Is Lucy Letby a case of the banality of evil?

August 19th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Understandably, the British media is awash with coverage of the recently-concluded, ten-month court case in which Lucy Letby has been found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to kill six more. The newspaper which I read – the “Guardian” – today devotes its first 12 pages to the case.

I love children. I love babies. I really struggle to understand how anyone could harm them. But new-born babies murdered by a neonational nurse just defies comprehension. Lucy Letby seems to have had a very normal upbringing and her parent appear to believe in her innocence.

I am reminded of a recent Netflix movie based on a real case in the United States. “The Good Nurse” told the story of Charlie Cullen who was convicted of 29 murders but is thought to have been responsible for around 400 which would make him the most prolific killer in US history.

Cases like Lucy Letby and Charlie Cullen raise profoundly difficult questions. Are some people evil or should we reserve the word for acts or behaviours rather than persons? Should we solely blame the perpetrators of these crimes or the institutions for which they worked which, in both these cases, covered up their concerns to protect public reputation and legal liability? 

I am also reminded of the notion of “the banality of evil”, a controversial phrase associated with American philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt.

Can one do evil without being evil? This was the puzzling question that Arendt grappled with when she reported for “The New Yorker” in 1961 on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps as part of the Holocaust.

Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but “terrifyingly normal”. She argued that he acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, “Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality Of Evil” (1963).

We like to feel that we live in a rational world where people’s actions can be explained by their circumstances and their motives. But do we ever really know anybody? In certain circumstances, can any person do any thing? I don’t know …

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A review of the new action movie “Heart Of Stone”

August 14th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Sadly, everything about this Netflix movie is contrived, starting with the title. Heart is the name of a super-powerful system of artificial intelligence, just like The Entity in the “Dead Reckoning” segment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Stone is the surname of the special agent at the heart of the plot (see what I did there?. We know that Rachel does not have a heart of stone because she is kind to the cat.

The money men have obviously influenced the international casting. So Israeli Gal Godot is the eponymous spy and, while she was pretty as “Wonder Woman” and we know that she’s an expert in various martial arts, she is not a very good actor. The other plucky female role is filled by Alia Bhatt who is now a big star in the Indian film market. For female viewers, we have Jamie Dornan from “Fifty Shades Of Grey”. Don’t forget the wider Asian market: Jing Lusi and B D Wong are there. The one star actor in the cast is Glenn Close who is given very little to do.

From the very beginning, there are some lively action sequences, although they are very derivative, and there is some fine location shooting in Portugal, Morocco and Iceland. The main problem – as usual with action movies – is the script. The plotting is farcical and the dialogue is weak. But, as a TV movie, it fills an evening.

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A review of the novel “Heat And Dust” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

August 12th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

For a long time, I assumed that the author was of Indian ethnicity because of her name and her long association with film director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. In fact, her parents were Polish Jews, she was born in German, and she came to England at the age of 12 when in 1939 her family fled the Nazi regime. Following her marriage to an Indian Parsi, she moved to India where she spent 24 years before relocating to New York City for the rest of her life.

So she brings a very special eye to this story which is largely set in India and utilises two timelines to compare and contrast the lives and the decisions of two loosely related English women with a fascination for India: Olivia, the new and young wife of a member of the British administration in the India of the 1923, and her modern-day, slightly older, step-granddaughter Anne who, some 50 years later, comes across Olivia’s letters to her sister and decides to visit the locations mentioned and try to understand better what happened.

The novel was published in 1975 and won the Booker prize. It was then filmed with a script by Jhabvala and Ivory as director and Merchant as producer. I saw the film in 1988 and so enjoyed it that I bought the novel but never read it. I viewed the film again in 2006, resolved again to read the book, and again never did. Then, in 2023, I caught the film for a third time and finally read the original work.

I found that the film follows the novel’s narrative very closely and even uses some of the book’s dialogue, but there is more literary detail and colour, so I was delighted to have read it at last.

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Searching for WIMPS in North Yorkshire

August 10th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

WIMPS are weakly interacting massive particles. These subatomic entities are the most likely source of dark matter which, it is believed, accounts for around 85% of the universe’s mass.

There’s a plan to discover these little WIMPS 3,000 feet underground in a working mine in North Yorkshire. Wouldn’t that be something?

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A review of the 1983 film “Heat and Dust”

August 7th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

One of the great collaborative teams of British cinema was the trio of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and “Heat And Dust” was one of their most successful enterprises.

Based on the eponymous novel by Jhabvala and set largely in northern India, it tells two parallel stories located in different time periods: the early life of Olivia (a first leading role for Greta Scacchi), the new and young wife of a member of the British administration in the India of the 1923, and her modern-day, slightly older, step-granddaughter Anne (the established star Julie Christie who was actually born in British India) who comes across Olivia’s letters to her sister and decides to visit the locations mentioned and try to understand better what happened. This narrative device enables the two protagonists to have similar experiences but make different choices. The film is beautifully shot and brilliantly acted.

Some reviewers criticised the work as presenting a kind of heritage or nostalgic view of empire but this is not fair. This is not a film about empire as such, but two coming-of-age portraits of young women set against cultural challenges and, while the injustices of colonialism are not fore-fronted, they are not overlooked. I’ve seen “Heat And Dust” three times – most latterly at the British Film Institute with an introduction by a film historian – and now I really must read the novel.

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A review of a book about the creation of Czechoslovakia at the end of the First World War

August 6th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

“Dreams Of A Great Small Nation” by Kevin J McNamara

I have been visiting Prague regularly since 1988 and I have often crossed the Legion’s Bridge opposite the National Theatre, but it was only in 2023 when I visited a charity shop in Manchester that I found that there was a recent (2016) English-language work on this piece of history. McNamara, a scholar of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the United States, asserts at the start of his bibliography that “Very few books on the exploits and significance of the Czecho-Slovak [he always hyphenates the term] Legion have ever been published in English and fewer of those remain in print.” He claims that this is the first English-language book to make extensive use of collections of eye-witness testimony. So this is a welcome work.

It is the story of how, in the First World War, as many as 55,000 Czechs and Slovaks defected from the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to form their own legion in Russia which, at the time, was undergoing a revolution, followed by withdrawal from the world war, and then a brutal and messy civil war. The Czechs and Slovaks wished to fight alongside the Allies, but any route west would take them back to Austro-Hungary or to German-occupied territory, so the plan was that the Czecho-Slovaks would travel via the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way east to Vladivostok where Allied ships would somehow transport them to the Western Front.

It did not work out like this at all. In fact, the Czechs and Slovaks found themselves in the middle of Red, White and other forces, requiring them to fight a whole series of battles and skirmishes as they effectively took control of the railway and with it much of Siberia. They were stranded in Russia long after the Germans surrendered and the last ship transporting the legionnaires did not leave Vladivostok until September 1920. Most estimates say that just over 4,000 legionnaires died in Russia.

It was a confusing campaign and McNamara tells it in a rather confused way with much back and forth in terms of chronology and personages. However, the central theme is very clear: the bravery and sacrifice of the Czecho-Slovak Legion in Russia, and the substantial publicity which this experience received in Western (especially American) newspapers, played an important role in persuading the Allies to recognise and grant the demand for the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia which, between 1918 and 1938, was the only democratic state in the region.

The political architects of this independence were Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Edvard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefánik. Masaryk – who was married to an American and added her surname to his own name – was especially influential in the USA and credited the exploits of the Legion as giving him valuable leverage in his campaign. Štefánik – the only wholly Slovak member of the trio – was killed in a flying accident in May 1919 and so was not around to urge the implementation of the promise in the Pittsburgh Agreement of May 1918 that Slovakia would have full autonomy. In the end, the Czechs and Slovaks settled for separate nations in 1993.

As an American, McNamara provides the viewpoint of events largely from the United States, but the political campaign for Czechoslovak independence was understandably focused on President Woodrow Wilson and it was the Americans who could have sent earlier and in larger numbers supporting troops and then rescuing vessels. McNamara is balanced though and opines that “America’s policy towards the legionnaires at times reached such chilling levels of indifference to their lives that it seemed almost as hostile, if not homicidal, as Moscow’s.”

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Word of the day: anabasis

August 5th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

The word means a military expedition or advance.

I came across it in a book about the Czech Legion in Siberia at the end of the First World War: “Dreams Of A Great Small Nation”.

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A review of “Mission: Impossible -Dead Reckoning Part One”

August 4th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

It’s been a long time coming – and we still don’t have the complete story. Shooting of the latest IMF escapade has been interrupted so many times by Covid that the final budget is a reported $290M, making it one of the most expensive films ever, and delaying its release until five years after the previous movie. This is the seventh impossible mission – the third successive one co-written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie – so that the money-making franchise has now been running for an incredible 27 years and its star Tom Cruise is now 61.

This time the villain is a guy called Gabriel (Puerto Rican-American Esai Morales) but he is merely the front-man for The Entity, some kind of super version of artificial intelligence that can take over all the world’s electronic systems, which in turn can only be accessed by possession of a two-part, bejewelled, cruciform key. Sound silly? You bet. But, like all the “Mission: Impossible” movies, this is a triumph of style over substance and you just have to go with it and, if you can do that, you’re in for an exciting and entertaining ride.

Tom gives us a full spectacle of running, jumping, driving, riding and fighting. Sadly his keynote stunt – which is amazing – was signalled too clearly in the trailer, but there is a terrific end-of-movie sequence involving a runaway train racing onto an exploding bridge. This time he interacts with no less than four (much younger) action females: former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and criminal broker the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), both of whom were in “Fallout”, plus ace pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell) and French assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff).

This first part of the adventure is an excessive two and three quarter hours but Part Two is still to come. As one of the characters (unnecessarily) tells us “The key is only the beginning”.

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A review of the important book “Empireland” by Sathnam Sanghera

August 1st, 2023 by Roger Darlington

The history of Britain is not simply an account of what has happened in Britain but of Britain’s action’s outside its island borders. We know that when it comes to wars, especially when we were victors, as in the Napoleonic-era battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo and our decisive role in the two World Wars. But we are still reluctant to embrace a full account of Britain’s role in empire and to appreciate – to use the sub-title of this book – “how imperialism has shaped modern Britain”.

Sanghera is the son of Indian Punjabi immigrant parents and was brought up as a Sikh in Wolverhampton. He has had a successful career as a journalist on the “Financial Times” and the “Times” and here he has written a balanced and accessible assessment of how Britain behaved over the three centuries that it created and managed the largest empire in world history and how even today that experience profoundly shapes everything from the number of our stately homes, the frequency of celebratory memorials and the content of many of our museums to our attitudes to race, immigration and Brexit to our passion for cricket and public schools.

Sanghera is not an academic, but his research has been prodigious and his bibliography runs to just over 50 pages and then there are another 30 pages of notes. His work is very readable, but he does have a trademark style of writing which frequently involves very long sentences. These sentences are immensely informative and grammatically well-constructed, but they are l-o-n-g.

I learned a lot. I knew about the Indian Uprising of 1857 and the Amitsar/Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, but I had not heard of such incidents as the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, Britain’s incursion into Ethiopia in 1868, and its invasion of Tibet in 1903. I knew that empire had involved brutality, but much of the detail in Sanghera’s book is truly shocking.

Sanghera notes that too many Britons indulge in a kind of “imperial nostalgia”, that empire was overwhelmingly decent, and “imperial exceptionalism”, that we are better than everyone else. He highlights the “imperial amnesia” of opponents of immigration who seem to forget that “we are here because you were there”. He has a whole chapter on “selective amnesia”, so that we take pride in being the first major nation to make the slave trade illegal, while forgetting that this country was the leading proponent and a major beneficiary of that slave trade, and we laud our role in the two world wars, while overlooking the major contribution of our empire’s black and brown citizens in those conflicts.

He insists that: “Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modern-day racism, are catastrophic.”

Rightly I believe, Sanghera attributes a good deal of British exceptionalism to “the fact that we have not, as a nation, been invaded or occupied in modern times” (in fact, for a millennium – can this be said of any other nation?). He asserts: “If we don’t confront the reality of what happened in British empire, we will never be able to work out who we are or who we want to be”.

As a answer to this lacuna in our understanding of British history, Sanghera toys with the idea of an Empire Awareness Day (he points out that we used to have an Empire Day from 1916 to 1958), but his main call is for a substantial revision of the syllabus in our schools for history and associated subjects. This would be welcome but the impact would gradual and slow. I would like Britain to have a National History Museum in which our colonial enterprise is made plain and set in the wider and longer story of our nation.

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A review of the new money-making movie “Barbie”

July 30th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

This is clearly a movie aimed at a young female demographic and, as an elderly man, I am way outside the target audience. But I wanted to see it because it has already become a massive success, about which so many are talking and writing, and because I so admire many of those involved in it. I am a fan of the work of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (I have seen most of their films) and this is a work that they co-wrote with her as director. Also I always enjoy the performances of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling who here play (Stereotypical) Barbie and (Beach) Ken respectively.

But this is a film unlike any that any of the four have previously been associated with – effectively a two-hour commercial for a brand of dolls (manufacturer Mattel actually funded the whole enterprise) and a light-hearted feminist tract. Robbie is perfect casting as the titular toy and Gosling is brave to take on such an emasculated role. There is lots of smart casting in this ensemble production.

I loved the opening sequence with its referencing of the sci-fi movie “2001”. Throughout it is looks gorgeous, with lots of bright colours (including pink!), and there is an endless stream of visual and aural gags.

The problem is that the script is such an uncomfortable balancing act. If the real world is a patriarchy characterised by misogyny, Barbie is a matriarchy with something approaching misandry. I am reminded of the observation by the feminist Germaine Greer: “The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity”. In the end, “Barbie” does not know where it stands and how it should end. But maybe I’m taking it too seriously …

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