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How To Steal Votes

May 16, 2017 by  

The electoral office has been reported in local media as stating that there has been a large increase in applications for postal and proxy votes. Fermanagh and South Tyrone topped the list with 1,500 proxy votes and Newry and Armagh with over 1200.

The story gave rise to a scare story in today’s News Letter: ‘Foster voices fears over explosion in proxy voting’.

But Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea told the paper, “it’s entirely lawful”. She added, “no systemic practices that are untoward or illegal” had been drawn to her.

This did not prevent SDLP leader Colum Eastwood adding to the scare by tweeting: “A lot of concern about huge rise of postal & proxy votes in nationalist areas. I can assure people – the SDLP hasn’t been orchestrating it.”

However, after a number of people tweeted that the SDLP itself had been out lobbying people to apply for postal/proxies, Eastwood tweeted: “For the record – there is absolutely nothing wrong with LEGITIMATE postal/proxy votes. We help people all the time.”

People are astute enough to recognise the use of the block capitals for ‘legitimate’ and the intended slur.

Thousands of voters – 60,433 – were removed from the electoral register last year, prior to the Assembly election on the grounds that they had not returned an electoral registration form during the last canvass of electors in 2013. The constituency affected the most was West Belfast were 5,759 lost their right to vote. In Britain people can register online, but not here.

Fourteen years ago I wrote a feature for the Andersonstown News that so-called attempts to clean up the electoral rolls often appeared to have as their objective the removal of voters! I think it timely to reprint the piece so here it is again.

Britain Northern Ireland Election

Stealing Votes – The British Way!
The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 was introduced to eliminate voting irregularities and impersonation. But the restrictive nature of the new legislation has had the effect of wiping out thousands of bona fide voters across every constituency in the North.

In 1999, a year before the controversial Presidential elections in the USA, Katherine Harris, George Bush’s presidential campaign co-chairperson and Florida secretary of state in charge of elections, called in researchers from Database Technologies to sift through Florida’s electoral rolls. Their brief was to systematically remove anyone “suspected” of being an ex-felon.

Thirty one per cent of all black men in Florida have a felony on their record and they were immediately struck off, as were thousands of other blacks who had had their voting privileges reinstated (after misdemeanours). Black people overwhelmingly vote Democrat – that is, would have been potential Al Gore supporters. But, as Michael Moore points out in his book, Stupid White Men, the brief to Database Technologies went further and it was instructed to include not just felons, but those blacks who shared similar names to those of felons or had similar social security numbers.

To contest and reverse this mass disenfranchisement would – as the architects, of course, knew – take years, wading through a bureaucratic quagmire for which few people would have the patience or energy. As a result, 173,000 registered voters were placed on the ineligible list; 66% of those who were removed in Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county, being black.

So, long before all those arguments about ‘hanging chads’, and what were the voters’ true intentions, Al Gore was robbed off the Presidency even though across the USA he received 539, 898 more votes than George Bush. Perhaps, there would have been no difference between Gore’s foreign policy and Bush’s, and he too would have impatiently sidelined the work of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. Perhaps, he too would have rushed us to war? We’ll never know.

WHAT Katherine Harris did for the voters of Florida the new Electoral Fraud Act 2002 is doing for ‘democracy’ in the North. The right to vote and to exercise one’s vote is critical in determining just who goes into government, opposition or retirement. Mary Harney knows what it is like to sweat for a quota. In the last Westminster election Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew took Fermanagh and South Tyrone from the Ulster Unionists by a majority of just fifty three.

Long before Sinn Fein stood for elections in the North electoral malpractice was common – ‘Vote Early, Vote Often’, being the legendary catchphrase of campaigners who correctly assumed ‘the other side’ was equally engaged in impersonation.

However, when republicans entered the electoral fray and enjoyed success, much of their success was written off as the results of mass impersonation. It was in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981 that IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands, whilst on hunger strike, was elected MP and unwittingly initiated Sinn Fein’s embracing electoral politics. Up to then, republicans had been accused by the British government of being a mere criminal conspiracy without popular support and had been repeatedly challenged to seek a mandate.

However, Mrs Thatcher’s reaction to Sands’ election was the first of many moves to manipulate the political process. In her case she amended the Representation of the People Act, barring any other prisoner from standing for election, rather than negotiate an end to the prison crisis.

In 1982 when five Sinn Fein candidates were elected to the Assembly Northern Ireland Office ministers were instructed not to meet them on constituency matters and to cut them off from receiving salaries and expenses, government publications and press releases. Every time Sinn Fein made inroads the rules were changed: candidates were required to make declarations repudiating the use of violence for political ends; council election deposits were increased from £100 to £1000; former prisoners were barred from standing for five years after their release; and, finally, voter ID was introduced to stamp out what was alleged to be widespread impersonation.

But the Sinn Fein vote continued to increase and in 2001 the party outpolled the SDLP.

Still, the myth was perpetuated that the vote was down to impersonation and multiple registration, even though the only candidate to be brought before an electoral court and found guilty (on an overspending charge) was Joe Hendron of the SDLP.

Last year the British government introduced a new law which required every individual voter to fill out a form, supply their National Insurance Number, date of birth and sign it personally. To vote, an elector has to produce photographic ID: a British or Irish passport, a driving licence, a Senior SmartPass (for pensioners) or the new Electoral Identity card.

The Electoral Office began distributing forms and canvassing last September but when the new electoral register was published in December it showed a drop of 130,000 voters from the previous register. All the main parties in the North had voted at Westminster for the new restrictions and so they couldn’t really raise objections. But when Sinn Fein complained that thousands of people were being disenfranchised, it was upon Belfast West, seat of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams MP, where the drop was most dramatic with 11,000 voters gone missing, that the media and unionists zeroed in. The implication was that the Sinn Fein impersonation conspiracy was exposed at long last.

This story received wide coverage but was never balanced by the fact that every constituency registered a drop. In fact, Belfast South, with 10,000 missing voters wasn’t far behind Belfast West.

Privately, the Ulster Unionists have been expressing concern with the inefficiency of the registration, while there is anecdotal evidence that the reason for the gung-ho attitude of Paisley’s DUP (which accuses David Trimble of trying to avoid an Assembly election in May) is that it is confident it has registered its supporters.

The Electoral Office, which initially congratulated itself on compiling a list of over one million voters, has been forced to take on board some of the criticisms. How, for example, could there be such a discrepancy between their returns and the official census returns which show that, actually, not 130,000 voters have gone missing, but closer to 187,000? Have they all died in a year, emigrated or were they all imposters?

There is little voter apathy in the North. But there is considerable evidence that forms were not distributed, that homes were not canvassed, that the new forms were not explained to either the elderly or those with learning difficulties, that many forms were not collected, in addition to the fact that those without official ID would find it inconvenient and time consuming to go to the electoral office to be photographed for their Electoral Identity card.

Sinn Fein cite example after example. In one ward in nationalist Newry consisting of over 900 households, almost one hundred (including entire families) have been disenfranchised.

In Gerry Adams’ constituency, an entire side of one street (houses 1-80) in Cullingtree Road, did not appear in the December register.

A comparison of the census returns and the electoral returns show that at least 50,000 first-time voters (and young nationalists tend to vote for Sinn Fein) are not registered.

The restrictive nature of the new legislation, the failure of a more pro-active and cooperative approach from the Electoral Office, and unevenness in the distribution and collection of completed forms have left registration in a mess, with little time left to correct that mess if there are Assembly elections in May. And come May, many people will arrive at polling stations to discover not that their vote has been stolen but that their ID which once sufficed is no longer acceptable.

Katherine Harris must look jealously at the Westminster architects of the ironically, well-named, Electoral Fraud Act. She herself could not have devised a better way of eliminating voters from the register.

 

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Through RUC Eyes

May 13, 2017 by  

Nights in Armour coverI’ve just finished a very good book, Nights in Armour by Blair McMahon, written in the main from the perspective of several RUC men around the time of the hunger strikes and the death of Bobby Sands. There are other minor points of view, including that of a republican prisoner, but they don’t ring with verisimilitude or have the same power as the scenes of barrack life or convey the tension and raw fear of patrolling a republican heartland.

I was surprised to learn that it was published as long ago as 1993 because I had never heard of the book before. Nor does it appear to be mentioned in any of the collections of what is loosely termed ‘Troubles literature’; nor does it appear to have been reviewed in the mainstream media. There has long been a snobbery towards novels released through small, informal publishing houses and Nights in Armour was released through the since defunct Ulster Society based in Lurgan. Furthermore, Blair McMahon is a nom de plume (or nom de guerre) as he was a serving RUC officer at the time of publication and thus for personal security reasons unable to promote the book through interviews or public appearances.

Presumably the real author’s loyalties remain tied to his upbringing, his hearth and home and with former comrades, yet to his credit those ties have not circumscribed or restricted his depiction of character and their prejudices, and what we get is the flawed, honest human being behind the gun and uniform; the crutch of masculinity, the broken marriages and relationships, the suicides, the alcohol-dependency, the rivalries, the guilt, the camaraderie.

One Catholic policeman who is moved into the section is nicknamed ‘the token mick’. Another colleague, a police woman, ‘Diana Death’, is a weirdo of a necrophile who likes to be first on the scene after a killing so that she can take photographs for her personal collection.

About the death of one RUC officer we get this simple, yet profound statement: “Colin McKnight is gone. He exists in old family photographs and the fading memories of friends.”

Despite my having diametrically opposite experiences of some of the scenarios McMahon describes – including attacks on republican funerals – the novel does not read as propaganda.

It is an unvarnished view of what makes an RUC man tick. There is brutality, ugliness and hatred, and humour and love. Some of the detailed descriptions of the aftermath of a booby-trap bombing or a shooting are appalling and not for the squeamish.

The character we are drawn to most is Reid, an anti-hero, a natural leader of men who is fearless under fire and who is determined to see off the threat from the IRA, to outlive them. This passage below is, incidentally, reminiscent of the grim city also brilliantly portrayed by Eoin McNamee in his novel, Resurrection Man, published in 1994, a year after Nights in Armour:

‘Night. To Reid, it seemed the only time to do policework. The science became pure. He had no annoying despatches to deliver: no silly calls to people locked out of their cars or children annoying neighbours. At night a different breed of person walked the streets. Main thoroughfares and pedestrian zones which bustled with shoppers during the day, became no-go areas at night; people passed through them quickly and only if they had to. Burglars moved invisibly; car thieves hid in the shadows. Drunks, prostitutes and gunmen all took to the streets and claimed them as their own. Things happened…

‘Reid loved to prowl the empty streets, searching for the thieves and thugs who made life a nightmare for others. He wanted to balance the scales, pay something back to those who stole and brutalised with such casual indifference. Instead, he sat in the back of a police car listening…Retribution would have to wait.’

The flaws in the novel are minor in comparison to the good writing.

Every republican my age has come across the delusional cop or screw who’ll genuinely tell you about how great things were in the “wee Pravince” before the IRA came along. Such a ‘Leonard Sachs’ actually does appear in the book with that view, reminiscing about that mythical era, belief in which persists among many unionists and which bedevils us ever agreeing on the past: “the good old days, a golden age that ended forever in August 1969” before which “Northern Ireland had been one of the most peaceful, law-abiding societies in Europe. A few weeks later, troops with fixed bayonets maintained order in smouldering streets. What went wrong?”

Indeed.the-wind-that-shakes-the-barley

There has been a dearth of good fiction writing from the unionist perspective and Nights in Armour is a welcome addition to the canon (if you’ll excuse the phrase).

The depiction of unionism/loyalism on stage and on screen hasn’t been an entirely flattering one either.

I remember an angry Billy Hutchinson at a discussion after a staging of the play The Chronicles of Long Kesh express frustration at the way loyalists in particular were presented in drama, literature and film, as “going around like Neanderthals trailing their knuckles on the ground”.

Playwright Gary Mitchell (from Rathcoole, from where he and his family were eventually evicted by angry loyalists) has said that, “There is a deep-rooted ignorance of the arts within loyalist communities…They do not trust drama. They will tell you coldly that drama belongs to the Catholics. Drama belongs to the nationalists.”

Fred Cobain, former chief whip of the Ulster Unionist Party, once said: “Republicans represent the struggle of the small man fighting the big man. Unionism, on the other hand, represents the government. The republicans are romanticised as being involved in some sort of human rights struggle against despotism, looking for democracy and freedom.”

The veteran journalist David McKittrick once wrote a feature for the London Independent titled, ‘Why are all the Troubles’ films about republicans?’ He said: “…few writers or producers – inside or outside Northern Ireland – find the Protestant community interesting, few identify with it and few have sought to champion it or even express its concerns. As a result republicans have basically had the big screen pretty much to themselves…

“The perceived Protestant narrative, however, is one of a reactionary frontier community grimly holding on and opposing change… they find the republicans intriguing but the Protestants problematic.”

The Times journalist Kevin Maher wrote about IRA representation in film thus: “the gun-slinging underdog remains an irresistible iconic draw.”

That may be so, but there are many stories still to be told – and from all sides; personal experiences to be rendered through fiction or drama to universal appeal and empathy; stories which can open our eyes to polar opposites, to help us see things and people as they are, from their perspective, which will take us out of our comfort zone and into another’s land.

 

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Marwan Barghouti

April 29, 2017 by  

This profile of Marwan Barghouti, who is currently on hunger strike in an Israeli Jail, appears in my book Rebel Columns, and was first published in 2003.

Back Danny

In a dangerous or threatening situation one or two individuals within any group will remain cool and rise above the rest who seem paralysed and incapable of action. Such individuals will exercise a focused judgement, will make decisions that may save or partly redeem a bad situation, will, in other words, show leadership (which is kin to showing courage) and in the process will become – often in opposition to their own humility – true heroes.

Similarly, throughout history, when a people finds itself in subjugation, oppressed and dispossessed – that is, facing a permanent threat which has dispirited and demoralised them – the righteousness of their cause amounts to nought in the absence of leadership, organisation and strategy.

Today (October, 2003), in the 21st century, right before our eyes, the Palestinian people are being destroyed by one of the cruellest and most cynical regimes in the Middle East, Israel, a state that is bankrolled by the US government. In flagrant breach of UN Resolution 242, first issued in 1967 and reaffirmed many times in the subsequent 36 years, Israel refuses to withdraw from the territories it occupied following the Six Day War. It continues to conquer, to build settlements – indeed, to build a Warsaw Wall through the West Bank, ghettoising the Palestinians and rendering impossible any viable Palestinian state.

It does this despite the fact that through superior violence and murder it has won from mainstream Palestinian groups recognition of the state of Israel. And in reaction it has spawned the phenomena of the suicide bombers.

I watch CNN fairly regularly. I was hooked on it especially during the debacle of the Florida count in the US presidential election in 2000. CNN has incredible resources, journalists or stringers in every capital of the world and breaks news with breathtaking speed. Millions in the US watch the channel and perhaps have their political opinions influenced by what they receive.

What I noticed – and this might not be the fault of CNN but rather a regrettable feature of the quality of Palestinian representatives and/or circumstance – is that in the aftermath of a particularly violent incident or dramatic development, the Israeli spokesperson is usually in a studio. He is suave, his English is impeccable (and often delivered in a North American accent) and he is questioned courteously.

On the other hand, the Palestinian spokesperson is often interviewed on a street corner or a makeshift studio. There is distortion or atmospherics on the feed; he usually speaks in broken English (unless, of course, it is Hanan Ashrawi) and is placed on the defensive by being pressed to distance himself from Palestinian violence.

A few years ago I noticed one Palestinian spokesperson in particular who stood out in stature above many others, including Yasser Arafat and the prime minister, Abu Mazen.

That man is Marwan Barghouti. He is articulate, confident and popular among his people.

I remember seeing him being interviewed in early August 2001 when there was a tremendous explosion on the street. A missile fired from an Israeli helicopter hit his office or his car, killing another Fatah member. Of course, since then the Israelis have murdered and assassinated several hundred alleged militants – collaterally killing children, women and men who shouldn’t be out in the sun in broad daylight.

Someone who interviewed El-Barghouti told me that after his arrest in 1982 he was on hunger strike and said that he drew inspiration from Bobby Sands and his comrades and could cite that Bobby died on May 5th 1981. In prison he mastered Hebrew from his jailors and can speak it far more eloquently than many Israelis.

He was born in 1959 to a West Bank farmer. At the age of 16 he joined Fatah and earned a master’s degree in international relations at Bir Zeit university. He is married with four children. During the first intifada of 1987 he was deported by Israel. He supported the peace talks with Israel in the early 1990s, returned to the West Bank in 1994 and ran programmes for Israeli and Palestinian youth. He became secretary of the Fatah movement and was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority and has spoken out against corruption within the Authority.

However, in April 2002 Israeli forces in Ramallah arrested him. He was interrogated for several months for 18 hours at a time. For three months he was allowed to sleep for only two hours at a time and then only in a chair with his hands tied. He was denied food and water, has been regularly placed in solitary confinement and denied access to his lawyers. He was charged with directing the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which is linked to Fatah and which has been responsible for many of the suicide bomb attacks, mainly against innocent Israeli citizens. He was condemned even before his trial. The Israeli Attorney-General said he was “an engineer of all acts of killings and a thug.”

From his prison cell he played a crucial role in Palestinian dialogue and encouraged Hamas and Islamic Jihad to call a truce last June (which later broke down).

He has been tipped to replace Arafat as chair of the Palestinian Authority and Israel fears his leadership. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres remarked that if that happened, “this will not be a positive development for Israel.”

El-Barghouti’s trial ended last Monday and judgement is expected in November. He refused to recognise the court in Tel Aviv and said that Israel’s grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be in the dock instead. He accused Israel of violating 30 international treaties, including the Geneva Convention and of committing war crimes against humanity.

The alleged evidence against him was confessions from 21 Palestinians, none of whom appeared in court. Israel is notorious for its abuse of prisoners and has been condemned of torture by many human rights groups. During earlier court appearances his attempts to speak were interrupted but finally he managed to say: “We are a people like all other people. We want freedom and a state just like the Israelis. Israel must decide: either it allows for a Palestinian state alongside it, or it becomes a state for two peoples.”

One of the three judges interrupted him and said: “We are not historians nor government representatives. If it were in our hands we would issue an injunction ordering peace!”

To cheers from European Parliament observers El-Barghouthi replied: “Why don’t you just get up and say ‘I am against the occupation’!”

He said: “I am against killing innocents. But I am proud of the resistance to Israeli occupation. To die is better than living under occupation.”

Marwan Barghouthi – a true hero to the Palestinian cause.

Their Nelson Mandela.

 

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The Salmon Run

April 6, 2017 by  

Danny Doherty, from Carrigart, County Donegal, is the son of Mary and Pat Doherty (MP for West Tyrone). Martin McGuinness was a familiar visitor to the family home from when Danny was an infant. In this poem Danny pays tribute to the former republican leader (a keen fisherman) who died on March 21st and whose funeral was attended by scores of thousands of people who made their way to Creggan Cemetery to lay him to rest.

Martin 6

 

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Creating False News

March 22, 2017 by  

Website

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback today (22nd March) a story about Martin McGuinness was repeated, a story aimed at illustrating that Martin McGuinness was callous towards victims and not sincere in his attempts at reconciliation. Stories like this can affect people’s attitudes, and responses, and, arguably, even the decisions they make.

The first time I heard the story was in a report about a meeting in Stormont organised two weeks ago by TUV leader Jim Allister to commemorate ‘European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism’.

One of the speakers was David Kelly.

David Kelly was just nine years of age when his father, Patrick Kelly, a private in the Irish Army, was killed by the IRA in Leitrim during an attempt to rescue kidnapped supermarket executive Don Tidey in 1983. Mr Kelly’s widow and her four sons later moved to England, where the family suffered terribly and were deeply unhappy. David moved back to Ireland in 2008, at the age of thirty-four. Another of his brothers joined the Irish Army to honour his father and because of his pride in him.

Mr Kelly told the Stormont meeting that in 2011, when Martin McGuinness was running as a candidate in the Presidential election, he confronted him and asked for help in finding his father’s killers, but was told “to move on”. Then he qualified this remark: “He [McGuinness] told me it was time to move on. He said that to my face. My father was doing his duty, providing for a young family, gave his life for his country.”

There is a huge difference between “move on”, which suggests “get out of my way”, and “time to move on”, as I shall illustrate by the actual contemporaneous reports of Mr Kelly’s confrontation with Mr McGuinness in 2011.

The account of the confrontation can be found in the Irish Times, 11th October, 2011, and can be read here

It reports:

‘“I don’t know who was responsible for the killing of your father but I fully and absolutely sympathise with you,” Mr McGuinness replied. “I have been at the heart of a very important peace process in the North over the last 20 years which has brought conflict and violence and death to an end and I am going to continue with that work because that’s the work of peace.”

‘“This is in the past you are heartbroken on account of it and my sympathy is 100 per cent with you and your family,” he added.’

‘Mr Kelly continued, “I just want to say to you before there can be any reconciliation in this country there has to be truth”.

‘Mr McGuinness replied: “Absolutely and we have proposed that there should be an international independent commission on truth.”’

The journalist who witnessed the exchange, Eoghan MacConnell, makes no mention of McGuinness telling David Kelly “to move on” or, even, “it’s time to move on”, or even that anyone in McGuinness’s entourage told him to move on.

But one local journalist, Karen Downey, does quote Mr Kelly himself as using similar words:

‘“I asked him to reveal the identity of those killers, those killers directly should go to the guards, do the decent thing, go to the authorities and hand themselves in and then we might have some justice, some truth and then maybe we can think about moving on in this country,” he [Mr Kelly] told the Westmeath Independent.’

Other reports of the confrontation in the Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and on RTE make no reference to the “move on” comments attributed to McGuinness.

In July 2012 when David Kelly accepted the Military Star Medal, awarded posthumously to his father, he makes no such claim about Mr McGuinness.

Again, when speaking before Westminster MPs last November at the launch of a book, Mr Kelly makes no such claim about Martin McGuinness.

So, how did the perception arise that Martin McGuinness used those words which would add great pain and distress to someone who had already lost a loved one at the hands of the IRA?

It was the News Letter on the 13th March which used the ambiguous headline, “Martin McGuinness told me to ‘move on’”. It also reported that when the audience heard the alleged remarks it prompted “a collective gasp of horror.” Clearly, the audience understood the words to mean that McGuinness was cold and heartless towards a son whose father was a victim of the IRA.

But it was on BBC2’s Newsnight, only hours after the death of Martin McGuinness, that the totally false construction on words that McGuinness hadn’t even used was reinforced.

Austin Stack’s father, Brian Stack was the chief prison officer at Portlaoise Prison and was mortally wounded by the IRA in 1983. He told Newsnight:

‘“My friend David Kelly, whose father private Paddy Kelly was shot by the IRA… David approached Martin McGuinness asking him for answers in 2011 and Martin McGuinness shunted him away with the words ‘just move on, you’.”’

Hundreds of thousands of viewers received that news as fact, last night, and, again, on Talkback this afternoon. People in the South, people in the North. These include unionist voters whose support for power-sharing, reconciliation and the resolution of legacy issues is crucial, but who are as vulnerable as we all are to crude propaganda, often which it is impossible to discern.

The anger, passion, loss and sense of injustice felt by victims of the IRA towards republicans is completely understandable.

But what Austin Stack is saying about Martin McGuinness is not only unfounded but is patently untrue. His reasons for saying it might be understandable – to paint Martin McGuinness in as bad a light as possible.

But it is also understandable that those who admire and revere Martin McGuinness and his memory will call out a lie about him, especially when such a lie may well influence people and can affect judgements about the peace process and its future.

 

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The Evenings

March 10, 2017 by  

“Old people cause a lot of the world’s misery. They contaminate our lives. They spread a sour smell in the tram. Like a pot of fruit preserves that has been opened and then forgotten. Everything over sixty should be done away with.”

“Why not everything over forty?” Louis asked.

“You wouldn’t hear me complain,” Fritz said, “but we have to stay humane. Between forty and sixty there are still signs of life.”

InsideThat’s from The Evenings by Dutch writer Gerard Reve about ten December evenings until New Year’s Eve, 1946, in the life of twenty-three-year-old office worker, Fritz Egters.

Fritz lives a boring, mundane life, a life of futility, in Amsterdam with his elderly parents who drive him crazy and who only half get on. He wanders from bar to cinema to the homes of his brother and friends and acquaintances and they talk the greatest shite in the world.

Though amounting almost to a study in misanthropy I really enjoyed this book for its stylish writing. I found it captivating despite the deliberately stilted and sometimes tedious dialogue.

We are granted the privilege of observing Fritz’s inner life, what he thinks in comparison to what he actually says, and it is so funny it had me laughing aloud and reminded of a novel I read many years ago, also a first novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson. Robinson also wrote the screenplay of The Killing Fields and wrote and directed Withnail and I. There are many preposterous scenes in that book involving fifteen-year-old Thomas. One in particular sees him steal some photos from his grandfather’s ‘amazing collection of pornography’ which he shows to his friend Maurice, the vicar’s son, who is ill in bed, smoking a pipe and drinking a mix of gin and sherry.

“You’re telling me you’ve got a photo of a woman with a duck up her arse?” says Maurice.

“That’s right. A mallard.”

“How did they get the duck up?”

“They oil them.”

Well, The Evenings is as mad and as scatological as that. Fritz has vivid, wild and monstrous dreams and he is obsessed with baldness (not his own, that of others), loves to share stories about acts of sadism and can be quite tactless, cruel and sexist on occasion, yet he is a sad creature given the tedium of his life at home.

Visiting his friend Joosje he comments about her one-year-old child: “It is, in truth, a terrible little monster…The nerves have developed all wrong. It probably doesn’t have long to live…The head is bound to become distended as well…It is growing all crooked, like a plant to the light, mark my words.”

Fritz loves going to funerals or talking about cancer and terminal illnesses and horrible ways of dying. He is morbidly obsessed with newspaper stories involving death and always likes to share ‘nasty stories’. Like the one about the farmer on top of a wagon who calls for someone to throw him a pitchfork. He peers over the edge of his wagon just as it is thrown and the tines penetrate his eyes and kill him. A child playing daredevil with an axe and block cuts the hands of his friend because his friend thought he wouldn’t go through with the strike and the child thought his friend would pull his hand away on time.

Fritz talks excitedly about a child killed by an exploding grenade (‘Glorious”) or the seven-year-old who accidentally detonates an anti-aircraft shell he hits with a hammer. “It always ends with: he will have to do without his left hand. Or: the child breathed his last on the way to the hospital.”

Another story he tells – “a real whopper” – involves a woman bathing her child. Her father, in another room, is playing with their other child – throwing her in the air – when he drops her. She lies dead on the floor and he screams. The mother runs in to see what has happened, then remembers the baby in the bath, runs back, only to find that the toddler has drowned. “You should tell that one when there are women around, you’ll laugh yourself silly.”

Reve, who died in 2006, was the first openly gay writer in Holland and is considered one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors. A controversial figure, many of his later writings feature violent and sadomasochistic themes. The Evenings is now considered a modern masterpiece and has been voted the best Dutch novel of all time.

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A Length of Rope

March 1, 2017 by  

Summer-Before-DarkFinished Summer Before The Dark by Volker Weidermann and about which I have mixed views. I bought it because I am a big fan of the writer Stefan Zweig but was also influenced by the incredible number of good reviews and endorsements it received.

Its premise is sound: a work of non-fiction (using fictional devices) drawing on letters and the writings of a number of writers (and editors), including Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun who rendezvoused in Ostend in 1936 on the eve of WWII as they fled the Nazis. I’d read two of Keun’s novels, After Midnight, which I didn’t like, and Child of all Nations, which I enjoyed. I loved her description of Germany as “the land of the brown plague”.

TollerWeidermann’s book also refers to the life and sad death of the writer Ernst Toller who escaped to the USA with his beautiful wife, the actress Christiane Grautoff. He lectured for a while and had some plays performed but suffered from depression. His wife later told of how she always had to pack a length of rope in the top layer of his suitcase, so that he could have a final way to escape. And that’s exactly how he killed himself after hearing that his brother and sister had been arrested and sent to a concentration camp. He hanged himself in his room at the Mayflower Hotel, near Central Park in New York, in May 1939.

The emigres also discuss the case of Edgar André, a communist leader arrested within days of the Reichstag fire which Hitler exploited to crush leftist opposition.André had been tortured until he was crippled and wasn’t brought to trial for three years. He  was summarily convicted and beheaded. André’s statement to the court is reproduced where he says: “Your honour is not my honour, for we are divided by an abyss. If you are going to make the impossible possible here and send an innocent man to the block, then I am ready to walk that hard road. I want no mercy! I have lived as a fighter, and I will die as a fighter, and my last words will be: ‘Long live Communism!’”

27th February. Gave Basque journalist Samara Velte a political tour of West Belfast and also did an interview with her about Brexit. Samara works for the Basque newspaper Berria, which is published completely in Basque language.

24th February. Did another interview with New Jersey High School students on the political situation in the North and the history of the conflict.

21st February. Did an interview with Iranian Press TV via Skype on the issue of Brexit.

Did an interview via Skype with high school students in New Jersey, USA, about the conflict in the North and the 1981 hunger strike.

16th February. Finished Passion of Youth an autobiography by Wilhelm Reich which I bought for $4 in a little second-hand bookshop in Oknha Chhun Street, Phnom Penh. Reich, who went on to become a psychoanalyst, a member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud, and who practised his profession in the US, writes explicitly about his promiscuous childhood, his incestuous aspirations regarding his mother, his difficulties and early alienation from this father, and, later, his experiences during WWI. The impact of his mother’s infidelity on the family is hard reading, although when his father seeks out his mother-in-law she says, matter-of-factly, “What has happened has happened – you must make your peace now, and eventually all will be well.”

That’s not how it turns out.

The recriminations are relentless – the father even casts doubt on the parentage of his sons – and his mother repeatedly tries to kill herself. During her last, final successful attempt using poison, she exclaims from her deathbed, “Only one more hour!”

At this stage Reich’s father is distraught and wishes he could take back all his cruel words. Reich’s mother says: “Leo, I was always true to you – it was only that once – forgive me now – Willy and Robert are your children – be good to them for me!”

Reich’s response to losing his mother was incredibly weird, I thought.

“But the fact that my Mother had died, as sad as it was in itself, and under such circumstances, overwhelmed me less with grief than with the fascination at a novel situation. Mother was the first person I had seen die. Yes, I must admit that I felt a certain pride in having the right to be called an orphan.”

After WWI he struggled through poverty and hunger to study in Vienna. “When you are hungry, wrong becomes right, and right wrong.”

Reich became a highly controversial figure for his unorthodox sex and ‘energy’ theories and was considered a sexual predator and delusional as well as being a charlatan. He was arrested for being in violation of a court order forbidding the distribution of his invention, the Orgone Energy Accumulator, and was sentenced to two years in prison. He died in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in November 1957, aged sixty.

Although disgraced, his theories continued to influence popular culture. Wikepedia cites several examples: the evil Dr. Durand Durand in the film Barbarella (1968) seems to be based on Reich; he places Barbarella (Jane Fonda) in his Excessive Machine so that she dies of pleasure, but rather than killing her the machine burns out. An orgone accumulator made an appearance as the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s comedy feature film Sleeper. Patti Smith’s Birdland on her album Horses (1975) is based on Reich’s life. Hawkwind’s song Orgone Accumulator, on their album Space Ritual (1973) is named for his invention, as is Love Camp 7’s Orgone Box (1997). In Bob Dylan’s Joey from Desire (1975), the eponymous gangster spends his time in prison reading Nietzsche and Reich. Reich is also a character in the opera Marilyn (1980) by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero. Kate Bush’s single Cloudbusting (1985) described Reich’s arrest through the eyes of his son, Peter, who wrote his father’s story in A Book of Dreams (1973). The video for the song features Donald Sutherland as Reich and Bush as Peter.

13th February. Finished The Comedians by Graham Greene which I first read in the summer of 1970.

6th February. Finished The Quiet American by Graham Greene which I first read in 1971.

31st January – off to Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Hasn’t Gone Away Ya’ Know

February 23, 2017 by  

Last October Glenn Bradley* wrote a feature here on the immediate impact the result of the referendum had on his business which trades in providing paving materials or bespoke associated art-scape features for public realm and private hard landscaping projects. This is his assessment of developments since then.

IN the piece I wrote here four months ago I finished by saying the following:

Glenn“What I am certain off is: the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot stand still and needs to be on the same page pro-actively leading to protect this small place. Such protection does require a buffer against the economic tsunami ahead of us where, with their boots firmly at ground truth reality, not pie in the sky temporary economics by academics, they challenge the British government regarding our unique post-conflict situation, and collaborate with all sections of business and our closest neighbours on this island to generate trade, protecting workers’ livelihoods.”

The RHI scandal became a catalyst which drove a two-edged sword into the heart of our partnership government resulting in most politicians blinkered to electioneering or worse, some, focused on sabre rattling & beating the tired, worn, battle drum presently. Despite my plea, the Northern Ireland Assembly is standing still and is doing nothing as a co-operative partnership to protect this small, fractured economy from the economic, social & political tsunami before us.

BREXIT negotiations are on-going and lobbying across these Islands by various business bodies and leaders continues unabated.

Then I heard these words from senior DUP politician Nelson McCausland: “I wouldn’t care what sort of situation I face as long as I’m out of Europe!”

I think for a full ten seconds I’d an utter, mouth-dropping, gasp of incredulity that anyone involved in the governance of this place could so whimsically dismiss qualified business advice, and the electorate here who, overwhelmingly, voted for REMAIN in the referendum last year.

Nelson McCausland, from the (presently) largest political party here, was saying that he does not care about the impact on jobs, the economy, trade or indeed any of the harm that leaving the EU will do to this little north-east region of Ireland, constitutionally linked to the UK.

He spoke those words on the very day that one of our largest and home-grown companies, ALMAC, stated that to assure continued export customer market access they had opened a protective site in Dundalk while awaiting the outcome of BREXIT negotiations.

ALMAC have stated they will have to relocate production to Dundalk resulting in the loss of jobs here should there be no tariff deals.

Is McCausland’s ambivalence an indication of his party’s view? If so, such an attitude will damage business here, and is unwelcome, especially from a public servant whose wages are paid from taxation achieved through dynamic business success.

There is a disorderly and desultory way in which BREXIT is going forward, and no one, absolutely no one on the BREXIT lobby appears to have a plan. The political turmoil on this island (Enda Kenny is in the departure lounge) and our very own RHI catalyst here, while important, become small fry to the juggernaut scale of what BREXIT means for both jurisdictions in Ireland.

We in Northern Ireland are being dredged out of the EU against our will, and despite ‘conservative & unionist’ party wishful-thinking that the Republic would follow suit, it will not happen (any time soon).

There will be a border, and I cannot see how it will be ‘aqueous’ regarding customs non-tariff issues concerning the processing for manufactured products entering or leaving here.

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI has already stated “estimates for non-tariff costs in the guise of Certs of Origin, International CRMs, LCs and so on would be in the region of £475 per load.” Some might say that is a small expense but not to a business moving many loads of products or goods daily. Such laborious processes and costs for non-tariff custom procedures will drive the business economy here downwards which weighted with the withdrawal of EU funding to our farming & agricultural sector, along with the withdrawal of EU funding to our infrastructure construction projects, makes here, a very dull place. Indeed, we become an economic basket case region on a level the conflict never even got near.

I reiterate the call again, it is essential that the Northern Ireland Assembly fights to protect workers lives, and equity with free trade which is a necessity for our unique economy. It is essential that our post-conflict evolution is recognised and we secure special status zone category with the EU. In size and scale this is not Britain; our small population of 1.8 million who land border the EU (our southern neighbours) require continued free movement, trade and ongoing EU peace & financial commitments to continue unabated (finance that I do not see the UK government rushing to guarantee!).

*Glenn Bradley is the Regional Manager Ireland of an international hard landscaping material supplier. He is committed to eradicating labour and human rights abuse in global supply chains via ethical trading initiatives where he is a trainer, and is the ascending Chair to the Business & Human Rights Forum here in the North. A former soldier he is also involved in peace-making and is a member of Veterans for Peace, made up former ex-services personnel who are against war as a solution to problems. You can follow Glenn on Twitter @Bradleygj or on Instagram @BelfastBrad

 

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Schlump

January 22, 2017 by  

BACKTwo days after his meeting with communist GDR officials, Hans Herbert Grimm, went home to Altenberg and committed suicide. It was 1950 and Grimm was fifty-four years of age. Grimm, a schoolteacher, had taken part in WWI, and in 1928, anonymously, wrote a semi-biographical novel, Schlump, based on his experiences. Unfortunately, publication of his anti-war novel coincided with, and was overshadowed by the publication sensation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.

Schlump can be a very funny book though not as funny as The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek. Young Schlump (the nickname of the actual character Emil Schulz) volunteers for military service and is initially enthusiastic until he experiences the brutality and inhumanity of the front line and trench warfare, and the poverty and starvation at home when he is wounded and on leave. He curses the Kaiser and the military brass but it is the pacifistic subtext and the debunking of the propagandised myth of courage which the Nazis took exception to in the novel.

In one scene, after Schlump lands a plum office job away from danger, he meets a reservist called Gack who has been assigned to the post. Gack considers himself a bit of a philosopher whereas Schlump considers him ‘a right nutter’.

After a British bomb is dropped on the village marketplace, killing a young pregnant woman, Schlump rails against war and says: ‘This entire war is nothing but the cruellest, vilent slaughter, and if mankind can put up with such an atrocity for years, or stand by and look on, well, it deserves nothing but contempt. But he who fashioned mankind, he ought to be throughly ashamed of himself, for his creation is an utter disgrace!’

Gack thunders at him that he is talking blasphemy and Gack later says: ‘I am here because my captain ordered me here. I will go at once to the trenches, and with joyful heart, if he so commands. But I also know why providence led me to a place where I have a lot of time on my hands. Look, I know that we are going to win the war, and after the war there will be a great united Europe in which the soul of every people will be free to unfold itself. Its leader will be a man with a superhuman soul, a man from our nation, who has suffered more than any other.’

Schlump is flabbergasted ‘at the peculiar madness of Gack the philosopher.’

When the Nazis came to power they publicly burnt many books, including Remarque’s and Grimm’s. It was believed that no copies of Schlump had survived but in 2013 a manuscript of the novel was found hidden inside a wall at Grimm’s home and it was then realised that he had been the author.

Grimm joined the Nazi Party out of a sense of self-preservation and was a language interpreter during WWII. It was a decision for which he would be punished, postwar, when the communist government in Soviet-occupied East Germany banned him from teaching. A friend of his, another teacher, had been interned in Buchenwald (which remained open as a camp) and died there from starvation. Despite former pupils, and the head of the Cultural Department, vouching for him, and that he revealed himself as the author of the anti-fascist Schlump, GDR officials were unimpressed. Grimm was allowed to work in theatre for a time but then he was banned from even that and had to work in a salt mine.

It was two days after he was summoned to a meeting with GDR officials in 1950, about which no record remains and about which he said nothing, that Grimm took his own life, though by what means it is not clear.

In 1928 Hans Herbert Grimm had written, ‘My publisher hopes that one day someone will come along and rediscover Schlump.’

And so it eventually was – in 2014: a century after the awful war it depicts.

20th January. Did four interviews about last night’s announcement that Martin McGuinness will not be standing in the forthcoming Assembly election. First was with Richard Chambers, journalist with Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show; next, BBC Radio 4 (along with Ian Paisley Jnr MP); then on BBC Talkback with Brian Feeney and Reg Empey; and finally on Radio Foyle after the 1pm news.

10th January. Did an interview with Niall Cullen, a PhD student in Contemporary History at the University of the Basque Country, on the reciprocal influence between Irish republicanism and Basque nationalism.

 

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Threepenny Novel – Brecht

January 7, 2017 by  

Finished reading and was very disappointed with Bertolt Brecht’s didactic Threepenny Novel, which was written in 1934. Couldn’t engage with it, found little or no redemption although there was some humour.

What I learnt is that in 1934 a soft boiled egg had to be cooked for four-and-a-half minutes!

I also noted this about the philosophy of the character, Peachum: “To swindle other people was, after all, the honest aim of every business man. Only the world was much wickeder than one thought. There seemed to be no limit to evilness. That was Peachum’s deepest conviction, his only one.”

I also liked the poem about war.off-to-war

See also my feature, Before The Deluge, for some more about Brecht.

4th January. Gave a presentation to students on Boston’s Northeastern University Honors Program, organised by the indefatigable author and professor, Michael Patrick McDonald.

 

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