No way for the BBC to treat families


The Independent, Wednesday 28 September 2011

When I was a child, men changed jobs and their families moved with them. That’s just how it was, even though I had to keep adapting to new schools (I went to six in all) and I’m pretty sure my mother hated it. I did put up a bit of fight when I was 15 and Dad announced we were moving to Basingstoke, but it didn’t get me anywhere – other than a windy and half-built council estate in Hampshire.

That was bad enough, but these days – now that women have jobs and parents fight to get their kids into the best state schools, I mean – the whole subject of whose interests come first is fraught with difficulty.

The BBC’s decision to move 1,500 employees to a new TV centre in Salford is a case in point; for some time there’s been low-level grumbling about why a whole raft of programmes is being moved from London to Greater Manchester. It’s easy to dismiss this discontent as typically London-centric, and to mock metropolitan types who simply don’t know where they’re going to find a decent ciabatta up north. But what about the families of BBC employees: people who don’t work for the corporation, who have jobs they love in London or the South of England and don’t see why they should be forced to sell their homes?

Employers are supposed to be family-friendly these days – I know, I’m just saying they’re supposed to be – and it’s hard to square that with the expectation that entire families will meekly uproot themselves and move hundreds of miles.

Now the BBC Breakfast sports presenter Chris Hollins has broken rank. “Going to Salford is a huge upheaval and people are not talking about the effect it is having on their lives,” he told the Daily Mail this week. “Perhaps it’s not realised that there are more than just the people on the programme who are involved – there are partners and children, too.”

According to Hollins, his colleagues don’t want to talk publicly but some marriages are breaking down under the strain of what is bound to be, for many, a huge and unwelcome disruption. I’d have thought it’s particularly hard on families with young children who have set up a support system in London and now have to start again from scratch, while single people will have to set up new networks of friends.

The BBC’s decision to move so many jobs to Salford has received a great deal of attention because the corporation plays such a visible role in our lives, but it highlights a wider and very modern dilemma. Two generations ago, most of those 1,500 employees would have been men and happy to describe themselves as “breadwinners”. They’d have expected their wives to go with them, and I doubt whether family members would have made even a squeak of protest.

Now the world’s changed and the two-career couple is the norm, but the work environment hasn’t caught up. As Hollins says, his fiancée has a good job in London: “Why should she go to Manchester?”

It’s another example, I’m afraid, of the rhetoric of the office not matching reality. Of course we should have equal pay for men and women, but we don’t. Of course work should be organised so it doesn’t damage private life, but it isn’t. The financial cost of the BBC’s move to Manchester is £877m, but I wonder how much it will cost in damaged relationships?

Trapped inside the Degas chocolate box

What is it about the middle classes and ballet? Last weekend I popped into the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, where a new show, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, has recently opened. It was Friday evening and I expected it to be doing a brisk trade, but the place was absolutely packed. The lighting was low, the voices hushed – the whole experience was a bit like being in church – and after a while I couldn’t take any more.

Degas painted ballet dancers. He painted them on stage and resting, singly and in groups. Apart from the occasional flash of orange, his colours are soft and pastel. It was like being trapped in a chocolate box, but one where all the interesting centres have been taken out. He may have been louche, but give me Toulouse-Lautrec’s vibrant posters of dancers any day.

Grains of truth that keep me awake at night

Drinking coffee reduces your risk of depression, according to new research, but only if you happen to be female. For once in my life I’m ahead of the game, having noticed a gradual increase in the number of espressos I consume since I finally acquired a coffee machine that works. When I moved house a few years ago, I discovered a sad collection of rejects, none of which had ever produced coffee up to my exacting standards.

Now I can drink perfect coffee at home at any time and I live within walking distance of two branches of Caffè Nero. The temptation is irresistible and I’m now up to four cups a day, which apparently cuts my chances of feeling blue by 20 per cent. I’ve yet to work out how to deal with the (disastrous) effect on my sleeping pattern, but I can see why the first people to drink coffee in Italy treated it with the respect due to a very potent drug.


Amanda Knox is a witch? Sorry, are we living in 1486?

Witch hunts grew from a stew of emotions, notably fear of female sexual power. They have no place in a modern Italian court

The Guardian, Tuesday 27 September 2011

Here are the news headlines for 1486: in the fair city of Perugia, a she-devil hath falsely accused an inn-keeper of murder most vile … Sorry, let me start again. This isn’t the 15th century, when “witches” were being hunted all over Europe, tortured into confessing and burned at the stake. In 2011, no one seriously believes that women go mad with lust and sell their souls to the devil – or do they?

Astonishingly, exactly that accusation has been made in an Italian court this week by a lawyer called Carlo Pacelli. He used the occasion of an appeal by the American student Amanda Knox against her conviction for the murder of a British student to call her an “enchanting witch” and attack her in terms that would be instantly recognisable to a mediaeval witch-finder.

The idea that women are natural liars has a long pedigree. The key document in this centuries-long tradition is the notorious witch-hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches, which was commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII. The book was written by two Dominican monks and published in 1486. It unleashed a flood of irrational beliefs about women’s “dual” nature. “A woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, and deadly to keep,” the authors warned. They also claimed that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”.

It’s not difficult to see these myths lurking behind Pacelli’s description of Knox: “She was a diabolical, satantic, demonic she-devil. She was muddy on the outside and dirty on the inside. She has two souls, the clean one you see before you and the other.” The lawyer’s claim that she was motivated by “lust” could have come straight from the Malleus, which insists that women are more “carnal” than men.

You might imagine that the crime for which Knox and her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted in 2007 was unpleasant enough without dragging in a lot of medieval mumbo-jumbo. Knox’s flatmate, a Leeds University student called Meredith Kercher, was found in her bedroom in a pool of blood after Knox and Sollecito took part in what the prosecution described as a drug-fuelled sex game that turned violent. Knox is serving a 26-year sentence for the murder of Kercher, while Sollecito got 25 years.

Knox initially accused a Congolese bar-owner, Diya “Patrick” Lumumba, of the murder and he was held for two weeks before being released without charge. Rudy Guede, a drug dealer from the Ivory Coast, was separately convicted of taking part in the killing “with others” and sentenced to 30 years in prison, which was later cut to 16. The lengthy court proceedings have clearly been immensely distressing for everyone involved in the case, not least Kercher’s parents who have asked people to remember their “beautiful” daughter.

Pacelli is representing Lumumba at the appeal, and his outburst brought into the open a strain of irrationality and misogyny that exists as an undercurrent in many headline-grabbing criminal cases. Behind such insinuations – regardless of whether the woman in question is a victim or a perpetrator – lie irrational and indeed medieval assumptions about the untrustworthiness of women. The Malleus traces this “fault” all the way back to Adam and Eve, claiming that woman was created from a “bent” rib and is therefore defective: “And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

Witch hunts grew out of a stew of emotions, notably fear of women’s sexual power over men, to the point where stories circulated all over Europe about witches supposedly depriving men of their “virile member”. Probably the most infamous witch trial in history took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and resulted in 19 people being hanged; 14 of them were women. Two and a half centuries earlier, in 1446 to be exact, a woman was burned to death in Perugia for “divination and sorcery”. Whatever you think about Knox, this species of hysteria has no place in the modern courtroom.

No more hero: the incoherence of Julian Assange

Independent on Sunday, 25 September 2011

Hacking has become one of the biggest stories of 2011, prompting so many arrests, police investigations and public inquiries that it’s hard to keep track. The public has cheered on key players, including the actor Hugh Grant and the Labour MP Tom Watson, who have forced the scandal into the open. Strangely, there’s another form of hacking, carried out using illegal methods and equally dubious in terms of morality, which millions of people actively support.

It’s made an unlikely hero of the man who’s become its public face, the Australian hacker Julian Assange, despite copious evidence of his paranoia, misogyny, political incoherence and all-round weirdness. Happily for those of us who have observed this ashen-faced celebrity-magnet with scepticism from the start, Assange has crowned a year of bad-tempered conflicts by falling out with himself and introducing that perplexing category, the “unauthorised autobiography”, to the language. (As it happens, I was thinking of writing my own autobiography but it’s ground to a halt because I’ve withdrawn co-operation from myself.)

There’s a pleasing irony in the spectacle of someone who wanted to publish so much confidential information trying to suppress a book based on interviews he gave freely to a ghostwriter. But extracts published in The Independent reveal a man whose “struggle for justice through access to knowledge” co-exists with total insensitivity to other people and a profoundly irresponsible desire to make mischief. Early in his hacking career, Assange discovered how to get into the computers of vast corporations: “Turn off 20,000 phone lines in Buenos Aires? No problem.”

Hugely amusing, no? Perhaps not if you lived in Buenos Aires, had a heart attack and couldn’t call the emergency services. But I’m not convinced that consequences have ever been a major concern for Assange, who recently published 250,000 unredacted US diplomatic cables containing the names of confidential informants in Afghanistan and other countries. True to form, Assange blamed The Guardian, one of his media “partners” until they had a spectacular quarrel. But the limits of his commitment to human rights and democracy were exposed when he asked WikiLeaks’ supporters to vote on Twitter for or against release of the cables. (Coming soon on Twitter, an important vote on whether I should have a single or double espresso with my carrot cake.)

Assange’s campaign for transparency has always sat oddly with his obsessive need for control. He isn’t a whistleblower or a journalist, both of whom have to make fine judgements (unless they’ve succumbed to the hacking scourge) about what the public is entitled to know. It’s entirely right that abuses by the US military in Iraq, say, should be exposed. But the notion that diplomats should never have a confidential conversation is risible. Democratic governments need inside information about the regimes they deal with; they have to get involved in secret negotiations to protect human rights activists and their own citizens, using intermediaries who might be at risk if their involvement were ever to become known.

Assange’s mission to publish everything from diplomatic gossip to unflattering verdicts on foreign governments is no more justifiable, in moral terms, than blanket tabloid intrusion into private life. His claim to be the “good” hacker has been undermined by poor judgement and the monumental ego that emerges when he mocks his opponents in his autobiography: “They needed a villain with silver hair, some kind of cat-stroking nutcase bent on serial seduction and world domination.”

Actually, he’s right. That’s very unfair to Assange. I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that the super-hacker likes cats.

Crime round-up

An extraordinary novel by the Swedish writing duo is the highlight of Joan Smith’s round-up of recent crime novels

Sunday Times, 25 September 2011

When it comes to capital punishment, the gulf between the United States and Europe could hardly be wider. The spectacle of convicted criminals spending years on death row in American jails appears cruel and inhuman, and the tense countdown to an execution in Ohio provides the starting point for an extraordinary novel by the Swedish crime-writing duo, Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom.

Cell 8 (Quercus £12.99/ebook £10.83), translated by Kari Dickson, ventures into territory that’s previously been addressed by American crime writers, notably John Grisham, but has a twist all of its own. After a searing account of the execution of a 65-year-old man in Marcusville, Ohio, the action makes a startling leap to a brawl on a ferry between Finland and Sweden. John Schwarz is a singer on the boat, entertaining bored and often drunk passengers. When he sees a man pestering a woman on the dance floor, he wades in and beats him unconscious.

Schwarz’s arrest reveals that the singer is not who he claims to be, turning up an unexpected link to the condemned cell in Marcusville. Schwarz’s real name is John Meyer Frey, whom we last saw on death row in Ohio, waiting to be executed for the murder of his girlfriend when he was only 17. More astonishing is the news that Frey supposedly died of heart failure in his cell before he could be put to death by the state.

Soon the Americans are demanding the “dead” man back, so that they can carry out the execution he escaped, and Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens of the Stockholm police has an international incident on his hands. Roslund is a journalist, and Hellstrom a former convict, and they use this riveting setup to make a passionate case against the death penalty. The novel is taut with suspense to the end, despite an improbable element in the plot when the authors’ campaigning instinct gets the better of them.

Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £8.49), translated by Sarah Death, introduces an intriguing female protagonist to the male-dominated ranks of Swedish detectives. Fredrika Bergman is a novelty, a civilian investigator attached to an elite unit of the Stockholm police, and she’s not convinced that she’s made the right choice of job. Her boss, Alex Recht, isn’t sure that she’s going to fit into the team, either, and he’s sceptical when she suggests a new line of inquiry in a child-abduction case. A little girl was snatched from a train at Stockholm central station and the most likely culprit seems to be her father, who is quickly revealed as a habitual abuser of his estranged wife. But Bergman is suspicious about an unidentified woman who lured the mother from the train during an unscheduled stop, leaving the child alone for the rest of the journey. The author is a security policy analyst for the National Swedish Police Board, and she uses her inside knowledge to great effect in this compelling debut.

The latest volume in Lin Anderson’s series of crime novels featuring a Glasgow-based forensic scientist, Rhona MacLeod, reveals a fascinating aspect of the city’s history in Picture Her Dead (Hodder £19.99/ebook £10.99). An art student, Jude Evans, is photographing derelict cinemas for a college project, recording the art-deco features hidden behind run-down parades of shops, when she disappears. The alarm is raised by her friend Liam who also happens to be McLeod’s son, whom she is getting to know after giving him up for adoption many years ago. Their relationship is fragile but Liam asks for her help when he tries to retrace Jude’s steps, and together they uncover a gruesome series of murders that seems to be linked to pornographic films.

Val McDermid’s novel The Wire in the Blood was adapted for television and became a huge success, despite being criticised for its graphic violence. It pitted her police profiler Tony Hill against Jacko Vance, a charming television presenter who also happened to be a particularly vicious serial killer. One of the problems with the novel was that in real life serial killers tend to be inadequate — that’s why they’re serial killers — and the preening, confident Vance was never a convincing candidate. Now he’s back in The Retribution (Little, Brown £18.99/ebook £8.99), a truly dreadful novel that combines the hunt for another unlikely serial killer with Vance’s escape from prison. McDermid’s characters are all cut from the same cloth, histrionic and utterly lacking in subtlety, but that may be a mercy as Vance embarks on his predictably sanguinary revenge.

Four elderly men have something to celebrate in Hakan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (Mantle £16.99), translated by Laurie Thompson — a 1998 novel that is being published in English for the first time. Nesser’s international career has taken off more slowly than some of his stellar Swedish contemporaries, but his cerebral, unshowy fiction is always worth reading. His detective, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, is off-stage for most of the novel, leaving his overworked team to investigate the murder and disappearance of two of the four old friends celebrating a lottery win. Beautifully crafted, the novel once again displays ­Nesser’s trademark compassion and insight into human nature.

Casino banking does more damage than riots

Independent on Sunday, 18 September 2011

Another week, another banking scandal: on Friday, a day after the Swiss bank UBS announced it had lost the staggering sum of £1.3bn, one of its star traders appeared in court charged with fraud and false accounting. The hugely embarrassing announcement from UBS came three years to the day since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, suggesting not much has changed in the high-risk world of casino capitalism.

Initial reports concentrated on Kweku Adoboli’s lifestyle, which sounded par for the course for a young man with a well-paid City job – long hours, flat in fashionable Stepney, parties. For once, though, the narrative of an abrupt fall from grace rang hollow. It isn’t as though the big banks disapprove of the kind of casino capitalism its traders get involved in; on the contrary, they seek out and encourage risk-takers, rewarding them handsomely as long as they make huge profits.

The people who work on “delta one” desks at big banks bet on the direction of share prices and other assets. It’s what Jerome Kerviel did at Société Générale in Paris in 2008, eventually losing the bank an eye-watering £4bn. But if he’d made that amount no one would have batted an eyelid. These young men (they mostly are men) don’t make anything useful and they don’t improve the lot of humanity one jot; they’re gamblers, pure and simple.

Three years into the world banking crisis, there’s still a tendency to hate “bankers” in general while having a fascination for the high-octane lifestyle of City traders. That’s why people buy books like The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort, a broker who ended up in prison, with its front-cover boast that “I partied like a rock star and lived like a king”. Labour’s former City minister Lord Myners had a different author in mind when he made a speech in the House of Lords about banking last week, quoting Hunter S Thompson’s assessment of the music business as a “shallow money trench … where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs”. Myners added drily: “As he is claimed to have said, it also has a negative side.”

That negative side includes destroying jobs among people employed in the banking sector and beyond, and reducing the value of pension funds. UBS had to be bailed out by the Swiss government in 2008, and only last month it announced 3,500 job cuts. Last week’s loss is expected to lead to more job cuts, while a drop in the value of UBS shares is likely to affect pensioners whose funds are invested in the company.

It’s shocking to most people that the decisions of a handful of traders can have massive effects on their lives yet the Government endlessly delays regulation; only last week, following publication of the Vickers report, the banks were given an astonishing eight years to ring-fence their high street functions from their riskier investment operations.

The language of morality comes easily to David Cameron when he’s talking about young people breaking into Comet, but it’s different when financial institutions encourage reckless behaviour. How many reminders does the PM need that the culture of risk among City traders is one of our most urgent moral problems? Riots destroy property and lives in a limited area, but this white-collar vandalism threatens entire financial systems.


Who Pays?

Literary Review, September 2011

Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back

Robert Levine, Bodley Head, £18.99

I don’t know why so few commentators have remarked on the contradiction at the heart of the Internet. Freedom is central to its rhetoric – free content, free access – and those of us who want to be paid for our original work are chided for getting in the way of those ambitions. Yet the very technology companies that want books, movies, music and journalism to be free, or at least very cheap, draw the line when it comes to their own business models. In essence, they are hi-tech delivery systems that make profits by selling advertising and offering access to material they didn’t originate and don’t own.

The American journalist Robert Levine, who has been executive editor of Billboard magazine and features editor at Wired, understands that this is the motivation behind attempts to weaken laws on copyright. ‘It isn’t out of idealism that Google spends millions of dollars to influence public policy,’ he writes:

‘For starters, looser copyright laws would make it easier for the company to make money from YouTube. In general, more free professional content online would draw more consumers away from TVs and movie theaters to the Internet, where Google dominates the market for advertising. Most of all, Google knows that its search engine works best when content is free – both of cost and of restrictions.’

Some of the more crazed digital activists attack copyright as a threat to free speech, ignoring the fact that the biggest barrier to access is the entrenched reluctance of some, though by no means all, consumers to pay even a modest amount for ‘content’. That’s a favourite Internet word, covering anything from Anna Karenina to a blog someone spent five minutes on before breakfast; it has a flattening effect, suggesting that everything is basically the same and obliterating notions such as talent, inspiration and endeavour. Google’s mission is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’, a statement that in itself reveals an alarmingly reductive attitude to culture. There’s a world of difference between information, which is a collection of facts, and novels, biographies, poems, movies and music. But individual creators have spent the last decade and a half being characterised as dinosaurs who don’t realise that their view of culture is elitist and out of date.

In 1996, the Grateful Dead lyricist and digital activist John Perry Barlow published ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’. Addressing ‘Governments of the Industrial World’, Barlow declared that they had no sovereignty over cyberspace: ‘I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.’ Laughably self-important, it nevertheless expressed a contempt for law and regulation that was to become widespread.

Just over a decade later one of the founders of the Pirate Bay, a file-sharing service based in Stockholm, used cruder language. ‘If I want it, I take it, ’cause I can’, Peter Sunde told a BBC reporter. ‘It might be [im]moral to some people but I think it’s up to me to decide.’ The Pirate Bay attracted users and illegally distributed film and music from every country with Internet access, according to Levine; it had twenty-five million users by 2008 and represented a tenth of all Internet traffic. When the founders faced criminal charges in Sweden for contributory copyright infringement, they presented themselves as fearless libertarians standing up for the freedom of the Internet. Levine isn’t convinced, citing emails found on Pirate Bay computers by the Swedish police that suggest that ‘none of the founders were nearly as interested in any of these issues as they were in building a profitable business that happened to be illegal’. In 2010, three of the founders were given prison terms and ordered to pay around $7 million in damages, decisions they are challenging in Sweden’s Supreme Court.

Levine is no more opposed to the Internet than any of us who have found it a useful tool, whatever branch of the ‘creative economy’ we happen to work in. Of course piracy gets a great deal of attention in his book but he also understands a crucial fact, which is that even legal Internet businesses are parasitic and in danger of destroying the organisms they depend on. The Internet ‘has empowered a new group of middlemen, like YouTube, that benefit from distribution without investing in artists’. Chapter by chapter, Levine catalogues what this has done to media companies; huge Internet businesses have driven down the money paid to traditional intermediaries and hence to individual creators. Digital activists argue that this doesn’t matter because true artists will carry on producing even if they’re not paid, but it’s more likely to create a situation where only those with other sources of income or a wealthy benefactor will be able to produce the fresh ‘content’ the entire edifice depends upon.

Levine writes mostly about the US and some readers may find the plethora of organisations referred to by their initials a little hard to differentiate. He’s right to argue for a ‘content tax’ – effectively collective licensing – that would allow media companies to collect revenue in a system modelled on one that allows music companies to collect for radio play. But I’d like to have seen him address one of the most peculiar effects of the Internet, which has been to suspend the moral obligations that consumers observe in their offline behaviour. I’m not aware of instances where shoppers who insist on ‘free content’ via the Internet put the same principle into practice in Tesco’s, clearing the shelves and refusing to pay on the way out. Why some people feel it’s OK to expect something for nothing when they consume online, but not in shops, is a fascinating area for research.

Levine rightly argues that the present situation is unsustainable. Technology companies have flourished in recent years but that’s because they had a huge back catalogue to exploit. Now ‘the companies that fund those cultural products have never been in worse shape. They’re cutting jobs, and with them the ability to create and market new work. Those search engines and [digital] players won’t be nearly as valuable without them.’ In other words, acknowledging the rights of creators and making sure they get paid is in everyone’s interest. It’s a fair and rational conclusion, but I’m not sure it will make much impression on ‘free content’ fundamentalists.

Roman mosaics, Tunisia

There are superb Roman mosiacs at several sites I’ve just visited in Tunisia. These are from the Bardo Museum in Tunis, a reconstructed Roman villa at Thysdrus and the magnificent Roman city of Sufetula.

 Photos (c) Joan Smith, 2011



This image from the Bardo (left) is unusual because it shows a female centaur.  





This is a detail from a large mosaic at the villa-museum in Thysdrus (El Jem), which is also the site of a 3rd-century ampitheatre.






Detail from another large mosaic at Thysdrus, repeating the same basic pattern of dolphins and a bird.






Detail from small mosaic, Thysdrus.






Huge floor, almost intact, at the public baths in Sufetula (Sbeitla)








Renovations have almost finished at the Bardo, which has several mosaics on this monumental scale.




Detail from Ulysses and the Sirens (260 AD), mosaic from wealthy family’s villa at Thugga (Dougga), now in the Bardo.

The Granta Book of the African Short Story

The Times, Saturday 10 September 2011

As a description, the “African short story” is far from specific. The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila points out in his introduction to this collection that the continent is made up of 53 countries, a billion people and more than a thousand distinct ethnic groups. That the stories in the collection were originally written in English, or have been translated into English from Arabic, French or Portuguese, is a reminder of the impact of colonialism on Africa’s recent cultural history.

Themes of war, disruption and exile are evident from the beginning. Indeed the latter features so often that Habila describes this generation of writers as “post-nationalist”, reflecting the fact that so many of them live outside the countries of their birth.

The first story in the volume, The Arrangers of Marriage, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has a young Nigerian woman arriving in New York from Lagos with her new husband. Chinaza expects to encounter unfamiliar customs but she isn’t prepared for a series of discoveries about the man she’s married. He isn’t “a doctor in America”, as she was assured back in Lagos, but a poorly paid medical student who’s known in Flatbush as Dave instead of by his Nigerian name, Ofodile.

Clearly, the story is about disillusionment, but it also introduces another theme, the disappointments of marriage, which recurs throughout the collection. The Moroccan writer, Laila Lailami, looks at it from the husband’s point of view in Homecoming, in which Aziz returns to Casablanca from Madrid and recognises that a gulf now separates him from his wife, Zohra. Aziz finds that family and city have changed in ways he does not like, and his plan to take Zohra to Spain quietly crumbles in his mind.

Some of the stories are unexpected. Propaganda by Monuments, by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, begins in Moscow in 1992 as a translator, Grekov, sets off to observe the demolition of a monumental head of Lenin; in his pocket is a copy of an airmail letter from a bar owner who has written to the Russian authorities “in the name of struggling masses of South Africa” to ask for a “spare” statue of V. I. Lenin. The idea of an iconic piece of Soviet propaganda ending up as gimmick in a tourist bar in South Africa is brilliantly handled, while Vladislavic makes sly fun of Grekov’s insertions in the letters he is supposed to be translating.

Other contributions are unsparing in their depiction of the dehumanising effect of poverty. Uwem Akpan’s story, An Ex-mas Feast, is about a family waiting in their cardboard shack in Lagos for the return of their eldest daughter, a teenage prostitute, with the bags of food they need to celebrate Christmas. Abdulrazak Gurnah, who along with Alaa Al Aswany is one of the better-known authors in the collection, writes in Cages about a penniless shop assistant who cares for the dying man who owns the shop; Hamid dreams about one of his customers but the story ends in disillusionment.

The stories are arranged according to the age of their authors, from Adichie (born in 1977) to the South African novelist Alex La Guma, who died in 1985 at the age of 60. It’s a clever way of reflecting shifts in focus; and the skill and sophistication of African authors is on display throughout this rich and rewarding book.

Granta, edited by Helon Habila, £25

It’s the aristo that was the Bard – or maybe the giant lizard

Independent on Sunday, 4 September 2011

Poor old William Shakespeare hasn’t had much luck in movies. He didn’t get his girl in the truly appalling Shakespeare in Love, and now he’s about to be accused of not writing his own plays in a new Hollywood film. Anonymous opens in the US next month and is directed by Roland Emmerich, who is best known for blockbusters such as Independence Day and Godzilla. It stars Rhys Ifans, whom I last saw as a sex-crazed DJ in The Boat That Rocked, as the Earl of Oxford – sorry, that should be “the 17th Earl of Oxford who is the true author of all these plays”. That’s what Emmerich says, anyway.

I’m already picturing Ifans morphing into a giant lizard and swallowing the upstart actor from Stratford while Vanessa Redgrave – for it is she, playing Elizabeth I – urges him on. Emmerich has tried to bolster his thesis about the Earl of Oxford being the plays’ real author with the claim that Ms Redgrave shares his doubts about Shakespeare. I’m not sure it helps, given that the actress has previously supported an array of loony causes, but there are discussion groups on the internet asking “Is Shakespeare a fraud?”. I can’t help thinking old William isn’t currently anything at all, having been dead for four centuries.

The real problem with Shakespeare is that he just isn’t enough of a celeb for modern tastes. The idea that someone pretty ordinary could have written the plays and sonnets goes against romantic notions about genius; it doesn’t meet the demand that writers have to be tempestuous and tortured, in the mode of Hemingway or Lord Byron. If Shakespeare were around today, he would have reporters door-stepping him with questions about his marriage: “Have you had a row with Anne Hathaway? You haven’t been seen together for some time.” (Just to be clear, I’m talking about the 16th century wife, not the Hollywood actress.)

Authorship and celebrity have become so entwined that it’s anathema to suggest it wouldn’t matter if we had no idea who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. I’ve learned a great deal from the biographies of some authors but there are writers I admire, from the ancient world in particular, about whom I know next to nothing. Writers differ enormously in this respect, from authors who directly incorporate their own experience into their work to those who barely allude to it, and it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a novel or play without knowing much about its creator. Biographical details are relevant when they bleed into the work itself – think of the debates about T S Eliot’s anti-Semitism, for instance – but it’s not unusual to discover a chasm between someone’s internal world and their everyday existence.

This species of pointless controversy isn’t confined to literature. There are tediously frequent claims that someone has discovered the identity of the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper, and a common theme in these sensational “revelations” is the elevated status of the favoured candidate. Whether we’re talking about a world-famous playwright or a serial killer, the names put forward tend to belong to aristocrats or people famous for something else; the eccentric American crime writer Patricia Cornwell has wasted a huge amount of money, for instance, trying to “prove” that the Ripper murders were committed by the Victorian painter Walter Sickert. It’s a weird form of snobbery, excluding ordinary people from the ranks of the great and the good – and the very bad.

On second thoughts, I might go and see Anonymous. But only if it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the giant lizard.

The Kid by Sapphire

The follow-up to the novel that became the hit film Precious is so consistently grim you almost want to laugh

Sunday Times, 4 September 2011

I t’s two years since Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push, about an obese, sexually abused 16-year-old from Harlem, was made into a movie called Precious. In the film, Precious learns that she is HIV-positive but her son Abdul — one of two children born after she was repeatedly raped by her father — is not infected with the virus. Sapphire’s new novel picks up the story a few years later, opening with Abdul hiding under the bedclothes because he doesn’t want to go to his mother’s funeral.

Sapphire allows Abdul to tell his own story, using street slang to create a stream-of-consciousness narrative that reminds the reader that she’s a poet as well as a novelist. After his mother’s death, Abdul inhabits a series of violent, abusive milieus. His placement in a foster home ends when he is raped and has his skull fractured by one of the other boys, whereupon a social worker makes an ominous announcement: “You’re going to a new facility for boys in Harlem called St Ailanthus, run by Catholic brothers.” If the novel had a soundtrack we would now hear screeching violins, signalling that the really serious abuse is about to start — and that the problems already evident in the novel are about to multiply.

One of the most successful genres in American publishing is the misery memoir. Books about children being raped or forced to drink bleach fly off the shelves, offering vicarious thrills to readers who are left thinking how lucky they are. The Kid is a fictional version of one of these memoirs and it provides misery by the bucket, clumsily signposted and introducing one stereotypical character after another. The Catholic brothers are sadists who rape the boys at every opportunity; Abdul’s great-grandmother was raped at the age of 10 in Mississippi, fleeing to New York where she was recruited to work in a brothel.

New characters barely appear before they’re being asssaulted or assaulting someone themselves, making the heavy-handed point that abuse turns children into abusers. Abdul grows up into a sensationally lithe dancer in an experimental ballet troupe but he doesn’t fit in with the rich kids who bankroll it. His Japanese-American girlfriend My Lai, who’s named herself after the Vietnam massacre, was abused by her wealthy adoptive father — You see? It doesn’t happen only in poor families — and is trying to heal herself through performance.

hard not to laugh. Among countless gems, I savoured the moment when Abdul’s great-grandmother is about to throw herself out of a window until she’s transfixed by a woman’s voice on the radio. She asks the singer’s identity and is told: “That’s Billie Holiday, she rule.” I don’t know if Sapphire has read Voltaire but what we have here is pretty much Candide in New York, without the crucial element of irony.

Hamish Hamilton £12.99