What’s Been On My Mind This Week

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1. There was much noise made this week about the fact that it is now less than 100 days till the general election on May 7th. Daily polls are conducted, and results currently show the Labour and Conservative parties neck-and-neck, or the Conservatives fractionally ahead. Whichever of the two major parties wins more seats in May, it seems inevitable that we will have another coalition government. What we don’t yet know is which parties will make up the ruling coalition (though Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps has just ruled out ‘pacts’ with UKIP, which we can probably take to mean that UKIP will not form part of any coalition government). It also seems inevitable that, whichever leader loses, his political career is over. Losing will mean humiliation for both Cameron and Miliband, though governing for the next four years probably won’t be much better. Polls are also showing that the Liberal Democrats will be lucky to win half the seats they did in 2010, meaning that, when the dust settles after the general election, the three major parties could have three new leaders, even though the Lib Dems still look like the most likely partner in another coalition government.

2. In leadership news across the pond, Mitt Romney has finally announced that he has no plans to run for the Republican Party nomination in 2016. In his speech he said he was giving way to the party’s ‘next generation’ of leaders, of whom New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, are seen as the frontrunners. Christie arrived in the UK today as part of a three-day tour intended to strengthen New Jersey’s economic ties with the UK, though it’s hard not to see it in a political light, and see Christie as trying to boost his foreign policy credentials.

3. Last week, the first doctor accused of carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM) in this country went on trial. He denies carrying out FGM, claiming he was only acting on the patient’s wishes. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, yet no one has ever been convicted of its practice since then, despite the publication of figures showing that 500 cases of FGM are now being reported by UK hospitals every month. Campaigners fighting against FGM are right to point out that this number will be but a fraction of the true number cases, those reported only by hospitals and therefore referring only to those who have sought treatment there. One study has estimated that over 100,000 women and girls in the UK are subjected to FGM every year. Figures released by police forces around the country show an increase in the number of cases they investigate each year, and in 2013 the NSPCC and the Metropolitan Police set up a dedicated FGM helpline.

4. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has published new guidelines about rape, which have been issued to all police officers and prosecutors. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders, said that it’s time we moved beyond the concept of ‘no means no’, pointing out that there are many situations in which women are not able to give consent. Saunders said that the onus must be put on the alleged rapist to demonstrate how consent was given. Saunders put particular emphasis on the effects of alcohol, saying that society ought to stop blaming women for drinking too much. It’s not a crime to do so, she said, but it is a crime to take advantage of someone sexually because they are too drunk to consent to sex. Saunders also drew attention to the rise in the use of social media by rapists, which they can use to manipulate or reinterpret the narrative of the incident. The gulf between rape allegations and convictions still remains, despite there being a 30% increase in the number of rape cases reaching court in the past two years. It is estimated that 75% of cases still go unreported.

5. On 26th January, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza coalition, was sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister after Greece’s citizens emphatically voted against the austerity measures being imposed upon them by Brussels. Syriza wants to write off Greece’s debt, which currently stands at around £239billion. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that this is not an option, despite insisting that Germany wants Greece to remain in the Eurozone. Though Syriza claims it wants to retain the Euro, many worry that, under its leadership, Greece will leave the Eurozone, and/or default on its debt. In the runup to the Greek elections, many commentators predicted that a Syriza victory would lead to a rise in support for far-left parties across Europe and, indeed, the Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can) yesterday held a rally in Madrid which was attended by 25,000 people. If they come to power, Podemos have vowed to write off part of Spain’s debt.

6. We’ve only just reached the end of the first month of the year, and we’re already enjoying some brilliant television, even if the standard of some continuing series (e.g. Broadchurch and Last Tango In Halifax) has slipped a little. Wolf Hall started a fortnight ago on the BBC, and this week saw the broadcast of the first episodes of the new Sky Atlantic big-budget drama Fortitude, and the first episode of the fifth season of one of my favourite programmes, The Good Wife. However, I think the best drama currently on television – and probably one of the best crime dramas in a long time, certainly up there with the Scandinavian hits everyone talks about – is Spiral (or Engrenages, to give it its proper French title). Currently in its fifth season, Spiral is a favourite of mine not only because it stars the brilliant Caroline Proust as lead detective Laure Berthaud, but also because I think it strikes the perfect balance between the police investigation (each ten-episode series is devoted to one case), the workings of the French justice system (so intriguingly different from our own), and the private lives of the main characters. It also paints a portrait of the dark side of Paris, of organised crime, of those failed by the system, and shows just how corrupt the justice system can be, often because those who work within it are subject to immense political pressure. The acting is first-rate, as demonstrated by the wordless scene between Proust and co-star Audrey Fleurot (who plays lawyer Josephine Karlsson), which I think had everyone in pieces after watching. Obviously it helps if you’ve watched each series, in order to fully appreciate how the close-knit police team in Spiral works together, and how the relationships between them, the lawyers and the judges have evolved over time, but you can pick it up in this series; if you do, you won’t regret it. For those who are already fans, good news: the writers have confirmed they are working on the next season.

7. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read a novel by Andrew Taylor, given that he is generally recognised as one of the best crime and historical novelists writing today, and has won a string of awards. The book I was reading this week was Taylor’s 2003 novel, The American Boy, for which Taylor won the CWA Historical dagger. The book was also a bestseller and a Richard & Judy pick, and The Times picked it as one of the Top Ten Crime Novels of the Decade, so it’s safe to say my hopes were high. Perhaps too high. I’m not sure if reading The American Boy on my Kindle is partly to blame (it probably is), but, while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t as blown away or swept up in 19th century London as I had expected to be. The book focuses on tutor Thomas Shield, who has fallen on hard times. As part of his new job at an expensive boys’ school (where one of the pupils is the American boy of the title, a certain Edgar Allan Poe), Shield is drawn into a mystery caused by collapsed bank, and the events eventually culminate in murder. Shield is the strongest element of the book – a friendly, yet unreliable, narrator – who carries the reader with him on every step of his journey. Whether that’s looking after his young students, or falling for more than one society woman, or following the clues that will eventually lead him to uncover what really happened. The boy of the title is most often tangential to the story, his relevance only becoming clear in the final pages. Taylor’s novel is surely a tribute to Poe, however, and his contribution to what we now call crime fiction. It’s difficult to criticise The American Boy: the dialogue is spot-on; Taylor conjures a brilliant picture of the dark alleys and dark dealings of the London of that time; he has a host of scheming and counter-scheming characters so the reader can never be sure quite whom to trust. Perhaps it was a combination of the Kindle and my high expectations that meant I finished it feeling somehow disappointed.

8. Laura Doggett has only just turned 21, and yet one of her songs was used as the music accompanying the trailer to the latest season of Broadchurch. This, and the fact that SOHN is producing some of her songs, means that Doggett is clearly someone to be keeping an eye on. I’ve been listening to the few songs of hers that are available this week (you can listen here) and certainly agree that her voice is incredible: effortlessly powerful and not a little bit sultry. The tracks themselves are good, but missing that extra something for me. Though there’s not doubt that Doggett has the ingredients to become a powerhouse of pop music – we’ll just have to wait and see what she does next.

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Categories: On My Mind . . .

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