Thursday 26 February 2009

The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw

This was our Reading Group's choice for March, and a very fine novel it is. The novel is set in Malaya and most of the action takes place during British rule in the period before the Japanese invasion in 1941. The rather beguiling title is a bit of a red herring as the book has little, if anything, to do with the factory. It could more accurately have been titled Who is Johnny Lim? - as Johnny is the central character in the novel. Or is he? For in this book nothing is quite what it appears to be. Or rather nothing appears to be quite what we as readers are told. What we are told comes in the guise of three unrelated accounts, each by a different character in the novel. These accounts overlap to some extent and add to the general air of uncertainty surrounding the tale.

The first account is subtitled The True Story of the Infamous Chinaman Called Johnny. This is the story of Johnny Lim as put together by his only son, Jasper, shortly after Johnny's death in the late 1990s. The introduction to this “history” should alert us straight away when Jasper writes: “As far as possible, I have constructed a clear and complete picture of the events surrounding my father's terrible past.” Clearly we are going to get no such thing. And how terrible in fact is his father's past? According to his son, Johnny moved relentlessly from a poor Chinese labourer to become a leader of the Communist guerrillas at the same time as he was successful business man who married into wealth. To consolidate his power and influence Johnny was prepared to kill or injure his associates and finally to betray his Communist comrades to buy favour with the Japanese invaders.

This pretty overwhelming case for the prosecution is then however, somewhat contradicted by the other two accounts. While Jasper in his version attempts to give us the big picture about his father, the other accounts only partly refer to Johnny. The first is a diary kept by Jasper's mother, Snow, who died in giving birth to her only son. Jasper thus has a rather idealized view of his never seen mother. Her diary only covers a two month period of a belated honeymoon which she and Johnny spent in the company of two Englishmen and a Japanese professor. Her entries paint a very different picture in which she is more the schemer than Johnny. Their marriage appears to be unconsummated and she intends to leave him. There is a degree a sexual ambiguity in her accounts of the relationships among the men, especially that between Johnny and Peter, one of the Englishmen. While Snow in turn appears to be sexually attracted to Kunichika, the Japanese professor. The diary ends abruptly and enigmatically with a sexually charged meeting between Snow and Kunichika then Snow rushing off only to be caught by Peter.

The third and to my mind the most interesting and entertaining version of events comes from the pen of this same Peter. Peter Wormwood to give him his full and revealing name. Approaching the end of his life in a retirement home in Malaysia Peter has started to write down his memoirs. At least that is what it appears to be, though nothing is for sure in this novel. As well as recounting events from his life, Peter writes barbed comments about his current situation and his fellow inmates. For this Peter is an altogether more incisive, witty, cultured and complex character than the one who appeared earlier. His memoir is not really a memoir, but an account of various incidents in his life centring on his friendship with Johnny. In particular he offers a parallel and different version of what happened on Snow and Johnny's belated honeymoon. Peter's account ends cleverly by bringing us back to the ending of Jasper's little history. Though of course in keeping with the overall enigmatic feel of the novel, nothing is really fully revealed.

Tash Aw is a Malaysian writer, who now lives in England and this is his first novel. And an intriguing and very enjoyable read too.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Is the two-state solution dead?

In the past month or so I have noticed a flurry of articles about the future of the two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. What has brought about this sudden interest in resurrecting the two-state solution? The short answer is the brutality of the Israeli war on Palestinians in Gaza and the recent general election in Israel. As a result of this election it is expected that the next Israeli government will not only be more right wing than the last, but will not even pay lip service to the notion of a Palestinian state. This of course is causing some concern and consternation in the generally pro-Israel West. And the first thing to note is that it is mainly in the West, the USA and the UK, where voices questioning the two-state solution are being raised. Less so, if at all, in Israel.

There never was a two-state solution
If there is to ever be a two state solution in the sense of establishing long term peace in the area, then this can only come about when a majority of Israelis and Palestinians accept the boundaries of the respective states and are willing to recognize each state as fully sovereign. It is at this point that it is clear that the two-state solution was never a viable option. From the perspective of the Palestinians the acceptance of two-states in historic Palestine is in itself an immense compromise.
A little bit of history. When the UN in 1948 voted to partition the then British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state, 55% was awarded to the new Jewish state and only 45% to the Palestinians. This itself was regarded by all Arabs and many others as unjust. Neither side was in fact happy with the proposal and war almost immediately broke out. At the end of this war the newly created Jewish state – Israel – had conquered 78 % of Mandate Palestine. To ensure that Israel was indeed a Jewish state, the Israelis forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - 750,000 Palestinians - from their homes and villages. These families and their descendants now number approximately seven million and live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Their position in any solution is another complicating factor which I will not deal with in this post.
The key point is that as of 1949 Israel was in possession of 78% of historic Palestine, far in excess of what it had been awarded by the UN. What remained for Palestinians was the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Since the 1967 war these three areas are now of course under Israeli occupation. The idea of two states that then developed among Palestinians was that they would recognize Israel within its pre 1967 borders in return for the creation of a Palestinian state in the remainder of historic Palestine. Thus Palestinians are willing to accept their own state on only 22% of the land, less than half of what they were awarded by the UN. This is and remains the official Palestinian position, put forward by the PLO and signed to in the Oslo agreements. It is also the position of the Arab League. Even Hamas, the so called bad boys on the Palestinian side, have stated repeatedly that they too would accept this solution.
One would have thought that from the Israeli perspective this was a deal they could not refuse. Recognition by the whole of the Arab world, peace and security and in control of 78% of historic Palestine. But refuse they did. Again and again and right from the beginning in 1967. Everyone knows what the Palestinian position is, Israelis better than most, yet Israel has never, ever, made any attempt to recognize this position. Firstly they formally, though illegally, annexed East Jerusalem into Israel proper. Secondly they built and continue to build, also illegally, settlements in the West Bank. Today there are 275,000 Israelis in more than 230 settlements. No Israeli government has ever proposed to evacuate these settlements. So how can there be a two-state solution? There is no conceivable Palestinian majority which would ever accept anything less than the whole of the West Bank and the whole of East Jerusalem. The Israelis know this. The question is why did the Western powers pretend that two-states was a viable outcome? And why do they continue to do so? The West, especially the USA and the UK urge the Palestinians to compromise. But they know full well that the Palestinians have already compromised and can offer no more. The call for a two-state solution can only be a pretence on the part of the West. A delaying tactic to allow the Israelis to create facts on the ground, i.e. ever more settlements in the West Bank. This is why the many pro-Israelis in the West are so upset. The murderous assault on Gaza has shown vividly to the rest of the world the true nature of Israelis occupation. While the prospect of Bibi Netanyahu as the new Prime Minister of Israel will destroy for ever the notion that Israel is a partner for peace.
It will be interesting to see how the new Obama administration reacts to all of this. The appointment of George Mitchell as envoy to the region is encouraging as is the appointment of Chas. W. Freeman as the new head of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman has previously spoken about this conflict - “Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands is inherently violent. And as long as such Israeli violence against Palestinians continues, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis. The Israeli government understands this. So, when they set the complete absence of Palestinian violence as a precondition for any negotiating process, they are deliberately setting a precondition they know can never be met.” Further he has stated that: “The so-called ‘two-state solution’ is widely seen in the region as too late and too little. Too late, because so much land has been colonized by Israel that there is not enough left for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel; too little, because what is on offer looks to Palestinians more like an Indian reservation than a country.”

What next for Israel?
If the two-state solution is dead, what are the options for the region. Many voices are now recognizing that Israel has but three options, none of them very appealing to most Israelis. These options were succinctly outlined by Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University and long term proponent of the two-state solution.
There are only three alternative options..... First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving "greater Israel" as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.
Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in and out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon's strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu's proposal for "economic peace" without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people -- including Prime Minister Olmert -- compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.
Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over "greater Israel" and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians.
Walt, who still favours the two-state solution, is clearly a worried man. And the reason is that recent events have brought out with great clarity that the reality of a mono-ethnic Jewish state is no longer feasible, legitimate nor desirable. How long, and how many more Israeli war crimes, before governments in the West recognize this reality and work to bring about a democratic bi-national state in the whole of Palestine.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Sea of Poppies

This is a fabulous book with a cast to rival a Cecil B DeMille movie. Set mainly in Calcutta in 1838 with the opium wars with China as a background, we are introduced to a wonderful array of characters who cover the whole gamut of the social classes in India under the Raj. They include Neel Rattan Halder, a Brahmin Raja, his gomusta, Baboo Nob Kissin a celibate follower of Sri Krishna, Deeti, a widowed former opium farmer and Benjamin Burnham, head of a leading trading house involved in the opium trade. And two outsiders, Zachary Reid, an octoroon from Boston and Paulette Lambert, a pretty young mamzelle. The novel tells the stories of how these and other lesser characters intertwine and come together. Most of them end up on board the Ibis, a former blackbirder, which has been refitted to transport indentured labour (coolies) from India to the sugar cane plantations in Mauritius.

The first two parts of the novel develop at a leisurely pace as we are filled in with the background stories of the main characters. There is much excitement as well, as we are shown how, starting from some of the the far flung corners of the world – Boston, London, France, China and the plains of the Ganges - they all end up in Calcutta. Once the voyage of the Ibis begins however, the pace quickens and builds up to an unexpectedly thrilling and suspenseful climax.

Much of the dialogue uses a mixture of words and phrases from various Indian languages given an English veneer. This seems to have been a kind of lingua franca for seafarers around the Indian Ocean. This takes a bit getting used to, but never interrupts the narrative flow and understanding. It does of course add to the sense of being transported into an older and stranger world. An example from early in the novel. “And I'm James Doughty, formerly of the Bengal River Pilot Service; currently bespoke arkati and turnee for Burnham Bros. The Burra Sahib – Ben Burnham that is – asked me to take charge of the ship. He waved airily at the lascar who was standing behind the wheel. That's my seacunny over there; knows exactly what to do – could take you up the Burrempooter with his eyes closed. What'd you say we leave the steering to that badmash and find ourselves a drop of loll-shrub? Loll-shrub? Claret, my boy, the pilot said airily.”

Amitav Ghosh has done much research for the novel, and the book is a treasure trove of detail about the period. Not just the languages spoken at the time, but also detailed descriptions of an opium factory, the inside of a raja's palace, the workings of various seacraft and the daily routines of ordinary people.

Though set in 1838, the novel has resonance for to-day as the story lays bare very clearly the complicity of western powers not just in the drug trade but also in enforcing, brutally if necessary, an economic system which relies on keeping vast numbers of people not just poor but often hungry. Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

This is the first book I have read by Amitav Ghosh, who is a a Bengali writer, though he now lives mainly in New York. A fascinating and moving tale, this is the first part of what is intended to be a trilogy. I am very much looking forward to the next book. As yet I have not been able to find out when the second volume is due for publication.

Sunday 15 February 2009

What next for the banking system?

The banking sector seems to be, like a drunken man, lurching from one crisis to another. With the hapless government looking on as a bewildered bystander. After the latest losses at HBOS will the newly formed Lloyds group have to be taken into national ownership? The Royal bank group continues to announce further losses with resultant massive job losses. Is anyone looking at the bigger picture here? Everyone seems to agree that the existing banking model has run its course, but no-one seems to be planning for what will take its place. The government and the opposition seem to hope that the crisis will eventually die down and things can then go on with as little change as possible. Clearly they and their highly paid advisers have little idea of what has caused the meltdown.

As my dear mother used to say with increasing frequency, it's all down to greed. And she was right. Not simply greed in the sense of wanting more and more money, but greed in the sense of wanting to be more and more powerful. As someone once said, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And of course as a result of the mad scramble to create ever bigger mega banks there were quite a few people with pretty near absolute power over the financial system. Which power they misused in spectacular fashion, bringing down not just themselves but millions of innocent bystanders as well. Talk about collateral damage. The rot started decades ago with the breaking down of the old distinctions between the different parts of the financial sector. Retail banks, investment banks, mortgage providers, insurance providers were all distinct sectors with very little overlap. Each had their own legal framework, which provided some sort of protection for the customers. However with the triumph of the neo-liberal ideology first under Thatcher and Reagan and then continued disastrously under New Labour, all these distinctions were thrown out in the name of liberalisation and free competition. This of course completely ignored the inconvenient fact that when left to themselves companies abhor competition and do their best to get rid of as many competitors as possible by buying up or merging with rivals. This type of expansion has nothing to do with organic growth so beloved of free market prattlers. So we ended up with a few mega big financial monoliths which were involved in all the previously distinct financial services. And of course in order to justify and pay for this expansion they had to change from institutions which provided financial services – bank accounts, mortgages, insurance etc – to those who needed it, to become market companies who had to aggressively sell more and more financial products to anyone and everyone, irrespective of whether they needed such products or not.

If as I suggest the current model is broke, then we need to think fast about what to put in its place. And any alternative needs to be based not on the failed neo-liberal ideology, but on an approach that puts serving people first. If some markets left to themselves proceed to monopoly or near monopoly then we either run these markets as public companies or we impose rigorous regulations to prevent concentrations of power and influence. If financial institutions are primarily about providing services to people and small businesses then there is no rationale for mega companies such as the new Lloyds group or the current Royal Bank group or Barclays for that matter. They should all be nationalised and then split up into smaller companies which can specialise in particular sectors, banking, mortgages, insurance etc. We also need to look at different models of ownership, which again may mean going back to the past. Some companies can be in the commercial sector, though strictly regulated, while others can be mutually owned as were the traditional building societies, while other forms of not for profit ownership can be developed. The creation of such a range of smaller companies each with their own Head Offices would additionally help to stimulate the economy over a wider geographic area. The current failed system has certainly provided enormous riches for a very few number at the top, the Fred Goodwins and his ilk, but is has not produced much in the way of benefits for the general public, either as individual customers or as small businesses. We need real change.

Friday 13 February 2009

Two Don Pasquales

I used to own an audio version of Donizetti's opera Don Pasquale. I can't remember if it was a CD or an LP, it was that long ago. I have no recollection of the production, singers, orchestra or whatever. But I just loved the music. Some great tunes that the story did not matter very much. In this case a rather common tale of how a clever and pretty young woman outwits a dirty old man and marries the handsome man of her dreams. The opera does not seem to get performed much, so it was with great surprise and pleasure that I have been able to see two versions of the opera in the space of a month. The first was a DVD recording from the 2007 production in Geneva, a Christmas present from Emma and the other was a recording from the 2006 Ravenna Festival shown on TV, on the SkyArts channel. Both versions are very good with fine acting and, to my untutored ear, very good singing. The main difference is in the staging, with the Geneva production set in what looks like 1950's Paris while there is a more traditional period setting from Ravenna.

One of the strengths of the Geneva version is the sets and costumes, which are very colourful and go through various changes. We start not in Don Pasquale's house, but among the pavement tables of the spacious Café des Artistes. The predominant colours are greys and blacks, though the set is bright and light. This set remains for scene two in which Norina appears as a painter at her easel. For act two the set has become Don Pasquale's salon, which is decorated and furnished in a very tasteful neoclassical style which emphasizes the wealth and breeding of Pasquale. The colours are again restrained, mainly greys. By the third act this salon looks like a garish ultra modern homage to Joan Miró, full of paintings and sculptures in bright reds, yellows, blues, blacks and whites. The final scene is in the courtyard garden, replete with garish Miró style statue. The set changes work very well and bring a new dimension to the tale. The one slight weakness of the production is that neither Pasquale nor Norina fully look the part. Simone Alaimo plays Don Pasquale as a well dressed and highly cultured and quite handsome gentleman, who in no way looks remotely like he is 70 years old. Partizia Ciofi is an attractive enough Norina, but it is a bit of a stretch to see her as a young widow. However the vitality of the performances and the imaginative sets make this a very enjoyable production. There is even a twist in the tail to end the opera. Instead of a somewhat rueful and dejected Pasquale, this production has the Don sneaking off with one of his (middle aged) maids and the final spotlight is not on Norina and Ernesto but on Pasquale as he kisses his new love.

The Ravenna version benefits from a believable cast. Claudio Desderi as Don Pasquale really looks like a rather tired 70 year old, with his white hair, glasses and slightly corpulent waistline. While Laura Giardino is a most attractive and young looking Norina. The other two main characters, Francisco Gatell as Ernesto and Mario Cassi as Dr Malatesta are also good in their roles. The sets and costumes have a non specific early nineteenth century look to them. Most of the action takes place in or in front of Don Pasquale's main room. The staging is quite unusual in that there are no walls to the room. The doors and some paintings are held in place as hangings and the gaps appear as black walls but it is just very dark lighting or the lack of of. The little amount of furniture is pretty non-descript and overall the pervading mood is dark and sombre. Only the light coloured dresses of Norina brighten the stage up a bit. This mood of darkness suits the production which highlights the harshness in the way Pasquale is treated as much as the overall comedy of the piece. Only in the finale is there some brightness as a blue sky appears as the backdrop. A fitting image for Pasquale's “enlightenment”. In this production the focus is firmly on the happy young couple, while Pasquale is left to reflect on the wisdom of the moral of the tale - that an old man who marries is looking for trouble.

Two lovely productions and I am already looking forward to watching both versions again.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Is it all due to the Credit Crunch?

Understanding the current economic and financial crisis is quite a challenge. The original emphasis on the sub-prime mortgage market in the USA and latterly the emphasis on the Credit Crunch seem to me to confuse the issue rather than offer any enlightenment. Why would a collapse in the sub-prime part of the US mortgage market lead to the near collapse of the global financial sector? And is there really a credit crunch?

To help me begin to get some kind of hold on the issues I first turned to Wikipedia for their take on the Credit Crunch. There I found the following: “credit crunch (also known as a credit squeeze or credit crisis) is a reduction in the general availability of loans (or credit) or a sudden tightening of the conditions required to obtain a loan from the banks. The crunch is generally caused by a reduction in the market prices of previously "overinflated" assets and refers to the financial crisis that results from the price collapse.” So it seems the credit crunch is a result of the reduction in prices of overinflated assets. And how did assets get overinflated in the first place? Easy credit anyone?

According to economist Nouriel Roubini, one of the few economists to predict the current mess, the world has been awash with easy credit for decades. As he wrote in January 2009 for Foreign Policy magazine: "This crisis is not merely the result of the U.S. housing bubble’s bursting or the collapse of the United States’ subprime mortgage sector. The credit excesses that created this disaster were global. There were many bubbles, and they extended beyond housing in many countries to commercial real estate mortgages and loans, to credit cards, auto loans, and student loans. There were bubbles for the securitized products that converted these loans and mortgages into complex, toxic, and destructive financial instruments. And there were still more bubbles for local government borrowing, leveraged buyouts, hedge funds, commercial and industrial loans, corporate bonds, commodities, and credit-default swaps—a dangerous unregulated market wherein up to $60 trillion of nominal protection was sold against an outstanding stock of corporate bonds of just $6 trillion."

Wow, let's just read that again - $60 trillion of nominal protection was sold against an outstanding stock of corporate bonds of just $6 trillion! In terms of the likes of you and I what did all this mean? The Economist in a November 20th 2008 article suitably titled The end of the affair, informed us that: “USA household debt as a percentage of annual disposable personal income was 127% at the end of 2007, versus 77% in 1990.” And according to Robert Peston in an online BBC presentation the ratio of personal, corporate and public sector debt to GDP is 300%. This means that 20% of our total economic output goes on simply paying the interest on what we collectively owe. In addition we still have to repay the original loans. Don't panic, don't panic.

The result of all this easy credit is that globally we suffer from overproduction. As that grand old man John Kenneth Galbraith informed us many decades ago, the capitalist system tends to overproduce anything and everything. Cars, trucks, I pods, computers, you name it and we can and usually do overproduce it. And the only way that can go on is by ever more credit. Which of course is unsustainable in the long run. Or, like just now.

Which brings us back to the credit crunch. Or does it? The banks continue to claim that they are in fact lending. Seems to me it is less of a credit crunch than a solvency crunch. With so many people in debt, consumption just has to be cut back. Which in turn leads to cuts in production – car makers lay off workers, high street stores close. And banks don't want to lend to bankrupt consumers and businesses any longer. And why should they? If it was unsustainable lending that got us into this mess why would anyone think that even more lending will get us out of it?

Collectively we need to consume and spend less on products. Of course, some of us never spent that much in the first place, so we are not best pleased about calls to tighten the belt and other suchlike calls. If there has to be an adjustment in the UK, and there has to be, then let those who benefitted most from the rising inequalities in income and wealth over the Thatcher and New Labour decades be the first to make the adjustments. As a little suggestion, a fairer tax system would enable all those losing their current jobs to be retrained and re-employed in the public service sector providing not just employment but a real improvement in the quality of those things that most people value, either for themselves or their families – better schools and colleges, better health care, better care for the elderly and so on. The wealth is there, but is the political will?

Sunday 8 February 2009

Three Films

I have been to the cinema to see three films already this year. Must do this more often if they are all of the calibre of these three.

Frost/Nixon tells the story behind the famous 1977 TV programmes in which David Frost interviewed former President Richard Nixon. Though I was around at the time I must say I have little recollection of the event other than that I was aware that it took place. I don't remember ever having seen the interviews. So I came to this film without much background and not expecting too much. I was very pleasantly surprised. The film is very good with some outstanding performances. Though shot on location the key moments are all shot inside – hotel rooms or someone's living room. This gives the film a slight claustrophobic feel to it, as if you are eavesdropping. Michael Sheen is excellent as David Frost, playing him as a over confident playboy. It is not a particularly flattering portrayal, though Frost does come good in the end. The supporting cast is also very good, especially Matthew Macfadyen as a very convincing young John Birt and Kevin Bacon as Nixon's loyal protector. While Rebecca Hall is fast becoming my favourite actress – looking forward to seeing her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. However towering above them all is Frank Langella in what must be the performance of his life as Richard Nixon. He doesn't have to do much in the way of action, but his voice, hand movements and his facial ticks are just perfect. He almost makes you feel sorry for Nixon. Almost, but remember the guy was a bastard. Nixon remains the true progenitor of the modern Republican party and the horrors of the George W presidency. Very good film though.

Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderful film. Shot at a terrific pace with a loud, vibrant musical score the film keeps you engrossed from start to finish. You just do not know what to expect next. Scenes move from tender playfulness to violent chases in quick succession. Set mostly in Mumbai's slumlands the film is mainly the backstory to the hero's successes in answering the questions on Who wants to be a Millionaire. The hero is of course not really a hero, but a mere chai wallah in a call centre – Jamal Malik. Essentially the film is a love story and a fairy story in which innocence triumphs over evil. In successive flashbacks we are shown the story of Jamal and his tough brother Salim as they emerge from the horrors of poverty in the slums of Mumbai. Salim escapes into the world of gangsters while Jamal ends up working in a call centre, but only as a tea boy. What keeps Jamal going is his love for Latika, a beautiful girl he helped when they were both children. The acting throughout is very good and the child actors in particular gave very moving performances. This is very much an ensemble piece in which no-one stood out apart from Anil Kapoor as the extrovert host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The rest of the cast all give very restrained and convincing performances. This is a hard hitting film which does not flinch from not just the proverty, but the brutality, the religious strife (as a Muslim, Jamal's mother is killed in an anti Muslim riot) and the corruption which underlies India's economic boom. The filming (or should that be cinematography) captures all of this and also the vibrancy and vivid colours of India. All in all this is a great film.

The Reader is the film version of the novel of the same title. I read the book a couple of years back so I was quite familiar with the story which tries to convey how post war Germans confronted the horrors of Nazism and in particular the Holocaust. From what I can remember the film is a pretty fair reflection of the book. This is a very powerful film and the vividness of the characters makes the film for me more compelling than the book – though I must reread the book to confirm this. The acting is excellent throughout. Kate Winslet as Hannah and Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael both put in very restrained, even understated performances. For me the revelation was David Kross, who gives a very sensitive portrayal of the young Michael as he develops from the rather gauche, innocent 15 year old to the maturing law student. Apart from a few early scenes shot in summer sunshine during the brief love affair between Hannah and Michael, the rest of the film is shot in either pouring rain or cold winter. Bitter weather which sets the tone for the inability of any the main characters to express their real feelings. This is quite a disturbing film as there is no sense of resolution at the end and the predominant mood is one of emptiness. This sense of emptiness comes from the moral ambiguity at its heart. Why did Hannah become and remain a guard in concentration camp? Is her shame at her illiteracy an excuse? An explanation? And Michael's refusal to meet Hannah during and after the trial – was this shame at his relationship, a feeling of guilt by association? As one of the legal students cries out What is there to understand? They murdered hundreds of Jews. What is there to understand? Can one fully understand and fully condemn at the same time? This is Michael's dilemma. The book and the film don't really provide an answer, perhaps because there is no answer – only individual stories with all their ambiguities. A compelling film which left everyone at the DCA in a state of stunned silence.

Friday 6 February 2009

Are some of our MPs shy?

I ask this question as I have found it difficult to get a reply from three MPs. I watched the recent debate on 15th January in Parliament on Gaza and was quite pleased that in general there was a lot of support for the Palestinians. However three MPs spoke in support of the Israeli aggression and tried to justify the Israeli action. I found their arguments very unconvincing as all three relied on Israeli propaganda and assertion rather than fact. I therefore wrote to all three challenging the key points in their respective speeches. In each case I included at least one question that I wanted them to answer. To date, two have not bothered to reply at all, while one responded with an out of office reply which included the following: It is a parliamentary rule that I can only correspond with my own constituents.

Perhaps the others are hiding behind this convention. In my emails I purposely included the following in the hope of avoiding such a refusal: Though I am not a constituent of yours I feel I am entitled to write to you and to ask for your position as this is clearly not a constituency issue but an international issue in which the UK has played a key role and could still play an important role.

It should also be noted that none of the three MPs mentioned their constituency in their speeches not did they make any reference to any of their constituents. For the record the questions that I posed are:

I would be grateful to know your personal position regarding the demand for Israel to return to the pre June 1967 borders – do you accept this?

Do you share this Israeli policy of assassinating all Hamas leaders?

The Israeli occupation includes the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem. Do you approve of this annexation, carried out without the consent of its inhabitants?

The Israeli occupation includes the hundreds of thousand of illegal Israeli settlers who have confiscated Palestinian land and have criss-crossed the West Bank with a series of Jewish only roads. Do you approve of these illegal settlements, carried out without the consent of the Palestinians who lived there?

I need to contact these MPs again and perhaps follow up with a letter to Mr Speaker.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

The BBC and impartiality

The BBC seems to be very unwilling to answer questions about its impartiality in relation to the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. In response to emails about the BBC's refusal to air the Disaster Emergency Committee's appeal for aid for Gaza I got a reply which referred me to comments by Mark Thompson, in which he made clear that the only justification for not airing the appeal was that broadcasting the appeal would run the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. (my emphasis)

I then wrote back to challenge this claim to impartiality as the BBC's coverage has always seemed to me to be very pro Israel. The latest reply came from Nick Tarry of the BBC Management Team which was very terse: Peter Horrocks has given his response to your email, explaining the BBC's position. If you remain dissatisfied and would like to pursue your complaint it is open to you to appeal to the BBC Trust.

I was somewhat surprised that the BBC had made no attempt to answer either of the substantive points I made in my email. I have now written to the BBC Trust in the hope that someone there will give me some answers.

In my emails I raised two aspects of the BBC's coverage which to my mind showed clear partiality in favour of Israel. The first related to the seemingly daily appearance on radio and TV of Mark Regev the spokesperson for the Prime Minister of Israel. If the BBC had covered the conflict in an impartial way then I would have expected that more or less equal air time would have been given to the spokesperson(s) of the Hamas leadership. I appreciate that due to the Israeli bombings it was difficult to get access to Ismail Haniya, Prime Minister of Palestine and Hamas leader in Gaza. However, the leader of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khalid Meshal, is based in Damascus in Syria, and therefore there would have been no difficulty in interviewing him or his spokesperson(s). I did not watch every BBC broadcast so I do not know how many times Hamas leadership spokesperson(s) appeared during the conflict. I therefore asked the following question: Could you confirm that as part of the BBC's commitment to impartiality, that Hamas leadership spokesperson(s) did in fact appear approximately as often and in equally prime time broadcasts as Mark Regev? If not, could you explain how this demonstrates the BBC's impartiality?

The second aspect of the coverage that I raised was the choice of Israel as the base for the BBC's correspondents. As they could not get people into Gaza, due to Israeli refusal, why did the BBC not base its team in a third country in order to demonstrate its impartiality? Jordan, for example, where reasonable facilities for broadcasting are available in Amman. My final question was: Could you explain how the decision to base the BBC's team in Israel, one party to the conflict, demonstrates its commitment to impartiality?

I am not confident of getting much of a reply.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney

I have just finished the Tenderness of Wolves, which is the February book for the reading group. I enjoyed the book tremendously. Set in and around Georgian Bay in Canada in 1867 the book gives a wonderful feeling for the wildness and wilderness of Canada. A multi-layered story which features Scottish immigrants and native Indians as the main protagonists it is part thriller, part adventure and part love story or love stories. However it is mainly about enduring and somehow surviving, whatever the difficulties. Though the book is 450 pages long, it is well written, with no longueurs to speak of. It certainly gripped me all the way through. My one quibble with the book is its structure. It begins and ends with the story as seen by Mrs Ross. And throughout her account is always told in the first person. The rest of the story is narrated in the third person. Not sure why and not totally convinced it works. Still it doesn't detract from a very good read. Recommended.