Reading Lolita in Tehran

Even though I’ve done research into reading groups, until recently I hadn’t read Azar Nafisi’s best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran. While it’s not an academic source for me to cite, it does confirm what the research has found. Simply put, reading is a social activity. We might read a book in a room or on public transport in our own little worlds, but then we talk about books and we integrate our experience of books into our social lives.

Reading Lolita in Tehran uses the reading group, along with classrooms of university students, as vehicles to describe how the revolution in Iran has affected its people, especially its women. It details stories of injustice and oppression in the lives of Nafisi, her students and colleagues, taking readers through the uprisings against the West and the Iran-Iraq war to the post-war period followed by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the attempts at liberalising that continue today. (Bearing in mind, the book was published in 2003.)

The reverence for literature permeates throughout this memoir. Along with Lolita, the author covers Daisy Miller, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, showing how she and her students reacted to these works. In her own responses, Nafisi provides some passages of literary criticism of the type that reminded me of my years of teaching literature to undergraduates.   Reading Lolita 2

I’m glad that I’ve finally caught up with Reading Lolita and hope to find other such books obviously written for Western audiences that contribute to understanding the Middle East in a modern context.

A Cross-Party Spirit for the Pro-Europe Movement

As party politics in Britain is being reshaped – maybe to the point of extinction – I find myself increasingly involved in cross-party events. This week it was a town hall style gathering billed as a ‘Brexit Listening Tour’ in Peterborough and led by Lord Adonis, a Labour Peer. The attendees for the most part didn’t identify themselves as belonging to or supporting one party or another. Those who did label themselves came from Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens and Conservative parties. Naturally, no one from UKIP, but I suspect they’re not in ‘listening’ mode these days.

From the timing of the applauses, along with the comments and questions, this was clearly an event for those who want the UK to remain in the EU. If you’ve been following my blogs, you know that this is not the first time I’ve been to such an event.  Adonis

I came away from the evening invigorated and inspired to get back to the type of face-to-face activism that I do when I’m back here in Ely. I also came away with a few points worth sharing.

First of all, perhaps the time has come for Brexiters and Remainers to unite against our government for running the simplistic in/out referendum in the first place. It’s easy to accuse the Brexiters of lacking knowledge as there was no mandate in the referendum explaining how we would leave, along with the assumptions (and lies) that made people believe that leaving the EU would make Britain better off. Even though those who voted remain obviously had some sense of what it would be like to stay in, there were still many things about how the EU works that Remainers- and I include myself in this- simply didn’t know. Had we known more about the customs union, the various immigration policies across EU member states, or the problems now facing Ireland and Gibraltar, our arguments would have been different.

Secondly, let’s not forget that Brexit is a symptom of the problems the UK has been unsuccessfully dealing with for the past few decades. Problems like unemployment, housing and a weakening health care system.  Perhaps this point is just another angle on looking at how the pro-leave vote was really a protest vote against life in Britain. Labour, the Greens and the Lib-Dems could easily unite on tackling these problems along with undoing the mess that has become Brexit.

A final point is more a turn of phrase than a point. It’s an answer to the tabloid press and The Daily Telegraph which continue to publish stories about the NHS being drained by immigrates and their children needing medical services. One of the attendees at this cross-party event said ‘You’re more likely to be treated by an immigrant than you are to see them in the waiting room.’  Well said.


When I first heard about a universal basic income, I thought it was a pie-in-the-sky idea, the product of navel-gazing and not living in the real world. Reading George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage, I found someone else who initially reacted to universal basic income as I did. But he’s changed his mind – so have I.

Out of the Wreckage only spends a small amount of time on UBI. It does cover the key points. UBI is an income paid to every adult, regardless of employment, poverty or attempts to find work. As it would replace complicated needs-tested welfare with a leaner, less bureaucratic system, many believe it could cut poverty and inequality. Others are looking to UBI as a way of dealing with chronic unemployment brought on by automation. Small scale trial studies – such as in sectors of Finland’s workforce, towns in Brazil and in poverty-stricken regions of India – have been successful so far.

But the success of any such scheme starts with individuals and communities and this is at the heart of Monbiot’s doctrine. Monbiot makes the point that identifying ourselves as, or being, our jobs feeds into an unhealthy protectionism of jobs. This protectionism can override the best interest of communities, national economies and our natural environment. The other weakness inherent in thinking of ourselves as our jobs is the stigma attached to those who do not have jobs. I confess, as you may have read in an earlier blog, my sense of identity comes largely from what I do for a living. I’m having a rethink.Monbiot

Monbiot’s book is also a worthwhile read for the way it explains the damaged done by neo-liberalism (a misnomer if I ever heard one). Unlike other authors who tackle this subject, Monbiot goes beyond describing the flaws of neo-liberalism in terms of deregulation, outmoded economics and capitalism run wild – we’ve all heard these points before.  Monbiot looks to the psychological and social ethos of our age and asks readers to rewrite the story we are living and draw from our cooperative nature and community spirit to supplant the ways of corporations and governments.

In this context, where financial and administrative pressures could be taken off the government with more community participation and less plutocracy, the idea of some sort of universal basic income fits in and perhaps stands a chance.



I asked my Facebook friends that I grew up with in Chicago if they remember having fears about mass shootings when we were at school in the 60s and 70s. Like me, they didn’t. Mass shootings at schools were unimaginable.

These friends did however remind me that there were a couple of bomb threats at our grammar school. This was around the time of the Vietnam War and soon after, when radical social movements were placing bombs in busy public places and government buildings. These bomb threats were taken seriously and we all responded to the fire alarm, forming pairs as we hurried out to the playground and baseball diamonds. No bombs were ever found – another hoax inspired by stories in the news.

Aside from the bomb threats, school for my classmates and me was a place of safety – though perhaps more so for the girls than the boys. I’ve learned through this little Facebook chatter that in highschool the boys had to deal with other boys acting tough and gangs picking fights at school sports events.

Our fears of crime and violence came from the world outside of school. We couldn’t go out by ourselves at night. Even a pairing of females felt their lives were at risk after sunset. During my childhood I knew of three teenage girls who were raped on the streets by strangers. A couple of others were attacked at knifepoint, but managed to escape thanks to the help of passers-by. I too had an incident of being followed by a man who had first approached me with his dick hanging out. (Another #metoo.) I hurried passed him and turned the corner. As I neared our building, I saw an apartment with a light on and waved and yelled out as if I saw someone I knew. The creep ran off.

It may not have been halcyon days, but it didn’t include mass shootings. We were, after all, before Columbine. That seems to have been the first. There’s an excellent article on this chain reaction written by the always brilliant Malcom Gladwell.

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I don’t think this problem is going to go away in the current mind-set that is sweeping America – especially with its NRA-funded think tanks and politicians. I am, once again, grateful that I’ve emigrated away from the US. Britain and France have their problems, but they don’t allow them to have assault weapons. I’m also grateful at times like these, on the back draft of a recent shooting, not to be in America, embroiled in the polemic. From Europe, I’ll stick to the occasional Twitter and Facebook postings – thumbs up to anyone who points out that this is utter madness – and the reminiscences of my former classmates – thanks for sharing, guys.

Essay: The Heiress

At a hospital in New York she was in a third-floor room that had its number changed to make it harder for people to find her. On the door of this room was a plaque bearing the name Harriet Chase – an alias and a lame one at that – a female name with the same initials.

Hugette Clark’s 5th Avenue apartment covered the entirety of the eighth floor and contained 42 rooms. She also owned a castle in Connecticut on 52 acres of land and a house in California that overlooked the Pacific. For decades, she lived cut off from most of the outside world in her New York apartment with these other homes remaining empty, though well-maintained.

By the time she was thirty, Clark was already worth half a billion dollars. That wealth had been inherited from her father, a copper mining and railway tycoon. He had other children with his first wife and remarried in his 60s, siring Hugette when he was 67 and half deaf. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these half-siblings were the reasons for her hospital-room anonymity – they were all after her money.

In 1930, Hugette Clark posed for a photograph, wearing a mink coat. Her hands are partially folded in front of her, one grasping a jewel-studded bracelet. She’s wearing a rounded hat that women wore in those days, a silken flower sewn into one side. Her lips, darkened by lipstick, are closed into a gentle smile while her eyes are gazing up in a posed fashion. Soon after the picture was taken, she cut herself off from much of her family and friends and no longer went out in public. There were only a few photographs of her to survive, this was her last, her death mask – a parting gesture for the curious.

She wasn’t a total recluse though, having a few close friends who remained at her side. Among them was her secretary, Suzanne, who claimed that Hugette’s closest friends were actually her dolls. The heiress had a collection of antique dolls that she fussed over, with her servants washing and ironing the little doll clothes. These, her surrogate children, were at her hospital bedside.

Hugette Clark died in May 2011 at the age of 104. She didn’t write any books, nor was she an actor or politician. With only one photo of her left, she hasn’t given the world much of herself. Yet, since her death, stories about her fill a peripheral space in the internet, generating a kind of celebrity that Clark herself would have shunned.  Her legacy has been her lifestyle – her living in isolation, her eccentricity and above all else, her wealth. The size and value of her properties, the cost of her furnishings, jewellery and her dolls speak to our envy and avarice. If she were equally isolated and eccentric, but poor, she probably would have passed without our notice.

Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit

Based on the reviews, I almost didn’t want to read it – it would have been too painful. When Nick Clegg’s book How to Stop Brexit first came out, the media focused on Clegg’s advising people to join the Labour Party. As this isn’t what one would expect from a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, it made for attention-grabbing headlines and news-straps.  Finally, I braced myself and read the book – and saw his remarks in the context they deserve. What he actually does is first to acknowledge that Britain is well and truly a two-party country at the moment and that it in within the two main parties that Brexit could be stopped. By joining Labour or the Conservatives (he says that too), a voter will have more opportunities to effect change in those parties, bearing in mind that both parties are internally divided between Leavers and Remainers. Clegg isn’t asking anyone to leave the Liberal Democrats. Instead he’s appealing to those who are inclined towards Labour or the Conservatives to join those parties and become more involved in their Brexit positions. This is especially the case for the Labour-inclined as this is the current party of opposition – well, at least they’re supposed to be. Joining the Conservatives is less helpful as most of the Conservatives MPs who voted Remain have been whipped into line to follow the disastrous path towards Brexit.

Clegg also makes a good point by reminding us that in 2004, when the EU expanded by including countries from the former Soviet Union, the pre-existing EU countries had a choice about whether and how to receive immigrants from these new EU-member states. Only the UK, Ireland and Sweden had an open-door policy. Other countries, such as France and Germany, imposed restrictions on the number of immigrants and the employment sectors they could work in. In other words, for those pro-Leavers for whom immigration from the EU has clearly been an issue, we cannot blame the EU for choices that we made. Of course, I, like Nick Clegg, think that these were good choices, filling in sectors of our workforce – on top of the many ways British life has been enriched by these other cultures.Clegg book 2

Other points in the book were ones that any Pro-Europe activist has heard before.  A bit of preaching to the choir, though I did enjoy Clegg’s turn of phrase: ‘The battalion of greying Conservative MPs you have never heard of, the shady financiers of the Brexit elite, the loopy rantings of Paul Dacre… all of these people fought  relentlessly for Brexit, over many years, long before the term ‘Brexit’ had even been invented.’

Another quote that made me nod in agreement and wish I had said it in my little blog: ‘By choosing the hardest of Brexits, by attacking them [remain voters] as “citizens of nowhere,” Theresa May made the extraordinary choice to de-legitimise and ignore the millions of people who voted for a different future.’ It was indeed extraordinary and angering as such remarks cut against the structure of our democracy, implying that we have a winner-take-all approach to elections. I’m surprised that more people haven’t caught out Theresa May on this.

Of course, I recommend this book but given its bold title, I fear that the only people who will take me up on this recommendation are those Pro-Europe activists who don’t need to read it.


A Couple of Books About Tr**p

Now that the buzz around Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is starting to fade – being side-lined by the Commander-in Chief’s latest verbal tantrum – I’m taking a step back and looking at a couple of recent books about the most shambolic US presidency in living memory.

Based on reading excerpts of Wolff’s book in the press and skimming and reading sections from the online-bootlegged copy that’s floating around, I can say that there were few surprises. White House pundits have been reporting for months on the president’s eating habits, idiosyncrasies, aversion to books, toddler-like attention span and lapsing memory. The power in this book rests not so much in its confirmation that this president is unfit for office – the world is witnessing this in a near-daily basis – but in the quotes from Steve Bannon. Trump’s former Chief Strategist, involved in both the presidential campaign and the early months of the presidency, describes Trump’s campaign as having a ‘treasonous’ meeting with Russian officials. This is significant. The FBI’s Russian investigation is moving closer to Trump while at the same time looking into the White House cover up, culminating in the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The FBI Director’s dismissal is also described by Bannon as a concerted effort to ‘get him’ led by Jared Kushner. These are serious allegations that could be part of Trump’s undoing if the Republicans lose their majority in Congress after the 2018 mid-term elections. (The other part might come from the international community.)fire and fury

Having said all of that, the better book of recent months on the subject of Trump is the one that doesn’t even mention him by name. Sam Bourne’s fictional account of how Washington insiders cope with a narcissistic, racist and misogynistic US president is by far more interesting and informative. To Kill The President might be fictional, but it relies on knowing the workings of the US government and its laws. The premise is a simple one and one that has been in many of our imaginations for over a year now – what if the US president is insulted by North Korea leader and decides to teach him a lesson by ordering a nuclear attack? In this story he’s stopped for the time being by White House staff and Pentagon officials who trick him into thinking the North Koreans have apologised. Given that, legally speaking, the president could order such an attack without congressional approval, this event triggers concerns about the president’s mental instability. Once it’s realised that getting rid of the president based on mental health is constitutionally difficult to pull off, an assassination is planned. The story uses all of the plot twists and devices that one would expect of a thriller – a murder, a cover-up, secret codes and blackmail. Like a popular thriller, the writing is straight forward and not the stuff of literary fiction. But it’s nonetheless enjoyable for its satirical humour that edges close to the reality we find ourselves in during the era of Trump.

Bourne’s book is full of many quotable remarks from these insider characters.  I’ll close with this one, which comes from Mac, the president’s Chief Strategist and staunch ally (a fictional Bannon perhaps):

These liberals soiling their Depends undergarments about truth. They never stop! Always going on about facts and evidence and all of that shit, even when they have the biggest possible dataset showing them – proving to them – that the American people do not give a rat’s ass about any of it.

The ‘dataset’ that he refers to is the election – the votes that won the presidency.

A Few Things I’ve Learned in 2017

I’m not a fan of listacles, so do forgive. As these are not in any particular order of importance, this might not even be a true list.

One thing I’ve learned is that giving someone the benefit of the doubt is not always wise. I had briefly entertained the notion in early 2017 that Trump’s minders would cool down his twitter tantrums and hate-spewed rhetoric. Boy, was I wrong.

Related to that, though perhaps more to the debacle called Brexit, I’ve learned more about being a political activist. Attending marches and rallies is the easy part. The hard part is staying informed in the age of the post-truth – I’m regularly checking sources. The other hard part is trying to use logic and reason in the face of stubborn, illogical adversity. I’ve learned to continue to advance my argument – there’s always the chance that my opponent will walk away and think about what I’ve said later on. Of course, there’s also the likelihood that nothing I say will make a difference if someone has been brainwashed by the Brexit cult – or some other political cult bent on vituperation.

I also discovered this year that I’m likely to be histamine intolerant – there’s no known test for it. As a result of this knowledge though, I made several small changes to my diet and I now no longer suffer daily with blocked sinus, headaches or bloodshot eyes. The lesson learned emerges from the fact that a few times over the years pharmacists and doctors have vaguely suggested allergies, but, with the exception of spring flowers that make most everyone sniffle and sneeze, I was reluctant to accept this possibility. Had I taken on board these ideas, I might have found out sooner about my intolerance for certain foods. Before 2017, I didn’t want to see myself as someone who had allergies or couldn’t eat this or that because of intolerances – someone who might be a hypochondriac or simply self-absorbed.  A strange sort of projection of the ego – but there you go – I’m over it. Lesson learned.

And finally, there are those things that I’ve re-learned. I know I’ve learned these things in the past, but awareness of them now feels new as if learning them for the first time. Perhaps this comes from the memory wiring in my brain. One of these re-learns is the lesson of learning languages. It doesn’t get any easier. The bar just gets raised higher. Another relearn comes from my life as a writer. I’m constantly learning about my craft which is necessary to being a writer. I’ve known this for years, but sometimes it just seems to hit me with awe.

So, as dreadful as the world has been with its Trump and Brexit supporters, its climate change deniers, its wars, its femicide and mass killings, the capacity to learn has helped to make it bearable. Another year is ending, another to look forward to.

Rape on the Reservation

When I read this account in Rebecca Solnit’s much praised book I was initially horrified, soon followed by incredulous. According to Solnit’s essay, written in 2013, ‘…one of three Native American women will be raped, and on the reservations 88% of those rapes are by non-Native men who know tribal governments can’t prosecute them.’ I didn’t doubt the figures, given the economic deprivation and alcoholism found on Native American reservations. But the idea that there’s some governmental loophole that makes rape legal didn’t seem right. I did some research.

In 2013, Solnit was right to say one in three Native American women were raped in their lifetimes. Solnit was also roughly accurate as I found figures between 86% and 87% for the times these rapes occurred on the reservations by non-Native men. But it’s not completely true that non-Native men couldn’t be prosecuted.  It’s more complicated than that. Since 1978, tribes lost the right to arrest non-Indians who commit crimes on their lands. If the victim and the perpetrator were non-Native, the case would be handled at the county or state level. If the victim was Native American and the perpetrator non-Native, only a federal officer could make the arrest and the case held at the federal level. With these complications, fewer cases were being reported and prosecuted. Around the time Solnit was writing her essay, some 65% of reported rapes on reservations were not prosecuted, according to the US Justice Department. Rebecca Solnit

Certainly, the limited powers of the tribes’ authority, along with the possibility that the victim might not have known if her attacker were Native or not, made it easier for non-Native predators to commit their crimes. With this in mind, Solnit makes an astute point following on from the statistics when she says, ‘So much for rape as crimes of passion – these are crimes of calculation and opportunism.’

After years of petitioning legislators by women’s and human rights groups in America, the laws were finally changed in 2015. Native American tribes are now allowed to persecute crimes against women in their own courts, even if the perpetrator is non-Native.

I wish I could end this reportage here. But I can’t. It’s been two years since these federal laws changed, yet little has changed for Native American women. According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), only 13 of the 562 federally recognised tribes have become ‘compliant’ with these new federal regulations. This is largely because tribes have to include non-Natives on their juries in such cases. That is difficult logistically, culturally and financially.

Underneath all of the legal wrangling lies the real problem. Sexual violence is still mostly experienced by women – the perpetrators nearly always men. Cultural change is desperately needed in Native and non-Native communities alike.