Sunday, July 31, 2011


I’ve written a lot on this blog about the alleged invasions of the Suffolk coast – by the Germans at Shingle Street, the Russians at Orford, extraterrestrials at Rendlesham – and about the erosions which really are driving the coastline landwards at Dunwich. Its position – an isolated county at the easternmost tip of England – means it is vulnerable to hostile forces, be they elemental or military, and myths and forebodings abound.

In his recent and excellent book The luminous coast, Jules Pretty writes:

“This east coast has always been in the front line of national defence. During the ice ages, it was linked to Continental Europe by land bridge, and this was how the first modern humans came across as they pressed north, eventually to displace the long-resident Neanderthals. Much later came Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes-Vikings, and finally the Norman armies. After 1066, though, no further invasion efforts were to succeed.”

No military invasions, that is. But the biggest invasion of the last century – which, inexplicably, I’ve never mentioned here – was the North Sea Flood of 1953, which killed 44 people in Suffolk, more in Essex, and thousands in the Netherlands. It was caused by the concurrence of three factors: very low pressure over the north Atlantic, gale force winds over the North Sea and an unusually high tide. One or two of these would not have been abnormal, but the three together were fatal.

A surge of water was pushed southwards from a low pressure zone over Scotland, and by midnight on 31 January / 1 February, an extra 15 billion cubic feet of water was rushing down the eastern coast. “The tide came as a giant standing wave, hundreds of miles long, arriving at King’s Lynn five hours before Harwich, and seven hours before Tilbury on the Thames.” It hit Lincolnshire in late Saturday afternoon; by half-past seven, the water had hit an estate in Hunstanton and swept 65 people under. But due to the gale-force wind, most of the phone lines from King’s Lynn to the Thames Estuary were down and there was no way of warning coastal residents, who were blissfully unaware of the incoming swell of water. “Today,” as Pretty notes, “this is inconceivable.”

Southwold was hit shortly afterwards, the water leaking through to its marshy backyard, effectively turning the town into an island, un upturned boat on which residents perched and hung on for dear life. The sea breaks down doors, rushes through halls and dining-rooms, its level rising and rising, forcing people upstairs. A couple, Rene and Don, rescue their disabled neighbours, the McCarthys, and spend the night in darkness. “At one point they look out of the windows and see the wooden tea room from Walberswick sailing regally upstream, lace curtains silver bright in the moonlight, heading for doom against the waiting bridge.”

Weeks afterwards, when the marshes are finally drained, hundreds of thousands of eels are left wriggling on the wet mud. Five people die at Southwold that night.

Felixstowe was the worst hit town in Suffolk. 39 people died, including 13 children. They lived in the West End of Felixstowe in prefabs which buckled under the force of the water. The eyewitness accounts of that night are terrible. Doris Watkins, who was eight months pregnant, describes how she, her husband and their two children managed to climb to the roof. When they were eventually rescued, she and Bill were taken to hospital, but her two young children were taken to a nearby house where her daughter died.

“Yes, I feel bitter about this. The children should have been taken to the hospital like me. But this had never happened before, the poor people thought they were doing right.”

28 of the 39 casualties in Felixstowe that night were killed as the roofs they clung to were swept out to sea.

Canvey Island was worst hit of all the settlements along the east coast. Jules Pretty describes how husbands helplessly watched their wives drown; how a mother stands knee-deep in water, holding two baby sons who drown in her arms; how a boy stands in five feet of water holding his younger brother until his legs go numb and he has to let him go. “No accounts do justice to the lonely despair, the shouting and urging, and the clawing sense of failure as those smallest children died. All survivors will remember this night for the rest of their lives.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Time to Change, a campaign which aims to raise public awareness about mental health problems, has had much success in changing attitudes. But the events in Norway show why the campaign can only go so far in combating stigma about mental illness.

We do not equate mental illness with violence because we inherently fear mental illness (though clearly we do), but because we fear violence and therefore have to dissociate ourselves from it, to turn the perpetrator into an other by calling him a madman, insane, schizophrenic, paranoid etc. If he is not caught, we become scared that this madman is out there trying to kill us; if and when he is caught, we feel immense relief and eventually forget about him.

This is somewhat ironic for, as Darian Leader writes in today’s Guardian, our attitude is one of classic paranoia:

“Paranoia has three classical components. The paranoiac has located a fault or malignancy in the world, he has named it, and has a message to deliver about it. For Breivik, the conviction is that Europe is rotten, that the name of this rottenness is Islam and that it is his mission to expose and excise it.”

As we know, paranoia doesn’t only happen when that conviction is wrong. We can be paranoid about something that we correctly believe is happening. And therefore, paranoia – and its consequences – have nothing to do with knowing the difference between right and wrong, “since the central feature of paranoia is precisely that the person does know the difference.”

This is what disturbs us most – that the Norwegian attacks have nothing to do with morality – and that is why we must assign Breivik to an alterior space in which right and wrong do not exist. We must banish him to madness.

What is most interesting about this is is that these arguments only arose when we discovered the killer’s identity – i.e. when we discovered he was Norwegian, white, an apparently average Joe. In terror attacks committed by Muslims, I have never heard anybody diagnose the responsible person(s) as mad, schizophrenic, mentally ill etc. It is enough that they are Muslim. That is why they have committed such an evil, not because they are mad. We cannot say this of Breivik because he is one of us, and we (we Western citizens) secretly harbour many of the paranoias and desires that drove him to kill. So we call him mad.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I read an article on holiday by Perry Anderson on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and the conflict that has arisen from it. Written almost ten years ago, it is (as Anderson’s condensations so often are) the best summary of the situation I have read. In it he makes the following points:

1. This is a conflict between two distinct nationalisms. The Palestinian identity was largely forged after the Nakba of 1948. The Zionist cause is older, and its strength lies in its call to tradition, history and theology; its link to a “sacred homeland”; and its influence in Western Europe in the late 19th century.

2. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised Jews a homeland in Palestine, was an imperialist ploy. Britain had secured control of Palestine at Versailles, and it brokered the removal of Arabs from the land by force, and by encouraging the ideological community of the kibbutz. Between the wars, an apartheid was created in which Zionist colonisation of the land was backed by British force. Between 1936 and 1939, the first intifada was crushed by Major-General Orde Wingate’s troops.

3. But there was a certain friction between the British and the settlers. In the mid 1930s, Britain tried to curb Jewish migration. Into the 1940s, the extreme Zionist Irgun paramilitary group tried to defeat Britain and take full control of Palestine. The USSR were impressed by the Irgun’s anti-imperialism and initially supported them.

4. In 1947, Britain handed over its mandate to the UN, which in practice meant the US. Palestine became officially split between Arabs and Jews (though at that stage, Jews represented 35% of the population and gained 55% of the land). A Palestinian uprising was crushed, and Israel was created; Arab national armies invaded Israel, but were crushed; a deal was struck with Jordan, a client state of Britain, by which Israel were awarded a much enlarged state and Jordan took the West Bank.

5. 700,000 Arabs, around 50%, were forced from Palestine during the late 1940s, and a huge proportion of Arab land was seized. “In early 1947, Jews owned 7% of the land of Palestine. By the end of 1950, they had appropriated 92% of land within the new state.” A handful of Arabs remained as refugees. While it is generally accepted that the Holocaust provided the moral justification for the creation of Israel (and, therefore, the Nakba), there was little or no link at the time; this reasoning has been applied retroactively.

6. Israeli citizenship became based on “blood and faith – confessional and biological criteria combining to define actual or potential citizens in full right as those individuals either born of a Jewish mother, or of attested Mosaic persuasion, regardless of physical location.” Palestinian refugees were denied the right of return; more generally, Arabs were denied ownership rights, entry into armed services, political organisation etc. Israel was generally more supportive of international Jews than Arab states were of Palestinian refugees. Israel received huge financial support from the diaspora, German reparations and – especially military support – the US.

7. The 1950s saw the emergence of new Arab nationalisms in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Israel attempted to fight this threat by colluding with France and Britain. In 1956, the three states invaded Egypt on the pretext of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The US, fearful that Egypt might ally with the USSR, halted the conflict. But in 1967, the US supported the Israeli pre-emptive assault on Egypt. Israel made huge territorial gains (Sinai, Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem) and 1.5m Palestinians were brought under Israeli military occupation. In 1973, Israel launched a further defensive attack on Egypt, and by 1979, Egypt gave in and allied itself with the US in return for Sinai. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, gaining a buffer zone for its northern borders. Such victories meant Israel now had to manage large numbers of Palestinian refugees within its borders; meanwhile, Jewish settlements began incrementally to colonise the occupied territories.

8. In 1987, the first modern intifada spontaneously rose up. It never really threatened Israel, but it was only really dampened by the US invasion of Iraq. The 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords led to limited IDF withdrawal in exchange for a cessation of Palestinian attacks on the Israeli occupation.

9. The Accords were universally lauded, but they did not alter the fact that here was an occupation based on brutality. The IDF remains in charge of most of the West Bank; many roads can only be accessed by Israelis; Jewish settlements increase weekly; and the income of Palestinians has plummeted. Not surprisingly, Palestinian attacks increased during the 1990s. Israel tried to do a deal with Arafat whereby they annexed all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since this would have netailed Palestinians abandoning all hope of a return to 1967 borders, Arafat refused and a second intifada was unleashed.

10. Edward Said, “the most courageous and lucid critic of the Oslo Accords,” believed that the moral dimension was the Palestinian cause’s only real strength, and that the world should react as it had done earlier to apartheid-era South Africa. The problem with this is that the Afrikaner regime enjoyed virtually nil international support, especially in the US, whereas US sympathies tend to be with Israel rather than the Palestinians.

11. In the US, criticising Israel is risky. “For many years American Zionism has had little difficulty stifling any serious dissent, automatically typecast as ‘self-hating’ if Jewish or ‘anti-Semitic if Gentile.” Indeed, anti-Zionist criticism is heard more in Israel than in the US.

12. Israel has taken a neoliberal turn since the 1990s. This has further disenfranchised Palestinians who are not allowed to purchase land. “The country has becomes one of the two most unequal societies in the advanced capitalist world.”

13. Labour and Likud share similar socio-economic policies, but very different electoral bases. Their distinctions tend to be tactical, rather than substantial. Labour is more pragmatic, Likud more dogmatic. “Neither side has any intention of contemplating real national sovereignty for the Palestinians.”

14. “Post-Zionists” have seriously considered only two alternatives to a Zionist state. 1) a ‘bi-national’ state (unlikely, given the “antagonistic ethnic nationalisms”). 2) partition, under pretty terrible terms for the Palestinians (they would get 15% of Israel; territory would be divided into two chunks, with no harbour; no defence force would be allowed; no reparations would be paid). (An alternative model by the Frenchman Guy Mandrou was, at least, geographically contiguous and had equivalent security forces to Israel.)

15. Morally and realistically, a Palestinian state would need to contain equal resources (as Israeli and Palestinian populations are similar and a port, namely Haifa. It would need to abandon Gaza but cover the West Bank and Eats Jerusalem and the coast from Lebanon to Haifa, and should be the recipient of reparations.

Given this pessimistic outlook, Anderson then asks whether there are any chinks in the Israeli carapace. He finds one: its reliance on the US (and others). “But how would America ever contemplate such a betrayal? The answer lies, as it has done ever since the fifties, in the Arab world.

And here is where it gets exciting. He says the only real possibility of changes lies with “Egypt with its population, and Saudi Arabia with its petroleum”. If either of these powers – Mubarak or the House of Saud – were ever overthrown, “the fate of Palestinians would instantly alter.”

Anderson is, again, pessimistic. “The dismal political history of the Arab world over the last half-century gives little reason for thinking this is likely in the short-run.” But we know differently. However much we are becoming accustomed to unforeseeable events in the news (cf. News International), we should not forget what an extraordinary achievement the Egyptian Revolution is.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


In the last couple of weeks, I have been stuck in 1912 – or, less specifically, in the years leading up to the First World War, the period in which the twentieth century truly began.

A hundred or so years ago, Bethnal Green was one of London’s poorest districts. It had been the victim of a downturn in trade – particularly silk-weaving, which had been prevalent up until the beginning of the 19th century – and being carved up by the destructive force of the railways. Where once there had stood country cottages and market gardens, now there were overcrowded slums and violent crime (Jack the Ripper operated from around here in 1888), and both Engels and Mayhew wrote about the desperate poverty there (the latter describing “pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat's meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and lakes of putrefying night soil”). Such was the moral outcry that Bethnal Green became the test site for the world’s first Council housing, the Boundary Road estate, though only a tiny handful of the evicted slum-dwellers got the chance to move there.

This is the background for Alexander Baron’s novel King Dido, published in 1969 and entirely out of kilter with the contemporary literary fashions. Baron’s traditional, kitchen-sink style belies his disgust at the conditions in which people had to live. The main character, Dido Peach, is the son of a violent, bullying father and a devout mother who has given up on real life and retreated to a world of fantasies. The family earns a meagre by boiling rags and selling them on, until Dido takes on the Murchisons, a family from Brick Lane who have colonised the neighbourhood by terrorising and extorting money from the local shopkeepers. Dido takes on the mantle of protector, taking protection money and fending off the Murchisons’ retaliations. He marries, has a child (conceived during a rape) and, via a tissue of lies and self-deception, achieves the respectability he craves, until the Police intervene and reduce him, once again, to poverty and humiliation.

Baron never portrays Peach as a hero and yet, despite his crimes, we come to occupy his shoes and see how the desolate hand he has been dealt might make him act as he does. He and his wife, in their different ways, look down on the people around them, and yet however much they aspire to something better, something which they feel they deserve, neither quite manages it and Dido is left to die in the only place he knows.

All this is grim enough, but it is the final chapter in which Baron reveals his revulsion. It is a short, curt, angry chapter, in which he lists the fates of the main characters, including Dido’s teenage brothers:

Chas went to France with the Expeditionary Force and was blown to pieces within a month. Shonny joined up under age and before he was eighteen he was killed at Ypres, his apple cheeks worm-eaten.

Mrs Peach was said by the women in the shops to be mental, with her wandering eyes and puzzled, private mutterings; and Ada took her away. Ada never wished to see or hear of her brother again and Mrs Peach never again saw her son.

One suspects that many members of the bourgeois classes felt about the First World War as Inspector Merry does: that it wiped out the proletariat in numbers that sheer poverty could only dream of. “He crossed the road and surveyed the street as he strolled. It was quieter these days. The war, of course, had taken the men away. In fact the war in his view had done a bit of good down here. The roughs had turned out to be a patriotic lot, all rushing to join up at the start of it; and by now most of them were heaps of rags on the plains of France.”

Peter Watts at the Great Wen does an excellent job of excavating the streets where King Dido is set here and here.

Percy Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists were at least as furious at the barbarism of capitalism, colonialism and war in the 1910s. Owen Hatherley has written about the Vorticists on his blog, and more fully in his Militant Modernism book. And my wife has dredged her limitless expertise on all things cinematic and graphic novel to reveal, rather wonderfully, that the Vorticists were more influential than you think.

Meanwhile, here are my favourite pieces from the current Tate exhibition:

David Bomberg, Vision of Ezekiel

Jacob Epstein, Female figure

Jacob Epstein, Female figure

Percy Wyndham Lewis, The crowd

Edward Wadsworth, Newcastle (in lieu of Cleckheaton)

Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Ornement torpille

Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Fish

Dorothy Shakespear, Composition in blue and black

Dorothy Shakespear, Untitled

Sunday, July 17, 2011


The first time I ever travelled abroad was in 1990, when I was nine. We flew to Split, then still part of the SFRY, and then caught a ferry to the island of Brac. My main memory of that evening journey was seeing framed photos of Tito (who had, by then, been dead for 10 years) all over the walls of the boat.

Any political ferment was lost on me, but I guess it must have been a fascinating time to travel in Yugoslavia, particularly as by then the tendency towards nationalism, antipathy towards Serbian dominance and market economics would have been in full swing.

I, meanwhile, was much more interested in snorkelling and trying squid for the first time.

We returned to Brac for our honeymoon last year, and again at the beginning of this month. It has more or less recovered the tourist revenues it lost during the Yugoslav Wars, and the pictures on the ferry are now of the Pope. In my opinion, it is as close to paradise as any place I know - a mixture of mountainous coastal scenery, clear blue sea, Butlins holiday camp and old-school Ostalgia. I'm not ashamed to admit that it brings out in me a retrograde nostalgia for something which has never existed - a kind of innocent utopia, played out to a soundtrack of 80s power ballads and Balkan folk dances.

Here is a picture of Bol harbour taken, I would guess, in the 1930s.

On the surface, little has changed in the intervening years.

Yet, Brac is now in Croatia. When I first went, it was part of Socialist Yugoslavia. When the first photo was taken, it was part of post-Versailles Yugoslavia. In between, it was occupied by fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany. Before that, it was in the hands of Montenegro, France, Hungary, the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, the Republic of Venice, the Roman Empire and the Illyrian kingdoms. Beneath its placid exterior, it is a place of seemingly constant flux.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Something sickly and sentimental in the human character usually takes pity on somebody who is ganged up on, however deplorable they might be, which just goes to show what a scumbag ex Screws hack Paul McMullan really is. This clip of Steve Coogan and Greg Dyke on Newsnight has gone so viral, you've probably seen it already. But having been on holiday last week, I've only just caught up with up it - and it really does bear repeated watching.

Enjoy (especially 6'10" onwards):

More on how the News Corp has implicated the entire ruling class here.