Sunday, 4 December 2022

I'm out in Chinese! With the strange tale of the assassin who cut off his own hand

The Chinese translation of my history of assassination, Assassins’ Deeds (Reaktion Books) is out. So Chinese readers can now marvel at the astonishing story of the assassin who cut off his own hand.

About two and a half thousand years ago, Helu, ruler of the Chinese kingdom of Wu, decided to book an assassin to kill off a rival who wanted to steal his throne. He was surprised when a trusted adviser recommended Yao Li, who was barely four feet tall, but the king was assured that anything the assassin lacked in stature he would more than make up for in commitment.

And that seemed to be confirmed when Yao’s first demand was that the king should cut off his hand and kill his entire family. The assassin argued that this would convince Helu’s rival that Yao Li was the king’s sworn enemy. And sure enough, the now one-handed assassin was able to worm his way into the rival’s confidence and, once there, use his surviving hand to plunge a spear into his back as he tried to mount his bid for the throne.

The story goes that the victim was so impressed, he congratulated Yao on his daring and with his dying breath, ordered his soldiers not to punish the killer, but Yao was overcome with remorse at what he had done to his own family, and threw himself into the Yangtse River never to be seen again.

Or if Chinese readers prefer, there is the giant assassin who learned the skills of haute cuisine to open up a path to his target, but that is another story.

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Nightmare in Brexitland: The Crown returns! But here's the scene you won't see

Take your seats for the new series of The Crown. But here's the scene you won't be seeing. Its contents were exclusively revealed in this blog on 13 September 2020. Now read on:

Boris Johnson's 115th Dream
Boris and Carrie are sitting watching television. 

 ‘Oh great! The Crown!’

‘Oh yes. World-beating! But wait a minute, Carrie. That caption says May 3, 2021. None of this has happened yet. How can they know about it?’

‘Shh. I’m trying to watch the programme.’

‘Oh God! I don’t look like that. Surely they could have found somebody better looking! And he’s nearly bald!  Where’s the phone. I’m going to get on to that new head honcho we put in – Davey Somebody – and make him take this off.’

 ‘Boris! It’s not the BBC, it’s Netflix. Now shut up and listen.’

‘Oh. I was expecting to see the Queen.’

A hint of a mirthless smile flickers beneath an impressive moustache. ‘I’m afraid Her Majesty is otherwise engaged. She asked me to see you on her behalf.’

‘Hold on!  I recognise you. You’re Tommy Lascelles. You were in the last series or the one before. You can’t meet me, because you’re dead.’

Unlike his interlocutor, the urbane functionary is not in the least nonplussed. ‘Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia, Mr Johnson. It sometimes…….exaggerates.’

‘You mean “prime minister”’

‘Mr Johnson.’ The mirthless smile was back.

‘Well, the point is that once parliament has passed this ‘Unilateral Cancellation of EU Trade Agreement Bill’, I’ll need HMQ to give the Royal Assent pronto, so we can implement the populi voluntatem without delay and all that.’

‘And, of course, if you ask Her Majesty to take that action, she will have to comply.’


‘Which is precisely why you will not do it.’

‘What do you mean, Lascelles? You can’t obstruct the will of the people.’

‘I have here a few papers for your perusal.’ (The phrase: ‘Restricted. Top Secret. Not for Fatman’s eyes’ are fleetingly visible on one.)

‘Oh. I’ll take them back to number 10. Dom reads that kind of stuff for me.’

‘The papers will not be leaving this room, and, Mr Cummings is (Lascelles consults his watch) as of now, ‘a guest of Her Majesty’, as I think they say in the films. Apparently something about his time in Russia?’

‘There’s no point trying to frighten me about leaking stuff to the press. The ephemerides are all in my pocket and the BBC daren’t sneeze without my say so.’

The immaculately turned out royal servant produces a newspaper and eases it across the table. ‘If the papers I showed you a moment ago are too voluminous, perhaps you might cast your eye over this?’

“‘Bang Up Boris’ call. Gove poised for No 10.” What’s this?

‘The front page of tomorrow morning’s (Lascelles raises his eyebrows and utters the next word as though wiping something nasty off the sole of his Berluti Oxford) Sun. I managed to persuade them to tone it down from ‘string up’ to ‘bang up’.’

‘That bastard Gove! It’s a fake, Rupert would never do this to me.’

‘If you examine the papers I suggested you should read, you will see that some (the pause is followed by the same tone of voice used for ‘Sun’) gentlemen who had hoped to profit from certain actions of yours felt they had not received the degree of forewarning you promised, and so have not profited as much as they had anticipated.’

‘Can I get my mobile?’

‘As you know, these audiences are strictly mobile-free.’

‘Then I need to get back to Number 10 right now.’

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Some kind of security alert. The police say there’s a suspected criminal in the building. However (it’s that mirthless smile again) should you wish to avail yourself of a generous offer from President Putin, you may leave now and take asylum in Krasnoyarsk.’

‘What the hell is that?’

‘A place in Siberia. The president has provided special transport from here to the airport, and your flight leaves in a couple of hours. Aeroflot. I’m afraid he couldn’t get business class.’

‘You can’t do this. I’m the prime minister! I’m the prime minister!’

‘Oh Boris, do shut up! That’s the third time this week. Anyway it’s eleven o’ clock. Time for even you to get up. What are these dreams you keep having? Is it always the same one?

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Dear Tory voters, don't say I never warned you

Oh my prophetic soul! This is what I wrote before the 2019 general election when I warned people not to vote Conservative. Much of the personnel has changed, but the disaster remains.


Electionwatch: pity Conservatives - they have no one to vote for

Conservatism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary means ‘commitment to traditional values and ideas.’ So neither Boris Johnson nor any of the maniacally nodding acolytes lining up as Tory candidates are Conservatives.

Johnson is not a detail man and has only a very tenuous grasp of facts, as numerous interviews have shown, which means he needs people to work out policies for him. So the person running 10 Downing Street’s policy unit is very important. And who is she? Step forward Munira Mirza, a ‘former’ member of the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party, who has been helping to write the Tory manifesto.

Perhaps that explains its attacks on democracy on the now-notorious page 48, with its threats to undermine the independence of parliament and the judiciary and to elevate the prime minister above the law.

Even more important than Mirza is ‘Johnson’s brain’, Dominic Cummings, who has never denied that he is not a Conservative. Indeed, Cummings seems to be consumed with contempt for anyone who is not Dominic Cummings.

He was formally ruled to be in contempt of parliament because he refused to be questioned by a committee investigating fake news. Cummings has a particular disdain for our politically independent civil service and wants to abolish it. Civil servants have an infuriating habit of telling the truth.

And then there were those three mysterious years in Russia. Of course, the degree to which Boris Johnson and his party are under Putin’s thumb remains shrouded in mystery because Johnson is suppressing the official report that might shed some light on it. But what was Cummings doing while he was there? What links did he form with politicians and the security and intelligence services?

The modern Conservative Party is decidedly not conservative. A better label would be 'anarchist' or 'nihilist'. More than anyone they remind me of the 19th century left-wing Russian extremist, Mikhail Bakunin, who said he would be happy only ‘when the whole world is engulfed in fire.’ He advocated smashing everything up in the hope that something better would arise to replace it.

Just so for today’s Tories: smash up the UK, the NHS, our links with the EU, Parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, your jobs, rights, opportunities, etc. And maybe a phoenix will rise from the ashes: perhaps a hyper-Thatcherite capitalist paradise, red in tooth and claw, with no nonsense about a welfare state or workers’ rights or the rich paying tax?

If you really have nothing to lose, you might consider voting Conservative. If you have ANYTHING to lose, think very, very carefully before you put the nihilists into power.

Sunday, 25 September 2022

Truss and Kwarteng: it's the same old song

Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng (what WAS he doing at the Queen's funeral by the way?) - bless their little cotton socks: 'We want to speed up growth. We want to create a high wage, high productivity economy'.

Don't you love the way they say it as though it's some wizard wheeze no one else has ever thought of ?  I mean British governments are always saying: 'We want lower growth, lower wages and worse productivity,' aren't they?

In fact, every British government I can recall has said it has the same aim as Truss, but I don't recall many others who thought the way to achieve it was to borrow hand over fist saddling your children and grandchildren with massive debts so they can give huge handouts to the super-rich. 

Bodes well for the latest Brexit-crazed Conservative government, eh?

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

What can a top crime writer tell us about Brexit?

Quite a lot, it turns out. 

I have just finished the American James Ellroy's compulsive hard-boiled novel The Big Nowhere (Arrow 1990), set in Los Angeles during the McCarthy era, when lives were ruined by hysterical false accusations thundered at anyone who dared to espouse vaguely left-wing views. Condemned as 'Commies', many lost their jobs and some their liberty.

Ellroy's novel tells the story of a number of people supposed to be public servants, who don't give a damn about the public and instead use the mendacious Red Scare to advance their own careers.

But one policeman sees through the tissue of falsehood: 'A big fuckload of lies glued together to prove a single theory that was easy to believe because believing was easier than wading through the glut of horsehit to say, "Wrong."'

Could be a summary of what Brexit has done to the UK and of why no leading Conservative or Labour politician seems willing to tell the truth about it.

Fun fact: Senator Joseph McCarthy was eventually unmasked as a liar, and became one of only a handful of senators to be formally censured by a vote in the upper house.

Monday, 22 August 2022

The assassination of Michael Collins and a strange quirk of fate

100 years ago today, the Irish Republican leader Michael Collins was assassinated. Collins was a leading organiser of assassinations himself, but, in his own words, he signed his death warrant when he made a peace treaty with the British.

It sparked a vicious civil war in Ireland, and a group of anti-treaty fighters ambushed Collins in his native County Cork. When they opened fire on his car, one of Collins' comrades told the driver to 'drive like hell', but Collins ordered him to stop so they could fight it out, even though he was armed only with a rifle.

By a twist of fate, Collins' regular drivers were not with him that day. The Republican hero was known to be impetuous, and some believe if one of them had been at the wheel, they would have slammed a foot on the gas before pausing a few miles up the road to inquire of Collins: 'Sorry, what was that you were saying back there, chief?'

For more on Collins' assassination and many others, see my book Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. (Reaktion Books)

Sunday, 21 August 2022

The dilatory Tory contest over who will be your next pm drags on.....and on

It's more than six weeks since Boris Johnson resigned, but because of the extraordinarily leisurely timetable devised by the Conservative Party, it's still going to be another two weeks before we discover who they have decided to foist on us as our next prime minister.

Do you remember when the Tories told us we couldn't possibly change pm because of the multiple crises besetting Brexit Britain? So why is it ok now to endlessly dilly and dally with no one in charge? 

Johnson was never very keen to do the hard graft even when he was pm (remember all those COBRA meetings he ducked?), so what did the Tories think he would do once he'd been given his marching orders? How about: take endless holidays, set up lavish parties at other people's expense, play at being a soldier or a pilot?

Pretty well everything, in fact, apart from dealing with the cost of living crisis, the climate crisis, the water shortages, the galloping inflation, the summer of discontent and the other horrors the Tories have inflicted on us.

Now as Truss and Sunak continue to knock lumps out of each other, apparently even the Tories are beginning to wonder whether they have let the contest go on too long, and whether this undignified battle over the greasy pole is doing terrible damage to what's left of the party's reputation. My heart bleeds.