Sunday 28 February 2010

Colonel Gaddafi, Cuckoo of Cuckoos

I saw a performance of The Third Man last year, a special sixtieth anniversary screening. It’s a particularly good example of film noir and must count as one of the best British movies ever made. I absolutely loved it; the atmosphere, the tension, the music, the setting, the direction, the screenplay and the acting. Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard were both excellent but Orson Welles as Harry Lime, he was something else, in a different class altogether! There are lots of memorable lines but the most memorable surely has to be Lime’s observation about Switzerland;

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Well, now the poor old Swiss, despite their promotion of brotherly love, have produced something beyond the cuckoo clock; they have managed to produce outrage in the breast of the great Cuckoo himself; they have managed to upset Colonel Gaddafi, this King of Kings. Yes, that’s one of the titles he has bestowed on himself. Anyway, the King of Kings has called for a holy war against the “obscene, infidel” state of Switzerland. Why? It’s the minarets, of course, the Swiss decision to allow no more to cut into their obscene and infidel horizons;

Those who destroy God’s mosques deserve to be attacked through jihad and if Switzerland was on our borders we would fight it. Jihad against Switzerland, against Zionism, against foreign aggression is not terrorism.

So, now you know!

I’m sure even the Cuckoo of Cuckoos knows that we live in an age where states do not have to share a common border to make war on one another. It’s all just so much hot air and petulant bluster or the Libyan air force would even now be on its way to Zurich. That’s one way of looking at it; another way would be to see this as an invitation to terrorist attacks on Switzerland, the kind of attacks that Libya specialised not so long ago, the kind of thing that led to Lockerbie.

Who, I have to ask myself, in their right mind would do business with this man, so obviously mentally unbalanced and delusional. Well, we do, for one, this Labour government does; Peter Mandelson, Lord Rumbo of Rio, does, having a particularly cosy relationship with the Cuckoo’s son. His government, the government of Mad Gordon Brown, effectively betrayed those who died in the Lockerbie outrage to clear the way to deals over oil and gas, as wretched a piece of appeasement as I can conceive.

Just imagine a meeting between the Cuckoo and Mad Gordon; just imagine them both in a mood; just imagine the effing, blinding and missiles that might be produced; just imagine the jihad. Now that really would be something worth seeing!

“But I don't want to go among mad people," said Alice. "Oh, you can't help that," said the cat. "We're all mad here."

The Wonder of Wonderland

When I was growing up there were so many books that I enjoyed, so many authors. I think I’ve read everything by Anne Fine and Roald Dahl, Matilda being a particular favourite. But the novels I liked best of all go back further, novels supposedly for children that I can still read today; novels like The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

If pressed I would have to say that Lewis Carroll was my favourite writer and Alice my favourite character. Wonderland still amazes me, that crazy, topsy-turvy universe that built around a hard frame of logic; a world, surreal before surrealism, which possibly could only have been created a mathematician and an imaginative genius. Carroll was indeed an imaginative genius, the author of some of my all-time favourite quotes;

'But I don’t want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can’t help that,' said the Cat. 'We’re all mad here

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

"'Speak English!' said the Eaglet. 'I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and I don't believe you do either!'"

`Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, `if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'

Well, now that we HAVE seen each other,' said the Unicorn, `if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?'

And I still know the lyrics of the Walrus and the Carpenter after all this time!

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Tim Burton’s new movie Alice in Wonderland premiers here on Friday. I’m so looking forward to it not just because Alice is such a favourite but because I think he is a super director, one with a playful gothic imagination; an imagination just like my own. :-)

Good Walkers

The Benandanti, which literally means ‘good walkers’, was a Northern Italian shamanistic society accused of witchcraft by the Inquisition. But these people, who first caught the attention of the Church in the sixteenth century, were not easy to pin down. They freely admitted that they practiced what were clearly vestiges of older pagan rites but strongly denied being witches, or at least witches in the sense understood by the Inquisition, hateful, diabolical and evil. Indeed, they said that they practiced magic to serve God by battling other, more malign influences in their community. These nightly battles were alleged to have taken place in the district of Friuli right up to 1610.

It was during the Ember days that the Benandanti were under compulsion to serve their communities. Summoned either by drum call, or by angels, refusal to answer was met with a beating. It wasn’t their bodies that travelled, no; it was their souls. A trance was induced allowing the soul to leave the body and thus engage in combat with those described as the Malandanti, the evil walkers. Their souls travelled to these nightly rendezvous in the form of an animal the came forth from their mouths, most typically in the shape of cats, rabbits, butterflies or mice. In this form they travelled to the centre of the earth to encounter the opposing army.

The Inquisition records contain some lovely details of the nocturnal duels. The Benandanti fought with fennel stalks, their opponents with sorghum. The good walkers were also armed with rue, the most powerful magical plant in the Italian arsenal. Saint Lucy was invoked for assistance. She and the rue both offered protection against the effects of the Evil Eye. If they were victorious then the crops and herds would be abundant over the coming year; if not local abundance would wither away.

These people were clearly just part of an ancient pagan fertility cult; small wonder that they frustrated the Inquisition.

Losing America

A new archive of letters was discovered recently which illustrate how much personal responsibility George III bears for the loss of the American colonies. What they show in particular is the communication gap, with a king and an administration hopelessly out of touch with events in America; a king whose optimism contrasts sharply with the pessimism of the commanders on the ground.

The collection, which goes on sale at Sotheby’s in New York in a series of auctions beginning in April, indicate that the commanders began to despair of victory almost as soon as the conflict began in 1775. A letter by General John Burgoyne, written in Boston on 25 June, 1775, is the earliest assessment of how bad things were. The British position is described as

…a crisis that my little reading in history cannot parallel…such a pittance of troops as Great Britain and Ireland can supply will only serve to protract the war, to incur fruitless expense and to insure disappointment.

It was not just the pittance of troops that was a problem; it was also the kind of troops that the crown possessed. In the previous wars with the French for the control o the Continent the British had relied on the support of colonial militias, who knew the country and could make the most effective use of the terrain; skirmishers, who knew how to use hit and run tactics and fighting skills learned from the natives. On occasions these highly mobile forces were to prove superior to conventional armies, tied to roads and dependent on supply columns, as Burgoyne was to find to his own cost at Saratoga.

The collection also includes a copy of George III’s proclamation of August 1775 calling for the “suppression of rebellion and sedition”, one of only twenty in existence. Other correspondence from London emphasises just how absurdly sanguine the authorities were, continually hoping that the rebels would see their error and sue for pardon. The problem is quite clear: king and cabinet obviously saw events in America as an old-fashioned rebellion, much like that of the Scottish Jacobites earlier in the century. It was nothing of the kind: it was a revolution.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Boring Democracy to Death

What’s the least exciting nation in Europe? Don’t pause; give a quick answer, a reflex. I would guess most people would opt for Belgium. Now, who is the least exciting, most boring politician in Europe? Yes, of course; it’s Herman van Rompuy, Mister Euro President, dear old Rumpy Pumpy, the very personification of Belgium. I saw him depicted in a cartoon recently as a smurf, an apt image, I thought.

Did you catch the recent news; did you see Nigel Farage’s broadside against Rumpy? It came on the occasion of his first appearance in the laughable European Parliament as President. UKIP is not my party, and Farage is not my man, but my admiration for him grew as I watched Rumpy squirm under his withering invective. “I don’t want to be rude”, Farage said, and then proceeded to be remarkably rude, direct and to the point, clearly aiming at a British audience and not the torpid placemen in this chamber, this shallow façade of democracy

It was quite brilliant; blogland is buzzing with it, buzzing at the onslaught against this mediocrity. We were told, Farage said, that when we had a president that the man would be a giant political figure, the leader of five hundred million people, the man who would represent all of us on the world stage, and what did we get? “Well, I’m afraid what we got was you”. And then he really let rip. Rumpy has the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk. The question Farage asked, the question I want to ask, I imagine most of us want to ask, is quite simple: who are you?

As the members from here, there and everywhere started to grumble at his boldness and audacity Farage responded, quite rightly, with a truly cutting remark - “Oh, I know democracy is not popular with you lot.”

There is just so much truth in that. The Europeans know next to nothing of democracy, one of the simple lessons of their history, no sooner out of bed with fascism than into bed with communism. But these movements were too direct, far too obvious; the uniforms, the flags and the dictators were just too over the top, too exciting. Why not just bore democracy to death; why not increase immeasurably the power of a faceless bureaucracy, why not let a President emerge by a deeply undemocratic process, rather like a mole from a hole, the hole being Belgium? Yes, why not?

Europe laboured and laboured, finally bringing forth a mole, finally bringing forth Rumpy Pumpy. Nazi Europe was destroyed by arms; Communist Europe by ideas; Bureaucratic Europe may very well be destroyed by ridicule. Let’s hope so.

Watch Your Backs, Guys

I thought I might say a word or two more about the recent convention of the Tea Party that so upset the CPUSA. Well, it would, wouldn’t it, since we are actually dealing with a genuine people’s movement, a kind of grass-roots revolution. It’ really quite astonishing when one considers that this movement has arisen from nothing to becoming one of the most potent recent forces in American politics, a movement that owes nothing to organised politics or traditional elites.

The star of the show, as one might expect, was Sarah Plain, who is no longer reluctant to say that she may stand for the presidency in 2012. But that is not the most important thing; for the Tea Party is not just a threat to the Super Obama’s re-election prospects, it’s a warming to the Grand Old Party that there should be no compromises, no pork barrelling in Washington.

Ever since the victory of Scott Brown deprived him of a Senate Majority Obama has been droning on about the need for a ‘bipartisan’ approach to his health and cap and trade policies. Now is the time, he says, to rise above ‘petty politics.’ This sort of thing has worked in the past but the message coming from Nashville and America beyond is, no, now is not the time to compromise on Obama politics.

The Tea Party is determined to ‘take back America’. It’s not a challenge to Obamaland as such. It goes deeper. This is a reaction against the Behemoth of bloated central government, which has waxed fat over the years, no matter the political complexion of Washington. Tom Tancred, a former congressman and presidential candidate from Colorado, caught the mood in Nashville when he said that he thanked God that John McCain had been defeated in 2008. If he had won America would simply have continued the long drift to the left set in place by Franklin D Roosevelt. This is wonderful; it’s so long overdue!

The Tea Party grows and it learns as it grows. With something in the region of a million members, many of whom were not previously involved in politics, it’s moving beyond rallies and fund-raising events to focusing on elections. The movement is also computer savvy, making good use of networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to spread the message outwards in ever widening circles. Get the vote out, people are told; make sure that true conservatives challenge Democrats and RINOS (Republicans in name only).

According to the report in The Economist Tea Party organisers are intending to set up a political action committee to recruit and support candidates who would champion fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, smaller government and national security. So, if any Republicans in Washington are tempted by Obama’s offers of ‘bipartisanship’ they had better watch their backs. Yes, they had. :-)

Travelling in Time

This is my response on Blogcatalog to a question on the possibility of time travel, brief and to the point.

Well, to believe in this stuff one would have to conceive of time as a stream linking the present with the past and the future. All of our actions are therefore foreordained and there is no freedom at all. A time machine has already been invented and the future comes back to the past; we are the past; we are already dead. :-)

Thoughts of Empire

On reading Kipling I used to wonder to what extent, if at all, the overseas Empire impacted on the consciousness of British people at the time. The simple answer is far less than is imagined; far less than those in the school of Edward Said would have us believe. Indeed, for the best part of the nineteenth century it hardly impacted at all. The patriotic concept of Empire was a relatively late creation, really only emerging when a sense of crisis set in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.

In high culture it hardly features at all, and no major novel of the day has an imperial theme. In architecture the 'Imperial style', if such an expression can even be used, effectively disappears after the time of George IV, as Britain adopted the same Greco-Roman fashion preferred throughout the western world, non-imperial societies included. Even in boys' fiction the subject of Empire is almost completely avoided before the advent of G. A. Henty. R. M. Ballantyne's 1858 novel Coral Island is 'exotic', rather than imperial, as indeed are the works of Rider Haggard. The stories and poems of Rudyard Kipling were a relatively late addition to the literary canon, and his enthusiasm for Empire is in large measure explained by the fact that he was born in India. The general indifference in Britain itself was a source of frustration to some, including the historian J. R. Seeley, who complained that the Empire seemed to have been acquired "in a fit of absent-mindedness."

Native British lack of enthusiasm for the project of Empire is, in large measure, explained by the educational system of the day, which placed no importance whatsoever on international affairs and contemporary politics. In 1902, when a Member of Parliament asked a class of school leavers who among them had heard of the Indian Mutiny, only one boy raised his hand.

It is also important to realise that British schools, unlike those in the United States, placed almost no value on the importance of patriotism. Indeed, the British political elite tended to view any enthusiasm of this kind with a high degree of suspicion, because of its association, via the French Revolution, with republicanism and democracy. British people belonged to specific social classes, and classes had duties, not rights. The upper classes were taught to rule, at both home and abroad; the lower classes were taught to obey; and the middle-classes were taught how to create wealth. Empire was merely a distraction. In 1893, Lord Kimberly, himself former Colonial Secretary, when asked if children should not be given some lessons in imperial patriotism, said that they would be better off "given practical lessons in the geography of their own localities rather than being shown maps [of the Empire] they are not well versed in, and which do not convey much to their minds."

One also has to consider the nature of the British Empire itself to understand why it played so small part in the consciousness of the nation. The 'Imperial Red' maps-which did not start to appear until the 1880s-are actually quite deceptive, suggesting something centralised and unified, like the ancient Roman or the modern Russian Empires. The British Empire, in contrast, was possibly the most decentralised in history, in that a good part was administered by local elites, which meant that it could be maintained at the minimum of cost, and with the minimum of personnel. In other words, no national effort was required to sustain it. The small class of Imperial Civil Servants was proud of their exclusivity: it was their Empire, not 'the peoples'.

These attitudes began to change somewhat by the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time of the Second Boer War and after, when the Empire came under threat from rival powers and home-grown nationalism. It was only at this time that the imperial propaganda movement got underway. But apart from brief bursts of enthusiasm, the general response remained muted. In 1911 an executive of the Victoria League remarked of a lecture given at the Workers Educational Association that the "audience gave the impression of suspicion, of hostility to the subject and of considerable indifference to the conditions prevailing in the colonies."

Yes, the Empire was there, yes it had important economic and political consequences; but the deeper sense it was like an iceberg-virtually invisible until the very last moment.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Economists- the real Nowhere Men

I just had to laugh when I read the economists’ letter to the Financial Times in support of Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, saying that this is no time to introduce budget cuts. So, with a deficit now at eye-watering levels these clots are effectively telling the government to spend away; to mortgage your future, to mortgage my future, looking always to the ‘long run’. That reminds me of something. Oh, yes, wasn’t it an economist who once said that in the long run we are all dead?

Is there, I ask myself, anyone who beats economists in the stupidity stakes? OK, there are climate-change scientists, but economists are in a unique category of their own. Gorbachev, of all people, used to tell a joke which featured economists in the punch-line when he was meeting other heads of state or government. It went like this. President Regan has a hundred security advisors. One of them is a spy, but he does not know which. President Mitterrand has a hundred lovers. One of them has Aids but he does not know which. He –Gorbachev- has a hundred economic experts. One of them is intelligent but he does not know which.

Yes, quite. But let Dismal Gordon take temporary comfort from the practitioners of the Dismal Science who came to his aid, all sixty of the clots. Yes, now is not the time to introduce cuts which may endanger a ‘fragile’ recovery; now is the time to chase away investors alarmed by the horrific growth in debt and borrowing. I would honestly say that economists act as a reverse barometer; whatever they say, expect the opposite, do the opposite. Because when they get it wrong they get it spectacularly wrong.

In 1981, when Geoffrey Howe was Chancellor, he was faced with a kind of charge of the dismal brigade, when no less than 364 of them, virtually the whole profession, not a stupid 60, wrote to The Times criticising the Budget, saying that “there was no basis in economic theory or supporting evidence” for the policy the government was pursuing. They did not stop there, no; there were also the Cassandra-like warnings that the Budget threatened Britain’s social and political stability and that an alternative course must be sought.

But the Lady was not for turning; strict fiscal and monetary policy was introduced over the squeals and moans. Alas for them what followed was not judgement day only morning, excellent and fair. No sooner had their miserable missive been published than the economy began to recover. No sooner had it started its recovery than all of the inherited Keynesian orthodoxy looked stupid and outmoded.

No, there was no increased expenditure. Instead the Budget deficit was faced with simple honesty. Taxes were increased and government borrowing brought back on course. Lower government borrowing meant lower interest rates, taking the pressure off business. Investors started to regain confidence in the will-power of the Thatcher government, that it would pursue its declared goals to a conclusion, not collapse into indecision; not be panicked by the advice of the ‘experts’. So, money was freed up as people planned a future on the basis of lower interest rates, lower inflation and lower borrowing. Intelligence, clear thinking and good-sense prevailed. The economists were ignored; so should they always be, because most of them are the captives of yesterday’s idea. Most of them truly are nowhere men. :-)

They’re as blind as they can be,
Just see what they want to see,
Nowhere Men can you see me at all?

Nowhere Men, don't worry,
Take your time, don't hurry,
Leave it all till somebody else
lends you a hand!

Marital War and Peace

The Last Station, directed by Michael Hoffman, is a period drama telling of the final stages in the life of Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace. Starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as Countess Sofya Andreyevna, his wife, and based on the biographical novel of the same name by Jay Parini, the movie itself is a kind of war and peace in the context of a marriage

There are some terrific performances. Plummer is utterly convincing as Tolstoy, loving and yet rigid in principle, but Dame Helen really steals the show as Countess Sofya. If anything her performance is at points a little overripe, and I’ve never before seen her hamming it up with such exuberance. But don’t let that put you off; there is a comic intensity to her Countess Sofya, but there is also an underlying vulnerability; a sadness over a loss of power and influence which she also brings to the fore.

I have to say that while I admire Tolstoy so much as a writer - second only to Dostoevsky in the pantheon of Russian literature in my estimation - I’m far less keen on Tolstoy the man, or the man he became in the final stages of his life. Ghandi before Ghandi, he was an advocate of pacifism, celibacy, neo-anarchism and vegetarianism, while at the same time full of self-will and egoism; a man who was prepared to put vacuous abstractions before living people; a man who was prepared to preach but not always practice. He is the original bleeding heart and limousine liberal, as one review I read rightly says

My sympathies in the movie- and in life- were all with Countess Sofya. She was Tolstoy’s amanuensis and muse. Only she could decipher his handwriting. She copied War and Peace no fewer than six times. More than that, she also made suggestions along the way on the book’s characters, on what was credible and what was not. So she had as much right to the book, it might be thought, as her husband.

Tolstoy thinks otherwise. He is proposing to give away the copyright to all mankind in the shape of the Tolstoy Foundation, headed by Vladimir Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti, Sofya Andrevena’s principal opponent. The Countess, you see, is a material girl living in an idealist world!

It’s this mix, this tug of love and legacy, comes Valentin Bulgakov, a credible performance by James McAvoy, a naïve and doe-eyed idealist. Employed by Chertkov essentially as a secretary for the author and as a spy against the scheming Countess, he is able to watch the war of the Tolstoys at first hand.

Living in a nearby Tolstoyan commune, dedicated to bloodless ideals, he matures under the guidance, and the love, of Masha, played by Kerry Condon, a free-spirit in every sense. I could not quite work out what she was doing among the self-deniers, the celibates and the abstainers - oh, the looks of disapproval she incurred when doing something as innocent as killing a troublesome mosquito! Anyway, with her advent the movie then takes the shape of a double love story; of Tolstoy and the secretary; of first love and last love; of young lust and old empathy, one nicely played off against the other.

Ah, yes, the Countess does love the man; she just hates those like Chertkov, who would turn him into an icon, a prophet and an ideal. She did not marry Jesus; she married Lev Tolstoy. In the end Tolstoy, unable to live in the cross-fire, and surrendering real life for chimerical ideals, leaves home, going by train and ending in Astapovo, his last station, where he dies. I’m delighted to say that the Countess, and not Chertkov, got the copyright in the end, awarded to her by the Russian Senate in 1914, four years after her husband’s death.

I confess I thought the script a little thin at points, never really getting below the surface. But even so it bubbles along quite nicely. The cinematography is gorgeous, the rural settings beautiful, a touch of life in the old Russia, the Russia of counts and peasants, of authors and icons, destroyed for ever by the communists.

The Day of the Lion

I had a chance to see Uprising recently, a 2001 American-made television drama, directed by Jon Avnet, about the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of April, 1943. So far as I am aware it has never been broadcast in England, which is rather a pity because it’s of a remarkably high quality. It’s reasonably accurate in most regards with close attention to period detail.

There are also some really first rate performances, with Donald Sutherland as Adam Czerniaków, head of the Jewish Council for the Ghetto, Hank Azaria as commander of the Jewish Combat Organisation, David Schwimmer as Yitzak Zuckerman, Sadie Frost as Zivia Lubetkin and John Voight as Major General Jürgen Stroop, the man who led the German assault against the Jewish resisters.

It’s long at over three hours, but I found the whole thing quite compelling. It tells what must have been a fairly typical story throughout the ghettos of Eastern Europe; there is the old establishment represented by Adam Czerniaków, who hopes to mollify the Germans by co-operation and reason, and the young firebrands typified by Mordecai Anielewicz, brilliantly played by Hank Azaria, who see conditions getting worse and believe in the necessity of resistance.

In the end Czerniaków himself recognises that the German demands go beyond all boundaries of reason. In the great deportation of July 1942 he tries to gain and exception for the children of Janusz Korczak’s orphanage. When they refuse he committed suicide, leaving a note saying “They demand me to kill children of my nation with my own hands. I have nothing to do but to die.”

In perhaps the most moving scene of all we see Korczak himself, played by Palle Granditsky, leading the children in perfect order to Umschalgplatz, where they mount the train that will take them to Treblinka and death. Korczak, a prominent pedagogue and writer of children’s fiction, though excused deportation, insists on going with his charges. A witness was later to record of the real life event;

... A miracle occurred. Two hundred children did not cry out. Two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak, so that he might protect and preserve them. Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar. (...) On all sides the children were surrounded by Germans, Ukrainians, and this time also Jewish policemen. They whipped and fired shots at them. The very stones of the street wept at the sight of the procession.

The film proceeds thereafter to tell the story of the Rising itself, too well known to require a detailed repetition here. In recounting the details of the struggle, of tanks and artillery against opponents mostly armed with light weapons and Molotov cocktails that the director is at his most impressive. The atmosphere and the general tension are all wonderfully recreated, in an almost claustrophobic sense of realism. I knew the outcome, I knew the inevitability of defeat, but, oh my how I admired the courage of these boys and girls who were determined to die as lions, not as sheep.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

A New Tongue Twister in F

I wonder who devises Labour campaign slogans; possibly a secret Tory sympathiser? A Future Fair for All, is that not absolute scream? Repeat it, getting faster and faster as you go and see how it sticks the mouth like glue – an fff! It’s not likely to win an election but I’m convinced that it that fff will achieve a kind of immortality; that fff is set to take its place alongside such classic tongue twisters as Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers or She sells seashells by the seashore. One couldn’t make this up; well, one could, if one happened to be in the Labour Party propaganda machine.

I do think that it might just be possible to detect the heavy touch of Dismal Gordon here, that Fat, Fatuous Fraud. It has the overtones of the kind of class war he intends to fight, more closely defined by his determination to stand up for the many rather than the few, an oblique reference, of course, to those Terrible Tory Toffs. Dismal, with that insane grin on his face, wants us to have a “second look at Labour”? Why? The first one was bad enough.

Yes, by all means, do have a second look at thirteen years of mismanagement; do have a second look at repeated tax hikes, rising unemployment, aggressive warfare abroad, the surrender of sovereignty at home, mass immigration, appeasement of radical Islam and levels of public debt that would make Nero blanch. By all means have a second look just to remind yourself that if this country had been occupied, and a Quisling government put in place, we could not have fared any worse.

I simply find it impossible to conceive of any intelligent person, anyone with a sense of judgement, anyone able to face simple and unpalatable truths, voting for this criminally incompetent party, this party that has, so far as I am concerned, betrayed my country as thoroughly as Vidkun Quisling and his supporters betrayed Norway. But people vote for all sorts of reasons, less out of an understanding of the facts, more out of self-interest. Most Labour supporters are, I would hazard, dependant on state doles of one kind or another, on bread and circuses. By and large I think those who vote Labour do so largely as a kind of cultural reflex; that there are indeed places in this country that would elect Fred West if he wore a red rosette.

Rod Liddle argues in the latest issue of The Spectator that a visceral dislike of one’s opponents is rooted in principle, an argument that arises from David Wright’s reference to the Tories as “scum-sucking pigs” on his Twitter page. Nasty stuff, yes, with echoes of Aneurin Bevan’s description of Tories as lower than vermin. Wright, being the sort of man he is, then backtracked, announcing that it was a fraud, a set-up. I’m not surprised. Do you know what his Tweet was? Well, it goes like this;

ivenevervotedtory because you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig, but it's still a scum-sucking pig. And cos they would ruin Britain.

Yes, look again at Labour; look at a man in his mid-forties who could express himself like that, a government whip who could express himself like a chav on speed. I feel a new slogan coming on – New Labour; a Future Fraught with Folly and Filth. Off to Central Office it goes. :-))

To have and to hold

I enjoyed William Langley’s profile of President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, the Botox Evita, in the Sunday Telegraph. Actually I think the parallel here should not be with the great Evita but more with Juan Peron’s second wife, Isabel, also one-time president of Argentina, the unlamented Isabelita. Or, considering her present posturing over the Falkland Islands, she might best be seen perhaps as the Botox Galterei.

I’m exaggerating, of course; nobody could possibly be as stupid as Leopoldo Galtieri, the man who embarked on an ill-advised military adventure to shore up the crumbling popularity of his murderous military junta. I don’t honestly think that the people of Argentina have the stomach for another fight, no matter how they shout about Las Malvinas. But Kirchner, increasingly unpopular, has decided on a spot of Argentinean machismo, imposing what amounts to an economic blockade on the Falklands.

Yes, she is drawing on a sense of grievance, on wounded national pride. The 1994 constitution, created after the end of the dictatorship- for which they have the British to thank – declares the recovery of ‘Las Malvinas’ to be “a permanent and unrelinquished goal of the Argentinean people. Recovery; that’s such an emotive word, don’t you think? Irredentism, the argument that lands should belong to the country to which they are ethnically or historically related.

There was a brief and questionable Argentinean occupation of the Falklands in the late 1820s, when a penal colony was established; but that’s it, that’s all. More than that, there is absolutely no ethnic link with any native Patagonian settlers; there never was. Besides, many of the natives of Patagonia itself were wiped out in the 1870s in an episode known in Argentinean history as the War of the Desert, by which control spread southwards from Buenos Aires to the areas adjacent to the Falklands. The very use of the word ‘desert’ gives some idea of how the native tribes were perceived.

Still, this is all quite arcane, really only of historical interest. The simple fact remains - a point I made on another blog - that the people of the Falklands are British and wish to remain British. British soldiers fought and died preserving their freedom from a brutal foreign aggressor, good at killing its own people, not so good at fighting wars. As long as the people of the Falklands want no change in their present status it is our duty to stand by them, no matter how much hot air is generated in Buenos Aeries. The only lift Kirchner is likely to get is from her continuing use of Botox.

Finding King Richard

Last November I wrote a piece headed My Kingdom for a Gun; finding Bosworth Field, focusing on the attempt to pinpoint the precise location of this seminal battle. According to the latest reports the task is all but complete. A thumbnail-sized silver gilt boar has been uncovered by the archaeological team. The boar-badge was, of course, the personal emblem of Richard III, the last English king to be killed in battle, and is thought to have been worn by one of his close retainers at the spot where he fell.

The evidence uncovered in the fields straddling Fen Lane in the Leicestershire parish of Upton also includes the badges of the supporters of both Richard and Henry Tudor, as well as twenty-eight lumps of roundshot, in a site that is nearly two miles south-west of what has traditionally been regarded as the centre of the battle.

Frank Baldwin, chairman of the Battlefields Trust charity, has described the discovery as “important to us as Schliemann discovering Troy.” My reaction was that he was, perhaps, allowing himself to be carried away by boyish enthusiasm, but I quite agree with Professor Richard Holmes, a historian for whom I have considerable respect, that “this is certainly the most important discovery about Bosworth in my lifetime.”

On Richard himself my feelings are somewhat ambivalent. I do not share the enthusiasm of the Ricardians for the ‘lost cause’ of their hero king. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Princes in the Tower, King Edward V and Richard duke of York, were indeed murdered on the orders of their uncle; they were simply too dangerous to remain alive. Moreover, I can’t but admire the Tudor dynasty that brought us in Henry VIII and Elizabeth I two of the greatest monarchs in English history.

Still, the romantic in me regrets the loss of the old England, the England of the Plantagenets, the England of Richard III, an enduringly fascinating man for all of his brief flight with destiny.

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth

Monday 22 February 2010

The Worst Man for the Job

The internet guerrillas got it right; my, how they got it right: the use of the movie Downfall as an amusing comment on the decline of the Brown Reich was just so appropriate. There he is, the carpet-chewing, bullying, ranting Fuehrer, terrorising his staff with his unpredictable outbursts; paranoid, fearful, in a state of constant denial.

I don’t think I’ve ever read The Observer so thoroughly; there was just so much meat, so much to feast on. I’m really looking forward to reading Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party, extracts from which, explosive extracts, appeared on Sunday. And explosive really is the operative word.

Yes, it is a personalisation of politics; it is an intense scrutiny on Brown’s capacity, incapacity, rather, for the leadership of this country. Did he not invite this scrutiny himself? I am the best man for the job, he said, this is no time for a novice; this is the time for me.

I suppose some of you read the extracts published yesterday, or picked up on the gist of them here, or from television reports. For those who have not they are altogether stunning. Our Prime Minister’s abusive conduct towards staff at all levels, including quite junior staff like typists, was so bad that he was effectively ‘reprimanded’ by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, who told him this was no way to get things done. I saw Brown with that mad misplaced grin being interviewed on television news last night, trying to deny the story, a story of missiles and moods, of effing and blinding and things that go bump in the night.

I’m not going to give a blow by blow account; a few examples will suffice. People were frightened of him because he was always shouting, constantly blaming others when things went wrong. Objects were thrown at people, anything from mobile phones to coke cans. One civil servant applying for a position in Number 10 was asked at the interview if he could cope with “extreme verbal abuse”. The poor man was so scared by the description of what working with Dismal Gordon was like that he simply withdrew his application.

While travelling in his official car Brown was told news that made in clench his fist and swing it back, The aid beside him cowered, fearing he was about to be hit in the face. Instead the fist crashed into the passenger seat in front. He hit the upholstery so regularly that sitting in front of him was considered one of the worst duties among the accompanying protection squad.

Add to this the kind of language favoured by the man then one begins to get a more fully rounded picture. In advance of a meeting of the European Council, Stewart Wood, a senior advisor and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, arranged a lunchtime reception for the ambassadors, to be held in Downing Street. When Wood tried to brief him Brown yelled, “Why have I got to meet these fucking people? Why are you making me meet these fucking people? I don’t want to meet these fucking people”. He then shoved the shaken Wood aside.

It goes on like this. There are also tales of plots and intrigues, including one involving Jack Straw, which would not have been out of place in the Byzantine court. Oh, they could plot and intrigue alright but not one of them had the courage to act in a way that might have saved themselves, their party and this benighted government.

Rawnsley has based his book on extensive research, on thousands of interviews with some of the principle figures of New Labour over the years. Some five hundred people contributed specifically to the book itself. But he has been careful not to let animosity and hatred-and there is so much of that- speak for itself. He only included incidents of abusive behaviour, he says in an accompanying article, once he had attained confirmation from impeccable sources. Some episodes, though carrying a high degree of verisimilitude, were excluded because the proof was not cast iron –“Only once I was satisfied by the veracity of the story did it go into the book. The sources are 24 carat.”

I’m not going to say that this is a shocking story because I am no longer shocked by anything that happens in British politics. Even so, it’s sad to see the senior political office in the land degenerate in such a way; for power to devolve on a man such as this, a man who has neither the capacity nor the temperament for leadership; a individual who is so clearly the worst man for the job.

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places

Nico is my Mirror

I’m really just discovering The Velvet Underground, a band active in the late 1960s and early 1970s; a band associated with Andy Warhol and his Factory as well as his Exploding Plastic Inevitable Events. Their 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, given to me last Christmas, just leaves me breathless; songs like Heroin, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Sunday Morning and I’ll be your Mirror leave me breathless.

Lou Reed is an excellent song writer but it is Nico, the German singer, who collaborated with the band on that first album, who intrigues and fascinates me the most; the beautiful, magical and tragic Nico. Now long dead that haunting voice reaches out to me, seems to beckon me in the fashion of a Siren. I listen to her again, and again and again. She is becoming my mirror. She was a Chelsea Girl; I am a Chelsea girl-she is my avatar

Away with the Fairies

Fairies are now largely perceived as innocent and whimsical creatures but it was not always so. In 1324 Bernardo Gui, a Dominican friar and full-time hunter of heretics, published The Inquisitor’s Manual, one of the earliest witch-hunting guides, in which he instructed his fellow professionals to question suspects “on the subject of fairies who bring good fortune, or is said, who run around at night.”

So, any congress, or alleged congress with fairies was likely to result in an accusation of witchcraft, particularly in France. The association was a transitory one, though, as the inquisitors moved on to more malign associations, linking witchcraft with diabolism But even so fairies still made their way into witchcraft trails, though often associated with Devil Worship.

There is no doubt that there were fairy cults scattered across Europe in the high Middle Ages, though the object of devotion was a benign Fairy Queen, not Satan. In 1430 during her trail at Rouen Joan of Arc was asked if she knew anything about those who “went or travelled through the air with fairies.” She denied direct experience but acknowledged that she was aware of the practice, and that what she called “sorcerie” took place in her region on Thursdays.

There are other less elevated examples than this. The one that strikes me as being manifestly unjust and unfair is the case of Alison Piersoun of Byrehill, who lived in sixteenth century Scotland. She was visited, so the story goes, by one William Sympsoune, a dead relative, who took her to see the elves and the fairies. They taught her to prepare healing ointments and potions with such skill that news of her skill began to spread. No less a figure than Patrick Adamson, Archbishop of Saint Andrews, the principle see of the Scottish Church, sent for her after he fell ill. But no sooner was he cured than he refused to pay for his treatment, attributing Alison’s skill to the Devil. She was duly arrested, tortured and burned as a witch.

I have little doubt that if anyone is with the Devil it is this appalling cleric, who would rather see a wise woman suffer and die than pay his bill.

Sunday 21 February 2010

What’s in a name?

Thinking about Goodluck Jonathan, the new president of Nigeria, brought to mind other names that people have had bestowed on them through history by ignorant or hopeful parents. There is, of course, the ever memorable Praise-God Barebone, a seventeenth century Leveller, who may very well have been altogether forgotten but for the fact that Oliver Cromwell’s Nominated Assembly was to achieve eternal ridicule as the Barebone’s Parliament.

But there are names a lot less benign than Goodluck Jonathan or Praise-God Barebone. I’m not recommending this but if you want a comprehensive catalogue you could do no better than to dip into the smutty schoolboy vulgarity of Potty, Fartwell and Knob: From Luke Warm to Minty Badger - Extraordinary But True Names of British People, an altogether hilarious compilation of the weird, the wonderful and the downright bizarre by Russell Ash. I mention but a few, and do remember these names are not made up

There is Seymour Bust, born in Essex in 1841; Pleasant Titty, baptised in Margate in 1768; there is Sue Age, born in Glasgow in 1849; Sexey Butt, born in Dundry, Somerset in 1803; Nancy Boys, born in Brighton in 1842; Posthumous Mince, who died in Greenwich, Kent in 1839; Easter Bunny, born in Yorkshire in 1851; Mad Looney, who died in Warwick in 1894; Trannie Pickup, born in Portsmouth in 1853; Turd Collar, born in Ireland in 1821, and there is –wait for it- Effing Dick, born in Glasgow in 1848!

These names were doubtless fairly innocent at the time, only acquiring a retrospective hilarity. Who knows what future humour may emerge from our innocent-sounding names!

There is one story that I came across a couple of years ago concerning another African politician, Canaan Banana, Zimbabwe’s first president. Now the name itself, although mildly amusing, became outrageously funny because of certain circumstances emerging from the man’s career. He had a very poor relationship with the press, something politicians should be at pains to avoid because journalists are a vengeful crew. His name was obviously a headline writer’s dream. To make things even worse his daughter was called Anna Banana. Anyway, the name was used in so many comic associations that he actually passed a law banning people making jokes about it – and I am not joking!

But then came the big one: Banana was indicted on a charge of homosexual rape. I feel sure you can picture what followed, headlines like Man Raped by Banana. His unsuccessful appeal after conviction was an occasion for further ribaldry; Banana loses Sex Appeal, being one particular favourite. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, just as Banana by any other name would have been as bad…only not quite so funny.

Alias Ms von Habsburg

For me the saddest outcome of the First World War has to be the disappearance of the wonderful, tolerant Habsburg Empire, so much better in almost every way than the successor states which followed. In the place of tolerance and understanding came oppression and dictatorship.

It’s therefore with some delight that I can report that the Habsburgs are making something of a comeback, at least in the diplomatic field. The Economist reports that the superbly named Gabriela Maria Charlotte Felicitas Elisabeth Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringen, Princess Imperial and Archduchess of Austria, Princess Royal of Hungary and Bohemia (phew!) is set to become an ambassador. Anyway, if you ever meet her you will be relived to know that she prefers to be known simply as Ms von Habsburg.

Ms von Habsburg, the granddaughter of Karl, the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, will present her credentials in Berlin next month. Whom does she represent? Austria? No, that would probably be too sensitive. She is, rather, the ambassador from Georgia, yes, Georgia, that outpost of Europe. Though born in Luxembourg and brought up in Germany she has lived there since 2001, taking out citizenship. Unfortunately The Economist gives no clue as to why she decided to settle there of all places.

But it’s certainly a boost for the troubled-state of Georgia, certainly a boost President Mikheil Saakashvili, who says that a name like Gabriela etc. etc. etc. is bound to open doors. Sitting in the glare of the bear, the president is also anxious to remind the Germans and the wider Continent of his country’s European roots. Trading on aristocratic connections, long-cherished associations and past glories may be the last card in the Georgian pack. I certainly wish her every success, hoping that she remembers always one thing Austriae est imperare orbi universe, or maybe just Germany. :-)

Remembering Stalin

I saw from a brief report in the British press that Stalin is set to return to Moscow. His portrait is to appear on public buildings prior to 9 May, the day the Russians celebrate the end of the Second World War. This is clearly part of the present drive to create a more ‘positive’ image of Russia’s past, embracing a repackaging of its bloodiest tyrant, a programme fully supported by Premier Putin, moving forwards on some fronts, backwards on others.

In responding to criticism that it is wrong to glorify a man who caused so many deaths, Vladimir Makarov, a city official, said “We need to remember the man who led our country in war.” Yes, that may be true, but there are other things worth remembering, not least of which that this is a man who nearly destroyed Russia in war.

In the original victory parade of May 1945 it was Marshall Zhukov who took the salute, because Stalin was too scared to sit on a horse. Zhukov was later to find himself a victim of the Great Leader’s paranoia and petty jealousy, although his demotion was nothing when compared with the almost total destruction of the senior command of the army, navy and air force in 1937 during the Purge.

Russia was robbed at a crucial time of the services of the likes of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, possibly the most talented soldier of the day, certainly the equal of any senior German officer in imaginative strategic thinking. In his place came Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Budyonny, whose servility was only equalled by their stupidity. These, along with Stalin, were the masters of the ‘don’t give an inch’ strategy which almost brought total defeat after the German invasion in 1941.

It’s often said that Stalin trusted nobody, not even his closest acquaintances. That’s not true; there was one man he trusted- he trusted Adolf Hitler. In the early months of 1941 the Kremlin received report after report that German forces were massing on their western frontier. Stalin ignored communiqués from Churchill; he ignored communist agents in the west; he ignored the reports of Richard Sorge, his best agent by far. He even ignored German deserters who crossed the border with a warning. They were simply tortured and then shot as provocateurs. His trust was deep, naïve and child-like in the extreme, so much so that he lapsed into a kind of mental seizure after the German onslaught began in June 1941, refusing to believe what was happening, even blaming the invasion on ‘renegade’ generals.

It was Stalin’s errors that caused the catastrophic early defeats, costing Russia millions of men, killed or captured. It was wasteful, it was stupid and but for even greater stupidity on the part of Hitler it would almost certainly have ended in defeat. As it was Stalin continued to waste men and materials in needless and pointless offensives. So, if Stalin is to be remembered it should be for these things; for this was the style of the leadership that he brought to Russia.

Argentina and the Conquest of the Desert

There are some interesting parallels between the 'frontier experience' of the United States and that of Argentina. For both countries the issue became of growing concern during and after a major war; in the case of the United States the Civil War, and in the case of Argentina the War of the Triple Alliance. Also in both cases the growing conflict with the indigenous peoples began with measures concerning the distribution of the 'virgin' lands;

America introduced the Homestead Act in 1862 and Argentina the Land Act of 1867, the effects of which were to be similar in both cases. Moreover, relations between central government and the the natives was marked by bad-fath and broken promises, and the usual weary pattern of reprisals and counter reprisals. And in Julio Roca Argentia was blessed with its own version of Philip Sheridan. Roca, who led the successful campaign against the Indians in the Conquest of the Desert, declared in 1879 that "In the struggle for existence...the weaker race must perish in the face of the one favoured by nature."

However, for Argentina the 'problem of the frontiers' was, if anything even more acute. In the 1870s the Indians controlled a far greater proportion of the country. From the core of settlement around Buenos Aires, there were effectively two frontiers, one to the north and the other to the south. Argentina's European population was considerably smaller than that of the United States. During the 1850s, a time of internal political strife, the provinces of Buenos Aires, Sant Fe and Cordoba were particularly badly hit by Indian raids.

What was worse, the Ranqueles and the Araucanians, and other tribes, were ignoring the lines of territorial demarcation, previously agreed in a treaty with Juan Manuel Rosas in 1833. The outbreak of the war with Paraguay in 1865 forced the government to temporise by a process of appeasement. Encouraged by concessions on the frontier the tribes became that much bolder. In one particularly serious raid in Cordoba province in 1868 the Indians made off with 200 captives and 20,000 head of cattle.

At the end of the Paraguay war in 1870 Argentina was able to turn its large army towards a resolution of the internal problem. The 1867 Land Act, passed by the government of Bartolome Mitre, in allowing public land to pass into private hands, was more than enough motivation for 'rolling back the frontier.' The huge cattle industry, demanding every greater amounts of pasture, also required an immediate solution to the Indian problem. Added to this, growing immigration from Europe was creating new pressures.

The final spur to action, if any such were needed, came in 1876, when Chief Mariano Rosas of the Ranqueles penetrated the frontier defences at three points, before raiding and devastating a huge area of the settled countryside. The hardliners now had all the excuse they needed for the final conquest of the vast lands of Patagonia.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Venecuba, No!

I reported recently that Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s Sawdust Caesar, now considers himself to be a Marxist. So, having taken that path he is seeking ever more guidance from the Cubans, who are sending ‘aids’ to the country in ever increasing numbers. Earlier this month Ramiro Valdés, who ranks number three in the Castro government hierarchy, arrived Caracas, where he is expected to remain for some time. At home Valdés served twice as interior minister and has a particular expertise in policing the internet, so the Venezuelans have a fair idea what they might expect.

Cubans are to be seen in all areas of Venezuelan life, running the ports telecommunications, transport service, police training, the issuing of identity documents and the business registry. It’s so bad that the health ministry is unable to provide primary care data because the information is sent to Havana It’s so bad Chávez himself only learnt that thousands of primary health care posts had been shut down when he was told by Castro!

And what can ordinary Venezuelans expect from this ‘fraternal’ aid, this creeping Anschluss? Well, not much, if the experience of the workers in the oil industry is any measure. Trade unionists have complained of ill-treatment at the hands of the Cubans. Indeed, unions are not even allowed on Cuban-run sites, which must count as one of communisms more peculiar ironies. Last year Froilan Barrios, of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, said that the oil and petrochemical industry had been completely penetrated by G2, the Cuban intelligence service. Workers planning a strike were threatened by Cuban thugs.

The history of Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war years provides a useful roadmap for the present Venezuelan experiences. After 1945 communists effectively ate away at the national independence of places like Czechoslovakia and Poland from the inside by obtaining control of key ministries, like the interior and defence. Exactly the same thing is now happening in Venezuela, with Cuban ‘advisors’ closely involved in implementing new policies for the police force and the army.

These of course are all matters pleasing to the Castro dictatorship which is likely to get control of more and more of Venezuelan oil wealth to shore up their crumbling economy, an economy ruined by communism. Chávez, who has not the wit or the intelligence to understand that his country’s integrity and independence is being undermined, is set to become Mussolini to Castro’s Hitler.

When he was in Havana in 2005 he was told by Castro that their two countries now constituted a single-entity. “We are Venecubans”, he said. The only problem is that nobody thought to seek the approval of the people of Venezuela for this remarkable change in their fortunes. In a recent poll no fewer that 85% said that they did not want their country to become like Cuba. No wonder; for as bad as things are in Caracas they are considerably worse in Havana.

A Tale of Collaboration

This year will mark the seventieth anniversary of the Fall of France in May 1940. It’s time, I think, to reflect on what followed; time to reflect on how the French conducted themselves during the ‘dark years.’ It’s not a comfortable picture.

France, of all the countries attacked and invaded by the Nazis, is almost in a unique position in that it retained its own government, a distinction shared only with the Danes. It’s salutary to compare the two examples. There was collaboration in Denmark, yes, though only to a limited degree. The spirit of national independence and self-respect was kept alive and symbolised in the person of King Christian X. Throughout the occupation the Danes consistently resisted German pressure to introduce discriminatory laws against the country’s Jewish minority. Danish Jews never had to wear the yellow star. When discussing the possibility that they might, Christian remarked to his chief minister “perhaps then we should all wear it.”

Now look at France. It’s still wrongly assumed by some that the government of Philippe Pétain was imposed by the Germans, that it was a puppet administration. It was not. Pétain’s government was legally constituted after the Chamber of Deputies granted him plenipotentiary powers, effectively voting the Third Republic out of existence.

It’s also wrongly assumed that his authority only applied in the unoccupied zone whereas in fact he had control over government agencies in the whole country, including the civil service and the police. In 1941 the Germans had a mere 30,000 troops in the occupied zone, most concentrated in the costal areas opposite England. At this stage control would have been all but impossible without active and widespread collaboration.

Ah, but there is collaboration and there is collaboration; the Danes at a minimum, the French at a maximum. Nowhere is the contrast greater than in French treatment of the Jews. There was, of course, a strong pre-war tradition of anti-Semitism in France, a tradition that found full expression in the policy of the Pétain government.

The French police were active in rounding up the Jews on the authority of Vichy, even exceeding German expectations. Drancy Concentration Camp in the suburbs of Paris was set up by the French and run by them until 1943. In the notorious Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of July 1942 some 13,000 people, including children, were taken, eventually being sent to Auschwitz. In the south Jews took refuge in those areas occupied by Italy, where in the acutest of ironies the fascists offered them greater protection than their own government.

It seems to me that France of these years is not best depicted in the face of the semi-senile Pétain or even in that of Pierre Laval, his sleazy-looking premier, but in the likes of Joseph Darnand, the head of the notorious Milice, and most particularly in that of the altogether loathsome Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy’s Commissioner for Jewish Affairs.

Yes, there were resisters and there is eternal and honourable example of Jean Moulin. But the resisters were a tiny minority in a nation of active and passive collaborators. Many of those who did resist were killed not by the Germans but by other French people. A nation of resisters was a post-war myth created by a country anxious to bury so many aspects of its recent past.

The truth is that French conduct under the occupation if not cowardly was supine in the extreme. Not a good example by any standards; not a good example when contrasted with other nations who had not the same historical reputation to defend. It’s a sorry and wretched tale.

Fighting for the Falklands

It's an historical oddity that the Falkland Islands, remote, wind-swept, with little strategic importance and no mineral wealth, have taken England to the threshold-and over the threshold-of war some five times; with Spain, with France and with Argentina. In fact it was the 1770 'crisis in a tea cup' that begins the whole sequence.

English sailors first caught sight of the Falklands in the late sixteenth century. In the following century the government was to make a half-hearted claim, though under the Treaty of Tordesillas they fell within the Spanish orbit. It was only in 1748, with the report of Admiral Lord Anson, that London began to give the matter its serious attention, sounding out the Spanish on the question of sovereignty. This only had the effect of drawing up the battle lines, though the matter was put to one side for the time being. An uncertain equilibrium might have remained but for the unexpected intervention of a third party-France.

After the conclusion of the Seven Years War, the French, attempting to improve their position in the South Atlantic, landed in the Falklands, establishing a base at St. Louis, now Port Stanley. At the same time, the one unbeknown to the other, the British made their own landing at Port Egmont in the west. Responding to Spanish objections, the French handed over Port Louis, now renamed as Port Soledad, though neither party was as yet aware of the proximity of the English, until a chance sighting of some ships in December 1769. And now we have a little overture to what was to come just over two hundred years later.

In June 1770 the Spanish governor of Buenos Aires sent five frigates to Port Egmont, landing some 1600 marines. The small British force present promptly surrendered. When Parliament assembled in November, the MPs, outraged by this insult to national honour, demanded action from the government. The Spanish attempted to strengthen their position by winning the support of France, invoking the Pacte de Famille between the two Bourbon crowns. For a time it looked as if all three countries were about to go to war, especially as the Duc de Choiseul, the French minister or war and foreign affairs, was in a militant mood. But Louis XV took fright, telling Charles III that "My minister wishes for war, but I do not." Choiseul was dismissed from office, and without French support the Spanish were obliged to seek a compromise with the British.

In January 1771 the British were allowed to restore the base at Port Egmont, although the whole question of sovereignty was simply sidestepped, a source of future trouble. The best verdict on the little fracas was passed by Samuel Johnson in his pamphlet Thoughts on the late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Island, looking at the British problem in holding such remote islands against a hostile mainland, "...a colony that could never become independent, for it could never be able to maintain itself." And so it remains today.