Archive for June, 2008

Identity, guilt, and Guantanamo

28 June 2008

An article worth noting by the routinely excellent Gary Younge on the US and Guantanamo pulls together some intriguing historical threads.

First, from a American arrested for spying in Hungary in the Stalin era, Robert Vogeler, who was held in a cell in which he slept on boards suspended inches above water, with the light always on, and banging on the walls to prvent him from sleeping. Just a matter of time before you confess, he said, afterwards, but the confession was not about a conventional matter of guilt:

“To judge from the way our scripts were written,” wrote Vogeler shortly after his forced confession, “it was more important to establish our allegorical identities than to establish our ‘guilt’. Each of us in his testimony was obliged to ‘unmask’ himself for the benefit of the [Soviet-led] press and radio.”

The second site on a ‘grand tour’ is Algeria, where, as Simone de Beauvoir observed, discussion of ‘abuse’ at he time of the French atrocities, was futile:

“To protest in the name of morality against ‘excesses’ or ‘abuses’ is an error that hints at active complicity. There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, simply an all-pervasive system.”

And finally, to a cnversation about Nuremberg – help between two present day US military lawyers:

Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for Guantánamo’s military commissions, recalled a meeting he had with Pentagon general counsel William Haynes, who oversees Guantánamo’s tribunal process, about the forthcoming trials of the detainees. “[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time,” said Davis. Davis then pointed out that the handful of acquittals at Nuremberg had given the proceedings a sense of legitimacy and credibility that across-the-board convictions never would have.

‘I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process,” Davis told the Nation. “At which point, [Haynes’s] eyes got wide and he said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. If we’ve been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can’t have acquittals. We’ve got to have convictions.'”

Read the whole article, if you’re interested in Guantanamo, or even if you’re not. Younge lets Vogeler have the last word: “Every individual American should realise that what happened to me could happen to anybody.”

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How civil rights are eroded…

28 June 2008

Ronan Bennett reviews Patrick Maguire’s book My Father’s Watch in the Guardian. Maguire was 13 when he was arrested (in 1974) for his ‘part’ in the mythical bomb-making factory that police alleged – completely erroneously, and largely without evidence – had been run from his house. Much later the convictions of all involved were found to be unsafe. So why did it happen? Bennett’s argument resonates down the years:

It happened because of prejudice – against the Irish community specifically, against working-class Irish in particular; brutality – Irish prisoners had been threatened with guns and physical violence; they had been kicked, slapped, punched and verbally abused; stupidity – on the part of the police, the judiciary and the legal profession; compliant media – or worse: some papers actively fomented hatred of the accused; panic – there were bombings so politicians had to do something, now; science – which was said at trial to prove conclusively that the accused had handled explosives and which subsequently was rubbished as the work of incompetents and buffoons; and finally because of insufficient safeguards on the treatment of suspects, who were denied contact with lawyers and interrogated for extended periods. Is this ringing any bells, Mr Brown? Ms Smith?

Remembering Esbjorn Svensson

22 June 2008

Photograph by Tasic Dragan

There are rare times when the obituary pages stop you dead, as it were. So it was this week with the news of the death of the Swedish jazz pianist Esbjorn Svensson in a diving accident at the age of 44. A few days on, I feel as if there ought to be more of a fuss, that the gap his death will leave in European jazz (and jazz generally) ought to be more commented upon. (There are good articles at All About Jazz and by Sam Christie on the Guardian music blog). As the British poet Adrian Mitchell said of a different early death, “And God killed little Lenny Bruce/ And let Bob Hope survive”.

I first heard EST, as the trio became known, about a decade ago, at the time of what I think was their fourth record, From Gagarin’s Point of View (they always had great titles). It included the mesmerising Dodge the Dodo, a mix of driving ostinato, wailing bass improvisation in a long middle break, and a catchy melody, an urgent sound which suddenly gives way to something slower, reflective, almost religious. I’m listening to a live version as I write this. It was clear that this was jazz – but played by people who were as interested in the music of Hendrix and the Velvets and other experimentalists. (When I went to see them in London a few years ago, a friend who plays piano quite well explained that the chromatic scales Svensson was using gave him a sound which was strikingly different from the blues-based sound of conventional jazz, although I’m not technically knowledgeable enough to be sure that I have this completely right).

I used to be something of a musical completist with groups that I liked, but as I’ve got older I’ve not felt the need. With EST I made an exception, because I knew each new record would be interesting enough, and different enough, from the last one to be worthwhile.

If you stumble on this, and want to start somewhere, try Seven Days of Falling (2004), the sound of a group which has been together long enough, and has become technically expert enough, to be confident in pushing at the edges: as David Mamet said of film directing, “The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”

The photograph is by Tasic Dragan.

An old cat in sunshine

7 June 2008

Our cat is 18 this month, and is showing signs of age – thyroid problems, arthritis, and so on. The warm weather of the past couple of days has tempted her into the garden, which reminded me of the poem Gavin Ewart wrote – late in his own life – about an old cat of his.

A 14-Year-Old Convalescent Cat in Winter

I want him to have another living summer,
to lie in the sun and enjoy the douceur de vivre
because the sun, like golden rum in a rummer,
is what makes an idle cat un tout petit peu ivre

I want him to lie stretched out, contented,
revelling in the heat, his fur all dry and warm,
an Old Age Pensioner, retired, resented
by no one, and happinesses in a beelike swarm

to settle on him – postponed for another season
that last fated hateful journey to the vet
from which there is no return (and age the reason),
which must come soon – as I cannot forget.

Gavin Ewart (1916-95)

{Thanks to Stephen Stewart’s blog Miles to go before I sleep, which had an online copy.)

Tucker’s sound mirrors

1 June 2008

Tucker\'s sound mirrors - www.everyoneforever.com

Watching an old episode of BBC’s Coast on DVD I came across the story of Major WS Tucker and his sound mirrors, built in some numbers in the ’20s and early ’30s along the south coast as an early warning system of incoming enemy planes. They were relatively sophisticated parabolic reflectors, which concentrated the sound and also enabled direction to be estimated. They were rendered redundant by the development of radar, and Tucker, apparently, was retired early and instructed to dismantle the mirrors. He didn’t completely comply.

And in a strange way, he had the last laugh; the organisation developed by Tucker to manage and respond to the incoming information was taken over wholesale by the radar teams – a reminder that the social and management systems that are developed around technologies are as important as the technology itself.

A web search throws up a surprisingly detailed set of documents from different sources.