Summary: a fine cat-and-mouse style thriller set in the final bloody days of a European civil war
Towards the end of the Second World War the Germans launched a rocket assault on the UK. First with V1 “doodlebugs”, a sub-sonic flying bomb, lethal but possible to be brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The subsequent V2 rocket however was a different beastie altogether. A supersonic rocket carrying a one tonne warhead, the V2 was impossible to intercept once launched and would strike London without warning and at random. While not as murderous as the RAF’s civilian bombing campaign on Germany, they still had the capacity to wreak a particular brand of lethal terror on a war weary population.
As with his recent book, Munich, Harris takes this historical background and foregrounds it with his own fictional creations: on the British side, a young Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) officer, part of a team trying to locate the launch sites of the V2 rockets in the Low Countries; on the German side, a rocket engineer, dreaming of space flight but trying to survive the war by causing the needless death of hundreds, an atrocity he finds increasingly troubling. Sympathetic as these characters are, the war means that their allotted roles are to spend its last days trying to kill each other.
V2 is a fine war-time thriller that also offers a melancholic exploration of this most horrific of European civil wars. Nevertheless, unlike the bleak, bleak vista of his last book, The Second Sleep, V2 does carry a glimmer of hope at the end.
Summary: In spite of the self congratulations by politicians regarding their stance on slavery, muddled government policies on trafficking, migration and labour rights render those vulnerable to slavery at continuing risk of abuse and exploitation.
October is usually a month filled with noise on “modern” slavery. It has been thus for over a decade now. Since 2007, 18th October has been designated the EU Anti-Trafficking Day and in 2010 the made it its UK Anti-Slavery Day. Organisations that work on the issue throughout the year tend to use the day to highlight campaigns, while politicians usually search for a photo op. In 2020 photo ops are not really possible as events are largely held online.
As, in Europe at least, we are not busy flying from conference to a conference this October 2020 should be a reminder that the international community has been trying to deal with the issue for a long time. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the ILO Forced Labour Convention; 20 years since the UN “Palermo Protocol”, 15 years since the Council of Europe Trafficking Convention, and six years since the ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol. Importantly, it has also been 70 years since the European Convention on Human Rights was first introduced, prohibiting forced labour and slavery.
When I first started working on trafficking 20 years ago, convincing governments that trafficking exists was a challenge. Later the task was to persuade them that trafficking for forced labour was an issue. Today, the level of awareness and the number of people that work on the issue are unprecedented, at least since the heights of the anti-slavery struggle in the 19th Century. Dedicated funds exist, as do masters courses. Trafficking and modern slavery are for all intents and purposes talked about as serious problems of our times. Some could see this as the ultimate success of campaigns and advocacy of 1990’s and 00’s.
Yet, we are far from being able to declare success.
Human trafficking and people smuggling are still confused and used as interchangeable terms by media and politicians, reflecting muddled and often contradictory policy on these matters. This is despite that the above mentioned two “Palermo Protocols” distinguishes between trafficking – the rendering someone into a situation of exploitation and a crime against a person, and smuggling – the facilitation of clandestine crossing of international borders and a crime against the state.
With the exception of a few specialist journalists, such as Kieran Guilbert and dedicated projects like the ones by the Guardian and Thompson Reuters Foundation, much of the reporting on human trafficking remains flat and simplistic.
For the most part, policies designed to deal with modern slavery fail to engage with the difficult questions about underlying causes that are deeply embedded in our political economies. Civil society is increasingly rendered into the role of a service provider, gagged through government contract and prevented from acting as critical friend holding government to account. There is a dearth intersectional analysis examining how policies and actions by governments and sometimes also NGOs perpetuate the very circumstances that lead to exploitation.
Collateral Damage was the title of a report published in 2007 by the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. The publication reflected on the previous decade of anti-trafficking efforts and how these impacted on the rights of trafficked women. The title was chosen as it summed up well what we found – that peoples’ rights were often the casualty of anti-trafficking efforts.
Collateral damage is felt by trafficked people. For many, getting out of a situation of exploitation does not lead to “freedom”, but to a different kind of unfreedom. A trajectory from being enslaved to being processed by authorities, detained, disbelieved, deported, faced with destitution, debt and an uphill struggle to show that they are deserving victims.
Since 2007, laws have changed and arguably there have been some improvements in the way countries and civil society organisations respond. Trafficking for forced labour is now a strong focus and businesses are a key stakeholder in anti-slavery efforts. Yet I am struck that the overall argument of that report still stands and systemic failures described in it remain.
Let’s look at the UK for example. In 2007 I wrote in a chapter examining the UK’s response: “…. the authorities seemed to have failed to assess the implications that migration and labour market polices have for trafficking and on the vulnerability of certain groups to being trafficked.”
This statement rings true in 2020. In fact, I would argue that the implications of those policies are likely to be more significant today that they were in 2007.
Hostile environment has been a flagship UK policy for almost a decade now. The policy was designed to make the UK unwelcoming to migrants who do not have regular status in the country. Consequently, anyone who cannot immediately show their right to be here should be viewed with suspicion. Anti-migrant rhetoric and government campaigns such as the infamous go-home vans and vilification of lawyers have led to irregular migrants being labelled as criminals. At the same time, most victims of modern slavery in the UK are migrants. The Home Office is the department in charge of both policies – one that is designed to remove as many foreigners as swiftly as possible, and the modern slavery strategy that is meant to provide victims with a recovery and reflection period, including a temporary permission to stay in the UK. The conflict between these two policies is glaring. Nevertheless, one would search in vain to find a recognition by the government that this contradiction exists. A new report by ECPAT UK shows what this policy dissonance means – life of insecurity and possible removals experienced by thousands of child victims of trafficking.
Labour exploitation too is, to a large extent, enabled by government policy. Deregulation, promoting ultra-flexible labour market and cuts in budgets of inspection bodies have led to increasing precarity in the UK labour market. Vast swathes of workers on zero-hour contracts, subcontracted through chains of labour brokers face uncertainty, poverty wages, poor conditions and in some cases forced labour. Flexibility and complexity in the labour market, where the rights of workers are secondary to the constant growth agenda, bring about situations where forced labour is found in value chains of well know companies.
Then there is the intersection between the labour market policies and immigration policies such as the criminal offence of illegal working. The impact of the new post-Brexit UK immigration tier system, to be introduced in 2021, is yet to seen. COVID19 has not only shone the light on underlying issues of inequality, but is expected to lead to more insecurity and precarity.
Back in 2007 the Collateral Damage report caused a bit of a stir. Rereading it today, I think it is time for volume two as the rights of migrants and rights of workers are under renewed assault, to serve as a reminder what governments and broader international community ought to do to seriously take on the issue of “modern” slavery.
Summary: With COVID-19 Boris Johnson has been faced with a once in a lifetime crisis. He has failed the test.
Boris Johnson does love his military metaphors. They are intrinsic to his whole cod-Churchillian shtick. So, this past nine-months, at least after he finally bothered to show up to the COBRA crisis meetings, he’s been “wrestling” Covid-19, “whacking” it, “fighting” and “doing battle” with it.
Covid-19 doesn’t seem that bothered. Because it’s a virus. In these circumstances Johnson cosplaying a war leader is rather like, to borrow from Milan Kundera, attacking a panzer division with a mime troupe.
In truth, unlike other “natural disasters”, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, the effects of Covid-19 do bear some resemblance to a war induced emergency. Like the Troubles in the North of Ireland, or the civil war in Angola, wars ebb and flow like this pandemic. At different times they are more lethal in some places rather than others. Like this pandemic, wars also tend to be protracted crises in which we have to learn how to survive until a solution is in place.
Some research scientists working on treatments and vaccines, and the health professionals working in critical care, are fighting the virus. But the rest of us are effectively bystanders, just trying to survive it until, hopefully, the efforts of these professionals bear fruit. Unfortunately, in my experience, as we await a solution some people will always court risky behaviour as they become bored with the restrictions on life that health or human security concerns impose.
So the role then of a sane prime minister in these circumstances must be more akin to a humanitarian manager, trying to keep as many people alive until a resolution comes, rather than a general confronting an enemy. In such circumstances the language of battles and campaigning becomes redundant. Instead the priorities of humanitarian response are the relevant ones: Avoidance of risk and protection from harm, first for critical workers, then for the rest of us.
Jacinda Arden seems to have understood that. Boris Johnson has not. Arden has led by example. Johnson, with the not inconsiderable assistance of his father and Dominic Cummings, has shown that he expects different rules to apply to his coterie than to the rest of us.
Hence Johnson’s leadership in this crisis has been typified by muddle and confusion. Whenever there has been a hard choice to be made, he has routinely fluffed it. It is ironic that the government that so fetishized control of its borders in their fevered flight from the European Union, did not, unlike just about every other country in the EU, close its borders to prevent reimporting of the virus. Like the last lock down Johnson will show up to the next one three weeks late and, it appears, millions of dollars short.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the fact that Boris Johnson is in possession of the single most dangerous trait in any leader: He wants to be popular. Hence he will tell any lie, fudge any choice if it just buys him another fleeting moment of the illusion of popularity. Every time a lie or an inadequacy is exposed he simply tells another, bigger lie to distract from his last failure. Hence his escalating promises of “world-beating” testing, track and trace. Lying having worked to deliver Brexit, it’s a trait that now seems to pervade the government with lethal consequences for the vulnerable.
When Johnson was just a philandering journalist this sort of behaviour only hurt those unfortunate enough to have loved or trusted him. As prime minister this has directly resulted in the UK having the highest death toll in Europe and the worst economic performance during this crisis.
As we are now poised on the brink of a second surge in Covid-19 infections it is critical that the UK government fundamentally rethink their approach to this crisis, learning from New Zealand, and the countries of South East Asia how they have managed to keep their populations safe from this disease.
Certainly, one critical issue, as Jacinda Arden has shown, is leadership. When human lives are at stake, any credible humanitarian response demands serious leaders for whom this will be the overriding priority. Johnson has failed in that test already. He should resign.
Summary: what I humblebrag about when I humblebrag about running
Haruki Murakami has written 11 novels. I have written one. Haruki Murakami runs a marathon every year. I have run one. Haruki Murakami has run an ultra marathon and is talked about as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I once won a lottery in a pub in Andorra for a pair of skis.
So, in spite of all the envy, I don’t mean it to be sour grapes when I say that this book seemed to me an extended humblebrag rather than anything approaching worthwhile literature.
The book is something of a memoir, Murakami reflecting on his life and work and running through the prism of his running. Structure, such as it is in this book, relates to his preparations for a New York marathon. But I didn’t find much in it in the way of profound philosophical insight or poignant reflections. Talent is the most important thing for a writer! Who’d have guessed? Staying fit may help you remain more artistically productive for longer! Amazing. He has become a slower runner as he has got older! Join the club.
The most compelling section of the book was, I found, an almost purely descriptive one, recounting his participation in an ultra-marathon. Most of his reflections I found quite banal.
His athleticism clearly matters to Murakami. But it is difficult to see how his almost elite level of competitiveness has much to say about the general human condition. I’m not sure it even has much to say about the general condition of runners.
Indeed, if the greatest tragedy in your life is only managing a 4 hour time in the New York Marathon, perhaps it really is time to check your privilege.
Summary: A detailed guide on how to appear a war hero and steal a Texas election
Robert Caro describes there being two threads running through Lyndon Johnson’s life: a bright one of commitment to public service that he displayed as a young teacher of poor Hispanic Texan students, or as a young congressman driving rural electrification for poor Texas communities; and a dark, selfish one, concerned with his self-promotion and personal enrichment without the least care as to who he hurt to achieve this.
In this volume of his biography of Johnson, covering the years from his war service to his election to the US Senate, Caro notes that only the dark thread is visible.
Even Johnson’s military service is problematic. Despite his commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserves Johnson gave little impression that he was really interested in active duty as he had promised in various speeches. Eventually though concerns about future electoral credibility compelled him to participate in a mission to the South Pacific as an observer. In this role he participated, again as an observer, in a single, terrifying combat mission, for which he was awarded the Silver Star. While he did display a certain coolness under fire, it was notable, Caro observes, that the actual aircrew he was flying with, who risked their lives in dozens more missions, were not considered for bravery awards. As is still the case, who you know matters more than anything else. So, as a congressman on the naval affairs committee, Johnson knew General McArthur who recommended him for the award, no doubt thinking that Johnson might be a useful ally on Capitol Hill.
A considerable portion of the book focusses on Johnson’s senatorial election. This was a revolutionary campaign. It was the first in which a candidate used a helicopter. This Johnson used to ferry him from town to remote Texan town, brandishing his Silver Star while he told the crowds gathering to see this strange new flying machine exaggerated stories of his war. The quantity of Johnson’s usage of radio as a campaigning medium was also unprecedented.
Johnson had already shown himself to be a superb organiser of elections from his management of the national Democratic congressional effort in 1940. However when all the electoral innovations that he brought to bear on this election still came up short, Caro argues convincingly that Johnson resorted to the old-fashioned expedient of stealing the election from the former governor Coke Stevenson, an ultra-conservative Democrat.
Caro clearly has a soft spot for Stevenson, undoubtedly an extraordinary individual, which has perhaps led to him skating somewhat over his reactionary views. Not that Johnson was a progressive champion. His liberality was always only skin deep, something worth appearing when Roosevelt was president, but shed quickly when campaign financiers demanded he dance to a different tune. Perhaps Johnson felt justified in stealing this election having had his previous effort to become a US Senator stolen from him by another former Texas governor, Pappy O’Daniel.
With Volume 2 of his biography of Johnson, Caro again provides a compelling portrait of Johnson, his times, and his place, with fascinating insights into Texas politics and history. I’m already looking forward to reading volume 3.
“The tree was in the river and the kid was in the tree… The kid couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. He looked like a ragdoll caught in the branches.”
So begins my novel, The Undiscovered Country, which, after a long road to publication, is finally out in time for Second Lockdown/ Christmas. The Irish Times has called it, “‘A smart and pacy debut that details a historical period that deserves further exploration.”
For Hamlet, the “undiscovered country” was death. That lurks within these pages alongside reflections on Dutch people’s relationship with beer and cheese, the origins of the idea of the rule of law, and the true meaning of red-headed women in Renaissance paintings. These ruminations are my protagonists’ equivalent of whistling in the dark as they try to get to the truth about a murder that they stumble upon in the midst of a war for another “undiscovered country”, the emergent Irish republic in 1920.
Summary: what weeds teach us about the human condition
I don’t read as much poetry as I used to, but I loved this book.
As its title suggests it takes its starting point from things we may often overlook or take for granted, but in these things Amy Charlotte Kean finds insights to the human condition, and indeed the universe, that “glitter like C-beams in the dark”.
Reflecting on the White Deadnettle, for example, Kean observes, “They/ sting/ because/ like an evil stepmother/ they flourish/ thru the elaborate dismantling of/ innocence.” Or her ruminations on life prompted by the Stag’s Horn Sumach: “The secret is to worship the poets/ Quote the philosophers, thank the men/ And don’t dare, even once, act normal.”
The book is beautifully illustrated by Jack Wallington, but it is Kean’s poetry that unsettles and stirs the soul.
Starting with Zoi Aliozi’s fascinating essay on Diotima – a character in one of Plato’s dialogues from around 400 BCE who, according to Socrates, taught him “his” method and her philosophy of love – the book progresses across 20 essays via Sandrine Berges’ fine portrait of the great 18th century women’s rights and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, to Nima Dahir’s reflections on Aziza Y al-Hibri, a Lebanese-American professor of human rights and Islamic jurisprudence.
As al-Hibri’s inclusion suggests the book avoids a northern hemisphere bias including important philosophers from Asia and Africa as well. These include Shalini Sinha on Lalla, “one of the most influential figures in the religious history of Kashmir”, and Minna Salami on Sophie Bosede Oluwole, “the erudite and provocative shaper of contemporary Yoruba classical philosophy”. In keeping with the book’s revolutionary approach to its subject, there is also a chapter by Anita L Allen on the American activist and political philosopher, Angela Davis. I was disappointed that there were no chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, Martha Nussbaum or Margaret Archer – but books are finite things and such omissions merely demonstrate that there is a need for at least one sequel to this volume.
Each of the essays provides a biographical sketch of its subject and their historical context as well as introducing some of their key ideas. However, these are not hagiographic. The essay on Hannah Arendt, for example, introduces her important work on totalitarianism, and her reflections on the “banality of evil” from Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. But it does not shy away from also acknowledging her repulsive racism, and her “inconsistent treatment of Jewish oppression and African-American marginalisation in the US.” In raising this deeply troubling matter, the essay author, and co-editor of the book with Lisa Whiting, Rebecca Buxton makes the vital point that “no thinker should be idolised above criticism”.
The Philosopher Queens is a book that breaks the mould in more ways than one. It is both a fine introduction to the thinkers that it portrays, and an introduction to important though often neglected strands in “western” and “non-western” philosophy alike.
This book should become a compulsory textbook for students of philosophy. But it should also be more widely read to remind people that the world is a richer and more complex place than some folk may like us to think.
Summary: two fine, late career works by le Carre assert that Europe is indeed something worth fighting for
It’s no secret that David Cornwall (aka John le Carre) was a MI6 officer before the extraordinary success of his novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His subsequent Cold War thrillers, many of them featuring George Smiley and his various colleagues, depicted an amoral conflict fought by cynical people for questionable gain but considerable pain. Indeed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold set something of a template for these subsequent works with its gripping portrayal of a British Intelligence plot to kill a senior East German spymaster.
A Legacy of Spies revisits that very plot, exploring it from the perspective of Peter Guillam, another of Le Carre’s recurrent characters, a fellow MI6 officer and friend of Alec Leamas, the eponymous Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It fleshes out some background, ties up some loose ends and answers some nagging questions about that earlier great work.
Agent Running In The Field is a more contemporary story set in the aftermath of the UK’s bizarre decision to leave the EU and bet its future on the whims of the profoundly flaky Trump-Putin axis. Nat, an MI6 officer coming to the end of his career, stumbles across an operation to betray British secrets to the Russians. As he digs into it he finds, with the shifting alliances of the post-Brexit world, and with the corruption of the upper echelons of British society by Russian kleptocrats, that the operation comes closer to home than he could have imagined. (The title is a cheeky nod to Theresa May’s response when asked, “What is the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?”)
Of the two books Agent Running in the Field is perhaps the more satisfying, peopled with believable and likeable characters trying to come to grips with the lunacy of our contemporary world.
But together the two books perhaps represent a reassessment by le Carre of his own life as an intelligence officer. For all the moral ambiguities and unethical activities in intelligence operations, le Carre seems to now conclude that the battles he himself helped fight were indeed important ones, aimed at preserving liberal democracy in Europe from all foes, domestic and foreign. “Everything I did,” Smiley says in A Legacy of Spies, “I did for Europe”.
Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think
The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.
Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.
Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.
Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.
As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.