Many of those present struggled to make their voices heard. Photograph: Raphael Gray
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The Ballad Of Not Reading In Gaol: Carol Ann Duffy and others declaim for prisoners' rights

A report from today’s Howard League protest.

Is justice secretary Chris Grayling a philistine? The Howard League for Penal Reform thinks so. The campaign group held a protest today outside HMP Pentonville to oppose his ban on the sending of books and other small items to British inmates.

The crowd  mostly journalists  gathered on the Caledonian Road at 2.30 pm. Howard League chief executive Frances Crook explained that we had assembled “to celebrate books, to celebrate literature”. A parade of worthies proceeded to read snatches of poetry in a show of defiance against the government. Headliner Carol Anne Duffy, the poet laureate, was a disappointment; her words did not exactly ring above the noise of the street and the clack of massed camera shutters. In fact, little of the verse soared, even in the mouths of those reading Wordsworth and Shelly. But Samuel West’s thunderous performance of a Mark Hurst ditty called “50 Shades of Grayling” at least had the virtue of being funny: “Less likely to give the nonces a shankin’ if your missus sends you the new Ian Rankin”.

The arguments voiced were straightforward but powerful. Books are a right, a tool for self-improvement. A. L. Kennedy spoke eloquently of her time spent working in an unnamed prison, where a weekly writers' group had helped stave off madness. She called books “spiritual food”. They preserve minds in institutions that work to destroy them, especially when they fall into the hands of private companies.

Shutters clacked faster when actress Vanessa Redgrave took centre stage. She read a poem of her own and a verse of “Imagine” by John Lennon. Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaign group Liberty, called Grayling a “spiteful and disgusting” man through a loudhailer.

The activists took it for granted that righteousness was on their side, but some residents of Islington disagreed. “They don’t deserve it”, shouted a man in a white van.

Crook brought proceedings to a close after thirty minutes. The crowd had been slowly closing around her all afternoon, prompting some of the photographers and camera operators to exchange words as they jostled for space. When dismissed, the journalists broke rank and pushed towards the speakers for comment.

The Howard League wants to force a government u-turn. Grayling says that won’t happen. But the longer his prison book ban stays in the news, the more isolated the minister will become.

European People's Party via Creative Commons
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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.