‘Private armament firms, no matter how reputable and incorrupt, depend for their prosperity on the perpetual exasperation of international fears and suspicions … they thrive upon war scares, and they must have occasional wars.’ So concluded The Secret International, an influential pamphlet published in the early 1930s by the Union of Democratic Control. The international arms trade is no less a force for 'exasperation' now than it was then, and in Britain, as in most countries with a remunerative arms sector, it has become an adjunct of government. Britain's defence industry used to put out its wares for international consumption every year, either in Portsmouth or Aldershot, as a government-to-government trade exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy or the British Army. In the 1990s the arms show was outsourced: Defence and Security Equipment International is now run by Clarion Events, 'a successful, dynamic and creative business' in Surrey. And business is booming.
Nemo’s Almanac is a long-running literary quiz, which may sound like a pointless thing to write about but it’s – almost – an important cultural phenomenon. It’s also at a critical moment in its history, representing as it does a radically different pace, mode and rationale of intellectual inquiry from the instant gratification of curiosity that the internet has made possible. It consists of 72 quotations, plus one more on the cover, arranged according to monthly themes (this year’s include Hats, Coal, Novelty, Foxgloves, Silence and Socialism). It was started by a governess called Mrs Larden (first name unknown) in 1892 as an almanac and quiz for her charges. The fourth editor, Katherine Watson, who ran a bookshop in Burford, turned it over to John Fuller in 1970. The editorship subsequently passed to Alan Hollinghurst, who in turn passed it on to the late Gerard Benson, who was followed by Nigel Forde; and now I am Nemo and the Almanac has become my responsibility.
Last November, the higher education minister, David Willetts, came to Cambridge to deliver a talk, in a series about 'the idea of the university' organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. But as he came to the lectern, a number of audience members (both students and academics) stood up and read, or performed, collectively, a poem articulating opposition to the policies he was advocating. They continued to read and repeat the poem until after a few minutes Willetts was ushered away and the lecture and question and answer session cancelled. In the aftermath of this, and of the small occupation of the lecture theatre that followed it, one PhD student was singled out for reprisal by the university authorities, and made subject to the university’s disciplinary procedures.
On Saturday, the Guardian published a short poem called ‘Stephen Lawrence’ by the poet laureate, and recent Costa Prize-winner, Carol Ann Duffy. It was embarrassingly bad, I thought. But to judge by the response on Twitter, I was in a minority. 'This is what I want of a poet laureate! Brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem re Stephen Lawrence,' Jon Snow tweeted enthusiastically, backed up by his Channel 4 colleague, Matthew Cain, who said the poem was ‘short but so very moving...’ The poem ‘sent a shiver’ down Tom Watson’s spine; Adrian Lester said ‘Succinct. Short and effective. Please read this.’ Other tweets included ‘a darkly moving summation’, ‘a powerful new poem’, ‘Another brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem at the end of a momentous week’ and ‘Very moving. This is precisely why we need a Poet Laureate.’
The world’s first aerial bombing mission took place 100 years ago, over Libya. It was an attack on Turkish positions in Tripoli. On 1 November 1911, Lieutenant Cavotti of the Italian Air Fleet dropped four two-kilogramme bombs, by hand, over the side of his aeroplane. In the days that followed, several more attacks took place on nearby Arab bases. Some of them, inaugurating a pattern all too familiar in the century since then, fell on a field hospital, at Ain Zara, provoking heated argument in the international press about the ethics of dropping bombs from the air, and what is now known as 'collateral damage'. (In those days it was called 'frightfulness'.)