Miriam and her amazing cojones

Independent, Thursday 14 July 2011

An atheist is leader of the Labour Party. Gay MPs hold parties on the terrace of the House of Commons to celebrate civil partnerships. Oh, and the Deputy Prime Minister is married to a feminist. Not any old feminist, either, but a “militantly ball-breaking” Spanish lawyer – I’m quoting a popular daily newspaper here, you understand – who doesn’t like being called a wife. Honestly, it’s enough to make you weep into your finest amontillado.

These are perplexing times for the right-wing press, for reasons that (for once) have nothing to do with phone hacking. They inhabit a world that’s been turned upside-down, with all their hate figures – people who are just crying out to have the epithet “self-confessed” attached to their belief systems – storming into positions of power. Everywhere you look there are self-confessed gays, feminists and secularists going on and on about equality and expecting everybody else to accommodate their bizarre lifestyles.

Take Mrs Clegg, who for reasons best known to herself – principally, I suspect, the fact that it’s her name – insists on being known as Miriam Gonzalez Durantez. Nick Clegg’s wife is definitely a “self-confessed” – she’s been a feminist since the age of eight, we’re told – and now she’s complaining to a women’s magazine that her husband “kills himself” to do his share of the school run.

Why, you might reasonably ask, is the Deputy Prime Minister hurrying home from breakfast meetings in central London to take his sons to school? It’s all in the name of shared childcare, equality and that politically correct guff that middle-class people like the Cleggs – or should I say the Clegg-Gonzalez-Durantez? – make a song and dance about. No wonder so many economies are collapsing when a European figure of Clegg’s stature is constantly distracted by having to make sure his kids have picked up their satchels. Give him a break, Mrs Clegg! In fact, let’s be frank: give the poor man back his cojones!

That was the blunt advice in one of yesterday’s right-wing papers, which also suggested sniffily that the school run is the sort of thing that should be left to the nanny. Another pointed out that “Mrs Clegg” discovered feminism under Franco when she realised that Spanish women needed permission from their male relatives to travel and couldn’t open bank accounts on their own. Hey, señora, haven’t you heard the old guy’s been dead for some time?

If I’m honest, it’s hard to read the attacks on Ms Gonzalez Durantez without the dizzy sensation of being sucked into a time warp. I mean, are there really people out there who think that any man who shares parenting is a hen-pecked wimp? Who believe that men volunteer for the school run only because they’re scared to stand up to their “ball-breaking” wives?

I wasn’t surprised to read this stuff in the 1970s, when the country’s conservative Establishment was first confronted with a different set of values and responded with impotent rage. But while I can think of plenty of reasons to criticise the Deputy Prime Minister, the notion that he’s been emasculated by his very successful wife isn’t one of them. Apart from anything else, few politicians reach Cabinet rank without developing a thick skin and at least some degree of ruthlessness.

The attacks come from the same papers which made an issue of Ed Miliband living with his long-term partner – they married earlier this year – when they couldn’t do anything about his atheism. Clegg isn’t a believer either, despite his wife’s Catholicism, and the fact that two out of three of the main party leaders manage without an imaginary friend is a measure of how much this country has changed. Way to go, though, before the old guard comes to terms with strong, independent, “self-confessed” women.

Stieg and Me by Eva Gabrielsson

Eva Gabrielsson, partner of Stieg Larsson for more than three decades, is still angry about being cut out of the late author’s legacy

Sunday Times, 10 July 2011

It is hard not to feel sorry for Eva Gabrielsson. For more than three decades she lived with Stieg Larsson, a little-known radical journalist, sharing ideas, politics and death threats. They lived modestly and were constantly aware they were at risk from the Swedish far right; in 1999, when several suspects were arrested for the murder of a trade unionist, the police found Larsson’s and Gabrielsson’s passport photos among the evidence they confiscated.

Larsson had begun a series of crime novels that he hoped would earn enough for them to build a house in the country. He was working on the fourth when he collapsed at his office in 2004, aged 50, dying before Gabrielsson could say goodbye. Effectively his widow, although they weren’t married, she could never have anticipated what happened next: her lover’s first three novels were published posthumously and the man she had lost became a global sensation.

It soon became clear that Larsson’s legal heirs were his widowed father, Erland, and younger brother Joakim, who even inherited half of the apartment Gabrielsson had shared with Larsson. Because the couple had been so close, she asked to be put in control of Larsson’s literary estate, but the family refused and she found herself cut out of discussions about editing and film rights. A dispute about the flat was finally resolved in Gabrielsson’s favour, but she has received little financial benefit from the Millennium trilogy, while her battle for control of his literary legacy continues to this day.

It is apparent from this strange and disturbing book, which tells Gabrielsson’s story in a series of disjointed chapters, that exclusion from Larsson’s literary afterlife matters a great deal more to her than money. She regards the Millennium trilogy as a reflection of their shared lives, recalling trips around Stockholm as they debated where different characters should live.

It seems equally clear that Erland and Joakim have never understood Gabrielsson’s feelings in this matter. According to her account, she knew Larsson much better than his immediate family; Larsson was raised by his grandparents until just before his ninth birthday, when his parents finally sent for him. Rage and a sense of loss infuse her book. It is a translation of a French text, but the girlish quality of the prose sits oddly with her claim to something approaching co-authorship of the Millennium trilogy: “I can only say that just as Stieg and I shared a common language, we often wrote together.” She reveals that she would like to finish the fourth novel, which exists as 200 pages on the laptop Larsson used at work. For the moment, though, the text is in limbo, in Gabrielsson’s possession but another victim of the ferocious dispute with his family.

Gabrielsson explains her bitterness by saying she was tormented by thoughts of “all those years of frustration that had wounded the man of my life, years during which some people had refused to ­recognise his abilities”. But while another woman might have found consolation in the knowledge that her lover’s books have sold more than 40m copies, her anger seems to burn as brightly as ever.

Gabrielsson discovered only after Larsson’s death that he had not, as he promised, set up a company to manage their joint assets. In recent years, she has thrown herself into a campaign for a change in Swedish law so that other unmarried cohabitees don’t find themselves excluded from inheritance. But it seems odd that this intelligent woman, who describes herself as a feminist, left such matters entirely to her lover. It is one of the questions left open by her book, which leaves the anguished saga as unfinished as Larsson’s literary legacy.

(translated by Linda Coverdale)

Pete Doherty is not a child

Independent on Sunday, 10 July 2011

I suppose it’s one way of seeing whether short prison sentences work: the singer Pete Doherty was released on Wednesday after serving less than two months of a six-month sentence for possession of cocaine. It was his third spell in jail, and the judge who sentenced him remarked on his “appalling record”, which includes at least 13 previous court appearances. Doherty has been arrested many times for drug and driving offences, and he could face another prison sentence after allegedly breaking into a record shop in Germany in March.

His latest conviction followed a shocking series of events which concluded with the death of a young film-maker, Robyn Whitehead, who had been making a documentary about Doherty. He was cleared of any involvement in her death from a heroin overdose, but Whitehead filmed herself and Doherty smoking crack cocaine a couple of days before she died. It wasn’t the first unnatural death to have taken place in Doherty’s circle; an actor called Mark Blanco fell from a balcony at a flat in East London in 2006 shortly after a confrontation with Doherty.

This is a pretty terrible history. “He takes no pleasure in his addiction,” Doherty’s lawyer said in May. “He is acutely aware of the agonising nature of addiction.” But I’m still not sure this is how fans of his bands Babyshambles and The Libertines view the singer, while music sites sometimes behave as though his criminal record is little more than an inconvenience to his singing career.

Addiction is far from being a secret in the music world. Amy Winehouse’s latest tour had to be cancelled when she appeared on stage in Belgrade so drunk she could hardly stand. But there’s a tendency to treat stars such as Doherty, 31, and Winehouse, 27, as wayward children, instead of adults with extremely serious and possibly life-threatening addictions.

In 2005, Doherty was championed by Sir Elton John, who invited him on stage for what turned into a cringe-making joint performance at Live 8, and the singer repaid him with the accusation that the fiasco had been the fault of John’s band. In May this year, just before he went to prison, he complained that he hadn’t been invited to Whitehead’s funeral, berating her father as a “deranged old silly”.

These are not the actions of someone who is emotionally mature, but attitudes to Doherty are confused by the UK’s irrational drug laws. The right is prone to moral panics and demands for bans, while legalisation campaigners sometimes behave as though recreational drug use is problem-free. Doherty and Winehouse are proof of the damage addictions can do to talented human beings and they both appear to be stuck in a destructive cycle. Doherty had barely emerged from his latest sentence when it was announced that he was going to appear at a gig in North London yesterday afternoon, timed to allow him to observe an evening curfew.

Sometimes performers agree to a punishing schedule for financial or career reasons. But they’re often anxious individuals who crave the attention of fans and the adrenalin rush of performance. It’s another species of addiction, and the myth of the tortured artist is at hand to glamorise what would otherwise look like wilfully self-destructive behaviour. Michael Jackson’s untimely death is a reminder that drug dependency and the apparently limitless indulgence of fans can prove a toxic combination.

The myths about women who cry rape

Independent, Thursday 7 July 2011

Three months ago, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was one of the world’s most powerful bankers and even had his eye on the Presidency of France. In a matter of weeks, he has been arrested, charged with serious sexual offences, forced to resign from his job and then suddenly, in a stunning reversal, released from his onerous bail conditions. By last weekend, the plot had begun to resemble a Greek drama with DSK as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, readying himself for the most astonishing of political resurrections in the final act.

Enter, stage left, a young French journalist called Tristane Banon. It isn’t her first appearance in the piece but, just as one set of charges against the former head of the IMF appears to be on the point of collapse, she has taken over the role of his potential Nemesis. Two days ago, Banon filed a criminal complaint in which she alleged that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her in 2002. This has been greeted with everything from total incredulity to a muted acknowledgement that assumptions about DSK’s swift return to frontline politics in France were premature.

Why, demand his most loyal supporters, did Banon wait nine years to file a case? They believe that men like DSK, who are widely regarded as “grands seducteurs” in France, are vulnerable to false accusations by women who’ve misunderstood their intentions or exploited their weakness. This certainly isn’t how it looks from the standpoint of people who work for organisations that support victims; the disbelief that has greeted Banon’s complaint is common in sexual assault cases, reflecting a series of mistaken assumptions or “rape myths” about how victims behave.

First, it’s not unusual for victims to wait years before they feel able to report their experience; in this instance Banon confided in her mother Anne Mansouret, a Socialist councillor, at the time of the alleged assault. DSK was a hugely powerful figure in the French Socialist party, a former finance minister and potential presidential candidate, and Mansouret talked her daughter out of making a formal complaint, a course of action she now says she regrets.

But in 2007 Banon appeared on a TV show and said she had been attacked five years earlier by a politician whom she went to interview at his apartment. DSK’s name was bleeped out on transmission, but it is clear that Banon’s accusation long pre-dates his arrest on sexual assault charges in New York.

Nor is it unusual for victims to take action only when events appear to suggest that another woman has been attacked by the same assailant. It’s often only when a woman realises that her experience wasn’t an isolated incident that she goes to the police. In the most extreme British example, more than 100 women have come forward to identify themselves as possible victims of the Black Cab rapist, John Worboys, since he was convicted of attacks on 12 women in 2009.

Police or prosecutors sometimes decide an alleged victim wouldn’t make a good witness, but that doesn’t mean an assault didn’t take place. Le Monde reported yesterday that the director of the Crime Victims Treatment Centre at St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Harlem, who examined DSK’s first accuser on the day of the alleged assault, found her “in a state of shock, very shaken, very affected…. I didn’t doubt her testimony”. It now seems unlikely that events in Suite 2806 at the New York Sofitel will ever be scrutinised in court, which is the proper place for such conflicting accounts to be tested. Instead, attention has switched to Banon, whose mother says she took the decision to file a complaint against DSK after “maturely reflecting”. The messy drama has yet to reach its finale, but DSK would be foolish to underestimate his latest adversary.

Farming out forensic science is criminal

Independent on Sunday, 3 July 2011

Sherlock Holmes used a magnifying glass, while Hercule Poirot relied on his little grey cells. Fortunately, modern detectives are able to solve crimes using forensic techniques that weren’t even dreamt of in the golden age of crime fiction; thanks to TV drama series such as CSI, we’re all aware of how the latest methods are being used to track down rapists and murderers. If you were unfortunate enough to become the victim of a serious crime in Britain today, you would assume that evidence which could identify the perpetrator would be collected and sent to a state-of-the-art forensic lab.

At present there’s a good chance of that. The UK has a world-class Forensic Science Service (FSS), which handles 60 per cent of cases. The FSS pioneered the use of DNA in complex cases, invented the chemical that enables DNA profiling, and set up the world’s first DNA database in 1995. It handles between 40,000 and 50,000 mouth swabs each month and can provide DNA matches from blood or mouth swabs in 10 hours.

Politicians know how much the public cares about crime, so you might think that the Government is proud that the country’s police forces have access to this superb service. But you would be wrong: it’s hell-bent on closing it down, a decision that’s been condemned first by scientists and now by an influential committee of MPs. In a report published two days ago, they say bluntly that the proposed closure of the FSS in March next year poses a risk to ongoing criminal cases, cold-case reviews and “to justice in general”.

The Metropolitan Police need labs and technicians who can do complex forensic work on 300 suspicious death investigations, 1,500 rapes and sexual assaults, and another 1,500 crimes of serious violence. From next spring, a similar search for experts will be going on at police HQs up and down the country, leading to a risk of having to use “largely unaccredited labs”, according to the MPs. “We were shocked when conducting this inquiry at how little consideration the Government had given to the wider impacts of the FSS closure before making its decision,” observes the damning report from the Commons Science and Technology Committee. New Scientist branded the closure plan “a shambles”.

It certainly appears short-sighted. The FSS is “losing” £2m a month, but even in these cash-strapped times I’d have thought that’s a price worth paying. I don’t expect every publicly funded body to show a profit, and I suspect most people would be more interested in catching violent criminals than saving £24m a year. One eminent scientist, Sir Alec Jeffreys – the man who pioneered DNA fingerprinting at the University of Leicester – told MPs that closing the FSS was “potentially disastrous” for the future of forensic science in the UK.

It’s not at all clear that there are sufficient commercial labs to take over the work of the FSS, and the financial imperatives of the private sector mean they’re less likely to carry out research. The MPs’ report calls for the closure to be delayed for at least six months, but the Government responded in typically high-handed fashion last week, claiming that ministers are confident of their ability to provide “continued high quality forensic services”.

Do I feel a U-turn coming on? Victims of crime deserve better than this jaw-dropping piece of scientific vandalism: it’s elementary, my dear Watson.