Tuesday 31 August 2010

Europe of the Cuckoo Clock

In The New Republic, a blog I wrote elsewhere on the European Union, I alluded to the fact that we are all ruled by the Commission in Brussels as if we were unruly children, ruled on the nanny knows best principle.

Relating to this I read Edward Heath, Philip Ziegler’s recently published biography of the former prime minister, the one who took Britain into Europe knowing full well what the future implications for national sovereignty would be. There are all sorts of reasons why Heath wanted us to join, not least the view he took that the nation state was dead, though that was something he kept largely to himself at the time.

For Heath, for the Commission and for all those who think like them there is one simple truth: Europe needs to be saved from itself, to be saved from its past. Our diverse history, you see, is a ‘bad thing’, whereas a united Europe is a ‘good thing.’ I’m minded here of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic parody 1066 and All That, minded of the conclusion, which I propose to adapt ever so slightly – “Europe was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .”

Last year I saw a sixtieth anniversary screening of The Third Man, a wonderful movie, possibly the best example of British film noir ever made. I imagine most of the people who read this have also seen it; it’s been on terrestrial television often enough. My favourite quote from that movie also touches on history, on the past as drama and greatness contrasted with the past as tedium and mediocrity. Cue Harry Lime;

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Europe as Switzerland, that’s the vision of the Commission, that’s the vision of all those who embrace this ghastly ideal; a tepid Europe, a safe Europe…a boring Europe. A Europe without demons, yes, but without demons there are no angels; there is nothing of the sublime.

I want no part of the new Europe with its Beethoven anthems, its glamour and easy charm. I want the old Europe of the nation state, the Europe of risk and the Europe of adventure. If it comes to a choice between Manuel Barroso and Cesare Borgia I have not the least doubt which I would go for.

For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment is - to live dangerously.

Tales from the Kabul Café

There they all were, the not so great and the far from good of the international community, sitting in the Kabul Café discussing the future of Afghan ‘democracy.’ It’s a month now since the gathering, an achievement in itself, I suppose, that the diplomats and the politicians were able to come to this place at all, a sign of just how much ‘progress’ has been made in the struggle against the Taliban.

But what were they there for; what did they want? More to the point, what exactly has been achieved in nine years? Little is the simple answer, little that is not immediately undone. Let me be brutally frank: I simply do not care about ‘progress’ and ‘human rights’ in Afghanistan, terms that are absurdly out of place in a country like this, a tribal society like this. It’s almost as if we had packed our soldiers into a time machine and sent them back to the Bronze Age, there to implement democracy and guarantee human rights. Meanwhile the Iceni and the Brigantes continue to watch from the forest.

There seems to have been a sense of complete unreality in the Kabul Café in those July days. Hamid Karzai apparently gave an upbeat speech, making reference to the country’s mineral wealth (what mineral wealth?), hoping that it would become the “Asian Roundabout”, an important stopping point on the “new Silk Road.” All I can say that he is more than usually self-deluded. It was a speech, as one former diplomat put it, “written for a country without a war.”

Never mind; it will all be better by 2014. Our soldiers will be home and there will be no more war. Afghanistan will be back on the Silk Road. No it won’t; it will be back on the Poppy Trail; it’s never really left the Poppy Trail. “I can’t think of a single reason to die for Afghanistan”, one diplomat in the Café rather indiscreetly remarked. No matter; I absolutely agree. Time to start up the Tardis.

Cruel Necessity

This is a piece I wrote on the anniversary of VJ Day- Victory over Japan Day – posted on another site. I’m adding it here for Quiet_Man.

It’s VJ Day today, the sixty-fifth anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender on 15 August 1945, more generally the final end of the Second World War. It was a sudden stop to a conflict that may have gone on well into 1946, perhaps even longer, at an incalculable human cost. This was prevented, thankfully, by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which brought and fanatics in the Japanese government rapidly to some sense of reality.

Thankfully, did I really write that; am I truly thankful for such a terrible event, the curtain raiser to the atomic age? Yes, I am, and I offer no apology whatsoever for my frankness. What I will say is that the atomic bombings were the last act in a dreadful tragedy, one that I personally wish had never happened. But it did. Even God can’t change the past.

The great and terrible paradox is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than were lost. I do hate this kind of calculus, this calculus of mortality, balancing the dead against the probable dead. But it still has to be done. My grandfather served in the East during the war in the Fourteenth Army under Bill Slim. He was one of the first to enter Singapore after the Japanese surrender; one of the first to see the liberation of Changi Prisoner of War Camp, the liberation of men who would not have survived if the war had gone on many weeks longer.

There were so many other men, so many other camps right across the lands still held by the Japanese, so many other men who would have died. But it wasn’t just men. There were women and children, too, held in internment camps where conditions were not much better.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the atomic bombings saved the Japanese themselves, saved them from the last ditch lunatics who were willing to contemplate the extermination of a whole nation. After the war Kido Koichi, a high Japanese official, estimated that the surrender may have saved as many as twenty million Japanese lives. I would urge those who think this an exaggeration to look at the details of the Battle of Saipan, where the wretched Emperor Hirohito, the one major war criminal to escape retribution, sent out a message to the civilian population ordering them to commit suicide, afraid that people may be favourably impressed by their treatment at the hands of the Americans.

The above thoughts were really brought on by the fact that this year, for the very first time, the United States sent a representative to the annual commemoration of the Hiroshima bombing. On Obama’s initiative John Roos, the ambassador to Japan, laid a commemorative wreath, the closest the country has ever offered to a formal apology for the attack. This is just another empty gesture by PPP, the Peace Prize President, a gesture rightfully condemned by Gene Tibbets, the son of Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped ‘Little Boy’ from Enola Gay on August 6, 1945. It was an attempt, Mr Tibbets put it, to rewrite history.

There is one other thing I have to say about rewriting history, or perhaps forgetting history might be better. The Japanese are very good when it comes to remembering their own suffering, remembering events like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are not so good when it comes to remembering the suffering they inflicted on others, the suffering their militaristic regime inflicted right across Asia and the Pacific. Earlier this year I saw City of Life and Death and John Rabe, two movies which drew my attention to the Rape of Nanking, the greatest war crime of the twentieth century prior to the Holocaust.

Nanking, now Nanjing, was capital of China when it was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937. Thereafter they began the wholesale massacre and rape of tens of thousands of civilians, a crime still denied today in Japan. John Rabe, a German businessman and member of the Nazi Party then living in the city, was so horrified by events that he was instrumental in building his own Schindler’s Arc. It comes as something of a shock in John Rabe to see Chinese civilians sheltering under a huge Swastika flag in the grounds of his factory, a banner of salvation, not something one normally associates with that symbol. So, yes, when I look over the whole history, the hypocrisy, dissimulation and self-pity of the Japanese disgusts me.

Monday 30 August 2010

Evil Law

I have no doubt at all that the present Iranian regime is perfectly vile. They trade in concepts of faith and religion that are quite beyond my comprehension. Just imagine if England was overtaken by some fundamentalist Christian cult that wanted to return to the practices of the Middle Ages; people who wanted to restore such legislation as De heretico comburendo, allowing for the burning of heretics. Perhaps someone would like to put this suggestion to the present muddle-headed Archbishop of Canterbury, since he has already expressed his enthusiasm for Sharia Law.

I cannot claim to have any deep knowledge of this barbarous procedure, this nauseating medievalism, but it is under Sharia Law that Sakineh Ashtiani has been condemned to death for her supposed adultery, condemned to death by stoning. The fact that she was already been subject to ninety-nine lashes, and has been in prison for five years awaiting this ultimate fate, defies even expressions like ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

As I mentioned in a previous blog, stoning is not a quick death; it’s not meant to be. Instead medium sized rocks are chosen to prolong the suffering. Men so sentenced are buried to their waists, and if they are able to get out there is no further punishment. Women, in contrast, are buried almost up to their necks, just in case their breasts show, you understand, which would be outrageous, a clear offence to simple decency. Their chances of escaping are therefore non-existent, as they are effectively tortured to death.

This is carried out in the name of God, in the name of religion. What kind of people are they, I have to ask, who can believe in a God like this, in a law like this? There is no greater danger than the literal, unimaginative interpretation of sacred texts. For centuries women, and it was mostly women, were tortured and burned to death in Europe because of a biblical injunction about not allowing witches to live, which turned out to be a mistaken reading anyway, good news for witches, not so good for poisoners. Nevertheless, I simply cannot imagine even the most unregenerate fundamentalist wishing to return to a barbarous past

But in Iran a barbarous past is a barbarous present. The world-wide outrage over the fate of Ashtiani has – temporarily – stopped execution of her sentence. As a measure of the regime’s embarrassment she appeared on state-controlled television recently ‘confessing’ to both her adultery and to a plot to kill her husband. Her defence lawyer, forced to flee to Turkey in fear of his life, has said that the confession is bogus, that it was effectively tortured out of her, a claim supported by the fact that not even her children have been allowed to visit her in prison since.

When I see that man Ahmadinejad, the international face of the obscurantist tyranny, being embraced by the likes of Castro and Hugo Chavez I know that evil still walks the world, I know that the fate of this poor woman is in the hands of monsters, monsters who claim to act in the name of God. Forgive me if I appear a little less detached, a little angrier than normal, but there are some things that defy dispassion, even for me.

I want my soul back

In Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg and the heart of old Prussia, there is a shrine, sacred to the memory of all those who fell for the fatherland. It’s the final refuge for their spirits, their souls. It’s also a celebration of militarism, a celebration of German martial achievements, without qualification. Among the millions of names you will even find those of Hitler, Goring and all those hanged at Nuremberg. Outside, in the main grounds, the guard marches up and down, dressed in Second World War uniform, including the old-fashioned coal scuttle helmet. Yes, they are there, goose-stepping up and down, a comfort to Germany’s nationalist right.

This is outrageous, don’t you agree, how could such a thing be allowed in the heart of the new Europe? It’s simply not possible. Forgive me; I’ve been misleading you; there is no such shrine, which would indeed be an outrage to the memory of all those who suffered and died last century at the hands of the Nazis. But the thing is there truly is such a place or something very like, though it’s not in Germany – it’s in Japan.

On August 6 every year the Japanese gather at Hiroshima to bewail their fate as ‘victims’. On every other day they can go to the Yasukuni Shrine, situated in the Chiyoda district of the capital, to celebrate the spirit of men who carried aggressive warfare across Asia, including former Prime Minister Tojo and all those hanged after the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. And the guard does march up and down under the flag of the Rising Sun.

Though never particularly generous in life to those who served with them – by force – the Japanese are generous in death; for the souls who have been ‘annexed’ include those of 21,000 Taiwanese and 28,000 Koreans, once colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire. They are there in this militarist Shinto paradise whether they like it or not.

Kim Hee Jong does not like it. Kim Hee Jong hates it so much that he has begun a court action in Tokyo to reclaim his soul. What? But how can the dead possibly do such a thing? The thing is he’s not dead, though he was mistakenly reported missing in action during the war. In 2006 he found out to his shame that his name was enrolled at Yasukuni;

I was so angry that I wanted to set fire to the shrine. The war deprived me of a chance to receive an education. That shrine means nothing to me.

As The Times reported on Saturday, Mr Kim is now involved in one of most unusual legal battles in history, a battle over the ownership of his own soul, not claimed by the Devil, though it may as well have been. He is one of eleven plaintiffs, though unique in that the others are the children of the dead. The Yasukuni authorities are resisting the action, claiming that once a soul has been enshrined it cannot be extracted, anymore than a drop of water can be removed from a pool.

This includes Mr Kim, who clearly enjoys the singular distinction of a man whose soul has effectively been stolen and placed in a kind of hell. The court case opens in November.

Sunday 29 August 2010

In with a bang; out with a whimper

What is it about Parisians and premières? Here we are in the most sophisticated city in the world with some of the most sophisticated people in the world. But judging by some famous past examples, judging by their reaction to innovation, they like their art to be ‘just so’ – a literary reference which Kipling enthusiasts will understand –rather than radically different. In 1861 they gave Wagner’s Tannhäuser a hostile reception because of some innovations in structure and presentation, nothing, really, compared with the way in which they greeted Stravinsky’s incomparable Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) when it opened in the city in May, 1913.

It is this, one of the most famous riots in musical history, that acts as an overture, and what an overture, to Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, a biopic, of sorts, directed by Jan Kounen, telling of the alleged love affair between two of the great icons of twentieth century culture, one of smells, the other of sounds! It stars Anna Mouglalis as a coolly impressive Coco Chanel and Mads Mikkelsen as a coldly unimpressive Stravinsky. And then there is Elena Morozova as Stravinsky’s wife Catherine, not a bad performance of a doe-like traditionalist crushed between two egos.

To begin with I must say I absolutely adored Mouglalis in the role of Chanel, the great couturier. She was chic, full of poise and elegance, as calmly stylish as her sumptuous art deco mansion, dominated by a design scheme in black and white. The movie itself is an art deco dream, in visual terms as sexy as it is possible to get. It’s a work of pictorial art framing a rather lifeless story, one lacking in true human warmth. It’s a tale, if you like, of two icebergs passing in the night.

I’m getting ahead of things here. As I say, the movie overtures with the 1913 riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where the audience is confronted by pagan, pulsating music accompanying pagan, pulsating dance. It’s beyond the comprehension of most; it’s seemingly not beyond the comprehension of Coco, who sits detached and impressed among the outraged bourgeoisie. Her subsequent attempt to meet the artist is spurned, isolated, as he is, in a fury of anger and dejection.

Now we fast forward to 1920, the intervening war and upheaval conveyed, I have to say, by a not very satisfactory montage. Coco, recovering from the death of her English lover, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, at last secures an introduction to Stravinsky. Having left Russia following the Revolution, he is living in impoverished French exile with his wife and children. Coco offers them the hospitality of her villa outside Paris.

Now begins the main movement of the piece, but what a disappointment it is after the thrilling, orgasmic overture. Well, yes, it’s a love affair, one with orgasmic moments, but oddly enough there is hardly a trace of real passion. I can’t be sure if this was Kounen’s intention, but Coco and Stravinsky seem as emotionally uninvolved as they are physically involved; as creative in their individual enterprises as they are uncreative in love. As I say, they came across to me like two great icebergs, an odd counter-point to the passionate score, with continual references to The Rite of Spring, pagan, visceral and doom-laden. He composes; she presides over the distillation of Chanel No. 5; they have sex in between, the composer’s tubercular wife increasingly irrelevant in the background, a reminder of more traditional, less revolutionary values of faith in religion and fidelity in marriage.

That’s about it, really: the music is lavish, the cinematography is seductive, the fashions gorgeous, the settings impressive, the attitudes perfect…but there is no magic, there is no chemistry, as is said, between the two artists.

Impressive as it is Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky never really pushes below the surface. The elements are there, the elements of a sublime story, of a sublime composition, but Kounen, in the role of a conductor, simply fails to pull them together. In the end his direction is as starchy as the movie’s overly formal title (why not simply Coco and Igor?) As a result the movie is both beautiful…and boring. It’s as stylish as an advert for Chanel No. 5, wonderfully elegant and tiresomely superficial. I wanted so much more; I wanted to see the overture continue, the excitement continue. Instead the whole thing was just…well, let me just say that it was climaxes in the midst of an anti-climax!

Touching on climaxes the movie came in with a bang and ended with a whimper, a wholly artificial cliché of old Igor and old Coco looking back, but back to what I still can’t be sure; can’t be sure of their motives, can’t be sure of their feelings, can’t be sure of them. Perhaps I’m being harder than I intended, for there was much to enjoy. On so many levels it’s a good movie. The disappointment for me is that with a little more imagination, a little more understanding, a little more humanity it could have been a great one.


I had an absolutely super time on Saturday. The coven was out in force, an explosive combination of people and talents, some I’ve known since school, others I met at Cambridge. I always find time for social gatherings and parties at the weekend but this was something special, something different. We played around like crazy, drinking like crazy, doing other things like crazy, having fun, casting spells and making mayhem. You know who you all are. This is just a brief note to say how much I love you, each and every one of you, boys and girls, witches and warlocks. Until the next time and may it be soon.

Starchild, on a mission of love
Starchild, fallen from the skies above
Lost forever in a dream
In a mescaline time machine
Starchild, in the danger zone
Starchild, now she's all alone
Lost forever in a dream
In a mescaline time machine
Here she comes, burning like a supernova
Here she comes again
Starchild, in the summer sky
Starchild, drinking of the poppy wine
Never ageing, never dying
Always laughing, never crying
Starchild, on the astral plane
Starchild, in a dream once again
Never ageing, never dying
Always laughing, never crying

To cap it all I was sent a beautiful love poem by my friend Marcelo, who lives in the wonderful city of Buenos Aires.





Yo, quiero, Marcelo, you quiero mucho. :-)

Thursday 26 August 2010

What a Twit

Just imagine yourself as the president of a country, a populist steadily becoming less popular as the economy crumbles away under your hopeless mismanagement. It’s your own fault, really, your own fault for embracing Marxist socialism, the one certain route into a political graveyard. But you can’t give it up; your conversion to this wretched ideology is too recent and you have too much prestige invested in platitudes and nostrums.

So what do you do, what way is there of taking the collective mind off present problems and failures? I’ve got it: why not dig up the body of a presidential predecessor, a distant predecessor, to see if he was murdered? Too fanciful, do you think; what value is there in that kind of grotesque gesture? If you want an answer to that question you will really have to ask Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s Twittering president, who had Simon Bolivar, the great hero of the Latin American independence movement, disinterred this summer; yes, he did.

This is the sort of thing that goes on in the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”, where the president, Marxist in one part of his muddled mind, Catholic in the other, is recreating his personal hero as a kind of secular saint. Saint Simon’s ‘resurrection’ was seemingly to determine if he died of tuberculosis, as historians maintain on good evidence, or if he was poisoned by his political rivals, “crucified like Christ”, as Saint Hugo insists. Crucified by poison, yes, indeed, that does make quite a lot of sense.

With important legislative elections scheduled for September, what better way of taking the nation’s eyes of its troubles than a kind of historical soap opera? Chavez announced his revisionist thesis some three years ago and has become more obsessive ever since.

The whole spectacle is just too, too funny. He has told the world through his Twitter page that any doubts he had on the ‘crucifixion’ were assuaged by Bolivar in person. Yes, you read that correctly. Seemingly his bones called out as they emerged from the grave “Yes, it’s me.” Nobody of course heard this apart from Chavez himself, presumably on the principle that saint shall speak unto saint. “I confess we wept”, he later wrote on his Twitter page, “That glorious skeleton must be Bolivar, for we could feel his spark.” Yes, I’m sure ‘we’ could. Still I suppose it makes a welcome change from his Tweets about his bouts of diarrhoea, the real kind, not the verbal stuff. I can assure you, I’m not joking.

In a way it’s a great pity that this egotistical and self-pitying clot has selected Bolivar as a personal avatar. The real Bolivar, not the man of Chavez’ mad imagination, was a social conservative, not a socialist, as he is being recast in the “Bolivarian Republic of Hugo”. But the exhumation serves another purpose. The remains are set to be reburied away from the conservative company they now keep. And in Chavez' paranoid mind the exercise is intended to remind people that they very same “imperialists” and “oligarchs” who allegedly assassinated his hero are plotting the same fate for his ideological heir. Those the gods wish to destroy…I think you probably know the rest.

A Devil’s Tale

I read a review of Ruth Harris’ The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France, published earlier this year, in which the author said that the affaire Dreyfus tore apart French political and social life for more than a decade. Actually it tore it a part for several decades, introducing arguably the greatest fault line into modern French political life, the cause of several earthquakes, ending in the transient ‘victory’ of the anti-Dreyfus forces in the Vichy state of Marshal Petain.

The whole business arising from the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, on a blatantly false charge of treason, was only superficially about ‘justice’. The struggles that took shape around the head of this man, incarcerated on Devil’s Island in a way that made the Man in the Iron Mask look almost fortunate, saw France divide into two great political camps: the traditionalists, the church, the conservatives and the anti-Semites on one side, the liberals, the secularists, the republicans and the modernisers on the other.

The key, if there is a key to the whole business, lies in differing perceptions of the Jews as a race and Catholicism as a religion. People are often quick to remember some of the hysterical polemics of the more obscurantist among the anti-Dreyfusards, not stopping short of the blood liable, the accusation of medieval origin that the Jews collected Christian blood to make matzos. But the Dreyfusards did not baulk from hitting back with their own nonsense, spreading the stories of bestiality among Catholic priests, of clerics who supposedly had sex with chickens and goats.

In the end the victory of the Dreyfusards came not just with the release and rehabilitation of a man who had in some ways become almost irrelevant as a man but with the formal separation of church and state; with the formal creation, in other words, in a fully secular republic, embodied in the statute of 1905.

It was this republic that the right grew to hate, expressing its mood through new politically militant organisations like Charles Maurass’ Action Française. This hatred of the secular, liberal and - as the right saw it - Jewish state came to a head in the February riots of 1934, arising from a scandal caused by the revelations about the affairs of the embezzler Alexandre Stavisky, like Dreyfus also a Jew.

France’s political civil war really only came to an end, paradoxically, with the initial success followed by the ultimate failure of the Vichy counter-revolution, a reaction against all aspects of French republican history from 1789 onwards. France of the reactionary right took shape in its hostility to one man and all he represented for them. Its death perhaps began with the sacrifice of one woman, a French citizen and a Jew. Her name was Madeleine Levy, arrested by the Gestapo in November 1943 and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. She was Alfred Dreyfus’ granddaughter.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Dead Pope on Trial

You might think that the dead are beyond all human judgement. Now they are, by and large, at least physically; reputations are still subject to posthumous scurrility. But in the past even one’s physical remains could not always escape some form of earthly reprisal, often in a kind of symbolic act.

I can think of several examples from English history. John Wycliffe, a medieval theologian and reformer, was burned as a heretic forty-five years after his death. The remains of Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, who formed part of the court that sentenced Charles I to death in 1649, were exhumed when the monarchy was restored in 1660. They were then hanged, drawn and quartered, the punishment for treason.

I suppose these examples – and there are others – are bizarre enough. They are not nearly as bizarre, though, as putting the dead on trial. Yes, it has happened. And I don’t mean that the deceased was subject to judicial process in absentia, so to speak. No; I mean when the person in question, or what was left of them, was taken from the grave so they could be physically present in court.

It couldn’t happen in English law because the dead can’t plead, retaining not a right to silence, just silence. But it has happened and happened right in the heart of Christendom. So, let me introduce to you Pope Formosus and the Synodus Horrenda – the Cadaver Synod or Trial – an episode I think I can safely say is without parallel in the history of the church.

Formosus was Pope from 891 to 896, during a particularly troublesome period for the Catholic Church. Prior to his elevation he had been Bishop of Porto, during which time he was pursued by ecclesiastical and political controversy, even being excommunicated at one point by Pope John VIII, who accused him, amongst other things, of attempting to seize the papal throne.

Although the interdict was finally lifted and Formosus acquired sufficient authority to be elected Pope in his own right, his already dubious background was made ever murkier by the politics of the day, when rival candidates competed for the honour of the Imperial throne. In the end the Pope seems to have been little more than a victim of circumstances, taking the wrong political side.

The Cadaver Synod, ordered by Pope Stephen VI, his successor but one, opened sometime in the course of 897, months after Formosus’ death. The whole thing seems to have had a clear political purpose though why things proceeded in such a macabre way is difficult to say, when simple condemnation for past misdeeds would have sufficed. Instead the corpse was disinterred, dressed in papal vestments, brought into the papal court where it was seated on a throne, there to face a trail on the basis of the charges once lodged by John VIII, the prosecution being lead by Pope Stephen in person. At one point he even asked the cadaver why he “usurped the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition.” Needless to say no answer is recorded.

In the end it was declared that Formosus had been unworthy of the papal honour. After being stripped, literally, of the papal vestments and condemned to damnatio memorie – damnation of memory, a custom once practiced by the ancient Roman Senate – he was finally cast into the Tiber, another ancient custom inflicted on disgraced emperors.

The whole thing was just too absurdly gruesome even for those days, turning public opinion against Stephen, who was deposed and strangled in prison. Formosus himself was fished out of the Tiber and reputed to be the cause of miracles.

But matters did not rest there. The unfortunate Formosus, who travelled as much in death as in life, was reputedly disinterred for a second time in the early tenth century during the pontificate of Sergius III, an ally of Stephen, who had taken part in the first Cadaver Synod. Once again he was tried and found guilty, this time his head being cut off. It’s as well to remember that the history of the papacy was as colourful, as brutal, as fascinating and as decadent as the history of the emperors who preceded them in the eternal city.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Rough Justice for Noriega

It’s my usual practice to carry out as much background research as I can before visiting a place. I did so for the various countries of Central America, an altogether fascinating exercise. I now know a reasonable amount about the politics and history of Panama and Costa Rica, to add to what I already knew about those of Guatemala and Honduras.

There is one story I would like to highlight here, one case I would like to highlight, that leaves me with a considerable amount of unease over the example set in the exercise of international power politics; perhaps bullying and arrogance would be better words to use. It concerns Manuel Noriega, the one-time military dictator of Panama, a man who has spent the past twenty years in jail, first in the United States and now in France.

I should say at the outset that, if you do not know anything of his life, Noriega was not a very pleasant human being. Not only was his rule in Panama brutal but he was also involved in various criminal activities, including drug smuggling, racketeering and money laundering. It was on the basis of this that he was subsequently charged and convicted. I have no doubt at all that the accusations were fair.

What was neither fair nor just was the way in which his conviction came about. There are so many questions here, unanswered questions, about America’s role in the world, about the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, about the nature of new forms of bullying imperialism.

By what right did the United States, I have to ask, invade Panama, killing an unknown number of people in the process, and then carrying off a head of state to try him under an alien jurisdiction? Where is the legality here? It seems to be an exercise in nothing more than pure power, in duplicity and in treachery, one that set a dangerous precedent for future actions. It was done because it could be done, not because it was right.

Let me sketch some background details, just to put matters in context. It should be borne in mind that Noriega was not only a leading figure in Panamanian political and military circles he was also an important source of support for US intelligence operations in the Americas. During the Regan administration he had helped channel money and arms to the Contras, the guerrillas fighting the Marxist dictatorship in Nicaragua. He was useful enough for the CIA to overlook the covert relationship he was also building up with Colombian drug cartels.

However, once these contacts became public in the late 1980s Noriega became more of an embarrassment than an asset. In 1987 the American government began a campaign to drive him from power, though why he should have been subject to such singular action remains a mystery when there were other dictators, just as venal, just as corrupt.

In December 1989 then President George Bush, a former director of the CIA, launched Operation Just Cause, in which close of thirty-thousand US troops invaded Panama, a sovereign country, a member of the United Nations. It was the biggest, most murderous ‘arrest warrant’ in history, all to bring a foreign politician and soldier before the American courts. A formidable battery of weaponry was brought to bear, including helicopter gunships and stealth bombers, against a country that had no air defences. In Panama City, El Chorillo, one of the poorest districts in the capital, was heavily bombarded. In the subsequent fires some fifteen thousand people were left homeless.

We will never know exactly how many people died in this first ‘Bush War’ though estimates go as high as ten thousand, nothing compared, I suppose, with the war of Bush fils in Iraq. But still, so many dead in what was little more than a personal vendetta is sickeningly disproportionate.

Bush’s actions had no legality whatsoever, merely part of a bullying relationship the United States had with Panama going right back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when the country was created out of Colombia, specifically so that the Americans could take control of the Canal. His action was condemned by both the United Nations and the Organisation of American States, which demanded an immediate withdrawal.

Among the reasons Bush gave for the invasion was that he was “defending democracy” in Panama and “combating drug trafficking”. The odd thing is that these had never been issues in the past. When he was director of the CIA Bush had in fact increased payments to Noriega, knowing full well of his involvement in drug trafficking. Indeed after the invasion the flow of cocaine through Panama got steadily worse.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Noriega was no loss to Panama and most people were glad to see the back of him. But much anger remained over the heavy-handed use of force, about the national humiliation involved, nothing new, as I have said, in American-Panamanian relations.

The simple fact is that Noriega was client who was no longer useful. A small precedent had been set with future dreadful consequences. I simply cannot escape the conclusion that Panama’s former strongman has been subject to an appalling injustice. There was no international tribunal here, no suggestion of war crimes. In his American trial he wasn’t even allowed to raise his CIA contacts in case it “confused” the jury. If it was necessary to try him for previously condoned crimes it should have been under the law of Panama, not the United States or France.

A Soldier's Song

It’s December 1862, the last day of the year. The American Civil War has been underway for more than a year and a half with no decisive breakthrough. In Tennessee, in the western theatre, the Union and Confederate armies gather late in the evening, ready to do battle the following day in the Stones River Valley around the small town of Murfreesboro.

Camped only a few hundred yards apart, the soldiers shout defiance at each other, urged on by their bands, the Northerners playing such songs as Yankee Doodle and Hail, Columbia, the Southerners responding with a barrage of Dixie and The Bonnie Blue Flag. But then one of the bands strikes up Home, Sweet Home, a popular and melancholic tune of the day. At once both sides, North and South, start to sing, overwhelmed by the occasion, all enmity set aside in mutual longing.

There are universal sentiments, longings for home, and peace and love that can unite enemies, even, with the example I have in mind, across a language barrier, even across national boundaries. In 1939 a German singer by the name of Lale Anderson recorded one such song, a tune based on a poem called Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht (The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch), written during the First World War This song is better known to the world as Lili Marleen.

Initially it enjoyed only limited success, I suppose because the time was not yet right for its sweet and gentle melancholy, the thoughts of a soldier recalling his love back home. But in 1941 the German radio station in Belgrade started to play it regularly, broadcast across the whole of the Western Desert, where the Africa Korps was locked in duel with the British Eighth Army. The lovely opening words had an immediate impact on the German soldiers;

Vor der Kaserne,
Vor dem grossen Tor,
Stand eine Laterne
Und steht sie noch davor,
So woll’n wir uns da wiederseh’n,
Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n,
Wie einst, Lilli Marleen,
Wie einst, Lilli Marleen.

Even Hitler, not noted for his taste in popular music, was said to be impressed, saying that “this song will not only inspire German soldiers, it might even outlast us all.” The even greater surprise is that the tune quickly became just as popular on the Allied side as the Axis, a universal anthem of love and homesickness. Although the British authorities, alarmed by its reception, fearful that it would undermine morale, initially tried to dismiss it as a song about a prostitute it’s lasting popularity resulted in an English version, which opens with the same sentiments as the German;

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember the way you used to wait;
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly,
That you lov'd me, you'd always be,
My Lilli of the lamplight,
My own Lilli Marlene.

The one person that it did not impress was Doctor Goebbels, head of German propaganda, who found it ‘morbid’ and ‘unheroic’. Radio Belgrade was ordered to stop playing it, the original master was destroyed and Andersen arrested. But then came the letters to the radio station, not just from Africa but across the whole of occupied Europe, from German soldiers, unaware that it had been banned, requesting that Lili Marleen be played again. Such was the demand that the Propaganda Minister’s interdict had to be overturned.

It continues to stand as the song of the universal soldier, a lasting tribute to simple human values. For once Hitler was right.

Monday 23 August 2010

Dark Vienna

Last year I went to a sixtieth anniversary screening of The Third Man, arguably the best example of British film noir ever made. I’d seen it before on television but that’s a poor substitute for the full movie experience. Directed by Carol Reed on the basis of a screenplay by Graham Greene, it has some really super performances by such people as Orson Wells, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. Even the minor parts are terribly well done.

I love everything about it. It’s an intelligent movie for intelligent people, a contrast with so many mainstream thrillers now, with poor plotting and limp dialogue, inadequate settings for a succession of boom bang special effects. Everything about The Third Man is so good - the script, the atmosphere, the expressionist mood, the historical setting, the black and white cinematography; even the jaunty zither score!

I don’t need to retell the story; it’s too well known. Sufficient to say that the action takes place in post-War Vienna, a city still under four power occupation, a city where racketeering is a way of life, a dangerous city, a city where the step between life and death is all too brief. Into this mix comes Harry Lime, brilliantly played by Orson Welles, a bad man, a vicious man, but a man impossible to hate. For me Lime will always be the one truly great anti-hero of British cinema.

The camera angles, the cutting and the use of light and shade even now appear slightly revolutionary; they must have been a real sensation in 1949, especially for an English audience not familiar with the masterpieces of German Expressionism. The screen play is also filled with some really memorable lines, my personal favourite being an observation by Lime;

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

This is an historical travesty, given Switzerland’s role in European affairs at the time of the Borgias, but a delicious travesty from a delicious movie! You can keep the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm; I would far rather have the dark Vienna, the exciting Vienna; the Vienna of Harry Lime!

Sunday 22 August 2010

Dream on

We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. But, wait; don’t fall asleep too soon, or if you do fall asleep take out plenty of dream insurance; otherwise Cobb and his team might invade your mind and take you in directions you’d rather not go.

What on earth am I on about, you wonder, and who on earth is Cobb? I’m on about Inception, the summer ‘blockbuster’ (horrid word) directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo di Caprio as Dom Cobb, an engineer of dreams. I like Leonardo as an actor, I have ever since Titanic, but if I say to you that he still seems to be on Shutter Island in this movie then you have a key both to his performance and my appreciation. So read no further; you’ve been warned!

I’m not going to say too much about the actual content of the movie, in fact I’m not going to say anything at all other than it’s a sci-fi thriller full of all sorts of spectacular effects as we are taken through dreams within dreams within dreams, almost as if an onion is being peeled away layer by layer. Nolan, clearly a man with a vivid and creative imagination, was obviously able to command the big bucks because the dream magic is lavish: I particularly liked the streets of Paris turning in on themselves.

Inception has been thrilling the masses in the multiplexes across the globe. That’s not at all surprising really, because it’s a super double-cheeseburger with all the trimmings, quite technically brilliant at points. The reviews have been mostly rave, for once the critics broadly in tune the audiences. If you like technical wizardry, if you like imaginative playfulness, if you like a thrill every half-minute Inception is your movie. If you like grown-up films, adult films with a serious and believable plot, with serious and believable characters, active rather than hyperactive, then it is not. It’s most assuredly not my movie.

Yes, I was impressed by parts - once I managed to get my head round what was going on - but in the end, as we are taken to the heart of the mystery, the heart of the dream labyrinth, as that safe is opened and that message given what immediately came to mind was two simple questions: “Is that it?”, “Is that what all this hyperactive fuss has been about?” Sorry, I’m being more than usually cryptic; if you’ve seen it you will know what I’m on about: I’m on about paper windmills!

I’m really thinking of giving up altogether on Anglo-Saxon film makers, giving up on movies that are full of sound and fury signifying nothing, with the honourable exception of those made by the superlative Clint Eastwood. The trouble is I saw Gainsbourg before Inception, a French movie full of drama signifying something, signifying that it had an intelligent and interesting story-line, signifying that this was an adult movie for adults, not perpetual teenagers. Not waving but dreaming, that’s Inception, overwrought, overdone and far too pompously self-important.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Norman and proud

At long last I can come out: I confess it, I’m a Norman! Yes, a Norman, and doubly so, for my surname combines Fitzgerald and Beaumont, both of Norman-French origin. Fitzgerald comes from fils de Gérald, meaning son of Gerald, and Beaumont from beautiful mound. My history is the history of England, though one would never guess as the Normans in popular culture are more often bad than good, the heroes being Anglo-Saxon, people like Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood. They are not my people; they are not my heroes: I’m Norman and proud!

So, what brought this on, you may wonder? Simply this: I watched The Normans, a three part historical documentary screened on BBC2, in which Professor Robert Bartlett outlined the history of the warrior state-builders from their Norse origins to the Crusades. The final episode was screened last Wednesday, in which he described at length the formation of the Norman kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily, a story less well known in this country. I was abroad when the first two episodes were screened but managed to catch up thanks to the benefits of iPlayer.

The centre-piece, the keystone in the building of the story from an English perspective, came in the second episode, which dealt with the Battle of Hastings and the Conquest of 1066, by far the most significant date in our history, once a lot better understood than it is now. The first episode dealt with the origins of the Normans, not in France, of course, but in Scandinavia.

I hesitate to say this but, as one is best not to take things for granted, the Normans were, of course, North Men, Vikings, in other words. They settled in what is now French Normandy in 911, where their leader Rollo the Ganger was granted lands by the French crown, an act of territorial appeasement that was to be a germ of greatness.

Now settled, the Normans steadily went native, speaking a variety of French and acquiring a taste for wine. But they always remained of singular appearance, not just clean shaven but closely cropped, with heads shaved up the back. As Vikings they were infantrymen but as Normans they became knights, acquiring superb skills in horsemanship.

It seems to me that the other important thing to remember about the Normans is that they never quite lost their ancestral habits. Freebooters they were, freebooters they remained. They became Christian, the builders of some of the greatest religious foundations in both France and England, though they never quite lost their pagan ruthlessness. And they were ambitious; my how they were ambitious, with a hunger for wealth, land and power. They were history’s greatest pirates, opportunists and adventurers.

In a sense they were a race of ‘younger sons’ in a feudal society where the eldest inherited everything. Knowing nothing but skill in arms, these younger sons were to spread Norman power outwards. After the conquest of England the less well-favoured began a steady advance into the Welsh borderlands, where, as the Marcher Lords, they were nominally beyond the power of the English crown.

And it is here, in the Welsh marches, that the story of the Fitzgeralds truly begins, an epic carried to Ireland. The details of the Fitzgeralds, touched on in episode two of the documentary as a supplement to the conquest and transformation of England, was recorded by the monkish chronicler, Gerald of Wales. He celebrates the prowess of his family with some pride;

Who are those who penetrate to the heart of the enemy? The Fitzgeralds. Who are those who preserve the country? The Fitzgeralds. Who are they whom the enemy fears? The Fitzgeralds.

It was opportunism and land hunger that took the Fitzgeralds to Ireland, a significant component of the army sent there by Richard de la Clare, second earl of Pembroke, better known to history as Strongbow. In 1170 one of Strongbow’s commanders, Raymond Fitzgerald, encountered an Irish force at Baginbun near Bannow. Although considerably outnumbered Raymond was victorious, an inspiration for the couplet “At the creek of Baginbun Ireland was lost and won.” It was opening act of an eight-hundred year epic.

Norman achievements in France, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, where they were invited to come, were certainly impressive, but perhaps not nearly as impressive as their achievement in Italy, where they came initially as a small band of penniless mercenaries, eventually replacing the Byzantines and the Moors across the whole of the south and Sicily. Their power was such that they eventually became a threat to the security of the whole Byzantine Empire. One of their greatest and most unscrupulous leaders, Robert Guiscard, was described thus by Anna Comnena, the Byzantine historian;

This Robert was Norman by descent, of minor origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire. His stature was so lofty that he surpassed even the tallest, his complexion was ruddy, his hair flaxen, his shoulders were broad, his eyes all but emitted sparks of fire, and in frame he was well-built ... this man's cry it is said to have put thousands to flight. Thus equipped by fortune, physique and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.

Bartlett’s explorations here were altogether fascinating, showing the speed by which these soldiers and intriguers built up their power, even defeating an army headed by Pope Leo IX in person at the Battle of Civitate. Thereafter, as true Christians, they pleaded for Leo’s forgiveness; thereafter, as true Normans, they kept him prisoner for nine months until he recognised their conquests!

I’ve concentrated on the Normans’ martial and political exploits here but Bartlett also devotes much time to their achievements as builders and as sponsors of the arts. As builders we still have reminders of them today in churches and cathedrals as well as castles, formidably impressive even as ruins. So, yes, I’m proud to be a Norman.:-)

Thursday 19 August 2010

Great Jaguar

The jaguar, feared and respected, is central to the Mayan pantheon, embracing both the dark and the light. Their principle gods are Jaguar gods, most notably the Black Jaguar of the underworld, or the god of Terrestrial Fire, and the Light Jaguar of the upper. Creation and destruction are twins, not opposites in the Mayan cosmology.

Jaguars were associated with the night sky, especially in the form of a black panther. The spotted jaguar also had night associations, their marks symbolising the stars. Their golden colour also represented the sun and their eyes, glowing with light, were said to be the mirrors of the moon.

Shamans were closely identified with jaguars, evidenced by the fact that in the Mayan language the world balam signifies both magician-priest and jaguar. It was also believed that the shaman, in the midst of a ritual, transformed into a jaguar.

Ixchel is one of the most complex and to me most appealing of the jaguar deities. Principally she is the goddess of midwifery and medicine. She also has associations with the moon and fertility, war and destruction, again this complex unity of opposing forces in the great cycle of existence.

Hair today

Salvador Dali had a wonderfully subversive sense of humour. It found outlet sometimes in the most unlikely things. Take political banners, those displaying the Big Brother, larger than life phizog of some hero or other. It was once the fashion in communist parades, or in student demonstrations, for participants to carry these things, often showing their secular saints in profile in a kind of apostolic succession.

I’m sure you can picture the sort of thing I mean. It begins with a heavily-bearded Karl Marx, then and even hairier Friedrich Engels, then Lenin with his moustache and goatee, followed by Stalin with just the moustache, ending with a bare-faced Mao Zedong. It was one of these ghastly things that Dali took, adding the title underneath The Rise of Marxism Corresponding to the Decline in Facial Hair.

I wrote some reflections on this myself a couple of years ago. Now I’ve been inspired to return to the politics of hair by a recent article in The Economist (Taking it on the chin). One would have had to been away for decades in space not to know that hair has acquired a political and cultural symbolism, meaning different things to different people. And it’s not just the facial fuzz, the kind of thing that so excites fundamentalist mullahs.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, himself sporting a fairly outrageous barnet, was so concerned by male hairdos that a television campaign was launched called “Let’s trim our hair in accordance with our socialist lifestyle.” Hmm, yes; knowing what I do about the ‘socialist lifestyle’ in North Korea I would have thought everyone, women as well as men, would immediately have gone for total baldness, the slaphead look.

It’s outrageously funny, yes, but there are some places where the politics of hair can be lethal. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, men sporting beards were in danger of having them ripped out by the roots, because this was taken as a sign of opposition to the new overlords, who never went beyond the Ba’athist moustache al la Saddam. Following the Coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, when hair became Shiite, many barbers were murdered, accused of giving haircuts that were “too Western” or “too un-Islamic.”

There are places in the world where men are actually ordered to grow beards as a sign of Islamic piety, Afghanistan under the Taliban being the most obvious example. Even so, as I understand it, there is no firm rule here, practice varying from place to place across the Islamic world. In Iran, interestingly enough, while the ayatollahs get upset about hairdos that are too ‘Western’ (men are even taken from the streets to appear before religious courts), they are surprisingly liberal when it comes to face nests.

Actually, on the latter point, I suspect that there are good genetic and historical reasons for this. Iran was invaded by the Mongols in the Middle Ages, and a large part of the population is of Mongolian descent. The problem is people of this particular racial stock tend to be a bit challenged when it comes to face follicles. Just compare the fulsome efforts of Ayatollah Khameni, Iran’s present Supreme Beard (no descendent of the Great Khan, he), with the pathetic attempt of former president Rafsanjani!

The one sure thing is that the more popular beards become in Islamic societies and communities the less popular they are in places fearful of growing Islamic influence. Just imagine the reaction if someone like, say, Abraham Lincoln stood for office today, even with his relatively modest growth. And when it comes to our own Lord Salisbury, then just forget it! But this is not just Western or Christian beard-a-phobia. Hindu India does not like it much either. Recently a Christian college’s ban on Muslim beards was upheld by a Hindu judge, not normally sympathetic to Christian causes, with the remark “We do not want Talibans here.” Well, quite.

Before I conclude you might want to know how I feel about beards personally. Let me say, on a frivolous note, I was kissed by a bearded apparition at a student party a couple of years ago, taken by surprise when I was just a tincy-winsy tipsy. I honestly can’t begin to describe the sensation, other than to say it felt as if a mop had been thrust into my face or as if I was being embraced by Cousin Itt. Never again!

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Reflections on Reflections

My copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France comes with a splendid introductory essay by Conor Cruise O’Brien, onetime academic, politician, journalist and writer. I understand that he also wrote a biography of Burke which his Wikipedia page describes as ‘unorthodox’, though I think he may have used that term himself to describe his interpretation. I’ve not read it so I can’t say if it is or not. What I can say, and say with assurance, is that his essay brings out aspects of Burke’s life and work that I might otherwise have missed, particularly in relation to Catholicism and Ireland, and the bearing this had on his perception of the upheavals in France.

Burke belonged politically to the English Whigs and - at least by outward association - to the Protestant Ascendency in Ireland; he could never have advanced his political career as far as he did if he had not. But O’Brien identifies a tension between what he calls the ‘outer Whig’ and the ‘inner Jacobite’, between a Protestant gloss and a Catholic tradition. It was this friction that helped drive the irony in Burke’s critique. Here his first target was not the Parisian revolutionaries but the London rationalists, those who identified the Revolution as the triumph of Reason over Superstition and Tradition.

O’Brien’s point here is quite subtle, as subtle as Burke’s intellect. Protestant he may have been but the Irish Catholic tradition was there, part of his makeup and part of his background;

…if Burke as a Whig cherished, at least in theory, the Glorious Revolution, Burke as an Irishman, with close emotional bonds to the conquered, detested the Protestant ascendancy which that Revolution had riveted on the people of his country.

There are things here that could not be said openly, were not said openly, at least not until towards the end of his life. But there were things that could be said indirectly, if you like, things that could be said in the context of a critique of the French Revolution.

The crucial point of departure here is that events in France were welcomed by the likes of Dr Richard Price, a leading Protestant dissenter. In November 1789 he delivered a sermon entitled Discourse on the love of our country in which he compared the political transformations in France with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a common theme in the early days.

But if the Glorious Revolution, the Whig touchstone, meant one thing in England it meant quite another in Ireland: it meant hostility to Catholicism; it meant the oppressive Penal Laws. It was the identification of the first event with the second, the English with the French, O’Brien maintains, that wakened the “slumbering Jacobite” in the elderly Whig. The creative tension here goes that one step further; for while in relation to England and France the Jacobite perspective was clearly counter-revolutionary, the opposite was true in the context of Ireland.

The Reflections begins, then, as a rebuttal to Price, begins as a way of getting the English establishment to see that their interests were bound up with Catholicism in Europe; that there Catholicism was the bastion of order, of property and of tradition. It’s a wonderful exercise in intellectual gymnastics, for Burke is getting people to see that it is the militant anti-Catholic Protestantism of the dissenters that is the natural ally of Jacobinism.

So, while preparing the most effective counter-revolutionary polemic ever penned Burke was also planting the seeds of sympathy for Catholicism in the minds of the English, the very antithesis of the message on the Glorious Revolution. Growing hostility towards the Jacobins was, with wonderful irony, accompanied with increasing sympathy towards the Jacobites. That is to say, it was in part thanks to Burke that English policy towards Ireland began to change, evidenced by the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 followed two years later by the foundation of Maynooth Seminary with state support.

In a letter written five years after the publication of the Reflections Burke made plain that his whole politics centred on anti-Jacobinism. He was particularly incensed by the hostility towards religion on which that movement was based. For him the practice of Catholicism “forms as things stand, the most effective barrier, against Jacobinism”. He further argues that in Ireland in particular “the Roman Catholic religion should be upheld in high respect and veneration.”

It’s an impressive argument, one which deepens, if such a thing is possible, the profound respect I already have for Burke as a thinker. My politics, my conservatism, begin with Burke and end with Burke, begin and end with words he wrote in a letter of March 1790, the most devastating critique of bloodlessly bloody ideology ever written. The emphasis here is in the original;

“I have no great opinion of that sublime abstract, metaphysic revisionary, contingent humanity, which in cold blood can subject the present time and those whom we daily see and converse with to immediate calamities in favour of the future and uncertain benefit of persons who only exist in idea.”

Here is the key to the horror of much of modern history, from Robespierre to Pol Pot and beyond.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

An English Genius

There are sometimes rare moments in time and history, times of upheaval and transition, times of renewal; times that are given particular shape and meaning by the happy coincidence that they fall within the lifetime of an individual of rare genius.

The century in which Shakespeare was born was one of profound change; of reformation in religion and reshaping of manners. It was a time when the old medieval certainties were giving way to new ways of thinking; to a whole range of new attitudes about people and their place both in this world and in the world beyond. Shakespeare was born on the cusp of history, when the focus of history was moving away from the ancient centres of civilization, towards the new world of the Atlantic seaboard. It was in Shakespeare that the old and the new were combined. He was born at just the right time, when the Gothic world of Medieval Christianity had not quite given way, and when the modern world had not fully taken shape. It was given to Shakespeare to create that world; to create its consciousness and to create its language.

Think about the nature of drama before Shakespeare. We are dealing, in the main, with character 'types', representing not so much the complexity of human action, but an attitude, either of virtue or of vice; of perfection or corruption; of salvation or damnation. But Shakespeare humanises and combines these attributes in the single individual; in a unique personality, expressed in both in forms of exterior action, and in moods of interior thought.

He gives shape to new and more complex forms of human psychology; in weakness and in strength. His greatest contribution is to shape characters, like that of Hamlet, whose tragedy is one of indecision; or Othello, whose tragedy is one of manipulation; or King Lear, whose tragedy is one of blind pride. They, and so many others of his creations, are 'perfectly imperfect', not bound by time of space, characters who are able to offer something new, from generation to generation.

His 'natural' quality may not have appealed to the mannered tastes in drama that gained favour after his death; but he was almost bound to speak anew to those who came after; to the Romantic sensibility which emerged in the eighteenth century, when notions of the human begin to acquire their definitive form. If I were to try to define the true greatness of Shakespeare it would be in this: it was he who invented what it means to be mortal, and to stand alone in that mortality.

Shakespeare's time was also that in which the English language, as we understand it today, is beginning to acquire its final shape and structure. In translating the Bible into English William Tyndale began this process by introducing a whole new range of words and phrases. But Shakespeare surpassed Tyndale as a miner of our language. His vocabulary is simply huge; the words he draws out, the combinations he makes astonishing in their range and power.

There are people today, people who have never read Shakespeare, or seen a performance of one of his plays, who quite unconsciously use words and phrases invented by the Bard. He coined so many new words that it is difficult for me to know where to begin. Did you know, taking just a few at random, that 'into thin air', 'time-honoured', 'be-all and end all', 'breathed his last', 'crack of doom', 'dead as a doornail', 'good riddance' and so many other like expressions, some which people have come to accept as 'proverbial', were all created or first used by Shakespeare? So, too, were words like 'addiction', 'cold-blooded', 'critic', 'denote', 'bedazzled', 'birthplace', 'belongings', 'eventful', 'full-grown', and 'zany', yes, zany. There are too many others to mention here.

Finally, and from a purely English point of view, he might be said to have created a popular sense of patriotism and love of country; a love that goes beyond mere loyalty to the monarch. I am thinking specifically here of John of Gaunt's This England speech from Richard II. The one that moves me most, though, is the speech given by Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, the one I have come to think of as the 'Band of Brothers' speech;

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Great speech, great writer, great man. Supreme.

The blasted Heath

After reading close on six hundred pages of Edward Heath, Philip Ziegler’s recently published biography, I discovered that the former prime minister and I have one single point of mutual sympathy: we have no time for the novels of Jeffery Archer. As for the rest let me just say that last November I finished P. G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Satan: a Biography with greater sympathy for Old Nick than I now do for Grocer Heath!

Ziegler’s book is certainly a commendable effort, scholarly, thoroughly researched, well-written and judicious. He gets close to his subject but never too close, maintaining a proper standard of objectivity. He does his best to be fair to Heath but, my, what a difficult task he set himself, trying to present anything in any way pleasant about this thoroughly unpleasant man, conceivably the worst, least gentlemanly leader the Conservative Party ever had.

As Ziegler mentions, after Heath was appointed as a Knight of the Garter in 1992 Peregrine Wosthorne writing in The Sunday Telegraph referred to Lord Melbourne’s famous comment on the honour, saying “there was certainly no damned merit about Heath…not only was he a rotten Prime Minister but also a most disgraceful man…his un-chivalrous conduct towards Mrs Thatcher is a case book study of boorishness unequalled in the annals of British public life.”

His boorishness was compounded by spite and petulance. When Mrs Thatcher came to see him after her success in the leadership election of 1975 he went around piling books on all of his free chairs so that she would have nowhere to sit – she simply removed them and sat down anyway. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of rudeness in the book, including the time when he simply shrugged his shoulders when President Richard Nixon, initially well disposed to him, suggested they play a piano duet together when he came to visit the White House.

I have to say that my initial reaction was to ignore this book because I simply don’t find the subject all that prepossessing. I was persuaded otherwise by a review in The Spectator by William Waldegrave, a former Conservative minister who knew Heath well, where he wrote;

…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.

Yes, well, all I can say he was the essential precursor of Thatcher in the sense that Thatcherism was an essential antidote to Heath; an antidote to the socialism and unparalleled levels of state intervention that he embraced in the latter part of his disastrous ministry. Heath once made reference to the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, his only memorable phrase, which perhaps goes right to the heart of his personal ideology, insofar as this man can be said to have had anything as coherent as an ideology.

I have not the least doubt that Heath was the unacceptable face of Conservatism, a Robert Peel for the twentieth century. He clearly did not like the party. He made no attempt to cultivate its grass roots or even his own back benchers. The dominating question for me, one that Ziegler does not really answer to my satisfaction, is how could this man ever have been elected leader in the first place?

It’s as well to remember that he was indeed the first elected leader in the party’s history. Prior to 1965 they had simply ‘emerged’ by some mysterious nod and wink process, the prerogative of party grandees. The answer seems to be simple enough: there was no alternative. Rather the alternatives were just hopelessly unacceptable; the notoriously lazy Reginald Maudling or the maverick Enoch Powell, no better illustration of the contention that great wits are closely allied to madness.

So Heath it was, a man of relatively humble social origins, the grammar school boy, the man for the times, the answer of a ‘reformed’ Conservative Party to Harold Wilson and the egalitarian spirit of the 1960s. Oh but what a calamity he was. He lost three out of four elections. And how much better it might have been for us all if he had also lost in 1970.

How can one best summarise the Heath ministry of 1970 to 1974? For me it simply has to be debacle, followed by appeasement, followed by abject retreat; surrender to trade union bullies, surrender to socialism, surrender to state control. I can not think of a single redeeming feature. His one ‘triumph’ was to take Britain into Europe, partly on the basis of deceptions over the impact on national sovereignty, as Ziegler makes clear, a fulfilment of a task once entrusted to him when he was Lord Privy Seal under Harold MacMillan, himself a ‘Heathite’, though with the saving graces of a gentleman.

A poor politician, a dreadful leader, a misogynist, a bore, a man with no social graces whatsoever, that was Edward Heath; the man of the long sulk, the man who heathed around for years, waiting for the elusive ‘Churchillian call’; a man who cultivated noisome dictators like Mao and Saddam, while behaving treacherously towards the leadership of his own party. Fuming around, Heath on the blasted heath, the old king driven mad by the perceived ingratitude of others. It’s not an edifying sight; it was not an edifying life.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, called you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.

Monday 16 August 2010

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

My obsession with aviation continues, particularly with the pioneering days of flight. To add to Amelia Earhart I now have other aviatrix heroines, people like Amy Johnson, Jean Batten and Beryl Markham. I have the latter’s West with the Night, a memoir of life and flying and adventure in Africa at a time when life was raw and dangerous and beautiful. Her skill as a writer even managed to incur the admiration and the jealous ire of Ernest Hemingway;

Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West With The Night? ...She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book.

These stories of flyers and the impact they made on the imagination just move me so much; the myth of the aviator moves me so much. Some of the associations, though, are more than a little dubious. In 1935 Guido Mattoli published Mussolini Aviator, and his Work for Aviation in which he makes the following observation;

No machine requires so much human concentration of soul and will power as a flying machine to make it work properly. The pilot understands the fullest meaning of the word control. Thus it seems that there is an intimate spiritual link between Fascism and Flying. Every airman is a born Fascist.

Every aviatrix is not! Still, I do understand some of the sentiments here, those about power and control, though flying light aircraft now is clearly a lot less challenging than it was then.

Yes, I suppose there is an element of mythology and myth-making, about forms of self-empowerment and freedom that have motivated people almost since the beginning of time. It’s the dream of Daedalus, if I can put it in such impractically romantic terms. Nietzsche understood. In a passage reflecting on physical constraints of bird flight he writes;

But who could venture to infer from that, that there was not an immense open space before them, that they had flown as far as one could fly!...other birds will fly further!

Other birds have flown further!

I saw this old war movie on TV one Saturday afternoon ages ago. It’s called The Blue Max, if I remember correctly, about German airmen during the First World War. It opens with a remarkable scene with a soldier looking up from the mud of the trenches to see an air battle; to see amongst mechanised death that there is still something left of combat of ages past, where individual is pitted against individual, like knights in the sky. This brings to mind a poem, one by Yeats, about flying, war and personal destiny, the marvellous, marvellous words of “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”;

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above:
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love:
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.