From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Suffer the little children…’

August 5th

Yesterday morning’s BBC Today programme featured an interview with Charleen Jack-Henry, an NHS nurse whose daughter, Nicole, left with her husband and three children to join ISIS in Syria five years ago.  Nicole’s husband and eldest son, Isaac, by then nine years-old, were killed in the conflict and Nicole and her three remaining children, all under 12, have ended up, ‘abandoned by the British government’, as the children’s grandmother says, in a Syrian refugee camp, like Shamima Begum whom I wrote about on 17th July, .  The report indicated that there are around 80 British citizens (or ex-British citizens if, like Shamima Begum, they have had their citizenship arbitrarily terminated) in such camps, most of whom are women and children.  Our Conservative government apparently pays lip-service to the idea that children are innocent, but has so far managed only to repatriate three British orphans from Syria.  Irrespective of the innocence of the children, any parent who has gone to join ISIS must, by definition, be so serious a threat to national security that she must be kept out of the country at all costs, literally, as demonstrated by our craven government’s desperate attempt to overturn the Appeal Court’s verdict that Shamima Begum be allowed to return to UK to present her case.

What, exactly, is our government so frightened of?  Are they, newly ‘independent’, incapable of doing anything that might not win the approval of the frothing reactionaries of The Sun and its ilk? Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act of 2015, which they themselves passed into law, relates to ‘Controlling or Coercive Behaviour’.   If they can recognise the existence of such behaviour, how do they know that Nicole Jack wasn’t coerced by her husband into going to Syria, or doesn’t that matter?  That could be assessed by a court of law on her return, if they weren’t too scared to allow her back.  Even if she went to Syria willingly, how do they know that the harrowing experiences she has been through won’t have enlightened her?  Does their theology not allow for any possibility of redemption?  Or do they suspect that the prison system for which they are responsible is entirely incapable of reforming anyone?  In which case what are they doing about it?  As the children’s Trinidadian step-grandmother, via Nicole’s second marriage, says: ‘If you leave kids in a place where violence is normalised, they can’t have a normal life.’  Charleen Jack-Henry’s own wistful plea for her grandchildren is: ‘Don’t we owe these children a duty of care?’  Don’t we?

Our arrogant, self-absorbed government has a lot to learn from the supposedly ‘third world’ countries it looks down on from its ‘global Britain’ pinnacle.   The Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, Faris Al-Rawi, is much less terrified of the Trinidadian women and children currently languishing in Syrian refugee camps, in spite of the roughly 130 men who left Trinidad to join ISIS and are now said to be ‘desperate to return.’  Al-Rawi recognises that under international law Trinidad is obliged to take them back – ‘we must have our citizens returned to our country’ – and is introducing new terror laws to allow them back.  These laws are designed, he says, ‘so that we can buffer their return, receive them into a safe zone so that we can actually debrief, investigate and reacclimatise our citizens into life in Trinidad and Tobago in a responsible way.’  It would be good if ‘global Britain’ could have a global government of all the talents.  I suggested some time ago that Jacinda Ardern would make an excellent Prime Minister, perhaps she could choose Faris Al-Rawi as her Attorney-General.  He sounds to be unlikely to run scared of The Sun, and would appreciate the poignancy and truth of the words of the children’s Trinidadian grandmother: ‘I can’t see a four year-old boy being a terrorist.’

From David Maughan Brown in York: Thunder and lightning

August 1st

Yesterday evening we went round to a friend’s house nearby to sit, suitably socially distanced, in their garden for a taken-away pizza from an excellent Sicilian restaurant in Bishopthorpe Road that has recently switched to pizzas as its exclusive range of offerings.  Our highly erratic weather had served up the hottest day of the year for us, the third hottest ever recorded in UK, over 37 degrees at Heathrow, and somewhere around 30 degrees here.   Our hosts had put up a gazebo for us to sit under, mainly to provide shade until the sun set.  Having started by being eccentrically blustery for the time of year, the wind dropped, the atmosphere became very close and ominously still, and I commented that were we in South or East Africa I would know for certain that a decent-sized thunderstorm was on its way.  But you don’t get proper thunderstorms in York – or at least we hadn’t experienced one in the almost twenty years we have been here.  I had barely made the comment before I heard the first faint murmurings coming in on the wind, which had changed direction, and within a surprisingly short time it wasn’t shade we needed the gazebo for.  A thunderstorm came through that the unfortunate owners of a house set on fire by lightning in Haxby, a few miles away, certainly wouldn’t have regarded as being in any way ‘proper’.  

The storm passed by just far enough away for us to catch the edge of the rain, but I’ve always been invigorated by the drama of the sound and light show of a thunderstorm and it brought a flood of random memories sweeping in.  A clear, bright afternoon, fishing with my brother Mike on the upper reaches of the Umgeni river on a farm in what was then Natal.  There were storm clouds miles away over the Drakensberg, not close enough to worry us in spite of our being all too aware that a schoolboy from a private school nearby had been killed by lightning attracted to his carbon-fibre rod not long before.  We were fishing about 100 yards apart when a bolt of lightning, the proverbial ‘bolt from the blue’, struck the water between us and sheeted out, a dazzling blue, in both directions along the river.  We both dropped to the ground, lifted our heads successively to check that the other was still alive, and, when he wasn’t to be seen, assumed he had been killed, before we both eventually stood up simultaneously.  We decided to call it a day as far as the fishing was concerned.

Yesterday the lightning was close enough for me to ask our hosts whether the poles holding the gazebo up were made of metal, as I recalled a thunderstorm one evening when we were at a party in Pietermaritzburg and returned home to find that the Norfolk Pine tree in our front garden had been struck, had exploded pieces of wood weighing up to 15lbs or so fifty yards across the street, which would have killed anyone passing by, and had permanently traumatised our already neurotic Border Collie, which subsequently alerted us to any impending storm long before we could hear it by trying unsuccessfully to cram itself into the minute space behind the toilet.  

Last night’s storm would have brought hail with it in South Africa, and put me in mind of an occasion when I was caught by a sudden violent storm when I was out in the middle of Midmar dam on my sail-board.   I had to jump off the board and seek shelter as best I could under the sail, trying to protect myself from jagged accretions of small pieces of ice, not far short of the size of my fist and a whole lot more dangerous.  To call them ‘hailstones’ would have been a grave understatement.   I realised how lucky I had been a few years later when, having watched a fusillade of hailstones hitting the dam alongside Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in the Natal Midlands one evening, sending waterspouts two or three feet into the air as they hit the water, I went out for a ride the next morning and saw half a dozen dead cows lying in a field.  I initially assumed they must have been struck by lightning but the local man I was riding with said they were too scattered for it to have been a lightning bolt and that it would have been the hail that killed them.   

There is something manifestly perverse about being excited by, and attracted to, dramatic weather events.  Not that my perversity even begins to approach that of the ‘storm-chasers’ who follow tornadoes in tornado-alley in the United States who were featured in the film ‘Twister’, which I found myself glued-to late into the evening recently.  I should probably have been cured of the fascination by the occasion in my late teens when I was staying on an uncle’s farm near Ficksburg in the Orange Free State.  I heard a thunderstorm approaching up the Caledon river valley and walked out about a mile from the farmhouse to meet it, intending to turn round to get back to the house in time before it got too close.   With the thunder rolling up and down the valley I didn’t realise that, improbable as it seemed, another thunderstorm was approaching up the valley from the other direction behind me, and the two storms proceeded to converge directly above me when I was still half a mile or so from the house.  I knew enough not to run, and spent what seemed like forever crawling that last half mile over a ploughed field and up a painfully gravelly drive before reaching the shelter of the verandah with very raw knees.   Fortunately there was no hail, but there was lightning aplenty.   And the storm last night still excited me.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Black Lives Matter

July 28th

One of the items on this morning’s BBC Today programme was a Mishal Husain  interview with Mina Agyepong who told her about a police raid on her house late on the evening of 17th July, after a passer-by had told the police that a ‘non-white man’ with a hand-gun had been seen in the house.   The ‘hand-gun’ was an entirely legal BB pistol that belonged to her 12 year-old son, Kai, and was visible in the living-room from outside the house.  Ms Agyepong, who was asleep on the couch, was woken by a commotion outside, Kai went to open the door, half a dozen (reports vary) police burst in carrying rifles which they trained on the heads of Ms Agyepong, her two daughters and Kai, who had their hands up.  The police refused to lower their rifles in spite of the fact that Ms Agyepong explained that the clearly visible ‘hand-gun’ was a toy (which any trained firearms officer would have recognized instantly).  The police proceeded to arrest Kai, handcuff him and lead him away, after which Ms Agyepong and her two daughters were led singly out of the house at gun-point and held outside while the police searched their house for over an hour.   When the police couldn’t find anything other than the toy gun, Kai was ‘unarrested’ and the police left.   His mother said that Kai had been traumatised and was now afraid to answer the front door bell, and it was obviously a traumatic experience for the rest of the family as well.  Ms Agyepong said she was terrified they were going to be shot.   A police spokesman said that the police had merely followed ‘normal protocol in the circumstances.’

This can, surely, only have been a racially motivated raid.   Mishal Husain rightly picked up on the fact that the report had been of a ‘non-white man’, and it seems inconceivable that my 12 year-old grandson would have been treated in the same way.   But, at the risk of seeming to trivialize what was a very serious and obviously terrifying incident by seeming to echo the Monty Python ‘4 Yorkshiremen’ sketch, the Agyepong family can consider themselves lucky.   Nobody was shot, it was only half a dozen or so policemen armed with rifles who burst into the house, and the police only spent an hour or so trying to save face by searching for non-existent weapons after the ‘hand-gun’ had been identified as a toy.

This contrasts markedly with the police raid on 48 Lansdown Road in Forest Gate in east London on June 2nd 2006.   That raid saw around 250 policemen dispatched to look for a chemical bomb at a small terrace house on the strength of sole intelligence provided to them by a man in prison on terror charges who had an IQ of 69 and had been described by his own defence lawyer as an ‘utter incompetent.’  Fifteen specialist firearms officers burst into the house wearing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection suits.   Abdul Kahar, whose house it was, headed down the stairs to see what that commotion was, encountered the leading ‘firearms specialist’ on the stairs and received a bullet from a Heckler and Koch MP5 for his pains.  The bullet hit him in the chest and exited through his shoulder, fortunately without hitting any vital organs.   So Mina Agyepong had reason to be frightened.  Kahar and his brother Abdul Koyai were incarcerated for a week at a police station, their house and that of their equally innocent neighbours, who were also carted off to a police station, were so badly damaged in the search that followed that they couldn’t return home for many weeks.  Needless to say no bomb was found.   It won’t have been coincidence that their family names, like Agyepong, are not Smith, Brown or Jones.  Subsequent inquiries found that the police had ‘followed proper procedures’ here too, and apparently there wasn’t even a health and safety issue involved, in spite of the fact that the officer who shot Abdul Kahar was wearing two pairs of gloves, couldn’t feel the trigger, and purported not even to know that he had fired a shot. 

I spent much of my time under apartheid in South Africa being made to feel thankful that, purely by the accident of birth, I was not born black.  The likelihood is that I wouldn’t be alive now if I had been. One of the first things that happened when I arrived in York was that I was wrongfully arrested in my bank, led out of the bank and carted off in a police van.   I drove around for the next ten years in the car I bought with the five figure compensation payout.  When was a black victim ever paid out a substantial sum for wrongful arrest?  The arresting officer kindly refrained from handcuffing me because, he said, I didn’t look to him like a flight risk.  And a small, bewildered, half-dressed 12 year-old boy arrested for doing precisely nothing late at night in his own home was a flight risk?  But he was black and I happen to be white.   In a supposedly civilized country nobody should ever be made to feel thankful that they were born with a different pigmentation from that of anybody else.  If Mina Agyepong was right to be fearful about being shot, she was also right to be worried about what the long-term effect of his experience would be on her traumatised son.   Black lives matter; the experience of black children matters very much.   But don’t expect a government led by a prime minister like Boris Johnson, who is capable of talking about ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, ever to understand that.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Smoking guns

July 25th

So the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long and eagerly awaited Russia report did not contain the ‘smoking gun’ our cliché-loving journalists might have been either slightly apprehensive about (the right-wing majority) or hoping for (the very small proportion who don’t like Boris and the Tories one little bit.)  A ‘smoking gun’ was always unlikely at both a literal and metaphorical level.  At the literal level the Russians moved on from six-shooters long ago: their preferred author when it comes to getting interesting ideas about how to kill people is much more likely to be John Le Carré than Stephen King, and the preferred method for whacking the target more likely to be a scent-bottle full of novichok, or a few drops of polonium in a cup of tea, than a Smith and Wesson.  It was unlikely at the metaphorical level because unearthing a weapon of any description that has been used with ill intent tends to involve wanting to find it, and that means having to look for it.   The Intelligence and Security Committee is not in the business of hunting for weapons; its job is to analyse what they were being used for once they have been found.  So someone else has to find them and it has been transparently obvious ever since the Brexit referendum that the last thing the Conservative government wanted was an investigation into how the fraction of the electorate that voted to leave the EU was persuaded to do so.

Nobody was tasked with finding out if Russia had been trying to meddle in our democratic processes, and a blind eye was turned to all pointers to what might have been happening, such as the odd 145,000 or so anti-EU messages allegedly posted on social media by Russian bots in the 48 hours leading up to the referendum, so the committee’s report was always bound to have been unable to come to any substantive conclusions.   Boris and company, having engineered it, obviously knew that.  They knew precisely what was in the report and knew that it didn’t contain a ‘smoking gun.’  Which raises the interesting question as to why they should have bothered to stop it from being published before the General Election, in the face of considerable noisy flak from their parliamentary opposition.   And, following-on from that, why would Boris have deliberately delayed the Intelligence and Security Committee from holding any meetings at all for more than six months after the general election?  Could that delay have been deliberately designed to generate enough of a Brexit-related furore around the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report to distract attention from whatever else was going on that they really did need to cover up?   Was the ISC report just a decoy?

Even by the government’s own analysis, leaving the EU can only be seriously damaging for the UK’s economy.  It will, equally obviously, threaten the integrity of the UK which the Conservative and Unionist Party pretends to hold so dear.   Our cabinet cannot be so stupid that they don’t recognise those facts, or appreciate that trading under World Trade Organisation terms will make just as much of a nonsense of their cherished ‘independence’ as they claim trading on hated EU terms does.  So I can only conclude that what this is all about is personal wealth aggrandisement from Brexit in general and, more immediately, from the flow of Russian money into UK in particular.   The way the  ‘Leave’ campaign was conducted made it abundantly clear that the people now leading us into an economic wasteland wouldn’t recognise an ethic if it took its face-mask off, ignored social distancing, and introduced itself to them at a cocktail party.

If Robert Jenrick’s dinner side-dish of £12k into party coffers was a down-payment on a  £1 billion housing agreement with Richard Desmond, what was the value of the deal for which the wife of the former Putin minister, Lubov Chernukhin, was prepared to pay £160k, ostensibly just to play tennis with our fat (by his own admission) prime minister?  Boris was clearly seen for some reason to be likely to be more susceptible to female than male charms.   Ms Chernukhin was clearly so ready to take one for the team that she was also prepared not just to endure a dinner with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a less than enthralling prospect, but even to pay £30k for the experience.   The same question needs answering there , and was it just coincidence that it happened to be our Defence Secretary who was the lucky beneficiary of her company? 

Boris and his already wealthy chums were bound to welcome any help they could get, from any source however shady, where the referendum and election were concerned, but is it possible that anger at the blatant failure on the part of government to take any interest whatever in whether external forces had influenced the outcomes was deliberately fomented to divert attention from, and investigation into, precisely whose pockets Russian money is flowing into even as it goes to swell the Conservative Party’s coffers?

From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars

There are some days when one should probably either stick to reading and writing or simply stay in bed.   If astrology were remotely helpful one might be able to ascertain in advance whether or not the stars are aligned propitiously, and steer well clear of cellars and kitchens when they aren’t.  Strange things happen in kitchens when the stars aren’t favourable, and they definitely weren’t favourable yesterday.

Last year we spent the equivalent week of July enjoying the civilisation of Brittany.  I had picked half the saskatoon crop in our allotment fruit cage before we left and had made sure that the cage was bird-proof.  But fruit cages tend not to be amenable to wasp-proofing and by the time we got back at the end of the week it seemed that most of the wasps in North Yorkshire had arrived, taken up residence among the saskatoons, and were intent on making it abundantly clear that as far as they were concerned possession is ten-tenths of the law.  That was the end of the harvest, at least as far as we, if not the wasps, were concerned.  So this year we tried to pre-empt the wasps by picking all the berries before the wasps could take over.  Having harvested several pounds, and not having much spare freezer space, I needed to do something with them fairly quickly.  The drought in May resulted in the berries being smaller than usual, which meant that any jam would be likely to be rather too pippy, so the obvious answer was to turn the berries into saskatoon jelly, which I have done very successfully in the past.

Before doing anything else I needed to collect enough jam bottles and sterilise them before fulfilling them.   I had been intending for some time to retrieve some of the pre-2008 bottles of jam and/or chutney from our ‘cellar’ and recycle the bottles; the assumption being that if we hadn’t eaten the jam by now we weren’t ever going to.  The ‘cellar’ is actually the set of stairs that used to go down to the mid-nineteenth century coal cellar, bricked across halfway down.   It houses a couple of racks of wine and is shelved on one side, with the shelves being loaded with bottles of jam and chutney of varied vintages.  One of the bottles I intended to recycle slipped off the shelf and landed on the brick floor, surprisingly intact.  On its way to the floor it had, however, very neatly executed one of the bottles of racked wine, slicing its top off very cleanly at the neck and leaving it to vent its lifeblood all over the cellar floor.  I should have realised at that point that the stars were not well aligned for jelly-making.

Saskatoon jam is easy: the same quantity of jam sugar as fruit, the juice of a lemon and a cup of water.  The jelly is less straightforward as the strained juice is measured in cups, not pounds, and American cups, predictably enough, aren’t the same as British ones.  That matters because all the Saskatoon recipes I’ve ever come across emanate from North America, where the berries originate.   Whether I got the carefully calculated proportions of juice to sugar wrong, whether I took too long to stir the warmed sugar into the juice, whether I allowed it to spend too long on the roiling boil at the end of the cooking process, or whether it was simply a malign alignment of the stars, the result was startling.  I didn’t need to use the saucer I had put in the freezer to establish whether it was going to set, it started to cling very lovingly to the spoon I was using to move the foam to the sides.  What I ended up with is a world-beating, once in a lifetime, Saskatoon glue.  

Brilliant, deep purple jewel-like colour; distinctive Saskatoon taste, if a little sweeter than usual; it is only the texture that is a bit problematic.  It isn’t too difficult to get a jam spoon into it, but take the spoon out again and the jam in the jar refuses to be separated from the spoonful you were hoping to manoeuver onto your toast – the glue just stretches, seemingly limitlessly.  When you finally manage to spread some of it on your toast – and hot toast would be a lot better than cold toast – you are left with what looks like a brilliantly coloured enamel smoothly coating the bowl of your spoon.  There has to be some commercial potential in saskatoon glue to help shore-up our desperately ailing post-Brexit economy.   It may perhaps be a bit messy as a non-toxic glue to use for handicrafts in nurseries; however colourful it is, it wouldn’t enhance hairstyles and it might encourage a taste for glue among the children.   It probably isn’t durably waterproof, and would be likely to attract ants if it were to be used in shoe repairs. But the stars couldn’t, surely, have been so badly aligned that there are no commercial possibilities whatever for Saskatoon glue.   After all, Kellogg invented corn flakes entirely by accident in a kitchen, and look where that went.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Cunning Plans

July 19th

I concluded my entry on July 10th by saying: ‘I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.’   After successfully managing to stall the operation of this important committee for six months via the simple expedient of avoiding getting round to nominating its Tory membership, it had become clear to Cummings and Johnson that they would have to succumb to the inevitable and allow it to start functioning – but only on their own terms.   Baldrickian cunning plan B was to make sure that whatever it is that they are so anxious to keep hidden would stay under wraps via the appointment of one of their less intellectually gifted Brexiteer yes-men to the chair of the committee.   The constitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which, uniquely, sees the chair being independently elected by the other members of the committee, would be no obstacle.  When had a mere principle stood in the way of either Johnson or Cummings getting what he wanted? 

Alas, even Machiavelli and Rasputin must have had their off days: their cunning plans, unlike those of the A Team, will sometimes not have come together.   There will have been days when, distracted by side-issues like an outbreak of the plague or the after effects of a bad batch of vodka, or perhaps even concerns that their eye-sight might be failing or that a recent dalliance might come to light, they allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered.  So to Tory consternation and unexpected schadenfreude for the rest of us, as it turned out, Grayling wasn’t elected after all.   Julian Lewis, a Tory right-wing Brexiteer who is obviously less biddable than his Tory right-wing Brexiteer counterpart Grayling, was elected instead, thanks to collusion with the Labour members of the committee.   This coup put paid to both parts of the Cummings/Johnson cunning plan in one fell swoop.  Not only did they not end up with their ventriloquist’s dummy in the chair, but, potentially even more problematic, they have been landed with a chair who actually knows something about Intelligence and Security.  Lewis has been a member of the Defence Select Committee since 2010, and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee since 2014.   So the bit of the plan that involved having Grayling make the same mess of chairing, and thereby discrediting, the Intelligence and Security Committee as he has of every government department he has ever been put in charge of disappeared out of the window at the same time.

In normal circumstances arch manipulators would tend to keep quiet about it if they had tried illegitimately and unsuccessfully to manoeuver their stooges into the chair of a committee they shouldn’t have been interfering with.   They would go back into their darkened room and concoct cunning plan C.   But that is all too evidently not the Johnson and Cummings bullyboy style.  They clearly don’t give a damn that the world knows they have been involved in skull-duggery, or even that they have been outmaneuvered in the dirty tricks department, provided it also knows that they have exacted appropriate revenge.   Nobody had better try to do anything like that again, particularly not if it involves colluding with members of the opposition.  No doubt regretting that their whips are not allowed to take their titles literally, they have had to content themselves with having Julian Lewis thrown out of the Conservative party.   As a shining example of how to ‘Take back Control’ that may yet prove something of a double-edged sword:  while it demonstrates a ruthless vindictiveness towards any party member who might have the temerity to cross them, and could serve its purpose as a deterrent, it simultaneously ensures that the Chair of this key committee is genuinely independent of any political party and that the long delayed report on Russian interference in the general election will see the light of day very soon.   It might yet prove not to have been a particularly brilliant tactical move on the part of a Prime Minister who has a lot to hide, extending from the number of children he has fathered to who knows what else, to alienate and antagonise the chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and, in the process, deprive his party of its majority on the committee.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reviving Music

July 18th

Wedding anniversaries tend, in my experience, to evoke memories and lend themselves to reflection and reminiscence even more than birthdays do.  Yesterday was one such, and after a socially distanced glass of champagne in my son’s garden in York, with families in Cape Town and Sheffield joining us electronically, we pushed the boat out via our first take-away meal since the start of lockdown.  Partisan, one of the best restaurants in York – and it is an exceptionally competitive field – started producing two-course take-away meals under lockdown that proved so popular that they have continued to do so for those of us neither brave nor carefree enough to regard lockdown as having ended.  They assure prospective customers that they offer ‘generous portions’, which is a serious understatement – each of the individual servings of potatoes, for example, featured eight potatoes (generous even for Yorkshire) – so we have another excellent dinner to look forward to tonight.

By way of a floorshow while we ate our dinner we accessed Christopher Duigan’s streamed Music Revival concert, which yesterday consisted mainly of his own, exceptionally evocative, short compositions.   Christopher is an improbably brilliant pianist who lives with his partner in Pietermaritzburg.   ‘Improbably’ only to the extent that one would expect to find a pianist of his quality living in Barcelona or London, where he does play from time to time, or, if he was going to remain in South Africa, in the cultural centres of Cape Town or Johannesburg/Pretoria, where in normal times he also goes to play quite frequently.  Christopher has a phenomenal repertoire of classical pieces, which enables him to put together two hour-long concerts every week that he streams via You Tube on Thursday and Saturday evenings, playing much of the time from memory.  It was just our good luck that the concert scheduled for Thursday had been put off until yesterday as a result of a threatened power outage, one of the very many that South Africans have to contend with these days.  The concert evoked layer upon layer of nostalgia, particularly when he was kind enough to dedicate the beautiful last piece he played, titled ‘Himeville’, to us for our anniversary.

I had the pleasure of being peripherally involved as a trustee when Christopher set Music Revival up in Pietermaritzburg in 1997.  We attended many of his concerts at his home, from where he streams his evening concerts now, and at a venue a few miles away in a house in Hilton designed around a room big enough to accommodate 40-50 strong audiences.   One of the spin-offs from those concerts was the Wedgewood brand of nougat, now sold all over South Africa, that Jilly Walters, the hostess, originally made as an interval snack.  We knew most of those in the audience at the concerts, as one would after living in the same relatively small city for much the better part of thirty years.  Even after almost twenty years in York, the social isolation that the pandemic has necessitated has served only to underline the comparative isolation one is inviting if one opts to change continents after one’s children, who are the catalyst for so many of one’s social relationships, have left home.

The nostalgia evoked by watching Christopher playing ‘Himeville’ against a backdrop of orchids in his familiar home was not just for the rolling green hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, described so lyrically in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and the foothills of the Drakensberg where the little town of Himeville is to be found, but also for the friendships and sense of community and common purpose that lasted beyond the ending of apartheid and into the ‘transformation’ years that followed.   The struggle against apartheid generated a sense of common purpose and a strong bond between those who opposed that vicious and ultimately self-defeating system.  I think many of us miss that sense of common purpose. I certainly do.   So tuning in to Christopher’s concerts on Wednesdays or Thursdays (depending on the schedule of power-outages) and Saturdays is more than just a way to enjoy brilliant piano playing, and Christopher’s informal and informative commentary, it is also a way of regaining, at least in part, a sense of being part of a community with a shared history.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Stateless in Syria

July 17th

Every day that passes provides fresh insight into the kind of government we, as members of the UK electorate, have landed ourselves with for the next four and a half years. Today’s response to the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship provides yet another window into the government’s contempt for human rights, and further evidence of just how little credence should be given to the pretence that the Huawei decision had anything whatever to do with China’s abysmal human rights record.   

A fifteen year-old schoolgirl, technically still a child, is successfully brainwashed by terrorist fanatics and sets off, accompanied by two friends of similar age, to join them in Syria.  Our much-bruited Prevent programme would appear not to have detected the fact that they were being radicalised; the police had interviewed all three of them when a friend of theirs left for Syria a few months earlier, but left it at that; our ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office failed to stop them at the border or prevent them from leaving the country.   They join ISIS, Begum marries an ISIS fighter, and they lend their tacit (perhaps active, we don’t know) support to ISIS atrocities, and when ISIS is defeated Shamima Begum turns up in a refugee camp.   Our government, ignoring her right to a fair trial, promptly disowns her and removes her British citizenship on the specious grounds that in spite of being born, brought up and radicalised in UK, she has a technical right to Bangladeshi citizenship.  The Government of Bangladesh equally promptly, and understandably, says she is the UK’s responsibility and denies her that right, so she is rendered stateless.  This in spite of the fact that no less an expert on the deprivation of human rights than Theresa May is on record as saying that ‘it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless.’

The Appeal Court’s decision merely means that Shamima Begum should be allowed back to present her case, and does not imply that she should be allowed to stay in UK.   But that ruling, all too predictably, was enough to provoke an outpouring of bile from the frothing loons of the right-wing tabloid press.   The Sun, as so often, epitomises the fanaticism with its headline: ‘Shamima Begum ruling is monstrous – this vile fanatic has no place on our soil.’   Given that the right-wing media will always be pulling whichever of this puppet government’s strings Dominic Cummings isn’t pulling himself, the Home Office response was all too depressingly predictable:  it will appeal the Appeal Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.   Whatever Shamima Begum has done wrong should be exposed in open trial in UK , and she should be sentenced accordingly.   The arbitrary life-sentence of statelessness in a Syrian refugee camp, which in the age of Covid-19 probably amounts to a death sentence, handed down by the Home Secretary is manifestly unjust, however convenient for the government and the Home Office it might be in helping them to avoid being held to account for allowing Begum to be radicalised and to leave the country in the first place.  

Shamima Begum was an all too obviously impressionable child when she was brain-washed into leaving the UK at the age of fifteen.   How far have we actually come in the fewer than seventy years since a fourteen year-old boy could be hanged as a ‘terrorist’ under the State of Emergency in Kenya, in the name of our of still reigning monarch, for the offence of being found in possession of a bullet?  And can we have any confidence whatever that The Sun wouldn’t still think that that was a good idea?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Taking Back Control

July15th 

Another day, two more U-turns.   Michael Gove’s libertarian assertion a couple of days ago that he wouldn’t favour making face-coverings compulsory for people entering shops because it is ‘common courtesy’, and the great British public can implicitly be relied to exercise that courtesy, has been overruled.  Whoever makes this government’s decisions in the shadowy depths of 10 Downing Street – usually Dominic Cummings – appears to have rather less confidence in our collective courtesy, and face coverings are now, very belatedly, going to be compulsory for anyone visiting shops after all.  But, fair play, it is important to be even-handed, and common courtesy needs to be exercised towards the virus as well:  it needs to be given a chance to infect people for at least one more week, so face coverings don’t need be worn in shops until 24th July.  This will give the government time to ask the police, who are going to have to work out how to enforce the law, whether they think making it compulsory and making people who don’t wear face coverings eligible for £100 fines was a good idea in the first place.  They don’t.   But we shouldn’t bank on there not being another rapid U-turn, as the Tory backwoodsmen don’t like the idea of having to wear face coverings any more than Michael Gove does.   Desmond Swayne, of deepest and darkest backwoods fame, declared in parliament yesterday that the new regulation was a ‘monstrous imposition’ that would deter him from going shopping.  So goodbye to the V-shaped recovery then.

The other U-turn, much more dramatic and with the potential for vastly more serious long-term consequences, sees our government performing an abrupt about-turn and reneging on its previous commitment to allow the Chinese private company Huawei to be involved in the 35% of the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network that isn’t security sensitive.   Not only is any future involvement arbitrarily ruled out, but all Huawei- manufactured components of the existing 3G and 4G networks need to be stripped out by 2027.  Now there’s common courtesy for you.  It isn’t as if Johnson and company have suddenly unearthed the fact that Huawei is a Chinese company and that China has a communist government with some very unsavoury propensities.  Nor have they suddenly discovered that Huawei poses a more serious security threat than they had realised in January when they made their original commitment.   It is unlikely that even Dominic Cummings, radical thinker that he is, has been influenced by the deranged conspiracy theorists who think that 5G masts are responsible for Covid-19.   A conservative estimate suggests that the sudden volte-face will involve picking another £2 billion from the magic-money tree, and up to two years delay in the roll-out of 5G.   Any pretence that this U-turn has anything to do with China’s new stance on Hong Kong or its treatment of the Uighur Muslims would have to be based on the assumption that Tories have even the first remotest interest in Human Rights which (with a few honourable minority exceptions) is entirely belied by, among other things, the Windrush scandal, and the government’s persistence in maintaining Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ with its appalling attitude towards immigrants.   The Huawei U-turn can be laid entirely at the door of Johnson and cronies’ cringing subservience to the erratic whims of Donald Trump, so desperate are they to feast on the crumbs under his trade table. Trump, needless to say, has no qualms about making it embarrassingly clear what he thinks of them by boasting to the world about having persuaded them to do turn their backs on their commitments to Huawei.

The English Nationalists have taken control of the ship – otherwise known as hi-jacking – that had been comfortably and productively docked in a European harbour for the better part of 50 years.   They didn’t like having to pay harbour fees and there were too many pesky foreigners around for their liking – foreigners who for the most part couldn’t even speak proper English.  So, after spending three years blundering around in the engine-room before finally managing to get the engines started, they have set sail and headed out into the unforgiving ocean towards the Americas, following in the wakes of heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, their eyes alight with the prospect of fresh riches and empire.  Regrettably, unlike those plundering knights of the realm, they haven’t the first idea about how to sail a ship, nor have they the faintest notion about where they are going or how to navigate the way to get there.   So they go round and round in circles, not catching the faintest stirring of a trade wind but caught in a trade war between the world’s two major economic powers, China and the USA.  They had hoped that China would be a source of riches, at it used to be, but the trade war, over which they have no control, has crushed all hope of that.   They are tempted to seek safe harbour on the other side of the Atlantic to replenish their supplies, of chicken in particular, but that would make it a bit too embarrassingly obvious that they are, in fact, handing control to the mad Donald Trump. So much for taking back control.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.