The Iraq invasion was wrong but this time we must get involved

Independent on Sunday, 15 June 2014

A keenness to denounce Tony Blair and George Bush is parochial and does nothing to help those in need

The takeover last week of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, by an al-Qa’ida splinter group began with a PR disaster. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) issued a decree, telling the city’s two million inhabitants how they would be expected to behave: drinking and smoking were banned, everyone would have to pray five times a day and women would have to stay indoors except in cases of emergency. It was all horribly reminiscent of the moment when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, and the Islamists have since tried to tell local people that life will actually continue as normal.

Mosul was one of a string of towns and cities in northern Iraq that fell to Isis, prompting alarm among the civilian population of Baghdad and a looming refugee crisis. Save the Children warned of “one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory”, describing how families fleeing Mosul had only a matter of minutes to gather their belongings. As the exodus produced huge traffic jams, a UN human rights official said he was receiving reports of “very grave human rights violations, including summary executions” in Mosul. In Syria, where Isis first came to prominence, there were reports that the jihadists crucified three young men in a town near Aleppo last weekend for co-operating with a rival opposition group.

In December, Amnesty International called on the international community to block the flow of arms to Isis, which was originally made up mainly of foreign fighters but has recently attracted local recruits. No one took much notice: it is an indicator of the way in which Western governments have averted their eyes from the growing crisis in Iraq, preferring not to think about the consequences of the 2003 invasion. It is not as though Isis failed to signal its intentions since crossing into the country from its strongholds in Syria; in the past six months, it has captured Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.

At one level, it is understandable that the political leaders who followed George Bush and Tony Blair wanted to extricate themselves from a poorly prepared and unpopular invasion. Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were all keen to put the Iraq War behind them, but, in doing so, they compounded the original problem. One of the reasons I opposed the invasion was the fact that I had no sense, when I talked to British politicians, that they had any understanding of the difficulties they would face when Saddam Hussein was toppled. I remember arguing that de-Baathification would take a decade or more, making the idea of a quick in-and-out a pipe dream. This point is barely addressed in Blair’s lengthy defence of the invasion, which he has published today. Last week, one of the scenarios emerging in Iraq was the possibility that Isis has formed an alliance with remnants of Saddam’s Sunni Baath party, who feel they have no representation under the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki.

Now the Obama administration has ruled out putting troops on the ground but is having to consider other military options In Iraq. The British government has also ruled out sending troops but says the UK may offer other support, which could include expertise in counterterrorism. No doubt, Cameron feels constrained by his bruising defeat in the House of Commons last summer, when MPs voted against even the possibility of air strikes on Syria to stop further chemical attacks by the Assad regime. But it sometimes feels as though the egregious mistakes of 2003 have created an almost permanent state of paralysis towards the region at Westminster.

That does not mean we have no further responsibility towards Iraq. The current mess is a consequence of the invasion; it is possible to argue that foreign forces should not have gone into the country in the way that they did, but also that they should not have left while the country remained so unstable. This is partly the fault of Maliki, who failed to negotiate terms under which the Americans would leave a small force in Iraq when they withdrew in 2011. Yet one of the striking things about Isis is how small their numbers actually are, with some reports suggesting they took the city with a single battalion of between 500 and 800 fighters.

It is undeniable that Iraq has a brutal, nepotistic, sectarian government and that Maliki isn’t up to the job. However, allowing Isis to hold a swathe of territory in Iraq would be a disaster for civilians, as well as creating another base for terrorist attacks across the region and beyond. Maliki may have been sufficiently shocked by recent developments to bring more Sunnis into his government; in any event, his shortcomings are not a good reason to stand at arm’s length and allow parts of the country to be controlled by a jihadist group so extreme that it has been disowned by the leadership of al-Qa’ida.

For around a decade, discussion about Iraq and Syria in the UK has been frustratingly parochial, amounting to little more than a variant on the perennially popular theme of “Tony Blair was wrong”. I don’t doubt that he was but it doesn’t invalidate the principle of humanitarian intervention, backed up by military advice and even force on occasions. Instead of obsessing over a former prime minister who no longer matters very much, we should be thinking about how the international community can help the Iraqi government and the half million or so refugees who have left Mosul and other towns since the beginning of last week.

Religion is no reason to let poorly-qualified people run schools

Independent on Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Trojan Horse row shows how state education has become a dog’s breakfast of different types of schools

There are few more cheering ways to start the day than the discovery that a couple of Tory Cabinet ministers are fighting like cats in a sack. It is especially piquant when one of the protagonists is Michael Gove, probably the most widely loathed Education Secretary in years. For much of last week, he was trading blows with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, about which of them is tougher on Islamic extremism. These two rivals for David Cameron’s job have kissed and made up, in public at least, but the important thing to remember is this: they are both wrong.

The row started when someone, later revealed to be Gove, spoke to The Times and appeared to suggest that the Home Office wasn’t taking a strong enough line on combating Islamism. The Home Office then took the extraordinary step of releasing a letter written by May, in which she demanded to know whether Gove’s department had been warned in 2010 about a supposed “Trojan horse” plot by Islamists to infiltrate state schools in Birmingham. Tomorrow, the education watchdog Ofsted is due to publish reports prompted by the allegations, which surfaced in an anonymous letter; the letter’s provenance is unknown and it has been dismissed in some quarters as a hoax. But reports on two of the schools in question have already been leaked. One suggests that students are not being protected from the “risks associated with extremist views”; the other that governors involve themselves inappropriately in the running of the school and staff feel intimidated by the school’s leadership. Five schools are expected to receive Ofsted’s lowest rating.

In essence, the spat between Gove and May comes down to a question about how individuals become extremists, and whether there is a linear progression from religious teaching in schools to radicalisation as young adults. But there is a bigger problem which neither minister acknowledges because they are complicit in creating it, along with virtually all their coalition colleagues. Building on the last Labour’s government’s mistakes, they have created a dog’s breakfast of a state education system where different categories of schools operate under entirely different rules. We now have half a dozen different types of schools, including community schools, foundation and trust schools, “faith” academies and free schools, all receiving public money. Some of them have to follow the national curriculum; others merely have to teach a “broad and balanced curriculum”. Some have governors appointed on secular lines, while different types of “faith” schools are allowed to appoint between a quarter and a majority of governors for religious reasons. In the case of “faith” academies and free schools, a religious test can be used in all teaching appointments, while teaching staff do not even have to be formally qualified.

Such variance strikes at the heart of a unified state system in which all children receive a broadly similar education, equipping them for the secular society which the UK has become. Instead, there is not just a mish-mash of different regimes but an open invitation to any group which wants to promote its own ideology at state expense. For the moment, the focus is on the role of Islam, but other religions are just as keen to get involved in state education. I am not a great fan of the shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, but he is right on the money when he talks about “a worrying pattern of religious interference by governors, attempted hi-jacking of appointments, syllabus restrictions and cultural conformity”.

Whatever Ofsted has to say this week, the bone-headed determination of the last Labour government and the present coalition to hand state education over to poorly qualified people, solely on the grounds of religion, has already produced one publicly funded disaster. At the Al-Madinah Muslim free school in Derby, part of the school is due to close shortly after being judged inadequate and chaotic by Ofsted. Women teachers complained about being forced to wear the hijab, while Ofsted found that “the basic systems and processes a school needs to operate well” were not in place. Outside the state sector, Ofsted has expressed concern about an Orthodox Jewish school in north London where some pupils at the boys’ primary school reported that they had been slapped by teachers, while inspectors found that the children had a “very limited” understanding of other cultures. Then there is the independent Olive Tree Muslim primary school in Luton, which has been threatened with closure after Ofsted accused it of promoting Salafi extremist beliefs.

There is a paradox here. In my lifetime, religious observance has declined dramatically in this country. Yet the number of “faith” schools has gone in the opposite direction, encouraged by mainstream politicians who appear not to understand the importance of keeping religion out of the public sphere. “Faith” is only one aspect of personal identity, and an increasingly irrelevant one in modern Britain, so why give it such a privileged role in state education? We don’t have Liberal Democrat or Arsenal supporters’ schools and I can see no justification for pouring public money into religious ones.

This is the conversation David Cameron needs to have with his warring ministers, whose dispute is currently under investigation by the Cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. But that would require the Prime Minister to acknowledge an incoherence at the heart of government policy. Ministers want to discourage religiously inspired extremism; they also aspire to give religion an ever-bigger role in public life. They can’t do both; these problems will not go away as long as we have a fractured state education system which gives a ludicrously inflated role to religion.

Prince Charles is the royal family’s Nigel Farage

Independent on Sunday, 25 May 2014

In the past two weeks, we have been treated to opposing opinions of President Vladimir Putin from two great thinkers of our time. On an official visit to Canada, the Prince of Wales compared him with Hitler, seeing a parallel between his behaviour towards Ukraine and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The heir to the throne was rebuked by the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, who had previously named the Russian president as the world leader he most admires.

The irony, which probably hasn’t struck either man, is that they have much in common. Charles is a few years older than Farage but they are both products of the British public school system, coming from solidly middle-class, conservative backgrounds. This is not a forcing-ground for rigorous intellectual debate but it does instil a lifelong confidence which reveals itself in a fondness for instant opinion. It also creates nostalgia for a kind of Englishness which is decades out of date, even if Charles would never be crass enough to express concern about a group of Romanian men moving in next door.

But then the prince doesn’t, as a rule, need to express his opinions publicly. He has a back channel to the government and uses it freely. His office insists that he has a right to speak privately to ministers “on any matter he chooses” and it is a right he exercises with enthusiasm: figures released last year showed he had held private meetings with cabinet ministers on 36 occasions since the 2010 general election.

He also fires off letters on a wide range of subjects, the famous “black spider memos” that are the subject of an epic court battle between The Guardian and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. Grieve is fighting a last-ditch action to prevent publication of 27 “particularly frank” letters written in 2004 and 2005. The battle is set to move to the Supreme Court after a succession of judges ruled in favour of publication.

The Government’s reasons for vetoing publication make fascinating reading. Grieve says they shouldn’t be published because the public could interpret them as showing Charles “disagreeing with government policy”; a perception that the prince had been in conflict with a Labour government would be damaging “because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”. Translation: the next head of state opposed the policies of an elected government and didn’t even bother to hide the fact when he secretly lobbied ministers.

Some Labour ministers were aghast at how frequently Charles lobbied on behalf of his pet subjects; one received his first royal memo within weeks of joining the government. But there is another reason why Charles’s “private” views should concern us. I suspect that the Foreign Office spent quite a bit of time last week telling the Russians that his position is ceremonial and his opinions don’t reflect those of the Government. Just when the diplomatic row seemed to be dying down, it erupted again yesterday as Putin, milking the situation for all it was worth, in effect accused Charles of bad manners.

Unlike someone sounding off in the pub, the prince’s opinions have consequences. The impact of a letter from him is not the same, to put it mildly, as one from someone living on a council estate. A royal letter goes straight into the minister’s red box, even if it doesn’t relate to a piece of legislation over which Charles, as head of the Duchy of Cornwall, has a veto. He exercised that right at least 12 times between 2005 and 2011, by the way, forcing the government to get his permission before passing Bills on road safety, gambling, housing, marine and coastal access, regeneration and housing, and the London Olympics. This emerged in response to a Freedom of Information request but neither the Government nor the prince’s office will reveal if he demanded changes to draft Bills.

This clandestine influence makes a mockery of the idea that the UK is a democracy based on equal rights. It also exposes the flaw in the argument for a hereditary head of state: the myth that he or she is above politics. It is a fiction that allows Charles to meddle in the democratic process, a fact underlined by the Grieve court case. From my own experience, he isn’t the only member of the family with strong political views; in my hearing, the Queen once initiated a discussion on the size of the EU and observed that she didn’t want Turkey to be allowed to join for a long time.

These are the kind of remarks people make to their friends or post on Twitter without causing an international incident. It’s different for members of the Royal Family, who know that ministers listen to what they say. If they want to express political views, they can renounce their claim to the throne and become private citizens. If they want to exercise political influence legitimately, they can even stand for election. The worst of all worlds is a royal family whose members let slip “private” opinions as banal and reactionary as those of Nigel Farage.

Elizabeth is Missing

Sunday Times, 25 May 2014

Elizabeth Is Missing

by Emma Healey

Viking £12.99/ebook £8.99 pp288

Dementia is seldom out of the news these days. It is addressed as a growing social problem or whenever a scandal at a care home erupts, but it is seldom seen or portrayed from the point of view of the individuals who are living with it. Elizabeth Is Missing, however, sets out to do just that, and succeeds to a remarkable degree — so much so that it is hard to believe it is ­written by a 26-year-old and is a first novel.

At the beginning of Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud is coping with dementia in her own home, with frequent visits from her adult daughter Helen. Maud’s house is festooned with notes reminding her about the essentials of everyday life, such as which way to turn to find the kitchen. When she leaves the house, notes fall out of her pockets and she tries to remember who has written them and why. One of them is about her friend Elizabeth, whom she met when they both volunteered at a charity shop. At one point in the novel, Maud finds a scrap of paper reminding her she is due to work at the shop in the afternoon. The note is old, and there is a poignant scene in which she arrives and discovers she has forgotten that she doesn’t work there any more.

Elizabeth no longer works there either, and one of the few things Maud is certain about is that her friend is missing. When everyone, including Helen, refuses to listen to her concerns, Maud makes the perilous journey to Elizabeth’s house and finds it silent and empty. She even reports the matter to the police, and meets not just incredulity but a desk sergeant who recognises her. “Same as usual?” he asks. “Elizabeth, is it?” It turns out he has already heard the story several times. His reaction is one of the unintentional cruelties Maud encounters almost every day of her life.

Emma Healey’s ambitious novel is written in Maud’s voice, and it vividly conveys the frustration of an intelligent woman whose memory has become fragmentary. Of course, no one can really know what it is like to live with dementia, but Healey’s imagined version feels authentic, capturing her heroine’s irritation when well-meaning people do not follow her fractured thought processes. It also captures her surprise and occasional shafts of bitterness when she finds she is no longer treated as an individual: “They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under 70. False teeth, hearing aid, glasses. I’ve been given them all.”

Part of Maud’s frustration is that while her short-term memory is unreliable, she remembers events from earlier in her life with great clarity. When she finds herself in a corner shop, unable to recall what she has come for, she reverts to her wartime childhood and starts stocking up on tinned peaches. This behaviour is inexplicable to others, but it has a kind of twisted logic that Maud also brings to bear on her friend’s disappearance.

This, it transpires, is not the first time in Maud’s life that someone close to her has gone missing. Back in the Second World War, when she was a teenager, her sister Sukey vanished one night. Sukey was married to a small-time crook and the police seemed to think it was natural she had run off, but Maud never really believed it. Elizabeth’s house was built shortly afterwards and it gradually becomes apparent that there may be a link between the two disappearances.

This is no conventional crime novel but a compelling work that crosses literary genres. Maud’s experience of dementia is harrowing at times, especially in comparison to her completely lucid moments. The two mysteries at the heart of the book, too — one experienced as a girl and the other as an elderly woman — are brilliantly ­handled. The result is bold, touching and hugely memorable.

Turkish mine explosion: are 300 lives enough to make Erdogan’s admirers think again?

Independent on Sunday, 18 May 2014

Cutting corners in the drive for cheap coal meant last week’s disaster was an accident waiting to happen

Less than three weeks ago, a Turkish opposition MP got up to demand a parliamentary investigation into safety measures at a coal mine in his constituency. “We are sick of going to the funerals of miners,” declared Ozgur Ozel, saying he had been inundated with complaints about safety conditions at the pit. Nonsense, replied a deputy from the ruling AK party, claiming that the country’s mines were safer than many elsewhere in the world. In words which should come back to haunt the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK party deputy added that, “God willing”, nothing would happen at the mine, “not even a nosebleed”.

What happened at the Soma mine last week could hardly be described as a nosebleed. Around 300 miners died after an underground explosion, leading to hellish scenes as soot-blackened corpses were brought out of the pit. A visit to Soma by the Prime Minister made matters worse as members of his entourage scuffled with protesters, who surrounded and kicked his car. An amateur video appeared to show Mr Erdogan himself throwing a punch, while one of his aides, dressed in a sharp suit and tie, was photographed kicking a protester who had already been restrained by Special Forces.

Last week’s fatalities are a tragedy on a vast scale, even for a country that has the worst mining record in Europe. But they are also a new development in Turkey’s protracted political crisis, which has seen the Islamist AK party survive in spite of a year of responding to popular protests with brute force. The use of tear gas and water cannon on demonstrators in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir did not dent Mr Erdogan’s popularity in recent elections. But his heartless response to the Soma fatalities – reeling off a list of mining disasters in other countries to prove that they are normal events – exposes what could be a fatal weakness in his party’s platform.

The AK party wins elections with an offer that combines conservative religious values with rapid economic growth. Mr Erdogan is anti-abortion, anti-equality and on record as saying that he would like Turkish women to have five children. Under his premiership, Turkey’s record on free expression has reverted to the bad old days. The governing body for broadcasting recently issued a warning to a TV discussion programme after one of the guests, the playwright Pinar Kur, offered her personal opinion that wearing the headscarf is reactionary. Many Turks seem able to live with Mr Erdogan’s assaults on traditional media but threats against social networking sites are another matter.

Earlier this year, he accused opponents of faking a recording of a phone conversation, posted on YouTube, which purportedly revealed him talking to his son about moving large sums of money to avoid a corruption investigation. Mr Erdogan claimed the conversation was a “montage” and threatened to ban YouTube and Facebook. He was rebuked by Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, but went ahead with bans on YouTube and Twitter. Both have been lifted by the courts, exposing the Prime Minister to widespread ridicule.

None of these assaults on individual liberty has been enough to inflict lasting damage on Mr Erdogan among traditionally minded voters. The Soma disaster is different, not least because it happened in a region where support for the AK party is much more solid. Not just that: an increasing dependence on coal, both locally mined and imported, is at the heart of Turkey’s economic success. The country’s energy demands are expected to double over the next decade, and in the past five years it has dramatically increased its dependence on coal-fired power stations.

This energy strategy has been accompanied by an aggressive programme of privatisation, with the Soma mine supposedly a showpiece of the benefits of private ownership. The mine was bought from the state by a company called Soma Holding, which is one of Turkey’s biggest coal producers. Two years ago, its owner, Alp Gurkan, boasted in an interview with the newspaper Cumhuriyet that he had managed to reduce the cost of mining coal from $130-$140 to just under $24 per ton “thanks to the operation methods of the private sector”. Survivors of last week’s disaster are suggesting that those “operation methods” included cutting corners on safety.

That proposition seems to be borne out by a report which warned of dangers in the Soma mine four years ago. Published by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers, it amounts to something close to a prediction of last week’s tragedy. The report warns that high levels of methane make the mine “intolerant” of mistakes; it highlights both the absence of a warning system for dangerous gases and a lack of escape routes. It criticises the ventilation and points out that “workers can’t be evacuated … urgently and safely”.

This puts a rather different complexion on Mr Erdogan’s ham-fisted attempt to play down the significance of the Soma tragedy. The AK party has run the country since 2002 and its drive to produce more coal has been accompanied by one fatal mining accident after another. Even before the latest disaster, 1,308 Turkish miners had been killed since 2000; 13,000 were involved in accidents last year alone, accounting for more than one in 10 workplace injuries.

The AK party has calculated that it can get away with flagrant attacks on students, journalists, feminists, intellectuals and green activists. Mr Erdogan does not seem to care, either, about the impact of his bullying manner on Turkey’s relations with the European Union. But in a country divided by education, religion and wealth, he desperately needs working-class votes. The lives of 300 miners may strike his supporters as too high a price to pay for Turkey’s breakneck economic expansion.

Almost two decades on, it’s OK for Bill Clinton but there’s no peace for Monica Lewinsky

Independent on Sunday, 11 May 2014

Her account of her affair with the President will resonate with survivors of abusive relationships, who will recognise the emotional devastation she experienced

He is a revered elder statesman. She could become her party’s candidate at the presidential election in 2016. It would be a stunning final act for Bill and Hillary Clinton, who spent much of the 1990s fighting off allegations about his predatory sexual habits. But no such stellar outcome is on the cards for Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose affair with Bill Clinton almost cost him the presidency.

All these years later, she is still known for this one thing. Now she has written an article for Vanity Fair, insisting that her affair with Clinton was consensual and any abuse came “in the aftermath”. Even so, her account will resonate with survivors of abusive relationships, who will recognise the emotional devastation she experienced.

Few young women have had their intimate lives subjected to such pitiless scrutiny. Lewinsky writes frankly about her mother’s fear that her daughter would be “humiliated to death”; she hopes her openness will help other victims of intrusion “in their darkest moments of humiliation”. She is also seeking some kind of personal resolution, a project not helped by Vanity Fair’s decision to release images from a typical celebrity photo-shoot before the magazine goes on sale. The photos are heavy on symbolism – Lewinsky in a virginal white dress, or looking like a glamorous widow in a little black veil – and they undermine any sense that she is at peace with herself.

This is a shame because Lewinsky, at 40, is a smart woman with a master’s degree from the LSE. She does not lack insight into the cataclysmic events of the late 1990s, observing that she was too young to have established an identity to which she could return when the scandal waned. Instead, she became the butt of endless jokes about oral sex and masturbation. What on earth was Beyoncé thinking when she used Lewinsky’s name as a synonym for ejaculation in a recent song? Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, who has suffered her own share of misogynist abuse, has yet to acknowledge how badly she and her husband treated Lewinsky.

Among Bill Clinton’s cheerleaders at the time were the playwright Arthur Miller and the novelist Gabriel Gárcia Marquez, who defended his right to lie, “with his head held high, as any self-respecting adulterer would”.

Almost two decades later, are we still in thrall to the notion that men are enhanced by sexual acts which humiliate their partners?

Lewinsky has spent most of her adult life in a topsy-turvy world where Bill Clinton is regarded either as a red-blooded male or as her victim. Naturally she wants to be known for more than her link with the Clintons, but the timing of her article reinforces it. Like many abuse victims, she still struggles with the past, no matter how much she longs for “a different ending”.

Bring up the bodies

Sunday Times, 11 May 2014

Some of the most popular characters in detective fiction have been around for a very long time. John Harvey’s Inspector Resnick has tried retirement and didn’t like it, so he’s relieved to be asked to join the team investigating a 30-year-old murder. Darkness, Darkness (Heinemann £18.99) takes Rebus back to beginning of his career, when he ran a police intelligence unit during the miners’ strike.

At the time, no one paid much attention when a young woman went missing. Jenny Hardwick supported the strike while her husband carried on working, and local people speculated that she’d run off with one of the striking miners who’d come down from Yorkshire to join the picket line. Now her skeleton has been found in the foundations of a house and the officer in charge of the case, Catherine Njoroge, needs Resnick’s local knowledge. It’s a clever choice of subject for the detective’s final case, allowing him to reflect on old conflicts, while the underlying theme of violence against women anchors it in the present. Above all, it’s a thoughtful and elegiac farewell to Resnick.

Laura Lippmann’s After I’m Gone (Faber 12.99; ebook £7.99) also reflects on the long shadow thrown by past events. In 1976, a nightclub owner called Felix Brewer disappeared from Baltimore just before he was due to face gambling charges. He left behind a wife, three daughters and a girlfriend, and a mystery about the whereabouts of his substantial fortune. Ten years later the girlfriend disappeared and everyone assumed she’d gone to join Brewer, until her body was discovered in a local park.

That’s where the matter stands until a retired police detective, Sandy Sanchez, takes it on as a ‘cold’ case and starts talking to all the people involved in Baltimore’s tightly-knit Jewish community. Sanchez is an outsider, a Cuban exile adopted by a local woman when he was a boy, and it makes him a compassionate observer of the five women at the heart of the novel. Although this is a compelling mystery, it is also a portrait of the devastation caused by the disappearance of a powerful man at a time when women had little autonomy.

Zoltan Boszormenyi fled his home country, Hungary, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. He spent seven months in a refugee camp in Austria and draws on this dramatic personal history in The Club at Eddy’s Bar (Phaeton £19.99). A young journalist, Tamas, has run away from a town in the Carpathian mountains after discovering that the mayor and other prominent citizens are members of a secret club. Tamas ends up in Canada, carrying with him a manuscript telling the truth about the savage murder of one of its members, but discovers that public life in his new home is just as corrupt. Boszormenyi’s description of life as a refugee is vivid and touching, even if the parallels between life in the East and West are a little heavy-handed.

John Lescroart has written a series of New York Times bestsellers and his latest novel, The Keeper (Headline £13.99), is a classic detective story. A San Francisco prison guard arrives home from the airport to find his wife missing, and quickly becomes the chief suspect in what’s widely assumed to be a case of domestic homicide. Another retired detective, Abe Glitsky, is asked to investigate by the guard’s lawyer shortly before the missing woman’s body is discovered.

Glitsky is an attractive character with an unusual background for contemporary crime fiction; he is African-American and Jewish, reflecting the complexity of modern American culture. The initial results of his investigation are ambiguous, neither clearing nor implicating his client, until he begins to connect the case to a series of suspicious deaths at the prison. This is a confident and enjoyable novel, even if the exposure of the killer at the end is a little far-fetched.

Anita Nair is a highly-regarded Indian novelist and author of children’s books. A Cut-Like Wound (Bitter Lemon Press £8.99) is her first foray into crime fiction, and it’s an eye-opener from the first page to the last. Her detective, Inspector Gowda, is in the midst of a mid-life crisis when he’s confronted with the murder of a young man who worked as a prostitute. Set in Bangalore, the novel takes the reader into an unfamiliar world of troubled sexual identity.

Is misogyny worse now than before the internet?

The Guardian, 8 May 2014

Misogyny went mainstream with Jack the Ripper

Misogyny has always been with us. But for most of recorded history, your average woman-hater couldn’t even read and write. Those who could, from Roman poets to the medieval monks who wrote a manual for witch-hunters, were not shy about expressing their loathing of women. Misogyny arrived early as a literary form and went mainstream in the 19th century with the arrival of Jack the Ripper. Popular fascination with men who mutilate and murder women has never abated, and neither has the tendency to give them aggrandising nicknames.

Confronted with the frothing misogyny of the internet, it is easy to forget this history. Who could have imagined that so many individuals would use social networking sites to post torrents of abuse to women they’ve never even met? Did these people secretly harbour rape fantasies for years, returning home each day filled with loathing for women they’d passed in the street or overheard chatting to friends on the bus?

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them did. They probably hated feminism as well, and believed all those gleeful commentaries announcing its demise. Then two things happened: feminism came bouncing back, more invigorated than ever, and suddenly they had an instant outlet for their sick imaginings. In the past, abusing a woman you didn’t know required effort: discovering her name and address, posting a letter or taking the risk of making a telephone call.

Now, even the laziest misogynist can spot a woman on TV, Google her and send a threatening message via Twitter within seconds. In that sense, the internet is a monument to the wisdom of second thoughts. It has created a channel to the spiteful and illogical inner worlds of total strangers, and the sheer volume of misogyny lurking there is dispiriting.

Don’t forget, though, that the ancient Athenians are credited with inventing democracy but kept women in a separate part of the house. For centuries, confining women to the private sphere was one of the main methods powerful men used to avoid dealing with their fear of women; it’s still happening in some parts of the world. In the west, that just doesn’t work any more. Women are much more visible – and so is woman-hating.

 

Nigerian schoolgirls: the world’s media have failed in their response to kidnap of 200 girls

Independent on Sunday, 4 May 2014

Their abduction by terrorists has had little coverage compared with the mssing Malaysian airliner

When members of the Islamist terror organisation Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria last month, they disguised themselves in military uniform. The girls, who knew that many schools in the state of Borno have been attacked by jihadists, initially believed that the unexpected visitors had come to take them to a safe place. But as they climbed reluctantly into trucks and on to motorcycles, the men began firing into the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Some of the girls decided to make a run for it, but the majority were coerced into travelling to a bush camp. There the terrorists forced them to cook for their captors.

To say that Boko Haram opposes gender equality is an understatement. The group’s name is a Hausa phrase which translates as “Western education is sinful”; abducting teenage girls fulfils several of the group’s aims, bringing the girls’ education to an abrupt end and forcing them into traditional female roles. Of course Boko Haram doesn’t just target girls; in February, it carried out a massacre at a rural boarding school in the neighbouring state of Yobe, where most of the 43 victims were boys. But it was clear from the outset that the kidnapped girls were at high risk of sexual violence, a point made by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in one of his first statements about the abduction.

Last week, these fears appeared to have been well-founded when unconfirmed reports suggested that the girls had been taken out of Nigeria and were being forced to “marry” members of Boko Haram. It should not need pointing out that “marriage” in this context means domestic enslavement and mass rape. The former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who is now United Nations special envoy on education, observed that the girls’ desperate families still do not know “whether they’re about to be murdered or used as sex slaves”.

Nigeria is one of three countries which have just announced their endorsement of a Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, an initiative by the British government which has been signed by more than three-quarters of UN member states. So what are the Nigerian authorities doing about this egregious example of sexual violence within their own borders? When I spoke to the Foreign Office on Friday, a spokesman told me that Mr Hague had offered assistance to the Nigerian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Aminu Wali, two weeks earlier – and was still waiting for a response.

Almost three weeks after the girls were seized, there is mounting anger in Nigeria about the government’s failure to locate and rescue them. Officials tried to play down the gravity of the incident, claiming that just over a hundred girls had been taken but latest figures suggest at least 223 remain missing. Fifty-three escaped but the military, which claimed to have rescued most of the teenagers, has had to admit its failure to retrieve a single one. Distraught relatives went into the forest armed with bows and arrows but were warned to turn back by local people, who said they stood no chance against the heavily armed jihadists.

“We don’t know where they are up until now, and we have not heard anything from the government,” the father of one of the girls told The New Yorker last week. He is one of the lucky ones: his daughter Deborah Sanya, 18, took one look at the terrorists’ camp and realised that her only chance was to run and hide in the forest. She persuaded two of her friends to go with her and they managed to get to a nearby village. But her cousins and many of her friends are still missing.

On Friday morning’s Radio 4 Today programme, the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka described the abduction as an “atrocity”. Soyinka has been critical of the Nigerian government’s response almost from the start, previously accusing the President, Goodluck Jonathan, of insensitivity towards the girls’ plight. But it has to be said that it is not just the Nigerian government which is open to this charge. Where were the international television crews and big-name foreign correspondents when so many teenage girls were abducted? Without intense scrutiny from the world’s media, a weak government fighting an undeclared war with well-armed terrorists was never likely to mount the kind of search and rescue operation demanded by such dire events.

Anyone who doubts the power of the world’s media to affect the actions of governments should consider the very different response to the disappearance in March this year of a Malaysian airliner. The unsolved mystery of Flight MH370 is a tragedy for the relatives of those on board, and it now looks as if they may not discover what happened to their loved ones for months or years. But the missing plane remained at the top of the international news agenda for weeks, long after any realistic hope of finding survivors had faded. Politicians held daily press conferences, despite having next-to-nothing to report.

There is a very good chance, by contrast, that the Nigerian schoolgirls are still alive – and could be rescued. Mr Brown has called for international military assistance, including air support, and he’s due to meet President Jonathan this week. But the sluggish response of the international media speaks volumes about the low priority afforded to violence against women and girls. Scouring thousands of miles of ocean for debris is much more appealing, it seems, than reporting on the abduction and probable enslavement of more than 200 female students.

It’s never been better for women

The Times, 28 April 2014

Sometimes I can’t believe my luck. During my working life, I’ve witnessed massive changes in women’s lives, most of them for the better. When I was growing up, few women went to university, there were hardly any female MPs and women still needed a male ‘guarantor’ to get a mortgage. Early on in my career as a journalist, I even met a woman who’d been put in a mental hospital just for having an ‘illegitimate’ baby.

Things are so much better today, even though I’m as shocked as anyone by the visceral misogyny on social networking sites like Twitter. Some men, it seems, can’t see an articulate woman on television without going online to abuse her in personal and explicitly sexual terms. I’m still wondering why a man who disagreed with something I said about the monarchy on Sky News felt he needed to post a tweet calling me a ‘stupid bitch’.

I’m sure Germaine Greer is right when she says that some men feel women have invaded spaces they used to regard as their own. To an older generation, the first women to work in offices on equal terms did seem like intruders, and they went out of their way to make us uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s an accident that young women faced a barrage of sexual harassment at work in the 1970s and 80s.

I can think of a couple of incidents, at the beginning of my career, which amounted to sexual assault. Now there’d be a company equal opportunities policy and someone senior to complain to, which is a great improvement on how things used to be. I’ve also heard lots of younger men say how relieved they are that they don’t have to work in laddish, all-male environments.

That’s why I’m mystified when Greer claims that ‘things have got a lot worse for women’ since she wrote The Female Eunuch. The statistics tell a very different story, from girls outperforming boys at school to the number of women in the law, journalism and medicine – and owning property. The internet may have provided a forum for sexist abuse, but it’s also the place where one feminist campaign after another has taken off, from No More Page 3 to the Everyday Sexism Project.

The foam-flecked misogynists are furious because they’re losing the argument. We’ve yet to achieve full equality, but I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a woman.