From David Maughan Brown in York: Tactical distractions

October 26th

The BBC news this morning greeted the new week with breathless excitement.   A tanker had been hi-jacked in the English channel; the hi-jackers were seven Nigerian stowaways ‘believed to be seeking asylum in the UK’; four helicopters had undertaken a daring mission in the dark; sixteen heavily armed members of the Special Boat Services (SBS) had abseiled down onto the tanker; and ‘with overwhelming force quickly regained control of the vessel.’   Anyone sufficiently excited by the cinematic drama to turn to Google to establish precisely who our heroes from the SBS might be will be instantly enlightened by the ITV website: it is, we are told, ‘a highly covert elite maritime anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Navy.’

My immediate response to this as the BBC’s first news story of the day, still sleepy as I was, was to detect a distinct smell of rat.  I lived too long in South Africa under apartheid to have any confidence whatever in the truth or motives of the national broadcaster, and the past decade of Tory government has instilled in me an equivalent level of cynicism when it comes to any story obviously put out by government ministers.   The whiff of rodent gathered strength as the details of the story started to come out and it became clear that the SBS assault had been ordered by our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with her more junior colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.   

The seven stowaways had omitted to take with them the explosives or firearms that might have justified the expense of helicopters and elite ant-terrorist troops, and were unarmed, although this apparently hadn’t deterred the crew from taking refuge in the ‘safe place’ always provided on tankers in case of hi-jackings.  Various versions of the story had the crew being threatened with ‘broken glass’, ‘knives and other sharp objects they had picked up’, and scary ‘verbal abuse.’  The captain, rather significantly one might have thought in the context of a ‘hi-jacking’, remained in control of the tanker’s bridge throughout.   The seven targets of the elite anti-terrorist unit couldn’t have stowed away with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK because they could apparently have had no idea when they boarded the ship in Lagos where it would be heading.  Patel subsequently praised the SBS for its ‘swift and decisive action’, but one wonders how it could have taken 16 heavily armed SBS operatives all of 9 minutes to ‘regain control of the vessel’.

The evidence is stacking up to the point where one doesn’t need to be an irredeemable cynic to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that everything anybody associated with this government ever does (with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak) is either hopelessly incompetent or done with dishonest and deceitful intent.   Presenting the seven stowaways as dastardly ‘asylum seekers’ all too obviously plays into Patel’s racist anti-immigration rhetoric.  But the whole dramatic spectacle of the heavily armed SBS warriors abseiling down onto the tanker under cover of darkness bears a remarkable similarity to the 250-strong raid on the terrace house in Forest Gate in east London in 2006 that I wrote about on July 29th.  In that case the police knew that the intelligence the raid was based on was extremely dubious and that the ‘bomb’ which the 15 heavily armed men, kitted out in their chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection suits were searching for, almost certainly didn’t exist, but the police were ordered by the politicians to conduct the raid regardless.   Here, the 16 SBS men will almost certainly have known that the 7 stowaways weren’t armed in any serious sense of the word.  In both instances sledgehammers and gnats come to mind.

So what were these overkill spectaculars all about?  In the Forest Gate case, a training exercise, a message that the government was taking anti-terrorist action seriously, and a distraction.  The report on the police’s extra-judicial murder on the London tube of the Brazilian plumber, Jean Charles de Menezes, was due to be published imminently, and the media needed to be given something else to focus on.   Apart from playing to Patel’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, today’s tanker-hijacking story was no doubt similarly designed to distract the media’s attention, however briefly, from a range of political awkwardnesses: the very strong criticism by a large segment of the legal profession of Patel’s and Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ in the immigration and asylum context; the continuing disaster of the Government’s hopeless mishandling of Track and Trace; and the equally self-mutilating stupidity of Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to support the continuation of school meals.  Take your pick.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction

September 17th

Distraction from the catastrophic train-crash of our world-beatingly incompetent government’s Covid-testing programme being sorely needed, I stoically continue with the painstaking process of reading and correcting the proofs of Game of Stones, a novel I completed two years ago but delayed publishing.   I find I am pleased with some parts, less pleased with others, but only mildly frustrated that it is now too late to alter more than a couple of words here and there.   Because of the time lag since completing the final draft, I can look at it with relatively fresh eyes, remind myself what I was trying to do and make an at least half-detached assessment of whether I succeeded.

Before I was lured onto “the dark side” and joined the senior management of the University of Natal after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, I spent the first twenty years of my academic career in the English Department, initially teaching English but gradually managing to introduce more African Literature onto the curriculum.  I was particularly interested in, and most of my research focussed on, the generally covert ways in which fiction invites its readers to agree with the political and moral perspectives of its authors.  This is most obviously true of ‘popular fiction.’ In the 1970s and 1980s rather more white South Africans were reading, and having their race attitudes shaped by, Wilbur Smith than Dickens or Conrad.  My doctoral research focussed on the very different ways a variety of colonial and indigenous authors treated the 1950s “Mau Mau” emergency in their novels, partly because the race mythology around the revolt was heavily referenced in white race attitudes under apartheid.   There were four distinct groups of authors: metropolitan writers who used it to add exotic local colour to their stories; authors like Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley who used it to propagandise the generally profoundly racist Kenyan colonial settler view of the movement; and two distinct groups of post-Independence black Kenyan novelists who tried with varying success to counter the colonial mythology.   Many of my later publications in the last decade of apartheid were aimed at unpacking the extent of the racism and sexism being promoted by the hugely popular novels of writers like Wilbur Smith under cover of their skill as narrators of fast-moving and gripping story lines.    

Throughout the managerial half of my academic career I felt a lingering regret about the abandonment of academic research and teaching necessitated by the commitment to helping to manage the transformation of a large research-intensive university in the decade after the formal ending of apartheid.  So when I retired I thought it would be interesting to explore fiction from the writing, rather than the reading, end – very conscious of the medium’s power both to promote and to question political and other perspectives.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that the interest would need to be extended to the intricate ins and outs of the publishing industry, such as the copyright issue I elaborated on in my September 11th entry, in comparison with which the mere business of writing is comparative child’s play.   

Both my first novel, Despite the Darkness, and the sequel, Game of Stones, explore the interface between fact and fiction.  The action of the former takes place in the months immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency in South Africa in 1985, with the fictional action being set very precisely in its apartheid historical context and geographical location in Pietermaritzburg and incorporating some non-fictional personal experience of secret police harassment.  Game of Stones is set in Sheffield twenty-three years later and ties up the loose ends deliberately left with a sequel in mind.   Perhaps ‘exploring’ the interface between fact and fiction is too seriously academic-sounding a description of what I was doing in writing the sequel – ‘playing around at the edges’ of the interface might capture what I was doing rather better.   So, although some of the subject matter the novel touches on is, again, very precisely located historically, and very dark – historical events don’t get a whole lot darker than the Rwandan genocide or the Hillsborough disaster, the novel plays with authorial identity.   The plot of this novel has none of the relatively limited  autobiographical elements informing the first one, but one of the key moments in the plot hinges on the police having hacked the main character, Cameron’s, computer and read a chapter he has written giving an account of the notorious Forest Gate police raid in 2006.  The chapter, carefully researched and footnoted, which appears as an appendix to the novel, has been written as a chapter for a book Cameron is preparing titled The Age of Overreaction.  As it happens, the first project I embarked on after my retirement was the writing of a book titled The Age of Overreaction, whose putative contents page was destined to feature a chapter on Forest Gate.  I decided that writing fiction would be more interesting and could be fun, and gave up on that project, but decided that, if most fiction is in one way or another a recycling of fact, that particular chapter could be usefully recycled as an addendum to fiction.  Writing fiction, however serious, is a kind of play, and I enjoy playing with words – so, as I grind through the proof reading, I recall and recapture some of the enjoyment I derived from playing around as I wrote it, and don’t bother that it isn’t destined for fame and fortune.

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.