Wednesday, 24 May 2017

What defines a terrorist?

Smarter people than me have debated this, including the cliché – “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”.  For me a terrorist creates terror and that is the objective and the targets are civilians – children not excluded!

I have thought long and hard about posting this.  I initially wrote it to get it out of my mind onto paper but, whatever has happened, we are coming up to an election so here it is. 

What happened in Manchester on May 22 was a vile and inexcusable act. I listened helplessly to the radio on and off through the night.  As I posted on Facebook on the morning of the 23rd: “within moments of the attack in Manchester people were connecting on twitter asking about where to donate blood, nurses visiting the city were offering their services to local hospitals, taxi drivers were taking people home for free, local hotels were looking after young people on their own and residents were offering overnight accommodation. That's because there are many good people around us. We need to somehow hold onto that.”

The party leaders suspended campaigning for the general election and have each come out with appropriate statements.  However, I find myself enraged with Jeremy Corbyn (not for the first time). Without mentioning terrorism, which I could ignore, he said,   "it was an appalling act of violence against people and must be totally and unreservedly condemned". I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that.

Where was he and what did he say in 1996 when the IRA bombed Manchester injuring 200 people or about any of the other IRA terrorist attacks?  He may now say “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”  What did he say then? 

And in 2001 when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 civilians including 7 children and a pregnant woman and wounded 130 at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. What did he say then? The terrorist was thought to be wearing a belt containing explosives, nails, nuts and bolts as did the device in Manchester.

I watched his cringe making appearance before the Select Committee on anti-Semitism: his inability to say that he opposed anti-Semitism without adding “and all other forms of racism” was weasily. The sham report on anti-Semitism in the party is something else!

The most important thing about the reaction to the horror in Manchester is not what the politicians say but how the emergency services responded and the actions of hundreds of “ordinary” people – it doesn’t bring back the lives of those who died or help those who will continue to suffer the loss of limbs and other severe injuries but it shows a common, undiscriminating humanity – Mr Corbyn’s humanity is selective.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

This is the book that put me through all the emotions from A to Z and then some.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands is an incredible book: it received rave reviews, it is still on the best-seller list and won the Baillie Gifford prize for non fiction. If you want to read the most eloquent of the reviews, google The Oxford Culture Review East West Street - for some reason the link won’t work.

It was published over a year ago but I have only just read it.  I knew I would read it but I couldn’t bring myself to.  If that sounds a bit pathetic – this is why.

I was born and grew up in South Africa after the Second World War. My father had volunteered for the Army – there was no conscription and it was a toss-up whether the South African government would support the Allies or the Axis.  He was a surgeon, newly married in 1940 and felt that it was his duty, especially as they knew whatever was happening in Germany was bad for the Jews – the full horrors were not apparent. He spoke little about his military service although I did know that he served on a British Hospital ship the “AMRA” and they went in behind the troop ships after various landings and the wounded were ferried back – they operated continuously with ten minute breaks. In the days when speed counted, he was very quick and accurate.

We move onto the 1950s.  By then the horror of the concentration camps had emerged, the Nuremberg trials had taken place and the phrases “Crimes against Humanity” and “Genocide” were appearing.  My childhood was spent rather in a bubble but my teenage years were haunted by what I learned. Our families had left Poland and Lithuania for the UK, USA and South Africa before the beginning of the 20th Century so our immediate family was not directly affected but many that we knew were. As the stories came out it was like a miasma that hung over us – far away as we were. Of course there were documentaries and  “The Diary of a Young Girl” also known as “The Diary of Anne Frank”. How potent to read that at a similar age to the girl who wrote it. And it wasn’t just the non-fiction – such as William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” but the fiction and films – Leon Uris “Exodus” and “Mila 18”.

I find world events and the swirling political maelstrom very troubling at the moment so fiction is my distraction.  I am very visual when I read and live the books so I am a little resistant to reading non-fiction about the horrors of Nazi Germany and WW2 these days.  That is why I delayed reading East West Street.  Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.  It has all the excitement and tension of my favourite genre – crime fiction:  this is not to trivialise it, the pulling apart of the threads and weaving together of patches of information is totally absorbing. The personalities and the challenges of the individuals leap out of the page into your head; the research involved was extraordinary. The tension between “Crime against Humanity” and “Genocide” continues to this day.

If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Reading is everything to me

I could read before I went to school and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read or when I wasn’t reading. Although I prefer to read a printed book I was a very early adopter of the Kindle because it meant that I could take as many books with me wherever I went and could add books almost wherever I was.

As a child I loved book series. Our school was a bit snobby about certain books but my parents took a very liberal view – they didn’t really care what I read whether it was a “good” book or not - apart from a few examples below, but then those books were banned in South Africa anyway so were contraband!  I happily worked my way through Enid Blyton – Famous Five, Secret Seven, The Faraway Treethankfully Noddy passed me by.  Somehow I missed Mallory Towers but progressed through Sue Barton (nurse) and Cherry Ames (nurse and mystery) although I think I gave up halfway through the latter. The Hardy Boys followed and by then I had read almost everything in the children’s section of our local library in Johannesburg and at the age of 12 received permission to borrow books from the adult section: being South Africa there were no inappropriate books in the library!

Other authors I read addictively were Agatha Christie, Somerset Maugham and of course, Conan Doyle.

My father subscribed to a number of magazines for his waiting room (he was a surgeon) and my sister and I each chose one which we could read first – thus Girl’s Crystal and School Friend entered our lives.  Through one of these I corresponded with a pen friend in Stoke-on-Trent who was bewildered by the fact that we had two cars and I was amazed that the family not only didn’t have a car but had never travelled more than thirty miles from their home.  In South Africa you would think nothing of driving that distance to a party.

My mother chose various American magazines – Redbook, Good Housekeeping and McCalls – Betsy McCall paper dolls were printed in most issues. You could cut out the printed dolls that we would stick on cardboard and clothing that had little tabs so that you could fold them around the doll. 

Of course he subscribed to the Reader’s Digest – what medical waiting room was without a few dog-eared copies - as well as the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. My parents read a lot as well and I was recently browsing this website Publishers Weekly list of bestselling novels in the 1950s and found that I had read most of them – although my mother hid Peyton Place and Lolita in her sweater drawer so my reading of those was limited to sitting on the floor of her dressing room when my parents were out and reading until I heard the car when I scooted back to bed. There were some rather torrid historical romances in that category too.

For many years my favourite book was Jane Eyre.  I read it first when I was about twelve and have reread it every few years since then discovering different things every time.  I certainly wasn’t conscious of the sexual tension that appears through the book when I first read it and it never struck me as odd or even sinister that the book ended with the macho Mr Rochester made weak and blind and under the control of the seemingly restrained Jane.......but I am being too simplistic.

I read non-fiction and in fiction, everything apart from fantasy, horror and most science fiction.  In very recent years I have tended to read mostly crime fiction, especially what are now called “police procedurals”.  Again I delight in finding a new author who has written a series. I remember when P D James’ first book was serialised on TV I was just about to go into hospital and Number One Husband went out and bought me all the books she had written – apart from the surgery – what bliss!!

I finally cracked War and Peace.  I downloaded the audio book and about halfway through I was engaged enough to stop the audio book and read the book although I am still hazy on who is who.  

Apart from reading for work I don’t read much non-fiction any more with a few exceptions and I will write about one of them next time – Dorothy Parker is alleged to have said of a performance by Katharine Hepburn, “let’s all go to see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotions from A to B!”

This book put me through all the emotions from A to Z and back again. 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

What’s real? Slogans/headlines/clichés rule the world

Trump is going to make America great again - compared to when? How do you define 'great'?  He's going to build a wall, deport millions of people - the list of the bold direct statements is long and there was no explanation of how this was going to be achieved. The first big failure was on replacing the Affordable Health Care Act aka ObamaCare but - the President tweeted – “ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE.”  I think he meant implode.... 

Brexit means Brexit (No one knows what that means). The Prime Minister is going to negotiate a Brexit deal that is good for everyone.  Well that's a load of rubbish.  Every single person?  There are going to be groups who will not benefit, don't know who they are but it just isn't logical that it will be all good for everyone.

I am not even sure what I think any more, I have all these words shouting at me in my head.

I am almost at a point when I can only believe what I see - and you know how unreliable eyewitnesses are. After the dreadful terrorist attack in London last week a woman wearing a headscarf was photographed walking past the wounded with her hand to her face apparently looking at her phone – interpreted as uncaring.  She was vilified on social media until she came forward. She had offered help but there were many people helping at this point so she was contacting her family to say that she was OK and the photographer confirmed that she was very upset – which can be clearly seen when you look closer at her face.  She then helped someone go to Waterloo station and went home. We see what our prejudices tell us to see.

On the weekend I had lunch with friends - we laughed a lot and argued some - that was real.  Last night I went to the Barbican to hear Joshua Bell play – he was amazing – that was real.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Rumsfeld, Ryan and Corbyn....

Sometimes people say something which seems crass or stupid, blindingly obvious, naïve or even impenetrable and later on you realize that it was none of those things.

Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of State of Defence said (to much mockery), “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” The serious element of this (which has been completely forgotten) is that he was avoiding giving an answer to a question for evidence but so much has been made of the quote that it, not the issue, has become folklore – to the point that he titled his memoir “Known and Unknown”.

Even if it wasn’t intended as such in the context it was given it is remarkably perceptive. Every time I have been involved in strategy planning, preparations for crisis management it is only ever the “unknown unknowns” that keep me awake.  Maybe “fake news” will also enter the lexicons – we used to call it at best malicious gossip (based on very little if anything) or just lies!

Now I have another pearl of wisdom – from the mouth of Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan after they pulled the vote on the Health Bill this week and it is,  “We were a 10-year opposition party,” Mr. Ryan said in assessing the defeat late Friday. "Being against things was easy to do.”

Being against things is easy to do.  It is easier to argue against, to criticize unhelpfully than to find solutions to problems.  It is also an expression of frustration when things don’t go your way. I wonder how many of those who voted to leave the EU were just frustrated with politics, business, bureaucracy, or just life in general and they voted to leave because they were against the status quo. 

Just before the election I was told by a Trump supporter that he was voting for Trump because he was “tired of the establishment”. He didn’t know what he was voting for, only what he was voting against.

Moving closer to home – look at Jeremy Corbyn. He knows what he is against:  the total number of votes cast by Jeremy against the whip (i.e. his own party if not his own government!), from 1983 onwards is 617 or 423 depending on how you count it – see vote statistics

So he is very good at being against and although he articulates sometimes what he is for – he has no idea what is needed to make it happen.