Thursday, 28 August 2008

It might as well rain until September (or maybe November).

I'm not sure quite how many last chances a Prime Minister can hope to enjoy. There's always the old adage about a cat having nine lives I suppose.

If there's a problem for Labour, it's that they've come to realise that settling for a 'coronation' doesn't guarantee a halfway decent leader let alone a great one, and it certainly doesn't guarantee any sort of subsequent loyalty from disaffected MPs, particularly those fearful of imminent unemployment. Brown may be long since dead and buried, but it means that at some point soon Labour will have to turn up not one but two credible candidates if the competition to find a successor is to have any meaning whatever. David Milliband has pretty much ruled himself out already - a Guardian article so short of substance as to be laughable, and then events in Georgia very publicly highlighting his continuing ineffectual performance as Foreign Secretary. There have been many who've been advising Brown to sack him for disloyalty but a canny PM would leave him be. He's in his own hole and he just keeps digging.

Since Jack Straw is a no-hoper of the first order it looks like Alan Johnson is the only realistic opponent for the lady. Bring it on.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

There's no such thing as bad publicity

Another day, another blogger being threatened (or on this occasion taken down entirely). All pretty much a mirror of the problems faced by Dave Walker at the Cartoon Church blog I covered in an earlier post (and which I intend to return to at some point). This time a complainant appears to have threatened proceedings against the blog hosting DNS and gained the dubious benefit to be had from our absurd libel laws. I picked up on this through normblog, where Norman Geras has been highlighting the offensive and depressingly active antisemitism within the UCU over a considerable period.

So once again some blogging solidarity. This is the post that is believed to lie behind the dispute, which comes from 'Harry's Place' (sorry, no link as Harry's completely down as of now). You can find more elsewhere by now of course.

The University and College Union maintains an email list for its activists, which is administered and monitored by the union. As Harry's Place readers know, the email list traffic is dominated by political extremists and almost entirely given over to their obsessive and nasty campaign to boycott Israeli academics.

The extremists are countered by a small number of Jews and anti-racists, many of them supporters of Engage. They are routinely defamed as racists, imperialists, Apartheid supporters, liars and conspirators. Quite a few of the Jews and anti-racists have been chucked off the list by the UCU administrators, arbitrarily, and usually for making public their complaints about the racism on the list.

There have been complaints to UCU about racism on its activist list. UCU has dismissed them all as baseless.

One of the formal complaints was made in relation to a series of particularly poisonous and nasty emails written by a Sheffield-based UCU activist called Jenna Delich. That complaint was also dismissed.

Yesterday Jenna Delich wrote the following message on the activist list in order to support a boycott of Israeli academics:


In support to your link this may be a long but also an interesting reading:

No comment necessary. The facts are speaking for themselves.



The website which she links to is the website of David Duke, who is the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and perhaps the most notorious racist and anti-semite in the world. The article itself was originally posted on an extremist conspiracy nut website, but appears only on David Duke's website. It is therefore reasonable to infer that Jenna Delich reads and takes her information on world events from neo Nazis.

So, in a nutshell, the position is this. The UCU refuses to take action against viciousness against Jews and anti-racists on its own activist list, and endorses their exclusion from that email list when they defend themselves. Meanwhile, the UCU is circulating links to David Duke's website on behalf of Delich.

What a wonderful institution UCU is.
For reasons of strict accuracy I have amended the caption for the photo - it originally said 'Sheffield-based academic, Jenna Delich - links to far right websites associated with the Ku Klux Klan'.

Jenna Delich and her supporters do not dispute that she sent the email in question. They say however that it was private (despite being circulated to around 700 UCU members and associates) and that Ms Delich did not appreciate the significance of the site she linked to. My own view? It's politics, if you give it out you've got to be prepared to take it.

By way of update: Harry's Place has returned with a somewhat braver hosting company I'm pleased to say. So you can see all the posts relating to this discussion (and the comments they have drawn). In republishing, the post above has been retitled 'UCU and the David Duke Link', the photo and caption have been removed. At this moment in time there are 352 comments on the post and they certainly make for lively reading.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Disturbing the Dead

There have been several reports in the press recently of the planned move of Cardinal John Henry Newman's mortal remains from the grave in Rednal, Worcestershire where he was buried alongside his closest friend over one hundred years ago at his specific request, to a 'resting place of honour' (now surrounded by steel railings because of the likelihood of vandalism, so much for 'honour') closer to the centre of Birmingham. Why? At the request of the Vatican, who are moving towards his canonisation as a saint, a process that apparently demands just such a relocation.

As you may well realise, I regard the whole notion of sainthood as ridiculous, but even so I feel that the Church is showing a considerable contempt towards Cardinal Newman and his wishes, and by extension a lack of respect towards the dead in general with this ghoulish scheme. If he has as is claimed been working miracles (absurd as that might be) he has had no difficulty doing so from his present location in Rednal. Pilgrims who wish to visit his grave would surely appreciate the experience all the more for having to take the time to seek out the existing one rather than expending no more effort than might be required to attend a pop concert at the National Exhibition Centre.

Normally it is illegal to move human remains from a graveyard to a church tomb, but it is no surprise that the feeble Jack Straw and his Justice Department have set that aside entirely in granting the Vatican's request. I'm inclined to agree with Peter Tatchell who feels that the move is at least in part intended to overcome the Church's embarrassment resulting from Cardinal Newman's preferred double grave and all that might be thought to imply.

The Vatican do not own John Henry Newman's body and should have been told so.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Elegantly Dressed Wednesday

Right lady, right location of course.

I couldn't decide about that jacket at first. Has she had decorators in recently? Been indulging the children with a bit of action painting? Finally got it though. Liberation by MC Escher. Love it, just love it.

Now a word of caution, so pay attention, girls. It's all very well to burn your bra when you're young, but it may not look to have been such a wise decision when you find yourself approaching 60. Oh well, never mind.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Rewriting History

Over on Fora, the Political Umpire posts from time to time on aspects of the Great War, in which he has a particular interest. Among his posts have been several where he has discussed the issue of those who were executed for cowardice, desertion, and who were given a collective pardon two years ago in Parliament. He didn’t agree with that decision, although I did. I posted several comments about this, and he was kind enough to put up a detailed response to which I am finally responding in turn, hopefully clarifying my own views.

Firstly, a little history. The Umpire’s original posts on this subject were The Past is a Foreign Country (June 2006), Private Farr Again (also June 2006) and Private Farr is Pardoned (August 2006). I read those in reverse order, and my eye was caught by a point in the earliest one:

It is fashionable these days to disdain our forebearers; our ancestors whose world was unimaginably different from our own. Here is another press letter I had published earlier this year in which I sought to stress that well-known saying of LP Hartley in The Go Between which I have adopted as the title for this post.

Trevor Harvey is right to infer that we should not attempt to pass judgment on events in our distant past such as the execution of Pvte Harry Farr for cowardice during the First World War. Already the case has taken up valuable judicial resources, as indeed have other recent reviews of long ago cases such as Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and James Hanratty. In all of these cases judicial proceedings only came about because of the accident that each of the deceased had living relatives. We should not expend public resources on cases which turn on that happenstance.

Debating whether the likes of Pvte Farr suffered shell-shock is a matter of interest for medical historians but we should hesitate long and hard before presupposing to pass judgment on events as far removed as the Great War. It is fashionable to dismiss the generals of the day as ‘donkeys’ and to rail against the supposed brutality of shooting for deserters. But it should also be recalled that of all the armies which were involved in the war from the outset, only the British did not suffer a severe collapse of morale at any point as well, of course, as emerging victorious.

What had caught my eye was the point about ‘the British not suffering a severe collapse of morale at any point’ before in a discussion of the same matter on The Times website (I drew the line at registering with The Times in order to respond there), but now I thought that I could well have encountered the original author.

My comment:

The logical conclusion of what you say here is that injustices from the past should not be pursued, nor should judicial resources be wasted, even given the 'accident' of living relatives. We would live in a very sorry society indeed if injustices such as unsolved murders were simply abandoned once they were considered past their 'sell-by date'. The existence or otherwise of living relatives is in one sense irrelevant to the moral proposition you put forward; on the other hand such relatives are surely entitled to have their feelings and hurt considered. "Of all the armies which were involved in the war from the outset, only the British did not suffer a severe collapse of morale at any point" Are you suggesting that what maintained the morale of the British troops was the knowledge that they faced execution if they displayed cowardice? To me, the Home Secretary made exactly the right decision in making no judgement whatever over individual cases, but accepting the likelihood that some executions were unjustified.

The Umpire responded to my comments with a fourth post Mutiny Again where he answered my points thus:

The total number of murders that have been committed is obviously very great indeed. Judicial resources in the present day, as ever, are scarce and very expensive. We cannot possibly investigate every supposed past injustice. Where the convicted person and everyone else involved in the case are dead, and all the surrounding circumstances have vanished, that has to be a very strong reason - albeit not necessarily decisive - against re-opening cases. I appreciate that where there happen to be living descendants, they may feel strongly about the stain on their family history - but there are many present-day people behind bars and facing trial who should have first call on the resources of the state. The fact that some cases in the past involved defendants who have living relatives is the only reason that they are now being investigated; it does not seem to me compelling that that should be so. It might be that wrongly convicted men remain convicted because they lack living relatives; I am not sure that in the grand scheme of things the existence of (say) a great-grand niece should have anything to do whether the state chooses to reopen one old case as opposed to another - or rather, as opposed to not opening old cases at all.

And in response to my query as to the suggestion of a link between morale and executions:

No, not at all. The point related not to the case of Pvte Farr specifically, but to the general context of popular perception of the incompetence and injustice of the First World War as a whole. You may have seen numerous posts I wrote on the Great War last year attempting to set something in the balance against the idea that the Generals were all callous butchers. One of the authors whom I drew upon, Gordon Corrigan, has investigated some of the executions in detail and concluded that it was by no means clear that any injustice had occurred (bearing in mind, among other things, that the death penalty was still in force and still used in those days for civilian murders). And of course a lot of soldiers were sentenced to death but the penalty was not in fact carried out, which goes against the idea that a load of commoners and Irish were being topped as a lesson to the rest. Certainly I was not suggesting that the British army survived due to the threat of execution (the French army had rather more of those and did indeed collapse as an offensive force). Rather I was pointing out that it cannot have been led as badly as the likes of Oh What a Lovely War or Blackadder IV might have one believe.

I commented:

It's almost impossible to know where to begin in responding to this. But I'll offer the following as a starting point: If we don't examine alleged wrongs from the past, we won't learn from them. And if we determine that a wrong has been committed, and it is a wrong that can (at least in part) be righted, aren't we failing in our moral responsibility if we chose not to do so? The greater the wrong, surely the more important that wrong is corrected, if it is within our power to do so? For example, it matters not one jot in 2008 that John Smith was given a parking ticket in 1942, but surely that does not mean that victims of the Holocaust (or their descendants, through the 'accident' of being alive) should be denied justice? Injustices that involve the state taking an innocent life are not casual matters that should simply be cast aside; indeed, it is the mark of a civilised society that it does not do so. Even within the timescale you appear to contemplate, relatives not only suffer the 'accident' of still being alive, but may well have been alive at the time of the event you focus on. It is entirely conceivable that siblings (siblings, not great-grand nieces) of executed soldiers from the Great War may still be alive; where do you place their rights? There is a complex balance to be struck, but I doubt if your rationality would justify the wasting of international military resources (particularly given the current situation) on searching for the corpse of Keith Bennett on Saddleworth Moor. He died 44 years ago; nothing we do now will bring him back, Myra Hindley is long since dead, and there is no prospect of an insane Ian Brady ever being released from Ashworth. So what about Winnie Johnson? Is it no more than an inconvenience that she is 'accidentally' still alive? And does our obligation (society's obligation) to find Keith Bennett's body disappear at the point that his mother dies? Rather the opposite; to the extent that we would have failed Mrs Johnson in her lifetime, our obligation would be all the greater. Is Winnie Johnson the only person to be considered anyway? What obligation do we have (for example) to the jurors who had to listen to those appalling tapes? Or to their children, who saw a parent irretrievably scarred by what they had heard? It's true I know, there are terrible cases involving children who are still living, children we have some hope of saving. But I very much doubt if your humanity would allow you to tell Winnie Johnson that there are more important priorities than finding her son, let alone that you believe the use of public resources in that search to be wrong. Moral judgements are absolute, however much we recognise that attitudes have changed with the passage of time. If homophobia is wrong now (and we both agree it is) it was wrong fifty years ago. How much more so the loss of an innocent life at the hands of the state.

And the Umpire responded with a final post Alleged Past Injustices Again:

Regular commentator Stephen of It's a rough trade, politics and I have had a disagreement on the pardoning of WWI soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion. I have done a few posts and comments on the subject, but given the vehemence of Stephen’s disagreement (unusual, as he has already observed), I thought I would attempt to set out my position in slightly greater length. Also some of the comments I have made have been rather sloppy, and this post therefore constitutes a tidying-up effort.

Of course in principle righting historical wrongs seems a worthy cause, but matters are not that simple.

The first question which might arise is whether we should be investigating past injustices when the victims and the convicted person are long since dead and the circumstances under which the offending arose have long since vanished. None of the officers who charged, prosecuted, convicted and executed soldiers are still alive, and the events took place over ninety years ago in a Europe that has changed out of all recognition as has the British army.

Two obvious points flow from that: first, it would be an expensive use of scarce judicial and other public resources to investigate any of the more than 300 executions. It is my belief that those resources should concentrate on resolving present-day crimes; the judicial system is straining to cope as it is. It is not unusual for a person charged with murder to be remanded in custody for a year or more awaiting trial. Many people currently serving life imprisonment think they have a case to be reviewed; their cases should logically have priority.

Secondly, with no witnesses left alive and all records nearly a century old, the chances of us being able to be confident in reviewing past cases has to be correspondingly low. That has to be a factor to be taken into account when deciding how to distribute the inevitably overworked resources of the judicial system.

At this point I should counter a red herring that Stephen raised in a comment. He writes impassionately, and unarguably, that we retain a duty to find the body of Keith Bennett on Saddleworth Moor, a victim of the Moors murderers. I agree. But that is not raking over the past to satisfy our changed morals and ideas; it is solving an unsolved case. It bears no relation to reinvestigating and judging what our forefathers did when they thought they were doing the right thing by the actions of the time. Of course if a dead child of a living parent has not been found we should continue the search.

There is a further distinction of importance. Some past convictions we would now denounce as we disagree that they involved a crime at all; homosexuality between consenting adults being a quintessential example. I would have no problem for a retrospective pardon in those cases. But the Shot at Dawn campaign concerned men who were tried for cowardice in the face of the enemy or desertion or similar offences; these remain crimes to this day. The objection has to be either to the conviction of individual defendants or the imposition of the death penalty, not to the crime itself with which they were charged. I accept that the state could declare that all those executed should have had a different punishment, although by abolishing the death penalty in toto it has implicitly already done this. But the fact of the death penalty is not sufficient to conclude there was particular injustice in the shot at dawn cases, since that was the standard punishment for murder and some other civilian crimes in Britain at the time.

It is, moreover, not as if the 306 executions* were the only occasions in which the judicial and/or military system of 1910s might have produced a different result to what would obtain in comparable circumstances under today’s mores. I am sure many died in industrial accidents, for example, that would have resulted in severe punishment of their employers nowadays.** None of these potential injustices have been investigated nor is there any suggestion that they should. I remain unpersuaded about the reasons why we should choose the shot at dawn campaign and ignore the rest - particularly those found guilty of transgressions during wartime but received lesser penalties. Their reputations would have been stained just as would those executed. The mere fact that approximately 3,000 death sentences were passed but only about 10% carried out indicates that the story is more complex than brutal officers ruthlessly and cruelly executing the innocent merely as an example to the rest.

World War II provides examples of other potential injustices, such as those whose farms were confiscated for failing to meet production targets. Had that been wrongly done, it would have been a wrong with direct economic as well as other consequences for persons still alive today.

Des Browne, the Defence Secretary who pardoned the executed, reasoned thus:

"I believe a group pardon, approved by Parliament, is the best way to deal with this. After 90 years, the evidence just doesn't exist to assess all the cases individually.

"I do not want to second guess the decisions made by commanders in the field, who were doing their best to apply the rules and standards of the time. "But the circumstances were terrible, and I believe it is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases, even if we cannot say which - and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war."

But 'second guessing the decisions made by commanders in the field, who were doing their best to apply the rules and standards of the time' is indeed the very thing Mr Browne has done. And in so doing he has brushed aside one potential injustice and replaced it with another - a slur on the officers who dutifully and in good faith conducted courts martial in the way they thought best, and a pardon for some soldiers who may not have been deserving. It is not clear that all of the executed were in fact innocent; in an army of millions it would be astonishing if there were in fact no deserters or cowards whatsoever.

The report from which the above quotation is taken also includes the following, with which I agree:

Correlli Barnett, a military historian, said last night that the mass posthumous pardon was "pointless" after all these years. "These were decisions taken in the heat of a war when the commanders' primary duty was to keep the Army together and to keep it fighting. They were therefore decisions taken from a different moral perspective," he said.

"For the people of this generation to come along and second-guess decisions taken then is wrong.

"It was done in a particular historical setting and in a particular moral and social climate. It's pointless to give these pardons. What's the use of a posthumous pardon?"

Those who were shot for cowardice or desertion were by and large treated fairly, according to the standards of the time, he added.

Indeed, as I pointed out before, Gordon Corrigan's investigations show that it is not at all clear that there was a litany of injustices committed, to the extent that surviving records enable us to judge. Even if we did find procedural faults with the courts martial, that is not the same as finding that the executed were in fact innocent. This is the point which is key to the misunderstanding and misinformation put about by the press in the wake of the quashing of the conviction of Derek Bentley some time ago. He was not, contrary to the screaming headlines, declared 'innocent'. All that was found was that there were defects in the trial judge's summing up: a common enough occurrence that routinely leads to convictions being quashed and new trials ordered. If Bentley was alive today that is precisely what would have happened - a retrial.

The point about Bentley is made in this article by Francis Bennion, with which I agree. Its conclusion is apposite for this post as well:

Our generation needs to be reminded of that pregnant saying of L P Hartley's in The Go-Between. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Or to put it even more succinctly: you can't change history, and you shouldn't even try.

We can - and should, indeed must - learn from history; we can in so doing debate whether things were done right or wrong in the past. But official rewriting is another matter. Niall Ferguson is a professional historian of a similar view:

Retrospectively pardoning First World War deserters, then, is as empty a gesture as retrospectively condemning Second World War conscripts. Harry Farr and Günter Grass were simply two tiny cogs in the monstrous mincing machines of total war. That is why the real question children should ask of veterans is not "What did you do in the war, daddy?" but "What did the war do to you?"

* From the Ferguson article: 266 British and colonial soldiers were shot for desertion, 18 for cowardice, seven for quitting their posts and two for casting away their arms: 293 in all. The other executions were for offences of a different nature, such as murder.

** Ferguson again: "If you are against the death penalty in principle, you may well ask why a few hundred Tommies have been singled out to be pardoned. Many of the crimes for which young men were hanged in the 18th century, for example, were mere petty thefts. Today, most such young offenders would face nothing more painful than a caution or an anti-social behaviour order. Shouldn't we pardon the hanged sheep-stealers while we are about it?" Of course if it was purely the death penalty that was the objection, then a pardon would be inappropriate; a lesser sentence would be formally passed, for all the good it would do.

Coda: From Wikipedia: It seems I was misinformed to an extent:

The pardon was enacted in the Armed Forces Act 2006 which came into effect on 8 November 2006. However section 359(4) of the Act states that the pardon "does not affect any conviction or sentence." Since the nature of a pardon is normally to quash a conviction or to commute a sentence, Gerald Howarth MP asked during parliamentary debate: "we are entitled to ask what it does do."[2] It would appear to be a symbolic pardon only, and some members of Parliament had called for the convictions to be quashed, although the pardon has still been welcomed by relatives of executed soldiers.[3]

What was the point of all that then?

Enough history.

I'm going to do my best to pick off the main points here as far as I am able in some sort of rational sequence. The first two are interlinked. Should we be pursuing cases from so long ago in our distant past, and is it right that doing so is dependent on the existence of living relatives?

It depends of course what you mean by our distant past. What is distant to a youthful Umpire is by no means so distant to those of us who are of more advanced years. However, neither the cases of Private Farr nor Derek Bentley were pursued by distant relatives "(say) a great-grand niece" several generations hence; Private Farr's case was at the behest of his daughter Gertrude, who was born two years before the start of the Great War. Derek Bentley's sister Iris was the one who campaigned to have his conviction overturned (assisted by her daughter), although of course she died shortly before it was. In both these cases it seems wrong to complain about the 'accident' that the relatives are still alive, as if it were some unfortunate inconvenience. Given that those executed are unable to argue their cause further, it is neither surprising nor wrong that relatives who feel that there has been an injustice should do so on their behalf. If Derek Bentley had been imprisoned, he would almost certainly have been alive (aged 65) at the time his conviction was quashed in 1998. But of course if he had been jailed he would long since have been released anyway.

In another post, Harry Partch and the unheralded victories in the Great War the Umpire asks why the only names etched into the public conscience are those of the defeats, or stalemates, or seemingly pyrrhic victories for the allies: the likes of Loos, Verdun, Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendale and Ypres. His conclusion: I suspect, however, that the main reason is that the Second World War, just two decades later, began more or less as a reprise of the First. That he needs to ponder the question at all shows that he views the Great War as 'history' and of course it is for the young. But those names were etched into the public conscience well before the start of the Second World War and the evidence for that is easy to find; the War Memorials that seem to permeate Britain were almost without exception erected at the conclusion of the Great War, and it is out of respect for those who gave their lives that rather than celebrating victory we choose to remember where so many died. The names etched into the public conscience from the Second World War are even more grim. Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

There is an issue of proportionality to all this. In time, historians will mark little more than our success in winning the First World War, and possibly even the Second, but it is to be hoped not; more important surely to remember the Holocaust and man's terrible capacity for evil. Regardless of the outcome of Private Farr's case, it is likely that his death would have ceased to be an issue before too long since all those directly affected would indeed be dead; but they're not, and it isn't mere history to them.

Is it appropriate to pardon people long dead merely on the basis that they received what is now regarded as an excessive sentence, but wasn't at the time? It can be. A pardon isn't a way of saying that someone was innocent of the crime that they were charged with; sometimes they clearly weren't. A pardon is an expression of forgiveness which provides a sense of closure to those such as Gertrude Harris who felt her father was wronged.

The case of Timothy Evans is probably relevant. Hanged for a murder he didn't commit, but initially denied even a pardon since whereas no jury would have found Evans guilty in the light of what later became known there was no certainty of Evans' innocence (R A Butler). Correlli Barnett would presumably not even have considered whether there was certainty or not, given the pointless nature of a posthumous pardon anyway. Thankfully Roy Jenkins was of a different mind. But a pardon doesn't quash a conviction and Timothy Evans remains convicted of the murder of his daughter. Mary Westlake (his half-sister) has campaigned to get that conviction quashed, but her court case ended when the judges, while acknowledging that Evans was entirely innocent, took the same line as the Umpire and said that the cost and resources of quashing the conviction could not be justified. Personally, I'd have thought it better justice if the judges concerned had just got on and quashed the conviction there and then given all the circumstances.

Derek Bentley's conviction was quashed of course, and since his execution has precluded any possibility of a retrial I think it's important to remember that a man is innocent until proved guilty. Francis Bennion's article however raises interesting points well outside the scope of this discussion, so maybe I'll address those elsewhere in the fullness of time.

If there's a shortage of judicial resources I would prefer to look first at the call on those resources made by the wealthy. I'd far rather see a court quashing the conviction of Timothy Evans than preoccupying itself deciding whether Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones had been hard done by because their wedding pics had ended up in the wrong celebrity mag. And that brings us back to the collective pardon for those executed in the Great War. Des Browne agreed entirely with the Umpire that judicial resources were better devoted to other matters. Parliament agreed with him. History has not been rewritten, but we have forgiven the men who were executed. That's the point.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

We are all Dave Walkers now.

I first found out about the events I'm posting on here through Rachel from North London, who linked to the Ministry of Truth (both linked on my blogroll).

Given my antipathy to any form of religion, and that on offer from the C of E in particular, you may be surprised to find me posting on events concerning the SPCK (The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) bookshops.
But there is far more to this than religion. The SPCK had a considerable chain of bookshops offering a broad range of religious books; customers tended to be those who had a serious interest in such matters and the shops were not evangelical in nature. It became apparent some time ago that the shops were losing money and were facing closure, and Dave Walker, a Christian cartoonist and blogger started a 'Save the SPCK' campaign. The campaign appeared to have been successful when the shops passed into the hands of another charity, St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG). However what had appeared to be the saving of the shops proved to be anything but. Two brothers from Texas, J Mark Brewer (a lawyer in Houston) and Philip Brewer were trustees of the SSG, and considerable changes were made at the shops which caused immense disquiet among the staff, many of whom resigned. Soon stocks had been run down, the remaining staff found themselves facing redundancy, and Mark Brewer is currently attempting to take SSG into bankruptcy in a Houston court, claiming that SSG is a limited liability company, not a charity. SSG currently have considerable debts in the UK, not least redundancy money owed to former staff, while considerable sums have nevertheless been taken out of the charity for purposes such as Mark Brewer's legal retainer.

Dave Walker covered these events in some detail in his blog in a very reasonable and informative manner, but then found himself in receipt of a 'Cease & Desist' demand from Mark Brewer, who alleged defamation and threatened legal proceedings against Dave in the US. Dave felt that although his posts were not in the least defamatory he had to take them down if only to bring an end to the threats. So I (like others before me) am linking to available sources of Dave's original posts to show solidarity and to emphasise that honest bloggers should not be subjected to the sort of threats favoured by Mr Brewer.

Incidentally, Dave was cartoonist-in-residence at the Lambeth Conference; he will not have found himself short of material I am sure!

Dave's entire collection of posts
can be found on Cease and Desist, or are available as a pdf download, courtesy of Matt Wardman, The financial and legal aspects of this affair are covered in considerable detail at Ministry of Truth. Sam Norton reposted much of Dave's material, and has now himself been on the receiving end of one of Mr Brewer's 'Cease and Desist' demands. SPCKwatch have some excellent material, this post being a good place to start, as do SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info.

The posts that follow are some of Dave Walker's originals. As always they should be read from the bottom up. I have copied them 'as is' and some links may not work as a consequence.

July 8th, 2008
My silence

I’ve been aware that this has been a sad week for many readers of the Cartoon Blog. Many of those visiting have been mourning the death of Steve Jeynes, the Worcester bookseller, who, judging from the comments posted on this site was loved by many. In the circumstances the usual nonsense that I write on this site has not seemed appropriate, hence my silence.

The memorial service for Steve Jeynes took place yesterday. The Worcester News has a report: Tributes paid to exceptional man. Doug Chaplain was there and has written about it. See also on the SPCK/SSG blog: Steve Jeynes: A Life Remembered.

This will be one of the last former-SPCK-related posts that I expect to do until September as I am away doing one thing and another. I have one more bookshop-related thing that I need to post about which has arisen as a result of a comment (not yet visible) on this site on Sunday morning. I will hopefully do that post today (Tuesday) or tomorrow (Wednesday).

The place to go for former-SPCK-related posts for the next month or two is SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info. [Aside to Phil: hopefully you will post Plans Coming Together for New Christian Bookshop in Cardiff on the SSG/SPCK site when the time is right - a post well worth sharing.]

I hope to post a bit more on this blog this week, including an announcement about my new book and plans for Lambeth.

Posted by Dave at 1:06 am on July 8, 2008 and filed under Blogging, Save the SPCK.


July 3rd, 2008

Memorial service for Steve Jeynes

worcester spckThe memorial service for Steve Jeynes is now to be held at Worcester Cathedral at 3.30pm on Monday 7th July, followed by refreshments at Worcestershire County Cricket Club.

There is a news item in the Worcester News today, and another in the Worcester Standard. Update: Also Worcester News: Hundreds expected to bookseller’s memorial

Many tributes have been left in the comments of my previous post and on other sites linked from there.

Image: the former SPCK shop in Worcester

Posted by Dave at 7:57 am on July 3, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK.

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There is some tragic news from the Worcester Diocese. This note was sent out today to clergy within the Diocese by the Communications department:

I am very sorry to tell you that Steve Jeynes, has been found dead, apparently having taken his own life. Many of you will know him from his work at the SSGT (ex-SPCK) shop in Worcester, from where he was made redundant two weeks ago.

Please hold (the) family in your prayers, together with the many friends whose lives have been enriched through Steve’s loving generosity in serving the Lord.

Details of the funeral arrangements will be made available in due course.

Doug Chaplain has posted here: In Worcester the SSG / SPCK saga turns to tragedy

Please remember Steve’s family, friends and all affected in your prayers.

Update: A service of Thanksgiving for Steve’s life will take place on Monday 7 July 2008 at 3:30 pm at All Saints’ Church, Deansway, Worcester. The Thanksgiving Service has been moved from All Saints’ Church to the Cathedral at 3.30pm on Monday 7th July followed by refreshments at Worcestershire County Cricket Club.

Further tributes have been posted here and here.

Posted by Dave at 5:53 pm on June 27, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


SPCK / SSG bookshop news

A couple of things:

New website
Phil Groom has set up a new group blog on the subject of the former SPCK shops. It is here: SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info. If you’re interested in SPCK/ SSG updates please bookmark this site and/or subscribe to the feed. I do intend to continue writing on the subject on this blog, but during July and August in particular I will have very little (if any) time to devote to writing on the topic owing to my preparation for and participation in the Lambeth conference and being away from home for various other reasons.

If there is anyone who would like to contribute to the new site please contact Phil directly.

Staff pay
An update to my last post - some staff have now been paid. I have made an update to my last post to reflect this and will update again if it emerges that all staff have now been paid.

News reports
Bookseller: SSG tribunal claims mount
Chester Chronicle: Union action to support sacked Chester bookshop workers
Lincolnshire Echo: ‘Sacked’ shop staff in court action

Posted by Dave at 9:09 am on June 27, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


Bankruptcy papers received
Some people in the UK have been receiving papers relating to the SSG ‘bankruptcy’ from the US Bankruptcy Court of the District of Southern District of Texas. There will apparently be a ‘meeting of creditors’ on 22 July in Houston.

Having done a quick search I notice that there was, on 18 June a ’status conference’ for St Stephen the Great LLC in the bankruptcy court (this can be found on a cached Google page saved here). Information on the chapter 11 bankruptcy process can be found via this page: Chapter 11 - Bankruptcy Basics

All of this must be seen in the light of Usdaw’s statement yesterday, now available on the Usdaw website:

Usdaw firmly believes that the bankruptcy proceedings in the US have no effect in the UK, because this is a UK company with entirely UK-based assets and activities.

Also, from John Hannett, the General Secretary of Usdaw:

These loyal staff are being given misleading information about these US bankruptcy proceedings and the effects this may have on their rights to take legal action in the UK. Our fear is that the Brewers’ actions may be an attempt to move assets away from the business and out of the reach of our members with legitimate claims.

“We will carry on as before with the claims against the Brewers who are accumulating wealth whilst riding roughshod over hard working employees. We will continue to assist all our members affected by this messy situation and work to rectify it as soon as possible.”

Employees not paid
On a related note some (all?) of the people who work or worked in the shops have not been paid today (the 25th) as they would usually be. See for instance these blog comments. [Update: some employees have now been paid]

Telegraph blog post
Christopher Howse (who wrote Saturday’s comment piece) has written on his Telegraph blog about the Orthodox church in Poole: Orthodox Exodus. As others have pointed out this isn’t new information, but I thought I’d post the link anyway.

Posted by Dave at 3:05 pm on June 25, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


Usdaw fights for mistreated bookshop workers

Shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, has submitted 15 employment tribunal claims against the Brewers, US-based brothers who have taken over a chain of UK bookshops and were seeking to impose a new contract on staff, drastically reducing their contractual rights. The Union has over 50 members at the bookshops and is expecting that the number of employment tribunal claims will rise.

The Brewer brothers were gifted the St. Stephen the Great Christian bookshops in 2006 by SPCK. The chain includes 23 bookshops, many of which are historic buildings in prime retail positions.

Following the change of ownership, a new contract was drawn up increasing the working week from 37.5 to 40 hours with no additional pay, turning all part-time staff into casual staff with no guaranteed hours every week and taking away all rights to company sick pay.

Now, virtually all Usdaw members have been dismissed with no notice, some by email, and have received little or no information about what this means for their rights and their pay.

The Brewer brothers have now filed St. Stephen the Great for bankruptcy in the US. Usdaw firmly believes that the bankruptcy proceedings in the US have no effect in the UK, because this is a UK company with entirely UK-based assets and activities. Staff have been told that they can apply for jobs with ENC Management Company, which is also owned by the Brewers, but that they no longer have jobs with St. Stephen the Great.

Usdaw is also aware that the Charity Commission has been alerted to these actions because of its role in regulating the activities of the linked charity, St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust.

John Hannett, Usdaw General Secretary, stated:

“It is clear that staff, many of whom have been long standing loyal workers, have been mistreated and many are understandably very upset and concerned. We are very concerned at a new company (ENC Management Company) being set up in these circumstances, while our members are losing their jobs. These loyal staff are being given misleading information about these US bankruptcy proceedings and the effects this may have on their rights to take legal action in the UK. Our fear is that the Brewers’ actions may be an attempt to move assets away from the business and out of the reach of our members with legitimate claims.

“We will carry on as before with the claims against the Brewers who are accumulating wealth whilst riding roughshod over hard working employees. We will continue to assist all our members affected by this messy situation and work to rectify it as soon as possible.”


St. Stephen the Great shops at which Usdaw members are affected:

§ Cambridge
§ Carlisle
§ Chester
§ Exeter
§ Lincoln
§ Newcastle
§ Norwich
§ Sheffield
§ Worcester
§ York

Usdaw is the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers

Update: This press release is now available via the Usdaw website: Usdaw fights for mistreated bookshop workers

Posted by Dave at 8:13 am on June 24, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


Christopher Howse: The bare and desolate SPCK bookshops

Posted by Dave at 9:57 am on June 21, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


From the Chester Chronicle: Christian bookshop sacks staff by e-mail

From the Eastern Daily Press: Christian bookshop stripped of stock

From the comments below:

The article in the Eastern Daily Press concerning the Norwich shop mentions three potential future tenants.
One of the bids is from the Norwich Christian Resource Centre, a new Community Interest Company with six directors from various denominations, all with a wealth of business experience.
They are giving their time and talents free of charge and are all passionate to re-establish the centre that had become such an integral part of the community of Norfolk and beyond, as quoted in the article.
The company would run as a non-profit making business and strive to return the centre to it’s original ethos, offering the widest breadth of stock, knowledgable staff, a high level of customer service and the ‘best capuccino in town’.
Prayers for this venture very welcome.

Also, from the comments yesterday, this by ‘concerned dad’:

My daughter applied for holiday work via an agency in Newcastle and took up a job in the Newcastle shop - we were completely unaware of the situation. She is expected to work completely on her own for 6 hours a day several days a week, somebody else does the other days - both are temps, no permanent staff, no training or guidance. She has creditors and people chasing book orders ringing up but no information to be able to respond to them. She is employed and paid by the agency (that is the theory anyway, will be interesting to find out what happens on payday!) If we had known about the situation we would not have got into this, but the agency were not very forthcoming with details about the shop until it was virtually too late…. So Newcastle is open - after a fashion, but far from satisfactory situation.

Update (lunchtime) Phil Groom has posted: SPCK/SSG News Archives. (I’ll try to say something about the blog idea later or over the weekend.)

Posted by Dave at 8:18 am on June 20, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


June 19th, 2008
Website updates

salisbury former spck

The SPCKonline website is now the same as the Third Space books website. Details of most shops have been updated. Some, like Salisbury (above - thanks to ezlxq), are on very limited hours and appear to be relying on voluntary labour. I’m aware that I need to keep updating the shop roundup page - updates appreciated.

The entry for the Norwich shop says ‘You are not authorised to view this resource’. That is probably because there is no resource to view - I am informed that a removal firm packed up all the books, fixtures and fittings and was taking them to the Chichester shop today.

Meanwhile the St Stephen the Great LLC website has been updated today “Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 June 2008 )“, but there is still no mention of the ‘bankruptcy’.

I have updated the Church Times blog with a list of news reports and letters about the former SPCK shops.

Melanie, the former manager of the SPCKonline site has written an interesting comment on Phil’s bookshop blog.

Posted by Dave at 5:43 pm on June 19, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


June 18th, 2008
Norwich / York


Network Norwich has the following: Norwich Christian bookshop closes its doors

Meanwhile, from the comments section of this blog:

In 2003 I was taken to a city centre deconsecrated church by Stephen Platten, then Dean of Norwich. We both thought how splendid it would be to relocate the SPCK Bookshop, it’s decrepid premises huddling in a side street, to this magnificent medieval building.
In January of the next year Bishop Graham James officially blessed the vision along with representatives from virtually every denomination.
After many trials and tribulations and delays of several months, the centre opened on 13 July 2004. I had been privileged to help plan the layout and the concept.
Over 180 people attended the rededictation of the church to it’s new use in on a Friday morning in October 2004!
Within 3 years the loyal team had doubled the turnover of the previous shop and provided access to thousands of visitors from the Christian faith or none, to be offered an exceptionally broad range of product, a place to meet and be refreshed in the cafe.
We held events on a monthly basis. Highlights included: a lecture by Bishop Tom Wright attended by 350 plus, an Advent evening with Ronald Blythe during which three Salvation Army bandsmen managed to ascend the spiral staircase complete with trombone and play from the balcony, debates between bishops and humanists; Professor Brian Thorne and Ian Gibson MP and a Fawlty Towers evening!
This morning I visited the centre with my two sons, on the last day of trading. It was in fact open after 11-00.
To describe it as semi-vandalised would not be overstating the sight of half-empty boxes relocated from the London shop several weeks ago still blocking the porch and what is left of the stock lurching across the shelves.
Visiting the church on a regular basis over the past months I have been moved from frustration, to anger, to sadness, to disbelief as to how such a thiving resource could be laid to seed.
Today is a very sad day for the ex-staff, all but one of whom have yet to find new employment and the Christian community, who are voicing that ‘their’ centre has been lost - a high compliment indeed.
I count myself blessed to have been offered an alternative position within the Christian retail environment and have thus stayed in touch with so many of my customers who had become friends.
However, it’s never over until the Canary sings as we say in Narwich, so please keep praying for an unlikely resurrection in the not too distant future.
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’


‘Richard and Gill’ on Flickr have a recent picture of the former SPCK shop in York.

Meanwhile, I found this blog post written in Chinese on June 16. It sounds as if it is by someone working in the York shop. Google translated it as follows:

I should be very fortunate, at least in this area to work, to York the second week, it began a career Part-time job. However, this is not so much a subjective initiative, I found, than to use a blind cat encountered more aptly described as dead mice. At that time, purely in the City Centre Luancuan, Okay, I admit that, in fact, I had lost. The results of the accidents that have been in SPCK work.

This is one in the entire United Kingdom has 28 Chain stores of the Christian Bookshop, a harmonious working atmosphere, have fixed the breakfast 11am and 3pm the afternoon tea time and all the break are paid. However, however, however, but, boom is not long, SPCK be acquired. A U.S. company called SSG took over the bookstore this. British indeed are born of hatred of Americans, the shop all the old staff have left, but Fortunately, the Manager of new people is pretty good. I want to go to the SSG, also by the nature of the work before the development of a simple cashier to accountant, gradually began to contact the bank’s work. Sense of accomplishment that is not an ordinary Youranersheng ah.

Boom is not really long, SSG recently went bankrupt, another bookstore was an American company take over. David and Olga have left, I left the bookstore on the people. Optimistic, I am now boss hey. Pessimistic, I really do not know Bookstore will close on this, I have on unemployment.

SPCK in the UK with my life is inseparable from, I Baijia all have come from the capital where wages. However, it also sacrificed a lot with my family Dear Amanda travel out of time. Switzerland, Rome, Prague, Barcelona, Fuluolunsa I have no time to. My dear SPCK, you can see in my youth to take all the copies to you, will not be so quick to close OK. You, and so I kept enough money to the United States, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, the Arctic Circle, and so I kept enough money to buy Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Prada to the temporary close it, but I travel back and so on, then opened the door for ah

This might or might not mean that the York shop is open.

Posted by Dave at 11:28 am on June 18, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK.


News reports

Closures and openings

  • We think that the shops that have closed since the bankruptcy announcement are:
    Birmingham, Canterbury, Chester, Exeter, Newcastle, Norwich (closing on June 14) Worcester, York. These may be temporary or permanent.
  • Salisbury is now open again.
  • I’m still attempting to maintain a complete list here.

New map

  • On the Third Space books site (Is Third Space books bankrupt or not? Not sure.) a new map of the SSG shops appeared on June 7. Bristol, Carlisle, Lincoln and London have been taken off. Cardiff remains. ‘Leichester’ (not on the old map) has been added.

Posted by Dave at 8:20 am on June 13, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


Exeter shop

I have been attempting to update my SPCK bookshop roundup page. Please take a look and tell me whether I am being accurate.

In the last few days I have been told that the following shops have been closed, but some of these closures might be temporary:

Posted by Dave at 6:11 pm on June 11, 2008 and filed under Save the SPCK, Religion.


Elegantly dressed Wednesday

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Aliens do exist

...and were out and about in Canterbury. Weird creatures arriving from all corners of the galaxy for some utterly unfathomable exercise in introspection. Since nobody agreed with anyone else and there was no prospect of them ever doing so they ended up just forming small groups round the Archbishop for their souvenir snapshots before they all headed off back into outer space.

Dr Rowan Williams expression was in turns confused and anxious, until he finally settled for solemnity, rounding on those left behind and blaming them because the party hadn't been quite the resounding success he had intended.

Still, at least we now know why he's so attracted to the certainties offered by Sharia Law.

Normal service resumes

I've not posted here for some time. Given my ironic interest in the Bishopric, I'd like to be able to say that it was because I was so gripped by the excitement of the Lambeth Conference, but in reality it was more mundane, I simply had other things that required my attention for a while. Anyway I'm back now, and in full working order again.