Friday, 16 January 2009

Freedom of speech - and books for free

You may like to read Craig Murray's new book for free on your computer. It's called The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and you can download it as a zip file by clicking here.

Craig Murray didn't set out to give his book away. He had a contract with a publisher, Mainstream. Then a firm of solicitors called Schillings threatened to sue Mainstream for libel and that's the sort of action that can bankrupt a small publisher, whether a libel has been committed or not. Craig Murray says he has legal advice that assures him he is not guilty of libel - and he's prepared to stake all he has on that by publishing the book itself. He's making it available free of charge on-line as well as publishing hard copies himself.

You can read more of the story on Craig Murray's blog. He also tells you how to buy a copy of the book, either from him directly or from Amazon. Obviously he'd like to make some money out of it. Writing is now part of his work, after all. And if you've read Murder in Samarkand, you'll probably want to read the prequel too. (If you haven't read Murder in Samarkand, please do.)

In the meantime, if you haven't had the time to read the whole book just now, there was a little preview in the Mail on Sunday. I've had a busy week and that's as much as I've managed to read so far. I've ordered the book from Amazon but apparently it's so popular that they've already sold out and are awaiting further copies. Once I've read it, I'll try to post a review.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The David of Michelangelo

When I was young, everyone knew the story. There was war between the Philistines and the Jews. The Philistines were brutal and bullying. Nonetheless, for some unspecified reason, they sent out their champion and invited the Jews to send their own champion to face him in single combat.

The Philistines' champion was Goliath - a giant and a one-man killing machine. The Jews had no idea who to send against him until David, the shepherd boy, volunteered with stories of how he'd killed a lion and a bear while looking after his father's flocks. King Saul did his best for David and dressed him in fancy armour but David couldn't even walk in it. Instead he chose to go out against Goliath in his everday clothes, armed only with a stick, a sling and five round pebbles. And of course, he had his faith in God - this is the Bible after all.

Even if you've never heard the story before, you know how it must end. David took his sling and a pebble and hit Goliath right in the centre of his forehead. When the giant toppled down, David hacked his head off. Then the Philistines fled.

The story's a popular one. I've known about the statues of David by the sculptors Donatello and Michelangelo. But I never wondered why they were made. It was only a few years ago that I learnt the way in which David was seen as the symbol of Florence, which saw itself as a weak city surrounded by larger, threatening states.

Florence certainly faced threats but these days we see it as strong and influential rather than weak and threatened. The symbol of David's weakness overcoming strength is one that could easily be appropriated by any faction, family or individual who ruled Florence. Even the strongest states and leaders often present themselves as victims.

Most states have been victims at some time. Britain, which ruled an empire with the usual mix of occasional benevolence and institutional brutality, saw rebellious "natives" as a threat - and the colonised could be cruel and violent. More recently, the Blitz in World War Two haunts us.

The United States grew out of British persecution of dissenters - and persecuted the American Indians to the brink of extermination. Recently the televised horror of 9/11 showed us America as victim again. What happened in Fallujah was not televised.

And Israel came out of centuries of persecution culminating in the mechanised brutality of the Shoah. When the state of Israel was founded, a horrified and remorseful west recognized the state at once. A culture soaked in Bible readings was bound to sympathise with the people of David. But the land was already inhabited and, shaken by its own war and refugees, the West didn't consider the newly dispossessed Palestinians.

And now we're watching Gaza, the land of Gath and Ashkalon, the land of the Philistines. There's another unequal contest between strength and weakness. Israel faces real threats. But it's a well-armed country, the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Gaza has starved under a blockade and most of its inhabitants are children. In the Bible the giant killing-machine is killed and a massacre ensues. In real life, I don't know what comes next. I long for an end to the violence and vengeance.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

"The waies deep, the weather sharp, the daies short, the sun farthest off"

I came across that account of winter through T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Journey of the Magi." It's not a poem I greatly admire but I dutifully followed the reference in Southam's student notes and discovered the sermons of Lancelot Andrews. I couldn't agree with Andrews' theology - he was a high church Anglican and defender of the Divine Right of Kings - but I loved the way evocative phrases emerged from his careful translation and exposition, often in the movement between Latin and English. The passage quoted in the title of this post concludes by drifting into Latin and back to English: "in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter." Andrews may be trying to conjure up the journey of the wise men but, for me, what he offers is a harsh English winter, thick frost on the countryside and the muffled crackle of frozen stubble underfoot.

This New Year, the hard frost and fog seems to lock people into their separate houses. But the two young people and I set out for our separate new year celebrations: one to a party, one to a club and me to a dinner party prefaced with champagne and concluding with single malt whisky.

I reckon I had the best of it. I could hear the conversation, which (in the case of my fellow diners at least) sparkled while the food was excellent. There was even a special vegetarian dish for me - chestnut a la bourguignonne - served with side dishes of savoy cabbage and a delicious potato and celeriac mash. I'm lucky to include a terrific chef among my friends.

There were hints of other celebrations as I went out - young people, bottles in hand, checking house numbers. And at midnight the fireworks began at Nottingham Castle and the middle-aged, black cat whose house it was hid behind the bookshelves.

The only thing to spoil the evening was the lack of public transport. I contemplated cycling both ways but was deterred by the predicted minus 4 temperature. The combination of ice and alcohol would, at least, make me a danger to myself. And I feared the number of drunk drivers on the roads.

The dinner party was in Nottingham. Usually there are night buses, running every hour, but the companies claimed there was no demand for transport on the evening of New Year's Eve or on New Year's Day. The final buses ran at about 8.00 p.m. Taxis charge double in the early hours of New Year's Day. This is reasonable enough - years ago I used to babysit and welcomed double pay at Christmas and New Year. But not everyone can afford taxis. I worried about the risk from drink-drivers and feared that young revellers in skimpy party clothes might succumb to hypothermia when walking three or four miles home.

I reached home safely. So did the young people. The frost continues. There may be a little snow, or fog. And that takes me back to Lancelot Andrews:

"The waies deep, the weather sharp, the daies short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter."