‘I hate tragedy’

The Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali is described by his editor, May Hawas, as ‘a libertine, a hanger-on, a sponger, a political dissenter, a depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler, and probably a menace to everyone who let him into their lives.’ The American University in Cairo Press is bringing out his diaries in two volumes, 1964-66 and 1966-68. Ghali’s wonderful (and only) novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, was published by André Deutsch in 1964. He had a job of some kind with the British Army Corps, which he loathed, just as he loathed the town of Rheydt in West Germany where he lived a ‘colourless and middle class and unadventurous’ life. He had reached this relatively safe harbour after years of hardship: the details are fuzzy, but he seems to have run into trouble with the Nasser regime (which he disliked) and from 1954 travelled through Europe, working in factories and docks, and living, as he writes, ‘in the gutter’. More »

State of Emergency

Two weeks out from the election, and soldiers are patrolling Britain’s streets. The securitisation response, with the usual bovine complicity across the media, has sidelined politics. Spooks who advised May in the Cobra meeting after Monday’s atrocity in Manchester will have presented their best guess about national security, as well as what their political masters want to hear, in cranking the ‘threat level’ up to ‘critical’. Now the election campaign is overshadowed by what is in effect a state of emergency. More »

The Terror News Cycle

On the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, some nine hours after the horror of the Manchester bombing, Nick Robinson was speaking to Chris Phillips, a counter-terrorism expert. ‘Terrorists don’t care who they kill,’ Phillips said. ‘It’s the number of bodybags that determines success.’ ‘And the publicity,’ Robinson interjected. ‘And the publicity,’ Phillips agreed. The Today programme then dutifully devoted its entire three hours of programming to coverage of the bombing (apart from a few minutes on weather and sport). This was before the perpetrator had been identified and before the security services had been able to assess whether or not the attack was an isolated incident. Coverage mostly consisted of commentators speculating on motives, along with a series of harrowing eyewitness accounts that helped to amplify the main objectives of terrorism: to create fear and to sow division. More »

Yet Another Strong and Stable U-Turn

That didn’t last long, even by the standards of Theresa May promises. Less than four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, with much fanfare about fairness and a Britain that works for all, May has pulled the plug on her pledge to pay for old people’s care bills by forcing their heirs to sell their homes. Canvassers’ feedback from the election stump indicated that the ‘dementia tax’ was not playing well in the shires. What was ‘sensible’ last Thursday is today a vote-losing raid on the nation’s nest eggs. More »

What’s your password?

Muhammad Rabbani, the director of the advocacy organisation Cage, was charged on Wednesday at Bethnal Green police station with ‘wilfully obstructing or seeking to frustrate a search examination’ under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Detained at Heathrow Airport in November 2016 on his way back from the Middle East – where, he says, he ‘had secured instructions from a client of ours to take legal action in a case involving torture’ – Rabbani refused to provide border guards with the passwords to his electronic devices. He faces three months in prison and a £2500 fine. More »

Burning Injustices

As a student I sometimes whiled away the longueurs in the library with A Humument by Tom Phillips. It’s a redacted version of the sentimental Victorian novel A Human Document, with much of the text blotted out, and doodles by Phillips. Much later, following his inspiration, I set to work on Tony Blair: A Journey, the ex-PM’s remainder-friendly mea minima culpa. ‘To Bar a Jury’ remains a work in progress, not least because of the boredom of actually reading before deciding what to paintbrush out; one technique is to remove all words but ‘I’, which still leaves a fairly densely printed page.

Theresa May’s election manifesto invites the Phillips treatment or similar. More »

Post-Democratic Broadcasting

There has scarcely been a time in the BBC’s 95-year history when it hasn’t faced accusations of political bias. But it has been decades since the criticisms emanated so strongly from the left. This is a consequence of the collapse of a centre ground which had long been the BBC’s political fulcrum. As the Labour Party shifted leftwards, attracting an unprecedented influx of new members, its MPs and party bureaucracy fought back. And since the BBC is deeply embedded in Westminster, and routinely defers to the consensus there in setting the parameters of political debate, its political reporting has been skewed against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. More »

Not the Usual Suspects

On Saturday, 17 June 1972, I was 23 years old and had completed my second year of law school. I worked at the District of Columbia Bail Agency in downtown Washington. The bail agency hired law students to interview criminal defendants in the lock-up and prepare reports for the court. The judge would decide whether the defendant could be counted on to turn up for trial, or would have to remain in jail. We did our best to present the facts that would show that defendants could be released.

I drove to the bail agency from my parents’ house in Maryland. I liked working the Saturday shift because there was less traffic and parking was easier. I usually listened to the radio in my car, but I don’t remember learning about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters on the way to work. Maybe that day I listened to music.

When I got to the bail agency I was assigned a share of the files for the morning lock-up. Among the defendants I interviewed that day were the most unusual burglars I had ever seen. More »

Hay in the Barn

Winston Churchill once addressed the nation’s workers in a radio broadcast, ‘listening to me in your cottages’. In Tory ‘one nation’ lore, the mystical bond between the mighty and the patronised unites the toff in his hunting lodge with the peasant in his hovel, a Hovis fantasy that redacts plain facts of modern life. Still, you can’t say the Conservatives don’t do their bit for the unemployed. Since Theresa May sacked him as chancellor, George ‘we’re all in this together’ Osborne has scraped a crust by working six jobs, including £700,000 on the black-tie dinner-yack circuit and £650,000 for a one-day-a-week gig as a consultant for BlackRock, plus his new (salary undisclosed) quasi-sinecure editing the Evening Standard – on a journalistic CV that includes rejection by the Times and the Economist, and freelancing for the Telegraph’s gossip column. David Cameron meanwhile has been busy putting ‘hay in the barn’ with speeches at £120,000 a pop. More »

With Senegal’s Fishermen

When a fisherman prays at sea, he performs his ablutions with salt water and turns the boat in the direction of Mecca. But on the tenth day of his journey to the Canary Islands, Djiby Diop told me, everyone’s prayers mingled together, voices rising jagged and hoarse, calling on the Great, the Merciful, to save them. Water poured over the sides as the wind knocked them from wave crest to trough and back up again.

They ran out of food. Then they ran out of water. Some dipped their cups into the sea. Others jumped overboard, hallucinating land. ‘We can’t save them,’ the captain said. Sometimes the sailors would throw a rope. Of the eight people who dived in, two were saved. Others babbled, terrified, unseeing, possessed by the devil, some said. When the motor failed to catch, other passengers accused them of cursing the boat. Their wrists were tied to the sides. One man, tethered like that for two days, could no longer use his hands when they untied him. More »

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