Thursday 30 September 2010

Finest Hour

I love words, I love the English language, a point I’ve made previously. I delight in good prose and good verse, in the rise and fall of sounds, in brilliant, perceptive images. There are few people who can really command language now, and none at all in public life. Politicians are particularly guilty here, reaching for stale phrases and pre-fabricated expressions, fatuous garbage like ‘British jobs for British workers.’

It was not always thus. There are politicians in modern history whose command of language was sublime, people who could have lived in the great ages of the past, in the Athens of Pericles, people whose words will always be remembered for their perspicacity and transcendence. For me there are two in particular: Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.

Take Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, so few words which conveyed so much, so much understanding, compassion and generosity;

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I simply can’t hear this without feeling tears welling up. How marvellous it must have been to have been there that day in November, 1863, to hear them spoken. We can’t hear them spoken by Lincoln himself, but we can still hear the words of Winston Churchill, another great wartime leader.

People think of Churchill principally as a politician. But he was so much more. He was a writer of brilliance, an historian who wrote in simple and beautiful terms. I don’t suppose he ever read the essays of George Orwell, particularly those on the degeneration of language in modern political discourse. But he committed none of the sins that Orwell warns of. His speeches were poetic in intensity, with a simple message full of vivid and memorable phrases and images. People have their favourites, and here the Fight them on the Beaches and Never in the Field of Human conflict orations come to mind. They are good but my particular favourite is the one he delivered at the most desperate moment in British history, just after the capitulation of France, the one in which the expression the Battle of Britain was coined for the first time;

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.

The Empire did not last a thousand years; it hardly survived the conclusion of the war. No matter; these words are immortal. I have no doubt at all that if England lasts for a thousand years people will still say he was our greatest orator.

Losing the mandate of heaven

In my recent blog on Liberia I alluded in passing to Joseph Conrad, specifically having his novella Heart of Darkness in mind. Have you read it? If you have you will recall the final words of Kurtz in his moment of epiphany shortly before his death - The horror! The horror!

Let me take you to another heart of darkness; let me take you to China in the middle of the twentieth century, to the time of the so-called Great Leap Forward. I’ve been reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, a new study of that grim period in the country’s history. It’s a sober, scholarly, thoroughly researched piece of work, written in clam and measured prose. But you should see my copy, see my marginalia, see the things I’ve written as I went along. I’ve not quite written The horror! The horror! though I came close, alighting on passages like this;

If the thatch on the roofs had not been consumed by fire, it was taken down and eaten in desperation. Villagers also ate the plaster from the walls. (p.169)

The worst form of desecration was to chop up the body and use it as fertiliser. This happened to Deng Daming, beaten to death because his child had stolen a few broad beans. Party Secretary Dan Naming ordered his body to be simmered down into fertiliser for a field of pumpkin. (p. 297)

Human flesh, like everything else, was traded on the black market. (p. 321)

But as desperate survivors all of them would have witnessed many of the horrors being inflicted on living human beings, from body parts being chopped off to people being buried alive. Surely, in the midst of state-sponsored violence, necrophagy was neither the most common nor the most widespread way of degrading a human being. (p. 323)

And so it goes on, the story of the most devastating manmade famine in all of history, one that is now estimated to have taken the lives of at least 45 million people. I do have one small criticism of this book – the title is rather misleading. Yes, most people caught up in this madness died of hunger, but a great many died of disease or neglect or were worked to death, including pregnant women; others were beaten to death with clubs. Some two million in desperation took their own lives. And of course, going on the Marxist principle that those who do not work do not eat, the sick and the elderly were simply given no food at all.

The madness had a face: the face was Mao Zedong, one of the most abhorrent criminals in human history. It was his ‘vision’ that in a few years China could overtake the capitalist West and the Soviet Union in its rate of industrial development. It could all be done, he believed, by a single act of collective will, voluntarism, his particular contribution to Marxist thought. Opposition was dismissed as ‘rightist’, the work of ‘bad elements.’ The demand was for higher and higher targets in every field of economic activity; and since the whole system was driven by fear, higher and higher targets meant bigger and bigger lies; bigger and bigger lies meant more and more requisitions until people were left with a hundred per cent of nothing. Farmers were driven from the fields to work on irrigation projects, worthless in the main, so no seeds were planted and crops grown. And since in the communist scheme of things steel production was an important sign of ‘getting it up’, Mao called for backyard furnaces into which people were compelled to throw all of their metal implements, even their cooking utensils, to receive brittle and worthless chunks of pig iron at the end. No matter, there was nothing to eat, so who needs a wok?

Existence was collectivised: people were driven into mass farms and then into vast communes. There was no defence in law, no right to private property; even nappies were commandeered. But on it went, Mao urged forward by a sycophantic court. Sparrows, he decreed, were vermin, eating grain; sparrows were to be exterminated. They were, in their tens of thousands, with the result that the pests which made up the largest part of their diet multiplied out of control, with an even greater impact on the diminishing food supply. In the end, in one of the craziest trade deals in history, China was obliged to import sparrows from the Soviet Union.

I do not envy modern China its prosperity; how it has earned it by forms of suffering that most of us simply can’t conceive; the suffering of parents who sold their children or relatives who had to dig up their dead in a country with a deep reverence for departed spirits simply because they had nothing else to eat.

It used to be said that when an imperial dynasty was coming to an end in the great cycles of Chinese history that it had lost the mandate of heaven. For a good part of the twentieth century, from the Revolution of 1911 until at least the death of Mao in 1976, China itself might be said to have lost the mandate of heaven. Frank Dikötter shows just how deeply the country descended into one cycle of hell. Not long after it was over Mao took into another – the Cultural Revolution. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Ecce Homo

Peter Tatchell, or Saint Peter Tatchell, is, for those who don’t know him (is there anyone know does not know Peter Tatchell?), a leading campaigner on gay rights; well, all sorts of rights, really; you name it, he’s there, fighting the good fight, shouting off his mouth at someone or other. It’s not just in England, of course; he’s also to be seen on the streets of Moscow telling people what’s good for them, telling people that he’s good for them.

Is it wrong to say that I find this man, this relentless self-publicist and secular martyr, a fatuous and tiresome bore? I suppose people will assume that I’m opposed to gay rights, because that’s his principal platform. No, I’m not opposed to gay rights; I’m just opposed to Peter Tatchell, this homo who is a no no, this bore who himself has become the medium and the message. He’s the one person who almost makes me feel sympathetic towards Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s thuggish dictator, and Nick Griffin, the equally thuggish leader of the British National Party (please note I wrote almost!)

When I see Tatchell I see hectoring self-righteousness; I see a prig who would reshape the world in his utterly tiresome image. I also see a self-serving hypocrite, but let me hold on that for a moment or two. Did you know that he is a member of the Green Party? More than that, he insists that he is on the ‘left wing’ of the Green Party. This immediately prompts one to ask if the Green Party is sane enough to have a right wing? Perhaps it does: perhaps there are those among the membership who think it’s a bad idea to have wind farms in back gardens up and down the land, perhaps there are those opposed to such communal delights as compulsory tofu Sundays.

OK, let me pause here: this is a waste of time, a spot of harmless fun, but still a waste of time. Saint Peter is not really worth such trouble, such a fuss about nothing. It’s just that the recent visit of Pope Benedict drew my attention to something else about him, and here I take up the cudgel of hypocrisy.

For Tatchell the Catholic Church is yet another ‘bad thing’. After all it’s filled with paedophile priests, men who have sex with children, we all know that; and even if we did not Tatchell took the trouble to remind us prior to the visit. He has also helpfully described the Pope as “the ideological inheritor of Nazi homophobia”, not a Catholic, not a Christian, just “the ideological inheritor of Nazi homophobia.” Is this simply because he is a German, or do I assume that every Pope since Peter (and here I really do mean Saint Peter) was the ‘ideological predecessor of Nazi homophobia’? Perhaps the Bible counts in this bizarre notion as the forerunner to Mein Kampf?

Anyway, the thing is, for Saint Peter (back to Tatchell), all tribes are equal but some tribes are more equal than others. Boy love is one thing in the Catholic Church, quite another among New Guinea tribesmen “where all young boys have sex with older warriors as part of their initiation into manhood and grow up to be happy, well-adjusted husbands and fathers.” Yes, I expect they do. His holiness goes on here in a letter he had published some years ago in The Guardian;

The positive nature of some child-adult sexual relationships is not confined to non-Western cultures. Several of my friends – gay and straight, male and female – had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13. None feel they were abused. All say it was their conscious choice and gave them great joy. While it may be impossible to condone pedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful.

And he, of course, would be the arbiter here, as he is in so many other areas of life, over what is harmful and what is not. So, yes, he does not condone pedophilia, he just thinks it’s alright for nine-year-old boys to have sex with men, allowing them to grow up to be “happy, well-adjusted husbands and fathers”, or even people like, say, Peter Tatchell.

How shall I finish? Well, I rather like the following response to an online Tatchell sermon by someone signed simply as ‘Derek. Go for it Derek!

Why doesn't Tatchell just get lost? He's got a minority point of view, represents nobody, stands for nothing, has no following, sounds empty and vacant, is self obsessed and is a shameless self-publicist. His entire life seems to revolve around sexual persuasions - what a total bore. He counts for nothing. Can you imagine going out for a beer and finding Thatchell sitting next to you? Ugh! You would simply have to "make your excuses and leave" - which he would, of course, construe as "homophobia" ... No ... It's not homophobia Peter- it's simply disinterest in him. Tatchell ..... Do yourself and everyone a favour. Go away!!!!

Hmm, sitting in a pub beside Peter Tatchell. I would not say that it would be a fare worse than death…it comes close, though, it comes close. :-)

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Congos and the Country People

When I discover a writer for the first time, someone I find impressive, I tend to work my way in a fever through everything they’ve written. So it was with Graham Greene, who came to me in my mid-teens. I read all of his novels, increasingly fascinated by the moral dilemmas he explores, his short stories and his non-fiction work, including Lord Rochester’s Monkey, an analysis of the poems and life of John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, a notorious Restoration libertine, and Journey Without Maps, his account of a safari with his cousin Barbara through the West African state of Liberia in the 1930s.

I didn’t think too much about the latter: I saw it; I read it; I forgot it. But an article by Tim Butcher, formerly the Daily Telegraph’s Africa correspondent, in the October issue of History Today (Our Man in Liberia) has not just brought it back to mind but allowed me to focus more specifically on the context of the journey and the history of Liberia, a country, I confess, about which I know virtually nothing, beyond the fact that it was set up by freed slaves returning ‘home’ from the United States in the nineteenth century. The paradox is that Greene was sent to the place as an agent for the Anti-Slavery Society. The ancestors of slaves, in other words, were suspected of practicing slavery!

There are lots of paradoxes here. Liberia itself was a country created not on a principle of freedom but in part on specific forms of racism. The American Colonization Society, set up in the early nineteenth century, was run less by altruists than by those for whom free blacks in a slave-owning society were a problem. The ‘back to Africa’ project, in other words, was a way reinforcing slavery by removing an obvious anomaly.

The project was an early form, if you like, of ethnic cleansing, and was perceived to be such by many among the black population whose home was America, not an Africa of which they knew nothing. Those who did accept the offer of transportation were considered to be lackeys, people who betrayed the struggle against slavery in the United States. In the end only 11,000 agreed to take part in the Liberia venture.

These people were effectively dumped on the shores of what was to become Liberia in the 1820s, on lands bought from local tribal chiefs. Black these settlers may have been but African they most assuredly were not. As Butcher points out, a great many simply could not cope with the local conditions, killed off in large numbers by disease or by hostile tribes, much like the early white settlers in America.

By the late 1840s the population had reduced so much that questions were raised over the project’s viability. By this time the American Colonisation Society had lost all interest. The cords were cut and the few thousand survivors established Liberia as a sovereign nation, with a national motto of ‘The love of Liberty Brought Us Here.’

I used to believe that Liberia survived the late nineteenth century Scramble for Africa because it was under some kind of American protection. That’s the not the case: the simple fact is that it had nothing worth scrambling for. The first signs of any kind of national prosperity did not come until the 1920s, when the Firestone rubber company set up operations in the country.

It’s now that the real divisions began to appear between Americo-Liberians, known to the indigenous people as ‘Congos’, a reminder that it was from here that a huge number of Africans were taken into slavery in past times, and the ‘Country People’, the pejorative expression the settlers used for the native Liberians. It was the struggle between the Congos and the Country People that really defines modern Liberia, superficially called the ‘black republic’ by outsiders.

The greatest contradiction of all was over the issue of slavery, the issue that Greene came to explore. The founding charter of Liberia condemns the slave trade as “that curse of curses”, but by the late 1920s the government was selling its own people, the Country People, rather, into slavery. The Congos offered the bizarre defence that they had simply ‘acquired’ tribesmen disposed of by the village elders, thus preserving a longstanding tradition.

The problem kept coming and going, apparently solved at one moment only to appear at the next. In 1935 the Anti-Slavery and Aboriginal Protection Society described Liberia as “one of our most difficult and anxious problems.” Up to date information was needed and Greene, known from his work on The Times, was the man for the task.

Journey without Maps is far from being my favourite book by Greene; and it’s certainly far from being my favourite book about travel! This is not a trip into the exotic, something the author must have been expecting, but a monotonous sojourn through mile upon mile off elephant grass, punctuated by periodic meals with local villagers, eating something called ‘chop’, a lose term covering culinary horrors! Conditions were generally deplorable, particularly in health care. Greene himself took ill, so badly that he was not expected to live. But he did, thank goodness. No, Journey without Maps is not Conrad but it’s still a worthwhile reminder of past explorations and past times. Besides, the recent history of Liberia and Sierra Leone, through which the author also passed, show that when it comes to Africa darkness is never that far from the heart.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Delusions of Empire

In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, made mention of his country's “zone of privileged interest”, which I take to mean that the Russians still maintain, or pretend to maintain, a watching brief over the constituent republics of the old Soviet Union. It was a warning, in other words, to NATO and the West to maintain a respectful distance.

But events earlier this year in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan have made this neo-imperialism sound ever so hollow. The ethnic clashes in the latter and the failure of Russia to send a peace-keeping force, requested by the Kyrgyz government, is arguably the greatest demonstration of the limits of both power and ambition. After all, here is a country that is still not freed itself from the wars in Chechnya, or lost sight of its disastrous involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The official line from Moscow was that it could not interfere in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs, a curious contrast with the previous intervention in Georgia.

If anything the growing divisions with Belarus are an even greater blow to Russian esteem and pan-Slav ambitions. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the president of Russia’s western neighbour and the closest Europe now has to an old-style dictator, is proving to be particularly bloody-minded in his determination not to fall under the servitude of Moscow. There have been disputes over the price of gas. Lukashenka, moreover, is even more awkward over sensitive issues of Russian political prestige. He has refused to recognise the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian territories that served as a cause for the 2008 war. He also gave refuge to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the former president of Kyrgyzstan, a figure much despised in Moscow.

The fact is, despite the power it derives from reserves of gas and oil, Russia is weak both politically and militarily, something that Lukashenka clearly understands. Quite apart from fears of being trapped in another swamp, the unwillingness to intervene in the Kyrgyz situation is an indication that the army is simply not equipped for a prolonged peace-keeping mission. The Russian ‘sphere of influence’ is clearly little more than a geo-political dream, pretence at a power that has vanished and vanished for good.

The winter of bureaucrats

History moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform; it always has. It’s like the tension between tectonic plates: for prolonged periods, for generations even, little seems to be happening on the surface, at least anything of any significance, until the underlying pressures can no longer be contained, with earth-shattering consequences.

The revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the revolution which brought the end of communism across the whole of the old Soviet block was an event of unparalleled significance, I have little doubt the most important historical event in the lives of most who may come across this blog. It was as significant in its own way as the European revolutions of 1848, as significant…and as disappointing.

The fall of communism offered the prospect of a new birth of freedom, as well as an opportunity for a new and better understanding of Russia, emerging from decades of sclerotic bureaucratic tyranny. But the springtime of peoples was smothered in a new blanket of bureaucratic tyranny, softer but no less invidious, in the onward advance of the European Union, not anti-democratic, just post-democratic. It’s the one-dimensional Europe of the one-dimensional man, something anticipated long ago in the thinking of Herbert Marcuse.

Not only this but also the opportunity for a better understanding with Russia was squandered by a process of gung-ho pseudo-imperialism which saw Western expansion into Eastern Europe. It saw the support of various ‘coloured’ revolutions which had the effect of belittling and humiliating one of the most important nations in Europe, deliberately so, it seems to me. The consequences of this could be clearly seen in the conflict between Russia and Georgia, a piece of adventurism on the part of the latter, encouraged by the irresponsibility and ignorance of the European Union and NATO. If the Putin state is a Frankenstein monster, something I have little doubt over, it is our Frankenstein monster.

These thoughts were brought in reading a first class feature article in the Mail on Sunday by Peter Hitchens, who reports from Sebastopol (The world’s most absurd city.) Sebastopol is part of the republic of Ukraine, though its inhabitants, like most of the inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula on which it stands, are of Russian ethnic origin.

The thing that Hitchens neglects to mention is that although the Crimea is geographically part of the Ukraine it was politically part of Russia, at least until it was ‘gifted’ away by Khrushchev and the then leadership of the Soviet Union in 1954. Hence the absurd situation where few in Sebastopol, the main city, speak any Ukrainian, though they are obliged to have street sign in Ukrainian, just as the schools are obliged to teach Ukrainian history, which has been given a distinctly anti-Russian slant. The whole thing is bizarrely absurd, a potential source of future trouble, all the more worrying because Sebastopol continues to be an important base for the Russian as well as the Ukrainian navies.

Hitchens makes reference to the ‘New Cold War’ in which Russia was cast as the enemy, a war in which ‘we’, the European Union, were going to extend ‘our’ rule deep into former Soviet lands;

Well, if there was such a war, we are losing it because ‘our’ side is misguided and wrong, and because it was always absurd to try to dislodge Russia from the great plains of the Ukraine and the shores of the Black Sea. In this part of the world Russia just is. You might as well try and shift the Himalayas with a bulldozer.

I completely agree with his assessment that our treatment of Russia since the fall of communism has been unbelievably stupid and crude. It was this stupidity that created Putin, Hitchens continues, and his shady, corrupt state. Russia was never a threat to our freedom. While we watched the bear dance liberty here and across the rest of the Continent was being eroded by the ghastly apparatchiks in Brussels in their relentless pursuit of uniformity where there is only difference. The promise of 1989 has been betrayed. The springtime of peoples has turned into the winter of bureaucrats.

Be seeing you

Portmeirion is one of my favourite Welsh villages, except for the fact that there is nothing Welsh about the place and it’s not really a village at all but an incredibly surreal resort and hotel! It’s certainly in Wales, in Gwynedd, to be precise, though it’s oddly out of place, beautifully situated, as it is, on the Dwyrd Estuary.

I've stayed there and I just love the design, the layout, the atmosphere and the setting. Designed and built by Sir Clough William-Ellis supposedly in the style of an Italian village it resembles no Italian village that I’ve ever seen, no, not even Portofino! But it has a generally exotic atmosphere suggestive of different worlds and distant places, a kind of Platonic Mediterranean settlement, an ideal, if you like, in stone. I was there under a leaden sky, not a southern one, which simply added to the charm and general sense of unreality.

It’s an inspiring place. It inspired Noel Coward to write Blythe Spirit while he was staying there. Film makers have used it as a location, no doubt because it is here and nowhere at one and the same time, suggestive of different times and other dimensions. It was used once in an episode of Doctor Who, the long-running BBC sci-fi series.

However, it’s probably best known as “The Village” in The Prisoner, a 1960s spy drama starring Patrick McGoohan, a show which subsequently inspired a cult following. Portmeirion still hosts annual fan conventions and not far from the entrance there is a shop, once serving as McGoohan’s home in the show, which sells Prisoner souvenirs. I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the series and while it was probably quite innovative and challenging for the day it seemed to me like so much hyper-active nonsense, George Orwell by way of Magical Mystery Tour, the sort of thing that I’m sure went down very well in the swinging psychedelic sixties!

I’m not going to go over the plot in detail, and I’m sure some of you may know the general premise, if not from the original then from a recent remake. In short it concerns an agent who resigns from his job suddenly and without reason, only to find himself captive in a mysterious community, a sort of upmarket holiday camp where everyone is simply known as a number. There the authorities try to extract any residual secrets from McGoohan, known simply as Number Six. Refusing to give away anything, and asserting that he is not a number but a free man, he attempts to escape only to be pursued by – wait for it – a giant balloon!

Still, for all its nonsense, the producers could not have chosen a better setting for their bogus metaphysics, a dream within a dream. If you've never been do go. I’m sure you will love the place as much as I love it. Be seeing you. :-)

Monday 27 September 2010

Jud Süß - the medium is not the message

Jud Süß is the most notorious anti-Semitic movie ever made. Commissioned by Joseph Goebbels and directed by Viet Harlan, the story is partly based on the novel of the same name by Lion Feuchtwanger, though his message has been twisted and corrupted almost out of all recognition.

The book and the film are both about Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, an eighteenth century Jewish financier in the service of the Duke of Wurttemberg. In the book he frustrates a plan by the Duke to subvert the duchy’s constitution, sacrificing himself in the process. In the movie he is a malevolent schemer and a sexual blackmailer, one who rapes a Christian girl, who subsequently kills herself in shame. It’s meant to induce hate, drawing on heavy Jewish stereotypes; it did induce hate, along with movies like Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), acting as an appetiser for the Holocaust.

Jud Süß is banned in Germany; it has been for the past sixty-five years. But a new interpretation, premièred at the Berlin Film Festival last year, is now on general release in the country. Directed by Oskar Roehler, Jud Süß- Film ohne Gewissen (Jud Süß - Film Without a Conscience) is a movie about a movie. It’s about another kind of seduction, another kind of blackmailer, with Joseph Goebbels in the role of manipulator and schemer.

In the original the moneylender is played by Ferdinand Marian, a onetime ambitious actor in German cinema. Marian originally declined the part but the Propaganda Minister ‘persuaded’ him to change his mind by a mixture of flattery and blackmail, vague threats against his Jewish wife, hints of possible troubles to come.

Robert Boyes in his report on the film in The Times makes it clear that the director’s intention is to show that this is how the Nazi regime operated, less by force than by a process of cooption and moral corruption. Marian is shown visiting the troops supervising the construction of Auschwitz. There he witnesses a screening of Jud Süß. When the body of the dead girl is held up the soldiers shout Jew! Jew! at the screen, their faces contorted with hate. All too late Marian has a moment of personal epiphany, realising that he has become an integral part of the coming Holocaust.

The film has caused some controversy in Germany, not least because it draws on the same racial caricatures as the original. Charlotte Knobloch, the head of the Central Board of German Jewry, has gone so far as to suggest that it should not be on general release, worried, as she is, about new stereotyping. But it seems to me that there is a serious and important message here and I’m not at all sure how one could make it without drawing on the corruptions and vices of the original.

I’ve not seen the movie so I cannot say if the director has been successful or not in his primary aim, but banning and interdicts, based on fear and presupposition, is not the answer. Yes, movies do have the power to seduce, something Goebbels, a propagandist of genius, clearly understood. Nevertheless, so much depends on the context, so much depends on the times; so much depends on the atmosphere.

Anti-Semitism does exist in the modern world, there is no point pretending that it does not, though the assumption that people are all as simple-minded as the simple-minded, that they are all ready to be seduced anew, seems to me to be disingenuous in the extreme. It’s the same censorious attitude that led to the prolonged ban of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympiad; the same attitude – dare I say it? – which allows the 1940 Jud Süß to be shown in Germany only to approved researchers and only after they’ve received a preliminary lecture on ‘context’. This is all so much condescending and paternalistic rubbish: in the case of the original the medium was not the message; the Nazi state was the medium and the message.

According to Boyes there are plans to release Jud Süß- Film Without a Conscience in Britain. He urges his readers to watch it, even if it hurts. I will; I shall.

Ed Miliband - Union Man

Now the red pestilence strike all trades in Rome,
And occupations perish!

Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene I

The Labour Party leadership contest is over: Miliband fought Miliband and Miliband won! Perhaps there is a deeper victory here, deeper than that of Brother Ed over Brother Dave, still smarting, I’m convinced, over this filial treachery; treachery that stayed his dagger during the premiership of Gordon Brown with assurances that ‘his time was coming’; but when Dave’s time came so did Ed, so did Ed’s dagger!

Sorry, I’m getting away from my point: you are wondering about the ‘deeper victory’ to which I allude? It’s the posthumous triumph of Miliband senior, Ralph, that was, or to give him his name at birth, Adolphe Miliband, a noted British Marxist and sociologist (he must have been; it says so on Wikipedia!)

Adolphe was the son of one Samuel Miliband, who once lived in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw before he joined the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 to 1921. Was this an act of treachery against his country or a gesture of solidarity with the toiling masses? I’ll leave you to decide, but I’m convinced that he could not possibly have witnessed the actions of the ‘toiling masses’ in the shape of Semyon Budyonny’s Cavalry Army as they advanced towards Warsaw, cutting Polish, and Jewish, throats. Oh, incidentally, they cut Jewish throats because they were Jewish throats.

Again, I’m getting away from the point, and the point for the moment is Adolphe. He’s been dead for years now, dead before Tony Blair took over the Labour Party, dead before he could see his sons in the New Labour cabinet. I’m sure he would have been proud, though as a “noted British Marxist and sociologist” he did not have an awful lot of time for Labour, new or old, not an awful lot of time for parliamentary politics in any form.

He rests now in the shadow of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, a mere eight meters away from the monument to the Grand Ayatollah of International Socialism, a little piece of old Eastern Europe in North London. Adolphe’s memorial is much more modest, with an inscription reading “Writer Teacher Socialist.”

Socialist, yes, that’s what he was. I feel certain that the contest between Big Brother Dave and Little Brother Ed would have caused him some anguish, though in his heart he would have secretly rejoiced over the unexpected victory of number two son, much closer to his idea of a socialist, proud that he is now being dubbed Red Ed by the press, a well deserved accolade. After all there were features of this election that must have recalled the glory days of the old Soviet Empire, the days when all voters were equal but some were more equal than others.

I’m not even going to bother trying to unravel the Byzantine complexity of Labour’s electoral college. Let me just say that it’s divided into three separate camps: members of the British and European parliaments, ordinary constituency members and then the trade union affiliates. Miliband senior actually carried the first two, but for Miliband junior it was the unions wot done it, though only a fraction of their membership actually bothered to vote.

The union bosses should be pleased by the outcome; in fact at least one among them had previously warned of ‘consequences’ if they did not get this outcome, all in the spirit of fraternal solidarity, you understand. We no longer have old New Labour or old Old Labour, no; we have Red Ed’s Labour, Labour Labour, there to protect the interests of working folk, otherwise known as union bureaucrats.

He’s a union man, Ed is; he will be grateful, I fell sure, to his paymasters, those who levered him so effortlessly into the leadership of the party, with greater things – one can only hope – to come. I’m not a member of the Labour Party, a pity in a way because I would propose the adoption of a new catchy ditty for Red Ed, an old song by a British band by the name of the Strawbs. For, you see, Red Ed’s a Union Man. :-)

Sunday 26 September 2010

Out of the dust

In June of this year I wrote a piece marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, high among the greats of modern American literature. At the time another blogger suggested that there might be some similarities here with themes earlier examined in the work of William Faulkner. After a little exploration we both agreed that there were possible parallels between To Kill a Mockingbird and Intruder in the Dust, a novel published in 1948. I agreed to read this with a view to discovering if there was.

First of all, my apologies to Ike Jakson, the blogger who brought this book to my attention. I bought it soon after - I even took it to Central America with me as part of my holiday reading – but I got sidetracked along the way, ambushed by other demands and other writers! Second, I would like to thank him for raising this, otherwise I might have bypassed not just this novel but Faulkner altogether.

The thing is first impressions are really important with me; if writers do not engage me almost immediately I’m likely to shunt them off to a sideline, there to remain neglected, possibly indefinitely. In my late teens I read Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner’s first novel, published in 1926, which left me dissatisfied and unimpressed. I may never have read any more. But now I’ve finished Intruder in the Dust, a reading and a discovery.

Is there any comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird? Yes, on a superficial level, there certainly is. Both are set against the background of the segregated American South, the South where black people existed on the margins of society, and even there on sufferance. They are both about black men accused of crimes they did not commit. Much of the observation is from the point of view of a young person and the accused are both aided by lawyers of commendable virtue and liberal instinct. Towards the end of chapter ten of Faulkner’s novel the sheriff complains about the racket a nearby bird is making, interrupting his rest and doubtless filling his head with murderous thoughts, thoughts of killing a mockingbird!

I have no doubt at all that Harper Lee read this book and I feel sure that she would acknowledge its influence, but beyond the general themes of racial tension and potential injustice there is much more that divides than unites the two books. To Kill a Mockingbird is really the story of Atticus Finch, the paternalistic lawyer, a sort of American Cicero. Intruder in the Dust isn’t really the story of anyone, or if it is it’s the story of Lucas Beauchamp, the elderly black man accused of killing one Vinson Gowrie, the scion of a local hillbilly clan. Beauchamp is a particularly memorable character, stiff, proud, himself almost senatorial in bearing, a man who refuses to “act like a nigger”, as his defenders complain.

At once simpler and yet more complex than To Kill a Mockingbird, Faulkner’s novel is in essence a mystery thriller. Beauchamp’s defence is clear: in jail and threatened with a particularly horrible form of lynching from the outraged hillbillies (fortunately for him the crime was committed late on a Saturday and decent folks don’t lynch other folks, even niggers, on a Sunday) he says that it was not his pistol that was used to kill Vinson. The only way this can be proved is for the body to be dug up in secret, a task he ‘delegates’ to sixteen year old Charles Mallison, the nephew of the lawyer, whose life he once saved from a freezing river. Mallison, despite the danger of the mission, agrees to act, assisted by a reluctant black teenager and the elderly Miss Habersham, a name I simply refuse to believe is not a nod in passing to Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham from Great Expectations! No matter; like her near namesake she is also a highly memorable character.

There is an interesting ambiguity in Faulkner’s book on the question of race relations that is unlikely to appeal to modern sensibilities. He’s against the entrenched racism of his native South but he is also proud of a Southern tradition, of a Confederate tradition, hostile to the interference of outsiders, of ‘moral carpetbaggers’ from the North, an expression, incidentally, that I just invented! The problem of the ‘nigger’ is their problem and they should be left to solve it themselves in a gradual, undemonstrative and paternal fashion. History does not work like that; history did not work like that.

Intruder in the Dust is really quite a simple story, as I have said, no more than a mystery thriller (I’m not going to tell you who killed Vinson, just that it wasn’t Lucas!) But then there is the language, the style and the literary presentation. I had fun looking over other reviews because this book one of those rare love-or-hate additions to the literary cannon, a book that cannot be passed with indifference.

The ‘hate’, if that’s really the right word, can be put down most often to confusion and incomprehension. Intruder in the Dust, you see, is a stream of consciousness novel, though whose consciousness is being streamed is not always easy to tell! Some of the sentences are prodigiously long, going on for pages. But I quickly picked up on the cadence and the poetic rhythms, the rise and fall of words.

I just love this sort of thing, the kind of playfulness with language I so much admire in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and, above all, in Malcolm Lowry, for me the greatest English novelist of the twentieth century. Here is an example from Faulkner taken quite at random, in full flow from mid-passage;

…strolling timeless and in no haste since they were going nowhere since the May night itself was their destination and they carried that with them walking in it and (stock-auction day) even a few belated cars and trucks whose occupants had stayed in for the picture show too or to visit and take supper with kin or friends and now at last dispersing nightward sleepward tomorrow-ward about the dark mile-compassing land…

Yes, for me this is poetry in prose, a form of writing based on a love of words for the sake of words. I enjoyed this book in some ways more than I enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird. Much more than that, I have enjoyed discovering Faulkner anew, knowing ahead of me lie such books as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom! Absalom! and Light in August, the great landmarks of his literary life.

No sex, please; I’m Milton

There is a lovely little storm in a literary teacup here at the moment, the sort of thing that could only happen in England. It concerns the ‘discovery’ of a poem by John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in the University of Oxford’s Harding Collection, though how it ranks as a ‘discovery’ when it has already been published on a number of occasions since it first appeared in a miscellany of 1708 is just a little odd. What we have here, I think, is yet another bogus academic scoop!

Anyway, the poem called An Extempore Upon a Faggot (no, it did not mean that then!) proceeds in distinctly un-Miltonesque fashion;

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A Faggot which is moist and green
How coyly it receives the Heat
And at both ends do’s weep and sweat?
So fares it with a tender Maid
When first upon her Back she’s laid
But like dry Wood th’ experienced Dame
Cracks and rejoices in the Flame.

The original handwritten version of this bawdy ditty is signed Milton but, by Lucifer, this is not Milton! It’s not his style, rather a pity in a way, because it would do much to make the tiresome and ponderous old bore sound interesting! Dr Jennifer Batt, who stumbled upon this ‘discovery’, would appear to be just a touch – what’s the word? – oh, yes, batty;

To see the name of John Milton, the great religious and political polemicist, attached to such a bawdy epigram is extremely surprising to say the least. The poem is so out of tune with the rest of his work that if the attribution is correct it would prompt a major revision of our ideas about Milton.

I’m not being completely fair. Batty or not, she also says that it’s possible that it was penned by a jealous rival, anxious to bring scandal on the great seer of Cromwellian England. A possible candidate, she suggests, is Sir John Suckling, a Cavalier poet from the same era who was known to detest Milton for his puritanism and for his politics.

It has also been suggested that it night be the work of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, my favourite Restoration poet. The subject matter is certainly more the sort of thing that appealed to Wilmot, it’s just that this is a very inferior example of the kind of thing he did so much better. Besides, he was not nearly so coy;

Her father gave her dildos six;
Her mother made 'em up a score,
But she loves nought but living pricks
And swears by God she'll frig no more.

Rochester! thou should'st be living at this hour: England hath need of thee. :-)

Thursday 23 September 2010

This England

The October issue of Prospect has a review by Maurice Glasman of Michael Wood’s new book The Story of England. The publication ties in with a new six-part documentary on BBC 4, purporting to unravel English history in microcosm, looking at it through the prism of a single village, Kibworth in Leicestershire. Wood is good as a telly historian, always tackling his subject with simple clarity and school-boyish enthusiasm; so the new venture looks quite promising.

I’ve not read the book so I can offer no direct comment here. However, Glasman, in his own analysis, has raised some general issues with which I am in absolute agreement. He begins with a stark observation: “There is a political void where England should be.” It’s perfectly true: England no longer governs itself. The people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have devolved parliaments or assemblies. But what about England the country that created Parliament in the first place? Westminster, the seat of an ancient assembly, represents the union, not the nation. As Glasman puts it, England, as a political nation, has no body and it cannot speak.

Wood writes in his book “For a small country on the far shore of the Eurasian landmass, its influence on the world of literature, language, politics, law and ideas of freedom has been out of all proportion to its size. Why this should have been so is an interesting question in itself.” It certainly is. An even more pressing question is why has England been diminished and marginalised? The Scottish question, the Welsh question and even the Northern Ireland question, at least to a degree, have been answered, but not the question of England, now the most pressing part of the last government’s catastrophically bad constitutional ‘settlement’ that settled nothing.

England has been betrayed. Wood’s book is about the ordinary people of England, the labouring poor, as they were once described, the people who have been subject to particular treachery by those who pretend to represent them in the modern world. Glasman takes the example of mass immigration, which affected England more than any other country of the union- “Yet there was no political body that could speak for England, that could express and embody the political life of the nation.” The dispossession of the English, it might be said, has been almost as thorough as the dispossession of the Anglo-Saxons in the wake of the Norman Conquest.

It’s almost as if some conspiracy has been at work to submerge England, to submerge the story of England. The disconnection between the English and the Labour Party, as Glasman reminds us, has been particularly profound. Where once was talk of native radicalism there is now a huge vacuum, a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy and shallow cosmopolitanism of the Labour movement in this country;

When Gordon Brown gave his most memorable speech of the election campaign on 3rd May at Methodist Central hall he did not speak of the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Levellers or of the London dock strike and the foundation of the health service, but of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, of civil rights and liberation. It was as if the struggles of people thousands of miles away were of more relevance than those of the country he wished to lead.

Glasman, a senior lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University, has political sympathies quite different from my own. He believes that Labour will need to rediscover a radical history rooted in a native tradition if it is ever again to “speak for the nation.” I would rather David Miliband, or whoever the next leader of the Party may be, waffled on interminably about Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, knowing very well that, beyond the hotbeds of Islington, there are precious few who care anything at all about these fashionable and wholly irrelevant international icons, avatars of a bankrupt mood.

Glasman concludes his essay by saying that the English question is silent in our politics and remains so; that it will take a very different book from Wood’s to begin to give it voice. How much longer can this be delayed, I wonder? The English people are remarkably tolerant, so tolerant that I suspect that most have no real sense over the extent to which their interests have been compromised or why they are so little heard. Their tolerance has been taken for granted, perhaps even as a sign of apathy or indifference, a sign that politicians can get away with anything, can hand out freedom to the fringes while denying it to the centre. For me the Union increasingly resembles a corpse tied to a vital body. If it has to be cast away for us to rediscover our identity, for the English question to be answered at last, then so be it.

Wednesday 22 September 2010


Over the years I’ve derived so much enjoyment from short stories, in some ways my favourite literary genre alongside the critical essay. I really began when I was little with myths and folktales, a tradition for which I still retain considerable affection. By the age of ten or so I was reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. From there, in successive stages, I discovered such wonderful story tellers as William Somerset Maugham (his Far Eastern stories are a particular favourite), Isaac Bashevis Singer (a magician in words), Nikolai Gogol (my favourite Russian writer in the medium), Graham Greene (who writes extensively in this genre though he is better known as a novelist), Anton Chekhov, Alphonse Daudet, James Joyce, Ambrose Bierce, Franz Kafka, H. H. Munro (better known as ‘Saki’), William Porter (better known as ‘O Henry’) along with so many others, including Balzac and Dickens, not generally associated with this literary form.

Now I’ve discovered William Trevor, an Irish writer, having not long finished The Collected Stories, published by Penguin Books. I suppose it’s not quite true to say that his work is a totally new discovery because I came across him previously, one story, I think, in an anthology of Irish writing, but not enough to form a proper impression. Now I have and there is no doubt in my mind that he will last as one of the great masters of the medium. He writes with such amazing fluency, beautiful limpid prose with a simple realism that reminds me so much of Chekhov. His work is rich in gentle irony with slight overtones of sadness, of empty lives and frustrated hopes.

His stories are mostly set in England or Ireland, often among the most marginal people, those on the edges of society, people often buffeted by an uncertain fate, unsure of who they are and where they are going. Yes, there are elements of pathos and melancholy, offset quite often by an undercurrent of humour. This is the thing about life, something the best writers have always understood: comedy is never that far removed from tragedy.

Some of his female characters caused me to laugh out loud at points, including the impossible Mrs da Tanka in A Meeting in Middle Age, the first in the collection, who teams up with the unfortunate Mr Mileson, a sort of agency detective, in a hotel together to spend the night, thereby providing grounds for a divorce in the days when such matters were complicated. Yes, they team up together in a way that a lion teams up with a gazelle!

In general Trevor shapes characters, in complexity or simplicity, who are totally believable. He is there as a narrator, as a third presence, only in the lightest possible way. He does not ‘create’ his people; he allows them to create themselves, to build themselves up through their own words and actions. There is little in the way of a narrator’s prologue; this is life unfolding as we go along, as fate works away.

The language, the use of words, is quite delicious: precise, beautiful, simple and elegant. There is nothing in the least artificial about Trevor’s prose style, which has directness and a sense of realism that I so admire, largely free of a tangled undergrowth of adjectives, something that only the very best writers can command. For the most part these are small and intimate dramas, not covering a huge range of possible situations, and yet paradoxically immense. In over eighty stories at no point did I feel that I was going over the same ground: each situation seemed unique and fresh.

Did I have any favourites? Well, yes, I suppose I did, though I find it immensely difficult to make a distinction in that having favourites seems to suggest that those not selected were somehow less worthy. At over 1200 pages long this is a compendium of favourites. I should make special mention, though, of Beyond the Pale, where a woman is confronted with the tragedy of Irish history, confronted by a legacy of love, loss and terrible bitterness. The tale she tells destroys a lying idyll. And then there is Matilda’s England, a story in three parts, an enchanting and poignant narrative of time and tide and fortune, of happy highways where people went and can never come again.

I sit here in here now in her drawing-room, and may perhaps become as old as she was. Sometimes I walk up to the meadows where the path to school was, but the meadow isn’t there any more. There are rows of coloured caravans, and motor-cars and shacks. In the garden I can hear the voices of people drifting down to me, and the sound of music from their wireless sets. Nothing is like it was.

This is immediately followed by Torridge, quite different in tone, with a bitingly humorous ending, one that completely dismantles the comforting illusions of a nauseatingly self-satisfied group of old school chums.

These are just a few examples. I could go on and on but there is really not much point. I can only pay proper tribute to Trevor by retelling his tales one by one. You can do justice, if you are minded to, in reading them for yourselves.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Mad World

Recently I mentioned Donnie Darko in passing, a movie I saw when I was fifteen, one which made a huge impact at the time, one which has left a lasting impression. I think we all have movies that speak to us intimately at some point or other in our lives, either because they catch a passing mood or, more lastingly, seem to reflect something deep in our character, acting like a mirror. There are not necessarily great movies just meaningful ones.

My all-time favourites include Picnic at Hanging Rock, the original version of The Wicker Man, Fucking Amal, Loving Annabelle and The Craft, all of which carry for me a personal message. And then there is Donnie Darko, something quite different, a case sui generis. This is my movie; it speaks to me and nobody else, though I note that it ranks ninth in Film Four’s list of 50 Movies to See Before You Die!

What I’m about to write is not a review. Is there any point, after all, in writing a review of a movie that’s now nine years old? No, it’s not a review; it’s an appreciation. I’ve been thinking about it on and off for most of the day, working out the kind of things that I’d like to say. It’s not easy. The simple fact is that this is a complex movie, one that is possible to read on any number of levels: it’s horror, as creepy as they come; it’s a thriller, it’s science fiction, it’s fantasy, it’s a comedy, a black one and a white one; it’s a coming of age story; it’s about teenage angst; it’s more, much more.

In some ways it’s a bit of a cliché, you know the sort of thing, the dark underbelly of the American Dream, the rot below suburbia. In other ways it’s derivative, with a directorial style reminiscent of that of David Lynch. But all in all it’s something truly special, a story that could very well be described as J. D. Salinger by way of Philip K. Dick! The whole thing for me is wild delirium, a remarkable surrealist dream, something perhaps not even Dali could have conceived.

It was directed and written by Richard Kelly, a debut all the more remarkable in that he was only twenty-seven years old at the time. He managed to bring out superb performances from a range of veteran actors, including Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katherine Ross and Noah Wyle. But the star and the star is Donnie himself, a brilliant performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, moody, introspective, bitingly intelligent. Donnie is me, I am Donnie; or rather I was when I was fifteen.

Donnie is troubled; Donnie is haunted, my how he is haunted, haunted by Frank, a six-foot rabbit from hell! It’s early October 1988. Halloween is coming. Donnie, who is in analysis, is much given to sleep walking, waking up in the most unusual places, including golf courses. One night he is awakened by a voice calling his name. It’s then he meets Frank, who tells him that the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds, a scary message, perhaps, but one that prevents Donnie’s world ending immediately; for at that very moment a 747 engine drops from the sky into his bedroom. Nobody knows where it came from. It’s the beginning of Donnie’s nightmare; it’s the beginning of a story about premonitions, different dimensions and fractures in space-time. The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever he was born to set it right!

Donnie’s waking nightmares, his ‘hallucinations’ are bad; the visions in which Frank urges him on to successive crimes, including vandalising his school and setting fire to a house are bad, but in a way not as bad as his daymares (sorry; limp neologism!). He attends a private school headed by a stupidly unimaginative principle. The same school is heavily influenced by one Jim Cunningham, brilliantly played by Swayze, a motivational speaker and fundamentalist guru, who divides life into a simple fear-love axis, all good one side, all bad the other. He’s the spiritual equivalent of a snake-oil salesman, something Donnie recognises immediately, and a self-serving hypocrite. He is also much worse, as Donnie’s arson brings to light.

There are decent members of staff in the school, including the English Literature teacher Karen Pomeroy, played by Drew Barrymore, eventually sacked for ‘modern’ ideas, and the Science teacher Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff, played by Noah Wylie, who helps Donnie with his challenging questions about worm holes and time travel, stopping short when he, too, fears he might be sacked. Then there is Kitty Farmer, played by Beth Grant, a disciple of the Cunningham method of motivation, so stupid she thinks Graham Greene, the English writer, is a pornographer who has something to do with Bonanza, a television western!

It’s the encounter between Donnie and Mrs Farmer that provides one of the movie’s funniest moments. She is teaching the hate love method of moral choice, with examples that have to be placed on one side of a continuum between the two or the other. Donnie resists, arguing the point, that there are other things to be taken into account, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. Things, he insists, are not that simple, that it’s impossible to lump everything into these two categories and then deny everything else. He’s is told that if he does not complete the assignment he will get a zero for the day. Donnie looks thoughtful, turns to the woman and opens his mouth. Cut to the principle’s office, with Donnie, his parents and Mrs Farmer in attendance. The principle asks what exactly he said to her. She immediately buts in, “I’ll tell you what he said. He asked me to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise card into my anus.”

Brilliant, imaginative, deeply intolerant of fools, there is no place in this small-minded universe for a teenager like Donnie. In the end he shoots Frank, not the dream Frank but the real Frank, dressed in a bunny suit, who accidently runs over his girlfriend Gretchen, played by Jena Malone. At the same time his mother and younger sister are flying back from a dance competition in California. Their plane encounters a vortex which pulls off an engine, drawing it back in time to 28 days earlier, the very point when Donnie is first summoned by Frank. This time he chooses to stay in bed. His world ends as the engine comes crashing through the roof.

The ending is pure Blue Velvet. Donnie’s family are in the street in a state of shock. People look on in sympathy. A girl rides by on her bike. It’s Gretchen. She asks a boy what happened, saying she never knew Donnie. She gives a slow wave to Donnie’s mother, who returns the gesture. Just prior to this final scene Mad World is sung out mournfully in the background, the perfect tune for an astonishing movie.

Worlds to conquer

I hope to have a life as full as that of Virginia Cowles, though, like Alexander, I rather suspect that there are no more worlds to conquer, at least not the kind of worlds that she conquered. You’ve never heard of her, perhaps; well, until recently neither had I, not until I came across a review of Looking for Trouble, her memoir now republished by Faber and Faber, marking the hundredth anniversary of her birth. Here, behold the woman; this is the blurb from the original 1941 edition;

Miss Virginia Cowles has modestly entitled this account of four years as a roving journalist ''Looking for Trouble''. Never was a search more amply rewarded. She has found trouble in Spain – behind the barricades in Madrid, and among the polyglot armies of General Franco. She has found it in Russia, in Germany, in Czecho-Slovakia at the time of Munich, in Roumania during the Polish war, in Finland throughout the Finnish war, In Italy during the ''lull'', in Paris a few hours before the Germans moved in, in London during the ''blitz''.

Yes, she was a war correspondent, or, rather, she became a war correspondent after Hearst newspapers sent her to Spain in March, 1937. She was then twenty-seven years old. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! Cowles arrived in Madrid just after the Battle of Guadalajara, staying in the Hotel Florida, there with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, his then wife.

Yes, I know, it’s in the middle of a war in a city under siege but the whole thing just seems so impossibly exciting and – I really do have to say this- impossibly romantic! Cowles filed her reports from the Telephone Building in Gran Via, afterwards going off to the fashionable Chicote’s to drink with colleagues and associates.

But she wasn’t like the others, who all too often confused news with propaganda, or like that ghastly communist Claude Cockburn, presented propaganda as news. Though sympathetic to the Republican cause she was aware of the atrocities committed in the name of ‘anti-fascism’. And unlike Martha Gellhorn, dismissive of “all that objectivity shit”, as she put it, Cowles set off in pursuit of ‘all that objectivity shit’, spending several weeks covering the war from the Nationalist side.

Where the news was she was. From Spain she travelled backwards and forwards across Europe, interviewing all sorts of people, generals, statesmen, politicians and journalists. Sensitive to the general atmosphere, her reports warned time and again that war was coming, this despite an ‘assurance’ from the Hitler-loving Unity Mitford, whom she met at the 1938 Nuremberg Party Rally, that there would be no war because the Fuhrer did not want to see his new buildings bombed!

By the time the war came Cowles was a roving reporter for the Sunday Times, going from capital to capital watching “the lights in the death chamber go out one by one”, as she puts it. She was in Berlin the day German soldiers crossed into Poland, in Helsinki when Russian soldiers crossed into Finland. Later she arrived in Paris at a time when the German advanced guard was only seventeen miles from the city. This was war reporting in the raw, an age now gone, when journalists could come and go as they liked, rather than being shepherded, spoon-fed and corralled. From the Ritz in Paris to the Adlon in Berlin, Cowles was there.

It’s quite astonishing the number of people she met, interviewed and socialised with on a face-to face basis. When she was in London she went to see Churchill at Chartwell. In Nuremberg she was part of a select group that had tea with Hitler, Himmler, Goring Goebbels and Heydrich. She was taken flying in a two-seater plane over Tripoli by Air Marshal Italo Balbo in person. In Rome she was given an interview with Mussolini.

In England she dined with Duff Cooper after he had resigned from the cabinet following the Munich Agreement. He told her in beautifully frank terms that he might not have resigned if Chamberlain had been more honest, if he had returned from Munich proclaiming not peace with honour but “peace with terrible, unmitigated, unparalleled dishonour.”

Cowles was particularly fond of England, a calm oasis to which she returned time and again from Continental hotspots. In Looking for Trouble, published in June 1941, long before Pearl Harbor, she celebrates the British wartime spirit, finishing with a call to America to “…fight side by side with Great Britain until we reach a victory so complete that freedom will ring through the ages to come with a strength no man dare challenge.”

After the war she married Aidan Crawley, a fellow journalist who became a Member of Parliament. She went on to write biographies of people as varied as Winston Churchill, Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II, as well as books on the Romanovs and the Rothschilds. Sadly Virginia Cowles was killed in September 1983 in a road accident in Biarritz. Sad, yes, but no life could have been any fuller, any more exciting.

Monday 20 September 2010

Tatchell at the door

Last week’s Spectator was a ‘thought crime’ special, drawing attention to the new forms of moral policing that govern the lives of people in England, a consequence of swathes of nannying and politically correct legislation passed by the last government, a large part of which, thankfully, is to be swept away. I read one article, that by Melanie Philips (I think, therefore I am guilty) with an increasing sense of frustration and anger.

Let me make a confession straight off, something that at least some people who read this blog know already – I’m bisexual, I have been ever since I was at school in my mid teens; indeed there was a point when I thought that I might actually be a lesbian – amorous stirrings for a new dishy history master cured me of that delusion! I’m not at all uncomfortable with this admission, though it’s not something I generally talk about, simply because there is no need to talk about it.

So, yes, I’m bisexual, so almost by definition I’m in favour of sexual freedom and gay rights. The problem is I’m beginning to feel a growing sense of contempt for the whole ‘gay pride’ movement, which is not about ‘pride’ at all but relentless and distasteful self-promotion; about forcing people to confront people that they would quite frankly rather ignore. People have the right to be whatever they wish- within reasonable and lawful limits – but when that right is used to begin new forms of persecution and prosecution that’s where I take my leave.

Last summer I wrote a piece elsewhere drawing attention to the plight of an American Baptist preacher in Glasgow, arrested for ‘anti-gay’ comments at an open air meeting in the city. He was asked by people in the audience, obvious provocateurs, what is view of homosexuality was, giving a response based on the Bible. He was immediately reported to two nearby police officers, who arrested him. He was later charged with ‘hate crime.’ Not having the means to await a trial, a lengthy process, he pled guilty and was fined £1000, approximately $1800. Yes, that’s right, $1800 simply for expressing a view outlined in the Bible.

Similar legislation in England allows a ‘Christian opt-out’ clause. But even so, as Phillips points out, pensioners have had police officers visiting their homes, accusing them of ‘hate crimes,’ either because they wrote to their local council complaining about a gay pride march or simply asked if they could distribute Christian literature when such a march was in progress.

Yes, this is how police resources are used in modern England, to intimidate pensioners. But there is a bigger principle here, one centring on the whole area of free expression. A new atmosphere of intimidation is being built up where it’s virtually impossible to make any controversial statement without coming into conflict with the Blairite ‘Respect’ agenda, without coming into conflict with the law, or without coming into conflict with an outrage mob, headed by the likes of Stephen Fry and Peter Tatchell, the grand ayatollahs of homosexual opinion.

Last summer Jan Moir of the Daily Mail wrote some distasteful remarks in her column following the death of Stephen Gately, the gay singer of the Boyzone band. A campaign of mass Twitter and Facebook hysteria was mounted against her, headed by Stephen Fry, all round talentless fat man and miserable gay. Responding to this appalling mob the Metropolitan Police sent Moir’s article to the Crown Prosecution service, who later said that she would not be prosecuted.

Prosecuted! This is the emphasis as it appears in Philips article, an expression of her astonishment and disbelief. It’s also an expression of mine. This is what we have come to; that a journalist is in danger of prosecution over remarks that happen to be in questionable taste. But the whole basis of press and personal freedom stands or falls on being allowed to make distasteful remarks. Otherwise it’s to hell with Voltaire. From now on it’s I may disapprove of everything you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it, unless it’s about homosexuals, single-mothers, one-legged lesbians and on and on and on.

You think this is a joke, you think that I’m exaggerating? Well, then, take the case of Robin Page, mentioned by Philips. Page, Chairman of the Countryside Restoration trust, was arrested in 2002 after a rally against the proposed anti-hunting laws in which he said “If you are a black vegetarian Muslim asylum seeking one-legged lesbian lorry driver I want the same rights as you.” It’s silly, yes, it’s over the top, yes, but so what? I simply can’t see any mature adult taking this seriously or finding it ‘hateful’, even if they are black vegetarian Muslim asylum seeking one-legged lesbian lorry drivers! But it took Page five years to clear his name. No joke.

In the same issue Matthew Parris, a gay voice I can respect, defends the right to insult (Let’s hear it for contempt), otherwise only bullies will prevail; they will prevail by intimidation and by silence. Scorn, as Parris puts it, has always been a sharp and prominent weapon in the battle of ideas. Take out scorn, take out invective, then one might as well discard much of our great polemical literature. Where, I have to ask myself, would the divine Jonathan Swift be without his acidy pen? Who would have believed that we are entering a world less free than that known by Swift?

In Nineteen Eighty Four George Orwell wrote that freedom is the freedom to say that two and two make four. If that is granted all else follows. This is no longer true. Freedom is the freedom to stand up to political correctness, to offend some prat or other, to say that Stephen Fry’s hairstyle looks like some small distressed animal. If that is granted all else follows. Oh, I don’t hate gay pride marches; I don’t object to gay pride marches, I just think they are embarrassing spectacle, a march of prancing losers and silly pink poseurs, pathetic dweebs that everyone I know finds endlessly amusing. Will someone please come and get Queen Peter Tatchell away from my door? :-)

Sunday 19 September 2010

Most loyal subjects

The papal visit has caused me to reflect on Catholics and the fate of Catholics in my period of special study – seventeenth century England. The story begins with the most infamous terrorist conspiracy in English history and ends with the deposition of king: it begins with the Gunpowder Plot and ends with the so-called Glorious Revolution.

It’s difficult to imagine the hostility and suspicion with which English Catholics were perceived from the reign of Elizabeth to the flight of James II. In modern terms they might be said to have occupied then the position that some sections of the Islamic community do now.

To a degree the fear of the Protestant state was understandable. After all, in 1570 Pius V issued Regnans in Excelsis, a bull describing Elizabeth I as a heretic, releasing her subjects from obeying her orders and threatening excommunication against any who did. Elizabeth, who had hitherto pursued a policy of toleration, had little choice but to begin a campaign of repression, particularly against perceived agents of the Vatican. The Jesuits were obvious targets, but even ordinary priests were drawn into the net.

But it is one of the great misconceptions, a Protestant retrospective, to put it another way, that Catholics were always ready to obey the Pope in political as well as religious matters; they were not, either before or after the Reformation. By and large English Catholics remained loyal to Elizabeth and her successors, the aberration of the Gunpowder Plot notwithstanding. More than that, as the century progressed they were among the most loyal, as the Civil Wars proved.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II, who had direct and intimate experience of Catholic loyalty, retained a sense of gratitude, evidenced by periodic attempts to reduce the penalties and restrictions with which the community was burdened. But his good intentions were invariably frustrated by a Parliament deeply hostile to the ‘recusants’, so called because of their refusal to attend Anglican services. They continued to be barred from public office and compelled to pay fines for non-attendance at church.

Even so, life, though difficult, was not impossible, especially for England’s great Catholic families, particularly strong in the north. Then came an unexpected disaster, the greatest and most vile fabrication in English history – the Popish Plot. In modern terms it was a ‘conspiracy theory’, one conceived in the mind of a half-mad clergyman by the name of Israel Tongue but more generally associated with his principle collaborator, a wholly unsavoury individual by the name of Titus Oates.

By a mixture of verisimilitude, perjury and pure speculation Oates managed to convince the authorities that there was a grand Catholic plot to kill the King. In itself it might have come to nothing but for one crucial element: James, duke of York, the king’s brother and heir, had long been suspected as a secret papist, confirmed after he refused to take the Test Act of 1673. So, the plot to kill the king acquired an additional plausibility: that he was to be replaced by a Catholic.

In the three years from 1678 to 1680 England was gripped by a kind of collective insanity, with stories of dark riders and secret meetings across the land. Perfectly innocent Catholics were indicted on a charge of high treason, convicted and subject to the hideous butchery that followed on no more that Oates perjured evidence.

James did eventually succeed after the madness had reduced and the lies had been exposed, but the suspicion remained, not helped by his own political clumsiness. In 1688, in fear of a permanent Catholic monarchy, he was deposed by a group of aristocratic conspirators, an oligarchy whose rule was to become self-perpetuating. In one of their first acts Catholics were excluded from the royal succession, which remains the position to the present day.

For me the Popish Plot is both acutely fascinating, an insight into political pathology, and deeply shameful, even though historians are not allowed feelings in such matters! But these days are over, the hysteria is long gone, my interest is purely intellectual and academic. Not quite, sadly. I felt a renewed sense of shame over the churlish reception of Pope Benedict by some sections of our national community, shamed that his message was being drowned out, as the Spectator lead puts it, by the mendacious caricature of him as a former Nazi apologist for child abuse. It all fits with unregenerate bigots like Ian Paisley, whose imagination has not moved much beyond the days of the Popish Plot, as well as self-righteous clots like the laughable Peter Tatchell, the conscience of all gay-kind. English Catholics deserve better; they’ve earned it, my goodness, how they have earned it.

I’m not a Catholic, as I previously said, but I am a romantic. The papal visit fills me with a sense of occasion, a sense of history. I fail to see how one could not be moved by the whole thing, unless one had a soul of clay. For the first time in our history, in the history of Christianity itself, the head of the Catholic Church came to our island on an official visit. More than that, he gave a speech in Westminster Hall, in the very place where Thomas More stood trial for his life, holding to a simple principle that there was a higher duty than duty to the state. More, as a Catholic, believed in miracles. Even so he could never have conceived that the miracle of time and of circumstance would bring the successor of Saint Peter to a place where he once stood alone.

Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.