Book Review: Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/04/2020 - 10:35pm in

In Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, renowned scholar Stephen Greenblatt offers an analysis of depictions of tyrannical figures in seven of the sixteenth-century playwright’s works for a fresh take on Shakespeare and our contemporary political milieu. Reviewing this multilayered testament to the value of interdisciplinary understandings of societies and governing systems, K.A. Doyle examines how the book is relevant as a lens on US politics and on social science research more broadly. 

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. Stephen Greenblatt. Vintage. 2018.

Shakespeare and US Politics: How a 16th-century playwright’s perspective contributes to understanding the 2016 US presidential election and to social science research

Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics might not be high up on the reading lists of political science scholars and students. The author’s resume, while impressive, is not likely to nudge the title any higher: since 2000, Greenblatt has been the John Cogan University Professor of Humanities at Harvard University, and he specialises, to no surprise, in understanding the writings of William Shakespeare, among other offerings of modern literature and criticism. His 2011 book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. He is also credited with pioneering ‘new historicism’ – an approach to reading and interpreting literature by situating it within the political, social and cultural contexts in which it was written (and consumed).

So what does Greenblatt, through this compact and unfussy analysis of seven of the sixteenth-century playwright’s plays, have to say about contemporary US politics? He avoids calling out any world leaders by name, yet reckons with the current political moment throughout the book. As could be expected, there is an unevenness in the overlay onto current events, given Greenblatt’s new historicism approach and his intention to say something about authoritarianism past and future. There is less discussion of institutional norms than might be relevant to our context since it is generally monarchies under consideration in Shakespeare’s plays (not counting those based on Roman times).

Nevertheless, in examining the King Henry VI trilogy, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Greenblatt makes some contemporary parallels explicit (invoking ‘grabbing’ women when sketching a portrait of Richard III (54) and citing Russia to (literally) bring home the account of Roman warrior-hero Coriolanus’s turn to the Volscians to engage in secret dealings (178), for example) and compels the reader to frame the key points of Tyrant for a fresh take on Shakespeare and our political milieu. Although the book was published in 2018, the upcoming 2020 US presidential election encourages a timely review with an eye towards the social sciences.

Appreciating the political context in which Shakespeare was writing – Elizabethan England, under constraints on free speech against the monarch’s rule – it appears he had much to say about human psychology, but also political systems and power, explored through fictional and historical reigns from the Roman to his own contemporary era. Shakespeare turned a critical eye to the political systems and power struggles in transition to tyranny; he studied and portrayed the factors shaping this political devolution.

As demonstrated most conspicuously by Richard III, would-be tyrants are enabled to seek this extreme, concentrated and violent form of power by their own psychological frailties, or ‘psychopathology’ (55), including ‘limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant’ (53). King Lear suffered this as a later-in-life affliction. The motivations of those closest to the tyrant who also happen to hold some power, either politically, militarily, financially or familial, and the incited behaviour of the ‘crowd’ or greater society, supplement these qualities. Macbeth and Coriolanus, for example, succumbed to delusional claims to power due to provocations from their wife and mother, respectively; John Cade, lower-class but politically savvy, begins the dismantling of law and order by swaying the ‘mob’ (37) in King Henry VI, which serves the interests of the devious Duke of York.

Would-be tyrants are tactical and tactful power-grabbers but tactless governors once the power is theirs:

For the tyrant, there is remarkably little satisfaction. True, he has obtained the position to which he aspired, but the skills that enabled him to do so are not at all the same as those required to govern successfully.

And this failing will frequently tip them over into the self-destruction which was nevertheless on standby during the ascent, as Greenblatt points out in the ultimate fortunes of Richard III and Macbeth. Coriolanus never garners the votes he needs to assume consulship in Rome because his tactlessness, captured in his inability to ‘play the politician’ (176) and feign both respect for the lower classes and self-control, supersedes in the final stretch.

Finally, there isn’t a fail-proof strategy to constraining the ascent or the reign of the tyrant, much as there isn’t an orderliness or inevitable sequencings of events for the tyrant to seize power. In Julius Caesar, even when minor characters and tribunes from Murellus and Flavius to Brutus heed the warning signs of tyrannical ambitions, their judgements as to how best to quell the unravelling situation are questionable, and the outcomes of their actions are not as planned.

In fact, Greenblatt concludes that the view of Shakespeare as expressed through his plays was that ‘the best hope lay in the sheer unpredictability of collective life, its refusal to march in lockstep to any one person’s orders’ (187-188) and that ‘a popular spirit of humanity [… could never be] completely extinguished’ (189). Individuals, from the commoner to the elite, were capable of influencing events for the better, too.

Between these broad points lies myriad insights and direct and indirect commentary on US politicians, institutions and voters. Namely, a major question that reveals itself is who is letting the eventual tyrants get away with it? This is addressed in one of the most insightful passages of Tyrant. Greenblatt breaks down six ‘accessory’ types based on the plot of Richard III, which should appeal to political scientists as professional purveyors of taxonomies; although, as Greenblatt cautions:

listing the types of enablers risks missing what is most compelling about Shakespeare’s theatrical genius: not the construction of abstract categories or the calculation of degrees of complicity but the unforgettably vivid imagining of lived experience.

His classification, nevertheless, ensnares those who acquiesced passively or actively supported the emergence of the tyrant, from the (relatively) few who are genuinely convinced of the usurper’s false intentions – the so-called ‘victims’ and ‘dupes’ (66) – to the proportionally small group that marches along to, and even maybe helps orchestrate, the dangerous antics of the usurper, in the hopes that they will individually gain from the allegiance. He also captures a group that actively participates in the schemes of the tyrant, but with much broader motive than the aforementioned direct collaborators. They are most like the faceless and nameless crowd, which can be readily co-opted, the differing but flammable motivations igniting each other in something like a social tipping point.

There are some socioeconomic claims embedded in Greenblatt’s typology, but overall the different groups are not ascribed particular characteristics based on gender, race or other categories. From an interdisciplinary perspective, this section of Greenblatt’s analysis helpfully refreshes the question of how Donald Trump was elected in the 2016 US presidential race, if we associate the current president with authoritarian tendencies and assess voters as various groupings of enablers with motivations.

What led voters to cast their ballots as they did in 2016? Demographics were largely taken for granted in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and further attempts to tackle this question in the few years since the election have often solicited data on voting intentions, behaviour or outcomes from a featured subset of the population, such as white voters, those without a college degree or those with a lower socioeconomic status.

But Greenblatt’s categorisation is a reminder that segmenting the population based on these standard variables is not a sure means to understand the complexity of voting behaviour and social and emotional collectivity. His reading of the script also invites us to consider whether we should account for tyrannical ambitions playing a role in voting behaviour before the vote is cast. For example, in Peter K. Hatemi and Zoltán Fazekas’ account, both elected leaders and voters  – especially in a time of populism –  display narcissistic tendencies. The authors focus on the voters, arguing that Democrats and Republicans were shown to exhibit equal yet divergent narcissistic traits: those who were associated with a greater sense of entitlement were ‘[led…] away from the Democratic party’. A politician mirroring the general predisposition of narcissism and this specific angle might be a popular choice.

Many studies have documented the outsized role of racial and gender biases in the 2016 election; others show that gender biases are perpetrated by women, too. It should come as no surprise, then, that ‘demography is not destiny’, as Andrew Gelman and Julia Azari assert, even though some demographic identifiers have a measurable correlation with attitudes and voting preferences. In other words, the characteristics of the voting population that have absorbed social science research are useful but insufficient parameters for voting behaviour if we do not account for how such preferences are activated.

This is not to say that findings of sexist or racist views or that the notion of ‘cultural anxieties’ within particular voting blocs are irrelevant or immaterial; rather, the intricacies of ‘lived experience’ defy narrow research, and psychological understandings of human reactions and behaviour under conditions of rising populism and authoritarianism help expose various prejudices and economic or other uncertainties.

Tyrant is exceedingly relevant as a lens on US politics and social science research and makes a useful case, too, for incorporating interdisciplinary understanding of societies and governing systems. It is, finally, a multilayered testament to recognising the ‘political’ in our work and acting on it for the public interest, as Greenblatt and Shakespeare do by revealing, in their own ways, political forces and our agency within them.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Image by MikesPhotos from Pixabay.


Literary Authors on the Occupation of Palestine

Michael Chabon, ed., Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation (Fourth Estate 2017).

This is another book I found in the Postscript catalogue for April, 2020. It seems to be a collection of pieces by prominent western literary types dealing criticising the occupation of Palestine. The blurb for it runs

Edited in cooperation with Breaking the Silence, an NGO of former Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories, this collection of essays reflects on the human cost of 50 years of occupation, conflict and destruction in the West Bank and Gaza. The contributors include such celebrated international writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Colm Toibin, Eimear McBride, Hari Kunzru, Dave Eggers and Rachel Kushner.

It’s usual price is £12.99, but they’re offering it at £4.99.

Michael Chabon’s the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which seems to be a fictional version of the creation of the superhero comic by two Jewish lads in ’30s America. Which is how Superman started, and immediately became a massive success and icon of modern American popular culture. More recently, he’s the showrunner for Star Trek: Picard, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. This has been massively pilloried by fans because it has moved away from the Utopian optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, to become dark and dystopian. It is also very heavy-handed in its treatment of contemporary politics, such as immigration, Donald Trump and Brexit. And it’s terribly written. But it seems that Chabon has done excellent work here in compiling this volume, with its contributions from some very prominent writers. Mario Vargas Llosa is a giant of South American literature, Colm Toibin is a favourite of the British and Irish literary landscape, as is Hari Kunzru, and Dave Eggers is another famous literary name.

As for Breaking the Silence, they’re one of the many Israeli groups against the country’s brutal maltreatment of the Palestinians, like the human rights organisation B’Tsalem, that Netanyahu has raged against and tried to silence. Because the extreme right-wing Israeli establishment, as it stands, really cannot tolerate criticism from Jews, even when they are Zionists and/or domestic citizens. They have to be monstrous autocrats like Netanyahu. Who I’ve heard described by one Jewish academic as ‘that bastard Netanyahu’. None of these writers are anti-Semites and the book seems to be a successor to previous volumes by historians, writers and personalities attacking the occupation of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. One of the Jewish voices condemning the bombardment of Gaza nearly a decade ago was the respected British thesp, Miriam Margolyes. She said she spoke ‘as a proud Jew, and as an ashamed Jew’. This lost her the friendship of Maureen Lipman, who has spent the last five years ranting about how anti-Semitic the Labour party is. She began spouting this nonsense back in 2015 or thereabouts when the-then leader of the Party, Ed Miliband, who is Jewish, utter some mild criticism of Israel and dared to take a few steps away from Blairism.

Books like these are necessary, and they do seem to have an effect. The woefully misnamed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism was set up in 2012 because the Zionist faction in Britain were worried about the bombardment of Gaza had resulted in Israel losing the support of many severely normal Brits. It’s why the organisation seems to spend its time and energy not on pursuing and attacking real anti-Semites and Fascists, but mostly left-wing critics of Israel.  It’s why the Israel lobby is trying to close down criticism of Israel worldwide through contrived definitions of anti-Semitism like that of the IHRA, which include criticism of Israel.

It’s great that books like this are still being published despite the efforts of the Israel lobby to silence their authors and the principled Israeli organisations that work with them. And it’s a disgusting scandal that, in 2020, they should still be crying out against this glaring injustice.

Book on Vanished Jewish Communities of the Holocaust

Shmuel Spector, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, 3 vols. (New York University Press, 2001). 

I found this book in the latest Postscript catalogue for April 2020. The blurb for it goes

Profiling more than 6,500 Jewish communities, with over 600 photographs, 17 pages of maps, a chronology and glossary, these volumes are the product of three decades of work at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Authority of Israel. The alphabetically arranged entries provide details of the history, people and customs of communities, large and small, that thrived throughout much of Europe, north Africa and the Middle East during the early part of the 20th century, but were changed irrevocably by the Holocaust.

The price is beyond most people’s pockets. It was £173.00, but Postscript are offering it at £75. It might, however, be available from an academic library.

I’ve absolutely no problem with this book whatsoever. The college where I did my undergraduate degree, the College of St. Paul and St. Mary, which became part of the University of Gloucestershire, hosted an exhibitions of photos of the shtetl Jewish communities of eastern Europe. There is, however, a moral problem with Yad Vashem. While it’s entirely correct to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, critics of the museum have complained that it acts to sanitise some of the world’s worst political leaders when they turn up on an official visit to make a deal. These have included real Nazis and anti-Semites, people responsible for horrific crimes against humanity, authoritarians with absolutely no regard for the value of human life. But these people suddenly become worthy friends of Israel and its people by the simple act of making a visit to Yad Vashem as part of their itinerary and laying a wreath or making some other gesture of mourning.

The activity of Yad Vashem in researching and documenting the Jewish communities destroyed by the Holocaust in Europe also has a counterpart among the Palestinians. They are also active doing the same for the Palestinian communities destroyed during the Nakba, the term they use for their violent ethnic cleansing at the foundation of Israel. In contrast to the victims of the Jewish genocide, I very much doubt that any western publisher will bring out a book on these lost communities.

Because if they did, the Israel lobby and someone like the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and the Board of Deputies of British Jews would almost certainly accuse them of anti-Semitism.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: crossing the is/ought barrier

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/03/2020 - 11:44am in


Democracy, history

Charts from: “Creating and managing a high‐performance knowledge‐sharing network: the Toyota case

I recently reposted my old column on blogging the 2008 crisis and there’s been some great blogging of this crisis. What about crowdsourcing the crisis? To some extent, we’re doing that with people out here in television land suggesting stuff and bureaucrats and politicians ‘triaging’ those ideas along with their own and their masters’ to try to respond to the spectacularly difficult position we’re in.

But having to be funnelled through the bureaucracy, this system is necessarily going to focus on all the big things – which are the most important things at least in the short term. In the longer-term however fine-grained attention to detail is arguably more, perhaps a lot more important. The graphs I’ve used above show the staggering difference in productivity growth over a long period of time between two hierarchies one of which has a functioning system of encouraging and implementing ‘bottom-up’ improvements while the other doesn’t.

When the Government 2.0 Taskforce ran in 2009, lots of people were saying “why can’t we have a Wikipedia of government?” My answer then, as now, is that Wikipedia and open source software were unusual outliers, or to change the metaphor, low hanging fruit. If crowds are to displace the work of well-organised hierarchies they need a focus of convergence. With open-source software, it’s software that works or works better. With Wikipedia, the point of convergence is the NPOV or ‘neutral point of view’. You can’t get agreement on Wikipedia on whether Donald Trump is a good president or not, but you can about when he was born.1

Although there were various near hoax stories, for instance, that the New Zealand police got the police act written on a wiki, the fact is that running a government is not about what is the case, but what ought to be the case. There was also a lot of hype about prediction markets at the time. Prediction markets are fine things, but they’re on the same side of the is/ought divide. They give you insights into the likely state of the world and provide only indirect insight as to what we should do.

The point of convergence is not just a guide for participants in their own work and in their choice of whose work is published (on Wikipedia) or enters the codebase (in open source software). It’s the principle around which a deep and hierarchical meritocracy is built.2

In deliberative discussion which is necessary to decide good from bad policy, we’ve not done so well. At the time of the Government 2.0 Taskforce. we pointed to the way in which the new tools held out hope of such a possibility but didn’t say much about how to build them. I went on a lot about the prospects it gave for the existing system to open up to new possibilities – for instance in identifying new talent. It still could, but existing systems aren’t very good at doing that.

But at the same time as the possibility of opening up discussion more widely presented itself, so the scope for media gotcha also ramped up. There were now millions of pairs of eyes looking for opportunities to misrepresent officialdom and get the resentment spiral going for their side of the ideological divide, or maybe just for kicks. And the incumbent system was already paranoid about being misrepresented, as well it might have been, given the mass media’s lack of interest in asserting its own role in being an active ‘umpire’ of partisan debate – it was simply optimising eyeballs and clicks long before social media revved up the effect.3

So we needed to explore digital tools to establish more meritocracy online. As I’ve argued elsewhere, that is a critical part of the middleware of democracy about which we’ve done next to nothing. As far as policymaking is concerned, shortly after the conclusion of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, a couple of volunteers helped me build a demonstration site which was an attempt to work towards a solution to these problems.

I chose fiscal policy as a good area in which to build a proof of concept. Below the fold is an edited version of a concept document produced then. 

FixMyBudget is a site that will ‘crowdsource’ proposals for improving the budget bottom line, either by identifying ways governments can save money or ways they can plug tax loopholes.

Attempts to crowdsource policy proposals are popular but have not been a major success. An important reason for this is that most attempts to do this have been insufficiently structured. They have been easily ‘hijacked’ by political activists or just ‘trolls’ who enjoy provoking others.

Where the task has been simply to state facts – as it largely is in the case of Wikipedia – a very flat structure can work. However, where we are seeking to make difficult choices to identify what are the best policy ideas, FixMyBudget will pursue a more structured approach.

Though all comers will be welcome to contribute on the site, newcomers will begin with just one deliberative vote as against a higher number of votes for those who are accepted by the site as experts. As they gain experience and we gain trust in their contributions and their judgment, those who began as newcomers on the site will be able to earn the same voting rights as experts.

As we prove up policy ideas, they will be sent in some priority order to the government with public tracking and reporting of progress being made with each idea. In addition, we will seek sponsors to fund prizes for the best suggestions or other contributions each month. Over time we hope to establish wikis on other areas of government policy, but we’re starting with budgeting.

We’re in the process of putting together a board of advisors who will be respected experts in their field. If you are a well-respected policy professional we’d appreciate your involvement. Once the site goes live – which we hope to do by Budget time this year, or May 10th, you can help us by telling others about the site and by using it yourself. If you teach, you may be able to refer your students to the site and to encourage them to use it. You might even allow students to earn credit towards their studies with sufficient contributions of a sufficient standard to the site.

Users would write out their ideas on the web-page below and the ideas could then be commented on, critiqued and improved by other users. Should they wish, users would have identities – or pseudonyms – so that their identities remained stable and they could build up their reputation on the site. Visitors would be permitted to nominate ideas or to contribute to the development of others’ ideas but would not be able to graduate to higher levels of authority on the site. Those with higher levels of authority will have more say in how ideas are developed and in choosing those ideas as worthy of submission to government.

The site will be suitable for federal, state or local government, and we will make the appropriate arrangements to adapt the site as we gain experience with the needs of each.

When he saw an earlier draft, Matt Landauer who was instrumental in setting up Open Australia and other associated sites wasn’t impressed:

This looks like another bureaucracy in the making. Nothing about this proposal so far looks fun playful or engaged. It feels very hierarchical. There’s too much judging, and not enough collaborating. Even the language needs to open up. Can we start again, from the desired outcomes, and ask – what would be a fun playful engaged way to solve a problem

He certainly has a point as far as encouraging participation. But I think if we are to find ways of breaking the ‘is/ought’ barrier we need to build a meritocracy within the operations of crowdsourcing sites. And if we’re seeking to do that in a subject area like this there’s a good deal of judgement that needs to be shown.4

Part of the game plan was that one would gradually build a powerful brainstorming and analytical capability outside government. One would then invite governments to participate in some way. Certainly one couldn’t stop practising public servants from moonlighting on the site. And with a steady stream of ideas being served up – with some publicity being given to the process – one might be able to create an environment where the government would feel obliged to respond.

We didn’t proceed with the project. I didn’t want to spend the time that would have been necessary to be the CEO. I was doing lots of other things. And no-one else stepped forward. Governments sounded interested but didn’t do anything.

I’m setting this out now simply to say how powerful a capability like this might have been at a time like this – where it would help in the sweating of the small stuff while the centre of the system worked on the big-ticket items.

  1. Just to drive home the point, the NPOV even works if you can’t agree even on that. Then you can agree on the disagreement about the source. “The NYC records say Donald Trump was born in NYC on June 14, 1946, but Barack Obama has raised doubts about this and has presented evidence that Donald Trump was not born, but rather hatched and that this took place in 1947 in Kenya”.
  2. As I wrote here,
    • The vast outpouring of content available on the internet also means that one of the critical services provided by platforms is the filtering of content.
      • In purely social networks like Facebook and Twitter ‘friending’, ‘trending’ and ‘tagging’ provide principle means of filtering.
      • However, where users are interested in the quality of the content, either the project hierarchy filters good from bad content itself a la Wikipedia or it establishes a means by which reputations can be judged. Thus eBay records and presents reputational information to enable users of the site to identify good trading partners. Other sites like Slashdot have built organic, meritocratic elites within the project based on the community’s perception of the quality of individuals’ contributions with enhanced influence rewarding enhanced reputation.

  3. See this post, especially section III for examples.
  4. Note this doesn’t mean that one would be tied to a unitary system of judgement. Different contributors could be a different number of votes by different systems, so that one could put a ‘lens’ over a set of proposals favouring some values over others.

Iain Duncan Smith Denounces Plan to Introduce Universal Basic Income

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/03/2020 - 4:29am in

Universal Basic Income, the scheme by which governments give a specified guaranteed income to all their citizens regardless of personal wealth or employment, has been widely discussed in recent years. I think some countries may already have such schemes in place, and there might be a programme about it this week on Radio 4. It was also one of the ideas mooted to help people out of their financial difficulties caused by the Coronavirus lockdown. Ten days ago, on Friday, 20th of March 2020, Mike put up a piece reporting that Boris Johnson was then considering the idea. And not only that, the idea had the support of some British industrialists, like Liam Kelly, the chair of the Baltic Triangle group of companies. Kelly said that the scheme wasn’t quite as radical as dropping money from a helicopter, but was a plausible solution to the problem of the present crisis. He said “It will help stave off the unprecedented economic challenges we face and protect us from another. This is a sensible fiscal stimulus and it’s time it went directly to the people, not just to the banks.” This might be a reference to one of the criticisms of the government’s financial bailout of the 2008 banking crash. The money went to the banks, who have carried on as before. Some critics have said that what Brown should have done instead is given the money to the public, so that their spending would solve the crisis the bankers had created. Who would have to face the consequences of the massive financial bubble they had created, rather than expect everyone else to bear the costs imposed through austerity while they continued to enrich themselves.

One voice, however, spoke against this scheme: Iain Duncan Smith. The pandemic has had a profound personal effect on some people. It’s brought out the best in them, as friends and relatives rally round to look after those, who are too vulnerable to do things for themselves like go shopping. IDS, however, has remained untouched by this. He still remains a shabby, deplorable excuse for a human being. In an article in the Torygraph stuck behind a paywall – because the Tories don’t let the proles getting anything for free – IDS issued his criticisms of the scheme. He blandly stated that the scheme would make no difference to the financial problems of low-income households and would not alleviate poverty. For which he provided no evidence whatsoever. He also said that it would disincentive work, and cost an astronomic amount of money. This is despite the scheme being budgeted at £260 billion, which is £70 billion less than the £330 billion Rishi Sunak has already imposed.

Mike says of … Smith’s appalling attitudes that they come from a man, who seems to believe that the solution to poverty is killing the poor themselves. Why else, Mike asks, would he have imposed policies that have pushed the vulnerable so deeply into poverty that many have died.

Mike also makes the point that he’s also trying to protect his own political vanity projects, like the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit, PIP and ESA assessments, which would all become redundant with the introduction of UBI. Mike concludes

And he wants to ensure that we do not get to see the beneficial effects of UBI, even if it is only brought in for a brief, experimental period.

It seems clear that, while the Tories are claiming to be doing what they can in the face of the crisis, the evil that motivates them remains as strong as it ever was.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/03/20/coronavirus-trust-iain-duncan-smith-to-try-to-wreck-our-chances-of-survival/

This is absolutely correct, though it can be added that the Gentleman Ranker isn’t afraid of seeing his own political legacy discarded, but the whole Tory attitude to poverty and the question of wealth redistribution. The Republicans in America and the Tories over here hate redistributive welfare policies. The rich, they believe, should be left to enjoy their wealth, ’cause they created it and its all theirs, and the poor should have to work for their money. If they can’t work, or are poor, it’s because of some fault of their own – they’re idle, or simply don’t have the qualities to prosper in the meritocratic society created by unfettered market capitalism. And since Maggie Thatcher, Tory and Blairite welfare policy is based on the assumption that a large percentage of people claiming disability or unemployment benefit are workshy scroungers. Hence the fitness to work tests, in which it has been claimed that the assessors are instructed to find a certain percentage fit, because Tory ideology demands that they do. Even if in reality they are severely disabled, terminally ill, or in some cases actually dead. This also applies to Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit, and the system of sanctions attached to them. It’s all the principle of less eligibility, by which the process of claiming benefit is meant to be as harsh, difficult and degrading as possible in order to deter people from doing it. It is designed to make them desperate for any job, no matter how low paid or degrading. Or if they cannot work, then they are expected to find some other way to support themselves or die. The death toll from benefit sanctions runs into hundreds, and the total death toll from Tory austerity is 120,000, or thereabouts. And many of these deaths are directly attributable to IDS’ wretched, murderous policies.

If Universal Basic Income were to be introduced and shown to be a success, it would effectively discredit Tory welfare policy. The idea that state welfare stops people from looking for work has been a Tory nostrum since before Thatcher. But with Thatcher came the belief that conditions for the poor should be made harder in order to make them try to do well for themselves. I can remember one Tory, or Tory supporter, actually saying that on the Beeb during Thatcher’s tenure of No. 10. But these ideas would be seriously damaged if UBI were successfully implemented. It would also help undermine the class system the Tories are so keen to preserve by closing the gap between rich and poor through state action, rather than market forces. Which, indeed, have never done anything of the sort and have only created glaring inequalities in wealth.

Iain Duncan Smith couldn’t bear to see this all discredited. And so to stop this, he blocked UBI, even though it offered a plausible solution to some of the financial difficulties people are suffering.

Which shows you exactly how despicable he is, and how devoted to the maintenance of a welfare system that has done nothing but push people into poverty, starvation and death.



6 post-Corona Institutional questions

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/03/2020 - 11:34pm in

The mass hysteria of the corona crisis is raging, with the resulting self-isolation of whole economies and populations. The loss seems greater with every new forecast on the economic collapse than I initially thought, and the benefit of imprisoning and terrorizing the population smaller than I initially thought, leading courageous little Sweden to forego these options. High-level media and calm commentators are waking up to the longer-term implications, though the population is still too overcome by fear.

I want to share 6 areas where we should think of international institutional reform to prevent another hysteria like the one we are going through now. I don’t want to presume any answers but simply want to hear your thoughts and suggestions, so am merely laying out the challenges.

They are: i) How to diminish the normality of apocalyptic thinking, ii) How to read China better, iii) How to prevent international contagion of panic through social and regular media better, iv) How to reduce the fragility of international supply chains, v) How to foster better cooperation between countries in the EU, and vi) How to regain our lost freedom and reason.

Over the fold I explain them in more detail.


  1. The cult of the apocalypse. This crisis laid bare that large parts of the population and the scientific community, not just epidemiologists, have really bought into some notion of extreme emergencies for which a totalitarian response is needed. Via petitions and the media have these people loudly called for draconian measures, based on little evidence that this would work or no evidence that it would do more good than bad. The world has up till now shrugged its shoulders over the various doom scenarios dreamed up by scientists, including “extinction due to climate change”, “killer asteroids”, “nuclear devastation”, “run-away robots”, and a whole host of other scenarios you might recognise from disaster movies. This time the population went along with one such story, leading to devastating losses as the ‘cure’ turned out to be far more deadly and destructive than ‘the problem’. How do we reduce the prevalence and growth of these doomsday cults?
  2. Understanding China. The Chinese government showed the world the example of how to be totalitarian about a disease, and their example proved infectious. Understanding in the West as to why the Chinese did this was extremely limited, but we looked up to them anyway and several governments simply followed their example. We need to learn how China truly operates and stop imagining they are like us. The Chinese have a long history of disastrous totalitarian projects, like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, and we should learn why they do this, in order to avoid following their example, not copy them.
  3. Contagion of panics via social media and the regular media. This was first and foremost the biggest mass hysteria event in history, fed by a connected media. Even in India, which is far too warm for this virus to do much damage and where there are hence almost no recorded cases, the population has become scared enough to loudly call for draconian measures, leading to the madness of locking down hundreds of millions of extremely poor people who have no savings and no income to buy food. We need to think hard about how to make contagion of these panics harder and slower, not just for pandemics but also the many other global fears (financial, military, ethnic, religious). This will require thinking about the architecture of media, the internet, mobile telephony, etc. It is not easy to see what can be done.
  4. The fragility of international supply chains. The huge recessions of 1929 in the West, and 1990 in Eastern Europe taught us that broken supply chains are very hard to rebuild in a hurry. Companies and industries make very particular investments that form a link, and if some of the pieces in the chain break, the whole chain cannot function, disbands, and very quickly loses the knowledge to re-form as parts go their separate ways[1]. We should think of what we could do to make the supply chains less fragile to disruption: how do we build more slack into the system?
  5. International cooperation. As Harari pointed out in the Financial Times, international cooperation has broken down during this crisis. Even in the EU, countries went their own way, not caring about the disruption to partners of their own actions. This is also what happened in 1929 and in Eastern Europe in 1990, to the loss of all. We have learned again that only nation states remain cohesive and take collective decisions. What to do about it?
  6. How to regain respect for freedom, privacy, own reason, the fallability of expert advice, etc.? This hysteria has cost the West, which is the audience we on this blog overwhelmingly belong to, much of the best we had to offer the world. For the sake of fear have we loudly demanded totalitarianism, invasive top-down monitoring, top-down rules on who is important and who should do what, and adopted the fantasies of experts who had no more idea about the balance of the effects of what they proposed than anyone else. How to regain and more stringently hold on to our ideals and our reason?

I have preliminary suggestions on these but want to hear your thoughts. Also importantly, what other international institutional challenges do you see needing to be addressed once this hysteria passes and the West wakes up to the loss it has inflicted on itself?

[1Because this stuff is too hard to put in an easy macro-model (though you can do it in micro models, see here), mainstream economics hasnt managed to incorporate these lessons into its canon and has thus once again missed the importance of this when the crisis hit.]

The Eugenicist Attitude to the Coronavirus: the Buck Stops with Boris

Earlier this week, I got a message from Labour leadership hopeful Lisa Nandy urging everyone to put their political differences,including trade unions and employers, and unite to tackle the current emergency. I’d agree with her, if I had faith in the current government. If I believed that Boris Johnson was a competent Prime Minister, who was also deeply concerned to protect the lives and livelihoods of everyone in this great nation. But I cannot honestly say that he is. And one of the reasons that he isn’t is that he let the government’s policy to the virus outbreak be determined by his pet polecat, Dominic Cummings. 

The Sunday Times astonished the British public last Sunday by revealing that the government’s attitude to the spread of the virus had been decided by Bojob’s favourite polecat, Dominic Cummings. And Cummings had decided that it should be tackled by allowing the British public to develop herd immunity. The virus was to be allowed to spread throughout the population, so that people became naturally immune. Biologists, doctors, and epidemiologists warned instead that this wouldn’t work. It has only ever been achieved using vaccination, and if the virus was allowed to spread, it could result in the deaths of a quarter of million people. Its victims would be chiefly the old and the already sick. Tragically, as we’re seeing now, its victims also include young, previously healthy people in their 20s and 30s. Cummings had told people privately that his chief concern was to protect the economy, and if a few old people died, too bad. It’s a disgusting attitude, and Zelo Street was exactly right in his article about it when he says that it places Cummings’ beyond the pale, and that he has to be removed and a public inquiry held afterwards.


Cummings’ attitude is rooted in eugenics. This views humans in very coarse, crudely Darwinian terms. For the race to improve, superior stock must be allowed and encouraged to breed. The inferior are to be weeded out through natural selection – they are either to be allowed to die through disease or their own mental and physical handicaps, or sterilised. In the 19th century, the American corporate elite advanced eugenicist arguments to prevent the government passing what would now be called ‘health and safety’ legislation. It was worse than useless to try to improve the condition of the poor with public welfare. The poor were sick and disabled not through poor working or living conditions, but simply because they were biologically unfit. Any attempt to improve their conditions would only result in the biologically inferior breeding, and so contaminating the rest of the human stock. By the 1920s, about 25 American states had passed legislation providing for the compulsory sterilisation of the disabled. The policy was enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis, who boasted that they were making absolutely no innovations. They took it to its horrific conclusion, however, with the SS’ murder of the insane and mentally handicapped in special clinics. A policy that prepared the way for the Holocaust and the wholesale murder of the Jews with cyanide gas.

And the Tories seem to be permeated through and through with eugenicist attitudes. They were forced to sack Andrew Sabisky as one of Bojob’s aides because he held similar noxious views. Toby Young, the Spectator journalist and media sleaze, lost his job on Tweezer’s board, set up to represent students, after it was revealed he was also a eugenicist. Tobes had attended conferences at University College London on eugenics, where real anti-Semites, racists and Nazis gathered. And Maggie’s mentor, the loathsome Keith Joseph, caused outrage in the 1970s when he declared that unmarried mothers were a threat to ‘our stock’.

This doesn’t mean that the Tories actively want to round up the disabled and long term sick. But it does explain their absolute complacency about 120,000 deaths or so that have occurred through their austerity, including their obstinate refusal to abandon a policy that is killing people. Cummings should not, of course, have ever been allowed to decide that the government should favour the economy at the expense of ordinary people’s lives. But as Mike also pointed out in an article he posted on Monday, the buck ultimately stops with Bojob. It was Bojob who told the British people that many of them would lose loved ones before their time, when he had not then taken the ‘social distancing’ measures he’s now been forced to adopt to slow down the virus – the closure of schools, pubs, clubs, leisure facilities and social gatherings. And so while the media talked about the Polecat’s horrendous attitude, other peeps on Twitter knew where the real culpability lay. And one woman, MrsGee, probably spoke for many when she said Johnson should resign.

Bid to blame Tory coronavirus strategy on Cummings is baloney. The buck stops with Boris

There’s no question that people’s lives should come before the economy. They were debating precisely this kind of situation in the 19th century. The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, even wrote a piece about it. In one of his plays, the leaders of a spa town are faced with a dilemma. The spa is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, but they are unwilling to close the spa down because of the income it provides the community. Perhaps we would be better governed, and our leaders had been truly prepared for this crisis, if sometime during their education they’d actually read Ibsen or seen the play performed.

But I don’t think Johnson is any too interested in modern Continental literature. He’d rather see what the classics have to say about things and compare himself to Caesar and Churchill.

Radio 4 Adaptation on Saturday of Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/03/2020 - 5:01am in

According to next week’s Radio Times, Radio 4 next Saturday, 28th March 2020, is broadcasting an adaptation of Jules Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’ at 3.00 pm. The blurb for it runs

‘Drama: To the Ends of the Earth: the Mysterious Island

Three very different people escape the American Civil War by stealing a balloon – which crashes near a deserted island. But perhaps it is not quite as deserted as they think. Gregory Evan’s dramatisation of Jules Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’

What struck me about this is that Captain Nemo is played by an Asian actor, Sagar Arya. There’s a bitter controversy at the moment over ‘forced diversity’, the term used for writers, directors and producers altering the gender and race of established characters in order to make traditional, or long-established stories, plays, films or TV series more multicultural, feminist or otherwise inclusive. It might be thought that this is another example, but it would be wrong.

In an interview with Alan Moore I found on YouTube a few months ago, the comics legend behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta and a series of other strips and graphic novels, explained why he made Nemo an Indian prince in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The comic, which was made into a film a little while ago starring Sean Connery, imagines a kind of late 19th – early 20th century superhero group formed by Alan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Dorian Grey, Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, Mr Hyde, and Captain Nemo. The group travels on their adventures in Nemo’s ship, the Nautilus. The strip was drawn by 2000 AD art robot, Kevin O’Neill, whose art back in the 1980s for an edition of the Green Lantern Corps was judged too horrific for children by the late, unlamented Comics Code. So far, however, I have heard of no-one being left psychologically scarred by his art on The League. Moore stated that he made Nemo Indian, with O’Neill’s art consequently showing the Nautilus’ interior decorated with Indian art and architectural motifs, because that is exactly how Verne described him in The Mysterious Island. He wasn’t at all like James Mason in the Disney movie.

Now I dare say that the Beeb may very well have chosen to adapt The Mysterious Island for radio in order to give this favourite Science Fiction character a new, multicultural twist. But it is faithful to Verne’s original conception of the character. It’ll be interesting to hear what it’s like.

Here’s the video from the AlanMooreVids channel on YouTube, in which Moore talks about the strip. It’s a segment from the BBC 4 series on comics, Comics Britannia. The video shows O’Neill’s art, and the artist himself working. Moore praises his collaborator on the strip, saying that he take the most disturbing of his ideas and make them two or three times more upsetting. But he admires his skill for the grotesque, which in Moore’s view places him up there with the caricaturists Gilray and Hogarth. It’s high praise, but I think Moore’s actually right. If O’Neill had become a caricaturist instead of a comics artist, I think he would be admired as the equal of such greats as Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.

Rachel Riley Fans Bully Ken Loach into Resigning as Anti-Racism Judge

Okay, we’re in the middle of an unprecedented public health emergency, a global pandemic that is forcing country after country across the world to go into lockdown. The French passed legislation a week or so ago stipulating that citizens had to have documented permission in order to leave the homes. Earlier this week our clown of a Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appeared on television to tell us that he was ordering us, with certain exception, to stay in our homes. The exceptions are key workers and people caring for the sick. You are allowed to leave home to get food and other necessary visits. But that’s it. Shops, businesses and libraries are closing, and there are to be no public gatherings of more than two people.

The crisis has brought out the very best and worse of people. People are going round to check on and run errands for neighbours in high-risk categories, such as those over 70, and those with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable, like cancer patients. On the other hand, we’ve also seen mobs clearing the shelves of food and toilet paper in supermarkets and stores, hoarding them and so preventing others, like the elderly, sick and healthcare workers, from acquiring them. One of my neighbours was so upset when she personally saw this happening when she went shopping that she burst into tears in her car.

But one person the crisis hasn’t affected is Rachel Riley. She appears to be as squalid, mean-spirited, spiteful and bigoted as ever. She, Oberman and a female hack had tried to get Ken Loach and Michael Rosen dropped from judging a competition organised by the anti-racist organisation, Show Racism the Red Card, because she decided they were anti-Semites. The accusation’s risible. Ken Loach is a left-wing film auteur, who is passionately anti-racist. And that includes fighting anti-Semitism. Of course the Thatcherites inside and outside the Labour party and the Israel lobby tried to smear him as anti-Semite a year or so ago because he has directed a film attacking Israel’s barbarous treatment of the Palestinians. But he enjoys the support of very many anti-racist, self-respecting Jews in the Labour Party. When he appeared at a meeting of Jewish Voice for Labour, he was given a standing ovation.

As for Michael Rosen, not only is the accusation risible, it’s also personally offensive. Rosen’s Jewish, though this doesn’t bother the smear merchants. They seem to especially delight in smearing Jews, who dare to have the temerity to demonstrate that Judaism does not equal Zionism. Indeed, there is, or was, a bit of graffiti on a wall in Jerusalem stating ‘Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed’. This is an attitude completely alien to the Jewish establishment. As Tony Greenstein has pointed out time and again, the current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis grew up in apartheid South Africa and a right-wing settlement on land stolen from the Palestinians, and led a British contingent on the March of the Flags. This is the annual event when Israeli bovver-boys goose step through the Muslim sector of Jerusalem, vandalising property and trying to intimidate the locals. Rosen is an author, poet and broadcaster. He was the Children’s Poet Laureate. I believe he has, like so many other Jewish Brits, lost relatives in the Shoah. He is a Holocaust educator, and appeared before parliament to testify about it. Like Loach, he is very, very definitely no kind of anti-Semite or Nazi. But because he dared to support Jeremy Corbyn, Riley and the other smear merchants attacked him.

Show Racism the Red Card defied the smear campaign of Riley and her fans. The organisation had received statements from people from all walks of life supporting Loach and Rosen. It therefore announced that they were delighted to have them as judges. That should have been it. But it wasn’t. Riley issued another Tweet claiming that Loach is a Holocaust denier. This was because Loach had initially supported another person, whom he believed had been unfairly accused of anti-Semitism. When he found out that the woman really was an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, he cut off all further communication. Riley deleted this Tweet, but the damage was done. Her fans and others, who had been taken in by her lie bombarded Loach and his family with abuse and threats. He has now been forced to withdraw as a judge.

Mike put up a piece commenting on this vile behaviour. He pointed out that Riley will continue bullying and smearing people until she’s stopped. He’s currently fighting a libel case brought by her, despite Riley not challenging the facts on which Mike based his statement that Riley had bullied a schoolgirl for being anti-Semitic, simply because she supported Corbyn. Mike appealed once again for donations, as justice is expensive. If he wins his case, it just might stop her trying to use the law to smear, bully and silence others. See his article at: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/03/18/sickening-bullying-of-innocents-shows-riley-wont-stop-until-she-is-made-to/

Riley’s tactic of posting and then deleting a Tweet that could be considered libelous and an incitement to intimidation is shared by another noxious character: Tommy Robinson. The arch-islamophobe with convictions for assault and contempt of court has a habit of turning up on the doorsteps of his critics, or their elderly parents, with a couple of mates, demanding a word at all hours of the day and night. He’s also handy at dishing out smears. Mike Stuchbery, one of his most persistent critics, has been forced out of his job as a teacher and live abroad, after Robinson and his crew turned up late one night at his house, banging on the walls and windows and accusing him of being paedophile. It wasn’t remotely true, but then, as Boy George sang so long ago, ‘truth means nothing in some strange quarters’. Robinson also gets his followers to persecute and intimidate his critics, and then also denies he has deliberately provoked them. He denounces and doxes them on the Net, posting details of their home addresses, which he then deletes. No, he wasn’t sending his followers round to threaten them. It was all a mistake, and he took the offending Tweet or post off the Net as soon as possible. It’s all ‘plausible deniability’.

And Riley seems to have adopted the same tactic.

Which shouldn’t surprise anybody, considering how closely linked the Israel lobby is with the EDL. Tony Greenstein, in particularly, has documented and photographed various occasions in which pro-Israel, anti-Palestine protesters have turned up virtually arm in arm with the EDL’s squadristi. I am not accusing Riley of being an islamophobe, but she’s adopting their tactics.

She’s disgusting, and it’s long past time when anyone stopped believing her lies and abuse. I hope Mike will be able to do this when he finally has his day against her in court. Not just for Mike, but for everyone else she’s threatened, bullied and smeared.

Worrals of the WAAF – Captain W.E. John’s Flying Heroine for Girls

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/03/2020 - 4:45am in

Captain W.E. Johns, illustrated by Matt Kindt, Worrals of the WAAF (London: Indie Books 2013).

Captain W.E. Johns, illustrated by Matt Kindt, Worrals Carries on (London: Indie Books 2013).

Captain W.E. Johns, illustrated by Matt Kindt, Worrals Flies Again (London: Indie Books 2013).

Captain W.E. Johns was the creator of that great British hero, ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth, an RAF fighter ace, who with his friends Algy and Ginger foiled the evil designs of the German menace in a series of tales set in the First and Second World Wars. They’re classics of British children’s literature. They appeal mostly, but by no means exclusively to boys – they’re have been plenty of female readers. Even though they’re now somewhat passe, they’re influence on British popular culture is still noticeable. In the 1980s there was an attempt to translate the character into film with an SF twist. Johns’ hero was still a World War II airman, but was sent into the present day by time warp. The character was so much a staple of British literature, that he was lampooned, I believe, by Punch’s Alan Coren in his short story, ‘Biggles Strikes Camp’. More recently, the square-jawed space pilot, ‘Ace’ Rimmer, the heroic alter ego of the cowardly, egotistical and sneering Rimmer in TV’s Red Dwarf, seems to be something of a mixture of Biggles and that other great British hero, Dan Dare, the pilot of the future.

But during the Second World War, Johns was also determined to thrill and inspire girls with a similar figure for them. And so he wrote a series of three books about Joan Worralson, ‘Worrals’, and her friend Frecks. They were pilots in the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, which was set up to deliver aircraft to the RAF. Although not combat pilots, Worrals and Flecks soon found themselves actively fighting the Nazi menace in Britain, and then France. The books were republished in 2013 by Indie Books. There’s also some connection there with the RAF Museum, as that institution has its logo proudly printed on the back cover.

I found them in a recent catalogue for Postscript, a mail order firm specialising in bargain books. They were there, alongside serious histories of women in aviation and the WAAF. I liked the ‘Biggles’ books when I was a schoolboy, and decided to order them to see what his female counterpart was like. A decision helped by the fact that they were £2.95 each. They came shortly before the shutdown last week. I haven’t read them yet, but will probably give them a full review when I do. In the meantime, here’s the blurbs for them:

1: Worrals of the WAAF

Britain: 1940

Joan Worralson – Worrals to her many friends – is ferrying a replacement aircraft to a RAF fighter station when she is plunged into combat with a mysterious plane.

Later, she and her friend Frecks investigate what that plane was up to – and fall into a nest of spies.

With their own airfield the target for destruction, the two girls will need every ounce opf skill and daring to save the day.

2: Worrals Carries On

Britain: 1941

While Britain reels from nightly air attacks, Worrals and Frecks are stuck in the routine of delivering new planes to the RAF – until a chance discovery put them on the trail of a Nazi spy.

The hunt leads them to London at the height of the Blitz and even into occupied France. Cut could it be that the traitor is right in their midst? And ready to hand them over to the Gestapo?

3: Worrals Flies Again

1941: Occupied France

British agents are risking their lives behind enemy lines. But how to get that vital information back home?

MI6 need a pilot who speaks French like a native and with the courage to take on an operation so crazy that it might just work. A job for Worrals.

But when she and Frecks fly to the isolated French castle that is to be their base, they discover that nothing is what it seems – and the Gestapo have got there first.

Like other professions and employers, the RAF is trying to diversify its ranks and recruit more women and people of BAME backgrounds. This was shown very clearly a few months ago on the One Show, in a section where pilot and former Countdown numbers person, Carol Vorderman, herself a pilot, talked about the winners of a competition by the Air Cadets  and the RAF to find their best and most promising members. There were three, two of whom were girls, while the third was a Black lad. As a reward, they were given a tour of the vast American factory where they were building the new high performance jets that were due to come into service over this side of the Pond, and talk to some of the American Air Forces pilots. These included a young woman, who was so thrilled with flying these machines that she told them she couldn’t believe she got paid for doing it. There was also a little subtext informing the viewer that young women could still fly these deadly war machines without sacrificing their femininity. One of the girl cadets was a blogger, who specialised in makeup and beauty. And there’s also a more general drive within aviation to recruit more women as pilots, for example in civil, passenger flight.

There have clearly been for a long time women interested in flight and careers in the armed forces. I don’t know how many girls were encouraged to join the WAAF or take to the air by reading Worrals – I suspect they more likely to be influenced by the ‘Biggles’ stories. There was also an attempt to launch a comic strip which featured a group of female pilots fighting for Britain in the WAAF or RAF in the girls’ comics. This was mentioned in the excellent short BBC documentary series, Comics Britannia. However, the strip didn’t prove popular with female readers and was closed down. The comic asked them what they’d rather read instead, and they said, ‘a good cry’. This resulted in a series of strips of unrelenting misery in their comics, including ‘Child Slaves of War Orphan Farm’. I think stories about heroic female pilots sticking it to the Nazis would have been far healthier, but the girls of the time obviously didn’t want it. I don’t know if the books would have any greater success now, when writers are trying to create strong role models for girls in fiction.

I haven’t read them yet – they’re on my ‘to read’ list, along with many others. But I intend to read them eventually. I’m interested in finding out what they’re like, and how they stand up to today’s changed ideas about gender roles. And more importantly, whether they’re any fun. I look forward to finding out.

And my mother wants to read them afterwards.