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Harlan Coben is so prolific a writer that you can get collections of his books now. I received about ten of his books a few Christmases ago and read most of them over the following few weeks before deciding to take a break. And then I was on the lookout for a new audiobook and the library had one of his books on CD. I’ve discovered that I can get close to an hour’s free reading time in the car to and from work every day, which starts to add up after a while, and is definitely an improvement on listening to the same news over and over again.
Let’s start with the story. A journalist is on the hunt for no-gooders and catches one in the act by pretending to be a fictitious girl online. Cue big story, picked up by all the other media, what a terrible thing the villain has done. And of course his life as he knew it is over, the media have judged and the public have condemned. But wait, maybe (there has to be a twist) the story wasn’t quite the one we thought it was and there was something else going on, something which put the journalist into a different light. And raising some ethical questions about the journalist’s own actions which aren’t easy to answer.
That description could be applied to Coben’s book Caught. But it also fits the case of a male journalist who pretended to be a 20-something female and contacted a number of MPs. One of whom sent some pictures of himself to ‘her’ which he now regrets doing. But he’s already resigned, been condemned by the public. But just a second. We will all have our own views on whether what the MP did was morally right, wrong or neutral. It wasn’t illegal though. And aside from the impact on his own family, which I think is a matter for them alone, does it have any bearing on his ability to serve as a MP? John F Kennedy had enough affairs, Clinton survived and has now been rehabilitated. Even John Major had an affair and is now regarded as an elder statesman. The list could go on, and that’s just the one theme (and of course there are others where the outcome was less positive). As far as I can see, this particular MP hadn’t spoken out against anything he himself was doing. And let’s ask one more question – of ourselves. A middle aged man, an attractive younger woman showing interest (and photos), the relative anonymity of the internet (I’ll cover Snowden and co another time). If we knew, or believed with a high degree of probability, that nobody would ever find out, would we all say no? A number of other MPs did. This one didn’t. Sounds like the population at large then, some people, maybe even most people, would say no and metaphorically walk away, some would give into the temptation. I think this is a question we can ask ourselves in so many cases. It is so easy to judge other people for what they have done. ‘We would have done it differently’ we say. Except that we as a whole haven’t got a great track record on that one. We know how ‘we’ behaved during the Third Reich – but ‘we’ wouldn’t have been like that, ‘we’ would have – what? Resisted when we knew we would be killed, and most likely our family with us. No, ‘we’ wouldn’t have, though some would have, as some in fact did.
We can easily forget that ‘to err is human’. If anyone has never done anything which they wouldn’t want to have on the front page of a newspaper, please let me know.
So, how about those ethics then?
Is it acceptable to pretend to be someone else not just to gain their trust but to encourage them to do something where your sole intention is to make it public? And to do so to a series of people where there is no evidence of previous similar ‘wrongdoing’? If it looks like fish, smells like fish and swims like a fish, you’ve been on a fishing trip.
Public interest defence? Where’s the public interest? Apart from the public’s prurient interest that is.
I had the privilege many years ago to speak with a number of journalists who had worked in East Germany and then in the reunited Germany. Two of the questions I asked them all were about working undercover and, separately, whether they found it acceptable to pretend to have a particular opinion in order to gain their trust (note the condition, it wasn’t to expose them in any way).
You can read much more about how they approached these questions in my book, but here are some of the things they said:
‘I think I would come up against my conscience at some point and say, my God, you’re lying to all these people.’
‘I am lying to the people. And that is exactly what I don’t want them to do to me.’
And finally, one journalist considered the deliberateness with which he would be engaging in this kind of activity:
‘If it is deliberate, conscious and applied with intent, in order to lead the other person astray and to break down his reserve, in my opinion that isn’t OK.’
The journalists in question had all worked in a country where there were very real limits placed on what they could write. They knew what it was to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgement because they had lacked that freedom for so many years previously.
In the UK, the media have had immense freedoms, rightly jealously protected, and in the main those freedoms have, I think, been used responsibly. We do love our irony as well though. The paper which had the original story on the MP (from a freelance journalist, so one could question the ethics of both the journalist – who was paid for the story – and the editor who paid for the story) had just admitted liability for some of its journalists having in the past hacked the phones of a range of celebrities. If it looks like a lack of ethics, reads like a lack of ethics…
It really could be from a Harlen Coben novel. And I know who I think the real baddies are in the true life story.
I am sometimes accused of having too many books. I can’t include a picture of upstairs because I have books on three of the four walls (the other one is for food storage, although it would make a great set of bookshelves), and I might have the odd book in other places around the house which weren’t originally intended for book storage. And in fairness, I do have at the last count five boxes of books under the eaves as a temporary solution for books I think I won’t need for a bit. And opinions in the family vary anyway. Abbi is largely indifferent and LoLo quite likes the fact that when she gives me an “I haven’t got anything to read”, we can disappear upstairs and I’ll find something for her which she didn’t know I had. Actually, upstairs probably has more books than some bookshops. And yet – I can’t find the one I wanted to comment on today. I have looked, I think it’s in one of those boxes. But I couldn’t face getting them all out.
The topic that keeps coming back without a solution is climate change. Of course it’s sometimes very politicised with enough interest groups (from oil companies to Greenpeace) anxious to be heard and a good proportion of them with pecuniary interest in the topic. Kyoto, Rio, all the agreements that have been made and not met for decades. And the increasingly strong wording of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning us of the consequences of the lack of action.
It’s not something that we as individuals can sort by ourselves. I feel a degree of happiness at our solar panels and biomass heating but I also know that I wouldn’t have either if financial support hadn’t been made available, it’s simply too expensive. And climate change can’t be tackled properly by individual governments alone. Especially when the governments of some of the largest economies won’t play and the resultant playing field is even more uneven than normal.
The UN is about to engage in another large-scale discussion on climate change and we are experiencing several days of protests around the world demanding a co-ordinated response to deal with something which will affect the lives of our children and grandchildren if we don’t take action together. Of course, you could also point to possible evidence of more immediate effects of climate change. Hurricanes affecting the US’s east coast (Katrina and Sandy are names familiar to millions), devastating flooding in the Far East, polar ice caps melting and, nearer to home, both hotter summers and generally more rain than in the past, including floods in large parts of England.
I still remember the first time I was in Bavaria in the late 1980s. It was the middle of summer and 25 degrees was the hottest I had ever experienced. A couple of years ago we were much further north in Germany and it was over 40 degrees. Anecdotal rather than scientific of course and I still maintain we had better summers when I was a child but they certainly weren’t as hot. Berlin in the summer is close to unbearably hot already, even in t-shirt and shorts, never mind having to work there. There are certainly times when the milder weather in the UK is a real blessing.
A few years ago, James Lovelock came to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and spoke about climate change (and wrote the book I can’t now find). He views the earth as being like an organism, which he calls Gaia. And like any life form, Gaia will protect itself. Humans are of particular importance to us humans, but the earth did just fine without us for long enough and doesn’t really need us for, well for anything really. If we let the earth heat up too much, it will adapt, it’s been a lot hotter and a lot colder than this before. It’s we humans that will have the issue, and it could be an existential issue.
In common with many other cities, Edinburgh staged a climate change march in the run up to the UN meetings. And for the first time in my life (I know…) I went on a protest march. LoLo came along with me and neither of us was really quite sure what to expect. We arrived to a lovely choir singing with lots of banners flying.
There were so many people there that the police had to take a more active role in shepherding everyone than I think was anticipated. Which meant closing one side of Princes Street, then North Bridge, then the Royal Mile, then the Mound. Thank goodness it was a Sunday, but we did feel for all the people in their cars or on the not-so express bus to the airport (hope you all made it to your flights on time!). And LoLo and I enjoyed a spot of chanting, singing a song along the way and seeing how many people we knew there (seven in the end, which meant that LoLo’s guess was closest. There was no prize).
So we decided that we should find another march to go on sometime as we enjoyed it so much. As did tens of thousands of others around the world. The march wasn’t the point, the planet was. Although I am not sure everyone there was entirely focused on the cause in hand – methinks some people just go to every march going. And why not…
We decided afterward that, having saved the planet, it was time to go home and cook dinner. Powered by our solar panels. Of course.
Random observation of the day – popped into Sainsburys (other supermarkets are also available) to find mince pies on sale on a small Christmas stand – really?!?!?!
Today is the first Monday in… well, a lot of years, that I’m not being paid anything. Most of those Mondays I’ve been at work, and of course there’s something nice about being on holiday and being paid for doing whatever we find ourselves doing. I do, of course, know that in so many ways that experience of close to two decades is unusual. I’ve never had to deal with being involuntarily out of work and have been blessed with good employers.
Today is different, however, because I’ve chosen to work (paid) one day a week less from now, solely to carve out some dedicated writing time. There are other benefits, of course, such as being able to take the girls to their dancing lessons after school, and being able to cook dinner for everyone. And today – wouldn’t you know it, it’s a school holiday – I get to play badminton outside at lunchtime with LoLo.
Now, of course, I have come face to face with the usual other issues. Distractions, phone calls (really?… these people call during the day?), need to get a drink… and another… hmm, feeling a bit peckish now… and so on.
I’ve known for a while now that I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t spending more time writing. And a few months later, here I am, sitting at a rickety old desk (it sways a lot from side to side, I’m not sure it’s meant to do that), on a French stool my sister brought back with her from France many years ago when she was living there. I’m still not sure how she got it back, it’s not exactly hand luggage sized. And this is my new home:
I’ve been writing this novel on and off (mostly off) for a few years. I have a few scenes, a few paragraphs, sometimes just a few sentences. Last week I was writing a section about one of the characters who came back to Germany after living in exile in the Soviet Union during the Nazi period. I was making it all up (that’s one of the fun parts) and realised that I probably should find out more about what that experience had actually been like. Questions like where the Germans lived, went to school, were they segregated, how were they organised. But I got no further than think I should look into that.
And then on Thursday, I stopped off at Waitrose on the way home from work to grab a few things we needed. I never do this. Never. And because I had a Waitrose card in my wallet (never before used) I picked up a newspaper as it was free. In reality I got it for Camille, who promptly started reading it. And then she showed me the obituary – a full half page. It was the pictures that got my attention immediately. Nikita Khrushchev and Walter Ulbricht, with another picture of the Berlin Reichstag immediately after the War. Suddenly I was in my world. But I had never heard of Wolfgang Leonhard, whose obituary this was. It turns out he was the youngest of the small group sent back to Germany to build the first socialist republic there. He had experienced Stalinism first hand, including the purges which had caught his mother. And he had grown up and gone to school in the Soviet Union in the period I was writing about. Leonhard soon recognised that the state being proposed in the East of Germany was not a Marxist-Leninist state at all, but a Stalinist one. He had experienced some of what that would mean and escaped to the West. He wrote an autobiography in 1955 which, fortunately, has now been re-published a few years ago. It arrives tomorrow.
You can perhaps see why I have trouble believing in coincidences sometimes. And I am reminded of something Paulo Coelho wrote: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Thanks, universe, for that chain of events.
So, back to the novel now. Although I am getting a bit hungry, and it must be time for badminton soon, isn’t it?
I divide Paulo Coelho’s (yes, him again) books into two categories. The weird ones and the not weird ones. The weird ones might possibly be autobiographical but then again maybe they aren’t but it’s not clear and I don’t know if it matters and sometimes I try to figure it out and sometimes I just read the book and don’t worry about. I’m in two minds as to which category The Witch of Portobello should come into but on balance would put it in the not-weird pile. I should also say that I read them all, it’s just that I spend some of them trying to work out how much, if any, of the story is what happened to him and how much is pure fiction. It probably doesn’t matter.
We had a lovely experience recently in Portobello. Once a year, the promenade by the beach (which, for me, is mainly important as being part of the Edinburgh marathon route) is given over to buskers and street performers. They include young children singing, bands, bagpipes (which drown out pretty much everything within a few hundred metres) and jugglers (one of whom was juggling with a sword slid down his throat!). It’s a wonderful idea and lovely to see a community and its guests enjoying the different talents of so many people while raising money (in many cases for charity, but also for sweets in some cases) at the same time. I particularly liked one band who were clearly having a lot of fun playing together, notwithstanding the piper upwind from them.
And then this weekend it was back to the beach – or beside the beach – for the first Scottish Half Marathon. Basically you get to choose between running a half marathon near Edinburgh on the Saturday with somewhere around 3,000 others, or on the Sunday in Newcastle with 50,000 – and Mo Farrah. I went for the smaller event. This was my first half marathon race (“race” is of course a loose term in that I was not in this to win it) and, despite in my heart of hearts knowing that I hadn’t quite trained enough – well, it was the summer holidays and it was too hot in Berlin to run more than once and by that time it was also getting dark which wasn’t such a great idea with hindsight – I thought I would go for it anyway and see if I could crack 1:30 (that’s one hour thirty by the way, not one minute thirty). I drank copious amounts of water and beetroot juice the days before and relied on the speed workouts I had done over the last couple of months, as well as the fact that on the day you can run faster for longer than you can in training. And then there was the issue with the turn. Honestly, I don’t get what happened or what didn’t happen but at the mile 7 marker my watch said we had done near enough 7 miles. At the mile 8 marker, my watch said we had done 8 1/4 miles, and then showed that consistent 1/4 mile difference right to the end. That’s pretty much two minutes difference in real money. I’ve asked the organisers the question. But you know what, maybe they did get something wrong, maybe they didn’t. It was a lovely day, a nice course, the spectators were encouraging and there was enough water along the course. What more do you want? Well, a t-shirt of course. It turns out I race to get t-shirts:
Everyone’s a winner. And despite the possible issue with the distance, I made it in under 1:30 – ten seconds under counts, OK?! And I ran in my favourite sandals (I always run in them, it’s way more fun).
I had a blast from the past recently when I rediscovered a laptop I used in the mid-1990s. At the time, it wasn’t exactly state of the art (I was a student, it was reduced, it did the job) but it seemed pretty impressive at the time. Now I wonder how I managed to carry it around. I think the battery (which lasted for maybe 4 hours if I was lucky) weighs more than my entire laptop currently does. The poor thing is now well and truly dead but still has some sentimental value, partly from my memories of passing commuting trips in Berlin by
playing minesweeper writing on it.
We went even further back yesterday when we looked through a photo album (yes, a physical display of photos, not a slideshow on the laptop – quite a different experience…must print out more photos and spend time laboriously sticking them into an album!) I received for my 40th birthday. One of the pictures was of me
playing a game being very industrious on a computer so old I can’t even remember what it was (I remember the game though, which at the time must have seemed good, I can’t see the attraction now).
We can now go back and trace the development of that kind of technology through different generations of chip, amount of RAM, size of hard drives (that 1990s laptop had a 340Mb hard drive, now I wander around with a 16Gb flash drive in my pocket, which, if I’ve got my decimal points in the right place, holds the equivalent of over 10,000 floppy disks (if anyone remembers what those are)).
In contrast, what I think hasn’t changed is the way in which we as individuals develop. You can’t analyse it into discrete steps, but over time we can see how we have become a different person. We are shaped by our choices, but also by circumstance and chance. I am reminded of the story in which a painter uses as a model a boy with angelic features to create the face of Jesus. Many years later, he paints Judas, trying to show the depths to which we can as humans sink. He uses a man as his model who turns out to be that same boy, grown up and changed beyond recognition by life and how he has developed over decades. As so often, literature points to something common to us all. Over years and decades, we can look back and laugh, cry or wonder at the choices we made when we were younger. We can tell our children about the things we thought, believed and did back then, knowing that they in turn will have to make their own decisions and mistakes to grow, learn and become themselves.
The older I get, the more I wonder at apparent co-incidence. On the plane to Frankfurt, I flicked through the inflight magazine and came across an article about Eric Michael Andersson, a Swede who won a competition to live in Berlin for a year and is learning to live like a German (hampered in learning the language, it appears, by the fact that everyone speaks English). I’ve written before about the changing nature of Berlin as a city and as a population, and this seems to have been the experience of this Swede – “I’m still trying to find myself”, with the commentary added “Like half of Berlin.”
There are experiences we can look back to which changed our perspective, our opinions, how we view ourselves in the world, and sometimes we can even measure those changes. Many years ago, I did a questionnaire developed by a couple called Myers and Briggs (guess what the approach is called…) which is designed to give us an insight into our personality type, not to limit our view of ourselves but to give us a perspective on ourselves and a common vocabulary to understand others and how they view their world. The results back then, getting close to ten years ago now, (INTJ for anyone who cares) were spot on. But over the last few years, I’ve had the sense that the experiences I’ve had since then have changed me, not necessarily in a conscious, planned way, but as a more natural evolution. And when I did the test again, lo and behold, a different result (INFP now apparently, and generally less extreme in my preferences). And what was one comment under the careers section (I acknowledge total confirmation bias in picking up on this one line out of a lot of comments)? “First and foremost is seemingly every INFPs’ dream growing up – to become an author.” I didn’t see that one coming.
I wonder who we will be in another ten years’ time?
A random observation
The small victory of common sense I’m experiencing today is being able to write this blog on my flight to Frankfurt without having to switch everything off for the takeoff. The myth is still alive, however, that phones need to be switched off because they might interfere with the aircraft systems (I always found it more than worrying that my little phone could confuse the computing power of a plane, particularly as every flight has one or two phones left on by accident), rather than because they might confuse the satellites (mobiles not being designed to be used 30,000 feet from the ground).