The Matter of Asia Biba

There’s a headline in the Guardian today, reporting that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has quashed the death sentence imposed in 2010 upon Asia Biba, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in that she allegedly insulted or disparaged the Prophet Mohammed. The decision is likely to cause deep trouble in Pakistan, where blasphemy is taken ultra-seriously, carries an automatic death sentence and, whilst no-one convicted has actually been executed, the death sentence frequently gets carried out by lynch mobs.

I’m not going to start making caustic comments in my usual manner, because I don’t think anybody needs telling what to think here. This is too serious a subject for levity: the lady herself has been in solitary confinement for eight years – eight years – under the threat of this sentence and there are political parties demanding her death, and the death of the Judges who have taken this situation. You don’t have to be an atheist to find all this horrific. At least, I hope you don’t.

The return of Asia Bibi to the headlines awoke a memory of a short piece I offered to the Guardian at the time her story was in the news. It was considered but rejected by implication (i.e., it never got printed and I didn’t make any money off it). Given what’s happened today, and the piece’s transition from the micro to the macro, I’m giving it here:

“I’m not a stranger to insecurity: that undermining sensation that whatever you say or do, you’ll reveal your ignorance, your inadequacy, your lack of… well, whatever seems important at the time.

But, years ago, I first noticed a form of insecurity that only seems to be growing, despite the fact that it’s based on massive, unalloyed success.

I’d moved to a new branch, done the usual ‘what do you do/what do you watch/what’s your music?’ questions, and slightly flummoxed my new manager by mentioning Shawn Colvin. Her reaction – as soon as she actually heard her first Colvin song – was to start having a dig at me every opportunity, over how Colvin was ‘bloody rubbish’. Then came the fatal moment.

Diana Ross was in town, and my manager was going. What did I think of Diana Ross, then? With some care, I avoided giving her a true but unflattering response and settled for the ameliatory, “She’s not my kind of music, really.” “She’s better than Shawn Colvin!”

After that, it got bad. I endured endless snide remarks, all aimed at one end: getting me to admit Diana Ross was the better artist.

What I couldn’t understand, then or now, was why my manager was so vehement in her efforts. Diana Ross was, and for decades had been, an international star, beloved by millions. She sold out concerts world-wide. Every album she released probably sold more than Shawn Colvin’s entire career. Even at the height of her commercial success, Colvin was, and would stay, a cult artist. And an enthralling one to this day, needless to say.

If you saw it as some kind of contest, Diana Ross had already won. My manager had backed the victor, agreed with the majority. So why did it matter so much to her that one person preferred a nobody? Make no mistake, this wasn’t fanaticism, which we more often see in the young, defending their choices against the most fleeting criticism. I knew insecurity when I saw it.

So, when you follow a mainstream, majorly successful artist, where does the insecurity that keeps you from just enjoying your favourite, that compels you to howl down even the slightest criticism, come from?

Multiple examples of this were seen in response to Alex Petrides’ review of the posthumous Michael Jackson CD. Collectively, it can seem hilarious, but when you read fans proclaiming ‘My life is better for having lived during his era’, the laughter starts to sound hollow. The same fan, asked why no MJ fan seemed able to accept any criticism, replied that he ‘would defend MJ in the same manner (he) would defend a family member, such was (MJ’s) impact on (his) life.’ (He also claimed that MJ made Quincey Jones, which is equally worrying.)

It was the same as the cries of pain from Take That fans responding to Johnny Sharp’s article about Deep And Meaningless Pop Epics. We can all cite similar examples (is life actually worth living when you cross a Robbie Williams fan?)

But whilst it can be amusing to watch fans of the biggest acts clamber over themselves to get a lonely non-believer to take back what he said, that still leaves the question of why they can’t accept less than 100% approval. The religious parallel is immediate, especially given some of the comments of the Michael Jackson fans.

Worrying as it is to think of today’s Pop Idols – even the dead ones – becoming the fount for someone’s spiritual needs, it is equally worrying to recognise the even greater depths of insecurity underpinning religions themselves. The women of Asia Bibi’s village claim that “She is Christian, we are Muslim, and there is a vast difference between the two. We are a superior religion.” Yet they also demand, “Why hasn’t she been killed yet?” If their religion is superior as they state, why are they afraid of the ‘damage’ one woman can do?

The East is not the only part of the world where superiority hasn’t managed to convince the superior that they are actually so superior after all.

Can we think of a country, not further than an ocean away, which has enjoyed unparalleled military, economic and cultural dominance over the whole planet, for more than half a century, yet acts with childish bafflement and complete incomprehension – shortly followed with anger, outrage and rank bullying – whenever someone so much as smiles, nods and says, ‘very nice, but I think we’d prefer to keep doing it the way we’re used to, thank you.’

And given that this country is going to lose it’s economic supremacy in the foreseeable future, are we entirely comfortable at how it’s going to react?

Would you find Take That fans quite as risible if you knew they were armed, and really, really wanted you to take back what you just said about Gary Barlow?”



After Low

I am a devotee of Sir David Low, the New Zealand born political cartoonist who, for me, was the greatest political cartoonist of the Twentieth Century, and that even without the creation of Colonel Blimp.

Cartoonists today who are wise and understand their profession’s history, still call upon Low, to often devastating effect.

The latest is Chris Liddell, in tomorrow’s Observer. First, the original:

then Riddell:

Nice one, Chris.

Read This

I’ve given up taking the Guardian now, following the horrific re-design. The paper’s long rightwards drift has troubled me for years and the re-design is finally the catalyst.

I still look at things online. I have always enjoyed her columns, even when they’re about her specialist subject, fashion.

Lots of people disagree with her. Today, she’s written about Roman Polanski, and Hollywood’s attitude to him in the awareness that he is a convicted and admitted child-rapist. Nobody’s disagreeing with her now.

Read this.

Uncollected Thoughts: ‘Fire and Fury’ by Michael Wolff

Yes, I have been out to buy, and read, the book of 2018 so far, Michael Wolff’s insider account of the Trump Administration. Though the circumstances are completely different, I confess to a certain outlaw tingle in acquiring this controversial tome that I’ve not experienced since the late Eighties, when a mate who’d been to Canada smuggled back into the country a copy of Peter Wright’s infamous Spy Catcher, and lent it to me (and to think that I could pick it up dirt cheap on eBay, thirty years later).

Fire and Fury has been denounced thoroughly by the Orange-Faced One (cue up that good old Mandy Rice-Davies quote again, please), and also by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, a certain sign that Wolff has got more right than wrong. It’s supposedly based on multiple tape-backed interviews, with over 200 White House insiders. And it creates an interesting conundrum.

Because the contents of the book, its exposure of the reality of life in the White House under the unrealistic figure of President Donald J Trump, are at one and the same time completely believable and utterly unbelievable. This is not the dichotomy it seems to be: I find nothing in any of the accounts, starting with the unwanted winning of the Election in November 2016 and ending with the final defenestration of alt.right idealogue Steve Bannon from whatever position he had in the Administration, to be in the least bit unrealistic. That they are simultaneously impossible to credit is down to the fact that the world in which we lived has suddenly been demonstrated to be fatally flawed. Nothing in this book should have happened, and I don’t say that on any political grounds. I say it because in any rational universe, including the one I’ve always believed myself to occupy for most of my sixty-odd years, this couldn’t happen. This catalogue of supreme stupidity, naked opportunism, psychological flaws and simple but complete absence of any strategic sense or ability to recognise the world as it is couldn’t be demonstrated by anyone capable of getting to the proximity of great power.

In that respect, Fire and Fury ought to be a great ironic bellow of humour, a satirical classic. I’ve read books like that from time to time, books predicting a future of a hapless, idiot President, oblivious to the world around him, his decisions taken by cleverer but malevolent underlings pushing their own agendas.

Such books were never funny, because the writers were, basically, crap at making their scenarios remotely plausible. This time, it’s not funny because we’re living in the book, it’s events and actions are news stories we’ve lived through already. It’s a shame that Wolff does such a better job than any in making it plausible.

There are so many revelations that the Press have already seized upon (the secret of the Trump hairdo is a particularly compelling detail). The first, and which has been so thoroughly challenged thus far, is that Trump never wanted to win the Election. He was only ever in it to create a stir, to build publicity for himself, to lose (and claim the Election was stolen), and propel himself into massive TV returns with his own, newly-built Network.

This chimes with a lot of analysis I read, from the start of the campaign in early 2016, to the eve of the Republican Convention, which makes it particularly plausible to me. In this analysis, it is Bannon’s intervention in the campaign, round about the time of the infamous ‘pussy-grab’ tape, that turns the tide, and when the Presidency was secured, against a three million vote shortfall in the popular vote, and to everyone’s shock, Trump decides he always wanted it.

But Trump is the least capable person of being President, as his most recent Tweet, only today, amply demonstrates. The rest of the book is a stage-by-stage account of faction-fighting in the White House, between the triple poles of Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka, and the nearest thing to an official, but in no way actual Chief of Staff, Reince Preibus.

It’s a Never-Ending, indeed Unwinnable Battle, for two reasons. One is that Trump is completely unmanageable and has no idea what he wants to do, except that he’s vulnerable to the last person to speak to him. And the other is that there is nobody in any position of authority who has even so much practical competence at the business of the White House as would you or I, dropped into the role – any role – at this exact instant, no warning.

You keep reading things and wondering how on Earth they could think that was a sensible thing to do, but the more you read of these individuals – whether they are clashing or simply trying to cope – you realise that they genuinely do not know any better.

This book depicts an insane situation, manned by those who may not be clinically diagnosable as insane but who, to any normal person’s eyes, as undeniably mad.

The fear is twofold: that we live in their world, and that this book effectively goes up to only August 2017. What the hell have they been doing since?

I’m glad to have the chance to have read this. To me, I find it all believable, and unlike others, I do not think the revelations to be outside the competence of a skillful journalist, given the kind of access Wolff was afforded, to elicit, nor do I find the direct speech to be implausible in most cases. Bannon’s rant towards the end, yes, though by this point we have seen enough of this crazy bastard for everything he ‘says’ to be directly in line with what he believes.

So, there you go. Grab a copy and read it for yourself. If you find it beyond credibility, I envy your innocence. I would rather live in your world than their’s.

Me and the Royal Wedding

Well, shucks, here we go again, there’s gonna be a Wedding! Bread and circuses are once again being served to the proletariat, as hard and heavy as the Press and TVF can shovel it down their throats, as welcome relief/calculated distraction from the state of this dismal country and the even more dismal state of its so-called Government. As I seem to remember David Byrne once saying, same as it ever was.

Now don’t get me wrong. Insofar as this involves a young man and a young woman who are in love and who wish to marry and spend their lives together, then good luck to them, I’ll wish them well. But as I know neither of the couples, in the same way that I do not know either of John Smith or Alison Jones who also announced their engagement today, I do not feel any need to know about it, and especially not any of the details.

But I’m going to be bombarded with them from now until next spring, aren’t I? No matter how reclusive I am, how hermit-like I have become, I am destined to know more about the bloody thing than any sane human being could want to know, short of going on strike and camping out in Loughrigg Cave for the duration. If it wasn’t so effing cold at the moment, I would be tempted.

The thing is, I have been here before, I have form for this. Like any person of my generation, we have walked the walk multiple times.

The first one was Anne and Mark in 1973. I really don’t remember the roots of my aversion to the Royal Family and the sycophancy that we’re supposed to display towards them, but it firmly was in place by that time. I was three days past my eighteenth birthday, I was at University, it was a Wednesday, and I remember that detail because we had no lectures, ever, on Wednesday afternoon, so I headed home, let myself in, shouted a hello to those in the lounge, glued to the affair, and bounded upstairs, not to come down until everything was long since over.

This got me in trouble from my mother, not because of my deliberate insult to the Royal Family, which was already firmly established and accepted as just one of the many ways in which her elder child was irredeemably weird. No, I got into trouble, and on this occasion rightly so, because she had earlier that day driven across to Hulme to collect my Nanna, her mother, to enable her to watch the Wedding in colour.

In my urge to have nothing to do with proceedings, I did not even pop my head round the door to say hello to Nanna, though in my marginal defence, I was not called when Mam left to take her home. This one I acknowledge, and am ashamed about. On the other hand, I have no regrets about boycotting the event.

The next one was the biggie, Chas and Di in 1981, the source of the New Sycophancy that is with us to today, having survived the wobble induced by Diana’s death. This time, avoiding the television broadcast brought no complaints from my mother, and I pushed off into Manchester, on the bus, which was still running despite the country having come to a standstill for the nuptials of the Heir to the Throne. I mean, this was the big one, patriotism-wise, the necessary first step towards ensuring the continuation of the Line (actually, it’s legally necessary for Heirs to be borne within wedlock).

Frankly, the only thing I genuinely do remember about the day was going with a mate to an evening festival, eating lots of sausage barms and feeling completely out of place among people who had loved the day and been seriously enthralled about everything. It felt very lonely.

Next one was Andrew and Fergie, which takes us to 1986. There was no shutting the country down for the day on this occasion, which was a Wednesday again. I had plans for this one. I was working for a big firm, in the centre of Manchester. Everybody knew me, and understood where I came from, especially when it came to my antic sense of humour, so I was looking forward for weeks in advance to a morning of stomping up and down the corridor and roaring out “Vive la Republique!” and “A la Lanterne!”.

I got shafted. About three weeks before the Glorious Day, I was approached by the Partners in Manchester. An Articled Clerk was qualifying in London and leaving, but his successor wasn’t able to start for one month. London desperately needed someone to fill in, to manage and run down his workload so that the replacement could start with a clean desk: I was asked to be that rescuer.

I wasn’t being asked because I was the best Assistant Solicitor we had but because I was the most flexible. Everybody else had houses (and mortgages) and would have found a shift to London incredibly difficult to manage. I would travel to London on Monday morning, return Friday evening (at the firm’s expense), and during the week I would live in a small flat above the office, which was usually provided for the benefit of partners who wanted to stay overnight to go the the Theatre, the Opera or a Show. All my food would be found for me (even if I nipped out for a KFC in the evening, provided I kept the receipt) and I was paid a London Allowance of £100.00 per week on top of my regular salary.

Plus one of my Manchester partners privately warned me that if there wasn’t enough work for me to do, I should have a private word with him and he’d get me pulled out.

The only time there was not really work to do was the last week, by which time I’d got the workload down to three files, and was exhausting myself badgering the same three opposite numbers every day, for updates. I never did get those files done, but my efforts were still very much appreciated, and I got on well with all those Londoners down there for the month I was intruded into their working lives.

The problem was, exactly in the middle of my London exile, on the Wednesday of the third week, was the Royal Wedding. Taking place in the very city where I was currently temporarily resident. I had some of the secretaries coming up to me, willing to slip upstairs to my little room (with its bed), not because of a sudden overwhelming lust for my Mancunian body (as if) but because they assumed I would have been supplied with a TV (the firm weren’t going to buy one, no matter how small and cheap for one month’s use) and they could catch glimpses of the proceedings.

Now there were one or two of them, and I don’t just mean the ones of my age, who I would have prepared to bear with some of the ceremony if we were sat on my bed, but that was no go.

And sadly, so was my plan to roar Republican slogans half the day. I didn’t know them well enough to know if they knew me well enough to take my intended sloganeering in the spirit in which it was intended, namely, that I meant every word of it, but, well, it was only Martin being Martin, ignore him.

Actually, that’s the last one I can remember having any significance. Anne and her second, the one we never hear anything of, Chas and Camilla, these were all quiet affairs as befits divorcees trying again. Eddy and thingummybob was also quiet I think (I can’t bear the idea of looking it up to see if there was massive public fuss and I’ve just forgotten about it completely).

Of course, William and Kate-with-the-bum-everyone-slathered-over-except-me was another big deal, but that didn’t take place until 2011, and as I no longer had a television by that time, ignoring it wasn’t anything like as big a deal. And the same will go for Harry the ginger and Meaghan. Indeed, by this point, I’ve forgotten just how many Royal Weddings I’ve ignored down the last forty-odd years. It’s no longer a protest, but a force of habit.

Still, at least I get the chance to flex old muscles again. It’s an ill wind that blows no Republican any good.