Psychology offers better insights into riots than soundbite politics

Independent on Sunday, 14 August 2011

What do you get when you juxtapose violent street disturbances, excitable commentators, angry politicians and sundry ‘experts’ on youth culture? The answer, I’m afraid, is a lot of hot air: it’s perfectly possible to be horrified by last week’s riots without rushing headlong into a moral panic or claiming that they’ve fulfilled doomy predictions about the impact of Government spending cuts.

It’s vital to identify causes because the response of national politicians, local councils and schools will be shaped by assumptions about why the violence happened in the first place. But much of what’s been said in the last few days has been irrelevant for a very simple reason: mobs are not driven by reason. The looters who smashed shop windows and attempted to torch buildings were in the grip of intense emotions, visibly excited and revelling in the destruction around them.

When they appeared in court, some of the defendants appeared bewildered by their own behaviour; a 24-year-old woman turned herself into the police after a sleepless night wondering why she’d stolen a flat-screen TV. Crowds behave differently from individuals; assuming that looters ransacked shops because they were angry about bankers’ bonuses or MPs’ expenses is to credit them with conscious processes that don’t exist in the heat of the moment. It’s also to confuse proximate and ultimate causes, a mistake much in evidence in recent days. Continue reading

Our prisons are not just inhuman, they don’t work

Fewer people than usual will pay attention to a damning report on Wandsworth jail. But its findings would be shocking in any civilised society

Independent, Thursday 11 August 2011

It’s hardly the ideal moment to release a report about inhuman conditions at Britain’s biggest prison. Yesterday’s revelations about bullying and self-harm at Wandsworth jail in London, should prove disturbing reading for everyone who works in the criminal justice system, but they’ve been published at a moment when demands for ever harsher treatment for convicted criminals are in the air. Last month the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, retreated from a flawed plan to cut the number of prisoners by reducing the length of sentences, while demands to bring back capital punishment have clogged up the Government’s new e-petitions website.

Against the background of this week’s events, it seems likely that even fewer people than usual will pay attention to a damning new report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales. It’s the result of an unannounced inspection at Wandsworth in February, and its findings would be shocking in any civilised society. In blunt language, the report concludes that the treatment of many offenders was “demeaning, unsafe and fell below what could be classed as decent”. Prisoners were bullied, denied reasonable standards of hygiene and kept in their cells with nothing to do for up to 22 hours a day. Continue reading

E-democracy or a forum for bullies?

The first e-petitions proposing changes to the law giving respectability to a stew of rage and envy

Independent on Sunday, 7 August 2011

What’s the difference between saying what you think and bullying?

Between listening to the will of the people and creating a society that acts on the basest human instincts? These questions, and ones about the influence of the internet on how people behave, became more pressing last week when the Government invited the public to post e-petitions on a new website. The result was an unthinking person’s dream: instant demands to bring back hanging, withdraw from the EU, allow householders to bludgeon burglars to death, repeal the Human Rights Act, and stop “mass” immigration.

It was an unwelcome snapshot of what life might be like if e-democracy were to replace our parliamentary system. At the same time, the novelist Amanda Craig was dealing with torrents of online abuse after she published an article criticising her old school, Bedales, and the Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne became the subject of a nasty online attempt at extortion. The threats came via email and the social networking site Twitter, where someone claiming to be from Belarus threatened to hurt Bannatyne’s daughter unless he was paid £35,000. Bannatyne responded furiously, offering a reward of £50,000 to anyone who could capture the blackmailer and break his arms.

Craig was conscious of the irony that her recollections of being bullied at school had produced an outbreak of online bullying, but it became so intolerable that she eventually pointed out that the threats were a criminal matter. Even more astonishingly, she received abuse on her blog after she published an account of an assault outside her north London home which almost resulted in her losing the sight in one eye. Below a graphic photograph of the injury, someone calling herself “Jackki” launched into barely literate abuse: “you can tell your a story teller nearly all you wrote were lies … yes you do have a sore eye but it was no where near as bad as you have made out”. Continue reading

Feminism Lite

Literary Review, August 2011

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Ebury Press £11.99

Caitlin Moran sounds like a nice woman. She writes prolifically for The Times, where she reviews TV and chronicles the solipsistic world of celebrities in one of the paper’s most popular features. Now she has written a book that has been compared by her publisher to two historic events, the death of the suffragette Emily Davison under the hooves of the king’s horse in 1913 and feminists protesting against Miss World in 1970. The blurb continues: ‘NOW Caitlin Moran rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller.’

Here are many of the anxieties of contemporary publishing exposed in a single sentence: the craving for a link with past success; the recourse to the breathless language of popular journalism; the reassurance that readers won’t be troubled with anything too weighty. It’s a pretty fair summary of what Moran provides, namely a volume that’s part autobiography and part reflections on feminism. On second thoughts, there is little time for reflection in a style that’s so hectic, contrarian and instantaneous. In that sense, mention of The Female Eunuch does Moran no favours because it compares a text that’s essentially smart journalism with a book that fizzed with intellectual energy. Continue reading

The Vault by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s updating of her 1998 crime novel A Sight for Sore Eyes is a tour de force, and a real treat for readers

Sunday Times, 31 July 2011

Over the years, Ruth Rendell’s crime novels have followed two parallel tracks: a series of police procedurals starring her wise detective, Chief Inspector Wexford, and a number of unrelated psychological thrillers. Now Wexford has retired, Rendell has spotted an opportunity to bring the two strands together in a superb novel called The Vault.

The vault is actually a coal hole beneath Orcadia Cottage, a Georgian house in St John’s Wood in London. Rendell’s regular readers will recognise it from her 1998 novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes; the house had already achieved a kind of fame because its pop-star tenant and his then girlfriend were painted in front of it in 1973.

When The Vault opens, Wexford and his wife are on a trip to London. Orcadia Cottage is inhabited by a wealthy couple who don’t know about the coal hole until they move a tub of flowers behind the house. The husband spots a manhole cover, struggles to lift it and is horrified to discover four corpses. Three of them are badly decomposed but the fourth, a young woman, appears more recent.

One of many clever things about the new novel is that it offers a tantalising mystery for readers unfamiliar with the earlier book, while anyone who remembers it will know how some — but not all — of the corpses ended up there. Wexford comes to the case without prior knowledge when he’s asked for unofficial assistance by the detective in charge; forensic examination complicates the puzzle when it is revealed that the two male corpses are distantly related, but there is no obvious connection between the two women.

The investigation starts with the house’s various tenants and owners. The pop star is dead from an overdose but his girlfriend, Harriet, turns out to have lived in the cottage with her husband in the 1990s. He left her in 1998, and she becomes a prime candidate for identification as the older woman in the vault.

A Sight for Sore Eyes was about class and the failure of people from different backgrounds to recognise danger signs in new acquaintances. In it, a young psychopath called Teddy Brex discovered a talent for woodwork and used it to get access to the cottage, where he showed off to a lovely young woman he had met at an exhibition. A beautifully carved mirror hangs in the house as a memento of their affair, its significance unrecognised even when Wexford begins to connect Brex to the tomb in the back garden.

The novel has a modern twist, in the shape of a subplot about sex-trafficking, but the author’s sheer technical skill is evident as she effortlessly brings the original story up to date. Only a novelist whose characters feel intensely real to her could pull off such a coup, and Rendell’s relish in calling in Wexford to investigate suggests she hasn’t enjoyed herself so much for ages.

Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £19.82 pp266.

In ‘Loyalty’, truth and fiction are one and the same

Independent on Sunday, 31 July 2011

I’ve never really believed that Tony Blair lied about why he wanted to go to war in Iraq. I’ve always thought he convinced himself that Saddam Hussein had WMD – not that difficult for someone who believes in an invisible deity – and dismissed people who thought differently. Now my instinct has been confirmed by Sarah Helm’s play Loyalty, which I’ve just seen at the Hampstead Theatre in London. At the time of the war, Helm lived with (and is now married to) Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff. It was Powell’s job to monitor telephone conversations between Blair and important people, and in the play, “Laura”, the character loosely based on Helm, listens in.

Here, in the play, is Bush talking to Blair, less than a month before the invasion: “But you know the Germans have got some really good new stuff showing he has those biological weapons. You’ve seen that, right?” Blair responds hesitantly that he’s just heard about the new source. Bush insists that “the German stuff shows that son of a bitch is really ready to offload. No doubts now, Tony.” Bush flatters Blair, praising his body language and deriding opponents of the war. “I mean, do these people not care about the citizens of Iraq? The answer is no. But when that son of a bitch hits Europe, they’ll be saying: ‘Where were George and Tony?’”

In the play and in real life, the German source was an Iraqi defector who later admitted that he lied to encourage the overthrow of Saddam. When I saw the play, one of the biggest audience reactions came when Blair takes a call from Rupert Murdoch, passing on a message from Donald Rumsfeld about needing to use the British base on Diego Garcia. Murdoch’s recent appearance before a Select Committee makes the scene timely, but it was written a couple of years ago.

Sarah Helm is a friend of mine and a former Independent journalist. (There’s a nice moment in the play when the head of MI6 remarks that Laura writes for the Independent, and makes the sign of the cross; it reminded me that Tony Blair once glared at me at a No 10 party when I reminded him that I wrote for the paper.) The play is described as a “fictionalised memoir” and it has clearly puzzled critics, who seem to have missed the extraordinary insights it offers into Bush and Blair’s relationship; they don’t seem to realise either that the painful conflict between Laura and Nick (the Powell character) was played out between other political couples who found themselves on opposite sides of the argument. My partner at the time was a government minister, and I recall Blair’s clique forever insisting that “everyone knew” Saddam had WMD.

It wasn’t true, but pro-war politicians existed in a self-reinforcing circle. The idea that anyone who opposed the war must support Saddam came up repeatedly, and is perfectly illustrated by Nick’s preposterous question to Laura: “So you want your friend Saddam to stay in power, do you?” The strain it placed on people who cared deeply about each other may go some way to explain why Sarah decided to write Loyalty.

She’s been accused of the opposite, but I think that is unfair. She’s been true to her passionate conviction that the war was wrong and to her belief in her husband, despite disagreeing with him on one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions of our lives. Her drama says more about the psychological processes enabling the conflict than any number of factual accounts of how it started.

Fantasy Warriors Strike Again

Independent, Tuesday 26 July 2011

One of the most disconcerting things about Friday’s mass murders in Norway is the physical appearance of the man arrested in connection with the killings. Posing for a photograph in a wetsuit, Anders Behring Breivik looks like a male model in a survivalist catalogue, while a picture of him in a Freemason’s apron makes him appear frankly ridiculous. Since he surrendered, a picture has emerged of Breivik as a verbose, paranoid, self-glorifying fantasist. Possible links with right-wing extremists in Norway and elsewhere are being investigated, including his claim to have had discussions with members of the English Defence League, but his enemies include a vast array of people, organisations and ideologies. They’re identified in a rambling 1500-page manifesto and include Muslims, Marxists, multi-culturalists and ‘radical feminists’ who have apparently almost completed ‘the feminisation of European culture’.

Breivik’s manifesto isn’t even original, borrowing heavily from the writings of Ted Kaczynski, the convicted American terrorist known as the Unabomber, while his obsession with the Knights Templar is wearily familiar. This order of crusader-monks has fuelled countless conspiracy theories down the ages, receiving a boost when it appeared in Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, The Da Vinci Code; the novel has created a tedious literary industry based around the crusades and the holy grail, but Breivik’s interest in the period is more sinister. He claims to have re-founded the Knights Templar in London in 2002 and styles himself a ‘justiciar knight commander’ and one of the leaders of the ‘National and pan-European Patriotic Resistance Movement’.

If it weren’t for our knowledge of the atrocities carried out by the author of this nonsense, it would be hard to read it with a straight face. Breivik is a body builder who plays ‘quest’ computer games and trawls the internet, where he seems to have made almost random connections with right-wingers and nationalists, including Serbs who fought against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. The people he admires seem to include Vlad the Impaler, who died fighting the Ottoman Turks near Bucharest in 1476.

There is no doubt that far right organisations exist in Scandinavian countries, or that they have been responsible for political violence in the past. Before he became famous as the author of the Millennium trilogy, the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson dedicated his career to tracking right-wing extremists; the best-selling Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo has written about the sensitive subject of collaboration during the German occupation of Norway, and the threat from neo-Nazis is often a theme in Nordic crime novels.

Breivik rants against Muslims, appearing to harbour a conviction that just about every organisation from the EU to the BBC is an Islamist front. But what emerges most strongly from his incoherent ideology is that he belongs to a breed of young European men with massive chips on their shoulder and a pitiless disregard for the suffering of other people. Two days ago, Breivik’s lawyer revealed that his client wanted to wear uniform for his first court appearance, although he added: ‘I don’t know what uniform’. Breivik isn’t a soldier and he appears to have made his own version of an officer’s uniform to wear in photographs, covering the jacket in gold braid and medals. This secret (at least until last weekend) warrior identity is evidently very important to him, even though it appears to be far removed from his humdrum everyday existence.

There are parallels here with other young men who feel alienated from the modern European cultures they inhabit, notably the 7/7 bombers who caused carnage on London’s transport network in 2005. The ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was just two years younger than Breivik at the time of his death. In a ‘martyrdom’ video made before he bombed a Circle Line train at Edgware Road, 30-year-old Khan wound a Palestinian scarf around his head and declared: ‘We are at war and I am a soldier’. A second tape, made by Shahzad Tanweer and released on the first anniversary of the suicide bombings, was entitled ‘The Final Message of the Knights of the London Raid’. In it, 22-year-old Tanweer blamed the British people for the attacks: ‘You have openly declared war on Islam, and are the forerunners in the crusade against the Muslims’.

Their aims are utterly opposed but it’s undeniable that there are similarities between the bellicose vocabulary of the 7/7 bombers and Anders Breivik. These are young men without military backgrounds who fantasise about being soldiers, bigging themselves up in videos and photographs, but they’re really armchair warriors who launch indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians. Re-fighting conflicts that date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they appropriate historical figures and the language of the crusades in an attempt to justify mass murder. The lack of contrition on both sides is horrifying.

Obviously it’s important to establish the extent of Breivik’s contacts with right-wing groups, just as we need to know how many young men in Western Europe have been encouraged to embrace violence by Muslim clerics. But restlessness and insecurity play a role in making violence attractive to young men who haven’t found a place for themselves in the modern world, sending them in search of simplistic masculine identities. The narcissistic rewards of terrorism have been under-explored in this context but the wealth of material posted online by Breivik before his rampage means the subject can no longer be ignored.

‘Tested gear. Exhausted!!! Good workout though. I’m drinking 4 X protein shakes per day now to maximize muscle generation’, the aspiring mass murderer wrote four days before the attacks. The sheer banality of terrorism has seldom been so vividly exposed.

Ireland squares up to the Vatican

Independent on Sunday, 24 July 2011

Last autumn, as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an outdoor mass in Hyde Park, I joined a march through London to protest against his visit to the UK. It was boisterous and good-natured, but I was struck by the presence of a number of elderly women who seemed to be marching on their own.

When we started up conversations, I discovered why they had come; speaking quietly, and often with Irish accents, they revealed that as children or young adults they had been victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

The exposure of clerical abuse in the worldwide Catholic church has been going on for decades. Last week, another official report was published, exposing the church’s failure to tell the authorities about allegations of sexual abuse in the Irish diocese of Cloyne, but the result was unexpected. Suddenly and without precedent, the Irish prime minister attacked the Vatican in terms that raised the prospect of his country one day becoming a secular republic. Speaking in the Irish parliament, Enda Kenny talked about “the rape and torture of children” and said the report exposed in Ireland “an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic”.

This is jaw-dropping stuff: Ireland is one of the most Catholic countries in the world. The Irish church has long behaved as though it’s immune from the criminal law, and that has exposed thousands of vulnerable people – not only children but the young women who were used as slave labour in church-run Magdalene laundries – to horrific abuse. The Cloyne report describes the Vatican as “entirely unhelpful” and says it effectively gave Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the church’s own guidelines on reporting abuse. Abusers continued to officiate as priests and were held in high regard by victims’ families; in one case, the abuser officiated at a victim’s wedding.

It isn’t only in Ireland that such accusations have been levelled at the church. A Catholic priest was arrested this month in Germany, where he’s accused of sexually abusing three boys as recently as 2007, while the church in Australia is paying millions of pounds in compensation after failing to stop paedophile priests for decades. The Vatican has repeatedly failed to protect children, involving itself in a series of shameful cover-ups which have allowed paedophile priests to escape the law.

Last year’s huge PR exercise during the Pope’s visit to the UK was a reminder that two irreconcilable views of the pontiff exist side by side: the pious, white-haired, avuncular theologian versus the leader of an institution that continues to shield child-abusers and rapists. No wonder the events of the last few days have the appearance of a seismic shift, with Kenny echoing the Vatican’s sternest secular critics as he talked about “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.

Ireland’s political class has been left reeling after Kenny issued a direct challenge to the pontiff, warning him that “the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself cannot, and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic”. Even in Catholic Ireland, it seems, the Vatican’s behaviour has reached a tipping point. Let’s hope that the result is a long-overdue debate about separation between Church and State.

Showing support for Norway

I went to the Norwegian embassy in London yesterday to see friends who work there and sign a book of condolence. It was very moving to see so many people queuing quietly to sign, while others came to leave flowers. The staff have received thousands of messages of support since Friday’s tragic events, and I know it means a great deal to them. If you would like to sign the online book of condolence set up by the Norwegian government, you can find it here: http://blogg.regjeringen.no/pr​otokoll

Sexual manners and the Left

Monday 18 July 2011

The French Socialist Party loves Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Even more people love Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, although only a hundred of his supporters were invited to his 40th birthday bash a few days before his court appearance last week; starry figures on the Left turned up to toast Assange at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, where he’s lived under house arrest since he found himself fighting extradition to Sweden to answer sex allegations. Assange and Strauss-Kahn are now waiting for courts in the UK and US to announce their fate, although in France the PS has at least conceded that the former head of the IMF won’t be its candidate in the next Presidential election.

These two stories, playing out thousands of miles apart, expose a longstanding problem about the Left and its approach to sexual mores. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, accusations of rape/attempted rape. It’s obvious that there are other behaviours towards sexual partners that most observers would find offensive, while stopping short of outright criminality. So why are some well-known people on the Left willing to behave as though neither man has serious questions to answer about his private conduct? I’d like to think that some of the guests at Assange’s birthday party had second thoughts when they heard his own barrister’s summary of the allegations against him last week, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And it took until last weekend for DSK’s hopes of returning to the highest level of French politics to be finally dashed, following new claims in a French magazine. According to an article in Le Point, DSK has told his wife Anne Sinclair that he had sex with three women, including the maid who has accused him of trying to rape her, during his stay at the Sofitel in New York. The magazine attributed a startling quote to a friend of Sinclair: ‘So it wasn’t just one for the road before the Presidential campaign, it was three’.

Previous reports had suggested that DSK propositioned two members of hotel staff, including a receptionist, before his encounter with the maid. He continues to insist he had consensual sex with her but he now faces allegations of attempted rape from a French journalist, Tristane Banon, who claims he tried to force her to have sex when she went to interview him in 2002. (My analysis of Banon’s allegations was published in the Independent on 6 July and can be read on this site, along with other articles about DSK.)

At the same time, more detail has emerged about the allegations against Assange, coinciding with a dramatic change of tactics on the part of his (new) legal team. On the first day of his appeal at the High Court against extradition to Sweden, his counsel Ben Emmerson made a point of not attacking his client’s accusers. He said:

‘Nothing I say should be taken as denigrating the complainants, the genuineness of their feelings of regret, to trivialise their experience or to challenge whether they felt Assange’s conduct was disrespectful, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing at the boundaries of what they felt comfortable with.’ [My italics]

The next day Clare Montgomery QC, who represented Swedish prosecuting authorities, laid out allegations about Assange’s sexual encounter with a woman known as AA on the night of August 13 last year. The woman was a supporter of WikiLeaks and had agreed to allow Assange to stay at her apartment where, Montgomery told the court, she claimed that ‘the prelude to the offence was Mr Assange ripping her clothes off, breaking her necklace, her trying to get dressed again and then letting him undress her’.

Assange’s own counsel, Emmerson, summarised AA’s allegations on the first day of the hearing:

‘The appellant’s physical advances were initially welcomed but then it felt awkward because he was “rough and impatient”….AA was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her….AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom….she did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together to avoid a penetration….

‘AA tried several times to reach for a condom which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and try[ing] to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly’.

Whatever the outcome of extradition proceedings, these are hugely disturbing allegations. The risks of HIV-transmission are well-known and it’s incontestable that anyone, male or female, is entitled to a change of mind if a sexual partner refuses to use a condom.

Admirers of Julian Assange often describe him as ‘heroic’. There is also a (diminishing) band of supporters who think that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged behaviour towards women has no bearing on his fitness for public life. They’re wrong: the political is personal and sexual manners have changed since the 1970s.