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East West Street, Martin McGuinness and the sanctity of the rule of law

It’s been a week that has caused me to revisit some long-held certainties.

I’m not referring to the attack on Westminster. An incident of this kind was entirely predictable, just as was its exploitation for political purposes by various ne’er-do-wells. It was not the first, and it will not be the last. I would have said the same in the 1970s as each IRA atrocity unfolded.

Two other events led me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about whether we can truly say that we’re governed by the rule of law in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary.

On Sunday morning I went to a lecture in London by Phillipe Sands. He was speaking about his book, East West Street. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a brief review that I wrote few months ago:

A deeply moving account by Phillipe Sands, an eminent barrister and professor of law, who pieces together the history of his Jewish family from their origins in Lemburg (also known as Lvov and latterly Lviv). He intertwines the lives of four men and their families. Three of them lived few streets away from each other: his maternal grandfather, Leon Bucholtz, along with Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. The latter two were lawyers who subsequently had a profound influence on the development of international law. The fourth person was Hans Frank, Hitler’s viceroy in Poland and the other occupied territories in the East.

As a member of the team of lawyers preparing for the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, Lauterpacht created the concept of crimes against humanity. Lemkin first coined the term genocide. Although Lemkin’s concept was not universally accepted by the four powers represented at Nuremberg (for fear that the term being used to describe earlier historical events of which the victors were not proud) the two lawyers were authors of two enduring planks of international law, even though they didn’t see eye to eye on the details. Lauterpacht was focused on crimes in terms of their effects on individuals. Lemkin believed that prosecutions for war crimes should be conducted on the basis of crimes against groups.

In Sands’ narrative, all roads led to Nuremburg. For Frank, the trial ended with the death sentence. At the time of the trials neither lawyer was aware of the fate of their extended families and Frank’s part in it. Only subsequently did they and Leon Bucholtz discover that their loved ones were among more than two thousand residents of nearby Zolkiev who rounded up, shot and buried in a forest outside the town. Other family members ended up at the Treblinka death camp.

When we talk blithely about a world turned upside down in the wake of Trump’s election, we should read this book and consider the fate of Lemburg/Lviv/Lvov, a city that over thirty years ended up by treaty or through invasion within the borders of three separate states, and whose population suffered endless turmoil.

You don’t have to be Jewish and to have been robbed of a normal family history to appreciate the legacy of Lemkin and Lauterpacht. Thanks in large part to the work of two outstanding lawyers, tyrants, warlords and their foot-soldiers know that today there is an International Criminal Court waiting for the opportunity to reward them for their efforts.

Although East West Street is an invaluable primer of the origins of international criminal law, in essence it’s a book about individuals and their stories, eloquently told by an author who has through his work encountered more than his fair share of inhumanity. To that extent, you sense that Lauterpacht, with his emphasis on the individual, is the greater influence on Sands as he weaves together the strands of human tragedy and survival in this impressive and compassionate book.

Listening to Mr Sands speak for an hour – in complete sentences as lawyers do – didn’t add significantly to what he had written in the book, but it did convince me that I was in the presence of an impressive and compassionate man.

I would have liked to have asked him one or two questions, but I rarely hold my hand up in such gatherings. I’m what Daniel Kahneman refers to as a slow thinker. Unless I’m well-versed in a subject, I like to reflect for a while before speaking, and in that forum – where the majority of those who did speak up seemed more interested in expressing their views than on getting Mr Sands to elaborate on his – I had nothing to offer on the spur of the moment.

But the effect of the talk was that in the subsequent few days I’ve thought of little other than war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

I might have asked him where you draw the line in deciding to prosecute for genocide. How large does the targeted group have to be? Also, what was the rationale in excluding actions against political groups from most definitions of genocide?

More specifically, what of the Burmese persecution of the Rohingya? Does that amount to genocide? If so, does it make it less likely that a prosecution of Aung San Su Kyi might succeed because she is a Nobel Peace Prize winner? Or might it be that she lacks the power over her partners in government? But as a member of that government, is she culpable in failing to speak up, and failing to try to restrain those who do have the power?

Concerning war crimes, do you have to be on the losing side to be prosecuted? Which begs the question of whether the International Criminal Court is truly an independent body, or subject to the political sensibilities of those nations that have the power to bring alleged perpetrators to justice?

And I would have been interested to know whether Mr Sands believes that people trafficking and other violation of human rights constitute crimes against humanity? And what of female genital mutilation?

I have a fair idea that he would describe the International Criminal Court as a work in progress – that successful prosecutions are the art of the possible. He might also say that laws are written by people, and reflect the imperfections of humanity. And to those who argue that they’re written by God, he might comment that they still need to be interpreted – often imperfectly – by humans.

But far be it for me to put words in his mouth. No doubt he would have some more deeply considered opinions.

Then came the second event – the death of Martin McGuinness. A man never brought to trial for his activities as an IRA commander. Deliberately, so it seems, because the British government of the time apparently felt that he had leadership qualities that would be essential if a peace deal were to be reached in Northern Ireland.

So did the government suspend the rule of law in McGuinness’s case? And what of the lives the IRA took, including the twenty-one people on a night out in a couple of Birmingham pubs – an event that happened in my home town? Would Mr Sands argue that their killing – and those at Warrington, Enniskillen and the Baltic Exchange – amounted to a crime against humanity?

When, in fact, is it allowable to subordinate justice to a greater political good – as appeared to be the case when under the Good Friday Agreement murderers were allowed to serve shortened sentences?

Since McGuinness’s death, the great and the good have lined up to praise his contribution to the peace process, while some also took care to remember his earlier deeds.

Of all the quoted reactions, the most heartfelt arguably came from Norman Tebbit, the politician whose wife was crippled by the Brighton bomb during the 1988 Conservative Party Conference, and who was badly injured himself. He said: “He claimed to be a Roman Catholic. I hope that his beliefs turn out to be true and he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of Hell for the rest of eternity.” A howl of anguish and fury if ever there was one.

The moral dilemmas around the treatment of those who have been complicit in terrible crimes did not start and will not end with McGuinness. What respect for justice did the victorious allies show when they spirited some useful war criminals out of Germany in 1945? Was it right that the worst oppressors of the apartheid regime in South Africa were forgiven their crimes through the Truth and Reconciliation process? Were the US and Britain wrong, as Pakistan once claimed, to decapitate the Taliban leadership, thereby eliminating those with sufficient stature to negotiate a peace agreement? Should we be talking to “Caliph” Baghdadi of ISIS as part of an effort to end the conflict in Syria and Iraq? Or with the murderous Kim Jong Un in order to neutralise North Korea’s nuclear capability?

A notable absentee from Martin McGuinness’s funeral was Tony Blair, one of the main architects of the Northern Ireland peace process. His misfortune was that his political trajectory went the opposite way to that of the former IRA commander. If his career in government had ended before he took Britain to war in 2003, he would now be one of our most respected former Prime Ministers, mainly remembered for the Good Friday Agreement and his positive interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. As it is, since the Iraq war he has been dogged by accusations ranging from bad faith to war crimes. Does he deserve to be excoriated while McGuinness is escorted to his grave with plaudits from his former enemies?

All of which reminds me that the rule of law, that cherished foundation upon which we are told liberal democracies are built, is to an extent a fictional device. It bends under the influence of power and expediency. Which is why we need lawyers like Phillipe Sands, who operates in the realm of the possible, yet in East West Street also gives voice to the victims who found their own ways to deal with the injustices visited on them both collectively and individually.

Justice is not blind, and the rule of law is not sacred, it seems, even in those countries that boast most loudly about their high moral standards. And sadly the victims with perhaps the most cause to howl cannot do so. Because they’re gone. The rest of us, victims or not, carry on and hope for better days.

Laptop ban in aircraft cabins – the contagion takes hold

Following on from my last post about the US ban on devices larger than phones in cabin baggage, it wasn’t fake news. Britain is following suit, so it must be true! Canada is thinking about doing likewise, so I suppose it won’t be long before every country indicates its preference for having explosive devices blow up in the holds of their aircraft rather than in the cabin.

Again, I have to ask whether this initiative is based on real intelligence – the stuff gleaned by spooks – or as the result of some enthusiastic helper in the White House trying to convince us – and particular the American public – that we really are in danger because of some evil new technique dreamed up by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Iranians or whoever.

I don’t know, and I can’t know. But I will offer the observation that as soon as you treat spook-derived intelligence as an opportunity to advance your political agenda rather than deal with it on its own merits, then you increase the chance that people will think you’re crying wolf. Fake news begets fake intelligence, right?

This must be tough to bear for the spooks who, whatever games their political masters get up to, are without question dedicated, professional and patriotic – in my country and America, at least. All the worse when their masters turn on them should the “one in a hundred” plot succeed.

In my dark moments I’m starting to wonder where this will all lead.

What will those devilish scientists beavering away in a tunnel somewhere under Raqqa come up with next? Perhaps some explosive that can impregnate a physical book – you open the book and it automatically detonates. Then think of a cheese sandwich. What horrors might lurk inside the filling? So no books allowed, and no food.

And if you happen to be travelling from Kuala Lumpur, will you be allowed to bring a perfume atomiser under the 100g limit? After all, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was snuffed out with a hankie impregnated with VX gas. Someone running up the aircraft spraying that stuff would leave half the passengers in their death throes within minutes. So no containers of any liquid, no matter what the size.

Are we approaching the point where anyone with a brown skin and a name that sounds vaguely Muslim (or North Korean) will only allowed on the aircraft handcuffed and sedated? Yes, I know this post is getting silly, but the serious point is this: where do you draw the line? Or rather, where do you draw the line without making air travel unpalatable to the majority of passengers, and seriously antagonising a good proportion of them?

Or to look at it another way, are we so nannied that we’re unable to face the reality that there are many ways to die in an aircraft, and being blown up is by no means the most likely cause of death. Flying is risky. But not half as much as driving a car while eating a cheese sandwich or talking on a mobile phone.

For goodness sake, one of the risks of living is that at some stage we might die. Hopefully this nonsense will pass before we become afraid to step out of our homes unless we’re dressed in a flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet.

Before that baleful eventuality comes to pass, you have to reckon that the more the safety experts do to protect us by anticipating threats to the nth degree, the greater the chance that international travel as we know it today will shrivel and die. It will once again become a pastime only for the wealthy. The rest of us will take the train or go on our holidays to Bognor Regis or Coney Island.

Is this the post-globalisation world that the protectionists and isolationists wish upon us? Probably not, and as soon as the airlines start imploding you can rely on them to fight back. They will put pressure on Trump, May and all the other political leaders who justify ever more ridiculous measures with the mantra that that they have our safety at heart.

If it brought some small measure of sanity back to the experience of flying, I for one would gladly sign a disclaimer stating that I am aware that the aircraft I travel in is at risk of being crashed into a skyscraper, blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, blown to smithereens by a bomb in the hold (or the cabin), because that’s reality.

As things are, I don’t care if I can’t have my laptop or tablet in the cabin if that’s what it takes to reduce the chances of my violent death from one in a million to one in ten million.

But I’m not convinced that that will be the outcome. And I refuse to live my life – in an aircraft or anywhere else – with the grinning spectre of Osama bin Laden constantly in attendance.

New US security measures – a Muslim ban by a thousand cuts?

I really wonder whether in some US government departments there is an inability to distinguish between intelligence and intelligence. By which I mean the difference between received intelligence and innate intelligence, between paranoia and common sense, or between emotion and logic.

The Transportation Safety Agency’s ban on airline passengers carrying any electronic device bigger than a mobile phone in cabin baggage on certain flights into the United States is a case in point.

The ban applies to airlines flying non-stop into the US from ten airports in the Middle East. But not to US airlines. The focus appears to be on the security procedures of the airports concerned, and by implication, the trustworthiness of ground staff and airline employees.

Understandable, given the explosion over Sinai two years ago that brought down a Russian airliner flying from Cairo, about which I commented at the time. But I’m not sure the airport authorities in Dubai, Qatar and some of the airports affected will take kindly to their security procedures being compared with those in Cairo.

So by the new rules, an American Airlines flight from Abu Dhabi to New York is OK, because it’s American. But an Etihad flight is not. Not so logical when you consider – as the journalist Yaroslav Trofimov pointed out on Twitter this morning – that flights from Istanbul and Dubai are not OK, but those from Dakar and Caracas are.

Also not so logical when you imagine that a terrorist intent on blowing up a plane with some fiendish and as yet unidentified method will be motivated to find a route that takes them on to an American flight. Presumably they would be undeterred by the prospect of being offered one of AA’s awful pizzas at the end of the journey, on the basis that the flight wouldn’t make it that far.

You could understand the TSA’s thinking (or that of the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, the White House or whoever else is behind the decision) reckoning that a rush of people suddenly changing their flights to US airlines would raise a useful red flag for extra special screening. But that “intelligence” would only have a limited shelf life.

The bureaucrats or their political masters have surely taken into account that no flag carrier of a Middle East country to the best of my knowledge has ever been targeted by a terrorist intent on attacking America or American citizens, with the exception of El Al, which flies out of Israel. Tel Aviv, apparently, is not on the list.

The media chatter is centred on two possible motives for the decision. Buzzfeed quotes a “former US official” as saying that the measure is “a Muslim ban by a thousand cuts”. Trofimov says that “The new US restrictions will make many wonder whether the real aim is to hurt Gulf carriers like Emirates and Qatar and Turkish Airlines”. Two outcomes for the price of one, perhaps?

The whole exercise strikes me as irredeemably dumb, unless it has been prompted by some intelligence of the paranoid, spooky sort. It will piss off the thousands of law-abiding kids from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries whose student fees prop up many US educational institutions. It will confirm in the minds of millions of people in the affected countries that they are not welcome in the US under any circumstances, as if the previous attempted bans haven’t already done so. And it will certainly make me think twice about travelling to America on a US airline, and not just because of the pizza.

As I write this I’m imagining a Doonesbury cartoon with two American bureaucrats in discussion:

“We need to do something about the Muslims”


“Because they hate us.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“Let’s ban a bunch of them from coming here.”

“Then they’ll hate us even more.”

“That’s fine. Then we can ban the rest of them. Problem solved!”

I’m sure Doonesbury would come up with something subtler, but hopefully you get the gist.

I do wonder how it is that a country with so many fine minds has ended up with a government run by so many stupid people.

It’s almost as though all that intelligence has cancelled itself out. On the other hand, perhaps it’s fake news, in which case I’m the dimwit.

A messy divorce just got messier – now we have a custody battle

The Brexit business has often been compared with a divorce. It feels more so than ever today. The sort of English divorce you’d find in a novel or a TV drama, though perhaps not quite as dramatic. Not so much cruel and calculating as in Henry VIII’s abandonment of Katherine of Aragon, more full of Victorian rectitude and hypocrisy.

It’s an old story. You’re frustrated with your marriage, and you want to get away. You have all kinds of fantasies about how wonderful it will be to have the freedom do your own thing. You know there will be bitterness and a financial cost, but what the hell – the sunlit uplands await. Until the uplands turn into a valley of loneliness. The children take sides, and new relationships are fleeting and superficial. When you get into something permanent again, surprise, surprise: the same old problems surface. And it turns out that the real problem lies not in your spouse, but in you.

I’ve never been divorced, and nor do I expect to be in the future. That’s not to say that my wife and I see eye to eye on everything, but we do try to resolve our issues without threatening each other with eternal damnation. Besides, I’ve always felt that if you have any respect for your other half, you will think carefully about the suffering you might inflict on them by walking away. It’s not all about you, and it’s not a zero sum game.

When the partner who walked away sees their suffering ex in the street, they might say “look at you! Now you know why I divorced you”. Which reminds me of the Leavers who – as the demagogues in France, the Netherlands and Germany, inspired by our example, threaten and agitate – tell the EU “we’re leaving you because you’re doomed anyway”, but neglect to acknowledge that by our decision we British contributed to the doom by kicking them half-way down the stairs in the first place.

So now, having endured two referenda in four years, each divisive and painful in its own way, we may have to endure another in a couple of years’ time. It’s the turn of the Scots again. And what of Northern Ireland? It’s as if on top of the main divorce there’s a custody battle breaking out – not that one would be so insulting as to describe Nicola Sturgeon and her party as angry adolescents wanting to go to the reluctant parent across the North Sea. But a Scottish re-run definitely adds a further dimension.

As David Allen Mills, lawyer, blogger and fellow son of Brum put it in a post earlier this week:

So far, Brexit must seem like a doddle.

But yesterday, the Scottish First Minister made her move.

Now we wait for Sinn Féin’s move.

The SNP and Sinn Féin have been watching and waiting and preparing the whole time.

The SNP and Sinn Féin have thought hard about how to exploit this political opportunity.  Only a fool would underestimate either entity.

So soon the proper politics of Brexit will begin, with the UK government facing skilled and determined politicians taking full advantage of the power and leverage presented by the government’s policy of a ‘clean’ (ie, hard) Brexit.

Was this what the 37% bargained for on that shiny summer’s day last year?

It’s pointless blaming our soggy politicians for this mess. After all, we elected them. They reflect our morals. They mirror our prejudices. Though watching the BBC’s Question Time last night, I struggled to find a participant who reflected my values.

Not Joanna Cherry, a relentless blabbermouth from the Scottish Nationalists, all sophistry, sly smiles and lawyerly smugness. Nor Jacob Rees-Mogg for the Conservatives, a patronising courtier defending his indefensible political mistress. Or Labour’s Angela Eagle, valiantly deflecting references to the Corbyn-shaped elephant in her room. And certainly not Tim Martin, a real-life pub landlord who told us that all the answers to our problems lie in treating government as a business (heard that before somewhere, haven’t we?). About the only panellist who made any sense was Matthew Parris, a Times columnist who has more emotional intelligence in his little finger than the rest of them put together.

As I sat hurling expletives at these third-rate talking heads, I started wondering whether I’m showing the first signs of Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia affecting the frontal lobes. One of the symptoms is that you become disinhibited in your use of language. But so far, it’s just a dialogue between me and the telly. Should you encounter me shuffling down the high street muttering abuse at traffic wardens, dog-walkers and showroom dummies, feel free to call the men in white coats.

Still, all is not lost. Before long (assuming Wales bugs out also) we’ll be England again. Even though the bankers and the eurocrats may soon be gone, we can still hammer the Scots, smite the Welsh and pacify the Irish – at rugby anyway. And, if the latest accusations from the White House about wire-tapping are to be believed, we are still capable of capitalising on new business opportunities. To those other staples of the English economy – charity shops, estate agents and actors who talk like Americans – we can add a new offering: outsourced espionage.

The sunlit uplands lie before us. Can’t wait. Now, where was that Sudoku puzzle? I need to practice for the GCHQ entrance exam.

Parallel Washingtons come together – a delicious confluence

There are times when fact and fiction gloriously intertwine. For me, one of those times is this week.

My wife and I are usually one step behind in our adoption of personal technology. I held on to my old text-and-talk Nokia handset long after IPhones and Blackberries started wiping out the mobile Neanderthals. We got into satellite TV pretty early, but stubbornly resisted on-demand long after Breaking Bad and other Netflix staples became meat and drink for our offspring. They didn’t see the need for TV when they could lounge in bed with their favourite box sets on their IPads.

Then our elder daughter gave us a kick up the technological backside by giving us an Amazon Firestick and a Netflix subscription for Christmas. We sat looking at the package for a while, until younger daughter’s intended, who knows about these things, set the whole thing up on our TV.

It would be wrong to say that on-demand TV has changed our lives, or opened up a new world. After all, a TV show is a TV show. But it did put in place the first piece of this week’s delicious confluence.

That piece, praise be, is the American version of House of Cards. So far, we’ve seen eight episodes of Series One. It took about twenty minutes of the first episode to forget about Francis Urquhart, the anti-hero of the original 1990 British drama. Frank Underwood, the manipulative House majority whip, is more than a match for his predecessor.

What better time than now to watch Kevin Spacey’s character blackmailing, using and abusing his way to power, creating fake stories and cynically undermining the rule of law? Can Underwood’s machinations be worse than the conniving, plotting and squirming that must currently be going on in the corridors of the White House?

And when, as it surely must, the story of Donald Trump’s tenure – brief or otherwise – is turned into a movie or TV series, who better to make it than the team who created House of Cards?

There are two other tributaries running into our great river of narrative. In the UK, we’re into the latest series of Homeland. Carrie Mathison has got herself into yet another pickle. Her erstwhile colleague Peter Flynn, his body and mind all but destroyed by the poison gas administered by a bunch of terrorists in Germany, has discovered a conspiracy involving a shadowy private company that operates out of a large and anonymous building in DC. These guys, it seems, have acted as agents provocateurs in order to whip up a storm of paranoia about – guess what? The threat to America posed by Islamist terrorism.

A bomb goes off in New York. A young Muslim is duly blamed. But he’s a patsy, it seems. And amid the frenzy, the President-elect, a woman who doesn’t buy into this threat nonsense, is whisked away into a secret location “for her own safety”. To her it feels like a kidnap. To us it looks like a coup. And to cap it all, at the end of this week’s episode, an FBI agent who’s investigating the bombing gets whacked by an operative from the shadowy company.

All of which happens during the week when we learn, courtesy of Wikileaks, that the CIA can do all kinds of magic hacking tricks that allow them to watch us munching Maltesers while we’re watching Homeland. And also when we stumbled upon an old story about a windowless concrete skyscraper in Manhattan called the AT&T Long Lines Building. Apparently it’s home to a secret National Security Agency surveillance base. Not so secret now, I guess.

Shadowy companies, shadowy buildings, conspiracies, the Deep State, Iran, North Korea, Islamist terrorism – you name it, you’ll find it in Homeland. Poor Carrie and the hapless Flynn are stuck in the middle of it all.

But hold on. Are these not critical components of the real-life drama playing out in Washington right now? With the added bonus, of course, of a President so deranged that he makes Carrie look as normal as an accountant. Not even the makers of Homeland anticipated that little twist.

Still, nobody’s been whacked yet, at least not in DC. Elsewhere, though, Russian diplomats and intelligence officials seem to be dropping like flies. Nothing to do with the Steele dossier on Trump’s links with Russia – heart attacks can happen to anyone, can’t they?  And I must say that I’ve never in any of my frequent visits to Kuala Lumpur airport spotted any young ladies with white handkerchiefs ready to clean the faces of passing North Koreans.

All in all, in my household we’re having a whale of a time watching fiction and fact, real life and fantasy, flowing into a soupy river of doubt and incredulity.

It would be even more fun if it wasn’t for the underlying realities: that people are being rounded up, deported, insulted and excluded, that mosques and Jewish graveyards are being desecrated, and a that a lunatic who spends hours watching inane TV shows and sends poisonous tweets at three in the morning is now in charge of the asylum. If the madness was confined to Washington, we wouldn’t need Homeland and House of Cards to keep us amused. The greatest reality show on earth beats everything else.

If you’re a Brit, and a political junkie like me, you might think that the Brexit entertainment would be a welcome alternative to all the stuff going on across the pond. There have been times when I and many others have have seen Trump and Brexit as intertwined abominations. Now I’m coming to see that the differences are as significant as the similarities. Brexit is a slow, muddy river of depression, whereas Trump is a manic white-water ride.

Or, to use a different analogy, Trump may well be a supernova, flaming out in a gigantic explosion that will light up the sky. My country, on the other hand, seems to be a dying star, slowly degrading. This year: Brexit. In 2018: Scottish independence. Any time soon: renewed conflict in Northern Ireland. No longer united, no longer great. Our politicians are the opposite of Trump – risk-averse and predictable. They are boring us into submission.

Nobody is likely to make Brexit: the Movie. It wouldn’t sell. But Trump? Now there’s a story. Or rather multiple stories, or even alternative stories.

The drama in Washington will continue to unfold over the coming months. For us, it will run alongside the rest of Homeland and several more series of House of Cards. I can’t wait.

Will Trump’s world really turn out to be even more gruesome than those of Carrie Mathison and Frank Underwood?

You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Information War: toxic brands bring down the castles too



A couple of days ago I posted about an information war waged by private and state actors in the United States, Russia and other countries in which we citizens of liberal democracies are cannon fodder. I ended by suggesting that we’re not as helpless as we think.

This article in the UK’s Independent – once a newspaper, now a website – shows how those who oppose Trumpxit, or Brexump – whichever term you prefer to use for the populist coalition in the UK and the US – can influence the dominant agenda.

Breitbart is losing advertisers, partly because companies don’t wish to risk reputational damage by being associated with an epicentre of the extreme right. Why are they worried? Because they’re being harried by pressure groups, but also because they see push-back in the social media by people who object to Breitbart’s rabid editorial stance.

No doubt Breitbart could haemorrhage cash for years before folding, because it’s as much a mouthpiece for its backers as it is a business. As long as it serves an ideological purpose, it will most likely continue regardless of losses.

But advertisers get skittish about being associated with websites that employ writers perceived to advocate paedophilia, even if Milo Yiannopoulos ended up being fired after appearing to cross that line. Rightly so, because they don’t want to alienate readers who may have voted for Trump, but have no time for narcissists on the right’s lunatic fringe. And for the same reason, companies that through the efforts of careless media buyers unwittingly end up being promoted on jihadi websites recoil in horror.

Breitbart will survive the loss of its advertisers. But what about businesses more closely associated with their owners? The Trump Organisation, for example.

The other day, I heard an advertisement on the radio singing the praises of Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland as a wedding venue. I’d never heard Trump’s name on a radio ad in the United Kingdom before. And I wondered how many young couples would want to risk their wedding day being forever associated with a man whose reputation in Scotland is arguably worse than in the rest of the UK. Bullying crofters to sell their land, and lecturing the Scottish Parliament about offshore wind farms spoiling the view from his golf course – The Donald doesn’t go down well with the locals.

I appreciate that I have an outsider’s view. I’m not American, and I would never, ever set foot in a Trump-branded hotel or holiday resort. The last thing I need on a holiday or business trip is to encounter a garish portrait of the leader in the vestibule. I’ve been to too many places in the Middle East where monarchs and dictators similarly beam (or glare) out at you in halls and reception areas.

But how many of the seventy million or so voters in the United States who didn’t go for Trump would touch one of his properties with a bargepole over the next four years? Far less than would have done before he entered the presidential race, I suspect. The brand is becoming toxic.

You could counter-argue that for all the little people like me who wouldn’t go near a Trump-branded business, there must be just as many wealthy individuals who will buy apartments in his properties or do deals with his organisation in foreign countries in the hope of influencing him. Highly likely, but what leverage they will gain is debatable, since the antennae of his opponents in the media and Congress are finely tuned to detect the slightest hint of a conflict of interest.

So what if the unthinkable happens? The man himself is too busy tweeting and fire-fighting in the White House to pay attention to his offspring’s attempts to run his business. The business slowly withers, or perhaps one of his lenders pulls the plug on his loans, precipitating a potential collapse. Nobody, apart from those close to him, knows how fragile or robust his organisation actually is.

Castles rise, and castles fall. Think back to Robert Maxwell. An egotistical and – to many people – profoundly unpleasant man. The owner of a powerful publishing empire, seemingly impregnable in his office at the top of Maxwell House. Behind the scenes, heavily in debt, frantically trying to shore up his business by raping employee pension funds. His demise was swift and shocking. Few people saw it coming. Not even the increasingly nervous banks to which he was in hock had the whole picture, until he disappeared from his pleasure boat in the Mediterranean and his body was found floating in the sea shortly thereafter.

The potential parallels with Trump – at least in terms of the personality of the man and the opacity of his business interests – are obvious, but not exact. Unlike Maxwell, Trump is too big to fail. At the very least his business would be rescued before it imploded. Quite possibly it would be bought out and re-branded.

But the man himself would be emasculated. Seen to be a failure. And the damage to his ego could have dangerous consequences given the office he holds. He would probably find someone to blame – a conspiracy, perhaps. But his credibility would be damaged, and in his remaining years as president he might find his worst instincts curtailed by the powerful players who had hitched themselves to his wagon and were fearful of going down with him.

All this is pure speculation. But not idle. The young Scottish couple who wouldn’t dream of getting married in his golf resort, and the American holidaymaker who avoids his hotels like the plague might yet create a butterfly effect. Damage to his brand could end up triggering a hurricane that rolls over his business and thereby derails his presidency.

Just a reminder that little people like you and me, if we are willing to withhold our custom from those of whom we disapprove, do matter, and can make a difference.

Celebrating World Book Day (the British version)


Today is World Book Day. Or at least it is in Britain. Elsewhere in the world, UNESCO’s celebration of the written word takes place on 23 April, which coincides with the birthdays of Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Apparently, we did a Brexit some time ago. We chose today because the day on which everybody else celebrates books is also St George’s Day, when England football fans and various nationalist factions proudly wave the red-crossed banner. That day in April also coincides with the school holidays, so that our teachers would miss out on an opportunity to persuade our youth to take an interest in stuff beyond what the National Curriculum forces them to read.

Here in Shakespeare’s homeland, outside the classroom you’d be hard pushed to find any evidence of this worthy event. So, as my contribution to World Book Day, I’m sharing some thoughts on one of my favourite subjects.

I spend much of my time closeted in my little study – working, reading, writing, and sometimes just thinking – often sitting back with a foot up on the desk. I’m surrounded by books, CDs, documents and mementos. Each object means something – a gift, an artefact I bought in a foreign country, an heirloom. Each picture on the wall – mainly cartoons – reminds me of a period in my life.

But the stars of my sanctuary are the books. I love them, I devour them. I buy them in huge quantities. I read them at night, during the day, on holiday. Sometimes I review them in this blog. For every book I review I read ten, maybe twenty.

Yet every so often, when I think about everything I’ve read, something nags at me.

Like me, my father was a book obsessive. His tastes were more eclectic than mine. He was into history, anthropology, science, philosophy, psychology, mathematics and spiritualism. He was also a walking Wikipedia on the royal houses of Europe.

Take away maths, spiritualism and royal families, and my interests are similar, though perhaps more focused on specific sub-sets of those areas.

When my father died, my brother and I took on the task of disposing of his books. He’s is a statistician, so the maths books, for example, went to him. I took the history. My other siblings took some according to their interests, and we gave the rest away.

I’ve read some of them, but others remain unread, as I struggle to keep up with the tide of new stuff I keep buying. New is not necessarily better, and no doubt there are some gems among my father’s library yet to be discovered and appreciated.

Today, when I run my eye down my bookshelves, I wish I had asked him a few questions about his reading. I would have liked to have known if his experience of reading was the same as mine.

How much of the stuff he read did he retain? If I had pointed to one of his books, could he have told me one specific feature that made it worth reading? Or was the act of reading a journey, full of attractive scenery to be enjoyed, sometimes admired, and then forgotten? Or, if not forgotten, relegated to the subconscious, to emerge from time to time? Which of his books changed his life, and why?

Perhaps his answers wouldn’t have been much use to me. After all, everyone is different, and presumably everyone approaches reading in their own way.

So here’s the problem. When I ask the same questions of myself, the answers are not clear or particularly comforting. How many have actually made a difference to me? Not many. How many have informed my views on life? Very few. In what way have the tens of thousands of hours I’ve spent reading been useful – to me or to anyone else?

If I was a surgeon, reading surgery books might have made me a better surgeon. Likewise, if I was a lawyer, an engineer or a politician. But if I just love reading for the sake of it, what’s the point? I read stuff, I fill up with knowledge, and then I die. Is it a one-way street – everything in, nothing out?

Wouldn’t the time I spend reading books be better used exploring the countryside, helping refugees, making money or trying to become our Prime Minister?

When we eat, our bodies take what they need to stay alive, and excrete the rest. The act of excretion is very obvious. Yet what enters the brain – through reading, observing, talking and listening – doesn’t have such a clear purgatory path. It stays there. Scientists tell us that our brains are constantly organising and making sense of the input. Stuff gets deleted, archived, recalled to serve us when needed. Through a mysterious process it gets added to the patchwork of our knowledge and experience.

So I’m good at quizzes. I’m able to drag out obscure pieces of information to illustrate a point. I can make connections between today and yesterday. What I remember of the books I read is highly selective. I could tell you plenty about the stuff I read last year, less about what I read the previous year, and so on. The exceptions are those books that I regard as life-changing. Books that made me think differently, do things differently, and make specific decisions about my life.

And as I said, there aren’t many of them, and the rest fade away. But the forgotten books still sit there in my bookshelves. They’re there to be dipped into, sometimes re-read. And occasionally, miraculously, an idea, or a passage from a book long forgotten, jumps out and presents itself, ready to inform a conversation or provide context to a new book, idea or concept.

When I look at all those volumes, ordered by author, subject or era, I sometimes get a sense of overkill.

I have three biographies of Winston Churchill, and maybe thirty other histories covering his era. Did all those volumes enhance my understanding of the man? And if they did, for what purpose? I’m not a historian who quotes a hundred references as the sources of their work. Surely one bloody biography would have been enough. And could I, as the result of this exhaustive reading, tell you how Max Hastings, Roy Jenkins and Richard Holmes differ in their views of the great man? Not easily.

Am I an expert on Winston Churchill, on Byzantium, on Ancient Rome, on the Islamic world or on the Cold War arms race – all subjects that I’ve delved into quite deeply? Far from it, even if I might be better informed than some of my neighbours.

Do I see the world differently after reading Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Hofstede’s Cultures and Organisations? Yes, but not to the point that I’m ready to abandon all my worldly goods and become an itinerant seeker after the truth.

And what of fiction? Was I changed by The Dice Man, Catch 22, the Sugar Street trilogy, Midnight’s Children, Cities of Salt and The Circle? Enriched perhaps. Thrilled, moved and enlightened, certainly. But impelled to become a politician, a priest or a suicide bomber? Fortunately not.

What also of all the other stuff I read? Thousands of newspaper articles. Hundreds of op-eds on Brexit, Trump, Syria and climate change. And all the ephemera that attracts my passing interest – stuff on Facebook, clickbait, stories about celebrities, obituaries, oddities and fake news. Mostly in one lobe and out the other, though sometimes passing through the critical processing unit that uses the snippets to make sense of something previously mysterious.

All this stuff – for what? When I could have been climbing mountains, making new friends, helping refugees, teaching, demonstrating against dumb politicians and their stupid policies. Or perhaps trying to change people’s lives with a self-help book or a ground-breaking economic theory. With the former, it’s a question of more of. The latter is beyond my capacity, I’m afraid.

I do, however, have an outlet, and you’re reading it. Mine is a small voice among millions – more like hundreds of millions. No matter. It’s my voice. But in case you think I’m writing just for you, think again. Actually, it’s more for me. A way of forcing myself to process stuff rather than just letting it slip by into the subconscious without more than a passing attempt to make sense of it.

I review books, not just because I want other people to read what I think is worth reading, but because reviewing a book forces me to think about what I’ve read. Did it make sense or didn’t it? Did it move me, delight me or enlighten me? If it bores me, you won’t hear about it.

In that respect, I’m a one-man book club. The discussions are mainly with myself. Perhaps I would gain more through sharing ideas with others, just as I do when talking politics with friends and loved ones. But I don’t, perhaps because so many conversations about stuff that is important to me end up tainted by anger and frustration about the way things are. Nobody wants an angry man in their book club.

Going back to my father, what was his output from a lifetime’s reading? The books themselves, certainly. But beyond them, very little that is tangible. A few diaries, scribbled down and sometimes impossibly obscure. A few notebooks that to anyone but himself – now deceased – are as undecipherable as Linear B.

But of course that wasn’t the whole story. He was a great conversationalist. He had his family, and he had many circles of friends. He was wise in some respects and foolish in others.  In all his conversations over a long life, he was informed by stuff he read. And others – certainly me included – were informed through him.

And perhaps if someone looked at me, they might say similar things. Which I suppose is my way of groping towards a reason for spending all those thousands of hours immersed in books.

But in truth, there is no reason, no high-minded purpose. I read for the sake of it – for the love of it. Whatever knowledge or modest store of wisdom I have acquired is the accidental by-product of an internal compulsion.

And sooner or later the vast grey repository of bits and bytes, of memories ordered or disordered, of patterns, theories and perceived experience, will be gone. But the books will still be there. Someone else might read some of them – either my children or someone picking up a bargain in a charity shop. The millions of words I’ve written will still be out there. And perhaps the conversations themselves will be recycled again and again – some idea might inspire someone else, who might in turn put their spin on it and pass it on. The butterfly effect.

This, after all, is how humans have always worked – through oral histories, ancestral knowledge and inherited traditions. It’s still how we work, despite our adventures with the written word. Do opinions form on subjects like Brexit or immigration because you and I have read European Union directives and all the other countless documents that underpin the institutions of state? There may be books informing our views, be they works of Karl Marx or some scurrilous demolition of a public figure. But in the main, unless we’re academics, we form our opinions based on our own experience, the second-hand experience conveyed by TV and the movies, and on conversations between the like-minded.

And, of course, the internet. What sits there is a direct descendent of the great libraries – the ancient scriptures, the Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the Ashmolean and the Library of Congress. All of them are imperfect attempts to assemble in one place the accumulated wisdom of the world. The internet – or rather those warehouses full of servers humming away among remote corn fields – has the chance to go one better. Before long. every written word that has survived fires, floods, termites, earthquakes and deliberate destruction will be available to be read online – at a price.

Until the age of Gutenberg, very few of us owned more than a handful of books. The vast majority possessed none. Nowadays, an ordinary person like me can easily assemble a thousand books.

But if all our written words are in bits and bytes, like the contents of our brains they can easily be erased. If not destroyed, they can archived or embargoed. If Donald Trump’s propagandists decide to re-write history, or the People’s Republic of China resolves to hide stuff from its people by building a Great Firewall, it is easier for them to do so than it was for the Nazis with their book burning, or for the Mongols who coloured the waters of the Euphrates black with the ink of volumes from the House of Wisdom.

Which is why we need books. Paper ones that can be hidden in monasteries, under floorboards and in attics. The more there are, the more some will survive natural or human catastrophe.

And we need libraries – not just the web – where in normal times people can educate themselves, open their minds or just entertain themselves.

And we need people brave enough to self-publish on paper as well as online, so that a small number of commercial publishers can’t be the sole arbiters of what is suitable for us to read.

Even if we don’t have it in ourselves to write books, we need to buy them, think about them, talk to others about them and share them.

No matter that most of the words go in one lobe of the brain and out of the other. We are like panhandlers searching for gold. For every ton of alluvial gravel we sieve through, we might find a few grains of precious metal. And for some of us, those little nuggets can change our lives.

Good reasons, I suggest, to celebrate World Book Day.

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