Call off the search teams – the G-spot is a myth

The weird thing is that women already have an organ of sexual pleasure

The Independent, Thursday 26 April 2012

I know some men claim to be able to put their finger, so to speak, on a woman’s G-spot and give her boundless sexual pleasure. Researchers have had less luck, mocked by feminists and experts whenever they claim to have identified this elusive part of the female anatomy. But few have gone so far as a retired professor of gynaecology who says he’s finally found physical proof of its existence – on a corpse.

Now it’s possible that you have already, like me, spotted the flaw in Dr Adam Ostrzenski’s experiment. Most research on the G-spot has involved live women who could, presumably, shout “Yes, yes, yes!” if the study turned out to be successful. In fact, most research tends towards the proposition that the existence of the G-spot is a myth or at best unproven, which is what Dr Amichai Kilchevsky of the Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut concluded after reviewing 100 studies.

The G-spot gets its name from Dr Ernst Grafenberg, the German gynaecologist who claimed to have discovered it in the middle of the last century. It’s always seemed to me a weird obsession, very well summed up by Dr Leonore Tiefer, of New York University, who compares the quest for the G-spot to searching for the Holy Grail with a divining rod: “‘I’ve got it’, ‘No, over here’, ‘No, over there’, ‘Darn it, well, keep looking’.”

Now Ostrzenski is claiming to have found anatomical evidence for the first time in the form of a tiny sac – 8.1mm long, 3.6mm at its widest and with a height of 0.4mm – on the back wall of a woman’s vagina. He discovered it after dissecting the genitalia of an 83-year-old Polish woman at Warsaw Medical University, 24 hours after she had died from a blow to the head.

You might think it’s tasteless to carry out this research on a murder victim, who couldn’t give or withhold consent for obvious reasons. But it’s also rather pointless, given that she couldn’t answer questions about her sexual or medical history. No one knows the relation of this structure (apparently it resembled a grape) to her actual experience, and they certainly can’t ask her about it.

But the truly weird thing about these periodic bouts of excitement about the G-spot is  that we already know that women have an organ of sexual pleasure. It’s called the clitoris and no one doubts what it’s there for, so why this recurrent search for something  else? Something, moreover, that just happens to be conveniently located for the form of sexual activity that gives pleasure to most heterosexual men. I don’t think you have to be a genius, or indeed medically qualified, to come up with the answer.

We have Sigmund Freud to blame for much of this. The feminist Anne Koedt called him “a father of the vaginal orgasm” because of his rather sniffy insistence that it was the centre of pleasure for “mature” women. Koedt drew on the work of mid-20th-century sex researchers, principally Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, who transformed ideas about female pleasure by showing that the vagina didn’t have sufficient nerve endings to experience the sensations attributed to it. Koedt’s essay went a step further, arguing that the vaginal orgasm was a myth and liberating millions of healthy women from the fear of being judged frigid. Forty-two years later, the essay is still a popular read on feminist websites.

It’s no accident, I think, that someone discovered the G-spot just at the moment when traditional ideas about how women reach orgasm were being overturned; it’s a more woman-friendly way of saying the same old thing about the primacy of sexual intercourse for both sexes. But Koedt pointed out something else which is relevant to the recurrent cultural fascination with the G-spot. She argued persuasively that fear of the clitoris was widespread, leading to attempts to deny its importance in the West, and the horrific practice of cutting it out in the Middle East.

This sinister practice is still going on. Earlier this week, the Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahaway caused a storm with an essay in Foreign Policy magazine about misogyny in the Middle East, entitled “Why do they hate us?” Eltahaway was beaten up and sexually assaulted by police in Cairo last year and her article lists a “litany of abuses” against women in Arab countries. One of those abuses is female genital mutilation (FGM) and Eltahawy points out that “more than 90 per cent of ever-married women in Egypt – including my mother and all but one of her six sisters – have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty”.

FGM is illegal in Egypt but it’s still carried out on thousands of pre-pubescent girls. In this country, girls from East African families are at risk of undergoing it illicitly or being sent abroad for the procedure, which causes permanent damage to sexual health. And if it seems a stretch to talk about FGM and the G-spot in the same breath, maybe that’s because we still haven’t acknowledged the power of female pleasure – or the fear it evokes. Forget the G-spot and penis envy. Guys, it’s time to talk about the clitoris.

 

Ask politicians about FGM and lo, they are against it

Independent on Sunday, 22 April 2012

Who cares about violence against women? Not just rape and sexual assault, which are big issues for all women, but the additional hazards, such as forced marriage, that face women from ethnic minorities. How far politicians will go in confronting these subjects is being put to the test during the hotly contested election for London’s next mayor.

There have been many horrific “honour” killings in the city in recent years. In 2006, Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old Kurdish woman from south London, was murdered on the orders of her father and uncle. Banaz was raped, strangled, stuffed into a suitcase and buried. She had repeatedly told police that her life was at risk.

In November, a women’s organisation, Imkaan, looked at the extent of “harmful practices” in London for the first time. The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 330 cases in London in 2010, and scores of women contact specialist services every week. Imkaan also found that around 7,000 women who have suffered female genital mutilation give birth in London each year, and their daughters are at risk of FGM too.

Imkaan’s director, Marai Larasi, called for protective measures and argued that the issue was “neglected because of fears… of being labelled at best culturally insensitive and at worst racist”. It’s a belief echoed by other professionals working with victims from black and ethnic minority communities, who say the problem is made worse by male community “leaders” defending patriarchal practices.

Ten days ago, the four main candidates in the London mayoral election were invited to a hustings staged by the End Violence Against Women coalition. EVAW has produced a 10-point plan designed to make London “the world’s safest city for women”. No candidate turned up, not even Labour’s Ken Livingstone who issued a manifesto specifically aimed at women last week. Each sent a representative, but it wasn’t exactly a convincing display of commitment to the subject.

I don’t like Boris Johnson, but the Mayor’s office helped fund the Imkaan report and he’s promised to establish a task force “to confront female genital mutilation and other harmful cultural practices”. The Greens’ Jenny Jones has promised a London-wide  review to ensure that such practices are stopped.

Labour’s manifesto is strong on tackling rape and sexual harassment; the Lib Dems’ has a useful section on sexual violence. Neither mentions forms of violence specific to women from ethnic minority communities. When I pointed this out on Friday, Brian Paddick’s spokesman called me back to say that the candidate would sign EVAW’s plan, and work with the police and black and ethnic minority communities to “eradicate these abhorrent practices”.

Livingstone’s spokeswoman told me he had “very strong views” on the subject and cited his support for criminalising FGM as leader of the GLC 30 years ago. A couple of hours later, she returned with the news that Livingstone and his deputy, Val Shawcross, had signed EVAW’s plan and would enact its policies if elected.

Women are half the population. We care about violence against all women, whatever their background. If they want our votes, politicians had better take note.

 

Let’s keep the ambassadors’ wives out of it

These women are now in the awkward position of trading on their husbands’ position

The Independent, Thursday 19 April 2012

Being the wife of a dictator is, I imagine, pretty much like being married to a mafia boss. Everyone’s a bit scared of you, wondering what you might say to your husband, but I doubt whether you have a great deal of power. Then there’s the thing you don’t talk about, all the nastiness that went on in Libya last year and ended so badly for the poor Gaddafis. You don’t want to wind up dead or in exile, so why would you listen to a couple of women who seem to think you should stop your husband blowing the country to bits?

“Speak out now, for the sake your people,” these strangers implore in a video. Their husbands are senior diplomats at the United Nations and they want to talk to you, Asma al-Assad, woman-to-woman.

“Asma,” they plead. “When you kiss your own children goodnight, another mother will find the place next to her empty.” It’s heart-rending stuff, full of images of dead and injured children – and wrong-headed on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, the inhabitants of Syria aren’t Mrs Assad’s people. She’s actually a British citizen and in any case her husband’s family imposed itself on the country by force. They’ve tortured and murdered people for decades but Mrs Assad was relaxed about marrying into the dynasty. “What happened to you, Asma?” is the silliest question in the video, given the absence of any evidence that she cares about human rights or democracy.

And while I’m sure that Sheila Lyall Grant and Huberta von Voss-Wittig mean well, I don’t think that the wives of the British and German ambassadors to the UN have (or should expect) any special standing in this matter. Their video wouldn’t have got anything like as much attention if their spouses were plumbers, which puts them in the awkward situation of appearing to trade on their husbands’ positions. As it happens, I agree with them about the horrors taking place in Syria. But where do we draw the line? Would it be acceptable for an ambassador’s spouse to make a video supporting Mitt Romney? Or start a petition demanding the arrest of a democratically-elected politician for alleged war crimes?

But the most annoying aspect of the video is its sentimentality about women. It’s in a similar emotional register to Kony2012, the film which deluded millions of people into thinking they could “stop” an African warlord. Its most egregious fault is an assumption that women can just get together and sort these things out.

Everyone has a responsibility to behave humanely, regardless of gender. Until the conflict began, Mrs Assad was quite happy to present herself as the glamorous face of the regime. She may be a wife and mother, but I’ve no reason to think she’s any nicer than her ghastly husband.

 

I’m tired of Christian hectoring. Get over it!

Independent on Sunday, 15 April 2012

Religious extremists tend not to have a great sense of humour. So I don’t imagine that the people who wanted to plaster anti-gay ads on the side of London buses were consciously trying to echo a well-known Monty Python sketch. But some of the phrases used in the campaign – “ex-gay” and “post-gay” – reminded me irresistibly of John Cleese ranting about his “ex-parrot”. This is what happens, I’m afraid, when humourless idiots try to be clever at someone else’s expense.

Indeed, I was sorry when the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, decided that we wouldn’t be able to see these risible ads, due to appear on two-dozen buses in central London from tomorrow. Johnson is running for re-election next month and he was never going to risk alienating the capital’s gay vote by nodding through an undeniably offensive slogan. But he now faces a possible legal challenge from one of the Christian groups behind the ads.

They’re complaining about censorship and portraying themselves as victims, which is one of several reasons why I believe it was a mistake to pull the bus campaign. It’s almost always better to challenge bad ideas than to ban them, which runs the risk of appearing to suggest that they’re dangerous and radical. Secular and equality campaigners are wittier and more sophisticated than the anti-gay lobby; think of the fun we could all have had with post-this, that and the other jokes.

In any case, the Christian attempt to subvert Stonewall’s slogan in support of gay marriage – “Some people are gay. Get over it!” – backfired spectacularly. If people are “ex-gay, post-gay and proud”, why do they need to “get over it”? Is this about “not gay” pride or isn’t it?

But there’s another reason why I believe the campaign should have been allowed to go ahead. Over the past few months, we’ve heard a great deal about “aggressive secularism” from Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi and church leaders. What they’re omplaining about isn’t aggressive at all – it’s the application of principles of equality that don’t give special privileges to believers. But aggressive Christianity is on the rise, and a nasty campaign against gay marriage is the latest attempt to halt advances in human rights that benefit women, homosexual people and secularists.

In that sense, the anti-gay ads have alreadyperformed a useful service, challenging the notion that the modern church is packed with sunny-tempered coves whose slogan is “live and let live”. The Christian groups associated with the campaign are homophobic and irrational; one of them, Anglican Mainstream, has supporters who compare homosexuality to alcoholism. Its website talks creepily about helping gay people to realise their “heterosexual potential”, and a letter calls for professional help for people who want to “resolve unwanted same-sex attractions”. Its signatories include Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Michael Nazir-Ali and Michael Scott-Joynt, former bishops of Rochester and Winchester respectively.

Twenty years ago, gay people were still trying to get rid of Section 28. Now there are civil partnerships and we’re moving towards gay marriage. The religious right is becoming more aggressive about equality and human rights issues – abortion as well as gay marriage – because it’s losing the arguments. I mean, who really thinks “not gay” pride will catch on?

It’s modern masculinity that’s in trouble

The Independent, Thursday 12 April 2012

Let’s be frank about this: lap dancing is a crap job with no career prospects, no status  and no security. Dancers are self-employed, have few rights, don’t know how much they’re going to earn, and most have left a shift without making any money at all. Then there’s the verbal harassment and unwanted touching from “customers”, who constantly
break no-touching rules or use the encounter to unload hostile feelings towards women.

One former lap dancer, Jennifer Hayashi Danns, has written a book about the industry. She says she had to drink a bottle of wine before she could bear to start work and recalls that punters called dancers rude names and made hostile comments on their bodies. That’s confirmed by a survey presented yesterday at the British Sociological Association, in which nearly half of the dancers interviewed reported ‘frequent verbal harassment’and ‘unwanted touching’ from customers.

The survey has caused a bit of a stir. An influx of less experienced dancers suggests that hard financial times are making more women turn to lap dancing, but that isn’t what’s made headlines. Instead, there were reports about the possible impact on customers of this “de-skilling” among dancers. One of the survey’s authors, Dr Teela Sanders, was quoted as observing that some dancers have “never even used a pole”.

“There has been a dramatic slump in the acrobatic quality of the lithe ladies who populate clubs across the country,” The Sun claimed yesterday. Lithe ladies? What century are we in? I couldn’t judge the skill of the faceless dancer in the photograph accompanying the report, but The Times worried about the effect of falling standards on the bankers and stag parties who use lap-dancing clubs.

I suppose there may come a moment when we can have a grown-up conversation about the effect of such establishments, both on the women who work in them and our aspirations towards gender equality. Lap-dancing clubs proliferated between 2004 and 2008, following a change in licensing laws that put them in the same category as cafés and bars. Their numbers doubled to 300, prompting protests from feminists, councillors and people who lived nearby. As a result, the law changed again in 2009, requiring any venue offering lap or pole dancing to be classified as a “sex encounter venue”.

There’s no doubt that the climate for “sex encounter venues” is chillier than it was. I’m glad to say there’s also been a decline in the number of witless celebrities willing to be seen in them, lending a spurious glamour to places whose purpose is to sell fantasies of male domination. Almost a quarter of lap dancers have degrees, but that doesn’t mean punters go there to meet smart women and discuss Obama’s chances of re-election. Modern masculinity shouldn’t need these props.

Correction: the original version of this article suggested that two-fifths of lap dancers reported rude or abusive behaviour from customers. I’ve corrected it to reflect the survey’s finding that ’nearly half’ had experienced verbal harassment or unwanted touching.

London Olympics: don’t collude with Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid

The Saudis tried to ban their women athletes from the Olympics. Now they have a new plan, but we shouldn’t fall for that

Independent on Sunday, 8 April 2012

Two years ago, a Saudi rider won a bronze medal in a show-jumping event at the Youth Olympics in Singapore. It would have been a significant achievement for Saudi Arabia, which had previously managed to win only two medals in its entire Olympic history, except for one thing: the rider was not an official representative of the kingdom. Dalma Rushdi Malhas had – and has, it seems – as much chance of being part of the Saudi Olympic team as the horse that was half of their medal-winning combination. You’ve guessed: Malhas is a woman.

Until last week, it looked as though the Saudi position might be softening in the run-up to the Olympic Games in London. Then, on Thursday, the president of the Saudi Olympic Committee, who is effectively the country’s sports minister, reverted to the old hard line. “At present, we are not endorsing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships,” Prince Nawaf bin Faisal declared at a press conference in Jeddah. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of women who practise sports, but in private.”

The prince conceded that his government would not actively prevent Saudi women from competing as individuals in the Games, but they will not be included in the official delegation. With Qatar and Brunei saying they may send female athletes for the first  time, Saudi Arabia looks set to be the only country excluding women from its Olympic team.

There is a tricky problem here for the organisers of the 2012 Games, who will have to decide what to do with Malhas and any other Saudi women who aren’t allowed to appear with the official delegation in the opening ceremony. Do they just tag along at the back, like social outcasts? There is a simpler solution, which is for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Saudi Arabia from taking part in the London Games unless it allows female athletes to represent their country. Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, has called for exactly this course of action. “If… reports are to be believed, we would expect the IOC to defend the Olympic Charter and exclude Saudi Arabia from IOC membership and the London 2012 Olympic Games,” she said.

There is a precedent: the IOC barred Afghanistan from the Sydney Olympics in 2000 because of the Taliban’s discrimination against women. In the apartheid era, South Africa faced a ban because it did not allow black and white athletes to participate together in sport at home. There’s no doubt that the latest Saudi position is in breach of the Olympic Charter, which states that “any form of discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with the Olympic movement”. It also asserts that “the practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind.”

The Saudi embassy boasts on its website that “sports training programmes in a diverse range of fields from archery to soccer are available to Saudis of every age at the country’s sports facilities”, but fails to mention that women and girls are excluded from nearly all. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch recently, the Saudi government “continues to deny women and girls their right to practise physical education in schools and to practise recreational and competitive sports more generally”.

State schooling has been provided for Saudi girls since the 1960s, but they do not have PE classes; they’re excluded from the 153 sports clubs regulated by Nawaf’s ministry, and the Saudi government has closed private gyms for women. In a country where between two-thirds and three-quarters of adults are overweight or obese, lack of exercise is a problem. A campaign by women against the ban on women’s gyms had the sarcastic slogan: “Let her get fat”.

It is often argued that discrimination against women in international sport is a reliable indicator of wider inequality. That’s certainly true of Saudi Arabia. Saudi women are infantilised: they are denied the right to drive and need “permission” from a male guardian to work, study, travel and get access to some forms of healthcare. The kingdom’s rulers and its clerical establishment share a paranoid attitude to women, whose faces, hair and bodies must be covered in public. Nawaf is reported to have said  that Saudi sports organisations would be in touch with any unofficial Saudi Olympic competitors in order to ensure their actions “comported with Islamic law”.

Saudi opposition to women taking part in sport comes from conservative clerics who have the ear of the Saudi royal family. One prominent opponent, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Khudair, has argued that opening sports clubs to women would be “corrupting” and “satanic”. Another, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mani, has suggested that that health of a “virgin girl” would be adversely affected by running and jumping. These supposed authorities have not explained how women from other Muslim countries are able to represent their countries at the Olympics. At the Beijing Games in 2008, there were 127 female athletes from Muslim countries; even Iran included three women in its team.

Saudi Arabia escapes criticism far too often because it buys arms and sells oil, but international complicity in its treatment of female athletes would shame the world. The IOC is under pressure to discuss the Saudi position on women at its executive board meeting next month, but the Olympic host country has its own responsibilities.

The UK is a signatory to international treaties upholding the rights of women, and discrimination on the grounds of gender is against the law in this country. The message for the Government is clear: if the Saudis refuse to send women to London this summer, there is absolutely no reason why they should allowed to send men.

You can use this link to sign an e-petition calling on the British government to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/30770

 

Jail is no place for mouthy drunks

Independent on Sunday, 1 April 2012

Have you heard about the guy who posted a racist message on Twitter? No, I’m not thinking about Liam Stacey, the biology student from South Wales who’s in jail – he lost his appeal on Friday – for a series of racist tweets following the collapse of the footballer, Fabrice Muamba. I’m talking about a young man from Manchester who tweeted his response to the 56-day sentence imposed on Stacey by a judge in Swansea.

I can’t repeat his tweet in a newspaper. But I can tell you that this young man expressed his ardent wish that Stacey would get “rapedddd” by “every black man” in prison. Other users of the social networking site demanded a longer sentence, advised Stacey, 21, not to bend over to pick up the soap – another jokey reference to male rape – and hoped he would drop dead in jail. The person who posted the last sentiment added the pious hashtag “pray4Muamba”.

These people are not being prosecuted, to my knowledge. Their posts are as vicious, racist and sexist as Stacey’s rant, and some of them could be read as an incitement to violence. The difference is that they have popular sentiment on their side, a circumstance the judge was conscious of when he sentenced Stacey for a racially aggravated public order offence. Judge John Charles said he was jailing the student to “reflect public outrage”.

The judge also said the “whole world” was “literally” praying for Muamba’s life at the time of Stacey’s tweets, a claim as untrue as it is disturbing. I’d never heard of the footballer until he was stretchered off the pitch, and I was confident his survival depended not on God but the skill of doctors at the London Chest Hospital.

It quickly became clear to me that we were witnessing a Princess Diana moment, when compassion inverts its meaning in a wave of popular sentiment and becomes coercive. It was stupid and unfeeling of Stacey to crow over Muamba’s cardiac arrest but the most appalling language is commonplace on social networking sites. If Stacey’s tweets were a threat to public order – and it’s hard to see how they could be, since no one has  to read other people’s tweets – so are thousands of messages posted by “trolls” who encourage hatred of women, gay people and foreigners.

A custodial sentence is wildly excessive and has worrying implications for freedom of expression, which is too important a subject to be brushed aside on grounds of “public outrage”. Personally, I’m disgusted by the casual use of the word “cunt” as an insult but I don’t think we should demand the arrest of every misogynist on Twitter. What we can do is challenge such people without engaging at the same level – trolls thrive on  the adrenalin rush of invective – while trying to work out what fuels outpourings of abuse.

In Stacey’s case that could have been achieved through a community sentence, combined with the realisation that he has to live with the shame of his actions. Instead, a young man’s life has been wrecked and the trolls mocking him on Twitter are basking in self-congratulation. Sentimentality and cruelty are frequent companions, and feeling too often takes precedence over rationality in the virtual world. Alcohol-fuelled rants play a part but there’s also a conspicuous failure of empathy and contempt for civilised debate. Not one of these problems has been solved by making a scapegoat of a drunken idiot.

 

Crime round-up

Joan Smith finds period pieces from the golden age of the detective thriller in her pick of the latest murder mysteries

Sunday Times, 1 April 2012

There’s a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for period drama these days, not just on television but in crime fiction. It’s easy to understand the appeal of a well-written story set in the 1930s, when a generation scarred by the first world war partied wildly in spite of their realisation that another conflict was coming. But it also happened to be the golden age of the detective novel, exemplified by novelists such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey, whose novel A Shilling for Candles was turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock.

The negotiation between Tey, Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, forms the backdrop for Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight (Faber £12.99/ebook £9.99). It’s Upson’s fourth novel featuring Tey as an amateur detective and easily the best of the series, which mixes real and fictional characters. Tey was a successful playwright as well as a novelist and her circle includes the Motley sisters, based on real-life siblings who made theatre costumes, and the fictional Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose.

Fear in the Sunlight is set in Portmeirion, the Italianate holiday village created by Clough Williams-Ellis in Wales, and it resembles a film set: there’s a piazza, gothic ruins and a bell tower. Hitchcock decides to enliven the weekend by playing practical jokes on his guests, who include actors and actresses desperate for a role in his next film — but he’s upstaged by a killer. In real life, Tey was an intensely private person and she makes a sardonic observer of the world-famous director. The novel injects new life into the serial-killer genre, as well as offering an elegiac commentary on Tey’s sadly truncated life (she died aged 55).

There’s more period drama in Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron (Orion £12.99/ebook £6.99), which begins with Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, arriving in New York in 1896 for a lecture tour. With him is his first wife Louisa, whom he has to leave behind when she trips over a carpet and breaks an ankle. Her en-forced stay in the city coincides with a series of gruesome murders of young women, and Louisa is convinced that she saw the first victim in her hotel, just hours before she was killed. She’s shocked by her husband’s lack of interest in this clue, and by the reluctance of the New York police to follow it up.

Louisa is a fascinating creation, chafing against her injured leg and her husband’s benign neglect. She joins forces with a newspaper reporter, a young woman who’s trying to make her way in a man’s world, but their breathless pursuit of the killer turns into something much more sinister. Conan Doyle’s wife is a clever choice as the novel’s central character, embodying the fears and aspirations of women of the period, and the ingenious plot does not diminish the horrors she has to confront.

Donna Leon’s Venice is as familiar as her main character, Commissario Brunetti, but her latest novel sends him on an uncomfortable journey to the mainland. Beastly Things (Heinemann £17.99/ebook £18.77) begins with the discovery of a man’s body in one of the city’s canals, and Brunetti remembers seeing him at a farmers’ protest a few months earlier. The dead man turns out to be a vet and his death seems to be linked to his job in a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Mestre, where Brunetti is confronted with the miseries of the modern meat industry. Leon’s novels are always humane but they proceed at a stately pace and lack the ­ingenuity of the best modern crime writing.

Parker Bilal is the pseudonym adopted by an Egyptian literary novelist, Jamal Mahjoub, for his debut as a crime writer. The Golden Scales (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £11.99) is a vivid, energetic work that follows the career of an exiled Sudanese police inspector, Makana, who now lives on a run-down houseboat in Cairo. Makana has been driven out of his own country by corruption and religious extremism, and he’s reluctant to get involved with the millionaire owner of one of Cairo’s most popular football teams. But the team’s star player has disappeared, and the owner is insistent that he doesn’t trust the Egyptian police. Set in 1998, the novel shows the extremes of wealth and poverty in Egypt before the Arab spring, while Makana’s personal history offers heartbreaking insights into loss and exile.

The North Yorkshire coast is the setting for The Other Child (Orion £12.99/ebook £12.99), a complex and unsettling novel by the German crime writer Charlotte Link, translated by Stefan Tobler. When a student is battered to death in Scarborough, the police have few leads until an elderly woman is murdered in a similar fashion on a farm outside the town. The second killing follows a disastrous engagement party at the farm, where the owner’s daughter, Gwen, has agreed to marry a man she barely knows.

Everyone at the engagement party falls under suspicion, with the exception of Gwen’s only close friend, a newly divorced doctor from London who spent most of the evening in a nearby pub. Emails to Gwen’s father from the second murdered woman throw a startling light on their shared past, when evacuee children from London were billeted on the farm. This is a brilliant novel with compelling characters, and it’s a shame that the climactic scene is marred by Link’s lack of knowledge about when the British police are allowed to carry guns.

Finally, I can think of no better way to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens than to recommend Tom-All-Alone’s (Corsair £12.99/ebook £7.99) by Lynn Shepherd. This terrific Victorian mystery begins in dense fog, like Bleak House, and has an unemployed detective reluctantly obeying a summons to the rat-infested London churchyard of Tom-All-Alone’s. The corpse of a newborn baby awaits him, marking the start of a case whose Dickensian horrors are twinned with a sophisticated understanding of the nature of sexual predation.

 

 

One TV show I won’t be watching

The Independent, Thursday 29 March 2012

There is a difference between sitting in the public gallery and seeing clips on TV

It’s hardly a secret that the debate on law and order tends to be skewed to the right of the political spectrum. Sentences are too short, prisons are too soft: the discourse of more punishment, less rehabilitation, is depressingly familiar. Now the Government seems ready to cave in to demands that TV cameras should be allowed into courtrooms in England and Wales, supposedly to reassure us that justice is actually being done.

The head of Sky News, John Ryley, made exactly that argument in reaction to reports that a proposal to allow limited filming will be included in the Queen’s Speech in May: “We’re delighted that after many years of campaigning from Sky News, we now have the opportunity to work with the judiciary to ensure justice can be seen to be done.” The arrogance is breathtaking, as though confidence in the criminal justice system can be achieved only through a medium – television – whose chief function is to provide a constant stream of talent contests and reality shows.

The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, said last year that judgements in the Appeal Court would be broadcast as a starting point. Now the Government seems prepared to allow filming of the judge’s summing-up and sentencing in Crown courts.

In a recent letter to the party leaders, broadcasters claimed that TV cameras in courts would guarantee a “fundamental freedom” by making the public gallery “open to all”. This cannot be true, given the vast number of trials going on every day, and broadcasters will almost certainly cherry-pick cases involving notorious defendants, which is what happens in the US.

There is also a difference between sitting in the public gallery, listening to both sides of the argument, and watching short clips of the most dramatic moments. We’re told that identities of victims, witnesses and jury members will be protected if filming is allowed in Crown courts, but it’s hard to see how that will happen when the Government comes under pressure – as it will – to extend the experiment. And one of the likely effects of showing murder and terrorist trials would be a demand for more condign punishments.

I have personal experience of giving evidence in a courtroom when proceedings are being televised. In November last year, as I arrived at the Leveson Inquiry, I was told that my testimony would be broadcast live – and it increased the pressure of what was already a daunting experience. I’d have felt even worse if I’d been giving evidence in a rape trial with TV cameras recording every moment.

If there is a need to reduce the “mystique” of courtrooms, there are ways of doing it without imposing the additional burden of TV cameras on frightened, anxious people. The criminal justice system is too important to allow it to be turned into just another source of cheap television.