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London Notes

Cooking Up a House of Lords
Yesterday, Labour and Conservative members of the House of Commons savaged the government’s proposed reform of the House of Lords. But the architect of the reform must have been one of Britain’s celebrity chefs, which could explain why it has been so badly received. It would seem so, anyway, from the recipe adopted by the prime minister:

Recipe for the new House of Lords. Cooking time indefinite, but could take as few as five years.

First, gut the House of Lords of the remaining 92 hereditary peers. Add them to the stock pot you have filled with all the dukes, earls, and barons you chucked out in 1999. (You’ll need them when you come to make an entirely separate dish, which will accompany the main one.) Put the carcass of the House of Lords to one side while you prepare the new ingredients.

You are now ready for the complicated bit. Remember, you’re attempting to turn a legislative body that has traditionally represented money and power (and recently, intelligence, too) into a more representative assembly of the people, who are neither very rich nor very powerful (but are apparently much more intelligent than they were, according to a Sunday Times survey). But you are not trying to abolish it altogether.

The filling should consist of 600 people, none of whom will have the right to wear ermine collars or to parade heraldic coats of arms. Yet each member of the House will have the right to put “ML” (“Member of the Lords”) after his or her name, just like a BA or MA or PhD. Never mind that MP, which Commoners put after their names, means Member of Parliament, and that the New Lords will be just as much a part of the Parliament as the Commons. Also, don’t pay too much attention to the fact that membership of the House of Lords won’t allow its members to call themselves lords. Make it clear that no ML can expect a seat in the chamber for life, and should an ML wish to resign, he or she should be able to do so, but will have to lose the “ML.” Lastly, make suitable provisions for the house to rid itself of MLs who’ve turned bad—e.g., prevent members who’ve been jailed for more than a year from resuming their duties once they’ve been released. There must be no further Jeffrey Archer.

Into a large mixing bowl put 150 “elected” MLs. Since their election will be made according to proportional representation, the New Lords ought to have a wonderful regional flavour, with every part of the land contributing to the chamber’s great new taste. Add the appeal court judges and 16 bishops. Then, while loosely mixing the contents of the bowl with your fingers, add two kinds of “appointed” MLs: those appointed by your friends in a new and “independent” Appointments Commission; and those whom you and the leaders of the other two political parties appoint yourself. These together will be limited to 600 people. Voilà. Stir the mixture. Your New House of Lords is ready to go.

The accompanying dish, which will be made from the stockpot in which you placed the hereditary barons, earls, marquises, and dukes you removed from the chamber a couple of years ago, can now be put on the table. These, although not members of any legislative body (unless elected to the House of Commons), will be the only people in Britain who will actually be entitled to call themselves “Lords.” They will form a not very nourishing dish, but will exude that lovely gamey smell that we’ve all got to know over the centuries. Feel free to top up the “peerage” whenever you like if there is anyone you want to confer this useless title. They will continue to command widespread respect and deference in this nation of snobs. Consider it an ideal honor for those MLs who, after years of service in the House of Lords, finally deserve the title of Lord for the rest of their lives.

Tuscan Fantasies
Tuscany has now even overtaken Provence in the amount of gush published about it in Britain. The myth of a simple peasant culture set in a Renaissance landscape of cypresses and olive groves kissed by the sun seems to be irresistible to the armchair traveller. It is tinged by jealousy of those, like Tony Blair, who actually experience it on a regular basis. The Prime Minister is especially envied, as he is fawned upon by the bigwigs of the region and regularly enjoys the hospitality of a rich Tuscan aristocrat with the immensely grand name of Prince Girolamo Giucciardini-Strozzi, a direct descendant of the great Francesco Guicciardini, who wrote the first history of Italy in the early 16th century.

Many writers have sought to emulate the success of Peter Mayle, who made a fortune out of eulogising Provence, by drooling about Tuscan life. One author who has succeeded triumphantly is Frances Mayes, a teacher of creative writing in San Francisco, who has written a couple of best-sellers on the subject. The first, Under the Tuscan Sun,chronicled her love affair with Italy that began when she bought and started to restore an abandoned farmhouse near Cortona. The sequel, Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy, has kept the tills ringing. Her Tuscany is an unblemished paradise. Its people are sweet and generous, rooted in history, and imbued with peasant folklore. The food is genuino and delicious. The landscape is glorious and ever-changing. And the six months she spends there each year are an escape into “the free running of time” from her life in California where her “agenda, stuffed with notes and business cards” is always with her.

Some of this is true. The Tuscan landscape is, indeed, beautiful. The food is generally good. And there is a lot of art and culture to nourish the soul. But Tuscany, like most places, has its dark side. For many people, life in Tuscany can be very stressful: to Dame Muriel Spark, for example, who has lost five pet dogs to poisoners and, during 30 years living in the Tuscan countryside, has seen the wild life there almost entirely eliminated by hunters. But Ms Mayes made no mention of this, nor of the profusion of burglaries, the drugs in the villages, the prostitutes in the countryside, the exploitation of immigrants, and the Mafia infiltration of the region. It is not surprising, therefore, that someone should have decided that the time had come to puncture the myth. And last Sunday, Channel 4 lumbered into action by broadcasting the first of a three-part television series called Tuscany, promising in its advance publicity to tell us “what really goes on in one of Britain’s favourite holiday destinations”. What really goes on, it said, is “Nigerian prostitutes, mad Contessas, pagan cults and Sardinian Mafia”.

In the first of the programmes, we were shown a priest in the town of Lucca exorcising the Devil from a 16-year-old girl who had been sexually abused as a child. In what the press release called “another case of medievalism in 21st century Tuscany”, it also explored “the ritualised hatred and passions generated by the region’s most famous horse race—the Palio of Siena”. It is customary nowadays for producers to want to plug their television programmes in advance in the print media; and the director of Tuscany, Rod Williams, was given space in The Spectator last week to describe the horrors of the exorcism, in which the girl (or, rather, the Devil inside her) abused and struggled with the old priest as he strapped her to a chair and her mother put holy oil on her vagina. (Williams’ misspelling of the word malocchio (evil eye), which he gave us as “mal occio”, suggested he had only recently become familiar with the region.) Watching this disgusting ritual, one found it difficult to avoid the impression that all the participants were secretly hamming up their roles.

As for the Palio, the programme relied for evidence that the “ritualised hatred” between the different quarters of Siena is any more “medieval” than that between British football fans on one unusually hysterical housewife who did, indeed, seem to carry loyalty to her own contrada to ludicrous extremes. Tuscany is typical of such television documentaries about foreign parts. It seeks out the most visually arresting episodes of bizarre behaviour and tries to generalise from them. In this case, it sought to stick the label of “medievalism” on a rich, industrial region of Italy that is prey to some of the same unnerving social phenomena that are to be found all over the modern world. Ms Mayes presents at least as accurate a picture.

Join the Club
Politicians often have a maddening habit of introducing a new concept without fully explaining what they mean. Take “The Third Way”, much lauded by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, a few years back. Weeks passed, conferences came and went, before it was obvious that Third Way politics was another way to describe non-doctrinaire, non-ideological politics. Neither capitalist nor Marxist, neither first nor second, but “Third”.

Now comes Blair’s notion of Britain as a “pivotal nation”. Yet being pivotal, it would seem, is predicated upon little more than the simple idea that Britain is somehow more unique than every other unique nation. In a speech in 1998, the then-Nato-Secretary-General Javier Solanareferred to Poland as “that pivotal nation”. In February 2001, the Christian Science Monitorcalled Turkey “a pivotal nation. It’s the Islamic nation friendliest to Israel”. At the beginning of last year, and well before we all became so well-acquainted with Tora Bora, Kandahar, and Mullah Omar, Ahmed Rashid(whose book about the Taleban became an international bestseller after Sept. 11) referred to Afghanistan as “a pivotal nation”. Even Germany has been so described. On hearing Blair’s speech, these other pivotal nations might consider telling the British prime minister: “Join the club”.

Brixton Mix-Up
What has been going on in Brixton? This seedy south London suburb, with its large West Indian population seems to have had a significant role in the transformation of apparently normal people into crazy suicide bombers. The only two suspects to have been charged by civilian courts in the United States in connection with al-Qaeda terrorism have had significant links with Brixton. Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” now in custody in Boston after allegedly trying to ignite a bomb in one of his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, lived in Brixton when he began his journey from petty thief to holy warrior. Although Reid, the mixed-race child of a white Englishwoman and a Jamaican man, appears to have been converted to Islam while in jail for a string of muggings in the mid-1990s, he was described as an affable, quiet man when he later started attending the Brixton mosque which is run by black British converts to Islam who specialise in finding work for Islamic ex-convicts. They found Reid a job in an incense shop.

Abdul Haqq Baker, 35, the leader of the mosque, has told the Guardian that his youthful congregation (their average age is under 30) is a target for Muslim extremists, who find converts like Reid particularly susceptible to their propaganda. He noticed that Reid changed over a period of some 18 months from wearing western clothes to wearing a traditional thobe (a Bedouin robe) under a khaki combat jacket. Towards the end of 1998, he is thought to have moved to Pakistan to complete his indoctrination, possibly in an al-Qaeda training camp.

According to Mr. Baker, Reid knew another worshipper at the Brixton mosque, Zacarias Moussaoui, who also lived in the neighbourhood for a time and is now facing trial in the US on suspicion of being the 20th member of the hijack gang responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. His brother in France, Abd-Samad Moussaoui, said his time studying in Britain had made him a different person. When he returned to France, he had changed from being an intelligent, humorous, ambitious business student who never attended mosques into being “a little guru”. Abd-Samad is convinced that in Britain Zacarias became prey to an extremist brainwashing cult, because he later saw him use brainwashing techniques in France. “Zacarias was indoctrinating a friend, just has he has been indoctrinated himself”, he said. “And his aim was to control all aspects of his life”.

These examples prompt two questions. The first is whether Brixton secretly harbours a team of particularly effective brainwashers. The second, broader one, is whether we have been underrating the role of brainwashing in al-Qaeda terrorist training programmes. Four years ago, after a siege in which 70 followers of the Branch Davidian Cult committed suicide at Waco, Texas, the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies published a report entitled The Prophets of Doom: The Security of Religious Cults. It called for immediate action by the security services to combat the rising menace of cult violence, leading, in many cases, to mass deaths. The report concluded that while “only a small minority of unorthodox religious groups represent any danger to society, those that do are capable of wreaking havoc out of all proportion to their size and importance. … If anything we are moving away from a world where conflict is between relatively rational players and towards one threatened by irrational cults who want to make the Apocalypse a self-fulfilling prophesy”.

This same lack of rationality characterises the behaviour of the Muslim suicide bombers. Its most convincing explanation is that they have undergone brainwashing. Where members of any religion, however extreme, have attached themselves to it voluntarily, cult members have been coerced into joining. The Cult Information Centre (CIC) in London defines a cult as any group which:

1. Uses psychological coercion to recruit and indoctrinate potential members.
2. Forms an elitist totalitarian society.
3. Its founder leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.
4. Believes ‘the end justifies the means’ in order to solicit funds or recruit people.
5. Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

It is a curious fact that while the majority of people, including President Bush and Tony Blair, continue to analyse the events of Sept. 11 in terms of “Good” and “Evil”, they tend to overlook the probability that the 19 terrorists had been brainwashed into acting in this way. Mass suicide is seldom rational. It was rational for the Trojan women fleeing enslavement or rape by the Greeks, but recent history has taught us that mass suicide is usually a result of psychological coercion, or, more plainly, brainwashing.

It is too simplistic to suggest that fanatical mass suicide has its roots in the religion of Islam, any more than the Jonestown tragedy can be held up as proof that Christianity is a spur to taking one’s own life. As most Muslims and Christians agree, suicide attacks have no basis in Islamic law or Christian doctrine. Religious beliefs, however firmly held, are not, in themselves, enough to bring about mass suicide without some other form of coercion strong enough to override a human being’s powerfully ingrained instinct for self-preservation.

The CIC asserts that the most likely people to be recruited into cults are:

1. From an economically sound family background.
2. Above average intelligence.
3. Well educated.
4. Idealistic.

All these characteristics fit what we know about the Sept. 11 terrorists. Mohammed Atta’s father is a lawyer in Egypt, Walleed al-Shehri and his brother Wail’s father was a Saudi diplomat in Washington. They were all well-educated, most of them graduates who had little else in common but their adherence to Islam. Those who remember Atta as a student of town-planning in Hamburg recall a young man who was “always helpful, someone everyone could rely on. … He was not anti-American or anti-Zionist”.

Common to all cults is an identifiable enemy. For Christian cults, that is usually Satan; for others, such as the Aum Cult from Japan whose members sprayed deadly Sarin gas into the Tokyo Subway in 1995, the enemy was all non-members of Aum; for the Sept. 11 terrorists it seems to have been America. There are thought to be over 500 cults operating in England alone. Where religious or therapy cults are concerned, recruitment has nothing to do with persuasion in the normal rational sense; it is about manipulation of the human mind by another individual, without the manipulated party being aware what caused his or her opinion shift. Up to now, there has been far too much pussy-footing where legislation over cults is concerned—only China has banned them all. But if the suicide terrorists responsible for the wrecking of Manhattan and the Pentagon were victims themselves of cult indoctrination, more needs to be done to prevent the dangerous spread of cult recruitment. As a simple precaution, cult awareness programmes should perhaps be introduced into all universities, since experts are agreed that it is harder to recruit people who are aware or on their guard against “conversion” techniques than it is to recruit those who are ignorant of what is happening to them. In the meantime young Muslims from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates arriving at foreign universities must be especially protected. Western governments must ensure that “intelligent, helpful and reliable” town-planners from Islam are able to continue their studies at our universities free from the threat of being brainwashed by ruthless agents into pointlessly blowing themselves and other people up.

Residence in Search of an Author
Restaurant have long had resident chefs, hotels their resident orchestras. Painters have resided at art galleries, while publicans have asked philosophers to think and talk in their pubs. As for writers-in-residence, they seem to be everywhere—at universities, museums, and, from time to time, on a cruise ship lecturing about, say, the scenery viewed from the starboard deck. But a hotel with a writer-in-residence is a novel idea, which is what London’s Savoy proposes to introduce some time soon. In return for his or her literary services, the hotel will put up the lucky appointee for a year, where they will attend to their own work as well as give talks and fulfil various unspecified tasks on the hotel’s behalf. Bookish guests will not, however, be able to order a short story from room service—to be read out to them while lounging in bed toying with their eggs benedict or wilting in a hot bath. The writer in residence at the Savoy, says a spokesperson for the hotel, will merely “intermingle with the guests”, although how exactly they will do their intermingling is a work in progress, requiring perhaps the eye of a novelist to come up with the appropriate assignment.

Mixing With the Wrong Drinks
Of the poet, critic, editor and biographer Ian Hamilton (who died on Dec. 27), Karl Miller,his fellow literary editor, writes in The Independent: “There was a half-apocryphal, half-actual Hamilton who lived a bohemian life in Soho, his office an ante-room to the Pillars of Hercules, his Mermaid’s Tavern. He was the gaffer. He stared people down in pubs. … There might well be an anthology of his pub sayings. A young poet declined an alcoholic drink on the grounds that it tasted bad and made him feel bad, and was told by the gaffer: ‘Well, none of us likes it.’ The young Julian Barnes asked for a gin and bitter lemon. Hamilton recoiled but attempted to order: ‘Large whisky, pint of Old Skullsplitter, a gin and … you say it.’ Barnes said it, in shame”. What, one wonders, does Barnes drink now?