Monday, January 30, 2006

A night to kill a king

It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country's history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.
One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
- Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l'usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 - 30/1/1649

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Inner meet me

Or: what gets left out of those 'meme' things.

7 places I've loved

1. Pendine: the cliffs, the endless horizon, the beach in the off season
2. Scilly, especially St Agnes (and the view of St Agnes from St Mary's, at sunset)
3. Florence
4. Paris
5. Edinburgh
6. Brighton (and Hove, actually)
7. London, especially Somers Town

[The only] 6 membership organisations I've [ever] joined
2. END
3. The Socialist Society
4. The Socialist Movement
5. GMB
6. AUT

5 albums that sound as good now as they ever did
1. the Faust Tapes
2. Basket of Light
3. Metal Box
4. World Shut Your Mouth
5. dubnobasswithmyheadman

4 people I can be mistaken for
1. Philip Edwards
2. Phil Edwards
3. Phil Edwards
4. Stuart Russell

3 great songwriters
1. Robyn Hitchcock
2. Peter Blegvad
3. Bob Dylan

2 people I've encountered briefly but never truly met, and now never will
1. Edward Thompson
2. Raymond Williams

1 embarrassing memory
When Walkmans were new my father went out and bought one for my younger sister - it wasn't her birthday, he just wanted to get her one. (They cost some enormous amount at that time - I've got the figure of £75 in my mind, although that may be wrong.) I sulked until he went out and bought me one too. I was 21 at the time.

(I am of course tagging 0 other bloggers.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Your fortuitous role

I'll get back to Brian Wilson in a while; right now I've been tagged. (Cheers, Donald. I'll do the same for you, if I get the chance.)

Seven Things To Do Before I Die:

1. Record a CD
2. Publish a book. Well, two books (some short stories and something political). Maybe some poetry as well. Three books.
3. Live on an island
4. See Canada
5. Go up in a hot air balloon
6. Do one of my Fantasy Walking Tours*
7. Meet Tilda Swinton

Seven Things I Cannot Do:

1. Play the guitar
2. Understand spoken Italian
3. Lie convincingly
4. Get up early
5. Go to bed early
6. Swim a length
7. My taxes**

Seven Things That Attract Me to... Islands:

1. Towns with small populations and limited nightlife
2. Circumnavigation by foot
3. The sea, the sea
4. Cliffs
5. Plantlife
6. Stars
7. Pasties (NB applies mainly to Scilly)

Seven Things I Say:

1. "..."
2. "Er..."
3. "Well not just that, I think what I was getting at is that it's more a question of..."***
4. "So, what are we doing today?"
5. "I'm running a bit late"
6. "I'm leaving now"
7. "What a load of bollocks"

Seven Books That I Love:

1. Internationale situationniste [anthology]
2. Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni, L'orda d'oro
3. Tom Phillips, The Humument
4. Rex Warner, The Aerodrome
5. Thomas Pynchon, Vineland
6. Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman
7. Ruth Rendell, The Lake of Darkness

Seven Films That I've Loved:

1. La Jetée
2. Le Fantôme de la Liberté
3. Orphée
4. Toto le Héros
5. O Lucky Man!
6. American Beauty
7. Naked Gun****

Seven People To Tag:

1. Clare
2. Ellis
3. Justin
4. Robert
5. Brian
6. Jonny
7. Chris

*One of them involves picking a square on the map, somewhere near the centre of England, and spending a week - or however long it took - visiting every single named town or village: a sort of pub-hike, in effect. The other is a longer walk, from Kronstadt to Kiel.
**Well, I can (and do), but I find it ridiculously hard to keep things like period dates in my head for any length of time. There's a definite mental block - after I've been doing it for a while I start forgetting other things as well (where I've got up to, where I put the stapler after I used it, what day it is, etc).
***Rough verbal equivalent of 1. and 2. - 'vamping till ready', my father used to call it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Flowers and their hair

Political radicals and activists are often stereotyped as people who've got something wrong with their lives - it's just displacement, his Mummy wouldn't buy him a pony... This is mostly wrong, of course, but I think it's also partly right - and for the same reason that it's mostly wrong. After all, everybody - with the possible exception of the young Buddha - has something wrong with their life; everybody knows the experience of loss, rejection, loneliness, helpless anger, despair. (If Melanie Klein was right we've already known a lot of this by the time we start saying mama.) The question is, as always, what you do with it. Your knowledge of what it's like to be down there may fire you with empathy for all the people who are down there in real, physical terms, every day of their lives - or it may fire you with the determination to ensure that you're never, ever going there again. And it's not always obvious which set of eyes you're looking through. Cue the Bill Hicks quote. (No, not the one about people who work in advertising, the other one.)

So that gives us two ways of looking at the relationship between personal sources of unhappiness and radical rage: it may be empathetic engagement (your wound, my wound, the bastards!); rather more sneakily, it may be fearful narcissism (they've got you, they may get me next, the bastards!) Another angle is offered by Jean-Pierre Voyer's attempted fusion of Wilhelm Reich and the situationists. Voyer is one of those radical-left French intellectuals who went a bit weird in the 1980s and is now best approached with bargepole in hand (see also: Pierre Guillaume, Serge Thion). But he wrote some useful stuff in his time, notably Reich: How to use. From which this, slightly modified, quote stands out:
Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising ... the two poles of daily life — contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other — are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for the unity of individual life
To engage in a coherent critique of power relations in contemporary society, according to Voyer, was necessarily to think differently and live differently. Your own life would be the prism through which you would see the crushing, distorting, disempowering might of the totality - and one result of a sustained, active critique of the totality (a.k.a. practising theory) would be that things would get a bit strange for a while. (Have I actually read this stuff? I hear you cry. Well, I know I've read Reich: how to use at least once and found it worthwhile, but glancing at it now the vines of Voyer's grandiloquent self-regard seem to be trailing rather heavily across the path of his argument. Knabb's eccentric-seeming case study, on the other hand, is as lucid, thought-provoking and unsparing as most of what he writes, which is to say, very.)

Where does this leave the angry political blogger? Not, I think, engaging in the practice of theory, and not really looking through the eyes of love. More and more, I feel that when I post angry I'm posting, in part, to sustain and relish my own anger. It's a bridge between personal and political (anger is always personal), but it's a bridge in the form of a knot - all I'm doing is feeding myself reasons why I can go on feeling angry.

And - returning to the Rorschach analogy in the previous post - those reasons aren't necessarily there. Does Charlie Falconer hate poor people? It would certainly suit my personal distempered vision of New Labour to suppose that he does, but I know that in reality he almost certainly doesn't; he probably thinks the working class is perfectly sweet, when he happens to bump into it. My guess is that when he commends policies which seem to incarnate contempt for Labour's historic constituency, he's doing it not because he feels that contempt himself but because he hasn't thought about it. Which doesn't make him any less dangerous, but makes him harder to fulminate against. I think that's a gain, in an odd way.

Another example is the case of Blair's 'idealism'. The other day I attended a seminar addressed by Giancarlo Aragona (the Italian Ambassador) and Steven Haines - an interesting speaker who was on particularly good form. Haines' answer to one question from the floor struck me. An International Relations lecturer asked him where he'd place Bush and Blair on the classic idealist/realist spectrum: I mean, they may like to present themselves as idealists, but can they be really? (We could hear the footfall of Chomskyan dietrologia on the stairs - idealism? Halliburton, Iraqi oil, Paul Bremer's missing millions, and you talk about idealism?) Haines was having none of it: the Foreign Office and the MoD were mostly staffed by realists, he said, and they certainly didn't think Blair was a realist. I think this is exactly right: sometimes what you see is what you get. We may not share Blair's ideals or his view of the appropriate ways to act on them, but the idea that he doesn't have ideals or that he's not acting on them is unsustainable. Which makes him rather less evil and rather more strange. I think that's a gain, too.

So do me a favour, gentle readers (apparently there are seven of you now, which is nice). From now on, if you see me doing the blog equivalent of shouting at the TV or trying to set the world to rights over one pint too many (you know what's wrong with the world? I'll tell you what's wrong with the world!)... don't encourage me.

(And if you recognise the howlingly obscure quote in the post title, give yourself a Shinylet me know in the Comments. I'll give you a clue - there's a connection with my last post but two.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

By secondhand daylight

So the psychologist stops the Rorschach test halfway through - there's no point continuing this, he says, you're clearly obsessed with sex. The patient's outraged. I'm obsessed? You're the one who keeps showing me the dirty pictures!

While this is primarily a political blog - it has been up to now, anyway - there's a lot I don't like about political blogging. I particularly dislike political rants - those posts that start by swearing at somebody who's been in the paper, then quote bits of what they've said with occasional sarcastic interjections, and finish by wheeling on some more swearing with the air of an argument proved. There's something obsessive, almost paranoid about those posts - See? See? I told you they were a bunch of bastards, and now they've as good as admitted it! Look, it says so here! All you really achieve with a post like that is to feed your obsession, making yourself - and anybody who shares it - feel righteously justified. Which is never a good look.

I hate those posts, and I did think that my policy of avoiding swearwords and qualifying value judgments was enough to keep me from writing them. I was wrong about that one, of course - you can use the language of sweet reason and still be as angry and self-righteous as a Daily Mail leader column (case in point). I've done this in the past and intend to do less of it in future.

Still. Just one more, eh?

I gave up on Labour a long time ago - 1997, to be precise. It seemed to me then that Blair's leadership had changed the party, not only to a greater degree than, but in a different way from any of his post-war predecessors. Foot, Kinnock and Smith fought a battle on two fronts, trying to keep the Labour project going in some form while persuading the powers in the land that their version of Labourism had finally been shorn of all the elements that made it unacceptable. The mood of Blair's leadership was entirely different: the last apologetic vestiges of liberalism, social reform and internal democracy were jettisoned without regret - with enthusiasm, in fact. In their place we had a new 'Labour' party, committed to corporate capitalism, punitively exclusive communitarianism and - not least - the complete control of the party's decision-making structures by the parliamentary leadership. (And yes, I did say all this in 1997.)

So I can't say I'm entirely surprised by the way things have been going since the last election, as Blair steps up the pace in an attempt to turn the country into his own political mausoleum. But today's news has been more than usually depressing.

"You do not need the same process for resolving whether you have paid your TV licence as one does for a major violent crime. Justice is reduced if three magistrates sit in court all afternoon effectively listening to names and addresses being read out, and a formal piece of evidence being read, and then fining someone. You are slowing down other cases that most certainly do need to be dealt with in court. A caution outside court, a conditional caution, a disorder notice or a fixed-penalty notice can be used with cases like TV licences, shoplifting, petty criminal damage, minor brawls after a night out."
(I really am offended by that line "Justice is reduced", implying actual benefits from a scheme that's never been tried - and which of its nature is likely to produce injustice. But only for the kind of people who get into 'minor brawls after a night out', and who cares about them?)

Then there's Hewitt, who was actually quite left-wing at one time:
The health secretary will issue the "Business Arrangements" manual explaining how NHS finances should be controlled during 2006/7, when her reforms are due to create unprecedented instability in the service. She will say: "Excellence in financial management is the prerequisite for high quality sustainable services." Trusts will have to say goodbye to "a culture of balance sheet adjustments and handouts" that allowed hospitals to tolerate inefficiency on the assumption that the NHS would bail them out. ... Until this year, hospitals could fairly accurately predict the number of patients they would be expected to treat. They agreed contracts with local primary care trusts guaranteeing most of the income they needed to do the work. Patients can now choose, however, from a menu of at least four local NHS trusts where they are entitled to free treatment. Consequently, hospitals can lose income if they do not attract enough patients. The fee they get for each attendance is also being priced differently. A national tariff was set last April for all non-emergency operations. If a hospital spent more than the norm for a particular procedure, it lost money on every patient treated.
Excellence in financial management is what it's all about; pay the staff less, charge the patients more, and if you still can't balance the books you'll just have to make way for somebody who can. Sorry, but that's business.

The Department of Health will today publish a rulebook for NHS managers in 2006/7, to help them navigate "a year of transition" - with more patient choice and less certainty for trusts about how much they will earn. Ministers changed the document after reading a report in the Guardian on Monday about their intention to make strong financial discipline the "top priority" for the NHS. Ms Hewitt said they never meant this to imply that the government thought balancing the books was more important than curing patients. To avoid confusion, financial rigour was removed from the top of a list of priorities including tackling health inequality, reducing waiting times and combating the MRSA hospital superbug. Excellence in financial management is now "a prerequisite", not a priority.
I've read this story three times now, and two out of three times I misread the penultimate sentence as 'To add to the confusion...'. Which is certainly what this 'clarification' does. In practical terms it's hard to see any difference between 'top priority' and 'prerequisite' - they're both names for the thing you have to achieve first. What's really odd is that 'prerequisite' is the word Hewitt used in the first place: rearranging the semantic deck-chairs would be pointless enough, but she's not even doing that.)

And then there was this from The Register, suggesting that we're getting a national identity database whether the ID cards bill goes through or not - courtesy of the Passport Service (hence the Reg's rather wonderful title "Plan B from Petty France"). That's the Passport Service, which operates under the royal prerogative and is thus effectively immune to parliamentary oversight: the government makes the rules, and by 'government' we of course mean the Prime Minister and his appointed advisors. (Not that the guy's involved in this story, but what kind of person accepts the title of 'Lord Adonis'? It's the kind of name Philip Pullman would discard as too fanciful.) The Register goes so far as to wonder if the Queen might like to start asking some questions about what's being done in her name - and you thought things were bad when we were falling back on the Lords...

I hate political rants, and I'm going to write fewer of them in future. But it would help a lot if this government would stop showing me the dirty pictures.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Started slow, long ago

The other day my son asked to borrow the booklet from my CD of Smile, because he wanted to check the lyrics of "Good Vibrations"; I'd burned it to a CD that I'd given him for Christmas, along with a bunch of other stuff (Oasis, the Shins, Iggy Pop...) I told him the lyrics of the song on Smile were different from the original, and (once I'd persuaded him I wasn't winding him up) that was that. But it started me thinking.

In the next post I'll say some more about Smile - which I'd classify as a glorious failure for a number of reasons, some of them (interestingly) out of the control of anyone involved. In this one I'm going to talk about vinyl. Then with any luck there'll be a third post which will tie it all together, although exactly how as yet I know not. But hey, enough of my yakkin'.

We're all normal and we want our freedom.
Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom...
All o' God's children gotta have their freedom!

The first time I heard Forever Changes, I got up instinctively at the end of "The red telephone" to turn the record over. Then I sat down again, because the first time I heard Forever Changes was about eighteen months ago and I was listening to it on CD. All the same, I knew the end of side one when I heard it.

Like Dan, I miss the LP format. What I miss isn't the LPs, which haven't entirely gone - I've got a functioning turntable & still occasionally buy new music on vinyl - but the album format which they gave us. Consider: a heavy cardboard sleeve twelve inches square. There are the visuals, for a start: 12" x 12" is a handy format for artwork, not to mention the 24" x 12" of the gatefold. There are track listings, production credits, details of who played what and who wrote what; then there's an inner sleeve, which may have more artwork and may have more information, or perhaps song lyrics. The whole thing is a rich, dense artifact, in a similar scale to a glossy magazine - a handy size to hold and contemplate, whether you're listening to the music or anticipating it as you come home on the bus. At the same time, as packaging it's deeply functional: it's wrapped - fairly closely in some cases - around the record itself.

The record, let's not forget, embodies the music. The record has a certain irreducible fetishistic appeal, which alternative recording technologies (partly because they were alternatives) never really acquired. You hold a black vinyl disc in your hands, and you're holding crystallised music: that physical object is your only way of hearing that music. It's divided into two sides - two sets of tracks. In itself, the way the tracks divide up tells you something about the music you were going to hear - particularly if there's only one track on each side (or, for that matter, if there are ten). Either way, there's an inevitable pause between side one and side two, giving you the chance to gather your thoughts and renew your attention.

Maintenant c'est joué. There's a lot that's good about the music-listening experiences which have effectively supplanted the LP. Indeed, their sheer convenience makes it slightly academic to talk about their drawbacks: as George Orwell said, travelling from London to Brighton by walking alongside a mule would certainly give you a better experience of the country than taking the train, but that didn't mean anybody would actually do it. Still, something has been lost. I think there are three main factors. There's the sheer length of the 80-minute CD format; it may suit Beethoven, but it's death to the album format. The tracks multiply or sprawl; without the minimal structure provided by that end-of-side-one breather, the album turns into a big bag of tracks, inviting the listener to skip or resequence. (Top tip for Beck's Sea change: 1,2,3,5,4,6, then 8-12. Try it.)

This technological erosion of the album format has both followed and reinforced the rise of a radio-like, track-based way of listening to music and thinking about music. In the piece I referenced earlier (which really is superb, by the way - if you're going to follow any of these links, follow this one) Dan laments the poverty of musical metadata offered by iTunes: you can put names to the track, the album and the artist, and, er, that's it. For me this suggests a conceptual shift rather than (or as well as) skimpy work by software engineers. On the radio, after all, you never expected to hear the name of the producer or the dates of the session or the jokey credit for the studio runner. You heard the music, you got the basic information and you could go out and track it down - it in this case being the vehicle of the real musical experience, the graspable object of beauty and store of information that was the album. That extra stage has more or less vanished now: what you hear is what you get, there is nothing else. Which means that the album becomes less important than the mix - your own mix, mined from the music you've accumulated. (Last year CD album sales actually rose in the UK - but sales of compilation albums fell sharply.) Malcolm McLaren, of all people, saw most of this coming years ago.

The third big change is one that Uncle Mal didn't foresee, and it's the clincher. With a portable cassette player - by which I don't necessarily mean a Walkman (although it certainly made life easier when you didn't have to tote around something the size of a shoulderbag) - with a portable tape player, anyway, your music could become as portable and as ubiquitous as music on the radio, at the cost of also becoming as light, disembodied and information-poor as music on the radio. But there was another cost, suggested by the lyrics to that song:
hit it, pause it, record it and play
turn it, rewind, and rub it away
A spool of tape is an extraordinarily inefficient medium for storing a series of separate tracks - more so than a vinyl LP, in some ways. You get into storage/retrieval tradeoffs straight away: the easiest tape to play is the one that consists solely of stuff you're into right now, but that's also the hardest tape to maintain. Of course, you could take the tape out and put another one in, but that only delays dealing with the problem - after all, how many tapes are you going to want to carry around?

So the third big change has been the rise of digital players. Sure, Malcolm had Annabella sing
now I don't need no album rack
I carry my collection over my back
but I think the significant word in that is 'back': if you seriously intended to carry your entire album collection around on tape you'd need a sizeable rucksack. (I once taped one track from every album I owned - a project of quite Shandean irrationality. I've still got the tapes - they take up a whole drawer of my cassette box.) Now you can get your entire CD collection into a box the size of a fag packet in considerably less time than it takes to play them; you don't get the same economy of time with vinyl albums, but it's still perfectly doable. And then that's it - that is your music collection. You can plug it into your audio system, you can plug it into your car stereo, you can hang it round your neck and go rollerblading if you've a mind to. You don't need no album rack - wherever you are, your music is there.

This effect is exacerbated by the way music now seems to stay in fashion indefinitely: the Led Zeppelin of the fourth album and the Pink Floyd of Dark Side are still there - still our contemporaries. This is a very recent phenomenon; at the time of Dark side it would have seemed absurd to talk in this way about music that was 33 years old, or 13 years old for that matter. 'Progressive' rock wasn't a genre to us then - it represented rock that had progressed, had left the past behind. (A few years later, many of us had similar views about the New Wave.) Most pop music from before the late 1960s is still over the horizon - there's no appetite for replica reissues of Herman's Hermits albums, and very little appetite for anything by the likes of Vince Taylor or Cliff Bennett - but once you get to about 1967 the clock has effectively stopped. (The Smile sessions were in 1966.)

You can have your music anywhere; not only that, but you can have all the music there is. On Desert Island Discs recently, John Sutherland chose his eight records to salvage from a shipwreck, but spoiled the effect rather with his choice of luxury item: a 60GB iPod, which would potentially give him the choice of another 14,992 pieces of music. Everyone's a librarian - but it's not a library of albums, with all their freight of musical metadata and art-work and in-jokes and period design and misprints; it's a collection of tracks, each one as light and bodyless as the stuff they play on the radio, each interchangeable with any other. (Ultimate realisation of this vision: the iPod Shuffle, which picks its own random route from track to track, and doesn't even deign to tell you which track you're listening to.)

All of which makes this a strange time to be hearing Smile for the first time... But I'll come on to that.

Postscript I was halfway through writing this post when I discovered I wasn't the first person to think along these lines: in the February 2004 Salon article quoted here, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy comments, "It's ironic that we're talking about the [first] great album that never was at a time that the very form of the pop album is itself falling on hard times." Spooky. Another one of those reverse premonitions, I guess.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Not a hope in Hades

This (PDF) is explosive stuff - and, as often happens, some of the smallest and dullest details are the most powerful.

You asked for further advice on substance and handling, following my letter of 5 December, including with a view to PMQs on 7 December.

"Substance and handling" here being Civil Service-ese for the nature of an issue (its substance) and how to deal with it (handling). The issue, in this case, is possible British complicity in US "Rendition" and "Extraordinary Rendition" operations. (This kind of thing, in other words.)

The banal sentence italicised above tells us a surprising number of things. It tells us that
  • the Foreign Office wrote to Blair's office about 'rendition' on 5 December
  • Blair's office wrote back asking for more information, with a view to briefing Blair before Prime Minister's Questions on the 7th, and
  • the Foreign Office complied, supplying the required information ('substance') and guidance ('handling') in time for Blair's date with the Commons.
The Foreign Office document identified two requests for assistance with 'rendition' flights in 1998(!); although one of these was granted, the flight did not take place. But this is not, of course, an exhaustive list:
The papers we have unearthed so far suggest there could be more such cases. The Home Office, who lead, are urgently examining their files, as are we.
As for 'handling', here the Foreign Office is at its most scrupulous:
If the US were to act contrary to its international obligations, then co-operation with such an act would also be illegal if we knew of the circumstances. This would be the case, for example, in any cooperation over an Extraordinary Rendition without human rights assurances. Conversely, cooperation with a "legal" Rendition, that met the domestic law of both of the main countries involved, and was consistent with their international obligations, would be legal. Where we have no knowledge of illegality but allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries.
For presentational purposes, the document concludes, it's best not to get bogged down in arguments about actual cases:
we now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for "Extraordinary Rendition". It does remain true that "we are not aware of the use of UK territory or air space for the purposes of "Extraordinary Rendition"". But we think we should now try to move the debate on from the specifics of rendition, extraordinary or otherwise, and focus people instead on the Rice's [sic] clear assurance that all US activities are consistent with their domestic and international obligations and never include the use of torture.
It does remain true that "we are not aware..." - but if we keep going through the paperwork we might just become aware, any time now. And it wouldn't do just to stop looking: where allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries. Better to move the debate on.

So far, so Sir Humphrey. But remember those dates. Blair, we can reasonably assume, was forearmed with these notes on 'substance' and 'handling' when he took Prime Minister's Questions on 7 December.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): The United States Secretary of State said yesterday that "extraordinary rendition" had been conducted in co-operation with European Governments. To what extent, therefore, have the Government co-operated in the transport of terrorist suspects to Afghanistan and elsewhere, apparently for torture purposes?

The Prime Minister: First, let me draw a very clear distinction indeed between the idea of suspects being taken from one country to another and any sense whatever that ourselves, the United States or anyone condones the use of torture. Torture cannot be justified in any set of circumstances at all. The practice of rendition as described by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been American policy for many years. We have not had such a situation here, but that has been American policy for many, many years. However, it must be applied in accordance with international conventions, and I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice's assurance that it has been.

Mr. Kennedy: Given that assurance, can the Prime Minister therefore explain why the published evidence shows that almost 400 flights have passed through 18 British airports in the period of concern? When was he as Prime Minister first made aware of that policy, and when did he approve it?

The Prime Minister: In respect of airports, I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.
Set aside for the moment scenarios in which the Foreign Office memo is a backdated forgery, or was written on 7 December but delivered the next day, or was delivered on 7 December but overlooked when Blair was being briefed. Blair asked for guidance on 'substance' and 'handling' on the issue of British complicity with 'rendition' flights, and he got it.

I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

That's a big claim. It's not "I don't know anything about those allegations"; it's not even "I've never heard those allegations". It's more like "I don't know what you're talking about". Is there any possibility that Blair was telling the truth at this point? I'm trying to be fair, but I really can't see it.

Later the same day, the PM's official spokesman made a clarification:
Asked what exactly the Prime Minister had meant when he had replied that "I don't know what you are referring to," when asked by Charles Kennedy, at PMQs today, about CIA flights through the UK, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that Charles Kennedy had made an assertion which the Prime Minister didn't recognise. If journalists had looked back over what we had said all week we had made it clear that we did not believe that we were involved in this story. That had been our position all along and the Prime Minister was simply repeating that position.
So, compare and contrast.

Briefing notes prepared for Blair, 7/12/05: we now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for "Extraordinary Rendition"

Blair, 7/12/05: I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Blair's spokesman, 7/12/05: we did not believe that we were involved ... That had been our position all along

It's always the cover-up that gets you.

Don't you think he looks tired?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Never argue with a rozzer

In all the recent blogging around the 'Respect Agenda' (Justin and TP have been particularly good), one point that hasn't been made is that all this is nothing new. Or rather, it's nothing new to New Labour. This government has passed huge amounts of law-and-order legislation, much of which has been devoted to taking responsibilities away from the courts and giving them to the police. (And to Community Support Officers, but that's another story.) Here are some of the highlights.

When this government came in, there was a fairly clear distinctions between charge, arrest and caution. A suspect could be charged, with a view to subsequently issuing a court summons; this was the standard procedure for crimes attracting a penalty of less than five years’ imprisonment at the first offence. In some situations a suspected offender could be arrested pending prosecution: this option was available for more serious crimes and for the prevention of a breach of the peace, as well as for the purpose of enabling a summons to be served (for instance, if a suspect attempted to abscond or refused to supply a valid name and address). Finally, a suspect who was charged with and admitted an offence could be ‘let off with a caution’ in lieu of court proceedings. A simple caution is not a conviction and does not carry any penalty; it does, however, represent an admission of guilt and remains on the offender’s criminal record for five years.

Pretty much all of this has changed. Successive pieces of legislation passed since 1997 have classed a number of less serious crimes as ‘arrestable’, particularly in the area of public order; the 2003 Criminal Justice Act clarifies the increasingly arbitrary boundary between arrestable and non-arrestable offences by the simple expedient of making all offences arrestable.

Since 1998 young offenders are no longer cautioned, but given a ‘reprimand’ at a first offence and a ‘final warning’ at a subsequent offence. A warning will generally be coupled with a referral to the local Youth Offending Team (YOT), who will be charged with developing a programme of activities to address the offender’s behaviour; in some cases a reprimand will also include a YOT referral. While a YOT programme is not a criminal penalty and is not compulsory, the effect is to couple a police caution with an official sanction. This principle is followed by the recent introduction of the ‘conditional caution’ for adult offenders: a caution may be coupled with a programme of restitutive or rehabilitative activity. If the offender does not comply with the programme, a prosecution for the original offence may follow.

The 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act introduced penalty notices for disorder (PNDs): a type of fixed penalty notice (FPN). An FPN — previously used primarily for traffic offences — is not a penalty for the offence. Rather, the recipient is served notice that he or she may be prosecuted for the offence, but that the liability can be discharged by paying a set fine. PNDs are given primarily for drunk and disorderly behaviour. A 2004 study of a pilot scheme suggested that between half and three-quarters of PND recipients were 'new business', i.e. individuals who wouldn't otherwise have been cautioned, arrested or charged.

The use of 'vanilla' FPNs has also been extended. The 2002 Police Reform Act introduced a range of minor offences, generally associated with ‘anti-social behaviour’, for which FPNs can be issued by locally-accredited Community Support Officers as well as by police officers. The range of offences involved has subsequently expanded — under the 2002 Act and by provisions in the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act — from three to 20. Community Support Officers (who go out on the beat after six weeks' training) have no power of arrest, but can detain a suspect until the police arrive. There has been talk of empowering CSOs to escort truanting children back to school; the power to escort adults to the local nick is probably not far behind.

ASBOs have been around since 1998. An anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) is a court order, which must be obtained from a magistrate (and may be requested by a range of agencies other than police forces - a range which looks set to expand). An ASBO is an injunction to refrain from specified activities, which can be obtained on the grounds that the offender has engaged in these activities as part of a pattern of ‘anti-social behaviour’. The criminal sanctions associated with ASBOs relate to the offence of breaching a court order, rather than to the actions involved. These actions may in themselves be entirely legal; they may not even be ‘anti-social’ if carried out in other circumstances, in other locations or by other individuals. (ASBO provisions have been used to bar individuals from riding bicycles, wearing gloves, etc.)

Then there are measures relating to property. The 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act relates to the confiscation of assets gained through crime or used for criminal purposes; it enables the courts to seize the property of suspects committed for trial in a crown court (not, necessarily, convicted offenders). There is also a provision in the act for the immediate seizure of cash which a police officer believes to be crime-related. The threshold for this type of seizure was set in the act at £10,000; it was subsequently lowered to £5,000 and is about to be brought down again to £1,000. (That's inflation for you.) The 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act, finally, enables the police to obtain a court order closing and sealing premises which they believe to be used for drug offences (the 'crack house' provision). There is no requirement to prove that drug offences have taken place at the premises, or been committed by anyone using the premises. This is the provision which the government is planning to extend to cover noisy neighbours.

Some of these interventions relate to behaviour which is not in itself criminal; others broaden the range of criminal offences which are in practice sanctioned, or heighten the sanction applied (as in the case of the extension of powers of arrests). What all these measures have in common is that they erode the distinction between police intervention and penal sanction.

I don't think there's any grand plan behind these developments. The police forces of England and Wales are an institution, and like all institutions they would rather have more power than less. What's extraordinary is the government under which this has happened. Back in the 1980s (hey, you young people...) scary people like Peter Bruinvels would get up at the Tory Conference and talk about giving the police the support and the resources they need - and Thatcher herself would let it be known that she thought James Anderton had it about right - but things never changed all that much. (At any rate, things never changed this much.) Perhaps this was because there was a good solid layer of permanent-government bureaucracy between the Thatcher circle and the places where laws were drafted; perhaps it was because Thatcher faced a Labour opposition. Neither condition obtains now. Or perhaps - saddest thought of all - the reason why Thatcher didn't give the police lobby everything it wanted was simply that she had ideas of her own.

Monday, January 09, 2006

When I was seventeen wasn't a very good year. Eighteen wasn't bad: when I was eighteen I passed my Cambridge entrance exam, got my first editing gig (a church youth newsletter), went abroad for the first time and did my first full-time job; the last of those doesn't really qualify as good (I was a nursing assistant in a long-term psychiatric hospital) but I'm glad I went through it. (There was also a woman I was quite close to for a while, but I'm not going into details about that.)

Seventeen, though... There was under-age drinking, there were A levels, there was self-importance, frustration and bad poetry, but beyond that I don't remember much. Apart from the orchestral concert where I played, with no one I knew in the audience and no one to talk to backstage, and where the flute part was doubled (and largely drowned out) by the second B-flat clarinet. And the party a girl called Liz invited me to - well, not the party, but the evening when I stood on her doorstep, holding a bottle of cider and a borrowed copy of Starless and Bible Black, and learned that the party had been the previous night. I have to say the music was good that year - punk had happened while I was 16, and I'd got into it around the time of "Pretty Vacant" (i.e. rather late). I didn't get to any gigs (100 Club? I never even made it to the Greyhound), but it was bliss in that dawn to listen to John Peel and buy singles from Bonaparte's, that I can say.

So 1978 wasn't all bad - particularly since I'd turned 18 by the end of it. Maybe in a few years' time, with a bit of distance, I'll be able to be that positive about 2005. Right now it looks like a pretty awful year.

Before I go any further: this post was inspired by an email from a coblogger which ended "May 2006 be better". When I read those words I had a frisson of alarm - I haven't talked to him about all that, have I? Well, no, I hadn't - and we've got plenty of shared, public reasons for hoping for a better new year - but the exchange reminded me that I'd wanted for a while to put some more personal content up here. This is one result: 2005, my (first) year as a blogger.

Or rather, my first nine months. It all began in March. I started transcribing Sir Frederick's memoirs some time ago, but I'd never seen the need for a blog of my own. In March 2005, though, Need to Know led me to Backing Blair, which in turn led me (from the sublime...) to comments threads on Tom Watson's site. The arguments being advanced, notably by Tom, against voting for anyone but Labour seemed so faulty, in so many ways, that I immediately felt that a series of posts would be required to answer them. So, over the next couple of months, I wrote a series of posts, pausing only to set up a blog. (The address of this blog confused people for months. What happened was that my browser crashed during the setup process, and by the time I got back in Blogger had flagged '' as taken. Now it can be told.)

But we're in May already. Let's get back to March. On Monday the 14th I wrote the first For Tomorrow post (most of which has since been eaten by Blogger, annoyingly enough) and mailed a couple of people about it, hoping to get noticed and generally join the conversation. On Wednesday the 16th I set up my work blog, posted something on it about taxonomies & knowledge representation, and mailed a couple of people about it, hoping to work the same trick in a professional context. All exciting stuff, reminiscent of my early days on Usenet (circa 1996) - will I get followups? will I get followups from the regulars? oh no, I've written something really embarrassing, let's hope nobody notices... hey, I've written something really great, let's hope somebody notices... nonononono, what I thought was really great was actually really embarrassing, let's hope nobody's noticed already... All exciting stuff, and liable to cause heightened states of anxiety if taken too seriously.

On the evening of Wednesday the 16th I had a migraine - not my first, but the first I'd had in a few years. When the aura had cleared I lay down to wait out the headache, and found I was consumed with anxiety - about the wretched blogs. Was I being read? Was I being linked to? Who was linking to me? Was I not being linked to? Wasn't that even worse? What could I do about it? Urgh. I eventually got to sleep, resolving to leave the damn blogs alone for a bit.

The following evening, on my way home from the chip shop after my kids' school disco, I hit a problem with my health. What felt like an innocent fart turned into something copious and very wet. When I got home I made two discoveries. One was that I hadn't, in fact, crapped myself; what I'd passed was blood. The second was that I urgently needed to go again.

I hung on at home for a while, hoping that it would stop. It didn't; it gave me about ten minutes and then happened again. And again. Fortunately the nearest hospital was only ten minutes away by taxi. I may have missed one or two, but I think by midnight I'd had a total of ten bleeds. On the tenth I passed out; I remember a horrible moment when I was trying to stay focused, by telling myself who I was and where I lived, but all I could think of was the address of the house where I grew up. The next thing I knew, I was lying flat with an oxygen mask on. (Great stuff, oxygen. I can recommend it.) There weren't any more bleeds after that, thankfully. I remember a nurse helping me into a bed in a darkened ward, and telling her that I had an important meeting in the morning. "Not now, you haven't," she said.

Hospital life was what it always is - tedious, long-drawn-out and hideously uncertain. (On many levels. While I was in hospital we had a new TV delivered; at one stage I was seriously, genuinely worried that I was going to start bleeding again, bleed to death and never see our new TV...) What eventually happened was that I stayed in until I was strong enough to go home (yay, new TV!), then went back in for a colonoscopy. Which was clear; the betting was that the bleed had been triggered by a randomly malformed vein (a.k.a. angiodysplasia coli) and quite probably wouldn't happen again. Although it might. It hasn't yet, but I still worry that it's going to, about two or three times a day.

April was a bit busier on the blogging front - 14 posts (compared to 6 in March), including parts 2-8 of the For Tomorrow series and a sceptical post about Islam and radical politics. The pre-election daily blog roundup which eventually developed into the Sharpener got going this month, as did Tim Worstall's Britblog roundup; the short pre-election post which Tim picked for 2005: Blogged also dates from this period. Also in April, my wife's mother (80ish, living alone) had a fall and couldn't get up. She had to go into hospital, where she became extremely confused and developed a series of infections.

Even more posts (17) in May, including one about Christianity and conservative politics (not so much sceptical as furious). Mostly about the election, but there were a couple each about the EU constitution and the legality of the Iraq war. Plus a wave to an old college acquaintance, a plug for Ellis Sharp's blog and my first piece at the Sharpener. I had some energy back then...

June: 11 posts. Iraq, terrorism, Blairite triangulation, plus a couple of 'memes' and a bit of inconsequential chat (about time too).

Only 9 posts in July, mostly about terror and counter-terror - including this, one of the posts I'm most proud of. I was in a combative mood that month: I disagreed with Norm of that blog, agreed with Oliver Kamm, sniped at Harry and misquoted Nick Cohen, whose honour was defended vociferously by some drink-soaked Trots. (I almost miss them - they brought a lot of traffic with them.) My first post that month was dated 12th July. On the 5th I'd heard that my doctorate had been awarded (six and a half years after I began studying for it and eighteen months after I first submitted the thesis). On the 7th, well, you know. On the 8th, my wife was told that her mother - whose condition had picked up, although she was still quite weak - was much more ill than anyone had thought, and that we only had weeks or months left.

August: 8. Terrorism, de Menezes and a history of the House of Lords. Not very light and frothy. At work my contract ended; fortunately I had a new one lined up. We went on holiday, regretting not having got cancellation insurance. We didn't have to cancel.

September: 7. Four on Hurricane Katrina, two on Walter Wolfgang and one proposing to fix Wikipedia - whose shortcomings weren't all over the media at the time, I might add - with a kind of Pledgebank posse comitatus. Maybe this year I'll actually get something moving on this one. (Note to the Guardian journalist who I mailed about the Wolfgang incident: I'm not a lawyer either, but I know how to google up the text of legislation.) My mother-in-law moved to a nursing home, and started to get a lot more alert. I junked my ten-year-old Windows 98 PC and switched to an iMac.

Only three posts in October and two in November. More de Menezes, plus Bob Dylan, Guy Debord and the destruction of the Labour and Conservative parties by their respective leaders. Five in December: C.S. Lewis, Chomsky, Chavez, poetry and the 'infantile'. I've been posting all over the show, basically, and not very often. What happened? One thing that happened was that I started my third contract of the year (in the same place and very much the same job); this one lasts until January 2007, after which I'm hoping to get something a bit more permanent. It's four and a half days a week, which is longer hours than I've worked since 1998 - a bit of a shock to the system, and cuts down on blogging time. Plus I started playing the flute a bit more seriously around this time (jigs, reels and the odd hornpipe).

But the main thing that happened in October was that my mother (80ish, living alone) had a stroke. We don't know - and never will - how long it had happened before she was found; my guess is 24 hours. She was taken to hospital, where I saw her soon afterwards; she wasn't speaking at all, had no use of her right-hand side and seemed very confused. In November she was moved to a specialist rehabilitation unit; she got the use of her right side back and started talking a bit. She clearly wanted to get up and walk, but she was very weak and unsteady, and still seemed very confused.

The rehab specialists seem rapidly to have formed the view that she wasn't getting anywhere. In December they told me and my sisters that she was going to require permanent nursing care; what this meant was there wasn't any point their trying to get her up to a level where she'd be able to look after herself, as that was never going to happen. On Christmas Eve I heard that she was moving into a nursing home - which she did, between Christmas and New Year. The council will cover the fees (which are high) for twelve weeks; after that we have to start paying, which essentially means selling the house. It's not our family home - my parents moved there about twenty years ago, after my father retired, by which time we'd all left home - but it's got a lot of history and a lot of memories; it's been part of a continuing story, which suddenly isn't continuing any more. More than that, the house symbolises the basic level of independence which lets you get by day to day - having things to do, going out and coming home, being surrounded by your stuff. My mother's now lost that; what's worse, some time this year my sisters and I are going to have to administer the coup de grace by stripping the house. My wife and her brother had already finished stripping their mother's house by this time; I said at the time that they'd be in trouble if she made a miracle recovery. (That doesn't seem likely, although she has hung on for six months so far.)

My mother's a lot more mobile since going into the home, and a lot more articulate - I've actually talked to her on the phone. But there's still something not there. I think short term memory's like a tape loop or a cogwheel - we're never simply in the moment (unless we're meditating or drunk), we're always checking back on ourselves, saying "right, I'm here, I've been there and next I'm going to do this". You get on with it for a while, then you stop and check again... and so it goes on. It's something like how I imagine it must be to skate: your body reacts automatically - reflexively - to bumps and gritty patches and gusts of wind, but your ability to stay balanced enables you to contain those reactions and stay poised. Not to blank out the reflex responses or even override them, necessarily - just to incorporate them into a kind of continuing dance with gravity. At the most basic level, I think it's that self-correcting - or self-articulating - mechanism that my mother's lost, probably for good: the stimuli come in and she reacts. And, er, that's it. (May be updated; I'm seeing her on Friday, for the first time since she went into the home.)

Skating through 2005 has been hard. I hope 2006 will be a bit easier.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Silence and screams

In a recent post at The Sharpener, I mirrored Craig Murray's telegrams on the British government's attitude to the situation in Uzbekistan, with particular reference to torture and intelligence obtained through torture. I also put down some thoughts about the Uzbekistan story, which had been bothering me for a while. On one hand, the Foreign Office appeared to attach great importance to Uzbek intelligence, even if it was produced by torture - to the point where the message the British government was sending Uzbekistan was surely that torture was OK, as long as it produced more of the same. On the other, I didn't (and don't) see any reason to doubt Murray's assessment of the 'intelligence' produced by Uzbek government thugs as 'dross'. But if this was the case the British government's position was both morally dubious and - perhaps more importantly - logically incomprehensible. As I wrote:

"the argument that the torture of Uzbek detainees can sometimes be justified, because it sometimes produces useful information, directly promotes the continuing torture of many other Uzbek detainees - most of whom have nothing ‘useful’ to say to any spook, and all of whom will say anything to make the torture stop."

Following the argument to its logical conclusion, and feeling ever more like a conspiracy theorist, I added:

"And perhaps that’s what the argument is meant for. Look at it this way: Murray’s argument that the information produced by the Uzbek torturers is ‘dross’ is logically compelling and founded on first- and second-person experience (i.e. he’d talked to torture victims). If MI6 genuinely believe that the information is ‘useful’, either they have better information than Murray (which seems unlikely - 'MI6 have no operative within a thousand miles of me') or they’re extraordinarily dim. If we dismiss both possibilities, we must assume that they know as well as Murray that the information’s no good - and that information isn’t what all this is about. Perhaps the fundamental, non-negotiable starting-point isn’t the War on Terror but the Uzbek government itself, and its alliance with the US and Britain."

Murray has subsequently written a very interesting comment on Brian Barder's blog. From which:
In two years of seeing this Uzbek intelligence material, I never saw a single piece that even purported to concern a threat to the UK, or indeed to the West. Everything we were given was, without exception, designed to convey the impression that all the Uzbek opposition were Islamic terrorist and linked to al-Qaida (which is very far from the truth).

If the material had been about threats in Birmingham, certainly the analysts would have been better placed than I to evaluate it. But as it was about Central Asia, I don’t accept that people who had never even visited Uzbekistan were in a better position than I to evaluate.

What I found particularly chilling were instances where such intelligence was being deliberately accepted or interpreted, in order to justify continuing US support to this odious regime. The US was justifying its presence and policy in Uzbekistan by the common threat faced, and prepared to buy fictions that reinforced that threat as part of the raison d’etre of the War on Terror.

So when I call the intelligence dross, I really mean that. It wasn’t just not useful to the UK, it was positively and deliberately misleading.
Perhaps 'selling our souls for dross' is an emotive phrase which didn't belong in diplomatic correspondence. Perhaps Murray should have acknowledged that there might be broader international considerations which, in the view of the Foreign Office, justified or even mandated conniving in Uzbek torture. But that's as far as I can go in meeting Murray's critics halfway. The situation he describes is morally disgusting and of borderline legality; it's also strategically myopic, answering more to Britain's current subordinate role within Bush's neo-conservative alliance than to any longer-term assessment of the prospects for Central Asia. As such, it sets a dangerous precedent and should end.