Jeremy Black: The politics of Agatha Christie

5 Feb

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

‘Jesus Christ, will you look at this? Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.’ Set in 1957, John Banville’s Snow (2020) readily deploys the fictional Harry Hall, the chain-smoking head of an Irish forensics team, in order to use Poirot to locate Ballyglass House. Later in the book, Christie recurs: ‘Maybe they all did it. Like in the book by what’s her-name,’ says Sergeant Jenkins.

Thanks largely to ‘recovered memory’ through the distorting mirror of visual accounts, Christie has become the classic Golden Age detective novelist, one of poison not politics, a plotsmith within the paradigm of a world of order and stability, in which the murderer disrupts an order that the detective restores.

Well no. That was not Christie’s world, nor that of her readers, and her corpus offered politics aplenty. Much was anti-Communist, but Christie ranged widely to include the familiar leitmotif of the unscrupulous secret gang trying to conquer the world; to incorporate Nazi threats and, with Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), to suggest a reborn Nazi movement behind international terrorism.

How far this was a matter of personal knowledge in part through her first husband, and how far familiar themes of the period is unclear. One former spy with whom I discussed the matter offered ‘Agatha Christie was a great novelist and a sincere Christian with the sense of evolving (or involving?) times and moods. But she was a woman who know plenty of dirty little secrets too.’

Christie was to voice the fears seen with other writers, notably John Buchan in The Three Hostages (1924), in which he discerned ‘wreckers on the grand scale.’ In The Secret Adversary (1922), Christie’s second novel, ‘Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution,’ ‘the Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest,’ and a Labour government would be dangerous.

Although set in South Africa, the theme of deadly revolutionary organisation behind strikers is prominent in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). Anxieties continued. The paranoia of the period focused on Socialism as well as Communism. In 1929, Partners in Crime, a collection of very different short stories, finds Tommy Beresford and Tuppence up against Moscow’s agents, reference to Bulldog Drummond, and Colonel Kingston-Bruce complaining about ‘A most pestilential fellow – an arrant socialist … A dangerous sort of fellow.’

The Big Four (1927) captured the widespread atmosphere of disquiet and, in the case of this novel, international conspiracy. Poirot presents the conspiracy as his great case. The commercially very successful novel in fact was based on short stories published in The Sketch from January to March 1924, but, for the readers, the background was the General Strike.

Poirot refers to ‘The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some … there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less than the disintegration of civilization… Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets.’

This theme, which suggested that the centre of conspiracy and action was closer than the Soviet Union, as indeed is revealed to be the case, is not a tangential one to the plot or the tone, but is developed throughout the book, and helps give it a character toward the end that is similar to that of the Ian Fleming novels. The theme of Li Chang Yen, the malevolent Chinese master-criminal in The Big Four, echoes Dr Fu Manchu and prefigured Fleming’s Dr No.

That is not, however, the approach that is taken today toward Christie novels. Indeed, this is one of the many respects in which subsequent presentation, while often successful in its own terms, artistically and/or commercially, does not necessarily take you far toward an appreciation of the original work, or, indeed, offer anything for that. The Big Four is the classic instance of this process.

It was presented in 2013, in the BBC David Suchet Poirot series, which has acquired a form of definitive, or at least iconic, status for the visual Poirot, not least as providing the largest number of Poirot performances. In that series, the story, set on the eve of World War Two, and with the Peace Party playing a major role, was presented in part as a delusion. This made the text pointless

In The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), the standard theme of Bolsheviks and Jews is thrown forward in the first scene.

In The Coming of Mr Quin (1924), reprinted as part of The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), Lady Laura Evesham is worried about the ‘grave uncertainty’ of the political situation.

Meanwhile, in a valuable corrective to the implications of some of the post-war thriller writing, the Labour government of 1924 had demonstrated that Labour could rule without bringing in socialism. There were no serious upsets and financial policy was particularly prudent, with the orthodoxy of Philip Snowden making him an ideal Treasury-minded Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Far from introducing a capital levy or wealth tax, Snowden was a supporter of tax cuts. The Labour government kept the TUC at a distance and used emergency powers to defeat a strike by London tramwaymen. In 1924, John Hoode, the Minister of Imperial Finance, was murdered in the library of his country house in Philip MacDonald’s detective novel The Rasp, only for the killer to be unmasked by Colonel Anthony Gethryn, formally of the Secret Service.

In The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), the impressive Superintendent Battle appears for the second time. One of her talented policemen, he is present in five novels from 1925 to 1944. Battle has a list of secret societies in London. They include:

‘The Blood Brothers of St Sebastian. The Wolf Hounds. The Comrades of Peace. The Comrades Club. The Friends of Oppression. The Children of Moscow. The Red Standard Bearers. The Herrings. The Comrades of the Fallen – and half a dozen more.’

‘The sinister Mr Mosgorovsky’ is proprietor of the Seven Dials Club, and one of the members is an American with ‘an inflection of Irish,’ another a German, and one ‘the lady who may be any nationality – for choice Russian or Polish.’ The dangerous international gang, is, Bundle Brent, the young heroine, notes, ‘the sort of crowd I always imagined until tonight only existed in books,’ which is a type of reference that Christie frequently makes as a locator of action and attitudes. Secret papers are part of the plot.

And then Christie subverts it, Superintendent Battle revealing that secret criminal organisations headed by a ‘mysterious super-criminal,’ while ‘common enough in books’, are less so in real life. Moreover, Mosgorovsky in fact is Britain’s secret ‘anti-Bolshevist agent’, while the American is pro-British, rather than the IRA sympathiser he appeared.

In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) politics is to the fore. Reginald Barnes, the former Home Office intelligence link, the sort of individual Christie frequently deploys because they are narrative facilitators, refers to:

‘a book with a lurid jacket that lay on a table close at hand: ‘I read a lot of these spy yarns. Fantastic, some of them. But curiously enough they’re not any more fantastic than the real thing. There are beautiful adventuresses, and dark sinister men with foreign accents, and gangs and international associations and super crooks’ I’d blush to see some of the things I know set down in print – nobody would believe them for a minute!’

Politics remains a theme throughout the novels, with the anti-Communist themes repurposed and transposed, although, as in Passenger to Frankfurt, not always successfully. To leave the politics out is to misunderstand and misrepresent Christie and her milieu.

Georgia L. Gilholy: Imagine the effect on a child who’s told that he’s not “racially innocent”

1 Feb

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

Over 4000 parents have now signed a petition in protest of Brighton and Hove City Council’s five-year “anti-racist” education plan.

The petition, launched last June, disputes the council’s “racial literacy training” that 300 teachers have now undertaken. Although Freedom of Information requests to view its materials have been refused, the local authority is reportedly instructing teachers to inform children as young as seven that they are not “racially innocent” as white people are “at the top of the hierarchy”.

John Hayes, a former Education Minister, has vowed to urgently raise the controversy in the Commons, and will ask Nadhim Zahawi issue legal guidance to prevent “ideological race materials” being rolled out in schools.

Both the outrage of Sir John and thousands of local people is understandable.

As Kemi Badenoch has previously argued, it is inappropriate and illegal to teach the concept of ‘white privilege’ as fact given that it is a highly contested political concept. While the growing popularity of the idea in certain circles suggests that it must be confronted and dissected, there is no reason it ought to be spoon-fed to children whose brains are not equipped to process it critically.

Besides, the notion of white privilege fails to reflect the reality of modern Britain. Economically deprived white teenagers in England’s postindustrial and coastal towns are one of the least likely groups to progress to higher education.

Last year, just 13 per cent of white boys on free school meals went to university compared to 57 per cent of Indian, 59 per cent of black African and 32 per cent of black Caribbean youngsters on the scheme. The idea of whites consistently resting at the “top” of a pyramid of privilege has never been a more inept analogy.

Sadly, racial bullying remains a problem in many schools. A 2020 poll showed that one-third of British children reported hearing “racist comments at school”. However perpetuating the idea that white children are uniquely culpable is not only racially bigoted in and of itself, but it risks inflaming rather than harmonising racial divisions.

Racial hatred is a social contagion, and teaching children that their white classmates are inherently morally inferior can only provoke bullying and heighten prejudice where they may have been little prior. Incidents of racial abuse must be dealt with seriously, but not at the expense of encouraging the stereotyping of white children.

Many critical race theory advocates defend their ideology by arguing that while whites may not always be entirely ‘privileged’, they will never suffer race-based discrimination.

This is plainly false. Only a few days ago, two Orthodox Jewish men were viciously attacked by a black teenager in North London. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that all groups are capable of racialised prejudice.

While Brighton Council claims their plans will counterbalance the flawed eurocentrism of previous curricula, the notion of white privilege will do precisely the contrary. The concept robs young people of the chance to understand the complexities of contemporary and historical discrimination in Britain and across the world.

Under this training, children are to be taught that Christianity is linked to the slave trade. While it is true that many Christians have been involved in the crime of slavery, Christianity has also proved one of the world’s most powerful ideological antidotes to the practice.

It was evangelical groups who spearheaded abolitionism in the British Empire, and medieval clergy who near-eliminated slavery in Western Europe prior to the conquest of the Americas. Moreover, the 40 million people currently enslaved in 2022, chiefly across Asia and the Middle East, is a testament to the fact that the crime of slavery has persisted across most civilisations in various forms, and is not solely a white versus black phenomenon.

Like all conspiracy theories, white privilege is dangerously one-dimensional, and it does not deserve to be ushered into any educational setting as objective truth. Teachers must encourage learning and spark debate, not accuse pupils of immutable defects.

One Minister has already admitted that presenting white privilege as non-negotiable to students is against the law. It is time the Government took swift action to root out schemes such as Brighton’s from our schooling. It is not enough to occasionally complain about the folly of “wokeness” while doing little to stop it in its tracks.

Robert Halfon: Do Twitter’s bosses believe that anti-semitism is worth indulging for profit?

29 Jul

What is the difference between Radio des Mille Collines and Twitter?

Radio des Mille Collines (RDMC) was a radio station that broadcast in Rwanda between 1993 and 1994.  One of its founders (and primary funder) was businessman, Felcien Kabuga, who was recently arrested in France for alleged war crimes against the Rwandan Tutsi population in 1994. One million – predominantly Tutsi – Rwandans were killed over three months in a genocide that shocked the world. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I spent time teaching in Rwanda, as part of the Andrew Mitchell-led Project Umabano.

What I learnt and saw first-hand in that country will haunt me for the rest of my life. The Tutsi people were, first, systematically demonised, then, marginalised and, finally, murdered. As so often in human history, the Free World stood by and let it happen.

In part, what made the mass-slaughter humanly possible were the activities of the RDMC. Listened to by millions, the station would broadcast regular propaganda against the Tutsis, notably describing them as, “cockroaches”. It helped ‘desensitise’ the Hutu population in terms of the killings they would go on to carry out.

I thought of Radio des Mille Collines on Monday this week as, for the first time since joining Twitter in 2009, I began a 48-hour boycott in solidarity with Jewish groups, Jews in public life, the former Chief Rabbi and supportive friends.

As RDMC showed, the power of broadcasting – whether it be social media, TV or radio – can, at worst, facilitate a genocide. At best, it desensitises those who engage with it, so much so that they no longer see racial hatred as an offence, but merely part of everyday parlance.

Clearly, Jack Dorsey is not Felicien Kabuga. Nor is Twitter as an organisation encouraging genocide.

But was RDMC the early equivalent of Twitter for the Hutu militia? Whilst the Hutus may not have had the internet, they did have access to pocket radio. They were able to switch on and hear ‘ordinary’ folk call in to tell their stories about the so-called horrific actions of the Tutsi “cockroach” population.

Was the ability of the RDMC to spread evil and hatred any different to some of the vile Tweets that anti-Semites write on Twitter, seemingly with both impunity and immunity?

In essence, the question to be asked is whether Twitter has created a safe haven to spread hatred of Jewish people? What I have never understood from some of these social media websites is why the onus is always on the victim to report abuse. Why is it that the advanced algorithms do not pick this up? Moreover, when it is reported, especially when it comes to anti-semitism, rarely is it followed through.

At the time of writing this article for ConservativeHome, despite reporting an anti-semitic tweet a week or so ago, it has still not been removed. This inaction – as exemplified in the case of Wiley, the rapper who wrote anti-semitic tweets last week, which are still up as I write -is why so many good people have decided to stage a 48-hour boycott of Twitter.

Often, Twitter goes after the big high-profile cases in terms of dealing with extremism, yet when it comes to specific and regular instances of anti-Semitism, the social media site appears to turn a blind eye.

Why does all this matter? In February, the Jewish Community Security Trust reported that anti-Semitic incidents were at an all-time high, with 1,805 cases recorded in 2019. Online anti-Semitism made up the greatest proportion of abuse, at 39 per cent, with the vast majority taking place on Twitter.

Perhaps the management of Twitter just don’t care because they are making so much money? Why should a few upset Jews upset its golden applecart?

As far as I am aware, none of us Twitter boycotters have left Twitter for good. I will still use the social media site as, on balance, it is more useful than not. But, I have a very different opinion of Twitter from a few years ago, when I thought the social media site was a genuine benefit to mediakind. There might come a time that this 48-hour boycott – a chip of ice, slipping down the mountain – may become an avalanche. Millions of decent people may decide that Twitter is no longer worth the candle. I think that time could be nearer than we think.

Michael Gove, in the past, described countries that treat their Jewish citizens well, as being the countries in history that were most liberal, enlightened, democratic and having deep respect for the rule of law. In the same way, perhaps, we can judge the enlightenment of social media sites by the way they genuinely – or not, as the case may be – work to combat anti-Semitism.

P.S. Readers may be interested in this article I wrote on the Rwandan genocide in August 2008 for ConservativeHome: “How Bergen Belsen came to the hills of Rwanda”.

The case for a new treason offence

27 Jul

The Government is preparing to overhaul Britain’s security laws, utilising work done on them by Sajid Javid when he was Home Secretary, which in turn drew on research by Policy Exchange.

We wait to see what the legislation contains, but the plans seem to fall into three parts.  First, an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act.  Second, an updating of the espionage laws, which will be carried out largely with state actors, such as China and Russia, in mind.  Third, a new treason offence.

Its origins lie in the return to Britain of Islamist terrorists who fought abroad with ISIS.  Ministers believe that the present legal framework isn’t fit for purpose if prosecutions are to be successful.  The recent Court of Appeal judgement on Shamima Begum’s case doubtless explains why we are reading about revised laws now.

At any rate, the original Policy Exchange proposal was supported by a former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd; a former head of MI5, Lord Evans; a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, and former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, Richard Walton.

Tom Tugendhat, one of the authors of that report, Aiding the Enemy, was out and about in the Sunday Times yesterday, concentrating largely on espionage – and writing as he did so “pinstriped fixers, lawyers and silver-tongued svengalis are pocketing money” are doing the bidding of hostile foreign governments.

Meanwhile, Javid was busy in the Mail on Sunday, covering the same themes, and arguing that we need to repurpose “our ancient treason laws to cover Britons who operate on behalf of a hostile nation or go abroad to fight alongside terrorist groups”.

That would cover Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as ISIS and Al Qaeda.  It will doubtless be argued that Britain shouldn’t be in the business of legislating for loyalty oaths, or giving terror groups the same status as foreign governments.

But if you think about it, the loyalty oath claim is a red herring, since what would be required is not a pledge of allegiance to Britain, but the shunning of terror aimed at our troops or civilians.  (The form of words that Javid used would appear to cover fighting alongside terror groups, period – whether against British citizens or not.)

We expect that it will also be claimed that a new treason offence will be “bad for community relations” – i.e: that British Muslims will be opposed to it, though it will certainly go down well among others in Blue Wall seats, as we must now call them, and elsewhere.

A modernised treason offence would certainly be to the point.  Islamist extremism has no room within it for attachment to nation states – what matters is the worldwide community of Muslims, led from its present ignorance, as the extremists see it, to the politicised and ideological version of Islam which they themselves propagate.

(This use of religion rather than nationality as a catch-all definer explains why they identify Jews with Israel, by the way – despite the fact that not all Jews live there and many aren’t Zionists at all.  Hence the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in Paris in 2015, and the 2008 massacre at a Jewish outreach centre in Mumbai.)

We anticipate, too, that forcing lobbyists who work for foreign governments to register; toughening up rules on registering interests in the Lords or work undertaken by former Ministers, and slowing, say, the flow of Chinese money into our universities and civil society will also be resisted.  A sign of how much new measures are needed.

Free speech for Wiley?

26 Jul

Our older readers will be familiar with Wiley – the rapper who last week posted a series of anti-semitic remarks on social media.

We linger on one tweet only, in which he undertook a whirlwind tour of the Israel-Palestine dispute, claiming that “I cannot be upset about two sets of people killing each other on land that belongs to us anyway”.  This is a Black Israelite trope – the claim that black people are real descendants of the biblical Hebrews.

It takes a unique diplomatic talent to deny the rights of both Jews and Palestinians simultaneously.  At any rate, it goes almost without saying that Wiley’s posts were deeply stupid, disgusting, and self-defeating.

On that last point, Wiley has lost his manager, John Woolf, a self-described “proud Jewish man” who first clung to his client, saying that “as someone who has known him for 12 years I know he does not truly feel this way,” but soon let him go – an admission that Wiley does truly feel this way.

The point about our more aged readers is not a piece of self-trolling, incidentally.  At 41, Wiley isn’t exactly a slip of a grime artist almost young enough to know no better.

Anti-semitism these days is found more often on the Left than the Right, so it is tempting for a conservative site simply to slag off Wiley, as we do above, and move on.  But if free speech demands anything, it demands even more than Orwell’s famous quote about liberty meaning “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

For above all, it requires championing their right to free speech even when – no: especially when – they make remarks that we find reprehensible.

This is not to say that wicked words should escape consequences.  For example, Wiley is a Spurs fan.  So Tottenham Hotspur would be perfectly entitled to bar him from its stadium (assuming that he ever goes there).  That is its right as a free institution.  For what it’s worth, we hope that it does.

Twitter is a different matter.  After all, Spurs have not carved out, for all their footballing seniority, a culture-shaping space in the public square.  Twitter has.

At the time we publish, it has havered about with Wiley, deleting some of his posts but maintaining his account. There is a case for arguing that since Twitter is a private company, it is thus entitled to set its own rules for users – banning Katie Hopkins, for example, but tolerating Richard Cowie (Wiley’s real name).

Furthermore, it may be that Twitter is a rocket that will be brought crashing down to earth by the weight of its woke “hateful conduct policy” – and its double standards. Or, if you like, that will be outsmarted by more agile competitors.

We are not convinced.  Government already intervenes in the public arena – and must do, since the latter must be policed by the law. And it is Parliament that makes and unmakes law, government that must implement it, and the courts that must uphold it.  (Judges should also discover rather than make law, but that’s another subject.)

It follows that the law should always have a presumption in favour of protecting free speech.  So just as there’s argument for saying that what Twitter does is simply its own business, there’s also one for saying that is isn’t.

Which returns us to Wiley.  The Campaign against Anti-Semitism has reported him to the police and called for prosecution. If his posts broke the law, then so be it.  But not everything that is offensive is illegal, or should be.  To give an example in this area, Holocaust denial is not a crime in the UK, as it is in some other European countries.

There are a number of pragmatic arguments either way, but one of principle, rightly, holds: that free speech within the law is an ideal worth preserving, and that it should apply when the Holocaust is denied.

We would like to see it extended in the world of work.  Consider the case, for example, of Nick Buckley, recently reinstated as Chief Executive Officer of Mancunian Way, a charity.  He had been sacked after a social media storm in the wake of remarks he had made that were critical of Black Lives Matter.

The point is that he should never have been dismissed in the first place, and further free speech safeguards might have made the charity’s trustees pause before forcing him out.  (They themselves have now resigned.)

Then there is the story of Stephen Lamonby, dismissed as a part-time lecturer after making remarks about Jewish people that ventured into the perilous world of genetics, but which were positive.  Or of Gillian Phillips, a children’s author, fired as an author by Working Partners for tweeting support for J.K.Rowling over the trans issue.

Wiley makes music. He doesn’t help to run a charity or write books or lecture in a university.  This being so, what happens next is straighforward, or should be.

We hope that he will be ridiculed and ostracised, and that people boycott what he produces – which is admittedly, to paraphrase Shrek’s Lord Farquaad, a sacrifice that some of us are willing to make. What he can’t be, since the circumstances don’t apply – and shouldn’t be automatically, were they to do so – is  “cancelled”, i.e: sacked.

At least, not until or unless he were to be convicted by a court.  Let us spell it out in plain terms.  In this case, Woolf worked for Wiley, not the reverse.

And since Woolf worked for Wiley, he had the right to withdraw his services.  But were it the other way round, Woolf should not have the right to sack Wiley – or, rather, not an unqualified one (unless or until he is convicted, as we say.)

The right of a company to protect its reputation must be balanced by the right of a worker to free speech. Reprimands, penalties: yes.  Dismissal: not necessarily.

Overall, the Government should be reviewing the balance of the law to protect free speech – a natural companion to Gavin Williamson’s new drive to protect free speech in universities. To rework Dunning on the powers of the Crown, the Cancel Culture has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.