Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Black ice

Dawn over Tjornin is pink and the lightest blue. The geese have only the smallest corner; winter has the rest.
I can believe they believed in trolls. Nothing moves by Thingvallatn except us. Zenella's hands are cold. She has beautiful hands, a perfection of form, achingly soft in my big paw. She didn't inherit her mother's thumb, the thumbs that the generations show each other when they meet.
I wish I could make her smile more. I know she will not remember Reykjavik but I cannot help hoping that the moments we pass, laughing as she throws snow at my sisters and me, will place one more brick in her happy memory of me and mine.

My life grinds me and wears me down. I don't always bear up well under it. I cannot seem to console myself that no one of us is as good a man as we would wish, because there is always the nagging feeling that perhaps some are. I am dreading the news that the scan will bring. I am dreading the possibility of decisions I am not equipped to make. It's at times like this I wish I had a god to beseech for help to bear up, if I need to bear up. I wish I could put a better face on it. It should be a joyous thing. I know it should.

But I'm looking at Zenella, and I think that fate, which it seems has cursed me often enough, will not bless me so much again.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

If nobody speaks of remarkable things

Most books are flawed, and it’s one measure of good and bad how many and how serious those flaws are. These days, reviews tend to consider the flaws by the by, rating a book on its conception, the breadth of its scope, the success of its plot. One might suppose this is as good a way to present a book as any other, so that the reader has an idea of the book’s ability to engage ideas, to enchant, to stretch the bounds, without being put off too much by its weaknesses.
The downside of this is that reviews tend to praise what the book attempted rather than what it achieved. For instance, Erica Wagner said of If nobody speaks of remarkable things that it painted a “hypnotic portrait of industrialised society”. (I note this from the back cover, not from the original review, which I did not read.) Well, it tries to, it is its intention, certainly. But it doesn’t. If she had said it paints a rather vague picture of urban life, which is dull enough to be recognisable, but doesn’t surprise you enough in the detail to be enlightening, she would have been far more accurate. Still, she’s not alone. Apparently, the Observer (home of the exquisitely poor, arsekisser’s review, it has to be said) described the prose as careful. Given that it’s one of the book’s major features that it seems not to have been edited, this is laughable (“scrawl” is a kind of careless drawing, not the noise a cat makes, however poetic we are being; the lazy switching of tenses occasionally confuses – I’m not sure McGregor understands the pluperfect at all, but an editor ought to; the narrative voice is not focused, so that there are places where the reader isn’t sure whether we are still reading what someone is thinking, or about them).
The book’s conceit is of course that the “remarkable things” he speaks of are the quite ordinary events of our days (in particular, the character who uses the phrase notes the miracle of flocks of birds’ not clashing one with the other – ahem). But McGregor does not make them remarkable – he carefully describes them so that they are rendered quite as dull as they are. Compare if you will Lights out for the territory, where Sinclair finds notes in London’s palimpsest that reveal the hidden city. Or Amis, whose London fields shows an understanding of urban existence that almost approaches Dickens’. You do not care for McGregor’s characters (he leaves most with loose ends, which doesn’t worry you as much as you might expect because you simply do not give a hoot what becomes of, for instance, the old guy with lung disease – who is, you can be sure, as is usual in this particular cliché, hiding it from his wife – but presume he dies and that is that). You can’t really get them straight enough in your head, since they are not well enough composed, to be sure who he’s talking about at any one time.
It doesn’t help that for a reason that only becomes apparent in the last few pages (with a huge thudding clunk) the narrator of half the book is a woman who is so unconvincingly drawn that you simply cannot forget that this is a woman as written by a man. Men rarely write women well (and vice versa, of course) unless they are making caricatures of them (Becky Sharp is a great character because she is no woman you know, ditto Miss Havisham) or focused pastiches of some small element. McGregor is nothing like well enough acquainted with women, it seems, to be even plausible.
He had the germ of an idea, a good idea maybe, and the book is easy enough to read (most will be less annoyed by its technical deficiencies than I was). But should we settle for that?

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Lies, damned lies, and the testimony of the accused

I believe Huntley killed the girls, but I doubt he did it. It's a paradox but it's the reason, absent a confession, that he should be acquitted.

Imagine this was what really happened: one of the girls had a nosebleed, and as he reached for some lavatory paper, he knocked her into the bath he had run for his dog and she promptly drowned. Her friend alarmed him by screaming that he pushed her and he clamped a hand over her mouth in panic, suffocating her.

(It's not a likely story but the truth is not always likely. Sometimes - although not often - it's inexpressibly twisty.)

What else though, if it were true, could Huntley say but I know it's unlikely but this is what happened? It doesn't sound like a cunning story he cooked up to explain the facts - which is how the prosecutor paints it - because it is only barely plausible. Surely he could have come up with better, even if he isn't the sharpest tool in the box?

Or perhaps he is. Instead of coming up with a solid, believable story, he thought one up so mad that it beggars belief he would expect it to be credited. Which leads you to think maybe...

The thing is, I can imagine that that was what really happened. It's not impossible. There are no witnesses, of course, and none of the forensics are likely to prove anything because he spoilt the evidence.

Doubtless he'll be convicted. Most would feel that justice will be served. As I say, I believe he did it. But ought we to convict people on our beliefs? I remember an interview with one of the jurors who convicted Mike Tyson. They said that they convicted him because they believed her more than they believed him. That's pretty rough justice, even if you reckon he got what he deserved. Justice is not about what you deserve.

I don't usually read the details of these big cases in the papers. I don't care enough about the people involved, and I find the dissection of a person's demise distasteful. But I did read through the questioning of Huntley by the prosecution lawyer Latham.

Latham sneers, accuses and poses, cowing Huntley, pushing and bullying him into a display of temper so that he can say aha, but you do have a temper! You might have gone mental and snuffed the kids.

(Well, I have a temper and would probably snap if some pompous twat gave me the third degree in a stressful scenario like a trial, but I've never drowned anybody in a bath, and I'm reasonably sure I won't be doing so.)

"You took them into the house to assault them, didn't you?" (I paraphrase but you'll get the idea.)

Huntley can only say no, but the idea is out there. It's abroad and the jury take the lawyer's point. We've all seen the films - we know how a prosecutor works to "break" a witness, playing to the jury, mugging his disbelief. But IRL the witness doesn't break. The prosecutor insinuates, spins a tale, puts his version of the story. In some cases, his version of the story, largely unsupported by the evidence, is the prosecution case.

There is a lot of talk about reforming the justice system, and doubtless reform is needed. Not the sort advocated by our government, who alarm us by suggesting that we can dispense with juries, the right to silence and habeas corpus, among other inconveniences. Certainly, tighter controls over the police and their interaction with the media are a must. The police practically convicted Huntley before the trial began. I'd like to see an end to the accusatory examination of witnesses, the playacting. I don't think it serves justice, because a person should be convicted by the facts, not because they admire the performance of a man in a wig.

The prosecution could submit a list of questions they will ask, which they would be permitted to supplement. Perhaps the judge would rule on the admissibility of questions, so that the prosecution could be prevented from leading witnesses in advance, rather than being allowed to make suggestions that the judge must force them to withdraw (but of course the memory is not wiped from the jurors). You might complain that this allows the defence to prepare the defendant, for example, by priming him, making sure his story is watertight, coaching him. But a court is a stressful place. Huntley has lied on the stand and the prosecutor presents that as evidence that his story is flawed. But it isn't evidence of the crime so much as evidence that Huntley is liable to fib when he's stressed. The prosecutor seeks to confuse the jury, so that they draw conclusions from his behaviour in court, which is not the subject of the trial, and apply them to his behaviour a year ago, which is.

It seems that trials can devolve into a contest of obfuscation, as the defence tries to create doubt through the trial, rather than through the evidence, and the prosecution tries to condemn the accused likewise.

I remember in the OJ Simpson case, the damning DNA evidence, which ought to have seen the guy sent down, was put into doubt by the defence's simply throwing tons of mud at it. They sought to confuse the jury, not by questioning the evidence as such, but by taking the jury down a path where they became lost in a welter of statistics and suppositions, and, one can only presume, surrendered their confidence that the evidence meant anything. Of course, that case was a textbook example of how a trial can be won by lawyers who concentrate on side issues that have no bearing on the evidence. It was astonishing that the defence could present as evidence of their client's innocence that the arresting officer was a racist. The jury, one supposes, understood the implication, ludicrous as it was, that the LAPD fitted up OJ for having the effrontery to have a white wife. That OJ, not the LAPD, was on trial didn't worry anybody.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Fiddling while Africa burns

Three million people will die this year of malaria, says economist Jeffrey Sachs. It's a meaningless figure, isn't it, three million? If we made a memorial, it would need to be a city block wide to carry all the names.

Of course, those victims will remain nameless to us.

Sachs thinks it would cost $3 billion a year to control malaria. Controlling Iraq is costing $87 billion. Bush proposed $200 million for infectious diseases.

His AIDS day plan will put a lot of money into the big pharma conglomerates' pockets - no one is fooled that his scheme is anything more than yet one more way to siphon public funds into undeserving pockets - and people will continue to die needlessly as we watch, safe and well.

Phoney war

Dr Zen does not own a mobile phone. Neither does he drive. So the ban on using a mobile when driving won't affect me, except that I'll be less likely to be mown down by someone more interested in telling his wife he's nearly home than looking where he's going.

The BBC carried an interview with one of the first guys to be nicked for breaking this new law. "It was fair enough," he said. "But I have to question, as a human being, whether this should be a law."

That puzzled me. Either the guy feels it is a human right to use your mobile while driving, or he feels that were he a dog he'd agree that it should be illegal.

The tabloids - and in particular the pack of right-wing blacktops that like to pose as "serious" papers, largely because they are staid and nannyish one supposes - were typically hypocritical. It's chaos, they screamed. Drivers were confused because they did not know whether police would fine them (the paltry £30 that the law requires) or allow them grace, as some forces are for a couple of months (because the brilliant minds of my compatriots cannot grasp the idea of a ban straight away).

I feel the Daily Mail could have cleared it all up for them by focusing on the key point: it's illegal to use your mobile when you're driving unless you have a handsfree. It's not legal until you're caught. What next? Murderers face chaos because they're not sure whether they'll go down for life for murder or get off with five or ten for manslaughter?

One of the bugbears of the right-wing tabs is the speed camera. They hate that councils hide them, so that motorists don't get a decent warning so that they can slow down. They ignore that the cameras are there because there are legal speed limits, and the guys who are exceeding them are committing a crime, regardless of where the cameras are and whether they are pink, yellow or grey. The same tabloids screech and wail about the danger of paedophiles' snatching our kids and killing them. Kids are, of course, precious, and it's a bad old world, but on average only one kid a year is kidnapped and murdered by a stranger. The cases are of such a high profile that there seems to be lots of them, but there aren't. We can name the kids involved, no problem.

No one can name those killed by speeding drivers.

In 2002, 3431 people died on Britain's roads. A quarter were pedestrians, a third of those children. A third of accidents involved drivers who were exceeding the speed limit.

The fiver's in the post

1. Do you like to shop? Why or why not?

I like to shop for records, books and food. I'm never bored in a supermarket - the cathedral of modern Western society (although I've been disappointed to note how poor supermarkets in other countries are). Presents for the kid and Mrs Zen, of course, are fun, but for others sometimes a chore. I hate to disappoint.

2. What was the last thing you purchased?

Lunch. A vegetable pasty if you must know.

3. Do you prefer shopping online or at an actual store? Why?

Both have their pluses but online doesn't allow the pleasure of serendipity. You have to know what you're looking for and where you can get it.

4. Did you get an allowance as a child? How much was it?

I was paid pocket money with yearly rises until I was old enough to get a paper round. Why my dad thought I would prefer to work for what I could have for free remains a mystery to me.

5. What was the last thing you regret purchasing?

Tickets to Reykjavik. If I knew then what I know now I wouldn't have bothered. Mind you, if I knew then what I know now, I'd have had a packet on Strong Flow on Saturday and would be going there first class.