What to Watch
I’m just finishing a six episode BBC series on Kanopy: The Trial of Christine Keeler. Does anyone remember the scandal in 1963 in Britain which set the stage for the defeat of the Tory government of Harold Macmillan? Keeler was a London model barely out her teens who had an affair with the Minister of War (Jack Profumo who was touted for the next prime minister) and was also linked to a Russian naval attaché, and KGB spy, called Yvgeny Ivanov. The Profumo affair was bookended by serious UK national security breaches. At the heart of which were high profile British nationals who spied for the USSR—some of whom defected to Moscow. They included the infamous Cambridge Five; George Blake and an American couple – spies based in London –Morris and Lona Cohen See my review of a book about them here and here
The Profumo affair which rocked the British establishment took place five short years after London’s Notting Hill “riots” – a series of uprisings over five days in August 1958. The riots were triggered by violent racial attacks on Blacks by working class white men. The Blacks were mostly West Indian immigrants who were part of the “Windrush generation”. The Blacks faced incredible racism, poverty and police brutality. Keeler, who at first lived in Notting Hill, had a couple of Black boyfriends but ultimately gave them up in order to date men who had some social caché and money.
Photos below, clockwise: From the 2019 BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler, a photo of actors representing Keeler and her best friend Mandy Rice-Davies; photo from The Guardian special on Keeler’s death in 2017, credit Popperfoto/Getty Images 1963; 1962 photo of Profumo in a car, credit Ron Case/Getty Images; Sketches of celebrities by the talented osteopath Dr Stephen Ward who was a central figure in the Profumo affair. These drawings were featured in The Illustrated London News in 1960; Photo of Christine Keeler in 1963, by Lewis Morley. Keeler is sitting on a copy of an Ame Jacobsen chair.
The BBC series written, produced and directed by women is excellent, tightly written and nuanced. It allows Keeler to speak for herself. And we see a woman is trying desperately to chart her own course — and resents being labelled a prostitute. The trial of Dr Stephen Ward, a London osteopath to the rich and famous, was instrumental in leading to Keeler’s unhappy decline. Macmillan’s Tory government crashed and burned, and Labour was elected in 1964 and lasted until 1970.
The Good Fight
I’ve written briefly about this before, but The Good Fight includes three excellent seasons of an American legal drama on Amazon Prime. This series tackles all kinds of social, sex and race issues all against the political backdrop of the ultra right-wing Trump years. Though the Chicago law firm is all Black, except for one white lawyer, the lawyers fight among themselves to go along to get along with authorities, or to try to boost the Democratic Party any way possible. Rivetting. I highly recommend the series. A very short trailer is here.
I watched a feature film on Kanopy called The Subject. The Subject is a 2020 film billed as one about a documentary filmmaker who has the camera turned on himself. But the film is all about race and class in the US today. A successful doc filmmaker, who is white, completes a new film about four Black teenagers who are in a gang, or Brotherhood as they call it. His earlier socially relevant films have shown at Sundance; he has money, a nice house, a nice Puerto Rican girlfriend and a future. What is really taking place is the filmmaker’s life is being eroded by his own prejudice and the tarnishing of his public image which is as a man full of integrity and kindness. This is an excellent film. It is dramatic, great script and one in which the tables are certainly turned. This is one of the few films I’ve seen in which the last hour of the film is the best – the most shocking and the most socially relevant. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s a must see. Again on Kanopy with your public library card, it’s free.
Here’s the trailer
APTN has an investigative series which is excellent: In Plain Sight exposes at least one OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) officer who targets and sexually exploits Indigenous women in Kenora in northwestern Ontario. Ruth Machimity, 43, was a victim of sexual abuse and drugs in her childhood family, and ran away. She was put in foster homes, in detention centres and treatment facilities — all due to her hellish past. This close up account of Machimity and the ugly truth of what happens in towns like Kenora, Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout and others are key elements of settler colonialism that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report tried hard to illuminate and address. Watch In Plain Sight here
Below: the site of St Mary’s Indian Residential School, 3 km from Kenora. It was run by Catholic Church. (credit Kelly Malone/CBC); Kenricia Hotel dating from 1910 is in downtown Kenora (credit Kenneth Jackson/APTN); photo of Ruth Machimity in Kenora (credit Cullen Cozier/APTN);
In another investigation, APTN examines the troubling situation of missing and murdered Indigenous men. Lucas Degerness, aged 14, disappeared from his high school in Prince George, BC in June 2007. This report is full of information and firsthand accounts of disappearances of men and boys. Of course still more girls and women go missing but men too disappear and police seem to be just as reticent to investigate. Watch it here.
What to Read
I’ve mentioned this person before here and here, but Mark Stobbe has recently written a book The “Mr Big” Sting: The cases, the killers, the controversial confessions (ECW Press) which I just read. Stobbe beat a charge of murder when his wife, Beverly Rowbotham, who was also mother of their two pre-school sons, was found dead in a Selkirk, MB shopping mall parking lot in October 2000. Though he was not charged for nearly 10 years, he was clearly a suspect. In a sensational trial in 2012 in which Stobbe gave evidence, he was found not guilty for Rowbotham’s grisly murder. You can read about the crime and the sensational trial here. After the trial, Stobbe returned to university and earned a PhD in criminology at the University of Saskatchewan.
This book looks at the police use and abuse of Mr Big stings. Not legal in the UK or the US, here in Canada there have been hundreds of cases which relied on Mr Big to convict a suspect. In a Mr Big operation, experienced cops are given permission to form a fake crime gang or ring which supposedly carries out petty crimes, and talks about committing more serious ones. A friendly and gregarious gang member (really, an undercover cop) befriends the suspect whom the police want to nail for involvement in a murder or a serious crime. The suspect is given money, meals in restaurants, tickets to sports games and even travel in return for driving what he (or she I suppose) thinks are stolen cars, or small robberies. The gang offers friendship and a much bigger life than the suspect ever had before. In exchange for being part of the gang, the suspect is told he has to tell the truth about the worst example of his own criminal behaviour to the head of the gang, dubbed Mr Big. Often the suspect confesses – but of course there are true confessions and coerced confessions. There are also false confessions. Stobbe sits on the fence of the Mr Big tactic – but admits many crimes would not ever have been solved without it.
Below: Book jacket for The Mr Big Sting; photo of Beverly Rowbotham (Selkirk CBC); Mark Stobbe (CBC)
Stobbe looks at a handful of high profile cases in which police have used Mr Big to gain confessions. One case was that of the Hart twins, three-year old girls in rural Newfoundland who were drowned in Gander Lake — allegedly by their father. Stobbe reports on this case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada which rejected the the use of the Mr Big scenario to convict the father, Nelson Hart. This is one of the most interesting (and shocking) case. Stobbe also looks at jailhouse informants who for a lesser sentence often give evidence against a suspect incarcerated and awaiting trial. Often a jailhouse informant incriminates the person charged with a crime – or leads to a wrongful conviction.
Coercive control: In Control by Jane Monckton-Smith
I’ve also read In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder by British criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith. Smith spent her early 20s as a policewoman in England. It was that role which prompted her to investigate control issues in relationships. She left the police, went to university and became Professor of Protection at Gloucestershire University. Her interest is in women’s welfare and health, especially pertaining to the very real (and frankly universal) issue of coercive control. In her research, Smith has looked at more than 370 cases of coercive control. She suggests eight stages or patterns that can be used to determine whether one partner in a relationship is under the other’s coercive control. This book is well-written and a real page turner.
While the victim and killer’s intimate relationship often begins reasonably enough, it telescopes to the point that there is little way out of the situation except for the victim to die. And the victim is usually female, the killer male. The author looks at four cases, in which she interviews the jailed killer who is the former spouse. She explodes the myths around ‘crimes of passion’ – but according to Smith — we understand it the way Hollywood has portrayed it. In reality, a crime of passion has little to do with jealousy, and the spouse does not “snap”. A crime of passion occurs when one partner often meticulously plans the murder of his or her spouse and carries it out. According to Smith,
“The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in 2019 that 87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017 with over half that were killed edby a partner or family member. These numbers reflect recorded homicides, but the real number is much higher everywhere femicide is a serious public health and criminal justice issue.”
If Only I Had Told by Esther W is a far different book than I first thought. If you recall, on the Scottish islands of Orkney in the early 1990s five families were broken up, children put in childrens’ homes and training schools because of “satanic sexual abuse” charges against many adults. In fact there was nothing to these charges of satanic abuse.
Esther W was one of 15 children on a small subsistence farm on South Ronaldsay Island in the Orkney’s . She grew up in extreme poverty, with a father who beat her and the other children – some just babies– and forced sex on the girls, including Esther. Anything that gave the children pleasure – such as pets – he killed or deliberately starved to death. Esther’s mother became catatonic, so Esther and the older children had to fend for themselves and try to care for their younger siblings.
This book is a shocking look at how social workers, a social services department, police and judges jumped to conclusions, were persistently classist, kicked down and kissed up to higher authority and totally destroyed Esther’s family and four other families. In fact Esther’s two youngest sisters aged two and five were put into care, and then adopted out without the permission of the mother. Esther and her mother never saw them again.
Though her father was convicted, jailed and forbidden from seeing his family again — the W family problems were far from over. This book, an autobiography, shows what a girl with a frightening and miserable childhood suffered well into her adulthood. Esther writes well and describes the situation, including the politics on an isolated island and the excessive power that the authorities wield.
Link to Martensville, SK “sex abuse” cases
I suppose I wanted to read the book because the Martensville, Saskatchewan moral panic which still haunts me. Not only did I live through the false accusations, false imprisonment, and the destruction of one family, and others’ lives – but I had to watch the crown counsel, and the lead social workers build their reputations on prosecuting innocent people. I raised money for the Sterling family – who had lost their home because Ron Sterling, who had been deputy director of Saskatoon Corrections, was fired when he was accused of child sex abuse. His wife, Linda, who operated a home daycare, also could not work. The Sterling’s grown son and teenage daughter went to jail. I had to find a place for the family to live during their court case – because no one would rent to them. Finally, I found a woman manager at a down-at-the-heels hotel, the King George, who agreed to rent them a suite – for what I thought was an exorbitant rent. Of course standing up for the Sterlings, I lost friends, lots of them– including a legal aid lawyer, the man who operated the local independent movie theatre, and an investigative journalist friend. And a lawyer who helped those charged lost his government clients– the NDP was the government of the day. This was all as punishment. The CBC’s 2020 podcast series Satanic Panic is a vanilla version of events. It doesn’t give a sense of the terror at the time, it does give the policewoman who basically instigated the ill-founded charges centre stage. Windows in many many Saskatoon homes and businesses had a square poster “We Believe the Children.” Churches rented signs to put out front. In the end, the case against the Sterlings and the others fell apart. But not before horrendous damage was done.
I remember one day I was in court and an 11-year-old boy, who had attended Linda’s home daycare after school, gave evidence. He said a sex object was used on him by Linda. The crown counsel held up a vibrator and asked the boy if that was it. The boy hesitated and said, “Yeah but where is the ruler?” At that very minute in the courtroom the Crown was circulating a photo of that exhibit – the vibrator –also in the photo was a tape measure below it. Most photos of exhibits have a ruler or measure beside them to show the size. Clearly the boy had never seen the vibrator – other than in the photo.
Pay day loans and poverty
Saskatchewan’s own Briarpatch “fiercely independent” magazine has a great March/April issue. Two articles in particular stand out. The first is The Debt Engine, written by Dan Darrah. He looks at the anatomy of pay-day loans and with reference to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and his own investigation of ACORN members who have had to take out loans, the journalist sees clearly what is happening. I didn’t know (for example) that Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits charging above 60% interest but “… exception is given to payday loans so long as provinces have regulatory legislation in place. Some provinces – and, increasingly, cities – have taken some action, but most still permit enormous annualized percentage rates (the total cost of borrowing spread over a year).” You can read the article here.
A second must-read is Administrative Sabotage by Andrea Conte. He writes about the Canadian connections to COINTELPRO – surveillance of the left and progressive forces in this country from the 60s on. This surveillance and security material includes the RCMP’s role in the warfare of COINTELPRO. I’ve written about the US COINTELPRO program here and here. It was the catalyst for the fall of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile and responsible for his murder.
“By the late 1960s, the FBI and RCMP had coordinated their surveillance of members of the Black Power movement who were crossing the border from the US into Canada. In a secret report to Ottawa headquarters in December 1968, director-general of RCMP security…”see the article here
Conte’s article reveals a lot about the RCMP and its surveillance (and arrests) of leftists and Black activists such as Rocky Jones, Rosie Douglas (based in Montreal). Conte also writes about a Black Panther who was bodyguard to Stokely Carmichael who turned out to be a police agent, George Sams. You can read the article here.
What to Listen to…
Fairy Meadow: In 1970, three-year-old Cheryl Grimmer disappears from a change room at Fairy Meadow, a crowded public beach in Australia. She’s never been seen again. Her 8-year-old brother, who walked her to the change room, hoisted her up to drink from a water fountain, then turned his back for a minute – and Cheryl was gone. This nine-part podcast examines what happened that day, and how suspicion was cast at first on the brother, and then on a 15-year-old youth who lived in a hostel nearby. The police investigation was less than adequate. There is a $1 million reward for information about the kidnapper. Though there is a campaign to charge the now nearly 60-year-old suspect — it is easier said than done. Here it is.
Left: Fairy Meadow Beach today, the change room from which Cheryl went missing is the closest building in the photo (Getty Images). Centre: Civilians join the search for Cheryl (1970 Getty Images); Right: Cheryl on the beach, a family photo.
The Writer’s Voice – new fiction in The New Yorker –has an excellent short story After the Funeral, read by its author, Tessa Hadley. Though the title makes it sound glum, the story is actually funny in parts and very much a tale of the 70s about a mother-led family which seems to do better without the deceased father than with him. Listen here.
In 9 minutes, the BBC’s Witness History presents Chandigarh- India’s city of the future. This is fascinating. Milton Keynes in England, and Brasilia in Brazil were “new cities” or model cities established in the ‘50s and ‘60s – they were meant to be excellent places to live and work. The idea behind Brasilia, for example, was “to build a new capital to bring progress to the interior of Brazil,” according to Oscar Niemeyer, its architect. Built in the country’s heartland in 1960, Brasilia was to be the opposite of the old coastal capital Rio de Janeiro. Brasilia would be built without the vestiges of colonialism, without baroque and classical architecture, and without slums.
Some of the wonderful buildings built in the ’50s and ’60s in Chandigarh. All these photos are credited to Roberto Conte. Clockwise from the top: mixed use block, 1955; Stadium, 1960 ; Chandigarh Palace of Assembly 1951-65; Panjabi University Student Centre 1975; Chandigarh College of Architecture 1961
So Chandigarh was created in the 1950s in the wake of the creation of India as an independent nation in ’48. It was designed by French architect Le Corbusier. This podcast follows a contemporary Indian architect and resident of Chandigarh around the city, and speaks to locals about their home city which didn’t exist 70 years ago. It’s delightful. Listen here
Why does nothing ever change in Thunder Bay? is a good question and one that the Globe and Mail’s Willow Fiddler – an Indigenous journalist based there—tries to sort out on The Big Story podcast. Twenty minutes here.
Featured Image: Spring by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Flemish, 1622-35)