Thursday 28 October 2010

Season of the witch

There are times when it seems to me that the English know more about the customs and traditions of, say, the French or the Americans than they do about the nations with whom we have long shared this island.

Take Halloween, for instance. So many people are under the deluded impression that this is an American import of fairly recent provenance. Yes, it’s true that there are pronounced American features to the contemporary festival, notably jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treat, but Halloween has been celebrated here for ages past in Scotland and Ireland, where it emerged from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.

It has long been part of Scottish tradition for children to go out ‘guising’ on Halloween, visiting houses, dressed for the occasion their way lighted by a lantern carved not from a pumpkin but from a large hollowed-out neep, a turnip. In the homes they visit they perform a set-piece, a poem or a song in return for small gifts of sweets or nuts or whatever the household could spare. It was such customs that were carried by Scottish and Irish migrants to the Americas.

There are also English customs which, at root, belong to a pagan past, though here the tradition is much more heavily sublimated. Dominic Sandbrook in a polemical piece in the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine argues that the ‘foreign custom’ of Halloween should be scrapped in favour of the ‘traditional’ English festival of Bonfire Night (If I ran the country, I’d throw Halloween on the bonfire).

Celebrated on November 5, Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, marks the foiling of the Gunpowder plot in 1605, in which Fawkes and a number of Catholic co-conspirators planned to blow up the opening session of Parliament with the king in attendance. But this is just a political gloss on another pagan practice, the lighting of huge bonfires to give renewed power to the sun, which ancient communities, governed by the law of the seasons, believed was in danger of dying at this time of year, with the nights growing longer and the days shorter. The Samhain bonfires, moved to a more acceptable occasion, also included the burning of an ‘old guy’, clearly the vestiges of a human sacrifice, long before anyone had ever heard of Guy Fawkes!

Samhain, the long dark night, the night when the dead are nearest to the living, is also the night of the witches, warlocks and imps! My coven will assemble, flying in to celebrate the turning of the seasons and to honour the Goddess. The fires shall burn and the wheel of life shall turn, and the dead come back home on Samhain. Yes, they shall, and join with the living, witches and straights, in a big Halloween party at my London home!

Eminent Australian

How many of you have a county, I wonder, bearing your family name? Well, I do – Fitzgerald County in the north-west corner of New South Wales. Honestly, it’s true! Actually, the county was specifically named in honour of Robert D. Fitzgerald, one of Australia’s most eminent Victorians, a surveyor by profession who established a dynasty of surveyors, as well as being a poet, a botanist and an ornithologist of some note, one who corresponded with Charles Darwin and published Australian Orchids, a classic in the field.

I mention this because in a recent email I alluded to his grandson, Robert D. Fitzgerald III OBE AM, a distant cousin of mother’s, one who made a significant contribution to the development of Australian poetry. She only ever met him once, when she and my grandparents went out to Australia in the 1960s to attend the wedding of his daughter Phyllida, though his expansive personality made a big impact on her, something she remembered years after. Sadly, I was never able to meet him as he died the year after I was born. Now, I think, is the time for me to say a little more about the Australian Fitzgeralds.

Robert D Fitzgerald, the patriarch, was born in Tralee, County Kerry in Ireland in 1830, emigrating to Australia in the mid-1850s after completing his education in what was later to become University College, Cork. As a surveyor he rose rapidly in the profession, though much of his energy, and a good bit of his free time, was devoted to watching birds and cultivating orchids at his home in Hunters Hill, a suburb of Sydney. His published work on orchids was widely acclaimed in the scientific community.

His son and grandson carried forward his name and his profession, though Robert D Fitzgerald III was to establish a reputation principally as a poet and man of letters. In A History of Australian Literature H. M. Green says of him;

The work of Robert David FitzGerald blows like a fresh wind across today, exhaling a courage and confident aspiration, a sense of wonder and mystery that are strange in a world which is bored and afraid and sorry for itself, and a poetry in which this attitude was intensified under the shadow of the early work of T S Eliot. Fitzgerald represents in fact a life and an interest in life that wars and depression have dammed back after the upwelling of the nineties; that upwelling had found its most characteristic expression in the ballad revival in Britain and the dominions, but FitzGerald's poems have none of the qualities of the ballad, Australian or other, except vigour and an adventurous spirit

He began publishing his poetry when he was still at Sydney Grammar school, writing under the nom de plume of Cruma-boo for the Sydnesian, the college magazine. It was the beginning of a lifetime’s dedication. For his poetic achievements he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1951, later becoming a member of the Order of Australia (AM), the most distinguished of a number of other awards and honours. Though by now he was a grand old man of Australian letters he started out as a rebel, whose early associations had all been with the literary avant-garde, his poems published in a literary magazine called Vision. There is a wonderful pen portrait of him from the 1920s;

Impatience is his keynote, an impatience with flesh and bone, boisterously thumping his fist on the marble-topped tables of Mockbells [coffee shop], or the linoleum covering of a bar, while he insisted that Vision found a new school, the pre-Kiplingites, escape from the modern mathematics of verse, from the intellectual cottonwooling of emotion. Huge, lean, gaunt Fitz, with his bright dark eyes and tousled hair, striding down Pitt Street. I can see him now a theodolite tossed carelessly over one shoulder, roaring suddenly at sight of a friend, and swinging around, theodolite and all, so that had he been of ordinary height, he'd have brained at least a dozen passers-by; Fitz bellowing in the Angel or some other pub, or trying to fold his long legs under a restaurant table.

R. D., along with Kenneth Slessor, introduced some important modernist themes into Australian poetry of the 1920s and 1930s, helping to give it a new vibrancy. I particularly like the dualism he perceives in humanity, torn between everyday reality, the mundane facts of existence, and transcendent truths, something he referred to as the Greater Apollo.

His early poetry, including the Greater Apollo series, was published in literary magazines and anthologies, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was gathered in a more complete book form, a collection called This Nights Orbit. Amongst other things the latter includes Fifth Day, a partial reflection on the trail of Warren Hastings.

It’s a pleasure to be linked to such a man, however distant the link, such a comfort to know that if my family vanish from the face of the earth we will leave a trace of our name in a county in New South Wales, no better place, I feel sure. :-)

Wednesday 27 October 2010

A New Birth of Freedom

It will soon be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of arguably the most important presidential election in American history, that of November 6, 1860. It was an election that saw the triumph of Abraham Lincoln over the Democrats, divided between Stephen A. Douglas and John C Breckinridge, his main rivals.

Lincoln was standing for the Republicans, a relatively new force in American politics, to begin with a coalition of interests, the most important of which was the vestiges of the older Whig Party, rather than a coherent political entity in the strictest sense. But, so far as the Southern States were concerned, the interest that the Republicans represented most was hostility to slavery, their own ‘peculiar institution’. The election of Lincoln was therefore the preamble first to secession and then to Civil War.

After English history my greatest passion is for the history of the United States, a kind of second home to me. I’m particularly intrigued by the early part of the nation’s story, that between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It took the Civil War to test one crucial principle: that the United States was indeed a nation; that, in the final analysis, the Federal authority took precedence over State and sectional interests; that the Constitution could not be abandoned in the light of naked self-interest. If I can put this another way: before 1861 the United States itself was a coalition, an uneasy compromise structured around some stark contradictions. And there was no contradiction greater in a free nation than slavery.

The Preamble to the United States Constitution contains one of the most stirring declarations of principle ever written;

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The problem was that the Union, as it stood, was anything but perfect. The free States of the North were in continual danger of clashing with the slave States of the South. Time and again particular problems were simply shovelled away, covered in uneasy compromises that simply postponed a reckoning to a future date. Though people in the North were uncomfortable with slavery the Abolitionist movement was no more than a vociferous minority. In other words, most Northerners could live with slavery provided it remained where it was. But the most divisive issue of all was caused by Western expansion, raising one vital question; were the new territories to be free or slave?

In 1854, in what was to be the greatest and worst compromise in the nation’s history, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the work of Senator Douglas, Lincoln’s rival in 1860, which opened up the vast areas west of the Mississippi, previously free soil, to the prospect of slavery. This was the cue for the emergence of the Republican Party, as I have said a coalition, one representing a range of anti-Nebraska interests, all the way from abolitionists on the one wing to racist free soilers on the other, people who wanted to stop all black settlement in the West.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lincoln emerged not as a radical abolitionist candidate, which he most assuredly was not, Southern perceptions to the contrary, but as a trimmer, someone who was prepared to compromise, someone whose caution was likely to appeal to more conservative voters.

When the Republicans met in Chicago in the spring of 1860 to choose a nominee for the presidency Senator William H Seward, the former governor of New York City, was widely expected to be selected. But he was considered too radical, especially in the light of a speech he had given stressing that the struggle between free and slave societies was an ‘irrepressible conflict.’ Lincoln emerged instead, simply because he was able to combine moral radicalism, a principled opposition to slavery, with legal conservatism. Slavery would remain, in other words, but remain where it was.

As far as the ‘peculiar institution’ was concerned the election of Lincoln was not a complete disaster for the South. But the prospect of a ‘Black Republican’, a term widely used to describe members of the party, in the White House caused a widespread panic. One by one the slave States jumped from the ‘more perfect Union’, jumped, it has to be said, in ill-considered haste. South Carolina was the first to start the snowball of secession rolling, declaring that it had rejoined the free nations. James L. Petigru, one of the state’s most prominent jurists, remarked caustically that South Carolina was too small for a republic yet too large for a lunatic asylum.

He was not the sole voice of reason here. There were others, plantation owners among them, who argued for a wait and see policy. After all, the Republicans did not control Congress or the Supreme Court, notoriously conservative and favourable to Southern interests. Lincoln, moreover, was not an abolitionist. But the mood was against them. The whole of the lower South became one giant lunatic asylum. Secession was the first disaster; the firing on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, effectively a declaration of war, was the second.

But for this slavery may have survived in the South for perhaps another two or three decades, like Brazil, but I personally cannot conceive that the United States would have entered the twentieth century with the ‘peculiar institution’ still in place. In the end it was abolished by Lincoln, though not until the country was well into the Civil War. For him legal conservatism was indeed uppermost, holding to the principle that the Union was indivisible, that citizens did not have the right to withdraw and fire on other citizens simply because they did not like the outcome of an election, fairly fought and fairly won. Otherwise government of the people, by the people, for the people really would have the shortest lease on the face of the earth.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Saint John Lennon – a modern parable

There was an article in last week’s Spectator by Michael Henderson (Imagine There’s no Lennon), written to mark what would have been the singer-songwriter’s seventieth birthday but for his assassination in New York in December 1980.

I can recognise the significance of The Beatles as a band and the importance of Lennon’s collaboration with Paul McCartney in the composition of some memorable tunes, though I never really warmed to their music, the music and the preoccupations of my parent’s generation. That doesn’t really matter; as light entertainers they were incomparable. The trouble is they, particularly Lennon, began to see themselves as something more; as the voice of a generation, as the avatars of the age, as the conscience of the world. In this they became both laughable and ridiculous, an example for people even more deluded and conceited than themselves.

In 1972 Paul McCartney, now post-Beatles and performing with Wings, his own band, produced a song called Give Ireland back to the Irish, a comment on the political troubles of the day in Northern Ireland, in which he had clearly cast Britain in the part of the ‘imperial’ aggressor. It was banned by the BBC for political reasons though, as Dominic Sandbrook says in State of Emergency, they might have done better to suppress it for crimes against musical taste. “Great Britain you are tremendous”, McCartney witters on “”And nobody knows it but me, but really what are you doing in the land across the sea.” Protecting the Unionist majority against the atrocities of the Provisional IRA, is the simple answer, though clearly too complicated for McCartney.

And then there is Lennon, bad to begin with, even worse after the absurd Yoko Ono, that talentless self-promoter, took hold of him. Now the hectoring and the shouting began, in such ‘masterpieces’ as Give Peace a Chance and Woman is the Nigger of the World. But the worst piece of messiah-speak has to be Imagine. I’ve written about this dreadful ditty before, a piece in which I concluded;

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

Henderson stresses that while Lennon cannot be blamed for every banality spewed out by the likes of Bono or Richard Gere (he forgot to mention Saint Bob Geldorf), the moral infantilism and the obsession with public virtue unleavened by private examination is a process that he began. I fully agree that, as a political figurehead, or symbol of rebellion, John Lennon was a poor joke, a ‘working class hero’ who could lecture the world about peace from the comfort of a bed in the Amsterdam Hilton. No wonder they wanted to crucify you, John; I would.

As a postscript, Henderson’s article was followed up this week by a reader’s letter;

Further to Michael Henderson’s excellent article about sanctimonious pop stars…I remembered that story about Bono saying at a concert that ‘Every time I clap, a child dies in Africa.’ A member of the audience shouted: ‘Well, stop f***ing clapping then!’

It’s time these clots were put back in their place. Let’s have no more tiresome twaddle.

Sacred Ancestors

There was a story in the Telegraph and the Guardian yesterday concerning the display of ancient human remains in museums. They report the findings of a new book by Dr Tiffany Jones that museums are removing or partially covering mummies, skeletons and other human remains for fear of protests by neo-pagan organisations, the chief among which seems to be Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), an advocacy group founded by Emma Restall Orr, a neo-druid, poet and author.

There is certainly considerable sensitivity over this issue, particularly when some of the remains in question were removed from traditional burial grounds without consultation, something that might be defined as anthropological imperialism, a corollary of political imperialism. Many of these artefacts have subsequently been returned to the rightful communities

But is it right to be equally concerned over remains such as mummies and bog bodies, where no cultural or tribal continuity can be established? The examination of such things is, after all, an essential part of archaeological research, helping to establish a better understanding of the past, of past lives and past cultures.

Speaking personally I approach this question from two dimensions. As a scholar and as a historian I have to welcome anything that throws a greater light on the past, which I love. As a pagan, as an admirer of the ancient ways and ancient customs, I believe that we have to approach human remains, the remains of our ancestors, with a high degree of sensitivity. How could I possibly celebrate Samhain (Halloween) and not feel a link with the spirits of the dead, no matter how ancient?

Sensitivity, that’s the key word, to show things always in context, not to display the dead, many of whom were buried with reverence, simply to be gawped at as objects of idle curiosity. After all, how would you feel if your own ancestors were taken from consecrated ground and put on public display? Ah, but time, the removal of time, excuses such things, does it not? Perhaps, then again, perhaps not.

Jenkins may have a point, though the story seems to me to be about undue sensitivity on the part of museum authorities. I can see no evidence at all that they are threatened with protests for displaying human remains. I’ve had a look at the HAD website. Here are the main points made on the issue of display;

2.1 A display should primarily seek to emphasise the remains’ personhood, i.e. not treat the remains as specimens, nor imply them to be objects, instead presenting the remains as individual human beings and subjects in their own right. Thus even where the remains are of scientific value, this should be expressed entirely within the context of the individual’s life.

2.2 As much information as possible about the human being should be expressed in any display, including what is known of their people, their way of life, and individual story. Where there are various possibilities, it is preferable to offer this information rather than to avoid giving any.

2.3 Displays should not remove human remains from the context of the landscapes within which they were thought to have lived and from which they were exhumed. Displays should provide such information, thus preserving the importance of a person’s connection with the environment. Where possible, this should be enhanced by an understanding of that landscape and its landowners and/or community in the present day.

2.4 Any goods disinterred with the human remains should be displayed with the remains. If this is genuinely not possible, quality replicas should be considered. Best practice would entail every item being referred to and explained, possibly with details as to where more information can be found.

2.5 Dignity should be restored to the individual where possible. For example, where a skeleton is found intact but with the skull not in its correct anatomical position the display should place the skull at the top of the spine, and not as found within the grave. In most instances it is not possible to know the reasons for the original burial configuration; however, restoring the remains to a normal configuration expresses respect for the individual as an ancestor, recognising their part within the human story. The position of bones within the grave can be presented with graphics in a display, or using photographs taken at the time of excavation.

2.6 Care should be taken with the use of nicknames for human remains. While using a name can ensure the remains are not perceived as specimens or objects, doing so can imply a level of familiarity that allows a lack of adequate respect. The giving of a nickname is often a part of the remains’ ongoing story and should be explained as such.

2.7 Remains from different individuals should not be muddled up. Where displays of human remains do contain more than one individual, this must be absolutely clear and justified by the individuals’ stories.

2.8 Best practice would entail the story of the excavation and exhumation of the individuals being told within the display, together with reasons as to why the remains were disinterred and retained, however briefly. The views of those who found the remains could also be included, further adding to the personal relationship between the ancestor and the present community or that contemporary to his or her exhumation.

2.9 Funerary urns should be displayed with explanations of their purpose, together with acknowledgement of the individual and where their remains may now be. They should not be displayed simply as pots.

2.10 Low lighting should be employed at all times on human remains. If this does not allow for detailed viewing, graphics or reproductions should be used to illustrate necessary points. This is as true for isolated bones as it is for skulls or entire skeletons.

2.11 Visitors should be warned that human remains are on display, before they approach them, so that they can make an active choice whether or not to view them.

2.12 Information about the eventual disposal of the remains should be considered as a respectful and valid part of the display, including whether any decision has been made about reburial, if this is under review or not currently under consideration. If the remains are to be retained within a collection, justification for this should be made clear.

2.13 If space does not allow for presentation of sufficient information immediately alongside the display, separate leaflets, information on websites or audio guides could be used.

2.14 Best practice would include providing seating near the display so that those who wish to are given the opportunity of sitting with the dead. In some cases, and in consultation with Pagan and local community groups, the opportunity to leave offerings could also be considered. This may be as simple as a box for monetary gifts with clarity as to which charity the offerings were to be given to; without adequate explanation, however, such a box is unlikely to be used.

By and large this seems perfectly reasonable to me, even if a little eccentric at points. There is no suggestion of any kind of extremism, or automatic protests if remains are displayed. It’s all a matter of context. Either Jenkins is being disingenuous – sensation sells books – or the museums authorities are being stupid. We can honour or ancient ancestors and understand them by making them part of our lives and study. There is no contradiction.

Monday 25 October 2010

The roughest road

I saw Inception earlier this year, the summer blockbuster staring Leonardo di Caprio. It was typical mass-market fodder, full of expensive wow me special effects with a storyline that defied even the most determined attempts at the suspension of disbelief. At the end of my review (Dream on) I wrote that I was thinking of giving up altogether on Anglo-Saxon film makers, giving up on movies that are full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Not anymore; for I recently saw Winter’s Bone, a movie that may not have much in the way of sound and fury but if signifies something, it most certainly does, an intelligent story wonderfully told with a singularly impressive lead performance. Directed by Debra Granik and based on a 2006 novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone is one of the gems that emerge occasionally from the American independent sector.

It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival, premièring in this country in June at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s now tipped for further success at next year’s Oscars. One can never be sure with this kind of gossip, but if true it will be well deserved, if only for the performance, the astonishing performance, of twenty-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.

Most of us will be familiar with depictions of America through movies like Sex and the City or Wall Street, glib, superficial, instantly forgettable multiplex fodder. Winter’s Bone is another America altogether, a rural America, a poor America, a clannish America…and a dangerous America. It’s set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, a land of secrets and lies.

This is a place were few modern attitudes have penetrated; where the brutish men order and the cowed women obey; where outsiders are greeted with blank unwelcoming stares, where the greatest offence is to break the unspoken oath of silence. Everyone is related in some way or other to everyone else, though there is little in the way of kin sympathy. Front yards exist only as dumps for old cars and trucks. Here Poverty is king and Penury queen.

This is the kind of place where people hunt to eat, deer if they can get it, squirrels if they can’t. It’s hillbilly country, the kind of place that probably once lived by manufacturing and selling illegal moonshine. The modern product is altogether more lethal – methamphetamine, a dangerously addictive drug, known from its crumbly off-white appearance as peanut butter crank, or simply as crank.

It’s the world of Ree Dolly, played by Lawrence, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives with her mother and younger brother and sister. Her mother is in a catatonic state of depression, taken there, one suspects, by a lifetime of emptiness and disappointment. The responsibility of taking care of the family falls on Ree, resourceful and proud, a responsibility she carries out with loving devotion, teaching her siblings how to shoot at one moment and how to spell at the next.

There is so much I could say about Lawrence’s performance but that would risk going on interminably. I will say that it’s almost iconic; that she plays a strong woman and a frightened teenager by turns; that she sets out on a personal Odyssey that carries her into the lair of the Cyclops, a journey she insists on taking in the face of warning, threats and violence.

Like the rest of the men in the area Ree’s father is a manufacturer of crank with connections to the local criminal network, a hillbilly mafia. He has been caught and charged, released after posting bail. A court date has been set, but he is missing. The local sheriff shows up at the Dolly’s ramshackle property. Unable to communicate with the mother, he tells Ree, the only responsible adult, that the bail posted is the family home and that if her father does not show at the due date they will have to leave.

Faced with homelessness and determined to keep the family together, Ree sets out in pursuit of her father. Wherever she goes she meets with hostility, both from her immediate relations and her wider ‘kin.’ These people know the truth, know the consequences for the Dollys of the father’s absence, but still refuse to talk. Her uncle, known as Teardrop, an excellent performance by John Hawkes, is sympathetic and violent by turns, fearful of going against the code of the mountains, though in the end he manages to acquire some residual courage.

But Ree will not give up. Her journey, becoming more dangerous and darker by degrees, eventually leads to an encounter with shadowy clan chief, a figure known as Little Arthur, played by Kevin Breznahan. It’s the moment of greatest peril. She has been severely beaten up by the clan harpies. Her life is in immediate danger. Still she loses none of her resolve in her determination to save her family. In the end she does, though there is one final gruelling ordeal to go through, which takes her to a lake, to the truth and to a gruesome token.

Winter’s Bone is directed with considerable skill, a mystery and a thriller, brooding and menacing, a sojourn into a modern heart of darkness, not in some distant savage land but a forgotten part of the world of Starbucks and condominiums. It’s difficult to avoid clichés; time does not stand still in the Ozarks; time is irrelevant. This movie will stay with me for a long time, a progress of a girl through the lands of Giant Despair, armoured only with courage and succeeding in hope.

There are times, rare occasions, when acting is more than acting, where distance is crossed and boundaries dissolved. Jennifer Lawrence has crossed that distance, by word, by deed, by expression, by emotion and by gesture. She is unforgettable.

Sunday 24 October 2010

The Enchantress

Quick: name one of the mistresses of Charles II, our onetime pretty, witty and randy king? If you’ve any knowledge of the period at all, any knowledge of the life of Charles, I’m guessing that your answer is Nell Gwynn, certainly the one lodged most firmly in the popular imagination, the orange seller, the actress; pretty, witty Nell.

If your knowledge is slightly deeper you may have gone for Lucy Walter, with whom the king had an affair in exile, the mother of James, duke of Monmouth, the best known of the royal bastards. But there were others (lots of others!) including my personal favourite – Barbara Palmer nee Villiers, arguably the greatest courtesan in English history.

There are two things important in understanding Charles: he liked women and he liked a quiet life. Unfortunately these two things were not always in harmony, otherwise he would never alighted on Barbara. Woman she was; mouse she was not! She was a great beauty, the superstar of her day, but she was also highly intelligent, clearly intelligent enough to realise that beauty was a transient thing; that, while it lasted, it had to be converted into wealth and power, political power above all. And, my goodness, nobody did it better than her.

To begin with she was just another impecunious royalist, one whose family had been ruined by the Civil Wars, hanging on the margins of an exiled and impecunious court. But no sooner had the king returned from his travels than Barbara, with whom he had formed an attachment, began her ascent. She was married to Roger Palmer, created earl of Castlemaine in 1661, doubtless as a cuckold’s compensation. Because of this she was generally known as Lady Castlemaine. In some ways she was a new Anne Boleyn, with the same kind of quarrelsome temperament, but Charles was most assuredly not a new Henry VIII! Castlemaine made use of the king’s infatuation, and his weakness, to get her own way, either by exercise of her charm or her temper, which was notorious.

The Restoration monarchy is quite unique in the singular dominance of bedchamber politics. By 1662 Castlemaine was the most important figure at court, one whose hold over Charles was so strong that she was widely known as ‘the Enchantress.’ Even the queen, poor, ineffectual Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wallflower whom the king had married in 1661, was overborne by the mistress. She was able to make and break men politically, even the greatest.

In so many ways it was Castlemaine who set the tone of the Restoration monarchy, which began on a note of universal goodwill, subsequently lost in a reputation for excess and sexual licence. She knew her man, one who had lost all moral compass at an early age, separated, as he was, from the influence his loving but austere father at the outset of the Civil Wars. I would not go so far as to say that Charles was led by the balls but it comes close, my, it comes close!

Anyone who has trawled through the archives will have a flavour of how Charles quickly descended in the popular imagination from the bright young prince to the lascivious old king. There are lots of scurrilous verses which make reference to his priapic obsessions, including one in which he rides through London calling urgently for a midwife. The best known of these was published anonymously in 1667, a time when England was at war with Holland, offering comment on the successful Dutch raid on the Chatham dockyards on the Thames;

As Nero once, with harp and hand surveyed
His flaming Rome, and, as that burned, he
So our great prince, when the Dutch fleet
Saw his ships burned and, as they burned, he
So kind he was in our extremist need,
He would those flames extinguish with his seed.

And this, believe me, is one of the mildest!

For at least ten years after the Restoration Castlemaine was unchallenged in influence and power, though that did not imply that she was faithful to the king, or he to her. Still, she was able to put down any potentially dangerous rival with consummate ease. Quarrels between her and Charles most often ended with him on his knees begging forgiveness, with Castlemaine being allowed to treat the Privy Purse effectively as her own purse. Samuel Pepys records in his diary;

“…the king doth mind nothing but pleasures and hates the very sight or thought of business…my Lady Castlemaine rules him…She hath all the tricks of Aretino that are to be practiced to give pleasure – in which he is too able, having a large [penis]; but that which is the unhappiness is that as the Italian proverb says, Cazzo dritto non vuol consiglio [an erect member does not need advice].”

Castlemaine’s greatest political triumph came in 1667, not long after the Chatham fiasco. It was she who was responsible in large measure for the downfall of the censorious Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, the king’s long term mentor and chief counsellor. But as he left court for the last time, watched from a window by Castlemaine, he called out the words of her particular doom – “Remember, Madam, that you will grow old.”

In 1673, now Duchess of Cleveland, she was forced to stand down as Lady of the Bedchamber, her principal office at court, because, as a Catholic, she was unable to take the oath prescribed by the Test Act, recently passed by Parliament. But that mattered less than Charles’ loss of affection. She was growing older, though still only in her early thirties, and the king had moved decisively in favour of Louise de Keroualle, ten years her junior. But no mistress was ever again to exercise the power of the great Enchantress, angrily dismissed by the mob as the ‘King’s Whore.’ It was owing to her that the Restoration was to be both the best of times and the worst of times in English history.

Iron Chancellor

Imagine yourself lost, somewhere in rural England. You are on your way to London; your sat nav has broken down, and you are on a minor road without signs. The only way of getting back on course is to stop and ask one of the passing locals. A man approaches on a bike; you wind down your window. "London", he repeats, with a thoughtful expression on his face, "Sorry, you won't get to it from here."

This came to mind as I reflected on the panicked reactions in the aftermath of last week's spending review, in which George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced £81billion in cuts in government spending. It was a bold move, an absolutely necessary move to deal with the massive hole in the public finances left by the fiscal irresponsibility of the previous administration, so bad it comes close, at least in my estimation, to being criminal.

Cuts are necessary; most people agree on that; even the Labour opposition agrees on least I think they do. Alan Johnson, the Shadow Chancellor, better known to his many friends, including me, as Postman Pat, is a little bit lost when it comes to economic matters, rather a liability, given his brief. Cuts are necessary, just not now; it's not the right time. But as Norman Lamont, a former Chancellor, says in today's Sunday Telegraph, now is never the right time.

I'm a Tory, a particularly proud admission. I come from a family with a deep tradition in the Conservative Party. I wobbled slightly in my mid-teens, when, much to mother and father's horror, I formed an attachment to a chap with links to the Socialist Worker's Party or some such organisation; but that lasted all of about three weeks before the pendulum swung back to its natural stasis! I don't think I've ever been prouder to call myself a Tory than now, don't think I've ever been prouder of a politician than I am of George Osborne, whom I believe is the coming man, the man to watch, the man of the future. My admiration for our present Coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats has also increased tremendously, set to become one of the most politically significant marriages in British history.

It was not always thus. I was disappointed and angered by the outcome of the General Election earlier this year, which saw the Conservatives emerge as the strongest party but still short of an overall majority, and that after the worst (no qualifications here; not one of the worst) administration in British history. I was convinced that the emerging coalition, the deal between David Cameron, the Conservative leader and now Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and now Deputy Prime Minister, had a limited life; that there was bound to be another election within a year. I no longer believe this to be so; I think the coalition will last for the duration of the Parliament. The marvellous thing is that it's not weak, not tied by shifty and evasive compromises. No, the spending review has shown that it is willing to accept the tough decisions, willing to accept temporary unpopularity in pursuit of the greater good.

But the driving force is George Osborne; he is the one to recognise how necessary this fiscal realism is before this country sank altogether in the rising floods of debt. The overgrown state, nurtured by Labour, will be tackled at source in a major cutback which will see the loss of some half a million jobs in four years. Foul, cry the unions, foul cry their bloated communist bosses: this is unfair, an attack on 'working' people. Oh but how mild it is compared to Cuba, a country they so admire, that is proposing to cut half a million state-sector jobs in six months, and that only as a first stage. That's the way to do it, comrades.

Yes, here is where we are, but how gentle, how realistic the Osborne cuts are. It's as well to remember that £81billion is a mere two years of interest payments on our current levels of debt. Postman Pat predicts disaster, the dreaded 'double dip' recession, but the Osborne squeeze will only reduce public spending from 48% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 41% by 2014-15, still above the post-war average for this country. Spending, in other words, will fall to the same proportion of GDP as in 2007-8, the point when Mad Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, set out to prove that the economy was not based on boom and bust but bust and bust. Despite all of the dire warnings from the ghastly official opposition, at the the end of the of Osborne's four year cycle the government will still be spending more in real terms than when Labour came to power in 1997.

Yes, Osborne is my hero. I will only venture one small criticism. The tough decisions have been taken; the Guardian state will be pruned right back, the state where the most fatuous and unnecessary 'jobs n services' were created, a forest canopy that choked the life out of the real economy, the productive economy. Killing sacred cows, that's what Tories do best, not being in thrall to some past practice or favoured idea. Taking tough decisions inevitably means courting unpopularity. But some shibboleths still remain. The pledge to protect the National Health Service from cuts, made during the election, has been maintained. This, I believe, is a gross error for the reason that the NHS budget grew extravagantly under the previous administration, that it is an enormous waste of national resources at a time when we cannot afford such waste. This monster now accounts for a fifth of government spending, riper for cuts than any other government department. The same goes for special concessions to the elderly, who will continue to be given certain financial privileges, like free bus passes, whether they need them or not. Such provision, like the welfare budget in general, should be rigorously means tested. As The Economist quite rightly says, under the previous administration the state became more of a comfort blanket than a safety net.

I'm continually tempted to say that this government is rapidly shaping up to be one of the best Tory administrations in post-war history, perhaps even the best, better even than that of Margaret Thatcher, and that’s saying something! But it's not a Tory administration, it's a coalition. I think we are being protected to some degree, protected from the full truth about the public finances. How else does one explain the Liberal Democrat adherence to a policy of financial realism that goes against the happy-clappy politics they have pursued hitherto?

This is the road we have to take. These cuts, I believe, are only the beginning, an absolutely necessary way of ending the dreadful lie that prosperity can be built by borrowing and credit; it can't. As Lamont says, prosperity, real prosperity, has to be earned, not borrowed. Yes, there is a gamble here, but a necessary gamble. It's to be hoped that the British people, in a deeply rooted entrepreneurial spirit, will rise to the challenge, not descend into mass hysteria, like the French, or murderous mass hysteria, like the Greeks. Coming from nowhere, never before having held senior public office, George Osborne is shaping up as a great politician and a great Chancellor. Yes, I'm proud to be a Tory.

Friday 22 October 2010

Your call is important to us

The weekend approaches; it's time for me to unwind, to discard all the petty frustrations of the week. Petty frustration: now there is the thing. Is there any frustration more petty than an effing call centre?! There you are; you need some quick information, you need to contact your bank, your credit card company, your financial advisers, all sorts of service providers. You're in a hurry; you don't have all day. That's a pity, because by the time you've negotiated all of the obstacle courses, the endless options offered, to speak to a real human being you will have wasted a good bit of the day!

You've made it; you've climbed the Berlin Wall; the last hurdle is over. One's temper is now explosive, but at least the blasted phone is ringing. Ignore the awful piped Mozart - Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, for some reason, something I simply can't listen to now in any normal setting! Again the anger builds: "All our advisers are busy, please hold; your call is important to us", says that entity from the planet Phonespeak. Aaaaargh.

My Australian friend Retarius sent me a You Tube video yesterday, one about the Cyber Man Call centre, which sums up things so well. Oh, how I sympathise with those Daleks. Do have a super weekend, one and all.

Oh, before I go, here is another video I came across with a science fiction theme. Perverse it may seem, but I actually enjoy some cinema and television advertising, little works of art when they are done well. The particular one I'm offering here is an old ad for Levi's Jeans, shown on British TV some years ago. I think it must rank high as the cleverest, coolest and sexiest commercial ever made. :-) Byeeee

Thursday 21 October 2010

A tale unfolds

I’ve entered into a room in the middle of a conversation. I missed the opening, so it has taken a little time for things to assemble in proper order. This is a conversation that’s far from finished, one that’s destined to go on, one that I intend not to miss. What’s being talked about, what’s the subject? Why, we are the subject, the British are the subject, a large part of our post-war political, social and cultural history is the subject. You see I’ve been reading State of Emergency-the Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook!

This is the first of his books I’ve ever tackled though it is the third part in what is clearly shaping up to be a classic of narrative history, a story told in a simple, discursive style, scholarly without being weighed down by scholarship, accessible in the best sense of the term. I missed the early parts of the ‘conversation’, his account of the Macmillan years – Never Had it so Good, and the first ministry of Harold Wilson- White Heat. I intend to catch up with these just as soon as I am able, just as I intend to follow the author’s future meanderings through the mid and late seventies.

The four years he describes in State of Emergency, so called because Edward Heath, then prime minister, called no less than five states of emergency, are full of incident, high politics and low drama. Drama, yes, that’s the word, in politics certainly, though tragedy might serve better. It’s the tragedy of Edward Heath, conceivably the unluckiest prime minster in all of British history, a man overwhelmed by events.

As I said previously, I acquired a greater understanding of the Heath years in a few pages of Sandbrook than I did from several hundred of Edward Heath, the official biography by Philip Ziegler. Heath had the reputation of being a new kind of Conservative, so his friends thought, so his enemies assumed, one who was believed to have embraced a free-market oriented policy, adopted at a conference held at Selsdon, allowing Harold Wilson to dub him Selsdon Man, after Piltdown Man, the famous anthropological fraud.

It was a myth: Heath was not a monetarist, not a prototype for Margaret Thatcher. No, he was the last of the ‘one nation’ Tories, the last of a pre-war generation who believed that unemployment was the greatest evil. Rather than cutting back on public expenditure, his government presided over a major expansion in the welfare state. The simple fact is that this philosophy was untenable, that the economic progress that had upheld the political consensus pursued since 1945 was over never to return. Inflation and stagflation, its new cousin, were set to replace unemployment as the great evil.

The storms that beset Heath, this elusive, cold, slightly ridiculous man with his overblown ‘upper class’ accent, would have destroyed even the strongest, and he was far from that. I alluded previously to George Dangerfield’s classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, a study of the four years leading up to the First World War when England was in danger of being torn apart by union militancy, by the Irish problem, by feminist radicals. Between 1970 and 1974 the spectres returned: England was once again being torn apart by union militancy, the Irish problem and all sorts of radicals! It seems to me that these are the key years, a bridge between the past of Macmillan and the future of Thatcher. Heath was not the wave of the future; he was the last surge of the past.

There is so much more in this book than politics. Sandbrook has an incredible mastery of his brief, with wonderful attention to detail. It’s almost as if he had lived through the period himself, although he was only born in 1974. There are dark passages, the account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the IRA atrocities are particularly grim. But there is much on the details of ordinary life, of a time which actually saw an increase in living standards and expectations.

Some snippets caused me to laugh out loud, including a comment by one Dave Hill of a band called Slade, dressed outrageously in silks and satins favoured by performers at the time, a dreadful gay caricature, saying that he could not be camp if he tried “coz I’m working-class.” This was a time, up until 1971, that Wimpey burger restaurants did not allow unaccompanied women in after midnight because they were assumed to be prostitutes; a time when the wholly naff avocado with prawns emerged as the sophisticated and favoured starter at pretentious middle-class dinner parties!

The details go on and on in a hugely entertaining way. Sandbrook quotes an article by a certain firebrand Labour Member of Parliament, something that might very well have been penned by Karl Marx, on improving the condition of the working class – “…few people could have imagined that Robert Kilroy-Silk would end up smothering himself with cockroaches to amuse the viewers of ITV.”

Some enthusiasms were rendered absurd by future developments, including The Ecologist magazine’s welcome to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a movement which “deserves our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention. We might learn something”. The Daily Telegraph fared no better, predicting that a certain new African leader would be a contrast to all the others and a “staunch friend to Britain.” What was his name, you ask? He was Major General Idi Amin.

This is a splendid book, a conversation that really is worth listening to, a drama worth watching, by far the best account I have come across of our passage from one state of social and political evolution to another.

Ways of seeing

The Tate Modern London is holding an exhibition of the work of Paul Gauguin at the moment, scheduled to run until mid-January. It’s quite an occasion, the first major showing of his art in the city for more than half a century. Despite other demands on my time I simply had to go, spending several hours last Saturday looking at the development of his style, being taken to places as far apart as Brittany and Tahiti.

Gauguin fascinates me both as a painter and as a man, though quite frankly parts of his life, aspects of his conduct, his moral turpitude, I have to say, does not reward close scrutiny. The man and the monster in the man have attracted me ever since I read The Moon and Sixpence, the short novel by William Somerset Maugham loosely based on the artist’s life, though his fictitious Charles Strickland is not nearly quite as callous as the real-life Paul Gauguin!

Sorry: perhaps I’m putting you off; that’s certainly not my intention. It’s easy to forget the man in discovering the artist, and what a discovery he is, as you will find if you visit Gauguin: Maker of Myth. He began working in the Impressionist style but quickly rejected what he thought of as the tyranny of mere appearance. I so agree with this; art for me is a search for deeper things, deeper meanings: in colour, in subject, in object, in imagination. The endless water lilies of Claude Monet bore me absolutely rigid!

Gauguin, in contrast, created something altogether more solid, less ethereal, in what was later to be called Post-Impressionism, really the true beginnings of modern art, impacting on people like Cezanne and Picasso. There are so many striking paintings here, paintings from his Breton period, which includes Vision of a Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), where women in traditional costume are seen watching the struggle between the two central figures. And I have to make special mention of The Ham, a still life painted in 1889, a painting that does not call for one’s attention, no, it simply demands it!

Gauguin went to Brittany is search of an illusion; he was to continue to pursue the same illusion all the way to the South Pacific: the belief that in the midst of modern sophistication there was a purer, simpler more authentic, more primitive way of life. Primitivism in life, primitivism in art was his quest, attained in the latter, eluded in the former.

The Tahiti paintings, brilliant as they are, brilliant in structure, colour and tone, are really nothing more than a threadbare colonial fantasy. Look hard; this is no paradise; look how detached and sullen his women are, self-absorbed, cut off from the outside world. The paintings tell a deeper story of alienation and demoralisation that the artist is too honest to have missed. In The Spectator supplement on the exhibition Martin Gayford writes that there are moments when Gauguin in his last years brings to mind Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella that depicts the central character’s moral collapse in a tropical colony, though his destiny was squalid rather than horrific.

No matter; it’s possible to enjoy this exhibition without looking for anything deeper than the art itself. It’s unlikely London will ever again see such a comprehensive collection of one of the great masters of modern art, one of the few people to show that there truly are new ways of seeing.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

A Shame to Mankind

What follows is a copy of an article I wrote for History in an Hour (, an e-book site, on the Popish Plot, part two of which was published earlier this evening. It covers some of the themes I’ve previously touched on here, though in a slightly more comprehensive fashion.

In October 1678 a magistrate by the name of Edmund Berry Godfrey was found murdered at the foot of Primrose Hill near London. Though he was in himself a figure of little importance his death was to have explosive consequences. For the crime, never solved, marks the beginning of an episode of anti-Catholic hysteria forever known as the Popish Plot. The roots of the ensuing crisis, by far the most serious ever faced by the Restoration monarchy, can be traced back several years.

It’s one of the great ironies of history that the assembly which dominated the reign of Charles II, known for its perceived political loyalties as the ‘Cavalier Parliament’, was in its own way almost as troublesome for the crown as the Long Parliament of Charles I. It was packed with men who were loyal to king, yes, but they were just as loyal to the established church, in some ways even more loyal. Attempts by the government to introduce a measure of relief for Catholics and dissenters, those who refused to accept communion in the Church of England, was met with an ever growing sense of suspicion.

The events of 1678 and after have to be placed against this background, against a fear over growing Catholic influences at court, compounded by suspicions over Charles’ foreign policy, which took England into alliance with the Catholic French against the Protestant Dutch.

This was bad enough but there was one additional element which made the general atmosphere quite toxic- Charles brother, James duke of York, converted secretly to Catholicism sometime in the early 1670s, a fact that became generally known when he refused to take the oath prescribed by the 1673 Test Act, specifically rejecting an important part of Catholic dogma.

In itself his conversion may have passed, especially as he was obliged to resign his offices, but for the fact that the king had no legitimate heirs. On the threshold of the Popish Plot, with Charles now well into middle-age and the queen obviously barren, England was faced with the prospect of a Catholic succession, the first since Mary Tudor over a hundred years before. It was now that one Titus Oates, a disreputable clergyman, came to the fore, with tales of a conspiracy against the crown. The king was reluctant to take the matter seriously, though he delegated the task of investigation to Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, his chief minister. Danby, in turn, passed it on to Godfrey.

The wood was bone dry; the leaves were brittle; only a spark was wanted to cause an inferno. Godfrey’s murder was the spark. At once Oates’ accusations took on a new urgency. He was a talented perjurer, who by a mixture of verisimilitude, pure speculation and good luck now convinced the country at large that a grand conspiracy was under way. At first he alleged no more than that the Jesuits and others were planning to murder the king and his brother. But by fine degrees James was removed as a prospective victim and turned into the principal beneficiary of the crime.

England went mad; there is really no other way of describing the ensuing hysteria, positively murderous in its malevolence. In the years between 1678 and 1680 the country was troubled with tales of dark riders and secret meetings. Perfectly innocent Catholics were tried and butchered on no more than Oates’ perjured evidence.

As Oates' accusations gained ground a group formed in Parliament around Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury, a man of formidable political talents and a personal enemy of James, calling for the removal of the duke of York from the succession, thus beginning the Exclusion Crisis, a far more immediate political danger for the monarchy than the fictions of Oates. This was the days before political parties in the modern sense had emerged. Those who supported Shaftesbury were loosely known as the ‘Country Party,’ the inference being that that they represented the interests of the nation as a whole, as opposed to the ‘Court Party’ behind the king.

Other names soon emerged. The enemies of the Country Party started to call them ‘Whigs’, after a group of troublesome Scottish Presbyterian rebels. When it came to insults Shaftesbury and his men were just as adept. The Court Party were referred to as ‘Tories’, recalling a set of Irish brigands. It’s a sign of the eccentricity or the peculiar genius of the English that these insults were eventually adopted as badges of pride!

As the game commenced Charles showed himself a player of some genius. James was removed from the scene, first to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, while Parliament was prorogued from time to time in an attempt to reduce some of the excessive heat. Sacrifices were made to the passions of the mob of men that Charles clearly knew were guiltless, but on the central principle of legitimacy he remained firm. He absolutely refused to accept James, duke of Monmouth, his much-loved but illegitimate eldest son as a possible Protestant successor. He was also fortunate that while the Commons repeatedly returned majorities in favour of exclusion, Shaftesbury and his supporters were a minority in the Lords, where the Tories, rallied by George Saville, marquis of Halifax, rejected the Exclusion Bills.

In the end the Exclusion Crisis was no more than a great wave which broke on the rock of royal obduracy and an unwillingness of even the monarchy’s most trenchant critics to risk again the horrors of the Civil Wars. Charles knew his enemy. Parliament was summoned in 1681 to meet in Oxford, away from the febrile atmosphere of London and the importunities of the Whig mob. But no sooner had it met than it was dissolved, no further being called for the remainder of the reign.

The Whigs, though strong in Parliament, had no real organisational coherence. After the Oxford Dissolution they simply imploded. Shaftesbury eventually went into exile, where he died. James succeeded peacefully to the throne on the death of his brother in 1685, held up by a mood of Tory reaction against the Whigs and the murderous excesses of the Popish Plot. In coming to the throne no king was ever more fortunate in the loyalty of his subjects; in ruling no king was ever less fortunate in judgement and political sense.

Titus Oates, the author of the tragedy, had a mixed afterlife. Even before the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament the popular mood turned against him and the bloodletting that had seen the execution of fifteen innocent men. In August 1681 he was obliged to vacate his apartments in Whitehall. Thereafter he was convicted on a charge of sedition, fined £100,000, a prodigious sum for the day, and imprisoned. No sooner did James come to the throne than Oates was arraigned on a fresh charge, this time one of perjury. After conviction he was sentenced to life imprisonment, his shame compounded by an annual pillory. He was also tied behind a cart and whipped from Aldgate to Newgate, a punishment that was almost certainly intended to kill him. He survived, bellowing like a bull, so it is reported, during his flogging. When William and Mary came to the throne in the Protestant coup of 1688 Oates was pardoned and awarded an annual pension. It was probably the least the new government could do given the political atmosphere of the day. But his influence never recovered. He died in 1705 little regarded, a “shame to mankind”, to use the words of Judge George Jeffreys.

Daring to question

Earlier this month I wrote about Liu Xiabo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (Freedom is an obscenity). I wanted to offer this brave man a tiny drop of support for his moral courage, his determination to stand for a simple principle of freedom. Beyond the fact that he is a leading Chinese dissident I did not know terribly much about him. However, my friend Yun Yi has been busy adding translations from The Mist of Metaphysics , a major philosophical work, to one of her own blogs (Human without God). With her permission I’m adding a selection of these here, a tribute to a clever, subtle thinker in the best Socratic tradition. That a man like this should languish in prison for daring to pose questions is a tragedy for us all. It's as if Socrates had never quite finished his cup of hemlock

From Human without God by Yun Yi

Liu Xiaobo is the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2010 who is currently in jail in mainland China. I don't know much about him but just discovered one of his books "Mist of metaphysics" and it appears very thoughtful to me, also a bit pessimistic.
Below are some quotes from the book (my own English translation):

About metaphysics:
"Metaphysics is a compound of ways of our thinking and existence, an entirety of our behavior and motive."

"All knowledge of mankind is process of questions and answers. The history of thought is the history of questions."

"Whereas everything that man creates is for transcending his own limitation, the limitation of existence itself decides that he could never break the boundary."p6

"Discovery is creativity, common sense is imitation."

Space and Time:
"...the importance of time and space lies in the fact that they are the measurement of our life, the reference for the meaning of life - which work as a leverage for our survive will."

The value of thinkers:
"The value of a thinker is not about what problems he solves, but what kind of problems/questions he presents, because a new question means a new start and new development. Even if he does solve problems, the solutions must be open and provocative, must conceive new problems/questions"

About human wisdom, the separation of human and nature:
"If we ask: why under God's supervise Adam and Eve still stole the forbidden fruit, choosing the misery of knowing instead of the happiness of unknown? Was it really because of the temptation of Snake? I think, this temptation of snake was not the true cause of this action, the true cause was our human nature. And the reason that we created such a story to put the responsibility to others (snake) was because we have fear - we fear we have such kind of instinct. Indeed, giving a outside cause to our human tragedy can more or less alleviate the cruelty of this destiny." p14

About Time - the value also the limitation of life:
"The Buddhist concept of reincarnation is an avoidance of time, a murder of the sense of time. This avoidance of time creates a psychological satisfaction, a triumph over death, but the price is all our current life. Being apathetic to time is being apathetic to life. If all our hardship was caused by our previous life, we should not fight, be completely obedient to whatever come to us. Those whoever lack vitality, would also lack the sense about time. The sense of time is the sense of life... " p22

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Fear and Loathing in Berlin

Amongst other things (always, always there are other things!) I’m reading Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust by Hans Kundnani. I don’t want to say too much about it at the present, as I have it in mind to write an article on the legacy in Germany of the Baader Meinhof terrorist faction, born of profound ignorance, born of an ignorance of history. This was to produce some grotesque inversions, a type of poisonous relativism. It came to mind when I discovered that the Berlin Historical Museum has just opened and exhibition about Hitler, the first since 1945 to break a taboo subject.

I say it’s about Hitler but it isn’t really, at least not Hitler in isolation. There are still some taboos, you see, to be overcome. So, no Hitler; instead the ponderous and didactic Hitler and the Germans: the National Community and Violence. The museum authorities seem to have approached the subject with quite a high degree of caution, fearful that it might attract the Neo-Nazi fringe.

Because of this nothing directly connected with Hitler personally has been allowed, just a lot of Nazi-era brick-a-brack: uniforms, beer mugs with swastikas, cigar boxes, banners, posters and so on and on and on. No recordings of Hitler speeches because that would be well, too Hitler, and the busts have been placed in such a way that won’t allow people to pose beside them for photographs!

I was inclined to dismiss this as a rather futile display of Nazi kitsch but with all of the qualifications, all the ands and ifs and buts, it is intended to make a serious point. For too long the Germans failed to engage with their past, either because of a sense of shame or because of a convenient collective amnesia, fertile ground for the hysterical delusions of the 68ers.

The museum is attempting to show, in as wide a context as possible, how the nation was seduced by Hitler and what impact this had. In a country where the swastika is still banned history is being allowed to come back to life and at least to some extent speak for itself. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana wrote. An important step has been taken in remembering the past.

In writing this I was immediately reminded of a depiction of Hitler that is not likely to appear in Berlin or anywhere else in Germany, not in any immediate future that I can foresee. It happens to be my favourite image of a monster who, in the end, was no more than a man. It's called An Icon of Fear by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. It caused a controversy when it was first exhibited because it seems to invite sympathy. At the risk of being misunderstood I have to say that it invited my sympathy, something I never thought I would feel for a man who destroyed so many futures and almost destroyed the civilization of Europe itself. But what sins he carries, what a terrible burden. I remember reading the words of a Jewish writer -unfortunately I can’t remember whom -, saying that he hoped that Hitler's tortured soul had at last found peace. When I look at An Icon of Fear, an image of the child as father of the man, an image of a penitent and frightened little boy, I can only echo these sentiments.

Vive le Président!

The president of France, now there is a man: there is Nicolas Sarkozy, an individual for whom I don't have a huge amount of respect. I've written about him in the past in scathingly sardonic terms, drawing attention to his vanity, his absurdity, his lies and his relentless self-promotion, the self-promotion of an insecure, little (little being the operative word) man. I'm normally sympathetic to right-wing politicians, apart from the laughably priapic Silvio Berlusconi and, up until now, Nicolas Sarkozy, the pocket pocket Napoleon. But things change, things always change.

He is a beleaguered man, President Sarkozy, under attack from the Eorocrats and under attack from the sans culottes in his own country. He's taken a stand against the Roma of Romania, professional and unpleasant beggars he's sent back east in hordes contrary to diktats on free movement within the European Community. Once again I put my head in the noose. If I were President of France I would have done the same. If I was Prime Minister of England I would do the same. Why? Is it because I'm a racist; is it because I'm opposed to the free movement of productive labour; is it because I dislike gypsies? No, no, and once again, no. I simply dislike the free movement of professional beggars; I dislike the streets of London being filled with Eastern European gangs of the indigent.

Now the President has taken a more important stand; he has taken a stand against the complacency of his own nation. In present economic circumstances he has asked it to make a few sacrifices for the sake of France; he has asked the 'workers' to consider the possibility that it might be necessary to raise the retirement age to 70, no, to 65, no, to 62, yes, and that's why the are now rising in their thousands in protest.

Yes, that's not a mistake - he wants to people to work until they are sixty-two. How dreadful; time for a new Bastille to tumble. The sans culottes are out in the streets, the people who enjoy bother for the sake of bother, the usual communist and anarchist suspects. At Nanterre just outside Paris thugs have attacked the police not because they believe in fairness, not because they give a fig about the retirement age (after all, what need to retire when you have never worked?); no, simply because they enjoy thuggery for the sake of thuggery, violence for the sale of violence.

I wish you well, Monsieur le Président, I wish you the courage to stand up and stand firm. But, alas, you are not Napoleon; you are not even De Gaulle: you are Sarkozy. I expect the capitulation soon. I would be delighted if you proved me wrong.

Monday 18 October 2010

Death, be not proud

I learned tonight of the sudden death of Sean, the nineteen-year-old son of a fellow blogger. I posted the following message on his blog. I want to add it here also in memory of a beautiful Irish boy.

Brendano, dear, dear, Brendano. I’ve not been here for a few days. It was Ike Jakson who told me this terrible news. It frightens me because death does not belong to people like Sean, of my generation, even younger than me: death belongs to those who have lived life; death belongs to the old, not to us: we are immortal. But we are not.

There is nothing I can say that will comfort you, your wife and the rest of your family; indeed, it’s presumptuous of me to say anything at all, a stranger, a mere internet presence. But it’s in moments like this that each and every one of us, across generations, across nations and across all differences, feels solidarity at a simple human level. I can’t begin to understand your pain, I don’t want to understand it, but I feel so sad tonight, so sad for your tragic loss. All I can do is to offer some lines by my favourite poet;

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost over throw
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure - then, from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death thou shalt die.

With much love. Anastasia.

The heart of a heartless world

I meant to write something earlier in brief tribute to Norman Wisdom, the British comedian and actor who died earlier this month aged ninety-five. An all round performer in the tradition of vaudeville, he is probably best known for a series of films he made in 1950s and 1960s, in which he starred as the hapless Norman Pitkin.

His comedy is that of a different age, a simpler and more naïve age. In a sense Wisdom and Pitkin were one and the same, the little man, a modern Chaplin, continually struggling against the pompous and the inflated, fighting against impossible odds with infectious optimism, defeated at one moment, triumphant at the next, always irrepressible. In The Art of Donald McGill, an essay on bawdy seaside postcards, George Orwell makes the following observation;

I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of flihrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.

This, for me, is Pitkin, the universal common man, always heroically unheroic. I would have said that his comedy was uniquely British, a manner and a style that did not travel well. But it did travel and to some of the most unusual places. There was perhaps no place more unusual in Europe than Albania under the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Almost every ‘decadent’ western influence was banned, anything that made life pleasurable.

Pitkin made it across this cultural cordon sanitaire. Given what Orwell says, I would have assumed that his style of comedy, a hymn to individualism and non-conformity, would have been completely taboo in any kind Stalinist utopia, but apparently the humourless and literal-minded Hoxha saw it as a parable on the ‘class struggle.’ It doesn’t really matter, though, for in their sterile lives the Albanian people found a new hero in such movies as A Stitch in Time and Trouble in Store. Pitkin became a huge hit, giving Wisdom an enduring cult following. On his death the present Albanian prime minister sent condolences on behalf of his nation to the actor’s family.

Wisdom, once asked to explain his popularity in Albania, said that he thought it was because his films, amongst other things, were free of sex and violence. I don’t think that’s the explanation at all; I imagine the Albanians would have delighted in a spot of sex and violence if they had been allowed to see such things. No, his appeal went deeper. What was it? In April I wrote a blog called The Dictator and the Clown in which I made the following points about Albania, Hoxha and Wisdom;

Almost any kind of foreign literature or media was banned, with the odd exception of old British comedies starring Norman Wisdom. It’s impossible to fathom the minds of dictators, but one would have thought that Wisdom, who often played the little man at odds with authority, would be as unacceptable as Sancho Panza. But, for whatever reason, he made it across the cultural barrier, becoming the much beloved ‘Mr Pitkin’, the character he played in his earliest movies. Wisdom became, if you like, the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. His comedy was the opium of the Albanian people.

The heart of a heartless world; I can think of no better epitaph.