Friday, 1 April 2011

The Fen Werewolf

The Fens have long been renowned for their atmosphere and spectacular wildlife. But according to some startling recent reports, they may be a good deal wilder than we’d like to admit. Daniel Black investigates.

It was 10:58 on a dreary evening in late Autumn 2001 when Michael A’s car drew to a halt on a desolate Fen road, several miles past Ten Mile Bank. He recalls looking at the clock on the dashboard because he was running late, and cursing the fog. ‘It was so thick that the road ahead disappeared after only about ten metres. I had no idea where the road was heading or how to get back. Turning around seemed impossible.’ At the time it seemed a stupid inconvenience. What happened next was to turn that evening into one he was never likely to forget.

Michael, a landscape gardener who at the time lived in a village just north of Cambridge, had been on his way to visit a friend in Wisbech when he had taken a wrong turn in the rapidly encroaching fog, taking him deeper into the Fens instead of north into Wisbech as he’d hoped. With no lights to be seen but his own, he had become anxious that the car could veer into one of the ditches that ran on either side of the road. Though he couldn’t see them, he knew they were often treacherously deep, and so had stopped to take stock and consult a road atlas. ‘I realised that without some identifiable topographical feature, the map wasn’t going to be much use, so I flicked off the car lights in the hope of being able to see further into the fog, or maybe spotting other lights.’ The moon was bright that night, and although it could no longer be seen gave the fog a strange luminosity. ‘I couldn’t see much further than before – certainly not enough to pick out any kind of landmark in that featureless landscape.’ He then leaned over to pull out the road atlas from under the passenger seat. ‘As I was leaning over, I heard – and felt – something brush against the outside of the car, just inches from my head. It sounded like a stiff paintbrush against the passenger door. Then, almost immediately something caught the wing mirror as it passed.’ The mirror snapped back with a loud ‘clunk’. ‘The night was utterly silent – no birds or traffic. That sound made me jump out of my skin.’ As he sat up, Michael recalls hearing another sound. He describes it as ‘the same sound my dog’s feet make when it trots across the kitchen floor’. Looking out at the road ahead, and half expecting to see a dog or a fox, he was surprised to see an upright figure standing in the middle of the road. ‘It was tall, but hunched, about five metres from the front of the car. It looked like a man with his back to me, with his head down and his collar turned up, I thought, though I couldn’t quite make it out.’

Michael flicked the headlights back on, and got the shock of his life. ‘It immediately turned and looked towards the car, apparently startled. Its proportions weren’t like that of a man. The shoulders were very broad and its arms much longer, with an arched back. Its head was large and pushed forward, almost like a bear’s. The lower body appeared hairy, but the head and neck were covered in shaggy grey fur. It looked damp and matted, like the fur on a fox, and for a moment its eyes reflected the headlights straight back like cat’s or a dog’s. I knew it was looking right at me.’ After a seconds hesitation, the figure ‘dropped on all fours’ and rapidly disappeared into the fog ahead. ‘I heard its feet for a few seconds, muffled by the fog, and then it was gone.’ The clock now read 10:59. The entire encounter had lasted less than a minute.

Afterwards, Michael reversed the car to a point where he could safely turn, and headed back the way he’d come. ‘I was just cutting my losses. After that all I wanted to do was go home.’ Nevertheless, it was some time before before the experience began to properly sink in. ‘At the time, although it was all very real, it had a quality rather like a dream – you know, where you just accept what’s happening, however odd. But the next day, when I saw the wing mirror still bent forwards, the reality of it really hit me. And the need for some kind of explanation.’

Explanations proved hard to find. Like a lot of people who experience things they can’t explain, Michael was reticent about making it public. He had nothing to gain from such a frankly bizarre story – quite the reverse – and, despite locating the spot and returning over a dozen times, made only tentative enquiries, and even then only anonymously or with people he knew and trusted. ‘People said it was a man walking a dog, or even a startled sheep,’ smiles Michael. ‘I’ve seen a lot of people walking dogs and a lot of sheep in my time. It wasn’t either of those.’

But what was it?

It was almost a year before Michael’s story reached me and truly came under scrutiny and into the public domain. This happened quite by chance, while I was pursuing another, apparently fruitless story on the southern edge of the Fens. Chris Nailer was visiting friends out in the wilds near Burnt Fen, some miles from Ely, when, soon after midnight on 22 August 2002, they had heard some strange sounds, somewhat like those of a dog, outside the house. When the owner of the house shone a torch from a downstairs window, he glimpsed something ‘very large and dog-like’ disappear through a gap in the hedge. Though it had clearly been disturbing for them, the phrase ‘like a dog’ cropped up a great deal in their testimony. So much so that, regrettably, there seemed to be only one conclusion to be drawn. I left feeling convinced that they were unfortunate victims of a local stray and ‘Black Shuck mania’.

Afterwards, I was discussing the matter in a local pub with a friend. We talked about the recent phenomenon of the Fen Tiger, and Black Shuck – a great black dog, said to inhabit the Fens (there have been numerous terrifying encounters with this beast since the earliest properly recorded sighting in 1570, near Bungay, Suffolk). This friend, it transpired, also knew a friend of Michael’s and mentioned some of the details of the case. Though he was concerned about betraying a confidence, I made subtle enquiries and met Michael two weeks later, who, it turned out, was very willing to talk. I had the impression that while he had been reluctant to push his case before the public, it was a great relief to him that someone had finally come to take the matter off his hands. We talked several times over the next couple of weeks, and he produced a drawing of what he had seen. It was all perfectly clear in his mind, even after many months, though he apologised for the quality of his draughtsmanship (‘I’m not an artist...’ he laughed). I was firmly convinced that he believed in what he saw, and that it was something quite real. Nevertheless, for the moment, as so often, the investigation was at a dead end – a detailed account, but nothing more.

But more was to come, quite suddenly, and quite unexpectedly. While pursuing other investigations in Scotland towards the end of September, I picked up a message on my mobile from Chris Nailer, saying that the same disturbances had occurred again at approximately 1.30pm on the morning of 22 September. When he joined his friend for a walk later that day they had also found unusual, large footprints – one whole and three partial – which they said they could not definitely identify as either animal or human. ‘If they are made by a person,’ said Chris, ‘then they were walking barefoot and had claws’. These were found near a ditch at the edge of an open field, which according to Chris’s friend tended to drain poorly during Autumn, and was often half full of water. Chris speculated that the ‘creature’ had stopped here to drink. However, poor mobile reception had meant a significant delay in me receiving the message. The day after the discovery the footprints were already gone, the field having been freshly tilled. Most frustrating of all, no one had managed to take a photograph on Sunday, because the battery in the only available camera was flat. Neverthless, by this time I’d put myself on a train heading south.

On the journey, I had another dramatic call, this time from my partner Charlie Marlowe. A friend of hers – a long-serving country vet – had called her with a curious story about a cow that had been found dead – and severly mutilated – at a farm in the Fens. Both the farmer’s dogs had refused to go anywhere near the carcass. The farmer had called the vet immmediately. Several weeks had now passed since the original discovery, and the animal’s body had long since been destroyed, but I’d seen mutilated cattle before – in Nevada – and it is a horrific sight. Ironically, the usual explanation for mysterious cattle mutilations is that it is a predatory animal. It was clear that here it really was an animal that was responsible – but neither the farmer nor our friendly vet could satisfactorily explain what animal (in England, at least) could wreak such damage. Even more significantly – and this was not known to the farmer, the vet, or even Charlie – the attack had taken place just hours after Chris Nailer and friend had heard those mysterious sounds at the Burnt Fen house (in the early morning of 23 August), which was only 9 miles away. But by the time I got back into East Anglia, there was far more dramatic news. Over the weekend of 21 September, the same farmer had had another encounter – one that, this time, would not need to depend on anyone’s drawing skills.

The farmer – let’s call him John – had been severely shaken by the attack, and with a resourcefulness worthy of a true investigator immediately set about introducing security measures. The cattle were kept in a locked shed at night, opposite which there was already a security light. This is set off by movement in the yard – anything bigger than a rabbit will do it. On an adjacent barn, John installed a small webcam overlooking the yard, triggered by a simple light sensitive switch. If the security light comes on, the webcam snaps high resolution images every two seconds, saving them directly to the hard drive of a PC. It keeps this up until the light switches off again (once triggered it stays on for approximately 3 minutes, unless the beam continues to be interrupted). In the three weeks it had been in operation, it had snapped nothing but a few cats and the odd fox. Then something much bigger paid a visit.

At 3.20am on 22 September – again, just a few hours after the second disturbance at the Burnt Fen House – John was awoken by a loud crash. In the next few moments he was convinced he could hear something moving outside. Looking out of all the windows towards the yard and the nearby cattle shed, he could see nothing. But the security light was on. By now, the sounds had stopped. John headed to the PC to see what, if anything, the camera had picked up. What he found was startling.

At exactly 3.17am, an upright figure enters the yard from the left (the drive leading to the road), triggering the security system. Seemingly unpertubed by the security light, it stands for several seconds looking from side to side before moving further into the yard. It stops again, dead centre, in the full beam of the light, and appears to look directly at the camera. Then, very suddenly and swiftly, it moves off to the right, in the direction of the cattle shed and fields beyond. When I saw these images for the first time I found it a truly chilling experience. One can only imagine how John must have felt that night. This creature, whatever it was, had passed just yards from him only moments before. The first thing that struck him in the silence that followed was that his dogs hadn’t barked once. He found them downstairs in the kitchen, cowering in a corner, their ears flat against their heads. Needless to say. he did not investigate further outside until daylight. He never did discover the source of the crash. There were no other signs of an intruder of any kind.

What are we to make of these images? It’s one of the sad ironies of investigations of this kind that even when we do get some kind of photographic evidence, we often lack the frame of reference that we need to make a reasonable interpretation. Such is the case here. All we can say with any certainty – if we accept that all these instances are linked, and there are good reasons to believe that they are – is that some nocturnal, fur-bearing creature, which walks upright at least some of the time, is ranging across the Fens between March, Ely and Thetford Forest. It seems more active around the full moons (though it may simply be easier to spot at these times) and if we look closely at the details of the reports, perhaps also displays a hunting pattern, appearing in the north, near Ten Mile Bank, at around 11.00pm, moving down to the Burnt Fen area by midnight-1.30pm, and looping up eastwards towards Thetford forest by around 3.00pm – a distance of over 20 miles. If we close this circle, we have an even longer, circular route, which begins and ends in or near Thetford Forest. There have been no wild wolves in Britain for centuries, but like them, our night prowler seems strongly territorial. What kind of creature can this be? Are we mistaken in thinking that all these sightings are even the same creature? Doesn’t the logic of survival dictate that there must be more than one, and does the answer perhaps lie in Thetford Forest?

Daniel Black is an investigator with Marlowe:Black, a Cambridge based agency. For more info, contact:

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tony Blair, BA (Baracus)

During the hoo-hah over the post of EU President and subsequent election (a loose term these days, here taken to mean 'executive appointment decided over dinner') it was an unidentified British EU 'official' who spoke of Tony's suitability for the job in these terms: 'The fact is that Mr Blair is the A-Team.'

What Tony thought of this comparison to a fictional crack commando squad working outside the law isn't recorded. He seems partial to the phrase, though, having since used it to describe Obama's new foreign policy team (see the report in The Times). It has also been claimed – most notably by David Cameron during Prime Minister's question time – that Blair refers dismissively to Brown and his cabinet as 'the B-Team' (see the video of PM's questions – about 15 mins in is when it kicks off – and the reference by Peter Oborne that sparked it off). Perhaps he just loves it when a plan comes together.

But just how similar are Tony and the suave-talking, cigar-chomping, bling-wearing, clinically insane retro-mercenaries? Realising that good, old-fashioned intelligence is hard to come by these days (identifying weapons of mass destruction, working out where Osama Bin Laden is etc.) here is a field guide to avoid the embarrassment of potential misrecognition.

The A-Team
In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

Tony Blair
In 2003, Tony Blair sent Britain into a military conflict to which they did not really want to commit. Not having a military background himself, he remained in a maximum security stockade (Downing Street) while the real soldiers faced the real guns and real bombs. Today, not really wanted by government or electorate but still miraculously omnipresent, he survives by making a fortune as the world's highest paid public speaker (for unimaginable reasons he's a favourite of the Carlyle Group, a leading private equity investor in the military – see the report in the Telegraph). All this, in spite of a crime he actually did commit. If you have a speaking engagement, if you're not fussy about morality, and if you can afford his current rate of around £2,800 per minute, you can hire Tony Blair.

So, now we know.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Dark Lord

Some people claim that this government hasn’t achieved anything. I couldn’t disagree more.

They have sold off our bullion reserves for a knock-down price, like some dodgy dealer in a pub car park, showing all the wisdom and discernment of one of those car-boot scavenging idiots on Bargain Hunt passing over the Georgian silver in favour of a second-hand plastic toy from a Happy Meal.

They have taken the tradition of British socialism – a body of ideas and principles honed and hardened by a century of blood, sweat and toil – put it through the mincer and served it up like a pack of two-for-the-price-of-one frozen chicken nuggets, its grey pulp mixed with the ground-up corpses of Thatcherite predecessors and fed back to us like sponge-brained cattle.

They have resorted to outright lies to persuade us into an unnecessary war engineered for profit (and not even our profit!) by a bullying Big Brother who had the barely-disguised cynicism to use the entirely unrelated, tragic slaying of thousands of its own innocent citizens as a cover story.

They have, in the name of our freedom, scrapped or eroded more of our rights and freedoms than any previous government (the right to privacy, the right to a lawyer of your own choosing, the right to communicate privately, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of movement without surveillance, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and even the right to citizenship) as if some dimwitted party drone, charged with the task of finding out where the they’d left their principles – because no one could remember what they looked like any more – had happened upon a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and mistaken it for a manifesto.

And, most recently, they’ve stoked the issue of MP’s expenses – seemingly unconcerned by the fact that they themselves come out of it looking like a bunch of money-grabbing cheats – in the hope that this sordid groping we have suffered at the hands of the moat owners and mortgage flippers would distract us from the infinitely more brutal, non-consensual rogering inflicted by the Lisbon Treaty.

Yes, they’ve achieved a hell of a lot. And – the biggest, most stunning achievement of all – they are still here. Like a character in a teen-exploitation horror movie, they’ve survived in spite of everything. Except that if this were indeed a horror movie, we’d all be howling in indignation, hurling our pizza slices and overpriced trainers at the screen in outrage at the fact that it was the irredeemably fucked up, inbred, cannibalistic psychopath – the one who makes you feel physically sick – who had emerged smugly victorious.

If ever there were a symbol of this descent into brainless, bankrupt, trough-feeding, paranoid hypocrisy – someone, seemingly, with a divine right to represent all it stands for – it is not the grinning, deluded Blair or the grimacing, desperate Brown. It is Lord Mandelson.

Take that climactic moment at the Labour Conference, in which he declared with a grin: ‘If I can come back, we can come back!’ Perhaps something is wrong with my hearing, but first time around I swear I heard this as: ‘If I can get away with it, we can get away with it!’

Now, Mandelson has parked his bullet-proof Bentley on the lawns of higher education. He has said that students need to be treated more as customers by universities, and that they need to think of themselves as such (they should, he says, be less passive, and be ‘pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience’). He has also proposed that ‘top universities’ – interpreted as a particular attack on Oxford and Cambridge – take into account background when assessing students for admission, to encourage students from poorer families. Of this, he has said: ‘Nobody should be disadvantaged or penalised on the basis of the families that they come from or the schools they attended, and the way in which a simple assessment based on A-level results might exclude them.’

On the face of it, both suggestions, with their implications of empowerment and striking a blow in the favour of the underdog, seem noble aims.

But what is really being said here? That university admissions policies – policies currently based on admitting individuals on the basis of merit – are in some way unfair? Apparently so. Why? Because schools are unfair. Some schools are plain bad, and do not serve their pupils well, which means exam results may not reflect ability. Mandelson’s answer? Make universities adjust. Make universities responsible.

No, Peter. Fix the fucking schools.

How stupid does he think we are? Even judged by crass commercial standards – the analogy so beloved by the Mandelson’s of this world – state education has been ham-fistedly managed, despite the often frustrated efforts of those who understand it best – the teachers. Jesus, at least in a McDonalds or a Starbucks the quality is actually consistent from place to place.

What is staggering here is that Lord M makes his pronouncement as if the government has had no responsibility, ever, for primary, secondary and further education, as if it has been someone else’s problem all this time, and they – not government – messed it up. Maybe someone did it when they weren’t looking. Maybe they think they can palm it off on some other poor, unsuspecting bastard, like blaming the dog for eating their homework. As we all know from our school days, successful blame-shifting depends upon a careful choice of scapegoat – the thickie of the class, or some dumb animal; essentially something that doesn’t have the brains to work out what’s going on, and ideally, lacks any means of verbal communication. So, naturally, they decide to pin it on some of the most highly-educated, capable and brilliant-minded human beings in the world. Smart move, Mandy. Yeah, those shit-for-brains lawyers, heart surgeons, computer scientists and quantum physicists are never going to see that one coming.

Quite how universities are supposed to judge ability if it isn’t to be by the usual, fairly reliable method of checking whether prospective students are any good or not, is not specified. Perhaps they are expected to use their previously untapped psychic abilities. Or perhaps they’re supposed to just fling open their doors and operate a kind of honour system. ‘Well, if you think you’re up to it, who are we to argue? Come on in!’

Personally, I think there are reasonable grounds for making admission to top universities harder, not easier. Certainly there’s evidence that, in spite of everything, the occasional blithering idiot has already slipped through the net (P. Mandelson, St Catherine's College, Oxford 1973-1976). Now, Lord Mandelmort has returned to take revenge on those wiser souls who educated him, yet from whom he apparently learnt so little.

Mandelson – Secretary for Business, let's remember, not education – does not, he says, intend to dictate admissions policy to universities. But then, he doesn’t really need to. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply loom in a doorway wearing a portentous smile and dropping dark hints. ‘Nice place you’ve got here. Shame if something happened to it...’

But what is the worst that could happen to it? Well, I think Mandelson makes that abundantly clear. To illustrate, let’s just ask ourselves about his other key point. Could universities benefit from being treated more like a McDonalds or a Starbucks? And does being ‘more like a customer’ make a student less passive?

A purchase by a customer may well involve a good deal of deliberation and choice beforehand, but once the financial transaction is complete, the customer’s role is almost entirely passive. That’s the point. It’s something you now own that you didn’t have to make, or a service relieving you of the need to do it yourself. It’s entirely about sitting back and giving someone else the responsibility – to the extent that if the supplier doesn’t deliver on the deal (the customer’s responsibility – payment – is already fulfilled), you can demand your money back. To make education more like this is to make the students role more passive, not less. It also suggests that education is something that students merely have given to them – that is done to them, or done for them, but not done by them – a kind of passive, Gradgrindian filling-up with facts in which the student plays no active part, and is expected to do no work, but for which the university is made wholly responsible. A potentially catastrophic misconception, which no amount of empty rhetoric about ‘choice’ – rhetoric which ceased to convince some time in the 1980s – can entirely cover up.

What can we do to fight this? As far as Mandelson goes, nothing. He isn’t elected – just appointed by a Prime Minister, who we didn’t choose either. However, real choices are looming. Electoral choices. Our choices.

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I don’t want to see this government defeated. I want to see it smashed, and everything it has touched disinfected. I want to see each of them tarred and feathered and flung from Beachy Head, and fended off with pointed sticks if they try to swim back. But this is beside the point. The real challenge facing us, whoever we choose to vote for in the forthcoming general election, is making those we elect answerable. To have a hope of achieving that, we need to be more active in our political interactions. We need to not sit back and just let government do the business to us. It’s not enough to be a customer. We can’t return the goods and get our money back. We cannot afford to be passive. That means every one of us, whenever we can, hassling our prospective MPs, making them aware of the issues that matter to us, and making them understand that for these reasons – and only for these reasons – will we vote for them. We need to shake them out of their stupor, shatter their sense of security, make them realise what their responsibilities are. In short, we need to educate them. Like all educatiuon – real education – that means work. But we have to believe it’s worth the effort. Because if we do finally give up, and give away responsibility for ourselves and our actions, we may never get it back.

PS: As I write, Mandelson is facing a fresh inquiry into accusations that he did 'improper' favours for his Russian billionaire friend, Oleg Deripaska. Whatever comes of it, I sincerely hope that he gets precisely what he deserves – no more, no less.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bring out the gimp

There were two extraordinary examples of British justice this week – both involving Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

The first concerned computer hacker Gary McKinnon, whose fate has seemingly been sealed by the government’s granting of extradition to the United States. He faces a potential 60-70 years in prison (estimates vary) if convicted by an American court. The claims that this punishment was disproportionate, that he was simply being made a whipping boy by a humiliated US government and that he should be tried in the UK – partly because he also suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome – fell on deaf ears at the Home Office, who seemingly are under a different kind of lash.

Alan Johnson has claimed that he had no choice but to grant extradition based on the legal advice he was given, and that he in fact had no power to prevent it. Several senior lawyers have since stated that this is not the case. When the Daily Mail requested to see that legal advice for themselves – as they are entitled to do under the freedom of information act – their request was blocked, sparking speculation that it directly contradicted Mr Johnson’s claims. Yesterday (Wednesday 9 September 2009) a cross-party group of MPs campaigning for McKinnon’s right to be tried in the UK, including David Davis, Chris Huhne and Michael Meacher, put their case to the Home Secretary. Johnson did not budge.

We cannot call Mr Johnson a liar without evidence, of course. But one cannot help but wonder why he would withhold evidence that supports his decision and demonstrates his honesty. If those senior lawyers are correct and he is able to prevent extradition but unwilling to do so, then we must ask ourselves why. Why would he mislead us, and whose interests would he be serving?

For some reason, this reminded me of a something I overheard in a recently gentrified seaside town that I visited not long ago. It was in an overpriced antique-cum-gift shop – the type that features stripped pine chests and sculptures made of driftwood with rusty nail banged in. As we were shuffling round, looking at things we were never going to buy, the shop’s proprietor was having a telephone conversation with a customer about a set of antique chairs. The scenario soon became clear: the customer on the phone had recently seen the chairs and asked for them to be reserved, but in the meantime another – who was standing by her desk expectantly, and rather uncomfortably – had come and offered more money. The proprietor was now trying to explain to the original customer why she ‘had’ to let the chairs go. ‘My hands are tied’ she said, apologetically, as she explained why the assurance she had previously given them was now worthless. Of course, her hands weren’t tied – at least, not in the sense of her having no say in the matter. As proprietor of the shop she could do whatever she liked, selling or not selling to whoever she pleased. She had simply been offered more money, and had dropped her original customer like a stone. If her hands were tied, then it was consensual bondage – for which she was being paid.

The truth of the situation was not lost on those in attendance. As we caught the eye of another browsing customer, he muttered under his breath ‘Bitch!’

The question is, whose bitch is Mr Johnson?

The second incident this week was the conviction of three men who had plotted to destroy commercial airliners with makeshift bombs, potentially killing hundreds of innocent travellers.

Given the rarity of such clear-cut moments of triumph for this government – and for Mr Johnson – one might expect the opportunity to have elicited a defiant, Churchillian response emphasising the hopelessness of the terrorists’ ambitions. Something that boosted the morale of the public, affirming that life goes on as usual in spite of the plots of a small number of malcontents, that we will not be defeated or downcast, that our police will inevitably foil them and that their efforts to intimidate us are futile.

So what did we actually get? While he did state that the police, security services and CPS had done an excellent job, he chose to begin his statement by saying: ‘This case reaffirms that we face a real and serious threat from terrorism’.

It may seem a subtle point of language, but significant events can hinge on such subtleties – what we are told, and the way in which we are told it (or, in the case of Gary McKinnon, what we are not told). Mr Johnson’s message could have been a positive one – instead it was telling us not merely to remain vigilant, but to remain afraid. Later, he even referred to the ‘complex and daring plot’. (Are we actually admiring terrorists now?)

Why on earth would Alan Johnson, our own Home Secretary, the man responsible for our security, wish us to be afraid? This, surely, is exactly what the terrorists want – for us to be too terrified to go about our normal business; to accept harsh measures that restrict our freedom and undermine our society. But what does our government want? To perpetuate fear via a phoney war, in order to make society more malleable, more accepting of controlling measures that would normally seem unacceptable, as in Orwell’s 1984? To have us stop questioning anything, including the extradition – or rendition – of UK subjects to the United States?

The Paperback Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as: ‘A person who uses violence and intimidation in an attempt to achieve political aims’. If our government is indeed using intimidation to achieve political aims, then that not only puts them in league with terrorists – it makes them terrorists.

But this is all rather extreme, isn’t it? Surely, the idea that our own government would intimidate us, that it has an interest in us remaining afraid, that it would deliberately mislead us in order to achieve political aims, is preposterous?

‘Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked... He is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also.’
Tony Blair, 10 April 2002, House of Commons

‘It [the intelligence service] concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population; and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability...’
Tony Blair, 24 September 2002, House of Commons

The question is, whose bitch are we?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

McKinnon, MacShane and the shame of it all

Some people are an inspiration. They make you proud to be a part of the community to which you belong, whether it be a neighbourhood, social group or nation. A few go further still, making you feel glad to be human. Their achievements dispel cynicism and instead fill you with hope for the future of us all – because if a determined individual can achieve such things as they have, what, you begin to wonder, might we achieve together?

Denis MacShane is not one of these people.

You may never to have heard of him. But I think it’s important that you do.

Labour MP for Rotherham and a former journalist, MacShane was Minister for Europe 2002-2005 and is author of the book Globalising Hatred: the New Anti-Semitism. The independent website reveals that he voted strongly for student top-up fees and Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, and very strongly for ID cards, foundation hospitals, and the war in Iraq. He also voted moderately against a transparent parliament, and very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.

If you’ve heard of him recently, however, it’s very likely in connection with the case of Gary McKinnon, whose final appeal against extradition was rejected on 31 July 2009. In short, MacShane is one of those we can thank for protecting our freedom by helping to ensure that such a dangerous individual now faces a potential lifetime in a US prison.

McKinnon, you will recall, was the amateur British computer hacker who regularly broke into Pentagon and NASA computers over several years, apparently searching for evidence that the truth about captured extraterrestrial technology was being kept from the public. Inevitably, perhaps, he was caught.

The whole case revealed some of the very real dangers lurking unregarded right beneath our noses – but not, perhaps, in the way you might think.

Clearly embarrassed and angered over the woefully inadequate levels of computer security that McKinnon’s case had revealed (McKinnon didn’t even ‘hack’, he simply found machines that hadn’t had their passwords set and logged in) – and, perhaps, nervous at what he may have seen on his virtual travels – the US government invoked recent fast-track extradition laws so they could deal with him under their own legal system.

These laws – the result of the UK government’s 2003 Extradition Act and, more specifically, the US-UK Extradition Treaty – were intended for suspected terrorists post 9/11. But the UK and US are not entirely equal partners in this deal. As the BBC website explains, to extradite an American from the US, Britain must prove ‘probable cause’, while the US need only prove ‘reasonable suspicion’ for extradition of a British citizen. In other words, there is no requirement on the part of the US to present prima facie evidence – while British authorities still have the burden of proof. According to the BBC, since 2004 US courts have granted about 70% of UK extradition requests, while nearly 90% of US requests have been granted. (Don’t blame the US for this, by the way; it’s a situation our own government – the government that is supposed to protect us – put us in.)

This is not the only disparity. McKinnon’s sentence, were he to face prosecution in the UK, has been estimated at 1-2 years. In the US he faces up to 70 years in prison if found guilty. This is a man who has no connection with any act of terror, who revealed no military secrets, and who claimed to have done no damage (the US authorities dispute this – though it's worth mentioning that a minimum of $5,000 damage is required for the extradition request to stand). He was also diagnosed a year ago as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition within the autism spectrum, which typically involves a lack of empathy in the sufferer and can lead to limited awareness of the consequences of one's actions.

And this is where MacShane re-enters the story.

In response to the obvious inequities, Tory MPs recently spearheaded a Commons debate calling for an urgent review of the treaty. Despite the serious concerns raised, the proposal was defeated. Denis MacShane was one of those who spoke out firmly in support of the government, of extradition and of the treaty. One of the ways he chose to do this, however, was telling. Speaking of McKinnon, he said:

‘I was slightly alarmed when I heard that the gentleman—who is not mentioned in the motion but about whom we are talking and the Daily Mail is campaigning—was diagnosed with his distressing condition only last year. One gets a slight hint of the famous Ernest Saunders defence: he said that he was suffering from Alzheimer's to get off a criminal prosecution, but the moment that he was out of court, he somehow skipped off and his memory came back with marvellous vigour.’

In the heat of debate, these comments went almost unnoticed, with only Dominic Grieve picking up on them as ‘cheap and revolting statements’. But no doubt it helped to sow seeds of doubt among those about to vote.

For anyone to imply, based on no evidence whatsoever, that an individual is a liar and a fraud is indeed a ‘cheap and revolting’ act. To use innuendo to suggest that the life and liberty of a vulnerable, threatened individual are somehow irrelevant, worse still. But to do it whilst seeming to stand for the rights of individuals to be treated fairly under the law, as a representative of the people whose rights you are sworn to uphold, is the very worst thing of all. It is shameful. But perhaps it does at least help to explain MacShane’s apparent support for extradition without evidence.

It’s an old politician’s trick, of course, to undermine the individual rather than their arguments, and it isn’t the only time MacShane has used the tactic. He also recently caused a minor furore on The Guardian website when his piece on the European elections suggested that Norman Tebbit was supporting the BNP by advising voters to go against the main parties in the European elections – even though Tebbit himself had specifically advised against voting BNP (on the grounds that it was ‘Labour with racism’) and had suggested, amongst others, voting for the Green Party. Of course, the whole idea neatly fitted the thesis of MacShane’s new book – that fascism is again on the rise – whilst simultaneously, by sleight of hand, casting an old political adversary in the role of chief racist. Those posting on the site immediately saw through it. But once again the seeds of doubt – or perhaps one should say paranoia – had been sown among those about to vote.

Racism is clearly a key issue for MacShane. How odd, then, that he should be so dismissive of McKinnon based on preconceived ideas, rather than established fact. Isn’t this the very basis of racism, and a thousand other shades of bigotry? What is worse is that he should get away with it in open debate in the House of Commons – the heart (or, at least, conscience – such as it is) of our democratically elected government. Can we put this down to ignorance? Or arrogance? Neither would have served as any kind of defence for McKinnon – but if I had the power to choose who, between McKinnon and Macshane, was causing more costly damage to this country, it wouldn’t be McKinnon packing his bags.

Denis Macshane is just one man, of course – merely a symptom, perhaps, of a greater malaise. But they do work for us. More than that, they represent us. So, is this how we wish to be represented? If not, it falls to us to shout – and I do mean shout – every time such a sour note is struck. I sincerely doubt such people will be easily shamed into silence or apology, but the more it is allowed, the more it becomes the accepted norm. Only when we lose that ability to feel shame ourselves are we truly lost. Do not ignore it. Do not accept it.

And, since personal attacks are all the rage, let me add my own – based on fact, this time. A few years ago, I interviewed Denis MacShane in his capacity as Minister for Europe, which he then was, on the current state of European cinema. He gave some general views on the subject, then, when the interview was over and the tape switched off, the conversation turned to the hot topic of subtitling v dubbing. He expressed a strong preference for subtitling, then added, by way of justification: 'After all, if I'm watching Olivier's Henry V, I don't want to hear some frog reciting Shakespeare...' (his emphasis).

This was the voice of a campaigner against racism, and the UK’s representative in Europe. Our representative. Your representative. I believe what this truly represents is a new kind of hypocrisy in government – one grown so arrogant, it no longer even bothers to hide.

Why should it? This is a government that attacks all prejudices but its own, that watches and suspects its people instead of standing up for them, that sells them out for the sake of an ill-defined ‘special relationship’ and lies to them to expedite a war – that ultimately makes us ashamed to belong to the nation and the people that they supposedly represent. That is a crime far in excess, far more deeply damaging, than anything perpetrated by Gary McKinnon.

McKinnon now faces extradition and up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all charges by a US court. He is supposed to have done ‘damage’ to US government computer systems. But what might that damage have been, had he been truly malicious – a member of a terrorist group, for example, rather than a UFO fanatic with Asperger’s? And had this resulted in wholesale destruction and loss of life – as, in other hands, it clearly could – what then would have been a proportionally harsher penalty than 70 years? A thousand? A million?

The obvious answer, at least to some, is ‘death’. Yet – and this is the cruellest irony of all – the UK maintains a stance of refusing extradition in cases where the individual may face the death penalty. In other words, McKinnon’s crime was not harsh enough to avoid extradition; had he brought about mass murder, he would not have been sent to the United States, because we deem the death penalty unfair and unacceptable. As David Blunkett said when the treaty and laws were being drawn up: ‘I don't believe in the death penalty. I don't believe we should have any truck with it.’ So, we trust the US judicial system – except when we don’t.

In reality, the Pentagon should be thanking their lucky stars that the end result was mere embarrassment – and thanking McKinnon for highlighting their potentially disastrous shortcomings. In a further irony, it was the 1980s US movie movie Wargames – in which a kid hacks into military computers and nearly triggers a nuclear war – that inspired McKinnon to go hacking in the first place. At the end of that film, the kid averts disaster and is hailed as a hero (in the original script, he’s even offered a job at NORAD). Such an outcome seems unlikely for McKinnon. Yet this is a message sent by the society that is now set to crucify him.

Double standards seem to be the running theme in this story. Although less likely to grab headlines, such mean hypocrisies perpetrated by governments day after day do far more harm than McKinnon ever did. It’s Orwellian doublethink, blinding us to the contradictions – to the very idea of contradiction. Blinding us, in fact, to the difference between right and wrong, and disconnecting us from our own sense of shame. Where we can, while we can, it’s time we identified those doing the real damage, and installed something better.

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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Werther's Original

Werther's Original: a universally loved confection steeped in nostalgia. But where does it come from, and what's that kindly grandfather really up to?

You know the picture.
That plummy chap talking about his old grandad who used to give him Werther’s Original when he was a lad, conjuring a glowing, richly nostalgic portrait of an England gone by. A picture of a time when sweets really were sweets and came in great big jars and you could get a brown-paper-bagful for tuppence. Of hazy summer days, larking about in cornfields, riding the baker’s delivery bike up an endless cobbled street – a Turner sky above, a Vaughan Williams symphony on the gramophone. It’s Spitfires roaring overhead back to Blighty, and Vera Lynn singing ‘There’ll be blue birds over the White Cliffs Of Dover...’ In short, it’s much that citizens of these islands hold dear about this land of ours – a vision that, we would like to think, is undeniably real and valid and important, even if we know it is based an idealised, rose-tinted version of what really was.

But hang on a minute... Although your actual grandad probably does love the creamy, buttery taste of Werthers (who doesn't?) have you ever wondered why he can’t seem to remember having heard of them before 1997? Do you simply embrace your ageist prejudices and blame it on senility? Or is there some other, more subtle trick being played?

Let’s travel back for a moment, to an age beyond that mythical childhood...

Some time in 1903, in the small town of Werther, in Westphalia, Germany, one August Storck set up a small company for the manufacture of hard-boiled sweets. Aided by his chief confectioner Gustav Nebel, he created a range of traditional candies that found immediate success. The jewel in the crown – his finest candy of all – was a delicious toffee-butterscotch concoction. The secret? ‘Good butter, fresh cream, sugar, a pinch of salt and a lot of patience’. So delicious was this candy that he called it ‘Werther's Original’ in homage to his little home town.

The Storck Company went from strength to strength. In the 1930s – according to its own website – it ‘developed the first brand-name bonbon. Until then, sweets had been sold unpackaged, as no-name products, in the manufacturer´s home region only. Storck wrapped its bonbons, printed the Storck name on the wrappers and soon sold them far beyond its home base’. As the German packaging of Werther’s Original has it: ‘We can today, all over the world, savour the delicious and creamy taste of this original recipe as if the candy came directly from the workshop of the confectioner Gustav Nebel’.

And it is indeed enjoyed the world over. In Germany, as elsewhere, they ran the same advertising campaign as here (until it was recently changed to the current 'virtual dad' campaign in the UK), with a similar old grandad, saying exactly the same thing (but in German) to an identical child.

But let’s jump back to your old grandfather for a minute. If he grew up here in Britain, was he at any time enjoying Werther’s Original as a youth? Well, no. Not unless he was a youth after 1997, which, while not a complete biological impossibility, would require either the ability to travel in time, or the perpetration of a number of illegal sexual acts. So, your Olde English grandad never ate Werther’s when he was a youth, a teenager, or even middle aged. In fact, at some point he was quite possibly being called up to shoot at the very people who were. And, while it is entirely possible that his German counterpart was entertaining elegiac thoughts of cornfields and endless summer days as he sucked wistfully on Gustav Nebel’s latest hit confection and contemplated the inevitable war – probably with as much trepidation as anyone else – what he certainly wasn’t doing was listening to Vera Lynn, cheering Mr Churchill or toiling up an impossibly steep hill in a flat cap to the strains of Yorkshire colliery band. In fact, that fabled, amiable, Werther’s munching grandfather was far more likely to have been in the Hitler Youth or the Waffen SS, listening to Wagner, whistling The Horst Wessel Song and trying to avoid being shot up by those hordes of rampaging Spitfires before they buggered off back to Blighty.

None of this is Werther’s doing, of course. Werther’s Original are merely a diminutive but delicious sensual treat, and it is, of course, a wonderful thing that Gustav Nebel’s great creation is available to the world at large. And also that this humble little candy is contributing to – and even, in its own small, sticky way, perhaps helping to heal – the sadly troubled cultural heritage of Germany. So hooray for all that.

But what is really odd is how this simple advert has, without seemingly any need for great efforts of persuasion, effected a kind of substitution of one model of the past for an entirely different one. It’s a kind of Orwellian doublethink – not because it has made a one-time enemy seem like a friend (it never was trying to do that, and anyway, we’re too grown up now to get hung up on that sort of prejudice) but because it is inviting us to believe a completely fictional past – not one that has been subtly changed or improved or nostalgically idealised, but one which actually never existed at all. And, willingly, we accept it.

Don’t blame Werther’s. They’re just being consistent. Frugal with their advertising budget. Staying on brand. Why shouldn't they have the same advertising the world over? It’s us we should be worried about. Because the day might come when your old grandad, without needing to, starts to really believe he chomped on Werther’s as a nipper. And, worse, we all might somehow lose our memory of that moment when history changed. ‘Oh, come on,’ you say. ‘It’s just a packet of bloody sweets. What’s the big deal?’ But what other made-up histories might we be capable of believing, simply because they’re offered, and because they’re a little more attractive than what we’ve got?

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