Wednesday 31 March 2010

A Dream within a Dream

Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, is another of my favourite movies. It has a magical and dreamlike quality that I absolutely adore. And that pipe music, it’s almost as if the Great God Pan himself was calling. Add to that a wonderful opening sequence –“What we are and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” The book and the movie also created a kind of modern myth, that they were based on real events, which added to the overall charm and mystery. I also attended a girls' boarding school and entertained the same romantic notions as Miranda and her friends.

Oh, I so want to visit Hanging Rock, I so want to walk hand in hand forever with the beautiful Miranda, who is indeed like a Botticelli Venus.

Christianity and Hate Crime

Six leading bishops together with Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, had a letter published in The Sunday Telegraph, saying that Christians are being treated with disrespect, subject to new forms of discrimination that do not affect other faiths. “In a number of cases”, they continue, “Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience and worship are simply not being upheld.”

I would go further: there are parts of this disunited kingdom where certain aspects of Christian belief are actively under attack, along with the right of free speech itself. In Scotland I read of the case on one Shawn Holes, a born again Baptist, who was arrested in Glasgow earlier this month, held in a police cell overnight, charged and subsequently fined £1000 after pleading guilty at a court appearance. What was his crime? Mr Holes believes that homosexuality is a sin. Because of some remarks he made on the subject at an open air meeting he was charged with “uttering homophobic remarks.”

Mr Holes, an American preacher from Lake Placid, in Glasgow with some colleagues, part of a Baptist group travelling around the country, when asked by a member of his audience for his views on gays replied that “Homosexuals are deserving of the wrath of God- and so are all other sinners- and they are going to a place called Hell.” His remarks were immediately reported to nearby police offices, who promptly arrested for saying that “homos are going to Hell”, to use their particular form of words.

His prosecution follows hard upon the passing of a law in the Scottish parliament allowing for the prosecution of those guilty of ‘hate crimes’ against homosexuals. In England a similar homophobic hatred law was qualified by the Waddington Clause, an amendment tabled by Lord Waddington that protects religious liberty by a free speech shield, an amendment passed, incidentally, in the face of government opposition. Scotland allows for no such liberty, no such freedom of conscience. So, in theory, Scottish Catholics, who happen to share the Baptist belief that homosexuality is sin, could face a similar prosecution to that of the unfortunate preacher if they dared, for example, to quote Leviticus 18:22 - Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin. Have I committed a hate crime even in writing these words?

I don’t happen to agree with sentiments behind Leviticus, just as I do not happen to like fire and brimstone style of preaching, but one rather expects that sort of thing from Baptists. What I do agree with is the importance of free speech and the right to hold a conviction, no matter if it conflicts with contemporary notions of political correctness and equality. For many Christians homosexuality is morally wrong, contrary to the teachings- as they interpret them - of the Bible.

The Wicker Man, the original version starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, is one of my all-time favourite movies, a delightful extravaganza set among a pagan community living on an isolated Scottish island. Woodward, playing Neil Howie, a police sergeant and devoted Christian, is sent to the island supposedly to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Shocked by open displays of pagan licentiousness he is determined to report his findings to the authorities, telling Lee, playing Lord Summerisle, the head of the community, “Sir, may I remind you that you are the subject of a Christian country.” Hmmm, I wonder if a modern Howie might find himself charged with hate crime. :-))

Demystifying the Beast

This is a review I wrote a year or so ago. I’m adding it in the light of my recent visit to Loch Ness, one of the Beast’s erstwhile lairs. :-))

Sometimes biographies read a little like icebergs: they hide more than they reveal. So it is with Roger Hutchinson’s Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified , a quick trot through the life of Aleister Crowley, the sometime ‘Beast’ and the ‘Wickedest Man in the World.’ Actually, I was rather torn by two conflicting emotions in reading this; first, my admiration for his playful hedonism, his thirst for new forms of freedom and his determination to push life to the outer limits of experience; and second, a growing conviction that he was a theatrical, self-indulgent fraud.

Hutchinson tries to strike a balance, maintaining a reasonable standard of objectivity, but he simply never gets below the surface. For me, coming to Crowley for the first time, it was a good basic introduction to the highs and lows of a varied and eccentric career, but I still have no greater understanding of ‘Thelma’ or ‘Magick’ or what it was Crowley was really trying to say to the world. This book is little more than a rather insubstantial hors d'œuvre. I’m still hungry!

As for being the ‘wickedest man in the world’ that was an epithet invented by the worst sections of the British yellow press, rather absurd, when one comes to think of a man who lived at the same time as Hitler and Stalin, and in the same century as Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

Beginners, like me, might, just might, find this book entertaining, though, be warned, there are no notes or a guide to further reading. Those who have some insight already need not waste their time.

April Fool, no, Just a Fool.

Sine we are drifting in to April Fool’s Day I thought I would mention one of my favourite pranks from history

The great Jonathan Swift hated all forms of superstition, especially when it took the form of astrology. He had a particular loathing of one almanac-writer and astrologer by the name of John Partridge. Partridge compounded his offence in Swift's eyes by being a Whig, who attacked the Tory Anglican establishment. He was also in the habit of using his almanacs to predict the deaths of notable figures, achieving a few hits and far more misses. Swift took revenge in January 1708 by publishing a letter, under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, entitled Predictions for the Year, in which he forecast Partridge's death of a 'raging fever.'

On April Fool's Day itself, another letter was published, purporting to have been written by 'man employed by the Revenue', in which it was announced that Partridge had indeed died. Swift went on to compose a 'eulogy', damming both Partridge and, more particularly, damming those who took his nonsense seriously.

Before long Partridge, who was very much alive, had regular crowds of mourners calling at his house, so dense that the trades people could get nowhere near the front door to make deliveries. He published a letter, saying he was still alive, to which Bickerstaff responded that nobody who was alive could possibly have written "such damned stuff as this." Partridge's reputation is said never to have recovered.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Бог Благословляет Святую Россию

I spent a wonderful Christmas in Moscow three years ago, going to the Bolshoi amongst other things. I have friends in the city, people I know from university. It’s a beautiful, wonderful, magical and tragic place, a mighty heart in the great body of Russia.

Russian history and culture fascinates me; it has for a long time, perhaps more than any other in the world, excepting that of England. I count Dostoevsky along with Dickens as my favourite author. I also love Russian painting, music and folklore.

The recent outrage in Moscow in the metro draws from me a greater affinity and solidarity than ever. I pass no comment on the people responsible for this pointless and murderous gesture; they are beyond all comment.

Because of my name people sometimes ask if I am Russian. Well, today I am. God bless Holy Russia.

Aimless Absolution

I know the papacy is going through something of a rough patch at the moment. Even so, is it right and proper, I have to ask, to extend the inquisition (oops!) back through history? I ask this because I was surprised to see a small portrait of Jacques de Molay, the grand master of the Knights Templar, in the present issue of the BBC History Magazine, carrying the caption “Jacques de Molay was tortured and killed by the pope.” Fortunately the accompanying piece, an answer to a question about the Chinon parchment, makes no such contention.

De Molay was, of course, tortured and killed on the orders of King Philip IV of France. Not only was it a convenient way of wiping out his debts with the Crusading order, who also acted as his personal bankers, but it was a wonderful opportunity for the impecunious monarch to get his hands on their loot. The master was arrested along with over six hundred fellow members of the order on a charge of all sorts of heretical and blasphemous crimes, the kind of acts that would have kept tabloid journalists busy for weeks.

Submitting to pressure from Philip, Pope Clement V banned the Templar Order. De Molay himself was burned in March 1314 as a relapsed heretic, on the orders of the King, I stress once again, and not the Pope. The pressure Clement was under at the time was confirmed when Dr Barbara Frale found a copy of the so-called Chinon parchment in the Vatican Secret Archives, confirming that he absolved de Molay and other leading members of the Order in 1308, subsequent publishing her findings in The Journal of Medieval History. The purpose of this particular inquisition was to show that the Templers were not irremediably immersed in sin but were capable of reform under the guidance of the church. In the face of Philip’s determination it was a wasted effort.

The parchment is notable in one other regard: it might be said to mark the point when the state began its ascent and the universal church its decline, its decline from a position of almost absolute political power that had been such a feature of the papacy of Innocent III, only a century before.

Teacher of the Queen

Most people, I imagine, will have seen Mrs Brown, the movie with Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, which details the close relationship between Queen Victoria and John Brown, the favourite Highland servant of Prince Albert. Victoria, in a mood of prolonged and morbid depression after he husband’s death, took comfort in Brown’s reassuring presence. Less well know is that when Brown died in his turn the aging queen found a substitute in another menial. His name was Abdul Karim, better known as the Munshi, or teacher.

Karim arrived from India in 1887, aged twenty-four, and soon acquired the kind of dominance over the royal household previously enjoyed by John Brown, another source of discomfort and annoyance to Bertie, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII. He initially came as an Indian waiter, one of two selected to serve the Victoria during her Golden Jubilee, but the year after she appointed him “Munshi and Indian Clerk to the Queen Empress at a salary of 12 pounds per month.” In this particular capacity he began to teach the Queen Urdu, as well as introducing curry into the royal menus.

From this point his influence grew and grew. He was the subject of special favours, even being in attendance when the Queen met with foreign monarchs and prime ministers. The relationship has been given fresh significance by the discovery of a new archive of letters and photographs, as well as the Munshi’s own handwritten journal, as The Daily Telegraph reported recently.

The bond between the two was so close that it incited gossip at the time, especially after the Queen spent a night with the Munshi at Glassalt Shiel, the isolated Scottish cottage by Loch Muick that she had once shared with Brown and had not visited since his death in 1883. But the journal records a purely platonic relationship, not at all surprising considering the Queen’s age and the Munshi’s youth. At the time she insisted that all criticism of her Indian servant was based on jealousy and racial prejudice.

In retrospect it does appear unseemly for Victoria to have advanced two servants in such a fashion, a fashion that was bound to cause resentment within the royal household and speculation in the wider world beyond. But, looking at the situation with very modern eyes, it seems to me that both Brown and the Munshi filled a deep void in Victoria’s emotional life that opened after the death of Albert, a void the could not be filled by her immediate family, with whom she was always cold and formal, especially not by her wayward eldest son, whom she held partly responsible for the death of her beloved husband. The Munshi was no more than a surrogate.

Monday 29 March 2010

Lashings of Enid Blyton

I used to enjoy reading some of the books of Enid Blyton when I was a little girl, though she was far from being among my favourite authors. Even at the age of seven or so, when I began to discover her for the first time, I could see that there was something not quite right about the way she presented the world, something belonging to a past age, both in her use of language and her depiction of character.

Still, there was something sumptuous about her child-centred world, the world of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. Five on a Treasure Island, the very first in that series, was my favourite, appealing to an insatiable romantic thirst for ruined castles and remote places, a thirst that has stayed with me to this day!

I knew the books, at least some of them, though nothing at all about the author. Now, I do; at least I do if the depiction of her in Enid, a BBC Four drama, is anything to go by. In this Blyton is played by Helena Bonham-Carter, a brilliant and convincing performance. But my, oh my; what a monster she creates, a self-absorbed, self-centred woman; a woman who loved her devoted fans but neglected her own daughters, a woman who behaved abominably towards her first husband.

I can’t say how much accuracy there is here as one has always to assume a certain amount of poetic license and dramatic foreshortening, but I assume the outlines of what purported to be a biopic were broadly correct. If so, she comes across as a kind of literary Cruella Deville, at least that’s how Bonham-Carter played her, though she also managed to capture something of her vulnerability, fleeting though it was.

At the beginning of the drama we are shown how devoted Enid was to her father, a man she continued to idealise all of her life, even though he abandoned her and her siblings at an early age. It’s possible, I suppose, that her own callousness and indifference to so many around her was born of an emptiness induced by this early trauma, compensated for in a world of eternal sunshine, of eternal childhood, of wrecks and castles, of heaps of tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer.

The Revenge for Love

Now here is a scholarly scoop to die for! Daisy Hay, a Cambridge graduate, has discovered a manuscript, part of a memoir by Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelly’s step-sister, while researching for a book on Mary, Percy, her husband, and Lord Byron. In this, Claire, looking back from old age, condemns both Byron and Shelly as “monsters of lying, cruelty and treachery.” She accuses both poets of ruining lives in pursuit of “free love” and “evil passions.”

This document, which Hay found tucked away in the New York Public Library’s Pforzheimer Collection, one of the most important Shelly-related archives in the world, is being hailed by historians as a major discovery. The memoir was know to exist but was assumed to have been lost. It’s important because it gives a quite different interpretation of Claire’s attitude towards the poets, a quite different attitude towards Byron in particular.

She had every reason to be bitter. Love may have been ‘free’ for Byron but it carried a price for Claire. It’s true enough that it was she who set out to seduce the famous poet, who became infatuated with her temporarily in 1816. But he soon tired of her, treating her with callous disregard thereafter. They had a child, Allegra. But after the relationship ended Byron even refused to allow Claire access to her daughter, openly questioning if the ‘brat’ was his. Having no regard for Claire he clearly had less regard for the ‘brat’, sending her off to a convent, where she died aged five.

Claire’s anger at the egoism, selfishness and moral baseness surrounding the whole Byron milieu is well captured in her blazing manuscript;

Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love, I saw the two first poets of England…become monsters. …what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life into a destroying scourge…the worshipers of free love not only preyed upon one another but also on themselves turning their existence into a perfect hell.

My, how the sparks just leap off the page! It’s as well to remember, though, not just the past history of Claire and Byron, but that this three-page memoir was written by an old lady in her seventies who had converted to Catholicism. Distance in attitude, distance in morality and distance of judgement have all come to play. Even so, the rawness of her grief, of her anguish, has clearly not been soothed by the balm of time.

The extracts I have read in the Sunday press are at their angriest in the depiction of Byron, whom she describes as “a human tyger [sic] slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women.” Shelly is condemned rather in the abstract, almost if his guilt is one of mere association with the monster. Anyway, the full fragment is set to be published in Young Romantics, Hay’s forthcoming book.

Castle in the Mist

I had a really smashing long weekend in Scotland, taking some good friends to a place my family have in Easter Ross in the far north, a place surrounded by the most wonderful rugged country, a place where as often as not one is likely to be greeted in the morning by a wonderful many-pointed stag staring over the garden wall. I've been many times before, especially when I was growing up, though it's a while since I have been back. Not much has changed, though; this is a part of the country where things remain remarkably the same, remote from the pressures of modern life.

The people in my party had never been so far north before, so I had the role of guide and Sherpa thrust upon me. We managed to pack quite a lot in over the few days, anything from watching dolphins dance in the Moray Firth to a spot of hill walking. We even went as far as Fort William, dining in the wonderful Crannog Seafood Restaurant there, overlooking Loch Linnhe. But by far the best part of the weekend was some early morning sailing down Loch Ness.

It's a wonderful place, with the surrounding hills falling into the dark peaty waters of the long narrow lake, one of the deepest in the British Isles, deeper even than all the Great Lakes of North America, one laid upon the other! The whole setting is just impossibly romantic, so dominated by nature, by the power of nature.

I can just imagine what Casper David Friedrich, that magician of nature painting, would have made of the scene, looking down on the waters from the hills above. That’s what I was looking for, beauty and romance, not monsters! By far the best bit was sailing past the ruins of Urquhart Castle, poised in the edge of the waters, a place that seems to represent the enduring pointlessness of all human endeavour.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Divinely Decadent

If there is a modern period in history that excites me in the way that no other does it has to be Weimar Germany, lodged between the stuffy Kaiserreich and the sadomasochistic Nazi state. It was a vibrant time, a creative time, an exciting time to be young, free and alive. Some of my favourite movies come from that period, dark, moody, expressionist; movies like Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

It’s for some of these reasons and more than I have a particular fondness for Cabaret, the movie made in the early 1970s, which manages to recapture at least a little of the Weimar spirit, though in its decadent phase. Directed by Bob Fosse and based on Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, novels by Christopher Isherwood, and I am a Camera, a play based on these stories by John van Druten, it stars Liza Minnelli as the divinely decadent Sally Bowles, one of my absolute favourite characters, an uninhibited, delightful free spirit. Joel Grey is also really good as the master of ceremonies in the cabaret itself, the place Sally works. There are all sorts of wonderful allusions to the time, including the depiction of characters in the early scenes that may very well have come straight out of the paintings of Otto Dix.

I don't normally like musicals, the old Hollywood song and dance routines; but this is different, not only are the songs wonderful, but they are mostly presented within context, in the cabaret itself, not intruding into the unfolding drama outside. There is only one that is not, the Nazi song in the Biergarten, also perfectly within context. The story itself is really about a world tottering on the edge of destruction, with the Nazis, though never centre stage, making an increasingly intrusive appearance, brilliantly caught in the closing scenes, with more and more swastika armbands appearing in the cabaret itself, clearly no longer a place to leave one's troubles outside.

The Ghost Confederacy

The Obama camp is jubilant over the health care 'triumph.' I suppose one has to allow them a moment of celebration; after all, it's been a long a difficult passage, a hard fight, not just in the House and Senate but across the country at large. It may lead, I'm sure they hope, to a Democrat bounce-back in the face of a steady Republican advance; it may lead to a renewal of the increasingly tired-looking Obama brand itself. Ah, but wait; let a little sobriety descend. The time is coming, and coming soon, to ask just exactly what kind of victory has been achieved. One battle has ended; other battles may be about to begin.

Ever since the United States was founded there has been a tension between local rights and federal authority. The issue was supposedly resolved after the Civil War, when the victory of the North over the South led to the formation of “a more perfect union", which seems to have meant a more centrally controlled Union, a Union directed from Washington. But the issue of States' rights never entirely went away. Now a new Civil War may be about to break out, though on a far lower and less intense level than that of the 1860s.

On 10 March Virginia, one of the greatest of the old Confederate bastions, the home of both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, passed a law saying that citizens of the state can neither be required to have health insurance nor be penalised for not having it. The interesting thing is that the bill passed through both houses of the state legislature with considerable support from the Democrats. Idaho followed this lead a week later and the voters of Arizona will have the opportunity later this year to decide whither such protections should be written into the state's constitution. Seemingly similar measures are in process in no fewer than 35 other states, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which means that, if these measures are carried through, almost half the Union will have local legislation in direct conflict with federal law.

There should really be no contest here; for legislation passed by the national Congress takes priority over that passed by the states, the issue supposedly settled once and for all in the nineteenth century. Oh, if only it were so simple! Obama's legislation, so many believe, is in direct conflict with the constitution. As I have said states' rights have proved to be remarkably resilient. In Gonzales v Oregon, a case concerned with a local assisted-suicide law, the government argued that doctors who prescribed lethal doses of medication were violating federal law, an argument rejected by the Supreme Court, believing that it would constitute "a radical shift of authority from states to the federal government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality." The Supreme Court has also recognised a right to medical self-determination.

But the strongest argument of all, as The Economist reported recently, concerns the power of the government to make the purchase of health-care insurance obligatory. The commerce clause in the constitution allows the federal government to regulate trade between the states but it has never before been used to require citizens to buy a good or service.

Still, even with these caveats and qualifications, it's difficult to see that the Supreme Court will do anything quite as drastic as invalidating the supremacy clause, as invalidating the mandate of Congress. State laws to the contrary are, on the balance of probability, likely to be set aside, something that happened repeatedly over the course of the last century. Even so, Obama might have been said to have conjured up a ghost Confederacy, an indication of deep national anxiety. The celebration may very well have been premature.

Mad Mothers

'Mothers' Movement' was the name for a confederation of anti-war, pro-Nazi, anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic groups: National Legion of Mothers of America formed by Father Charles Coughlin in 1939; National Blue Star Mothers; Crusading Mothers of America; We, the Mothers; and We, the Mothers, Mobilize for America, five or six million members strong at their peak.

The movement was also anti-Roosevelt, viciously so. Agnes Waters argued that FDR wanted to rule the world as a communist dictator in league with the Jews! Her whole world view is so bizarre that it is difficult that any woman, let alone six million, could have been attracted to this movement. Her range of conspiracy theories was even more outlandish than those of the Nazis. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, had, so she said, invited Hitler to attack Britain to allow him to raise taxes. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 this came by Stalin's invitation, because he needed an external threat.

Her political logic gets even worse, and it's difficult to believe that any person could entertain such conflicting views without actually being clinically insane. Roosevelt and the Jews were conspiring to end American independence by returning the country to the rule of the British Empire. This would then be merged with the Soviet Union; Christianity would be outlawed, and a world government would be created, ruled over by Roosevelt and Hitler!!! Hitler, you ask? He hated the Jews, how could he possibly unite with Roosevelt, the Jew lover and Communist? Well, you see, the Nazi leader was secretly a Bolshevik, and would make an open confession to that fact at the end of the war. Where, one has to ask, were the men in white coats?

The ever resourceful Mrs Waters had a 'cunning plan' to thwart this dastardly scheme. First, impeach Roosevelt, before making Henry Ford commander-in-chief. Second, abolish conscription in favour of drafting all of the convicts, and let them do the fighting. And what if there were not enough convicts? Why, that's easy: take Mexico, Central and South America and force all the Latinos do the fighting for you. How one was to achieve this with an under-strength convict army is not quite clear. The indomitable Mrs Waters was ready for the Jews though; "Just let the Jews come in and the pistol-packing mamas will take care of them. There will be nothing left of them." So, no need for the convicts then!

Compared with Waters Elizabeth Dilling appears almost sane, though her malevolence was much more purposeful and to the point. When the Senate debated the Lend-Lease legislation in February 1941 she led a delegation of 500 women from Chicago to Washington, where they picketed the Capitol and harangued senators who were in favour of the measure. For all this she won over only one senator-Dennis Chavez from New Mexico.

Catherine Curtis, a fellow anti-Semite, founded the 'Women's National Committee to Keep the U.S Out of the War' shortly after Hitler invaded Poland. Growing in influence, she later took over the leadership of the larger National League of the Mothers of America. In this capacity she went on a speaking tour, blaming British imperialism for the war. Her friend, the aviator Laura Ingalls, flew over the White House, dropping Curtis' anti-war leaflets on the way. Ingalls was later discovered to be a German agent and a traitor.

Yet another of these 'wild women' of the right was Lyrl Clark Van Hyning, who set up 'We the Mothers Mobilize for America' in February 1941. By the early summer of that year the group was claiming a membership of 150,000 women nationwide. For Hyning Jesus and his disciples were all gentiles, except, of course, for Judas. The Jews had inspired the American Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, the First World War and the Second, as well as the election of Roosevelt.

This alliance of right-wing groups did not disperse, unlike other non-interventionist groups, after the United States entered the war. If anything, some became even more viciously perverse. One member of the Philadelphia branch of the National Legion of the Mothers of America said that that the attack on Pearl Harbor had really been the work of the English, flying the Japanese flag; another that she would willingly be shot for treason, rather than fight on the same side as the Soviet Union.

But in the end they counted for little, hardly surprising when one considers the delusions and fantasies which filled the minds of those who took on the national leadership. What puzzles me, and the question I would have to ask, is why a national movement of pacifism and non-intervention, reasonable enough positions, whether one agrees with them or not, came to be controlled by the kinds of people normally to be found on the more outrageous fringes of politics and society?

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Ga Ga about Gaga

I think Lady Gaga is the best think to happen in music, to performance in general, for ages. She excites me; the image, the outrageous dress sense, everything about her is just so extravagantly beautiful, even if she is not beautiful. For me she is a little piece of theatrical magic - gutsy, sexy, outrageous, and wonderful. I can just see her in Berlin in the 1920s in the heyday of cabaret. What a sensation she would have been; what an impact she would have made. :-))

In the Shadow of Macedonia

I really do hate to say I told you so (no, I don’t; I love it!) but the bailout of the profligate Greeks that I anticipated some weeks go has come. There is no magic; I do not have powers of prescience; it’s just that politics was always going to take priority over economics here. If it had not the whole euro zone may have fragmented; for it really is a case of stand together or fall separately.

The proposed multibillion euro transfusion is not just designed to stop Greece sinking but to restore credibility to the incredible single-currency zone, that lumbering patchwork monster. But the rescue deal- as rescue deals have a tendency towards - comes at a political as well as an economic price. The rulebook is to be rewritten to ensure greater fiscal discipline among the members. Greater fiscal discipline can only mean one thing: a close central audit of national affairs. Let me put this another way - a loss of budgetary sovereignty means a loss of national sovereignty. Athens, as I also said before, is set to fall under the tutelage of a new Macedonian hegemony.

So, what then of the proscription on bailouts, of rescues for the insolvent, all part of the original single-currency constitution? Nothing; that’s what. Reluctant as the Germans were, as angry as the Germans will be, this economic Tower of Babel was always going to require some fairly hefty underpinning at some point or other. Who knows; there may be more to come, as the medicine show moves on to Spain, or Portugal, or Italy, or Ireland, as the other little pigs fall to earth.

Commenting on this whole fiasco, Finland’s Olli Rehn, the new commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, has said;

The Greek case is a potential turning point for the eurozone. If Greece fails and we fail, this will do serious and maybe permanent damage to the credibility of the European Union. The euro is not only a monetary arrangement, but a core political project of the European Union…In that sense we are at a crossroads.

And as for the Greeks themselves they are certainly at a crossroads in the long history of their nation. Perhaps they may have cause to reflect ruefully on a few lines of Byron;

The mountains look on Marathon---
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free

A Man and a Brother

We are not long past the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. The important question, one that I’m not sure has been fully considered, is why opinion swung so decisively against a practice that had long been part of the national economy. The answer is simple: slavery had been tolerable, like so many other abuses over time, for as long as it was invisible. By the late eighteenth century this was no longer the case.

Slavery and the slave trade were activities both remote from British shores and thus removed from popular consciousness. This changed after the conclusion in 1763 of the Seven Years' War, when ever increasing numbers of enslaved men and women began to appear in London, brought by their owners.

The immediacy was shocking enough, but it also raised questions about the validity of the institution in a country where there was no slave law. It lead directly to Somerset v Steuart in 1772, when Granville Sharp argued before Lord Mansfield at the Court of King's Bench that slaveholding in England was a violation of the Common Law. To ship slave law into the country would, as Sharp put it, make England "as base, wicked, and tyrannical as our colonies." Mansfield, in finding for the plaintiff, effectively curtailed the liberties of the slave owners. Though evading the more general question about the legality of slavery as such, he had, in effect, encouraged the view that the practice was "repugnant to English laws", as one slaveholder expressed it.

There was an acute irony at work here; for the Mansfield decision defined Britain as a 'land of liberty', not long before the slave-owning American colonies began to object to being subordinated to the 'tyranny' of Parliament. "Why", Samuel Johnson asked, "do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?" In the ideological debates between the two sides, slavery became a political issue in a way that it had never been in the past, with the Americans insisting that if there were slaves in the colonies it was because British traders had put them there. Practically speaking, of course, it was all posturing, and neither side took any meaningful steps to address the issues raised; but it still drew attention to slavery as a moral problem; that slavery was a vice and that opposition to slavery was a virtue.

Before the American Revolution, the British Empire was little more than a commercial opportunity; afterwards it started the process of rebirth as a kind of moral mission, where rule should be exercised, as Edmund Burke put it, "for the benefit of the governed as well as the governors." Evangelicals within the Church of England pressed for the proper pastoral care of slaves within the Empire, just as officers returning from the war urged the government to give support and assistance to the escaped American slaves who had fought with the British Army.

It was now that the Quakers, who had always disliked slavery, but had not challenged the existence of the institution, began to press for abolition. Buoyed up by the conviction that the British people now considered slavery as a national embarrassment, they moved forward, gathering support and momentum along the way. By the early 1790s the consumption of West Indian Sugar, the chief product of slavery, was plummeting, showing that abolition had indeed become the cause of the nation. All that was needed was someone to direct opinion; all that was needed was William Wilberforce.

Now is the Spring of our Discontent

We in England are facing a new wave of union militancy and Old Labour shibboleths as this government shambles to its terminus. So, the time has come to blow the dust off your disused political lexicons, to look up the meanings of words and phrases like 'beer and sandwiches', 'our members' legitimate aspirations', 'one out, all out', 'mass meeting in local car-park', 'holding the country to ransom', and on and on and on. The trade union boss and his 'comb over' is surely set to reappear as a contemporary fashion statement.

One after the other the little chickens come home. Consider Unite, the super union, or the super political conspiracy, I can't make up my mind which, the force behind the attempt to destroy British Airways, the force that has the Labour Party in its pocket, the force that is helping to fund 148 Labour seats at the election, the force with 167 Labour MPs or candidates as members. Lord Ashcroft is nothing compared with the influence and financial clout this organisation wields, pouring £11 million into Labour coffers since 2007, and giving additional funds to over half the cabinet, including Gordon Brown and Ed Balls.

Isn't it just the thing; one has to wait an age for a strike when along come two at once! Just as Unite is attempting to stop BA, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) is promising the first national rail walk-out in sixteen years, hitting the network just after the Easter weekend holiday, the busiest time of the year. The usual cry will go up from the likes of Bob Crow, the RMT leader, as big a mouth as Red Len of Unite, that this is a defence of 'jobs n services' when it's nothing more than an attempt to 'disrupt n alienate' customers.

Then there is the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU), which also has a number of Labour MPs in its pocket, 'ordering' them to join a strike this coming Budget Day over the government's proposed curb on redundancy pay-offs, a clear attempt to interfere with the workings of Parliament. Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has rightly said that not content with closing Britain's airports and railways, union bosses are now colluding with Labour MPs to disrupt democracy itself.

The monster is back and things are set to get worse. William Rees-Mogg wrote an excellent piece in The Mail on Sunday Review lamenting its reappearance, lamenting the rise of a new Militant Tendency. There is a difference this time. Neil Kinnock, not a man of any great intelligence or strength of character, at least had sufficient residual wit to cast that particular lunacy from the door. Not so Mad Gordon. He is on the best of terms with Charlie Whelan, Unite's political director and his old spin-doctor, one of the principal forces and intriguers behind the new militancy. This man is so bad that even Colin Byrne, one-time Labour's Chief Press Officer, asked; "What is a strike-mongering politically discredited nutter like Charlie Whelan doing at the heart of Labour's Election campaign?"

Yes, what is he doing there? The answer presents no problems for me; the Labour government is made up of nutters of one kind or another, headed by Gordon Brown. Charlie is an old crony, the kind of person this desperately insecure man feels most secure with. This is the political equivalent, as Rees-Mogg hints, of Jim Callaghan appointing Arthur Scargill to a similar position, or, as I would say, Neil Kinnock entering into an alliance with the likes of Derek Hatton, the Militant Marxist mouth who once headed Liverpool Council.

Rees-Mogg, the dear old liberal leftie that he is, says that trade unionism is a valuable institution provided it is protecting the interests of workers. Really; is it? I begin to wonder; I begin to wonder if organisations like Unite, the RMT and the PCSU do not operate in the contrary direction, inimical to the interests both of their benighted members and the country at large. We are now seeing the first signs of the great battles to come, battles that have to be fought regardless of the outcome of the general election. The deficit will have to be reduced; the union barons will fight any such reduction in the name of 'jobs n services.'

David Cameron is alert to this, alert to the need to stand up to these politically-motivated and sectionally-minded bullies. He says he will emulate Margaret Thatcher in facing down such vested interests. Yes, there are two ways of going here - the Thatcher way and the Heath way. The latter should always be thought of as a warning. Industrial relations was one other thing that Heath got wrong, introducing a court that imprisoned militants and made martyrs. No, that's not the way to do it; the way to do it is to hit them where it hurts, in their inflated bank accounts.

I personally would have one simple solution for dealing with trade union militancy. I would revoke the wholly unfair immunity that these organisations enjoy in law, the right to breach a contract without suffering financial penalties. I would revoke, in other words, the Trades Disputes Act of 1906, introduced by the then Liberal government, which excused unions from being sued for the damages caused during strikes. I would return legislation in this area to that prevailing after the Taff Vale ruling, a landmark in common law, political freedom, and persoanl responsibility. By this trade unions were held liable under the law of tort for damages and loss of profits. It was an effective way of dealing with earlier militancy, most particularly in the railways. Oh, how it would make the likes of Bob Crow squeal. :-))

The Arithmetic of Death

Stalin is reputed to have said that one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. I suppose it's possible for one to relate to the sentiments behind this statement. After all, it's about the limits of human imagination, the limits of empathy. I can understand a single death; a million deaths is beyond me.

On a recent blog on the question of the Armenian massacres of 1915 I wrote "I think it wrong to reduce the debate to numbers; it’s just as terrible if a ‘mere’ 300,000 Armenians died rather than 1.5 million, a figure favoured by those who define the event as genocide." On reflection, and thinking beyond that particular historical example, there are issues to be considered; that numbers, precision in numbers, are important if one is to avoid sinking into a bog of relativism, or into a haze were one figure is no more meaningful than another.

Recently Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, was asked why the arithmetic of mass murder was so important he replied-"There is if you don't want to surrender to nihilism entirely the matter of a record. Does the record matter? In my judgement it does." Now a German historical commission has established, after a five year investigation, that the number who died in the bombing of Dresden in the air raid of February 1945 was around 25,000, as precise a figure as we are ever likely to get.

Yes, it's still shocking, as Peter Beaumont said in recent a press report, but it's still a long way short of the 135,000 given by David Irving in his 1963 historical pot-boiler The Destruction of Dresden. This figure has long been under challenge by historians a lot more credible than Irving, who, as has become increasingly clear over time, writes with a specific political agenda in mind.

The sad thing is Irving has considerable skills both as a writer and as a researcher, almost seductively so, but these have now taken second place to his politics. He's a Holocaust-denier and an apologist for the Nazi regime. His invention of the death toll at Dresden, and it is pure invention, a figure he may very well have conjured out of the air, was to serve those who have attempted to establish a kind of moral equivalence between Allied and German crimes.

Accurate accounting is, indeed, part of the process of historical understanding.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

The World according to Piers

In a piece in The Spectator (I want to stand for Parliament) Freddy Gray, who conducted an interview with Piers Morgan, says that he comes across as the consummate new Briton: boorish yet charming, vulgar yet strangely elitist, at once chauvinist and cosmopolitan. Sorry, Freddy; I can get boorish, vulgar and chauvinist but not the other side of the equation. I do agree with you, though, that Piers, a former tabloid journalist and now a general telly person, famous for being famous, is an archetype of the Blair era. I can think of some more of the same species - Jonathan 'join me after the noos' Ross, Alan Sugar, Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay.

Ramsay, yes, what can I say about him? Let me see. I share a blog with an Australian friend of mine, a place where I contribute from time to time. When Ramsay was down under last year, displaying his usual wit and charm, I offered the following brief contribution;

I see that that boorish and foul-mouthed cook, Gordon Ramsay, has been shooting of his f*****g mouth in Australia. Not wise, I feel sure; definitely not wise, especially as it even attracted the disapprobation of the esteemed Kevin Rudd.

I’m sure people know that there are some brands that have a very short shelf-life; such is with Gordon the Gormless, a man with little charm and less talent. I would really hope that people in Australia, not reluctant to express an opinion themselves in-how shall I say?-the earthiest of terms, do not take the Great Gormless as just another ‘whinging pom.’ He’s not; he’s a useless whinging pom, something altogether different!

Please, guys and gals of Oz, don’t be taken in by this man. You may think that while his remarks about and to Tracy Grimshaw were completely over the top, he is at least excused by his talent. Talent, what talent? I would not go near any of the restaurants and bistros he runs in London; none of my friends would and none of my family would. You may not have heard of this but he runs a back street kitchen here, which ships ready-made meals to his various establishments; meals made with cheap ingredients and then marked up some 600%. Yea, that’s right, 600%! Gordon the Gormless is not worth the energy of your contempt.

See, I don't take prisoners! Anyway, that was last year. Much has changed, I feel sure, though I still do not go anywhere near Ramsay Street. :-)

They truly are a dreadful tribe, the Blair Babes, those thrown up under the aegis of New Labour, under the rubric of New Britain. Morgan, it seems to me, is the most typical of the oikish crowd, something of an archetype, I would go so far as to suggest. OK, let me be quite honest- I am prejudiced; I like people with charm and talent; I like people with intellect and finesse, some degree of polish, class, if you prefer; I have no time for vulgarians like Morgan.

I'm sure the favour is returned tenfold, and Morgan had things to say about David Cameron in his interview. He's frightened by the prospect of a Conservative victory, something that almost makes him "want to stand", to use his own words, though stand for what I'm not at all sure. To be fair he says he would run on a ticket of "openness and frankness", not qualities I have to say that I associate with this man or any of his ilk. Bullying, yes, shouting, yes, tantrums, yes, all things he demonstrated when he was editor of the News of the World and The Daily Mirror, even punching a hole in a wall on one occasion. I seems to me that he would fit very well into the political and personal style of our present Prime Minister! "I'm not quite as moronic as [people] think", Morgan informed Gray. Well, that's good to know, though seem to recall seeing a rerun of a certain episode of Have I Got News For You.

Perhaps you would like to know the shape of the cabinet he would favour, this charming, non-moronic man? It goes like this;

I'd make Simon Cowell home secretary. I'd make Alan Sugar treasurer, chancellor. There are all sorts of people I'd have in there. Nobody can tell me that Gordon Ramsay wouldn't sort out the food of this country, or that Sugar wouldn't rule the treasury with an iron fist. I think the country would benefit hugely if it had Cowell, Sugar and people of that calibre in government. I'd rather have that than a bunch of shallow boring little people in suits.

Hmm, lots of storming and shouting, lots of effing and blinding; sacking here and punching there; yes, that's the way to get things done, that's the way to do it, that's our new political fashion, the wave of the future. I assume he would favour himself as Prime Minister, a job for which he is ideally suited, going by the Brown model. I'm just so disappointed, though, that there would be no place for Jonathan Ross. He could keep the elderly of the nation distracted with comforting phone messages, and we know that the poor man is in need of a job just at the present.

Not Waving but Drowning

Nicholas Sarkozy really is sinking, the president of France, the president of bling. He seems to be as bad news for his own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) as Barack Obama is for the Democrats. In the regional elections his name wasn't even mentioned in party literature, just in case voters took the 'ump (groan; sorry!) The man, quite simply, is an embarrassment, a major electoral liability.

The poor man has desperately been trying to distance himself from the predicted outcome, saying that this will have a purely local significance. At the same time he has complained that, to use his own words, "The French don't like me, they've never liked me." Oh, poor mouse, but where, one has to ask, does he think he is from? He obviously does not want to think of himself as French, no, just a case apart, a unique thing, a Sarkozian, from some distant planet, one assumes.

Alas, this is a man fighting a war on two fronts; on the one blaming the voters for his own dismal political performance, on the other blaming the virtual world for the "idiotic" rumours that Carla, his twitter-headed wife, was seeing someone else, was treating him in the same fashion as other French wives are, by tradition and literature, said to treat their husbands.

Is it true? Oh, who knows? There is no definite confirmation of the story which grew as an internet bush fire, but these things have a way of coming true. After all, Carla is a woman who produces such super bons mots as "I guess marriage should be for ever, but who knows what happens?" The super model's super mouth has been kept firmly shut since that particular piece of wisdom was produced earlier this month. I rather suspect this will remain the case. I find it difficult to imagine a person less fitted to be a first lady than Carla, whose head is as empty as her bra. Oh, but she looks so good beside Sarko, a mirror to his absurd personal vanity.

On the political front the problems really arise from Sarko's intellectual confusion, as much as his confusion over his nationality. He stood in 2007 on a right-wing ticket and if I were French I would have voted on the platform he presented, no matter my reservations over the man. Anything is better than a socialist, after all, even a Sarkozian. But France did not get a right-wing president; it got one who moves with the tides of political fashion, active for the sake of being active, with no direction, no principle no guiding set of doctrines. Even the people of Alsace, traditionally a bastion of the right, have had enough. I read a report of one retired bank manager, living in Strasbourg, saying that voters had had it "up to here" with the muddle-headed president, a man who appointed Bernard Koucher, a leading left-winger, to the key post of foreign Minister.

But there are other woes, even more fundamental for Alsace and France beyond, with unemployment now running at 10% and more and more jobs vanishing abroad. I suspect that a great many voters will be hoping that the Sarko, platform shoes and all, will vanish back at warp speed to the distant galaxy from which he emerged.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

The Heart of Darkness

A few years ago I spent some time in Uganda, Kampala mostly, though I also managed to get up country. I'm very sociable and I like making friends, not at all a problem in this lovely country, for the people are even more sociable than me. A close interest was always taken in my planned excursions, with advice on what to do, where to go and what precautions to take. When I said that I was going to go to Kigali, the capital of the adjacent Rwanda, that I was most surprised: I should not go, I was told with genuine concern, there are too many witches there.

I've since learned how powerful the African belief in witchcraft is, witchcraft in general and magic in particular, and these come not in any benign neo-pagan sense but in the darkest forms imaginable. An article by Rob Rickard in the April issue of The Fortean Times emphasises just how dark, focusing on the murder of albino people whose body parts are used in muti or medicine magic, a trend that seems to be particularly marked in East Africa, especially Tanzania.

Albinos already have a hard time, enduring insults and discrimination of all sorts. Many of them are raised by single mothers because, given their skin colour, fathers have a tendency of leaving, accusing their wives of having affairs with white men. If this is not bad enough the children also have to cope with the widespread belief that they have magical powers. This includes the belief that having sex with an albino will cure diseases, even diseases as grave as AIDS. A number have been raped in consequence, leaving them HIV positive. But by far the worst abuse comes in the shape of muti magic.

There is a huge demand for charms in Africa; charms to bring luck, money or success in business. Just as the Chinese believe that ivory has aphrodisiac properties, many Africans believe in the potency of albino body parts. The one has led to ivory hunters, the other to albino hunters. In November 2009 the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies (IFRCCS) released figures showing that at least forty-four albinos had been killed in Tanzania and a further fourteen in Burundi over the preceding year. For the hunters it's a lucrative trade. The IFRCCS report also said that a complete set of albino body parts can fetch as much as $75,000. The growing anxiety induced by the trade has led to at least 10,000 people being displaced or going into hiding.

Muti is a Zulu word meaning 'medicine'. Those who believe in this - given the prices involved clearly not just the poor and ignorant - will go to traditional medicine men, witch doctors, if you prefer, who will tell their clients which body parts are required for their specific needs. A 'shopping list' is then passed on to middle men, people who commission the muti hunters.

The worst thing about this, the thing I found most distressing when I read Rickard's article, is that the victim is not first killed and the parts removed; no, for if the medicine is to have greatest effect the parts in question, limbs, genitals, eyes, ears, even the whole skin, must be removed while he or she is still alive, in the belief that their agonising screams add to the potency of the magic. One of the worst cases occurred ten years ago in Tanzania, where twenty-year-old Enicko Simkoko was attacked and skinned alive. The perpetrators of this outrage were later caught in the town of Tunduma, drying his skin in a hotel room.

I have no solution for this horror; I doubt if anyone has. The trade is now more organised and more lucrative that ever. It's a sign, more than anything, of the anxieties of a modern age in a continent where people face all sorts of pressures, where they have only one hand to play and no other, turning to the past and tradition, no matter how perverse or wicked, in looking to secure their own futures.

Trolly Dollies of the World Unite!

One only has to take a few days of and there is a complete news mountain to climb! I had a super long-weekend in Paris, cutting myself off from the troubles of the world; refusing even to watch CNN. Well, now I'm paying for it, a good part of Monday being spent in catching up, immersing myself in fresh troubles. And, my, what a lot there seem to be. History surely is repeating itself in the dog days of our dreadful Labour government. My mind is immediately drawn to the opening sentence of Karl Marx's "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte";

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

Spot on, dear Karl; the first time as tragedy the second time as farce: Gordon Brown for Jim Callaghan, Alistair Darling for Dennis Healy; the Spring of Troubles for the Winter of Discontent. And now we have Red Len McCluskey for Jack Jones or any other Communist or crypto-Communist of that time. Len is certainly a man to watch, a source of present troubles, a source of future troubles.

I know he's not exactly a household name, but he represents a new kind of trade union militancy that most thought had been buried by Margaret Thatcher all those years ago. But, in the twilight of this government, Red Len has emerged like Lazarus come from the dead. You may have read about him in The Sunday Telegraph, in the piece by Andrew Gilligan (Rise and rise of Red Len), or you may remember him from last Christmas announcing with a "heavy heart" the planned strike of British Airways cabin crew, not long after he told the results of the ballot to cheering union militants, with a nice big beaming grin on his face.

For those who know nothing of the man, Red Len is the assistant general secretary of Unite, the union behind the present wave of militancy, the union that bankrolls the Labour Party; the union that bankrolls the Labour government. I imagine most of the BA trolley dollies have little idea what Len stands for. Well, he stands for Marxism; he stands for Che Guevara; he stands for Cuba and Venezuela, where dictators and crypto-dictators rule the day. Gilligan reports that he has spoken of "reclaiming the Labour Party for our class". Bad news, then, for Lord Rumba of Rio! I just wonder who "our class" are, what this expression conjures up in the mind of Red Len? Fat union bureacrats, possibly? People like himself, certainly.

Red Len is rather a hero to the people behind The Morning Star, a newspaper- of sorts- that used to be associated with the British Communist Party. My, those corpses just keep coming and coming! Seemingly he told this paper that he would "finance Unite members to take over constituency Labour parties." His political strategy clearly is in harmony with that of Charlie Wheelan, another Unite boss, busy at the moment trying to galvanise union members in marginal constituencies through a massive phone poll.

Yes, as I have said, Len has rather a 'thing' for Che Guevara, as murderous a Marxist apparatchik as one is ever likely to come across. But he was just so handsome, unlike Len, with his lumpy face, dominated by a big shapeless nose. He is never likely to be left-wing poster boy himself. No matter; it's the words that are important, Che's message to the world. Len was to be heard preaching that message last summer at the Durham Miner's Gala (more ghosts!), where he said;

We cannot secure our demands through the present system, based on the dominance of private ownership...Let me just leave you with the words of Che Guevara. When asked how long must the struggle continue, he replied: 'Hasta la victoria siempre' - until the final victory.

So, feed on that, boys and girls!

Yes, indeed, and that reminds me of something else. You see, I suspect the dollies might prove to be something of a disappointment to Che McCluskey. They rather enjoy some distinctly non-proletarian pastimes, guaranteed by their present package of perks. When I was in Havana I saw a group of them by the swimming pool of the five-star Parque Central Hotel, living it up somewhat, not just the dollies and their male equivalents, but also the flight crew. I had to move because the women were a bit too loud and the men a shade too lascivious for my taste; but the poor dears do have a right to let their hair down, a right guaranteed by those who have to lodge in less salubrious hotels!

No, these are not the people of which revolutions are made. They are the people foolish enough to be lead by the likes of Red Len; they are the people who may very well contribute to the death of an airline. Trolley dollies of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but the high life.

Monday 22 March 2010

A Pretty Witty King

I'm reminded by an article written by Jenny Uglow in the latest edition of the BBC History Magazine that it is almost three hundred and fifty years since the Restoration of the English monarchy in the person of Charles II, a joyful occasion after the disastrous republican and pseudo-monarchical experiment that followed the execution of his father in January 1649.

England after 1660, the England of Charles, is the time of Dryden, of Rochester, of Pepys and of Shaftesbury; the time of Titus Oates and the Popish Plot; the time of a Great Plague and a Great Fire; the time of the Great Cathedral that started its rise from the ashes like a phoenix. It's a period which has long exercised a particular fascination for me, going all the way back to my childhood.

My own particular research is concerned with the political struggles that saw the emergence of the two-party system; of the Whigs and the Tories, who were to exercise such dominance for so long, first the one and then the other. These names were actually introduced as insults by the opponents of the party in question. The Parliamentary group around Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, was originally called the Country Party, meaning that they sought to defend the interests of the country at large against the machinations of the court. Only after were they called 'Whigs', a name borrowed from a group of Presbyterian extremists and rebels in Scotland. The Whigs, never devoid of imagination, called the Court Party, those around the Marquis of Halifax who took the side of the King, Tories, after a group of Irish brigands! The labels stuck. The English have a genius, perhaps a unique one, for turning mud into a badge of pride!

So, yes, this was the time that gave us the Whigs and Tories and the political football that has been present ever since. It also gave us in Charles the so-called Merry Monarch, a serial adulterer second to none, whose mistresses often traded their favours for political influence and high titles, including Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, a wholly unscrupulous gold-digger and personal favourite of mine, who deserves to be far better remembered than the commonplace Nell Gwynn!

I have no doubt that if I had been alive then I would have been a Tory, a supporter of the King and the legitimate succession, though the succession when it came, in the shape of Charles' Catholic brother James, was to be an outright disaster. Still, I have mixed views about Charles, a man not that admirable as a man; a man whose cynicism often did not stop short at the shabbiest acts of dissimulation and betrayal, even of his closest friends and associates.

He may have been no more intelligent than his rigid and unbending father, in his own way as puritanical as the most committed roundhead, but he was certainly a lot more pragmatic, a lot more Machiavellian. His supposed agreement with Louis XIV to convert to Catholicism under the secret Treaty of Dover was little more than a vast confidence trick, a way of extorting money from his gullible French cousin, free of Parliamentary scrutiny. Even his supposed death bed conversion to Catholicism seems to me not to be entirely sincere, almost as if he was playing the literal-minded and unimaginative James in the same fashion as he had once played Louis.

In a way I suppose it is possible to excuse Charles some of his vices in that he had a long and hard apprenticeship; first the plaything of the Scots, given to more extreme forms of religious intolerance, in an early attempt to recover the throne, then the head of a threadbare court in exile, dependant on the charity of foreign princes. In the end he was restored in 1660, it must be remembered, not by his friends, not by the old royalist party, but by his former enemies, people who had previously taken the side of Parliament in the Civil Wars and after. So he had to be careful, always playing a close and not very principled game. He was a great survivor determined, as he once told his brother, never again to go on his travels. Perhaps John Wilmot earl of Rochester's poetic comment on the man is ever so slightly unfair but it is the one that for me still carries the greatest resonance;

We have a pretty witty king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

Oh, he did at least one wise one: he maintained James as his legitimate successor against all the political odds. For, as he once told his brother, only half in jest, nobody was ever going to remove him in his favour, something that all heads of state-and heads of government- would do well to remember. :-))

Eggs, Bunnies and Witches

Easter is almost upon us, a term I prefer to Ostara, favoured by those in the Wiccan movement. Yes, I know it's the most significant day in the Christian calendar but many of the things most associated with Easter have nothing at all to do with Christianity, most particularly those egg-delivering bunnies! It also has links with old pagan fertility rituals, of the renewal of times, of new birth and new beginnings. It is Persephone emerging from the Underworld.

The name itself honours a Germanic deity, variously spelt as Astara, Easter, Eostre and Ostara, thought at least by some to mean 'Radiant Dawn.' In essence Easter was the spirit of the spring, whose annual return was celebrated with flowers bell-ringing and singing. At dawn new fires would also be lit, another sign of empowerment.

Easter comes in the form of a beautiful young woman, whose male consort comes in the form of a rabbit; and what more fecund symbol is there than that! The eggs the rabbit brings is another indication of a resurgence of the Earth's fertility. It's not so far in the past that the symbol of such fertility was even more direct: in French, German and Italian villages special phallic-shaped cakes were carried in procession, not stopping short of the local church!

Easter is also another of the seasons of the witch, at least it is in Sweden and parts of Finland. It was a time when witches here traditionally joined together in celebration, beginning on the night before Maundy Thursday and continuing through Easter Eve, when witches mounted on brooms flew up chimneys in the company of their cats. Such was the fear of the Easter Witch that people would lock the doors of their homes and barns, as well as blocking up chimney flues. More than that, anything that could possibly used by witches, including brooms, pitchforks and rakes, were locked away least one was accused of helping the witches have fun! Crosses were also drawn on doors to let passing witches know that they were unwelcome, just as fires were kept burning in hearths to prevent them being used as a point of entry. Some of these traditions still survive; for it is Easter that children dress as witches in Sweden, not Halloween.

France and the Jews

There had long been a tradition of latent anti-semitism in French society, evidenced by some of the responses to the Dreyfus Affair, though in the prosperous years of the 1920s this was but of marginal importance. The onset of the Depression, compounded by the influx of German Jews seeking refuge from Hitler, brought a fundamental change in attitudes.

Increasingly bad, the general political atmosphere became quite poisonous with the creation of the Popular Front government in 1936, headed by Leon Blum, a Jew. In March 1936 Charles Maurras of the right-wing Action Française, wrote "One thing that is dead is the spirit of semi-tolerance accorded to the Jewish State since the War...A formidable 'Down with the Jews' smoulders in every breast and will pour forth from every heart."

Maurras went on to call for the murder of Blum, though he was far from being the most violent anti-Semitic propagandist. That dubious honour surely belongs to the novelist Celine, conceivably the most eccentric genius France has ever produced. His diatribes against the Jews in Bagatelles pour un massacre and École des cadavers were so delirious that Andre Gide even suggested that they might be intended as a Swiftian satire. One critic went so far as to suggest that he may even have been paid by the Jews to discredit anti-Semitism!

People like Celine were never going to escape from the outer limits of political sanity, but anti-Semitism became an acceptable mode of discourse in the political mainstream, even cutting across the divide between left and right. It also became intertwined with new forms of pacifism, increasingly strong in post-war France, which argued that the Jews and the Communists were pushing the nation towards conflict with Nazi Germany.

During the Sudeten crisis in the summer of 1938 Ludovic Zoretti, a Socialist, wrote that France did not want to "kill millions of people, and destroy a civilization just to make life a bit easier for 100,000 Sudeten Jews", a sentiment echoed by Armand Chouffet, a Socialist deputy, who said "I've had enough of the Jewish dictatorship over the Party...I won't march for a Jewish war."

So, the mushroom grew in dank soil; a soil of economic crisis, fertilised by resentment of refugees, anger over alleged Jewish influence in politics and society, and a fear of of being lured into a new war.