencing in the 20th century but was an Olympic sport as late as 1904; Holmes generally uses his cane in this way. 

It is unsurprising that Holmes is skilled in combat given his involvement with murderers and thugs of all kinds as well as ferocious dogs.  If you read any of the 'rivals' books you see that these other detectives are mainly cerebral and solved crimes simply by thought.  In many ways they are the precursors of the more genteel detective stories, notably those of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, that came to the fore in the 1920s and 1930s, presumably as their audience was from the generation who had seen too much of violence first or second hand through the First World War.  Of course, though we are in a society, which certainly in the UK, has been seeing war casualties consistently for the past nine years, these days we certainly expect our television and movie characters to be armed and ready to fight physically.

Another element of Holmes which makes him appealing at the time and subsequently, and again is an element that appears relevant in the 2010s, is his moral ambivalence.  In sharp contrast to many his 'rivals' and certainly detectives of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Holmes is not necessarily a force for the status quo or even for the law.  Whilst not working for the law per se he is, certainly at times, a force for justice.  The Holmes stories establish the assumption of the slow or even bumbling official police (and in Holmes's case, also royal and civil services as many of his cases are political rather than criminal) that appears in so many stories, but Holmes does not always aid authority and at times sits as personal judge and jury on people he captures.

Sometimes Holmes's punishments can be seen as harsh, at other times he is lenient.  Consequently, on beginning a Holmes story, in contrast to those of his rivals and most successors, there is no certainty that the status quo ante will be restored and that the 'correct' punishment will be meted out.  I have always enjoyed such uncertainty in crime novels which is what drew me to the detective stories of people like Josef Škvorecký and Leonardo Sciascia, though for them the ambivalence usually comes more from the society in which the detective is operating rather than from the detectives themselves.

In an era when we have a character such as Dexter Morgan, a fictional police forensics specialist who is also a serial killer (novels by Jeff Linday 2004-9; television series 'Dexter' 2006 onwards), moral ambivalence seems to fit with what people are seeking in their detective series.  In addition, since the 1970s we have seen even police detectives, let alone private ones, violating laws, breaking and entering and assaulting suspects to the extent that by the late 1980s it was being perceived as rather a cliche.

The element of Holmes which takes the moral ambivalence further is his drug addiction.  Holmes is shown as a regular cocaine injector and, at times, a smoker of opium too.  Whilst we tend to think of our own time as one in which drugs are the most common the restrictions on things like cocaine were not introduced until after the First World War, partly as a result of frontline troops taking opiates during the war (there are interesting parallels between drug abuse in the trenches of the First World War and drug abuse by US soldiers in the Vietnam War).  In addition, there was an increased moral stance after 1918 which saw prohibition of narcotics in the USA follow the prohibition of alcohol.  All of this was wrapped up in the sense of the decline of the 'race' and physical weakness that had become apparent in the UK even in the 1910s when up to 40% of volunteers for the Army had to be turned away as being unfit, though usually for malnutrition rather than drug abuse.  I once found a play from 1927 which, even then, showed the 'hero' seeking cocaine on a night out in London.  This theme appears in some Agatha Christie stories, but by then, drug abuse was seen very much as an activity of the silly rich as it was for many decades that followed, and, to some extent, is today.

Another thing about the 'real' Holmes is his comparative youth.  Doyle says that by 1914, in 'His Last Bow' (1927), Holmes is around 60, this means that for the period covered by the main stories we know, he ranges from 21 in 1875 to 50 in 1904.  However, given his expertise in so many topics, the usual assumption is that he was middle aged.  The latest movie is set in the 1891 when Holmes would be 37.  Downey Jr. is 44; Law has just turned 37.  Thus, whilst to many commentators they seem too young for the parts they are playing (Brett was 51-61 when playing Holmes, though certainly in the early series looked younger) they are in step with what Doyle envisaged.  If you take all these elements togther - lead character: maverick in his late thirties, active, intelligent, skilled in various forms of fighting, ambivalent towards the law, sexually ambiguous, drug addict, mixes with high and low society you can see why Holmes fits perfectly for the kind of movies Ritchie makes. 

Watson, played by Law, looks like a young John Steed (from 'The Avengers' series 1961-9; 'The New Avengers' 1976-7) which is probably unsurprising.  Like Steed, Watson, though a doctor has military background and has served in India and been wounded which suggests frontline action.  He is shown in the novels wielding both a cane and a revolver.  In Doyle's stories, any suggestion of anything more than companionship between Holmes and Watson is ruled out.  Watson marries Mary Moran after 'The Sign of the Four' (1890) set in 1888, though his wife has died by the time of 'The Mystery of the Empty House' (1903) which is set in 1894 and is the first story after Holmes comes back from his supposed death. To some degree questions about Holmes and Watson's sexuality stem more from later 20th century attitudes rather than those of the 19th century when all kinds of house sharing were common and thus could be a basis for different narrative imperatives.

The final question, then, is why, if Holmes and Watson have always been characters that would be right at home in a Guy Ritchie, gangster-style movie, are we so surprised to see them like this?  To a great extent it comes back to the genteelisation of detectives in the post-First World War era.  Ironically Doyle was still writing at a time when his ambivalent detective, though still popular, was effectively becoming obsolete.  Instead the reading public had a desire for detective stories in which the status quo ante was always firmly re-established and even private detectives were bastions of the law, and, as importantly, of authority (which is not always the same thing).

After Doyle's death in 1930, Holmes was increasingly assimilated into the canon of the more comfortable culture of the 'stately home' detectives like Christie's Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey (in the series of novels by Dorothy L. Sayers published 1923-42) and Albert Campion (in Margery Allingham's novels published 1929-65; then by Philip Youngman Carter 1968-70).  Partly this was through spoofs and the simplification of Holmes into the rather austere but amiable deerstalker-wearing character that most people associate with the name.  Of course, we should all know how Holmes should be attired due to the detailed drawings accompanying the original stories, you can buy fully illustrated editions of the stories nowadays.

This process of making Holmes genteel was achieved most by the Basil Rathbone movies (1939-46) which also, with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, demoted that character to a far more bumbling role than he had held in the stories (this view had been countered in Meyer's and Dibdin's novels and most visibly in the 1988 movie 'Without A Clue' in which Holmes is simply a figurehead for Watson's detective work).  It is against this Rathbone portrayal, often repeated (I remember seeing all the Rathbone Holmes's movies more than once in the 1970s and early 1980s) with Holmes as a bastion of authority, even the US military machine, that so much of what has followed featuring Holmes is set and it has proven difficult to shake off his Rathbone attire let alone that manner, to get back closer to the original, distinctive character.

George Orwell, wrote in 1946, the article 'The Decline of the English Murder' in 'Tribune', you can read it in full here:  He argued in the light of the violence of the recently ended Second World War that murder in Britain was becoming more brutal and the coverage of murder cases and the fictional crime stories would become so too.  To a great extent it is wrong, as many people do, to see Orwell as arguing that the Christiesque style of detective stories was coming to an end.  Christie herself would remain a bestseller for the rest of her life (to her death in 1976) and continues to sell very well today.  Orwell, in fact, was marking the point at which 'true crime' stories were coming more to the fore.  An audience hardened by wartime experiences could stomach greater detail than would have been reported before.

Yet, as in the post-First World War period after 1945, you can see a desire for fictional murder stories that have the status quo ante restored, sometimes even back to the class structure of the pre-1939 period.  Christie's novels of the time reflect some of the post-war social changes but because of that, in fact more firmly re-emphasise the continuing values of stability, especially in rural Britain.  Thus, it is not surprising that for so long we were happy to accept a Sherlock Holmes who, whilst looking into Gothic elements of late Victorian life, seemed to be able to shine rational light into the dark corners and restore the civility that we all too often see wedded to the Victorian era.  However, hopefully in a time which is more honestly like the late Victorian period in terms of poverty, disease, drug abuse and social division, it seems right that we again engage properly with a fictional character adept in such an environment.