Amy Leach (2012). Thing That Are: Encounters With Plant, Stars and Animals

amy leach.jpg

Things That Are is the size of a prayer book. And you should have to put on those white gloves snooker referees wear when re-spotting a ball, when opening its pages. It should be treated with reverence and awe, because there is wisdom in these words. It should become a religion with worshipers meeting up to discuss sentence and phrases such as the introduction to ‘Silly Lilies’, ‘Most plants bend over backwards to cooperate with reality’.  This is a book you can stay faithful to. Read every day, but only after a night of silence when the words are bright and your mind clear.

I could make promises, but I’m such a book slut. Really, anything with a cover lying open is fair game. But there was trouble with this book right away. First paragraph, opening page, ‘In the seventeen century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish’.  As a Catholic I know the Pope is infallible, but I didn’t know when I was eating a fish supper I was eating beaver, after all I’m a vegetarian. The trouble wasn’t with that sudden gift. Prayers can mutter themselves. The trouble is, if like me, you start making notes of the good, the true, the metaphors that dance, the similes that sing, phrases that go ping, then you’ll find that you’ve copies out the whole book word for word as if the Angel Gabriel has been whispering it in your ear. Listen to this truth, ‘The Moon also graces the water without getting floated off its feet, but effortlessly, while beavers have to work as hard as derricks’.

The mad disorder of order, just poetics, the wisdom of biology and mythology ‘King of Babylon who  was too proud’ and for his penance roamed ‘green of mind’. There are loose sentence in grammar that begins with the main idea at the beginning and periodic sentence that express the main idea at the end. ‘Try climbing to the moon with only thirteen rungs in your backpack.’ Sometimes the liminal, the transition between what is and what is not, you just can’t explain, put into words, beauty in being, not unless you are Amy Leach. Genius you can genuflect to.

Leo Tolstoy (1869) War and Peace

war and peace.jpg

I’ve tackled War and Peace a few times, but beat a hasty retreat. Initially the problem was the characters involved. I’m not the brightest. Easily confused. So having the patronymic and other names tacked on like stags antlers got a bit confusing. On the opening page, for example, we have Anna Pavlovna Scherer and she’s some kind of hanger on to Empress Marya Fedorovo, the Dowager Empress, and the former is at home having a soiree with the Abbe Morro as honoured guest, receiving a visit from Prince Vasilily Kurkagov, and he has a daughter Helene/Heloise, who is a great society beauty and sons Anatole, who we are told is a bit of a lady’s man and spending oodles of dad’s cash, with no concern of what tomorrow might bring, and the more sensible son, Hippolyte, so boring and ugly he’s sent away to become a diplomat, because there’s always a war somewhere in Europe, especially with Napoleon Bonaparte rushing about tearing up the map and the old certain uncertainties,  but Hippolyte practices his diplomatic skills flirting with the former society beauty Princess Elisabeth/Lise Karlovna Bolkonskia,née Meinena she’s a former society beauty, and a safe bet, because she’s now married and pregnant; (‘the little princess’ so little, she’ll die in childbirth, so don’t worry about learning her name; and  don’t worry it’s a boy, Nikolay (3); her husband Prince Andrew/Andre Nikolayeveich Bolkonski, and upright as a toothbrush  is an adjutant in the army to General Kutuzov, later Prince Kutzov supreme leader of the Russian army in 1812 that push Napoleon and the French out of Russia;  and Nikolay’s father Prince Nikolay is old school, a friend of Kutuzov, from Catherine I’s era and as Prince Nikolay (snr) is banished/stays away from Moscow to show he’s not to be messed about, even by new-fangled liberal-minded Emperors such as Tsar Alexander I, and must maintain the proprieties  of bringing up his children in a regimented regime, his daughter Prince Mary/Marya Bolkonskia is an educated women, but no great beauty, apart from her eyes, which show a pure and lily-white soul that lights up her face and, for anyone that cares to look, shows what a good and kind person she is, but nobody does much to begin with, because she’s pretty old and out the way in Bald Hills, over 100 miles from Moscow, what’s tempting is her dowry; there are other pure souls, simple Pierre/Petyl, which is great because he’s only really got one name, but it gets more complicated because he’s the illegitimate son of Count Kirill Vladimirovich Buzokov (bit of a dandy, lover of Catherine I, [word on the street was that she was a bit of a slapper, flung it about a bit, but that’s not in the book, because it comes too early in history and Empresses are always discrete enough to murder anyone who blabs about who they were sleeping with last night, that’s why I’m not saying too much, nudge, nudge, wink, wink] Pierre is happy with his education abroad and his books and his blundering about the place; he knows, of course, it’s impossible to inherit because he only has one name and that’s, whisper it, bastard, but Count Buzokov, on his deathbed does a terrible thing and make Pierre his legitimate son and one of the richest men in Russia, worse that means that Pierre must marry the society beauty Helene, he’s been sneaking a look at her breasts, [who hasn’t? even Napoleon laps up against that pearly shore] she wears one of those pushy-up dresses that were all the rage, which every society woman wears, apart from Mary, who wears sensible shoes and a cardigan and sits knitting at home and reading Orthodox prayer books, the marriage between Pierre and Helene is arranged by Prince Vasily, Helene’s father, Pierre doesn’t even have to ask what’s happening to him, which he frequently does, anticipating the French philosophy of existentialism and in the same way Prince Vasily doesn’t need to ask for a few million rubbles to help him out anticipating Thatcherism, he’s been having monetary difficulties recently and Pierre, well, good chap, doesn’t seem to mind, but Pierre has a bit of a pash for Natasha Roystova, whose father Count Ilya Rostov is also having monetary worries, serious monetary worries, but nothing that his sons Nikolai/Nicholas need worry about, or the baby of the family Petyl/Peter, not unless of course he doesn’t manage to sell the house and estate in Moscow, unless Moscow is burnt to the ground by marauding French troops, which is very unlikely to happen, as is the death of Petyl, who at sixteen in 1812 has grown into a fine young man, but not for long some might say, especially his mother; French artillery also manage to kill Prince Andrew, but that takes two goes, the first a freebie at the battle of Austerlitz, which was a decided victory for the French, Andrew, almost fatally wounded, was tended by Napoleon Bonaparte’s own doctor, this isn’t exactly a good thing, cures included bloodletting and leeches; and later when Pierre is captured by the French and made to walk in his pink little tootsies from a burning Moscow at temperature -30 degree he also recovers, despite medical treatment, as does Prince Andrew, but at the Battle of Borodino outside Moscow, which despite the Russian retreat, was a score drawer on the coupon, Prince Andrew wasn’t so lucky, shrapnel wound to the stomach, left for dead again, not even leaches can bring him back, but he limps on long enough to tell Natasha that he’s always loved her and wanted nothing more than to die in her arms, which leaves Natasha bereft, until Pierre appears, and then she’s bereftless, but only after she’s checked with good-shepherd Mary that it’s OK to be in that condition, after all, she’s had a bit of form in that department, trying to sneak off with Anatole Kuragin, but she’d a lucky escape, because his wicked plans was thwarted and he was already married and had his legs blown off and died a horrible death, which he probably deserved, being such a cad, and even better Natasha could double-date with her brother latching onto Mary, whose dad, Prince Nikolay,  has also conveniently died, her brother Prince Andrew also dead, and she’s all alone, apart from a few thousand serfs, who don’t really like taking orders from a woman, even though they are serfs and should know there place, she needs a strong man, somebody like Count Nicholas Rostov, who has already proved his worth by smacking a few serfs about that were getting overfamiliar and cheeky, but it’s not quite as simple as that, he’s so much debts and in debt to Sonya, it’s kind of incestuous, she’s a great beauty too, virtuous and kind, but a charity case, reliant on the Rostov’s and although she’s like a sister to Natasha, she’s not family and really a sterile flower, there’s something in the bible that says stamp them out, especially if they are informally but not formally engaged to the one and only heir and, of course, there’s Countess Rostova, she can’t be told they’re poor, because after their son’s death, that would kill her, as it did their father; the kindest thing would be if the Rostov’s were re-united with money through marriage, that always ensures a happy ending, even Pierre couldn’t argue with that, it would seem like divine providence or the great architect in the sky drawing up his master plan and marking down his spheres of influence and who should rise and who should fall; it’s all of a fixed pattern if you look at it one way the French were foredoomed to fall away their army melting in a fixed geometrical pattern of suffering and death and the rise and fall of Russia was part of the great mercy of man; although that may be a bit of an oversimplification.

Well, that was a bit of a mouthful. The second reason why I couldn’t manage to work my way past the opening pages of War and Peace was class. Leo Tolstoy is an insider, with aristocratic connections looking back the great struggle with Napoleon that shaped Europe and the Russia he knew. Like any great author he is every man and every woman he creates. So he is the whip thin adolescent Natasha that charms so many men and engineers the moment when she receives her first kiss from an impoverished Princess Boris, son of Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetskaya, and decides that she loves him, and only him, as she decides that she loves Prince Andrew and only him, apart from Anatole Kuragin, who bewitches her, rather than she bewitching him, and later Pierre, good honest Pierre, whom she marries and has three children to and becomes a stout shrewish and jealous wife. But Tolstoy is also the bearish and buffoonish Pierre, the object and the subject of attention. So when Pierre gets involved in the secret brotherhood of Freemasonry the reader tags along, which I quite enjoyed. And when Pierre feels guilty about having so much and his serfs having so little and tries to change it but does nothing but make a few freeloaders richer and himself poorer Tolstoy shows how that happens.  Tolstoy is also there to show what affect the homespun philosophies of a good Russian peasant, son of the soil, Platon Karataev, come to mean to the more mature and reliable Pierre.  Tolstoy is imperious in his understanding of the Napoleonic war. He shows how hollow the great man arguments of historian are and how quickly soldiers and generals in particular spend more time fighting among themselves than fighting the enemy. The quest for glory brings only death and in particular how the French fleeing from Moscow were one bedraggled army pursing another bedraggled arm with food and warm clothing more important than horses, bullets or artillery. Starvation and cold took no prisoners. The old man Prince Kutzov is portrayed as heroic figure because he understood that better than most. Decisive battles were for fools. And less heralded figures (Prince Andrew apart) are given their due, such as  Dmitry Dokhturov quietly went about their business without the need for medals been pinned to their chest, promotions, and the promise of increased annuities, were worth more than the combined weight of the general staff. The parasitic  Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov (Fedya) who in Moscow lives off the rich and foolish vanity of the officer class, such as Nicholas Rostov, for example, winning 43 000 rubbles off him in one night of cards, compares this with the 2000 rubbles Nicholas is later forced to live on and keep house with his mother, her companion and Sonya, or the 600 rubbles Lieutenant  Berg who marries his eldest sister Vera manages to live on and save some money and you’ll get some idea of the scale of his loss, but Tolstoy’s genius is that in the environment of postwar-Moscow, Dolokhov’s psychopathic qualities are just what are needed in the guerrilla campaign conducted against fleeing French soldiers. Dolokhov’s weaknesses are Dolokhov and Russia’s strength.

But just as a duck does not understand the egg, Tolstoy does not understand that because Pierre turns out to be a good person, as does Nicholas, that that they should have 20 000 serfs under them as Pierre once had. In the good old days of Catherine multiply that by ten.  Just in the same way that I don’t think that some bosses should get 200 000 or more times the salary of their lowest paid worker. It’s an absurd system no matter which greatcoat you hide it in. So in the opening pages when all these great men and beautiful woman are being helped on and off with their boots and cloaks and their carriages being parked and their hats being taken and candles being lit and food being served, my thoughts aren’t with the gentry, my thoughts are with the people like me that would be doing these kinds of shitty jobs and expecting to be endlessly grateful for the chance. Thanks Count Nicholas for restraining your temper and not punishing me by beating me, thanks boss. That makes me cringe.  I read on, but I’ll need to have a look at the BBC scripts for the adaptation of the book. My guess is it’ll be all lingering looks and gunfire. There’s a lot to be said of the theory of surplus value. And the difference between meretricious and meritocracy is not found in these pages, but setting that aside, it’s an epic book and a classic still being read in the twenty-first century and for the best reason of all, it’s not all about war or love or honour, although these motifs do occur, it’s a book about what it means to be human. You can’t ask for more than that.

Janis: Little Girl Blue BBC 4, written and directed by Amy Berg.


After the death of Johan Cruyff, I got talking and into one of those arguments about who was better Cruyff or Zinedine Zidane. I said it was close to call, but that Cruyff was just perhaps more elegant. ‘How can you get more elegant than Zidane?’ was the riposte. Fair point. Just my opinion. I’d seen both players in their prime, and love football. I was frequently number 14, even if I couldn’t manage the Cruffy turn without a ball at my feet, I  played football for a bit –too long most people would argue, including all of my managers- but you’ve got to live the dream.

What I’m trying to say, in this lengthy preamble, is I thought Janis Joplin was a rubbish singer, but in an apologetic tone, I shouldn’t really be allowed an opinion.  I never yearned to play the trombone or oboe. I was one of those kids that when we were singing hymns at infant school the teacher would say ‘why don’t you leave it for a bit’ and coach the other kids to hit the high notes, or even any notes. And I’m the kinda guy that says things in the pub like who’s that band again, they’re pretty good, what are they called again –Snowsomething- but they’re a bit loud, aren’t they? Janis Joplin was loud and brash, but I liked her for it. There are echoes of Amy Winehouse, but I quite liked the latter’s voice. And if I’m being picky, which I am, I’d prefer Bette Midler’s version of The Rose to Janis Joplin’s messy real-life version.

When push came to the shove, Joplin found her groove and wailed it was something from a lone wolvette lost and alone at the edge of tundra where even the trees are lost and alone. It was look at me. And fuck you. Fuck me. Please. There was something elemental in Janis Joplin.

You get to talking about talent and then because it’s a woman fall back on how she looks. ‘I’m a Red Hot Mamma’ subtext, I’m black and bluesy, and I’m fat. Marie Osmond ‘Paper Roses’ face like filigree and voice that would fit into any Disney franchise. That’s who I like. That’s how shallow I am.  How Janis Joplin looked was a big part of who she was. She hides behind her hair. When she’s a big star she tells the talk show host that she’s going back on the tenth anniversary of her high school reunion. That’s nominally, that’s sweet, but  a fuck-you moment.

What she’s saying , I guess, is I might not have graduated from high school and might have been voted the ugliest looking guy in school – think about that for a moment, being voted not even the ugliest girl, but ugliest guy – but hey, I’ve made all this dough and I’m a big star. So fuck you. But beneath that cocky exterior there is a little girl that doesn’t fit behind the white-picket fence in Austin, Texas. The type of place where white is right and joining the local KKK is a rite of passage. Janis didn’t fit in and she knew she’d be trouble and she obliged. But in a letter home to her mum, the kinda mum that hoped Janet would settle down with the kind of  man  she married that had a job for life, mass producing things that people didn’t want, but bought anyway, Janis wrote: ‘After you reach a certain level of talent, the deciding factor becomes how much you need to be loved’.  Janis needed to be loved.

And Janis found that love in blues and rock and roll, the zeitgeist of free love in hippy San Franciso, free festivals, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cosmic Blue Band filling the Albert Hall, but there’s a whole heap of stop signs she had to run through before she was found ‘Full Tilt’ dead of a drug overdose on 4th October 1970.  RIP.

Voices of the refugees


‘There was people waiting, families waiting to be evacuated…’

‘I’m not sure how long we were away, although the house was damaged it was habitable…so we were in the back room with the windows boarded up because all the glass in the house was shattered, the blast had blown out all the windows…It was quite cosy. We had to cook on the fire.’

‘I stood outside the burnt shell of what was my home with my children, all we had was what we stood in… how lucky I was.’

‘We set off… a bus had driven into a bomb crater so deep that only its roof was visible.’

‘We were laid out on the floor of the foyer where there already a number of injured people.’

‘Bombs were falling. They were coming through the roof and one came right beside us hitting my mother on the right foot and burnt her leg. Father pulled my mother out of the hall. I jumped over the bomb. Father lifted the baby out…kicking the bomb downstairs…’

‘From under the old deal-table we crawled. Over the shambles we climbed, out to the street.’

‘It was another night of hellish noise and fire.’

‘The shelters were lost and we could not see.’

These refugees are not Syrians, where about half the population has moved out of the country. Out of the war zone. These refugees are the people of Clydebank. Bombed by the Luftwaffe seventy-five years ago. Some of them got as far as Kirkintilloch. The sensible thing would have been to have rounded them up and kept them waiting in camps. Their children and their children’s children. That would have taught them a valuable lesson. We have not forgotten.



Iain Duncan Smith’s big gamble.


As a story teller, with Leicester City at the top of the Premier League it’s been the year of the underdog, and I’ve been following the Iain Duncan Smith, or the IDS narrative, with interest. He resigned from the Cabinet because ‘I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national interest…[I] wonder at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure “we are all in it together”’.

I wonder too if we are really in it together. I wonder too at the surprise and talk of salami slicing of the welfare budget. I thought as the former head of a think tank, IDS might have noticed that money was moving from the poor to the rich at increasing rate, and Osborne’s budget was following a familiar pattern. We can go back to Robin Hood stealing from the poor and keeping his loot because he worked damned hard for it. Or the debates in the House of Commons in the 1830s. The surprise and outrage some MPs gave themselves over to that children were being used in the workforce and forced, for example, to sweep chimneys and go down coal mines as a health cure for sloth. Up until then they thought it was simply small deformed adults of which there were too many for even Charles Dickens to enumerate, or black men kept in chains, which didn’t really count as human exploitation, because other people were doing it and fairs fair. In no time at all, with hymn singing and weeping and wailing and gnashing of pearly-white teeth children were provided for. By Parliamentary decree they should have at least two hours of education a day until they were thirteen. We were all in it together, now as then.

I do wonder what is going to happen to IDS’s flagship policy of universal credit. Cynical commentators would suggest that re-packing all benefits together such as housing, working tax credit, or jobseeker’s allowance et al, at a reduced rate, could be construed as a cost-saving device. Pulling a government lever and the poor are diminished and as we know they have no backbench peers. But IDS is not alone. Martin Ford (2015) in Rise of the Robots also suggested that as robots will be doing most of the jobs we do now, citizen should be given, as of right, a fixed income. As any Think-tank leader knows this idea does not come from Marx, but from the darling of Thatcherism, Friedrich Hayek. A basic fixed income was something we used to naively believe in. A social safety net. Remember that? When Pete Townsend’s Poverty in the UK  in the 1970s had politicians rushing to the barrier demanding that something should be done to help poor people. Poor people with an income of £40 000 per year. Of if you are a refugee around £35 000. Yes, us poor are all in it together.

Cynics might imaging that when IDS recovers from the shock that Conservative policies are ideologically and not economically driven then he might take stock and someone –quite soon- might propose him as leader of the Conservative Party. Certainly good old Boris Johnson is IDS’s rival. When David Cameron steps down, who has the Trump-card? Then, of course, there has to be the right market conditions. Britain must be out of Europe. The alternative, when there are no alternatives, is Osborne, or so he keeps telling us, which was a successful enough narrative to get the party re-elected with an increased majority. If he keeps salami slicing the poor, he would seem like a safe pair of hands – and favourite as the next Conservative Prime minister. With boundary changes and the continuing dissolution of the Labour Party he could be in power as long as Chairman Mao. I’m sure in ten or fifteen years we’ll still have a Conservative government, but it’s interesting watching the starters mocking for position.  IDS might turn out to be a Leicester City and take the big prize. The only losers will be poor people and we don’t count. It’s relegation for us and literally fighting for scraps.

Hans Fallada (2009 [1947]) Alone in Berlin

alone in berlin.jpg

Alone in Berlin is full of cartoon characters! And exclamation marks! And the third-person omniscient narrator who sees all and feels all, on behalf of his audience, suddenly comes clean about his omnipotent powers and directly addresses the reader and insists on a happy ending! Fuck that! But as we fall back into history and look at Boris Johnson and George Osborne vying with each other to think of new ways to beat the poor down and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the richest nation on earth, and Donald Trump’s vision of what is right, then there seems to be some consensus cartoon characters create their own reality and momentum and are more real than fiction allows.

Rudolf Dietzen (Hans Fallada) main narrative thread is based on a Gestapo file. The case against Elise and Otto Hampel presented in the People’s Court is that they distributed postcards around Berlin calling for civil disobedience. Some of the postcards are reproduced in the back of the book and the messages today sounds trite: ‘Hitler’s regime will bring us no peace!’ ‘Free Press! Why suffer war and death for the Hitler’s plutocracy?’ ‘Hitler’s war is the worker’s death.’ ‘German people wake up!’  Certainly not worth dying for.   Elise’s confession is reproduced. Her motivation is, ‘My soul was devastated by the losses of the war, particularly of my brother…My husband wrote the cards because I cannot write in print well’.  Both Otto and Elise Hampel were convicted by the People’s Court and executed by guillotine. A forgotten footnote in history. But if you look at reproductions of their mug shots Otto has a beaky nose and Otto Quangel is continually described as ‘birdlike’.

I can sympathise with Otto Quangel. He wants to change the world.  The method he chooses lacks subtly. In today’s society he would simply post something on the internet that nobody would read. Otto Quangel tries to change the world by writing messages on postcards, leaves them in common stairwells and public places, which he hopes people will read and pass on to others and create a current of discontent with Hitler and his totalitarian regime. But he is mistaken in this belief. Almost all the postcards that he laboriously writes out and distributes across Berlin create such terror in those that pick them up that they are immediately reported and handed in and end up in the hands of the SS offices who investigate the case. In the internet age a readership of one hardly amounts to a mass movement, or any kind of movement, or any mark of success. But it’s worth considering as we (I) tap away on my keyboard that if the price of each post was your possible death, for high treason, then what would you (or I) do? In a total-Aryan  state only one group are allowed to issue propaganda. This is neatly summed up by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s alleged remark to Hans Fallada (author Rudolf Dietzen) and mirrored in the book, but the reference point changed to a jobbing actor, ‘if Fallada didn’t know what he thought of the Nazi Party, then the Nazi Party would know what it thought of Fallada’.

In Part 1, The Quangels, postwoman Eva Kluge is delivering mail. She passes the Persicke’s flat. They are drunkly celebrating the German victory in France and the annexation of another territory. Next up England. ‘Briefly she thinks of the man with the bird face who she gave the letter from the front to, and she thinks of old Frau Rosenthal up on the fourth floor, whose husband the Gestapo took away two weeks ago…even if we defeat France ten times over, it doesn’t mean there’s any justice here at home…’.

For cartoon characters to succeed the narrative needs pantomime villains and heroes. The narrative is short on the latter. Judge Fromm is the face of justice, who resigned his positon when he saw the direction the nation was moving and conveniently lives on the first floor (why would a wealthy Jewish couple and an ex-judge life in the same building as Berlin’s riffraff?) and later, The Good Chaplain’ Friedrich Lorenz who tends to his prison charges on ‘the death house on Plotzenzee’ before their death, and the composer Dr Reichhart who shared a cell with Otto, are examples of the good and the true seed following on fallow ground. Dietzen as in inmate of prison and insane asylums is strongest here with the kind of thought that may bubble up and seek expression, and how even in jail, the snitch is rewarded and the just punished.

My guess is this saintly pastor is loosely based on Pastor Martin Niemoller. In his poem ‘First They Came For The Jews’, sums up the climate of fear which pervaded society.

‘First they came for the Jew

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Jew

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out-

because I was not a communist

Then they came for the Trade Unionist

Then they came for me –

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.


Everyone is Alone in Berlin and seems to have something to hide. To paraphrase another great leader, Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as society.  Doctors, for example, are portrayed as morphine addicts.  Paranoia and fear is palpable at home, in the streets and in workplaces, where one wrong word –even in jest- can lead to re-education in concentration camps. The threat of being found with one of the cards that Otto has written and not reporting it is an admission of guilt and being interrogated by the SS, and all your family and friends being rolled up like a carpet and being taken in for interrogation too. There are no heroes in the basement of SS headquarters, only casualties. Everyone is poisoned by hate, but it is in their self-interest to look the other way.

Eva Kluge the postwoman is neither saint nor sinner.  Her husband Enno likes his booze and likes his gambling and is a taker rather than a giver. He bounces from one woman to another in the hope they will give him an easy time and is prepared to steal and cheat and do whatever is necessary to make his life easier. In an attempt to emotionally blackmail Eva into taking him back he lets slip that her favourite son Karlemann, who was in the SS, but stationed in Poland, isn’t the good boy she supposes him to be. On his last leave he’d showed his dad a photograph in which ‘he’s holding a little Jewish boy of about three, holding him by the leg, and he’s about to smash his head against the bumper of a car’.

‘You’re lying,’ says Eva. But she knows he isn’t.

We the readers also know the truth. But the narrative written a year and a half after the end of the war asks a larger question that has two generations later been largely overlooked by the German economic miracle. What did you do during the war?

Hanna Arendt speaks of ‘the banality of evil’. We didn’t know was another excuse trotted out. You can see clips of townsfolk escorted through ‘re-education camps’ by the liberators of German, with hankies covering their noses. The smell of bullshit does tend to stink. Fallada here implicitly states what was being done was common knowledge. The Treaty of Versailles after the First World War left Germany bankrupt. But the rise of the Nazi Party and The Second World War left a nation morally bankrupt. Fallada is worth reading as it gives an insider account of how it happened. Hitler promised and Hitler delivered. There’s a grim irony that the refugee problem in Europe tends to focus on what the Chancellor of Germany,  Angela Merkel does. Large parts of the electorate seeking to punish the Chancellor and her party for their humanitarian response to refugees.  Nations such as Poland play a game of I-told-you-so when some refugees behave like criminals and terrorists.   What they need is in the subtext, re-education, or to die quietly on someone else’s soil as we, the richer nations, look the other way.

Behind Closed Doors, BBC 1, 9pm

behind closed doors.jpg

This is a programme about domestic violence. Violence against women. It follows Thames Valley’s domestic abuse unit, over a twelve month period, as its police officers go about the business of support Jemma, Helen and Sabrina and gaining a conviction against their attackers. The evidence seems straightforward. Helen’s dad, Russell, puts it this way, ‘I feel gutted. You never know what happens behind closed doors’.

Actually, we do. We know that just over forty percent of the men responsible for violence will be prosecuted. And that figure is a gross exaggeration –of reported cases.  We know that funding for supporting the victims of domestic violence is being eroded. We know that organisations such as Women’s Aid has a shrinking budget and more victims of domestic abuse they can cope with. And we know that there will be a phone number at the end of the programme that you can phone if you’re a victim of domestic abuse – good luck with that.

We, the viewers, follow the cameras as the police respond to a case of domestic abuse. The telephone call that Sabrina made asking for help is flashed up on screen. She claims to have been assaulted by her boyfriend. Over a six hour period he beat her and she claims tried to kill her. The evidence is there for the viewer to see. Her face is puffy, eyes closed and bloodshot, tone of skin purple, which extends to her arms and legs, with a punctured lung and broken ribs. She’s a horror story with arms and legs. And if her partner of five years Paul Mason has been wearing shoes at the time of the assault she might not have been alive for him to be arrested and prosecuted.

We witness Paul’s arrest and see excerpts of the police interview. He denied the charges. Sabrina he explained had gone to see her dealer. She owed him money. The drug dealer had worked her over. A variation of the bad man done it and ran away.  Open and shut case. Only it’s not.

Another common theme is the victims of domestic abuse retract their statement and without them standing up in court as a witness there is no prosecution of those guilty of abuse. In their five year relationship Sabrina had form, she’d did that before. But this time she was determined. She hated him.

Let’s cut to the chase. Paul Mason is charged with Assault and Bodily Harm (ABH) and not Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH). GBH carries double the custodial sentence tariff to ABH. He appears in the Crown Court and eventually agrees to plead guilty. This allows more of his sentence to be commuted. Instead of a possible eight years he’s sent down for two years and as he’s already served part of that sentence will be out in around ten months. That’s a good deal for Paul Mason. Thank God he almost murdered someone and didn’t do something really criminal like steal a roll of cash then he’d really have face serious time.

The sting in the tale isn’t unexpected. Because Mr Mason has pleaded guilty Sabrina does not have to appear as a witness or even attend the trial. But the camera follows her on the train and waits outside the Crown Court until she appears to hear the verdict.

‘I still love him,’ Sabrina says.

‘I’ll be here for him when he comes out.’

‘We can start again.’

Jemma is the most straight forward of the three victims. Her attacker Dwaine was an ex-boyfriend that broke into her house and seriously assaulted her. He’d followed the usual pattern of threatening her by phone and social media. Jemma felt she had to go through with the trial because Dwaine would do this to someone else. Of course he already had. She wasn’t his first victim. Result. Seven years. He’ll be out in three.

Helen is a bit of mishmash of Sabrina and Jemma. Her partner of ten years Lawrence had lived with her, but became increasingly jealous and controlling. Whilst on holiday on Orkney, with her young son,  he had assaulted her and was later fined £1700. Since they split up he had been sending threating messages and phone calls. They are played for the viewer and indeed they are threatening and the conclusion any right-minded person would reach is, he’s a nutter to be avoided. He also sees the law as being incapable of stopping him. A three month non-molestation order which he breaches with impunity is followed by, you’ve guessed it. The renewal of a three month non-molestation order. And when he breaches that and swans off to America and comes back again, spends two days in the cells. Well, that’s what I call scary.

The sting in the tale here is, much like Sabrina’s. But Helen is more cute. She denies having any contact with Lawrence. But when the viewer is shown an excerpt of an interview in which Lawrence claims to have met Helen and their son and went for lunch with them it seems like another lie. But it checks out. Video footage of Helen and her son meeting Lawrence is shown. And when the police officer reminds Helen that she did meet Lawrence she’s got an excuse – it was her son’s birthday and Lawrence wanted to give him a present. Life’s not always black and white. I guess we’ll read another tabloid headline of some poor woman murdered by her boyfriend and there’ll be calls for more to be done, while the money needed to do anything quietly puts its jacket on and slips out the back door, and says it wasn’t me guv. Prove it.


Terry Hayes (2013) I Am Pilgrim.

I am pilgrim.jpg

I am not a pilgrim. I am pillock. I read 84 pages, or section one, of  700 pages. I didn’t stick with it to find out how former FBI agent Jude Garret published in-house, as a  front for the FBI, a book that he didn’t expect anyone to read about forensics; how this related to the pathology of crime and how what goes around comes around. A feeling I know well. But guess what? On page one, someone has read that book by Jude Garret, and it’s a woman. Jude knows enough about crime scenes that he can shock his friend NYPD homicide detective Lieutenant Ben Bradley and separate the dross from the drossets.  Then he goes backwards in time to being a poor-little rich kid, with no real friends and an interest in recreational drug use. But he turns out to be a natural. The Tiger Woods of FBI work. He quickly works out his mentor that runs the London desk is double crossing the Yankie Doodle. He’s selling secrets to the Russians. Young Tiger soon takes care of business. But when the FBI bring him home it’s not all tickertape and roses. They isolate him and grill him big time. But he doesn’t go pissing in the woods. He hangs in there. That gets him the highest award in the service, a phone call from the President. Hey Tiger, you did good.

Quick change, then Tigers in charge of the London office. But it’s not all shopping at Harrods and drinking lukewarm tea. Somebody stinks and Tiger decided to find out who. He needs to bend the rules a bit. Kidnap a bank executive’s daughter and have her scream ‘Please daddy’, on the phone. That gets him the information he needs to root out the rat and save the service. He gives the go-ahead for a hit team to kill Christos Nikolade in Santorini, but it’s nothing personal, but that’s not the way some would see it. There’s a failed covert op in Bodrun. Even a Buddhist monk travelling down the river with him looking into  his soul and saying ‘easy Tiger’. Jude Garret need not quit being Jude Garret, because that’s not his real name.

Nobody is really sure who he is or whom he’s working for and that’s the most dangerous way to be. Tiger knows that more than most. So when his rich parents conveniently die and leave him with a bigger pension pot than Tony Blair he know someone’s out to get him. He’s got an escape hatch in his house and when he slides down the pole and escapes like Batman, he expects the bullet or the noose, but it’s the NYPD let loose and a meeting with his old friend and new friend Ben Bradlely.  But it’s not just Tiger needs to get back onside and into the game, the Twin Towers meant the US had been damaged and shamed. It hadn’t happened, not on his watch, but he felt responsible anyway, especially with those traitorous French not showing respect and laughing at the television loop of planes crashing into the building. Tiger admits that he feels like shooting them. But he doesn’t of course. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if he doesn’t like it, he’ll shove it.   Tiger will make those that…

Terry Hayes is a former screenwriter. I read that in the blurb. The pages whir and something happens in every chapter. It’s a book I left lying for a few weeks and picked up. And another few chapters whizz by. I guess I’ll wait for the blockbuster film – and I’ll not watch that either. Nothing personal. We just like what we like.

Dunblane: Our Story, BBC 2, 9pm.


I was up at my sister Phyllis’s house 13th March 1996. That’s twenty years ago. I was a young thirty-three with a full head of hair and a ready laugh, now I’m a baldy, miserable old cunt, so nothings really changed, but I remember that day because it was Dunblane. News coverage was running on loop, but it was the same picture of parents rushing towards the school, knowing like us that something terrible had happened. I’m not an emotional guy. I can watch the Twin Towers falling and hardly blink. But here was something that choked me up. The thought of those five-year old kids fired up at life and the games to come in a gym hall, babies, in three minutes, being picked off and shot by a gunman, crawls inside you and makes you want to weep. Worse, those parents and the abyss they faced. Knowing and not knowing. When even the winners in life’s lottery were the losers.

We can put a face to the killer Thomas Hamilton, but it was never about him and his distorted view of the world. It was what he had done. ‘Evil has visited us,’ said Ron Taylor, the headmaster of Dunblane. And here he is on film twenty years later. His view unchanged. He wrote it all down, a box he doesn’t want to open. The casualties were known then as now. Sixteen pupils in a primary one class and their teacher, Gwen Mayor.

Debbie Mayor, Gwen’s daughter, was in London at the time. Her mother was forty-three remembered for her death, rather that her life. Here Gwen tells the camera how she knew and didn’t know. How the pieces began to fit together, that yes, it was her mum, and she was dead. Gwen was another causality. The media focus was not on her mum, who had a life, but the children whose life’s were just beginning.

Amy Hutchison was a survivor. She was shot by Thomas Hamilton, but survived as did a little boy also shot who played dead. His parents appeared on this programme. The parents of a little girl murdered also contributed, as did the sister she never knew, filmed doing a poetry rap in Edinburgh. Life goes on, but there’s a gap where it should have been.

What are the lessons we have learned? That is a more difficult question. I can’t answer. But I can make some observations. Since then our society has become meaner, more ready to condemn, less willing to offer a helping hand. Evil can’t be put in a box. Nor can it be taken out of us. It can be nurtured and given the right conditions –of fear and backbiting—it  will prevail.  It takes a village to raise a child. Dunblane suffered more than most. But our fuck-you, I’m-doing- all- right society is a hothouse for extremism in which people are expendable and seen as things. A society Thomas Hamilton would feel more at home in. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying that, just letting be will be.

Anne Rice (2007) Called Out of Darkness. A Spiritual Confession.

Anne Rice, as most people know, is a novelist. Her bestselling work includes her first novel, Interview with the Vampire. This is the only novel of hers which I’ve read. It made her who she is. Gave her financial freedom. The blurb on the cover tells the reader that she has written twenty-eight novels. I’ve a dim memory of trying to read another one of these, but quickly put it down. I could run my finger down the list, but honestly I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it was. And this is a book about honesty. That’s the one trait I look for in a writer. This is an honest book, with many of the milestone cognizable to me. Well, that’s if you exclude the smiling face of Anne Rice on the inside of the back cover. It’s tagged ‘Anne Rice as a young girl’. Ahem. Ahem. A gentleman never says what age a lady looks.

I paid ten pence for this book. I’ll let you decide whether it was worth the money. I’ve shortened it considerably and put it into poetic form for ease of digestion. If you read beyond this you owe me five pence.

Fool’s crown in my hand

Haunts this barren land

Yet here we stand

Wait at the bus stop of fate

Why is it always running late?

On this our first date

Then you shut the gate

Mankind can always wait


Nervous and narrow are the streets

Nervous and narrow are my feet

My way of seeing –into infinity

Old-school can sometime be cruel

In the milieu which we grew

We don’t seem to meet

I seek God in geography.


Pray, what today?

Crows the beggars of my youth

As a shroud

In the heart there’s a start

Grace breaks free

God was

God is – liberty.


Capricious spirit lies and wails

Torn away Veronica’s veil

A secret voice whispers


My daughter, my son, my one

Voice of conscience

Voice of doom

Belong in separate rooms

Do you believe?

I sigh

There’s no reason why

But if the music of violin sings

I’m full of broken strings

If Giotto and Rembrandt

Speak of God

I give a little nod

In a mausoleum of clay figurines

God’s words seem obscene

If there’s universal love

Let’s be clear

Every day is new year


Get up- go- before it’s too late

Wait and see if He’ll come to me

Miracle of love complete

Over there – take a seat

For the strong and free

That’s the truth of youth