Monday 31 May 2010

Blood of the Lamb

A few years ago I read The Return of the Soldier, the first novel of Rebecca West, the pen name of Cicely Isabel Fairfield. I quite liked it, but not nearly enough to pursue the author any further. But earlier this year, on the recommendation of another blogger, I bought Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of her later books.

At almost 1200 pages it’s quite a tome, too heavy and too big even for my shoulder bag, which contains all sorts of fripperies! But I’ve been reading it in bite-sized chunks since March, interspersed with other things. I finished it in Rome at the weekend and I already feel a sense of loss; for it’s one of the most remarkable books I have ever come across. There is no exaggeration or hyperbole here.

I’m not sure exactly how to describe Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, first published in England in 1941. On the surface it’s an account of the author’s visits to the old state of Yugoslavia - now no more than a historical memory - in the interwar period. To that extent it’s a travelogue, but, oh, how shallow and inadequate that word seems, conjuring up the tedium of train spotting and stamp collecting; places gathered on an itinerary, images frozen in an album.

There are indeed beautiful and lengthy descriptions of the various places she visited, from Croatia in the north to Macedonia and Montenegro in the south, places to follow in her footsteps. But Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is so much more than a travel journal or a Lonely Planet guide. It’s part history, part criticism, part philosophy, part theology, part personal introspection, part political warning and, towards the end, even part novel. Above all, it’s a kind of love story, the story of the writer’s love for the people and the civilization of Serbia. She made me see Serbia partly through her eyes and partly through the eyes a man she identifies as Constantine the Poet, her official government guide through the country. I will have more to say about ‘Constantine’, a figure I fell in love with, a bit later.

The tragedy of Yugoslavia, and, yes, and the story is indeed a tragedy, is that it was a country shaped around some of the great contradictions and fault lines of history – the Western and the Eastern Roman Empires, the Catholic and the Orthodox, the Christian and the Muslim. It was this background, and these influences, that made the Southern Slav State all but an impossible dream.

Driven by internal hatreds, the people were also the victims of empire: of the Turkish Empire, against which the Serbs fought for centuries in pursuit of the right to exist, and of the Austrian Empire, which in its later Austro-Hungarian form was to be a particularly malevolent influence. Beyond that West sees the Slavs as a victim of a ‘Third Empire’, one yet to emerge. This, as she puts it, is Gerda’s empire. Who or what is Gerda, you ask? Gerda is Constantine’s wife, and of her I will also have more to say.

The wonder of this great, meandering book is that it takes one to the heart of a civilization or a people – I really can’t say ‘country’- through its past, through the traces of its past, through its art, particularly in the various religious establishments West visits, places that seem to give one the intensity of the Orthodox experience, mystical, ethereal and yet immediate in the lives of the people. There are long historical passages where she touches on the greatness of the medieval Serbian Empire, the empire of Stephen Dushan, the last best hope of saving Byzantine civilization from the steady encroachment of the Ottoman Turks. But Dushan died and within a generation Serbia crashed to ruin. Serbia met destiny and destruction on the battlefield of Kosovo.

This is another remarkable thing about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: it shows, as West puts it, the past side by side with the present it created. Here her argument gets quite subtle. She has no time at all for Christian concepts of atonement or sacrifice, in what she calls the blood ritual of the black stone. The black stone in question is a feature in a field she comes across, a place where the peasants come to offer up lambs in sacrifice.

It was this fatal obsession with sacrifice, this obsession with a greater kingdom, an eternal kingdom, which took Tsar Lazar into battle with the Turks on Saint Vitus Day, 28 June 1389, a recurring black day in Slav history. Here she records the old Serbian poem of Tsar Lazar and the Grey Falcon, translated for her by Constantine;

There flies a grey bird, a falcon,
From Jerusalem the holy,
And in his beak he bears a swallow.
That is no falcon, no grey bird,
But it is the Saint Elijah.
He carries no swallow,
But a book from the Mother of God.
He comes to the Tsar at Kossovo,
He lays the book on the Tsar's knees.
This book without like told the Tsar:

"Tsar Lazar, of honourable stock,
Of what kind will you have your kingdom?
Do you want a heavenly kingdom ?
Do you want an earthly kingdom ?
If you want an earthly kingdom,
Saddle your horses, tighten your horses' girths,
Gird on your swords,
Then put an end to the Turkish attacks,
And drive out every Turkish soldier.
But if you want a heavenly kingdom
Build you a church on Kossovo;
Build it not with a floor of marble
But lay down silk and scarlet on the ground,
Give the Eucharist and battle orders to your soldiers,
For all your soldiers shall be destroyed,
And you, prince, you shall be destroyed with them."

When the Tsar read the words,
The Tsar pondered, and he pondered thus:

"Dear God, where are these things, and how are they!
What kingdom shall I choose ?
Shall I choose a heavenly kingdom ?
Shall I choose an earthly kingdom ?
If I choose an earthly kingdom,
An earthly kingdom lasts only a little time,
But a heavenly kingdom will last for eternity and its centuries."

The Tsar chose a heavenly kingdom,
And not an earthly kingdom,
He built a church on Kossovo.
He built it not with floor of marble
But laid down silk and scarlet on the ground.
There he summoned the Serbian Patriarch
And twelve great bishops.
Then he gave his soldiers the Eucharist and their battle orders.
In the same hour as the Prince gave orders to his soldiers
The Turks attacked Kossovo.

Then the Turks overwhelmed Lazar,
And the Tsar Lazar was destroyed,
And his army was destroyed with him,
Of seven and seventy thousand soldiers.

All was holy, all was honourable
And the goodness of God was fulfilled.

But it was not good, so far as West was concerned; for the people were given over to centuries of servitude. Writing from the perspective of the late 1930s it was evident to her that “the whole world was a vast Kosovo”; that Czechoslovakia was the ‘black lamb’ and that Neville Chamberlain, then British prime ministers, was the high priest of the cult of sacrifice. Resistance, not sacrifice, was the essential thing, the noble thing.

I really must stop here for fear of spending as many words in praising this superb book as it took to write it! So let me just finish, as promised, by saying something about Constantine and Gerda.

Constantine, as I have said, is described as a poet and an official, a one-time student of Henri Bergson, the great French philosopher. And taking a cue from Bergson’s philosophy he is for me a living representation of the élan vital. He is full of wit and wisdom, full of simple energy, full of love for the idea of Yugoslavia. Throughout the book he is a dominant influence, a giant. He is also of Jewish origin, a point of some relevance.

When the party arrives in Belgrade we meet Gerda, his wife. Quite simply Gerda is a monster. She is German, not just German but an obvious Nazi. She travels south with West, West’s husband - who accompanies her throughout her trip - and Constantine to Macedonia but hates everything she sees: she despises the Slavs and Slav culture. Her mere presence diminishes Constantine, from giant to dwarf. It was with her that my sense of disbelief kicked in. Here the book was entering into the territory of the novel. I quickly realised that there was no Gerda; that she was an idea, a metaphor for the things to come, a metaphor for the Third Empire that was to visit Yugoslavia in 1941, a metaphor for a final sacrifice to the Black Stone.

No sooner had I finished Black Lamb and Grey Falcon than I began to think about Constantine, about the fate of Constantine. Perhaps worry is a better word. West makes no mention of him in her epilogue. What happened to him, I wondered, after the Nazis took control, after Gerda’s Empire was set in place? The rump state of Serbia was one of the first places to be declared Judenrein – free of Jews. Did this brave and wonderful man, one who survived the death march of the Serbian army in 1915, end up in Auschwitz like so many others? Did he exist at all, or was he just another symbol, another metaphor? I’m delighted to say, after some quick internet research, that he did exist and that he did survive. His name was not Constantine at all. He was Stanislaw Vinaver, an important figure in Serbian literature and culture. He joined the Yugoslav army in 1941 and was held as a prisoner-of-war in a German camp. During this time West sent him food packages through the Red Cross. He died in 1955.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon finishes with bombs falling on London. The author reflects Often, when I have thought of invasion, or a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb.’ Amen. How extraordinary these people are and how extraordinary it is that we have understood them so little. How extraordinary this book is, a true masterpiece.

Ana in Rome

I was in Rome for the long weekend, travelling on pure impulse. It’s not the first time I’ve been. I visited with mother and father when I was in my mid-teens and again in the summer of 2006. It was nice to return after such a gap. It’s not my favourite city in Europe, an honour that belongs to Paris, but it’s more comfortable, more relaxed in many ways, if I can put it like that. My partner had not been before, and as it delights me to be cast in the role of Beatrice, guiding Dante through the celestial spheres, off we went!

It’s all so familiar, the Roman and the Renaissance, from Trajan’s Column to Saint Peter’s Basilica. There is a spot in the Forum where Caesar is alleged to have been assassinated. There were flowers when I first went; there are still flowers today, though what makes the old brute worthy of this honour I’m not at all sure!

Now, Marcus Aurelius, he is the one to admire, a better writer and a better man. His equestrian statue is a real delight, now protected from the elements in glass case in the Palazzo Novo on the Capitoline Hill, with a replica in place where it used to stand. We may not have had it at all but for the fact that he survived the early Christian purge of Imperial monuments after he was mistaken for Constantine the Great.

From the Capitoline Hill it was on to the Coliseum and then the Baths of Caracalla, named after the ‘hoodie’ emperor of the early third century. The Baths, though not nearly as popular as the Coliseum, are, at least so far as I am concerned, the best Roman remains in Rome. But who can resist doing the thumbs down sign in the great Flavian amphitheatre? Not me, that’s for sure. What an empress I would have been, a cross between Livia and Messalina!

Now we jumped forward through the centuries. It’s impossible for me to describe that moment when one enters the Sistine Chapel for the first time to stand before God, or to stand before Michelangelo and Leonardo, which in that places amounts to much the same thing. I simply can’t look at the ceiling or at The Last Judgement without being overwhelmed, without being reduced to complete silence in a moment of sublime awe. It brings tears to my eyes even writing about it like this.

Let me give you a spot of advice if you are thinking of visiting, advice pertinent to the issue of silence. If you go to the Sistine, which forms part of the Vatican Museums, go early. Be there waiting for it to open. Once you have your ticket make straight for the chapel, ignoring all the treasures in your path; you can see them later. That way you should get there before the crowds arrive. Silence is supposed to be maintained but it is not, at least not strictly, and when the place is full of tour parties, the modern version of the Vandals and the Goths, the hubble-bubble is truly intolerable.

I checked on Sunday evening to see if my coins were still in the Trevi Fountain. Of course they were: that’s why I was back in Rome. :-)

Thursday 27 May 2010

Well done, Graham!

I'm delighted to say that reports of the death of the 1922 Committee, long the voice of back bench Conservatism in Parliament, have been greatly exaggerated! Graham Brady has been elected chairman having seen off Richard Ottaway, the 'official' candidate, by a comfortable margin. His position has been strengthened, moreover, by the election of Charles Walker and John Wittingdale, a committed Thatcherite, as vice-chairmen. Both have been highly critical of David Cameron's proposal that a vote of 55% of MPs be required to dissolve Parliament rather than a straight majority.

I said recently that I wish our new coalition government every success and I am absolutely delighted that David Cameron is Prime Minister. There are difficulties, though, and it's as well not to try to disguise these. The Prime Minister is clearly anxious to serve a full 'term' and is clearly not fully trustful of his new coalition partners. But the election of 2010 was not a great watershed, was not comparable to that of 1945, of 1979 or 1997, all of which brought fundamental change in the nature of British politics and society. No, the election of 2010 is comparable with that of 1923, 1929 or those of February and October 1974. If I know this I can be sure that David Cameron knows this. The election of 2010, to put it another way, is unfinished business.

The election of Brady, Walker and Wittingdale is in front bench terms a victory for the awkward squad. I see it as a victory for the party, a sign that Conservatives still stand on some fundamental principles and will not be treated as lobby fodder. If there is a message to David it's a simple one: he may be heading a coalition government but the Conservative Party itself is a kind of coalition; it always has been. It simply should not be taken for granted.

Brady's victory, moreover, is also a victory for the Eurosceptic wing of the party, a position supported by most of the bright young intake, particularly important now that we are in partnership with the Liberal Democrat Eurofanatics. It's a sign that Conservatives will not be pushed any further down the road of Euro integration or support any extra powers going to Brussels.

Congratulations, Graham, on a well deserved victory. I know you will be keen to see that the government is successful in tackling the big issues of the day, most notably the wretched state of the public finances, the wretched condition in which they were left by the criminal irresponsibility of the former Labour administration. I know that you will be anxious that the government is given time and scope to fulfil its programme. But you will be equally anxious that Conservatives and Conservatism is not to be taken for granted; that it can be pushed only so far down the road of compromise. Your victory means that David will have to be just as careful in dealing with his back benchers as he is in dealing with his new allies.

Adoring Dickens

This coming month will mark the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens. I’ve loved the work of Dickens for as long as I can remember, well ever since my class in prep performed a play based on A Christmas Carol. Along with Dostoevsky he ranks as my favourite author.

I’ve now read all of his major and much of the minor work. Our Mutual Friend is a firm favourite among his novels, featuring Lavvy the Irrepressible, one of the best minor characters, in my estimation. Like her I am neither minx nor sphinx! And I simply adore Sketches by Boz, the Hazlitt-like cameos he wrote at the beginning of his writing career.

He is a uniquely nineteenth-century writer, writing in a uniquely nineteenth century manner for a uniquely nineteenth century audience. What might be described as his hand to hand, month to month, style of writing was to be a source of later criticism. Henry James was to describe his novels as “loose, baggy monsters.” Yes, they are, but that for me is part of the charm. He was a serial writer and I do not suppose that when he started Martin Chuzzlewit, to take but one example, he had a firm idea how it would proceed or how it would end, other than happily: his audience would expect no less.

Often his plots are quite incredible and the characters behave not as fully independent entities, not as fully rounded human-beings, but as marionettes, actors in the theatre of the author’s mind. But it’s the vast comic panorama that appeals so in all of its burlesque excess and exuberance, that wonderful procession of the most memorable types, large and small, in English literature, good, bad and outrageous – Pickwick, Wilkins Micawber, Uriah Heep, Fagin, Bill Sykes, Miss Haversham, Mr F’s Aunt, Peggotty, Pecksniff, Mrs Gamp, the Boffins, Scrooge, Bradley Headstone, Mr Dick, Joe Gargery, Wackford Squeers, Magwitch, Sam Weller, Captain Cuttle and on and on, a whole Shakespearean carnival, characters memorable for a phrase, an attitude or a form of deportment. Once absorbed they can never be forgotten.

Yes, the baggy monsters, those whose end was not anticipated in their beginning, have for me a lasting appeal. Those that I’m least fond of are probably the most consistently plotted, the most disciplined of his novels, which would have to include Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities. Barnaby Rudge, his other history novel, also had less of an appeal for me. But David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pickwick Papers (not really a novel at all), Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop all enthralled me along with Our Mutual Friend. Even The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished at the time of his death in June 1870, shows that he was losing none of his skills as a writer, despite the deterioration in his heath brought on by tremendous overwork.

Little Nell, ah, yes, Little Nell, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop, what can I say about Little Nell? I might very well agree with Oscar Wilde, who said that one would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell and not dissolve into tears…of laughter. Yes, Dickens lays it on thick, that mawkish mid-Victorian sentimentality which at points dissolves into complete mush. No matter; he has a magical capacity to seduce me with the power of his words, to make me suspend disbelief and set my cynicism to one side; to reach me at a basic emotional level, to turn me into a mid-Victorian girl! I cried for Nell just as I cried at the equally mawkish description of the death of Paul Dombey, unashamed and unrestricted.

By far the best work of criticism on the author I have read is George Orwell’s essay Charles Dickens. He depicts him as he most assuredly was – one of the great English radicals, tireless in his criticism of the various abuses and injustices of the day, whether it is the operation of workhouses, or the law, or government, or education, or bureaucracy in general. But the thing, the essential thing, is that he tackles none of these things as a revolutionary but as a moralist. Or, rather, he is a revolutionary but the revolution he wants is not in institutions but in attitudes. A decent world will emerge, in other words, when people behave decently to one another, when they learn to behave decently to one another. There is no better illustration of this than the reformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, from heartless capitalist to jolly capitalist, but still a capitalist!

His novels, moreover, always offer a final resolution, and I do mean final. One always feels that the world or, better said, history has come to an end: all the mishaps and the evils are passed, all the action is over; the only thing that remains is an endless summer of big dinners, happy families, new arrivals and blessed death, surrounded by those one loves. The Victorian melodrama gives way to a perpetual nirvana, the Shangri-La of the bourgeoisie! In all it’s a world, for all its obvious faults and lack of verisimilitude, that is a reflection of the author’s own generous spirit, his desire to ensure that all is for the best in the best of all possible lives.

It was 1940 when Orwell published his essay. England was at war. Europe was divided between two great ideological camps. He concluded with some of the most cogent sentiments ever written;

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

He survived them all; he always will survive that which makes life ugly and unlivable. For as long as people are able to read people will read Charles Dickens, who rests forever in the same pantheon as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, the great pantheon of English literature.

Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.

Tobacco Boy

I read a truly shocking story today in the Daily Mail about a two-year old boy in Indonesia who has a forty-a-day cigarette habit. Yes, that's right, forty a day! Ardi Razal's health has been ruined and he now struggles to move himself, according to the report. His mother, Diana, says that he is totally addicted. All of her attempts to stop his puffing have been abandoned in the face of his tantrums;

If he doesn't get cigarettes, he gets angry and screams and batters his head against the wall. He tells me he feels dizzy and sick.

His father, Mohammed Razal, a fishmonger living in Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra, does not seem to see a problem, believing his son looks perfectly healthy. All I can say is that he needs to look just a little harder. More than that, he needs to ask himself how healthy his son is likely to be by the age of ten, assuming he ever makes it that far.

Although this would appear to be an extreme example, Indonesian authorities are worried by the number of young children taking to smoking in a culture where tobacco is king. According to official statistics, 25% of children between three and fifteen have tried cigarettes, and there has been a sharp increase in smoking among those aged between five and nine.

The usual panaceas are being offered as solutions; that there needs to be a ban on tobacco advertising and a campaign illustrating the effects of passive smoking. This does not, it seem to me, to go anywhere near understanding why, and by what means, children as young as two have become hardened smokers.

We all have choices to make in life, risks we freely chose to take with our eyes open. Ardi Razal clearly did not acquire his habit by free choice or overnight. Admittedly without knowing all of the facts -the report does not make the precise circumstances of his addiction to tobacco clear- I can only conclude that his parents are feckless, irresponsible or uncaring, perhaps a combination of all three.

Baphomet and the Templars

During the Great Purge in Russia in the 1930s NKVD, the Russian secret police, recreated Leon Trotsky as a great Satan at the head of fascist-rightist conspiracy to kill Stalin and his party comrades and thus bring down the Soviet Union. Having conjured up this unlikely demon they then forced those destined to be processed in the public show trails to admit that it was all true. No evidence was required, just beatings and all the subtle tortures, psychological and otherwise, in which they specialised.

There are historical precedents that they might have drawn on for their modern demonology. In the early fourteenth century, on the urging of King Philip IV of France, the Knights Templar, a Crusading order, was suppressed on an accusation of heresy. Philip wanted to get his hands on the order's wealth but simple dissolution was not enough, no, the knights had to stand accused of the most elaborate of crimes. And one of the crimes they stood accused of was worshiping an idol by the name of Baphomet.

There are no independent accounts of the existence of this devil-like creature beyond the records of the Templar interrogations and an earlier twelfth century poem. Twelve of over two hundred knights examined admitted to his existence. It's as well to remember that the confessions, like those obtained in Russia by the NKVD, were the result of systematic torture. Baphomet, in other words, may very well just have been the invention of a particularly imaginative Inquisitor, whose existence was confirmed by those anxious to avoid any further pain. The thing is we just can't be sure. After all, the elaborate schemes woven around the head of Trotsky in Russia did not take away from the fact that he was indeed an enemy of Stalin, constantly critical of contemporary Soviet policy.

But who, or what, is Baphomet, and why was Satan not sufficient, a figure who appeared repeatedly in the trials of alleged witches? The records are confused and contradictory. He was worshipped in the form of a head, either as a skull, a head with a beard, or a head with two or three faces. He was a black cat, an obvious witchcraft familiar. He had a goat's head and horns and a body combining the features of a dog, a donkey and a bull.

It would seem to be an amalgam of Pagan deities and Christian monsters. The name itself would seem to suggest Mahomet, an archaic and corrupt spelling of the name of the Prophet Muhammad. After all the Templars had close dealings through history -and not always hostile - with the Muslim communities of the Middle East. But if it is it is based on the deepest ignorance; for Muslims abhorred idolatry, and there is nothing in Islamic tradition that resembled anything like the forms of worship of which the Templars were accused. Those who take the view that Baphomet represents an attempt to syncretise Islam and Christianity simply ignore the fact that the Templars were never accused of dabbling in Islam in any form. No, they were, like witches, Christian heretics.

So, while it seems unlikely, the possibility remains that the Templars were engaged in the worship of some form of the horned god, either in the form of the Christian devil or in an older pre-Christian guise, and here Pan comes to mind. Personally I see this as a crude device by long-dead interrogators, but even so Baphomet has had a long afterlife.

In 1854 Eliphas Levi, a French occultist, published Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic) in which an image of Baphomet appeared, drawn by himself. It was clearly an imaginative effort, because it bears little resemblance to the Templar testimony. It's an odd kind of amalgam, one whose sex is even indeterminate. Although he makes no such admission himself, Levi may have drawn on the grotesques depicted in the Templar churches of Lanleff in Brittany and Saint Merri in Paris, which show a bearded man with bat wings, female breasts, horns and goat-like hindquarters. Levi explained the significance of the figure, which appears on the front cover of his book, thus;

The goat on the frontispiece carries the sign of the pentagram on the forehead, with one point at the top, a symbol of light, his two hands forming the sign of hermetism, the one pointing up to the white moon of Chesed, the other pointing down to the black one of Geburah. This sign expresses the perfect harmony of mercy with justice. His one arm is female, the other male like the ones of the androgyn of Khunrath, the attributes of which we had to unite with those of our goat because he is one and the same symbol. The flame of intelligence shining between his horns is the magic light of the universal balance, the image of the soul elevated above matter, as the flame, whilst being tied to matter, shines above it. The beast's head expresses the horror of the sinner, whose materially acting, solely responsible part has to bear the punishment exclusively; because the soul is insensitive according to its nature and can only suffer when it materializes. The rod standing instead of genitals symbolizes eternal life, the body covered with scales the water, the semi-circle above it the atmosphere, the feathers following above the volatile. Humanity is represented by the two breasts and the androgyn arms of this sphinx of the occult sciences.

He was to call his creation the Goat of Mendes, another derivative, drawing on Herodotus’ description of the ram-deity worshipped in the Egyptian town of Dejedet. And by this route Baphomet made it into modern occult practices, a central figure in the cosmology of Thelema, devised by Aleister Crowley, a great magus or a great fraud, I leave it to you to choose which. Nosce te Ipsum :-)

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Losing the Peace

By 1918 Lloyd George had won the war so it was reasonable to assume that he would win a general election. He did, handsomely. By 1945 Winston Churchill had won the war so it was equally reasonable to assume that he would win a general election. He lost, dismally. Why should this have been so, why did the nation turn its back on one of its most successful war-time leaders? The answer is simple: it comes down as much to party as to personality, or, better said, it comes down to a mixture of party and personality. “It was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election.” Harold Macmillan once wrote, “It was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain.”

There is a good piece in the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine by Martin Pugh reflecting on some of these points. The problem for Churchill in 1945 was that his personal popularity, buoyant as it was, was simply not enough to compensate for the perceived failings of his party. There was the record of Appeasement that had still to be lived down. A number of sitting Conservative MPs had links with pre-war fascist organisations and one, a certain Captain Ramsay, had actually been interned with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. For once it was the Labour Party that was able to play the patriotic card, not the Tories.

There are other factors to be added to the mix. Churchill had never fought an election as party leader. He simply wasn’t ready for a contest that he probably did not anticipate until the spring of 1946 at the earliest.

Also he clearly had no idea how to tackle his Labour opponents, some of whom had been close associates in the wartime coalition. Rather than looking to the future he returned to the old bruising contests of the past. In possibly the most inept speech he ever gave he suggested that a Labour government would need the support of a Gestapo. The reaction was quite the opposite of that intended: people simply refused to take him, or this kind of scaremongering, seriously. One Labour candidate, Ian Mikardo, had his chairman introduce him at public meetings as Obergruppenfuhrer Mikardo, which always managed to raise a laugh.

Also people had enough of the wartime message of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Although the conflict in the Far East still had some weeks to run, the electorate were already looking to the kind of post-war future promised in the 1942 Beveridge Report. It was the first general election in ten years, moreover, and an unusually high proportion of the electorate were first time voters, including the vast bulk of those in the armed forces, infected, to a significant degree, by a spirit of egalitarianism.

It also has to be said that Tory arguments against ‘socialism’ were less effective than they might have been in the past, since the country effectively had a planned economy since 1940 and people had not yet come to resent rationing quite as much as they were later in the decade The counter argument, of course, is that the country was almost bankrupt; that a period of retrenchment, reinvestment and renewal was necessary, not lavish schemes of public expenditure, which would only serve to compound the problem. But who in the summer of 1945 was ready for that argument? Thus it was that Churchill was given, to use his own words, the order of the boot.

The Garden of Epicurus

There is a pragmatic quality to the system of Epicurus. In the Principal Doctrines, for example, he defines justice as a system of mutual advantage, something that can be changed in accordance with circumstances. Human conduct, moreover, should be motivated, he argued, not by fear of omnipotent deities, but by correct reasoning over which actions to pursue and which to avoid.

Medieval thinkers, I feel sure it comes as no surprise, had a generally poor opinion of the Epicurus. John of Salisbury condemned him as a materialist and a sensualist, while Dante in the Inferno consigned him to the sixth circle of hell for denying the immortality of the soul. His reputation began to revive with the Renaissance. Lorenzo Valla was among the first to extol the virtues of Epicureanism, though with an understanding no greater than that of John of Salisbury. Erasmus, focusing on Epicurus' life of quiet simplicity, saw him as a precursor of the Christian ascetics. At the other extreme Michel de Montaigne and Giordano Bruno championed his doctrine of pleasure, together with his revolt against religions that deny the significance of earthly life in favour of some ethereal paradise.

But the real revival does not come until the seventeenth century, in the work of Pierre Gassendi, who published his Eight Books on the Life and Manners of Epicurus in 1647. This enjoyed considerable success in England, influencing the likes of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Walter Charleton, author of Epicurus' Morals, and Sir William Temple, who wrote Upon the Garden of Epicurus, or Of Gardening.

He is not my favourite moralist among the ancients; that honour belongs to the divine Marcus Aurelius. But I do admire the sharpness of his thinking. He is eminently quotable. Here are my favourites:

1. Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.

2. I never desired to please the rabble. What pleased them, I did not learn; and what I knew was far removed from their understanding.

3. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

4. The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it.

5. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

6. The time when most of you should withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.


It is to Friedrich Engels that we owe the materialist interpretation of history. Not only did he invent the term, but he refined and, more important, interpreted the work of Karl Marx, handing it down like Moses in tablets of stone to the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the leading left-wing movement of the day. The problem is that Engels, while he tried to be true to the thinking of his mentor, began to act as if it was sacred canon, introducing a degree of rigidity that was not in the original; turning fluid observations into concrete precepts, what he called 'the great law of motion in history.' Marx’s sociology was thus transformed into a kind of deterministic science, comparable, in Engel's view, with the laws of energy.

It was Engels, not Marx, who saw economics as the ultimate foundations of all social and historical structures. He attempted, towards the end of his life, to correct some of the damage done in turning Marxism into a materialist pseudo-science, though by this time it was altogether too late. His earlier interpretations conveyed a simplicity readily understood by those with less subtle intellects, those looking for straightforward dogmatics; people for whom notions of base and superstructure offered a short-cut to understanding. Yes, he might very well be said to have 'invented' Marxism; and, yes, he might also claim the right to be its earliest gravedigger.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Foxy Lady

Our bright new coalition government is still less than two weeks old. I’m still full of optimistic goodwill. It’s such a delight to see the face of David Cameron when a story about the Prime Minister is announced on the television news, not that frightful old ogre Gordon Brown.

Still, I have some concerns and it would be wrong to keep quiet about them. The mistaken attempt to ‘co-opt’ the 1922 Committee, long the voice of independent back-bench Conservatism, would seem to be a stab at appeasing our Liberal Democrat partners. After all, this is a committee that takes its name from the time when a successful Tory coup was mounted against Lloyd George, the last prime minister with any Liberal associations! But my biggest concern by far is over the issue of a free vote on hunting with hounds, one of the Tory manifesto promises.

I know there are big issues to be faced, issues of more immediate concern than fox hunting. I accept this ancient country pursuit, one for which I have huge affection, will slip down the government’s political and legislative agenda, for the time being. But it’s going to have to be addressed before the end of this Parliament if David Cameron is to retain any credibility in rural England. Just as important, it’s going to have to be addressed if he is to retain any credibility among many of his back-benchers, some of whom have the feeling that their interests and the interests of the party are set to be sacrificed to a collection of tree huggers.

There was an excellent editorial in The Times last Thursday on this very issue. The point was made that a failure to address this topic is likely to be a mistake for the simple reason that Cameron will have to demonstrate at some point that the coalition does not involve the suffocation of Tory instincts. I will add that failure to do so would be a demonstration of his personal weakness, a demonstration that the ‘new politics’ is just so much froth and fluff, unable to tolerate any kind of stand on the most basic of principles.

What has he got to lose, I ask myself? As The Times says, all that the Tory manifesto promised was a free vote. What would be more in keeping with the new political mood than a free vote on an issue of civil liberties? A vote on this issue is also likely to quell discontent among Tory loyalists, all those who wished the campaign had been fought around solid issues, issues that people could relate to, like Europe, taxation and immigration, not the vacuous nonsense of the Big Society. Those who represent rural constituencies will be able to tell voters that the party still cares about their concerns, concerns that will not be drowned in soft-soap liberalism. The Times leader concluded as follows;

Eleven million people voted Conservative. Many hoped for a government based on fundamental Conservative principles. Mr Clegg’s remarks about “rebalancing the tax system” and protecting the Human Rights Act suggest that the Conservatives will have to fight hard for those principles in the coalition.

Foxhunting is a small but symbolic part of that battle...The Conservative Party is a leading partner in this coalition. Certainly, compromise will be essential. But the Tories should not run scared of their instincts.

Yes, make a stand, make it clear what it is we want and what it is we are. I did not vote Cameron to get Clegg; I did not vote for rural rights only to get yuman rights.

Vanity of Vanities

The short story is possibly my favourite literary medium. From an early age I was enchanted by folktales and myths of all sorts, those involving the doings of gods, ogres, giants and witches. I still am! From these the passage to the short story was easy.

I’ve read so many over the years, counting Franz Kafka, Graham Greene, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Alphonse Daudet, Yevgeny Zamyatin, William Somerset Maugham and Ivan Bunin high among the greatest artists in the form. I should also mention Jorge Luis Borges, though his short fictions are in a unique class of their own and I’m just beginning to discover the work of William Trevor. But the writer I return to time and time again is the superlative Guy de Maupassant, a magician in word and image.

There is a deceptive lightness to his work, a kind belle epoch effervescence that only serves to hide some darker undercurrents and the most heart-breaking forms of irony. He uses words in the same way that the Impressionists used paint, with ease and a sureness of touch, but in such a way that the cynicism, the pessimistic tone is made all the greater. This is fiction as Arthur Schopenhauer might have written fiction, depicting the world as a battle, where pain and anguish are self-inflicted, where defeat is inevitable and the universe indifferent. The Will has its own devices; we are merely its instruments.

But still Maupassant with a taut, exact style, one that he absorbed from Gustav Flaubert, his literary mentor, paints some astonishing cameos. There is Le Horla, either one of the most terrifying horror stories ever written, or a dissertation in mental decay, it is difficult to tell which. There are tales of riverbanks and whores, of Prussian brutes and French audacity, though not from the people one would expect; there are tales of determination even in defeat, and there are tales of heart-breaking defeat.

And everywhere there is irony, and yet more irony, as if humanity exists for the amusement of the gods. Nowhere is this better illustrated in The Necklace, A Day in the Country and Country Living, the latter with a particularly bitter twist. Vanity of vanities, sayeth the preacher. Vanity of vanities, says Guy de Maupassant.

The Absent One

In his essay Inside the Whale George Orwell quotes some lines from Spain 1937, a poem by W. H. Auden. They go like this:

To-morrow for the young, the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

We studied this poem at school. I read it before I read Orwell and was struck by exactly the same words, exactly the same sentiments: that there were people like Auden who could talk of the ‘necessary murder’ without having the first idea what this entails, no matter how poetic the language. If the 1930s was a ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden later suggested in his poem September 1, 1939, he and his kind surly made a major contribution to the lowness and the dishonesty. They looked for the best, blind to the worst.

Their struggle, Auden’s struggle, Spender’s struggle and even Orwell’s struggle would not have been my struggle. I can’t help but sympathise with Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falange and himself a poet, who was the victim of a ‘necessary murder’ in November 1936, when he was shot by a Republican firing squad in Alicante. Why? Is it because I’m a fascist; is it because I sympathise with fascism? On both counts the answer is no. He appeals, rather, to my sense of romance, to my idealism, to my impractical love of all sorts of lost causes, from seventeenth century English Cavaliers to nineteenth century southern Confederates.

Ah, but his side won, the ‘fascists’ won, I can hear the reply. Whoever won it was not the cause of Primo de Rivera, who sought a solution to the Spanish problem that was neither Marxist nor reactionary. If his death was a ‘necessary murder’ it was a necessary murder as much for Francisco Franco as it was for the communist Republicans.

Though honoured as El Ausente (the Absent One) by the Franco regime, he was better as a dead saint than a living politician. The simple fact is that Jose Antonio was a dangerous opponent, a thinker and a radical, in every way different from Franco, a man who had little in the way of intellectual depth and no ideology beyond power. The death of a man he had dismissed as a ‘foppish playboy’ was highly convenient.

An ineffectual and meaningless symbol under the old dictatorship, he is fast being forgotten even as a memory in modern Spain, in many ways rather a pity.

Monday 24 May 2010

A Low Dishonest Decade

It seems to me to be self-evident that the hypocrisy that characterises so much of English life is nowhere better illustrated in the art of the obituary – no matter how much a person was hated in life they are almost invariably loved in death! I would go so far as to say that a critical obituary, along with death itself, is the last of the great taboos.

These thoughts have been brought on by a piece by Nick Cohen – a fearsomely honest writer, one of my favourites – in the May issue of Standpoint. Here he comments on the manner in which BBC Radio 4 appraised the life of the actor Corin Redgrave, who died last month. The focus was on the whole life, not just on his abilities as an actor, which could reasonably have afforded a fair and balanced treatment. But the whole life inevitably drew in his politics, his way of “constantly looking at all forms of injustice and oppression”; his way of being “a passionate campaigner on political and human rights causes” and “trying to make a better world.”

We all know that the BBC is often lacking in the most basic editorial skills, often lacking in the ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’ that its charter demands. These quotes from Last Word, Radio 4’s obituaries show, provide no better illustration of this simple truth, anodyne as they appear on the surface. For as Cohen reminds us, Corin Redgrave, along with his sister Vanessa, was a life-long member of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), a Trotskyite sect run by one Gerry Healy, a particularly obnoxious and paranoid little tyrant, much given to the sexual abuse of the female members of his party, as well as enjoying a general penchant for intimidation and violence. Is it on this basis, I ask, that “human rights causes” and a “better world” is to be advanced?

The WRP, a cult in every way as nauseating as Scientology, was simply a vehicle for Healy’s vanity and aggrandisement. A totalitarian by nature and inclination, he took money from any source available; and the sources included Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, those well-known exponents of “human rights causes” and a “better world.” As part of the bargain the WRP took the lead in advancing what I would refer to as the New Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a form of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, once the prerogative of the right, now found on the left, or that which purports to be the left. Iraqi dissidents living in London were also spied on, their details passed to the Baathist state.

I take the view that the capacity for self-delusion on the left is almost limitless. I say almost because the WRP collapsed in 1985 when the details of Healy’s political contacts and sexual excesses - which did not stop short of rape - became too much to contain. In all some twenty-six female members of his party accused him of “cruel and systematic debauchery”, the exercise of a droit de seigneur that might have been envied by a medieval baron. Healy went on to form the Marxist Party, a tiny hard-core of the super deluded, and these included the Redgrave double act, looking for “human rights causes” and a “better world” in the company of a reptile.

Cohn concludes his anti-obituary as follows;

Radio 4 cannot tell the true story of the Redgraves’ politics because, although Marxist-Leninism has long gone, a part of the poison of the Trotskyism of the 1968 generation lingers in the bloodstream of the wider Left – the propensity for Jew-baiting and conspiracy theory, the shrieking dogmatism, and, beyond all that, the self-censorship, which stops a broadcaster legally obliged to be objective dealing plainly with news that reflects badly on its class and its kind.

I have little doubt in my own mind that the much-hyped 1960s was the worst decade in this country’s history, a decade whose causes and personalities have done so much to corrupt our national life, a low dishonest decade. Once the last traces of the hippy generation have slipped into the past, along with bell-bottoms and the Beatles, will be the time to write a final and damning obituary.

Castles in the Air

I love castles; I love the stimulus they give to my imagination. I should say that it is ruined castles that I prefer, places that inspire my somewhat gothic romantic vision, the same vision as that inspired the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich! If there is a castle anywhere in the vicinity of where I am staying I will visit, the more remote the better, the lonelier the better, the darker its history the better.

Castles were once functional buildings, symbols, sometimes, of forms of oppression and colonial rule, like the great Edwardian fortresses of North Wales. But for me they are just wonderful residues of a past that has gone forever. All flesh may be grass but all castles are stone; stones that carry memory, that carry the ghosts of time.

A fellow blogger has caused me to reflect in particular on some of the castles that I have discovered in my travels to Scotland, from the far south to the distant north. Some of these places are not widely known outside Scotland, perhaps even inside Scotland. There is the wonderful Smailholm Tower, much loved by Sir Walter Scott, a southern tower house that recalls the days of the Border Reivers. There is the great costal fortress of Tantallon, once the home of the Red Douglas earls of Angus, besieged there by the King of Scotland himself in the late fifteenth century.

Also in East Lothian is the splendid castle of Dirleton, situated in a pretty village that seems more redolent of the shires of southern England than Scotland. But my favourite in the south is Caerlaverock Castle, found on the opposite side of the country, in the south-west not far from the English border

There is something so wonderful about this triangulated structure, a perfect example of the military architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, functional and beautiful at one and the same time, its overall charm added to by a moat that actually contains water! In 1300 it was besieged by Edward I in person, the occasion for a rather fanciful French poem. There are some interesting seventeenth century alterations, when the owner, the second earl of Nithsdale, attempted to create a modern interior within the Medieval walls. But it all came to nothing with the onset of the Civil Wars.

In the north I have several favourites. Castle Stalker on the coast of Argyll is impossibly romantic, as indeed is Kilchurn Castle on the northern shores of Loch Awe. Largely a fifteenth century structure, it was originally the home of the Campbells of Bredalbane. Owing to its strategic position it was later used by government forces during the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

Going further east, by way of Urquhart Castle, another Loch-side stronghold, I turn towards Aberdeenshire, to the shield-shaped Kildrummy Castle, a great Medieval structure, once the fortress home of the earls of Mar. From there it’s on to the coast south of Stonehaven to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle, perhaps the most evocative of all, a place whose towers glower like those of Tantallon further south directly on to the North Sea. Standing on a natural defensive promontory, there have been strongholds here for centuries before the stone structure finally appeared. Rebuilt many times, it was finally placed in the care of the Keith family, the Earl Marshals of Scotland, forfeited for their part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. In modern times it featured as a ghostly Elsinore in the Mel Gibson movie version of Hamlet.

My thoughts by night are often filled
With visions false as fair:
For in the past alone I build
My castles in the air.

I dwell not now on what may be:
Night shadows o'er the scene:
But still my fancy wanders free
Through that which might have been.

The Pig Princess

I try to avoid passing comment on the activities of the royal family. But the story about Sarah Fergusson, Duchess of York, spread across the British press today, really does demand some kind of response. After I read the report in The Daily Telegraph at lunchtime, detailing her attempts to sell access to Prince Andrew, her former husband, in a shady business deal, I felt the overwhelming urge to Tweet. “The Duchess of York is a high class pimp”, I wrote “and Prince Andrew, her ex-husband, the most expensive rent boy in history.”

My tweet was ‘funny serious’, if I can put it like that. But, my, oh, my, how grotesque this appalling woman is, how cheap for all her expense. Lynne Featherstone, a Home Office Minister, was quite right to break with the convention that no criticism should be offered of the royal family, saying that “It’s really quite depressing. Lord knows what the Queen thinks waking up this morning.”

I think I can guess. I saw the television coverage of Fergie’s interview with the undercover reporter, who caught her in a perfect sting, a sting she had not the wit or the intelligence to penetrate. What struck me most was the cheap vulgarity of the whole thing, this fifty-year-old woman, living well beyond her means, trying to rent access to her former partner because she has “not got a pot to piss in.” She said to the reporter “Look after me and I’ll look after you…you’ll get it back tenfold. I can open any door you want.” In the half-million dollar deal she was hoping to swing she might as well have said “Make me an offer I can’t refuse.”

I just wonder now if there were others, people who did buy access to Andrew in his capacity as business ambassador. As far as Fat Fergie is concerned it just goes to show that decent schooling and a privileged upbringing does not necessarily bring class and style. With her it was just the contrary. Why was she ever allowed to attach herself to the royal family in the first place; why was she allowed to cling on to them long after her divorce, milking them, and her connections, in an altogether crass manner? What shame she brought on the Firm, this wretched parvenu. She is the princess who was always a pig.

Death to Spies

People who have read the James Bond novels will be familiar with an organisation known as SMERSH-Death to Spies. What they might not know is that this was a real branch of the Soviet Secret Service, once headed by the notorious Viktor Abakumov. It only had a short three-year existence, from 1943 to 1946, though it clearly left an abiding impression on the mind of Ian Fleming. Anyone who comes away from a reading of From Russia with Love without pleasant and cosy feelings towards General Franco's Fascists clearly has not understood the latent message!

Sunday 23 May 2010

Murky Mandy

I could never quite understand why the last government placed such reliance on the twice-disgraced Peter, Baron Mandelson of Foy, a man whose shadow was scandal and whose technique was mismanagement. He was a disaster as a Labour minister and an even bigger disaster as a European commissioner (remember the trade war with China?) His last disservice to the Labour Party was surely in rescuing Gordon Brown from political oblivion and then running what must count as one of the most inept electoral campaigns in its history. For me he is a living symbol of the intellectual bankruptcy at the heart of the whole New Labour project, which was all about power, never principle.

Mandelson is the Labour Macbeth, in murkiness stepped in so far that should he wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. Now the Daily Mail has exposed even more murkiness from his days as European Trade Commissioner. In 2005 he attended a dinner in Moscow as a ‘valuable extra’ with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, the kind of person much favoured by the socially insecure Mandelson, and the executives of Alcona, the American metals company.

Alcona was involved in negotiations to buy two of the Russian’s giant RUSAL aluminium plants. The chief concern was over tariffs within the European Union, tariffs that would have prevented the markets being flooded with cheap imports from the east. Though there is no evidence that Mandelson played any active role, his last minute appearance, arranged with such haste that he did not even have a valid visa – strings had to be pulled within the KGB - was enough to reassure the anxious American executives. The deal was duly concluded and in the following three years tariffs on metal imports were slashed. Not, I hasten to add, that there was any connection between the one and the other. :-)

So, where’s the beef? It was just another business deal. But the problem is, you see, that this deal, concluded under such questionable circumstances, took away British jobs from British workers. Metal plants were closed in South Wales and Scotland. I should add that Mandelson’s ‘silent’ presence, a little like the ghost of Banqo, to extend my Macbeth metaphor, was arranged by his good friend Nat Rothschild, who was also at the feast, anxious to smooth the way for the sale. Although Mandelson has so far declined to comment, a senior spokesman for the EU said that all tariff decisions were taken in full transparency, though he added that he was totally unaware of the Moscow dinner.

This seems to me to be typical Mandelson, not obviously culpable, just amazingly foolish, involving himself in situations that a wise person would avoid, failing to see his presence alone, certainly under such questionable circumstances, was enough to compromise him. He is a man easily flattered, easily seduced by the rich and the powerful. He is a man who, in his complete lack of judgement, has allowed himself to be manipulated and used. We’ve seen it time and again, not corrupt just blindingly naïve. He was never fit for any kind of senior office. His ability to move with ease from post to post through the Labour establishment is surely a sign of the decadence of modern politics.

Dial M for Metaphysics

Rudolph Carnap , a German-born philosopher and a leading member of the Vienna Circle, claimed that from a reading of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he could construct precise forms of language, free of metaphysical corruptions. But such an understanding is based on a partial reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein's complex little dissertation. For Wittgenstein meaning came from the world, not from sense-experience.

Carnap's approach was both impossible...and impossibly funny! The idea of restricted language was applied so rigorously among the Vienna Circle that it reached the stage of making any form of expression all but impossible;

We appointed one of us to shout 'M' (for metaphysics) whenever an illegitimate sentence was uttered in our discussion. He was shouting 'M' so much we got sick of it and got him to shout 'not-M' whenever we said something legitimate.

Ha-ha! Fortunately for Carnap he began to think a little more clearly, introducing what he called the 'tolerance principle', according to which there is not one but many logics. So, by this standard, any expression of language is acceptable as long as there are sufficient rules governing its logical application.

A Certain Brutality

In view of the current, ahem, tensions between Greece and Germany in the benighted euro zone I thought I might just mention the war, with particular reference to the career of Alexander Löhr, commander-in-chief of Army Group E in Greece and Yugoslavia from 1943 until the end of the war.

Löhr was in many ways quite a tragic figure. A soldier of the old school, and Russian Orthodox by birth, he was far from being a committed Nazi. He had, in fact, served in the army of the Habsburg Empire during the First World War, as did many of his senior officers, and thus brought to his command many of the imperial prejudices many older Austrians felt towards the Balkan peoples.

Though tied by the stupid and ultimately self-defeating counter-terrorism guidelines issued to the German Army, he implemented them without a great deal of latitude or imagination. His task in Greece was to eliminate the andartes, and that is what he attempted to do with all thoroughness.

I suppose it did not help matters much that most of his troops, Wehrmacht and SS, had been brutalised by service on the Eastern Front. Indeed, one formation, the 117 Jaeger Division, was specifically told that eine gewisse Brutalität (a certain brutality) was absolutely necessary. The usual measures were adopted against the insurgents, including hostage-taking, wholesale executions and casual atrocities. The consequences of this were exactly the same as elsewhere in Europe; the resistance movement grew steadily in both strength and confidence.

The guerrilla war changed the preconceptions with which the Germans had first arrived in Greece. Philhellenism gave way to notions of the wild 'Balkan fanatic', with the Greeks being seen as little different from the Serbs. As a consequence the Greeks slipped steadily down the racial ladder in the Nazi scheme of things, with the connection between the ancient peoples and 'this land of neo-Greeks' being openly doubted.

Thursday 20 May 2010

A Turbulent Priest

I mentioned in a blog that I wrote last month that I grew up in the Church of England and have a lingering respect for its rituals and its institutions, for the important part that it played in the history of this nation. In the course of this I said;

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.

Well he has done it again, this hopeless, pseudo-intellectual, much given to ‘thinking out loud’ as a substitute for thinking at all. Much given, I have to say, to the most vacuous speculations. Now it seems that Henry VIII, the man who has a singular responsibility in the formation of the independent English Church, the man to whom Williams owes his unique position, might just be in Hell. There again he might not for “If Henry VIII is saved (an open question, perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Haughton.”

Please note the ‘an open question, perhaps’, the kind of slippery evasiveness, get out of trouble quick card, that we have come to expect from Rowan ‘Sharia’ Williams. Anyway, the prayers he will depend on if he is in Hell, an open question, perhaps, are those of Haughton and his fellow Carthusians, executed in 1535 as traitors for refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy, thus recognising the King as head of the English Church. Houghton himself was declared a saint by the Pope in 1970.

I’m not going to say anything about the theology here as Williams is the expert, not I, and he surely knows that no amount of prayer or intervention will be enough to release the denizens of Hell; a closed question, definitely. No matter; Williams went on to say that “In many ages and many places authorities more appalling than Henry VIII have believed that they could abolish God and the cross of God; and they have had to discover that while they may vanquish, they cannot destroy.”

What can I say? Should I agree with Christopher Howse writing in The Telegraph that Williams, in a service aimed at healing the ancient divisions between Catholics and Protestants, should be able to speak freely without being taken amiss? Am I to take it that Henry VIII is to be ranged with modern tyrants like Stalin as one of those who attempted to abolish God?

Poor Henry, a man far more orthodox in his beliefs that Archbishop Williams, a man who believed that while he was a schismatic he was certainly not a heretic and most certainly not an enemy of God. He died, by the lights of his own beliefs, a true Catholic, one who just happened to release the chains binding the national church to the cause of a foreign prince, far more secular at the time than spiritual, a prince whose adherents were at that time and in those circumstances objectively speaking traitors to the English crown. To suggest that he might now be in Hell is an unusual proposition for an Archbishop of Canterbury but not one a fair-minded person would dismiss out of hand, so said Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog.

Well, I dismiss it out of hand, though I confess that I’m not at all fair-minded when it comes to such matters. I could say that Archbishop Williams has even less understanding of Hell than he does of Henry, of the politics and theology of the day. I could say that I do not believe this man fit to be the leading prelate of the English Church; I could say that he himself might very well appear to some as a heretic as well as a schismatic. I will say none of these things because I do not believe in Hell or any kind of afterlife. After all, it’s an open question, perhaps, that if I did that I might end up in the same place as Williams for all eternity, which for me is an open question, perhaps just a little too far.

Venezuela running on empty

When one assumed that things could not get any worse in Chavez’ Venezuela they do. I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised because one thing Marxists and socialists of all kinds really are good at is making desolation and calling it progress. The country’s oil wealth is being squandered in Hugo’s vanity projects, which includes propping up the sclerotic Castro regime in Cuba. There is also evidence to suggest that he is offering support to ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation, as well as the FARC guerrilla movement in Columbia.

Meanwhile Venezuela is suffering ever greater problems as this vainglorious man struts across the region like a sawdust Caesar. As the rest of Latin America prospers, Venezuela has suffered a decline in real wages, continual power cuts and a growing shortage of staples, with meat now being added to the growing list. But the most astonishing thing of all that this oil-rich country is running short of hard currency, as Chavez has squandered much of the nation’s reserves to buy arms. Corruption is everywhere, and crime is virtually out of control. Worst of all the economy has been ransacked for purely short-term and partisan benefits. The piggy’s bank is close to empty.

The growing discontent is likely to be reflected in the country’s legislative elections, scheduled in September. And here we have the contradiction at the heart of the whole Chavez project, highlighted in a recent editorial in The Economist: he sees his ‘revolution’s as permanent and irreversible, the usual Marxist teleological rubbish, that history always goes one way, his way. Cuban influence is everywhere, all public buildings now being adorned with Patria, socialismo o muerte – Fatherland, socialism or death- Fidel Castro’s ancient battle-cry.

But unlike the Castro brothers in Cuba, Chavez has derived past legitimacy from the ballot box. He’s been working steadily at undermining freedom from within, suppressing critical voices in the press and undermining the independent judiciary. With the Presidential election scheduled for 2012 it seems unlikely that he will allow himself and his party to be voted out of office; it seems unlikely that he will allow history to go into reverse. So, it’s possible that a Mugabe-style coup may be engineered, opponents intimidated and the ballot rigged. It seems a remote prospect that Venezuela will get rid of this unwholesome thug, or the legacy of history, with any degree of ease.