At least Britain isn’t that corrupt

Long-time readers may recall that I take a special interest in the art of corruption. And this week America has thrown up a delicious example. Democrat Senator Robert Menendez was indicted last week on bribery charges. This follows a raid on the New Jersey Senator’s home in which federal agents found more than $480,000 hidden in clothing and piled up in his closets. The agents also found 13 gold bars. You have to go back to the 1990s for the last time that parliament was seriously accused of being ‘up for sale’ Menendez denies the charges and said on Monday that it has simply been his habit, for some years,

Will the bad luck of the Philippines ever turn?

The Philippines is the odd man out in Asia, a predominantly Catholic country colonised first by Spain, then the United States. An archipelago with more than 2,000 inhabited islands on the cusp of the Indian and Pacific oceans, its strategic location is obvious. Yet it receives scant coverage in the British media beyond its natural disasters, the flamboyance of its leaders, whether Imelda Marcos or Rodrigo Duterte, and its long-running Marxist and Muslim insurrections. On a more mundane level, our encounter with its people will most likely be through the care they provide within the NHS. Philip Bowring, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, for many years

Zimbabwe’s politics satirised: Glory, by NoViolet Bulawayo, reviewed

NoViolet Bulawayo’s first novel We Need New Names, shortlisted for the Booker in 2013, was a charming, tender gem, suffused with the guileless hilarity of children and the shock of tragedy in Zimbabwe, the author’s birthplace. Her follow-up, Glory, features animals as characters. I was initially mystified. Who would try to match Orwell’s allegorical masterpiece Animal Farm? Art Spiegelman succeeded in Maus, his graphic novel about the Holocaust, but each species represented one race, so the symbolism packed a punch – German cats hunting Jewish mice. Here the species are often random, apart from the savage dog police. But the use of animals at least lends humour to a heavy

Britain’s money laundering scandal goes back a long way

The war in Ukraine has turned a lot of people’s attention to oligarchs in the UK. How did these guys all end up in London, seemingly owning half of Belgravia? In Butler to the World, Oliver Bullough offers an answer. I read his earlier work Moneyland slack-jawed at the blatant – and mundane – techniques employed to register UK Ltd companies through frontmen and use them to launder money. I thought the middle men would be glamorous and slick, not running a website from an office above a chip shop. In this work Bullough looks at the bigger picture: the way Britain became the destination of choice for so many

An innocent abroad: a Dutch tour operator in 1980s Russia

‘One morning in late October 1988,’ begins The Long Song of Tchaikovsky Street, ‘this dapper-looking guy from Leiden asked me if I might be able to deliver 7,000-odd Bibles to the Soviet Union.’ It’s the kind of line you might hear in a bar when you accidentally catch the eye of the resident storyteller — a tale so implausible it could just be true. Where on the scale between fact and fiction Pieter Waterdrinker’s memoir lies is impossible to tell, and beside the point: his engrossing 400-page account of post-Soviet disorder grips you and doesn’t let go. We meet the author — who may be the successful Dutch novelist himself,

A broken nation: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, by Wole Soyinka, reviewed

One of the best episodes in Wole Soyinka’s third novel (his first since 1973) takes place not in Nigeria but in Salzburg. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur has died in hospital there after a bomb attack back home. His grasping clan descends from Lagos to parade their last respects — and stake their claims. The drive to the cemetery triggers a ‘torrent of eulogies to Austrian horticulture’. In a ‘concerted sibling gush’, plutocratic relatives swoon over the contrast between these clean, green vistas and the choking inferno of Lagos — an urban nightmare aggravated by their own mercenary scams. Soyinka’s characters often hide behind such ‘straw masks’ of pretentiousness, hypocrisy and fakery. The

Corruption affects everything in Palestine – even vaccines

Visit certain parts of the West Bank and you’ll encounter mansions owned by senior officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA). By any standards – let alone those to which ordinary citizens are accustomed – they are impressive, with arches, colonnades and tall windows. If you’d been watching them in recent weeks, you might have seen vaccines being quietly delivered to these residences in unmarked cars, having been skimmed off the supply intended for medical workers. Those, at least, were the allegations made by a number of Palestinian human rights and civil society groups. Last week, the Palestinian health ministry was forced to come clean. In a statement, the ministry admitted

Nicolas Sarkozy and a very French corruption scandal

Nicolas Sarkozy, 66, President of France from 2007 to 2012, currently a valued member of Emmanuel Macron’s informal council of advisors, was today sentenced to a year in prison for bribery and corruption in a case with roots in his murky relationship with the late Muammar Gaddafi, the not much missed brotherly leader of Libya. This scandal is a tangled web, even by French standards. For those who have spent years attempting to get to the bottom of it, it offers the tantalising prospect that Sarkozy could become the first former French President ever to be thrown in the Paris prison called La Santé – although it doesn’t have a

How democracy can subvert itself: Bunga Bunga reviewed

Italy has long captivated romantics from rainy, dreary, orderly northern Europe. Goethe, Stendhal, Keats and Shelley all flocked to Italy in search of the ideal society. There they found what they thought was a utopia. ‘There is,’ Byron marvelled in a letter home from Ravenna, ‘no law or government at all, and it is wonderful how well things go on without them.’ Well, Silvio Berlusconi has made some of Europe’s wisest men sound like chumps. If the notorious career — chronicled in the podcast Bunga Bunga — of the longest-serving prime minister of Italy since Mussolini and its sometime richest man has done one good thing, it’s to have dispelled

Italy’s Achilles heel: corruption and cronyism

Tim Parks is a seasoned, incisive observer of football, the railways, work, domestication and plenty more in his adoptive country of half a lifetime. What is, what ought to be and the machinations in the delta between provide much of his material. In this tale of two countries in one, bright, hard-working Valeria leaves Basilicata in southern Italy to study communications and marketing at a private university in Milan — shiny subjects in a city of business a long way from home (the same distance could take her to Tunis or Belgrade). She arrives laden with bread, pastries, fruit and wine, given to her by three aunts at railway stations

Moscow rules in London: how Putin’s agents corrupted the British elite

In the past year alone, Russia-watchers have been treated to books entitled The Code of Putinism; Putin’s World; Putin vs the People; The Putin System and We Need to Talk About Putin — just to mention the ones with Putin’s name in the title. In addition, Robert Service’s Kremlin Winter, Sergei Medvedev’s The Return of the Russian Leviathan and Andrew Monaghan’s Dealing with the Russians have also offered their own insights into the history, politics and future of Putin’s Russia. In this crowded field, is there a place for Putin’s People? Happily, there is. Catherine Belton is a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times — and before that worked

End of an era

There’s been a Dimbleby on air since before I was born but last Friday saw the end of that era when Jonathan retired as chairman of Radio 4’s Any Questions after 32 years. It’s a bit like imagining life in Britain once the Queen dies. The Dimbleby family has been intertwined with the history of the BBC, and major national events, since the second world war when Richard, the father, carved out his career as a war reporter, most famously from Belsen in 1945. Mere mention of the name conjures up those Reithian values — clear reportage, an intelligent and fair-minded assessment of what’s going on, and access to that

A nation of beggars and plutocrats

Picture India in 1991. You need to make several trips to Delhi and wait three years to import a computer. Coca-Cola is contraband; there is a 22-month waiting list for a car, and an interminable queue for admission to the exclusive club of telephone owners: there are only five million active connections in a country of 900 million people. Post-colonial India elevated suspicion of private business into a public virtue. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which maintained a vital $6 billion trade relationship with India, the rhetoric of economic self-reliance and political non-alignment became insupportable. All that stood between India and bankruptcy when the government was compelled

Partners in crime

It’s not every day that a television screenwriter is threatened with a trial for sedition, but G.F. Newman was after his series Law & Order aired on BBC2 in 1978. ‘The political fallout was enormous and there was a move to try and get me prosecuted by Sir Eldon Griffiths and a gang of MPs, but it didn’t go anywhere,’ Newman remembers. ‘It would have been a wonderful case had it done so.’ Law & Order rocked the boat by doing the unthinkable, so much so that BBC director-general Sir Ian Trethowan was hauled over the coals by the Home Office minister John Harris (later Lord Harris). It depicted the

A brutal band of thieves

Mark Galeotti’s study of Russian organised crime, the product of three decades of academic research and consultancy work, is more than timely. In these days of ever more bizarre Russian attacks, it reads like the essential companion to a bewildering and aggressive new world, a world that is no longer confined behind Russian borders but seeks actively to penetrate and disrupt our own society. Essentially a history of the development of Russia’s unique form of organised crime, it constantly illuminates and clarifies the familiar, legal narrative of Russian history and the attitudes of Putin’s clique. The Russian mafia’s distinctive culture originally emerged during the years of revolution and civil war.

The Mutiny and the bounty

Sullying the glorious sunshine, sand and sea, Miami in the 1940s, when I first ventured there, was already overcrowded, vulgar and exorbitant. It got a lot worse. By the early 1980s, the period to which this sensational criminal history is devoted, it had become the capital of Cubans in exile and America’s most prosperous cocaine entrepot, where the annual murder rate was more than 300. Attempts to impose law and order were handicapped by corrupt police, a corrupt judiciary and corrupt juries. Over many years of intimate investigation of Miami at its nadir, Roben Farzad has succeeded in overcoming the formality of his Ivy League education (Princeton and Harvard) so

Gleaming pictures of the past

If you think you know what to expect from an Alan Hollinghurst novel, then when it comes to The Sparsholt Affair, you’ll almost certainly be right. Once again, Hollinghurst explores British gay history by plunging us into haute bohemia over several decades of the 20th century. (A few years ago he told an interviewer that the main characters in his next book ‘will all be more or less heterosexual’: a plan that sounded pretty unlikely at the time and, seeing as this is his next book, was evidently abandoned.) Once again, he combines his broad sweep with plenty of equally impressive close-up analysis — and all in prose that manages

Putting the boot into Italy

A young woman, naked and covered in blood, totters numbly down a night road. A driver spots her in his headlights and swerves. Was he the last to see Clara alive? Did she jump to her death from a parking structure, as stated in the report? Are her rich family trying to hide more than their property deals? What was the preternatural bond that tied together Clara and her brother? Why did she let various older men seduce her? Who is running a Twitter account in her name, having begun with ‘I didn’t kill myself’? These questions will keep haunting you even after you’ve turned the last page of Ferocity.

His dark materials | 12 October 2017

In this giant, prodigiously sourced and insightful biography, John A. Farrell shows how Richard Milhous Nixon was the nightmare of the age for many Americans, even as he won years of near-adulation from many others. One can only think of Donald Trump. Nixon appealed to lower- and  lower-middle-class whites from the heartland, whose hatred of the press and the east-coast elite, and feelings of having been short-changed and despised by snobs, held steady until their hero and champion unmistakably broke the law and had to resign his second-term presidency. Nixon won a smashing re-election in 1972, even as it was apparent that the White House was awash with skulduggery. His

Punks vs. Putin

What makes for meaningful political protest? In regimes where ideology was taken seriously (such as the Soviet Union or America during the Cold War), dissidents and dissenters could target rulers’ political ideas, whether communist or capitalist. But in regimes where ideology is used more to distract than indoctrinate (such as Putin’s Russia or Trump’s America), directly opposing the leaders’ ‘narrative’ (one which can change, depending on political expedience) risks playing right into their game. As Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon revealed in an interview with American Prospect, Trump’s race-baiting has provoked Democrats into focusing on identity issues, which is just the argument Bannon wants them to obsess over: he believes