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A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to the read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

Terrorised into compliance

Edvard Munch, (1893) The Scream

Learning and teaching is a complex business, difficult to describe even by those in the process of either/or both. Pedagogy, as defined by Lexico is ‘[t]he method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept’. It underpins all teaching activity and despite the seemingly straightforward definition, is a complex business.  At university, there are a variety of pedagogies both across and within disciplines. How to teach, is as much of a hot topic, as what to teach and the methods and practices are varied.

So how would you feel if I said I wanted Criminology students to quake in their boots at the prospect of missing classes? Or “literally feel terror” at the thought of failing to do their reading or not submitting an assessment? Would you see this as a positive attempt to motivate an eager learner? A reaction to getting the best out of lazy or recalcitrant students? A way of instilling discipline, keeping them on the straight and narrow on the road to achieving success? After all, if the grades are good then everything must be okay? Furthermore, given many Criminology graduate go on to careers within Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ maybe it would be useful to give them a taste of what’s to come for the people they deal with (1977: 209).

Hopefully, you are aghast that I would even consider such an approach (I promise, I’m definitely not) and you’ve already thought of strong, considered arguments as to why this would be a very bad idea Yet, last week the new Home Secretary, Pritti Patel stated that she wanted people to “literally feel terror” at the prospect of becoming involved in crime. Although presented as a novel policy, many will recognise this approach as firmly rooted in ideas from the Classical School of Criminology. Based on the concepts of certainty, celerity and severity, these ideas sought to move away from barbaric notions and practices to a more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment.

Deterrence (at the heart of Classical School thought) can be general or specific; focused on society or individuals. Patel appears to be directing her focus on the latter, suggesting that feelings of “terror” will deter individuals from committing crime. Certainly, one of the classical school’s primary texts, On Crime and Punishment addresses this issue:

‘What is the political intention of punishments? To terrify, and to be an example to others. Is this intention answered, by thus privately torturing the guilty and the innocent?’

(Beccaria, 1778: 64)

So, let’s think through this idea of terrorising people away from crime, could it work? As I’ve argued before if your crime is a matter of conscience it is highly unlikely to work (think Conscientious Objectors, Suffragettes, some terrorists). If it is a crime of necessity, stealing to feed yourself or your family, it is also unlikely to succeed, certainly the choice between starvation and crime is terrifying already. What about children testing boundaries with peers, can they really think through all the consequences of actions, research suggests that may not be case (Rutherford, 1986/2002). Other scenarios could include those under the influence of alcohol/drugs and mental health illnesses, both of which may have an impact on individual ability to think through problems and solutions. All in all, it seems not everyone can be deterred and furthermore, not all crimes are deterrable (Jacobs, 2010). So much for the Home Secretary’s grand solution to crime.

As Drillminister demonstrates to powerful effect, violent language is contextual (see @sineqd‘s discussion here). Whilst threats to kill are perceived as violence when uttered by young, black men in hoods, in the mouths of politicians they apparently lose their viciousness. What should we then make of Pritti Patel’s threats to make citizens “literally feel terror”?

Selected bibliography

Beccaria, Cesare, (1778), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Edinburgh: Alexander Donaldson), [online]. Available from: https://archive.org/details/essayoncrimespu00Becc/page/n3

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Jacobs, Bruce A., (2010), ‘Deterrence and Deterrability’, Criminology, 48, 2: 417-441

Rutherford, Andrew, (1986/2002), Growing Out of Crime: The New Era, (Winchester: Waterside Press)

How to boil an egg…A criminological issue?

Another academic year is coming close to an end.  After the plans and the changes made there is always a little time for reflection to ask what is in a year?  The rhetorical question implies that there is an expected answer and that is true, well sometimes!  After years serving HE it is becoming clear that things change “τα πάντα ρει”, everything flows as Heraclitus once said.  Education is about knowledge and as it progresses, we progress with it. 

In previous posts the value of education and reading for a subject like criminology has been argued, but ultimately what does it really mean to complete one year of education in HE?  Well if you are on your first year it is the recognition that you can do this!  The first step in many more to follow on the road to academic understanding.  If you are on your second year you demonstrate perseverance, sticking with the subject you chose, and you continue to read more of it.  Finally, if you are on your third year it is the anticipation of completion of a course of study.  The successful conclusion of studies that will award you with a title. 

This end for some is the end of the formal part of their higher education, whilst for others it is simply the beginning of the end of a longer and more arduous journey in learning.  An exam board shall mark this end when all colleagues will read name after name, grade after grade, but this is only part of that story.  The other part is the memories on learning that it will launch.  I still hear stories of students remembering a lecture with a slide title “Lesbian Vampire Killers” on a session on media and crime which seems to tickle our alumni, or a phrase used in a class again and again for emphasis.  Using a metaphor or an example that takes you away from the prescribed values.  Some of the readers may remember my question “How long to hard boil an egg?”  A question that revealed some of us have limited culinary skills, but the intended purpose was to allow us to look at the question of positionality and context.  It only takes a couple of pre vs post- war Italian cookbooks to realise that the question can be answered considering the social situation and the energy requirements of its time.  A country famed for its culinary status, but also broken from a second world war that decimated infrastructures and harmed population.  Poverty, theft, antisocial behaviour, violence but also recriminations for the incurred destruction became the other effects hidden behind a seemingly random change in a number on a cookbook. *        

My personal favourite was going over a criminal profiling case with students of the wrong year who were looking at me rather confused on the content.  I shall never of course forget my sex offenders lecture to accounting students (I got the place and time wrong) which according to my bemused colleague who was watching me from the corner an interesting interlude from his session!  These little anecdotes do not sustain knowledge, but they remind us how we got to be in that place. 

Regardless of the subject of study or its level, all “participants” who engage in higher education gain one significant attribute, that of perspective.  The ability to look closely of a idea through the disciplinary lens but also to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, thus making perspective more relevant.  Perspective is distance and as we gain more knowledge, the better our judgement becomes in using this lens to zoom in and out. This is what we acquire as we progress through higher education.    

*I could also point out the existential symbolism of the egg as the representation of the soul and the time to boil it is a metaphor for torment in the proverbial purgatory…but I will not

Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

The lone wolf: a media creation or a criminological phenomenon?

In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories.  Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations.  It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.

The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”.  A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre.  These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it.  In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”.  A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle. 

In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other.  23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher.  The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed.  The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief. 

Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest.  And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened.  We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered.  The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder.  Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen. 

At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses.  Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people.  Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act.  Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands.  This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain.  A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton).  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once.  This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him.  We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution.  In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns.  Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter. 

“Political Drillin”

Slide1

A recent track that has come to light which incorporates Drill Music is that called ‘Political Drillin’. On the track the artist manages to incorporate quotes from politicians; which proves he is highly deserving of his title ‘DrillMinister’.

What was particularly shocking to me was how easy it was for the governmental quotes to actually fit in with what he was initially rapping about, considering how frowned upon the genre is by these same figures.

It becomes very obvious that the slurs deemed as “violent” are ones that much of us are accustomed to hearing on a daily basis. In my interpretation, the artist seems to be bringing this to light. When young people use similar racial, derogatory terms towards one another it is seen to be violent and makes headlines, but politicians seem to throw these around in parliament without being reprimanded for their actions. Why is this continuously tolerated?

The fact that these comments are known to all and no action is taken against them demonstrates that there is a certain calibre of people that can be deemed as criminal and those who will not. Once again shedding light on the class, age and racial division that is hanging over society.

So once again I put the question out…is drill music a cause of violent crime, or are we simply a criminal society? If the DrillMinister can be labelled violent, surely politicians should be too?

 

*The image contains a quote from Jess Phillips MP utilised as a lyric by DrillMinister:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spJoRLpDLLM

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