Wednesday 22 December 2010

Quot estis in convivio

Has a year really gone past? It seems no time at all since last Christmas. Time is relative, of course. I can still remember when the intervals between one festive season and another seemed like an eternity. Now the chariot of Chronos is speeding up, a sign, I take it, that I am getting older, now close to a quarter century!

Christmas, Yule Tide, the Winter Solstice, call it what you will, I love the whole season. It’s the time when I am at my most reactionary, when my love for continuity, tradition and the past becomes strongest. It’s a time when Christian and Pagan unite in greenery, mistletoe, holly, burning logs and ancient ritual; a time the dark closes around the celebration of light.

It’s a time for re-reading Hilaire Belloc’s wonderful essay A Remaining Christmas, given to me when I was a child by my much beloved grandfather, a treasured memory both of him and of times past. Belloc writes with such conviction, with such moving reverence of the setting of his own celebrations, now long gone;

This house where such good things are done year by year has suffered all the things that every age has suffered. It has known the sudden separation of wife and husband, the sudden fall of young men under arms who will never more come home, the scattering of the living, and their precarious return, the increase and the loss of fortune, all those terrors and all those lessenings and haltings and failures of hope which make up the life of man. But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival.

Tomorrow I will be joining family and friends at our old house in the country, away from all distractions; away from garish city lights and garish city people. Yes, there is a television, but on Christmas Day it only ever goes on for the Queen’s Speech. Otherwise our tradition is to ignore the dreadful idol, whose votaries sit around in dumb amazement, gaping at its even dumber antics. We have fun, a simple celebration of family, of close friends, of conversation, games and frolics aplenty; cocktails, good food, and always punch or mulled wine - or even a bowl of steaming bishop! - to see in Christmas Day. The Lord of Misrule still presides over our Feast of Fools!

On Saint Stephen’s Day mother, father and I will all be out on the local hunt, the first time in three years we have ridden together on this annual occasion. Last year the meet clashed with my skiing holiday; the year before that with a trip to Morocco with my former boyfriend. This year I will be there, in fulfilment of a promise, and I never break promises!

The day after I leave with a party of friends on another skiing trip, this time to Saint Anton in Austria, something I mentioned in a previous post (I love to ski). I’ve been so looking forward to this, something I started to plan almost as soon as I came back from Central America in the summer, which has a counter-aging effect: it slows time right down! Christmas in England; New Year in Austria, it could not be better.

I wish for you the Christmas I wish for myself: one of simple contentment, however it takes you. May the New Year bring us all the things we deserve. All hail Odin; all hail old Saturn; all hail good company; all hail the Boar’s Head!

The boar's head in hand bring I
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

The boar's head, as I understand
Is the rarest dish in all this land
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

I don’t believe it!

There is no fool like an old fool. Sorry, let me qualify that: there is no fool like an old male fool (apologies for the sexism!) Oh, I’m going to go one step further: there is no fool like an old male fool in politics. Forget all of that; let me just cut to the chase: there is no fool like Vince Cable.

Who is he, you might wonder, if you live anywhere firth of Chiswick, or you are not a member of the Liberal Democrat Party. The short answer is that he is a British politician, a leading member of our present coalition government. If you’ve ever seen One Foot in the Grave, the British sitcom, he is the spitting image both in appearance and attitude of Victor Meldrew, the show’s grumpy old man, forever saying ‘I don’t believe it’ when confronted with the outrages of contemporary life.

Uncle Vince is the Business Secretary, a man with extensive powers. More than that, he is the king maker, the power broker, the man who could exercise the ‘nuclear option’ and bring down the government. At least that’s how he likes to depict himself to young female reporters from The Daily Telegraph, who rather caught him with his metaphorical trousers around his scrawny old ankles, secretly recording some of his more pompous and impolitic assertions on tape.

Today the poor old King Maker is just a little less powerful than he was, having been stripped in a rather humiliating fashion of his responsibilities for overseeing media, telecom and broadcasting companies. This comes after he told the girls (cue the giggles) that he had ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon, and that he was ‘going to win’.

Sorry, Vince, you lose and you lose big style. His remarks were a response to the attempt by Murdoch’s News International to acquire a majority shareholding in British Sky Broadcasting. It’s a move that would have to be sanctioned by the Business Secretary but in an impartial fashion, without obvious political and personal bias.

Now Cable has made his politics and his bias all too obvious. In any normal circumstances the stupid old man would have been rusticated, but this would only upset the balance of power in the government to the detriment of the Lib Dumbs, something David Cameron, the Prime Minister, is clearly anxious not to do.

It’s the same old story, it truly is. It comes not long after Mike Hancock, another Liberal Democrat, another silly old man in public life, was revealed to have employed an alleged Russian spy as an aide, while asking all sorts of sensitive questions about national security. The individual in question was a forty-year old man called Boris. No, he was not; she’s a twenty-five year old woman called Ekaterina! There is only one lesson here: keep old men out of politics or keep them away from young women. Which is the easier? Let me just leave you to make up your own mind. :-)

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Reservations of the mind

The sound of the death song reached the ears of the crowd, assembled behind the infantry and cavalry squadrons deployed by the army, that and the sound of hymns and the chants of dancing. There, in the centre, arranged on a large square gallows with nooses around their necks, stood thirty-eight men. Soon the trap doors would open in what was to be the largest mass hanging in American history.

One of those destined to die that day was called in his own language We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee, better known as Chaska. Like the rest he was a Dakota Sioux. Unlike the rest his name was not on the death list. It was December 1862, the day after Christmas, almost one hundred and fifty years ago in the settlement of Mankato in Minnesota, one of the new states of the Union but still very much on the frontier.

It had been a difficult year for the white settlers. People were angry and vengeful, several hundred of their number having died, many massacred. In the summer of that year the local Sioux, driven to desperation by hunger, began a systematic attempt to drive the intruders from their traditional tribal lands, an uprising to be known as the Dakota or Little Crow’s War. By December the conflict was over, with some 1000 Indians now in the hands of the US Army. Of this number over three hundred were convicted of rape and murder by military tribunals, condemned to death after trials which in some cases lasted no more than five minutes, conducted in a foreign language, the accused without any kind of legal counsel, unaware, even, that they faced a capital charge.

The matter was passed to President Lincoln for review, clemency urged by some, retribution by others. It’s yet another measure of this man’s greatness and compassion that, despite the pressures he was under, the terrible pressures of the Civil War, he took the time to consider each case, taking care to distinguish between legitimate acts of war and outrages committed against civilians.

In the end he commuted the death sentences of two hundred and sixty four men. Some of the people of Minnesota, in their anger over this act of mercy, turned against Lincoln’s Republican Party, which did not fare as well in the Presidential election of 1864 as it had in 1860. When the adverse electoral consequences were pointed out the President is said to have replied “I could not hang men for votes.”

But thirty-eight did hang. Justly or not, the injustice of the process itself has meant that questions never went away, particularly over the execution of Chaska, for whom no death warrant had been signed. Recently James Oberstar, an outgoing congressman for Minnesota, told The New York Times that his death was a wrong that should be righted, possibly by a gesture from the US Congress itself. Now Al Franken, the junior Senator from Minnesota, has taken up the cause, hoping to right an old wrong. Franken, formerly of Saturday Night Live, is a comedian as well as a politician, words that can be used for once without sardonic intent!

There are those, of course, who go further; there are always those who go further. For the white community of Minnesota the Dakota War and the Mankato hangings, just or not, are really just part of a distant and unhappy past. But as the 150th anniversary approaches Sioux activists are describing the mass execution as an act of ‘genocide.’

Words are so important, the meanings they carry are so important. Some words should only be used with the greatest of care, least they be worn away to nothing, all meaning smoothed out. I have no doubt at all that many of the native peoples of the United States suffered greatly in the nineteenth century, under pressure from the steady expansion of white settlers, the actions of buffalo hunters, from repeated bad faith and broken treaties, and the behaviour of corrupt Indian Agencies.

I also have no doubt that there are instances where tribal communities were taken to the threshold of extinction in what might very well be described as genocide, but to talk of the Mankato hangings in such terms seems disingenuous. Shameful, perhaps, unjust, certainly, but ‘genocide’ is an emotional step too far. It’s evidence of a victim mentality that would seem to be such a part of Native American (I hate such expressions) collective consciousness, a reservation, if you like, of the mind.

Yule and the Blood Red Moon

Today was the Winter Solstice, the beginning of Yule, the shortest day and the longest night. Now comes the turning. Life renews in the sun. Sol Invictus will arise with fresh strength! Light the great fires; have no fear.

Well, maybe you should, if you believe in omens. The day coincided with a total eclipse of the Moon, observable from some parts of this island, the first time that an eclipse has coincided with the Solstice for almost four hundred years, not since 1638, to be exact. Yes, the last time was in December 1638, on the threshold of the Bishops' Wars, an overture to the Great Civil War. This time the Moon appeared blood red in our skies. Not, I hope, a portent of things yet to come!

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn.
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born

I happened to be reading Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia in bed this morning, specifically the one entitled New Year's Eve. He has no fear of death; he celebrates life, existence of the moment;

...I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take it upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism 'such as he is now, I must shortly be'. Not so shortly, friend, perhaps as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Year’s Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821.

Alas, 1821, a New Year long, long past. Oh, Charles, thou are dust, not even food for worms! No matter; he understood, understood that present joys have present laughter, understood that paradise can never be postponed.

With lusty brimmers of the best;
Mirth should always Good Fortune meet,
And render e'en Disaster sweet:
And though the Princess turn her back,
Let us but line ourselves with sack,
We better shall by far hold out,
Till the next Year she face about.

So, here am I, a celebrant of the Solstice, a votary and an acolyte of Diana, of Pan and of the Sun God, living, surviving, loving, a jolly candidate for 2011. A happy Solstice to you all, witches and pagans, friends of all creeds, all faiths and shades of belief…and none.

Monday 20 December 2010


We face a rising tide of stupidity and subversion; for the two invariably flow together. The Times reported on Saturday that anarchist groups - the people who dominated and guided the recent student demonstrations in England - are planning further exhibitions, including one against the royal wedding. It must not be assumed for a moment that these people are any more significant than they were in the past, but the Internet, the medium of instant communication, the arena of flash mobs, has given them a power that they had never hitherto possessed: the power of concentration and rapid mobilisation.

So, there they are: an army of weirdoes, geeks and hackers, people who smash a Macdonald’s window at one moment and attempt to sabotage the web sites of banks and credit card companies at the next. These organisations have become targets because the digital anarchists, the Jacobins of the net, do not like their boycott of Wikileaks. Hardly surprising this: delinquents are bound to support one of the most delinquent enterprises spawned by the net. They are bound to support that Julian Assange fellow, that alleged sexual predator, in his monumental irresponsibility. He is just like them; they are just like him.

I suppose there is a counter-position here. This one-sided betrayal of the process of diplomacy, which, of it’s very nature, has to be conducted in confidence, in the frankness induced by confidence, has hugely increased my admiration for the United States of America and the way it caries out its business. The leaks have shown American diplomats to be statesmanlike and controlled, in contrast with the hysteria of some of those with whom they do business. It's such a disappointment to the Guardian-reading crowd.

Wikileaks is a joke, a pathetic anti-American conspiracy which turned out to be, well, pathetic, a purveyor of gossip and international small-talk. Assange is little better than a schoolboy saboteur, an ass with ass’s ears, for those with the wit to see the man in his Bottom-like form. But his anarchist, conspiracy monger and UFO-spotting admirers are blind, unable, or unwilling, to see that his revelations also carry dangers.

I think, on further reflection, that they may very well welcome these dangers, a chance for a spot of practical sabotage. His site has identified targets across the world considered vital to American security. A number of these are in my country, which means that the terrorist threat is all the greater, the threat to innocent people who happen to work in, for example, centres for the manufacture of smallpox vaccines.

I simply do not comprehend those who offer encouragement to this sort of thing, these kinds of leaks, one-sided and deeply undemocratic, by a secretive web organisation accountable to no one but itself, whose own activities are far from transparent, beyond the posturing of Assange, its laughable and self-promoting front man. It’s all part of the conspiracy that we face from the geeks of the world, who only need the internet to rampage behind Bottom.

My Oberon! what visions I have seen!
Methought I was enamoured of an ass.

Battles long ago

Glencoe in Scotland is a dramatic location, drama in nature, drama in history. For those who do not know the place it’s a narrow valley in the West Highlands to the south of Fort William, proceeding a few miles west from Rannoch Moor to the outlet at Loch Leven. It’s bounded by mountains on both sides, high and glowering, impassible to the north; impassable as a wall.

I’ve walked there, walked by the western gate, taking the zigzag route to the crest of the hills known as the Devil’s Stairway, part of the old military road built by General Wade in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, an abortive rising against George I on behalf of the exiled House of Stuart.

The valley itself is now best known as the setting for one of the most tragic, and misunderstood, events in Scottish history - the massacre of the local branch of Clan Donald in February 1692. Although this was part of the outward ripples that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II was replaced by William III, from beginning to end it was an entirely Scottish rather than a British affair, one that was approved by a Dutch king for reasons of strategic and political expediency.

The scheme itself was conceived by John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who acted in conjunction with Thomas Livingstone, the Scottish commander-in-chief. The task was then delegated to the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, a formation on the Scottish military establishment. This regiment's Campbell associations helped give the whole affair quite spurious overtones of clan rivalry, an act of deliberate obfuscation, a myth that continues to run.

Why, then, did Dalrymple conceive of this act? Simply because he wanted a quick end to the Highland war against William, and because he was looking forward to eventual political union between Scotland and England. The one obstacle on the path of both schemes was the Gaelic peoples of Scotland's 'wild west'; and that expression is not chosen by accident. If one wishes an analogy with what happened in Scotland in 1692 one could do no better than look to the United States and the policy towards the Indian tribes of the West in the nineteenth century. I imagine Dalrymple would have shared Philip Sheridan's sentiment with a slight adaptation, in that for him the 'only good Highlander he ever saw was dead.'

There was a huge and ancient cultural gap in Scotland between the English-speaking Lowlands and the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, with hostility and misunderstanding spread along the way. For many Lowlanders the Highland 'savage' was an embarrassment, an obstacle to progress and civilization. James V had pressed for the wholesale extirpation of the people of Clan Chattan, who had given him particular offence; and James VI had advanced a scheme for Lowland settlement in the Hebrides, based on the extermination of the local people, MacLeods and MacDonalds. These hostilities were compounded by the rise of Jacobitism, which divided the Lowlands of the south still further from the Highlands. In 1692 hatred, racism and the politics of cultural contempt finally acquired a practical and murderous form.

It’s a while now since I was last there but the place leaves an abiding memory, a memory of old, unhappy, far off things and battles long ago.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Band of Brothers

I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.

Psalm, 82

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) tells of the final tragic days of a small group of French Cistercian monks living in a community in North Africa in the 1990s, living in the midst of a civil war, overwhelmed by a rising tide of fanaticism. Directed by Xavier Beuavois, it’s an intelligent meditation on faith, doubt, commitment, courage, tolerance and resignation that justifiably won the Gran Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May of this year. It has now been submitted for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and given how topical the themes are, how relevant to our times, I would be amazed if it did not win.

The movie is based on a true story, that of the seven-strong Cistercian brotherhood living at the monastery of Tibharine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, who were kidnapped and murdered in 1996, allegedly by mujahedeen guerrillas fighting against the government, though in circumstances that are still not completely clear.

In handling the ambiguity of the story Beauvois, who co-wrote the script as well as directed, is particularly skilful. His monks are certainly under threat from the intolerance and the fanaticism of the fundamentalists. But there is also an implied threat from the government, for whom the isolated community is a political embarrassment, and from the military, in every way as murderously ruthless as their opponents. In one important scene we see the monks huddling together for comfort as helicopters churn and rattle overhead.

The acting is superb, the individual characters of the brothers conveyed with depth and sincerity. There is Brother Christian, played by Lambert Wilson, the head of the community, a thoughtful, introspective and donnish figure, and there is Brother Luc, played by Michael Lonsdale, my favourite French actor, the community doctor who runs a clinic for the local people, giving formal advice on health at one moment and informal advice on love at the next. The brothers are not evangelists; they are there simply as part of a wider world, living in harmony with the local Muslim majority, helping where the can as an act of charity, supporting themselves with the sale of their own honey, attending celebrations as honoured guests.

Harmony dies in an instant. Some Croat workers are brutally murdered by the mujahedeen. Fear spreads, among the people living in the town adjacent to the monastery, to the cloisters of the community itself. The army offers Brother Christian protection; he refuses, knowing this will involve taking sides. His refusal, taken without consultation, provokes a crisis among the others, who, in fear of their lives, question his actions and, in some cases, their vocation, wondering if it is best to seek safety in flight. This is where the drama is at its most intense, part story of suspense and fear, part dissertation on commitment and faith.

It’s impossible to overlook some of the New Testament metaphors. There is a scene of Christian on his own, walking through a flock of sheep, sitting beside a lake in contemplation, a Christ-like figure in the wilderness, struggling, perhaps, with his own self-doubt. Still later, as the brothers are reconciled to their fate, to their approaching martyrdom, there is a Last Supper scene, where they drink wine together, listening to a tape of Swan Lake, a moment of sharing and acceptance. I have to say I found this particular scene, effective as it is as a piece of cinema, too manipulative and contrived for my taste, notwithstanding the gushing remarks I’ve read in some press reviews.

For me the best scene of all comes on Christmas Eve, when the monastery is invaded by a group of mujahedeen demanding medicine and the services of Brother Luc, to be taken away to treat one of their own wounded. Christian faces them down, saying that Luc is not well enough to travel and the medicine, in short supply, is for the local children. He then draws the attention of the leader of the group to a passage from the Koran, beginning a quotation which his adversary completes. They part, shaking hands, having achieved a kind of understanding with one another.

There are no accusations in this movie, or, rather, an accusation is made, as I see it, against the nihilism which corrupts faith for its own self-serving and blasphemous ends. The part that moved me most was not the Last Supper but the final testament of Brother Christian, a voice-over against a wintry country scene, a graveyard covered in snow, an empty room and a vacant table;

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be the victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this beautiful departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived long enough to know that I am compliant in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder.

I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me, are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who called me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them.

This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you, too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. Inshallah.

Amen. Inshallah.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Comrade Boyo

A spectre is haunting Venezuela – the spectre of Chavez. Unfortunately, apart from the miserable people of his miserable utopia, no power is united against him. Last September his party was defeated in the legislative elections but that has done nothing to stop the progress of the beast, currently engaged on a campaign of grand larceny, sorry, make that nationalisation. Property is theft, so said Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French granddaddy of anarchism. So clearly Hugo the Horrible is busy returning his country to a natural state of virtue, with him as the only thief, a truly noble sacrifice.

The problem is not everyone sees it that way. Chavez is moving against what he is in the habit of referring to as “the oligarchy”, getting a bit of an edge in before the hostile legislature meets for the first time in January. I have no idea what shape the ‘oligarchy’ takes in the recesses of this man’s mind but it must include the workers who have openly protested against his campaign of economic ‘liberation’. These poor, benighted souls simply do not know what is good for them, so the national guard has been trotted out to make sure they acquire a quick education.

It’s not only industry that is effected, with property seizures coming at a moment’s notice, often after no more than a sudden announcement on television; a fairly major land grab has also been underway for some time. So far some 3million hectares of farmland have been seized, with a further 450,000 to follow in the course of the coming year. Farms are simply taken with little or no compensation, on very much the same basis as Mugabeland, another earthly paradise.

Where there is socialism there is disaster, it follows with the same logical certainty of a proposition in geometry. It seems to me to be something perverse in human nature for people, even deeply stupid people like Hugo Chavez, to follow this proletarian road to ruin. It is a road to ruin, evidenced, once again, by the Venezuelan example: the more property that is seized the less productive it becomes. Take the example of the food industry, much of it in government hands in an attempt to ensure what is called “food sovereignty.” I have no idea what that means exactly but it seems to involve a major increase in imports. Food shortages, declining productivity, housing shortages and power black-outs, all in an oil-rich country. Welcome to the future; welcome to Hugoland.

I’ve been following the career of the Dear Leader for a while now. Perhaps you have, too? If so you will have rapidly reached the same conclusion as me: Hugo is too stupid to walk and chew gum at the same time. So, is there ideological éminence grise here, it’s only fair to ask? No, not really; just a Trotsky manikin and – look you - he’s Welsh! His name is Alan Woods, a self-professed a Trotskyite, as well as an informal advisor to El Presidente.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian you may recall the People’s Front of Judea. If so you will know the Woods type, the forms of language weird beards like him prefer, polytechnic-speak, it might be called. He has been publicly urging Chavez to respond to the setback of September by “accelerating the revolutionary process”, meaning get on with nationalisation, Comrade Boyo, look you. Poor Venezuela; things can only get worse. They are only a step or two away from Welsh choirs and a welcome in the hillside.

A million tragedies

An important new book was published earlier this year. It’s called Drawings from the Gulag, containing an extraordinary and disturbing collection of sketches by one Danzig Baldaev, a former official in the NKVD, Stalin’s security police. I was fully aware of the horror of the Soviet camp system from the work of people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov among others. But these graphic drawings give the sheer savagery of it all a terrible immediacy.

Baldaev himself has an interesting history. The son of a rich Mongolian intellectual, he was born in 1925 in the south-east of the USSR. Like so many others, his father was arrested during the Great Terror of the 1930s, while he and his sister were consigned to an NKVD orphanage, set up specifically for the children of ‘enemies of the people.’ One does not have to imagine too hard to conjure up the treatment children received in places like this.

Later, after leaving the orphanage, Baldaev was ordered to become a guard in one of the NKVD labour camps. To amuse himself he starred to sketch the various tattoos displayed by the criminal fraternities. On learning of this his superiors encouraged him to continue, believing such designs supplied valuable intelligence on the links between inmates and the criminal underworld outside the camp system. Baldaev was therefore given permission to travel from camp to camp, recording tattoos along the way.

Unbeknown to his superiors he was compiling a secret dossier, detailing the various outrages that were such a feature of the whole gulag system. His sketches show scenes of torture, degradation and execution, by the NKVD as well as that practiced by prisoner upon prisoner. There are scenes of sexual torture, of mass rape, of an axe being raised as criminals make ready to decapitate one of their fellows. For once the cliché applies: an image really is worth a thousand words.

Compared with the flood of information about the Nazi camp system, including movies like Schindler’s List, so many people in the west are still comparatively ignorant over the horrors of the gulags. So far as I’m aware the only English-Language film featuring the Soviet camp system is the British adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, made in the early 1970s. Hollywood has never tackled the subject.

I discovered from a review article by Olrando Figes in The Times that a new movie touching on Stalin’s camps is to be released this month. The Way Back is really about a prison break, a highly improbable one at that, only featuring camp life in a fairly brief slot at the beginning. There is still something lacking here, something revealing about our lack of interest in the mundane horrors of the Soviet camp system compared with the grotesque horrors of the Nazis. Figes makes an excellent point:

We do not feel as close to Russian peasants as we do to Western European Jews. We’re not sure that the Russians are “like us” at all. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been a film to engage us in the tragedy of the gulag. It is in part a legacy of the Cold War. Perhaps we feel that the Russians brought their suffering on themselves – victims of a revolution that went wrong. Or perhaps, in some former left-wing quarters, we still cling to the old romance about the Soviet Union that puts its victims out of sight – a rose-tinted view of the revolution that can be seen in Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s love song to Bolshevism, which still colours views in Hollywood. In 2008 it was voted one of the ten best epic US movies by the American Film Institute.

It is, I think, time for a new song, a song to all the victims of Bolshevism, a song that will help us understand the terrible human suffering involved; to understand that a million deaths is a million tragedies.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

The She-Wolves of England

There is a letter in the Christmas issue of the BBC History Magazine complaining about the growth in factual inaccuracy. One of the examples the writer gives is that in the recent television adaptation of Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth Matilda, daughter of Henry I, is referred to as Maud. In a piece of counter-pedantry let me say that she was often written of as Maud or the Empress Maud (her first husband was Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor) when she was alive.

Still, I’m thankful to Mr Pedant for setting my mind off at yet another tangent, thinking about the lesser known queens of England, queen consorts, to be more accurate, some of them of truly formidable character, including four of my favourites: Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II; Isabella, the so called she-wolf of France, wife of Edward II; Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; and Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.

The turbulent relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure of considerable territorial and political importance in the twelfth century, was beautifully captured in The Lion in Winter, a 1968 movie based on a stage play of the same name, with Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn in the title roles. Poor Henry: King Lear was positively fortunate compared with him. In place of two treacherous daughters he had a scheming wife and four treacherous sons!

When it came to scheming and treachery Eleanor was an amateur compared with Isabella, daughter of Philip the Fair of France and wife of Edward II. She was briefly to be one of the most powerful women in the whole of the Medieval period, deposing her husband in a coup in 1326, thereafter ruling England jointly with Roger Mortimer, her lover, on behalf of Edward III, her underage son, until she herself was deposed in 1330. I might be tempted to describe her as England’s Lady Macbeth, except she was altogether more ruthless! Her relationship with Mortimer, with whom she formed an attachment in 1325, was, by all accounts, one of the most passionate of the day, just as her relationship with Edward, almost certainly a homosexual, had been cold and distant.

What happened to Edward after he was deposed continues to be a source of considerable speculation. The old story remains popular, that he was murdered in a particularly atrocious fashion within the walls of Berkeley Castle. Though his death from an unspecified ‘fatal accident’ was announced in September, 1327, the contemporary evidence on the matter is thin in the extreme. The sources continue to be challenged, most recently by Ian Mortimer writing in History Today (Fragile Historical Sources: Barriers to the Truth). Some historians, on the basis of fragments and rumours, have suggested that he escaped, dying many years later in exile.

What do I think? I can only speculate, of course, and I do not believe that the matter will ever be resolved conclusively. I have little doubt, though, that the stories of the wandering hermit are all so much nonsense. The death of prominent people in the Middle Ages, especially if the exact circumstances were unclear, was almost always followed with rumours to the effect that they were not dead at all. In the end it comes down to politics and nothing more. Edward died, by whatever means, because he was too dangerous to remain alive, a fate that was later to descend on Richard II and Edward V.

For a disloyal queen let me give you one of the most loyal, yet another Frenchwoman – Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, an even more worthless monarch than Edward II. It was Henry’s incapacity for government, and his periodic bouts of insanity, that led England into the fifteenth century dynastic struggle later known as the Wars of the Roses.

Henry as a man and a leader was a complete vacuum; it was Margaret who filled the space created. She was the driving force behind the Lancastrian campaign against their Yorkist opponents. In her vengeful anger she was to give the struggle a particularly vindictive and bitter edge. But for all of her effort in the end she was left with nothing. Edward, her son, for whom she sacrificed so much, was killed at the Battle of Tewksbury in 1471. Soon after Henry was deposed and murdered. Broken in spirit, Margaret was finally allowed to return to her native France, where she died in August 1482 aged only fifty-two.

My final queen (yes, you guessed it; she’s also French!) is Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. To begin with her relationship with her husband, who preferred male favourites, was no more cordial than that between Edward and Isabella; but unlike them Charles and Henrietta Maria came to love one another, forming a particularly strong familial bond. In many ways she was the best and worst of consorts: the best in giving her husband unfailing support; the worst in advising him of action that often proved disastrous. It was her Catholicism, and fear of the Catholic party around her, that added to the mutual hostility between Crown and Parliament, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642.

With the struggle underway she helped raise money and arms for the Royal cause on the Continent, returning to England like a goddess of battles in 1643. She was Charles’ backbone, the most militant of his counsellors and confidants, arguing, rather disastrously, as it turned out, against all peace overtures from Parliament. In encouraging the schemes of the earls of Montrose and Antrim she helped widen the theatre of operations by carrying the war to Scotland, allied with the English Parliamentary party. But with the military situation continuing to deteriorate, Henrietta Maria, pregnant with her last child, finally left Oxford, the Royalist wartime capital, for the safety of Bath in early 1644. From there, by stages, she returned to the Continent. She and Charles were never to meet again.

So, these are my queens, the she-wolves of England, in every case deadlier than the male.

Kings and Carols

Right, hold tight: I’m about to explode a cherished seasonal myth: Wenceslas was not a king; he was not even called Wenceslas! He was Václav, duke of Bohemia. It was the Emperor Otto I who extended the regal dignity to him posthumously. This was a purely personal honour, one that only serves to confuse, especially as the real King Wenceslas I of Bohemia finally stood up in the thirteenth century!

In a recent brief article I read on Wenceslas, not the first, the original, Jonathan Pollard asks if he was good, as the carol alleges. Well, he was declared a saint and all saints have to be good! But really it’s all a question of party politics, the parties in question being Pagan and Christian. Václav was a Christian, which seems to have been the only measure of his ‘goodness.‘ He was brought up by Saint Ludmila, another goody, eventually strangled on the orders of Drahomira, Václav’s mater, a Pagan, and therefore a bad person, although there is not a trace of evidence to suggest that she was - a Pagan, that is!

The fact is the saint came from a back-stabbing, power-mad family. His mother had his grandmother murdered and he was murdered in his turn by Boleslaw, his brother, who wanted the throne for himself. Which party did Boleslaw belong to? You've already guessed, I suspect - he was a Pagan! That’s how the hagiography goes, though Boleslaw seems to have been somewhat relaxed when it came to matters of personal faith, encouraging the growth of Christianity while he was duke and asking the Pope to make Prague a bishopric, rather odd behaviour, I feel sure you will agree, for a Pagan. It gets even odder when one remembers that Mlada, his daughter, became a nun and his son of the same name was so pious that he was to be known as Boleslaw the Pious!

The murder, as Pollard says, probably had nothing to do with Václav’s Christianity or his goodness and everything to do with his pro-Holy Roman politics, which was in danger of turning Bohemia into just another province of the Empire. His retrospective kingship shows how valued he was by the imperial court, just as Boleslav’s decision to go to war soon after his succession shows that he was the true defender of Czech liberties, not his brother, rather ironic considering that it was Václav who went on to become the nation’s patron saint.

Never mind the history; you are still left with the carol, the much loved classic with words by John Mason Neale. Incidentally I made up my own version of that, one my set used to sing at school, which opens like this;

Good King Stephen last looked out
On the feast of Wenc-lass,
When a snowball came in sight
And nearly knocked him senseless.
Oh, the stars he saw that night,
And his head was cruel,
Oh, the stars he saw that night,
And his head was cru –ooo –el.

I was a bad girl, a Pagan, clearly, not a Christian. :-)

Yes, a super song, just so seasonal. There is just one tincy-wincy thing. The tune to which Neale set his lyrics is Tempus Adest Floridum (It is time for flowering), a thirteenth century carol celebrating spring. So, you see, nothing really is as it seems.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Superman the fascist

Moral panics are as old as civilization itself. Socrates was executed for ‘corrupting the minds of the young’, a perennial fear among the old, among those who have reason to fear. Socrates was a threat to any kind of self-satisfied gerontocracy, but moral panics have alighted on far more innocuous things than his demanding dialectics; things like comic books!

I’m continually indebted to the stimuli I receive from other bloggers, paths opened before me that I might not otherwise have explored. Jeremy Janson drew my attention recently to an article in The Washington Post by George F. Will, published towards the end of last month. It concerns a case before the Supreme Court, a challenge to a law passed in California banning Postal 2, a violent video game.

Lawyers acting for the games manufacturer are arguing that this ban violates the First Amendment, guaranteeing free expression. They have also, rather ingeniously, drawn the justices' attention to previous moral panics over cultural ephemera, including one in the 1950s over comic books. The whole thing is just so amusing, an insight not only into the character of moral panics, the absurdity of moral panics, but also into American cultural history.

In the early 1950s American legislators were so concerned over what was referred to as ‘juvenile delinquency’ that the Senate even established a sub-committee to look into the problem. Comic books, read by an estimated 90% of children, were quickly singled out as a possible contributor to the phenomenon.

It should not be assumed, though, that this was just more evidence of prejudice and conservative reaction against popular culture. The Senators would have been able to draw on sociological support for their deliberations, including the work of one Frederic Wertham, a political progressive. A psychiatrist by profession, he had previously opened a clinic in Harlem, which he named after Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, the man responsible for translating the old beast’s Das Kapital into French, “thereby facilitating the derangement of Parisian intellectuals”, which Will offers as the sting in the tail of the scorpion!

Since 1948 this fellow had been campaigning against comic books, in 1954 publishing a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent, suggesting a causal connection between them and the desensitisation of young criminals – “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” I find it difficult to believe, but this tendentious, pseudo-scientific rubbish quickly became a best seller. It was even praised by C. Wright Mills, left-wing sociologist and the doyen of progressive thought at the time.

So, would you like to know what concerned Wertham the most? Was it pulp fiction horror comics? Was it ghouls and vampires? Yes, but his targets also included Superman. Superman! Gosh, if one were to choose an archetype for the all-American ideal one could do no better than alight on Superman, clean-cut, decent and horribly goody-goody! Not so, said Wertham: in his ongoing fight against the bad guys Superman paid no attention to due process, which made him a “crypto-fascist.” And as for Batman and Robin, they demonstrated “homoerotic tendencies.” Absolutely, it could not be clearer: the older man and his little chicken!

It’s all terribly droll, but just as the Fatty Arbuckle scandal had been responsible for a crackdown on movie makers in a previous generation, lurid suggestions like this quickly impacted on the comic book industry. Hill says that more than a dozen states passed laws restricting the sale of comic books and some civic groups even staged book burning sessions, I suppose reducing that ‘crypto-fascist’ Superman to ashes.

As movie producers previously adopted their own standards of censorship in response to the political climate so, too, did comic book publishers. But silly panics of this kind are most often replaced or sublimated by other panics. By 1956 the hysteria over comics had been replaced by Elvis and his pelvis!

Will concludes his article with some pertinent observations about Progressivism in general, which he defines as a “faith-based programme”, a secular substitute for the religious admonitions of a previous age. Though Progressivism is a uniquely American intellectual and political phenomena it belongs to a wider current, to what I would refer to as the fascism of the left, the fascism of any philosophy based on the belief that people can be made perfect through the actions of the state. At the one extreme there is the attempt to modify action by censorship; at the other there is eugenics and the sterilisation of ‘bad stock’, a programme that at one time united people as diverse as Adolf Hitler and H. G. Wells.

Monday 13 December 2010

London burning

London burns and so do your shabby dreams
behold you future executioners!

This, believe it or not, - and believe it you must - is a recent comment posted on an article I wrote earlier this year, welcoming the advent of David Cameron as Prime Minister (But to be young was very heaven). I dislike censorship and I will publish all reasonable comments, even when I deeply disagree with them, just so long as they are not rants or propaganda, and just so long as they are not naked personal attacks on me or another blogger.

I suppose this ungrammatical contribution comes under the heading of a rant, and therefore my decision not to publish could be justified in such terms. However, there is another reason here. Generally speaking I like to debate with all those who offer comments, where debate is necessary. How on earth is one to enter into any constructive exchange with an individual quite as stupid as this? It goes beyond stupidity, though: his words betray a seething resentment and a deep sense of personal inadequacy, a combination, I suppose, of orc and morlock, a subterranean kind of creature. I’m not going to mention who the blogger is but I have visited the site in question and the ungrammatical ignorance there reaches depths you might find difficult to imagine. No, you may not, because you are probably too well aware that standards of literacy in this country have been in decline for some time past.

But I am grateful to this oik, let me just call him Fire Bug, Bug for short, whom I take to be typical of the ‘students’ who attacked the car of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall recently, shouting ‘Tory Scum’ in the process. When it comes to scum the Bugs of this world have the most intimate kind of knowledge.

My ‘shabby dreams’, the dreams of a future executioner ( a role I might relish!), what are they, I wonder? Oh, yes, a world where low class types like Bug know their place, which in the great scheme of things is doubtless cleaning some public lavatory in Scunthorpe. We could, I suppose, bring back the workhouse, a brilliant Victorian innovation, a real alternative to university for Bug.

His words, posted after the student demonstration against the increase in tuition fees, indicate he was ‘out’ last Thursday, ensuring that London was burning, ensuring that the cenotaph was attacked, that police horses were attacked, a chance for a spot of mindless mayhem. Really, that’s what it’s all about, mindless mayhem, not fees, not higher education, just chaos for the sake of chaos, destruction for the sake of destruction.

One of Bug’s companions that day was a certain Charlie Gilmour, son of the Pink Floyd guitarist and, I’m ashamed to say, a history student at Girton College, Cambridge, who swung on the flag at the Cenotaph. Fees are not an issue for him because his father is rich enough (perhaps Girton’s admissions policy should come under closer scrutiny?) No, it was just an adrenalin rush, trouble for the sake of trouble. He’s since issued a grovelling (all the press reports emphasise that word) apology, saying he did not know what the Cenotaph was. This comes, remember, from a history student at the best university in England (perhaps the content of Girton’s courses should come under closer scrutiny?) Unfortunately he can’t be sent down, as he deserves to be sent down, because his flag swinging act took place outwith the university term. “We don’t need no education”, Gilmour senior and his band sang self-refutingly. Pass the message on to Gilmour junior: you should get no education.

I absolutely support the increase in fees, the only way to ensure that we retain a world-class tertiary education sector in these financially straightened times. The thing is, apart from desecrating the cenotaph and attacking the royal car, most of mob who poured on to the streets of London have not got the first clue what they are protesting about, including Cenotaph Gilmour.

I read a comment in the press from someone who picked up one of the protestors’ leaflets. Apparently it does not even mention the issues at stake, just a lot of wishy-washy nonsense about an attack on ‘working class kids’. It might be best if these ‘working class kids’ turned their thoughts to more realistic ends, rather than clogging up the higher education sector with low class courses in fourth rate ‘universities’.

The issue, if you are at all interested, is really quite simple, though clearly too complex for most of the revolting students. What exactly is it they want? Unfairness, that’s what, a transfer of tax revenues to subsidise them at the cost of the general community. The system we have at the moment is simply unsustainable. The last government with its usual hocus pocus politics expanded the number entering higher education without expanding resources. The gap between what students pay and what their teaching actually costs has grown at an alarming rate. Government can no longer make up the shortfall, so higher fees offer the best way of bridging the chasm. In other words, those who actually benefit from university education should be made to pay for this education – in common with a great many students across the planet – rather than the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, or those ‘working class kids’ who have no interest at all in university.

We really have lost our way when higher education is seen as a right, not a privilege best suited to the best qualified, a right for the semi-literate Bugs of this world. I’m going to let Somerset Maugham have the last word here;

I am told that today rather more than 60 per cent of the men who go to university go on a Government grant. This is a new class that has entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. They do not go to university to acquire culture but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious. They are scum.

Don’t ask me what I think of you

I have a beastly cold, one that came on suddenly towards the end of last week. No matter; cold or no cold, nothing could stop me going to see Derek Jacobi perform King Lear at London’s Donmar Warehouse on Saturday, my tickets having been bought long since!

Charles Spencer, in his Telegraph review says that Lear is perhaps the greatest of all Shakespeare’s dramas. Oh, Charles, why so mealy-mouthed? Drop the qualification and damn the devil: it is the greatest! It is also arguably the most demanding part of all, far more demanding than Hamlet or Macbeth and slightly more demanding than Othello. It requires considerable maturity for an actor to carry the role off well, descending by stages from the conceited king to the broken man, old before he was wise. Jacobi, quite simply, is outstanding, full of emotional intensity. Behold the king, behold the man, behold the actor.

And there is Cordelia, wonderfully played by Pippa Bennett-Warner, perhaps the one female character in Shakespeare that I identify with most (well, there is Lady Macbeth, but I think I’ll just keep quiet about that!). I would be Cordelia; I would not flatter; I would tell the simple honest truth without hope of gain, because truth here is the test of virtue. Don’t ask me what I think of you I might not give the answer that you want me to. She does not give the answer that her father wants her to, unlike Goneril and Regan, hypocritical and self-serving harpies; and Gina McKee as Goneril was a particularly scheming harpy, the perfect wicked sister! Lear disinherits Cordelia, casting her out, only to discover all too late that her stark honesty contained the greater love.

Lear is a play about despair, tragic and unrelieved despair. Indeed the message was so stark that previous generations simply could not tolerate the heart-break: it conflicted too much with established notions of poetic justice. In the early 1680s it was rewritten in a version by Nahum Tate, a future poet laureate, in which Lear does not die, the wicked sisters are punished, and Cordelia marries Edgar. Amazingly this version was still playing on the English stage as late as 1838. But now we can despair at be at enmity with false hope; now we can feel the raw emotion.

The production by Michael Grandage is tremendous- precise, taut, unadorned, all adding to the intensity of the words, more sound less fury. Christopher Oram’s stage design, stark in the extreme, adds so well to the overall effect of the performance. There is nothing excessive here, nothing that distracts from a full understanding of the unfolding tragedy. I was sniffing at the end. I assure you, it had nothing to do with my cold.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Mobs and cops

As the carriage made its way along the highway the royal couple within were subject to repeated insults. Ugly faces pushed through the windows, spitting on the prince and tearing the dress of his wife. The mood within was one of fear, shock that there was so much violence and brutishness in the world, shown at its worst in the nation’s capital. Here the obscenities and the abuse issued freely. It was only with difficulty that the escort kept the foul mob at bay.

No, it’s not what you are thinking. This is not London and the people in question are not the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. They are Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette returning from Varennes in the summer of 1791, the furthest point they reached in trying to escape from the excesses of the French Revolution. But when I saw the look of fear on the Duchess’s face as the royal car was attacked last Thursday by those brutish ‘students’ it occurred to me that this must have been the same expression that appeared on the face of the divine Marie Antoinette all those years ago.

Who would have believed that our capital could have been desecrated in this fashion; who would have believed that a loathsome mob could have attacked the future King of England and his wife; who could believe that a British citizen could have swung on the flag on the cenotaph, the nation’s most sacred symbol, like an ape, or another urinate on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, the nation’s greatest wartime leader? We must have gone back in time and imported the sans-culottes of 1791, stinking, animal-like, corrupting the air with their rotten halitosis. They’re still at work, this Varennes mob, on the Guardian comments website, posting remarks like “fuck Churchill” and describing the attack on Charles and Camilla as “hilarious.”

I have a busy life. I try to keep up with the news, though it’s not always possible. So, I have a question about quite an important item that I’ve clearly missed. Can anyone tell me, please, when the Metropolitan Police were replaced by the Keystone Cops? To lose control in one riot may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose control in both looks like carelessness. No, Lady Bracknell is far too mild: it looks like utter incompetence, like comic stupidity, if only the possible consequences were not so serious.

Sir Paul Stephenson, Keystone Cop-in-chief, sorry, make that Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, says that the protection officers, some of whom were armed, showed “enormous restraint and good judgement.” We now know that one of the beasts leaned through an open window and stabbed the sixty-three year old Duchess with a stick.

What if it had been a knife? How did these officers know that it was only a stick? What, exactly, are the circumstances in which they would draw arms if not this? Are they so afraid of the political fall-out that they are effectively numbed into inaction? Just imagine what would happen if an American President had been attacked in this fashion. The individual in question would have been shot dead even before he managed to poke his stick, of that I have not the least doubt. With a clot like Stephenson in charge of royal security, of the security of visiting heads of state, personal incompetence has turned into national embarrassment.

Every bullet which leaves the barrel of a police pistol now is my bullet. If one calls this murder, then I have murdered: I ordered all this. I back it up. I assume the responsibility, and I am not afraid to do so.

You may recognise this quote; if not these are the words of Herman Goering, a statement issued shortly after he became Prussian Minster of the Interior in 1933. I suppose the Stephenson version would be that every bullet that does not leave the barrel of a police pistol is a sign of his ‘remarkable restraint.’ I hope we are better prepared to deal with rabid mobs, ‘students’ or whoever they are, in the difficult times ahead. With a man like this in charge I’m not at all confident.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Rousseau’s triumph

I have a long-standing detestation of the political philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, something I’ve alluded to on previous occasions, most recently in my piece on celebrity (The Silliness of Celebrity). I suppose I detest the thinkers of the French Enlightenment in general, but he incites a particular animus. His manifesto, his belief in human perfectibility, is the guide for all that follows, all the horror from Robespierre and the Republic of Virtue to Pol Pot and Year Zero.

Rousseau stands in sad contrast to the brilliant and prescient Edmund Burke, who in Reflections on the Revolution in France warned of the implications of the new all or nothing ideologies, warned that reform could only be pursued on a piecemeal basis in the context of existing social and political institutions if disaster was to be avoided, if state tyranny, terror and dictatorship were to be avoided.

Now I’ve read a timely reminder by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator’s Coffee House Blog (Why we must remember the lessons of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment) that there are other thinkers beyond Burke to whom conservatives are indebted. There is also another Enlightenment altogether, far more constructive in every way than the French. He is writing of the Scottish school of the eighteenth century, a brilliant period in that nation’s history, that saw the emergence of thinkers and writers like Adam Smith, David Hume (one he neglects to mention), Adam Ferguson and Francis Hutchison.

Fraser makes the crucial point that though many of those in the Continental tradition might express admiration for the people as a general concept they had, in practice, little faith in the people;

They feared that humans pursuing their self-interests would become corrupt – and that, left alone, selfish instincts would prevail. It followed that strong government was vital for a strong country. The only question was who should hold power. That so many people still believe this to be true (government virtuous, masses selfish) is testament to the allure of the French Enlightenment. It has been the basis of socialist government worldwide.

This, in short, is the basis of statism, the inversion whereby people are acted on rather than acting, managed rather than managing. Now consider the Scots. Not only was their approach empirical and practical but their philosophy was quite different from the pessimistic and all-encompassing French model. People if left alone, they held, were essentially virtuous and would, with the right tools, work out what was best for themselves and their families. Thus progress and change would be cautious and incremental, evolutionary and not revolutionary. The solution to a particular set of social problems lay, in other words, with the people, not with an elite purporting to represent the people.

The paradox is, as Fraser says, that though the positive Anglo-Scottish tradition (Anglo because he adds John Locke to the mix) is better in every way than the French, it’s their model we have ended up with. This country does best, as Margaret Thatcher demonstrated, when it follows the dictums of Adam Smith, offering practical solutions rather than grand abstractions. What he neglects to say, though, is that we have lost our way, lost sight of sober Anglo-Scottish principles, because we are now part of a Continental Empire, part of a European Union, driven by the idea that the people are not to be trusted, that only a benign and remote elite can address problems with centralised and statist solutions. The principle that drives the bureaucrats in the European Commission is not ‘we, the people’ but ‘they, the people.’ It’s Rousseau’s final triumph.

Penniless thoughts

Just imagine living in Britain in the late sixth century AD. I use the word Britain here in a purely geographical sense because, politically speaking, there was no Britain. Still, you are a cultured person, one of the few who can read and write, an ever diminishing talent in this Dark Age; you have an idea of Britain. For you it is a Dark Age; for you the light went out over a century before, when the last Roman legion left the province of Britannia for ever.

You live in a twilight world, pushed ever further to the west by Germanic invaders from across the North Sea. These are the people who will create a new land; these are the Angles, the people who will, in time, create Angle-Land, but you don’t know that; you are looking to the past, to vanished greatness, to Rome. Come on, be honest; you are a Tory, are you not? You have to be to see anything positive in empire; at least you have to be according to the New Statesman, a repository of the stalest left-wing ideas, as well as a refuge for jolly bad writers!

Forgive me; I’m having a spot of fun here at the expense of the tiresome Laurie Penny, who gives us “pop culture and radical politics with a feminist twist”, at least that’s what the New Statesman says she gives us. Earlier this year she wrote an article berating the terrible Tories for, in her words, wanting children to be proud of Britain’s imperial past. That’s a terrible thing, don’t you agree, just like my hypothetical ancient Briton’s nostalgia for the order and security of Rome?

The occasion for Penny’s penniless thoughts was the decision by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to invite Niall Ferguson, a ‘right-wing colonial historian’ (he must be; Penny says so), to help revise the school history curriculum to – horror of horrors – say something positive about the British Empire. Do you know anything of Fergusson? You should do if you read The Independent, the most boring newspaper on this planet, where Johann Hari, in his capacity as the “young bloodhound of the liberal left” (Penny again) exposed him as the “court historian for the American hard right.” In other words he’s a decent historian and a jolly good writer!

Gove’s sins get worse. He’s decided it’s time – please sit down if you are of a nervous disposition – to celebrate Britain’s achievements, including the achievements of empire. Not only has Ferguson been invited to offer a contribution so, too, has Andrew Roberts, another right-wing monster, who has “dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar Massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity.” I expect he likes to drown puppies for a spot of relaxation.

I’m a Tory but I’m no apologist for empire. More than that, in some ways I think that we might have been better off without it, better off without its heavy legacy, better off without the expense. But it happened and in so many ways it’s a good thing that it happened. The United States of America is the greatest legacy of the British Empire, the power house of the English-speaking world, created by English constitutional principles. And then there is modern India which, though some may like to deny this, owes its political existence and its present prosperity to the fact that it also forms part of that same English-speaking world.

I so tired of the Pennies of this world, tired of small intellectual change. It’s just so typical of the left, this perpetual negativity. Bad things happened, bad things happened in the course of British expansion across the globe, just as they happened in the course of Roman expansion across the ancient world, but so many positive things emerged, so much that contributed to the advance of civilization. It’s a story worth knowing and a story worth repeating. Not so, says Penny, it’s all about ‘social control.’ What a pity she wasn’t around to offer her fatuous opinions to my ancient Briton.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Excess, the true meaning of Christmas

Christmas fast approaches. Here we are, now in the second week of December. I’m slightly worried; I’m concerned that another tradition may be dying: I’ve yet to see a press article bemoaning the ‘commercialisation’ of the festival, or hear some finger-wagging moralist droning on about how we have all forgotten the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas, meaning the Christian meaning!

I’m sure that just about everyone who visits this page knows very well that there is no scriptural evidence for the date of Christ’s birth. December 25 was alighted on several centuries later because, by happy coincidence, it was a traditionally happy time in the Roman world, the height of Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun god. The festival was always about excess, so Christians have no cause for complaint!

The puritans, both in England and parts of the American colonies, recognised that Christmas, idolatrous anyway because of it’s popish overtones, was a holiday with pagan roots. So they banned it; they banned everything associated with it, all those things that add a little pleasure and warmth to the deep mid-winter.

This attitude did not die away with Cromwell and Cotton Mather. Edmund Gosse, the English poet and author, was brought up in the strict Plymouth Brethren sect; so absolutely no Christmas joy for him. There is a hilarious passage in Father and Son, his memoir published in 1907, where he details how the servants, feeling sorry for him, gave him some of their own hidden Christmas pudding. He ate it, only to be overtaken by a crisis of conscience. Father, on being informed of this dreadful sin, immediately threw the remainder of the “idolatrous confectionary” into the rubbish!

The Americans gave the world Santa Claus in his modern benign, jovial and anodyne guise. But England gave the world an older figure - Father Christmas, Old Christmas himself, who celebrates the coming of Christ in a boozy, self-indulgent fashion. He is not a gift-giver, simply the spirit of good cheer, yet another pagan intrusion. The most memorable depiction of the old boy is to be found in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There he is, illustrated by John Leech, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, an Odin-like figure.

As for the supposed ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas that, too, is nothing new. It wasn’t the Bible that gave us Christmas; it was Charles Dickens. The central message of A Christmas Carol, once the moral homily is taken away, is that Christmas is about having a jolly good time among family and friends; and having a jolly good time meant buying things, lots of food and lots of drink. No, I’m wrong: it wasn’t Dickens at all – it was the Ghost of Christmas Present, who comes with clouds of plenty in his wake. Who comes, I suppose, with Christmas presents.

For the emerging middle class in general Christmas was really their festival: the more they celebrated the harder the workers had to work, the greater the incentive for spending, the greater the incentive for commercialisation in a new commercial world. The old tradition of simple good cheer, the tradition of Father Christmas himself, was drowned in a rising flood of consumerism. And as the festival expanded so, too, did consumer culture, which steadily worked its way through all classes as Christmas made its progress from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

So, let’s have no more nonsense about the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas. Christmas is about spending, eating and drinking to excess; in its modern form it always was. Charles Dickens would have understood as much. Waes Hail.

By the Rivers of Babylon

I was reminded of an experience I had with food by a discussion on Blog Catalogue. The discussion itself concerned good experience with bad food. My experience, as I said there, was neither good nor bad; just an experience, and what an experience.

We were in Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the local people). Have you ever had pho? It’s really super, large bowls of soup, with fish or chicken, or whatever your preference happens to be. It comes with lots of vegetable accompaniments, to be added to the pho bowl according to preference. There, on the table, amongst the other things, was a little dish of chopped salad onions. At least that’s what I thought it was. It wasn’t: it was chopped green chillies, a kind I’d never seen before.

So, thinking nothing of it, I spooned them abundantly into my bowl. All unawares, just one spoonful was all it took. Wow! I like spicy food, and I like chillies; I’m particularly fond of Mexican cuisine. But this was different; these chillies were not hot; they were lethal. As I wrote on Blog Catalogue, it was as if an atom bomb had gone off inside my mouth, and that is the mildest way of describing the sensation. It was a hotness of quite unbelievable intensity.

I started to cough uncontrollably. Quick, a mouthful of cold beer! That was absolutely no use at all, even several mouthfuls. The Vietnamese waitresses were so sweet; they knew exactly what was wrong, bringing me glasses of warm water, which, for reasons I cannot explain, really did have a calming effect. But, as always, that which did not kill me only made me stronger…and more wary.

I really will try anything once when it comes to food. In my travels I’ve had all sorts of unusual things. I was going to try bear in Russia but the waiter advised against it, saying that it was an acquired taste, and since it was my first night in Moscow, since I was tired and hungry, I really did not feel like experimenting. The blini with caviar and soured cream were excellent though!

Sometimes the best meals are the simplest, though often the setting, the context in which one dines, significantly adds to the pleasure. Eating barbequed sardines overlooking a Spanish beach is lovely. Then there was the substantial local gazpacho I had in Cordoba, a restaurant near the Mezquita, or having luncheon with some wonderful friends in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penn or dinner at Per Se in New York. But the best of all, the meal that has yet to be exceeded for pleasure in taste, the pleasure in setting and the pleasure in the company was one of fried fish ( I have no idea what it was) sitting by the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, red with the sinking sun. That truly was divine. Some memories are so sweet; some moments truly are magic.