You by Joanna Briscoe

Joanna Briscoe probes the rival passions of a mother and daughter both engaged in taboo-breaking romances

Sunday Times, 24 July 2011

Loving the wrong person is a familiar theme in fiction. In Joanna Briscoe’s new novel, the frustrated longing of its two main characters plays out over two decades, providing plenty of opportunity to explore their turbulent emotional landscape. The fact that they are mother and daughter — estranged because of feelings neither can admit — gives a new twist to the book’s examination of obsessive love.

It is the 1970s and Dora has moved to a longhouse on Dartmoor with her Irish husband Patrick and their three children. They are hoping for a rural idyll but the move forces Dora to confront her husband’s amiable laziness. Barns and outbuildings fill up with itinerant members of the counterculture as Dora struggles to make ends meet; she takes a job teaching at a nearby school and finds herself in an establishment with a hippie headmaster and pupils who regularly opt out of lessons.

Dora’s daughter Cecilia is a studious girl who hates the school’s anything-goes ethos. Along with a couple of like-minded friends, she worships her English teacher James Dahl, who has recently arrived from a conventionally run public school. Soon she is finding opportunities to bump into him outside classes, trying to impress him with her store of literary quotations. Dahl’s wife Elisabeth teaches art at the school and while Cecilia pines for James, Dora astonishes herself by falling head over heels for Elisabeth.

More than two decades later, Cecilia moves into her old home on Dartmoor with her boyfriend Ari and their children. Dora is now living in one of the old cottages on the estate, recovering from surgery for breast cancer, and her illness has prompted Cecilia to attempt a reconciliation.

Standing between them is Cecilia’s child, or rather the memory of her child, who was born in the longhouse when Cecilia was 18 and given away in an unofficial adoption. Despite having three daughters, Cecilia is haunted by the loss of her baby, imagining the presence of a ghost-child out on the moors. She has given the child a name, Mara, and one of her purposes in moving next door to her mother is to extract information about the mysterious adoptive parents.

Briscoe’s interest in unexpected love-objects has been established in her previous novels, including the bestselling Sleep with Me. Here, she counterpoints one taboo-breaking romance, between a teacher and his pupil, with the secret passion between the girl’s mother and the man’s wife. The common factor is a startling degree of self-absorption: thinking about “you” is also a way of focusing on oneself. The only member of the foursome who has an inkling about all that’s going on is also the least emotionally involved.

Briscoe’s portrait of Dora and Patrick’s chaotic household, and the impact of their parenting style on their children, is vivid and acerbic. She has a singular prose style, moving from crisp observations to sentences that seem so gorged with words that they plunge into a lush romanticism. Most of the time it works, although the female characters dominate the narrative, the men appearing weaker and perhaps a little less interesting to their creator. In the end, what appears to be a novel about women in love has at its heart another kind of passion, that of mothers for daughters and the misunderstandings that distort it.

Bloomsbury £11.99

Journalists and private detectives: an unhealthy symbiosis

Independent on Sunday, 17 July 2011

When did British journalists start getting entangled with seedy private eyes? Back in the 1980s, when I worked for the Sunday Times Insight team, I spent hours rooting about in archives and trying to persuade strangers to talk to me. We produced lengthy investigations into the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry and the Iranian embassy siege in London; sometimes we used freelances with specialist knowledge but I can’t recall an instance where we turned to a private investigator.

Now, as the phone hacking scandal engulfs sections of the British press, I am aghast at how things have changed. In May, detectives from Operation Weeting showed me photocopies of handwritten notes about me and my then-partner compiled by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by the News of the World until his arrest in 2006. Seeing even a few of the 11,000 pages seized from Mulcaire made me realise the extent of both phone hacking and the surveillance operation he carried out on behalf of the paper. But I don’t think the wider public understood until the revelation about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone.

The allegations against Mulcaire and the News of the World highlight a practice – newspapers using private investigators to get personal information – that’s become widespread. In 2005 Operation Motorman led to the conviction of a Hampshire-based private eye, Steve Whittamore, who passed information obtained from the police national database to newspapers. The material seized from Whittamore should have prompted searching questions but the public wasn’t much interested while the names belonged to celebrities and politicians. There’s a widely-held view that they’ve forfeited their right to privacy, encapsulated by the Sun’s furious insistence that it used legal methods to obtain medical information about Gordon Brown’s younger son. So what? The story was a gross intrusion and shouldn’t have been published.

Journalists’ training courses address questions of law and ethics but private investigators don’t have to be trained or licensed to operate. It seems that a symbiotic relationship developed on some papers, with each side encouraging the other in a frenzied pursuit of famous (and not-so-famous) people. A report from the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2006 said that 305 journalists had been identified during Operation Motorman ‘as customers driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information’.

The report identified the cause of the malaise: ‘Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell’. A follow-up report listed publications which had used Whittamore’s services: top of the list was the Daily Mail, where 58 journalists had dealings with him on 952 occasions, beating the News of the World into fifth place. The Observer and the Sunday Times appeared lower down, but neither of the Independent titles.

Mulcaire and Whittamore are the investigators whose links with newspapers we know most about, and they help build up a picture of how this unhealthy relationship developed. The News of the World’sinvolvement with Mulcaire started in 1997 and by 2005 he was under exclusive contract, earning £2,019 a week and available ‘all the time’. Meanwhile Whittamore has confirmed that journalists’ demands ‘got more and more personal….telephone account details, that sort of thing, maybe a bank account detail’. He said he couldn’t provide such material but would try to find someone who could.

Because of this kind of behaviour, British journalism finds itself on trial. That’s unfair on reporters and newspapers who follow a strict code of ethics and and haven’t ever resorted to dubious methods to gather information. As various inquiries get under way, I have a very simple suggestion: let’s agree that journalism is the business of journalists, not something to be outsourced to people who will spy on anyone for money.

A new female sleuth making her debut in a child abduction mystery heads this roundup of crime fiction

Sunday Times, 17 July 2011

The abduction of a young child always attracts media attention. In Nicci French’s Blue Monday (M Joseph £12.99/ebook £6.49), a psychoanalyst is treating a man who dreams about a missing child, but the boy’s face is all over the newspapers and she can’t be certain that her client is not involved. When Dr Frieda Klein begins to suspect a link with an unsolved disappearance 20 years earlier, she is torn between her fears for the missing boy and her duty to her client.

Blue Monday is a departure for French, the pseudonym of writing couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who have together produced a dozen hugely successful crime novels. It’s the first in a planned series with Klein as the central character, and marks a move away from the young-woman-in-jeopardy format that has become French’s trademark. The novel has a carefully calibrated build-up of suspense, and Klein’s solitary midnight walks across London suggest mythic elements to her personality, but she’s a promising amateur investigator in a field dominated by hard-boiled cops.

Karen Campbell used to be a police officer and her inside knowledge of investigations contributes a gritty sense of reality to Proof of Life (Hodder £19.99/ebook £10.99). This is Campbell’s fourth novel featuring a woman detective, Glasgow-based Chief Inspector Anna Cameron, and it presents her with the toughest ethical dilemma of her career. Seven months pregnant, Cameron faces disaster when she recognises a dead woman who’s just been pulled from a canal and realises that the killer is out to get her as well. Campbell has the makings of a fine crime writer if she learns to pare her prose down to the essentials.

The Dinosaur Feather (Quercus £12.99) arrives in the UK with glowing testimonials for its author, Sissel-Jo Gazan. It’s been voted Danish crime novel of the decade and it can lay claim to a singularly bizarre method of murder: the first victim dies an agonising death, biting off his own tongue when he is deliberately infected with a rare parasite. The death of Lars Helland, a professor of biology at Copenhagen university, coincides with the imminent arrival of a Canadian academic who is a furious critic of his work.

The novel’s title refers to an academic dispute about whether birds are descended from dinosaurs, and Helland’s graduate student, Anna Bella, initially seems more anxious about defending her thesis on the origin of birds than her teacher’s freakish demise. The unusual plot doesn’t entirely compensate for a ponderous structure, and the means of Helland’s dispatch reduces the number of suspects to a small group with access to the parasite in question.

Arnaldur Indridason’s new novel, Outrage (Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £13.56), is further evidence that he’s one of the most brilliant crime writers of his generation. With the introspective Inspector Erlendur away from Reykjavik on mysterious business of his own, Indridason’s female detective Elinborg takes on a case involving a young man found murdered in his flat. There’s no evidence of a break-in and the case takes a sinister turn when the corpse’s mouth turns out to be stuffed with a prescription drug associated with date rape.

Elinborg has featured in previous Reykjavik novels but here she comes into her own. The case is linked to a number of unsolved rapes and Elinborg faces the dilemma of a woman cop sympathetic to the female victims but also aware that her job is to catch the killer. The novel contains tantalising hints that her absent boss Erlendur is in trouble. This is a superb read, handling the delicate subject of rape in a way that’s both riveting and unsensational.

An Evil Eye (Faber £14.99/ebook £12.99) is the latest outing for Jason Goodwin’s charming Ottoman detective, the eunuch Yashim. Sultan Mahmut II has just died, throwing the women of his harem into turmoil. Goodwin vividly recreates the sinister atmosphere of the harem, where women and babies can simply disappear, and Yashim’s privileged access is crucial to solving a mystery involving political rivalries at the highest level.

Ernesto Mallo’s crime novels are set in 1980s Argentina, where scores from the years of brutal dictatorship are still being settled and victims of criminal gangs turn up next to people murdered by death squads. In Sweet Money (Bitter Lemon Press £8.99), Mallo’s Superintendent Lascano is recovering from a near-fatal shooting under the protection of the man who’s about to become police chief of Buenos Aires. When his mentor is removed by a ruthless rival, it’s too dangerous for Lascano to go back to his old job and he’s hired by a bank to track down an old adversary who’s just pulled off a huge heist. Mallo’s novels are mordant, political and utterly compelling.

The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny, by Shirin Ebadi, trans Nathaniel Rich Kales

The Times, Saturday 16 July 2011

Tehran’s notorious Evin prison stands to the northwest of the city, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains. It was opened under the Shah of Iran, whose intelligence service, Savak, tortured opponents within its walls, and it expanded rapidly after the Islamic revolution. The prison is approached by a long incline known as the “ramp of repentance”, so named because Revolutionary Guards taunt political detainees that the walk itself is enough to make them repent.

In her riveting memoir of a middle-class Tehran family, the exiled Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi recalls how her best friend Pari became painfully familiar with the ramp when one of her brothers was held in Evin prison. Javad was a member of the Tudeh, the Iranian communist party, and he was jailed for taking part in a student demonstration during the Shah’s rule. Pari and her mother, Simin, had to steel themselves to visit him, returning each time “destroyed” by the misery they’d witnessed; Javad was released after a year bearing visible signs of torture, including a broken nose and a long scar on his right cheek. Ebadi recalls that he also had difficulty in walking, writing that “in prison they had whipped the soles of his feet as a form of torture: as soon as the wounds showed signs of healing, they’d reopen them with more violent lashes”.

In 1988, Pari was forced to return to the “ramp of repentance” after Javad was arrested a second time, on this occasion by Revolutionary Guards. Ebadi accompanied her to the prison but was not permitted to enter, leaving Pari to brave its horrors on her own. She was shocked by how much her brother had aged, gazing in dismay at his grey hair, wrinkled neck and eyes “veiled by exhaustion and suffering”. Javad’s request that she bring him “something warm” on her next visit led to a two-hour interrogation by the guards, who suspected that the phrase was a form of code. Two months later, before Pari was able to visit him again, Javad was removed from solitary confinement and put in front of a firing squad with five other political prisoners. He was 38.

Javad was the middle of three brothers whose political affiliations were to test family loyalties to destruction. Raised in an idyllic home in Tehran with an orchard and a view of the Alborz mountains, the brothers embraced opposing political creeds, becoming totally estranged in adulthood. From Ebadi’s standpoint as a democrat and human rights activist — in 2003 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — each brother isolated himself in a “golden cage” of ideology, which made him forget his humanity. She suggests that their hostility to each other is emblematic of the conflicts tearing apart many Iranian families in this turbulent period.

The chronology of these events is not always easy to follow; Ebadi is sparing with dates and has a tendency to offer novelistic accounts of scenes from the family’s history that she did not personally witness. But the story she tells is remarkable: the eldest brother, Abbas, is a fervent monarchist who follows a military career and rises to the rank of general in the Shah’s Army. He could not be more unlike Javad, whose prison record and membership of the Tudeh render him unemployable under both regimes; meanwhile neither one has any sympathy with their baby brother Ali, who grows up to be a devoted follower of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ali spends his afternoons at the mosque, praying and learning to memorise the suras, causing raised eyebrows among other members of the family who are not particularly devout. His mother hopes that his piety will protect him from the “political manias” of his older brothers, but the clerical dictatorship that follows the Shah’s fall is enmeshed in politics. Ali grows into “a stubborn man who couldn’t make sense of any ideas that weren’t in line with the Revolution, Islam, and the orders of his superiors”, ending up on the front line in Iran’s terrible war with Iraq. Defending his hero Khomeini from Saddam Hussein has tragic consequences for Ali and his young family.

The book covers a 60-year period from the Shah’s power struggle with his popular and reforming Prime Minister, Mossadegh, to the present day. Abbas reveals himself as a zealot early on, joining the mob that stormed Mossadegh’s palace in 1953 and emerging with the ousted prime minister’s pen as a souvenir. “We arrested Mossadegh!” the schoolboy boasts to his horrified parents. In one of the book’s autobiographical asides, Ebadi recalls that her father, a law professor, lost his job because of his passionate support for Mossadegh and tried to ban political conversation at home to protect his family. But his influence — his commitment to democratic politics and women’s rights — shines through every page of his daughter’s book.

What begins as a portrait of a single family widens out into an extraordinary evocation of daily life under two unpleasant political systems. Inside Iran, mass executions mark the early years of the Ayatollah’s regime, while political assassinations are carried out by its agents in European cities. Scarves and chadors become hated inconveniences as Pari and Ebadi deal with implacable officials who will not look them in the eye. Pari becomes isolated at the university where she works, tainted by her association with Javad and accused of subverting her students even when she is no longer allowed to teach; Ebadi is dismissed as one of Iran’s first female judges. Pari’s mother becomes an ever more tragic figure, spending her widowhood in a cramped flat where she struggles to come to terms with the fate of her three sons: one executed, two in exile.

Years after being forced out of her job as a judge, Ebadi managed to get a licence to practise as a lawyer, working on behalf of women and children and defending high-profile dissidents. Harassed by the authorities, in 2009 she decided it was too dangerous to go on working in Tehran and joined Pari in exile in London. While still in Iran, Ebadi had represented Pari in an attempt to get permission from the state to build a monument to the regime’s murdered opponents at the site of a mass grave. Permission was denied but this moving book is a monument in itself, commemorating friendship and the human spirit.

Kales, 256pp, £19.99.

Miriam and her amazing cojones

Independent, Thursday 14 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stieg and Me by Eva Gabrielsson

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

Sunday Times, 10 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(translated by Linda Coverdale)

Pete Doherty is not a child

Independent on Sunday, 10 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myths about women who cry rape

Independent, Thursday 7 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farming out forensic science is criminal

Independent on Sunday, 3 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all in this together, but is Charles?

Independent, Thursday 30 June 2011

Cognitive dissonance or taking the you-know-what? I’m still trying to decide, but judge for yourself: as ordinary people in this country cut back on even small luxuries like chocolate, Prince Charles has increased his staff to 159.

His overall income, which includes funding from the Government and the Duchy of Cornwall, rose by almost five per cent to £19.7m last year. Meanwhile the salaries of his expanding staff of butlers, valets, aides, dressers, housekeepers and gardeners were frozen. It’s tough out there, you know!

The prince is, as we know, a doughty campaigner against climate change and “over-consumption of finite natural resources”. It says so in his annual review, which also reveals that his own travel costs rose by 56 per cent last year as he and Camilla clocked up 34,000 miles on official trips. The review speaks in glowing terms of his Start initiative “to encourage people and communities to take practical steps to reduce their energy use and carbon footprint”. But the prince has yet to start cutting his own expenditure, although one economy has been announced this week: his newly appointed harpist won’t receive a salary.

Perhaps the Royal Family doesn’t follow the news. How could they have failed to notice that the word “austerity” is everywhere, along with alarming phrases like “retail carnage”? In Greece, there are riots over the prospect of another round of savage cuts, and in this country a swathe of high-street names is announcing shop closures and redundancies. Ten thousand jobs are set to be lost as one company after another recognises that consumers have less money after paying soaring household bills.

But while shoppers can no longer afford to indulge themselves with a few chocolate truffles, Charles’s personal spending rose by 50 per cent to £2.5m in 2010. His expenditure on entertaining and receptions alone rose by more than a quarter, to £323,000. And he claimed it all against tax, along with £155,000 for the upkeep of his gardens. This ancien-regime lifestyle is all the more astonishing against the background of today’s strike by public sector workers, with millions of people protesting about having to work longer for smaller pensions.

There’s no doubt that there is a pension-funding crisis, but an evident lack of fairness makes the bitter pill harder to swallow. One of New Labour’s failures in government was its unwillingness to tackle the pay gap between the highest and lowest paid, allowing a culture of excess to flourish unchecked in publicly funded institutions. I’m not just talking about the lucky residents of Clarence House, but the way in which all kinds of people – from council chief executives to top BBC presenters and executives – began to expect (and got) eye-watering salary and pension deals.

The BBC refused to comment yesterday on reports that it has paid more than £1.3m to make just two of its most senior staff redundant, saying only that it has made “significant progress” in reducing the number and salaries of top executives. But the deputy director-general Mark Byford is believed to have received just under £950,000 in addition to a generous pension pot, while another senior member of staff, who had worked for the BBC for less than two years, left with just under £400,000. Presumably the corporation was contractually obliged to make the payments, but the question is why the BBC’s salary structure was allowed to become so detached from reality.

Envy is an unattractive emotion, but this isn’t just about a few overpaid individuals. It’s about fairness at a time when people who don’t have very much to start with are seeing their pensions reduced, getting fewer visits from home-helps or having their day centres closed. That’s the reality for millions of people, and I can’t help wondering why we put up with an heir to the throne who’s a one-man argument for the introduction of sumptuary laws.