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Archive for the tag “Britain”

Dominion: an alternative historical novel set in Britain

DominionDominion by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.

David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.

David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.

C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.

In some ways the book reminded me of When Smuts goes by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.

One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.

A 1952 Volvo: only one was ever built, but perhaps in an alternative universie it might have gone into production, as featured in the book

A 1952 Volvo: only one was ever built, but perhaps in an alternative universie it might have gone into production, as featured in the book

Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might-have-beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a “big Volvo”, used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. I don’t recall ever seeing a big Volvo in 1952, but if the war had ended in 1940, instead of 1945, as in the book, a big Volvo might have gone into production and been marketed throughout Europe. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).

I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime.

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The facility: book review

The FacilityThe Facility by Simon Lelic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Kafka meets Orwell in contemporary England” says the blurb on the cover.

Well, not quite, but one can see how they arrive at the comparison. Simon Lelic simply extrapolates some trends in British society and politics into the near future, and the picture he gives is generally quite believable. All it needs is the detention-without-trial legislation that some British politicians desperately wanted, but didn’t get.

Franz Kafka and George Orwell wrote about dystopian futures in which there are extreme changes in every aspect of society. Simon Lelic writes about a society that is deceptively normal.

In that respect this book more closely resembles A Dry White Season by Andre Brink. For the first 50 pages of The Facility I thought it was about a Britain that resembled South Africa c1968, after the passing of the Terrorism Act. It was a Britain transformed into Vorster’s South Africa.

After the first 50 pages the plot is slightly different, and there are a few plot holes that make it fall short of Kafka, or Orwell, or Brink, but it is still a pretty good read. And scary, too. This is something that could happen, and something that some British politicians are on record as wanting to happen.

See, for example, here Notes from underground: The swing to fascism in the USA and the UK, when the British media lauded Tony Blair’s attempts to turn Britain into Vorster’s South Africa as “the moral high ground”. And The Facility shows how very easily that could happen.

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Britain’s Austerity Overdose –

One thing that strikes me about the debate about Britains public spending cuts is how things aimed at alleviating human suffering are cut first and most drastically, while spending devoted to inflicting suffering, like military spending, is regarded as essential, and therefore cuts are made much more circumspectly.

I haven’t been following the debate about Britain’s public spending cuts very closely (after all, it’s a long way away), but catch snippets here and there — like this one: Britain’s Austerity Overdose –

There is a time and a place for aggressive deficit reduction. Now is not the time, especially not in Britain. The deep spending cuts announced by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government will hobble public services, strain poor families’ budgets and weaken Britain’s influence abroad. They could suffocate a feeble recovery.

Mr. Cameron and his team appear to be driven solely by Conservative Party articles of faith. They are gambling on the improbable theory that in a period of weak consumer demand, the private sector will generate enough business activity to replace the $130 billion the government will be withdrawing from the economy over the next four and half years. We are not sure why the Liberal Democrats, the coalition’s junior partners, are going along.

But I suppose that the Lib-Dems may have influenced their Tory partners to rein back on some unnecessary spending, like the Trident nuclear submarine replacement.

Things get done in Vietnam :: anja merret

A few years ago there were some news reports about a couple of jobsworths in Britain who stood on the edge of a pond and watched a child drown. When asked why they didn’t go to the child’s aid, the reply was something to the effect that health and safety regulations didn’t allow them to do so unless that had had certain training and certification. They were some kind of auxiliary police and therefore subject to such regulations.

What a refreshing change this is – Things get done in Vietnam :: anja merret:

Vietnam has not been legislated out of sight. Or at least if there are laws determining the lives of Vietnamese it seems in the area of transportation nobody follows them. And of course, it works fairly well.

Now one might think that legislation and local laws are totally necessary to protect the individual in society. You would think and in all likelihood agree. But to a certain extent this protection can get so overwhelming that it stifles life.

Volcano eruption likely to disrupt 2012 Olympic Games

If you think the disruption to transport caused by Icelandic volcanic ash in the northern British Isles this week was bad, that is nothing compared to the volcanic eruptions that are predicted to disrupt the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

A likely scenario?

About as likely is this:

Daily Star: Simply The Best 7 Days A Week :: News :: World Cup South Africa 2010: Quake Fears:

WAYNE Rooney could be shaking in his boots at the World Cup – because of fears of an earthquake.

An expert has predicted the country is almost certain to be hit by a major natural disaster.

And it could strike during this summer’s footie tournament.

Dr Chris Hartnady has singled out Durban and Cape Town as the areas most likely to be hit by a quake.

As one commentator put it, the Brit media just jumped the shark.

Invasion of the Baby-Snatchers

St. Aidan to Abbey Manor: UK Border Agency: Invasion of the Baby-Snatchers:

The thundering knock came early in the morning. It was 6.30am. Without waiting for an answer the security chain across the door was smashed from its fittings. Feet thundered up the staircase. The five children, all under the age of 10, were alarmed to be woken from their sleep by the dozen burly strangers who burst into their bedrooms, switched on the lights and shouted at them to get up.

This is not a police state. It is Manchester in supposedly civilised Britain in the 21st century. There is a clue to what this is about in the names of the children: Nardin, who is 10; Karin who is seven; the three-year-old twins Bishoy and Anastasia, and their one-year-old baby sister Angela.

Their parents, Hany and Samah Mansour, are Coptic Christians who fled to the UK after a campaign of persecution by a group of Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt whose friends in the secret police tortured Hany. But even though six Coptic Christians were shot dead by Muslim extremists only last week in a town not far from their home, the British Government has decided that it does not believe them. And so Britain’s deportation police have launched another of their terrifying dawn raids on sleeping children.

We have similar problems in South Africa. We have the notorious Lindela Repatriation Camp. We have senior people in government visiting a church that has allowed homeless refugees to sleep inside it instead of outside in the street and threatening to close the church (so much for our much-vaunted constitutional guarantee of religious freedom).

And then there is the fascist (no hyperbole — there’s no better word to describe it) Australian press, which routinely refers to “suspected asylum seekers”, as though seeking asylum was a crime. Boat carrying 30 suspected asylum seekers intercepted off Australia’s north coast | The Daily Telegraph:

YET another boat carrying suspected asylum seekers has been intercepted off Australia’s north coast, making it the 60th arrival this year.

The stationary vessel was spotted sometime before 7.30am today about 140 nautical miles (260 kilometres) north of Gove, in the Northern Territory, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said in a statement this afternoon.

Britain, South Africa and Australia are supposed to be democratic states, and they at least pay lip service to human rights. But this kind of behaviour is as bad as that found in totalitarian dictatorships. As far as I am aware, each of these countries is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, among other things, that Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

So why are the Australian media trying to portray a right as a crime by referring to “suspected” asylum seekers? That is how the Nazi propaganda press dealt with Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and other “Untermenschen”. By trying to criminalise the exercise of human rights, the Australian press fully deserves the epithet “fascist”.

Christians have just celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and among other things we remember that our Lord Jesus Christ and his family were asylum seekers in Egypt. But many of his followers in Egypt have now become asylum seekers elsewhere. And, as we can see, they receive no better welcome.

The Times – UK ‘more violent than South Africa’

We South Africans have got used to foreign journalists like PETER HITCHENS rubbishing South Africa in their columns, but now one of the papers he writes for has had to admit that violent crime in Britain is worse than in South Africa.

The Times – UK ‘more violent than South Africa’:

The United Kingdom has overtaken South Africa as the world’s most violent country.

# UK violent crime “worse than SA” – Daily Mail

# Britain’s crime wave is nothing to be smug about (editorial)

The UK has been left with some soul searching to do after findings that Britons experienced more incidents of violent crime per 100,000 citizens than South Africa, which is often depicted as the world capital of violent crime.

Commenting on a report in UK tabloid the Daily Mail, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Dr Johan Burger, said: “Maybe now those who have been pointing fingers at us will get their own house in order.”

The Daily Mail reported yesterday that the UK has a higher rate of violent crime than any other country, “beating” the likes of the US and South Africa.

Hat tip to Contact Online Weblog: UK ‘more violent than South Africa’.

Of course the problems that people like Hitchens writes about are here. We had a lot of electricity blackouts in January 2008, as he writes. But they have not continued. A long-term solution needs to be found, and people are whinging because they will have to pay for it (just as they do in Britain).

There was xenophobic violence between February and June 2008 — 2008 seems to have been a bad year — in which more than 60 people died — about the same number as in the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. And though the violence has dropped off, there is still racism and xenophobia. But the Brits elected two MEPs from the xenophobic BNP to the European parliament this year, so South Africa doesn’t have a monopoly on xenophobia either.

And yes, we have corrupt politicians, and we had the Travelgate scandal, but that was small beer compared with what has recently been revealed about British MPs fiddling their expense claims.

UK: European Court Rebuke Over Indefinite Detention | Human Rights Watch

It’s worse than I thought. It took six years for South Africa to become a fully-fledged police state, from the appointment of B.J. Vorster as Minister of Justice in 1961 to the passing of the Terrorism Act of 1967 (since repealed) which provided for indefinite detention without trial.

Britain seems top have done it in four, since Tony Blair asked for 90-day detention.

In fact I thought that Britain had not even reached the 90-day mark yet, and that Gordon Brown had only managed to push it up to 48 days. Hat-tip to Big Blue Meanie for this news.

UK: European Court Rebuke Over Indefinite Detention | Human Rights Watch:

The ruling today by the European Court of Human Rights on the United Kingdom’s detention policy for foreign terrorism suspects confirms that indefinite detention violates basic rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The court ruled that the previous detention policy violated the European Convention on Human Rights. A and Others v. the United Kingdom concerned 11 foreign citizens who were held in indefinite detention for varying periods of time between December 2001 and March 2005 under Part IV of the 2001 Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

‘The court has reaffirmed unequivocally the fundamental rights to protection from arbitrary detention and to a fair hearing,’ said Judith Sunderland, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘The principles at stake can’t be sacrificed even in the name of counterterrorism.’

Congratulations, Gordon Brown, for turning Britain into a fascist state. That’s quite something to go down in history for, even though the British media choose to call fascism “the moral high ground”.

See also The last Straw man.

This is England

I’ve just been watching a flim on TV, This is England.

It was made a couple of years ago, but was set in England in about 1982, during the Falklands War. It’s about a boy who is bullied at school and befriended by a gang of skinheads, and begins to hang out with them, and enjoys their friendship, but then an older former leader of the gang is released from prison, and a darker side emerges, as he is an English nationalist, and the gang splits as racism and xenophobia intrude.

I won’t say more about the plot in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, and don’t want to add plot spoilers.

But I was very conscious of it being an England I had missed entirely.

I visited England twice. Once in the mid-sixties, when I spent two and a half years there, mostly studying in Durham, but also driving buses in London, described, in part, in another blog post on Swinging London in retrospect. The second visit was about three years ago, much shorter, a three week holiday visiting old friends and relations.

After nearly 40 years there were many changes. One of the most noticable was that in the 1960s there had been an industrial working class. There were factory workers, coal miners and others. Forty years later most people seemed to be employed in service industries.

Nowadays the transition seems to be marked by the jokes on motoring programmes on TV — about the Japanese failure to make proper motorbikes that leaked oil, or proper cars that broke down.

But the film showed something I had missed, that marked the transition — the Thatcher years.

I’m sure that the film does not tell the full story of those years, and that there were lots of other things that happened. But during both my visits to Britain there was a Labour government, and it seemed a little bit more sunny and cheerful and optimistic.

I’d be interested in knowing if people who lived through the Thatcher years and saw the film think it is true to life.

Brits suffer from metal theft

For a long time South Africans have suffered from metal thieves. A few months ago we were without electricity for two days, not because of Eskom load shedding, but because of cable theft.

Twenty years ago the aluminium railings were nicked from a railway bridge down the road, over four separate nights, and no one heard a thing. Cell phones have mitigated the inconvenience of telephone cable theft, but it can still disrupt Internet access. And many have been late for work because of the theft of railway signal cables.

Now, it seems, the Brits are suffering from the same problem. Will it rile up even the phlegmatic Brits so much that they’ll start burning railway carriages and stations when the trains are late?

clipped from

Police have launched a nationwide crackdown on the soaring trend of metal theft which is said to cost the economy £360 million every year.

It comes after five men were questioned in Plymouth over the theft of four bronze war memorial plaques.

Theft of all metal has risen on average 150% in the last two years with signalling cable, bronze statues, drain hole covers and metal from church and school roofs targeted frequently.

Assistant Chief Constable Paul Crowther, British Transport Police, said: “The increasing price of metal in overseas markets over the last four years has led to an increase in theft of metals in the UK for its scrap value.

“This is far from being a victimless crime. Thousands of people have seen their community facilities stolen or damaged by thieves looking for a quick gain, or have suffered service disruption to railways and telecoms.”

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