Friday 30 April 2010

Dear Mrs Duffy

This is a letter that I had to write, one that I will never send and one that you are unlikely ever to read. It's an open letter because I think that some other people might be interested in what I have to say.

Anyway, I saw you on Wednesday evening on the news talking with Gordon Brown, and I read about you yesterday morning in the newspapers. I was particularly moved by the picture of you on the front cover of the Daily Telegraph, the one that was taken after you had been told that the Prime Minister had referred to you as a 'bigot' when he thought only his staff were listening. Like you I could not quite take things in at first, could not quite believe what was happening.

The wounded disbelief on your face almost made me cry; it certainly made me feel very emotional, feel something of the depth of your own sense of disbelief at the ugly callousness of this remark. I could feel your sense of betrayal, your bewilderment that you had been dismissed in such a fashion by an 'educated man', as you put it, who heads a party with whom you have identified all of your life.

You may very well think it presumptuous of me to write to you like this. We come from such different worlds. We have so little in common. You might think me arrogant, someone from a very privileged background who has an opinion on everything and is never reluctant to express her opinion. You are a life-long Labour supporter, and presumably have voted for the party many times. I have been a member of the Conservative Party since I was a teenager and so far have only voted once, in the general election of 2005. I come from a family with a long tradition of Conservative support, one with associations with some important people in the history of the party. I'm young, I'm arrogant, I do not understand why people, ordinary people like you, have ever voted Labour, a party which serves you so ill, a party which has served this country so ill. But, please let that pass; there are other things I want to talk about.

For me the look on your face will forever be the defining moment of this election campaign, not the television debates. It says so much, not just about how hurt you felt but about the man who hurt you, more, if anything, about him than about you. I've long believed that he has contempt for people like you, for the powerless, for the people on whom he depends. I read a book some weeks ago which detailed how he bullies his staff, the least powerful people around him. He is the kind of man who, when in difficulty, always blames others, never himself, always looks for scapegoats. He is the kind of man who, by repute, cannot make 'small talk', which I take to mean that he cannot converse in a normal way or relate to people with sympathy and understanding.

His meeting with you, by any reasonable definition, was unremarkable, one that left you feeling good. But not him. That you dared question him on the great issues of the day, on the deficit and on immigration; that you dared give expression to the fears of so many little people, unimportant people, made you a terrible woman, a 'bigot' in his eyes. You are not at fault; he is. He is the product of a political system that pretends to sympathise with little people but secretly despises them. He is a product of a system that pretends to represent people like you but consistently ignores them.

The worst part, the worst part of all, was when he came to your door to offer a hypocritical 'apology'. He had been found out, the enormity of his words had been played back to him; he could do no else. In your position I would have refused to see him, refused to allow him over the doorstep. But you are clearly a much more generous and forgiving person than I. I only feel anger and contempt, deepened when I saw him speaking to the media after he left your home, saying that he was a 'penitent sinner' with an altogether inappropriate and silly grin on his face. I think he is sorry alright, sorry that he was ever found out. There was no sincerity at all in his bogus and inadequate words.

Personally I would like people like you to vote Conservative, a party that has consistently raised prosperity just as Labour has lowered it. But this is not about politics; it’s not a plea for your vote. It's just to let you know that, for a brief moment, you became the voice of England, speaking for so many, no matter if Labour or Conservative. If you are a bigot then I am a bigot, we are all bigots, all the people of this land who share your concern. From across the generations, from across all social divides, from across all political divisions I sincerely wish you well.

With much respect,

Anastasia F-B

Thursday 29 April 2010

The Return of the Hero

In criticising Thomas Carlyle's great man theory of history Herbert Spencer said that an individual is the creation of a series of complex influences and long before he can remake his society, his society must make him. He was, of course, reacting to Thomas Carlyle's statement to the effect that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men" by pushing the pendulum in the other direction. The reaction is understandable, and the corrective necessary. There are few modern historians who take Carlyle's inflated accounts of Robespierre or Napoleon seriously, just as few have any patience with his over-ripe and flowery prose.

The unfortunate thing is that pendulum has remained for too long at the other extreme, held in position by those who followed in the steps of Ferdinand Braudel, E P Thompson and the like. The altogether tiresome 'history from below school' has become just that-tiresome! In my experience academics are, once again, beginning to pay close attention to the actions and decisions taken by key players at key moments in time.

What, for instance, if Constantine the Great, had been killed at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, would the history of the Roman Empire have proceeded along the same lines; would we now, perhaps, be investigating Christianity as just another vanished cult along with Mithraism? What shape would the modern world have if Mohammed-or Lenin-had never been born? Is it possible to imagine that the history of Europe would have taken the same course in the middle of the last century if Adolf Hitler had never emerged from the doss-houses of Vienna, or if Soso Dzhugashvili had become an Orthodox priest?

I can assure you that it is far, far easier to get students interested in the sex-life of Henry VIII, or Charles II, than it is in crop rotation and trade patterns! Make room always for the big ideas...and for the great people.


I read The Portrait of a Lady last year, my first serious introduction to the work of Henry James. Did I enjoy it? Well, yes, I suppose I did; I certainly admired James' craftsmanship. More to the point, did I believe it; did I believe in the people he created? Here I have more difficulty. There was something so terribly cerebral and bloodless about the whole thing. I simply cannot conceive of people like Isobel and Gilbert existing in any real sense, outwith, it might be said, ghostly forms of Platonic consciousness. They are like icebergs, drifting to no particular end. I close the book, I turn away, and they are no longer there.

Locke and Liberty

John Locke's political theories began to alarm the English establishment at the time of the French Revolution, and prior to this during the American Revolution, though for a good bit of the eighteenth century he had, so to say, been 'tamed' and 'domesticated.' But as radical times demand radical ideas, so Locke was rescued from a wooly consensus and revivified as a champion of liberty.

In a debate in the House of Commons in 1776, John Wilkes recited from Two Treatises of Government, demanding 'fair and equal representation.' In the 1790s Thomas Erskine, a radical Scottish lawyer, drew on the Second Treatise in his arguments for universal manhood suffrage. Locke also underpinned some of the great political testaments of the day, including Joseph Priestly's Essay on the First Principles of Government and Richard Price's On the Nature of Civil Liberty. His thought was also reinterpreted in a crypto-socialist light, in such works as The Real Rights of Man by Thomas Spence and The Complaint of the Poor People of England by George Dyer.

Given all this it comes as no surprise that there was a conservative back-lash, which grew steadily in intensity. It really begins with Josiah Tucker's The Notions of Mr Locke and his Followers, extended and republished in the 1780s as the Treatise Concerning Civil Government. Like a dog in pursuit of a bone, dear old Josiah simply refused to let go, later publishing The Evil Consequences Arising from the Propagation of Mr Locke's Democratic Principles. Phew!

And so it went on. Edmund Burke himself makes no mention of Locke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, though others made good his omission. Writing in 1798 William Jones described Locke as "...the oracle of those who began and conducted the American Revolution, which led to the French Revolution; which will lead (unless God and his mercy interfere) to the total overthrow of religion and government in this kingdom, perhaps the whole Christian world."

As the Counter-Enlightenment progressed Locke's portrait was taken down from the hall of his old college, Christ Church in Oxford, from whence he had been expelled by order of Charles II in 1684. The Monthly Repository, a dissenting journal, lamented that this was "Locke's second expulsion from Oxford."

The Ghosts of Katyn Wood

Documents have finally been published that prove, once and for all, that Stalin personally authorised the murder of thousands of captured Polish officers at Katyn Wood and other places in 1940. I never had any doubt about this; I've read biographies of the man and know that nothing of importance in the old Soviet state ever happened without his authorisation. I also know that he personally signed many death lists during the Great Purge.

Still, this is an important development, not for a select band of scholars, who have long had access to the Russian archives, but for the public at large, for Poles in particular. For many years after the massacres the Soviet state was in denial about what happened, blaming the Germans, though they gave the lie to this assertion by refusing to allow the matter to be raised at the Nuremberg Trials of the major Nazi war criminals. Although a new openness began after the collapse of communism it has taken time for the full truth to come out, bound up as the question has been with issues of national pride. It proves once and for all that the assertion of people like Vevgeny Dzhugashvili, the tyrant's grandson, that he was somehow not personally responsible, is disingenuous in the extreme.

It comes at just the right moment, not long after the death of the Polish president, killed on his way to a commemorative ceremony. It's a welcome gesture by Dimitry Medvedev, the Russian president. One can only hope this is the beginning of a better understanding between the two nations, nations that have a long history of mutual animosity despite a common racial identity.

By any definition Katyn was a terrible crime, the massacre of close on 22,000 unarmed prisoners by the agents of the NKVD, the Soviet state security apparatus, the predecessor of the present MGB. One of the documents made public is a note by Lavrenty Beria, the head of the NKVD and one of Stalin's vilest henchmen, whom he once referred to in a joking mood as 'our Himmler.' In this he proposes that the Poles, who included priests, writers, professors and aristocrats as well as military officers, should all be shot. This particular document, which carries Stalin’s signature and a red 'top secret' stamp, is dated March 1940. There are other documents, coming after the Stalin era, showing that the Soviets were determined to keep the matter secret.

Responsibility was finally admitted by Mikhail Gorbachev only in 1990, when he expressed his 'profound regret', a bold gesture by the one decent man the communist state ever produced. But for history, for future generations, tangible proof is in every way better than expressions of regret, no matter how sincere. The ghosts of Kaytn can finally rest.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Fidei defensor

I grew up in the Church of England and while I no longer attend, apart from family days and holidays, and even then only to please my parents, I still retain a considerable affection for the institution, for the part that it has played in the history of this nation. If I did not feel affection, a lingering sense of respect, I could look upon the pronouncements of Rowan Williams, the muddle-headed Archbishop of Canterbury, with equanimity; but I cannot; he retains the power to madden me with some of his more outrageous statements.

So, yes, I value the Church of England just as I value Christianity, as I value spirituality in general. Even so I can respect atheism, those who have no place in their personal life for God our any form of spiritual insight; those whose horizons are purely (I was tempted to write bleakly) material. What I loath is the atheist proselytisers, those who would discard one set of absolutes only to promote another, bringing to the debate the worst forms of intellectual intolerance. God is dead; Richard Dawkins is alive. The new faith is totalitarian secularism, worse in ever way than the old faith of ritual and transcendence.

I understand in his latest Papal Bull Dawkins has said that the real abuse by Roman Catholic priests may not be the ‘groping of child bodies’ but the ‘subversion of child minds.’ Saint Richard would have it otherwise; he would chase Christianity to the margins of superstition and darkness in the creation of the kind of an earthly paradise, outlined by John Lennon in Imagine, a song with a message I cannot listen to without a compete sense of loathing. There is no earthly paradise. More particularly, as we should know from the history of the past hundred years, the attempt to create one always ends in hell.

The recent attacks on the Catholic Church, the disgraceful insult that the apparatchiks in the Foreign Office offered to the Pope, and through him to all Catholics, shows that the faith, Christianity in general, needs a defender. It could ask for no better one than Peter Hitchens, one of my favourite polemicists, who has recently published The Rage Against God, an exploration of his own journey from Marxism and atheism to belief.

In this he brings to bear his lucidity and acidy wit against the aggressive secularism taking hold of a society that has no longer and clear idea of itself. One only has to look at the progress of Mad Hattie Harperson’s equality legislation, which effectively tried to dictate what people thought of homosexuality. We are dealing her with new forms of state corruption, of the subversion of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech; of the subversion of moral choice itself. Though qualified in England, similar legislation in Scotland saw a fine of £1000 being levied against a Baptist preacher for saying that homosexuality was contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

Hitchens compares what is happening in our morally debased society with what happened to organised religion in Soviet Russia when faced with the aggressive atheism promoted by the state. The parallels not too extreme, at least I do not believe so. There has been a long process of secularisation at work, but it has taken more pervasive forms in our recent history, with the likes of Harperson and Dawkins occupying the high ground, sitting on judgement on all below. Who would ever have believed that Christianity would have been on defensive in the land of Augustine? It’s time to fight back; time for a spiritual renaissance. The alternative is grim beyond measure; the alternative is barrenness; the alternative is Dawkins.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Bashing Boney

What was the most important factor in the downfall of Napoleon? Why, an impossible obsession. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, realising that he would never be able to defeat England by a war at sea, he decided that he would have to resort to a new kind of war on land; an economic war.

By the Continental System he hoped to destroy British trade and manufacturing. But the Continental System was hopelessly ambitious. It required control, and absolute control, of the whole of Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow. It required all powers, all territories, all dependencies, all allies, no matter how reluctant, to fall in behind what was effectively a French economic dictatorship. Bit by bit the whole impossible project came apart. Portugal was the first to break rank, beginning the French tyrant's ruinous involvement in the Peninsula. Next to go was Russia, the ally of occasion.

To bring Tsar Alexander I back into line Napoleon broke the first rule of warfare-never march on Moscow. Russia's success in defeating French aggression also freed Austria and Prussia from the grip of the Continental System, enabling them all to join together in the War of the Sixth Coalition. Abandoned on almost all sides, Napoleon was overwhelmed at the Battle of the Nations.

How did his economic blockade affect the British? Hardly at all; for new markets were found in the Americas. Besides, smuggling into Europe was highly effective. More than that, Napoleon was forced to grant exceptions to his Berlin and Milan decrees, for the simple reason that he depended on British manufacturers for the supply of his army's boots! Contrary to Napoleon's intentions, moreover, such economic hardship as there was came in his own country, with food shortages, loss of business and high prices adding to his growing unpopularity. And that is how the mighty are fallen!

A Great Parliamentarian; a Great Englishman

History's judgement on Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury has not been kind, that much is true, though I would urge anyone interested in a more balanced and objective view to have a look at The First Earl of Shaftesbury by K. H. D. Halley, still (she says) the best biography on the Whig leader.

One thing should be made absolutely plain: the Popish Plot was indeed a groundless conspiracy, during which innocent people lost their lives. For men like Titus Oates it was no more than an opportunity to seek recognition and riches by defaming and maligning Catholics. Shaftesbury stands guilty by association, and by the use he made of Oates and his slanders. But it is crucially important to understand that Shaftesbury's hostility to Catholicism was first and foremost political not confessional in nature.

Earlier in his career he had advised Charles to stand by the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672 because it extended freedom of conscience to Protestant dissenters, even though it was criticised in Parliament for its supposed sympathy for Catholics. His hostility towards Catholicism grew in intensity as it was perceived more and more as a political threat to the English constitution, a threat to the liberty of Parliament that Shaftesbury valued most highly. I can find no better clue to Shaftesbury's whole attitude at the time of the Popish Plot than the observation of one MP who said "Papists are enemies not because they are erroneous in religion but because their principles are destructive to the government."

You see, there is a well-established tendency to look at this whole period of English history as merely one of hysteria and anti-Catholic bigotry. There is, however, quite another dimension which is almost completely overlooked. Forget Oates and his ghastly associates; look more closely at the Parliamentary debates. It is there you will discover some of the real substance. I’ve gone through all of the exchanges made during the Exclusion Crisis point by point, line by line. In one session on 27 April 1679 Sir Henry Capel observed;

From Popery came the notion of a standing army and arbitrary power...Formerly the crown of Spain, and now France supports this root of popery among us; but lay popery flat, and there's an end of arbitrary government and power. It is a mere chimera or notion without popery.

The long-term danger, as Shaftesbury and his party believed, came from the France of Louis XIV. But even at home he was mindful of the misuse of power in parts of the United Kingdom; for Britain had its very own Louis in the person of John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, Charles' Secretary of State for Scotland, who ruled the northern kingdom with powers akin to that of a Roman proconsul. Here is part of Shaftesbury's speech from the debate of March 1679;

Popery and slavery, like two sisters, go hand in hand; sometimes one goes first, and sometimes the other, in a door; but the other is always following close at hand. In England popery was to have brought in slavery; in Scotland, slavery before and popery to follow...Scotland has outdone all the eastern and southern countries, in having their lives, liberties and estates sequestered to the will and pleasure of those that govern.

So, you see, for him the greatest risk was to liberty, from whatever direction it came. Yes, his understanding of liberty is far narrower than our own; and yes again, he was not a democrat, in the sense that we understand the term. He was, rather, a great Parliamentarian, one of the greatest in English history, and as such stands comparison with John Pym and John Hampden, and I have chosen these parallels with care.

Many of Shaftesbury's contemporaries satirised him as 'Lord Shiftsbury' because he changed political clothes so often: first a supporter of Charles I during the English Civil War and then a supporter of Parliament; a supporter of Cromwell, and then an opponent; a supporter of Charles II and then an opponent. Yet there is a consistent thread through all of these shifts and changes: a steadfast support for parliamentary process and constitutional liberty. He never attached himself to any regime that that set itself against frequent parliaments. He only moved into permanent opposition after James duke of York, a man he never had any time for, was known to have converted to Catholicism. He may have feared Catholic absolutism; he feared James even more: "...heady, violent and bloody, who easily believes the rashest and worst councils to be the most sincere and hearty." And those familiar with James as king will recognise how accurate this assessment was to be.

No democrat, then, but a party leader; one who was prepared to extend the debate on the future of the constitution into the public arena, using all the means at his disposal. He did so because he was ever more aware of the impotence of Parliament in isolation from the people. Petitions, pamphlets, parades, electioneering; simple messages for even simpler people; it was all part of the process of engagement. It was the beginning, in essence, of the modern political world, in all of its good and bad forms.

His success here must surely be measured by the fact that the Tories, his great rivals, began to adopt the same methods. It was indeed a high risk strategy: in the end he lost everything, dying as an outcast and an exile. But he had fought with single-minded determination for what he believed to be the highest principles of all. And as for his place in history, I think there is a good argument for rooting the Glorious Revolution in the Exclusion debates. Moreover, there is at least one modern historian who has argued that Locke's dissertations on government were first written, not as a retrospective justification of the events of 1688, but as Exclusionist tracts in defence of Shaftesbury.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Clegg and Foggy; sharing the last of the wine

It’s quite delightful to see Nick Clegg, Corporal Clegg, come under some hard scrutiny by the right-wing press; under scrutiny by The Telegraph, The Mail and The Express. So much has come out since he ‘won’ the first round of the political X Factor; details of his expenses claims, of his past as a professional lobbyist, of his contempt for this country revealed by an article he wrote for The Guardian in 2002.

I always knew that Clegg was a political fraud and that his party is a positive danger to the interests of this country; one only has to read through their manifesto to reach that conclusion. The Guardian piece genuinely took me by surprise. I have no recollection of this making an impact at the time – I was still at school -, though I imagine it was ignored because, well, who then would have cared about such a colourless nonentity?

Surprise was quickly succeeded by anger; anger that this man could so downplay the role of his own country (is it his country?) in defeating the Nazis; anger that he could sing to a Continental gallery, saying that Germany was a vastly more prosperous nation and that “we need to be put back in our place.” I’m not quite sure where Clegg conceives ‘our place’ to be, other than under the heel of his beloved European super state.

It’s impossible to deny, of course, that Germany is a vastly more prosperous country. The reason for that is simple. Germany put all of its effort into rebuilding a shattered economy after the Second World War. Britain, on the other hand, whose economy was exhausted, if not ruined, set about under the socialists on a programme of ruinous welfare spending at the worst possible time. We have gone through a depressing cycle ever since: prosperity bequeathed by the Tories has always been destroyed by Labour profligacy.

I have little doubt that the Liberal Democrats would have been equally profligate if they had come close to power; I have little doubt that the Liberal Democrats will ruin the economy of this country if they do come to power.

Returning to Clegg, the treatment he has received at the hands of the press is frankly disgusting. It’s OK, it’s OK; I’ve not gone completely loopy; that’s the assessment of Peter Mandelson, Lord Rumba of Rio, who has denounced the ‘smear’ campaign against his political colleague…sorry, rival! I was getting confused there.

Gosh, what a hypocrite Rumba is! It was he, along with Alistair Campbell, who might be said to have invented the modern smear campaign, one based on the lowest forms misinformation and character assassination. His attempts to suggest that the Conservative Party was behind the Clegg stories, all based on fact, has been described by Sir Malcolm Rifkind as silly, juvenile and vintage Mandelson. “If Mandelson is your best friend”, he continued, “you’ve got serious problems.”

Rumba certainly sees Nick’s as his new best friend, there can be no mistake about that; he is Clegg’s Foggy. I can just see the two of them pottering around, spinning their own political fantasy world as the bottle rapidly empties, as the wine is all but drunk. They deserve one another; they are two of a kind.

Defending the Indefensible

Is it possible to mount a defense of the indefensible? Is it possible to mount a defense of Neville Chamberlain and the policy of Appeasement? Putting her head into the mouth of the lion, Ana answers in the affirmative!

We have come a long way since the publication of Guilty Men, the self-satisfied 'I told you so' polemic of the 1940s. No serious historian would now consider dismissing Chamberlain and Appeasement in quite the same terms as the Cato conspirators. History is not created in looking back but in working forward. Appeasement has to be viewed from the perspective of 1919, not 1939.

Yes, it seems obvious from the standpoint of 1945, when history was torn up by the roots, that one had to be terribly deluded to attempt any form of reasonable compromise with people quite as monstrous as the Nazis; but at the time of the Munich Agreement this was not the common view. What was the alternative to Munich? Should a half-ready Britain and a half-hearted France have gone to war that could have had an outcome even more disastrous than that of 1940? For the Fall of France is unlikely to have been followed by victory over the skies of Britain.

By the 1930s most people in Britain had come to accept that Versailles had been an 'unfair' settlement: Appeasement thus has to be viewed in that context, a reversal and a remedy to the supposed errors of 1919, which denied the Germans the right of self-determination, granted to so many others. There was nothing to suggest in 1938 that Hitler wanted war for the sake of war, and every indication that international diplomacy could be pursued down normal channels.

But even while Chamberlain talked with the dictator he speeded up British rearmament, though such a move had been vigorously opposed by the strong domestic pacifism movement and the demand for disarmament, embraced by people like Michael Foot, one of the Guilty Men authors.

Appeasement could conceivably have continued after March 1939, when Hitler unilaterally occupied Bohemia and Moravia; at least this is the view promoted by A. J. P. Taylor in The Origins of the Second World War. But for Chamberlain it was a step too far, and the British guarantee to Poland followed.

Appeasement bought time, though this was not really Chamberlain's chief intention, which was to solve a problem, redress a wrong and secure the peace. Since the 1960s, and the controversy surrounding Taylor's book, scholars have made serious attempts to analyse the whole thrust of British diplomacy in the broadest possible terms, free of the glib judgements and moral outrage of the past. I would particularly commend The Realities Behind Diplomacy and The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, both by Paul Kennedy.

Here we have three principle grounds for the rationality of Appeasement: Britain did not have enough skilled workers to produce rapid rearmament without endangering the whole process of economic recovery; military chiefs advised the politicians of the country's lack of preparedness for a major international conflict; and public opinion was consistently opposed to a strong stand against the dictators outwith the League of Nations. The whole rationale is simple enough: there was nothing to be gained for England economically, strategically or politically in fighting a Second World War, a conclusion fully borne out by what followed after 1945.

I have to say that my favourite treatment of the whole subject is Maurice Cowling's The Impact of Hitler, partisan and hugely entertaining! Cowling places the whole thing in a far broader explanatory context than had been attempted hitherto. In his estimation Appeasement was a policy that made perfect sense, because it was the only way to preserve the integrity of the Empire and British power in the world. It's an interesting perspective, though the chief emphasis shifts away from international relations towards domestic economic concerns.

For an alternative view one could do no better than refer to the work of David Dilks. Here Appeasement is essentially a consequence of the failure of the peace of 1919; or the failure, to be more precise, in securing the peace against a possible resurgence of German power. Chamberlain's action was thus informed by two things: recognition of German grievances, and an equal recognition that Britain lacked the economic and military resources for war. In Dilk's words he "hoped for the best and prepared for the worst." He talked, he compromised and he rearmed. In the final months before the war British spending on armaments reached a peacetime record. Chamberlain was no dupe; Appeasement made sense.

The Curse of Immortality

Eos, the daughter of Theia and Hyperion, was the Greek goddess of the dawn. In Homer she is referred to as 'rosy-fingered' and 'saffron-robed', a clear reference to the shades of the morning sky. But she was also a woman with strong sexual appetites, not beyond carrying off those whom she found appealing. She had a particular passion for handsome hunters. As Cephalous and Orion stalked their prey by the twilight of dawn they were stalked in turn by Eos. She also took a fancy to the Trojan prince Tithonus, the son of King Laomedon, rather unfortunately for him.

The imagery is beautiful and romantic, with Eos leaving the bed of Tithonus as day breaks in book five of the Odyssey. She was to bear him two sons, Memnon and Emathion. In the Trojan War Memnon, who had his own kingdom in the east, came to the aid of his father's city only to be killed on the plain of Troy by Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes. It's a fate that Tithonus might very well have envied.

In her devotion to her husband Eos asked Zeus, king of the gods, to grant him the boon of immortality that they might be together forever. As always there is more sorrow over answered than unanswered prayers; for while her wish was granted, Eos had forgotten to ask for eternal youth also. Tithonus was doomed to age and shrivel with age until nothing was left but a wizened husk

His fate is described in the “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite”;

…when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.

In the end he turned into a cicada, living endlessly, endlessly chirping for death, something worth remembering when one hears those calls by the light of a Mediterranean dawn.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man -
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seemed
To his great heart none other than a God!
I asked thee, "Give me immortality."
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant worked their wills,
And beat me down and marred and wasted me,
And though they could not end me, left me maimed
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, though even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renewed.
Thy cheek begins to redden through the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosened manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.

Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.

Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts."

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch -if I be he that watched -
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimsoned all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kissed
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

Monday 26 April 2010

Death by Review

Not so long ago I wrote a blog called The Knives of Academe detailing some rather dubious goings on among academic folk. The short of it is that the Amazon UK book review pages were being used to talk up the work of Professor Orlando Figes, a specialist in Russian history at Birkbeck College, and talk down just about everyone else. The reviews in question were added by someone going by the code name “Historian”, who supposedly turned out to be Stephanie Palmer, Figes’ wife. Except it wasn’t; that was just a cover: it was Figes himself.

The Knives of Academe was written with light-hearted intent, on the assumption that Stephanie was just taking the role of the loyal partner a stage too far, praising her husband and damning the likes Rachel Polonsky, who had been fairly acidy about aspects of his work. Now the humour has died.

Figes’ work, some of it excellent, did not stand or fall by Amazon review but by his general reputation in the academic world and among educated readers beyond. His A People’s Tragedy: Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 will remain, I am convinced, a classic in the field. He is a far better writer and historian than Robert Service, professor of Russian history at Saint Anthony’s College, Oxford, one of the people he rubbished on Amazon. But what he has done in using and abusing Amazon in this way; what he has done in attempting to use legal threats to stop people finding out exactly who “Historian” was, seems to me to be an academic version of the Watergate scandal.

It is tragic, it truly is, for a historian of his stature to describe the work of a rival as “awful” while describing one of his own titles as “a fascinating book…one that leaves the reader awed, humbled yet uplifted.” His actions, moreover, were just as inept as those of the Watergate burglars because he left a path right back to his door. Amazingly “Historian” used the secondary name of “Orlando-Birkbeck.”

To compound his awful offence, to save himself from professional embarrassment, he allowed his wife to offer herself as a cover, pretending that it was she and not he who had added the reviews in question. It makes matters considerably worse that he then tried to use the cudgel of the law to stop people asking questions. Robert Service quite rightly says that this whole episode highlights the need to do something about the law of libel, particularly when it’s used to stifle debate.

The most recent report I read on this sorry business said that Figes was now on sick leave and that his college was offering him its full support. It seems to me almost impossible for his reputation as a scholar to recover from his attempt at professional assassination. Service has said that he is glad that this “contaminated slime has been exposed”, which I take to be a measure of the morass into which Figes has sunk. I’m not sure how he will ever be able to face his colleagues or students again.

Mad Hattie on the Doorstep

Seemingly Peter Mandelson, Lord Rumba of Rio, gave Harriet Harman, nominally Labour’s deputy leader, a bit of a tongue lashing recently and she is not best pleased. Harriet, better known to her many friends and admirers as Mad Hattie Harperson, has rather been shoved to the margins of Labour’s electoral campaign, possibly as a major source of embarrassment, who can tell? But she has thrust her way back, insisting that she will not be ignored.

For me Hattie has always come across as the head girl that everyone at school is supposed to admire but secretly hates; all cold porridge and early morning hockey. Honestly is it possible not to hate her and everything she represents, all the hypocrisy and double-standards? There she is preaching equality and equal rights just as long as she is more equal than others. She sends her own children to good private schools while being part of a government that is attempting to use the Charities Commission as a weapon against the whole independent sector. She is the kind of person, moreover, who thought in her condescension that she had every right to drive away from the scene of an accident, announcing to observers that they would know where to find her.

I read an interview with her in the latest issue of The New Statesman in which she says she is out energising the troops; that she is to be ‘found on the doorstep’ more than on television and at press conferences. Gosh, what a thought: opening one’s front door to find Mad Hattie! This news could conceivably be a major boost to the manufacture of peep holes, which might help Gordon Brown’s economic recovery to leap from tiny to significant percentages. Perhaps there is a plan here?

Hattie has some aristocratic connections, being the niece by marriage to the late seventh earl of Longford. I had never heard of this person until I recently read a biography of Myra Hindley, the serial killer, with whom he was great chums, campaigning endlessly for her release from prison as early as the 1970s, before she had served any time at all. He seems to have been as woolly-minded as Hattie, so the two of them probably got on famously. But Longford thought that homosexuality was ‘nauseating’ and ‘utterly wrong’; so the government's equality legislation may very well have landed him in a spot of bother!

Hattie and Lord Rumba are what now passes for a Labour aristocracy in our cheapened and traduced age, people who have decided the fate of the nation from the frightful dinner tables of Islington among the pesto peasants. There they are on the one hand, with the vulgar John 'Two Jags' Prescott on the other, the ugly faces of the age. What did this nation do deserve such frightful phizogs? And as you ponder that question do please be careful who you open your door to. After all, one never knows who, or what, might be found there. :-)

Das Dritte Reich

No, it’s not about that; it’s about a book!

One of the more interesting men to emerge from the radical right in Germany after the First World War, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck created an 'ideal' for a disappointed nation, an ideal he expressed in Das Dritte Reich, published in 1923. It's an organic myth, the image of Germany's 'Third Rome'- there will be no other.

For Moeller, Germany's great misfortune lay in the political system created by the Weimar Republic, one of competitive parties and liberal ideologies. An admirer of Mussolini, he looks for a strong leader. His Reich is not so much state in the sense that term is usually understood: it is the ideal condition, the only way in which the scattered German people can achieve a common purpose and destiny. But he does not look for the limited state, the Second Reich fashioned by Bismarck;

The Second Empire was an imperfect empire. It did not include Austria which survived on from our First Empire, side by side with our Second Empire. Our Second Empire was a Little-German Empire which we must consider only as a stepping stone on out path to a Greater German Empire.

The weak Weimar Republic, he argues, will have to be replaced by a new revolution, a revolution from the right. He looks also for a new political movement that will embrace both socialism and nationalism, a unique form of German Fascism. He takes all of his philosophical cues from the work of Nietzsche “who stands at the opposite pole of thought from Marx.” The one contemporary politician he admires above all others is Benito Mussolini.

The temptation, of course, is to see this difficult little book as an advocate for what was to come; but as always the gap between the ideal vision and the historical truth is virtually unbridgeable. On the eve of publication Moeller inserted a preface, in which he wrote that "The Third Reich is a philosophical idea not for this but for the next world. Germany might perish because of the Third Reich dream."

He believes Germany needs a Superman in the fashion described by Nietzsche, but that Superman is not Adolf Hitler. Soon after the collapse of the Munich Putsch he wrote;

There are many things that can be said against Hitler, and I have sometimes said them. But one thing you have to give him credit for: he is a fanatic for Germany. But he is wrecked by his proletarian primitive ways. He does not know how to give an intellectual basis to his Nazi party. Hitler is all passion, but lacks sense or proportion. A heroic tenor, not a hero.

Hitler, in other words, was not Mussolini. These were the last words he ever wrote before his suicide in 1925.

I might have recommended The Man who Invented the Third Reich, Stan Lauryssens' 'biography' of Moeller van den Bruck. I won't, because it's terrible.

Dancing with the Devil

Longford, made for Channel 4 in England in 2006, is a television drama directed by Tom Hooper based on a script by Peter Morgan. It stars Jim Broadbent as Lord Longford, amongst other things a prison visitor and campaigner for liberal causes, and Samantha Morton as Myra Hindley, the infamous serial killer whom he befriends, campaigning for her release from prison.

Having recently finished a biography of Hindley I was immediately drawn to this movie. I’m so glad I saw it. Jim Broadbent is truly excellent as the campaigning peer, a performance for which he won a BAFTA award. He plays Longford very much as I imagine he was in life: a naïve, well-meaning but rather child-like individual, willing to take people at face value; willing to believe, following the tenets of his Catholic faith, that people are ultimately good.

Samantha Morton was also superb as Hindley, a manipulative and calculating woman, one who used Longford, as she used religion, towards her own cynical and self-serving ends. I thought that Andy Serkis was also excellent as a truly malevolent Ian Brady, with whom Hindley carried out the Moors murders in the 1960s, confronting Longford with truths that he clearly was not able to face.

I confess my reading of One of Your Own; the Life and Death of Myra Hindley left me with nothing more than a dislike, a mild contempt for the figure of Lord Longford as a silly, shallow and somewhat stupid old man; a man who collected killers as if he was collecting puppy dogs; a man who could not recognise Hindley for what she was.

But Broadbent’s portrayal gave deeper dimension to the man, to the importance religion played in forming his ideas and attitudes; it made me understand him just a little more, sympathise just a little more. It also showed just how vulnerable he was. Despite his age he really had no proper understanding of life and the traps it lays.

He was deceived by Hindley for many years, a deception finally made clear to him when she, under pressure from Brady, finally confesses her part in the murder of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett. In perhaps the most telling scene of all we see Longford listen to a tape, sent to him anonymously, of the torture of Lesley Anne Downie, in which Hindley’s voice can be clearly heard, only her voice; the real tape is still too horrifying to broadcast. He listens with a look of despair. Still, in the end, his faith was only deepened by the test he had faced.

Longford is an excellent movie, one of the best TV productions I have seen.

Sunday 25 April 2010

The Party of the Long Knives

The British National Party or BNP, for those who don’t know it, stands on the fringes of British politics. Many of its members and much of its hierarchy, including Nick Griffin, the party chairman, have a Nazi and racist past, something that they rather wish that voters would forget, at least the Nazi part.

Under Griffin the party has been attempting to go ‘mainstream’, persuading enough people to vote for them in last year’s Euro election to get Griffin and Andrew Brons elected as members of the European Parliament. The movement is said to be right-wing, though a good part of its programme could easily have been lifted from old Labour Party manifestos, which I feel sure explains their appeal among working-class voters, that and the racism.

No matter what colour this movement gives itself of one thing I am certain: it is largely made up of eccentrics and oddballs, people with a grudge, people who would be naturally attracted to one kind of extreme or another as a reflection of some deep-rooted disaffection or personal alienation.

Attempts to give the party a less extreme hue will always be defeated by the likes Mark Collett, the BNP’s erstwhile chief publicist, who is alleged to have been involved in a plot to kill Griffin. Now I know that the metaphorical knives are always out in the mainstream parties; but in the BNP the knives would appear to be literally that!

Collett, once tiped as a future leader of the party, is really no more than a symptom of a deeper malaise. I would say of the BNP as was once said of Hitler’s SA Brownshirts – they are no more than a collection of desperados in search of a pension. Collett had personal ambitions; ambitions to make a career out of the BNP; ambitions to earn the “enormous salary” (his words) of an MEP; ambitions to own a BMW. But in the end, and despite his status, he wasn’t even offered a winnable council seat, as David Modell, who once made a documentary about him, said recently in The Spectator.

The Untergang (sorry; I couldn’t resist that!) seems to have come when Griffin entered into a partnership with James Dawson, a Belfast-based businessman and leader of UK Life League, a militant anti-abortion group. Dawson, who has a network of companies combining political fundraising and publishing, persuaded Griffin to move much of his party’s administration to Northern Ireland, thereby undercutting Collett. This was the background against which his personal pitch at a Night of the Long Knives would appear to have been shaped.

Collett, now out on police bail pending further investigation, was due to contest the parliamentary seat of Sheffield Brightside, presently held by Labour’s David Blunkett, in the coming general election. Now he is nowhere, an isolated figure. The whole story is so bizarre, so unbelievable. Even so, it destroys the myth that the BNP is just another political party, a moderate non-violent organisation. It’s not; it never will be. Violence is part of its psychosis, part of its character.

Love in the Twilight

Lana Peters is alive, well and living Richland Centre, Wisconsin. Who is Lana Peters, you ask? She is the daughter of one of the most infamous tyrants in modern history; she is the daughter of Stalin.

Her full name is Svetlana and before her marriage she was generally known by the surname Alliluyeva, her mother’s maiden name, or occasionally Stalina. Now eight-four years old, she defected to the West from the old Soviet Union in 1967. She was eventually to publish Twenty Letters to a Friend, both a wistful memoir of a comfortable childhood and a denunciation of the crimes of her father. There is a profound ambiguity here, a contradiction between a daughter’s love of her father and the horror with which she perceives his actions. It’s an ambiguity that continues to the present day.

Although she now generally avoids any publicity I was interested to read a press report at the weekend of an interview she gave to David Jones, a British journalist she has spoken to in the past. She seems to despise her native land, to which she returned briefly, despising in particular the political leadership it has thrown up, from Lenin to Putin. And then, of course, there is Stalin, the bleak legacy that he left her.

It was Stalin’s notorious paranoia, his pathological distrust, that was the principal motor of the Great Purge, a process that destroyed so many lives; and his paranoia did not stop short of his own family. Svetlana, whose mother had committed suicide when she was only six years old, lost relatives, including an aunt to whom she was particularly close. At this point of the interview Jones remarked that her father was responsible for this. “No!” she replied in anger, “Not my father. It was Beria.”

Here we have the ambiguity, the denial at its deepest. Lavrenti Beria, who succeeded Nikolai Yezhov, as head of the NKVD, the secret police responsible for the mass arrests and deportations of the late 1930s, was indeed a repellent man; but he was never more than a tool. Indeed, the worst stages of the Purge were over before he took command of the security apparatus. This is where Svetlana’s memories become incredibly selective;

My mother would never allow Beria in the house. She knew what he was. But after she died, of course, things changed and he was promoted from the Caucuses to Moscow. He seemed to have some sort of hold on my father.

The truth is that Nadezhda Alliluyeva killed herself in November 1932 and Beria was only promoted from his post in the Caucuses in August 1938. When Jones reminded Svetlana of the Terror Famine of the early 1930s, which took so many lives in the Ukraine, she dismissed this with a wave of her hand, saying “Oh, yes, my father too.”

There is history, there is truth and there is the recognition of truth. But Stalin loved her, her father loved her, no matter how brutish he could behave; and it is that love that she cannot quite forget in the twilight of her life.

Will Power

If there is one thing that makes me fume it’s the suggestion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare! Not only is the controversy, which dates back to the nineteenth century, entirely bogus but it’s also tinged with obvious overtones of condescension and snobbery. No ordinary man, the argument goes, could possibly be so literate and so accomplished as William Shakespeare of Stratford, no; so the plays and poetry had to be written by, say, Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, or William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby.

Oh, but one mustn’t overlook the fact that some commoners have been roped into the ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ industry. There is Christopher Marlowe, also a playwright of humble origins, a man who wrote, amongst other things, The Jew of Malta, and then proceeded under the pseudonym of Shakespeare to write The Merchant of Venice, a play with a similar theme but vastly superior in every way.

Francis Bacon is another candidate, undeniable one of the greatest scholars of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, a man with a remarkably full life as a philosopher, politician, scientist and courtier who somehow managed to find time to compose the whole Shakespearean canon! He was first put forward as a possible candidate, interestingly enough, by one Delia Bacon, herself a failed playwright. For her Shakespeare, the real Shakespeare, was a “third-rate actor” without the “highest Elizabethan breeding”, suggestions that clearly reflect her own lack of success.

The defenders of the aristocrats are, if anything, even more self-deluding in their sheer loopyness. Those who advance the Oxford claim, known collectively as the Oxfordians, clearly believe in drama after death, because their man shuffled off this mortal coil in 1604, years before Shakespeare’s greatest plays were published. Chief among the Oxfordians, wait for it, was one J. T. Loony!

But not all loonies were, well, Loony. Sigmund Freud took the absurd view, in accordance with his psychoanalytic theories, that works of art are essentially confessional, and that an ordinary man could not have imagined himself among kings. I see in this yet more condescension, coupled with a belief that his own notions could be projected back through history; that an unconscious oedipal conflict was the solution to Hamlet.

I have to say that this is the point of deepest irritation for me, the notion that all art is autobiographical; that if Shakespeare wrote about courts and courtiers he had to be familiar with courts and courtiers. It’s a view that becomes increasingly absurd if projected back through time and on to others. Do we assume that Sophocles, Aeschylus and Ovid consorted with gods and heroes? Bacon, Loony and, yes, Freud, are ranged with all those who would deny the power of the imagination, the power of genius, the power of an ordinary individual to reach sublime heights.

As I have said before that it’s almost impossible to knock down a good conspiracy theory when it’s up and running. There will always be people, no matter what, who believe that aliens built the pyramids, Richard III did not kill the Princes in the Tower, the moon landing was a hoax and Elvis, like King Arthur, somehow never really died! There will always be people who do not believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Hating the quality of whiteness

I wrote this for another site I belong to earlier this month. I’m adding it here for Jaycee.

Eugene Terre’Blanche, the murdered leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweing, was buried earlier this month amidst much Nazi-style gesturing and gnashing of teeth. Once again a tale of two nations seems to be unfolding, with the local black community looking on in an understandable mood of apprehension. But the baton has been passed on. The racist is dead; long live the racist. And the new racist is not white; he’s black – he’s Julius Malema.

I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs on South Africa that this man is the leader of the African National Congress’ youth wing, and one of the main political props of President Zuma. There was an interesting account of his background and outlook in The Daily Telegraph recently by Rian Malan, drawing attention, once again, to Malema’s trip to Mugabeland, where he sang Kill the Boer, that old ANC favourite from days gone by, feasting with his friend and picking up tips on how to run a successful decolonialisation programme.

Malema, as the report details, though relatively young and poorly educated, rose to prominence as a supporter of Jacob Zuma’s bid for power, intimidating and threatening violence against any opponents. A socialist and champion of the poor, very much in the model of Mugabe, his efforts were rewarded, as well-appointed houses, a fleet of cars and a Breitling watch fell into his hands, seemingly like manna from heaven.

Alas, it’s the old, old story, the story that has seen the Wabenzi, the big shots, advance across the rest of Africa in their limos; it’s a story of socialism for the many and wealth for the few, wealth for people like Mugabe and Malema. Their socialism is also accompanied by forms of racism, racism born of the need to create scapegoats, covers for their own venality and incompetence.

But Malema denies being a racist, denies hating white people. It’s just the quality of “whiteness” he hates, to use his own bizarre words. He was even more bizarre when he was in Harare, saying “They are so bright, so colourful, we refer to them as white people. Maybe their colour came as a result of exploiting our minerals and perhaps if some of us get opportunities in these minerals we can develop a nice colour like them.” I hope you can make sense of this gibberish, because I most certainly can’t!

He certainly has his eyes on those minerals, on the wealth of South Africa, having the support of a powerful faction within the ANC- perhaps even the President himself- for the same kind of ‘indigenisation’ that ruined Zimbabwe. This man is a dangerous, muddle-headed, greedy and unprincipled demagogue. If South Africa is to be destroyed, if the goose that lays the golden eggs is to be killed, he and his kind will be the cause, not Terre’Blanche and the ghosts of the past.

Friday 23 April 2010

Appealing for an English Parliament on Saint George’s Day

Today, the national day of England, Power 2010, a Rowntree-backed campaign group aiming at the reform of our political system and a fairer democracy, has released figures indicating that seven out of ten people now back a Parliament for England. The findings came as last night the movement staged a huge guerrilla-like projection of the Saint George’s Flag with the words ‘Home Rule’ on to the Palace of Westminster.

The poll, carried out by ICM, shows that 68% of voters in England believe that the country should have its own Parliament with similar powers to that of Scotland. In addition 70% of respondents said that English laws should be decided only by MPs representing English constituencies.

It’s worth stressing that this is about a perceived lack of fairness and democratic balance among ordinary voters, rather than Englishness as such. The poll of 1033 people across the country showed that almost half of the respondents feel “equally British or English.”

Pam Giddy, the Director of Power 2010, has rightly highlighted the fact England has not figured at all in the leaders’ debates, or in the campaign, though most people clearly want a fairer way of making decisions that affect their homeland. In a press release issued in the early hours of the morning she said;

It suddenly feels like we are on the cusp of seismic change to the way our politics is done. But so long as the unfair system we have at the moment persists it can only play into the hands of undemocratic voices like the BNP. With all the talk of reform in the air politicians should not duck the English question, but use the opportunity of Saint George’s Day to say where they stand.

For me there continues to be a certain degree of ambivalence here: on the one hand I do think that the Union has been greater than the sum of its parts, while on the other I toy more often with the idea of complete English independence. But what I am in no doubt about at all is that our present system is grossly unfair to the majority of the people who live in this kingdom, a point I made recently in England, it’s Time to Waken Up.

That piece also touched on the fact that the Conservative Party has committed itself to answering the West Lothian Question, and to that degree is in tune with and even one step ahead of the Power 2010 campaign. Still, I do not think that part of the Tory Manifesto is emphasised merely as much as it should be, especially as it would meet with such a receptive audience, given the evidence of this poll.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Surabaya Johnny

I’m not particularly keen on Bertolt Brecht as a playwright, as a thinker, or as a man. I loath his politics and I distrust his didactic view of the theatre. I find plays like The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui banal, obvious and tiresomely unimpressive.

However, the work I do admire is that which emerged from his collaboration with Kurt Weil, the composer; musical dramas like The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany and above all The Threepenny Opera. And the impressive thing for me about these productions is not so much Brecht’s lyrics, as always pushing a clumsy political message, but Weil’s music. Still, the combination of words and music works well in wonderful songs like Mackie Messer and Seeräuberjenny.

But the Weil Brecht song that I like the most has to be Surabaya Johnny from Happy End.

Hideous Hindley

I’ve not long finished One of Your Own, The Life and Death of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee. At close on four hundred pages it’s a detailed account of the life and crimes of one of the most infamous women in recent British history, but I read it over two days with complete fascination, though crime is not a subject that normally I am attracted to.

Hindley is different. There is something iconic about her, something that touches on the bigger issues, something over the nature and causes of evil itself that drew me irresistibly to this book. Lee tackles the subject with a scholarly sense of detachment, though she draws some pertinent and telling judgements at points.

It’s worth pointing out that she has also written extensively about the Holocaust, highly relevant for the simple reason that the mindset of Hindley was the same pathological mindset as people like Irma Grese or Elizabeth Volkenrath, both notorious concentration camp guards. It’s difficult for me to describe this with any precision; it’s evil, yes, but at its most banal, a combination of personal cruelty, maudlin self-pity and a total lack of sympathy for other human beings. During the period following her arrest along with Ian Brady for the murder of Edward Evans the only emotion Hindley ever showed was after she was told of the death of her dog.

Lee has a compelling relaxed style, writing with ease and considerable fluency. There were parts of her lucid account that I found so difficult, parts I almost skipped, especially the section dealing with the torment and murder of ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downie, which includes a transcript of the awful tape recording Brady and Hindley took.

Years later, when she was fighting her ruthless parole campaign, Hindley wrote to Ann West, Lesley’s mother, a letter which contains a particularly telling sentence;

I now want to say to you, and I implore you to believe me, because it is the truth, that your child was not physically tortured, as is widely believed.

Of this Lee says that Hindley, while trying to explain that Lesley was not mutilated prior to death, completely failed to grasp that the ordeal to which the little girl was subjected before her murder was precisely that – physical and psychological torture. Yes, what more need be said?

The part of the book that I found of particular interest was that dealing with Hindley’s years in prison prior to her death in November 2002, the time when she mounted a systematic campaign to convince people that she had changed, that she was no longer the same person, that she had rediscovered the Catholic faith of her youth. The whole thing seemed to me to be entirely fraudulent, as if she was not even beneath an attempt to deceive God himself in her cynical drive for freedom.

The one person she did not deceive was Diana Athill, a literary editor who was approached by Hindley’s supporters to work on a proposed autobiography. She insisted on meeting the woman before she would commit herself. The interviews took place but Athill declined to get involved, doubting the worth of the project as a means for Hindley to come to terms with the past. Afterwards she wrote:

When she did what she did she was not mad – as Brady was – and although she was young, she was an adult, and an intelligent one. It seems to me that there are strands of moral deformity which cannot be pardoned: that Stangl was right when, having faced the truth about himself, he said “I ought to be dead.”

Franz Stangl, for those who may not know, was a commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps.

There were plenty that Hindley did deceive, none more so than Frank Pakenham, the seventh earl of Longford, who was long active in her campaign for release. I have to say, though, I think she was particularly ill-served by this muddle-headed do-gooder (not a term I like, but it fits his character so.)

He raised her expectations in the early seventies, only a few years after she was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was because of him that her state of denial and self-deception deepened; because of him that she did not finally admit her part in the murder of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett until the late 1980s. There seems to me to be an odd kind of similarity between the liberal and the psychopath. Like Hindley Longford had no interest in the victims of the Moors murders, no interest in the feelings of the families of the butchered children.

At the end of the book I felt nothing for the subject other than contempt and distaste. I struggle sometimes with the concept of evil, asking myself if it is something tangible, is it something, in other words, that has an objective existence beyond the individual choices we make? It might be easy to answer if I believed in Christian notions of good and evil, but I don’t. All I can say is that in the person of Myra Hindley evil took on an objective form, one that never went away.

Lee concludes her book by commenting on the obituary of Hindley in the Independent, where it was said that she had no ‘judgement’ – “But judgement was precisely what Myra Hindley had –in a sense, it is all any of us have – and she chose to use it with the most wicked intent.”

I ended, I confess, by crying for the family of Keith Bennett, whose remains, never discovered, still lie somewhere on those bleak, windswept Moors.

Papal Fallibility

One of the history journals I take has a regular monthly feature on historical anniversaries. The piece that caught my eye in the latest issue is that on the election of John XXIII to the papacy; and, no, this is not the twentieth century John XXIII, rather a predecessor who has been rather air-brushed out of history by the Vatican as something of an embarrassment, the reason why John, one of the most popular titles in the papal succession, disappeared for several hundred years.

In 1378 the Catholic world was divided by the Great Schism, with one pope in Rome and another in Avignon, both claiming legitimacy. In an attempt to resolve the problem cardinals from the rival camps met at the Council of Pisa in 1409. Here the dominating influence was Baldassare Cossa, an able man but one with a notorious reputation. According to rumour he had had sexual relations with hundreds of women.

In the course of its deliberations the Council deposed both of the contending popes and replaced them with Alexander V as a unity candidate, but he was short-reigned, dying the following year. The Pisan camp replaced him on May 17, 1410 with Cossa, who took the title of John XXIII, but this just added to the overall confusion in the Catholic world, which now had three popes: John, Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon. In an attempt to cut the Gordian Knot, Sigismund, King of the Romans and heir to the Holy Roman Empire, compelled the new pope to convene the Council of Constance.

No sooner had the prelates met than John's reputation finally caught up with him. He was accused of a whole range of quite unbelievable offences, of which simony, a fairly widespread clerical practice, was probably the least malign! The others included piracy, incest, rape, sodomy and murder. It's almost certain that this was a deliberate attempt to ruin his standing, an attempt given verisimilitude by his past reputation, though gothic in its excesses. Cossa tried to play for time, promising to resign; but when he tried to withdraw his promise he was deposed by the Council. Of his rivals Pope Benedict, the last of the Avignon popes, was also deposed and excommunicated, while Pope Gregory in Rome simple abdicated. All were replaced in 1417 by Martin V.

Cossa was kept as a prisoner in Germany until such time as he accepted the new pope. He was eventually allowed to return to his native Italy, where he died in Florence in 1419, a city that had backed his papacy. In a mark of its former loyalty it gave him a magnificent tomb, designed by Donatello and Michelozzo.

In 1958 Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope as John XXIII, a clear indication that his predecessor was not considered to be a true heir of Saint Peter.

I have one small additional point to make about Pope Benedict, whose name was Pedro de Luna. During the Great Schism, Scotland was one of the last countries to continue to recognise his authority. It was he who was responsibly for the endowment of Saint Andrew's, the country's first university. I'm told by friends who attend that it is still possible to see half-moons on some of the town's oldest stones, a reference to de Luna. I've never been to Saint Andrew's, so I can't vouch for this, and they may just be pulling my leg. Still, it's a jolly good story!

The Lords of the Forest

Elf is an Anglo-Saxon word referring to the indigenous spirits of the Germanic lands. The word 'fairy' is of French derivation and began to gain in popularity over the older elf from the fourteenth century onwards. Often the terms were used interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing, with the elves steadily diminished in size, significance and overall stature, finally becoming the fey creatures of children's stories, insect-like with wings.

But the Anglo-Saxon elves were a far more significant and potentially dangerous race altogether. They feature heavily in the spells and charms of pre-conquest England. Many of these were intended as protection from the elves themselves, so its reasonable to assume a hostile relationship with humanity, although it has been suggested that in pre-Christian times a spiritual alliance existed between elves and people, an alliance said to be broken with the advent of the new faith. Once this alliance had ended the elves in their bitterness turned dangerous, though it's just as likely that people were taught to fear them by the Church.

By the twentieth century the elves had not just been tamed but given a somewhat ridiculous make-over as Santa’s little helpers. It was thanks to the fictions of J. R. R. Tolkien, particularly The Lord of the Rings cycle, that they were rescued as part of his attempt to recreate a mythology for England, lost by the advent of the Normans. They are back as beautiful, war-like and human-sized creatures; back as archers, healers and artisans, sacred, immortal, good and dangerous at one and the same time; a race with their own kingdoms, eternally apart from those of the humans. With their eventual departure from Middle Earth magic travelled with them into the sunset.