Brexit: Literature knows no boundaries

ALCS News, July 2016

Literature knows no boundaries. Among the contemporary authors I admire most are Kate Atkinson, Arnaldur Indridason and Orhan Pamuk – English, Icelandic and Turkish respectively. I’ve always been aware of the debt my own culture owes to other civilisations, especially the Greeks and Romans, and I think of myself as European as well as British. So I make no apology for saying that the result of the EU referendum felt to me – and still feels, a month later – like a bereavement.

For most of my life, the UK has played a leading role in one of the great peacetime projects, challenging the poisonous nationalisms that spawned two world wars in the 20th century. Only four years ago, the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize for contributing to ‘the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’. At least three generations have grown up without having to deal with the day-by-day fear and loss experienced by my parents and grandparents. Now some of my fellow-citizens have decided, by the most slender of majorities, to turn their backs on everything the EU has achieved.


For most of my life, the UK has played a leading role in one of the great peacetime projects, challenging the poisonous nationalisms that spawned two world wars in the 20th century.

In the wake of this momentous decision, given that we’ve already seen the disastrous impact on the pound and the UK’s financial prospects, I want to focus on ideas and values rather than economics. But first I want to highlight the potential impact on authors and creators of being shut out of future discussions about copyright and the digital economy across Europe.

Most Members of ALCS will be aware that the European Commission is currently in the process of modernising copyright rules as part of its digital market strategy. It is looking at issues that may appear technical at first sight – cross-border portability of films, music and e-books, for instance – but are of vital importance to creators. None of us knows when the British Government will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism to begin our withdrawal from the EU. The UK could go its own way but it’s far more likely that we will have to go along with decisions in which we’ve had no say. But let’s get back to ideas.


It’s often forgotten that EU membership is dependent on abolition of capital punishment, putting pressure on would-be members to get rid of this barbarous practice.

We all have multiple identities, which are not always easy to reconcile, and part of the trick of peaceful co-existence is recognising what we have in common rather than the things that divide us. The UK was never in Schengen but I love being able to travel across most of Europe without encountering border posts or having to show a passport, offering a reminder of how national barriers have come down. A union of 500 million people, sharing common values after centuries of discord, is a powerful example to the world. For all its faults – and they include a hesitant and confused response to the international refugee crisis – the EU has been at the forefront of supporting human rights in countries where they are not recognised or respected.

It’s often forgotten that EU membership is dependent on abolition of capital punishment, putting pressure on would-be members to get rid of this barbarous practice. Turkey is not likely to become a member of the EU for decades, but it abolished the death penalty in 2004 when the country’s accession did not seem quite as remote a prospect as it does now. That’s only one example of the way in which the EU has been a progressive alliance. Member states have to sign up to a raft of social policies that promote ‘respect for and protection of minorities’, prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race, religion, age, sex or sexual orientation. Governments which might otherwise have resisted change have been willing to get rid of repressive laws in return for the economic benefits of EU membership. Homosexuality is legal throughout the EU, even in countries such as Poland where public attitudes lag behind the law.


The greater loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the prospect of being shut out of a European community I still feel connected to and love.

Contrast that with the dire situation of LGBT people in the Commonwealth, where many member states – 39 at the most recent count – retain laws criminalising homosexuality. We didn’t hear enough of these arguments during the feverish and frequently unpleasant referendum campaign. Some Members of ALCS will be pleased with the result but I’m sure that many woke up the next morning in as profound a state of shock and despondency as I did.

Make no mistake, the effects are already being felt: I am a patron of a human rights NGO which spent months trying to get a meeting with Franz Timmermans, Vice-president of the EU Commission. Following the referendum decision, that meeting has now been cancelled. Even when I try to be optimistic, it’s hard to see many benefits in the pipeline for writers. But the greater loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the prospect of being shut out of a European community I still feel connected to and love.

 

Mass murderers have something in common – and it’s not a ‘women’s problem’

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 20 July 2016

Terror, it seems, often starts at home. Whether they are self-proclaimed jihadists or men with a grievance, a pattern is emerging among the mass killers whose murderous rages have claimed so many victims in recent times. A history of grudges against women and a record of domestic violence have been common factors in a number of such attacks, offering startling insights into the psychology of men who set out to kill complete strangers.

One night last week, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel deliberately drove a lorry into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront in Nice. Eighty-four people died, including 10 children. The terrorist organisation Isil claimed responsibility for the attack but French investigators have not disclosed any direct evidence of a link.

What has emerged in the days since is Bouhlel’s undisputed history of domestic abuse. “He beat his wife, my cousin, he was a nasty piece of work’” said a relative of his estranged spouse. Similar stories emerged last month after Omar Mateen murdered 49 people at gay club Pulse in Orlando. His ex-wife claimed that he beat her and denied contact with her family and friends during the four months they lived together. She was rescued by relatives, who she says literally dragged her from his arms.

A third would-be jihadist, Man Haron Monis, was on bail after being charged with more than 40 counts of sexual assault when he took hostages in a coffee shop in Sydney in December 2013. Monis was also charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, who had been stabbed 18 times and set alight in the stairwell of an apartment block. Monis and two of his hostages died when the siege was ended by armed police.

These ‘lone wolf’ attacks are a nightmare for the police and intelligence services, who are more used to tracking groups of young men in contact with known jihadists, or who have returned from Syria. Men who are planning attacks apparently out of the blue are harder to detect, which is why the common factor of domestic abuse is so important. In each case, these mass attacks on strangers appear to represent an escalation of violent impulses they liberally indulged at home until their wives (understandably) left them.

Crucially, it links them to other mass killers who don’t try to dress up their murderous rage as a political act – this isn’t an issue focused just on men with Muslim backgrounds. Violence against family members and deep-rooted misogyny have been implicated in several of the worst mass shootings in the US, including the school massacre in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in December 2012.

When Adam Lanza opened fire on teachers and children as young as six, he had already left his mother lying dead in bed at home. Nancy Lanza, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was shot four times in the face by her son, offering a shocking glimpse into his matricidal fury.

Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in California two years ago, made no secret about his seething hatred of women in a video he left behind. Rodger stabbed and shot his victims, as well as hitting several people with his car before killing himself. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it,” he declared on film. “You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male.”

There are other examples from recent history of a hugely dangerous connection between personal rage towards mothers, girlfriends and wives and outbursts of impersonal violence, coldly executed against people unknown. It’s not so long since abuse against female family members was dismissed by some police as ‘just a domestic; those days are gone, in terms of rhetoric at least, but it now seems that domestic violence may be an early warning sign of the sort of destructive impulses we should all fear. And it’s certainly not just a ‘women’s problem’.

It also seems likely that Isil has deliberately framed its rhetoric to appeal to angry and disturbed young men living in countries where gender equality is the norm. It explicitly projects an ideology in which women are subservient, bragging about the way in which its followers are encouraged to rape captive girls and women from the Yazidi ethnic minority. Its leader, Abu Bark al-Baghdadi, is said to have repeatedly raped an American hostage, Kayla Mueller, before her death.

Islamist terror groups offer young men with a record of petty crime an opportunity to re-invent themselves first as victims and then as holy warriors. They are exploiting men who flatly refuse to come to terms with the modern world, with results almost too horrific to contemplate. Other angry men don’t even bother to claim an ideology, but the link between domestic violence and acts of inhumane political terrorism can no longer be ignored.

 

Theresa May has promoted women. But she’s a Tory first and a feminist second

The prime minister has an excellent track record on equality until it comes into conflict with her conservative instincts – above all on immigration

The Guardian, Thursday 14 July 2016

Theresa May hasn’t wasted any time. Some of the biggest names in politics – figures who dominated the headlines in the last few months – lost their jobs on her first full day as prime minister. There are big posts for women – Liz Truss, Justine Greening, Amber Rudd – but Theresa Villiers has resigned from the government and Nicky Morgan is out. Morgan’s sacking as education secretary was overshadowed by the departure of justice secretary Michael Gove, exactly two weeks after he announced an unexpected ambition to become prime minister.

May had already achieved a first when she promoted Rudd from energy and climate change to the Home Office. For the first time ever, two of the top four jobs in cabinet are held simultaneously by women; Labour’s Margaret Beckett stepped down as foreign secretary as Jacqui Smith became home secretary in June 2007, missing each other by a single day. May has also appointed the first female lord chancellor, giving Gove’s old post to Truss.

It is a far cry from Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet. In 1979, there were only eight female Conservative MPs, and the country’s first woman prime minister famously appointed a cabinet consisting entirely of men. May’s appointments appear not so much a conscious attempt at gender balance as modern, reflecting the very different composition of the House of Commons in 2016.

Even so, the past couple of days have demonstrated that fevered discussions about gender are impossible to avoid. There is something depressingly sexist about the idea that everything a powerful woman does is to do with her gender, although no one was clear whether May was supposed to be more consensual than David Cameron or a contemporary version of the Iron Lady. As news of a clear-out of former cabinet colleagues began to emerge, the verdict shifted inevitably in the latter direction.

Something much more interesting tends to get lost in all this pointless dancing around the idea of biological essentialism. It is a paradox of modern democratic politics that it is right-wing parties, the Conservatives in this country and the Christian Democrats in Germany, which have produced women leaders with real power. That is because the right is better at ditching losers and identifying winners, something cruelly illustrated by the contrast between May’s swift coronation and the shambles currently engulfing the Labour party.

Right-wing parties have a ruthless instinct for success. If a woman is the leading candidate, most Tories can live with that. May’s acceptance speech was all about one-nation Conservatism but they know her record in government includes support for totemic policies such as the bedroom tax. When she was home secretary, her department even came up with a pilot scheme to send two vans on a tour of London boroughs, telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

It is around the issue of immigration that May’s reforming and hard-line instincts most obviously collide. It is massively to her credit that she introduced the government’s first strategy to end violence against women and girls, something that was promised in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election. May talked privately to women’s organisations, listening to their anxieties about a whole range of issues, including domestic and sexual violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

After the election, she published a “call to end VAWG” (violence against women and girls) which became government strategy in 2011. Crucially, she understood that the threat of violence doesn’t just damage women, but actually holds them back in every aspect of their lives. She can point to an impressive list of achievements, from protection orders for women at risk of domestic violence and FGM to a new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour.

She was not reluctant to take on the police, ordering a review in 2013 of how they handled domestic violence, and bluntly telling the Police Federation conference two months ago that victims are still being let down. She is thought to support compulsory sex education in schools – a measure fiercely opposed by academies and blocked by Cameron, it is believed. She has committed to spend £80m over the next four years on support services for victims, such as rape crisis centres.

But there are limits to May’s political imagination. Services for women from Bame (black and minority ethnic) communities have suffered disproportionately from government spending cuts, even though victims often suffer multiple forms of abuse. Most notoriously, she has refused to end the detention of vulnerable asylum-seekers, including victims of sexual violence and pregnant women, at Yarl’s Wood.

May’s vision is clouded, in other words, when her laudable ambition to promote equality comes up against her Tory instinct to be tough on immigration. No one should doubt that she wants to improve the lives of women from less fortunate backgrounds. But make no mistake: our new prime minister is a Conservative first, and a feminist second.

In coldest blood

Sunday Times, 10 July 2016

A stunning novel set in France and Iceland kicks off Joan Smith’s roundup of crime fiction
For more than a decade, the bestselling French novelist Fred Vargas has surprised readers with plots of startling ingenuity. She has won the CWA international dagger four times, confirming her place in the top rank of contemporary crime writers. Her latest novel, A Climate of Fear, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £14.99), has an anodyne title but it is easily the best thing she has ever done.
Vargas is a historian and archaeologist, a training she has put to good use in her earlier fiction. But it is hard to imagine anyone else daring to combine a secretive society dedicated to studying the writings of Robespierre and a doomed tourist expedition to Iceland in the same novel.
Ten years ago, two people died on a trip to a remote Icelandic island, and now other members of the party are being picked off by a clever killer. Vargas’s detective, Commissaire Adamsberg, has always understood that myths and archetypes influence even the most modern minds. But his closest colleagues are sceptical when he insists that the solution to the murders lies within an arcane association that reenacts episodes from the bloodiest period of the French Revolution. The idea of history repeating itself is at the heart of this stunning novel, which confirms Vargas’s fine understanding of the unchanging nature of human passions.
Michel Bussi was unknown in this country until last year, when his extraordinary novel After the Crash appeared in English for the first time. French crime writing is enjoying a renaissance and Bussi’s latest book, Black Water Lilies, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Weidenfeld £12.99), reveals a very different side to his imagination. The action
takes place in Giverny, the picture-postcard village in Normandy where Claude Monet created his famous garden, but Bussi is more interested in the inhabitants than the tourists who flock to the artist’s house.
The arrival of so many visitors is a strain on the village, and the murder of a local man, an ophthalmologist with a successful practice in Paris, brings simmering class conflicts into the open. Bussi’s detective, Laurenç Sérénac, is from Toulouse and lacks local knowledge, but being an outsider has its advantages; he brings a fresh eye to mysteries that stretch back to the 1920s, including a rumoured final painting created by Monet just before he died. Bussi’s portrait of the difficulties of investigating a closed community is fascinating, and the novel ends with one of the most reverberating shocks in modern crime fiction.
Ruth Ware’s first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was a bestseller. Her second, The Woman in Cabin 10 (Harvill Secker £9.99), is a tense, moody drama set on a press trip that goes horribly wrong. A travel writer, Lo Blacklock, jumps at the chance of going to see the northern lights on a boutique cruise ship owned by a millionaire entrepreneur and his wife. On the first night, Lo sees a body heaved overboard from the balcony of the next cabin, but the crew insists the room was unoccupied. Ware has produced a fantastic variation on the woman-in-peril theme, with a plucky protagonist and a brilliantly claustrophobic setting.
The veteran American novelist Laura Lippman effortlessly occupies the territory where crime writing meets literary fiction. Wilde Lake (Faber £12.99) is set in a small town in Maryland where Luisa Brant is the first woman to be elected state’s attorney. Her father held the same job for 16 years and is still a force to be reckoned with, but Luisa’s first case, prosecuting a homeless man who broke into an apartment and murdered the female occupant, looks straightforward.
However, the motive for the killing lies in the summer of 1980, when a young woman from a poor family accused a group of posh boys of rape. Luisa finds a cover-up that tears her own family apart, in a novel that offers a devastating critique of class and privilege.

Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality by Kat Banyard

This vital study exposes the myths promoted by defenders of the sex trade

The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2016

It is a paradox: it has never been so easy to get free sex, yet the evidence suggests that more men than ever are paying for it. In this country, the number of men reporting they had paid for sex almost doubled during the 1990s. In Germany, the number of women paid for sex is said to have reached 400,000 in recent years, leading some commentators to describe the country as the “bordello of Europe”.

Depressing though these statistics are, they do at least give the lie to the widely held assumption that men pay for sex because they can’t get it by any other means. Sex buyers are not the single loners they were often assumed to be in the past. As Kat Banyard demonstrates in her excoriating account of the modern trade in women’s bodies, they seek variety, sex acts they can’t get in voluntary relationships and, above all, power.

The unequal relationship between men who pay for sex and women who sell it is at the heart of this book. In the past, arguments around prostitution and pornography (which Banyard characterises as “filmed prostitution”) centred on morality, with women in the trade dismissed as vectors of disease and immorality. Men’s role was almost entirely overlooked, reserving moral condemnation and legal penalties for women.

In recent years, the terms of the debate have been reframed, moving away from the language of traditional morality. For feminists such as Banyard, who is the co-founder of UK Feminista, prostitution and the mass of degrading pornographic material available on the internet are forms of abuse. They belong in a spectrum of behaviour that includes domestic abuse, and it follows that any attempt to legalise prostitution, no matter how well meaning, amounts to the state legitimising violence against women. Hence Banyard’s title, Pimp State, which she defines as governments taking a direct cut from the commercial sex industry by licensing brothels and taxing the people who own them.

Such approaches may appear modern – and people with a stake in the industry push that line at every possible opportunity – but they run counter to the principle of gender equality endorsed by many European democracies. This proposition poses a greater risk to the commercial sex industry than taxation, health and safety laws or any requirement to provide employment contracts to women in brothels. It needs to be resisted at all costs and people with commercial interests in prostitution have opposed it by redefining prostitution as work, shamelessly appropriating the language of feminism to claim that selling sex empowers women.

They have created a series of myths to disguise the true nature of the trade, persuading some politicians and much of the media that prostitution is just another job, to a point where anyone who disagrees can expect a torrent of misogynist abuse. The debate has become poisonous and Banyard’s book provides a much-needed corrective, skewering the myths promoted by the commercial industry with forensic intelligence.

The oldest profession? Only if you believe our ancestors placed trading for sex before growing crops. Prostitution is inevitable? So is murder, but we still have laws to deter and punish killers. This latter myth serves an important function, obscuring the choices of men who decide to become consumers of the commercial sex industry. Decriminalisation does not stop verbal abuse and physical violence – if you want to see the research, it is quoted extensively in Banyard’s book – but provides legal space in which abuse can happen.

That is why Banyard supports what’s known as the Sex Buyer Law or Nordic model, which places responsibility where it belongs by targeting men who pay for sex (it also decriminalises women who sell it). Some version of the law is now in operation in Sweden, Norway and Iceland – three countries with the best records anywhere in the world on gender equality – while France and Northern Ireland have recently followed suit.

Germany has not, offering a case study of what happens when politicians listen to the rhetoric of the prostitution-is-work industry. (Jeremy Corbyn, please take note.) The federal government legalised prostitution in 2002, supposedly to create safer working conditions for women, and the result has been a huge increase in the size of the commercial sex industry. Because there will never be sufficient women to fulfil demand of their own free will, it has been accompanied by what a German police officer has described as “the emergence of a complete industry in the trafficking of women, with both small and large retailers delivering women to the brothels”.

If the idea of pimps as “retailers” jars, it is what happens when prostitution is normalised. “The reality is, highly visible, above-board prostitution systems don’t erase the harm; they hide it in plain sight,” says Banyard. By putting equality and human rights at the heart of this vital debate, she has done us a tremendous service.

Pimp State is published by Faber (£12.99)

Political discourse is being dragged into the gutter

The i, Friday 17 June 2016

The week started horribly with the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Florida. It is ending with the almost unbelievable news that a brilliant young Labour MP, Jo Cox, has been murdered in her constituency in Yorkshire.

There was no warning of the news, which was broadcast live on TV and radio channels and shocked millions of people. Horrific accounts of the attack had already emerged from eyewitnesses, who described how the MP was dragged by the hair, shot three times and stabbed with a foot-long knife. In the hours afterwards, her condition was described as critical, but Acting Chief Constable Dee Collins of West Yorkshire Police said that the MP had been pronounced dead at the scene. A 77-year-old man was treated for injuries sustained in the attack but they are not life-threatening.

The death of Jo Cox is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for her family, most of all, but also for her friends and supporters in the Labour Party. It was clear yesterday that admiration for her passion and dedication crossed party lines, with Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs paying heartfelt tributes. She had been an MP for little more than a year, after previously working as Oxfam’s head of global policy, and her tireless advocacy on behalf of Syrian civilians was widely admired.

Politicians always face some degree of risk. Six years ago Stephen Timms, a Labour MP in east London, was almost killed by an Islamist extremist, Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed him twice in the abdomen with a kitchen knife. She had been radicalised by watching online sermons by the notorious Islamist imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, and claimed she attacked Timms because he voted in favour of the Iraq war. Choudhry was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life, with a minimum term of 15 years.

Ten years earlier a Liberal Democrat MP, Nigel Jones, was attacked in his constituency office in Cheltenham by Robert Ashman, who was armed with a sword. Ashman killed Jones’s aide, Andrew Pennington, who bravely tried to restrain him. He was charged with manslaughter and attempted murder, found unfit to stand trial and detained in Broadmoor. He eventually stood trial in 2003, when he admitted manslaughter and was convicted of attempted murder.

It is impossible to protect every single politician all of the time, especially in democracies where meeting strangers is part of the job. In 2011 an Arizona congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head as she met constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson. Giffords survived with terrible brain injuries, while her assailant went on to kill six other people.

But we have now had two murderous attacks on British MPs in six years, and it has happened at a moment when political discourse has become more personal, bullying and rancorous than anything I can remember. Populist politicians provide a daily diet of sensationalist soundbites, creating an atmosphere of fear, hatred and anxiety. In the US, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has demonised vulnerable minorities and exploited base human instincts.

In the UK, there is a peculiarly nasty element to this development, which is an apparent normalisation of the most grotesque misogyny. Last month the Labour MP Jess Phillips received 600 abusive tweets in a single evening, including numerous rape threats, after she launched a campaign against online bullying. Female MPs who complain about being threatened with sexual violence are frequently told to “man up”, as though being exposed to strangers’ rape fantasies is just part of the job.

They’re also told that people who spit venom on the internet don’t pose a threat in real life. Yet threats against politicians and other people in public life are now so common that the authors are likely to be a diverse group, ranging from keyboard warriors to individuals who are seriously disturbed.

We do not yet know the motive for the attack on Ms Cox, and I am cautious about claims her assailant shouted “Britain First” during the assault. The chief constable confirmed a man had been arrested but gave no further details about him. She said the attack appeared to be the work of one person and no one else is being sought in connection with the murder.

But it should be blindingly obvious that an atmosphere rank with misanthropy, distrust and the worst kind of populism risks dehumanising decent people, including the vast majority of MPs. The value of human life has seldom been so low, as we can see from an internet awash with decapitation and murder videos; I have worried for some time about the impact of all this not just on people with grievances, real or imagined, but individuals who are mentally ill.

In December last year, a man with a history of mental illness tried to cut the throat of a complete stranger at an east London tube station, claiming he was avenging his Syrian “brothers”. Such attacks are a relatively new phenomenon, and something in our culture is facilitating them.

The ability to disagree in a civilised manner, without demonising opponents, is being lost as political discourse is dragged into the gutter. What is at risk here is not just luminous individuals like Jo Cox, whose murder is nothing short of a national tragedy. It is an attack on democracy itself.

Our dishonourable honours system

The problem isn’t just Philip Green’s knighthood, but how people like him get their baubles in the first place

The Guardian, Tuesday 14 June 2016

Ten years ago this month Philip Green had something to celebrate. The retailer, who used to be as famous for his lavish parties as he is now for his disastrous association with BHS, had just been granted a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours. In the years that followed, Sir Philip Green – as he may not be for much longer, if a swelling chorus of MPs get their way – employed thousands of low-paid workers while spending a reputed £6m on a 60th birthday bash for 150 friends in Mexico.

Now he’s facing calls to be stripped of his “K” (as people who know how to work the honours system call it) in the middle of a high-stakes game of chicken with backbench MPs. The flamboyant retailer is threatening to refuse to appear before Wednesday’s joint session of two parliamentary committees inquiring into the failure of BHS – which he used to own – with the loss of 11,000 jobs.

In an extraordinary snub, Green has accused the Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the joint committee, of trying to destroy his reputation, and “requires” Field to resign from the inquiry. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has launched a scathing attack on Green, joining a group of critics that is said to include several unnamed but “very angry” Tory backbenchers.

Demands for someone in public life to be stripped of a knighthood are not new. The ex-knights’ club is a motley crew of individuals who have fallen out of favour for one reason or another, the most recent example being Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, former boss of RBS. The overseas branch of the club, consisting of foreigners who have been granted and stripped of honorary knighthoods, includes some real corkers: the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, for instance, and Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Robert Mugabe didn’t just have a common-or-garden K; the Zimbabwean tyrant was a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath until 2008, which seems a little late even for the glacially slow British honours system to creak into action. There is one conspicuous absence from the lists of the ex-great and good: Sir James Savile, who was knighted on the personal insistence of Margaret Thatcher and went to his grave with his honour intact.

How the hell, you might ask, did some of these people come to be honoured in the first place? Thatcher is said to have struggled to get her mate Savile through the scrutiny process, which is entirely lacking in anything resembling accountability or transparency. People get gongs for vague things such as “services to retail”, something that appears to translate as “making lots of money”. I’m sure Ant and Dec are nice blokes but I’ve no idea why they got OBEs in the Queen’s birthday honours. Services to Saturday night?

The scrutiny process is supposed to weed out two groups: individuals who might turn out to be an embarrassment to Her Maj, and a smaller bunch of lefties who wouldn’t touch the system with a barge pole. It doesn’t seem to be very good at doing either, bearing in mind that I was once sent a letter asking if I’d like an MBE. I didn’t even need to look at the motto – “For God and the Empire” – to say no thanks.

There is something called an honours forfeiture committee, but John Major confirmed in 1994 that it has no set guidelines for cancellations. Discussions are confidential, and honours are removed only in cases that threaten to bring the system into disrepute, which rather assumes that it isn’t in disrepute already. In the absence of any democratic mechanism, the body that decides who loses their baubles is not so much this secretive committee as the press – which has the capacity to mobilise public opinion against someone like Goodwin or Green.

There is an element of ritual about these occasional hot pursuits and I’m not sure how much of a punishment they involve. If you have sufficient brass neck, and an extremely healthy bank account, losing an honour need not involve any greater inconvenience than having to order a new set of stationery. Green is so famously thin-skinned that becoming plain “Mr” again might well dent his ego, but it amounts to little more than sticking a plaster on the festering wound of the honours system.

It reached its nadir last year when the Queen officially presented her husband with an Australian knighthood, granted in a career-ending move by the then prime minister Tony Abbott, in addition to all his other titles. Arise, Sir Prince Philip? In an ethical universe, or even just a sane one, this tottering edifice would be given the final push it so richly deserves. There’s nothing wrong with governments honouring citizens who have done outstanding things, but a modern democracy doesn’t need the snobbish gradations of MBEs, knighthoods and peerages.

If we stopped giving out so many baubles just for being rich and famous, we wouldn’t need to go to so much trouble to get them back.

Domestic abuse doesn’t just happen to young women – wake up

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 7 June 2016

Imagine the police arriving at an address where a husband is beating up his wife. What would you expect the couple to look like? A young woman with a couple of crying children and a man struggling to hide his aggression?

That’s true in some cases. But we also need to envisage a very different situation, according to a powerful new film that highlights the plight of older women in violent relationships.

In the two-minute film, made by Ridley Scott’s production company, an older couple played by Tessa Peake-Jones and Phil Davis are enjoying lunch with their daughter and grand-children. It’s a familiar scene, with everyone offering compliments after a beautifully-cooked meal in a welcoming middle-class home.

But something isn’t quite right.

‘You all right, Mum?’ asks the daughter, played by Suffragette star Anne-Marie Duff. Her mother shrugs off the question and it’s only after the family have gone that we see the hidden reality of a violent marriage – Peake-Jones’s character cowering on the stairs as her husband rants and hits her. She has become expert, we realise, in covering the bruises on her face with make-up.

Domestic abuse is being discussed more openly than in the past. We’ve been hearing the same statistic – two women a week are killed by a current of former partner – for decades, but now we are finding out more about the astonishing number of victims whose cases don’t, thankfully, get that far.

An estimated 1.4m women were affected by abuse in 2013-14, according to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data. Men suffer too, but the overwhelming majority of victims are female.

Many of those women are young, but that isn’t always the case. Do You See Her is the title of the new film, reminding us that women in their 50s and 60s are abused by husbands and partners - and that some have been suffering silently for years. One in five victims who access services has been experiencing abuse for 10 years, according to charity Women’s Aid. It may be that it’s even harder for women in this age group to talk openly about what’s happening, not least because of misplaced feelings of loyalty to their partners of many years.

Some women, like the grandmother in the film, don’t want to shatter the illusions of their grown-up children. Shame is a factor as well, especially for women who were brought up with traditional ideas about marriage, and older women may also feel that they have fewer options.

None of this amounts to a reason for staying in an abusive marriage, but it does mean we have to think about the kind of services offered to women leaving an abusive relationship.

Here is an even more extraordinary statistic: the oldest recorded victim of domestic abuse in London last year was 97. It may shock some people to realise that even a woman in her tenth decade is not safe, but it’s a reminder that we have very little idea of what happens behind closed doors.

That’s borne out by a new analysis of victims by the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), which shows that the age range of women affected by abuse in the city in 2015-16 ranged from 16 to the late 90s. Younger women aged 25 to 34 formed the largest single group, representing a third of recorded victims, but just over a fifth were between the ages of 35 and 44.

“Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse – including those with adult children and grandchildren”, says Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid. The point is reinforced at the end of the film in a voice-over by Louiza Patikas, who plays abuse victim Helen in The Archers on BBC Radio 4.

In the series, Helen is currently on remand in a mother-and-baby unit after stabbing her abusive husband Rob as she tried to leave him. Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline rose by 20 per cent in the 12 months up to February this year, something Neate thinks is partly down to the ‘Archers effect’.

One of the things highlighted by the short film is that long-term abuse is often entirely unsuspected – even by close family members. If they are unaware, it’s highly unlikely that the violence has come to the attention of the police, a circumstance borne out by one of the most shocking findings in MOPAC’s analysis of victims in London. There were 28 domestic abuse homicides in the city last year and most of the victims were previously unknown to the police.

Do you see her? Most of us don’t. If we’re going to stop this scourge, we need to get rid of stereotypes and myths, and recognise that domestic abuse affects women of all ages and backgrounds.

Superior Scandi noir

Sunday Times, 5 June 2016

Sweden has produced some of the world’s top crime writers in recent years, offering insights into its fragile political consensus. The country’s response to terrorism and the refugee crisis are at the heart of Hjorth and Rosenfeldt’s stunning new novel, The Man Who Wasn’t There (Century £16.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy.

The authors may be unfamiliar to British readers but they have an impressive pedigree: Hans Rosenfeldt created the hit TV series The Bridge, while Michael Hjorth is a screenwriter and producer. The novel opens dramatically with the discovery of six bodies in a mass grave in a remote area of Sweden. Two of the adults are identified as a Dutch couple who disappeared during a hiking holiday in 2003, but the identity of the other four is a mystery.

The team sent from Stockholm to run the investigation includes a narcissistic psychologist, Sebastian Bergman. He is a brilliant creation, displaying none of the redeeming features we have come to expect from even the most depressed Nordic investigator; his appalling behaviour contrasts with the grief of the other characters, including an Afghan refugee whose husband has disappeared. This is a complex and compelling novel which invites comparisons with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Cecilia Eckback also writes about mass murder in Sweden but her context could hardly be more different. In The Month of the Midnight Sun (Hodder £16.99) is set in 1856, when three men are found hacked to death in a remote mining village where Christian settlers live uneasily alongside the original Sami people. A mining expert, Magnus Stille, is sent from Stockholm to investigate the murders by the Minister of Justice, who also happens to be his father-in-law.

Magnus’s cover story is that he is carrying out a survey of iron deposits in the area but his inquiries are hampered by the insomnia that quickly begins to torment him in the relentless daylight. Ekback lives in Canada but she was born in Sweden and has a tremendous sense of place, vividly conveying the desolation of the landscape in this haunting novel.

Stephen King strikes an elegiac tone in End of Watch (Hodder £20), the final novel in a trilogy which began with Mr Mercedes. Bill Hodges is a retired cop with serious health problems, but he’s drawn back into an old case involving a mass murderer who deliberately drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd. The killer, Brady Hartfield, has been unresponsive in a brain injury clinic for years when some of his surviving victims start killing themselves. Hodges believes Hartfield is faking, but the only link between the suicides is an obsolete hand-held computer loaded with a mesmerising game. A serial killer who drives his victims to suicide is a novel idea but King’s use of supernatural powers sits oddly in a crime novel.

Parker Bilal’s superb series of novels set in Mubarak’s Egypt has now reached the period just after the Iraq war. In City of Jackals (Bloomsbury £7.99), the country’s corrupt officials are struggling to contain an influx of refugees from the conflict in Egypt’s southern neighbour, Sudan. It is a bittersweet moment for Bilal’s protagonist, Makana, who fled the Sudanese capital Khartoum years ago and is scraping a living as a private detective in Cairo.

When a severed head is washed up in the Nile, Makana is sure the gruesome find belongs to one of his compatriots. He is supposed to be investigating the disappearance of an Egyptian student but the two cases turn out to have strange connections, leading him to uncover a horrific trade in the city’s most vulnerable people.