Whatever critics might say about Martin Amis’s Kobra the Dread, his recent book on Stalin’s atrocities, he was certainly right when he pointed out that people are generally indulgent, even flippant, about communist tyrants in a way they would never be about Nazis. This thought strikes me every morning as I walk through Canary Wharf on my way to work and catch sight of a large marble bust of Lenin, placed – by way of ornament – on a shelf above the counter of Mark Birley’s excellent sandwich bar. Next to Lenin sits a slightly smaller head of George Bernard Shaw. He is there, one suspects, not so much to commemorate his dramas, as in the role of ‘useful idiot’, as Lenin famously dubbed Western fans of the Soviet regime. Clearly Mr Birley and his sandwich people haven’t yet read Amis’s book. By contrast Ian Jack, the editor of Granta and former editor of the Independent on Sunday, who also owns a bust of Lenin, has, he told Guardian readers, been shamed by the book into demoting it from his mantelpiece to a less prominent position in his home. Presumably Jack had not previously come across Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, or Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy, or the countless other books written on the subject over the past 40 years and more.
One of the annoying things about watching BBC television, apart from the huge amount of rubbish you get on it, is that it shows nearly as many commercials as the other channels. They are plugs for the BBC’s own programmes and they are far from straightforward announcements of what’s coming. On the contrary, they have all the slick presentation and hard sell – but little of the inventiveness – of ordinary commercials, with heaps of self-congratulation thrown in.
There have been a lot of exchanges recently in various literary publications reviving the old claim that book reviews in ‘literary London’ are tainted by personal rivalries, prejudices, envy, career considerations and general bile. And of course there has always been a bit of that kind of thing about. But in my experience as a literary editor the reverse is much more often true. Most reviewers bend over backwards to be kind, to concentrate on a book’s merits, to overlook longueurs, infelicities and even errors. Those I know often tell me their opinion of a book off the record, and it tends to be sharper and more negative than the one they express in their reviews. One reason reviewers do this, I think, is precisely because they want to avoid a reputation for the kind of envy and bile of which people accuse them.
I have paid many £40 parking fines over the years, some of which were, in my view, completely unfair. In each case I have written a letter to Parktel and in each case my protest was turned down with some bureaucratic one-size-fits-all reply. I could, of course, have made a formal appeal and gone to court. But life is too short. However, not long ago I received two penalty notices which were so glaringly unjust (my car was legally parked in a residents’ bay outside my house) that I decided on no account to pay up – if necessary, I would go to prison on behalf of put-upon motorists and unlucky parkers. First, I tried the usual strongly worded letter to the council and, several weeks later, received the usual negative answer, completely ignoring the substance of my complaint. I then persuaded my husband to write another letter saying that I was now too emotionally upset to continue the battle in person and explaining the parking situation again. He also wrote to our MP, enclosing his letter to the council. The MP (Mark Field for Westminster, Conservative) turned up trumps. He immediately replied to say that he was taking the matter up with the parking people. Not long afterwards he sent us a copy of a long, thoughtful, well-constructed letter from the director of Planning and Transportation (one Carl Powell [sic]), acknowledging that an error had been made and cancelling both fines. Yippee! What does this prove? Possibly that in matters of parking, as in dealing with plumbers, men, even now, are taken more seriously than women. But what is certain is that MPs are, after all, not as irrelevant as they are made out to be; a good one can still penetrate and overthrow the bureaucratic mindset.
A friend from University College, London, recently showed me a poster, one of several, publicising a meeting of the college’s Islamic Society. On it was printed a saying attributed to Mohammed: ‘The last hour will not come unless the Muslims fight against the Jews and the Muslims kill them; until the Jews hide themselves behind a stone or a tree, and a stone or a tree says: