Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Thank you, Oliver Letwin, for making Tory views clear

What a fine row has blown up following publication of Cabinet papers from 1985.

The controversy has focused, in particular, on a memo signed by Oliver Letwin and a colleague. It advised the then Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, not to respond to that year’s riots by increasing investment in black communities, because the money would be frittered away on the “disco and drug trade.”

Those bright young men apparently viewed the proposal for a £10m communities programme aimed at dealing with inner-city problems, as little more than a means to “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops”.

Tottenham riots in 1985
To discover that the Tories were racist in 1985 is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. It would be much more interesting to be told that they were still racist today, but we’ll no doubt have to wait a couple of decades or so to have that suspicion confirmed.

What makes this memo interesting is that Oliver Letwin is still firmly in politics, an MP and Minister, and a leading adviser to the present Prime Minister David Cameron, as he was to the Prime Minister back then.

It isn’t even the comments on black communities that I find most interesting. What he has to say about whites is, in many ways, far more illuminating still. He was clear that blacks oughtn’t to benefit from the riots, in particular because “lower-class unemployed white people had lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on anything like the present scale.”

What’s so striking about these words is that Letwin clearly meant them as a compliment. It’s a good thing, in his world view, for people to accept life in “appalling slums.” They know their place, no doubt, and don’t disturb their betters by complaining to angrily which, in contrast to those nasty black rioters, makes them fine people. Not actually fine enough for a Tory government to want to help them at all, but fine enough to win applause, in a slightly condescending way, from the betters who keep them in their slums and are pleased not to be bothered by them too much.

It’s become something of a commonplace of English politics in recent years to assert that not enough is done for the white working class. There’s a lot of truth in that statement, if it’s taken at surface value – taken to mean exactly what it says. Unfortunately, it’s often code for “we really ought to accommodate the xenophobic and often racist views that certain elements within the white working class express.” Organisations like the far-right UKIP like to draw on that kind of bitterness. Sadly, however, many on the right of the Labour Party would like to counter UKIP by pandering to its anti-immigrant policies.

The approach that would allow Labour to remain true to its roots is quite different. And Letwin’s remarks show us the way. He talks about “lower-class unemployed white people” living in “appalling slums.” What does that suggest for Labour? It points us towards both a positive and a negative message.

The positive message is that we should push forward our commitment to build an economy that doesn’t leave you unemployed, or even unable to live adequately in a job, as happens today. And a commitment to building more, decent, affordable housing so that no one is forced to settle for a dire slum existence.

The negative message? That Letwin has let the cat out of the bag. Labour needs to hammer the point that the Tory Party’s perfectly happy to leave people unemployed, living in squalid slum environments. So if you want Labour to help you out of those conditions – stop voting Tory or UKIP and elect a Labour government to help us all.

Good of Letwin to have made that clear.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Global warming: the deniers may be shrinking in numbers, but they're keeping the volume up...

It was no doubt naive on my part to imagine that fewer and fewer people could seriously still be denying the reality of climate change. You know, I thought it might be the Trumps of this world who know no better, but few others. The overwhelming consensus building up among scientists, and the constantly growing frequency of damaging weather events that all seem to point in the same direction, seemed to make denial untenable.

Well, I was wrong. Or, if I was right, I had underestimated the sheer vociferousness of the dwindling band left. They seem more than capable of making up in sheer volume for their shrinking numbers.

I’d made a couple of references on Twitter to the way the floods in England seemed to provide additional evidence for global warming’s grip. And I found the deniers coming down on my head like a torrent of brimstone.

One of the best responses pointed me at a post by NASA concerning the ice cap at the Antarctic. This, it seems, has been growing, not shrinking.

Let me repeat that. There’s more ice and snow at the Antarctic than there has been for ages. So I could stuff that in my pipe and smoke it, because it certainly refutes the notion of global warming, doesn’t it?

Antarctic sea ice at its greatest extent recorded, in 2014
The previous maximum is shown in red
Well, no, actually. My correspondent didn’t just put up the picture, he pointed me at the whole article. And I read it. Here’s how it starts:

Sea ice surrounding Antarctica reached a new record high extent this year, covering more of the southern oceans than it has since scientists began a long-term satellite record to map sea ice extent in the late 1970s. The upward trend in the Antarctic, however, is only about a third of the magnitude of the rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

The new Antarctic sea ice record reflects the diversity and complexity of Earth’s environments, said NASA researchers. Claire Parkinson, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has referred to changes in sea ice coverage as a microcosm of global climate change. Just as the temperatures in some regions of the planet are colder than average, even in our warming world, Antarctic sea ice has been increasing and bucking the overall trend of ice loss.

“The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming. Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent,” Parkinson said.

So the phenomenon of Antarctic ice growth is (a) too little to compensate for ice loss in the Arctic, and (b) a local event compatible with global warming overall.

Local cooling within global warming? Most of us have got used to this paradox. It seems the deniers struggle with it.

What’s more, the article is from 2014. A year on, NASA reported, “2015 Antarctic maximum sea ice extent breaks streak of record highs.” My denier was quoting last year’s news; this year’s lends itself even less well to his argument.

In fact, he decided to hammer his point with another NASA study on the sheer extent of the growth of the Antarctic ice cap. Again, the headline seems to strengthen his case: “Mass gains of Antarctic ice sheet greater than losses.” The devil, for him, was in the body of the article, when it quoted glaciologist Jay Zwally:

But it might only take a few decades for Antarctica’s growth to reverse, according to Zwally. “If the losses of the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica continue to increase at the same rate they’ve been increasing for the last two decades, the losses will catch up with the long-term gain in East Antarctica in 20 or 30 years — I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”

What this suggests, according to Zwally, is that the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was mistaken to think that Antarctic ice melt was adding to rising sea levels.

“The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimeters per year away,” Zwally said. “But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimeters per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for.”

My correspondent must have focused on the fact that the IPCC had got it wrong. He didn’t take into account that the error was on a matter of details. Overall, the picture is if anything more worrying: if the Antarctic isn’t contributing, then the effect of other causes of sea level rise must be even greater than we feared.

Now, I don’t want global warming to happen. I take no joy from the fact that reading the evidence thoroughly only confirms the bad news – after all, it is bad news. I wish we could deny what’s happening. Im simply amazed by the extent to which deniers are prepared to go to support their rejection of evidence.

It’s faith, and faith at its worst. It sees what it wants to see, and reads what it wants to read. And if it gets its way, it’ll lead the planet, blindfolded, into desperate straits.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Looking forward in the spirit of Pratchett

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.

The world
belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!

And at the other end of the bar the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carelessly knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass) or who had no glass at all, because he was at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman's eye.

Ah, the voice of Terry Pratchett. Communicating truth through humour. Presenting through his imaginary Discworld a picture of our own planet, distorted only so far as its most essential characteristics have been blown up to make them unmissable. Appealing characteristics as well as blemishes, even if there are more of the latter,

Since the superb yearly gift of a new Pratchett novel has now come to its fatal end, re-reading is now my only option. I’m laughing my way through The Truth at the moment, with its insightful treatment of the role and development of the press. But nothing in it outshines the glass-half-full quotation. And it just seems to become more and more apposite.

Another Pratchett novel, living up to its title
I was particularly struck by it when I read a post from a friend calling for sympathy for those, like doctors or petrol station attendants, who have to keep working through Christmas days while so many of us are enjoying time with our families. That reminded me of a young woman I met, thirty years ago, at a supermarket checkout on New Year’s day. Her looks betrayed her state, and when I put it to her she readily admitted that she was badly hungover from the night before. Even so, she was determined to do ten hours of work on that public holiday, because she was being paid triple time. Recently married, she and her husband were busily saving for a house purchase.

UK overtime payments have declined steadily since those days. Partly, this reflects a decrease in the number of overtime hours worked, which may well be a good thing but, anecdotally at least, I’m coming across increasing numbers of people being asked to work overtime for no raised level of payment, or indeed only for time off in lieu. The woman with the hangover might not, today, find that working on New Year’s day was quite as remunerative as it was thirty years ago.

This may be one of the reasons why the British Social Attitudes survey has found that, where 74% of people in 1986 would have recommended to a newly-married couple that they buy a house as soon as possible, the percentage had fallen to 53% in 2012. Britain is regressing towards an older dispensation in which home ownership was a privilege of the few, not a right of the many.

It’s no surprise to discover that the High Pay Commission finds that the remuneration of Chief Executives of our biggest companies is set to grow from 145 times the average salary in 2010 to 214 by 2020. It seems that the owners of the large glasses that are never full enough, are seeing their share growing even more starkly than before; meanwhile, at the other end of the bar, there are more and more people finding it difficult to catch the barman’s eye.

It all sounds pretty hopeless. Fortunately, there is a glimmer at least of optimism still. Labour has a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is infuriating a lot of large-glass holders by refusing to stop speaking out, with energy and determination, for those with small glasses or no glass at all. Among those he infuriates are the supporters of the now old-fashioned New Labour school. When they ran the party, they were, as Peter Mandelson so aptly put it, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” They were, unfortunately, just as relaxed about many others remaining filthy poor.

Their replacement offers a chance that we might be able to deal with the empty glasses. Perhaps that’s no bad note on which to end the year in which Pratchett left us, and prepare to push forward in his spirit in 2016.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Christmas message to a "Christian" Britain. Seriously, Cameron?

David Cameron has shared his wisdom with us in his Christmas message to the UK. It seems that, here in Britain, we’re about to “celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope.”

Aaah. It’s touching isn’t it?

According to children’s charity Barnardo’s, 3.7 million British children now live in poverty. Infant mortality is 10% higher in poor families than among the rest of the population, and children under three in those families are two and a half times as likely to have a chronic disease. These children also tend to underperform at school, so the chances are that their children too will be brought up in poverty.

Not a lot of hope there. Not much goodwill towards them, either. And, with growth forecasts for the UK revised downwards, hope is shrinking fast too.

The spirit of Christmas Present.
As long as you don't actually need a present.
Just a month before Christmas, Cameron appeared in the House of Commons pleading for authority to take military action against the ISIS death cult in Syria. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where NATO is trying to withdraw to leave Afghans running their own affairs, six US soldiers died recently in an insurgent bombing, while British forces are being sent back into action in Helmand Province. They will be helping an apparently desperate struggle to save Sangin city, with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

So not much peace or mercy there. In fact, I’d rather hoped at the end of 2014, that this year might be Britain’s first without war since 1914; well, that didn’t happen. So this “peaceful” country has racked up something of a record: not a single year’s peace in 102.

Cameron has no difficulty mouthing sentimental platitudes about the country he leads, though they have nothing to do with the reality of the nation on his watch.

But then that’s obvious from his other words. He’s once again described Britain as a Christian nation. Clearly, this supposed Christianity has nothing to do with Christian values – as we’ve seen, there’s not much compassion for the poor, nor much desire for peace. But then there isn’t much evidence of Christianity in religious practice either: we heard only days ago that Anglicans are planning to close down certain churches since congregations have fallen to single figures in many cases. Overall, it seems that only about one in ten of the population attends a Christian church service on a regular basis.

That doesn’t stop many Brits describing themselves as Christian. In the latest census, 59% of people in Britain and Wales described themselves as Christian, and 54% in Scotland. The British Social Attitudes survey came up with a lower, and probably more reliable figure, of 46% Christians, against 48% describing themselves as irreligious.

Still, even that figure seems to overstate significantly the level of Christian commitment, compared to actual religious practice. Which maybe explains Cameron’s message: he joins the tradition of many of his compatriots, to be long on words and short on practice.

Cameron’s talk of peace, mercy, goodwill and hope is welcome. But given what he’s actually doing, it strikes me that getting much of any of them has to start with getting rid of him.

Now, that would be real note of hope to celebrate in this holiday season.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Ships that pass in the night aren't always sad

The expression “ships that pass in the night” has a pathetic ring to it. But sometimes it’s better to pass a ship, even without stopping, than be isolated on a barren ocean.

While I was a student, I enjoyed what I suppose one could only call an episodic friendship. It was strictly limited in time, and even more restricted in space: we met each year, for three years, at the annual get together of our college department, at a former royal hunting lodge in Windsor Great Park. That’s the park in which the Queen’s home at Windsor Castle is set.

Windsor Great Park: good place for a weekend
I don’t even remember the friend’s name, so I’ll call him Steve here. Our college – Birkbeck, University of London – taught degrees by part-time study, with lectures between 6:00 and 9:00 in the evening. It therefore catered for students I found particularly interesting: adults, many in the forties, people who were already in mid-career, who’d lived a bit and learned a bit. Or not, in some cases. The oldest student was a wonderful woman who, though English, revelled in a Polish countess’s title (through her late husband) and was the sprightliest woman in her seventies I’ve ever met.

Steve had left school at sixteen, sick of the whole education game. His father had found him an opening as a trainee borough surveyor (you may know the old joke, she was only the mayor’s daughter but she let the borough survey ‘er, but he wasn’t like that). By the time I met him, he’d been in his profession for a quarter of a century and become the youngest borough surveyor in London.

He’d then decided that learning was actually fun. He spent some years getting some “A”-level, school leaver certificates, and then decided that it would be fun to do a French degree. Birkbeck College was the obvious place. He was a year ahead of me, so our paths barely crossed in college, but we both attended the weekends away at Windsor Great Park. And each year we did the same thing: we met up in the evening and drank a bottle one or other of us had brought (or possibly the bottles we’d both brought) and talked the night away until the small hours. Alone: everyone else sensibly went to bed.

Steve was married but the relationship had grown sterile. He’d met a woman at Birkbeck and they had launched on a great love. A hopeless love, as it happened. She too was married, and each of them reached a point where they were ready to leave their partner for the other, but sadly not at the same time. I don’t know whether they ever ended up together, but certainly at the time I knew him, the prospects weren’t rosy.

His wife had given him a hard time over his behaviour, and he’d had to admit that he hadn’t exactly shone in the morals stake. On the other hand, he didn’t accept her accusation that he’d had casual sex – he’d fallen in love and focused all his attention on just that one woman.

One day he was looking for some college notes of his and, as he hunted through drawer after drawer, he came across a diary.

“You didn’t read it?” I asked, appalled.

“Of course I did,” he told me, “I wasn’t going to let curiosity gnaw away at me. At first I thought it was about me, but then I realised it wasn’t. She’d been having a pretty torrid affair for as long as I had. Worse still, she’d even had a one-night stand with another guy. Despite all that stuff about me and casual sex…”

“What did you do?” I asked increasingly horrified.

“Well, I went downstairs and found her. And told her ‘I’ve been reading this.’”

“Oh no! How did she react?”

“Oh, she wasn’t pleased.” He chuckled. “People never are pleased when you catch them out in their hypocrisies.

I wonder how things worked out for Steve. But I don’t really need to know. What I remember is three rather good, if slightly drunken, nights with a lot of laughter, spread over three years, nearly forty years.

Our ships passed in the night, but not without a little bit of a party as we drifted together and apart. And again. And again.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Labour in Luton listens to CND: it may be time for a new direction

It was good to see Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), talking to Luton Labour Party this week.

It would have been better if we’d pulled 200 people together to listen to her, instead of a fifth or sixth that number, but at least the gathering made up in lively discussion and good temper for the relative shortage of numbers. And, in any case, it’s all about sowing seeds that can grow later: the conversation may well have stimulated others, as it stimulated me, to do more towards dumping nuclear weapons. 

Especially with a speaker so full of insight, so eloquent but unaggressive in making a crucial case.

Kate Hudson of CND: insightful and convincing
This is a topical question in Britain right now since the government want a vote in 2016 on a new generation of submarines to carry the British Trident missiles. Hudson was with us to make the case for voting against renewal of the system. I knew the cost had gone up to astronomic levels, but it came as a shock when she started talking actual numbers. She reckons that with the running costs, the submarines would set us back something like £183 billion over thirty years, at present estimates – and, as she pointed out, estimates in these matters always seems to rise.

This is for a system which, as many pointed out, is fundamentally unusable. The only circumstances in which the missiles might be fired would those of all-out war between the major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, which would imply suicide by the human race. If the radiation didn’t kill survivors of the initial conflict, the subsequent nuclear winter certainly would. We have to maintain the stance that we would use the weapons, or deny them of the little deterrent value they have; arguably, it would be honest, above all to ourselves, to admit that there would be no point in ever using them, and disarm, as we committed to do – this was something of a refrain to which Hudson regularly returned – back in 1968 when we signed up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By that treaty, ratified in 1970, the non-nuclear nations agreed not to take up the weapons, in return for the recognised nuclear nations doing away with them. Not one yet has. It is perhaps time that one, at least, did.

Besides, £6 billion a year’s a tidy sum. You could build ten hospitals each year, to the most luxurious standards, and still have some change left over. Alternatively, you could increase defence spending by 13%, which would pay for an awful lot of additional soldiers and their equipment. Those alternatives defined the main positions at the meeting.

Judging by the contributions made to the discussion, the meeting was overwhelmingly against renewal. There were, however, some voices raised in dissent, who favoured hanging on to the Trident system. Even within what seemed to be a large majority, there were two schools of thought. One was firmly pacifist, and included Hudson herself, who would have gone for the hospitals or, as she argued, for greater expenditure on education: building a highly educated workforce would, she felt, put Britain in a far stronger position internationally than nuclear weapons provide.

The other school, to which I slightly shamefacedly belong, believes that we still need defence. Even that there are occasions when, as and only as a last resort, war is justified. While I feel that firing in missiles is a self-deluding as keeping the Trident system – it makes us feel we’re doing something, when in reality we’re achieving nothing – I do understand that we have to be ready to use military means against ISIS. Effective means, however, in preference to empty gestures.

Well, as Hudson also argued, one of the effects of including the cost of Trident within the Defence Budget was to impose cuts elsewhere – amounting to some 20,000 soldiers. She told us that, if we believe in the need for military resources, we could hardly feel comforted by that kind of reduction.

The picture that emerged, for me at least, underlined clearly the uselessness of renewing the Trident submarine system. Indeed, the only argument that seemed to remain standing in its favour, was that it gave Britain as a nation far greater status in the world.

Ten hospitals a year? 20,000 soldiers? These seem high prices to pay for national status, aren’t they?

Still, we in the Labour Party have our work cut out to persuade not just the voters, but even our own organisation, that this is the case. Let’s not forget that the most powerful appeal in favour for the status argument was made, at a Labour Party conference on 4 October 1957, by a man many of us admire profoundly: the father of the NHS, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Speaking against a motion on unilateral disarmament, he declared:

It is … not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed... But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. ... And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.

Commitment to nuclear weapons is deeply entrenched, even on our side of the fence. But listen to Kate Hudson and you may well come round to the belief that it’s time to break at last from Nye’s position.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Knave or fool: David Cameron and climate change

It seemed an extraordinary boon: this morning, the cost of fuel at my favourite petrol station was below a pound a litre, for the first time in years.

It makes the point about the glut of oil on world markets. There’s so much of it around that prices are just collapsing. In principle, that would be good. If we were really beginning to wean ourselves off the stuff, supply would indeed outstrip demand. Weaning, however, seems unlikely to be happening. If there’s a drop in consumption at all, it’s much more likely to be down to economic slowdown rather than changing habits.

On the other hand, we can take a great deal of satisfaction from one recent event. On 12 December, the climate change conference adopted the Paris Agreement and, for the first time, gave the world some hope that nations at last had the will to tackle global warming. As UK Prime Minister David Cameron, said the accord represented “a huge step forward in helping to secure the future of our planet”.

Indeed, he went on to point out how the government he leads is working towards achieving the objectives of the agreement:

Britain is already leading the way in work to cut emissions and help less developed countries cut theirs and this global deal now means that the whole world has signed to play its part in halting climate change.

This makes it all the more interesting that less than a week later, his government won parliamentary approval for an extension of fracking operations in the country. In particular, it allows fracking under national parks or sites of special scientific interest.

Area newly authorised for fracking
Just what we need?
So at a time when there’s a glut of oil on the world market, and within days of a new agreement aimed at reducing dependence on the fuel, Cameron wants to see companies extracting more of it in Britain. He wants that to happen despite the oil glut, the possible damage to some extraordinary parts of the country, and his warm words welcoming the Paris Agreement.

His government followed up that initiative with another which would cut the subsidy previously available in Britain for solar panels by 65%. So Cameron’s government also wants to reduce the pursuit of alternatives to fossil fuels, just as he authorises further operations to extract more of them. But “Britain is already leading the way in work to cut emissions”?

Is it simply that he’s completely brazen in his hypocrisy? Or is he just too intellectually challenged to see his own incoherence?

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Shocking internet searches, hagiographic biographies and inspiring teachers. All linked

Beware the internet search: it can sometimes shock and sadden.

And another fundamental truth: out and out partisanship for the subject can make for the most exciting teaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed “there is properly no history, only biography.” I’ve always been interested in history, so I’ve very properly turned my attention to biographies in recent years – reading them or listening to them, a great way to enhance such experiences as walking a dog, or even more fulfilling, washing floors.

My interest in American history (it’s good, because there isn’t too much of it) inevitably led me to consume biographies of such extraordinary figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. My sympathies have tended to be with the Jeffersonians, with their passionate commitment to democracy and human rights. My son Michael, on the other hand, has a soft spot for the man who became and remained their nemesis during his lifetime: Alexander Hamilton.

Eventually I felt that I really had to turn my attention a biography of Hamilton too, and chose one by Ron Chernow, who wrote so masterfully about Hamilton’s mentor, George Washington. I’m enjoying the imaginatively titled Alexander Hamilton.

How massively have I had to change my viewpoint. I knew, of course, that Jefferson and Madison (Washington too, as it happens) were slaveowners, but I was unaware that Hamilton, on the other hand, was a passionate abolitionist throughout his life. Who then, as Chernow asks, was truly committed to human rights?

It’s always good to have your presumptions challenged. On the other hand, there were times when I began to despair of Chernow’s tone. Jefferson and Madison, as well as being denounced as hypocrites, also come across as conniving, cowardly and backstabbing. This began to feel over the top, so I dug out my copy of Lynne Cheney’s James Madison, a life reconsidered, if only so I could contrast accounts of the same events from the two points of view. Cheney, of course, is as hagiographic towards her subject as Chernow is to his. In fact, I had to smile when I came across her description of Jefferson and Madison as “the two greatest minds of the eighteenth century.”

So we’re setting aside men such as Hamilton, are we? To say nothing of Newton, Locke, Leibniz or Voltaire among so many others?

It’s interesting how biographers tend to become partisans of their subjects. You don’t have to. My PhD thesis turned into Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis: an intellectual biography and I have to say, the more I found out about Maupertuis, the less I liked the man – prickly, self-aggrandising, paranoid and not above being a bully – so I felt no need to canonise him. Equally, I recently enjoyed A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert Merry, who doesn’t pull his punches concerning the faults of the eleventh US President (he was prickly, paranoid and not above being a bully, though perhaps less inclined to self-aggrandisement.)

Still, one has to admire teachers who become so enthusiastic about their subject that they identify personally with it. A man I greatly admired did just that in lectures about the French Renaissance writers, at what was then called Bedford College, University of London, which he allowed me to attend although I was a student at another college.

He gave a series of classes about Michel de Montaigne during which he gave marks of extreme humility. Most striking was his comment that he only felt qualified to teach the course by his profound sense of inadequacy to the task. Now, Montaigne wrote a series of pieces he called “Essays”, the first time the word was used for such writing – so he’s responsible for that bane of schoolchildren’s lives from his days to ours. But at his time, an “essay” was a trial, in the sense of a trying out – “these are the trials of my natural faculties” he says of his book. So everything he wrote was tentative. Indeed, I know of no author who used expressions equivalent to “on the other hand” more than he did.

Montaigne: the inventor of the essay
Ushering in centuries of pain for schoolkids everywhere
When the lecturer finished the classes on Montaigne, he switched his attention to the poetry of Pierre de Ronsard and introduced the subject by informing us that we should immediately forget everything we had ever read or heard about Ronsard, because everyone else had got him entirely wrong. Ronsard, as it happens, believed that no one had written anything that could be properly called French poetry before him. He saw himself as the greatest poet since Classical Antiquity, and probably superior to the Greeks and Romans too.

It was a privilege to be taught by a man who was so entirely adopted the personalities of his subjects.

It occurred to me that I ought to look him up to see what had become of him. I could only remember his first name, Malcolm. But google is unbeatable. “Malcolm Bedford Ronsard” immediately gave me a series of hits. Sadly, the first of these was a 1994 article from the Independent headlined Obituary: Professor Malcolm Smith.

Another giant of Renaissance studies, Professor Screech, had written the tribute. It ended:

His Oeuvres Complètes de La Boétie for the Editions de la Pléïade was submitted last December when he already knew that his cancer was terminal.

His edition of 
Du Bellay's Antiquitez de Rome with Edmund Spenser's Ruines of Rome was printed and bound in America days before he died.

He’d died at only 53. But right to the end he’d maintained his fiery enthusiasm for his subject. The enthusiasm that I’d found so inspirational when he taught me.

In all likelihood, you wouldn’t remember me, Professor Smith, if you were still around. But I remember you, with admiration undimmed. Thanks for all you did. And thanks for the passion you communicated in doing it.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Seeing off the far right: France was just a start. And we need to stand up for the EU

What a relief to see the French Front National, which came so close to an electoral breakthrough last week, trounced again. It led the field in six of France’s twelve metropolitan regions in the first round of elections on 6 December; it was poised to win control of at least two of them. But then voters closed ranks, choosing one of the other parties even if it wasn’t the one they favoured, to keep the Front out of power.

A relief, but only for a brief reprieve. The FN took a record number of votes. Over 1 in 4 voters chose them. Its strength continues to increase, as it has over the last twenty years. 

The lesson is that we have still to find an effective argument against the far right. One that will actually attract votes, instead of simply providing a way to block one party by voting for another we like only a little less.

Seven French regions for the Centre Right
Five for the Socialists
No room for the Front National
The French picture is particularly telling: François Hollande, the current president, is a member of the Socialist Party but is straight out of the same mould as many right wing leaders – he’s an “Enarque”, a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) which trains leading civil servants. Presidents Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing were Enarques too. It seems that Nicolas Sarkozy, former and possibly future President, attended the equally prestigious “Sciences Po” political science school, though his poor English prevented him graduating. Presidents who actually graduated from the school include Georges Pompidou, François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac. So of the seven Presidents of the fifth republic, from Charles de Gaulle to François Hollande, three are Enarques, and four were at Sciences Po (Chirac straddles both). Only de Gaulle attended neither school, but then he was at Saint Cyr, the top military college, equivalent to West Point in the States or Sandhurst in Britain.

These institutions aren’t just prestigious, they’re exclusive. They train a self-serving elite distinct from the general population. It’s no wonder that there is an appetite among many for something different. If neither main party offers it, they may look for it in a toxic grouping of the far right such as the Front National.

Support for Trump in the States and UKIP in Britain reflect the same phenomenon.

It’s urgent to find an answer. Many are looking for one. Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, for instance, suggested that we should “fight with fire.” He quoted Sunder Katwala of British Future, who criticised Labour’s previous leader Ed Miliband for trying to tell people:

…that what they were really concerned about when they talked about migration was jobs, housing and wages. “He couldn’t talk about the cultural bit,” about people’s fears at the pace of change in their towns and cities. Instead he left those fears “festering in the subconscious”, waiting to be addressed by Ukip.

I’m not quite sure what this implies. Should we go along with the fears UKIP stirs up? Should we back right wing calls for tougher limits on immigration? Should we demand such limits even though we know they can only be achieved if Britain leaves the European Union?

Or isn’t that just fighting xenophobia with more xenophobia?

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and once more a Member of Parliament, gave us some more anti-EU rhetoric today. He wants the EU to limit freedom of movement.

There are three fundamental freedoms of movement guaranteed by the EU: of capital, of goods and of labour. None of them can be abandoned by a nation wishing to remain in the Union.

So far, I’ve heard no one call for limitations on the first two. They principally serve the owners of capital and producers of products.

The third directly benefits workers. In the US, anyone who finds an opportunity in another part of the country, however distant, can travel to take it up, with no need to establish new residence or employment rights.

The EU covers under half the surface area of the US. But it’s only thanks to the Union that workers within it enjoy similar rights. So giving up freedom of movement would mean losing a key right.

Nor is it the only right the EU protects. Nothing prevented UK employers imposing back-breaking hours of work on employees, until the EU’s working hours directive came into force. 

David Cameron is trying to obtain from the EU the right to deny in-work benefits for four years. The move’s aimed at immigrants, but would also affect young British workers (those with under four years of employment.) The EU has, so far, rejected that proposal.

Many British workers enjoy rights protected by the EU. On the other hand, freedom of movement also gives EU migrants the right to settle and work in Britain. Limiting those rights would accommodate the cultural resistance to change Freedland mentions. Is that supposed to be worth the price of leaving the EU? Fundamental rights to avoid cultural discomfort?


It surely makes more sense to marshal arguments against these views. Show, in fact, that the xenophobes have got it wrong. That way we really would find a way to answer the groundswell of support for the right. Which we certainly won’t do by going along with its prejudices.

The French FN, Donald Trump and British UKIP show how urgent that is.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Cameron: dithering on airports, confused on the Middle East, fumbling on Climate Change. Business as usual

Some enthusiasm may be in order, as the world adopts the Paris Agreement on global warming. It won’t go far enough, or be binding enough, but it may just be the first step towards breaking the logjam, and allowing action to save the planet on which we all depend.

Laurent Fabius brings down his gavel at the Climate Change Conference
and declares the Paris Agreement adopted
Here in Britain we have been debating for nearly a decade the need to increase the capacity for air travel in South East England. Any business organisation significant enough to make its voice heard has been calling for airport expansion. Our exciting Conservative government reacted to a report recommending a further runway at Heathrow, with a promise to make a decision before the end of the year.

Well, David Cameron has kept that promise. His government has made a decision. A firm irrevocable decision.

To put off deciding until next June.

Boris Johnson, the present Conservative Mayor of London, opposes Heathrow expansion. So does Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate to replace him. It’s clear that a decision in favour of Heathrow would damage Goldsmith’s chances to keep London, a predominantly Labour city, in Tory hands.

Perish the thought that such considerations may have weighed with Cameron, in his glorious decision not to decide.

In any case, that tendency to dither is by no means out of character for Cameron. He’s never been good at making up his mind. Sometimes, he makes it up and then has to unmake it a while later.

The best example concerns military action in the Middle East.

On 29 August 2013, David Cameron told the British House of Commons:

“…on this issue Britain should not stand aside. We must play our part in a strong international response; we must be prepared to take decisive action to do so.”

On 2 December 2015, the same David Cameron told the House of Commons:

“The question is this: do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat, and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people, or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?”

You’ve got to admire the consistency, don’t you? That full-hearted commitment to action. The determination to wipe out a clearly identified redoubtable enemy. And Britain must help. Unfortunately, in 2013 Cameron was talking about action against Syria’s vile dictator, Bashar al-Assad. One of the groups fighting Assad was ISIS who would doubtless have been delighted to see missiles raining down on the President.

In 2015, the action was against the execrable terrorist group ISIS, one of whose enemies is Syria’s vile dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Who must be delighted to see airstrikes being flown against his rebellious foes.

Ah, well. Cameron knows his own mind. Well, he knows the state it’s in today. More or less. Though it might be better if you asked in six months.

With his sureness of touch, Cameron’s more than ready to cope with the situation he’s plunging into, in the Middle East.

There we see the Russians running airstrikes, alongside the US, British and French, though to be honest the Russians have been doing rather a lot of bombing up in the North West, where there aren’t any ISIS people, though there are anti-Assad rebels. Those are the rebels that France, Britain and the US support. After bombing them, Russian planes fly close to the Turkish border and, according to the Turks, on occasions they stray across it. So when this happened once to often for Turkish tastes, they blew the plane out of the sky.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been training Sunni and Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq to fight ISIS. Back home, Turkey is fighting Kurdish rebels. And Iraq would really rather like Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi soil. However, Iraq doesn’t have an army forceful enough to impose its will within its own borders. Shia dominated, the government is dragging its feet over incorporating Sunnis into that army, leading to delays in giving itself an effective military. The delays were deplored by the British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, who knows that airstrikes alone won’t achieve victory against ISIS. He needs someone to put in forces on the ground; Iraq can’t; Syria can, but its army’s controlled by Assad.

Confused? So are the Tories. How many sides are involved in this fighting? How many agendas are being followed? What would “victory” look like?

How can any of us know when the job is done? What are our objectives and how shall we know when we’ve hit them? What’s the exit strategy? That same Fallon calls progress “agonisingly slow.” That’s code for “we have no idea of where we’re going or how long it’s going to take to get there.”

Par for the course for the government Cameron leads. And the non-decision on airport expansion in South East England makes the point. Because, at the time of the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change, only one option should really have been recommended: no expansion at all. In fact, we ought to be working on reducing our excessive dependence on air transport.

That option, sadly, wasn’t even on the table.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Franco's gone, but are his heirs coming back?

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who held dictatorial power over Spain for just shy of forty years up to 1975, was born one 4 December (specifically, the one that came in 1892) and died on a 20 November (the one in 1975, natch – I reckon I gave that away earlier in this sentence).

That means we’ve been getting a bit of a flurry of reflections on Franco recently. They’ve made me think of my own slight experience of that fine chieftain, the last fascist dictator in Western Europe – or last so far: we haven’t seen the French Front National really get going yet and, if Labour can’t neutralise them, UKIP could offer us some Trump-like surprises in Britain too.

The Spanish Caudillo, with a mate of his
Way back, in about 1967, my family was on holiday in South West France, in a trip which took us right down to the Spanish border at Hendaye. Would we go across? Would we pop over? What was right, what was appropriate?

These were momentous questions. Many of our friends, two of my teachers even, were exiles from Franco’s Spain. Would visiting the country, while the dictator was still in power, be a breach of faith, a betrayal of the principles we shared with them?

In the end, we went across. Just for the day. I remember we bought leather wine gourds for my brother and me. They had spouts from which one could squirt a stream of drink straight into one’s mouth, whether wine or anything else. It didn’t actually matter what liquid we squirted, as they all tasted brackish and foul from the pitch with which the inside of the ghastly container had been lined. It was such fun squirting the stream that it took me ages to stop denying how horrible anything from it tasted, and chuck it out.

Our home was in Italy in those days, and since none of us spoke Spanish, we tried to get by in Italian. It worked fine until we wanted a beer – “birra” doesn’t sound anything like “cerveza”. The experience was almost as unsatisfactory as drinking anything from one of awful gourds.

Eight years later, I was working in what was called the “lift section” of the Greater London Council. Even that Council itself has disappeared since then, undone by a Maggie Thatcher who loathed the fact that it was run by lefties, and who wasn’t above making a long-term damaging change to attain a short term political goal. For some time, London was the only city its size without a strategic authority to manage its affairs as a whole, instead being run by a plethora of councils in the individual boroughs, each working to its own agenda.

As for the lift section, it had nothing to do with uplift or anything inspiring like that. Oh, no. It was concerned with what our transatlantic cousins call elevators. We took calls from caretakers on housing estates to report lifts out of action, or to yell at us because we hadn’t fixed them yet, and passed the information on to a bunch of engineers who took responsibility for getting the repairs carried out.

In their own good time.

As light relief from this exacting work, we’d sometimes be asked to add up the totals of huge piles of invoices. We’d do that on calculating machines which had a big handle you pulled downwards each time you’d entered a number by changing the settings on a series of dials; as you pulled the handle towards you, it made a lugubrious clanking sound followed by a clashing of rotors engaging, and one more number would be added to the total.

The final figure never corresponded with what you were expecting but, since the only way of correcting a problem was to go back and start all over again – you couldn’t just correct individual figures as you might, say, in Excel – we’d usually go through the process three or four times and then decide that whatever we’d got was as near as dammit and stop there.

Now, there’s a particular type and style of man who emerged from the thirties and forties, immediately recognisable to anyone who knew it. He wore corduroy trousers with a tweed jacket, generally with leather patches on the elbows, and thin rimmed glasses behind which lurked a pair of sharp and intelligent eyes. He was quick-witted, well read, often Jewish and always left wing (I say that with nostalgia: many men from the Jewish side of my family fitted that stereotype, hard to remember at times these days when the British Jewish community is so generally Conservative).

In particular, those were the men who’d either fought in the Spanish Civil War, along with the George Orwells of this world, or at least raised money for the Republican side and campaigned for the support it so badly needed and never received.

In our lift section office in 1975, one of our engineers was straight out of this mould. A throwback, already way behind the times. Dressed exactly as I’ve described, expressing exactly the views I suggest – though always indirectly, of course, by implication, as befitted the office environment.

“Hey,” we called as he walked in on 3 December 1975, “Franco died yesterday!”

“Yes,” he said, “I’m devastated.”

“What do you mean?” we asked, nonplussed.

“I blame his doctors,” he replied, “they should have kept him alive for another six months of increasing agony.”

Well, they hadn’t, and he’d gone. We shall never see his like again. Or at least we can fondly hope so.

But when I hear Nigel Farage, Donald Trump or Marine le Pen, I’m afraid his spirit could come back to haunt us yet.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Trump: what he got right in calling for a ban on Muslims

There’s something special about Donald Trump, isn’t there?

He’s now come up with yet another in his series of cunning plans to solve the world’s problems. This one is to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. That suggests that the entire world Muslim community, a billion strong, has to be suspected of being hostile to the United States. Would that include, I wonder, the ones serving in the US army and risking their lives to fight the nation’s enemies?

He has the right to put his life on the line in a US uniform but,
if Trump gets his way, not to return to the US
Godwin’s Law states that any internet discussion that goes on long enough will eventually lead to someone being compared to Hitler. I try to avoid falling into that trap. But it has to be said that the most striking example of such targeting of an entire faith community in the past has to be the Nazi hatred against the Jews. Trump previously recommended registering Muslims, just as Hitler registered Jews. He has now said that he doesn’t know whether he might have supported Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese – including Japanese Americans – during World War 2, so the magic word “internment” has now been put out there. 

A register. A ban. Possibly internment. Where will this end?

The curious thing about Trump is that he’s extremely keen on the US Constitution. Well, on bits of it. Does he perhaps have trouble reading the rest? For instance, he’s keen on the Second Amendment, though only on some of the words: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed upon. Period,” he tells us, leaving out that annoying qualification at the beginning about “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” which somewhat limits the scope of the right.

Incidentally, there’s no “upon” at the end of the amendment. I guess if you’re quoting from memory…

Trump explains that the reason he’s keen on the amendment is that criminality in the US is rampant. He knows who to blame, too: “The Obama administration’s record on that is abysmal. Violent crime in cities like Baltimore, Chicago and many others is out of control.”

He presumably hasn’t managed to get as far as the tenth amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It’s odd, isn’t it? Usually right-wing politicians are really keen on limiting Federal powers, but it looks as though Trump would like to federalise law enforcement. Unfortunately – for him – the Constitution he likes so much doesn’t allow it. It does not assign that power to the Federal government so, as specified by the tenth amendment, it remains the responsibility of the states or the people. In Baltimore, for instance, the police Commissioner is nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the Council.

Then again, Trump may not have noticed that Obama is President of the United States and not Mayor of Baltimore (or, indeed, Chicago though curiously that position is held by a former collaborator of Obama’s, Rahm Emmanuel. I mention only for amusement that Emmanuel is the model or Josh Lyman in The West Wing, a series which does appeal to the intellect as well as the emotions, so Trump may not have seen it).

But if Trump hasn’t managed to get from the second amendment to the tenth, it’s possible that he skipped over the first as well. Among other things, it denies Congress the power to prohibit the free exercise of religion. To avoid any kind of debate on technicalities, I should say that the Supreme Court has ruled that the provisions of the fourteenth amendment also mean that State governments can’t take action to prevent free religious practice either.

Most interestingly, in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court extended the definition of “prohibition” in this context. It now includes any regulation which, though on the face of it neutral, “unduly burdens the free exercise of religion.” It may just be me, but I can’t help feeling that the practice of Islam is unduly burdened if the faithful are prevented from returning to the US if they ever go abroad.

Still, Trump may not have got as far as thinking through those implications yet. I offer up these musings to him, so that he can repair that omission as soon as possible. I can imagine just how urgent that task will seem to him.

By now you may be wondering why the title of this piece suggests that Trump may have got something right in his speech announcing the policy of banning Muslims. So Id better explain. I was thinking of this passage:

“…people are fed up – they are fed up with incompetence, they are fed up with stupid leaders, they are fed up with stupid people.”

That struck me as true. I know a lot of us are fed up with stupid people trying to position themselves as leaders.

Sadly, however, on reflection I suspect Trump may be wrong on this score too. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who, far from being fed up with stupid leaders, are only too keen to rally behind one. I hope they’re not a majority, but who can tell?

I also suspect that Trump knows that. Indeed, he must be counting on it. After all, unless he believes that enough people want another stupid leader, why would he ever run for office?

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The potential dangerous terrorist I met this luchtime

Have you read Elaine Morgan’s The Descent of Woman

There is little acceptance these days of her fundamental notion about human evolution. That's the “aquatic ape” hypothesis, according to which the species at one time headed back to the sea, along with various others which, like us, have streamlined residual hair and subcutaneous fat (a much more useful way of retaining body heat in water than fur): pigs, elephants, hippos, etc. Indeed, she reckoned that other land species went back to the sea and stayed there – dolphins, for instance. Who knows whether we mightn’t have done better to follow their example.

Still, all that is questioned these days. On the other hand, I stick with her overall stance, that woman must have contributed more, and perhaps a great deal more, to the development of the species than man. That makes sense if only because the rearing of young is key, especially in a species such as ours, where the young are so vulnerable for such a long time.

I haven’t tracked down the quotation, but I think it was Morgan who, in combating the prevailing macho theories of anthropology – the theories of the “Tarzanists” for whom the key development in mankind is the emergence of the hunter, strong, tall, farsighted, courageous, deadly and inevitably male – came up with a great little thought exercise. When faced with such a sentence as “humans are the most lethal predators the Earth has seen”, apply it to some individual human from your daily experience. This will give you give you something along the lines of “that postman coming up my front path is the most lethal predator the Earth has seen.”

It’s a great antidote to over-generalised thinking. And, as well all know thanks to William Blake, “to generalise it to be an idiot.”

It was just this lunchtime that I was reminded of Morgan’s inspiring and lucid thinking. I bought a few bits of food at Marks and Spencer. I was called over to a till by a young woman with a shy but kind smile, who dealt with me politely, efficiently and with friendliness. As it happens, she was wearing a Muslim headscarf.

Two thoughts occurred to me.

The first, why are we who happen to be white entitled to tell a woman like her what she should or shouldn’t wear on her head? It appals me that France, my second nation, full of so many people I like and admire, nonetheless feels it’s entitled to tell the Muslim minority what aspects of its perfectly harmless behaviour are tolerable and which aren’t.

The hijab doesn't even rule out belief in basic
French republican principle
The second was just how appalling a society we will have created if we ever allow ourselves, in our necessary and legitimate pursuit of vigilance, to suspect of terrorism anyone whose dress identifies them as Muslim. What an atmosphere that would be to live in. Besides, if there’s one sure way to create a large pool of alienated and antagonised people, it’s to suspect them of hostility towards you – there’s no better example of a self-fulfilling hypothesis.

“That timid and deferential young woman may be a vicious and callous terrorist?” Yeah, right. I’m really not prepared to live a life in which that’s the first thought that crosses our minds.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Nicola Walker: another fine actor playing strong women's roles

Every now and then an actor, sometimes one who’s been around a while without quite becoming a household name, seems to be everywhere and in everything.

It happens in Hollywood. There was a time when directors seemed to be queuing up to have Meryl Streep in any film they made – and, indeed, any actor of note wanted to play opposite her.

The Meryl Streep case makes another point about this phenomenon: it tends to happen most often with female actors. And what’s true of Hollywood is even truer of the small screen in Britain.

Take Olivia Collman. She appeared in Peep Show in 2003, I suspect with no suspicion that the series would run on until 2015. She was good and she was spotted. She was given a steadily increasing number of parts. And then suddenly, from about 2010, she seemed to be in a string of outstanding productions, such as Rev, Mr Sloane and Broadchurch (well, let’s say outstanding for season 1 of Broadchurch and draw a discreet veil over season 2).

Now the same thing seems to be happening to Nicola Walker. She had a secondary part in Four Weddings and a Funeral way back in 1994, and a good but short run in Spooks, before becoming a TV fixture thanks to Last Tango in Halifax, hardly classic cinema, but nonetheless gently entertaining. And certainly her performance was excellent, as a woman who managed to combine both strength and fragility.

But just recently she’s come into her own in two fine series, Unforgotten and River.

In the first, she plays Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart, leading a murder investigation triggered by the discovery of a skeleton in the basement floor of a demolished building. This seems to be a theme that’s doing the rounds at the moment: the device was also used in From Darkness which, despite having another excellent female lead actor, Anne-Marie Duff, is far less good than Unforgotten.
Nicola Walker as Cassie Stuart in Unforgotten
with Sanjeev Bhaskar who's excellent as her number 2
Walker perfectly creates Cassie Stuart’s character, who avoids any macho attempt to impose her will on her subordinates but, nonetheless, has enough confidence in her judgement to back it and insist on its being followed, without actually throwing her weight around. The interplay with the other police officers is beautifully handled: her unaggressive but resolute behaviour achieves results, if sometimes at the expense of irritation among her colleagues who don’t at first believe she’s right, and are irritated by the work she generates for them.

Most notably, for a while she’s alone in believing they are dealing with a murder and that they can solve it.

The series brings together a whole string of fine actors, playing well-defined and fascinating characters – some old, from the generation of the young man whose skeleton has been discovered, others in mid-career, including the police. It’s an engaging story, well structured and played out. And Nicola Walker puts in a great performance in another of those fine, strong female roles that are beginning to become more common – she’s strong, but can be deeply upset by some of the harrowing information he discovers. And that makes her all the more convincing.

As for River, its basic premise is brilliantly intriguing. Cleverly, given the attraction to British audiences of what’s come to be known as ‘Nordic Noir’ – the highly original thrillers that come this way from Scandinavia – the lead role of Detective Inspector John River is played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. So we have a Swedish detective working for the Metropolitan Police – Nordic Noir in London.

The series uses the character of River for a strikingly ingenious play of sanity within insanity. River suffers from a psychiatric condition which leaves him seeing, and indeed conversing at some length and even physically interacting – he has a number of fights – with dead people who had some kind of relationship with him, such as murder victims. He remains an outstanding detective either despite this mental illness, or perhaps even because of it.

The series handles this theme with great intelligence. It ensures that he never learns anything from any of these ghosts that he didn’t already know. Indeed, there are some lovely moments when a ghost will say something like “well, what did you think?” when he discovers something that the ghost never told him. That way, the spectator can accept that the ghosts are creations of his own mind.

In River, Nicola Walker is Detective Sergeant Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson, his dead former partner – a partner in the professional, police sense, though as the series progresses we begin to suspect that either or perhaps both of them might have been interested in a relationship that went further than that.

Walker plays the role with the same skill and panache as she brought to Cassie Stuart in Unforgotten, but for the development of a completely different character. Stevie is a woman from an extended family in the criminal underworld, so by going into the police, she was something of a black sheep. That background makes her tough, self-reliant, funny, with a great love for popular music and fast food, and a strong streak of street wisdom.

Deeply hidden in that background there lies a secret that also gave her character a certain vulnerability. It came out in her last investigation, just before her death. The series has us following River through the process of investigation that leads to his discovering what lay behind her death, and does it  in a way that keep us interested, entertained and often amazed.

Two fine series. With great, strong female characters. Both played by Nicola Walker – and I promised last time I wrote on this subject that I’d talk about her.

My promise is kept. Now over to you to enjoy the series, if you haven’t already.