WHO can imagine the horror a family tragedy must accrue when it is mired in political intrigue and international conspiracy? And how comforting to find humanity irrepressible even here, in the wholly incorrigible person of Jim Swire.
Who can iimagine the horror a family tragedy must accrue when it is mired in political intrigue and international conspiracy? And how comforting to find humanity irrepressible even here, in the wholly incorrigible person of Jim Swire.
Dr Swire’s bereavement has brought him some strange bedfellows over the 24 years since his daughter, Flora, died when Pan Am flight 103 plummeted to earth. At the book festival’s opening headliner, he was flanked by John Ashton, who has written a book with the “Lockerbie bomber”, the late Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and by Hans Kochler, who was a UN observer at Megrahi’s conviction and failed appeal. It is a measure of how much the village GP’s persistence has helped to shape the story of Lockerbie that this was a panel unanimous about Megrahi’s status as a scapegoat. Each of the three was persuasive about the evidential and logical incompetence of the investigations into the bombing and the Libyan’s conviction – and about the political pressures behind the cover-up. They had a partisan audience, too; even the elderly gentleman next to me confided he had personal knowledge of the covert pressures one of the Scottish judges had suffered. Only the journalist Magnus Linklater questioned the credibility of Ashton’s implication of “the biggest conspiracy that has taken place in Europe since the Second World War”.
Jim Swire was undistracted, raising both laughter and applause as he tested the patience of Ruth Wishart in the chair over some intricate detail of evidence (“I don’t do ‘short’,” he teased her). Later, the septuagenarian confided he is hoping soon to “step back from the front line” of the quest for truth about Lockerbie, which sounds like a retirement bravely earned.
The issue of individuality amid political crisis became one of the unexpected themes of a subsequent session about the global upheavals of 2011. Ian Black of the Guardian has written extensively about the “positive contagion” that carried the regime-changing Arab Spring from Tunisia through Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria. Though not all the changes have held, Black was bullish about the future, telling his audience: “The cork is not going to be put back in the bottle.”
He described how he had travelled to meet some Syrian revolutionaries, and found them gearing up to film him on their mobile phones. “They said, ‘YouTube is our most powerful weapon, not guns’,” he reported, adding the problematic truth that the social media patently have not effected revolution.
It fell to the BBC correspondent Paul Mason to offer a more radical interpretation. Newsnight’s economics editor believes the new technology is shaping a fundamental change in human behaviour, and that the real issue for the YouTube revolutionaries is not so much toppling regimes as the ability to express themselves. This is a global development, and with neo-liberalism increasingly ineffectual after the 2008 crunch, Mason pictured a future for all of us in which there is “a more fragmented workforce, and people living parallel and multiple lifestyles, all due to technology”.
Caroline Moorehead brought a historical perspective with a moving account of the 230 women of the French Resistance who were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. These were ordinary citizens who had printed leaflets, acted as couriers or helped Jews escape the Nazi occupation, and Moorehead – whose father was among the liberating troops who entered Belsen in 1945 – interviewed the survivors: “Strong, fabulous, interesting women in their 90s.”
What she unearthed was a story of female friendship quite unlike the distant relationships of the male prisoners, and fostering a disproportionately high survival rate (49 returned). But the writer’s greatest surprise, she said, came from the women’s attitude. Despite all they had suffered and lost, they refused to regret what had happened: “It was worth it – because it was essential for France that people stood against what was happening”, as their biographer put it.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east