Blonde wedding protest

Joan Smith, Peter Tatchell and protesters from Bahrain gathered outside Buckingham Palace on Thursday 28 April 2011. They called on the FCO and royals to withdraw wedding invitations to seven royal despots;  as well as using barbaric forms of punishment at home, the Saudi regime is currently occupying next-door Bahrain. A couple of hours earlier, an invitation to the Syrian ambassador was belatedly withdrawn after protesters pointed out that the Assad regime has killed unarmed demonstrators.

My phone may have been hacked. So why wasn’t I told?

I write crime novels, but I never imagined a plot as seedy as this one. The idea that I was targeted by a private investigator makes me feel sick and angry

Independent, Thursday 28 April 2011

The message came out of the blue: a detective from Operation Weeting was trying to get hold of me. Operation Weeting? That’s the name of the new inquiry set up by the Metropolitan Police into the long-running phone-hacking scandal. My stomach lurched and I realised straightaway that it could mean only one thing. I now know that my name, address, home and mobile phone numbers appear in handwritten notes seized by the police in 2006 from a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the News of the World.

Yes, I did say 2006. Detectives have had Mulcaire’s notes containing thousands of names and phone numbers for five years, yet most of us are only now discovering that we are “potential victims” (in the Met’s carefully chosen phrase) of phone hacking. It’s a jaw-dropping revelation, even though details of my private life have occasionally surfaced in the tabloids. If I was of interest to Mulcaire, presumably because of my then relationship with a Labour MP, how wide is this scandal going to spread? The questions are endless, but the most pressing is why it’s taken the police so long to warn up to 4,000 of us that our voicemails may have been listened to illegally.

A handful of people were told, but until two days ago the Met was still insisting that the figure should be kept secret. Now we’ve discovered that the initial investigation five years ago led to precisely 28 people being warned; in July 2009, another eight were told that the security of their mobiles might have been compromised. That’s 36 in all, prompting one of yesterday’s pithier headlines: “3,964 to go?”

It was only on Tuesday of this week that the Met’s acting deputy commissioner, John Yates, admitted in a letter to the Conservative MP John Whittingdale, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, that fewer than 1 per cent of us were contacted during the original investigation. “I have accepted that more could and should have been done in relation to those who may have been potential victims,” he said, with breathtaking understatement.

Phone hacking is a criminal offence. In August 2006, the News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, was arrested on suspicion of hacking the mobiles of members of the royal household and accessing voicemail messages. In January 2007 he pleaded guilty to phone interception charges and went to prison for four months; at the same time Mulcaire, who was on a retainer from the paper, was imprisoned for six months.

On the day the two men were sentenced, the resignation of the paper’s then editor, Andy Coulson, was announced; Coulson has always denied all knowledge of phone hacking and later became David Cameron’s communications director. He resigned the post in January this year when it became clear that media coverage of the phone-hacking scandal was not going to go away.

Earlier this month, officers from Operation Weeting arrested the News of the World’s chief reporter and former assistant editor on suspicion of conspiring to intercept mobile phone messages; both have been released on bail. Also this month, the paper’s parent company, News International, publicly apologised to eight victims of phone hacking including the former culture secretary Tessa Jowell and the actor Sienna Miller.

It is chiefly thanks to Miller’s persistence in returning to the courts that the extent of the practice has finally begun to emerge, and she’s been offered £100,000 to settle her lawsuit. Four people, including Miller, have been told that their cases will take precedence in court proceedings; the other three are Miller’s stepmother, Kelly Hoppen, the football agent Sky Andrew and the football commentator Andy Gray.

Even before this week’s revelation that so few people received warnings from the police that the security of their mobiles might have been compromised, politicians had begun to sound the alarm and demand a public inquiry. “There are some very big questions,” Whittingdale told the BBC a couple of weeks ago. “What I find [most] worrying is the apparent unwillingness of the police, who had the evidence and chose to do nothing with it.”

The MP believes that the scandal may even have compromised government security, suggesting that it was “pretty extraordinary” that newspapers were apparently able to listen in to “the private conversations of Downing Street, royal staff and others”.

His call for an inquiry was echoed last week by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who wants to see an independent review of newspaper regulation and practice. Miliband’s statement was regarded as a high-risk move for a leader whose party is out of power and needs friends in the media. But I suspect that he’s ahead of the game and has grasped the fact that the repercussions of this scandal – and its potential to damage the reputation of the British press – are likely to be wider than most people have yet realised. One possible victim is the Press Complaints Commission, the industry watchdog whose response to allegations of widespread phone hacking has been tardy and far from rigorous.

I write crime novels, but I never imagined a plot as seedy as this one. The idea that I was targeted by a private investigator who obtained my home address and phone numbers, and perhaps those of my friends – there are several so far unidentified numbers next to my name in Mulcaire’s notes – makes me feel sick and angry. The realisation that the police could have warned me to take steps to protect my mobile five years ago, and sat on the information all this time, is beyond belief.

I don’t yet know for certain whether my phone was hacked. I have a meeting with the police next month and I’ve had to contact O2, the mobile operator I was using at the time, with a series of technical questions. I assume that thousands of other people – peers, MPs, actors, sports stars, maybe other journalists – are going through the same process. Where will it all end? I passionately believe that a free press is a cornerstone of democracy, and I hate to see it at risk because of this sick obsession with celebrity.

Material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2011, 2010

Compassion deserts Cameron

The PM’s attack on benefit claimants incapacitated by drink, drugs and obesity laid bare his Tory soul

Independent on Sunday, 24 April 2011

David Cameron is right, though only up to a point: many people in this country are offended by the thought of workers in poorly paid jobs having to support benefit claimants who can’t work because of addictions to drink, drugs or food. Even some politicians on the centre-left have come round to recognising the inherent unfairness of the present system, although I suspect they may have winced when they heard the Prime Minister’s language last week. Some of his Lib Dem coalition colleagues certainly didn’t like it.

Cameron is still trying to present himself as a compassionate Conservative. But the revelation that just over 80,000 people are living on incapacity benefit because of alcohol, drugs or weight problems sent him into a classic Tory rant. He promised to get tough with claimants who don’t deserve benefits – the “undeserving poor” are a perennial Tory theme – and he was clearly addressing his core vote when he talked about the need to get “these people” into work. What he didn’t explain is where the new jobs are going to come from, just as he failed to address the question of why employers would take on alcoholics or drug addicts (to put it crudely) when there are 2.5 million unemployed but reasonably healthy potential workers to choose from.

The PM’s error was to correctly identify an imbalance in the treatment of taxpayers and benefits claimants, and then make a leap from that into punitive moral judgements. He also gave the impression that the problem is bigger than it is, even though fewer than one in 20 incapacity benefit claimants fall into this category. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, in August last year there were 42,360 incapacity benefit claimants with alcohol addiction, 37,480 with drug dependency and 1,800 who were obese. Labour’s spokesman on employment, Stephen Timms, pointed out that there’s a danger of simply moving thousands of claimants from one benefit to another; if they can’t find work, they may end up on Jobseeker’s Allowance and nothing will have been achieved.

A complex problem that has developed over years isn’t amenable to the simple, instant solutions that politicians favour. The Employment minister, Chris Grayling, says private and voluntary organisations have agreed to invest £580m in treating addicts and preparing them for employment. Modern Tories like to think themselves caring, but their instincts are still small-state – and he claims all conditions are treatable with the right support.

I wonder if he’s ever met some of the families I encountered while canvassing in the north of England during last year’s general election. One couple in particular has stayed in my memory, their problems so intractable that the woman broke down in tears when I arrived with some leaflets. Her husband looked to be in his early forties but stayed on the sofa in a dressing gown, so obese he was unable to get up without help. He had diabetes and was waiting for two new hips, while his wife had had to give up work to look after him. Both were severely depressed, entirely dependent on state benefits and unable to see any way out.

They were both very nice people, living in a way neither had consciously chosen, although in strict Cameronian terms the husband had brought his problems on himself. It would take years and massive state intervention to get this couple into a situation where they could work and support themselves, and that takes us to the problem at the heart of Tory philosophy. Time after time, the most significant factors in what happens to people turn out to be class, education and income, but Tory ministers behave as though we all have the same start in life. This inevitably colours their view of individuals, encouraging the kind of unfeeling language we heard last week.

Take obesity, where a gap is opening up between children from poor and affluent families. Some researchers suggest working-class children are fatter because their families aren’t getting messages about healthy eating and exercise; others point out that fast food is cheaper, less time-consuming, and more filling than a healthy middle-class diet. Overweight children tend to grow into obese adults, but Tories, as a breed, have little appetite for regulating supermarkets which discount unhealthy food and alcohol.

I know alcoholics can be irritating and self-deceiving, but cheap booze, social tolerance of heavy drinking and the reluctance of GPs to intervene all play a role in failing to halt addiction at an early stage. Cameron’s Tories seem less interested in understanding why people develop addictions than finding fault, labelling individuals and telling them to get over it. Weirdly for people who loathe the “nanny state”, they’re pretty quick to sound like nannies themselves, berating their charges for indolence and fecklessness. “Frankly,” Cameron fumed, “we are not doing our job looking after taxpayers’ money if we do not try and make sure these people go to work.”

Right-wing politicians have been talking like this for years, pleasing their voters but failing to come up with long-term answers. Labour governments make a different mistake, reluctant to stigmatise the poor, but also seeking to avoid antagonising constituents whose families depend on benefits. Political parties disagree about whether incapacity benefit claimants are shysters or victims, but their responses are too tribal to address the question of fairness for everyone: people in work, the unemployed, pensioners, the chronically sick.

Cameron is right to argue that too many people are “trapped in long-term poverty”, but that doesn’t apply only to people on state benefits. Inequality is entrenched, and you don’t have to look far to find the hopelessness, low self-esteem, poor health and multiple dependencies that are among its consequences. Getting people out of this state requires radical rethinking about the relationship between rich and poor, individuals and state. But it might put an end to the absurd situation in which the poorest exist on the taxes of the not-quite-so-poor.

Tales of the Disaffected

Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan, by Zarghuna Kargar

The Times, Saturday 23 April 2011

One of the most frequently expressed opinions about Afghanistan is that it is a backward country that cannot and should not be modernised. According to this view, conservative religious values have always held sway and any initiative to improve the lot of Afghan women is doomed to failure. Images of Kabul in the 1980s, when women travelled on buses, uncovered their heads and wore miniskirts, are part of the country’s forgotten history.

So is the fact that the city had its own feminist movement as early as the 1970s, long before an extreme religious cult called the Taleban forced women to cover up in burkas. Zarghuna Kargar’s remarkable book is a corrective to simplistic views of the situation of women in Afghanistan and a shattering exposé of abuse. She comes from an educated middle-class family in Kabul and was a child during the Soviet occupation, when her father was a government minister. This was a period when Afghan women began to train as doctors, lawyers and journalists, as well as appearing in films and on television. The country’s Russian-backed Government was committed to equality, and Afghans who were able to afford TVs could watch Western films and music, Bollywood movies and Russian programmes.

“I remember my father telling me at the time that Afghanistan was beginning to move closer to democracy,” Kargar recalls. The observation seems optimistic, given the autocratic nature of Soviet rule, and some educated Afghans disagreed even at the time; an Afghan feminist called Meena, who founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 1977, campaigned with equal vigour against the Russian occupation and religious extremism until her assassination a decade later. Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and Kargar’s father was a potential target for the various Mujahidin groups who fought for control of the country, while life changed dramatically for his daughters.

When fighting in Kabul subsided, they returned to school wearing black clothes and headscarves for the first time, and heard terrifying stories about girls being abducted by warlords. A neighbour’s daughter jumped from the balcony of her sixth-floor apartment when a Mujahid gunman burst into the flat and tried to rape her. Before the family fled to Pakistan, Kargar witnessed a rocket attack on her school and saw a classmate die from her injuries. But Peshawar was even more repressive than Kabul under the warlords, and on their first night as refugees, Kargar’s mother was told that her daughters would have to cover their faces. Kargar quickly discovered that Mujahidin fighters in refugee camps in Pakistan looked down on Afghan women, calling them “Kabulis” to signify that they’d come from a liberal country that didn’t strictly follow Islamic law.

This portrait of Kabul as a city in transition to modernity, suddenly cast back into clerical fundamentalism by a brutal civil war, doesn’t fit the popular image of Afghanistan. Kargar’s own story, which includes an unhappy arranged marriage in London, is emblematic of the conflicts endured by women who find themselves torn between notions of individual freedom and traditional family values. But as an educated Afghan woman in London, Kargar found herself in a unique position to do something on behalf of women in her home country who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice; in 2004 she became a producer and presenter on a new programme, Afghan Woman’s Hour, broadcast in Dari and Pashto by the BBC World Service.

Its content was a response to research conducted by the BBC World Service Trust in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan, and from the beginning it covered controversial subjects such as domestic violence and early marriage as well as songs and recipes. The programme’s most popular slot consisted of Afghan women telling their life stories, material that forms the core of this book. Kargar worked with a team of journalists in the UK and Afghanistan, collecting first-hand accounts that were broadcast alongside discussions about gender and women’s legal rights. The women talked to Kargar and her colleagues — she is the “Zari” of the book’s title — with astonishing candour: they described being forced into unwanted marriages, being treated as domestic servants, struggling to feed their children after their husbands died, and even cross-dressing as boys when there wasn’t a son to protect the family. In some cases their experiences were made worse by Afghanistan’s three decades of conflict, but what they reveal from the inside is everyday life in patriarchal families where women and girls have little value.

These are not the middle-class women that Kargar’s family mixed with in Kabul. One of the most heart-rending interviewees is Wazma, who was abandoned by her husband when she lost a leg in a rocket attack. He even took their baby daughter, telling Wazma that she was no longer any use to him as a wife or mother. When Wazma begged him to be allowed to return home after she was discharged from hospital, he turned her away, saying: “You can’t come into the house. It isn’t your home any more.” Like all the women in the book, she was keen that other women should hear her story. “I really want to explain my life to the listeners of Afghan Woman’s Hour,” she told Kargar. “It’s the first time I have spoken openly about my feelings and I’m hoping that people will understand what I’ve gone through.”

Another woman, Nasreen, described how she was married off at 14 when her father discovered that she had fallen in love with the boy next door. Her husband, whom she had not met before the wedding, was a 40-year-old drug addict. “He kept repeating I was ‘his now’, and when he smiled I could see his yellow teeth. He was laughing, happy that he would soon be having sex with a 14-year-old virgin. A part of me died then, and my family ceased to exist for me.”

Shereenjan was even younger when she was forced into marriage, handed to another family at the age of 9 in settlement of a dispute — a practice known as dukhmany in Afghanistan — between her father and another man. Too young to understand what was happening to her, she was taken to her future husband’s house by her grandmother, who ignored her entreaties to be allowed to return home. Shereenjan was thrust into an outhouse with the family’s animals and fed beside their dogs, enduring years of punishment — slavery, in other words — because her father had killed one of their sons. “Men, women and children would beat me whenever they felt like it,” she told Kargar, “and my life was no better than that of a dog.” Three years later, when she reached puberty, her husband started having sex with her: “If they had been an even crueller family they would perhaps have forced me to sleep with their son earlier.” Shereenjan’s life became a little easier only when her in-laws grew old and died, her son married and she was able to go and live with his family.

The events that Shereenjan related happened many years ago. But the story had a profound effect on Kargar because something similar happened in a distant branch of her own family in 2007, when a bright eleven-year-old called Pana was removed from school in Kabul and promised to another family to resolve a dispute. After she finished recording Shereenjan’s story, Kargar approached Pana’s aunt and pleaded with her to intervene. She refused, insisting that the girl had been promised to the family and nothing could be done. “I felt helpless,” Kargar writes. “I could do nothing to save this eleven-year-old girl.” That was the last that she heard of Pana, one of many children around the world forced into sexual slavery — such events are not confined to Afghanistan — in the 21st century.

In the midst of such unremitting misery, there are glimpses of hope. By the time that Kargar met Wazma, she was in a welfare centre for female amputees in Kabul and was being trained as a tailor so that she could support herself and her elderly parents. After her story was broadcast, an Afghan man called Kargar’s office in London and said that her story had made him cry. He offered to send Wazma money on a regular basis, demonstrating the extraordinary impact that the programme was having both inside and outside of Afghanistan.

In January last year, the British Government decided to stop the funding for the programme, and it went off air. This book is a testimony to its impact on the lives of Afghan women, summed up in the words of Suraya Parlika, an Afghan human rights activist: “Dear Zari, Afghan Woman’s Hour has been very successful in exploring human rights in our country. I went into a village and saw some women working; I asked them how they had learnt to do this and they said they had been taught to work by listening to Afghan Woman’s Hour.”

After reading these astonishing stories, the decision to axe the programme seems both tragic and short-sighted.

Chatto £12.99

The Queen, a Christmas party, and the myth of the apolitical head of state

Friday 22 April 2011

One of the principal arguments made by royalists – it came up again on Newsnight last night – is that the royal family are ‘above politics’. Unlike an elected President, who might or might not be a professional politician, its members are supposed to have been ‘bred’ to the job – and aware of the crucial importance in a constitutional monarchy of not expressing political opinions.

As I said during the programme, this is not my experience of the present monarch. Two or three years ago, I was at a Christmas party at Buckingham Palace and a courtier asked if I was prepared to meet the Queen. When I said I was, I was asked to wait in a corner of the room with several other people while she was brought in.

She spoke first to someone in our little group and he then introduced me, explaining that I’m a novelist. I smiled warmly and said ‘hello’, but I didn’t curtsy. The Queen stared at me, said absolutely nothing – blanked me in other words - and moved on to the next person.

He introduced his partner, who happened to be Turkish, and the Queen remarked that she and Philip had been on a State visit to Turkey. The Turkish woman said how pleased she was about the visit, and they talked for a moment or two.

Then the Queen turned back to the person who’d tried to introduce me. ‘The EU is getting awfully large – 28 countries,’ she said.

‘It’s actually 27, ma’am,’ he replied, ‘but we’re hoping that Turkey will come in soon.’

‘Oh no’, the Queen responded, ‘we don’t want Turkey coming in for a long time.’

Two things strike me about this. The first is that the royal family are dependent on protocol, and the Queen certainly wasn’t ready in this instance to greet a British citizen who departed from it. The second is how quick she was to express a hugely controversial political opinion in the presence of people she didn’t know.

I don’t know whether other people have had similar experiences. But I would like to have an elected head of state who’s ready to mix easily with anyone who has good manners, regardless of political differences.  And I don’t believe for a moment that the present monarch is ‘above politics’.

When women cover up, it’s what they reveal that matters

Nigella wouldn’t be the first woman with a fuller figure to feel uncomfortable alongside young women whose body shapes owe a lot to punishing eating regimes

Friday 22 April 2011

One of the principal arguments made by royalists – it came up again on Newsnight last night – is that the royal family are ‘above politics’. Unlike an elected President, who might or might not be a professional politician, its members are supposed to have been ‘bred’ to the job – and aware of the crucial importance in a constitutional monarchy of not expressing political opinions.

As I said during the programme, this is not my experience of the present monarch. Two or three years ago, I was at a Christmas party at Buckingham Palace and a courtier asked if I was prepared to meet the Queen. When I said I was, I was asked to wait in a corner of the room with several other people while she was brought in.

She spoke first to someone in our little group and he then introduced me, explaining that I’m a novelist. I smiled warmly and said ‘hello’, but I didn’t curtsy. The Queen stared at me, said absolutely nothing – blanked me in other words - and moved on to the next person.

He introduced his partner, who happened to be Turkish, and the Queen remarked that she and Philip had been on a State visit to Turkey. The Turkish woman said how pleased she was about the visit, and they talked for a moment or two.

Then the Queen turned back to the person who’d tried to introduce me. ‘The EU is getting awfully large – 28 countries,’ she said.

‘It’s actually 27, ma’am,’ he replied, ‘but we’re hoping that Turkey will come in soon.’

‘Oh no’, the Queen responded, ‘we don’t want Turkey coming in for a long time.’

Two things strike me about this. The first is that the royal family are dependent on protocol, and the Queen certainly wasn’t ready in this instance to greet a British citizen who departed from it. The second is how quick she was to express a hugely controversial political opinion in the presence of people she didn’t know.

I don’t know whether other people have had similar experiences. But I would like to have an elected head of state who’s ready to mix easily with anyone who has good manners, regardless of political differences.  And I don’t believe for a moment that the present monarch is ‘above politics’.

Don’t demonise singles: there’s a lot of us about

Independent on Sunday, 17 April 2011

Are they going to be issued with cats? More middle-aged men are living alone, according to new figures, and it goes without saying that they must be just as miserable as all the middle-aged single women we’ve heard about for years.

These newly single men in their late 40s to early 60s face a lonely future, according to the popular press, and the really good news is that it’s all their own fault. Yes, once again, the baby boomers have proved themselves – I should say ourselves, since I’m one of them – selfish and useless at relationships.

More than two million of us now face a lonely old age “with no relationships”, according to gleeful newspaper reports last week; what else do we deserve after half a lifetime of enjoying ourselves and showing a marked reluctance to get married? I suppose we’ll just have to count the passing years, gazing enviously at the happy families whose lives are chronicled in self-congratulatory detail by so many lifestyle columnists.

Actually, you don’t have to be a single baby boomer to rejoice in not being entirely focused on people with titles like Him Indoors, Senior Daughter and Second Son; the comings and goings of other people’s children are not at all fascinating, and neither are endless accounts of the trials of “juggling” and “work-life balance”. Figures showing that the number of people living alone in middle age has risen by almost a third in a decade (to 2.3 million, according to the Office for National Statistics) are empirical evidence of changing lifestyles. But despite almost wholly negative coverage, the figures say nothing about how the people concerned feel about their living arrangements.

First and foremost among the dodgy assumptions is that no one would ever choose to live alone. The range of attitudes to single life is much wider than we’re led to believe, and hugely affected by economic circumstances; living alone in a comfortable home, with room for friends to stay, is a different prospect from struggling to survive on a low income in a cramped flat. Single life is more expensive, but that’s also the case for people who ha have chosen the living-together-apart option – having a partner but keeping separate establishments.

A fifth of women now reach the age of 40 without giving birth and for many it’s a positive choice; my observations of older friends who don’t have children do not suggest that they’re lonelier than those who have. Living alone is different, requiring a degree of thinking ahead that couples tend not to bother with. But its pleasures, such as spending an entire day in bed reading novels and eating chocolate, are overlooked. So is the freedom it offers: for my parents’ generation, marital misery stayed behind closed doors and we simply don’t know how many unhappy spouses would have left if they had the option.

There’s a ranking of living arrangements which puts marriage at the top, cohabitation a long way down the list and single life (or being a single parent) a very poor third. I don’t think this reflects the experience of real people, as opposed to stereotypes, and I also don’t think we’re going to return to a society composed almost entirely of married, heterosexual couples with children. One way forward would be to stop demonising single people and find out what would make single life easier, although I can imagine the outcry that would follow. Excuse me now, but I need to go and have a few words with the Senior Cat.

Something rotten

Murder as symptom of society’s greater ills takes us from modern Chicago to 18th-century Lancashire in this chilling crime roundup

Sunday Times, 17 April 2011

The best American crime writers have always used murder as a means of writing about political and social conflicts. Few contemporary authors do it better than Sara Paretsky, whose latest novel is a heartfelt commentary on her country’s involvement in the Iraq war. Paretsky’s Chicago has become a city where the conflict is as ever-present as Vietnam, while veterans struggle with their demons and avant-garde art has taken a decadent turn.

Body Work (Hodder £16.99) takes Paretsky’s private eye, VI Warshawski, to the unusual setting of a Chicago nightclub. The star turn at Club Gouge is a performer known as the Body Artist who invites members of the audience onto the stage to paint her naked body. VI is unsettled by the performance, unsure whether the Body Artist is exploiting her audience or being exploited. She’s particularly troubled by a young woman called Nadia who paints a woman’s face on the artist’s flesh night after night.

Another visitor to the club is Chad, a disturbed Iraq veteran who reacts violently to Nadia’s images. When Nadia is shot dead outside the club and dies in VI’s arms, Chad is the obvious suspect, but he’s rushed to hospital with a drug overdose before VI can talk to him. His family asks her to prove his innocence and she embarks on a quest that uncovers another murder, this time in Iraq, and a scandal about defective military equipment. Discovering these connections forces VI to expose herself in a most unexpected way, and makes Body Work one of the most memorable novels in this fine series.

At first glance Robin Blake’s A Dark Anatomy (Macmillan £12.99) could hardly seem further removed from the dark passions that inform Body Work. The book is set in rural Lancashire in 1740, where the squire’s foreign wife is found in a forest with her throat slashed. In the absence of a police force the local coroner, Titus Cragg, is required to investigate the death; it is a time of scientific discovery and Cragg seeks advice from a young doctor, Luke Fidelis, who agrees to perform a post-mortem. He’s barely removed the victim’s clothes when he makes a startling discovery, transforming an apparently straightforward case of wife-murder into a potentially much greater scandal. Again, the human body is revealed as the focus for strong and at times unbearable emotions, in what the author says is the first Cragg and Fidelis mystery.

Kathryn Fox is another crime writer who is fascinated by gender and violence. Her detective is Anya Crichton, an Australian forensic expert, and in Death Mask (Hodder £12.99) she’s called in to examine a young woman who’s been gang-raped by a group of footballers on her wedding night. As a result of the publicity, Anya is invited to go to America to speak at a seminar designed to change the sexual attitudes of some of the country’s top football stars.

Her warnings about the consequences of unprotected sex make some of the players blanch, and she quickly realises that she has taken on one of the biggest challenges of her career. Then five footballers are accused of gang rape, and Anya’s trip to the States takes on a new complexion. She is horrified when the victim is torn apart by the press, but then one of the accused players dies in suspicious circumstances and the case becomes a murder investigation. This is a fascinating novel about the real-life problem of leading sportsmen and sexual violence, even if the plot seems a little forced at times.

Sebastian Fitzek’s Splinter (Corvus £12.99, translated by John Brownjohn) has a similar opening premise to the recent identity-theft movie Unknown, but travels in a very different direction. Marc Lucas is recovering from a horrific car crash that killed his pregnant wife when he gets an invitation to attend a mysterious clinic that is carrying out experiments on expunging traumatic memories. Lucas decides he doesn’t want to take part but perplexing things starts happening to him: his credit cards are refused, his front door key doesn’t work and a stranger is working in his office. Worst of all, he returns to his old flat and discovers his dead wife apparently living there, claiming not to recognise him. Whether he is losing his reason or sinister forces are at work is the question at the heart of this dazzling novel.

Fred Vargas is never less than original and An Uncertain Place (Harvill Secker £12.99, translated by Sian Reynolds) takes her French detective Commissaire Adamsberg from a conference in London to the forests of Serbia. A pile of discarded shoes outside Highgate cemetery, each of them containing a severed foot, is a suitably macabre beginning for a novel that encompasses present-day massacres in Paris and ancient vampire legends. As ever, Vargas’s characters inhabit a world where reason and myth collide, and the result is a thrilling read.

Donna Leon’s latest Venetian mystery, Drawing Conclusions (Heinemann £16.99), shows her veteran detective Commissario Brunetti in his most reflective mode. A young woman returns from a trip to find her upstairs neighbour dead, apparently from a heart attack, although faint bruising suggests that she may have been shaken. Brunetti’s boss wants the case concluded quickly, but it emerges that the dead woman had been sheltering women fleeing domestic violence. The semi-unofficial investigation unfolds slowly, allowing Leon to highlight Brunetti’s complex work and family relationships.

Kate Middleton: once again, the lady vanishes

Independent, Thursday 14 April 2011

What on earth do the Windsors do to women behind closed doors? Two weeks before her wedding, Kate Middleton has started wearing clothes no normal woman in her twenties would give a second glance. Imagine the shopping trip: a few old friends, up in London for the day, going through rails of clothes and picking out… the knee-length suit. The boring court shoes. The lady-like clutch. And collapsing on each other’s shoulders in helpless giggles.

Middleton has already adopted the uniform of an older generation. She’s also losing weight, maybe as a result of the pre-wedding “nerves” she admitted to in one of those stilted conversations the royals have with strangers, just like her fiancé’s late mother in 1981.

Diana Spencer was a chubby teenager when she was photographed at the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles, even if she had already started to dress like a middle-aged matron. By the time she got married, she was almost invisible in a huge dress that could have come from a little girl’s dressing-up box.

Years later I went to look at Diana’s dress collection when she put it up for sale, and I was struck by how quickly she went from fairy-tale bride to concealing herself in dresses padded and ruched like discreet body armour. They seemed to offer an insight into inner turmoil, which was hardly surprising in view of Diana’s long-standing insecurities and the inflexible institution she had married into.

Like her would-have-been mother-in-law, Middleton is supposed to be a breath of fresh air, a modernising influence on the rather stuffy Windsors. But she’s on the receiving end of patronising advice that betrays the hollowness of such claims, including exhortations to avoid outshining her new husband; three decades after Diana turned into the family’s star attraction, a prince’s wife must know her place. She’s also been told to start breeding as soon as possible, as though there were even a remote possibility that she might suddenly remark that she and William are not all that keen, actually, on starting a family.

When it comes to royal marriages, the monarchy keeps well away from women with careers – only the Queen is allowed to have one, and it’s a job for life – and Middleton follows the script exactly. It’s not clear she’s ever had a real job, in the sense of something with a career structure. She seems not to mind becoming a woman who gets into newspapers for carrying an umbrella or wearing the same dress twice, suggesting a paucity of ambition that’s genuinely mind-boggling.

In the midst of so much royal wedding tripe, I mean hype, it’s easy to forget what a bizarre institution the monarchy is. The family itself is dull, unable (in my limited experience) to hold an interesting conversation and unwilling to depart from protocol; I’ve mentioned before that the Queen once cut me dead when I said “hello” to her and didn’t curtsy. The notion that the Windsors would welcome a woman who could converse knowledgeably on anything from the future of nuclear energy to the performance art of Lady Gaga is simply risible.

These days, all sorts of relationships are available to consenting adults, from cohabitation and civil partnerships to the not-very-popular option of marriage. Women who marry into the royal family voluntarily accept archaic and burdensome restrictions on their everyday lives, trading autonomy for reflected glory.

In 15 days Kate Middleton will cease to exist, replaced by someone who isn’t even allowed to keep her first name. In such peculiar circumstances, her middle-aged makeover and weight loss start to look like a metaphor: it’s a classic example of shrinking royal bride syndrome.

How many times can a man turn his head?

Protest has given him a living, but Bob Dylan said nothing about Ai Weiwei and human rights when he meekly performed in China

Independent on Sunday, 10 April 2011

Let’s start with a quiz. Which prominent American citizen made a speech in China last week praising activists who want more freedom from the state? And which well-known American took the opposite course, remaining silent about human rights and accepting state-imposed censorship? The answer to my second question is, of course, Bob Dylan, who meekly performed a set approved by the Culture Ministry at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing on Wednesday.

In a fascinating reversal, the one-time apostle of protest failed even to mention Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who disappeared for four days after being arrested while trying to board a plane at Beijing airport last weekend. It was left to the Obama administration’s outgoing ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, to raise human rights in a speech in Shanghai, where he praised activists who “challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times”.

The times, they certainly are a-changin’, although that’s one of several classic Dylan songs apparently considered too radical for audiences in China. The singer’s management would doubtless argue that the dates of his China tour were fixed long before the latest crackdown on dissidents, although that doesn’t explain why Dylan failed to seize the opportunity to show solidarity with an artist of Ai’s international stature.

Ai’s Sunflower Seeds are still on show in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London, although it’s hard to know how widely known he or indeed Bob Dylan is in China; the Communist Party’s habit of censorship stretches back to Dylan’s heyday in the Sixties, while attempts to search for Ai’s name on the internet are usually blocked by the authorities.

On Thursday, in its first admission that it was holding Ai, a Chinese government spokesman announced tersely that he was being investigated for “economic crimes”. The claim followed an ominous editorial in the previous day’s Global Times, an English-language paper published by the Communist Party, which described Ai as a “maverick of Chinese society”. In barely coded language, it went on to warn that Ai “will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice”. The tone was in contrast to the paper’s approach to the Dylan concert, which hailed the singer as “an iconic voice of protest in a nation that values harmony”.

The Communist Party wasn’t expecting trouble from Dylan, in other words, and appeared to regard his concert in Beijing as a propaganda coup. I’ve never been a Dylan fan – his politics and his lyrics have always seemed incoherent to me – but the authorities are clearly terrified of their own dissidents, who keep defying state censorship to expose the truth about the risible notion of national “harmony”.

The government was furious last autumn about the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a jailed intellectual, Liu Xiaobo, and tried to ensure that as many countries as possible boycotted the ceremony; now it has silenced Ai, who only a couple of months ago spoke eloquently about human rights abuses in a secretly recorded video. One of the things he talked about was his campaign to find out how many people died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when shoddily built schools collapsed and buried thousands of schoolchildren.

Thanks to dissidents such as Ai and Liu, we know about this scandal and others, including the arrests of ordinary people who objected to the demolition of their homes to make way for Olympic stadia. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented a huge range of abuses, and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Games, the UK Foreign Office listed China among “major countries of concern” in its annual human rights report. According to the report, the British government’s concerns included China’s use of the death penalty, torture, the lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment of prisoners, failure to protect human rights defenders, harassment of religious minorities, repression in Tibet, and limitations on freedom of expression and association.

The problem isn’t getting this message across to the rest of the world; it’s getting people in influential positions to act on it. For decades, British politicians on both sides of the House – including a former prime minister, Ted Heath – argued for a non-confrontational approach to the Chinese government. Gordon Brown and George Bush were among more than a hundred prime ministers, presidents and monarchs who turned up for various ceremonies at the Beijing Games; so did Nicolas Sarkozy, who shamelessly did a U-turn after initially proposing a boycott. Last year, David Cameron went to Beijing on a trade mission during the furore over Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize, and followed Sarkozy’s lead by promising to raise human rights while he was there.

Guys, I have something to say to you: it’s not working. Beijing only has to throw a party and you all turn up as though Tiananmen Square never happened, so why should the regime change? Being nice to the hard-line Communists who rule China – awarding them the Games, muting public criticism, endlessly sending political and business leaders to shake hands with them – has had no measurable effect on human rights. Ordinary people in China are still denied the most basic freedoms, harassed by state security officials – Ai filmed them in his recent video – and disappearing into labour camps.

The arrests of recent weeks demonstrate not the Communist Party’s strength but its weakness. Its claims to power and popularity are so illegitimate that it dare not allow its critics to remain free; China’s unelected leaders have seen what appeared to be immovable regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fall to popular revolts, while civil war rages in Libya.

In a country where the internet is tightly controlled, Ai’s abduction is unlikely to be a catalyst for revolution, but it demands an unequivocal response from the international community. European leaders have called for his immediate release, but now they and President Obama face a bigger test: with freedom blowin’ in the wind, how much longer can they go on treating China as the great exception?