Monthly Archives: December 2010

Vince Cable

I sympathise with Vince Cable.

Men in power are prone to falling for the charms of young women who perhaps flatter them by playing a captive audience.

Politicians in particular love the tendency to take centre stage at every conceivable opportunity, and listen with pride to the resonance of their own voice.

Deep inside we are all sinners, but more so those involved in politics who live in a world of their own.

WikiLeaks and the Trumped Up Charges Against Assange

Sweden, a model welfare state where we thought democracy was sacrosanct, has demeaned itself and showed its true colours by behaving atrociously in the case of Julian Assange.

It is now obvious that his extradition is motivated by political right-wing elements in the country, pressurising the government to trump up charges of a sexual nature against him in order to cover up their real, sinister intentions.

By their shabby actions Sweden is likely to lose many friends the world over, which is a high price to pay for acting as stooges for America’s foreign policy – preaching one thing for public consumption, and acting in reverse gear to suit.

Assange has led the way in exposing the political hypocrisy of those in power, and we must by all possible means prevent the British government from disgracing itself by handing him over.

Jeanette Winterson and Nick Clegg

It is reported that Jeanette Winterson, not so long ago a staid supporter of Nick Clegg, has now deserted him.

Jeanette was one of those whose voices were represented in my book Women, and she and I got on warmly during the interview, with a free exchange of opinion.

I admired her forthrightness, and can understand her anger and disillusionment with Nick for changing his mind on the question of student fees.

But people must realise that, today, it is essential for us to live in a real world where drastic measures are needed and have to take precedence over ideology.

There is a wide misunderstanding about what it means to govern by coalition, and the compromises this must entail to avoid stagnation.

The gulf inevitably widens between the policies put forward by a politician in opposition, and those the same politician can constructively push for in government.

The responsibility of office invariably takes over and most of them, thank God, become more pragmatic even if this means having to deal with issues in ways not quite in line with their previously held convictions.

Nick should be applauded – not vilified - for having the courage to change tack and adopt a stance more in keeping with the economic policy of the coalition government.

You can’t spend money that you don’t have. To try to do otherwise will be to follow the grim example of Ireland and other European countries, whose mounting debts threaten financial calamity and tremendous future problems within the EU.

We must avoid these consequences at all costs.

The Ugly Face of Education

As I watched the scenes of students rioting in central London on my television screen last night, I felt stunned and appalled in equal measure.

If you compare what my generation had to get by on with what is available for this spoiled lot, then you can only conclude that not only are they better off than we ever were, they also have facilities we never dreamed of.

The right to protest is an essential part of our democracy, but to turn this into an alibi for sheer hooliganism, causing damage and injury on the streets, is not to be tolerated in our society.

Those involved in fermenting violence and ransacking should be severely punished.

Any public sympathy that might have been felt for the students has been lost in these tactics for creating running battles with the police.

They should go home, with their tails between their legs, and take stock of the results of their actions.

The world over is going through a great financial crisis, and we certainly need to adapt to changed circumstances. In a civilised and cultured society we have to brace ourselves to survive. Nothing is gained by expending our energies in the most destructive ways we can thnk of.

I am no ardent loyalist but the assault on Prince Charles’ car in Regent Street, in front of crowds of tourists and Christmas shoppers, has some shocking implications. What happened there, and in Oxford Street and Parliament Square, will seem to most people like the ugly face of education – if you can call it that.

Those who orchestrated the mayhem will doubtless feel they have scored a publicity coup, but it is of the most negative and self-destructive kind and hopefully this truth will dawn on the majority who took part.

Have the Saudis Joined the Embargo Game?

Quartet have published an outstanding book on Saudi Arabia and its history, Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior and his Legacy by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray. It adds to our knowledge of the desert Kingdom in a valuable, sympathetic way and is objective in its analysis, besides being highly readable.

Now, two questions baffle me. The Saudi Embassy has bought only two copies of the book, and the press in Britain have ignored it completely.

Try as I may, I am unable to come up with an explanation on either count.

When the renowned Robert Lacey published his latest book on Saudi Arabia over a year ago, it sold well and scored a great deal of attention in the review columns. Some of this, in the way of the press, with its nose for sensationalism, zeroed in on a minor theme of lesbianism in the Kingdom, and maybe helped to make the book a favourite with the media. One is inclined to say, so what? Lesbianism is rampant the world over, so why pick on Saudi Arabia?

Ibn Saud by Darlow and Bray contains a great deal of fresh information on the founder and has unearthed some rare photographs, helping to give a different dimension to the remarkable story of how, in the twentieth century, a phenomenal leader created the base for the most powerful national oil economy, not only in the region but also the world.

The book is moreover totally impartial in acknowledging what was and is positive in the Kingdom. It is only critical in a measured way where the balance needs to be addressed for the sake of accuracy on the one hand, and to make a realistic assessment on the other.

Have the Saudis become so afraid of constructive criticism which lacks all malice that they can only stomach bland flattery in what is written about them and their place in the world?

It seems they are completely unable to deal with public relations and are blinded to those in the wider world who wish them well. They work against themselves and their own interests.

In the present flurries of WikiLeaks revelations, we none of us know, from day to day, what new diplomatic blunder is going to be exposed. Every foreign mission in the world is having to brace itself for a likely onslaught of embarrassing truth-telling.

In this atmosphere the Saudis need to develop a more robust confidence in defending themselves, and this can only be done through honesty in facing whatever contradictions or blemishes exist in their society. They will then have a chance of winning the hearts and minds of people by acknowledging that perfection is rarely attainable and that progress in the Kingdom is being achieved ­ slowly, perhaps, but in ways gaining impetus with the passage of time.

They should welcome and recognise their real friends over those who are false and merely obsequious, and be true and encouraging to those whose motives are honourable.

As for the media attitude to books that emanate from small independents rather than the big conglomerate publishers, it may be said that these days it matters little what you write. The important thing from their viewpoint is that the author be considered a celebrity, either through his or her previous publications or through an established popularity with the media.

Try to unravel the logic of this, and you face an impossible task. The winners and losers are prejudged and the pattern is locked into an unalterable dynamic. The odds against penetrating the stone wall of media prejudice are so great that one may as well give up.

Is this supposed to be a good thing for the book industry, where a book now is rarely given exposure because of its qualities, but all too often for other reasons that are superficial and marginal?

Are we falling into a trap of expediency in the short term but a disastrous future for our literary legacy in the long run?

I often ponder these questions. Quartet have recently published a number of books that are important, historically and politically. So far as the literary editors and critics are concerned, these have been dumped into oblivion.

Is Ibn Saud to suffer the same fate?

With the public empowering themselves in so many ways through the digital revolution, is it not time for the readers who care for books to start to rebel? Saudi Arabia can lead the way by purchasing a large number of Ibn Saud, and circulating them to as wide a circle as possible.

For others, buy the book to judge for yourselves and help to reverse this unhealthy trend, which seems to run through the whole of the book industry.

The unwritten embargo that so hurts and damages the remaining small independent publishers must be broken.

Fake Reviews and Talent in Waiting

The reviewing of books has never been a pure expression of impartial judgement, as some may imagine it was in the past.

The literary critics of an earlier generation, however, had a power of influence founded on integrity of viewpoint. It was this that made readers turn to see what they had to say in their weekly book columns and helped to sell the papers for which they wrote.

A lot has always depended on personal contacts, the whims of a moment, favours to return or scores to settle, but the literary pages of those times had a generous spread. There was an openness to fresh talent, and with it a sporting chance of new writers of non-fiction and fiction getting noticed.

How times have changed.

Under the influence of the internet, that sort of coverage for authors’ output has dwindled. The names of those eminent critics, figures like Cyril Connolly, Raymond Mortimer or Philip Hobsbawm, are almost forgotten.

Today the feeling is that anyone can write a review, while the book pages are controlled by literary editors who seem to live in a world of their own and exercise a discriminatory stranglehold over what they let past.

No wonder the internet has, in some aspects, become a new Wild West, and the Amazon website in particular a free for all, open to exploitation.

It comes as no surprise to find reports of writers protesting at a situation where mountebank reviews are being placed on Amazon by publishers to gain an advantage over their rivals.

The temptation is obvious. These purportedly independent assessments are likely to be read by thousands, unaware of how they are being hoodwinked into clinching a purchase. The scene has grown so commercial that some publicity agencies are charging up to to £5,000 to place a favourable ‘review’ that could never be called anything except a further piece of blurb writing.

The term ‘literary merit’ has become steadily less meaningful as a result. How is the integrity of anyone’s opinion to be relied on?

The situation has a curious parallel with that applied in the book chains, where shelf space and window position can all be bought by the big publishers owned by multinational conglomerates who have funds at their disposal that the independents can never match.

The value of a book, therefore, comes to lie in the amount of money its promoters are willing to throw at it to boost its sales, while exposure in the market place is denied to equally or more worthwhile titles. The end result is a cultural impoverishment and a limitation on the free circulation of information.

The abolition of price maintenance for books was intended to end restrictive practices, only apparently to introduce new ones that are far less transparent or honest.

Even worse in the Amazon case, it seems the same tactic of placing bogus opinions on the customer reviews section is now being exploited by authors, some of whom should know better, to pour scorn on books by their competitors.

In this way, everything is devalued in the end. What use is it to anyone to have a system open to the abuse of delivering peevish personal attacks?

When we look at the review pages of newspapers and magazines today we often see a similar picture. This world is now more than ever a forum of literary editors, where friends and colleagues compliment each other and enemies take revenge. The books themselves tend to receive scant attention. How many times have I read a review in a respectable newspaper where it is blatantly obvious that the reviewer read, at most, the first few pages before going on to compose a ‘critical’ assessment that shows they never bothered to check the validity of what they were writing?

And then there is the lethal weapon of ignoring a book altogether.

This is used either for political reasons, to suppress uncomfortable truths, or lest it might offend a certain powerful lobby with which the media organ is associated. It is appalling that, in a free society, we still practise methods that run contrary to the political and cultural freedoms that are the basic tenets of our democracy.

Wherever you read the book pages, you find them crammed with the same book being reviewed over and over. It strengthens the impression that the literary editors are a tight-knit fraternity like the Freemasons, whose purpose is to maintain a powerful hold on our literary output.

Thus the outsider has little chance of breaking into or joining the fold.

Naturally I have often felt aggrieved when a book of outstanding interest and merit is given hardly any mention at all. But the literary editors are the untouchables, the tsars of our cultural age. Their decisions on what books are or are not to be reviewed are sacrosanct, and as a result, small independent publishers suffer.

For commercial reasons, the literary editors are duty bound to favour the conglomerates.

During the course of my entire working life, pursuing various careers that have gone from banking to retailing, from fashion to films and theatre production, I can truthfully say that today’s literary tsars are the hardest to deal with that I have ever encountered.

Even when they do take the trouble to respond to your calls, they hide behind the eccentricities they assume as part of their image and refuse the basic civilities of communication.

They are a new breed in the media, which has contributed to the cult of celebrity and ‘reality entertainment’ by pampering to the triviality of interest these people evoke and closing the door on so much worthy talent that stands outside, striving to be recognised.

A few of the older generation of literary editors still remain, but with the passage of time their numbers are dwindling rapidly. I dread to think how it will be when the last vestiges of the old tradition of fairness have irrevocably disappeared.

Being an optimist by nature, I still have faith that this downward trend will be arrested as people realise that our cultural heritage is at risk, that the celebrity culture is bogus, and that they deserve something better.

What Was Hitler Really Like?

Many, many books have been written about Hitler, and the deluge continues, but still he remains an enigma.

Surely there must have been more to him than a street orator and rabble rouser who struck lucky with the surges of history on his road to total power in Germany.

Among the many books, few set out to analyse his crucial earlier years.

How widely read was he, and how intellectually endowed?

Was he really the marginalised figure in his youth that his critics would have us believe?

What about his friendships before he turned into a monster?

What was his role in the First World War and what effects did it have on him

What was his promise as an artist and why did it fail?

All these and other questions are answered, in a way likely to change our attitudes in assessing the man, in a book that really probes under the skin of his younger self in extraordinary psychological depth.

This is Young Hitler by Claus Hant, published by Quartet Books.

It makes compulsive reading for anyone interested in historical facts as opposed to easy explanations based on preconceptions.

Hitler’s evil deeds are not to be ignored, but nor are the reasons that drove his rise to political dominance and his obsession with turning the German people into a ‘pure’ Aryan superpower, to control the European continent and regions beyond.

Silicone Valleys

Cosmo Landesman says that we men just don’t find women’s ‘silicone valleys’ sexy.

He was referring to Mrs Gary Lineker exposing her enlarged boobs on an outing with her husband, to celebrate his birthday.

Cosmo has a valid point since, visually, men find it pleasing – but ‘sexy’? Well, that’s another matter altogether…

Gordon Brown’s Failure

Gordon Brown’s greatest mistake was his insistence on becoming prime minister, rather than sticking to his job as the second most important member of the Labour government.

He was bereft of the charisma necessary to occupy the ultimate post in the land, and his ditherings on important issues made him an unsuitable candidate.

He was apparently not taken seriously by the US administration, who secretly mocked his ‘abysmal track record’ and gave him no more than one year to survive.

In brief, he was destined for failure.

Red Ed and Thatcherism

Ed Miliband is wrong to call David Cameron a child of Thatcher.

Some reactionary Conservatives will no doubt consider it the ultimate accolade; others will view the description as totally incompatible.

Thatcher will certainly be remembered favourably for breaking up the power of the unions, and for being a tough old boot.

She had her downfalls, turning Britain into a society largely motivated by money.

I hope David Cameron’s liberalism will go a long way to ensure that the balance is redressed, and a more compassionate approach to the big divide between rich and poor pursued.

Mrs Thatcher, although a great PM, lacked the humanitarian qualities to make her tenure at 10 Downing Street more memorable.