Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh and the Scottish Play

In Ngaio Marsh - Her Life in Crime Joanne Drayton wrote that Marsh had kept her life in compartments; theatre director, writer, life in New Zealand, life in Britain and Europe, private life with different people often in different countries. Occasionally these overlapped through dedication of books to people who might belong to another part of her life not the British literary scene, through the appearance of certain characters based on real ones, such as the egregious Lampreys but most often through Shakespeare whose plays are referred to or quoted in numerous novels while a number was produced by her in New Zealand, especially for the Canterbury College Drama Society.

Of the various plays it is Hamlet and Macbeth, particularly the latter, that are mentioned most often. The Scottish Play is central in two novels and is important in several for various reasons.

Marsh produced Macbeth at least twice, the first time immediately after the war at the CUCDS, advertising for demobbed soldiers to play various parts. The production was marred by the inadequate props, toy swords and Macbeth's papier mâché head on a stick in the last scene. This was corrected for the subsequent hugely successful tour but memories of the humiliating notices may well have been with Marsh when she was writing Light Thickens, her last novel and one of her best ones, which is about the perfect production of the play.

The same year, 1946, she wrote a book about what she considered to be the right way to tackle plays, particularly Shakespeare, A Play Toward: A Note On Play Production. The ideas she expressed in it, ones that crop up in her novels that are about theatrical productions, were not precisely new but, it seems, unknown among New Zealand critics.
Dramatic dialogue was not a series of speeches delivered by individual actors but a series of spoken movements, each with its own form and climax, carried out be a group of players.
In 1947 she wrote Final Curtain in which Troy paints the portrait of a great Shakespearian actor, Sir Henry Ancred, as Macbeth, one of his most successful parts. On her way to the Ancreds' mansion Troy reads the play again and finds herself quite shaken by it. That happens again when Sir Henry, during one of the sessions, recites a monologue from it. The completed portrait is supposed to be of an old actor looking back into his past and saying farewell to his part.

The Scottish play is quoted and discussed in a number of other novels. In Surfeit of Lampreys Alleyn meets a constable on the beat who starts talking about seeing and reading the play. His rather artless analysis of it puts his superior officer on the right track. In Colour Scheme, the great actor who is stranded in New Zealand while longing to be back in Britain to help the war effort, recites one of the great soliloquies at a concert. In the second New Zealand novel, Died in the Wool, Florence Ruback, the politician whose murder Alleyn is investigating, is compared to one of the Weird Sisters. Macbeth is quoted by P. E. Garbel in Spinsters in Jeopardy and by Jacko in Opening Night, the latter sending the hopeless Gail Gainsford into floods of hysterics, propelling Martyn Tarne onto the stage and triggering the final catastrophe. In Singing in the Shrouds Alleyn not only quotes Duncan on Cawdor, he also has an argument with the retired schoolmaster, Mr Merryman, about the relative merits of Macbeth and Hamlet on the one hand and Othello and The Duchess of Malfi on the other. The argument provides an important clue. On the other hand, a quotation about Lady Macbeth in Dead Water turns out to be of no significance - Mrs Barrimore (another splendid name with its reference to The Hound of the Baskervilles and the acting dynasty) turns out to be a very different person.

In 1962 Marsh mounted another highly successful production of Macbeth and in January 1982 she completed her last and, perhaps, most difficult novel, Light Thickens. She sent the typescript off on January 7 and died, aged 86, on February 18. The book takes place, once again, at the Dolphin theatre where Peregrine Jay directs what is described by the critics after the first night, the perfect Macbeth. The novel, as usual, deals with the many clashing personalities and intrigues that a theatre consists of and with the details of the casting, props, direction and success, which brings tragedy with it. There is a strong feeling that the tragedy is inevitable, the play being what it is though Alleyn himself refuses to deal with anything but the most human aspect of the crime.

There were problems with the novel, both in the writing of it with Marsh feeling ill and tired and with the subsequent editing. Apparently, the discussion about how to produce Macbeth was considerably longer in the typescript than in the edited novel. Indeed, a great deal of editing had to be done by Elizabeth Walter at Collins. Whether the fact that she could not refer back to the author was a help or a hindrance is not clear. The final product is excellent and a great credit to Dame Ngaio Marsh and her editor.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Post-festive message

Somehow I did not manage to get round to wishing all my readers a very merry Christmas though, obviously, I did do so at the back of my mind. I hope everyone did have a jolly or quiet Christmas, depending on what they wanted and are now relaxing in preparation to the next lot of good wishes at the end of this week. I am aware of my shortcomings in this blog through 2015 but hope to be able to deal with that in the days, weeks and months to come.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh and the naming of names

As part of this exercise, the results of which can be followed on Moira Redmond's splendid blog, I have been trying to re-read all the Marsh novels in order. Trying and failing with some of them, I have to admit, either because I find Morris dancing intolerably boring especially when it is linked to a description of an old-fashioned feudal village with an old-fashioned feudal lady of the manor (Off With His Head or Death of a Fool in the US) or because some of the novels are just too dull (for instance Swing, Brother, Swing).

I have now entered the post-war period, which produced some excellent novels (Clutch of Constables, Opening Night, When in Rome and Light Thickens are among my favourite Marsh books), some real duds (see above and add Last Ditch to that) and some ho-hum in between ones, one of which is Scales of Justice, the one I have reached.

Scales of Justice is one of the English village mysteries. I have not added them up but it does seem to me that Ngaio Marsh wrote more of them than Agatha Christie did. She certainly had more grand families and continued to have them after the war, when social mores and economic realities changed considerably. Christie knew that but she lived in England. Other writers like E. C. R. Lorac also knew that but she, too, lived in England. Marsh lived mostly in New Zealand and visited England. Her village mysteries were a little uncertain in tone even before the war and became very shaky after it.

To be fair, there are several references, not least by Alleyn, to the fact that the feudal family of Scales of Justice, the Lacklanders, have money and a life style that few can afford in the mid-fifties (the book was published in 1958). Apparently, they are and have always been known as lucky Lacklanders and the money comes from various spectacular sweepstake and racing winnings, none of which would have been taxed. At this point Josephine Tey, who was interested in horses and race meetings, would have shown the Lacklanders as discussing the horses they own and forthcoming events but Marsh does not.

It is the District Nurse who expounds most eloquently the joys of living in a feudal society and resents any suggestion that there might be a few problems underneath the happy and settled surface. (It is not at all clear, incidentally, the Marsh realized that the healthcare system had changed in Britain with the creation, for better or worse, of the NHS.) The reader is slightly disappointed to find at the end of the book that the District Nurse's attitude is that of the novelist's despite one or two tart comments by Alleyn. The outsider turns out to be the murderer, just as everyone had hoped and for whom only Inspector Fox feels any compassion; the shadows of past sins are not simply shortened but practically erased; and Nurse Kettle, like some latter-day Pippa, goes on her way reminding herself that God's in His Heaven and all is right with the part of the world she lives in.

Nurse Kettle! What a wonderful name, evocative of practically everything one knows about nursing and the behaviour of nurses. Then again, the name of the feudal family is Lacklander with an immediate link to English history, particularly to King John Lackland, except that they are lucky and he was not.

This brings me to my main theme, which ties in with a previous posting of mine, about Marsh's wonderful literary abilities: she chose the most evocative names for her characters. Partly, it has to be assumed, this came from her theatrical background with Shakespeare, other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights as well as seventeenth and eighteenth century comedies for an example.

She herself explained how she arrived at her hero's name: Alleyn after the great Elizabethan actor and founder of Dulwich College, her father's alma mater and Roderick because she had met somebody of that name during a visit to the Highlands of Scotland. When she thought of the woman Alleyn was to fall in love with, she wanted a very plain, worthy first name and an odd surname. She created Agatha Troy, who signed her pictures and was known by all those close to her, including her husband, by the surname, which has a forcefulness that goes well with her personality. Death in White Tie, said Marsh once, could have been called The Siege of Troy, although Alleyn does not use underhand Greek methods.

People who know Alleyn call him Rory and those who know his wife call her Troy but her cousin P. E. Garbel, a slightly confused but very likeable character in Spinsters in Jeopardy, thinks of them as cousins Roddy and Aggie, thus showing her own rather odd way of looking at the world.

There are many examples of the happy naming of names in Marsh's novels. What could be a more splendid name for an actor, playwright, director and theatre manager than Peregrine Jay (Death at the Dolphin and Light Thickens)? The Lampreys were presumably given that surname in order to produce the punning title, which then, sadly, had to be changed for the American audience to Death of a Peer.

Then there is the playwright Aubrey Mandrake in Death and the Dancing Footman, whose original name is Stanley Footling. Both of those are guaranteed to bring a smile to the reader's face. The squire of Pen Cuckoo, who rather fancies himself as a gay dog, has the eighteenth century name Jocelyn Jerningham, while his son goes by the far more sober Henry Jerningham (Overture to Death). The rector of Winston St Giles in the same novel and in Death and the Dancing Footman is Walter Copeland, a name that assures one of his High Church tendencies. His daughter, an actress, is a very modern Diana.

My favourite name is perhaps the doorman's in Opening Night. Fred Badger takes one right back to the rude mechanics of Midsummer Night's Dream.

I am rather fond of Marsh's theatre names as well. The Unicorn turns up in several novels if only in passing mention (there is, in fact, a children's theatre in London called the Unicorn); the Jupiter in the short story I Can Find My Way Out becomes the Vulcan by the time of Opening Night but that does not save it from having another murder; while the Dolphin (vaguely based on the Mermaid though most emphatically on the other side of the Thames) keeps its name and also has a second murder in it. There really is no escape from the Eumenides.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh, the occult and related matters

Well, yes, it is once again Wednesday as Tuesday evening went into discussions, dinner and .... well, more discussions. Still, the blog is happening.

Unlike Christie, Marsh did not seem to have any real interest in matters beyond the body. She could not, for instance, have written anything like the strange but weirdly attractive series of stories about Mr Harley Quin. Neither did she seem particularly interested in matters of religion. Or so it would appear. Peering into the novels one sees a slightly more complicated picture.

Occult, as such, is important in three novels, two about somewhat dotty but also very sinister cults, Death in Ecstasy and Spinsters in Jeopardy, and one in which some quite revolting activity grows out of one character's obsession with it, Surfeit of Lampreys.

Marsh, unlike, say, Margaret Millar in How Like An Angel, shows little interest in understanding those who join the two cults though she does have some sympathy for young people who, for whatever reason, have no moral compass to guide them through life and for older lonely ones who are easily exploited by fraudsters and drug dealers. Miss Wade's desolation when the House of the Sacred Flame is closed down and Father Garnette arrested together with the real crook and murderer at the end of Death in Ecstasy is pitiful; similar desolation shown by P. E. Garbel at the end of Spinsters in Jeopardy is more dignified and tragic as well as more hopeful for the future.

In parenthesis one may note that the first of those novels has one of the nastiest pictures of a homosexual couple in Marsh's novels and they are all quite unpleasant. There is a strong implication that the viciousness of homosexuality in young men is not far off the viciousness of people who run such cults for their own nefarious purposes. The second novel describes a somewhat nastier set-up, partly because it is an important link in international drug trading, which becomes Alleyn's preoccupation in the post-war novels, and partly because the real villain (the book is a thriller rather than a detective story so there are no spoilers here) is a revolting and vicious Egyptian who is also, curiously, a very skilled surgeon. Marsh, who wrote sympathetically about Maoris, Africans and a black British doctor in Clutch of Constables, was, for come reason, venomous about Dr Ali Baradi and his servant Mahomet, using every racial cliche she could think of.

So, there is occult to be used in a ridiculous and vicious way for the fleecing and exploiting of vulnerable people, for criminal money making and, in the last resort, for murder. Then there is the occult as practised by the mad and weird Marchioness of Wutherwood and Rune (Aunt V.) in Surfeit of Lampreys. Her behaviour before and, especially, after her husband's murder is so horrible and the rites she carries out are so utterly disgusting that even the hardened nurse faints and the police officers feel a bit queasy. (I shall spare the readers of this blog.)

Here I must pause to wonder about the Ingoldsby Legends, a collection of gruesome and terrifying tales that, as far as one can make it out from Marsh's, Sayers's and other authors' novels, was routinely handed to children to read. How many of them were terrified, given nightmares and traumatized for life by some of those "legends"? How long did this strange educational habit that came close to child abuse continue? There might be a subject for an academic thesis here.

So, Marsh has nothing but disdain for the occult and other-worldly? Not entirely. She shows a great deal of sympathy for Maoris insisting on or returning to their traditional faith and its symbols, whether it is Dr Te Pokiha who explains in Vintage Murder that he can never view the little green jade tiki  as white people do, Rua Te Kahu becoming incensed at the theft of the tapu adze in Colour Scheme or the young actor Rangi who explains in Light Thickens that the theatre and the actors are all tapu until the murder is solved, Marsh displays great sympathy for Maoris who, under pressure, abandon their Western ideas and revert to Maori thinking, illogical and wrong though it seems to most Europeans.

Of course, Maori religion and fetishism is coherent where the occult sects in the two novels use a mish-mash of many religions and mythologies. Also, Marsh may well have felt that respect is due to the Maoris not least because of the way they had been treated in the past. But one cannot help seeing a certain amount of patronizing head-patting in her obvious dislike of anyone who makes a less than complimentary comment about the tiki or the adze or the concept of tapu.

Although she has little time for the occult sects and the mad, haphazard study of it but she does often display sympathy for experience that cannot be described as entirely physical and some forms of belief that go beyond that. Alleyn frequently expresses to himself a slight disdain for religion and in Spinsters in Jeopardy he lumps the obscene and ridiculous mix of many myths and religions  in the House of the Silver Goat together with the far more orthodox beliefs and practices of the devoutly Catholic Raoul and Theresa. The reason he meditates on this subject is because he experiences something that is repeated in several novels: a sensation of stepping outside his body and watching himself from afar, something that can be described as a separation of body and spirit. There is no explanation for this phenomenon but it happens several times and is not dissimilar to Troy's feeling that her work takes on a life of its own and she merely follows it and her genius in producing her paintings. Time and again she steps back after barely existing on a physical level and marvels at what had been produced, apparently outside her control.

Actors in Marsh's novels go through similar experiences. There is a wonderful description of the duality an actor feels when getting into a part - being oneself and the other person, while stepping outside one's body - in Opening Night. We know the New Zealander Martyn Tarne is a good actress because she goes through this experience while the girl she eventually replaces, Gay Gainsford, is not because she does not seem to. But, as we find out, in Death at the Dolphin, it is perfectly possible to be good at acting as a craft without that sort of experience. The Dark Lady is played without much understanding  apart from the fact that the character "sends" Will Shakespeare.

If one takes the notion of creativity as stepping outside oneself, of separating body and spirit then the idea of certain tools of the trade taking on a life of their own becomes credible. Troy's pencils and brushes, the ghastly and murderous Garcia's clay in Artists in Crime, all acquire a life of their own. The most terrifying example of that comes in the last novel, Light Thickens, which, being about a production of Macbeth, deals with magic and witchcraft. The murderer is not hard to work out and much of the interest of the book comes from the descriptions of the theatre and of the production as well as the magical, in various senses of the word, elements. Part of the production is an attempt to have as many of the real weapons as props and the murder is committed by a very special axe, a claidheamh-mor, a deadly weapon that had been used for murder before. It has special properties, insists the murderer, and those who wield it are merely its "demented agents". The possibility of the claidheamh-mor having some special qualities remains with the investigators and the audience though Alleyn refuses to accept it. The murderer, he rightly insists, knew what he was doing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Another important Bill

Not so long ago I wrote about Baroness Cox's Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, For a while it did not seem to be getting anywhere. But the times they are a'changing even among front benches and government ministers. Theresa May, as that posting mentions, referred to Sharia courts specifically as something that needs to be looked at very seriously. We are awaiting the list of people who will be in that commission that will be looking at the problem.

Gerald Howarth MP wrote on ConHome that Baroness Cox should be appointed to lead the investigation into the courts and how right he is. Who has done more to alert the peers, the government, the civil service (with inadequate results, needless to say) and the public in general but she to the sheer wrongness of the system.
Caroline Cox, the independent Peer, is one of the most highly regarded parliamentarians in the Lords. The nature of her humanitarian work requires her to spend half her life in a jungle or a desert – or part-way up a mountain. It means that she is often required to enter war zones under fire, visiting people off the radar screen and largely out of sight of the world’s media.

She is no less keen on promoting human rights at home. In 2013, she established the All-Party Parliamentary Group on ‘Honour’-Based Abuse, of which I am the Vice-Chairman. The group has heard countless testimonies of women oppressed by intense community pressure, by inequalities in access to divorce or by the implicit sanctioning of domestic violence.

In October, Lords debated Baroness Cox’s Private Member’s Bill to protect vulnerable women from religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination. Read the Hansard, and you’ll soon lose count of how many peers speak of her expertise and compassion. She is respected by parliamentarians of all parties and, more importantly, trusted by women’s groups who support victims of abuse. For years, she has been raising these issues in parliament, instigating debates, representing the oppressed, and holding our Government to account.

In other words, Baroness Cox is the go-to expert on the very issues which Theresa May is hoping to explore in the forthcoming review and I very much hope she will be appointed as Chairman or, at the very least, given a position on the panel.
In the meantime, the Bill has progressed, largely by lack of opposition or even desire to amend. On December 11, therefore, the order of commitment was discharged and the Bill is proceeding directly to Third Reading.

According to the rules amendments can be put down at that stage as well but it is considered to be bad form (to use the Baroness's own words in private conversation) to do so unless they are ones that had been put down before. Second Reading showed that the House is largely on her side and the few who oppose the Bill find it hard to come up with rational arguments. We may assume tentatively that the Bill will get through the House of Lords and will go to the Commons. There, the situation will be more difficult: HMG will be able to control the amount of time allocated to it and lack of it may well kill the Bill again. Arguments such as equality of women and the wrongness of a parallel legal system in one country might not have a chance to be aired. Still, getting this far is an enormous achievement.

The Bill awaits Royal Assent

It's all over bar the shouting. Well, bar the Royal Assent. I am glad to say that the House of Lords insisted on debating the reasons for the Commons' rejection of Amendment 1 and even raised the question of the need for greater "transparency and the minimum thresholds for when financial privilege, which can and will severely curtail the power of this Chamber". I know it was Baroness Morgan of Ely who used those words but they are ones this blog agrees with. Matters of this kind cannot simply be decided by the Speaker's off-hand comment. Not any Speaker's. There are no personal allegations here.

Baroness Morgan then proceeded to put the extension of the vote to 16 and 17 year olds to the vote and, this time, it lost 263 to 246 (Cols 1865 to 1868).

So, the Bill now awaits Royal Assent and will then become a law of the land. And it is then that the fun (loosely speaking) will start.

Monday, December 14, 2015

We got the red blues

It has been brought to my attention that it is rather a long time since I posted any anti-Communists films. There are many others to come but in the meantime who can resist this from Silk Stockings:

Meanwhile, back on the home front

The EU Referendum Bill is still making its way through Parliament. As expected the House of Commons reversed the Amendment that would have given 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in it (unlike the right to buy tobacco or alcohol or decide whether they want to stop being part of the education system) and agreed to all the government Amendments. (See columns 881 to 885 for the vote.)

So the Bill returns to the Lords in what has become known as "ping-pong" and from 3 pm on the proceedings can be watched here. It will be interesting to see how the Lords will deal with a problem that seems to have been added to the procedure quite gratuitously.

At the beginning of that debate in the Commons on December 8, the Speaker said:
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that Lords amendment 1 engages financial privilege. Lords amendment 1 is the first amendment to be taken, and to move the Government motion to disagree I call the Minister, eager and expectant.
Financial privilege attached to the amendment implies that the Lords will not be able to reinstate it. It is hard to see why this amendment should have financial privilege attached to it while other matters should not.

Naturally, an extension of the electorate even temporarily carries a price but then all legislation carries a price. Is the Speaker saying that the Lords will now not be able to amend any legislation, in case that amendment might have some financial implication. If so, it introduces an important constitutional change, which should be discussed widely and not simply announced in a somewhat off-hand fashion by the Speaker.

This is all part and parcel of the government's intention to do away with any kind of check on its power. Given our system that check is not going to come from the House of Commons, though its members might be elected; it can come only from the courts (another theme altogether) or the Lords. Readers of this blog know that it is greatly in favour of the Lords providing that check even when the blog disagrees with their decision, as it does in this case.

Interestingly, support for that point of view has come from the Adam Smith Institute. Dr Eamonn Butler writes on their blot that An unelected check is better than no check on the House of Commons.
Who says politicians are useless and inefficient? They are superbly efficient at one thing, at least – curbing any restraints on their own power.

Thus Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative grandee charged by Prime Minister David Cameron with reviewing the role of peers in the governance of the United Kingdom, is set to propose that the Lords lose their veto over delegated or ‘secondary’ legislation. It all stems from the Prime Minister’s (and the Chancellor’s) agitation at the House of Lords blocking plans to cut tax credits. And that was not the first time that the Lords has irritated the House of Commons by questioning its legislative plans.

The argument is that the Commons is elected and the Lords (mostly) isn’t. So the Lords have no right to block Commons legislation. But even the most slavering MP these days would not suggest simply abolishing the Lords and giving the House of Commons absolute power. That would lead to riots. But they figure they can get rid of the ‘problem’ a bit at a time. The Lords have already lost their powers to block financial legislation; they can delay but not veto other measures; and the Parliament Act, designed to be used in dire emergencies, is now deployed with dazzling frequency, to push through measures that the Lords feel queasy about.

Lord Strathclyde’s proposals are just the latest sortie in these one-sided air-strikes. Secondary legislation is the detailed regulatory stuff that MPs can’t be bothered with, and delegate to officials: so (runs the argument) why do we need the Lords to worry about that?

Well, we should all worry about it, as we can at least get rid of MPs and even overturn laws, but we can’t vote out regulators. Scrapping regulations ain’t so easy, either. So it is good that such proposals are properly scrutinised before they get going. Give it a year or three, though, and there will be some other issue, and the Lords’ powers will be trimmed again. And again.
I find this obsession with elections completely baffling, especially as so often the people who insist on it also complain about the electoral system and about the people who get elected. Surely, having another House that is chosen in a different way is a good idea.

There are many problems with the House of Lords as it stands. Lord Pearson's repeated complaint that the Lib-Dims are over-represented in it while UKIP is under-represented is fair; the packing of the House by the previous Labour and Coalition as well as the present Conservative governments is part and parcel of their intention to control its activity and ought to be stopped. A moratorium on any further peerages should be introduced immediately until we sort out the mess that has been created by the packing.

But let us not forget that the argument for nobody being appointed and everybody being elected leads to the next one, which is the one about elected politicians not being elected by all that large a proportion of the electorate. A discussion of whom MPs represent and what their position is or ought to be in the political world is something for another blog in which Edmund Burke will be quoted correctly but let us quickly look at the logical conclusion of that argument: it is surely that unless about 90 per cent or more vote for the government it has no legitimacy. Well there are and have been for many years political systems based on that. Do the critics of our system really want to live like that?

A couple of interesting items - 2

Never let a crisis go to waste. Of course, that is the slogan of all political activists, politicians, governments and so on. Anyone who is involved in politics knows about that one and intends to use it though, equally, anyone who is involved in politics on any level screams abuse when the other side uses it.

The problem with the EU (yes, I know, we haven't got all day but I shall mention only one problem) is that it is not actually as good as all that at using crises. Oh it does so, every time or tries to but somehow things do not turn out the way anybody might want them. So here we are, still trying to use the unsolved migration crisis to promote further integration. After all, everything must be used to promote further integration, that being the overwhelming ideology of the European Union.

Last week we were told that the Commission was about to propose a new border control force that would have "the right to intervene" if member states fail to protect the external borders of the European Union. Presumably, this is the same Commission that is accusing countries such as Greece and Hungary who did try to protect their and, therefore, the EU's borders of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanours.
The draft proposal, seen by EUobserver, is to create a European Border and Coast Guard Agency, replacing Frontex, the EU’s current border control institute.

It could be posted to EU states in emergencies, where deficiencies persist in control of borders, and where national action is lacking.

“The commission will be able to adopt an implementing decision determining that the situation at a particular section of the external borders requires urgent action and entrusting the agency with the task of carrying out appropriate operational measures,” the proposal says.

“This will allow the agency to intervene immediately in crisis situations by deploying European Border and Coast Guard Teams at the external border.”

It adds: “In urgent situations, the agency must be able to step in to ensure that action is taken on the ground even where there is no request for assistance from the member state concerned or where that member state considers that there is no need for additional intervention.”
Sounds good, huh? Some details have clearly not been worked out but it sounds good. No denying that. Apparently, not everyone is taken by this idea.
An EU proposal to set up a semi-autonomous border and coast guard system is facing resistance from member states, reports Reuters. The full scheme, to be unveiled this week, has the backing of France and Germany but others like Poland oppose the plan over fears it will curb state sovereignty.
Oddly enough, some countries seem to think that they can be members of the EU and retain some state sovereignty or, at least, refuse to surrender any more.

A couple of interesting items - 1

No, I do not propose to write about that ridiculous climate agreement in Paris, brought about after large numbers of politicians, civil servants, various activists and assorted hangers-on wasted huge amounts of the earth's resources for their jollies. It is absolutely unenforceable in any democratic country and no other country has any intention of even trying. I have no doubt that more foreign aid will be demanded from us in order to "help" the developing countries to implement policies that will stymie their economic development and, equally, I have no doubt that all those funds will be wasted, stolen or spent on armaments to fight local wars.

On to other matters.

The French National Front did not do as well in the end as had been feared or expected after the first round of the regional elections.
Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front did not win any region in French elections on Sunday (13 December), in a setback to her hopes of being a serious presidential contender in 2017.

The regional election run-off, in which the conservatives won seven constituencies and the Socialists five, was no real victory for either of these two mainstream parties, shaken by the far-right's growing appeal to disillusioned voters.

Boosted by fears about security and immigration after the Islamist militant attacks in Paris a month ago that killed 130 people, the National Front (FN) had won more votes than any other party nationally in last week's first round.

Although it won no region on Sunday after the Socialists pulled out of its key target regions and urged their supporters to back the conservatives of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the FN still recorded its best showing in its history.
This is a pattern we have seen before. The French electorate shows its lack of enthusiasm for the main parties by either not turning out or voting for the FN who do better than expected; for the second round people who had not turned out "come to their sense" (59 per cent turned out this time as against 49 per cent in the first round) and, together with various deals done between the main parties, ensure that the FN loses. No-one is particularly pleased but the main parties can go on in their own unsatisfactory way, relying on that last-minute salvation. This election, in particular, has produced no winners, only losers.

The FN has been blocked but far from defeated
In the long term, with presidential and parliamentary elections in spring 2017, the FN challenge will stay in place for both the Socialists and the Republicains.

With a 27.36 percent share of the total votes at national level, compared to 27.96 in the first round, the FN maintained its prominent position.

The far-right party got 6.71 million votes, more than in the first round (6.01 million).

The figure is also more than the record 6.42 million votes Jean-Marie Le Pen got in 2002, when he qualified for the second round of the presidential election.

The FN now has 358 seats in regional assemblies, up from 118 before the elections.
The main parties will have to come up with some way of dealing with the issue. For some reason I suspect that they will continued to rely on that last minute electoral "good sense". You can do that too often.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Ronald Stewart-Brown's Memorial Service

Further to my posting about Ronald Stewart-Brown, a stalwart and very useful member of the Brexit movement, whose death is a sad loss to us all, I can now inform everyone who is interested that a Memorial Service will be held for him at Chelsea Old Church on Thursday, January 28 at 2.30. We hope to have a reasonable turn-out of Ronald's political friends and colleagues.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh as writer

For anyone who wants to read last week's blogs on Ngaio Marsh, the links are to be found here, on Moira Redmond's delightful blog Clothes in Books. (What a great idea. I am still mulling over a study on food in detective stories. Move over types of tobacco ash and motets of Lassus.)

As a writer, Dame Ngaio Marsh is one of the best among classic detective story authors. I do know that many people find her plotting a little tedious, what with pages of interrogation by Alleyn and his underlings, something I cannot quite understand. Somebody once said to me that they would have preferred more detection. But interrogation is detection, as much as the finding of a cigarette butt or two is; discussion between police officers can lead one to the right solution and is used extensively in more modern police procedurals. Why not by Marsh?

Julian Symons in his seminal (I use the word advisedly) study of crime and detective literature was disappointed in Marsh.
Ngaio Marsh never went as far as Allingham in attempting to write novels with a detective element, rather than detective stories. Her capacity for amused observation of the undercurrents beneath ordinary social interchanges was so good that one hoped for more than she ever tried to do. The first half of Opening Night (1951) gives a brilliant picture of the intrigues taking place before the opening of a new play. All this is, as it should be, preparation for the murder that takes place, and we hope that after the murder the book will remain in the same key and that the problems will be resolved as they began, in terms of character. To our disappointment, however, Marsh takes refuge from real emotional problems in the official investigation and interrogation of suspects. The temperature is lowered, the mood has been lost. 
Well, I am afraid I disagree with the great man. (I often do with his judgements but for all of that Bloody Murder remains my constant companion and a reference book that has had to be replaced at least once, it was so worn out.) I consider Marsh to be a far better writer than Allingham though neither of them is another Dostoyevsky who did, indeed, write novels with a detective element. That does not seem to me to be such a problem as we need both Dostoyevsky and ordinary crime writers.

Allingham started writing in her teens and was, obviously, a very precocious youngster. The trouble is that, in my opinion, her writing continued to be that of a precocious youngster even when she was considerably older. Marsh, on the other hand, had the ability to describe people, places and events in a way that stay with the reader long after the reading of the book.

The beginning of Opening Night is, indeed, very good and the description of the newly arrived young actress from New Zealand, Martyn Tarne, going from theatre to theatre to find a job and beginning almost to hallucinate from exhaustion and hunger is superb. Far better, dare I say it, than anything Allingham could ever manage. The subsequent description of the theatrical intrigues is, as Julian Symons says, highly entertaining and the solution does depend on certain aspects of personalities. The victim is killed because of what he is and the murderer's motivation could not be any other person's.

There are many other such incidents. Peregrine Jay's (a great name for an actor and playwright) fall into the filthy water and his despair and disgust when he nearly drowns in it, surrounded as he is by lavatorial discards, is one such excellently described scene in Death at the Dolphin.

Then there is the beginning of Black As He Is Painted (a novel with many faults) when a newly retired top civil servant, wondering what he is going to do with his life, goes to see a house on a whim and is bewitched by it and by a cat who is determined to adopt him. His attempts to resist the lure of both house and cat fail as we know they would.

There are two more aspects to Marsh's writing that are worth emphasising and both have to do with her ability to create strong characters who develop through the series (though, inevitably, Superintendent Alleyn who is 47 in 1943, goes on working far beyond retirement age).

Alleyn starts off in A Man Lay Dead (or A Man Laid An Egg as Marsh herself described it later in her life) and in Enter A Murderer, the only theatrical book of hers that is not a success, as a sort of sub-Wimsey type farceur who produces inappropriate quotations and makes facetious comments that annoy everybody in sight. He gradually discards some of his most annoying habits though they are revived whenever Nigel Bathgate happens to be around. In the fifth book Artists in Crime, he meets the artist Agatha Troy, a character Marsh was very fond of, and from then on he really does become a human being. She accepts him in the following book, Death in White Tie, so we are spared the lengthy courtship of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane or of Albert Campion and Lady Amanda Fitton.

Subsequent novels show them together or Alleyn writing letters to her and in two novels Troy plays an important part by herself. Her art remains of paramount importance. Marsh succeeds in creating a good and believable marriage between her detective and a strong professional woman, something Sayers did not, in the end, attempt and Allingham failed in. Amanda Campion as an aeronautical engineer remains less than credible; Troy Alleyn as an artist is completely real.

Partly that is because of Marsh's other strength: her ability to describe creative work. I have never been able to believe in P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh as a poet but have absolute faith in Troy as a great artist or in Peregrine Jay as a playwright. Descriptions of Troy painting Sir Henry Ancred as an actor looking back on himself playing Macbeth or her little boy Ricky as creation of air and light are vivid and entirely believable. The only novel where this process fails is Black As He Is Painted where Troy's portrait is overwhelmed by some weird nostalgia for savagery. It is not actually a particularly good book, despite that wonderful beginning but an interesting picture of a certain period in history, the immediate post-colonial one.

In Death At The Dolphin Peregrine Jay writes and directs a play about Shakespeare, his little son Hamnet and the Dark Lady. It has always been a matter of some annoyance to me that the play does not exist. I should love to have seen it as I should have loved to have seen the weird and spectacular production, also directed by Jay, of Macbeth in Light Thickens. The tedious sub-expressionist melodrama Thus To Revisit in Opening Night, on the other hand, I can well do without.

It is a rare gift to be able to describe any other person's creativity and to make it so real and so vivid. Ngaio Marsh managed it but she remained, quite stubbornly, a writer of crime stories, mostly detective one, a couple of espionage ones and one straightforward thriller. Mr Symons did not approve.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Sundry thoughts on the Oldham by-election

As I have not commented on the Oldham by-election of last Thursday, just about everything that could be said may well have been said and I can imagine that a number of readers will fade out at this point. I, on the other hand, think that there are one or two points that are worth making.

First off, there was the extraordinary jubilation by Corbynistas and people who think they are cleverer than anybody else among the wider commentariat (not the same group, as it happens) because the result, according to them, proved that Corbyn is enormously popular with the electorate and his stance on Syria is supported by the country at large. In fact, next stop Number 10, if you listen to some of these people.

It is highly unlikely that anybody voted on Thursday on the basis of what they thought about a debate on Wednesday but it is possible that some voted because of Corbyn's reasonably well known attitude to extending the war on ISIS to Syria (nobody knows his attitude to the ongoing war against ISIS in Iraq, after all). It is, however, hard to argue that the retention by Labour of a very safe Labour seat with a smaller vote and smaller turn-out than the General Election proves anything very much except that .... ahem .... Oldham is a safe Labour seat.

Jim McMahon got 17,209 votes against Michael Meacher's 23, 630 in May but because the turn-out was 40.3 per cent against 59.6 per cent, his share of the actual vote cast went up from 54.8 per cent to 62.1 per cent. None of it, the retention of the seat or the lower vote and turn-out is anything but politics as usual and tells us nothing about Corbyn's appeal to the electorate of this country. The Conservatives did fairly badly, the Lib-Dims and the Greens appallingly. Let us turn to the only party for whom this result was an unexpected disaster: UKIP.

Given the results of the Danish referendum, the shift in German opinion about the euro and the French regional results where the Front National, a vaguely eurosceptic but definitely anti-establishment party is projected to win 40 per cent of the vote, it is pertinent to ask why on earth UKIP cannot manage to do better.

This question is of great importance in view of that party's desire to take a leading role in the forthcoming referendum campaign. They will not get the lead position and the attendant funding from the Electoral Commission as they are a political party but the intention often voiced by the Dear Leader and his attendant acolytes is to play a major part, particularly in North where, we were told not so long ago, Labour had betrayed the working class and a new party is needed. Some of the comments made in that article were unwise, especially two days before a by-election but then UKIP and its leader are given to unwise comments and to premature boasting. The truth is that the chances of UKIP taking Oldham from Labour were close to zero. What is so appalling is that they did not even manage to come a good second. The 2.8 per cent increase in the vote share is down to the lower turn-out. In fact, John 6,487 votes, fewer than Francis Arbour in May (8,892) and 10,722 fewer than the winner. Not a good sign of UKIP establishing itself as the leading party in the north or among the supposedly betrayed working classes anywhere.

I have been told that UKIP for some reason paid no attention to the postal voters and did not organize a significant campaign among them. If so, that was a grievous fault. The Dear Leader's comments about possible fraud because of the high level of postal voting may be written off as sour grapes but, in fact, it raises an important issue: extensive and unnecessary postal voting is open to fraud and there have been several cases when that was proven. If UKIP have evidence they should definitely take it to court. The suggestion that the voter fraud is particularly virulent in Oldham because of the ethnic make-up of the constituency is a slightly more difficult issue and one that needs a great deal more proof than Our Nige has managed to provide.

As so many times before we need to ask that question: what next for UKIP? The Labour party that proved absolutely nothing in Oldham can look after itself. But what of UKIP? Will they stop boasting and making self-satisfied statements about their position and campaign (not at the moment but likely to start again next week)? Will they rethink their main message, which has been concentrating more on immigration of all kinds (and that alone muddles issues) instead of the EU? Will they consider getting rid of their Leader for more than three days as he is not leading them anywhere near victory?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Those pesky Danes and other matters

Yesterday the Danes voted against further integration into the European Union. As Open Europe says:
Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said after the vote, “I don’t consider this as a step back. The Danes have refused to take a step forward…The reasons why Danes refused to choose what we proposed is probably that there’s this feeling of uncertainty given the fact that Europe is right now faced with other major problems which we haven’t really solved.”
Or, in other words, we lost dammit. Now what do we do? The Danes might not like another referendum.

At issue was Denmark's joining fully the EU's justice and home affairs policies. This is how the Danes voted:
The referendum resulted in a large majority - 53.1 percent No, against 46.9 percent Yes - refusing to join EU justice and home affairs policies. Denmark opted out from this part of EU policy when ratifying the Maastricht treaty 22 years ago.

"People wanted to stay in control, and I have great respect for this,” said Liberal prime minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen.

Loekke Rasmussen phoned EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Council president Donald Tusk on Thursday evening and plans to start talks in Brussels on 11 December to secure a parallel deal regarding future Danish participation in Europol, the EU’s joint police body.

Loekke Rasmussen also invited all political parties in the Danish parliament for one-to-one talks on Monday, in order to digest the referendum result and formulate a new Europe policy.

"I have already indicated my support for [UK prime minister] Cameron and his talks ahead of a British referendum to secure continued membership of the EU. We have a strong ally in Great Britain to reform the EU," the Danish PM said.
There is muttering to be heard in various places that this might show the EU that Britain is not the only country that is dissatisfied with the ever closer union and that, in turn, will spur the Eurocrats to being amenable to reforms, particularly as it has now become officially known (as opposed to worked out by all of us who have bothered to think) that the notion of some kind of a deal at the December European Council is moonshine.
British and EU leaders will try to reach a deal on British demands for reforms at February's EU summit, while using the upcoming summit on 17 December for political guidance.

"Debate" at the December meeting "should pave the way for a deal in February," European Council president Donald Tusk said on Twitter on Thursday (3 December).

Tusk announced he will send a letter to EU leaders on Monday (7 December) to give his assessment on the ongoing talks.

In a phone call with Germany's Angela Merkel on Thursday, UK prime minister David Cameron admitted that "the scale of what we are asking for means we will not resolve this in one go.”

Cameron "did not expect to get agreement at the December European Council," his office said after the call.
OK, neither of them is a summit but let us not quibble. Or not too much.

In other related news, a YouGov_De poll has given an unsatisfactory result to the Europhiles: 37% support return to the Deutschmark while 45% want to continue in the euro. Yes, they are still in a majority but it is not exactly overwhelming.

And so we come to UKIP and its performance in the Oldham by-election yesterday. Unfortunately, I have to leave that till another posting partly because I need to vacate this spot but also because I have a certain amount to say on the subject of that result.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hansard links

For those readers who want to know what was actually said in those debates yesterday here are the links to the Commons and the Lords.

While we are on the subject, here is the link to the Third Reading of the EU Referendum Bill, which is now through the House of Lords and has gone back, in an amended form, to the Commons where it will be debated on December 8. As I have mentioned earlier, most of the amendments are government ones (another one or two have been passed in the Third Reading) and will be passed in the Commons. The one amendment that will cause problems is Baroness Morgan's that extends the electorate for the referendum to those who will be 16 and 17 by the time it is taking place. Presumably, the Commons will hold out on that and repeal the amendment, sending the Bill back to the Lords again. There is a strong possibility that there will be no Royal Assent before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Well, that's that

We are going to send the RAF to Syria and strike ISIS territory. The House of Commons debated the issue for most of the day and voted 397 to 223 to authorize those airstrikes. The majority was bigger than many expected. The House of Lords also debated it but, as in 2013, did not divide, merely expressed its mood, which was supportive of the government.

I find myself in a quandary. As I made it clear yesterday, I do not think this is a very good idea. There is no need to go through the arguments again as they are all here. At the moment I prefer not to think about what will happen when the first pictures, helpfully produced by ISIS, of children killed by allied bombs are published.

On the other hand, there is the opposition to the air strikes: the Stop The War Coalition, the people who earnestly assure me that war has never solved anything (I usually suggest that they have a word with people who remember being liberated from the Nazis), the dopy academics one of whom shared a programme on the BBC Russian Service earlier today and whose idea was to try to get a global consensus through the UN, and the screaming, ullulating mob outside Parliament today. As I was leaving the Palace of Westminster about half an hour before the vote was due I saw resigned looks on the faces of the police officers. Whichever way the vote goes, one of them said, there will be trouble. Added to that we have the stories published in various media outlets, even left-wing ones of threats against Labour MPs who had voiced their intentions to vote with the government on the subject and abuse against their staff (a particularly despicable kind of behaviour) and one's convictions begin to waver.

For what it is worth, I still think that we are making a mistake but I can understand that we have placed ourselves in an almost impossible position - we need to solve the Syrian crisis if for no other reason than to stem the flood of migrants but we have no idea how to do it. Getting rid of ISIS, if we can do it, may be the first step towards a solution but my doubts remains.

Perversely though, I am glad that the holier-than-thou rabble did not win.

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh and Watsonism

Those Tuesday Night Blogs did go on but last month's subject was Ellery Queen and, although I have read a great many of the novels and short stories and consider Ellery Queen and his creators to be of pivotal importance to the history of the genre, I could not think of anything to say that might be even of fractional interest. So different with Dame Ngaio Marsh: I have already lined up several subjects I want to write about and here is the first one: is Nigel Bathgate, the journalist, Roderick Alleyn's Watson?

He is certainly described by many as such by critics and historians of the genre as well as various biographers of Dame Ngaio (her damehood was earned by her work in the New Zealand theatre, which she and everyone else considered more important than her 'tec fiction). Bathgate describes himself as such on a number of occasions and several times he is given that role in the list of characters that the highly theatrical author provided at the beginning of her novels. At other times he is described as a journalist or just simply as Mr Nigel Bathgate (Final Curtain). He does not appear in all or even in the majority of the novels, only in seven of the pre-war ones and two of the post-war ones. His final appearance is in the very weak and wooden Swing, Brother, Swing, in which he is not a Watson but merely a journalist who is after a story and is, in return, prepared to give some information about a somewhat ridiculous magazine Harmony and its contributors. Thereafter he is not seen again though, one must assume that his and his wife's friendship with Alleyn and Troy goes on. For one thing, Alleyn is the young Bathgate's godfather.

Watsonism, to use Dorothy L. Sayers's expression is a curious phenomenon and, it would appear, poorly understood even by practitioners, let alone critics. Miss Sayers, naturally enough, understood it well and talked about it very interestingly in her discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But others find the whole thing more difficult. Sandra Roy, for instance, in her book on Josephine Tey suggests that at the beginning Sergeant Williams is Inspector Grant's Watson, a preposterous suggestion, as a Watson cannot be the detective's professional subordinate. Dr Thorndyke's several Watsons are themselves legal medicos - they just do not happen to be brilliant.

As it happens there is another character who claims to be Alleyn's Watson when Bathgate is absent from the plot and that is Col. the Hon. Maxwell Barrington, the preposterous and highly irritating Chief Constable in Death at the Bar. In between breaking every traffic law, snitching cigarettes from anyone who happens to be around and irritating his subordinates Colonel Barrington tells the Chief-Inspector that he wants to be his Watson and that consists of him not listening to any of the conclusions the police have come to but taking away all the notes and trying to work out the solution for himself. When he does so, he expounds it at great length and with mock-modesty as an "essay in Watsoniana", inviting Alleyn to destroy all his arguments. Needless to say, he is deeply shocked when Alleyn does so and even more so when he finds out that the local Inspector had come to the right conclusion and at least one of his great deductions had been made by the inn-keeper's son as well.

Of course, simply looking at all the evidence and getting it wrong is not the only and not even the most important characteristic of Watsonism. A Watson is the detective's companion who is not stupid (with the exception of Captain Hastings) but not brilliant either, he follows the investigation and makes some deductions, which are usually though not absolutely inevitably wrong and he writes up the cases in one way or another. Above all, the story is told from the Watson's point of view whether it is in the first or the third person.

Does Nigel Bathgate confirm to those characteristics? Well, no.

He is very rarely Alleyn's companion from the beginning. In two novels, A Man Lay Dead and Death in Ecstasy he is there from the start of events because he is himself involved. In both of them he is, in fact, the outsider from whose point of view part of the story is written. In only one, Enter a Murderer, does he accompany Alleyn from the very beginning: a friend of Felix Gardener, the star of the play The Rat and the Beaver, he is given two tickets and, his fiancée, Angela being out of town, he invites his friend the Chief Inspector to accompany him. As Alleyn explains at the end, there was a unique aspect to the play [SPOILER ALERT]:
Thanks to you I was able to watch the murder in comfort from a fifteen-and-sixpenny stall provided by the murderer. 
In the other novels Bathgate is visited by Alleyn, who refers to him as his Boswell rather than his Watson, for a discussion (The Nursing Home Murder) or he manages to muscle his way in as a friendly journalist who will help in return for a scoop and is ready to submit to Alleyn's censorship (Artists in Crime and Overture to Death).  In Surfeit of Lampreys he is summoned by that obnoxious family to help them in their difficulties and is seen by the outsider whose point of view is followed through most of the book, Roberta Gray, as a pleasant, red-faced young man with a moustache.

Bathgate's own comment is: "As you know I'm Alleyn's Watson." Alleyn describes him as "keeping a briefing watch" and adds:
Bathgate is remarkably well equipped as a liaison officer between the press, yourselves and the police.
Somehow one cannot imagine Sherlock Holmes saying that about Dr Watson. Bathgate, one assumes, remains the Alleyns' friend but is ever more distant from the investigation. In Final Curtain he is seen briefly, still in uniform though he is back at his job as a journalist (could he have been a military correspondent during the war?) when he hands over his description of the rather ghastly Ancred family whose patriarch, the great Sir Henry Ancred, the GOM of British theatre, Troy is about to paint. He is then heard on the telephone informing Alleyn of the latest development in the twisted saga of the Ancred Will.

The final appearance is in Swing, Brother, Swing where he is described as of the Evening Chronicle, having been of the Evening Mirror before the war. As usual, he appears in Alleyn's office, hoping for a scoop and is allowed in on some of the investigation though considerably less than in the earlier novels. In return he provides information about the world of journalism.

It is true that in the earlier novels Bathgate, usually with his fiancée Angela North is sent off to find out a few things about the doings of some ridiculous Soviet club (A Man Lay Dead and The Nursing Home Murder) or to discuss matters with a suspect or two (Death in Ecstasy). He is asked several times to sit quietly in the corner and take short-hand notes and off his own bat he produces notes and summaries of the cases, which may or may not help Alleyn. He also writes the cases up in his "rag" though we never read those articles and assume them to be on the popular side. He writes about Alleyn between cases as well and is, probably, the author of that embarrassing soubriquet "Handsome Alleyn".

Above all, we do not see events from his point of view except in the two that he begins by being invited to a country house week-end (A Man Lay Dead) or by wandering into the ceremony of a shady cult and witnessing a murder (Death in Ecstasy). Ngaio Marsh was quite fond of the outsider from whose point of view all or part of the novel is written and in those two it happened to be Bathgate. In others we have two recent arrivals from New Zealand (Roberta Gray in A Surfeit of Lampreys and Martyn Tarne in Opening Night), the secretary of a great Shakespearian actor, stuck in New Zealand during the war and longing to get back to Britain (Colour Scheme) or even Troy Alleyn (Artists in Crime, Final Curtain and, especially, A Clutch of Constables). The tiresome Ricky Alleyn acts as the outsider in Last Ditch. Other novels have other outsiders but once the investigation begins, with very few exceptions, it is Alleyn from whose point of view the story is told. There is no Watson in those novels.

It would be interesting to know why Marsh abandoned Bathgate after Swing, Brother, Swing. He could have carried on being a journalist who popped up from time to time, offering help and demanding a (moderated) scoop, giving news of his wife and son, who is Alleyn's godson, taking the Alleyns and their friend Katti Bostock out to the theatre as it is mentioned at the beginning of Final Curtain. For some reason she decided against that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Back to the question of intervention in Syria

We have been here before, only last time the question was about intervening in order to overthrow Assad. This time the discussion is about intervening against ISIL from which Assad may benefit. The debate is set for tomorrow and it would be a foolhardy person who could predict its outcome. To me these debates show the futility of running a foreign policy according to popular opinion, which tends to change in response to media stories and pictures, something I discussed on the blog not so long ago.

Back at the time of people demanding that we go in to unseat Assad, who has remained considerably more tenacious in his grasp on some power than people predicted and who is still responsible for more deaths than ISIL (though that is probably merely because he has been there for much longer), I wrote this:
However, ladies and gentlemen who demand that we intervene in Syria, could you answer at least some of the following questions?

When you say you want us to intervene what kind of intervention do you have in mind and who, do you think, should carry it out? What precisely is a limited military intervention, as suggested by Senator McCain?

What sort of timetable do you have in mind? Weeks? Months? Years? A long occupation with no foreseeable end and if so, who would be doing it?

What would be the agreed aim of the intervention? Simply no more pictures of dead bodies? How can we ensure that? Regime change? I have no problems with that in principle (think Germany, Japan and Italy in 1945) but what sort of regime should we install and how long will it survive?

Do we have any identifiable allies?

And last but very much not least: what is the exit strategy?
With a few changes those questions are still relevant. Obviously, if we are talking only about extended bombing (people seem not to have noticed that we are already involved in it to some extent) then the urgency of those questions is not so great. Even bombing, as was carried out in Libya, now a completely dysfunctional state, carries with it certain consequences. What if we actually put boots on the ground in a civil war, which has many sides, all of them nasty and few potential allies?

Another update

Third Reading of the EU Referendum Bill in the House of Lords will take place this afternoon. It is described as a "final chance" to tidy up the Bill and there has been a good deal of tidying up already. However, it has also been amended on the question of voting rights and will, therefore, have to go back to the Commons. We are likely to see a bit of toing and froing. Here is the Bill as it is now.

Another loss to the Brexit movement

A friend called my attention to this obituary in the Daily Telegraph telling me about the death of Ronald Stewart-Brown, which I knew nothing about. As one is at times like that, I was shocked, having seen Ronald at one of the many Brexit meetings and discussions a few months previously. He did not look well but I had no idea just how unwell he was.

There can be few people in eurosceptic circles who did not know or had not seen Ronald Stewart-Brown at various meetings. A tall man with a forward leaning loping walk he had a ready smile, usually accompanied with a nod for all those many people he actually knew and any amount of time to discuss matters to do with the EU and, particularly, trade and what Britain's future might be if we come out.

One of my early meetings with Ronald was when I was working at the European Foundation. We had met and chatted before and one day he suggested lunch, mainly to discuss what his role might be in the eurosceptic fight. I don't think we came to any conclusion at the time but we resumed discussions in person and over the telephone on a number of occasions. Eventually, Ronald did find the right niche for himself: he set up the Trade Policy Research Centre and concentrated through research, published papers and discussions on building up a credible policy of an alternative trading network to EU membership. Inevitably, his ideas brought him into conflict with other people whose own ideas were just as strongly held if not always based on quite as much research. Ronald argued his case courteously but vehemently: his manners remained excellent but he would not be shifted from what he considered to be the right analysis. At the same time he was ready to listen to other people's opinions and there were times when I was embarrassed by his insistence on wanting to know what I thought on certain subjects.

At our last meeting we chatted as always and I expressed a certain amount of boredom with the whole subject of the EU. Having been involved in the debates for so long I did not think I could work up any enthusiasm now, though the situation was becoming critical. Ronald's response was characteristically complimentary and robust. First of all, he did not think that this was the time to give up or succumb to ennui. Of course, he added with a smile, you were so far ahead of us all those years ago, most of us are only just catching up. He intended to go on working and fighting as long as it was necessary and urged me to do the same. Alas, his time was considerably shorter than I realized.

We shall all miss his incisive and knowledgeable contribution to the coming debates.