John Campbell Memorial Lecture

I’ll be giving my lecture ‘Charles the Rash’, hosted by Republic, at 7pm on Wednesday 1 November, at Mary Sumner House, 24 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3RB

The country is bitterly divided. The political class is in disarray. Things couldn’t possibly get worse – could they?

A new head of state, the most egregiously unqualified since Edward VIII, is waiting in the wings. Step forward Charles Windsor, a credulous fool and a man in a hurry.

We’re about to get a lesson in what inherited privilege really looks like – and it’s the biggest opportunity for British republicans in decades.






The grim truth about the sexual violence epidemic in Britain’s schools

Daily Telegraph, Monday 9 October 2017

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard very disturbing reports about the extent of sexual violence in some schools. I’ve heard about girls who wear shorts under their uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault; I’ve heard about groups of boys who have all been accused of sexual violence, including rape; and I’ve heard about distraught parents being advised to move their daughters to another school, leaving the boy or boys who raped them in place.

I’m not talking about children being targeted by adults. This is sexual violence carried out by under-18s on other children – and I’ve been told that some schools are reluctant even to acknowledge they have a problem, for fear it will have a negative impact on their Ofsted reports. Most, though not all, of the victims are girls – and the assaults are being carried out by boys who are the same age or slightly older.

I’ve heard about these alleged incidents because I’m Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, which brings together senior police officers, representatives of the criminal justice system and organisations that work with victims of sexual violence. But nothing prepared me for hearing the testimony of parents and children in a harrowing Panorama programme, ‘When Kids Abuse Kids’.

No mother should be confronted with the discovery that her six-year-old daughter has been digitally raped in the playground by two boys over a period of six weeks. No teenage girl should have to sit GCSEs in the same room as a boy who has raped her. No girl should suffer bullying and abuse at school from other teenagers because she has had the courage to go the police. Yet all these things happened to the girls whose stories are told in the Panorama programme.

Whether anyone should be surprised that such horrendous abuse is going is another matter. In September last year, a Parliamentary committee published a damning report on the extent of sexual violence in schools. The Women and Equalities Committee found that sexual harassment and abuse of girls was being ‘accepted as part of daily life’. It highlighted the fact that even primary school children are learning about sex and relationships from hard-core pornography, and called on the government to take urgent action.

A year on, campaigners say the government has been too slow to act to the committee’s report. In March, ministers announced that sex and relationships education is to be made compulsory in all schools, but the plan is unlikely to come into effect until September 2019 – and parents will still have the right to withdraw children from the classes.

In the meantime, many schools appear to be floundering, reluctant to involve the police even when serious (and criminal) incidents are reported. Girls who have told teachers about sexual assaults by male pupils claim they were advised to stay out of the boy’s way and block him on social media sites – a response campaigners describe as ‘hopeless’.

According to Rachel Krys, Co-director of the End Violence Against Girls Coalition, teachers have been left waiting for guidance from the government and girls are still being exposed to danger. It is a stark picture, and one some people will find hard to believe. But a slew of figures, collected from 38 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales for the Panorama programme, provides dramatic new evidence for the claims.

They show that almost 30,000 reports of under-18s sexually assaulting other children have been made to the police in the last four years. More than 2,000 of those alleged offences (2,625 to be exact) were said to have occurred on school premises, including in primary school playgrounds. That figure includes 225 alleged rapes. Reports of peer-on-peer assaults, where victim and perpetrator are close in age, rose from 4,603 in 2013 to 7,866 last year – an increase of 71 per cent.

Most shocking of all are the figures relating to alleged sexual offences committed by children under the age of 10, who are below the age of criminal responsibility and can’t be prosecuted. Reports from 30 police forces showed that the numbers had doubled from 204 in 2013-14 to 456 in 2016-17. The boys who assaulted ‘Bella’, the six-year-old in the Panorama programme, fell into this category.

Many victims, and their parents, are shocked and horrified by the failure of schools to offer the support they need. ‘It’s not what actually happens that has the worst effect on you, it’s what comes after it’, said one of the girls who took part in the Panorama programme. ‘It’s the being disbelieved – it’s the people failing you.’

Just over a year ago, the Women and Equalities Committee accused the government of having ‘no coherent plan’ to ensure that schools tackle the causes and consequences of sexual violence. From the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing, and the dreadful cases unearthed by Panorama, that is still the case. The figures show that ministers are failing to protect children in the very place where they should feel safe, and the situation is getting worse. They should hang their head in shame.

Back to the Future

Sunday Times, 8 October 2017
Origin by Dan Brown
Bantam Press £20 pp480
Dan Brown likes spectacular settings. The Da Vinci Code famously opens with a murder in the Louvre, and his new novel, Origin, uses the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a backdrop. In typically portentous style, Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor from Brown’s earlier books, has been summoned there to hear a maverick computer genius, Edmond Kirsch, reveal the answers to two of life’s most profound questions: where did we come from, and where are we going?
Not long afterwards, Kirsch’s presentation — which will supposedly shake the foundations of organised religion — is cut short by a sudden act of violence. Wrongly accused of complicity, Langdon goes on the run with the Guggenheim’s beautiful director, Ambra Vidal. She is engaged to the heir to the Spanish throne, adding a handy celebrity connection to events.
Inevitably, Langdon’s suspicions about who was responsible for the outrage at the museum fall on the Catholic church, and the scene is set for a Christians-versus-atheists ding-dong. In the meantime, and in a frantic quest for even more picturesque locations, Brown sends his fugitives to Barcelona. Never able to resist an opportunity to unleash his inner tourist guide, he interrupts the action to recite statistics about the height of Gaudi’s unfinished church, La Sagrada Familia.
Elsewhere, he’s happy to show off his research into European history. Nietzsche appears as the “renowned” (a favourite Brown word) 19th-century German philosopher. The Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco is described at length on no fewer than three occasions, while Winston Churchill appears as “the celebrated British statesman” who was also “an artist of remarkable talent”.
The novel is tiresomely long — no wonder, with all those adjectives clogging up the narrative — but the biggest problem is Kirsch’s claims about the significance of his discoveries. The scientific experiments described towards the end of the novel can’t possibly live up to such a hyperbolic build-up — and they don’t. Rational readers (assuming any have persevered this far) are almost certain to wonder what all the fuss was about.
There is a final plot twist, involving a supercomputer called Winston, which leaves Langdon quaking in his shoes. Aficionados of mid-20th-century science fiction will
be less shocked, especially if they are familiar with the work of Isaac Asimov and Fredric Brown. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, both men wrote memorable short stories about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Over just a handful of pages, they managed to convey a great deal more than Brown does in this entire overheated farrago of nonsense.

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 24 September 2017

Many journalists live in fear of a big story that falls apart, prompting cries of ‘fake news’. That’s what happens to investigative reporter Marcus Murray in So The Doves (Bluemoose books, £15), an unforgettable crime novel by the poet and author Heidi James. Murray has just published a sensational story revealing connections between a British bank and the arms trade, but then his source disappears and the emails he relied on turn out to be forged.

Banished to his home town in Kent by his editor, who wants him out of the way, Murray finds himself covering the discovery of a decades-old dead body on the route of a high-speed rail link. He isn’t much interested until he realises that the remains are connected to a sequence of violent events he witnessed as a teenager. James writes lyrical prose, combining a compelling plot with a portrait of a man forced to question the entire basis of his life.

Henning Mankell is often credited with creating the worldwide appetite for Nordic crime. He died two years ago, at the age of only 67, and his final novel confronts themes of ageing and loss. After The Fire (Harvill Secker £17.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy, brings back the main character from an earlier Mankell novel, Italian Shoes. Fredrik Welin is a retired doctor who lives alone in the isolated house he inherited form his parents in the Swedish archipelago.

One morning he wakes up to find his house on fire, and narrowly manages to escape with his life. The blaze was started deliberately, one of a series of arson attacks, and Welin is left with the suspicion that someone he knows has tried to kill him. The novel’s atmosphere is bleak and elegiac, suggesting that Mankell wrote it with his own impending death in mind.

A couple of years ago, the Swedish writer David Lagercrantz published the first volume in his continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Lagercrantz is an accomplished author in his own right and he’s just published his second Millennium novel, The Girl Who Takes An Eye for an Eye (MacLehose £20), translated by George Goulding. It begins with the super-hacker Lisbeth Sander banged up in a brutal women’s prison, where she enlists her old ally Mikael Blomkvist to help her investigate a sinister research project involving twins.

This is a promising plot, recalling the failures of real-life psychoanalysts in the case of the bogus Swedish serial killer Thomas Quick. But Lagercrantz is almost too respectful of Larsson – instead of allowing the original characters to develop, he falls back on what he already knows, playing up Salander’s tendency to extreme violence and Blomkvist’s tedious love life. The best sections are about the dire impact of the twins project, and they would work just as well in a stand-alone novel.

Ann Cleeves is one of the most consistently interesting British crime writers. She lives in the North-east and her latest novel, The Seagull (Macmillan £16.99), brilliantly evokes the run-down seaside resort of Whitley Bay. A former  police officer, serving a prison sentence for corruption, offers to tell DI Vera Stanhope about a long-ago murder if she promises to keep an eye on his grown-up daughter and her children. Stanhope is wary but the conversation leads to the discovery of two bodies, and a mystery as satisfying as anything Cleeves has ever written.