Thursday 30 July 2009

Remembering the White Guard

All this is simple, as blood and sweat are:
A Tsar for a people, a people for a Tsar.
All this is clear as two's secret, shared:
Two together--the Spirit's third.
The Tsar's raised from heaven upon his throne.
This is as pure as sleep and snow.
The Tsar will climb to his throne again,
yet--All this is holy, as blood and sweat.

From The Swan’s Encampment by Marina Tsvetaeva

Having written about the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and prior to that Lenin, I now intend to let my lush romanticism fly over another of my favourite topics-the Russian White Guard. The story of the men and women of the Volunteer Army deserves to be better remembered; their courage deserves to be remembered; their determination to save their country from the likes of Lenin and Trotsky deserves to be remembered; their tragedy deserves to be remembered.

Most people, I suppose, know little about the Russian Civil War, and what little they know tends to be inaccurate. What I should say, first off, is that Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 was not a revolution, as commonly described, but a military putsch by a gang of murderous desperados. The real Revolution, the democratic revolution, if you prefer, came in March of that same year. A Provisional Government was formed pending the election of a Constituent Assembly, the first fully democratic body in Russian history. But when it met it was immediately dismissed by the Communists, who had received half of the vote of their nearest rivals. A new dictatorship, based on force and terror, was then put in place.

The Volunteers, a tiny band of officers of the old army, based in the far south seemed from the start to be in a hopeless position. Lavar Kornilov managed to organise a core of resistance in the city of Rostov-on-Don; but, under attack by the Reds, he was forced to abandon his position, as the White Guard retreated into the Kuban in the deep of winter. This was the beginning of the Ice March, one of the true epics of Russian history. Anton Denikin, Kornilov’s second-in-command, said of this, “We went from the dark night of spiritual slavery to unknown wandering in search of the bluebird.” In Russian folklore the bluebird is the symbol of hope.

Kornilov was killed on the march but the White Guard survived under the command of Denikin. Thousands joined, including Sergei Yakovlevich Efron, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband. The tide washed almost to the walls of Moscow. Unfortunately for Russia, unfortunately for the people of Russia, the Reds had a commanding control of the centre of the country and the rail network. The Putschists survived; the bluebird died.

On that same visit to Moscow, when I went to gawp at Lenin, or what purports to be Lenin, I also visited the grave of Anton Denikin at the Donskoy Monastery, this time in a spirit of quiet reverence.

Servant of the State; Servant of France; Servant of God

I've always found Cardinal Mazarin and intriguing and complex figure in much the same fashion as England's Cardinal Wolsey, servants of the state first and of God second.

Was Mazarin a disciple of Machiavelli? He certainly gives all of the outward signs of being so, an exponent of the arts of political realism, not over-troubled, perhaps, by more general ethical considerations. I'm not sure, though, what the alternative would have been to a policy that ensured the integrity of the French state at a point where it was threatened with political fragmentation. He was, moreover, one of the best statesmen and diplomats France ever had, guiding the country through some difficult times.

As far as religion is concerned, well, Mazarin was always more secular than spiritual, a Cardinal who never became a priest. He was no purist and no crusader, and was even prepared to do business with such noted anti-Catholics as Oliver Cromwell. It was all part of his pragmatic character, in which doctrine, and the imperatives of orthodoxy, played very little part.

Yet on his death he left 600,000 livres to help finance a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Was this an act of a bad conscience? Perhaps; we will never know for certain. What we do know is that he was revered by Louis XIV and died a well-respected figure, unlike his unfortunate English counterpart. Of Mazarin it was said in 1661 "No one left his presence without being persuaded of his reasoning and struck by his graciousness. His intentions were good; he could never say evil of anyone...and was unable to hate even his own enemies." Not a bad epitaph.

Of Terror and Revolution

There is an interesting parallel between Stalin’s Great Terror and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, seemingly so different, but aimed at the same purpose; namely of elimination of all obstacles on the path of supreme power.

In the Terror the whole tone was set by the trial of Georgy Pyatakov, the former supporter of Trotsky and member of the Left Opposition, and the leading representative of what might be referred to as new forms of Soviet managerialism. It was this class, represented at all levels of the state apparatus, from local Soviets up to the Central Committee, that was the object of Stalin's 'Cultural Revolution', as he, Vyacheslav Molotov and Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, hinted in speeches from February 1937 onwards. The theme was consistent: there were 'wreckers', unnamed and unspecified, who were to be found everywhere, in every branch of the economy and society, overlooked by complacent Communists. Most worrying of all, for the majority, compliant and conformist, was the suggestion that not all wreckers were to be found among the ranks of the former Opposition.

Once on his feet Moloch began to feed, and to feed on the apparatus of the state itself; where 'enemies of the people' were discovered at all levels, and in all areas. The whole thing was quite subtle, in that the press campaign was essentially directed against a privileged elite, long a source of resentment among ordinary people, but one beyond criticism. Now they knew who the 'bullies' were, the people who had made their lives intolerable; now they could hate and be free in their expressions of hatred; against the old bosses, whose power had supported a lifestyle of dachas, banquets, cars, expensive clothes and luxury goods.

There was no need for a Chinese-style Red Guard; the people themselves channelled all the hatred that was necessary against targets that were acceptable. The whole atmosphere of the times, known generally as 'the year 1937', even when it gave way to 1938, was anti-elitist, anti-specialist, anti-managerial, the very same things that were later to be features of Mao's Cultural Revolution. In October of the year '37 Stalin proposed a toast to the 'little people'; for "Leaders come and go, but the people remain. Only the people are eternal." But the people were only there as stage extras, to serve a greater purpose; and the purpose was Stalin's; and the purpose was Mao's. Political power comes not from the barrel of a gun; it comes from fear; it comes from hate

Who are the Barbarians?

I have before me the latest issue of Standpoint (July/August). It's the leader I'm looking at, headed Obama and the barbarians. It's not the main topic that I'm thinking about; rather it's the developing argument about the nature of modern barbarism, which Daniel Thomas, the editor, says comes in many forms, including Diana Mosley interrupting one of her dinner parties calling for a moment's silence in memory of Julius Streicher. It's eccentric, certainly, but was such a gesture barbarous?

Streicher was a repellent man; there is no doubt in my mind at all about that. He was the sort of man who would not be invited to sit down with civilized and cultured people at any decent dinner party. Der Stürmer, the paper he edited, is possibly the most repugnant publication ever, with its relentless cadence of hatred. Even some senior Nazis were repelled by it. Göring refused to have it in his offices and Baldur von Schirach refused to allow its distribution among the Hitler Youth.

Yes, Der Stürmer was ugly and Streicher repellent, but did he deserve to hang for being the editor, because that was effectively the chief charge, the only charge, for which he stood trial at Nuremberg? By any reasonable standard Streicher's anti-Jewish obsessions betoken some kind of deep-rooted psychological problem. The way he presented his defence, the things he said and the way he died give further evidence of this. But he was hanged while Albert Speer, in every way more culpable, survived.

Should people, be hanged, then, for expressing repellent views? Who, then, would stand in that wind? Yes, of course, one has to consider the times, the revelations that came after the Nazi state died. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I just wonder who defines the nature of barbarism. Would it have included Andrey Vyshinsky, the chief Soviet prosecutor at Nuremberg, the man behind the Moscow show trials, in every way bloodier than Streicher?

It's never easy to measure moral dilemmas in absolute terms. Perhaps Mr Thomas might remember this when he next passes judgement on the forms of barbarism

Wednesday 29 July 2009

The Divine Sappho

Sappho of Lesbos is one of the greatest of the Greek lyric poets and one of the few female artists whose voice has been carried from the ancient world.

I have not had one word from her

Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."
I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love
"If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck
"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them
"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song...


Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.
Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseech
Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.

Fragment 52

The silver moon is set;
The Pleiades are gone;
Half the long night is spent, and yet
I lie alone.

Fragment 96

She honoured you like a goddess
And delighted in your choral dance.
Now she is pre-eminent among the ladies of Lydia
As the rose-rayed moon after the sinking of the Sun
Surpasses all the stars and spreads it's light upon the sea
And the flowers of the fields
To beautify the spreading dew, freshen roses
Soft chervil and the flowering melilot .....

Restless, she remembers gentle Atthis -
Perhaps her subtle judgement is burdened
By your [ fate ] .....

For us, it is not easy to approach
Goddesses in the beauty of their form
But you ....

Take a Measure of Corpse, or a Cup of Blood

Corpse medicine was widely practiced in Europe until well into the eighteenth century; yes, it was!. Doctors were in the habit of using all sorts of substances from recently-dead bodies, anything from blood to fat, treated and dried before use, as well as powders from ground-up Egyptian mummies. It was a tradition inherited from Classical and Arab texts, and recommended by such enlightened figures as Francis Bacon, the philosopher, and John Donne, the poet.

But the usage did not stop with the dried and the desiccated, oh no. Renaissance thinkers believed that corpse medicine was the best way if imbibing the spiritual life-force of another; and there was no better way of doing this than drinking fresh blood. In the late seventeenth century Edward Taylor, a puritan minister, wrote that “…human blood, drunk warm and new is held good for the falling sickness.” Drinking hot blood was still being recommended as a treatment for epilepsy by English physicians in the mid-eighteenth century. They were all vampires then. :))

Crimes against the Germans

This is a tragic story, one that deserves to be better known; and, yes, it was a crime against humanity, which involved, sad to say, the western powers as well as the Soviets. Anyway, you will find all of the details in Giles MacDonogh's After the Reich: from the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift (London, 2007), specifically in Chapter 15, headed Where are our Men? Briefly, of the eleven million soldiers taken prisoner on or before May 1945 a million and a half never returned; most from captivity in the east, but also well over 100,000 in the west.

When Germany surrendered the Allies decided that the state had ceased to exist, so newly captured soldiers were defined as 'Surrendered Enemy Persons' or 'Disarmed Enemy Persons', which meant in practice that they had no protection as POWs under the Geneva and the Hague Conventions. Therefore almost half the soldiers taken by the British and Americans, both of whom had signed the Geneva Convention (the Russians had not), had no right to the same levels of subsistence and shelter. They were used, quite freely, as slave labour; and many died as such, while the likes of Fritz Sauckel and Albert Speer stood indicted at Nuremberg for this very crime. While the Americans were seeking to prosecute the perpetrators of the Malmedy massacre, where some hundreds of POWs had been killed by advancing SS units, anything up to 40,000, yes, 40,000, Germans were allowed to die of starvation, exposure and neglect in muddy, open-air camps scattered along the banks of the Rhine. A tragic story indeed.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Freedom for Scotland; Independence for England

I should say, to begin with, that I love Scotland as a country: I even love some of the people! My family has a cottage in Easter Ross in the north of the country, and we went there just about every August when I was growing up. There was so much that I absorbed, so much of the history, the culture and the folklore of the place; tales of seers, and of witches; of heroes and of villains: people like Alexander Stewart, the wonderfully named Wolf of Badenoch.

I imagine that most English people really don’t know all that much about our closest neighbour and oldest partner. Well, let me begin by saying that if it wasn’t for England Scotland would not exist. Yes, I can hear those Caledonian roars! What exactly do I mean? Just this: it was medieval English aggression, most forcefully expressed during the reign of Edward I, the anti-hero of that awful Braveheart movie, which began the process of forging a specific Scottish identity, something that hardly existed before the thirteenth century.

Ever since that time the Scots have continued to define themselves less by what they are than what they are not: and what they most assuredly are not is English. But they need us, oh my goodness how they need us, and not just as a source of subsidy. For, you see, the aforesaid Scottish identity also contains a deep mood of inferiority, almost of helplessness. I simply don’t believe that the Scots will ever take that final step and break with the Union. They need us to do it for them. Let me explain.

Scotland now has its own parliament; it has for some years now. It even has an administration headed by the Scottish National Party (SNP), dedicated to something called ‘Independence in Europe’. Independence in Europe-is that not a wonderful contradiction, casting off London to embrace Brussels?! This administration is also committed to holding a referendum on the question of independence, though it seems doubtful that it will be able to press the point for the present, given that it does not hold a majority of seats and given the opposition of the other parties.

But even if there was a referendum I do not believe that the majority of Scots would vote in favour because they would then be left to face themselves; and, as I have already said, Scotland has depended too long on England for its sense of what it is and where it stands. Scotland will remain in the house, almost like an unruly and surly teenager. So, there is no other way: England has to declare independence; England has to throw the cuckoo from the nest.

Personally I would be sorry to see the end of Britain because I believe the whole has been so much greater than the sum of its parts. But think of the benefit for both nations. The Scots would at last be able to find a true identity, not one that is simply anti-English. They would, one hopes, bit by bit loose that deeply ingrained sense of national inferiority. They would have to live on their own resources-and subsidies from Brussels. They can do this, at least the SNP believes so; and who am I to argue with that?

For England it would mean that our tax subsidies would no longer flow north. Our resources would be just that-our resources. There would no longer be a danger of a Labour administration propped up in the south by votes from the north. We would no longer have the invidious situation whereby Scottish MPs can vote on English domestic policy, whereas English MPs have no say whatsoever on that of Scotland. The situation as it stands is quite intolerable. Oh, yes, we could also send Joker Brown and Eyebrows Alistair back home, where I feel sure they will make a welcome contribution to the affairs of their native land. Indeed, is there any better argument than that for English independence?

Yes, lets part as friends: freedom for Scotland and independence for England.


I accuse the present Labour government in England of being the most criminally incompetent we have ever had.

I accuse Tony Blair of involving my country in one of the most unjustifiable and unnecessary military adventures in our history, worse, even, than Suez. We went to war in Iraq in pursuit of non-existent terrorists and illusory weapons of mass destruction. We found a bad situation and we made it infinitely worse. We removed a secular dictator, only to allow the worst forms of fratricidal and religious conflict to emerge. Blair's administration, in its embarrassment over the lies and deceptions that took us to war in the Middle East, tried to hide the true facts, and may very well have hounded an innocent man, Dr. David Kelly, to his death. Going to war in Iraq also meant losing focus in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to make a major comeback, the source of our present troubles.

I accuse him of dismantling of the United Kingdom while passing ever more powers to the European super-state, a threat to English liberty in every way as great as Napoleon or Hitler. I accuse him of allowing unprecedented levels of immigration, including the arrival of thousands of bogus ‘asylum seekers’, into an already overcrowded Isle. I accuse him of losing control of the criminal justice system, presiding over the steady disintegration of social order, which continues to this day. I accuse him of introducing levels of cynicism and manipulation into British politics far in excess of any previous prime minister; he turned principle into spin, manipulating the whole system of government into his own self-serving ends. His greatest achievement-arguably his only achievement-was to give way to the utterly charmless Gordon Brown, a brilliant exercise in self-promotion, which has served to make him look good in retrospect, casting a fog over his deep moral turpitude.

I accuse Gordon ‘the Joker’ Brown, of being the worst Prime Minister of the worst government we have ever had, worse, even, than Frederick, Lord North, and that really is some achievement. I accuse him of mismanaging the economy, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister, to the point of taking this country to the threshold of bankruptcy. I accuse him of losing control of the whole banking sector, which descended into the deepest levels of fiscal irresponsibility. I accuse him of lying to the people of England about the precise causes of the present economic downturn.

I accuse him of perpetuating the Blairite culture of lies and spin, adding malice to the venomous mixture, numbering on his staff the utterly vile Damian McBride, a man with all of the poison but none of the intelligence of Josef Goebbels. I accuse him of starving the British Army of the men and equipment necessary to complete the task it has been given in Afghanistan. The fact that the army is underfunded, underequipped and understrength is contributing to the growing level of casualties.

I accuse him of surrendering even more of our sovereignty to Europe in the Lisbon Treaty, the Constitution by any other name rejected by democratic votes in both France and the Netherlands. Beyond all else, I accuse him of being absorbed by double-speak and spin, of not having the wit or the intelligence to see how meaningless his own words have become.

Oh, how I wish the Joker could be called to account for all of the cowardice, the lies and the incompetence that have been such a feature of his administration; how I wish he could be called to account in the same fashion as, say, Lord North!

To this government I would simply repeat once again the words Oliver Cromwell used in dismissing the Long Parliament in 1653;

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Monday 27 July 2009

Hell and Damnation

The whole concept of hell is so complex, subject to great variations across faiths, but I want to concentrate specifically on the Catholic view.

By their traditional teaching the souls of unbaptised children, all unbaptised children, are neither in heaven nor hell but in limbus infantum. The second limbo, the limbus patrum-the limbo of the fathers-was where the souls of those who died before the advent of Christ were confined, but who were still considered to stand high among the just: this would include, of course, all of the great Jewish patriarchs.

By the Middle Ages the established Catholic position was that all who did not accept Christ as their saviour and-just as crucially-the authority and teaching of the Church, were destined for Hell, understood in a very literal sense. This would embrace heretics as well as heathens, as Innocent III, the greatest of the Medieval popes, made plain when he said 'There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved', a dogma confirmed by Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctum, a bull of 1302.

However, all this was changed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which met in Rome from 1962 to 1965, and is generally known now as Vatican II. In The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, one of several documents to come out of this gathering, it is specifically written that

The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible church.

This was followed by Nostra Aetate, which says, amongst other things, that the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in non-Christian religions, and that God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church also says that the church has a special relationship to both Jews and Muslims because of the common reverence for the prophet, Abraham. In 1999 Pope John Paul II simply said that Hell was 'absence from God'. The 'presence of God' thus must be seen to embrace both Jew and Gentile.

Vox in Excelso-the end of the Knights Templar

Vox in Excelso was an edict issued by Pope Clement V in March, 1322 which marked the end of the Templar Order. The following extract details their principal 'crimes', brought to Clement's attention by Philip IV of France.

Indeed a little while ago, about the time of our election as supreme pontiff before we came to Lyons for our coronation, and afterwards, both there and elsewhere, we received secret intimations against the master, preceptors and other brothers of the order of Knights Templar of Jerusalem and also against the order itself. These men had been posted in lands overseas for the defence of the patrimony of our lord Jesus Christ, and as special warriors of the catholic faith and outstanding defenders of the holy Land seemed to carry the chief burden of the said holy Land. For this reason the holy Roman church honoured these brothers and the order with her special support, armed them with the sign of the cross against Christ's enemies, paid them the highest tributes of her respect, and strengthened them with various exemptions and privileges; and they experienced in many and various ways her help and that of all faithful Christians with repeated gifts of property. Therefore it was against the lord Jesus Christ himself that they fell into the sin of impious apostasy, the abominable vice of idolatry, the deadly crime of the Sodomites, and various heresies. Yet it was not to be expected nor seemed credible that men so devout, who were outstanding often to the shedding of their blood for Christ and were seen repeatedly to expose their persons to the danger of death, who even more frequently gave great signs of their devotion both in divine worship and in fasting and other observances, should be so unmindful of their salvation as to commit such crimes. The order, moreover, had a good and holy beginning; it won the approval of the apostolic see. The rule, which is holy, reasonable and just, had the deserved sanction of this see. For all these reasons we were unwilling to lend our ears to insinuation and accusation against the Templars; we had been taught by our Lord's example and the words of canonical scripture.

Lenin and Gorky-the Odd Couple

Lenin and Maxim Gorky had a long acquaintance, and shared some general ides, but their individual visions were quite different. Gorky's idea of revolution was much more bound up in notions of brotherhood and freedom, which had very little in common with Lenin's political dialectics, or with his notions of party discipline. Gorky admired Lenin's intellect but hated the way in which he constrained the complexity of life into a narrow set of abstract theories.

The two men first clashed over politics, and the future course of the revolution, in 1909 and 1910, specifically on the question of workers' education. For Lenin the workers had no value as an independent cultural force, but only as disciplined cadres of the party. But Gorky, along with Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, saw Marxism as a form of religion, to be expressed in new forms of comradeship and union, a theme he takes up in Confession, his novel of 1908. It's hardly any great surprise, then, that Gorky did not settle down comfortably with the form the Revolution took in Russia after November 1917.

In Novaya Zhizn-New Life-, the independent socialist newspaper he published in Petrograd in 1917 and 1918, Gorky time and again challenged the brutishness he saw around him in his Untimely Thoughts column, describing it as an outburst of 'zoological instincts', of ancient hatreds given life by the brutality of the war and the rhetoric of the Bolsheviks. The crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion and the Red Terror further underlined that the Bolsheviks would not be diverted from the most oppressive forms of dictatorship. But what he found most intolerable was the government's indifference to the famine brought on by the forced grain requisitions of War Communism. He finally decided to go into exile, an action that Lenin had been urging upon him for some time.

The ambivalent relationship he had with Lenin-one of love and one of hate-was fully evident after the latter's death in 1924. It left Gorky with feelings of guilt and regret; with a painful sense that there were issues between the two which could now never be resolved. Soon after he wrote to Romain Rolland, saying "Lenin's death has been a very heavy blow for me. I loved him. I loved him with wrath." It was to cause him to reassess his whole attitude towards the Bolshevik Revolution and all that followed; that Lenin had been right and he had been wrong. It was the beginning of a new path of self-deception.

Walther Darré-the Father of Green Fascism

Walter Darré, a leading member of the Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) movement, and later Nazi Minister of Agriculture, deserves to be better known as the father of Green Fascism. There are many aspects of this thinking that could quite easily be fitted in to the Ecology Movement. For example, in his capacity as Reich Minister for Agriculture, he was an early exponent of organic farming. When one strips away the racism from Blood and Soil and the other aspects of his oeuvre, then the familiar patterns emerge: the need for new farming techniques; a radical rethinking of the links between agriculture and industry; he even called for an end to 'globalisation', though in a different form of words!

His first moves as Minister of Agriculture was to introduce security of tenure for medium and small farmers, followed by the implementation of a fair pricing system for their produce. He also wrote a series of articles, including one on the dangers of erosion. It was his view that soil was a living organism, part of a cycle of growth and decay, which, if misused, would have a serious impact on the quality of the food produced He was thus opposed to intensive forms of industrial farming and the unrestricted use of insecticides and chemical fertilisers. The problem for him was that his ideas on food production and the environment were at variance with the ultimate needs of the German war economy, and he was demoted in 1942.

After the war he continued to defend and promote his ideas on small-scale and sustainable farming, including an attempt to found a society for the protection of the environment, right up to his death in 1953. I have a feeling that Prince Charles and Darré would have got along just fine.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Procopius and the Monstrous Regiment of Women

Perhaps the best verdict ever passed on Procopius' The Secret History was that supplied by the author himself, who wrote of his fear that later generations would condemn him as "a narrator of myths...neither credible nor probable." And he is quite right: parts of it are so fantastic that they quite simply defy belief. It is perhaps best seen as a bad-tempered narrative, a corrective to his public adulation of the Emperor Justinian, that of necessity had to remain secret, pointing out the various failures of his reign, including the superficial nature of his western reconquests. Unfortunately he goes too far in his anger, mixing the critical with the fantastic.

But the real source of his animus can be traced to the great transitions in Roman society, transitions that saw the decline of traditional elites and the older self-reliant forms of urban government. For Procopius the source of this moral and political decay is to be found at the very heart of Justinian's government, particularly in the power and influence enjoyed by women like Antonina, wife of Belisarius, and, above all, the Theodora, both of whom, in defiance of all of the ancient traditions, had been admitted to senatorial rank.

It is in his descriptions of Theodora that Procopius is at his most scurrilous, his most vindictive, his most pornographic...and his most misogynist. And it is this-simple misogyny-that provides one of the most important keys for reading a work that was written as an intellectual safety valve for an angry and frustrated man. Theodora has become in his eyes the personification of all that is wrong with the Roman world. The irony is that his invective simply served to make her one of the most memorable figures in Byzantine history.

Conspiracy Theory-a Brief History

The modern conspiracy theory took shape in the aftermath of the French Revolution. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Augustin Barruel, the man who it has rightly been said who created a tradition, one that might be said to have emerged in Fascism, on the one hand, and the likes of the ghastly Da Vinci Code on the other!

Barruel, a Jesuit priest, wrote Memoirs to Serve for a History of Jacobinism, in which he claimed the Knights Templar, yes, the Knights Templar, had not been destroyed in the Middle Ages, but had simply gone underground, there plotting to take over the world. It was they, in their hatred of monarchy and the Catholic Church, who had organised the Revolution of 1789 and all that followed. Of course, they did not call themselves Templers, rather they hid under cover names, the Freemasons being the most noted of these.

So, by this, Barruel became the prophet of the counter-revolution. Towards the end of his life he began to find new agents of dissention in the Jews. There was, of course, a long anti-Semitic tradition within the Church, but Barruel was moving away from old notions of religious-based hostility towards an entirely new secular doctrine, where the Jews were not perceived as individuals but as a group, united in a common conspiracy. And as it was the Revolution that liberated the Jews from their old Medieval disabilities, made them part, in other words, of a modern civil society, then the Jews were clearly united with the Freemasons, or the Templers, as architects of the conspiracy that threatened to destroy Barruel's notions of all that was good in the world.

I am sure you can see where this is going, that there is a process that unites the thinking of this clerical oddball with the fantasies of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police, and all else that followed.

Here is a text you might care to ponder on;

For a long time, the Jews have been planning, skilfully and with precision, for the attainment of what they have attained. They took into consideration the causes affecting the current of events. They strived to amass great and substantive material wealth which they devoted to the realisation of their dream. With their money they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution...and most of the revolutions we heard about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons...and others in different parts of the world.

Do you have any idea where this is from; Barruel, perhaps, or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? No, it is from Article 22 of the 1988 Hamas constitution.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The crisis for both parts of the Roman Empire really begins with the defeat and death of the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378AD. Theodosius the Great managed to stabilise the situation for a time by co-opting the semi-independent barbarian tribes into the army as foederatii.

As a strategy this was not new; the Romans had been in the practice of absorbing potentially useful auxiliaries for centuries. The problem was on this occasion there were simply too many, and the conventional Roman forces were too weak to deal with these new allies if the turned troublesome, as they did after the death of Theodosius in 395.

The commander of the Visigoths, Alaric, declared himself a king and started to ravage the eastern provinces. This came at an especially bad time, for the empire was divided between two particularly weak rulers, Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west, whose governments intrigued shamelessly, one against the other. Caring nothing for the wider welfare of the Empire, and anxious only to be rid of Alaric, the chamberlain Eutropius, chief minister to Arcadius, tempted Alaric to the west by granting him the top command of the province of Illyricum. Now another dangerous precedent had been set; for Alaric was both Barbarian king and Roman general, well placed to exploit the political divisions within the empire.

Eutropius' actions had, with deliberation, created huge problems for Stilicho, guardian of Honorius and a talented soldier, who was viewed in the east as a political enemy. To defend Italy Stilicho was forced to find troops wherever he could, abandoning Britain, and weakening the Rhine fortresses, which added still further to his problems by allowing new groups of barbarians to cross the river in force, entering Gaul virtually without opposition. They were never to be removed. Stilicho's enemies used this as an excuse to have him executed, causing thousands of troops loyal to him only to join up with Alaric, who entered Rome itself in 410AD.

The east learned quickly from the process of disintegration and collapse in the west by closing ranks among the leading political class, thus avoiding the destructive public struggles which was doing so much to weaken the remainder of the empire. Barbarian commanders in the eastern army were, in time to come, not allowed to become too powerful, usually by keeping them separate from a foederatii power base.

In the west-what was left of the west-stability could only be achieved by granting ever greater concessions to barbarian strongmen, and by allowing ever larger foederatii 'kingdoms'. In the east power was transmitted through established bureaucratic structures in church and state; in the west much depended on the transitory and uncertain authority of a single strongman, like Stilicho, Flavius Aetius and then Ricimer. By this means a serious gap grew up between the nominal authority of the Emperor, usually hidden away in Ravenna, and the real authority of a virtual military dictator.

When the Attila and the Huns came there was nothing at all in the west to deter their progress, no great strategic barrier like Constantinople in the east. At the Battle of Chalons in 451, the last epic contest of the Roman west, one barbarain army faced another barbarian army; the barbarians won.

After the murder of Aetius the empire in the west was really no more that a series of dying fragments, with almost no tax base, where the fate of one shadowy emperor after another lay in the hands of Ricimer, before the last was sent packing by yet another ambitious commander in 476.

In the east the great gate of Constantinople kept the Huns and others out of the rich and populated provinces of Anatolia and beyond, safe for as long as relations were good with the Persian Empire. The east was certainly saved by its shorter frontiers, by its greater wealth and by its strategically placed capital. But in the end perhaps the only thing that really mattered was that it had a far higher degree of statecraft; a reliance not on the strength of generals but the cunning of politicians

England and the First World War

I post this piece in memory of Harry Patch, the last of the Tommies, who died yesterday.

Would it have been possible, I ask myself, for England to have remained out of the Great War, on much the same basis it had during the Franco-German conflict of 1870-71? The simple answer is yes, it would. There is not a trace of evidence that the Kaiser was any more ambitious than Bismarck, nothing at all to confirm the supposition that he was determined on European conquest. Indeed, at the outset of the conflict Germany had no long-term war aims at all, and its military actions were just as defensive as they had been during the earlier conflict with France.

What about the German Navy, an objection that might immediately be offered? Was that not a genuine threat to our national security? Actually rather too much can be made of the Anglo-German naval race which preceded the war, often viewed in isolation from naval developments elsewhere in Europe. Though they were certainly weaker than the Kriegsmarine, it is important not to underestimate the combined strength of the French and Russian navies. Now at war, Germany would hardly have wished to antagonise the British, and risk bringing in the Royal Navy; and one sure way of doing this would have been by a unilateral blockade of France. Look at the map; such a move would have been quite impossible in the face of English opposition. Germany most assuredly would not have control of the seas.

I do not believe the war, without English involvement, would have been a long one; and I also believe that the victor would have been Germany, not France. In any peace that followed the Germans would have had to take cognisance of the English view, which would surely have precluded any punitive treaty.

Let's look at some of the facts. The Triple Entente between England, France and Russia was not an alliance, merely an 'understanding', that loosest of diplomatic terms. Up to the very last minute the British cabinet was of the view that it would have been possible to remain aloof. Ah, but the invasion of Belgium made English entry inevitable, did it not? Well, no, it didn't. As late as 1905 the Foreign Office was of the view that the 1839 Treaty of London did not bind England to defend Belgium 'in any circumstances', and I stress this expression. There was even a possibility that England would simply stand back if the Germans moved through the peripheries of Belgium and paid for any damage caused, a view taken by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George.

Such cynicism would have been an exercise in pure Realpolitik, I know, but it could have left England as the arbiter of Europe. We know that the Germans were desperate to keep England out of the conflict. In July 1914, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor, told the British ambassador in Berlin that, in return for his country's neutrality, that Germany would guarantee the integrity of France and Belgium. A victory would have left Germany the dominant military power in central Europe, certainly, but not necessarily in control of France and the Low Countries.

Let me say, in conclusion, entering into the virtual history at its most pure, that it would have been better for England to have remained aloof: it would have saved the lives of a million men and ensured that the Empire was not weakened, as it was, by participation. A German victory would have saved the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, in many ways infinitely better and more humane than what followed. It would have avoided the problems caused by an enlarged Serbia, which were to trouble the world for decades after, and have still not completely gone away. The defeat of Tsarist Russia without a prolonged struggle would not have created the misery that saw the victory of Communism and the emergence of Lenin and Stalin. Above all, we would never have heard of Adolf Hitler. Now, would that not have been better for us all?

Friday 24 July 2009

A Pretty, Witty King

So, what was Charles really like as a man and a ruler? The early Whig historians had no doubt about this, going so far as to describe him as one of the most criminal princes in all of English history, whose reign was, in the words of one, 'a disgrace to our country.' The 'Merry Monarch' school grew up as a corrective to this rather dour reaction. The truth is closer, I suppose, to the Whig view: Charles was far from admirable as a man, showing many of the worst personality traits, including cynicism, meanness and simple dishonesty.

His reign was also far from admirable, a time when England was at its lowest point in Europe, judged in political and military terms. He began his reign with every possible advantage, including a Parliament solidly behind the throne. Yet, within a few years of the Restoration, growing distrust of the court, and of Charles' motives and policies, led to a poisonous political atmosphere, which finally came to a head in the Popish Plot, the greatest political crisis of the reign. Charles' rule in Scotland, moreover, was marked by brutality and increasing religious persecution; a time when methods were used to suppress dissent later perfected on the Continent by Louis XIV. Above all, his foreign policy, and his military campaigns were disastrous. Writing about the Raid on the Medway, one poet managed to combine comment on this with the king's well-established reputation for debauchery;

So our great prince, when the Dutch fleet arriv'd
Saw his ships burn and, as they burn'd, he swiv'd.
So kind was he in our extremist need,
He would those flames extinguish with his seed.

Yet, having said this, while Charles was often responsible for the troubles of his reign, he had the political and personal skills to end these troubles to his advantage, skills which his father and his brother so obviously lacked. By this measure, and by this measure alone, his achievements are worthy of note, allowing him to end his reign in relative peace. He was at his best, his most skilful, during the tensions induced by the Popish Plot, giving way when he had to give way, standing strong when he had to stand strong. In the end he completely outmanoeuvred his opponents, the great combination known as the Whigs, which had grown up to oppose the policies of the throne, and might very well have destroyed the monarchy itself. And this was no mean achievement; for it involved the defeat of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the first truly great party leaders in English history; a dangerous politician and a dangerous man.

Charles greatest talent, his genius, perhaps, was in his appreciation of the realities of political power within his three kingdoms. Here his sense of realism and, indeed, his cynicism, worked to best effect, allowing him to play the system to the advantage of the Crown. He was also arguably the first king in English history to understand the importance of appealing to and managing public opinion. He was a survivor, which is probably the greatest compliment one can make about any Stuart king on the English throne!

Time for another Tea Party!

I have a keen interest in American constitutional history. I’ve read some of The Federalist Papers, the more important documents among them, and know how fascinating they are, how the Founding Fathers grappled with some of the great issues of politics and governance that faced the new nation. The arguments forwarded by James Madison in favour of checks and balances are of enduring relevance.

The essential point is that Americans, supposedly having overthrown one ‘tyrant’ in the form of George III, were reaching for a way of ensuring that a republican tyranny did not rise in its place; that a new monarchy, in other words, did not arise from the office of President. But, my, my, how Madison, Jefferson and Franklin would be shocked to see how that office has both expanded…and degenerated.

In 1776 George III’s power, the power held by the English monarchy as an institution, was in steady decline, devolving by degrees to Parliament and the office of Prime Minister, a process that would continue throughout the nineteenth century. Now, by way of contrast, look at America, look how the country’s political institutions have evolved since the Revolution. There the Constitution has in theory and practice enshrined monarchical power, enshrined, if you like, the monarchy of 1776. Now, I ask, is there any greater paradox or irony than that?

Let me deal with some specifics. The Presidency has become monstrous, a reflection both of the times and the office. In the nineteenth century the American Whig Party was formed to challenge what they perceived as the growing autocracy of ‘King’ Andrew Jackson, recalling the struggles of the seventeenth century English Whigs against the absolutism of the Stuarts. My, how far things have gone since then. A King, a mere King? Why, that’s far too modest. Super Obama has gone that one step further, at least he has according to Newsweek, which described him as “…above the country, above the world; he’s sort of God.”

Alas, I shall ever be the prophet unarmed, a Cassandra in the wilderness but I love America, a kind of second home for me, so I will say it: Super Obama is going to let you down and let you down badly; he is not God; he is not even a King, though he has all the power of one: he is all promise and no substance. There is nothing behind the repellent personality cult that has been woven around this wooden titan. But Newsweek says he is God, and I rather suspect Obama thinks he is God as well. Look at those big divine promises: he is going to overhaul health care; he is going to create millions of jobs, he is going to cure cancer; he is going to rid the world of nuclear weapons and so on and so on and so on. The Promised Land is there before you, is it not? The problem is that it flows not with milk and honey but with empty words and windy rhetoric.

Still, the expansion of executive power is real enough, threatening to invade areas that even FDR dared not touch. I do not think you will end up any better off, and I do not think that Super Obama will ever be able to make good on his ludicrously inflated promises; but there are still genuine dangers to your liberty, dangers that the Founding Fathers would have been acutely aware of. The danger is not in Obama himself; he is just the fool who paves the path to hell with good intentions. The danger comes from behind, from the populism that pushes him forward in his divine mission, the populism uncorked by his demagoguery.

Hey, guys, it’s time for another tea party.

Public Enemies, or how I just love John Dillinger!

Public Enemies, directed with considerable panache by Michael Mann, tells the story-or part of the story-of John Dillinger, a bank-robber of Depression-era America, so notorious that he was labelled ‘public enemy number one’ by J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the emerging FBI. Johnny Depp does a first class job in bringing Dillinger to life as the perfect American anti-hero without, it seems to me, drawing on ‘tough guy’ or gangster stereotypes. Dillinger himself turned into a sort of folk hero when he was alive, because he robbed banks rather than customers, if that makes sense. And, as we all know, it’s so easy to hate banks and bankers!

Setting aside Depp’s performance, and the performance of a number of his co-stars, including our own Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson, another iconic figure of the day, Public Enemies appealed to me for another reason: it captures with much attention to detail a particular era in American history, an era on the threshold of change.

Dillinger and his kind represent, if you like, a late flourishing of the old Western outlaws, the freelancers of crime, increasingly an anachronism in their own time, a time when law-enforcement, in the shape of the FBI, was not only acquiring a much more professional and nation-wide significance, but also where crime itself was being professionalised. In the movie Dillinger is shown not just as a threat to public order but an embarrassment to the new-style of crime boss, worried by the impact of the old-style bandit; worried that the new forms of crime-fighting that they occasioned would be bad for a business that was essentially faceless.

OK, yes, the movie does glamorise Dillinger, a man who was, after all, a thief and a killer. Even so, he had a sense of style and a significant degree of personal charm, careful never to completely alienate the American public at large (he refuses to get involved in kidnapping because of the negative perceptions it carried). His charm, the charm of the man, contrasts with contemporary criminals like Bernie Madoff, the magnitude of whose misdemeanours is only exceeded by the scale of his mediocrity-and his appalling dress-sense!

I suppose the chief criticism I have is that Depp, good as he is, never really gets below the surface of Dillinger: there is little in the way of introspection and development. Also, although Mann lovingly creates a sense of time and place (even the newsreels look wooden and authentic!), to me it appeared just a tad too attractive and well-healed, with all those beautiful 1930s fashions! Dillinger, in other words, is a Robin Hood without the suffering peasants; The Grapes of Wrath is clearly being played out somewhere off-screen! Where is the guy who asks buddy for a dime? Still, I enjoyed it tremendously, these quibbles notwithstanding. It was a good story of bad people!

And, yes, I would be Billie Frechette to Depp’s Dillinger any day.

Child 44, Dictatorship, Death, Deceit....and Disappointment

Earlier this year I wrote a blog headed A Forgotten Serial Killer, a brief account of the career of Paul Ogorzow, executed for the murder of a number of women in wartime Berlin, a piece I introduced as follows:

There are certain periods of history, and certain societies, that are, it might be said, defined by criminality. Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany are good examples of systems of governance where law, as it is commonly understood, only serves to demonstrate how little protection people have from the state that follows no objective moral standard.

The Ogorzow case showed how law-enforcement, the ordinary process of law-enforcement, can be distorted and corrupted by entrenched ideological preconceptions. I find this whole area quite fascinating, the way in which ‘normal’ crime is perceived in abnormal societies, societies where crime is viewed chiefly in political terms. It was this interest in this aspect of the pathology of dictatorship that drew me to Child 44, a debut novel by Tom Rob Smith, longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

I have the novel before me, the paperback edition, covered in lavish praises from a number of sources, the usual over-the-top hyperbole that publishers love. The most restrained, I’m pleased to say, is the quote from The Telegraph, which describes it as a “…superior commercial thriller.” And that’s exactly what it is: a superior commercial thriller, nothing more; it does exactly what it says on the tin!

Yes, yes, the usual clichés apply: it’s well-written, fast-paced, a real page turner and so on, and so on, and so on. But-and I genuinely hate to strike a sour note-it simply does not deserve the praise that has heaped upon it; for it opens with high promise and closes on low disappointment. So much reviewing now reminds me of what George Orwell wrote in his essay, In Praise of the Novel. The novel, he said, “is being shouted out of existence.” Child 44 is, I think, probably typical of most of the works that are shouted on to the Man Booker list, long or short: it’s not a bad book; it’s just not a very good one. In a way it’s a pity; for with a little more work it might very well have been a good book, perhaps even a great one. More, anyway, than a superior commercial thriller.

It’s based very loosely on the career of Andrei Chikatilo, an infamous serial killer of Soviet times known as the Butcher of Rostov or the Rostov Ripper, responsible for the deaths of fifty-two women and children. The main action opens in Moscow in early 1953, just before the death of Stalin, and continues to the summer of that same year. The principle character, the hero of the book, is one Leo Demidov, an officer in the MGB, the post-war metamorphosis of the NKVD, the state security apparatus originally set up by that sociopath Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Bolshevik Torquemada, under the Cheka appellation. Demidov is not a policeman as such, for the real police, the militia, those who deal with day to day law and order, have a very low status in the perfect society, a society where crime officially does not exist.

When it comes to the politics of Soviet security, the brutality, the indifference to life, the moral decay, the fear induced and corruption involved Smith has mastered his brief with commendable skill. There is little to fault the historical setting and the mood he sets. I have to say, though, that I personally found Demidov, as a character, just a little too naïve, not really the sort of man one would expect to advance very far through the ranks of the cynical and the sickening. Quite frankly he’s too much of an empiricist; he doubts where only faith is required

Refusing to denounce Raisa, his own wife, as a dissident, Demidov is demoted, transferred to the lowest grade of the militia and sent with her from Moscow to Voualsk, a bleak industrial town in the Soviet Urals. This process is spurred on by the malevolent Vasili, his second-in-command, who acts partially out of ambition, partially out of hatred.

Anyway, bit it by bit Demidov is forced to question the assumptions on which his life and career has been based when he investigates a series of gruesome murders, where the state refuses to recognise that a consistent and abnormal pattern is emerging. In his new post, and with the eventual help of his chief, he uncovers more and more bodies, all killed in the same fashion. The first case he dealt with in Moscow, the death of a child of a colleague, quickly dismissed as an accident, turns out to be the fourth-forth in a series, hence the title of the book.

So far the story has been reasonably well structured. The reader is quickly carried along by the plot, one that does no great harm to history, geography or believability. But now, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Brown turns from drama to farce.

We know from information uncovered by the militia chief that the murders, which take place along the Russian railway network, are most heavily concentrated in and around Rostov-on-Don. Demidov and his wife go back to Moscow with false papers, hoping to obtain a description of the killer from a woman who may have seen him with the little boy murdered in the city. Here he himself murders one Ivan, a friend of his wife, who turns out to be a snitch, although the MGB never seem to connect him with the crime. He and his wife are arrested on returning to Voualsk, sent to the Lubyanka in Moscow for interrogation (it turns out that Leo is not Leo at all) and then packed off to Siberia for discrediting the Soviet state. They manage to avoid being murdered on the train-a plot devised by the evil Vasili-, escape by digging up the floorboards of their cattle-truck carriage and dropping on to the line. Yes, that’s right!

Once free they make their way from the east down to Rostov, a huge distance, with the help of benign peasants along the way, avoiding all of the efforts of the MGB to intercept them, avoiding being denounced in a society where fear and denunciation were modes of survival, as the author made clear at the outset. The express rushes on; Smith is in a hurry to finish; Midsummer Murders clashes and blends with Nineteen Eighty-Four by way of Emmerdale Farm ( and who would have thought that a kolkhoz could turn into that!). It’s chaotic, breathless, unbelievable, schoolboy stuff; a tale of the wild east!

No, I’m not going to tell you who the murderer is, though the more perceptive who read the book will have guessed by reflecting back on the opening pages, set in the Great Famine of the early 1930s. Let me just say that the whole case, murder after murder, grim in every degree, turns out to be no more than a grand form of attention-seeking! When the perpetrator is finally tracked down he says-and I had already anticipated this-“What kept you?” Oh dear! Demidov triumphs, Vasili is disposed of, and the criminal turns out, at least according to the authorities, to be an aberration, a man operating under the influence of the decadent capitalist powers. Please, be warned: this is not Gorky Park!

I understand that Ridley Scott, the director of Gladiator, has obtained the film-making rights to Child 44. I’m glad, because I suspect it will turn out to be a far better movie than a book, much like All Quiet on the Western Front and Remains of the Day.

Look, I’m pleased that I read it and I really hope that I haven’t put potential readers off by what I’ve written here, more negative, I think, than I had intended. Never mind me; go with The Independent, which shouts at you that this book “...has everything you could wish for…and more.” All I will say is that I did wish for more…and didn’t get it. The author has promise, but the promise needs to mature. Please, Tom, don’t be seduced by the hype.

Orwell and Ingsoc

As part of my holiday reading I’ve been glancing over the essays and correspondence of George Orwell, one of the true artists of English prose. Two of his pieces in particular, Why I Write and Politics and the English Language, should be compulsory reading for all those in public life.

Anyway, my explorations caused me to think specifically of the author’s political commitments, his commitment to what he calls ‘democratic socialism.’ It seems to me that his choices are at variance with his deepest sympathies: he says he is a socialist, yes, but he does not seem to like socialists or socialism. I would go even further: he seems to despise the practitioners and distrust the promise.

For me Orwell is a natural Tory in the way I would like to perceive all Tories: clear-sighted, honest and direct; people who embrace and preserve what is good in the past while always looking for ways of improving the present. Orwell’s commitment to honesty and sincerity in politics are almost palpable in his writings. I feel sure that he would have loathed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, those purveyors of the modern forms of Newspeak. I feel sure that he would have hated the lies, the hypocrisy, the spin and the deceit that are such a part of whole New Labour phenomena.

Consider this. Orwell’s utopias are past and conservative; his dystopias are future and socialist. Take, for example, Coming Up for Air, his last pre-war novel. In this George Bowling, disillusioned with modern life, with his life, comfortable as it is, goes of in search of the past, his memories of a particular time and a given place: a piece of Edwardian England just before the First World War, the world of his childhood. But Lower Binfield, the place he returns to, has changed beyond recognition. The thing he came to look for in particular, a pond full of fish, has gone, replaced by a rubbish dump. It’s there to serve a new housing development, populated by progressive oddities: vegetarians, nudists and socialists! Bowling retreats, with echoes of Nineteen-Eighty Four in his head.

Orwell’s experience of socialism is one of constant and continuing disillusionment. So, why did he embrace it at all, and why did he adhere to it? First, I largely suspect for personal reasons, rather than reasons of deep conviction. If one reads Such, Such Were the Joys, his account of his time at Saint Cyprian’s, his prep school, it’s clear that Orwell, who came from a respectable but rather down-at-heel family, felt slighted by the prevailing snobbery of the place, the cult of money and connections. He became something of an ‘outsider’, if you like, amongst his own class, the better-off members of his class. He did well enough in crammers to get into Eton, but he did not shine at Eton, deepening his sense of alienation. Socialism became the political expression, if you like, of his mood of personal resentment.

So, to take the second dimension, why did he continue to embrace socialism when he saw what socialism was in practice? Simply because he was filled with a bogus sense of historical inevitability, the sense that the old had to give way to the new, and the new had to take the form which left him and others like him looking for a place; déclassé intellectuals who had nothing to fear but dropping their aitches! He held to socialism because he hoped to humanise socialism. If he had lived just a little longer I feel sure that he would have returned to his natural political home. But, whatever direction he may have travelled in, he deserves to be placed alongside Edmund Burke and Jonathan Swift, alongside the best of our critics and satirists.

Passage from India

For once I’m almost at a loss for words; well, almost! Anything I say about India, about my experience of India, is almost bound to sound hackneyed. Yes, it is a place of extremes and contrasts, of terrible lows and wonderful highs.

I read so much, looked at so much, in preparation for our odyssey; from novels, like Passage to India, The Raj Quartet and White Tiger; movies like Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire, to handbooks like the Rough Guide to India (the Rough Guides are my travel bibles!). It was all good and all relevant in one way or another though oddly enough the most relevant book had nothing to do with India at all.

Last year, quite by chance, I discovered Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a novel set in Mexico on a particular day in November 1938: the Dia de la Muerte-the Day of the Dead. It’s an astonishing tour de force, a great whirlwind of ideas, images and impressions; of colours, of people, of places and of things. India, for me, was the same whirlwind and it’s going to take some time to settle properly in my imagination.

Where did we go and what did we see? Well, I have to say we were a tad too ambitious in the itinerary we prepared. In the end we covered a fraction of what we had intended to cover. Even the things we did see I feel I did not see enough, if that makes sense, that I needed more time to appreciate and understand.

From Old Delhi and the Red Fort, to Agra and the Taj Mahal, to Jodhpur and the magnificent Meherangarh Fort, to Lucknow and the Residency, we wandered and we wandered, taking in so much more along the way, museums, temples and events. Yes, we also saw the sun rise on the Ganges. On recommendation we went on a camel safari from Bikaner rather than Jaisalmer, an experience I will never forget, just as I will never forget my bad-tempered mount! Nor will I forget the temples of Khajuraho with their wonderfully divine and uninhibited depictions of sexual union, union in every manner the human imagination can conceive: it’s the Kama Sutra in stone relief! I would have liked to have gone on from here to the national parks but they are closed during the monsoon season.

Gosh, there is so much more I could write, about people, places and things, but I would risk going on at interminable length. I should say, though, that life here just presses in on one from all sides. The staring and the touching can be a bit irksome but by and large people don’t mean to be rude or unkind; they just have a different way of perceiving things. My blonde hair seemed to be a particular point of fascination! I suppose also because of the season and time of year we were a little more conspicuous as the tourist herds are thinner.

I loved talking to people where and when I could but my boyfriend was an essential companion (he often is!) because some men entertain the usual stereotypes about women from the west. The offers of ‘jiggy jiggy’ get just a shade too tedious after a bit!

I’d rather hoped top round the whole experience off with a few days in Kerala in the far south by way of contrast but that really was a bridge too far. Well, until the next time.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Ana Takes a Break!

I take the golden road to Samarkand. Well, actually, I’m off to India for three weeks, leaving tomorrow. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I saw the exhibition on Chola Art at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago, with those beautiful, sensuous dancing Shivas. Also, my grandfather served in the British Indian Army before the Second World War, and with General Sir William Slim in both India and Burma during it, so I grew up with all sorts of tales of the Subcontinent. And although it may not be very fashionable to say so, I love the stories of Rudyard Kipling, particularly Kim and Plain Tales from the Hills. So I hope to discover, in the brief time that I have, traces of the great days of the Raj and the deeper India, the older India of the Mughals and the Chola Empire. Ambitious, yes, but I’ve always been ambitious…and restless.

Did I hear a collective sigh of relief? :-)) Have a great summer, guys.