Thursday 15 July 2010

Hasta Luego

Here we are once again: this is my last post for the season; Ana is taking a vacation! Early on Monday morning I leave for Guatemala, from there fanning out across Central America, spending time in Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and, if our itinerary allows, in Mexico. I've been to Guatemala before, visiting, all too briefly, the wonderful Mayan remains at Tikal. I want to spend more time there. I also want to visit the Mayan sites in Honduras, a country I've never been to.

But there is another reason for visiting here- I want to show some simple solidarity with the people of the country, the decent people, and the government of Pepe Lobo. After they threw out Manuel Zelaya, that Chavez clone and tyrant in the making, I blogged ferociously on behalf of this beleaguered nation, isolated across the world, under attack from the likes of Fidel Castro and Barack Obama. The pressure is off now and Zelaya, thankfully, is the wave of the past. Viva Honduras!

Anyway, I'll be away for close on four weeks. I hope you all have a decent summer and I'll see you, the goddess willing, in mid-August.

By God's Tongue!

People familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may recall some of the oaths favoured in the Middle Ages, usually based on some aspect of the divine anatomy – “God’s teeth”, “God’s bones”, that sort of thing. It rather makes today’s’ favoured forms of swearing repetitive and rather bloodless in comparison!

In the July issue of the BBC History Magazine John Spurr looks at profanities from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, showing what they reveal about society at the time (“Damn your blood”- Swearing in Early Modern English). I noted with interest that anti-swearing statutes passed in the time of James I and George III made a distinction between swearing and cursing. So when one King John of Colne Engaine in Essex swore by “God’s blood” that he would be avenged on the local church wardens and “bade a pox on them” he was guilty of both swearing a profane oath and of cursing!

The profane oath was really a reflection, a negative reflection, of that most solemn legal oath ‘so help me God.’ In the late seventeenth century John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was complaining of vain swearers, who “tell their jesting tales, and lies, and then swear by God that they are true.” In the previous century a Protestant pastor reported the situation in verse, showing that not much had changed since the days of Chaucer;

Some swear by God’s nails, his heart and his body
And some swear by his flesh, his blood, and his foot
And some by his guts, his life, and heart root,
Some other would seem all swearing to refrain
And invent idle oaths, such as is in their idle brain:
By cock and by pie, and by the goose wing
By the cross of the mouse foot and by Saint Chicken
And some swear by the Devil in their blindness.

It’s the sheer variety that amuses me, not just those mentioned by the pastor but oaths by idols, by the mass, by our Lady, saints, birds, beasts, real or not! Moralists were shocked but for some there was a clear logic in their hostility to profanity, as eighteenth century authorities made clear;

For from a custom of swearing men easily slide into perjury, and how can it be consistent with reason that a man who hourly invokes God by rash and vain swearing should boggle at a false oath, whenever his lust, his covetousness, his revenge and his ambition prompt him to it?

The battle between the ‘cavalier’ swearers and the ‘roundhead’ righteous would seem to me to be indicative, at a low level, of a growing fracture within the general community from late Tudor times onwards; between those who held to profane tradition and those who wanted a moral revolution. The Godly, as Spurr writes, became intolerant of any form of swearing outside of the law courts and some of the more extreme sects, including the Baptists and the Quakers, refused even to swear in that setting.

And heaven help any public figure who broke the moral code. In 1654 the MP Henry Glapthorne let rip, swearing by "God's wounds, by Good's blood, by Jesus Christ, by the eternal God, God confound me body and soul, God damn me, the Devil fetch me, God refuse me." The Devil did not fetch him and God did not refuse him - his constituents did: they successfully petitioned for his removal from Parliament as a "common curser and a swearer" who was not "fit to be a law-maker and a parliament man for them."

It's a mark of how much things have changed since those days that oaths by God or Christ are now considered to be fairly mild. The racial and sexual terms that are now considered offensive - I admit with ever decreasing effectiveness - would not have bothered the people of Tudor, Stuart and Georgian England. In other words they would not give a fuck about fuck. :-)

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The Tale of Peter Slime

I’m sure you must have gone to movies after watching seductive trailers – I know I have – only to discover that everything worth seeing was packed into those few brief minutes, the rest being pure tedium!

This came to mind on reading The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour, Peter Mandeson’s recently published ‘memoir’, extracts from which are presently appearing in The Times. I can only assume that they have chosen the ‘best bits’ which is rather alarming because the ‘best bits’ are really quite pedestrian, written in a dull, clichéd style! I suppose I should be grateful that it saves me the trouble of buying a tome that weighs in at over five hundred pages.

So, here we are – what? –some eight weeks from the general election and Mandelson, the former Business Secretary and all round fixer (oh, how I miss writing about him), has published a book. Even with his superhuman powers this exercise clearly had to be in preparation for some time, this exercise in self-justification and back-stabbing. I’m really not sure if political memoirs these days will be of much use to future historians, psychologists, perhaps, but not historians. It’s really a race to see who gets the boot in first, and Mandelson has made sure that it’s him.

The dear Lord tells us of the treachery in the last days of the New Labour Reich, an amusing confirmation of all those YouTube videos with Gordon Brown as Hitler. He also tells us that victory was impossible under Brown; that when Harriet Harman proposed an election campaign around the three Fs – future, family and fairness – he together with Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander suggested their own version – Futile, Finished and Fucked.

Interesting, don’t you agree? I seem to remember that it was Mandelson who effectively rescued Der Fuhrer in the wake of the James Purnell resignation fiasco and in the wake of Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt’s ‘January Plot’, presumably while this book was still being shaped. He was also responsible for Labour’s subsequent electoral campaign, the “I agree with Nick” campaign, possibly the most cack-handed in the party’s history. I wonder if there is some deeper message here about Labour politics and the role Mandelson played in the final days. After all, this is a government that might have been saved if Brown was ejected in sufficient time. But he was not, thanks to the dear Lord, making history as well as writing history.

There were lots of potential assassins, lots of people who wanted to follow in the steps of Cassius and Brutus, people like David Miliband and Jack Straw, who in the end had not the courage to make the unkindest cut of all. When I think of these people, this shabby and treacherous Labour shower, I’m minded of the comment once made about German generals and their failure to stand up to Hitler: that their heads were too close to their arses because they had absolutely no backbone.

As for the book, the Mandelson masterpiece, I’m minded of the words of Major Calloway to Holly Martin in the movie The Third Man –“That sounds like a cheap novelette.” Yes, in a way it does. Still, when I see him from now on the Harry Lime theme will go through my head. It certainly shall.

Magic Moments

I mentioned the other day that I had just finished Molotov’s Magic Lantern – a Journey in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky. This is one of the books that Orlando Figes, another specialist in Russian history, tried to cheapen by an Amazon review, written supposedly by his wife, while talking up his own work. The whole affair was really quite sad because he is a decent historian, one whose work stands on its own merits, one who did not need to attempt assassination by review. Being a decent historian, sadly, is no guarantee against being a foolish human being.

Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a superb piece of work, idiosyncratic, playful and learned. It reminds me in some ways of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in that it is also part travelogue, part history and party intellectual exploration, though Polonsky is far less intense than West.

Her quest, yes, it’s also a kind of quest, begins from an apartment block in Romanov Lane in Moscow, centred in an elite district, the home of important officials in both Tsarist and Soviet times. There she found herself staying beneath the apartment once occupied by none other than Vyacheslav Molotov, once Stalin’s foreign minister and collaborator in the great tragedy that overtook Russia in the 1930s. After he had been expelled from the party during the days of de-Stalinisation his wife made a personal appeal to Khrushchev for his readmission. In response he took her to the state archives, there showing her the numerous execution lists her husband had signed.

But the paradox, the great paradox of the twentieth century, is that Molotov was no brute, as Polonsky discovered after she was allowed to explore his empty apartment. There she found not just his magic lantern but the remains of his library. She discovered that the monster was a bibliophile with a particular love of Chekhov. A lot of the books in the collection had been annotated by him in person. This is the heart of the paradox- humane, erudite and, yes, even loving people, people like Molotov, can be dehumanised by an almost total failure of the imagination, an inability to empathise with real people, people beyond the pages of books; dehumanised in the name of a human idea.

Having thrown a stone into the pond Polonsky follows the rings out across Russia; from Taganrog in the south, where Chekhov was born, through Novgorod the Great in the west, to Murmansk in the north, all the way east to Lake Baikal in Siberia. She moves outwards and inwards at the same time, exploring the history of a people and its culture through places.

The book is far from exhaustive and it is by no means a history of Russia in the most complete sense. Still less is it a biography of Molotov, who is at best of incidental importance. It’s her journey, and where she stops, in both place and time, is largely determined by personal reasons. Though she takes nothing for granted it helps, at least I believe so, if one has a little background knowledge. It’s not absolutely necessary; it just makes a reading a little bit richer.

Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a clever, bold and imaginative book with just a soupcon of whimsy, a celebration of greatness and a lament for a tragedy, so much a part of the epic that is Russia.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

The Labours of David Cameron

Impressed as I am by him as a politician I never quite saw David Cameron in the role of Hercules. OK, he might not be ready to fight lions – not yet – but he is about to embark on the fifth labour of the Greek hero: he is about to cleanse the Augean Stables; he is about to clean the accumulated filth of thirteen years of Labour elf ‘n’ safety rules, laws and mind-numbingly petty regulations.

In an interview with the Daily Mail on Saturday, Super Dave said that this whole area had gone mad under the previous government, that the time has come to end the accumulated neurosis which has forced the emergency services to stand aside while people, including children, have died, for fear of contravening some regulation or other, for fear of incurring the wrath of some jobsworth or other.

As an aside to the interview some examples are given. Two of them for me define the parameters of the whole elf ‘n’ safety farce, one sad, the other laughable.

In Wigan police support officers watched ten-year-old Jordan Lyon struggling in pond, ordered not to intervene by their control room because they did not have the right training. By the time those with such training arrived Jordan was dead.

After an inquiry lasting two years and costing £250,000 elf ‘n’ safety inspectors concluded that ten-pin bowling alleys could be a “very dangerous” environment for families. Why? Had they been the setting for some serious accidents? No, they had not. It was too easy, the dramatic conclusion was reached, for children or teenagers to run down the lanes and become trapped in the machinery. After a second’s reflection, at no cost at all, I can tell you that life leads to death. Only elf ‘n’ safety inspectors stand in the way!

Anyway, returning to Dave, he commissioned Lord Young, Margaret Thatcher’s one-time Trade and Industry Secretary, to look into this whole area. Young is to recommend that the police, paramedics, ambulance drivers and other emergency services be exempt from prosecution under elf ‘n’ safety laws while carrying out their duties.

The Prime Minister said, commenting on Young’s work, that there was far too much intrusion into everyday life by state-sanctioned bureaucracy, bureaucracy that now makes something as simple as a school outing all but impossible. He has not ruled out abolishing that dreadful quango the Health and Safety Executive altogether.

"We do have a good record of health and safety at work in this country”, he said, ”and we have a low level of industrial accidents and that’s important. You can deal with this problem without jeopardising that at all. The neurosis comes from excessive litigation fears, unclear law, mission creep, Europe, town halls. It’s all of those things and we have to deal with each one. That’s what we will do."

Well done, Hercules. Now it’s time to move on to those wretched Stympahlian Birds. :-)

The French Goebbels

In the summer of 1944 Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was the setting for a state funeral in what was to be the last symbolic act of the regime of Marshall Petain that had governed France with ever diminishing authority since 1940. There was something bizarrely unreal about the whole occasion. To the north-west of the capital the Allies were fighting to break out of Normandy; within six weeks they would arrive in Paris itself. To all but the most deluded it was clear that the Germans were losing the war.

But still the funeral was conducted with due solemnity. The man being honoured was Philippe Henriot, appointed Vichy’s head of propaganda in January 1944, who had been assassinated by the Resistance on 28 June. Why was this considered necessary? Quite simply because, in the twilight of collaboration, it was Henriot who had become the voice of Vichy, not Petain or Pierre Laval, his prime minister. And a highly effective voice he was too, so effective that the Free French, broadcasting from London, had taken to calling him the French Goebbels.

Henriot, besides being a skilled radio broadcaster, possessed one key advantage: the French may have been tired of the war, even more tired of the German occupiers, but they were still immensely fearful of the destructive consequences of liberation. For weeks prior to the Normandy landings Allied bombing raids on France had increased in intensity, providing Henriot with plenty of material for his twice-daily broadcasts. He contrasted the suffering of his fellow countrymen with those who had taken refuge with de Gaulle in England. And the native Resistance, the Maquis, he told his listeners, was made up of communists, terrorists, criminals and gangsters. The true heroes of France, he said, were the men of the Milice, Vichy’s paramilitary police force, who would restore order to a chaotic world.

Henriot had an interesting background, emerging from the Catholic and Anti-Semitic right that had felt itself increasingly beleaguered ever since the days of the affaire Dreyfus earlier in the century, which had introduced one of the great fault lines into French political life. At the beginning of the war he had also been strongly anti-German, a patriot like most patriots of the day who rallied to Marshall Petain after the fall of France and not to the band of émigrés who followed Charles de Gaulle to London. He was a French patriot, yes, a believer in the nation’s Catholic civilization and a hater not just of Jews, whom he did not consider to be French, but of communists.

This fear and hatred of communism is the key to understanding the most crucial metamorphosis in Henriot’s career. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 he saw Germany as the great cleansing force, one that that would deliver Christian civilization from the contagion of communism.

In the early months of 1944, such was Henriot’s effectiveness, the French were fighting a civil war ‘on air.’ Resistance agents had reported that his broadcasts were having a strong influence on a fearful and uncertain population. From London a counter-attack was launched, with a number of people, headed by Maurice Schumann, warning people against Henriot’s seductive words. He continually referred to the exiles as the “the Jewish shirkers in London”, who responded by calling him a “Judas”, seemingly quite unaware of the irony here.

Counter-broadcasts were not enough. In the end the only way to stop Henriot was to kill him. That same evening Schumann proclaimed that “We will not hide our joy at this event. France will do very well without the voice of Philippe Henriot.” The rest was silence.

Remembrance of things past

I was discussing music this morning with Adam Garrie, a fellow blogger almost as tireless as I am. There was no particular depth to this exchange, mostly some light banter. But I happened to mention that I liked Russian composers like Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Thinking about the latter the very first piece of romantic music I fell in love with was Scheherazade, his symphonic suite based on the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Mother and I used to listen to it when I was little as she told me the most wonderful stories night after night, just like Scheherazade herself. I still can't listen to some of the themes without feeling tears welling up. I delight in the sheer beauty combined with a remembrance of things past.

Monday 12 July 2010

Father of the Age

Late this afternoon I finished reading Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Rachael Plonsky's idiosyncratic and brilliant journey through modern Russian history, taking as her point of departure the books she found in the Moscow apartment of Stalin’s former foreign minister and co-executioner. I intend to write a review over he next few days but I'm adding this, I'm adding what you are about to read, in a kind of intellectual ferment. It's an impression on the same basis as the painting style. Forgive me if it seems a little incoherent. Quite simply, it's raw thought.

Molotov, or Vyacheslav Skryabin, his real name, was a product of an age. Europe has been divided by historians into distinct phases or ages - the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, all quite arbitrary when one thinks about it. For me the last century up to the fall of the Soviet Union is best defined as the Age of Ideology, the age when human destiny was guided by one malevolent idea or another.

Yes, malevolent. How does one understand a man like Adolf Hitler? How does one understand a school drop-out, a man who disgraced and betrayed his family, who sank into the most abject sections of Viennese society? But for the First World War this man would have died in complete obscurity in some common lodging house in Vienna or Munich. But his pathology was Germany's pathology. The war, which really did pull out the roots of European civilization, gave him his opportunity; ideology gave him his opportunity.

But that was not enough, Germany’s defeat and sense of grievance was not enough; there had to be something more; there had to be a Moses, one who brought the commandments of the Age of Ideology down from Mount Sinai. The Moses was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Russian, Kalmyk and Jewish, Lenin, to use his alias, in my estimation the most vile, most malevolent human being who ever lived, and, oddly enough, the apotheosis of mediocrity.

I saw him when I was in Moscow - if it is him and not a wax replica. Inwardly I could feel nothing but contempt. Every evil that you have ever conceived, every evil of the Age of Ideology is his. Hitler is nothing; Hitler was merely an epiphenomena. He, along with Stalin, Trotsky, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of the monsters are simply inconceivable without Lenin. Some of his children may be bastards but they are still his children.

The remarkable thing is that he was crushingly dull, not at all charismatic. His writing is second-rate, hysterically polemical and almost always off target. His oratory, from what I can gather, was even worse. If he is evil his evil is even more banal than that of that stupid apparatchik Adolf Eichmann. I can't understand, I don't understand, why history threw up this bourgeois mediocrity other than as some massive joke.

I remember reading the comment of a Russian after he'd seen him in Red Square for the first time, after it was safe to express an honest opinion. His hope was that Ulyanov would remain like this forever, not buried with his mother as he had wished, that he should remain as an exhibit for the idle and the curious to gawp at as if visiting an exhibition of stuffed animals prepared by a taxidermist. He should remain like this for the sacred soil of Russia would simply refuse to hold him. Amen

Happy Birthday, Stephanie!

Today happens to be the twenty-seventh birthday of one of my dearest and closest friends, Stephanie J.K.S.P. A good bit of what I am I owe to her; for she showed me so much, made me understand so much, taught me so much. She is one of the brightest, most radiant spirits I have ever known; I will always be in her shadow. A very happy birthday, darling Stephanie and I’ll see you very soon. We’ll have a party, you and I, just the two of us.

Pantomime History

I love history and I love movies, my twin passions, if you like. I’ve seen some truly excellent films that deal with historical subjects, using a high degree of verisimilitude. For example, I think that Michael Caton-Jones' movie Rob Roy is a reasonable depiction of political and social conditions in early eighteenth century Scotland. There is only one small point I would take issue with, where Rob is shown riding a horse wearing a kilt. Now anybody who knows anything about riding, about the male anatomy and about how kilts were worn, will understand why the Scots gentry invented trews, the narrow trousers worn as an alternative to the kilt!

But it’s really another movie dealing with a Scottish historical subject I have in mind, Mel Gibson’s much-lauded Braveheart, which purports to tell the story of William Wallace, the great William Tell-like hero of the medieval Scottish Wars of Independence. Andrew Carson, a fellow blogger and friend, made some fairly damning criticisms of this movie in a discussion on BlogCatalogue, criticisms which I fully agree with. I’m glad he did because he’s also a Scot and I was under the impression that all Scots loved this depiction of their national epic, an impression I gathered in visiting the country over the years. But now he’s broken the ice, so to speak, an Englishwoman can, at her peril, enter the waters!

I know it’s only a movie, it’s only entertainment. Right, now I’ve got that out of the way I can say what I really think, and what I think is that the history is dramatic and exciting enough without this awful pastiche. The English soldiers, draped in some comic opera armour, are just pantomime villains. Yes, I know, I was bound to say that. But what I don’t understand is why the Scots, most Scots, allowed themselves to be seduced by this caricature. It’s almost like black people seeing their own history through the medium of the nigger minstrel shows of old.

The inaccuracies are too numerous to mention. The whole movie was clearly aimed at confirming the preconceptions of a chiefly American audience; and when the Americans think of Scotland what they think of is Highlands, tartans and clans, what I call the Brigadoon image. But the men who fought with Wallace, and then Robert Bruce, were mostly drawn from the Lowlands of the south and the east. They were not clansmen at all and they most assuredly did not wear tartan. Indeed some of the staunchest enemies of Bruce in particular were Highlanders.

Perhaps the most ludicrous suggestion was that Wallace had a sexual relationship with Isabella, princess of Wales; that he was the father of her child. It doesn’t really matter that he was dead before she came to England. What does matter, what Scots should be aware of, is that this would make Wallace the father of Edward III. In other words, one of Scotland’s greatest heroes is suggested as the father of one of its greatest enemies!

I really don’t want to belabour the point and it is possible to enjoy the movie at the simple level of cartoon-style entertainment; all good on one side, all bad on the other. I’m blessed, or cursed, you chose which, with a kind of sensitivity to historical subjects that makes such uncomplicated enjoyment all but impossible. Still, I’ve been fairly mild here, pulling my punches where I can pull punches. You don’t really want to know what I think about To Kill a King, set in the English Civil War!

Sunday 11 July 2010

Je Ne Regrette Rien

Life is full of regrets of one kind or another, though more in the dusk, I imagine, than in the dawn. There are always choices to be made, always paths to be taken. To take one closes down all of the others. Inevitably, in retrospect, one is bound to think that things might have been better – not just different- if the other paths had been taken. It really is an existential thing.

On a simple human level one is also bound to feel a degree of regret over the pain caused to others, not that things could have been any different, or that it’s possible to go through life without causing pain. I know that I have caused my parents quite a high degree of anguish, especially when I was in my mid-teens. I do regret wounding them, sometimes unnecessarily so, which is not to say that I would have behaved differently, at least not in some cases. There are also choices to be made in love, difficult and hard choices. But one cannot live through sacrifice for the sake of others; at least I can’t.

I’ve never really regretted being anything other than I am. I’m an only child of loving parents who always did their best to nurture and encourage every talent I had, and several that I did not. I was never limited in any way, never made to feel that some doors were closed simply because I was female. I am, however, delighted to have been born a girl, never for a moment thinking how much better it would have been if I had been a boy. I can combine so many dimensions, intellectual, emotional and intuitive in a way that males do not generally do. It’s a kind of power, I suppose, the power of a woman.

French Marquis; Soviet Hero

I don’t generally read obituaries. To be more exact, I don’t think I’ve ever read one right through. I did on Saturday, though, for two reasons: the obituary was about a pilot and I have a slight obsession with all matters relating to flying and aircraft at the present. But it wasn’t about just any pilot, no; it was about a French marquis who flew a Yak fighter alongside the Red Air Force during the Second World War. Reading these outline facts I was drawn like a moth to a flame!

Jacques, marquis de Saint Phalle, who died on 15 June aged ninety-two, belonged to a family that can trace its roots as far back as the sixth century. His ancestral home was the Burgundian Chateau de Mountgoublin. During the war he managed to escape from occupied France, coming to London, where he hoped to fly Spitfires with the RAF.

Instead he eventually found serving with the Normandie-Neman squadron of the Free French Air Force, which was sent, on the suggestion of Charles de Gaulle, to the Eastern Front in 1943 to aid the Soviet forces. The unit had the name Neman appended to its title by Stalin himself after the part it played the Battle of the Neman River in 1944.

Although Saint Phalle himself only ever had one confirmed kill in a hundred missions, shooting down a Focke-Wulf 190, the squadron destroyed 273 enemy aircraft in all between March 1943 and May 1945, flying Russian Yakovlev ‘Yak’ fighters, as effective in the east as the Spitfire was in the west. Such was the prowess of the unit, emphasised in Soviet propaganda, that Field Marshal William Keitel ordered the immediate execution of any captured French pilots.

Saint Phalle, clearly a remarkable man, had begun his pilot training before the war, obtaining his licence in the summer of 1939. Even so when he came to London he had not enough flying hours to qualify as a skilled pilot. He simply overcame this obstacle by lying to Jean Tulasne, the commander of the Normandie squadron. For his part in the war in the east he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the Medal for the Victory over Germany and the Order of the Patriotic War.

I have no idea what his politics were; so while I’m tempted to call him the ‘Red Marquis’ this may be a disservice to his memory. Instead, by one of the little ironies that history rather favours, a French aristocrat found himself fighting for the "workers' state". I wonder what Robespierre and Marat would have made of that!

The magic of the craft has opened for me a world in which I shall confront, within two hours, the black dragons and the crowned crests of a coma of blue lightning, and when night has fallen I, delivered, shall read my course in the stars.

The Sexiest Love Song Ever written

There is a feature on Serge Gainsbourg today in Seven, the Sunday Telegraph's art's magazine. A musician, painter, photographer, writer and all round bad boy, he is still an iconic figure in France, his homeland, almost twenty years after his death. A former French president even described him as a descendent of the poets Apollinaire and Baudelaire. After all these years tributes in packets of Gitanes cigarettes and and bottles of Pastis, his favourite vices...sorry, high among his favourite vices, are still left on his grave.

In England he is known, if he is known at all, for one thing and one thing only, a song called Je t'aime, moi non plus (I love neither). The unusual title comes from a quip by Salvador Dali about Picasso: "Picasso is Spanish, so am I. Picasso is a genius, so am I. Picasso is communist, neither am I".

A duet, it was originally written for Bridget Bardot, his then girlfriend, but she asked him not to release their version because she was married, and not to him! He agreed but that same year, 1969, he met and fell in love with Jane Birkin, a young English actress some twenty years his junior. Their duet went on to become a sensation when it was released as a single.

The song is structured as a dialogue between two lovers during sex. Even in these more sexually liberated times it still has a slightly sensational quality. Then it was predictably condemned by the Vatican and banned by the BBC, old Auntie, still the arbiter of British sexual morals. The relationship between Gainsbourg, not just middle aged but fairly ugly, and the young and beautiful Birkin was also an occasion for comment, with The Times saying "To see them together is to believe again in every fairy story ever written".

The two went on to have a daughter together, Charlotte. This week Birkin will open a Parisian park in memory of her former lover, with a Boulevard Gainsbourg following later this year. An exhibition of photographs featuring Gainsbourg is presently on show in Antwerp and there are plans to bring it to London next year.

I think the story of Gainsbourg and Birkin is like that of Abelard and Heloise, one of the great tributes to love, dryly Platonic in the first case, magnificently sensual in the second. I have not the least doubt that Je t'aime, moi non plus is one of the sexiest, most moving tributes to physical love ever written. It makes me tingle, it truly does.

Je t’aime je t’aime
Oh oui je t’aime
- Moi non plus
- Oh mon amour
- Comme la vague irrésolue
Je vais, je vais et je viens
Entre tes reins
Je vais et je viens
Entre tes reins
Et je me retiens

- Je t’aime je t’aime
Oh oui je t’aime
- Moi non plus
- Oh mon amour
Tu es la vague, moi l’île nue
Tu vas, tu vas et tu viens
Entre mes reins
Tu vas et tu viens
Entre mes reins
Et je te rejoins

- Je t’aime je t’aime
Oh oui je t’aime
- Moi non plus
- Oh mon amour
- L’amour physique est sans issue
Je vais je vais et je viens
Entre tes reins
Je vais et je viens
Je me retiens
- Non ! maintenant viens...

Thursday 8 July 2010

I, Accuse

In 1942 in the city of Riom in France the leaders of the pre-war Popular Front government, including Leon Blum, the former premier, were put on trial by the Vichy authorities. The aim was to prove that they had been responsible for France’s lack of preparedness that led to the debacle of 1940. It was a public relations disaster with the defendants easily rebutting the charges, earning the sympathy of the neutral press in the process.

At my own peril I would like to hold a British version of the Riom trial, though much more carefully focused, with much more plausible charges: I would like to arraign Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the other members of the New Labour Popular Front. With what; what was their crime? I would really have to think about that. Perhaps they could be charged with fiscal irresponsibility; perhaps criminal mismanagement of public funds; perhaps warmongering or perhaps incompetence in high office. Let me just simplify matters – I personally would have them indicted on a charge of high treason.

You think I’m going too far, do you, that such a serious charge could not be levelled against members of the British government? All I will say here is that between 1997 and 2010 this country was changed out of all recognition, changed for the worse; that its interests were betrayed and its people deceived. There are now serious doubts if we can ever recover from the damage down in those years; or if we do, it may take decades.

The worst thing, perhaps, was the use of public money not in the interests of the nation as a whole but in a grand form of political gerrymandering. A national constituency of dependency was created, intended to entrench Labour in perpetuity. More and more money was spent on doles and welfare, on the creation of a sub-culture of bread and circuses or, better said, pizzas and telly. And while a British underclass was encouraged not to work the gap in the employment market was filled by immigration, mass immigration, deliberately intended, by the admission of former ministers, to alter the demographic character of this country.

There is Europe, of course, the surrender of more and more sovereignty to a foreign power, an alien power, one hostile to all of our historical and cultural traditions. That particular charge would weigh most heavy, as an act far more knavish than that of any other government in British history. I imagine if Blair and Brown had been directing affairs in the days of the first Elizabeth, rather than William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, the Spanish Armada would have been welcomed as European ‘partners.’

So the list goes on: misuse of public funds, the encouragement of irresponsible levels of mass immigration and the surrender of forms of sovereignty that the nation had jealously guarded for centuries. And then there are the foreign adventures, the wars and rumours of wars.

As I have said before, I believe the Second Gulf War to be one of the greatest strategic and political errors in this country’s history, far worse than the Suez fiasco. But set that to one side. The only way to fight a war, if wars have to be fought at all, is to win. And the only way to win is to ensure that the military have the tools sufficient for the task. But they did not. They were starved of resources in Iraq just as they were starved of resources in Afghanistan. In Iraq the army was so under-strength that latterly it could only maintain the pretence of control by entering into shameful bargains with the murderous Shiite militias. Our retreat from this country will count as among the most wretched in all of British military history.

Yes, for these reasons and more I would put the whole shabby Popular Front on trail. I would conduct the prosecution in person. Safely in my hands there would be no repetition of Riom, believe me, there would not. :-)

Life, Love and Death

For me Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess, the counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna, is an endlessly fascinating figure. She combines attributes that may seem contrary but unite at a deeper level; for she is the goddess of sex and fertility, of love and of war, of creation and of destruction.

She is the great lover, whose cult involved sacred prostitution, and is herself the courtesan of the other gods. But Ishtar is a dangerous lover. Like a spider she is liable to devour her mates. Only the hero Gilgamesh resisted her advances, knowing the dangers of a fatal embrace;

Listen to me while I tell the tale of your lovers. There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured roller, but still you struck and broke his wing…You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. You have loved the stallion magnificent in battle, and for him you decreed the whip and spur and a thong…You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks.

Is there any better metaphor, I wonder, any better myth explaining the thralldom, the cruelty of love?

Ishtar was life itself, which leads to death and to a new birth. And who denies sex denies life, who denies death denies life, and such a one will find neither life joyful, nor death easy.

To some the Whore of Babylon, to other the Great Mother, she is one of the most powerful of the female deities. Approach her with reverence and approach her with fear, otherwise do not approach her at all. :-)

Wednesday 7 July 2010

The Third Rome

In her Molotov’s Magic Lantern – A Journey in Russian History Rachael Polonsky describes coming across what she describes as a ‘creepy’ book in the Lenin Library in Moscow. It’s called The Formation of the Russian Character on the Example of the Historical Fate of the Staraya Russa Region, published in 2003.

In this she discovered that Staraya Russa, the setting, fictionally disguised, for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the place were he completed Demons, is being used to cultivate a mystique, to serve what she describes as “Russia’s new era of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.” This quiet backwater, the very heart of the old Orthodox Rus, has become the heartland of a kind Slav version of a blut und boden mythology.

The book was published under the auspices of the FSB, the successor to the old KGB, the security apparatus from which Vladimir Putin emerged. It comes with the approval of all sorts of people, soldiers and security specialists, detailing, as it does, the primal superiority of Russia, her God-bearing mission, all proved by the presence of salt in the soil of Staraya Russa, the ancient homeland of the Rus, who are the "salt of the earth."

The book, according to Polonsky, is full of all sorts of bogus claims backed up by ‘scholarship’ of the most tendentious kind. Putin is mentioned every few pages, his name invoked in ever more reverential tones. The hagiography also draws on a spurious etymology, even associating the root of the name Putin with Christ himself!

There is something odd happening in Russia, a kind of regression, if I can put it like that, though into what I have no clear idea. All I can see is the outline of some peculiar hybrid, uniting elements that are uniquely Russian, even if they are as contradictory as Stalin and Dostoevsky, paganism and orthodoxy.

Russia is clearly attempting to ‘rediscover’ itself, a rediscovery that appears to be based on some highly dubious ideological foundations. It’s perhaps not too outrageous to suggest that there may even be a place for the Black Hundreds, the notorious anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist movement of Tsarist days, in this witches' cauldron.

I admire Russia; I admire its history and its culture. It’s also true that every country relies on myth to some degree or other in upholding the idea of nation. But the country seems to be heading in a somewhat perverse direction, evidenced by the current prosecution for blasphemy of the organisers of an exhibition of modern art, headed by Yuri Samodurov, accused by a group of militant religious radicals who claim to be backed by the Orthodox Church. What they most certainly have is the support of the state prosecution service, which has agreed that the Sakharov Museum, where the exhibition was held, is guilty of “anti-state” and “anti-Orthodox” activity, an unusual return to a distant past.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Cartoon Ana –for Yun Yi

Yun yi, I’m in an utterly frivolous mood tonight so, following on from your comment on my Comments post, I decided to create a cartoon version of myself. And here it is! I’m so skimpily dressed not just because it’s summer but because I’ve just about used up the free credits on the site in question. I can’t go on a shopping spree, so this version will have to do. I’m much more composed this evening and a lot less angry. :-)

Yun yi, I've now added my Zwinky. And now my Wee Me. :-))
Meez 3D avatar avatars games

A Life less Ordinary

I mentioned in a previous blog (Dangerous and Brilliant) that the infamous and notorious Michelangelo Caravaggio is one of my all-time favourite painters. It’s not just the art that excites and intrigues me - it’s the life, or, to be more exact, it’s the death! He was only thirty-eight when he shuffled off his mortal coil in July 1610, though the precise circumstances of his particular exit have remained a mystery ever since.

Now, on the basis of some analysis of dry bones, Italian scientists are claiming that he may have died from lead poisoning from the paints he used, a somewhat speculative conclusion since they have since admitted that the bones tested may not be his at all!

So, the mystery remains, probably never to be solved. But as nature abhors a vacuum so, too, does history or, rather, historians, which really amounts to the same thing. To coincide with the anniversary Andrew Graham-Dixon has written Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, in which he reveals all sorts of salacious facts, which I take to mean that the art was sacred and the life profane!

Profane it most assuredly was. Graham-Dixon suggests that he was sexually adventurous – there is no great secret in that -, that he worked as a pimp, that he fathered an illegitimate child, and that his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, a notorious Roman pimp, in 1606 was the result of a dispute over the honour of Lavinia, Tomassoni’s wife.

After this Caravaggio fled to Malta to take refuge among the knights; but unfortunately for him his unstable temperament followed on. In July 1608 he was jailed for assaulting Fra Giovanni Rodmonte Roero, one of the Order’s most senior knights. He escaped closely pursued, according to Graham-Dixon, by the vengeful Roero, who caught up with him in Naples in 1609, attacking him outside a tavern and severely disfiguring his face. The tavern in question, the Osteria del Cerriglio, was a haunt of homosexuals, which has allowed the author to add a new speculative gloss to the artist’s mystique!

We know for a certainty that Caravaggio died in the Tuscan town of Porto Ecole the year after this attack. It’s Graham-Dixon’s contention that, weakened by his injuries, he probably died of a heart attack or exhaustion following a hundred-mile ride from Palo to Porto Ecole, where he was supposed to catch a boat carrying three of his paintings. The author says;

The latest lead poisoning theory just does not fit the facts. Caravaggio did not slowly deteriorate before his death as he would have done with lead poisoning, but was immensely physically fit, escaping from prison, running across Sicily and painting huge paintings right up until just before his death. I hope I have proven that his behaviour was not that of an irrational mad man, as been suggested, but of a violent man living in violent times whose tragic story is certainly the most extraordinary of any artist to have lived.

Of that I have not the least doubt.

Comments problems- sorry!

My apologies but blogger is having really annoying technical problems today. When I try to moderate comments they just disappear! There is a an error message(bX-o3qgph) also that I don't understand. I hope things solve themselves but in the meantime I'm publishing all of the comments by Harry, Ike, Jamie and Nobby under my own name with my response following. I know this will be confusing but I really don't have any alternative.

Sorry, guys, it's not working, the added comments are just vanishing. :-( I'll try again later.

Jamie, I got your latest. I'm not even going to try to moderate it in case it also vanishes! Even my own remarks are not publishing.

Monday 5 July 2010

Monsters of the Mind

There’s an intriguing article in the July issue of Standpoint by Ben Judah reporting from Tajikistan (In search of the Yeti.) Here he found villagers prepared to take a solemn vow on the Koran – no light matter – that they had seen the Yeti, the abominable snowman of Himalaya legend. I have not the least doubt that they have, not the least doubt that in lonely mountain passes the shadows of the mind have taken on a definite shape.

There are some interesting historical parallels here, as the author indicates;

Living close to nature, without thorough schooling, peasants have always been frightened of the mythical wild man. In the 18th century, the oppressed central European peasantry was gripped by a terror of aristocratic vampires in the run up to the French Revolution.

The hysteria raged for a generation. Thousands of sightings were reported. Villagers swore by Christ that they knew what they had seen. The Austro-Hungarian Empress
[sic] Maria Theresa was concerned enough to dispatch her personal physician to investigate whether or not vampires existed. They were not real, but poverty, oppression, ignorance and superstition were.

Actually, the fear of the aristocratic vampire in this area of Europe was more than superstition, more even than a kind of metaphor for aristocratic oppression. Aristocratic oppression, particularly in Hungary, had been severe for centuries, sometimes taking on a very real, particularly bloody and vampire-like form.

I’ve blogged before about the aristocratic vampire, latterly in a humorous vein (I’d rather be bitten by a vampire!) but before that in an altogether more serious fashion in a piece I called Erzsébet Báthory, the Blood Countess.

For those who may not have heard of her, Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess, one of the best-connected in the land, who died in 1614. She was also one of the most prolific serial killers who ever lived, specialising in the torture and murder of peasant girls who lived on her estate.

The details of her crimes, carried out with a select band of accomplices, are truly terrible, but the most terrible thing was the powerlessness of the people in the face of her depravity. Her downfall only began when, running out of peasant girls, she turned on the daughters of the lesser nobility. Even then the decisive factor was that she owed money to Matthais, king of Hungary and emperor of Austria.

At the time the details of the case were embellished with rumours of witchcraft and sorcery. But it wasn’t until a hundred years after her death that a new interpretation of her actions began to emerge. This is how I concluded my previous blog;

Like Vlad the Impaler and the myth of Dracula, Erzsébet began to attract her own mythology, including the story that she bathed in the blood of her victims, believing it to be a way of preserving her youth, a tale that goes no further back than 1729. Such a suggestion is, of course, horrible, but it at least supplied both a dark rationale and a motive. The real horror of Erzsébet's life is that she simply had a taste for suffering and blood as ends in themselves. A vampire of a kind, yes, but infinitely more terrifying than any of the monster's of fiction.

It is therefore true that the monsters of the imagination have a firm grounding in reality. Fear is most often accompanied by a sense of powerlessness, an inability to deflect or avoid the malevolent forces that govern one’s destiny. Given the form of politics that prevail in present-day Tajikistan, politics that Judah makes plain in his article, it comes as no great surprise that the Yeti continues to walk the mountain valleys.

The Man who would be King

I’ve long loved the plays of William Shakespeare. I’ve seen so many good performances, both in London and in Stratford. Good performances bring out all of the nuances of the drama. But I also enjoy reading them for the pleasure of reading, for the pleasure I take in Shakespeare's mastery of words. I love words; I love to play with words in the way that Shakespeare played with words.

I also love the writing of Lev Tolstoy…most of his writing. I read his essay on Shakespeare, published in 1903, not so much criticism as demolition. It irritated all hell out of me, not simply because he seemed to completely miss the point but because – I must confess- I thought it presumptuous for a Russian, a foreigner, to attack a poet who wrote in a language that was not his own.

I assume Tolstoy read English, though I have no information on the point. But no matter how good he was I doubt if he understood the subtleties of seventeenth century speech, or the way in which Shakespeare contributed to the evolution of English. Just imagine how Russians would feel if I, or any other English person, presumed to rubbish Pushkin!

The issue of language and comprehension was bad enough. But even more unsettling was the meanness and smallness of spirit shown by the author, qualities I don’t normally associate with Tolstoy. What I do associate him with, for all his genius, is selfishness and overwhelming egoism. The egoism, something that most writers suffer from, could have been disregarded, disregarded, that is, if he had not presumed to write in such terms about Shakespeare. Egoism here is the key, as George Orwell recognised in Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, his brilliant rebuttal of the Russian master.

In his essay Tolstoy rails against King Lear with particular animus. Here Orwell spotted the psychological clue behind his ranting on the blasted heath: Tolstoy hates King Lear because he is King Lear; he reproduces Lear in life. Lear’s renunciation was Tolstoy’s renunciation: Lear fled; Tolstoy fled. His end also was curiously like Lear’s:

And though Tolstoy could not foresee it when he wrote his essay on Shakespeare, even the ending of his life--the sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village--seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of LEAR.

The simple fact is that the play held a mirror up to Tolstoy, showing back a disturbing reflection. The theme is about renunciation, renunciation of power, renunciation of land, the renunciation of wealth, the very core of Tolstoy’s philosophy. Tolstoy renounced the world because he believed that in this, in serving the will of God, he would achieve happiness.

But his renunciation brought him no more happiness that Lear’s gratuitous act. Like Lear he gave up power…but also like Lear he still wanted to be king. Shakespeare, it might be said, had shown the weakness in Tolstoy’s own thought. Perhaps Tolstoy, too, should have been accompanied like Lear by the Fool, someone to tell him that he deserved to be beaten for being old before his time; that he should not have been old before he was wise.

Sunday 4 July 2010


There was a feature article in Saturday’s Daily Mail on the Beatles, this year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the band’s formation in Liverpool in the summer of 1960. A few days before this BBC4 broadcast Lennon Naked, a drama starring Christopher Eccleston in role of John Lennon.

Although I was certainly familiar with the Beatles’ music when I was growing up for me they belonged to a different age: there and not there, innocent, rather silly and awfully dated. I can recognise the unique talents of the song-writing partnership of Lennon and McCartney, musical giants compared with so much of the Jedward-style pap that’s on offer today. Even so I find the fanatical adulation that the band conjured up wholly bewildering. Perhaps it was just the sign of a time that in my mind’s eye I see through the medium of black and white news footage.

And then there is John Lennon, a man with an acid wit, a man with huge creative talents, a man…with a chip on his shoulder as big as all of Merseyside. Christopher Eccleston was certainly good in the part, though, to be frank, he seemed just a bit too ancient to be playing the mop-head of the early 1960s. But, my, was this really what Lennon was like, this self-absorbed, selfish, conceited, egotistical bore and, what is worse, a humourless egotistical bore?

One has to be careful with biopics as they are a little like biopsies: even if wholly accurate one is merely shown a limited cross-section. Lennon Naked, presented as part of the BBC’s fatherhood season, was really about abandonment, about the trauma Lennon suffered for most of his life after being deprived of both his father and his mother at an early age. The legacy was one of anger, particularly with his father, as the drama showed at length. Yes, I can see that in Lennon’s case that the child was truly the father of the man; I can see that he felt betrayed. Even so I found this bitter, ranting, cruel, cynical and puerile man really quite repellent as he was depicted. In the end he treated his own son Julian no better than his father had treated him.

On a wider point for me Lennon the message, as opposed to Lennon the medium, is all wrong. When I was in my teens his song Imagine came top in a list of the hundred greatest pop songs. I hate it, I absolutely hate it; I hate the lazy, utopian sentiments behind it, this Communist Manifesto turned into a lullaby. I don’t need to imagine what Lennon-world would be like; I saw traces of its aftermath in a land scarred forever by Year Zero and the ‘brotherhood of man.’ No hell below us; just hell on earth.

The Song of Cassandra

Channel Four, one of the terrestrial television companies in Britain, broadcast a brief series of historical documentaries last week under the title Bloody Foreigners, detailing the involvement of outsiders in certain key events in our history.

The last of the series focused on the Emperor Septimus Severus’ futile attempt to subdue the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall in the early third century AD. This was the last try by the Romans to conquer the whole island of Britain, a task which had frustrated emperors and generals all the way back to Agricola in the first century.

The narrative was generally good- though some of the dramatic recreations verged on the naff- completely spoiled by an ending that managed to get the facts of the subsequent fate of the Severan dynasty wildly wrong! Honestly, why don’t these TV companies get some decent advice? :-)

Sorry, that’s a wholly unnecessary diversion, just a small irritation that manages to get the hornets of my intellect buzzing like mad. The essential point the programme made was sound: that the Romans came mob-handed into a complex tribal society, hoping for a pitch-battle, hoping to for a single knock out blow against the ‘barbarians’ which would bring their ‘kingdom’ into final tutelage.

The whole thing was a disaster in men, money and materials. There was no pitch battle. Instead the tribes nibbled away at the Roman army in a series of guerrilla attacks that wore it down. There was no head of a ‘king’ to claim because the political structure of the Caledonian tribes allowed for as many ‘kings’ as there were communities. Severus retreated having achieved nothing, covering his failure in an issue of coins proclaiming a famous victory, the kind of misleading propaganda that Romans went in for.

The point is the Romans were victims of their own preconceptions about ‘barbarians.’ They came, they saw but they did not conquer, they could not conquer. They simply made matters worse, creating ever more enemies with every step. Severus’ army, forty-thousand strong, might as well have been chasing the wind.

Here is another thing that irritates me, the stupid incomprehension of politicians, their inability to read the runes of history. Yes, history does have a message if only one has the intelligence and the patience to take heed. As Septimus Severus marched into Scotland so did George Bush and Tony Blair march into Afghanistan two thousand years later. They found a bad situation and they made it worse. I could tell you exactly what the outcome is going to be, could tell you right now, but you probably already know.

It’s happened time and time again, this blindness in the face of history, this tendency to base strategy on the worst, most stupid preconceptions. And it’s not as if the two Bs had to look all the way back to the Romans in Britain; they had a more immediate example at hand, the example of British involvement in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century.

I would like to be there, in the corridors of power, saying stop! wait! look! think! every time some foreign adventure is being considered, every time a new campaign is being planned. But I know, like all historians, all those who understand the past and the lessons it brings to the present, my fate would be that of Cassandra.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Spirit of Water; Spirit of Fire

Yesterday was my twenty-fourth birthday. I would like to thank all those who sent me messages, and there are so many. I will do my best to reply to each and every one you individually (it might take a day or two) but I’m posting this as a general note of appreciation for your kindness.

Yikes, here I am, now entering my quarter century! I was born early in the morning of Monday June 30, 1986, born in the sign of Cancer, born on a Monday in the sign of the Moon! Cancer is, of course, a water sign, but in the Chinese Zodiac I was born in the Year of the Tiger, specifically in the element of Wu Xing, which is fire. So, there you are: water and fire, small wonder I’m such a bundle of contradictions!

Water may be more powerful than fire though in me the reverse seems to be true. The attributes of Wu Xing seem to fit my character better than the attributes of Cancer. I’m unpredictable, rebellious, colourful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous, restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, and moody! Then there is this;

Tigers make ardent and virile lovers who dominate their partners. Because of their sensuality, their impetuousness and love of adventure, there is an excitement that not only follows Tigers wherever they go, but also guarantees them a certain irrestible sexy allure. These creatures whose emotions are out-front have strong libidos and are lusty in their passions. Generally flirtatious, they are especially prone to wild flings in their early years but do settle down as they get older. When committed to a happy and fulfilling relationship, Tigers make loving and caring partners, warm-hearted and generous. They don't, however, lose that romantic streak or that exciting ability to surprise.

So, now you know. :-)

The spirit of fire and the spirit of water, is it possible that there's a deeper harmony, a unity to be found in contradictions, a yin yang? Yes, I think there probably is.

Hot News

This is a review I wrote for the Bright Young Things group on Goodreads, which this month will be discussing Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop.

There is a story that has long since entered into the mythology of journalism. It concerns William Randolph Hearst, among the most unscrupulous of the press barons, for whom newspapers were not so much a source of information but an expression of his personal power. After the beginning of the Cuban struggle for independence against Spain in the mid 1890s he was active among those pushing for American intervention, seeing war as a way of selling even more newspapers.

The artist Frederick Remington was sent to the island to provide Hearst’s New York Journal with illustrations. When he arrived in Cuba he cabled back, saying that all was quiet, that there was no war in sight. Hearst response was “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.”

True or not it’s a story about the power of the press and the ability of unscrupulous publishers to ‘manufacture’ news. I was reminded of it immediately on reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, a satire centring on the pursuit of a non-existent story about a non-existent war.

To begin with I should say that I have not read an awful lot of Waugh. The truth is I’ve never really warmed to him as a novelist and a story teller. As a writer he shows tremendous technical proficiency, and Scoop is probably as good as he gets. But I find his style, the way he approaches his subject, tiresomely superficial. I quite liked Brideshead Revisited but I found the comedy in Decline and Fall unfunny and forced, so much so that I gave up reading after a few dozen pages.

Scoop is also a comedy, one that worked much better for me than Decline and Fall. It’s a reasonably effective expose of the absurdity of the press and the arrogance of newspaper owners. Lord Copper, owner of The Daily Beast, serves here in the role of a fictional Hearst. Hearing rumours of war in the fictional African republic of Ismaelia naturally he wants The Beast to get the scoop. Having been told that there is a man by the name of Boot ideal for this kind of assignment he arranges to have him sent to Africa. The problem is he and Slater, the foreign news editor, send the wrong Boot! They send the Beast’s nature correspondent William, a man more used to voles and lush places.

William is hopelessly out of his comfort zone but by a mixture of good fortune and good contacts he manages to get the story that isn’t a story, a scoop that isn’t a scoop. Yes, the press can work like that, spinning something out of nothing, though more in the days of Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, the British equivalents of Hearst and most probably the models for the frightful Lord Copper.

So, that’s it, part satire, part comedy of errors. It’s light and easy to digest, a book probably more for its time than ours. Some smiles, a few laughs, some interesting comic situations, a satire without any real bite. It’s quickly read and just as quickly forgotten. According to the Wikipedia article it was included in The Observer’s list of the hundred greatest novels of all time. So, it’s one of the hundred greatest novels of all time; really? Well, if The Observer’s readers say so who am I to argue. :-)