The Pert Young Piece sends a message:
I blame Boris* for the hundred of impending head injuries, because his bikes don’t come with helmets.
Sent from my iPhone
Malcolm has been a fan of Alan Furst these twenty-odd years. He knows that because he has a copy of Night Soldiers from 1988, and then each of the next ten in the series. All in hard-back, acquired as soon as published.
The only mystery is why Spies of the Balkans took this long to reach the top of Malcolm’s book-pile. Then it was a non-stop, end-to-end, cut to the chase.
There are numerous other reviews available on the net. Look there for guidance: Furst enthusiasts will have been there ahead of you, in droves. For Furst is one of the few to stand comparison with the very best of the genre: Ambler, le Carre, Deighton …
Meanwhile, note that the UK dust-cover (above left), for once is neater, more suitable than the US version, which sports a lurid strap with the author’s name.
[Let's stop Malcolm's maunderings there, else he'll be shuffling all the way back to Riddle of the Sands.]
Yet, he has one further, extended observation.
Is Malcolm mistaken, or has Furst, with this latest, become more positive, more factional, more up-beat, less noir?
For with the book’s protagonist, Constantine Zannis, Salonika’s political policeman and general “fixer”, we have a largely-admirable character (and one, surely, to be explored at greater length in a further volume: Furst has a cyclical habit and serial characterisations). Zannis here lacks the shades of grey (and noir) Furst achieves with more complex characters in his more convoluted books.
Then again, the story is (again by Furst’s standards) remarkably straight-forward. The essential premiss is extracting Jewish refugees, across continental Europe, at a price, out of Nazi Germany, while the Italians take a bashing from the Greeks and we await 6 April 1941 and the Wehrmacht.
In no time at all, and with minimal effort, Zannis has constructed a fully-operative escape route, via Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Sarajevo … The story then involves three missions along this route, one heading all the way back to bring a British scientist out of hiding in Paris. This is explained to Zannis by two British agents, in a single page:
‘Once upon a time, ‘ Jones said — glass in hand, he settled back against the chair and crossed his legs — ‘there was a little man called Henry Byer. You wouldn’t know the name, but if you’d been one of the chaps hanging about in the science labs of Cambridge in the nineteen-twenties, you most certainly would. A physicist, Harry, as he’s called, and brilliant. Studied sound waves and radio beams, very theoretical back then, nobody had the faintest idea such things could be used in war, nobody had heard of radio navigation. It helps bombers flying at night … Now the germans have their own radio beams but, using the methods that Harry Byer discovered, we can alter them. And the Luftwaffe may know we’re doing it, but they don’t know how Harry Byers knows how.’
Jones stopped for a drink, then went on. ‘Anyway life went well for Harry: a lectureship at Cambridge, where he worked in the physics lab, he married his sweetheart, a pretty girl —’
‘Smashing girl,’ Wilkins said. ‘Big bosoms.’ He indicated the magnitude of the bosoms with his cupped hands …
Jones cleared his throat and said, ‘Yes, well.’ Then, ‘But, in the summer of nineteen thirty-nine, life went sour for the Byer family, because la wife found somebody she liked better…
‘… Harry took it badly, oh, very badly indeed. And then about the first of September comes rolling around and Adolf sends his tanks into Poland. So Harry Byer, in a terrible huff, marches himself down to London and enlists in the RAF. He’ll show the wife what’s what, he’ll go and get himself killed! Hah! There! Take that!’ …
‘… somebody should have cared about this fellow who’s crucual to the war effort. Because Hitler’s got legions of goose-stepping SS goons, but Britain has scientists. And scientists win. You see?’
Thus Harry Byers, who would be the MacGuffin, were Hitchcock filming this last third of the novel, whom Furst transfers, so adroitly, from Cambridge academia to hiding-out in Nazi-occupied Paris, via the rear turret of a Wellington bomber. It also allows Furst to put Zannis at table 14 in the Brasserie Heiniger (itself a motif in every novel since the climactic shooting in Night Soldiers):
He looked up for a moment, then said, ‘What the hell is that? Behind your shoulder, in the mirror.’
‘It’s very famous,’ she said. ‘A memorial to a Bulgarian waiter, slain here a few years ago.’
‘It’s a bullet hole.’
‘Yes, it is.’
A lesser writer, less trusting of ability to convey intonation, would have resorted to an exclamation mark or two there. Meanwhile, Furst has made another of his asides: bullet holes in restaurants are preserved across Paris: from Le Croissant on the rue Montmartre (Jaurès by Raoul Villain in 1914) to the Jo Goldenberg Restaurant in Le Marais (the six random and unsolved killings of 9 August 1982).
In the brasserie, Zannis, saved by the arrival of his plat de la mer, narrowly avoids a confrontation with his neighbours in the adjacent booth:
… two SS officers with French girlfriends: puffy and blonde, green eyeshadow, pouty lips. One of the SS men looked like a precocious child … The other … was a certain kind of smart and sophisticated German who’d found, in the black uniform and death’s head insignia, a way to indulge a taste for evil.
The real threat, though (and only given a couple of episodes) is
At Gestapo headquarters on the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, Hauptsturmfűhrer Albert Hauser
We conclude at Edirne, crossing into Turkey ahead of the advancing German invasion. Zannis is intercepted and addressed as “Captain Zannis”, by:
a short, inconsequential little fellow in a tired suit, Mr Nobody from Nowhere …
… Zannis said, ‘Captain Zannis?’
‘That’s right. You’re an officer in the British army. Didn’t you know?’
‘I didn’t.’ said Zannis.
‘Oh well,’ said the little man. ‘Always surprises, in this life.’
The little man is “S.Kolb”, the agent we encountered previously in Dark Voyage and The Foreign Correspondent.
And doubtless will find again, with Zannis — mayhap, in subsequent episodes of Furst’s alternative history of the 1930s and 1940s.
What makes a marriage (as that between the Lady-in-his-Life and the curmudgeonly Malcolm) persist well into a fifth decade?
Perhaps the answer partly lies in the symbiosis implied in the following.
Yesterday, the Lady-in-his-Life had spent the day traipsing (or rather buggying) round a Home Counties’ golf-course.
So when Malcolm descended to sit behind la cafetière française à piston (he having lingered in bed to finish the last chapter or so of his Henning Mankell), she was dissecting yesterday’s papers.
The Lady-in-his-Life waved a page of The Guardian, featuring the latest episode of that mega-fantasy, Cameron’s “Big Society”. This is Theresa May’s instalment, as digested by Alan Travis, for that deathless epic:
Cameron’s answer to budget cuts: get public involved in ‘DIY’ policing
• Home secretary Theresa May looks for volunteer reservists
• Reform paper sets out plans to put ‘big society’ into action
The Lady-in-his-Life encapsulated the whole issue in her idiosyncratic Northern Irish reference:
“Back to the B-specials, I see.”
A gloss for the ignorant English:
The B-men were the continuation of the Black-and-Tans by other means.
With the establishment of the Northern Irish statelet in 1920, the Unionist Junta created this reserve force of volunteers. Without exception, they were hard-line protestant and Unionist: many of the original members were inherited from William Spend’s Ulster Volunteers.
To their credit, the military advisers back in 1920, Sir Nevil Macready(GOC, Ireland) and the bellicose, ultra-Unionist, Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (both acknowledged by Malcolm previously), were opposed to the scheme. Anderson, running the fag end of the British administration in Dublin Castle, was profoundly dismissive and hostile. Lloyd George allowed Craig to have his way. The whole concept (three tiers: full-time A-specials, these B-men, and a further “Home Guard” C-specials) amounted to 32,000 men on top of the RUC regulars for the 1½ million population. For comparison, the present strength of the 43 police forces of England and Wales (population: 53-54 million) is about 140,000.
The were regimented on military lines: each platoon had two officers, its head constable, four sergeants and sixty specials. And they were armed: a Webley .38 and a Lee Enfield apiece, left over from the “Troubles” (later stens and brens were added to the arsenal). All weapons kept in each special’s domestic care and attention, and so available for “peripheral” activity.
This ramshackle band persisted until the Hunt Report of 1969 recommended the Specials be wrapped up into the Ulster Defence Regiment.
So, to the punch-line:
Will Theresa May restore Specials to the streets and back-lanes of Northern Ireland?
Here comes another report of a small-claims Court case being adjourned for the second time.
The Judge and his Court were present-and-correct. However, the two parties, one a litigant-in-person, the other with a legal representative, were like those unfortunates at the start of Casablanca:
the others wait … – and wait — and wait — and wait…
After four hours it became clear that the Judge would have to truncate the day’s business. Several cases, including the one that has come to Malcolm’s attention, were further adjourned. A fair number of decent folk had foregone yet another day’s work in the hope of being heard and their grievance addressed.
The Judge had the good grace to apologise. He explained what was happening. He was the only Judge available. The Court’s activities were being curtailed by government-imposed cuts.
That is not the fault of the present ConDem administration. Yet they are threatening to constrain justice even further. 103 magistrates’ and 54 county courts are to be axed to save £15.3m a year and £21.5m of maintenance costs. Even the new Supreme Court is to do justice on the cheap. The previous budget 0f £13.8 million was to be trimmed by a further million, with more to be subtracted by the October review.
Hommage à Hogarth
It is little Malcolm repairs to the Paul Staines Home for the Hopelessly Paranoid. He finds it an avoidable delight, wholly akin to the gentility day-tripping to mock the Bedlam lunatics.
Now, though, is a good time to look in, to observe the reaction to Zac v Snow. Notice the following:
The most amazing symptom of all is the repetitive “it’s his own money” argument.
That means, for too many of this typical audience of Staines-by-name, stains-by-nature:
and, by implication,
Jon Snow tried repeatedly to ask his questions. He should not have been taken in by Goldsmith’s anti-rhetoric. or he should have gone the Paxman route. Equally, as Goldsmith had engineered a last-moment on-air interview, he should not have been surprised.
Goldsmith appeared to indicate he had been prepared to explain himself only to C4′s Cathy Newman. Hello! Is she now indentified by the Tory media-manipulators as the soft option? She can be a stroppy lady, so future encounters should be a blood sport.
Malcolm humbly suggests Tory Central will none too happy with the Goldsmith performance. Particularly since Dave Cameron had embraced his boy so definitively.
C4 News managed the neatest stiletto by appending tho the Goldsmith evisceration an odd spot on Lord Taylor of Warwick, the Tory peer being done for:
six counts of false accounting in relation to alleged dishonest claims he made for £11,000 in subsistence costs.
Up yours, Zac.
For the rest of us, remember: it only cost half a million to buy a seat in parliament.
And be a friend of Dave (for the time being: see facial expressions above).
At first sight the incumbent Prime Minister has every advantage.
He comes briefed by the famed Westminster mandarins, the hand-spun, silky-smooth Rolls-Royce of the British civil service. He arrives equipped with a tagged, cross-referenced folio (doubtless produced weekly, regardless of expense). he will doubtless have rehearsed, and memorised the killer punch-line.
Across the Chamber is the Leader of the Opposition, with none of those advantages, armed with just six possible questions and a quick wit.
Against Brown, Cameron generally did well. He employed slick PR-man quips against a more cerebral (and therefore slower) opponent. It is also a nostrum that the Commons works to the Oxbridge debating model.
Hattie hits home
Harriet Harman (University of York, one of those arty-farty, namby-pamby Packenhams) would not be the obvious weapon of choice in the mano-a-mano that is the chauvinist confrontation that is the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s almost as if Jennie Linden (as Ursula Bragwen) had elbowed aside Alan Bates (as Rupert Birkin) to give Oliver Read (as Gerald Critch) a good seeing-to. [If you don't get the reference, tough: follow the link.]
Once, again, the girl done good
Is there an antonym for “machismo”? For in that abstraction, self-evidently, lies Dave Cameron’s weakness. He is not good on “tender” topics.
Today Harriet served up what should have been a sitter: the Tory plans on Health reform. Oh, come on, David: has Sir Humphrey not polished your circumlocations?
Here’s the Cameron-symp (since the fall of Senator Macarthy it’s not actionable) Spectator blog, via the flying fingers of David Blackburn, to tell the truth to power:
12:06: Harman attacks the government’s decision to end NHS targets, notably the cancer guarantee.
Woah. Cameron adds to his Northern Ireland statement, condemning the violence on the grounds that the devolved police force is represented by all members of the community.
He then defends his health policy on the grounds that cancer survival rates are not as good as they should be and that spending on treatment is more important than bureaucracy. It’s a strong answer and Cameron finishes with the political coup that the Tories will spend more on health and Labour will cut.
Bercow intervenes, saying it is not the Prime Minister’s place to ask questions.
12:10: Harman asks more questions on this line, finishing with the powerful, and I think unanswerable point that the government’s health white paper is nothing more than a re-organisation that offers speculative savings. Cameron responds by saying he’s abolishing bureaucracy.
Well, Malcolm will go with that.
What was even more telling is that Harriet pulled a theatrical. She didn’t go for her allowance of a sixth question. We watched her flounce off, with the protagonist’s punchline still unspoken. Cameron’s pre-prepared zipper had to go undelivered. It’s called scene-stealing.
OK: don’t trust Malcolm. The BBC walks on egg-shells these days, and is politically-correct to the nth-degree; but here’s Gary O’Donoghue:
Har[r]iet Harman did manage to press home some advantage on the question of the two week guarantee for cancer patients introduced by the previous government. Would it be scrapped by the coalition? No clear answer to that. The PM’s argument is that targets skew clinical priorities and several health targets such as the 48 hour maximum wait for a GP appointment have already gone. The problem for ministers is that a two week guarantee is easy to understand, and if you’re going to get rid of it, you need a simple and compelling argument to go in its place.
Nice one, gal!
Look closer and one has to spot Cameron’s gross error.
Memo to Dave:
Everyone’s mid-life fear is the Big C.
On this one, trust Malcolm.
Here it comes again, this time from the belly of the Murdoch beast, the News of the World:
The start of today’s PMQ’s seemed to start with something of a bang and slowly fizzle out after Cameron failed to safeguard the NHS two week cancer treatment guarantee.
After much probing about the future of the guarantee, Harriet Harman demanded a simple yes or no answer from Cameron.
He failed to provide her with one, exclaiming, “some people find two weeks too long.”
In Cameron’s two weeks too long whinge, there resonates the echo of a lingering question:
Before those Labour NHS “targets” there were Tory waiting-lists.
How many cancer-patients were carted to the crematorium before they reached the top of the waiting list?
Just a sentence in the Ward Labour Party summons:
The 158 new constituency members in May could be the start of this.
Within hours of the ConDem coalition being announced, the membership applications to the Labour Party surged:
Almost 10,000 people have joined the party since the close of the polls. The post-election boost represents a 6% rise in its overall membership, after years of dwindling numbers willing to commit to the party…
The sharpest rise in new Labour members came after details emerged of the coalition agreement. During the course of yesterday alone, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron held their joint press conference, 4,211 joined Labour.
That represents 2½% added to the roll in just one day. In itself, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. However, what it means is new blood in some moribund corpses. Malcolm hears talk of Branch meetings quorate for the first time in months, of leaflet parties being reinvigorated by new enthusiasts.
The Leadership election is catching fire (and it’s not all for Dave Miliband).
The hustings for the London Mayorality (it’s Edmonton tonight) are a hot ticket item.
All this will feed into stronger local election efforts and results in weeks and months to come. All in all, a benign cycle.
It isn’t just the first stirrings of a polling revival, though the Tory lead seems to shrink pretty well on a daily basis. Even Mike Smithson is scenting a change in the wind:
That’s how you should treat the YouGov daily voting intention figures. Don’t pay attention to the daily movements, anything dramatic is probably sample error anyway – rather you should look at the bigger picture and watch how they develop over time. Don’t get excited over one day’s figures – Labour might be up 4 today or down 3 tomorrow, but the next election is 5 years away. What is really matters is the trend, the slow (or sometimes fast) tectonic movements in party support. With a week or a month’s worth of data we can watch a party’s support going up or down with confidence, rather than making guess from a once-a-month peek at public opinion.
Well, Mike, the Tories are on a downward slide: half the lead eroded in a month; LibDem support down as much as a half. The avalanche hasn’t happened yet (wait for that first damp, dark evening rush-hour after the clocks go back: it’s Monday 1st November), but it’s building.
by Martin Boon and John Curtice, [and] their take on why the polls overestimated the Lib Dems at the last election, based upon a call back survey of 1,200 of the respondents to their final survey.
As we all knew would happen, the polls got it awry, significantly underestimating the Labour vote, overestimating the LibDem vote, and (in may cases) seeing regional swings that weren’t there (or, in London and Scotland — and, in a different way —in Northern Ireland, were there, but went ignored). That was partly pollsters’ wishful thinking, and partly because the less-scrupulous were “proving” what their customers (the London Tory press) paid them to find.
So, guess what is Boon and Curtice’s first and foremost suggestion? Aw, you got it! Obvious, really — it had to be our old friend “late swing”. Remember: in their strange self-justification, pollsters always get it right: it’s you, Jill and Joe Public who mess up and change your tiny little minds at the very last split-second!
To be fair, even Boon and Curtice feel embarrassed at trotting out that one:
Only a small part of the bias can be accounted for by a late swing away from the Liberal Democrats. Among those who actually did vote, those who said they were going to vote Liberal Democrat were only a little less likely than Conservative and Labour supporters to vote as they had indicated. As many as 87% of those who expressed an intention to vote Liberal Democrat actually did so, while the equivalent figures for the Conservatives and Labour were 95% and 93% respectively. Those who switched to the Liberal Democrats at the last minute almost equaled those who defected.
See: even now it’s Jill’s and Joe’s fault. You’re all unreliable. You “switch”. You “defect”.
Ah, but here comes a new one:
An important role was played by the ‘Shy Tory syndrome’, that is, differential failure to declare their voting intention by those who in the event vote for one party rather than another, perhaps because they feel that their choice of party is currently unfashionable.
Except, this time it’s, more properly, “Shy Labour syndrome”. All the time Jill and Joe were harbouring in their hearts the ultimate betrayal: they were saying they would go with the trend, but were plotting to stay Labour. Remember all those ConHome and other sheer-leading sites so convinced that the polls always “over-reported” Labour support? Huh!
In 2010 no fewer than one in five of those who actually voted failed to declare their voting intention when interviewed by ICM for its final poll – and they were nearly twice as likely to vote Labour as Liberal Democrat. Although ICM’s final poll prediction (unlike many others) included an adjustment that took into account evidence that Labour voters were apparently particularly reluctant to declare their intentions, that adjustment may not have been sufficient to take full account of what actually happened.
Loud and proud
Now we are getting closer to the grassroots realities.
The Great British Public are a pretty cynical, pretty Bolshie lot, quicker to grouse and complain, than praise and applaud.
He was a nasty reactionary fascistic toad of a an anti-semite, but G.K.Chesterton produced the definitive rebuke to all pollsters and pundits:
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street…
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
There was bound to be a hiatus
The kissy-kissy phase of a honeymoon is no time to snipe: the happy couple are too preoccupied, and too many onlookers go gooey-eyed anyway. Even so, Harriet Harman has landed the odd low blow.
Then there is need to devise a new rhetoric
The delight of the present Labour leadership race is that the runners and riders get opportunities to edit scripts. What finally reaches Broadway is rarely what opened:
To change the metaphor, Ed Balls may be gaining the punters’ nods , but they’re still betting, and wisely so, on a Miliband win. Malcolm’s original choices would have been either of the two non-runners:
The stirrings of new opposition
The generality of the British media, taking its cue from what is thought to be the public mood, gives the ConDem government a fair wind. There is grumpiness among the usual suspects: Michael White in the Guardian keeps coming the old soldier. His time will come again, never fear.
Less predictably, the strongest criticism, the most penetrating critique is found elsewhere … in the Financial Times.
So, today, there are two very sharply-worded commentaries:
Short of a pontifical demand that “the Minister must go!”, there can hardly be a dismissal more brusque than:
One of the first rules of government is to get the facts right. Michael Gove, the education secretary, got them badly wrong.
The impression of incompetence is damaging …
A policymaker’s dream. A pragmatist’s nightmare. That has to be the verdict on Andrew Lansley’s white paper “Liberating the NHS”, published on Monday.
Again, hidden in the text, a stinging put-down:
Yet in a dirigiste decision that smacks more of old Labour central direction than anything else, the Conservative health secretary has decided not to allow GP commissioning to evolve into something demonstrably strong and effective but to require that all GPs – whether willing or not – do the job or acquiesce in their colleagues doing it for them. All in one big bang.
Where Gove is a proven incompetent, Timmins sees Lansley as:
a man with a plan in a hurry, [who] risks losing both financial control and performance.
Ask any patient who has had dealings with the NHS and the experience will have been, with few exceptions, a good one. At the street level, then, the thing works. Politicians and commentators obsess about its structure. For why? The answer is with the aforementioned Michael White’s headline:
Andrew Lansley’s £80 bn adventure
The show must go on!
There is a reason why a show “tries out” in the stix with the hix:
Four weeks you’ll rehearse and rehearse,
Three weeks and it couldn’t be worse;
One week; will it ever be right?
And, out of the hat, it’s that big First Night!
In UK politics there is no “try-out”: it’s instant First Night with the full panoply of critics in the stalls.
And each and every night. And matinees.