Monday 30 November 2009

Great Poster, Shame about the Man

Last year I saw Che, the two part biopic about aspects of the career of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the Argentinean revolutionary and poster. Before that I saw The Motorcycle Diaries, which takes a view of his early life, his journey with a close friend from his home in Argentina to Peru, where he worked in a leper colony as a volunteer doctor. The latter was mildly entertaining; the former excruciatingly dull.

But it’s not these movies I really want to talk about; no, not the myth, rather the man, the nearest thing we have to a modern and secular saint. Indeed, I think he has acquired a semi-divine status among the local people in that part of Bolivia where he was executed in 1967. I cannot deny that Guevara was a good-looking man, one who made a great poster, eyes gazing into a million student bed-sits across the world. But look at the reality behind the image. What does one find? Why, just another repellent little thug who sought to pave the path to paradise with human skulls. Make no mistake, despite the worship he has been accorded, Guevara was a half-baked fanatic, a Marxist monster, who offered the usual substitution of tiresome abstractions for real people and real life. He was also a killer.

Soon after the overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Guevara organised the mass killings in Havana of former government supporters when he was commandant of La Cabaña fortress, with no attempt at any legal process. He wrote of this;

To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. … These are the procedures of the bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate. We must create the teaching of the Wall

He was also responsible for the establishment of the Cuban Labour Camp system, where children as young as fourteen were incarcerated and where thousands died. A special section of these camps was specifically dedicated to dealing with Cuba’s ‘gay problem.’ Under the guidance of Guevara, the regime imprisoned a higher proportion of the population than Stalin and killed more in its first three years than Hitler did in the six years before the outbreak of the Second World War. His contempt for human life was evidenced in a remark he made to a Cuban newspaper after the 1962 Missile Crisis that;

If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York.

This icon of western liberals and muddle-heads was also against freedom of religion, of the press, as well as the right to assemble or protest, or anything else that was not compatible with his corrupted view of a Stalinist utopia. He was also an utter incompetent. As Finance Minister and President of the National Bank, positions for which he had absolutely no qualifications beyond his mouth, he earned the singular honour of all but destroying the Cuban economy, with his emphasis on the ‘new man’, one who would accept ‘moral’ for material incentives. Like so much else in his mind the ‘new man’ was no more than a ghost.

So, failing as a minister he trotted off around the world on a series of mad revolutionary adventures, where he proved himself no more competent as a soldier, totally lacking in military capacity and political vision. Never mind; he still made a great poster. It’s just a pity that Pol Pot was not just a little more handsome.

Late last night upon the stair I met a President who wasn’t there

What was the most embarrassing political moment of this month, perhaps of this year? For me there is no doubt about the answer: it was Obama in China, about which no opera will ever be written. Is this really an American President? Where was the courage, where was the determination to speak against injustice, where was the frank exchange of views: where was Tibet?

Oh, well, on reflection, how could he raise such a sensitive issue when he came to China a little like a customer heavily in debt summoned to the office of the bank manager? Better to stick to some ineffectual mumbling about firewalls in a meeting packed with the youthful cardres of the ruling oligarchy. America may rule the world but it seems patently obvious that China rules Obama.

Have you read Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s wonderful black comedy set among the United States Army Air Force in the Second World War? I’ve a feeling that I may have said this before, but I shall risk repeating myself: Barack Obama reminds me of the character absurdly named Major Major Major, who joined the Air Force as a private and was immediately promoted to the rank of -you guessed it-Major! The Major is the kind of man who, when someone knocks at his door, climbs out of the window. Major Major is so good at disappearing that he eventually disappears altogether from the novel.

OK, Obama has not-yet-climbed out of the Oval Office window, but he sits there in an absolute agony of indecision, making his country look every weaker by the day. The army in Afghanistan has had to wait months for him to make up his mind on reinforcements, even though it was he himself who originally said that this war commanded a high priority, a higher priority than that waged in Iraq. Even if these reinforcements arrive in the numbers requested the Taliban has already received a huge boost to its morale. Waiting and dithering, after all, is the last stage before cut and run.

I do not know how Americans themselves feel about this but I can make no sense at all of this administration’s foreign policy. Is there a pattern other than weakness and procrastination? Is there a strategy here that I am unaware of? Obama looked weak in China; he looks even weaker in the Middle East. Here he demanded that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, stop all work on the on building settlements in the occupied territories. When Netanyahu refused he was praised by Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State! For me the whole thing is laughably incomprehensible, a real life version of Catch 22, where nothing is quite as it seems. I suppose it’s only right to finish with a quotation from the novel, entirely appropriate, I think:

That's the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.

My apologies in advance if you think this harsh, but that's how he comes across to me. I suspect that is also how he comes across to much of the world, vision without substance, words without meaning, image without strength.

The Nazi Bismarck

Is it possible to say anything positive about Hitler's 'Bismarck'? If the Nazi regime was a disease then Joachim von Ribbentrop was one of the symptoms. He was shown at his most ridiculous at the Nuremberg Trial. Under questioning from Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, Ribbentrop denied having bullied President Hácha of Czechoslovakia into accepting German occupation. "What further pressure could you put on the head of a country except to threaten him that your army would march in and your air force bomb his capital?" To which Ribbentrop replied, "War, for instance."

Hitler was always impressed by Ribbentrop's suave manners and social contacts, once telling Herman Göring that he knew Lord this and Lady that. Göring, who had little time for the Foreign Minister as a man or a diplomat, quickly responded, "Yes, but they know Ribbentrop." Even Hitler took the point.

Why was he ever appointed Foreign Minister? For the simple reason that Hitler distrusted the old establishment, represented above all by Konstantin von Neurath, the Foreign Minister he had inherited from the last stages of the Weimar Republic. Ribbentrop, moreover, was always keen to offer the kind of radical solutions that Hitler favoured. He won Hitler's respect by the two great coups of Nazi diplomacy: the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. The first undermined both the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, and the whole concept of collective security supposedly embodied in the League of Nations, by allowing Germany to expand its navy in a bi-lateral agreement with England. The second allowed Hitler to go to war with Poland, free from possible repercussions by the Soviets. But in both cases Ribbentrop did no more than push at doors that were already partially opened. The agreement with the Soviets, moreover, undermined the Anti-Comintern Pact, another of Ribbentrop's triumphs, angering the Japanese, and thus doing much to ensure that they stood aside in any future German war with Russia.

I suppose, in the end, the principle reason Ribbentrop became Foreign Minister, despite being a complete failure when he was German Ambassador in London, was because he was a useful cipher. Hitler already had a programme: he simply wanted men in place who were able to fulfil his vision. But for Ribbentrop failure followed hard upon the heels of triumph. He had assured Hitler that Britain and France would not go to war over Poland; and when they did, the Nazi Bismarck's star slowly began to sink. In the last stages of his active ministry he attempted to play a degenerate form of the 'Great Game', not fully understanding that, for Hitler, rapprochement with Russia was but a temporary expedient.

After the collapse of France in 1940 Ribbentrop worked actively towards the creation of a four-power pact against England, embracing Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy and Japan, while at the very same time Hitler was working towards Barbarossa. As the war progressed Ribbentrop had less and less to do, other than become one of the minor architects of the Holocaust. Amongst the Nazi elite he was treated with diminishing respect, and even Hitler encouraged Walther Hewel, a diplomat attached to the Führer's headquarters, to make fun at his expense. As a final insult he was replaced as Foreign Minister in Hitler's will by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, even though Ribbentrop, unlike Göring and Himmler, had been guilty of nothing but absolute loyalty.

The real answer to the question how such a man could become Foreign Minister of an important world power is, paradoxically, yet another question: how was a man like Hitler ever in a position to appoint him in the first place?

Ana and the Horned God

I love Pan, the great horned-god; he represents to me the generative force in nature, all that is exciting; all that is enhancing; all that is dangerous!

I remember reading an adaptation of Robert Grave’s Myths of Ancient Greece when I was very young. These stories depicted a fascinating world; a world of flawed but endearing deities, so different from the Christian tradition in which I was growing up. The saddest part, the part that made me weep, yes, it did, came towards the end, when the cry went up around Greece that ‘The Great God Pan is dead!’ So, I lost him; I lost that world, as the other deities were driven from Olympus by the acolytes of the new faith.

But not so many years later, when I read The Wind in the Willows, I discovered that Pan was not dead at all. There he was: the Piper at the Gates of Dawn; the guardian and the protector of all nature. Still later I found him in his more adult guise, his more dangerous guise, if you like, in Knut Hamsun’s wonderful novel of the same name, where he appears as an echo and a symbol.

Pan is not forgotten, can never be forgotten, Yes, I also have a special place in my heart for Hecate, the mother goddess, and Artemis, the cool goddess of the moon. But Pan will always walk beside them, and nature is one.

Sunday 29 November 2009

The Devil Wears Fur

If there is one pressure group I hate more than any other it’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, generally known as PETA, a collection of self-righteous prigs and animal rights extremists. With tentacles across the world, the organisation is headed by one Ingrid Newkirk, born in England but now living in America.

Now sixty-years old, this joyless fanatic had herself sterilised at the age of twenty-two because, as she put it, “the world has enough babies.” Her will contains the stipulation that her feet be turned into umbrella stands “as a reminder of the depravity of killing innocent animals.” In one of the campaigns she sponsored the killing of animals for food was compared to the Holocaust, which might give you some insight into the moral fog that sits perpetually on her mind.

Let me make my own position clear: I detest any form of deliberate and malicious cruelty against animals. I have a horse which I love and care for with all of the energy and dedication of which I am capable. My family have had a succession of Cavalier King Charles’ Spaniels. Still, I think the concept of animal ‘rights’ is practical and intellectual nonsense. I eat meat and I delight in eating meat. I hunt and I delight in hunting, both shooting and riding to hounds. And now for the big one: I wear fur and I delight in wearing fur! I have a black leather jacket trimmed in rabbit fur and a ushanka, a fur hat I bought in Moscow, entirely made from the same fur.

It delights me to say that in the fashion industry itself a counter-revolution is underway, that the balance is tipping against the PETA fanatics. Fur is fashionable once more. People like Keira Knighley, Jennifer Lopez Madonna and Lindsay Lohan have all worn fur in public. So, the Devil really does wear fur. :-))

A spokesman for Origin Assured, a body set up by the international fur trade to ensure that fur is only obtained from reputable sources, says that the material has never been more popular. Robin Rihanna’s new album will feature her on the cover wearing a white fur coat. So, PETA’s old ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ campaign has come to nothing in the end, despite the previous endorsement of people like Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, those of the older generation. Besides, even they turned apostate in the end!

Yes, the fur taboo has been broken though there were always designers, like Karl Lagerfeld, who held out against the prevailing orthodoxy. There are lots of arguments in favour of real fur. Not only does it feel good against the skin but it is natural, renewable, biodegradable and energy efficient unlike the synthetic version. Moreover, it takes as much as a gallon of oil to make three fake-fur coats.

In general people of my generation have none of the old sixties-style hang-ups of people who trail in the wake of PETA. If it looks good, if it feels good, it is good. I am quite happy to leave the sackcloth and the hair-shirts to others. As for Newkirk I really think that one day she will make a first-class umbrella stand. I wish her no better fate.


Now here’s an interesting little tale, one that took me by surprise because it concerns Nick Clegg, arguably the most boring man in British politics; nice, yes, but boring. Nice and boring, the very qualities that make him an admirable leader of the Liberal Democrats, the nice but boring party.

The odd thing is I have no clear idea what a Liberal Democrat is, never having met one, or at least never having met anyone who confessed to being a Liberal Democrat. I have a perfect image in my head of a Tory and even an image of a Socialist, a sort of urban Neanderthal, but all ‘Liberal Democrat’ conjures up is something fuzzy and unreal; neither this, nor that, nor anything in particular; no passions, no commitment, no energy-just nothing. Oh, that’s not quite right: there is Jenny Tonge, better known to her friends as Baroness Boom or Jihad Jenny. She believes alright, she believes there is something to be said for suicide bombers. My goodness; not so boring after all, though Baroness Boom is not a subject that Nick Clegg likes to dwell upon.

For those who do not know her Tonge is the former Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park. In 2004 she was asked to step down from the Party front bench after she made a speech justifying Palestinian suicide bombers, saying that if she had to live in similar circumstances she might consider becoming one herself. But this did not stop her being elevated to the Lords, where, in January of this year, she took up the Health portfolio.

But it isn’t just health she booms on about; continuing with her hostility to the state of Israel she has embraced some nice old fashioned conspiracy theories, the sort of thing that might be found in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 2006 she announced that the “…pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips. I think they have probably got a certain grip on our party.” I have no idea who has ‘a grip’ of Baroness Boom but commenting on this in the latest issue of Standpoint Douglas Murray writes “The idea that anyone has a grip on the LibDems would certainly surprise its membership.” Are they capable of surprise? I suppose one would have to wake them up first!

Anyway, Clegg was confronted by Murray on Boom’s outbursts after a lecture he gave earlier this year to the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. He was told that if she said anything like this ‘on his watch’ she would be in serious trouble. Unfortunately for poor old Corporal Clegg she has said worse with him in charge of the rag-tag army.

This year, as Murray reports, she met Khaled Mesha’al, the political leader of Hamas, praising him as “shrewd, plausible and actually very likeable.” Last year she shared a platform with Azzam Tamini, a British Palestinian activist and another enthusiast for suicide bombing. On this occasion she said that the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the United States was responsible for all of the world’s ills. All of them? Really? That’s nice to know; it makes things so simple if one happens to be looking for a final solution for all of the world’s ills.

When Murray brought these inconvenient facts to Clegg’s attention he dodged the issue, pretending that he became leader a year later than he had. Ah well, when the going gets tough a Liberal Democrat leader hides behind a lie. Best if you just go home, Nick, and prepare for government, you and Baroness Boom.

Please Release Me, Let Me Go

Imagine a man, if you will, indicted on a charge of mass murder, indicted on a charge of running a torture centre where thousands were imprisoned and thousands killed, even small children, a place from where only a dozen people emerged alive. Imagine still further that the accused freely admitted that he alone bore the direct responsibility for the loss of at least 12,380 lives. What kind of penalty do you think such a person could expect; death, perhaps, or life imprisonment? No, he expects to be released, or at least he has asked the court if it will release him, thank you very much.

This is no black comedy; this is a scene being played out before the tribunal set up in Cambodia to examine the atrocities committed in that country by the Khmer Rouge. The individual in question, one of the principal defendants, is Kaing Guek Eav, better known simply as Comrade Duch, who ran the Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penn in the days of Pol Pot. I’ve been there; it’s a grim place, a place where mug shots of former inmates are fixed on the walls, staring out in a blank and expressionless fashion, a stare without hope.

Duch has continually expressed his regret for his past actions, though he now seems to believe that these actions carry no consequences. After all, these people, those who were tortured to death at Toul Sleng, did not matter when they were alive, why should they matter now they are dead? At the end of his summing up, two days after admitting his culpability, he said “I would ask the chamber to release me, thank you very much.” Just like that. Not quite believing what it had heard, the bench asked Duch’s lawyers to clarify, asking if it was a plea for acquittal. Yes, it was.

Listening to this in the public gallery was one Bou Meng, one of the few to survive Toul Sleng, whose wife died there. He stormed out of the court, outraged by this insult to his wife’s memory. Outside, Dara Chey, a student who lost four members of her family under the Pol Pot regime, said that she no longer believed Duch’s expressions of regret. Nor do I; his words are merely a perpetuation of his original crime.

Now sixty-seven years old, Duch will be sentenced next year. The prosecution has asked for a minimum of forty years imprisonment, which, if granted, means that he will never emerge alive. Unless, of course, the judges think that sorry is enough and that the dead really don’t matter.


Thursday 26 November 2009

The Age of Satan

I’ve not long finished Satan: a Biography by P G. Maxwell-Stuart, an expert on the history of witchcraft and magic in Europe. It’s a stimulating account, sober and scholarly rather than sensationalist, which explores perceptions of the devil in Europe and beyond, from the earliest times right up to the present day; from religious fears to cultish hysteria.

It’s also, I suppose, an exploration of the function of the great adversary, the purpose he has served through the ages; from seducer of Eve to the friend and comforter of witches. The remarkable thing is the range of identities he could and did assume, not always that of the grotesque and frightening but the beautiful and the seductive. I never really understood why Satan would ever want to come in the form of the beast if his mission was to entice people to take his particular path, rather than the path of God. :-)

Arguably the most enticing part of this book is the way in which Maxwell-Stuart takes confessions of satanic pacts, which one naturally assumes to have been forced, usually by torture or the threat of torture, and tales of demonic possession, at face value, as evidence of a ‘genuine’ experience, evidence which he tests and explores. Dreams, the effects of drug-taking and even real life encounters are all given serious scholarly attention. The important thing here is that the author avoids the usual condescending view of the past. For the most part his account proceeds through the ‘age of faith’, when the supernatural, the experience of the supernatural, was a reality accepted by all sections of society, from scholar to scullery maid.

By the nineteenth century the great division had set in between ‘reason’ and ‘superstition’, casting Satan into the uncertain realms between disbelief and sensationalism. But Satan is always with us, a personification not of the beastly but the all too human; a personification of the darker side of humanity. If the eighteenth century was the age of reason then the twentieth century surely became the age of Satan. Is he a symbol or is he a living presence? Well, I leave you to make up your own mind. :-)

The Demon is always moving about at my side;
He floats about me like an impalpable air;
I swallow him, I feel him burn my lungs
And fill them with an eternal, sinful desire.

Sometimes, knowing my deep love for Art, he assumes
The form of a most seductive woman,
And, with pretexts specious and hypocritical,
Accustoms my lips to infamous philtres.

He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue, into the midst
Of the plains of Ennui, endless and deserted,

And thrusts before my eyes full of bewilderment,
Dirty filthy garments and open, gaping wounds,
And all the bloody instruments of Destruction!

A Good Nazi

I saw Good earlier this year, a movie directed by Vicente Amorim and starring Vigo Mortensen as one John Halder, a professor of literature in a German university in the 1930s. It's based on the play of the same name by Cecil Philip Taylor.

Before proceeding let me just say that I have a particular interest in the process of moral corruption, the manner in which people are compromised by association with evil though not in themselves necessarily evil. It's not that long since I finished reading Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, in which the author tries to determine by what process an ordinary man becomes part of an apparatus of murder. I have to say that I thought this book was grossly over-praised for what it offered, particularly in the way of literary skill, but the idea behind it was intriguing and sound. It rests, perhaps, on one key question: what would you, yes, you, have done if you had lived in Nazi Germany? Would you be the one in a hundred thousand who had the courage to say no or, would you have drifted along, like so many others, for the sake of your family, your friends, your colleagues, or simply for the sake of your career? It's not a question that I personally can answer with any true certainty.

So back to Good which tells the story of a 'good' German, an unassuming man, a family man, a teacher of literature and a lover of Proust, shocked by the barbarism of the new Reich. He refuses to join the Party despite the urging of his Nazi father-in-law. He has a Jewish friend, a psycho-analyst, with whom he served in the same regiment during the First World War. Taking nothing seriously, the good professor believes that the nightmare will pass, as he assures Maurice, his Jewish friend, played by Jason Isaacs.

Halder undergoes, I suppose, what was referred to at the time as 'internal emigration', namely he retreats into himself, into his personal world. During this period he happens to write a novel, a romance, which touches at the end on the subject of assisted suicide, the supreme act of love. That's it, he doesn't think any more on the subject until some years later he is summoned to the Reich Chancellery, there to meet none other than Philipp Bouhler, played by Mark Strong in one of the movie's better performances, who tells him that the Fuhrer himself has been impressed by the message offered by the novel he wrote all those years before.

So, Halder, essentially a man with little strength of character or moral resolution, at first frightened by the invitation and unsure of what was wanted of him, is flattered, showing no reluctance to prepare a paper on the subject of 'mercy death.' He even receives rank in the SS, shocking Maurice as much as it pleased his Nazi-sympathising mistress. From this point forward his career takes off and his novel is turned into a movie, with the final scene showing a loving husband holding his dying wife in his arms.

The compromises continue from this point forward. Halder preserves something of his old 'decency' in continuing attempts to help Maurice, though his efforts are never very forceful. Maurice finally disappears during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. Years later, on a visit to what I take to be Auschwitz, Halder, now resplendent in his black SS uniform, comes across Maurice in a kind of tableaux from hell. He observes and he drifts with the same bewilderment that has pursued him throughout.

As a movie Good is not that good. It most definitely suffers in comparison with The Reader: it's anaemic where that latter was full-blooded. But the moral dilemmas explored are interesting, as Halder remains 'good', if perplexed, right to the end. The essential problem with Nazism, of the whole Nazi experience, was not evil in itself; for few people are truly evil. No, it was moral cowardice.

Not PC-in Praise of a Great Englishman

Lovers of the English language, or words in general, will be mindful that this year marks the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Doctor Samuel Johnson, the compiler of our first dictionary. His namesake, the equally larger than life Boris Johnson marked the occasion with a piece in The Daily Telegraph, pointing out how ill-fitted he would be as commentator in our PC world: Polly Toynbee would be in a permanent state of apoplexy! He was certainly no believer in the equality of the sexes;

Public practices of any art, and staring in men's faces, is very indelicate in a female.

A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.

Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Now add to the mixture an explosive xenophobia, one that still embraced the traditional English dislike of the Scots, the Irish and the French. Even the Americans don't escape a swipe;

Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of a hanging.

The French were a dirty lot and Ireland was worth seeing but not worth going to see. But his sharpest barbs were directed against the 'Scotch';

What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?

Asked by a Scot what Johnson thought of Scotland: "That it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir" "Well, Sir! (replies the Scot, somewhat mortified), God made it." Johnson: "Certainly he did; but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S------; but God made hell."

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.

His distaste even makes its way into The Dictionary, where the definition of oats is given as;

A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Still for all that, for all of his curmudgeonly grumpiness, and the generally reactionary, high Tory nature of his views, he had a huge generosity of spirit. Though no believer human equality in general he was outraged by slavery. After the outbreak of the American Revolution he remarked;

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

One of his most intimate human relationships, moreover, was with his black servant, Francis Barber, generally known as Frank, whom he treated more or less like a son, solicitous over his education, and making him the chief beneficiary of his will. And despite all of the barbed humour and sallies directed at the Scots his most fruitful intellectual relationship was with James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer, whose tome-like Life of Johnson, one of the true landmarks of English literature, is the source of some of the more memorable bone mots, including a few of my favourites;

That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.

Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of both.

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.

A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he has nothing to say.

All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.

It was his own great project, The Dictionary of the English Language, the standard reference work until late into the nineteenth century, which caused the most astonishment when he was alive:

Adams: But, Sir, how can you do this in three years?

Johnson: Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years.

Adams: But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary.

Johnson: Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

Thus is the proportion of Samuel Johnson, a great lexicographer and a great Englishman. So, here is to you, Doctor Johnson, with all your sexism, with all your xenophobia, too big for this little age.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

You've Got Blood on Your Hands

Do you wonder why Tony Blair’s Euro bandwagon, at once so strong, died not with a bang but a whimper? Among the reasons offered is that Britain still has a less than complete relationship with the rest of Europe, not being within the Euro zone itself and not being party to the Schengen Agreement. And, of course, there is the decision to go to war in Iraq, which does not make him the most popular figure across the Continent, though this consideration obviously weighs more heavily with ordinary people rather than politicians, who have continued to fete this vile man despite his bloody hands.

If the Eurocrats really wanted Blair I’m convinced that Iraq would have been but a minor consideration. Ah, but think again; he really was hoist by the petard of popular contempt, at least according to a snippet of information that I have come across. In October he had the neck to attend a memorial held at the Guildhall for those killed in Iraq, who included Lance Corporal Shaun Brierly, who died in March 2003. When Blair made to shake hands with Peter Brierly, Shaun’s father, he was snubbed with the words-“I’m not shaking your hand; you’ve got blood on it.”

This may have passed but the story reached Paris. There, according to senior government sources, Nicholas Sarkozy told his staff that the EU could not risk having a man as president who might very well be confronted by similar angry scenes. At the end of October he met with Angela Merkel and both agreed that Blair was indeed a potential public relations disaster. Various excuses were devised to excuse Sarko’s change of direction but the ‘blood on your hands’ confrontation is thought to be the decisive factor. Mister Brierly has expressed his pleasure. Sometimes, just sometimes, the things people do and say really do matter in changing the course of history.

Cossack Pirates

I suppose when people think of Cossacks they bring horsemen to mind, but the story of the sea-going variety is every bit as dramatic, and still remembered in Ukrainian foklore. Their story really begins after the Ottoman Turks gained control of the Crimean Khanate, and began to operate a trade in Ukrainian slaves out of the port of Kaffa. In 1553 Dmytro Vyshnevetsky organised several Cossack bands into a single host, centred on a fortified camp, known as a sich. This fortification was located on the lower Dnieper River close to a series of cataracts or za porohamy. Because of this the host took the name of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, and began raiding Turkish settlements along the shores of the Black Sea.

Their first recorded naval raid dates to 1538, with an attack on the fortress of Ochakov. This was followed by more frequent and better-organised raids elsewhere, the freeing of Christian slaves being one of the chief aims, as well as the acqusition of plunder. Their success was such that they attracted the attention of the western European powers, including the Papacy, who made diplomatic overtures in the hope of launching joint ventures against the Turks.

During the early decades of the seventeenth century the Zaporozhian naval war reached the height of its success. Using small, shallow-draft, and highly manoeuvrable galleys known as chaiky, they moved swiftly across the Black Sea. According to the Cossacks' own records, these vessels, carrying a 50 to 70 man crew, could reach the Anatolian coast of Asia Minor from the mouth of the Dnieper River in forty hours. The chaiky were often accompanied by larger galleys, that served as command and control centres. The raids also acquired a distinct political purpose after Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny became hetman in 1613, intending to turn the host into the nucleus of a Ukrainian nation with the support of the European states.

By 1618 the Zaporozhians were members of the Anti-Turkish League, as Schaidachny transferred his seat of power to Kiev, nominally under Polish control, but functionally independent. The fighting qualities of the sea-going Cossacks was even admired in the Ottoman chronicles: "One can safely say that in the entire world one cannot find a people more careless for their lives or having less fear of death; persons versed in navigation assert that because of thir skill and boldness in naval battles these bands are more dangerous than any other enemy."

In 1615 the raiders even sailed to the walls of 'Tsarhorod', as they referred to the Turkish capital, plundering the ports of Mizevna and Archioca. An attempt by the Turks to blockade the mouth of the Dneiper, and thus deny the Cossacks access to the sea, was defeated in the spring of 1616, the raiders going on to capture Kaffa, which was burned down after all of the slaves were freed. That same year Trebizond, in eastern Anatolia, was captured and destroyed. Sultan Ahmed I sent his fleet to the Dneiper in pursuit; but instead of going home the Cossacks once more sailed to Istanbul, where they raided at leisure, even rampaging through the Topkapi Palace, according to one account. The city was raided four more times, once in 1620 and no fewer than three times in 1624.

After 1624 the Zaporozhian raids gradually died out, as the Cossacks began to devote more and more of their martial energies to land-based campaigns, fighting on one side and then the other during such conflicts as the Thirty Years War. But the legacy of the raiders remains an important part of the Ukrainian national consciousness. And if anyone wants a little fanciful insight into the spirit of these indomitable men, then I would suggest looking at Ilya Repin's marvellous painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago signalled the beginning of the end for communism across much of the world. When the flood was over the one major outpost left was China. Why? Was it simply because of the brute force show at in the Tiananmen Square Massacre? In part, yes, but mass killings did not save the vile Ceauşescu regime in Romania. The real answer lies in the collapse of a second wall, a wall built on lies and hypocrisy. China continues to be ruled by a corrupt and self-perpetuating oligarchy but communism, the ideology of communism, is long dead.

There was a point when the regime seemed to be about to lose the 'mandate of heaven'. The resignation of Erich Honecker, the colourless dictator of the old East German, in October 1989 was serious blow to the morale of the Chinese gerontocracy. It was Deng Xiaoping, the second Great Helmsman, who urged them to keep calm and carry on with reforms.

It was a subtle process, though, not at all like the Gorbachev programme in Russia, floundering on the promotion of idealism, on the gap between image and reality. The Chinese saw that disaster was like a tree refusing to give way to the wind: an ossified ideology, an entrenched an unimaginative elite and an inflexible party organisation all standing on top of a stagnant economy.

The Chinese would not have political liberty, but they would have economic liberty. They would, in other words, have capitalism. Walls came down, economic walls, the walls that had restricted and frustrated personal initiative. The paradox here is that, in China at least, it was capitalism that saved communism, or saved the Communist Party, to be more exact.

There are, as the Marxists would say, serious contradictions here, contradictions between economic liberalism and state authoritarianism. The Chinese establishment has adjusted very well to the new realities and the new riches that owe nothing at all to the official state religion. But how far this can continue it is difficult to say. How far, indeed, can economic liberalism continue without political liberalism? If China were beset be a serious economic crisis the structure of the state itself is likely to come under the closest of scrutiny rather than simply the policy of the government.

The oligarchs have kept calm and are carrying on in the fashion urged by Deng. But freedom, real freedom, still scares them. Walls have come down, yes, but firewalls have gone up.

Art and Power

All official art contains an element of propaganda. Let me give you a specific example. If I mention the name of the English king Henry VIII does this conjure up a specific image in your mind? Yes? Well, if it does, I think I can probably guarantee that it is the same confident and bull-like presentation that most people have: a man of boundless arrogance and limitless self-regard. This is the image that has made its way into popular culture, and possibly makes Henry one of the most recognised monarchs in all of history. In my estimation this puts Hans Holbein in the first rank of 'propaganda' painters. His paintings are not about people: they are about power.

It was Thomas Cromwell, the great Machiavellian, who first detected Holbeins's potential as the 'official' artist of the Reformed party in England, commissioning him to create anti-papal illustrations for books and pamphlets. In 1536 Holbein reached the very top of his profession, when he was appointed as the King's Painter. All images for public consumption were now his responsibility, and he depicted the Tudors very much in the fashion desired by the king, including the huge mural he painted in the palace of Whitehall. But of course being the painter of the rich and powerful also had dangers. Flattery and magnification became second nature to Holbein, who even did his best with the unprepossessing Anne of Cleves, Henry's mail-order bride. The gap between the 'ideal' and the reality was to lead to the fall of Cromwell, and the partial reversal of the English Reformation. Such is the power of art!

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Neda Soltan-a True Martyr

I had a very busy summer, first preparing for my finals at university and subsequent to that a trip to India. I tried during this time to keep up with the news of what was happening around the world. I knew about the presidential election campaign in Iran; indeed, I wrote some brief pieces on developments prior and subsequent to this event.

I was aware of the tragic death of Neda Soltan, caught up in the protests against the fraudulent result, which saw that wretch Ahmadinejad return to power. But if I am honest, shocked as I was by footage of her death, taken on a mobile and subsequently downloaded on You Tube, I never really thought of her as an individual, just another ‘victim’ of the repellent Iranian theocracy. I never thought of Neda as an individual, as a real person, if you like…not until tonight, not until I saw a very moving documentary on BBC television.

Neda is a true martyr, a wonderful, beautiful human being, who simply wanted change in her country, wanted the dead-hand of the dictatorship lifted from her life, an ambition she shared with so many others of her generation, young people who wanted a better future, one free from oppression and fear; one freed from ugliness disguised in the hypocritical cloak of piety and faith.

In different circumstances Neda and I might have been friends; she was only four years older than me when she was murdered by one of the police thugs set loose on the people of Teheran by Ayatollah Ali Khameni, the ‘supreme’ leader. Now I can only mourn her, if it’s possible to mourn for an individual one never knew. As I watched the documentary feelings of profound sorrow were mixed with those of deepening anger, anger against a dictatorship that freely murders the brightest and the best.

I understand that Neda means ‘voice’ or ‘calling’ in Persian, and that she is referred to by some as the ‘voice of Iran’. Yes, she is the true voice, not Ahmadinejad and Khameni, both of whom, particularly the latter, bear responsibility for her assassination. That crime was bad enough, but it was compounded by the authorities’ attempts to blame the shooting on the opposition. They even offered to declare her a ‘martyr’ if her mother agreed to accept their version of events. She has refused to accept this corruption of her daughter’s memory, this bargain with Satan.

I do not believe in a personal God; I do not believe in Islamic concepts of reward and punishment in the life to come. It would be a comfort, though, to believe there was such justice, a justice that could not be evaded or escaped, if only to think that Khameni will one day have to face a court that is not deceived by lies and dissimulation. No amount of bowing and praying will wipe the blood of Neda from his hands, a genuine martyr, a martyr for freedom and for justice.

Dancing with the Devil

There is a rather unsettling piece in the November issue of Standpoint by Nick Cohen on the fate of Derek Pasquill, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) mole who exposed that lamentable branch of government’s (whose government, I wonder?) contacts with Islamo-fascists when it was under the control of the Man of Straw. I know the FCO has a long tradition of working against the interests of this country but I would have thought that even it had clear limits, points beyond which it would not go. No, it does not.

The documents released by Pasquill show that the FCO was actively assisting organisations that promoted extreme Islamist views, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. It was part of a political strategy that was developed in a section headed Engaging with the Islamic World. For Jack Straw and his civil service myrmidons ‘engagement’ clearly meant appeasement of the worst and most extreme sections of Muslim opinion.

It was a betrayal not just of the interests of this country but also of more moderate Muslim opinion throughout the Middle East. You see, the assumption seems to have been that the fanatics in the Muslim Brotherhood were the only alternative to moribund Arab oligarchies. So, the FCO actively promoted and legitimised extremism. It’s difficult to believe, I know, even of them, but it happens to be true.

Pasquill was seconded to the Engaging with the Muslim World unit in 2005, just before the general election of that year, standing in for one Mockbul Ali, a ‘non-political’ civil servant who just happened to be off campaigning for the Labour Party among British Muslims.

Before taking up the post he decided to research the Muslim Brotherhood in the British Library, discovering that it was an organisation set up by admirers of European fascism; that it believed in the subjugation of women as well as in the murder of apostates and homosexuals; that it denied democracy and human rights as an ‘imperialist imposition’, and that it embraced the racist conspiracy theories once put into motion by the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. The movement, defined by the FCO as ‘moderate’, stood in opposition to every western principle of freedom and liberty.

It was because of this that Pasquill began his campaign, leaking documents to the press. But the revelations received almost no support on the liberal left, already compromised by the same forms of appeasement and muddle-headed thinking that had corrupted the FCO: they had embraced forms of reaction that they barely understand in the name of ‘liberation’. The damage that the FCO was doing to British interests at home and abroad, the damage that it was doing to national security, surely stands comparison with the actions of the Cambridge Spies. The latter were acting under the guidance of a perverse idealism. I can see no understandable motive at all behind the FCO’s policy other than crass stupidity.

Pasquill was eventually exposed as the whistleblower-he deliberately left a trail that could be followed by an elephant-and sacked. By rights he should have been prosecuted for breach of the Official Secrets Act, a path he actively sought, but the case was dropped.

In the course of his article Cohen poses two questions. Who is the traitor and who the patriot in these circumstances: the dissident civil servant or the two-faced government? Who, to be blunt, is more deserving of summary dismissal? I know the answer to these questions; I feel sure most of the people who read this will also know the answer.

In addition to this there are surely serious questions to be raised about the conduct of Jack Straw, that one-time Communist, both in the Foreign Office and the Home Office. In the former he tried to engage with people inimical to the interests of this country; in the latter he seems to have lost all control of mass immigration, either deliberately or because of incompetence and incapacity for high office I can’t say with certainty. I would so like the affairs of this shabby administration to be subject to a major public inquiry once Brown, Straw and Peter Mandelson,aka Lord Rumba of Rio, have been cast on to the rubbish tip of history.

Khrushchev contra Stalin

To begin with it should be noted that the whole speech was built on the oddest of paradoxes: a denunciation of Stalin's personality cult and authoritarian style by a man who had spent the three years since the dictator's death in undermining collective leadership, and establishing his own unparalleled power! By the time of the 20th Congress, in other words, Khrushchev’s political authority was almost as great as that previously enjoyed by Stalin.

Delegates at the Congress were given no advance warning of what to expect. Indeed, proceedings were opened by Khrushchev’s call for all to stand in memory of the Communist leaders who had died since the previous Congress, with Stalin being mentioned in the same breath as Klement Gottwald. Hints of a new direction only came out gradually over the next ten days, which must have left those present highly perplexed. On the 25 February, the very last day of the Congress, it was announced that an unscheduled secret session had been called for the Soviet delegates.

The speech itself began with vague references to the harmful consequences of elevating a single individual so high that he took on the "supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god." Khrushchev went on to say that such a mistake had been made about Stalin. He himself had been guilty of what was, in essence, a distortion of the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism. The attention of the audience was then drawn to Lenin's Testament, copies of which had been distributed, criticising Stalin's 'rudeness'. Further accusations, and hints of accusations, followed, including the suggestion that the murder of Sergey Kirov in 1934, the event that sparked of the Great Terror, could be included in the list of Stalin's crimes. While criticising the Man, Khrushchev carefully praised the Party, which had the strength to withstand all the negative effects of imaginary crimes and false accusations. The Party, in other words, had been a victim of Stalin, not an accessory to his crimes. He finished by calling on the Party to eradicate the cult of the personality and return to "the revolutionary fight for the transformation of society."

So, what were his motives? Was it really a call for a return to Leninist 'collective leadership' destroyed by Stalin? Well, here we have to remember that Lenin himself had only called for collective leadership in his final days, in the belief that no single individual was fit to follow in his singular path. Khrushchev himself, moreover, had, as I have said, effectively destroyed the new forms of collectivity that emerged after Stalin's death in 1953. In a sense, the Secret Speech was his own triumphal declaration, and he used it to undermine still further some senior Soviet politicians, including Georgy Malenkov and Kliment Voroshilov.

The implication was clear enough: he was innocent and the rest were guilty, though the simple truth was that he was just as bloody as any of the others. He was simply shifting the burden of responsibility. Exempting himself and blaming others: the whole speech was not about principles and ideals-it was about politics, and it was about power. Khrushchev had to demolish Stalin to establish his own imperium; Augustus had to give way to Tiberius. It may be of passing interest to make note of the fact that Stalin's portrait continued to hang in Khrushchev’s office long after 1956, as a kind of spiritual avatar. And those who took the speech at face value were soon to face the simple truth that the ideal was not reborn

Monday 23 November 2009

Empty Apologies

I’ve blogged in the past about the fashion, both fatuous and vain, for contemporary politicians to apologise for the tragedies and mistakes of the past; over things that happened well before they were born or over which they had no control (The Joker in a Gay Mood and No Point in Apologising for the Past). I’ve had further thoughts about this, inspired in part by Rod Liddle’s latest column in The Spectator, and in part the leaks from the Iraq Inquiry reported in The Sunday Telegraph.

Liddle’s reflections have been brought on by the latest round of apologies, that over the British children sent out to Australia last century, where they often suffered abuse and neglect. Brown has taken it upon himself to say sorry, just as he said sorry over the past persecutions suffered by homosexuals. It is, Liddle says, the quintessential example of the modern apology: a politician who is not remotely contrite apologising for something for which he had not the vaguest responsibility and for which, therefore, he cannot be blamed. A non-apology apology, then-an apology for something someone else did, and what’s more, did in the best of faith.

I suppose it might be of some comfort to someone somewhere that, given this trend, they can expect an apology for present injustices and wrongs, injustices and wrongs committed by the present government, in, say, fifty or a hundred years from now, delivered by politicians as yet unborn, though they will most likely not be around to enjoy the experience. I personally would like our dear Prime Minister to apologise for a more immediate enormity, one from the not too distant past: namely his Party’s close and potentially treasonable ties with the old Soviet Union. I don’t expect that any day soon, though; maybe in fifty or a hundred years. Never mind: what about an apology that would not cause the government too much distress, perhaps over Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries or Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews?

Tony, Not the Euro President, Blair led the way here, apologising for the Irish Potato famine, for slavery, even for the treatment of the Maoris! But let’s look at the thing, the one thing, he really needs to apologise for-the Iraq War. Did you read the report in the Telegraph? Did you read how he lied to Parliament about the planned invasion; how our troops were sent often half-prepared; how there was absolutely no thought given to a post-war strategy? The full human cost of this dreadful tragedy has yet to be quantified, but hundreds of thousands of innocent people died for Blair’s vision, for Blair’s mendacity.

Casting my mind over the past hundred years I cannot think of a similar enormity by a British Prime Minister. Even Anthony Eden’s Suez adventure is nothing in comparison. Yet this man, who, so far as I am concerned, might very well be indicted at The Hague for war crimes, was being considered for the Presidency of Europe. I’m sure the Inquiry will produce a lot more evidence of the enormities that Blair, the peace maker, committed in the Middle East, evidence depicting a situation that positively demands some genuine contrition and a truly meaningful apology. Alas, it’s an apology that will never be made. Never mind; there is always the dissolution of the monasteries, the expulsion of the Jews and on and on.

Candyfloss and Sunshine

Of all the criticisms of the recent Queen’s Speech the most obvious appears to have been missed: the complete failure of imagination. In Gordon Brown’s position I would have been so much more creative. I would have promised, say, candyfloss and sunshine. Yes, everyday would be the first day of spring; every heart would have a new song to sing. It’s too ambitious, I can feel you think. Is it any more ambitious than that ridiculous note Her Majesty was obliged to deliver last week? It wasn’t a statement of intent. No; it was two odd things juxtaposed: a declaration of war and a declaration of incompetence.

Now, let me begin with the declaration of war. This Parliament, the Expenses Parliament, has only a few short months to live. It will have to be dissolved around Easter at the latest. So there is no time for the government’s legislative programme to be implemented, even if the opposition played clever dog. The whole thing is just so threadbare that one would have to be stupid to see it not as a realistic agenda but an attempt trip up David Cameron and the Tories, trip up their resistance to candyfloss and sunshine.

I don’t want to dwell on this dismal programme overmuch. Let me just take the case of free personal care for the elderly. Why, one has to ask, does this come at this late stage, after twelve dismal years of the Noo Labour Reich? Why? That’s easy: because such a measure was dismissed as too impractical and too expensive in the past. A second question immediately arises here. How does this commitment to additional expenditure dovetail with the laughably named Fiscal Responsibility Bill? The simple answer is that it doesn’t. This naturally leads me into the declaration of incompetence.

Here we have a government that after twelve years has discovered the need for fiscal responsibility. The corollary to this is, of course, that what went before was fiscal irresponsibility. Yes, I know that’s the truth but I never expected to hear such an open admission. The best comment on the proposal to legislate against the deficit came, I thought, from Corporal Clegg of the Liberal Democrats. It’s like passing a law promising to get up in the morning, he said. One does not need the guidance of law; one just does it.

Ah, but the real incompetence, the true measure of Brown’s utter stupidity, comes in the obvious thing omitted from the Queen’s Speech: the need to clean up Parliament; the need to act on the Kelly Report. On the one great issue that has dominated Brown’s ministry, the Expenses Scandal, the one issue that demanded to be addressed, he had not a word to say. Sir Christopher Kelly himself expressed his ‘disappointment’ at this decision to ignore the elephant in the room. This and similar criticisms have forced dismal Brown into another humiliating climb-down, something we should be used to by now. Harriet Harperson, in her capacity as Leader of the Commons, has said that the government will add new laws to deal with MPs allowances and pay. Really? On top of the existing agenda? Oh why, oh why, did you not just promise candyfloss and sunshine? :-))

Just Dictatorship

The notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat' is possibly one of the least well-defined concepts in the whole of the Marxist canon. In terms of concrete political practice this was to have a particularly serious impact, because it is also one of the most central.

The root cause of the problem is that Karl Marx himself wrote far more about Capitalism than he ever did about Communism. The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' is mentioned for the first time in rather vague terms in a letter of 1852, where he suggests that it will 'emerge' as the outcome of the ongoing class struggle. It was to take another twenty years before it had a second outing, this time in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, where Marx made essentially the same vague pronouncement: "...between capitalist and communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation...Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat."

The problem this presented for those who followed was simply this: in what fashion or manner would this coercive use of political power lead to the second great element of Marxist eschatology-the 'withering away' of the state?

This core problem was to lead to some incredible intellectual contortions, with Karl Kautsky, the leading German Marxist thinker at the beginning of the twentieth century, suggesting that it simply meant 'majority rule', since the proletariat were the 'majority' of the people in advanced industrial societies. But the man who came closest to the truth was another German socialist, Edouard Bernstein, who argued that Marx had derived the concept from Auguste Blanqui, who in turn was looking back to the forms of dictatorship established during the First French Republic by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, which, in turn, harked back to the forms of emergency dictatorship established during the time of the ancient Roman Republic.

So, the concept, regardless of the setting, always had authoritarian roots. The best that can be said of it is that, in the manner of Kautsky, in advanced capitalist societies the dictatorship of the proletariat would replace the 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie', achieving a higher form, in other words, of popular democracy. But what about less advanced societies like Russia, with an active Marxist intelligentsia and a relatively small urban working-class? We are now in the world of Leninism, of 'substitutionism', if you like, where the revolutionary vanguard stands in the place of the revolutionary worker.

For Lenin and his Bolshevik Party the working-class, left to its own devices, was only capable of lower forms of consciousness, usually centring on trade union struggles. The Russian Revolution of 1905 and 1917 might, indeed, be said to have established in the Soviets nascent forms of direct democracy, in contrast with 'bourgeois' parliamentary institutions, like the Duma and the later Constituent Assembly. But the Bolsheviks, in pursuit of their own revolutionary doctrines, were quick to seize complete control of the Soviets, removing all rival voices in the working-class movement, Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks alike. In the end the Soviets were no more than auxiliary agencies of the state, and the dictatorship of the proletariat no more than the outright dictatorship of the Communist Party; and the dictatorship of the Communist Party the dictatorship of one man. Bakunin and Bernstein were both absolutely correct

A Glittering Prize?

I continue to derive much simple impish amusement from the antics of the French president, such an endearingly silly little man, and French politicians in general. There has been so much recently to smile over: Frédéric Mitterrand, the self–professed sex tourist; the Prince Jean affair; the storm over The Princess of Cleves; the massive amounts of money wasted by the Midget when France held the revolving Euro presidency. Now Marie NDiaye, a novelist and winner of Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, has been told she should not criticise Monsieur le Président. More than that; she was told that it was her duty not to criticise him.

And how she criticised! In an interview with Les Inrockuptibles, a leading cultural magazine, she said that she moved to Berlin in 2007 largely because of Sarkozy’s victory in the presidential election, finding the vulgar note he brought to French government and politics not quite the thing. To give up Paris for Berlin, of all places, is a sure sign of just how vulgar things have become in the Sarkozy Reich!

But this admission brought Eric Raoult, an MP and leading supporter of Le Dirigeant, to table a question to Frédéric Mitterrand, Culture minister as well as a sex tourist, asking whether “the duty of a person who defends the literary colours of France should not be to show a greater respect towards its institutions.” I see; Sarko is now an institution! He also demanded that prize winners should observe un devoir de reserve, the quality of reservation expected of servants of the state. Perhaps the same devoir de reserve, I wonder, expected in times past of the winners of the Stalin Prize?

In a style unique to the French, the literary proletariat have rallied to the side of their beleaguered colleague. Patrick Rambaud, himself a Goncourt laureate, said that Raoult is confusing the prize with Miss France, wrapped in her tricolour sash, though I personally would have gone with the archetypal figure of Marianne, just to give that little extra dignity. :-)

And Monsieur Mitterrand, what does he think? He thinks that writers, even winners of the Prix Goncourt, should be allowed to say what they like. Well he would, wouldn’t he, considering his taste for sex tourism was revealed in his autobiography. Alas, no award for the President, now generally considered a shallow philistine by many French writers and artists. Not good in a country where past leaders have always taken pride in their literary credentials. Perhaps he should let it be known that while he hates The Princess of Cleves he really loves The Da Vinci Code. :-))

Sunday 22 November 2009

Impish Ana

A friend of my, a perfect gentle knight, sent me this picture. I just love it, so I'm saving it here.

Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.--
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and caldron, bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and caldron, bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangl'd babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,--
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our caldron.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and caldron, bubble.

Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.


And this is me being more than usually impish.

My Favourite Fascist Writer

Who is your favourite fascist writer? I quite like the work of the madly eccentric French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, particularly Journey to the End of the Night, but my absolute favourite really has to be Knut Hamsun, the great Norwegian writer and Nobel laureate. My, oh, my, how could one possibly like fascist writing? But that’s just the point: it’s not fascist writing; it’s a fascist writing and, yes, there is a huge difference between the two. Good writing and good art does not always need good people as creators.

I discovered Hamsun in my mid-teens, working my way through all of his early work with huge enthusiasm; books like Hunger, Pan, Victoria, and Mysteries, all written in a wonderful, taut and economical style, all deeply engaging at a level of simple emotion, full of mood and mystery. I moved on to his later work but found it a little too ponderous for my taste. I did not really like The Growth of the Soil overmuch, with its agrarian mysticism, but it was well enough thought of to win him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920.

So much for the artist; now let’s have a look at the man. I’ve been reading Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter, a warts and all biography by Sletten Kollen. Hamsun wasn’t a good man; he was, rather, a thoroughly nasty human being, an obsessive, egotistical monster in the same way that Céline, or, say, Wagner was an obsessive, egotistical monster.

With people like this one gets the feeling that politics is really only of secondary concern, a way of expressing one’s peculiarities, and Hamsun had more peculiarities than most. He was a reactionary who hated the modern world; who hated and envied Henrik Ibsen as much as he loved and admired Adolf Hitler. He also hated the Anglo-Saxons, or, to express this in another way, he was an ass about AS. :-))

For Hamsun Hitler offered hope for the revival of Nordic culture. He was one of the few to welcome the German invasion of Norway in 1940, championing Vidkun Quisling, the traitor who headed a collaborationist government, and looking forward to the prospect of his country becoming part of Greater Germany. Even the end of the war brought no change of mood. He remained consistent in his support for Hitler, refusing to apologise for his past sympathies. Many of his fellow citizens were so outraged that they sent his books directly to the author as a mark of their displeasure. His local post office found it difficult to cope with the volume of the volumes!

Still, that’s the man and great art will always transcend the messenger. Hamsun is long dead and passions have died away It’s nice to know that the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, which falls this year, is being widely celebrated across his native land.