Review: London Rules, by Mick Herron

August 19th, 2019

OK, I’ve said this before and I have to say it again: plot is not Mick Herron’s greatest strength. In this book, the fifth in the Slough House series, a bunch of terrorists blow up some penguins, and the most significant murder is the result of an accident — by one of the heroes. And I think Herron is running out of bad guys. This time, it’s some inept North Koreans who’ve been living in England. All that having been said, the book is great fun and tells the continuing story of Jackson Lamb and his “slow horses”. You either enjoy listening to Lamb insult people in increasingly bizarre ways, or you don’t. And Roderick Ho — or “the Rodster” as he is known by no one — is one of the great comic creations in literature. I’ve already begun the sixth book of the series …

How Netanyahu lost

August 19th, 2019

On October 30, 1972 a little-known author named Arthur Tobier published a book entitled How McGovern Won the Presidency and Why the Polls Were Wrong.

The New York Times described the book as “perhaps premature”. A few days later, Richard Nixon went on to defeat McGovern, as predicted by all the polls, in a historic landslide.

Read my full blog post here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/how-netanyahu-lost/

Review: Spook Street, by Mick Herron

August 12th, 2019

Let me start by saying that having now read the first four books in the Jackson Lamb/Slough House series, I think we can pretty well give up on any expectation that the plots are going to get any more realistic. That having been said, why read the books? Because the characters are, well, characters. Jackson Lamb himself, first of all. It’s taken me about a week to finish the first four books in this series, and I’m not saying it’s addictive, but … I will miss the misfits of Slough House while we wait for Mick Herron to write more books.

Review: Roman Malinovsky: A Life Without A Cause, by Ralph Carter Elwood

August 9th, 2019

The name of Roman Malinovsky is little remembered today, but this was not the case a bit more than a century ago. Malinovsky was one of the most important figures in the Bolshevik Party in the years running up to the first world war. He was, in fact, the most senior Bolshevik in Russia itself while Lenin was in exile. Malinovsky was the head of the Russian Bureau of the party, its representative to the Second International, and — most important — the leader of its faction in the State Duma. In 1914, Malinovsky suddenly resigned his Duma post and fled the country, with no explanation. The Mensheviks declared that had been a paid agent of the tsarist police, the Okhrana. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, called those charges “slander”. Lenin personally led the inquiry which exonerated Malinovsky. But it turned out that the Mensheviks were right: Malinovsky was possibly the most senior agent of the Okhrana among the Bolsheviks (though arguably he had a rival). When he returned to Russia in 1917, assuming that Lenin would continue to protect him, he was tried by a revolutionary court and executed. Ralph Carter Elwood, who passed away last year, wrote this short book more than 40 years ago and it remains an outstanding example of how to tell a complex and fascinating story. Highly recommended.

Review: Real Tigers, by Mick Herron

August 8th, 2019

The third volume in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series of thrillers continues to be as good as promised. Each of the books sees one or more members of his ‘slow horses’ team leave the team (sometimes because they are killed) while newcomers are introduced to replace them. And in each book, the team members — scorned by the official British intelligence services at ‘the Park’ — prove themselves to be rather good at what they do, especially fighting. This book has a rather nuanced look at the bad guys — who may turn out to be not so very bad at all, in some cases. Increasingly, at the heart of the books is an ambitious British Conservative politician named Peter Judd, who resembles the country’s current prime minister in a number of ways, including the description of his hairstyle and the fact that he rides a bicycle. It’s been reported that author Herron may well have known Boris Johnson in his university days, and if that’s the case, and the character is based on inside knowledge, that’s a terrifying prospect.

Review: Dead Lions, by Mick Herron

August 4th, 2019

The second of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb thrillers is as good as the first. But … you have to love the characters. Perhaps ‘love’ is the wrong way of putting it. They are, generally, not very nice people, Lamb in particular. They are constantly insulting each other, lying to each other, and working in the most dysfunctional organisation ever, which may well accurately describe the British intelligence services. But likeable they are not.

They are, however, eminently watchable, and part of the pleasure of watching them is seeing the discarded, despised screw-ups of MI5 who have been exiled to Slough House in the end save the day (yet again).

The story in this second volume is the weak part — it’s all rather implausible, as other reviewers have noted — but that’s not the point.

If I want to read a plausible story about how Russian agents operate in the West, I’d read the Mueller Report.

This is British espionage fiction in the best tradition not only of John le Carré but — dare I say it — of Ian Fleming as well.

Review: Slow Horses, by Mick Herron

July 31st, 2019

To be honest, I never heard of Mick Herron — but having just read a review of the sixth book in the series, I thought I’d give it a go. And I’m hooked. Herron has been compared to John Le Carré, and the comparison is a fair one.

The books revolve around a bunch of misfits, all former employees of MI5, exiled to a place called Slough House somewhere near the Barbican in London, where they seem to be doing meaningless work. The book opens with one of the newcomers to Slough House sifting through the trash of a journalist.

But as the story progresses, the ‘slow horses’ as they care called (get it?) under the command of the overweight, flatulent and chain-smoking boss Jackson Lamb, get involved in a complex case involving British Nazis and corruption at the highest levels of the British intelligence services.

One of the unpleasant characters we meet (and they are mostly unpleasant characters in Herron’s world) is a rising right-wing politician with floppy hair and a quick wit, who has ambitions to someday be Prime Minister. I wonder who the author had in mind.

I have already begun the second book in the series. Highly recommended.

Review: Superman: Red Son, by Mark Millar

July 31st, 2019
Superman: Red Son.

I read this graphic novel with great hope as it was based on a great idea. Imagine if Kal-El, son of Krypton, had landed not in Smallville in the American midwest, but on a collective farm in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the Stalin era.

Sadly, the book does not live up to the possibilities and quickly becomes just another superhero story. All the usual characters are there — Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, etc., as are real figures, such as Stalin himself.

But the authors, while steeped in Superman lore (they recreated the shrunken city of Kandor as Stalingrad), seem fairly ignorant about most (or all) things Soviet.

What a pity. This could have been so much better.

Surpriza malkovro en Texel

July 6th, 2019

My first article in Esperanto – for the website uea.facila.org, which is aimed at people learning the language (hence the short texts in simple Esperanto). I’ll bet that most people who’ve never studied Esperanto will get the gist of this article, and of course Google Translate can help.

Click here to read the article (and listen to it read by someone).

Prospects for the Israeli Left 2019

June 22nd, 2019

Presentation to Ideas for Freeedom, London, 22 June 2019

What are the prospects for the Israeli Left today?

My short answer is: bleak.

In Israel’s first elections following independence in 1949, over 50% of the votes were cast for the two socialist parties, Mapai and Mapam, which won the majority of seats in the Knesset.

Those parties had also dominated the country in the decades leading up to independence, and over the course of many years had set up the kibbutzim, moshavim, trade unions, newspapers, publishing houses, and militias — notably the Palmach — which eventually morphed into the Israel Defence Forces.

Tel Aviv, May Day 1947. Note the slogans – ‘brotherhood of nations’, ‘unity of workers’, ‘solidarity with Arab workers in Palestine’ – none of could be used today by the Israeli Left.

After holding power for three decades, the Left lost it in 1977 to Menachem Begin’s Likud — and then recaptured it in 1992 under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin. That 1992 victory, which resulted in the Oslo accords, was the last time we saw the dominance of the electoral machine of the Israeli left.

Seventy years after independence, in the elections held earlier this year, those two parties (now called Labour and Meretz) won just 8% of the vote. Including the votes of the Arab parties — some of which cannot be considered as Left in any sense — the total reaches about 16%.

Never before has the Left been smaller, and never has it had a worse electoral result than it had in April this year. And there is no guarantee that they will do any better in the upcoming elections in September — though the decision of the parties of the Arab bloc to unite is certainly going to help a bit.

To sum up, the parties of the Israeli Left have gone from complete dominance of national politics to total irrelevance in a single generation.

Beyond electoral collapse

But it’s not just the spectacular electoral collapse that matters.

There’s been a nearly total disappearance of the political culture in which the Israeli Left thrived.

A little more than twenty years ago, three of the daily newspapers in Israel were socialist — most notably the Histadrut trade union federation’s Davar and Mapam’s Al Hamishmar.

Both had existed for many decades and both were shut down in the 1990s. I wrote for Al Hamishmar for a number of years on international affairs. It closed in 1995, and Davar closed a year later.

Only one ostensibly socialist daily newspaper survives in Israel today — Al-Ittihad, the Arabic language newspaper of the Communist Party. It is the only daily newspaper in Arabic in the country.

The newspapers in Israel today are all in decline, and one of the most popular, the free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, is Bibi Netanyahu’s house organ. The only political parties with daily newspapers today are the thriving religious parties, including the ultra-Orthodox ones — which does indicate the importance, even today, of a daily political newspaper.

More important than the decline of the Left press is the collapse of the Histadrut trade union federation, which was until the early 1990s one of the most powerful trade unions in world, with Israel having a very high rate of trade union density.

Thanks to changes introduced by the Labour Party, particularly with regard to national health insurance, hundreds of thousands of workers quit the Histadrut in the 1990s, and according to OECD data, trade union density in Israel fell by 50% in the first years of this century. The once-mighty Histadrut has now been reduced to a rump.

There are a number of smaller unions doing good work, including the Workers Advice Center Ma’an, Koach La’ovdim, and others. But the organised labour movement in Israel is today a spent force, and no longer has a connection to the political parties of the Left. Its former leader Avi Nissenkorn abandoned the Labour Party earlier this year and went on to become a leading figure in the new centrist party headed by Benny Gantz.

Where we stand now

In the face of the collapse and imminent disappearance of the organised Left — especially the Labour Party — the response of the Left’s leadership is to do … more of the same. This is where my questioning of the two-state solution comes from.

For the last two decades or so, the Israeli Left used the slogan of ‘separation’ as a way to reach out to right-wing Israeli Jews who didn’t like, or feared, Palestinians, and for whom the slogan of ‘peace’ was anathema.

One recent media campaign put the two alternatives before the public as ‘annexation’ or ‘separation’ — peace not being considered as an option.

But it didn’t work. It didn’t stop the Left’s decline.

It turns out that Israeli Jewish voters who don’t believe in peace are more likely to vote for a right-wing party like Likud than for tough retired generals who lead parties of the Left or center.

For a whole range of reasons, the Israeli Left appears to be in terminal decline, and instead of looking for new ideas, it repeats the same tired old slogans which convince increasingly smaller numbers of people.

The change that is needed

The only hope is not a change in the leadership of the Labour Party — though that is desperately needed — but a change in the message.

Instead of advocating for ‘separation’ and playing on the fears, the often racist fears, of Arabs, the Left should proudly advocate for peace and co-existence. When the daily newspaper of Mapam, Al Hamishmar, still existed, it had on its masthead the slogan: For socialism, Zionism and the brotherhood of peoples.

Not separation, but brotherhood.

Instead of chasing after the votes of affluent liberal Israelis, mostly in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Left must rediscover its connection to the working class — meaning the largely Sefardic Jewish communities, the Arabs, the new waves of Jewish immigrants including the Russians and Ethiopians, and the many thousand of migrant workers now living in the country, though the last of these do not have the right to vote.

Those communities have been abandoned, given up to the parties of the right.

I believe that they can be reached only if the Israeli Left embraces an explicitly socialist agenda, an agenda that speaks to their need for social justice, for greater equality, for a future filled with hope.

That has been proven by the success of Senator Bernie Sanders in the US, and to a degree by the success of Jeremy Corbyn here. Without a sharp turn to the left, there is no future for Meretz and the Israel Labour Party.

In my view, a new Israeli Left will be born, just as strong trade unions will reappear, because these things are needed.

But there are no short-cuts, and this will be a long and difficult struggle.