Tuesday 29 June 2010

Solving a problem like Korea

We’ve not long passed the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June, 1950. The official line in North Korea, which provoked the war by attacking the South, is that it was a defensive struggle against American “aggression.” This rewriting of history was long supported by China, which intervened in the conflict in when Kim II-sung’s communist regime was in danger of being wiped out after the American victory in the Battle of Inchon.

From that time onwards the conflict, which lasted until the ceasefire of 1953, was referred to as “The War to Resist America and Aid Korea.” According to history textbooks, it began when the United States assembled a United Nations army of fifteen countries, invaded the North, carrying the war to China’s border with Korea on the Yalu River.

Now the Chinese have finally admitted the truth. On Friday the official government news agency published a special report in which it was said that “On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army marched over the 38th Parallel and started the attack. Three days later, Seoul fell.” The Global Times, a government-run newspaper, said that it was high time to renew and strengthen the efforts by Chinese scholars to “discover the truth about the Korean War.” North Korea, with no great surprise, celebrated the anniversary by trotting out the same old lies.

It’s commendable to see the Chinese dedicate themselves to a new spirit of truth and scholarship. But things are never that simple, are they, when it comes to matters like this? One should always look for a subliminal message, a sub-text of some kind.

North Korea is still China’s friend, but a more tiresome and unstable friend is difficult to imagine. The sinking of the South Korea naval vessel in March, followed by denials and hysterical war-mongering in the North, shows how dangerously unpredictable this frightful termite nation can be. I rather suspect that the Chinese are making it plain that the North can expect no aid from them in any planned or future “defence”.


I read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Nell Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, those twin classics of modern American literature, at more or less the same time in my mid teens. I remember thinking afterwards, once I had discovered something about the authors in question, that they were the best of books to have written…and the worst. The best in the sense that both were an immediate commercial and critical success; the worst in the sense that the authors’ work thereafter would always be judged to the standards set by these monoliths.

To these two books I would add Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, but at least this did not have the same impact on his life that The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird had on the lives of Salinger and Lee, both of whom more or less stopped writing altogether, both of whom became recluses, hating the fame that their work had brought. I assumed they realised, in their different ways, that they only really had one great book inside them and that any further effort was pointless. Success for them was not a blessing: it was a curse.

I haven’t entirely changed that view. I did, however, read a very interesting feature article on Harper Lee by Sharon Churcher in The Mail on Sunday (Don’t mention the Mockingbird) which has caused me to partially reassess it. Harper Lee, whose book was published almost fifty years ago, grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, in the ‘Old South’, the pre-integration South, the South of Jim Crow. The racial bigotry witnessed by Scout Finch, the six-year-old narrator in Mockingbird, was essentially that witnessed by Lee herself as she was growing up.

It’s no secret that the novel has an autobiographical element. But it seems to have been much stronger than generally supposed, so strong that she came in for intense criticism not just from the community of Monroeville, who claimed to recognise themselves in its pages, but from members of her immediate family. The suggestion is from those who knew her well that this had a traumatic effect. Mockingbird is so authentic because it is so personal; but because it is personal it has also been deeply painful. There are some things that can only ever be said once.

Satan in Gori

How are the mighty fallen

Stalin’s gone. For almost sixty years his giant statue brooded over Gori, the Georgian town where he was born, the son of a local cobbler, in 1878. It was the last survivor of an army of statues once scattered across the Soviet Union. One by one they went after Khrushchev’s denunciation of the tyrant; they all went with the exception of that in Gori, allowed to remain by special permission of the Politburo, a concession to a favoured local son, a concession to the only man in history who made Gori worthy of any note at all.

But he is favoured no longer. For Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-western president, the statue was an uncomfortable reminder of the past, a reminder, as he put it, of the Soviet occupation of Georgia. It’s as well to remember also, though no mention of this was made in the press reports I read, that it was Stalin who played a leading part in ending the independence of the first Republic of Georgia back in 1921.

His statue was removed without advanced warning in the early hours of Friday morning for fear of an adverse reaction by people, especially the elderly, who still revere their local hero, their own particular Satan. He is being moved to the Stalin museum, more of a shrine really. In his place Saakashvili plans to erect a memorial to the victims of Georgia’s brief war with Russia in 2008.

Commenting on the fall of their hero a spokesman for the Georgian Communist Party said that it was “in shock.” “The authority of the Georgian nation could sharply fall around the world as a result of this”, continued Soso Gagoshvili. I’m not often in a position where I feel that I am able to speak on behalf of “the world” but on this occasion I feel reasonably certain that “the world” could not care less.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Monday 28 June 2010

Me ne freggo

A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of fascism. All the powers of new Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the Presidents of the European Commission and the Council, Manuel Barosso and Herman von Rumpuy, Swedish liberals and German socialists.

Sorry, please forgive this free adaptation of a well-known song by a communist double act but it underlines a simple truth: the Europeans can’t get fascism out of their mind. Everything they dislike is ‘fascist’ – the nation state is ‘fascist’, hostility towards the European superstate is ‘fascist’, the desire to give the people of Europe, the individual national communities, a say over their own destinies that, too, is ‘fascist.’

The fact is that the whole ghastly European project would seem to be based on two things: fear of the past and fear of freedom. Margot Wallström, the Swedish Social Democrat and European commissioner, said on the anniversary of the liberation of Theresienstandt concentration camp that “There are those today who want to scrap the supra-national idea. They want the EU to go back to the old purely intergovernmental way of doing things. I say those people should come to Terezin and see where the old road leads.”

So there you are America, there you are all of the free nations of the Earth, all those who are not part of the “supra-national idea”, you can take it from Margot where your particular road will lead. The simple truth is the woman has not got a clue what she is talking about. It was the Germans who were responsible for Theresienstandt and most of the other concentration camps of the united Nazi Europe, not the old “intergovernmental way of doing things.” But, when in doubt, when devoid of imagination, just conjure up the spectre of fascism.

Yes, people like this are afraid of the past, a European past, just as they are afraid that democracy, true democracy, will mean a return to that past. How else is one to understand the observation by Martin Schutz, head of the European Socialist group, that the Euro-sceptic MEPs made him think of Adolf Hitler? What was their offence? Were they suggesting that all freedom should be sacrificed to a central Führerprinzip, that individual nations should lose their sovereignty in the body of a particular will? Actually, no; it was because they advocated referenda on the Lisbon Treaty; advocating giving people the choice that they were promised, in the end only a choice that the Irish were allowed.

Here I’m reminded of some lines from an old Fleetwood Mac tune, words that might very well serve as the swan song of European democracy;

…don't ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to.

That just about sums up the whole sorry Lisbon campaign up, the whole campaign of the anti-democratic anti-‘fascists’, at least it does for me. Come to think of it people like Wallström and Schutz almost make fascism sound appealing. If it’s a choice between them and their path, if it’s a choice between a monstrous bureaucratic superstate and national freedom I know which route I will take. If that makes me a fascist all I have to say is Me ne freggo – I don’t give a damn – the original battle cry of a certain Italian gentleman and his followers. Be warned: I might even be tempted to sing Giovinezza. :-))

Bergson and the Stream of Existence

I had occasion to think recently about the philosophy of Henri Bergson, about the need to bridge the gap between life as is lived and live as it is thought. So much of what we do, so much of what I do, is caught up in rational calculations of one kind or another. So much of our existence is defined by artificial and self-imposed limits, locks on the doors of perception.

But rationality, intellect itself, is only one dimension of experience, and by no means the most important. Life itself, no matter how we approach it, is essentially irrational. It is, rather, beyond rationality; feelings, emotions, perceptions, dreams and intuitions are all beyond rationality. That’s why there is literature, that’s why there is art. Above all, that’s why there is poetry.

Bergson understood this. Try to imagine life as a stream, a constant mobility, the realm of the unforeseen, the unpredictable. It’s from this constant flux, this process, that creativity and freedom emerge. Intellect only allows a partial understanding. The whole can only be grasped by intuition. I don’t think therefore I am; I exist therefore I think; I feel therefore I am. There is no determinism; there is the pure mobility of free will. A moment comes; a moment is gone. We are carried along in a great evolutionary tide, the élan vital, as Bergson terms it, with echoes here of Schopenhauer’s will-to-live.

The vital impetus, the will to live, the will to struggle, the will to power, the will to love – it’s all the same to me.

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.

In Praise of Tommy Atkins

Saturday, June 26, marked Armed Forces Day in the United Kingdom. It’s intended as a day of tribute to the men and women of the army, navy, air force, all those who preserve the security of this nation, all those who have been prepared to sacrifice themselves on its behalf.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said recently that supporting our Armed Forces isn’t just a government responsibility – it’s a social responsibility. This is a sentiment I fully agree with. My family has a long connection with the military. My great-grandfather served in the army throughout the First World War, to begin with as a subaltern, rising to the rank of Major. He was wounded at the Somme in 1916 and won a Military Cross for his part in the Battle of Passchendale in 1917. My grandfather served with the British Indian Army both before and during the Second World War, first in what was then the Malay States, afterwards in India and Burma. My great-uncle was with the Fleet Air Arm.

So, yes, I am delighted to support our Armed Forces, not just for this historic link but for the selfless way they carry out their duty in the present day. They go where they are told to go; that’s what service people do. As far as I am concerned they are beyond criticism.

What is not beyond criticism is the actions of politicians, the way in which politicians have used and abused the armed forces. The last administration sent our forces on a series of campaigns, ill-conceived and badly executed, without proper thought given to long-term strategy; without proper thought given, so far as I can see, to any kind of strategy.

Our people are now involved in a hopeless war in Afghanistan, a place where over three hundred have died, sometimes because they were starved of resources by the government that sent them there. The war-mongering Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown thought to do it all on the cheap, expecting maximum effort for minimum cost. What was cheap for them was dear for others.

This makes me so angry, this commitment in lives to a worthless cause and a wholly unwinnable war. But I came to praise our warriors not to bury Caesar, as much as I would like to bury Caesar, as much as I would love to bury Caesar. Politicians are nothing; Labour politicians are nothing. Our soldiers are something. They will always be worthy if respect.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's "Tommy this", an' "Tommy that", an' "Chuck him out,
the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's "Tommy this", an' "Tommy that", an' anything you please
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

Thursday 24 June 2010

Good Luck, England

My boyfriend is in South Africa just at the present with the rest of the barmy army. We’ve had some lengthy conversations recently, dominated, I have to say, by his growing sense of frustration and disappointment over the team’s performance. I much prefer tennis, so I was just ever so slightly bored!

No, I don’t care that much for soccer; I don’t understand the passions and the tribal mentality it induces. It seems to me to go against all of the principles of sportsmanship, or at least how I understand sportsmanship. It’s the one enthusiasm that he and I do not share. But I do care for my country, and deeply so, just as I care for him. He called after the Slovenia match in an incredibly upbeat mood. His enthusiasm, his optimism, was infectious.

Now the big battle is ahead, that with the ‘ancient’ enemy. I will be with him in spirit. I won’t watch because I simply can’t bear the tension. It may come to nothing; my sense of realism tells me that it’s likely to come to nothing. Still, like the rest of the nation, like all of us who are not there, my positive good wishes, all my best hopes, are with the team. Good luck, England; good luck, my country.

Glittering Prizes

This year the prize for excellence in African leadership goes to (cue background of rolling drums), goes to…actually, it goes to nobody. So sorry for the anti-climax when I’m sure you all expected one of the Continent’s great stars to emerge, like Omar al-Bashir, Robert Mugabe or maybe even Teodoro Oblang Nguema Mbanasgo. Perhaps some of you, perhaps all of you, have never heard of the latter. If not, he is the president of Equatorial Guinea, and if anything even more corrupt, brutal and thuggish than al-Bashir and Mugabe.

Anyway, let me return to the prize question. I’m not joking: there truly is a prize for excellence in African leadership, worth some £3.5 million ($5million). But the pot just grows and grows, because the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that for the second year running it was unable to find a candidate worthy of this singular honour.

More generally it’s not been a good year for African prizes. The Observer reported last weekend that the UN has failed to present its award for “improving the quality of human life” because human rights groups have objected to it being funded by a rather repellent dictator. Can you guess who? No? Well it’s funded by Teodoro Oblang Nguema Mbanasgo.

The prize money itself is clearly part of the loot acquired from the wholesale plunder of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth. Probably this would have gone unnoticed in a Continent where extortion seems to be a normal part of the economic process. Unfortunately for Teodoro Oblang Nguema Mbanasgo the kudos that he may have gained by his generosity has been spoiled by the arbitrary arrest and torture of political opponents, people whose “quality of human life” is somewhat on the low side.

So, a continent of 53 nations and one billion people does not seem to be able to produce a single political worthy, clearly a cause of some embarrassment. In Kenya The Daily Nation was even moved to observe that “The idea was always noble, but its implementation was not clearly thought out.” It most certainly was not.

The record of Africa post-empire has been fairly dismal to say the least, with so many people in so many nations merely there to be ruthlessly exploited by narrow and venal ruling political elites, people who import fleets of luxury cars in places that barely have serviceable roads. Now if there had been a prize for human rights abuses, for genocide, for brutality, for running economies into the ground, the worthy candidates, I feel sure, would fill several fleets of mercs. Oh, sorry, I’m not being fair. It’s the entire fault the wicked colonialists, of empires that disappeared over fifty years ago. In Africa some things never change.

German Geordie

Dear old George II, sometimes German Geordie, in many ways the architect of his own unpopularity: rude, opinionated, lacking in any of the social graces, boastful and insufferably pompous!

But he was not, by any measure, a bad king, and his reign was one of the most successful, perhaps the most successful, in all of British history. One has to remember that the early Hanoverian period was a time when constitutional power was shifting away from the monarch towards the prime minister, so George was never destined to be cast in the same central role as either Henry VIII or Charles II. Even so, he showed good judgement in his steady support for Robert Walpole and Henry Pelham, two of the most competent ministers ever to serve the crown. Contrast the reign, moreover, with the upheavals of Henry's and the foreign policy disasters of Charles.

By 1760, as George's reign drew to a close, Britain stood high in the world, as high as it ever had, replacing France as the premier power. In 1759, the last full year of George's reign, the church bells were said to be worn out with ringing for victory: Robert Clive in India, James Wolfe in Quebec, Edward Hawke at Quiberon Bay. George deserves to be remembered with greater affection.


Dedicated to Retarius

There was an article last year in The Telegraph on communist-era humour, a story I blogged about here at the beginning of October (No Joke). The old German Federal Republic intelligence services used to monitor and collect jokes from ‘across the wall’ as a measure of popular discontent with the Communist regime. Senior officials always looked forward to the latest compilation, not just for the information revealed about life in the east but for the simple amusement value.

The Trabi, the old East German car made from plastic and a prayer, was a popular source of humour. So, too, was Christmas. The holiday has been cancelled, one joke went, because Mary could not find any nappies (diapers) for baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn’t get a travel permit.

Anyway, ever since I read this piece I’ve been assembling other examples, including this, a favourite of mine from the old Soviet Union;

Pravda announces the unveiling of a newly commissioned painting entitled Lenin in Zurich. The day arrives. All of the most important people are there, the members of the Presidium and the Supreme Soviet; Brezhnev himself is in attendance. The artist and the director of the Academy are on the podium, with the painting between them, covered by a small curtain.

The Director rises, welcomes the guests, and announces. “Comrades, I’m delighted to unveil this tribute to the great Lenin.” The curtain is drawn aside. There is an audible gasp from the crowd, followed by a stunned silence. The Director looks at the painting, which shows Trotsky in bed with Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife. He turns to the artist and whispers, “Where the hell is Lenin?” “Oh”, the artist replies, “Lenin’s in Zurich.”

Retarius, a friend of mine from Perth in Australia, one who introduced me to the blogging addiction, and with whom I share an occasional platform (Retarius and Anastasia), gave me one from Poland, also on the subject of sexual indiscretion;

A political organiser in a Polish factory in the 1970's is despairing over the indifference of his comrades to the great matters of state. One day he rails at them, demanding that they demonstrate their ideological preparedness by giving brief biographies of the senior party members. He asks them to speak about various ministers of State, all of whom his comrades apparently have never heard of. When they purport to know nothing of the career of the head of government he bursts out in exasperation: "You numbskulls!! If you spent less time boozing at home and more time improving your minds at political meetings you'd know who the most important people in our country are and why they're important!"

The ensuing, sullen silence is broken by a worker calling out, "If you're so well-informed, tell us about Krzysztof Novak." The organiser is bewildered. He's never heard of any bigwig with that name. He then suspects that he's being mocked; that this is an imaginary person. "There is no significant person of that name!", he retorts.

"Here is his significance", the worker says; "If you spent more time at home and less time at political meetings...you would know that Novak is the guy who is screwing your wife!"

I wrote in my previous blog that telling jokes like this carried dangerous consequences, yet another occasion for sardonic humour among the East Germans, who used to quip that there were people who collect jokes and tell jokes, and there were people who collected people who tell jokes. It was even a subject Milan Kundera dealt with in his first novel aptly named The Joke.

It says something about people, of the capacity of people to adapt to the most adverse of circumstances, looking to deflate the pompous official lie, even if only the shape of a joke, perhaps the ultimate and most subversive form of personal freedom.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Battle of the Passports

I’ve sometimes heard it said that the European Union has somehow sublimated and overcome the conflicts and tensions of history; that it represents, to use an appalling cliché, a new horizon. Well, to those who believe tendentious tosh like that all I will say let them come to Hungary, let them come to Slovakia! These are places where the past is not cheated.

I think one would have to scour present day Germany pretty hard to find any passion left over the Versailles ‘Diktat’ of 1919, but Hungarians to this day still regret the dismemberment of their country in the Treaty of Trianon, concluded in 1920, which scattered significant Magyar minorities across all of the adjacent lands. In Slovakia, the country’s northern neighbour, no fewer than 500,000 people, or 10% of the population, are of ethnic Hungarian origin, mostly concentrated in the border region. And it is here where the tension arises.

Doing down Hungarians has a rather popular appeal among the Slovaks. It has enabled Robert Fico, the country’s prime minister, to win elections. And it was not all shallow demagoguery, no; for measures have been introduced to criminalise the use of the Hungarian language in certain contexts.

Matters have become worse since the success of Viktor Orban in Hungary’s parliamentary elections earlier this year. Virtually the first act of the new centre-left Fidesz government was to give some 2.5 million ethnic Magyars living abroad the right to a Hungarian passport. This was also a populist move, one that takes eyes off Hungary’s present economic troubles, and one that undermines Jobbik, the far-right opposition party. But what looks good in Budapest looks bad upriver in Bratislava.

Slovakia, only fully independent for seventeen years following the amicable divorce with the Czechs, was a Hungarian colony for centuries, a time of not particularly happy memory. In the light of the Hungarian legislation, Fico has now pushed a law through parliament requiring Slovak citizens to report the acquisition of dual nationality or face a fine of more than $4000. People in this position will also lose their Slovak passports, which in practice means losing their citizenship.

Fico is using the most emotive language, according to a report I read in The Economist, talking of a “Hungarian brown plague”, a clear reference to the war-time fascist Arrow Cross government. He has even raised the possibility that Hungary’s passport policy may be the precursor to irredentist claims. “Are we supposed to stand by”, he said, "when someone creates an enclave of their own citizens on Slovak territory?”

That’s nothing really compared with the words of Jan Slota, leader of the racist Slovak National Party, a junior partner in Fico’s coalition. He has even suggested the possibility of armed conflict in the face the relentless “militarisation” of Hungarian society. It actually gets worse for Orban has declared 4 June, the anniversary of Trianon, as National Unity Day, recalling the nostalgia for Greater Hungary.

Will no one tell me what she sings?--
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago…

Pagan Born

I mentioned some time ago that my favourite band by far is Inkubus Sukkubus, the pagan rock group formed in the late 1980s by Candia Ridley, Tony McKormack and Adam Henderson. Candia is such a lovely person – yes, I have met her – and a beautiful singer. The music is just so good and the lyrics of their songs just so exciting. I can listen to them endlessly; I do listen to them endlessly because they help me concentrate while I am writing.

I love all of their songs though I would include All Along the Crooked Way, Wytches, Beltane, Samhain, Supernature, Heart of Lilith, Love Spell, Corn King, Belladonna and Aconite and Pagan Born high among my favourites. I’ve been following the band since I was in my early teens. I have all of their albums and I’ve been to so many concerts with other witches, wizards, pagans and free-spirits of all kinds. Pagan born, oh, yes, pagan born. :-)

A rhythm stirs within the earth
That tells all nature of a birth
A return to light, return to life
And lead us from this darkest night
God of the Sun, now have you come
Your reign of light has just begun
Though all must die to be reborn
Return now on a bright new morn
My lord applauds my Pagan ways
And in my heart he'll always, always stay
Pagan Born!
Pagan Born!
Woe ooh Pagan Born!

In winter's cloak we've sheltered long
Waiting for spring's sweet song
Tho' warmth we found beside the hearth
Its glow could not break through the dark
I look toward the fiery sky
And know that your return is nigh
Though I shall fall as the harvest corn
It is my fate, I'm Pagan Born!
My lord applauds my Pagan ways
And in my heart he'll always, always stay
Pagan Born!
Pagan Born!
Woe ooh Pagan Born!

My lord applauds my Pagan ways
And in my heart he'll always, always stay

My lord applauds my Pagan ways
And in my heart he'll always, always stay
Pagan Born!
Pagan Born!
Woe ooh Pagan Born!

The Politics of Dickens

Charles Dickens was a middle-class, middle-brow, radical progressive- understood in the nineteenth century sense of the term- and something, on occasions, of an old-fashioned Tory paternalist, though I am quite aware that he would have hated to be described in such a fashion!

He hated backward-looking aristocratic reaction, the abuse of power by traditional elites; but he feared the consequences of revolution even more, the essential message of A Tale of Two Cities. He was not in favour of Chartism, as we can guess from hostile sentiments he expressed in his correspondence (Letters, III, 282). He celebrated the fall of the French July Monarchy in 1848, while worrying about the spread of 'public bedevilments’ to England.

His fear of the urban under-class was fully expressed in The Old Curiosity Shop, which takes Little Nell and her Grandfather into England's dangerous industrial heartlands. He hated, above all, forms of demagoguery, which, in his view, exploits the oppressed for selfish political ends. He is generous in his perceptions of the labouring-poor, those, that is, who are deserving of such generosity; people like Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend. It is best, one supposes, that people like this do not think for themselves over-much, otherwise they end up like the muddle-headed Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times!

Tuesday 22 June 2010

First Love

I contributed to a discussion recently on whom, besides a family member, one had as a childhood hero. Most people mentioned celebrities of one kind or another, or comic book figures. For me the answer was simple: it was a girl in my boarding school, let me call her Lorna, not her real name. I saw her when I was in first form in my early teens. She was in fifth form, a prefect, a member of the upper school. She was beautiful, excellent at sports, excellent in so many ways. Yes, she was my heroine but there was more: she was the first person ever to inspire romantic thoughts. Quite simply I had a terrible crush on her. But we never spoke; she probably wasn’t even aware of my existence. For, you see, Lorna was a goddess straight from Mount Olympus whereas Ana was a mere mortal. :-)

Blest as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee, all the while,
Softly speaks and sweetly smile.

'Twas this deprived my soul of rest,
And raised such tumults in my breast;
For, while I gazed, in transport tossed,
My breath was gone, my voice was lost;

My bosom glowed; the subtle flame
Ran quick through all my vital frame;
O'er my dim eyes a darkness hung;
My ears with hollow murmurs rung;

In dewy damps my limbs were chilled;
My blood with gentle horrors thrilled:
My feeble pulse forgot to play;
I fainted, sunk, and died away.

Battles long ago

People mindful of Winston Churchill’s later reputation might be surprised to learn that he was not a figure who inspired a great deal of confidence within the Conservative Party in the 1930s. He was not, if I can put in these terms, 'one of us', having a reputation of changing parties to suit his mood, which meant that his power base was relatively weak. More than that, he had a reputation of being a maverick and a lover of unorthodox schemes; a man whose judgment was not entirely 'sound'.

Even his skill as a speaker could not make up for the lack of confidence in him, widely shared among the Parliamentary Party. His rhetoric, often of a 'maximalist' nature, full of exaggeration and alarm, only served to increase the distrust in which he was held. For example, in March 1933 Herbert Samuel observed;

Churchill makes many brilliant speeches on all subjects, but that is no reason why we should necessarily accept his political judgment. On the contrary, the brilliance of his speeches only makes the errors of his judgment the more conspicuous...I feel inclined to say of him what Bagehot wrote of another very distinguished Parliamentarian [Disraeli]: 'His chaff is excellent, but the wheat is poor stuff.

It did not help his standing among his Parliamentary colleagues that he fell out with Stanley Baldwin, the Tory leader, over the issue of Dominion status for India. His hostility to any concession to the movement for Indian independence occupied his energies for a good bit of the early 1930s, just as his warnings over German rearmament were to do in the later part of the decade; and he dealt with both issues with equal degrees of rhetorical fire; equally unrestrained and equally alarmist. He dismissed the Indian Nationalist leaders as "evil and malignant Brahmins", with their "itching fingers stretching and scratching at the vast pillage of a derelict Empire." Striking Phrases, yes; but all this exaggeration and hyperbole over an Act that went nowhere near meeting the demands of Gandhi and the Congress Party. Quite frankly, by the time the Act was passed in 1935, people were bored with Churchill and his unrestrained alarmism.

So, given this background, it comes as no great surprise that when the siren started to call out over Germany he was largely ignored. On this greater issue people simply did not want to listen because few in the mid-1930s wished to entertain the possibility of another world war. Almost everyone- on the left and the right -wanted to reach some accommodation with Germany, to meet the country's just and reasonable demands, a policy later condemned by the label of appeasement. But at the time it was immensely popular.

Besides, Churchill's warnings were not about the danger to peace offered by the growth of Fascism; they were, rather, a nationalist warning about the possible revival of German power, a quite different thing altogether.

You see, Churchill, in the shape of Cassandra, seemed not just unnecessarily alarmist but so terribly old-fashioned, representing the mindset of a different age. Leo Amery talked of him as a 'mid-Victorian', but I would go one step further, taking him right back to the eighteenth century, to the age of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, or William Pitt the Elder. As they saw France so Churchill saw Germany. It was this that people could not take seriously, especially when you consider his views on the aggressions perpetrated by Germany's present and future partners.

If Churchill’s warning about the new forms of imperialist aggression had been comprehensive they might have commanded greater moral authority. But they were not. He effectively condoned Japanese aggression in Manchuria; he approved of Mussolini, and his view of Italian aggression in Abyssinia was far from heroic. His position on these issues served to divorce him from those who were beginning to see in the world situation a clash not of power, but of ideologies. This was something beyond Churchill's comprehension, allowing him to praise Mussolini as a 'great man' as late as October 1937, by which time he and Hitler had created the Axis.

So, given all this, it is really no great surprise he was not taken seriously. In the end history proved him to be right in one respect at least; and that is really only because Hitler decided to wear the wig of Louis XIV.

This is not a pipe – the art of Rene Magritte

All art should inspire thought though it seems to me that surrealism goes that step further: surrealism is about thinking. In particular I love the way in which surrealist painters take commonplace objects and reinterpret them in an unusual, sometimes in an unsettling and vaguely sinister way.

I have in mind the paintings of the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, my favourite from the school, who takes the most banal subjects, reproducing them in an almost deadpan way, and then adds a penetrating visual joke. One of my favourites is his Ceci n'est pas une pipe- This is not a pipe- which happens to be a straightforward depiction of, well, a pipe! In one version, just to emphasise the point, he has smoke curling up and on to the picture’s frame.

He is quite right, of course - it’s not a pipe; it’s a painting! Next time, even when you are looking at the most conventional art, do remember that what you are seeing is not a thing but a vision, a single interpretation of a thing.

Monday 21 June 2010

The Valley of Death

I have before me the words of the Reverend G. R. Grieg, an army chaplain writing about his experiences in Afghanistan. Of our presence in that benighted country he says;

A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and stupidity, brought to a close with after a suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government, which directed, or the great body of troops, which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has Britain acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.

Wait just a moment; there is something odd about this. Reverend Grieg seems to be writing from a future perspective when our troops are still there, dying by slow and awful degrees. Ah, but the thing is, you see, the Reverend Green’s future is long passed; he is writing here in 1843, writing of the first Anglo-Afghan War.

Still, the elements are there, the elements of a possible future. Why are we there, what are we doing, why are our soldiers dying? Do you know the answers to these questions, because I most certainly do not? I no longer believe the lies we were told about this operation being vital for our national security. If anything it has made matters worse.

Although he was out of step with official government policy, I completely agree with the sentiments of Liam Fox, the British Defence Secretary, that Afghanistan is a broken thirteenth century country; it will always be a broken thirteenth century country. The only thing it’s good for is opium and fanaticism.

I don’t think most people in Britain and the United States realise how bad things are, worse, even, than the later stages of the Vietnam War. I described the conflict once as the war of the Elephant and the Ant: the Elephant kills in great quantities but is overwhelmed by the Ant’s multitudes.

We don’t hear so much now about General McChrystal’s much vaunted ‘surge’ for the simple reason that no sooner had he ceased surging than the Taliban ants regrouped. Now, according to Pentagon reports, the government of the corrupt Mohammed Karzai controls only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts. We have been here so many times before: most of the countryside is controlled by the enemy while heavily-armed western troops are restricted to large towns and other strongpoints. Our soldiers are dying to prop up a puppet in Kabul, not even a particularly grateful puppet.

Yes, I feel sorry for the women who will have to live under the rule of the appalling Taliban, feel sorry for the girls who will have to grow up illiterate and ignorant, feel sorry for all of those who will have to descend back into darkness and obscurantism. But that is not our business. Afghanistan belongs in the thirteenth century, a time from which it will never emerge. This place is the anus mundi; it always has been.

Grocery List

I’ve ordered Philip Ziegler’s recently published Edward Heath, a biography of the former Conservative prime minister. Why? For two simple reasons: first, I really do need to know more about the man and, second, he is the one Conservative leader that excited the most contempt and suspicion in my family, one with a long tradition of support for the Party; he is the one that I learned to hate, if I can put in such melodramatic terms!

Again the question why comes. I suppose it’s because he promised so much and the end delivered so little. He was the man who backed down when faced with a serious challenge. He was also the man who took us into Europe without making the nation aware of the full cost of membership and the future hazards that would be encountered along the way, the hazards that have led to our present terminus, where our national sovereignty is under threat from an unrepresentative and nightmarish bureaucracy.

It’s always a good thing to challenge preconceptions and prejudices but it was William Waldegrave’s review of the book in the latest issue of The Spectator that prompted me into placing my Amazon order. Himself a former government minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Waldegrave knew Heath as well as anyone. It was the conclusion of his review that I found particularly compelling. He says that Heath was;

…so much more complex than current Conservative mythology allows; maddening, touching, intermittently horrible, very nearly very great; self-created; self-destroyed. Hugely more interesting than Wilson or Blair; and though he would have anathematised me, not for the first time, for saying so, the essential precursor of Thatcher.

How could I resist after that? I shall read, digest and review at the earliest opportunity, disguising it in plain covers in case daddy catches me and assumes that I’ve been overcome by a fit of political madness!

Let me add, having lived and grown to political consciousness through the years of the ghastly Tony Blair, the original snake oil salesman, I feel, on reflection, that there may be something to be said for Edward Heath after all. A failure, yes, a disappointment, certainly, but he was a grown-up politician for a grown-up nation. Of the two I would take grocer Heath with all of his faults than phony Tony with all his polish.

Children of the Moon

This has always seemed like a magical time of year to me, Midsummer, the Solstice, Litha, whatever one wishes to call it, it has ever since I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream when I was eight years old. The Sun is now in the sign of Cancer, my birth sign, the sign of the Moon. The magical forces are now at the height, and Robin Goodfellow puts a girdle round the Earth!

Midsummer Eve itself, St John's Eve, is a major holiday for witches and all who love them, all who love the old power and the ancient ways. Traditionally it was a fire and water festival, a central feature of which was ritual baths and bonfires. The bonfires themselves were closely linked with water, lit as they were on the shores of streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.

Midsummer marks the convergence of the Sun and the Moon. The Sun, now at its height, has entered Cancer, the great water sign, the only sign ruled by the Moon, the only sign ruled by Artemis, Diana and Hecate, the lunar goddesses. All those who share the sign of Cancer with me are collectively the Children of the Moon, hunters, witches, flyers and lovers. :-)

This was a time when witch-hunters of the past claimed that witches rode out to meet Satan, whereas the real witches, not the monsters of imagination, simply gathered to renew their sacred bond with the earth, to celebrate its bounty and fertility. It was a time also for gathering magical plants, a time when they were at their most potent. Russian witches use to harvest those which grew on the top of Bald Mountain, considering them to be the most powerful on Earth.

Magic, love and fruitfulness, these are the things Midsummer Eve and the Solstice are about; this is what they will always be about. All hail to thee, Children of the Moon.

Four days will quickly steep themselves in nights;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities

Sunday 20 June 2010

Flying becomes Electra

I said when I took the controls of the plane in my first flying lesson that I would be thinking of Amelia Earhart, the legendary American flyer, a person who’s become something of a personal avatar for me. Now after my second – even better than the first! – I thought I would add a few words in personal tribute to this wonderful woman, an angel from the age of flight exploration, who disappeared all those years ago.

I sometimes feel that I was born too late, born when all of the great challenges are over, born to walk in the paths laid out by others. Like Alexander, I have to say that there are no more worlds to conquer. But not so Amelia; she was born at just the right time, coming to maturity when so many new opportunities were arising. She grew up in the early years of flight and she became one of the great pioneers, all the more remarkable because she had to overcome established prejudices against women entering any ‘masculine’ field.

She did not just become a flyer; she became one of the best, forever looking for new challenges, always looking to overcome obstacles. This was the thing that made her great even if her daring, her desire for adventure, killed her in the end. She broke so many records, being the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic, for which she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first of her sex to receive this distinction.

She became a best-selling writer, pushing the aviation message wherever she went, encouraging more and more girls to take up flying. She was instrumental in the founding of the Ninety-Nines, an organisation for female pilots. For Amelia, for me also, there had to be more to life than being a passenger. She disappeared in July 1937 in attempting to make a round the world trip in a Lockheed Model 10 Electra. An Electra, so terribly apt, recalling one of the most determined women from Greek mythology.

I said above that her love of adventure killed her in the end. But she is one of those people who, like Electra, is herself the stuff of myths, one of those people who will never really die. Perhaps, in some other dimension of experience, she is still flying. It’s a comfort for me to believe so.

Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not
Knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.

Nor can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul's dominion.
Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

Stamps in Time

The Royal Mail, the government agency responsible for providing a general postal service in Britain, recently issued a new set of stamps commemorating the Stuart monarchs from James I to Queen Anne. Each stamp comes with the date of the reigns of the individual kings and queens in question. But there is one small problem: an organisation with the word Royal in its title seemingly approves of rebellion!

I was hugely amused by a letter in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph from one Edward Windham-Bellord pointing out that the stamp for Charles II gives the date of his reign as 1660-1685. The reign of his royal father and predecessor is rightly given as 1625-1649. So, what happened in between, what happened between 1649 and 1660? After all, this is a question that might very well be put by any perceptive individual who does not have a detailed knowledge of English history. The answer, as I’m sure most of you will know, is that rebellion happened, civil war happened, the republic happened, Oliver Cromwell happened!

Mr Windham-Bellord’s point is one accepted by all good royalists: Charles II may not have been king de facto until 1660 but he was king de jure since 1649, “whatever Cromwell and his henchmen got up to in the interim.” Yes, this is something royals and royalists have always felt strongly about. Last century George V even refused to give his permission when Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wanted to name one of the new dreadnaughts HMS Oliver Cromwell.

Still, much as I would like to, it’s not really possible to airbrush the old ogre out of our history, not really possible to issue a Charles II stamp dated 1649-1660, or indeed to include a Cromwell stamp within the Stuart gallery. After all this may very well have unleashed a new civil war!

Thursday 17 June 2010

Saville and Jarndyce

Bleak House happens to be one of my favourite novels by Charles Dickens. It centres in part on an interminable legal battle, a case known as Jarndyce v Jarndyce. Nobody quite understands the original causes of the case. All they know is that it's a dispute over a will, a dispute that serves only the interests of the lawyers, people for whom time is money; for the more time they spend wrangling over Jarndyce v Jarndyce the more of the legacy is eaten up in fees and expenses. In the end the case is settled...but only when there is nothing left.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.

So says Charles Dickens in the novel. I'm sure he would be pleased to discover that nothing much changes; that the inquiry of Lord Saville into the events of Bloody Sunday, the shooting by British troops of Irish protestors in Londonderry back in 1972, took twelve years to report at a cost to the tax payer of almost £200million.

Actually, on reflection, even the Lord Chancellor in Jarndyce v Jarndyce may have been shocked by this mad profligacy, this legal joke at public expense. Let's have a look at the figures, shall we? According to a report I read today in the Daily Mail Saville spent £34million on computers alone. That means that every page of his report cost £7000; yes, every page. It actually gets worse. His lordship spent more than £200,000 on furniture and £62,000 on something called 'media monitoring', paying a company to check the press, the television and the radio to see what they were saying about Jarn...sorry the Saville Inquiry.

The dear old judge claimed a mere £20,000 in personal expenses, not bad, I suppose, for twelve years. But, wait a moment: look at his travel expenses. For bills which involved commuting between London and Londonderry he claimed £322,413. It seems to me that it would have been better to buy this man a private jet; it may have been a lot less expensive in the end.

The tedious bill goes up and up and up: the fourteen barristers involved made several millions from the inquiry, with the best rewarded pocketing four million pounds each. Eversheads, one of the legal firms involved, was paid more than £13million for interviewing witnesses. And then there is the £23million that went on offices and halls, as well as £25.8million listed in the accounts as 'operation of systems/maintenance.' Best not to say anything about the £2.5million written off as 'general office expenditure'

In the end the whole bill came to exactly £191.2million, roughly the equivalent of £4 for every man, woman and child in the whole of the United Kingdom, and that is not the end; for legal bills and other expenses are still coming through. It's a joke but sadly the joke's on us.

This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man's acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give--who does not often give--the warning, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!"

Health to your spirit, dear lady

In January I wrote a blog about tests being carried out by the University of Bristol to determine if a 1000 year old skeleton, discovered in Magdeburg Cathedral in 2008, were those of Eadgyth or Edith, an Anglo-Saxon princess (Ferthu hal, Eadgyth) Here is what I wrote in my opening paragraph;

Princess Eadgyth-or Edith-of Wessex, daughter of Edward the Elder, granddaughter of Alfred the Great, and half-sister of Athelstan, the first king of all England, has come home after a thousand years, or at least part of her has. Fragments of her body arrived this week at Bristol University, where tests are expected to confirm that the woman found in a lead coffin inside a stone sarcophagus at Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany is the princess who left this country more than a millennium ago to marry Otto the Great, the first Holy Roman Emperor.

Well, it is! The tests have now proved conclusively that the bones belonged to a woman who grew up in the ancient kingdom of Wessex. Professor Harold Meller, the director of the project, has said of this;

Medieval bones were moved frequently, and often mixed up, so it required some exceptional science to prove that they are indeed those of Eadgyth. It is incredible that we have been able to do this using the most recent analytical techniques.

The remains were thought to be lost forever in 1510 when they were last moved and that the monument in Magdeburg was merely a cenotaph in her honour. Not so; she was there, resting down the ages. Once again, health to your spirit, dear lady.

De Gaulle and the Myth of Resistance

Tomorrow is one of the most famous days in French history. It marks the anniversary in 1940 when Charles de Gaulle appealed on BBC radio in London to his countrymen urging them to continue to resist the Germans, even though the government of the day had formally surrendered to the invading army. Famous, yes, an event being marked by commemorations across the land. President Sarkozy himself will attend a ceremony at Mont Valereien near Paris, where a memorial to the French Resistance is situated, before flying to London to visit studio B2, from where de Gaulle made his broadcast, saying, in noble words, that "Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished."

There is only one small problem: it’s a myth. Oh, not the broadcast; that's real enough, something that happened because Winston Churchill, the prime minister, allowed it to happen in the face of opposition from the rest of the war cabinet. It's a myth because de Gaulle was probably heard by enough people to fill a village hall. The chances are, moreover, few of those who did listen on that bleak day in French history, when a great part of the nation was on the road fleeing from the German advance, had ever heard of this figure, a senior soldier but a minor politician. It's a myth - and here is the uncomfortable truth -because the vast bulk of the French population were relieved by the call for the armistice. The vast bulk of the French population rallied behind another soldier altogether and were to remain behind him for years to come. He was Philippe Petain, the new Prime Minister and subsequently head of the French state established at Vichy.

But history is often made retrospectively. De Gaulle, in the end, was on the side of the winners and Petain, Petain, whose side was he on? The losers, the answer has to come because he was tried and condemned as a traitor in 1945. But Petain was not Pierre Laval, who did more or less take the side of losers he believed were to be winners; Petain, rather like de Gaulle, took the side of France, though there are few now who would admit to this, preferring to sweep Vichy into a shameful oblivion. There is much about the Vichy regime that is shameful but the shame is not Petain's it is not even Laval's: the shame is France’s

No matter; in the end the obscure figure in London, stiff, totally lacking in humour, unimaginative and uncompromising came like a new Joan of Arc to save the conscience of the nation. He came in time to create the myth of resistance passing into shameful memory the realities of collaboration. Thus is history born; thus are nations made.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Pissing on the Palace

Earlier this year I wrote a blog about blogging on another blog site, one I share with other bloggers! I called the piece The Happy Blogger, added to my contributions to My Telegraph, a reader’s forum run by a British national daily. Amongst other things it was intended as an indirect swipe at people coming from another multi-author site only to solicit recruits, because in their gloom-and-doom estimation nothing was right with My Telegraph, which seemed to mean that it was not the same as it was, not the same as when they were yoofs. This is part of what I said;

I have to say that I for one find it immensely irritating when people criticise this site, looking for goodness knows what forms of perfection. If you do not like the place the answer is simple – leave, go somewhere else. But please, please don’t keep coming back only to solicit recruits for this faction or that gang. I know if I were a moderator that is one thing I would come down on quite heavily. Please do not misunderstand me; people have every right to blog elsewhere as well as here. I just think it really bad form when the only reason for being here is to talk the place down.

The person who runs that other site, which I did not name then and refuse to name now, decided to rein-in his gang – and it is his gang-, making a general statement based, in part, on a perverse misinterpretation of my words. He also told them that I should be treated like “any other troll.” The whole thing was just too, too funny.

The site itself is a bit of a joke, mostly with shallow and tedious contributions, though there are some decent people there with some interesting things to say. But there are others, bears of very little brain and two-faced clots whom I encountered on My Telegraph and quickly dismissed for their obvious lack of intelligence and basic comprehension. Yes, there are decent and thoughtful people in the place, people, I have to say, who are strangely blind to the awful matey cliquishness.

I stopped going there to look over shoulders, so to speak, weeks ago but recently another blogger told me that he had joined – against my advice, I have to add- and that he was coming in for some fairly rough treatment. I had a look and it was as much as I expected. It’s a bear-baiting pit, and he was the bear. Although he attracted some support there are those who clearly went out of their way to make fun at his expense, to make him feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, first because he was something new and different and second because he has a style that does not easily lend itself to blog small talk, and the site he joined is most definitely a ‘small talk blog.’

So, is there any point to this? No, not really. I’m just venting some annoyance over stupidity, insularity and small-mindedness. But if Gulliver will visit the land of Lilliput what can he expect? The best thing to do is to piss over the palace and leave.

The Power of Penguin

My introduction to the classics of world literature came through Penguin Books. I must have been about ten when I read their editions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, moving on from my reading of Robert Graves' book on the Greek Myths. Over the years I’ve covered so much more, with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France lodged as favourites, books to which I return repeatedly for reassurance on some point or other.

I never really thought about the publishers themselves, never really thought about Penguin Books, not until now. The latest issue of History Today has drawn my attention to this publishing institution, launched by one Allen Lane almost seventy-five years ago.

Lane joined the publishing company of Bodley Head, founded by John Lane, his mother’s cousin, in 1919 when he was sixteen years old. He took up a fairly humble position, the intention being that he should learn the trade from the bottom up. Gifted with natural ability, his rise was swift. He became a director when John died in 1925 and chairman five years later though still only in his twenties.

In 1934 on returning to London by train from Devon he was annoyed to find that there was nothing in the Exeter station worth reading for the trip back. With nothing else to do he reflected on the possibility of publishing high-quality fiction and non-fiction at an affordable price, sixpence in pre-decimal money being the amount he alighted on, which I think is about a penny or so in present values.

When he put his idea to the other directors of Bodley Head they were unenthusiastic because paperbacks at the time had a low reputation, generally considered to be ‘dirty rubbish’, but they agreed to let him go ahead, though only in his own time. With the help of his brothers Dick and John he went about the project with enthusiasm. After toying with the names of Dolphin Books and Porpoise Books they eventually settled on Penguin.

The aim was to get away completely from the image of the paperback format that had so unsettled the directors of Bodley Head. There were to be no bosoms and bottoms on the covers, just some simple colours – green for crime stories, orange for other fiction and blue for non-fiction, with the title in plain lettering on a white band across the middle. Ten books were picked for the launch in July 1935, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Despite the reservations of his colleagues the venture was an immediate success, with most of the books selling out rapidly. Lane introduced more titles and on New Year’s Day 1936 Penguin was launched as a separate company with himself and his brothers as directors. The following year Penguin was joined by Pelican, specialising in non-fiction, with George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism being the first on the list. After the war came Penguin Classics, beginning with a translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

In 1950 a leader in The Times saluted Lane, who died in 1970, for making up for the loss of the British Empire by using the English language and affordable books to spread British influence across the world. I don’t suppose there is a better accolade than that.

Great but not Good

I was asked once in class to choose the person I considered to be the greatest political leader of the twentieth century. That’s easy enough but I also had to defend my choice. It’s always difficult to make assessments of this kind because of all of the variables that have to be taken into consideration; but as far as I am concerned the real political giant of the twentieth century was Joseph Stalin. This does not mean to say that I like him; I do not: not by any measure. But I cannot help but admire him: I admire his ruthlessness, his intelligence, his political skill and his determination.

The son of a cobbler, born of the fringes of the old Russian Empire, he outwitted time and again those better placed than him within his own party, not excluding Lenin. Rising to the top, he industrialized his country in a way that surely saved it when the great test came in 1941. He defeated Hitler- and, yes, it was the Soviet Army that bore the brunt of the fighting against the Germans and several of their allies- going on to outplay Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman. He stands across the twentieth century like a true colossus. He may not have been a good man, but he was a great one. Are the great, I have to ask myself, ever good?

The Death of Essex

Arthur Capell, earl of Essex, was one of the senior figures arrested in the wake of the Rye House Plot of 1683. He had no involvement in the botched scheme to assassinate Charles II and his brother James, but his opposition to the Stuarts was of long standing. His subsequent death in prison, immediately attributed to suicide, was a cause of much speculation.

Did he kill himself or was he murdered? One should begin, I suppose, by taking the mantle of Cicero- Cui bono?-who benefited from Essex's death? In other words, what political purpose did it serve? Well, the evidence against the Plotters was very weak. Essex supposed suicide was taken by a good many people as a direct admission of guilt. In the trial of Lord William Russell, two of the prosecutors, Francis North and the infamous George Jeffreys, immediately argued that it proved the guilt of the accused. On that basis, and on that basis alone, Russell was convicted and condemned to death.

Essex, moreover, had formerly been involved in the highest reaches of government, a royal minister and servant of the king, and thus not at all in the same class as the conspirators with whom he was associated. It is possible that a trial would have revealed dealings of the inner workings of government, which would hardly have been welcome to Charles or his brother James. It is also not entirely immaterial that Essex's servant, Paul Bromley, who served him in the Tower, and was the first to discover the earl's body, was paid £50- a huge sum at the time- after the inquest delivered a verdict of suicide.

But more than anything else the manner of Essex's death helped to discredit the Whigs, even those who had no association at all with the Rye House Plot. One has to remember the horror with which 'self-murder' was viewed at the time. But for the king's clemency, Essex's body could, by practiced custom, have been buried outwith hallowed ground, usually by a cross-road or on a highway, with a stake driven through his heart.

The Whigs immediately raised questions, saying that the earl could not possibly have committed so loathsome an act, and looking for royal complicity. Pamphlets began to circulate in London saying that Essex had been murdered, and documents were intercepted accusing James of ordering the crime in person. None other than John Locke, a close associate of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, the greatest of the Whigs, wrote a paper promoting the murder theory. Robert Ferguson, another Whig exile, wrote a pamphlet detailing supposed irregularities at the inquest, which was published in 1684 and smuggled into England. The government was so alarmed by this that it took the unusual step of publishing a transcript of the inquest in full.

After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 the victorious Whigs began a serious search for evidence that Essex was murdered, a quest approved by the Convention Parliament and supported by Gilbert Burnet. One Captain John Holland was arrested and accused of participating in the crime. It is likely that, in the political circumstances of the day, the verdict of the 1683 inquest would have been overturned but for the intervention of the dowager Countess of Essex, who asked that proceedings be stopped. Thus the official inquiry ended, though the speculation did not. Burnet himself began to doubt that Essex had been murdered; and when his History of My Own Times was published in 1724 he supported the suicide theory.

This is a matter that will never be resolved. It still continues to divide historians, right down to the present day. Do I think he was murdered? No, I do not; but then I am no Whig. :-)

Dickens on Social Class

Charles Dickens' protagonists are almost always solid, hard-working middle-class types, such as would appeal in the Victorian reading public. Excepting Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, none of his novels has a central working-class hero or heroine. Even Oliver is found to come from solid stock in the end, and Pip is taken far beyond his lowly origins.

What his novels express above all, though, is the distaste the new aspiring middle-class have for traditional elites; either narrow in vision, like Sir Leicester Deadlock in Bleak House; predatory and treacherous, like Sir Mulberry Hawk in Nicholas Nickleby, or foppish and stupid, like Sir Mulberry's friend, Lord Frederick Verisopht. Even Steerforth, whom Dickens’s treats with a degree of sympathy in David Copperfield, has a languid and amoral quality that the author always associates with a certain kind of decadent upper-class seducer.