Saturday 30 January 2010

Nobody does it better

After yesterday’s reminder of why some of us miss Tony Blair, here's evidence that Barack Obama is his natural successor as a consummate political communicator. Like Blair, Obama is a natural centrist and instinctive big tent politician who, despite calls to be more partisan, just can’t resist looking for common ground with his opponents.

Well, that’s one way of interpreting his speech to the Republican caucus in Baltimore yesterday. Another view is that the event, in which the President ran rings around his Republican questioners, was a supreme political coup for the White House, one that his hosts are already regretting. Judge for yourself:

Friday 29 January 2010

Live-blogging Chilcot (well, kind of)

Radio 5 has replaced its usual Friday afternoon film programme, featuring Mark Kermode, with wall-to-wall coverage of Tony Blair’s trial - sorry, appearance at the Chilcot inquiry (see here). I’ve been listening to it on and off (they're taking a tea break as I type) and so far I think the former PM has acquitted himself rather well, remaining determined to comply with the supposed aim of the inquiry to learn lessons from Iraq, rather than taking part in a pointless blame game.

A few random thoughts:

Reading the slanted coverage in Tory papers like the Telegraph (no, I don’t buy it, but I was flying to and from Edinburgh yesterday, and you get it free with a bottle of water, or vice versa, at the airport), and reading about the top civil servants sticking the knife into Tony, then listening to the cries of ‘murderer!’ from the lynch mob outside - it struck me that Chilcot might be viewed as the revenge of a perverse alliance of Establishment mandarins and the anti-imperialist left, on an upstart Labour leader whose popularity and success they have always, for very different reasons, resented.

Another thought. Why is it that the USA, where opinion on the merits of the Iraq war was just as fiercely divided, indeed where the current President was elected partly because he vigorously opposed that war, has not seen fit to organise anything along the lines of the Chilcot charade? Answers that don’t rely on fatuous anti-American or anti-British prejudice on a postcard please…

Then again (and this is sticking my neck out a bit), it occurs to me that the violent hatred of Blair that seems to have gripped much of the country, and of which Chilcot is the latest lurid manifestation, is actually rooted in a deep national fear of terrorism and violence. But, as with the whole 'Blair's bombs' episode, instead of that fear being directed against those who actually threaten us - whether jihadist suicide bombers, or Iranian or Ba'athist nukes - it's displaced on to our own government. The 'reasoning' seems to be: if you don't bother these people, they might just leave us in peace, and if you do dare to stand up to them, then we'll blame you and not them for the way they react. The reasons why some, particularly on the 'left', seem unable to direct blame - whether for 9/11, 7/7, or the Iraqi insurgency - at those who were actually responsible, are complex and have often been the focus of posts on this blog, but inverted racism, cultural relativism and a deep-seated revulsion from western modernity are all somewhere in the mix.

A scapegoat must be found for our deep unease about the post 9/11 world. And as of today, that scapegoat's name is Tony Blair.

For more on the madness that is Chilcot, see Mick here, and Oliver here and here.


Well, it's all over. From the bits I heard, I thought Blair offered a powerful defence of liberal interventionism and a clear and unwavering assessment of the threats that still face us. Radio 5's summary of his testimony began with 'Well, he didn't apologise and he didn't admit he lied', or words to that effect, as if that was the only 'take away' from Blair's appearance that would have satisfied the journos. Truly, the mainstream media coverage of Chilcot has been a disgrace.

More from John Rentoul here.

And from Hopi Sen here.

And Max Dunbar here.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Three quick links

Dashing hither and thither this week, so I only have time to recommend posts from elsewhere:

The Plump writes about the dangers of creating a false equivalence between Nazism and Communism, and on the other hand his problems with the notion of a ‘post left’, as if antisemitism and totalitarianism among progressives were recent phenomena and ‘the left was pure and innocent before the Stop the War Coalition came along.’

Mick responds to the collective madness surrounding Chilcot and the 'outpouring of hatred' against Tony Blair, including George Monbiot's absurd call for the ex-PM's arrest for 'mass murder', and challenges 'the assumption that had we not got rid of Saddam everything would somehow have turned out just fine: the internal divisions within Iraqi society would have healed themselves by magic and Saddam himself would have turned to Sufi mysticism'.

Finally, Minnie marks Holocaust Memorial Day with a poem by Primo Levi.

Monday 25 January 2010

Rev. Stephen Sizer: enemy of free speech

Rev. Stephen Sizer is the Anglican vicar of Christ Church, the 'international community church' in Virginia Water, Surrey. He's also an outspoken 'anti-Zionist' who has shared a platform with Holocaust deniers and lectured on the evils of 'Christian Zionism' to Islamic fundamentalists in Iran.

He also appears to be extremely prickly when it comes to public criticism of his ideas and activities. He recently tried to intimidate my fellow-blogger Seismic Shock (who keeps a watchful eye on Christian anti-semitism) by sending the police round. And heartened by this experience, he proceeded to leave the following comment on a post by Australian Christian blogger Vee:

Dear Vee,

You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.


Somehow, that disingenuous 'Blessings' makes the threat all the more sinister. Yuk.

I can't vouch for the validity of all the criticisms made of Sizer, but two things seem crystal clear:

1. The police have no business telling bloggers what they can and cannot write.

2. Those who resort to the law to silence their critics usually have something to hide.

The story continues to unfold, but you can catch up by following these links:

Monday 18 January 2010

The mental deformations of appeasement

For the record, I was against the Iraq war at the time, but for pragmatic rather than moral reasons: like Barack Obama, I thought it was a huge distraction from the key priority to defeat al-Qaida and their Taleban allies in Afghanistan and risked undermining the wave of global goodwill that followed 9/11. Nevertheless, I've always found myself in greater sympathy with those who supported the war for good, anti-totalitarian reasons, than with those opponents who didn't seem able to envisage any grounds for removing a murderous tyrant.

That purblind and obstinate refusal to accept that there might possibly have been a moral case for ending Saddam's cruel reign seems to have infected British media coverage of the Chilcott enquiry. As Nick Cohen wrote in his brilliant and necessary column yesterday: 'The inability to accept that a policy they honestly opposed still had moral virtues is producing levels of dementia unusually high even by the standards of British public life.' The reporting of Alastair Campbell's appearance at the enquiry last week was shameful for its lack of balance and inattention to what the man was actually saying. Goodness knows what kind of lynch mob awaits Tony Blair when he appears later this week. (Incidentally, am I the only one to find somewhat distasteful the decision to give free tickets to relatives of service personnel who died in Iraq? The implication seems to be that Blair, rather than Ba'athist and Islamist insurgents, was somehow responsible for their loved ones' deaths, and they have the right to see him brought to account.)

Here's the core of Nick's argument:

Consider the response of liberal Europeans to the last 40 years of Iraqi history. From 1968, an authentically fascist state confronted them, complete with the supreme leader, the unremitting reign of terror, the gassing of ethnic minorities and the unprovoked wars of conquest. America and Britain had, to their shame, been complicit in the oppression, but in 2003 they overthrew the tyrant thinking that he still possessed the weapons he used against the Kurds and the Iranians. He didn't and the occupation turned into a disaster as the followers of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Ruhollah Khomeini began a campaign of mass sectarian killing.

Anyone who believed what Europeans said about their determination to make amends for Nazism and communism would have expected a principled response. However much they loathed Bush and Blair, surely they would have offered unreserved support for Arabs and Kurds struggling to escape totalitarianism. The British bore a heavy responsibility, as our army was effectively defeated in Basra. With too few troops to fight, it allowed clerical death squads to take over the city. British commanders had to suffer the humiliation of seeing the American and reconstituted Iraqi forces charge in to stop the violence they could not control.

And yet mainstream public opinion has never been interested in offering solidarity to the victims of Ba'athism and Islamism. Instead of talking about what happened to Iraq either before or after the invasion, it has remained stuck in the groove of spring 2003, endlessly scratching the record for a conspiratorial explanation for Britain's decision to invade.

As for the endless attempts to prove that the war was 'illegal':

However vigorously they seek to parse UN resolution 1,441, the use of "illegal" demonstrates that Tony Balir's lawyerly critics believe that the Ba'athist regime, which was guilty of genocide and under UN sanctions, remained Iraq's legitimate government, entitled by law to treat the country as its private prison.

Cohen refers to the prediction by Sir Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, that the enquiry would be a 'whitewash' because two of its members were Jewish, and he concludes:

He's not alone. I have had an allegedly left-wing journalist say the same to me. Once, he would never have allowed Jew obsessions to infect his thinking. Now, his battered mind was wide open to racial fantasies.

The mental deformations appeasement brings should not be underestimated. People don't just placate their enemies, but become them by adopting their ideological mannerisms and foibles. For years, we've had the notion that democracies are the "root cause" of every Islamist atrocity accepted in polite society. You must now prepare yourself for the return of the Jewish conspiracy theory to supposedly honourable discourse. Indeed, if you look around, you will find it is already there.

More from Norm, Mick and Oliver.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Something for the weekend

Here's Mimitah - a new discovery, thanks to Bob's latest post. A little bit of African music to cheer up a wet and windy Saturday morning.

Friday 15 January 2010

Blame game again

Time for our weekly dose of CiF self-parody.

Simon Tisdall catalogues the 'recent wave of violent attacks on Christian worshippers and churches in countries across the Muslim world', which has included the murder of churchgoers and the burning of buildings and Bibles. Cue an analysis of the worrying persistence of religious intolerance and its roots in fundamentalist versions of Islam, perhaps? Not a bit of it. Tisdall is, after all, a Guardian columnist and his piece appears under the 'Comment is Free' banner, so his interpretation of these events should come as no surprise:
[A]nalysts and academics suggest common threads do exist, notably the impact of globalisation on conservative communities across the Muslim world and a resulting threatened loss of cultural identity


Yet hostility also arises, in a fundamental sense, from Muslim perceptions of western aggression against Islam, be it the war in Afghanistan, domineering western economic and cultural behaviour, attempts to ban veils, offensive cartoon caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, airline and immigration profiling, or systemic, unchecked and arguably worsening discrimination and harassment of Muslim minorities living in western nations.

Hang on a minute: is Tisdall saying that murdering innocent churchgoers is an understandable response to a bunch of drawings? Or that we should blame the torching of churches in Egypt on a change in the uniform rules in French schools?

As for that bit about the impact of globalisation: it looks like Tisdall is casting Muslims as simply passive victims of world events, rather than people who are responsible for their actions. How patronising. Would he have the same response to (say) reports of western racists trashing mosques or burning copies of the Koran? I know historical comparisons can be odious, but it's rather like blaming Nazi war crimes on the Great Depression. Aren't you just glad, though, that globalisation is having an impact on conservative communities in the so-called 'Muslim world'? Who knows, it might eventually weaken the hold of their oppressive conservatism, to the great benefit of women, religious minorities and many others in those countries.

Reading Tisdall's depressing list of attacks on North African and Middle Eastern Christians, you'd have to strain every intellectual sinew not to put the blame squarely on Islamic militants and their intolerant ideology. But this, of course, is the Guardian, and that would never do. In the new pro-faith pseudo-liberal consensus, for which this once-great organ is the leading mouthpiece, you can blame the victim, blame anonymous historical forces, above all blame the west. But whatever you do, you must never ever blame the religion.

Via Mick , and also Norm, whose description of Tisdall as 'witless' is, I think, too kind.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Balancing bans

Few people will lose much sleep over the ban on Islam4UK and its parent organisation, al-Muhajiroun. However, even liberals who loathe everything these vile theo-fascist outfits stand for may question the government's motivation and tactics here. The ban was announced the day after I wrote this post about freedom of expression - and if, as liberals and humanists, we defend the right to criticise religion and the political reactionaries who exploit it for their own ends, then to be consistent we surely have to defend the freedom of those very reactionaries to express their views.

The only basis on which that freedom can be circumscribed by government - using the old 'shouting fire in a crowded theatre' principle - is if those ideas, or the act of expressing them, deliberately or intentionally stir up violence. That seems to have been the justification in this case: these organisations are said to have 'glorified terrorism'. But if that's the argument being used, then one has to ask: why wasn't the ban imposed before, given that al-Muhajiroun in its various guises has been organising in Britain for some time and its ideas are well-known?

The suspicion has to be that the ban was imposed as a direct reaction to Islam4UK leader Anjem Choudary's inflammatory proposal to organise a protest march through Wootton Bassett. One is tempted to draw the conclusion that the government acted not in response to the actual violence, or violence-inciting words, of Islam4UK's members, but out of panic at the thought of the likely violence against the group if the provocative march went ahead. Slapping a ban on the organisation must have looked like the quickest and most efficient way of putting the lid on a situation that was threatening to spiral embarrassingly out of control.

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time that the Brown government has used the sledgehammer of a blanket ban to avoid the prospect of a little bit of social disorder. Last year's refusal to allow Geert Wilders entry to Britain seemed to be motivated less by a belief that Wilders was advocating violence (though that was the dissimulating justification), than by fear of the violence threatened by his Islamic fundamentalist opponents if he were allowed to travel here.

Surely it's no coincidence that, on the very day that the Islam4UK ban was announced, the government also let it be known that it was renewing its ban on US shock-jock Michael Savage travelling to Britain. As I've said before, I hold no brief for Savage and his ultra-conservative opinions, but as in the Wilders case, it's the threat of violence against him by Muslim activists that seems to have been behind the original ban (Savage is, among other things, a vocal critic of Islam).

Renewing the ban on Savage this week looked like a cynical and populist tit-for-tat for the Islam4Uk ban: as if the government were sending a message to Muslims saying 'See, we're not anti-Muslim - we've banned an anti-Islamic extremist as well.'

If I'm correct in my analysis, then these bans are a further sign of the Brown government's willingness to use civil liberties instrumentally, as just another tool in its paternalistic approach to managing 'communities' in the interests of 'social cohesion'.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Barking mad

I've been doing quite a bit of research into my family's history recently, focusing on my mother's agricultural ancestors in what were then the fields and farms of rural Barking, and my father's forebears in Mile End and Whitechapel. So it pained me this week to read that both of these areas may soon boast (?) extremist demagogues as their political representatives - if Nick Griffin is successful in being elected as MP for Barking and Dagenham, and George Galloway achieves his apparent ambition to become mayor of Tower Hamlets.

I suppose having a fascist as your MP is marginally worse than having a supporter of clerical fascists and tyrants as your mayor, but if either came to pass, it would be a sad day for these boroughs, with their proud history of working-class activism and standing up to fascism.

Monday 11 January 2010

Offences and excuses

Highly recommended (and not just becomes she kindly links to one of my posts): Eve Garrard's terrific guest post over at Norm's place, on freedom of expression and the taking of 'offence', in the wake of the violent attack on Kurt Westergaard. Here's a taster:
The attack on the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has raised yet again the issue of freedom of speech, and what is needed to justify and protect it. People whose principal reaction to the attack on Westergaard is to blame those who supposedly provoked the attacker by offending against his religious beliefs have been righty excoriated for this, partly at least on the grounds that no-one, including deeply committed religious believers, has the right not to be offended. And those of us who used to think, back in the late 20th century, that in the West at least the battle for free speech had been won, can now see with embarrassment how naive we were, and how complacent about the extent and durability of that freedom.

It's no longer possible to indulge such complacency; at least, not about the freedom to speak our minds. It's obvious to everyone now that the battle has resumed, and that the old arguments will have to be dusted off and fought for all over again.
I find myself in broad agreement with everything Eve writes here, and I particularly like her generous attempt later in the post to find common ground with religious believers in defending free speech (let's hope it's reciprocated). But I also thought this qualification from Primavera, about 'offence' as a motive for terror, was useful:

Eve mentions the importance of getting across to people that no-one, including deeply committed religious believers, has the right not to be offended. That is indeed an extremely important point, and the degree to which the opposite seems to be believed by the political and other chattering classes is horrifying and does not bode well. But I would add something else, too, which is that we shouldn’t, either, be too quick to accept one of the main premises of that particular debate (the debate about whether people should be protected from being offended). I’m talking about the premise that someone like Westergaard’s would-be-axe-murderer was really doing what he did because he was offended (which he may nevertheless have considered himself to be). Or, for that matter, that the whole world-wide eruption of violence over the original Mohammed cartoons was really all just because people felt offended.

I’m of the point of view advocated by Paul Berman and others: these attacks, this violence – all this is not happening because a Danish paper published some depictions of Mohammed (which it did, and which there was nothing wrong with) or because Israel is building settlements on Palestinian land (which it is and which there is a great deal wrong with) or because the United States props up the ruling family of Saudi Arabia (which I gather it does and which it probably shouldn’t). Rather the terrorism and the constant protests and the intimidation and the violence are driven by a simultaneously nihilistic and totalitarian agenda to attack the Occident (or what my father used to call, with great affection, the Abendland) and, ultimately, take over parts of it, as much indeed as possible. This does not need to mean that, say, Westergaard’s attacker had that particular ideology and big-picture agenda in mind when he attacked. The foot soldiers of a movement needn’t have a true understanding of the big picture in order to do their job and are often merely brainwashed fools. Westergaard’s attacker (his name, it seems, is not being published – why not?) may well have felt offended, or thought he felt offended. But why is it that, at this particular juncture in history, some Muslims, or at least some Islamists, respond to feeling offended by becoming violent, while, by and large, people of other persuasions don’t? Is it in the nature of Islamic belief itself? I don’t think that it is, and I say that not by way of hastening to insert the politically correct disclaimer (I don’t care whom I offend and if I thought it was inherent in Islam I would be happy to say so). Rather, it’s because the totalitarian, anti-Occident movement that Berman identified is indoctrinating its foot soldiers to behave this way. It’s not that the cartoon gave offence so the offended man got angry and attacked (even if that’s what the attacker himself honestly believes). It’s that the cartoon offered the opportunity to construct a pretext for violence and intimidation, and the taking of offence is part of that construct. There is a deeply dishonest and sinister, and extremely broad and radical, agenda behind the attack on Westergaard. And that is true even if the attacker, in his foot-soldier childishness, really thinks that he was acting alone and purely out of his own personal anger. If he thinks that, then he is simply unaware of the degree to which he had already been taught and conditioned to do violence.

All of which is a powerful riposte to Glenn Greenwald, writing in these posts, who seems to think he's being terribly bold and original in rehashing hoary old myths about America's support for Israel and actions in the Middle East somehow 'fuelling' terrorism. Do we have to quote former jihadist Hasan Butt yet again?

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

Saturday 9 January 2010

One year in 120 seconds

There's been snow in these parts almost continuously for the past three weeks, and with the prospect of more of the white stuff falling this weekend, it's becoming pretty annoying, what with the daily uncertainty about school closures, transport disruptions, icy roads, etc.

At times like this, it can help to be reminded that this too will pass and, impossible though it may be to imagine right now, spring and summer will soon come around and this gnawing cold will be a distant memory. Here's Eirik Solheim's wonderful time lapse video of the view from his home in Oslo, recording the passing of the seasons (via):

Friday 8 January 2010

Lest we forget

For conservatives who are starting to feel nostalgic for the Bush years, and liberals who may be wondering whether Obama is really any better than his predecessor: here's a reminder of the difference between them.

Two presidents taking very different approaches to admitting mistakes (not to mention the English language):

(Via and via)

Is there anybody out there?

A warm welcome back to Judeosphere and Olly's Onions - just as I was about to delete the latter from my blogroll, after four long months of silence. Olly, you've been missed. And I've just (re-) added Jeff Weintraub, culled mercilessly from the list after he went a bit quiet some months back. Also, for a long time I've been wondering whatever happened to the Labour Humanist blog - but I've just discovered, very belatedly, that there's now a fully-fledged website: well worth a visit.

The disappearance of a blog, especially an anonymous or pseudonymous one, is rather like that final, unbelievably poignant scene in Philip Pullman's 'Dark Materials' trilogy. The portal between the two parallel worlds has to be sealed, never to be re-opened, and Will and Lyra realise that there is absolutely no way they can ever contact each other again. Or it's like the scene in 2001 when the spaceship spins over into a distant galaxy, with no chance of communication with Earth being resumed.

Or am I being a little melodramatic here?

Thursday 7 January 2010

Hitch on Holm

Further to this post, here's Christopher Hitchens, in an interview with Michael Totten, expressing, as only Hitch can, his outrage at Nancy Graham Holm's article:

Hitchens: Let's do a brief thought experiment. I tell you the following: On New Year's Eve, a man in his mid-seventies is having his granddaughter over for a sleep-over, his five-year old granddaughter. He is attacked in his own home by an axe-wielding maniac with homicidal intent. Your mammalian reaction, your reaction as a primate, is one of revulsion. I'm trusting you on this. [Laughs.]

MJT: Oh, yes. You are correct.

Hitchens: Then you pick up yesterday's Guardian, one of the most liberal newspapers in the Western world, and there's a long article that says, ah, that picture, that moral picture, that instinct to protect the old and the young doesn't apply in this case. The man asked for it. He drew a cartoon that upset some people. We aren't at all entitled to use our moral instincts in the correct way.

This is a sort of cultural and moral suicide, in my opinion.


These people are saying the grandfather and granddaughter were the authors of their own attempted assassinations. These are some of the same people who say that if I don't believe in God I can't know what morality is. They've just dissolved morality completely into relativism by saying actually, occasionally, carving up grandfathers and granddaughters with an axe on New Year's Eve can be okay if it's done to protect the reputation of a seventh century Arabian man who heard voices.

(Via Andrew)


More revulsion against Holm from Oliver Kamm here: 'Where do you start with this peerless featherhead?"

And yet more from Russell: 'Let the name of Nancy Graham Holm find its place in every hall of ignominy and shame, indelibly inscribed there for posterity.'

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Another snow day

If Norm can do it, so can I. Some views from my window, somewhere in eastern England, this Wednesday lunchtime:

Tuesday 5 January 2010

CiF beyond parody yet again

It's 'you couldn't make it up' time again. A cartoonist and his five-year-old granddaughter are terrorised by a murderous axe-wielding fanatic and the Guardian's Comment is Free runs a column with this heading:
Prejudiced Danes provoke fanaticism: Publishing Kurt Westergaard's cartoon was an aggressive act born of Denmark's reluctance to respect religious belief.
I'm speechless. Fortunately, Miranda Celeste Hale has said all that needs to be said here. Her final sentence sums it up perfectly: 'Vile. Truly, truly vile.'

The shameful CiF piece was written by one Nancy Graham Holm, who apparently is 'writing a book on feminism in the Abraham religions' (should be a slim volume) 'including the "gender jihad" among Muslim women worldwide.' Oh dear.

Incidentally, I came across Miranda's blog Exquisite With Love via Jen's list of 'awesome female atheists' at Blag Hag, to which I was pointed by B&W, whose guiding light (naturally) features prominently in it.

Monday 4 January 2010

New Year miscellany

First, exceedingly cold day back at work (well, trawling in a desultory fashion through two weeks of unread emails and re-acquainting myself with stuff I wrote before Christmas, in a vain effort to remember what the hell I was thinking....), so less time for extended posting. To fill the temporary gap, here are a few links to others who are keeping up the good work:

Andrew on why the humanism of the original version of Miracle on 34th Street is superior to the sentimental and thinly-disguised pro-faithism of the re-make (though in our household I'm afraid Richard Attenborough is Santa Claus).

For balance: Michael Sean Winters on hopes for 2010, from the perspective of a Catholic Democrat, yearning for a revival of the Catholic social justice tradition.

And finally The New Centrist links to an important piece by Ernest Sternberg on the 'new radical ideology' of the anti-globalisation, anti-western, anti-Zionist left (though I'm still sceptical about whether this disparate movement of oppositionalists is actually for anything).

Happy New Year.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Northern lights

Writing in one of those end-of-decade review things (not reproduced on the paper's website), an anonymous Guardian author puts forward this intriguing thesis:
As the decade advanced, one prerequisite for a noughties mega-seller became clear. A journey to the north, realm of occult knowledge and dark forces, links the Harry Potter sequence (King's Cross to Hogwarts) to The Da Vinci Code (Paris to Scotland). Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist trilogy similarly begins with the pair travelling northward from Stockholm in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as a series offers a bracing voyage into Nordic torment that has attracted bookings from around the world.
The article goes on to adduce Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, in which teenage heroine Bella relocates from Arizona to Washington state, as a further example of the trend.

But there's one significant instance which, surprisingly, the reviewer overlooks. Philip Pullman's massively popular Dark Materials trilogy begins in a parallel-universe Oxford, briefly visits London, then transports its young heroine, Lyra, northwards, to Svalbard and an alternative Nordic world. For me, that northerly relocation was a massive disappointment. I was completely absorbed by Pullman's detailed recreation of a parallel Oxford, which appealingly combined the familiar and the strange, and I was tantalised (despite the author's tendentious anti-Catholicism) by the glimpse he offered of a London where the Reformation had never happened. I wanted more of this dense, intriguing, human world, but instead found myself as a reader whisked off to an unappealing landscape of flying witches and speaking polar bears.

When it comes to the fantasy genre, one's appreciation of a book seems to depend a great deal on matters of personal taste: on whether you find the imaginary world created by the author appealing or jarring. Famously, Tolkien couldn't get on with C.S.Lewis' Narnia series, despite their close friendship and shared love of all things mythological. It wasn't that he disliked the stories, but Lewis' fantasy world - fauns, redemptive lions and so on - just wasn't to his taste. Of course, many readers have found the same with Tolkien's Middle Earth. I'm not one of them, though my tolerance is rather strained when it comes to the pseudo-Saxon warrior world in the later volumes.

In my youth, I used to consume fantasy novels by the bucketload. In recent years, not so much. Pullman and Potter are recent exceptions. And Alasdair Gray's Lanark, I suppose, would be another, very different, example. But, as I noted in the previous post, I'm a nit-picky and demanding reader, and at the first sign of anything too jarring or outlandish in the mythical landscape - talking polar bears being a prime example - a fantasy novel, mega-seller or not, is liable to find itself returned unceremoniously to the shelves.

Friday 1 January 2010


So there I am, happily reading one of the books I was given for Christmas - William McCarthy's biography of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (see previous post) - when I come across something that stops me in my tracks and makes me feel I can hardly go on. What great offence has the author committed to induce this reaction? Why, he has used the word 'Commons' (as in 'House of') without the definite article. And he has done it more than once. Writing about the failed attempt to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts in 1790, McCarthy describes Edmund Burke giving a speech 'in Commons' and on the very next page he mentions Barbauld composing an address to the members 'of Commons'.

I had a similar experience recently with the biography of another eighteenth-century political figure: John Keane's life of Tom Paine, in which the author insists on writing about Paine's childhood in 'Norfolk County', as if he grew up in Virginia, rather than East Anglia. Elsewhere, he describes Paine journeying into 'county Kent'.

How could authors who have obviously done extensive research into their subjects and clearly spent a great deal of time in England working on their books, make such basic mistakes? In both cases, you can see how it has happened: a familiar American usage has been transposed to an unfamiliar British setting, with jarring results (in McCarthy's case, he has clearly used as his template the way Americans talk about Congress, minus the definite article - 'in Congress', 'members of Congress'). But that doesn't explain why it happened: why these esteemed authors didn't realise they were in error, and why their editors didn't see fit to correct them. (This isn't meant as an anti-American tirade, by the way: I'm sure British authors make similar mistakes when writing about US topics.)

And why does it matter so much to me as a reader, to the point where I feel reluctant to go on with books that I was finding completely absorbing until that moment? It's probably because I think of reading as a relationship of trust. When I start a new book, I'm looking to see whether I can have confidence in the author: if it's a work of non-fiction, confidence that they know their stuff, and if a novel, that they're not going to surprise me with an unbelievable plot twist or unconvincing character. Once that sense of confidence has been confirmed (I find this usually happens in the first two or three pages), I can let go and enjoy the book, trusting myself to the author's care, rather as a traveller has to put their complete trust in a ship's captain or airline pilot before relaxing and enjoying the journey.

Coming across the kind of basic mistake that I noted above can be enough to shake that trust and make me lose all my confidence in the author - and in the book. If the writer can get wrong something that is so fundamental, then who's to say there aren't other errors lying in wait for me? Should I start distrusting the author's more important claims about their subject? Writing is a kind of magic trick, in which the reader is lulled into suspending their knowledge that these words have been created by a human mind, and for a time believes that they have somehow emerged from the ether and are an emanation of objective truth. Finding a mistake, however trivial, destroys that illusion and reminds us, annoyingly, of the author's fallibility.

Or is it just that I'm neurotic and obsessive?