Thursday, 30 May 2013

Why I love Ken Livingstone (and the People's Book Prize)

Listen, Boris, I don’t want a bike. I want to be able to get from Lancaster Gate to St.Paul’s by underground, which is only 7 stops, without having to take out a mortgage on the house. What’s happened to tube fares? Time was, I could spend the day skipping round London on the tube and still have change from two farthings. Or at least still have change from a couple of £50 notes. Bring back Red Ken.
Oh, and the People’s Book Prize Do was fun in a slightly hysterical way. A sort of convergence under a lot of gilding, in which only the waiters seemed to be quite sure what they were doing.  My considered thoughts on it? Well, the goat’s cheese went surprisingly well with the smoked salmon – didn’t overwhelm it as I had feared, and the confit of duck with fig was excellent although I thought the dauphinoise potatoes a little too rich as an accompaniment. One spoonful of delicately wilted spinach does not add up to 5 a day, but overall, very good.

Oh yes, and there were some prizes. Which I did not win, although I was one of the three finalists for the Beryl Bainbridge award for first book, so I got to stand on stage and pretend not to feel an idiot.
And I got to race Frederick Forsyth for the toilets at the end. Not many people can say that.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Hang 'em high

Suddenly, the death penalty is back on the menu and as ever, a majority of people want it. I can understand why they want it, just as I can understand why people want to believe in life after death. It makes them feel better. It would make us a more barbaric society, but that wouldn’t matter to those who support the death penalty.

What else would it achieve? The death penalty could be regarded as a deterrent. Well, it is probably true that no one who has ever been executed has gone on to commit another crime. Would it act as a deterrent to those still only thinking about committing murder? If it did, US states that have abolished capital punishment would have higher murder rates than those that retain it. They don't. They have lower rates. No one commits a murder because the penalty is only life imprisonment and that’s okay. They commit murder, or rape, or burglary or speeding offences, because they don’t expect to get caught, so penalties are irrelevant.  It’s the likelihood of being caught that would make the difference.

But the majority of murders don’t involve rational calculation. They involve blind rage, panic or stupidity and the thought what might follow doesn’t come into it. Murderers can be calculating if they are terrorists, of course, but if their ultimate personal goal is martyrdom, I don’t see why we should use the machinery of the justice system to oblige them. Much more irritating to them to shoot them in the legs and cart them off to hospital.

There is the argument that the death penalty would satisfy ‘justice.’ An eye for an eye. The theory is that if someone takes a life, justice requires they should pay with their own. There’s a major flaw in this argument.  There’s a tin of baked beans at my local supermarket. Its price is on the shelf. If I am willing to pay that price, I am entitled to have the baked beans. It’s a matter of commerce. Life, death and murder don’t fit in this model. The price of murder is death? What if I am willing to pay with my own life? Does that entitle me to murder someone else? Murder can’t be paid for. It is beyond price.

There is the notion that the death penalty would bring closure to the survivors of the victim. Yes, I imagine that if someone I loved were murdered, in my grief and rage I would want the murderer hanged, drawn and quarter, boiled in oil, slow roasted, flayed alive, torn apart by horses. I would probably also want to be dead myself. Should the state kill the murderer in order to satisfy my desire for revenge and kill me to satisfy my suicidal urges? Or should it help me through both, back to something resembling sanity?

The only rational argument for capital punishment that might make any sort of logical sense is the argument that killing murderers would save time, space and money in comparison with keeping them in prison for years. Then save even more money by disposing of the old and disabled too.

No, there really is no rational argument for capital punishment, but that won’t stop people demanding it, because it would make them feel better. It would make them feel empowered in a world where bad things happen outside their control. To restrain someone, render him utterly helpless, even denying him the possibility of suicide, so that we can then, coldly and ceremonially, put him to death;  what greater sense of power can there be? As any serial killer can probably testify.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Oh my chevalier

This morning, in my workshop,  I had a greater spotted woodpecker sitting on my window sill, looking at me while he decided whether to trust me not to move while he went for my peanuts. A greater spotted woodpecker at a distance of four feet is astonishingly gory. That red bum isn’t just a a splodge of scarlet, as it looks from a distance. It’s gouts of blood smeared on white feathers. I was itching to reach round and clean him up just as much as he was itching for the peanuts.
Then this evening, I took a walk up my lane and found a red kite standing on the air just 30 feet directly above me. Standing on the air evening though a fair gale was blowing. He rippled against it. I couldn’t move. It’s like a rainbow. How can you not stand and stare at it?
"I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
 Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion."

Thursday, 23 May 2013

London Town

I am going to London.  When I was young, going to London meant an exciting train ride and a visit to the Tower and the Natural History museum. These days it means a nerve-racking drive and a chance to sell stuff. And this time, the stuff I am selling is myself. I am going to the People’s Book Prize award ceremony because, yes, my novel A Time For Silence has made it to the finals. Gulp. It is a black tie event and I’m hoping they’ll let me in even though I don’t possess a black tie. Or indeed any sort of tie.

It will be in Ave Maria Lane by St. Paul’s Cathedral. I find it wonderfully reassuring that Ave Maria Lane is still there. Having produced a dissertation on Mediaeval London when I was taking my history degree, I was convinced that I knew the streets of London like the back of my hand, and I was completely thrown when I actually visited the city and found that everything had changed. Apparently, there was this big fire in 1666, which demolished all the best bits. But not Ave Maria Lane!

Now it just remains to be seen whether I can get through the award ceremony without behaving like a rabbit caught in headlights. Watch this space.

And meanwhile, feel free to vote at

No compulsion. But please.