April 3rd, 2010

earthsea

April Books 1) The Emperor's Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo

Zuleika, the narrator of The Emperor's Babe, is the daughter of Sudanese immigrants in London in the very early third century; she is married aged eleven to a Senator, and several years after starts a relationship with the visiting Emperor, Septimius Severus. I knew a little about him from Gibbon, who writes of him rather disapprovingly in Chapter V of Decline and Fall, though is more positive about him in Chapter VI when he goes to kill the Scots.

The Emperor's Babe is a rather startling book. Evaristo apparently composed it while writer-in-residence at the Museum of London and it breathes an intimate connection between the Roman city and today's geography - she uses mainly modern streetnames and toponyms, and has Zuleika a citizen of the racially and sexually diverse metropolis, attended by her Scottish slaves, educated by her husband to the point where she writes and recites her own poetry. Evaristo uses the setting to explore various obvious themes of race, class and gender, and does it vividly and thoroughly. Also her Septimius Severus comes to life as a much more sympathetic character than Gibbon's portrayal, though still believes in astrology.

The whole of The Emperor's Babe is in verse. For some reason I had not retained this fact from the reviews I had read on 50books_poc which inspired me to get it in the first place. It is a series of short digestible narrative vignettes, none more than a few pages long. Probably some of them refer to poems of the Classical era which I don't know, but that didn't hamper my enjoyment. I have a couple of other books of verse on the list for this month, so this has broken me in gently.
ni

No Peter Robinson interview for me, so I shall write more on North Down

I've been trying to find a way of watching last night's BBC interview with Peter Robinson, in the course of which he apparently told the interviewer that she was "dense" and "silly", but unfortunately not being based in the UK I can't used the BBC iPlayer to see it. I understand that it is pretty uncomfortable to watch, but I have a grim train-wreck urge to get hold of it anyway.

I can't imagine that the interview, or the BBC story to which Robinson was reacting, will change many people's minds. Robinson's personal style is pretty well known; he has been MP for East Belfast for over thirty years now. I would be rather astonished if there are a lot of potential DUP voters out there who watch it and are shocked into changing their vote because he gives a journalist a hard time. Of course, I haven't seen the interview and might change my mind if I do.

On the actual facts of the case, Robinson agrees that he bought a potentially valuable piece of land for £5, but it is also clear that he sold it for £5. The BBC case that he (or his developer friend) evaded tax in this particular instance is not very strong, even by the BBC's own account. Anyone with half an ear open is aware of the close links between property developers and electoral politics in certain areas of Northern Ireland, and there would need to be a more visibly smoking gun to make a real difference to Robinson's reputation (or the DUP's).

One piece I have been able to watch is the Guardian's video blog about North Down, where Lady Hermon is presented as a true Labour supporter who could hold the balance of power on her own in the next parliament. It's a rather smug Guardian piece; I winced at Harris's errors ("Republican" instead of "Nationalist", mispronouncing "Bangor", misspelling Ian Parsley's name) and a lot of it is him burbling to the camera or to the locals rather than actually getting their views. Ian Parsley has denied (scroll down to comment #4) the jibe that he didn't know what "legal highs" are, which is actually the most serious blow against him in the piece (other than his own account of himself).

Readers (if any are left) will have observed that I'm unduly fascinated by North Down, where the UUP, who won the seat in the Westminster elections in 2005, are not standing but backing the Conservative candidate, and the DUP, who got most votes in the Assembly election in 2007, are also not standing but backing the incumbent MP. This means that the parties which collectively got over 85% of the votes in 2005 will be absent from the fray this time. I know I'm unhealthily obsessed, but I still think this is unusual.
eu

The European Gendarmerie Force

Idly checking the state of debate among Eurosceptics, I was wryly amused to discover that the latest bogeyman is the European Gendarmerie Force, or EGF. Described on one blog as intended to squash public disobedience, on another more glamorously as the "Armed Enforcers of the Fascist European Superstate, it is apparently about to be deployed to crush rioters in Greece; this paramilitary force is so secret that it has its own website. (The source of much of this is an article by Udo Ulfkotte, here in the original German; needless to say, the fact that no deployment to Greece has actually taken place is not considered relevant)

I came across this issue while idly checking to see if any of the Eurosceptics had had the honesty to admit that the death penalty has not in fact been introduced as a result of the Lisbon Treaty. (I think you can guess the answer.) In fairness, the more mainstream swivel-eyed loons haven't touched this one, apart from Ashley Mote MEP noting that the EGF website talks of the EU constitution, thus a "clear admission" of what the Lisbon Treaty really is (because obviously it is more likely that the governments of 27 countries would collectively lie to their people than that a poorly-written website might be inaccurate).

It is paranoid fantasy of course. The EGF, whose total staff numbers 30 rather than 3000, isn't even an EU body; it is a pooling of expertise on what one might call robust policing methods by France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Romania, with input also from Poland and Turkey. It is not deployable within the EU - this is not made terribly clear on the site (and is a point missed even by some people who should know better) but it is explicit in reference to the Santa Maria de Feira and Nice European Council conclusions, and to the Petersberg declaration, all of which is EU-speak for deployment to external crises in support of (or substitution for) the UN or similar bodies.

My own first encounter with it was back in 2005 (see recommendation #2 of this report, which was not in fact adopted by the powers that be). Looking at the website now, what strikes me is how little the EGF appears to have actually done in its five years of existence. Members of its secretariat get deployed hither and yon (this year so far to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Haiti) and as a body it has taken responsibility for training Afghan police in Mazar-i-Sharif and coordinating the police aspects of the EU military mission in Bosnia. But in order to be the effective bogeyman of Europhobe myth, it needs to raise its game considerably!
thoughtful

Thumbs up

Young F was at a friend's birthday party this afternoon, and on our way back I spotted a rare sight - a hitch-hiker trying to get onto the E40 at the Steenokkerzeel junction. He asked if I could take him to Germany; I offered the next service station which at least is probably an improvement over a semi-rural slip road. He turned out to be hitching home to Lithuania - had started this morning in Dover, got a ferry and by five o'clock was now just east of Brussels, which I bet is a real black hole for hitch-hikers. He should probably make it to Germany this evening - indeed, might even be there by now - and reckoned he would be home in another two days.

It struck me how rare it is to see hitch-hikers these days. Certainly when I was doing it regularly myself, between twenty and twenty-five years ago, there seemed to be a lot of competition; now I guess a combination of increased concerns about crime (from both hitcher and driver) and a general shrivelling of generosity in society has cut down drastically on the numbers. Nice to occasionally do my bit against the trend.