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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Serious Fraud



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The Serious Fraud Office exists, as its name suggests, to detect and prosecute fraud in Britain, but satirists like to say that its initials, SFO, really stand for Serious Farce Office. For three years it has been conducting investigations into allegations concerning Saudi Arabia, with many fateful repercussions, if proved true. BAE (British Aerospace)  is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of advanced military equipment including aircraft. For years it has been the leading defence contractor to the Saudis, supplying fighters and missiles worth tens of billions of pounds. In pursuit of another profitable contract for 72 Typhoons, otherwise known as Eurofighters, BAE supposedly set up a slush fund of sixty million pounds, and with this money it has been providing bakshish, apartments, Rolls-Royces and call-girls, to those Saudi princes who need such sweeteners before they unscrew their pens and sign contracts. Swiss banks are providing further evidence of corruption. Saudis habitually plead that such transactions are not in the least corrupt, but just the way they do business, a nice native custom. But several BAE executives have actually been arrested.

The SFO investigation seems to be coming to a head at last, and the Saudis are very far from pleased. To prevent exposure, they threaten to suspend all contracts, and not to sign new ones. More than that, and virtually substantiating that there is much to hide, one of the multifarious Saudi princes has rushed to Paris, where a slobbering Jacques Chirac is already drawing up a contract to replace the Typhoons with French-made Rafales. European Union means less than nothing; when money on this scale is at stake, here’s another Serious Farce all its own.

The British Attorney General, a cabinet minister and lawyer by the name of Lord Goldsmith, has the power to call off the investigation for the sake of the national interest. Not long ago, he was subjected to great pressure to give a favourable judgement on the legality of going to war in Iraq – which he duly did. Now BAE, the business world, the unions worried about British jobs, the media, are similarly pressuring him to let the Saudis have the Rolls-Royces and call-girls apparently so indispensable to them. In that case, Serious Farce Office is a description that serves its purpose. And Eurabia, here we come.

Putin’s Polonium



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At least we now know that Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB officer murdered in London, died through somehow ingesting polonium 210, a rare radio-active material.  This is not among murder weapons in everyday use,  as it has to be produced in highly sophisticated laboratories, of which there are few, and all of them under the control of one state or another. It is of course possible that criminals bought or stole it from one such laboratory.

Everyone concurs that the murder serves only the hierarchy ruling in the Kremlin. A law was passed last June authorising Russian secret services to kill people abroad. In a statement made just before his death, Litvinenko directly accuses President Vladimir Putin himself of responsibility for the murder. Unless the Russians do everything possible to help investigation, the assumption has to be that Putin indeed inspired the killing. So far Putin prevaricates.  Bizarrely he has described the murder as a non-violent deed and uttered what used to be the standard Soviet riposte that here is a “political provocation.” Further, the Russians claim that Litvinenko was murdered by his friends as “a pawn” in their games.  Which has to be nonsense.

The relationship of Russia and the West now hangs in the air. This is not some lurid incident suitable as background for a thriller; instead it is a serious test of the balance of forces in the world today. Should Putin and the Russians maintain their attitude of indifference and dismissal, their contempt for the West will be unmistakable. Opportunity calls: they may well be prepared to square up to Muslims in the belief that ultimate supremacy over Europe will fall to them. The British authorities so far give every indication of wishing this murder would just go away. Should they maintain this craven attitude and fail to confront Russia, then they will deserve the contempt – and worse – evidently coming to them. 

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“foul, strange, and unnatural”



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“Murder most foul,” as Shakespeare put it, going on, “foul, strange, and unnatural.” That is what we are seeing in London today. Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB colonel and declared enemy of Vladimir Putin, has died in hospital. Everything about the unfortunate man’s fate is indeed strange and unnatural. Scotland Yard, investigating the case, is treating the death as “unexplained,” rather than a murder inquiry. This suggests that the authorities may try to sweep it all under the carpet.  But shortly before he died, Litvinenko is reported to have told a friend, “The bastards got me.”

To confuse the issue further, the doctors now say that they can’t be sure what poison was used to kill him, but talk of cyto-toxic drugs that kill cells and cause a rapid decline of the kind Litvinenko suffered. The KGB has a laboratory that experiments along these lines. On the day of his death, Litvinenko met in restaurants one Andrei Lugovoy,  a former KGB officer like himself, as well as an Italian by the name of Mario Scaramella, a shadowy figure said to work for one or more intelligence agencies. Both proclaim their innocence.

To cap it all, Moscow now declares that Litvinenko was too unimportant to kill. The implication clearly is that important people may expect to be killed. Those who know the Kremlin – and first and foremost among them is Oleg Gordievsky, himself a one-time KGB defector – think that Moscow totally misjudged the effect that this murder would have, in the belief that it would pass unnoticed. Actually the murder reveals that the Soviet Union is arising, vampire-like, from its grave.

A Death in Lebanon



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The murder of Pierre Gemayel is a very serious threat, carrying the risk of bringing down the Lebanese government, with the prospect either of civil war or the seizure of power by Hezbollah, the agents sponsored to regain control of Lebanon on behalf of Syria.  A member of one of the most influential Christian families, Gemayel was firmly anti-Syrian, and the Syrians have previously murdered several relations, including his uncle Bashir, the president of Lebanon in an earlier crisis. This latest murder in the series comes right from the top of the Syrian regime and its ruling Baathist party. The timing is most exactly calculated. What everyone is able to deduce from the departure of Donald Rumsfeld and leaks of the Baker-Hamilton commission is that the whole American position in the Middle East is unravelling fast, and now is therefore the moment to strike. In a real sense, Gemayel is a prime victim of a perceived change of direction arising from the American midterm elections. Damascus of course denies culpability, which is brazen effrontery, and wholly unbelievable. That is how they do things there.

At the same time, in London some unidentified murderer used the sophisticated tool of radiated thallium to try to kill Alexander Litvinenko, and he may well have succeeded – Litvinenko is at death’s door in a London hospital, speechless and poisoned. A former colonel in today’s KGB, he was in exile, and moved in the circle of other Russian exiles, notably some oligarchs fleeing for their lives from the ever more tyrannical regime of Vladimir Putin. As a freelance with good neo-KGB contacts, Litvinenko was investigating the murder of Anna Politovskaya, the courageous journalist who exposed Putin’s brutal policy towards the Chechens. He also published fierce anti-Putin articles in the Chechen press. One friend of Litvinenko’s is Oleg Gordievsky, himself a senior KGB officer before he defected to London in Soviet days. Gordievsky thinks that the KGB once attempted to kill Anna Politovskaya by poisoning and most probably shot her in the end.  Of this latest outrage he says, “Of course it is state-sponsored. He was such an obvious enemy. Only the KGB is able to do this.”  Moscow is silent so far, which is its form of effrontery. That is how they do things there. 

These two disgusting acts of violence are not in the least coincidental, but parallel events that tell us all we need to know about absolute regimes. Killing people is the preferred means to their simple end of acquiring and holding power.  The repetition is as horrible as the deeds themselves. The Soviets used thallium to poison its victims abroad, and so did Saddam Hussein, and all such regimes are only gunmen in uniform or in disguise. The moral is very clear: the United States must concede nothing to Russia and especially not to Syria. Talks, negotiation, compromise, the kind of overtures the Baker-Hamilton crowd are seemingly working on, will really condemn the American position everywhere to unravel.  To go along in any degree with the way Russians and Syrians do things disastrously combines moral disgrace with political suicide.

Supporting Israel Could Get You Killed



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Bangladesh is a country about which most Westerners know little or nothing. Somehow the news that does get through is not good. Not long ago, a young woman writer was forced to flee into exile because she was asking for rights taken for granted outside the Muslim world. Now there is the case of Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury. In Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, he founded a magazine with the title The Weekly Blitz, and has published and edited it. The magazine calls for moderation, and rejects the Wahhabi extremism that Saudi Arabia is doing its utmost to export there, as everywhere, and which is causing such political and moral chaos. More than that, Choudhury believes in interfaith dialogue and advocates opening relations between Israel and the Muslim world.

First armed gangs came to bomb his office, and to loot its computers and funds. Then the authorities arrested him and maltreated him, persecuting his family. Now he is up for trial on a charge of sedition, no less, as “a spy for Israel.” The penalty for sedition may very well be death. On his website, Mr. Choudhury writes that he is proud to be a “Zionist” — the inverted commas are his — and continues, “My enemies could never crush my spirit and faith.” Also, “Time has taught us to endure extreme adversity.”

This remarkable and courageous man should not be abandoned to monstrous victimization. Everyone who believes in our common humanity should protest on his behalf. If there is any hope for the Muslim world it lies in free spirits like him. Until he is able to say what he thinks, none of us are really free either.

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Euro Drivel



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The European Union cares ever so greatly about the well-being of us all, and has passed laws about the obligatory strapping of children into car seats. A kind reader writes in to explain the relevant EU Directive 2003/20/EC, all in its own idiom.

Article 1.3 states : “Child restraints shall be classified in five ‘mass groups’: (a) group O for children of a mass of less than 10kg; (b) group )O+ for children of a mass of less than 13kg; (c) group I for children of a mass of from 9kg to 18kg; (d) group II for children of a mass from 15kg to 25 kg; (e) group III for children of a mass from 22 kg to 36kg.”

Article 2.1. (a) (i) classifies vehicle types as ‘M1, N1, N2, and N3’ and defines the safety system fitted for children less than 150cm in height occupying M1, N1, N2 and N3 vehicles and further clarification is given at (ii) and (iii)  (b,c and d).

It’s hilarious to think of the thousands of bureaucratic man-hours that must have gone into drafting this drivel – hilarious until you realise that this is how the continent expresses its death-wish. 

The Message from Hungary



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On October 23, exactly 50 years ago, the Hungarian revolution broke out. Let’s commemorate the brave people who then took to the streets. More than a revolution, it was a fight for freedom. The whole nation took part in it. They wanted to be rid of the Communism that Stalin had imposed on them through the Red Army. Among other symbolic gestures, the Communists had pulled down a famous church and erected a monster statue of Stalin in bronze on the site. The first act of the freedom fighters was to take metal cutters and demolish that statue, leaving nothing but Stalin’s empty boots on a plinth. Similarly in Baghdad in 2003?

Hungarian soldiers were obliged to wear a Red Star cap-badge, and one of the sounds of the time was the tinkle these cap-badges made when whole units threw them off. Hungarian soldiers and policemen joined the freedom fighters, established themselves in a cinema and a barracks, and fought off the Soviet army. More than epic, it was Homeric, something to remind mankind of the heights we can rise to in order to be free. Dragged along by events, the newly installed Prime Minister Imre Nagy did his best, but he had behind him a lifelong career as a Communist, and he made the fatal mistake of trusting the Russians. We know now that Khrushchev and the Politburo in the Kremlin always preferred a military solution to a political compromise with Hungary. They tricked the Hungarians into coming to arrange a treaty, arrested the delegation, sent the tanks in, smashed up everything, judicially murdered Nagy and at least 300 others, imprisoned over 20,000 and drove 200,000 into exile in the West.

“Help Hungary. Help!” was the final appeal on the radio, put out by Gyula Hay, the playwright and in his day a veteran Communist too. In sad fact, the United States did nothing, making it plain that the Soviets could do their worst. On hearing that a revolution had broken out, President Eisenhower limited himself to saying, “The heart of America goes out to the people of Hungary.” Heart is all very well, but what about muscle? Robert Murphy, then undersecretary of state and an experienced trouble-shooter, summed up Washington’s failure: “Perhaps history will demonstrate that the free world could have intervened to give Hungarians the liberty they sought, but none of us in the State Department had the skill or the imagination to devise a way.”

The problem may change geographical location, but not its essence. What’s to be done about tyranny? “Help Iraq. Help!” is the message that Iraqi bloggers are putting out more and more urgently. This time the free world indeed intervened to give people their liberty, and again the State Department seems to lack the skill and imagination needed for devising the way to realize it. The Hungarian revolution marked the moment when the inhumanity of Communism was shown up as unbearable, and its doom therefore certain one day. Events in Iraq mark the moment when the inhumanity of Arab and Muslim political order is shown up as unbearable. A day of reform will come, and then the free world can take pride that it did more than show a well-meaning but futile heart.

Iranian Persecution



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Last year I went to listen to a lecture by Ramin Jahanbegloo. A philosopher, he was at ease building on arguments from the great thinkers of the West.  Born in Iran, he studied in the Paris of the 1970s and 1980s, and not the least remarkable thing about him is that he avoided falling for the violent idiocies of men like Sartre and Foucault and Lacan, then fashionable. Instead of revolution, Jahanbegloo believes in change and reform through non-violence. That’s his message, preached with sincerity — and, it may be admitted, a touch of naivety. He wrote one book in praise of Gandhi, and another consisting of interviews with Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher who familiarised the concept of pluralism and its centrality to democracy. The publisher tells me that these conversations with Berlin are about to go into a third printing in China, of all astonishing outcomes.

As a wise precaution, Jahanbegloo took out Canadian citizenship. Some years ago, he felt it was safe to return to Iran, and there he set up his Cultural Research Bureau, a think-tank to promote his ideas of non-violence and pluralism. This April he was arrested and held without charge, accused of “having contacts with foreigners.”  That is enough for arbitrary imprisonment and torture in Ahmedinejad’s messianic and nuclear-bound Iran. In academic and Iranian exile circles, there was great fear about his fate, especially considering the terrible recent precedent of Zahra Kazemi. Born in Iran, she too had acquired Canadian citizenship, but they arrested her and murdered her in prison. As a deputy minister put it at the time, “We still don’t know whether it was the object that hit her head or her head hit the object.”

Some compromise has been reached with Jahanbegloo. He has been released, and apparently will be allowed to leave for India where he researching for a new book. But they have put a bail on the mortgages he has for his house and his mother’s. The Soviets didn’t allow private property, and so the Iranians can certainly take the credit for a new refinement in the persecution of free spirits.

The Murder of Anna



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Someone has gunned down Anna Politkovskaya in the elevator of her apartment block in Moscow – when I was researching my book on the fall of Communism, my driver and minder insisted on accompanying me even, indeed especially, in the elevator. Anna was someone other commentators met in Moscow. Born in New York as the daughter of Soviet diplomats, she was what Mrs Thatcher liked to call “one of us.” Slight in build, serious, with big spectacles, she was highly intelligent, and a first-class journalist. Russian brutality in the war against the Chechens shocked her, and she was not afraid to write about it. It’s no exaggeration to say that she was the foremost critic of President Putin and his megalomaniac and destructive policies.

A few years back, Galina Staravoitova was similarly shot dead in front of the house where she lived. She was a cheerful plumpish lady, a member of the Duma or Parliament, and a specialist on the many minority peoples in Russia, whose interests mattered to her. Nobody was ever arrested for the killing of Galina, and it is a safe bet that nobody will now be arrested for the murder of Anna. It gets between me and peace of mind that people I have run across can be rubbed out so easily and inconsequentially.

Who profits from such deaths if not the Kremlin ? Who can get away with killing if not the Kremlin or its agents ? Another free-spirited Russian I have come across is Oleg Gordievsky, the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to defect. When the Kursk submarine was lost with all hands, he was watching out for Putin’s reaction, and immediately commented, Look at the coldness in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, that tells you everything about the man. Oleg defected in the mid-1980s, but he still lives under cover out of a well-founded fear that these never-identified Russian gunmen will come for him too. Over there, they still don’t know what to do with free spirits except shoot them dead.

Paying for Treachery



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Kim Philby is a household name as a traitor, while George Blake remains virtually unknown although he did more damage and was responsible for the arrest, torture and execution of an estimated 400 men and women working against Communism and the Soviet Union. His life-story is certainly strange. Half Dutch, half Egyptian, he joined MI 6, the British intelligence service during the world war. The North Koreans captured him in the course of the Korean war, and turned him. Back in Britain, he copied almost 5,000 pages of top-level secret information, so that his Soviet controllers knew pretty much everything that was to be known.  Identified and arrested in 1960, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 42 years in prison, but then in an ingenious plot surely orchestrated by the KGB he was spirited away from his London prison to Moscow. There he lives to this day, untroubled and receiving a pension from Russia for services rendered.

There is worse. In 1990 he wrote his autobiography, for which his British publishers proposed to pay him £60,000, or about $120,000 in today’s values. Mrs Thatcher’s government took legal action to prevent him profiting from his treason. The British courts ruled that this was only right, and the publishers paid the money to charity.  Now the European Court of Human Rights, a European body that sits in Strasbourg and makes up its law as it goes along, has ruled that the Thatcher government breached Blake’s human rights. Disgracefully, this court found no  “causal link” between Blake’s treason and the government’s violation of his human rights. In the opinion of the judges, he had suffered “distress and frustration.” Blake is to receive compensation to the tune of £4,690, including costs. Monetarily, the sum may not be that much, but as the historian Andrew Roberts aptly puts it in the Daily Mail, “This decision means that taxpayers are subsidising treachery.”

And that is still not the worst of it. This whole travesty arises because the present Blair government incorporated lock, stock and barrel into British law the European Convention on Human Rights, a monument to political correctness at its zenith. The Strasbourg Court is thus in a position to go against British law, to trump it, dictating to British citizens who have no possible recourse or appeal in their own courts. Folly and injustice of the sort can only breed disrespect for the law, a sense that sane people must take the law into their own hands, and finally – if common-sense continues to be scorned in this way – a national uprising.

Americans, free people everywhere, be warned! Have nothing to do with international courts.

Belated Justice



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At the age of 84, Mrs. Elfriede Rinkel must have thought she’d got away with it. She built a trim little alibi, living in San Francisco and marrying a German Jewish husband, who has died. But the U.S. Department of Justice was catching up with her, and she has been deported back to the Germany from which she once fled. What she kept secret all these years is that she was a warder at Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. Spare a thought for the 90,000 or more who were murdered there, among them Franz Kafka’s fascinating girlfriend, Milena Jesenka. One survivor was Margarete Buber-Neumann, who wrote a magnificent, indeed historic, account of her ordeal as a prisoner in both Soviet and Nazi camps.

Mrs. Rinkel may have seen these great women, but she would not have singled them out from all the others with their striped clothes and shaven heads and potential for typhoid. Her job was to patrol with dogs, for as she puts it, “You have to watch so they don’t run away.”  Absurdly, insultingly, she goes on to claim that she knew nothing about what was going on inside the camp. So why might the women run away ? What need was there for dogs trained to attack and kill?

Back in Germany, she can have a reunion with Günter Grass who kept his SS past a secret. Such veterans of Hitler hope that the rest of us will come to feel sorry for them. But like so much else in life, justice is better late than never.

Mozart and the Pope



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Opera librettos are hardly the place where you might expect to pick up insight into the human condition, let alone commentary on issues of the day. And yet, and yet. In depressing times like these, I turn to Offenbach, a composer who has in him the crystal pure spirit of comedy. La Périchole is rarely performed, alas. The heroine is a street singer, and she has a wonderful aria with the refrain, “My God, how stupid people are.”

As for Mozart, whose 250th anniversary is now being celebrated, we can recruit him to defend our values. In his opera Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail, a party of Westerners are in the hands of Muslim Turks. In a duet with a startlingly contemporary resonance, Osmin, one of the Turks, thinks he can do as he likes with the marvellously named Blonde, because his master, the Pasha, has given her to him as a slave. Blonde stands up to Osmin with the words, “Girls aren’t goods to be given away, “ and she goes on, “I’m an English woman, and for that reason nobody ever compelled me to do anything against my will.” When she repels Osmin saying, “Don’t you dare touch me,” he replies, “Don’t oblige me to use force.” Finally the indomitable Blonde tells him to shove off – the libretto has a fairly coarse verb – and he shoves off, complaining that the English must be mad to allow their women to have free will. 

Someone ought to present a recording of Entfuehring to the Vatican, since Pope Benedict is only taking Mozart’s point about the use of force in personal relations, and enlarging it.

Making a Fool of a Fool



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Literary London is enjoying a belly-laugh at the expense of one A.N.Wilson, a writer of many books and even more newspaper columns. He has just published a biography of John Betjeman, in his day the Poet Laureate and one of the most popular of poets in any age. In this biography is a letter purportedly from Betjeman to the Irish and long dead writer Honor Tracy, and Wilson uses this to improvise about their affair, conjuring up alcohol-fuelled lunches and afternoons in a rented room.

Honor Tracy was a lesbian – but let that pass. The letter is a quite brilliant pastiche of Betjeman, slang and all, and it contains an implanted acrostic – the first letters of its sentences read, “A.N. Wilson is a shit.”  A well-wisher by the name of Eve de Harben had sent Wilson the letter about Honor Tracy, and he had failed to spot either that this name was an anagram of “ever been had” or the lethal acrostic.

The author of the hoax stands revealed as Bevis Hillier, a learned and clever fellow, author of a previous biography of Betjeman in three immense volumes. Wilson had steadily disparaged and ignored this work, creating bad blood.  Detecting grudge and envy, Hillier got his own back with this exposé of Wilson’s carelessness.

As a matter of fact, Wilson is prone to pratfalls. He cultivates a side-line in pro-fascist, anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli propaganda. In that spirit he trumpeted the Palestinian lie that an operation in 2002 killing some fifty terrorists in the West Bank town of Jenin was “a massacre, and cover-up for genocide.” He talks about the “Zionist SS” and how Israel poisons the wells, and indeed has no right to exist. His master-stroke was to publish a tirade against Israel that had apparently been written by an Israeli overcome with horror at what his country was doing. In fact, this too was a hoax, penned by a notorious neo-Nazi by the name of Michael Hoffman. The London newspaper that had run Wilson’s bloop published a grovelling apology.

Eve de Harben may be a comic turn, but it proves the point all right.  

Life in Full



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George Faludy, a voice inside me has been saying for weeks, it’s time to read his book again. Its wonderful title, My Happy Days in Hell, pretty much gives the story away.  A Hungarian poet with a big reputation in his own country, in 1938 he saw the coming of the Germans and Nazism, and fled to France. When the Germans caught up with him there, he fled on to North Africa, and then to the United States where he enlisted in the American army. After the war, he returned to Hungary. Fatal mistake. A classicist quoting Greek and Latin, a linguist, a man of the world and lover of life in all its richness, he could never have been a Communist. Sure enough, they arrested him as an American agent, and he confessed that he had indeed been recruited by Captain Edgar Allen Poe and Major Walt Whitman, both of them reporting to the sinister club-footed chief Z.E. Bubbel, an anagram of Belzebub. So they sent him to the infamous concentration camps of Kistarcsa and Recsk. After the 1956 revolution he escaped again to the United States, only to return home to Hungary after the collapse of Communism.

His memoir spoke to me with the warmth and brilliance I remembered from some forty years ago when it was first published. Why not get in touch with the man in what must be his old age, and tell him so?  I know a good friend and fan of his, who not long ago wrote an admiring article about him. So I sent her an email to ask how to get in touch with Faludy. She answered that at the very moment she was hearing from me, she also received the news that Faludy had just died in Budapest.  One of Faludy’s Hungarian friends was Arthur Koestler, someone also with a touch of genius and his own experiences of modern hell; and who firmly believed that inside voices and coincidences such as this are evidence of a reality which physics as yet is unable to bring within the bounds of science.

“beautiful and kind-hearted people”



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Many a time over the years I have been to the Gaza Strip. Time was when I stayed in the hotel on the square in Gaza City, and marvelled to find English plumbing.  Once it was possible to explore there, to talk to people and learn from them. No longer. Now every visitor, especially a reporter from the foreign media, is in the hands of a Fatah or a Hamas official who will control what is to be seen and heard.

The kidnapping of the two Fox journalists, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig, is a serious warning to the whole press corps that the Palestinians are now determined to allow only their version of events to be published. Every reporter in the Strip will carry a memory of what happened to that pair.

Sure, they weren’t beheaded, but their lives were spared only when they agreed to convert to Islam. In all probability, anyone in those dire circumstances would have behaved as they did, saving their own lives as it must have seemed. The humiliation of the Christians must have seemed to the Muslim captors more rewarding in terms of publicity than murder for the television cameras, Baghdad-style.

However, the Koran explicitly states that, “there is no compulsion in religion.”  What happened to Centanni and Wiig, then, is forbidden. As far as I know, not a single Muslim cleric has denounced these gun-point conversions carried out to make a political point. Christian spokesmen equally have nothing to say on the subject. The men themselves seem to have limited themselves to utterances about the Palestinians being “beautiful and kind-hearted people.”  This whole episode may look small, and to be speedily overlooked, but actually it illuminates a large and lurid reality.

The Show Is On



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Erwood is a very small village in mid-Wales, where I live. Every year, the surrounding farmers get together at the end of August for a show. They aim to win prizes for their sheep, their dogs, and horses. Immaculately turned-out children trot and canter round the ring on immaculately turned-out ponies.  Everybody seems to know, or at least be able to identify, everybody else.  Men and women here are living as generations before them have lived.  There’s a beer tent of course, and among the many stands is a bookseller. From him I bought for about ten dollars P. G.Wodehouse’s Very Good, Jeeves in its prewar orange binding. Opening the book at random, I found the hero Bertie Wooster describing a girlfriend as “a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rock-bound coast.” What Islamists are really up against, I thought as the sun was sending evening shadow across the Welsh hills, is a show like this, native manners, and humor.

Spying in On Injustice



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A German news agency has reported that Hezbollah men have executed eighteen Lebanese accused of spying for Israel.  Lebanon has a judicial process, but it was not involved.  Hezbollah alone directed and carried out the process of putting these eighteen to death. I have no idea if any of them were spies for Israel, but it seems most unlikely. Eighteen?  All caught at work in the short time-frame of the fighting?  And how come Hezbollah is allowed to take what here is laughably called the law into its own hands? My suspicion is that the eighteen merely expressed what many, even most, Lebanese think but dare not say, that Hizbollah has brought calamity down on the country, and is likely to make matters even worse in the future. But just imagine the scene – those eighteen dragged out to the firing squad with no hope of any fair hearing. And then the gunfire and the blood-stained corpses.

Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian terror group paid for by Iran, has copied this example.  In a public square in the West Bank town of Jenin, five of their gunmen brought out for execution a twenty-two-year-old by the name of Bassam Malah, also accused of being an Israeli spy.  Malah is said to have been an Israeli Arab from Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab town in Israel. Again I have no idea if he was a spy, and there is presumably no means of ever knowing the truth. If he was, who knows what pressures were on him that might cause mitigating circumstances?  Anyhow they shot him dead without a proper trial, effectively an act of plain murder. A crowd said to number several hundred was watching, and they shouted the Islamist war-cry of “Allahu akhbar” or God is the greatest, at the moment of execution. A photograph on the Internet shows the victim dead, face down on some sort of sheeting, hands tied behind his back. At first I felt an overwhelming shock of horror that human beings could believe that barbarity of the kind could possibly be justice. But it is hate that has made them so primitive, and they ought to be pitied for it, because they are destroying themselves. 

A Kazakh Life



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Lately I went to a publisher’s party given to launch a book with the title The Silent Steppe, by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov.  Needless to say, I had never heard of him, but here was evidently the autobiography of a Muslim, and reading such books is a key to understanding the inner life of Islam, or so I believe.

Mr Shayakhmetov proved to be a striking figure, strongly built, sober in manner, with deep brown eyes in a face that gave nothing away.  He is a Kazakh, and on this occasion he was surrounded by about a dozen young Kazakhs who treated him with the respect due to a tribal elder.  I gathered from them that he is one of the most eminent of his people.  Duly I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and he chose to do so in Russian, not Kazakh.

Now I have read this astonishing book. Such is the world today that this book will probably pass almost unnoticed, but it has lasting human and historic value. He describes what Soviet Communism did to the Kazakhs.  At the end of the 1920s, they were forced to abandon their herding and nomadic way of life, and driven into agricultural collectives that completed the destruction of their identity. Shayakhmetov’s father, a poor man, was nonetheless considered a kulak, arrested and died in captivity.  He himself was not allowed to attend school and as a boy experienced the great and unnecessary famine of 1932 to 1934 in which millions starved to death to satisfy Stalin’s whim. Yet when the time came, he gladly joined the Red Army, was at Stalingrad and badly wounded.

The book expresses regret for the passing of the traditional ways of Kazakh clans, with their sense of kinship and hospitality, yet in spite of the terrible things Shayakhmetov suffered, he has no trace of self-pity. The Kazakhs are making a go of their post-Soviet independence, and they certainly have a national spokesman of whom to be proud.

His Fiction Ends



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Guenther Grass, the German novelist and Nobel prize-winner, has been oh-so-very-keen to moralize all his life.  Everyone must tell the truth, that is his message, and Germans especially must tell the truth because for ever their country will be associated with Auschwitz.  Truth-telling for him meant criticizing the United States at every opportunity, defending the Soviet Union as far as possible, and pointing an accusing finger at fellow Germans for covering up their Hitlerite past.

To be sure, The Tin Drum — the novel that won him the Nobel Prize — always looked more like a cover-up of Nazism than a critique of it. Its line is that Hitler was an evil magician who cast a spell over helpless Germans. In simple reality, Hitler was a politician who told the Germans exactly what they wanted to hear, and they voted him into power, and then fought for him to the bitter end. Germans believed that they were  making a rational choice in backing Hitler, and  to ascribe the compact they made with him to magic is to apologize for it.

And now it emerges that our oh-so-moral Grass was a member of the SS, a fact that he has been carefully concealing since 1945. So much for truth-telling, and forcing his fellow Germans to confront their ugly past.  His biographer, a specially disillusioned man, says that the revelation now “puts in doubt from a moral point of view anything he has ever told us.”  Indeed so. Grass’s constant attacks on the United States and the free world, for instance, turn out to be mere repetitions and embellishments of everything his SS instructors will have taught him about the wickedness of democracy and capitalism. His name will be associated for ever with hypocrisy.

What Goes Unspoken



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Tens of thousands of travelers in Britain have had their vacations or business trips wrecked today by a security alert at the highest level. Acting on intelligence, the authorities have suspended flights. It seems that plans were about to come to a head to blow up nine aircraft in mid-air from Britain to the United States. The plans are also said to involve sophisticated chemistry with inflammable liquids to be mixed during flight. So far there have been 21 arrests.

I have been listening to BBC reporters interviewing this family and that who won’t now be fulfilling their plans but are caught in frustration and misery at airports. But who are the people causing the chaos and arousing the fear? The home secretary has held a press conference, as grave as he is mysterious on the subject. A police spokesman warns in the same sphinx-like mode of “unimaginable consequences.” BBC newsmen one and all speak of terrorists, plotters, suspects, anything except Muslim. Everyone in Britain that I have heard has been mealy mouthed. The American Michael Chertoff was alone in speculating that the operation bears signs of al-Qaeda.  It will be absolutely amazing if the 21 arrested are anything other than Muslims, and until the public is brought to face reality we are all going to be losers time and again as the war on terror gathers.

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