Wednesday, August 24, 2016

More anniversaries

August does tend to be the month of rather grisly anniversaries. I mentioned the twenty-fifth of the attempted Soviet coup but there are others in the last week or so.

First of all, let us not forget that today is St Bartholomew's Day, or the massacre of 1572 that began the night before it and lasted several days in Paris and several weeks in the rest of the country. One interesting detail is that the English ambassador to Paris at the time was Francis Walsingham, who not only witnessed the horrors but gave sanctuary to as many as he could of the Huguenots. His then pregnant wife escaped with their daughter. Walsingham had already been in favour of helping Dutch and French Protestants but his experience in August 1572 defined his subsequent attitudes and policies.

 .Moving to the twentieth century (which had many things in common with the sixteenth and the seventeenth though the numbers of victims were considerably higher), we have the anniversary of the suppression of the Prague Spring with the Warsaw Pact tanks moving into the country on the night of August 20 to 21, 1968.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed on August 23, 1939 (while the Soviet Union was still negotiating with France and Britain). That, too, is a state secret in Russia and  you can get into trouble if you write about it.

Today is also the twenty-firth anniversary of Ukrainian independence and a happy time it is, too, what with Crimea in Russian hands, Eastern Ukraine in endless turmoil created by Russia and its henchmen plus continuing threats and destabilization of the rest of the country by Big Brother in the east.

Another curious anniversary is also to do with Russia and her attitude to her neighbours and their sovereignty. On August 25, 2008 Russia, some weeks after invading Georgia, "recognized" the independence of two break-away regions that had been virtually controlled by them even before the invasion, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two remain in limbo internationally speaking but de facto part of Russia domestically. It was, however, an important precedent.

Happy rest of August to all as we come up to the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Twenty-five years ago


The last blow by the Soviet hard liners, we thought, and how wrong we were. August 19, 1991 saw the beginning of the attempted coup by opponents of both Gorbachev's perestroika and of the new wave of politics that was coming in with Boris Yeltsin. After four dramatic days, the coup collapsed, Estonia declared independence, with the CPSU disbanded shortly after. By the end of the year the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and hope seemed to be in the air.

I spent those days in a TV news studio in London, interpreting Russian news broadcasts as they were shown and thinking about the various friends and acquaintances I had seen earlier that year, all of whom would have ended up in prison or dead if the coup had been successful.

Twenty-five years have passed and things have not turned out well. This is not really the place to go through all the many problems Russia faced under Yeltsin and the path it has taken under Putin back into the past. Suffice it to say that not only there will be no official commemoration of the coup but the organization For Human Rights, led by Lev Ponomaryov have been denied the right to hold a meeting and lay a wreath to the three people who were killed during the fighting towards the end of the four days at the badly looked after memorial to them. The memory hole must swallow it all.

More Brexit discussion

This time it is about fisheries, a subject of some importance and one that this blog will be covering. The House of Commons Library has produced a short Briefing Paper under the title Brexit: What next for UK fisheries?. A friend called my attention to it and described the paper as "pusillanimous". Slightly more politely, I would call it "careful", which is not necessarily a bad thing at this stage but one would like to see a little more emphasis on countries that are outside the EU, run their own fisheries and do, somehow, manage to be successful at it and at negotiations with the EU.

Yes, dear readers, Norway and Iceland negotiate themselves both with the EU and at international level, like big grown up countries. The implication in the paper is that the UK is going to find that rather difficult and may well lose access to the European market, which, as it happens, buys fish from what will, we assume, be designated UK waters because it wants to not because it is forced.

Usually, these briefing papers are well produced but there is some sign of haste with this one. Several times whole sentences and paragraphs are repeated either because nobody had edited or proof-read the paper or because the author thinks that its readers have the memory of a goldfish. (Oh look, another piece of sea weed. Doesn't it look just like the last one.) Also, for some reason George Eustice, Minister of State at DEFRA, is called George Eustace in the text though given his correct moniker in the notes.

Some things do become clear. According to the 1976 international agreements home waters are 200 nautical miles from shore and it was a certain sleight of hand that enabled the EU to announce that actually it was all their waters. Negotiations should focus on that.

The much vaunted reforms of the Common Fisheries Policy have not gone all that far and, in any case, would not have been needed if the the Policy had not been such an economic and ecological disaster. Those discards, which are still happening, could have been stopped many years ago through various technical methods, such a mesh size but that is hard to achieve with the political structure of the CFP. That can be resolved if we disentangle ourselves from that pernicious structure.

Finally, what of co-operation with other countries once the fisheries are under British control? Well, oddly enough, that is not an impossibility:
The UK would need to cooperate with the EU after Brexit on quota setting. Cooperation on sharing stocks is required as many fish stocks are migratory and therefore cross EEZ boundaries. Fish populations could be damaged if countries failed to coordinate on fishing effort.

Such cooperation is enshrined in international law. The UN Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 199628 require cooperation on the conservation and management of fish stocks that straddle national jurisdictions. The UK has ratified these agreements.

Such cooperation is currently seen in Norway and other non-EU European countries. Around 90% of Norway’s fisheries are shared with other countries29, even though it is much more geographically isolated than the UK. The Norwegians set fish quotas and management strategies for important fish stocks in negotiation with other countries, including the EU and Russia. Norway and the EU have developed management strategies for several joint stocks including cod, haddock and herring.

The EU cooperates and negotiates with non-EU countries on behalf of Member States. The outcome of negotiations on one stock may be influenced by negotiations on another.

Following Brexit the UK will have to:

• maintain a close working relationship with the EU to enable the effective management of fisheries;

• agree a mechanism for agreeing quotas and management measures with the EU and other countries. This could be a bilateral mechanism between the UK and EU “in the case of stocks that are shared only between the EU and UK”, or through the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) for stocks shared with other countries “as is currently the case with mackerel, which is negotiated between the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands”.
Perhaps. Or perhaps other structures will have to be created though there is much to be said for using the ones already in existence. The point is that these are all soluble problems.

We need to create another policy that will include our intentions towards other countries and towards the fishing industry in this one.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Books I have been reading: Qiu Xiaolong - Don't Cry Tai Lake

I first came across Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen novels some years ago when the first six were published in the UK very soon after they had come out in the US. I read The Loyal Character Dancer and liked it for several reasons. The basic plot was good though at various times there was a definite collapse of logical development and it seemed to give a very good idea of what it was like to live and work in Shanghai in the late eighties or early nineties still oppressed with memories of such horrible events as the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent enforced exodus of young people to the villages.

Chen, the son of an intellectual, too young to have been affected directly by those events, a poet who had been directed into the police force after graduation and who then to his own surprise found that he was quite good at it, was an interesting character. After that I read the first of the series, Death of a Red Heroine, which was excellent with a shocking but entirely credible ending. To this day I think that is by far the best book of the series, with A Case of Two Cities close second.

Qiu Xiaolong left China in 1988 to take up a fellowship in St Louis, Missouri, where he was working on T. S. Eliot as well as writing his own poetry. Then came the events of Tiananmen Square [surely, no link required] and he, with his family, decided to stay in the US, where he has continued to write in English and Chinese. So the detective novels were written from outside the country, based on memory, knowledge of history and, one must assume, information from people who are still there. Only one of his novels has been translated into Chinese and it was severely bowdlerized with all references to Shanghai removed. Not surprisingly, it was not a success. The books are available in Beijing in English but only in the English language bookshop and one cannot help wondering who shops there. (I know this from someone who did go there and did buy one of the novels.)

The series continued but, in my opinion, began to lose steam, possibly because of the distance from the place about which the author was writing. The links with the Maoist past remained fascinating but the plots became far too convoluted and Chen's own character far too neurotic. He kept having nervous break-downs, not eating (though he is supposed to be a great expert on food and a gourmet), and generally being unable to decide what he wanted to do with himself.

In The Mao Case, a very promising plot collapses right at the end because of Chen's completely incredible actions. After that, no Chen book seemed to appear in the UK and I assumed that Qiu Xiaolong had decided that the series had come to a full stop and turned his attention to other writings.

How wrong one can be. Three more books were published not very long after The Mao Case but none of them came out in the UK until last year so it seemed as if there had been a longish gap. I have now read the first of that trio, Don't Cry Tai Lake, which also takes place in a real place on the shore of the eponymous lake and appears to deal with the horrific pollution problems there.

This book and, I assume, the two that follow it deal with present day China (well, late nineties so not quite present day) without any direct references to the Maoist past. Does Qiu Xiaolong intend to write six of these? An intriguing idea.

Chief Inspector Chen who, I am glad to say, is back to being a gourmet and addicted to good food, is now legendary in police circles and definitely a promising young cadre who is being pushed forward by an important Party boss in Beijing. Other party officials do not like him and hope to prevent his rise through the nomenclatura. This has been the situation more or less for several books and one cannot help thinking that it is time we moved on and saw him moving upward or definitively being pushed out of that track.

Here he is told to take up a holiday in a remarkably luxurious High Cadre Centre on the lake and, as a side issue, think of producing a report about local conditions, which would be very useful to his career. A little bemused he does as he is told and starts working on his report as well as on some poetry. Then he meets and falls in love with a young environmental activist and decides to use her information as part of the report, because he thinks that the truth of what is happening in and around the heavily polluted and infected lake should be known.

Discussions wobble. Someone points out that at least now people have enough to eat and are getting richer but, as Chen replies, at some cost to the environment (and themselves with many diseases and inedible food). There are many references to the new China where people just want to get rich without caring about anything or anyone around them but it is quite clear that the pollution goes back many decades. As ever, it started under the Communist system and it is the continuance of that system in one form or another that has allowed the situation to deteriorate so much.

Then the director of one of the most polluting factories that is about to become private is murdered and the Internal Security uses the event to arrest a young man who is an even better known environmental activist and have their eye on Shanshan, the girl Chen is in love with. Naturally, he becomes involved in the investigation with the sub rosa help of the local police sergeant who is thrilled to be working with the great Chief Inspector Chen.

In fact, that murder and detective plot is very good and follows a classic Golden Age pattern. Unfortunately, it turns out to have nothing to do with the pollution motif, so the chapters devoted to ranting about that become superfluous. The poetry Chen writes is rather good but his habit of endlessly quoting his own and others' lines and sayings becomes tedious. He solves the case but his own future remains undecided. Once again he loses the girl and his apparent status as a young promising cadre stays stationary. I cannot help hoping that somewhere in the novels after Don't Cry Tai Lake there is some resolution to at least one of Chief Inspector Chen's personal dilemmas.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Define "normal relations" with Russia

Once again there are calls to "normalise relations with Russia", this time from the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, though the Prime Minister has announced that at some time in the near future she will meet with President Putin to discuss mutually useful subjects. None of this sounds particularly important to me (and I can hardly be called a supporter of Vlad, who is busy purging some of his closest allies even as we speak). Every new government wants to carry out this amazing feat of international politics and every one of them fails. We used to have the same with wanting to get a better deal in the EU but that has become obsolete.

The Foreign Secretary's comment brought about glee in some of the Remainiac camps. See, they are saying on Twitter and Facebook, we told you those Brexiteers were all agents of Putin. Here is your proof. At a time when Russia is clearly stirring up more trouble in Crimea and Ukraine in general and remains active in Syria (twenty Russian servicemen have been reported killed), all these people can think of is "normalising relations".

What does that mean exactly? We have not broken diplomatic relations with Russia and there have not been any recent mass expulsions of diplomats and trade attaches who just happen to be a little too interested in defence matters. In so far as it is possible we do have business and trade relations and if these are often a little iffy, that has more to do with the Russian habit of raiding business premises and demanding back payments of taxes nobody has ever heard of. There are cultural exchanges (after a fashion) and students going back and forth, though the Russian habit of closing important archives do not help academic exchanges all that much. There are tourists going back and forth as well as a remarkable number of Russians of various kind living here. What would "normalisation of relations" add to it?

More trade? Of what? More cultural exchanges? Well, maybe. More Russians settling here? We can't stop that, anyway. Not getting worked up about murder of British citizens on British soil? Well, Theresa May as Home Secretary tried that but, unfortunately, she found herself having to announce the inquiry into Litvinenko's murder and then having to report on Sir Robert Owen's spectacular conclusions in the House of Commons. Nominally, we are still asking for Lugovoi's and Kovtun's extradition but that seems highly unlikely. Or it seemed highly unlikely before Vlad started purging his mates. Who knows? He might decide that Lugovoi is expendable and the man will find himself on an aeroplane with a one-way ticket to London.

So what exactly will normalisation entail? Among other things:
Despite the warm words, tensions have threatened to bubble over between the superpowers as British officials prepare to deploy troops to the Baltic state of Estonia to deter Russia from a possible invasion.

The UK will send 500 soldiers to a base just 90 miles west of the Russian border next year, creating further tension between the countries.
While Mr Putin is displaying his usual Olympic skills. No, not in judo but in creating international tension on the border that results in Russia invading yet another part of the old Soviet Union. Sounds quite normal to me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Brexit debates begin

Parliament has risen for the summer and the silly season is upon us. That is the only explanation I can give to the extraordinary hissing and screaming about the resignation honours' list. Prime Minister names his friends and allies in his last honours list - shock! There are no objective criteria for political honours so whoever is on the list there will be a great deal of hissing and screaming. The only way to solve the problem is to abolish the whole system of honours. Would the hacks and others who are getting all worked up at the moment agree with that? I doubt it. For one thing every hack nurtures a largely unrealistic hope of being on that list one day. (Incidentally, and completely off the subject, something similar is the only solution to the drug problem in the Olympics - call an end to that farce.)

Meanwhile, in another corner of the hippy-hoppy fields just outside the village of Loose Chipping dwindling bands of Remainers are still munching away on the hippy-hoppy grass and calling with decreasing assurance for a second referendum, for a way to stop the Brexit process and for a way to punish the revolting peasants, if needs be by destroying the economy (unlikely to happen but if your are a Remainer Munchkin you can go on hoping). They are also wailing about the misleading information that had come from the Leave campaign and are strangely coy about more than misleading information from the Remain campaign. I assume this will just go on and on and on until the last Remainer Munchkin gets bored.

Elsewhere, people are beginning to discuss what should be discussed in those negotiations. There will be many issues and some of them are going to be quite difficult though not necessarily as difficult as they are made out at the moment.

The House of Lords European Union Committee, source of some excellent (and some not so good) reports has produced its Third Report of the 2016 - 17 Session in which it enumerated its activity of the previous, 2015 - 16 one. Worth glancing through, in my opinion and the various publications can be read for free on line. In the Summary there is a brief outline of the work of the Committee and how it is likely to change over the coming months.
The European Union Committee of the House of Lords scrutinises the UK Government’s policies and actions in respect of the EU; considers and seeks to influence the development of policies and draft laws proposed by the EU institutions; and represents the House of Lords in its dealings with the EU institutions and other Member States.

Following the decision of UK citizens to vote to leave the EU at the 23 June 2016 referendum, the focus of the Committee’s work will shift in the coming months, from scrutiny of EU documents to examination of the Government’s objectives in achieving the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and in building a new and lasting relationship.
Given that all through those negotiations we shall still be members of the European Union, I hope the committee and the various sub-committees will not abandon completely the scrutiny of EU documents.

The House of Lords debate about post-Brexit agriculture, problems and possibilities is not very long and is well worth reading. Britain's food production is a thriving industry and the chances of not having any markets inside and outside the country are slim (though there were odd problems with the EU or its member states banning such things as British beef long after FMD had been dealt with, though no thanks to DEFRA). Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment and Rural Affairs gave some figures in his reply:
Some 70% of UK land is agricultural. We have a world-class food and farming industry that generates over £100 billion a year for our economy.

Our Great British Food Unit is promoting great British produce at home and abroad, boosting the £18 billion in food and drink that we sold across the world in 2015, and cementing Britain’s reputation as a global food nation. From Welsh lamb and Northern Irish beef to Scotch whisky and English wines—I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, will not mind me saying that I do not think any of us would consider those to be niche—we should be proud of the UK industry’s world renown for the quality of its produce and its high standards of animal welfare. I am very conscious of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said about the importance of high standards and, indeed, what was said about procurement.

We know that there is great global demand for quality British dairy products. For example, the Wensleydale Creamery now exports Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese around the world, which accounts for 14% of its business. I was delighted that my noble friend Lady McIntosh also referred to her favourite Yorkshire cheese. The UK dairy industry exported to 138 countries last year, totalling £1.2 billion. Dairy exports to China have increased by more than three-quarters in value compared with 2014.
Several things bothered noble peers: access to the Single Market after Brexit, the presence of casual workers on whom farmers and food producers rely and, above all, subsidies or, as Lord Gardiner put it, support. Well, what's in a name?

The assumption is that there will be less in the kitty by way of subsidy or support for the farmers than they were getting from the EU but is that necessarily a bad thing? Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer led the debate for the Lib-Dems and, after listing the various problems that might hit agriculture after Brexit she said:
However, it is not all doom and gloom. There could be a new settlement for farmers and for our environment. It will require a total redesign of both the legislation around the environment—80% of it has come from the EU, and it has helped to preserve much of the fabric of rural Britain to date—and a new rural settlement with farmers. Quite rightly, the British taxpaying public will expect to see much more for their money. Gone will be the days of subsidies based on landholding size, no matter how few public benefits that land produces or, worse, how many long-term costs occur—for example, in soil degradation, biodiversity loss or water pollution.

Given what a relatively small and densely populated island we are, we really cannot afford to separate agriculture from wildlife and landscape. That is the first real challenge to Defra in considering what strategies it should be employing for a post-Brexit scenario. So far it has produced separate strategies for food, farming and biodiversity. That is not going to be acceptable; it is going to have to produce a whole rural Britain strategy.

The CAP did a lot of good in enabling family farms to survive. That will be another big challenge for Defra: to ensure that the sort of incentives it produces in future will encourage young entrants into farming and enable them to access the finance in order to share some of the machinery and capital investments necessary, particularly for some of those smaller family farms. We cannot expect farmers to manage, say, footpaths, dry stone walls and hedges for nothing. The public enjoy the benefits of the countryside and they will want to continue, so we must pay our land managers—the farmers—properly for that.
This blog will do its best to follow as many of the forthcoming debates as possible.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Norths face poisoners and the cases are screwy

 The Norths are screwy. Everyone knows this though they are not aware of that. Their friend, Lieutenant (sometimes acting Captain) Bill Weigand knows they are screwy. Sergeant Mullins not only knows but says so. Frequently. And Bill always replies with one word: "Right". Dorian Weigand, the artist, knows they are screwy. She knows that going away with Pamela on one of her wild goose chases is likely to be dangerous but she always goes. Once she takes an automatic with her. Her husband, Bill, had insisted she acquired a small automatic and took it with her whenever she went off with Pam North on one of those wild goose chases, just in case they end up in trouble. Deep trouble. They do end up in trouble. Deep trouble. The automatic is taken away from Dorian by a man who has already killed two people and who turns out to be a spy as well.

Inspector Artemus O'Malley knows they are screwy and every case they are involved in will turn into a screwy one even if it does not start out that way. The Inspector (Artie) does not want the Norths in any case. He likes quick, easy solutions. Somehow, he never gets them and the Norths are always in Bill Weigand's cases. You'd think Lower West or (sometimes) Lower East in Manhattan would have crimes that did not affect the Norths in any way but they do not. The Norths are always there and if they are there they will get involved.

Take these three poisoning stories, one, Murder Within Murder, immediately after the war, one, Murder Comes First, in 1951, during the atomic espionage crises, and one, Death of an Angel, in 1956, with life back to normal. Whatever normal might be.

In the first one, the victim, Miss Gipson, has been employed as a researcher by Jerry North's firm, North Books Inc. Miss Gipson is poisoned by sodium fluoride, which has been substituted in one of the capsules of her normal digestive powders. The description of Miss Gipson's last meal in a tea shop explains the need for those digestive powders. Naturally, Bill Weigand has to call Jerry and Jerry has to go along to identify Miss Gipson and Pam goes with him. Then she has ideas. Naturally.

In the second one the poison is cyanide and it has been put into one of Grace Logan's vitamin capsules, thus turning it from "concentrated health" into concentrated death. Pam North's aunts happen to be present and one of them is a possible suspect. Naturally, they rush to the scene and become heavily involved in trying to rescue Aunt Thelma though later on it is Aunt Lucinda who needs rescuing. Well, Pam becomes heavily involved and drags Dorian Weigand with her.

In the third one their involvement is a little less direct. On Thursday there is a party to celebrate a significant milestone in the run of the play written by one of Jerry North's authors. At Bradley Fitch's spectacular apartment. On Friday, Fitch has another party, a stag party, because in the meantime he has become engaged to the star of the play. On Saturday morning Brad Fitch has a monumental hangover. He is given a monumental hangover cure in a glass together with oxalic acid in it. Not only had the Norths seen him at the first party and knew many of the suspects, one of their cocktail napkins is found in the room Fitch died. Naturally, Bill Weigand has to talk to them and they become involved. Naturally.

Jerry North is less screwy than Pam. After all, he runs a successful publishing business. Judging by the amount of money they must spend on eating and drinking in very expensive restaurants and bars, on taxis and on Pam's outfits, the publishing firm must be very successful, indeed.

Pam North is very screwy. Everybody thinks so. At first people find her way of talking - short sentences with no apparent connection between them and ideas leaping like a salmon - quite hard. Then they get used to it and seem to like it. Except Inspector O'Malley. He never gets used to it. He never learns to like it. Or them.


Pam's whole family is like that. They all leap from subject to subject and make connections that nobody else can see. Her nieces are like that but need to practise a bit. Her aunts are so good at it that they flummox even Pam. Sometimes those leaps go towards solving the murder. Sometimes they just go off into the distance. In Death of an Angel she gets it completely wrong. In Murder Comes First she works it out correctly and the reader is even given the clue that sets her on the right path.In Murder Within Murder she gets it generally right, as she says, and goes to the right family. Otherwise she is wrong.

Often she rushes off to confront a murderer, sometimes not realizing that it is the murderer she is confronting. Then she has to be rescued by Bill Weigand and Jerry North. She promises not to do anything stupid again. Right, they all say. They know that Pam will do it again and there will be many more screwy Mr and Mrs North adventures.