Monday 28 February 2011

Beer and squirrels

I always keep a look out for the more unusual news items and one of the most unusual came recently from Russia. Beer, it seems, is to be classified as alcohol. Beer is to be classified as alcohol?! What was it before: apple juice, perhaps? No, it was food. Seriously, Russians quaffing a glass or several were just having a jolly good meal!

This comes as part of the Kremlin’s latest anti-alcohol campaign, the toughest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians have long had a serious problem here. In communist days a combination of cheap vodka and personal despair over the frustrations of life in the Soviet paradise led to a huge upsurge in alcoholism. The last serious attempt to tackle the issue was in the time of Gorbachev, an anti-alcohol drive that caused the last of the communist puritans to be nicknamed Lemonade Joe.

Now the special status of beer is to be ended, a special status that has given many Russians the impression that it’s actually a soft drink - apple juice with attitude! Actually, they may not be quite alone here. I remember reading that F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer, in battling with his own alcoholism gave up spirits in favour of beer, consuming the latter by the crate load! But when Russian teenagers can be seen during school intervals downing a can or two in the local park something really has to be done.

President Dmitry Medvedev recently declared that Russia’s drinking problem was a “national disaster.” There is really nothing new here; it always was a national disaster in a country where people are estimated to consume thirty-two pints of pure alcohol per capita per year, more than double the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit, and where some 500,000 die annually form alcohol-related diseases.

But there is an added dimension, an added worry; for Russia is dying, the Russian people are dying. Between 1991 and 2009 the population of ethnic Slavs fell by over six million. Federal estimates suggest that it could fall by a further fifteen million between now and 2031.

So something has to be done, but what? The reclassification of beer is one solution; the other is to warn Russians of the adverse effects of overconsumption, no matter that they have resisted the message in the past. They didn’t respond to the lectures of Lemonade Joe. Perhaps a squirrel might serve better. A squirrel?! Yes, that’s right, a drunken squirrel, which made its way into the television screens last December.

I’m not quite sure if it’s managing to achieve the ends the Kremlin intends, but the said squirrel has acquired a huge cult following across the world, now with well over three million hits on YouTube, my own included! I don’t speak Russian but I’ve been told that he’s ranting on about chasing spiders up the wall and offering to kill his neighbour’s wife because she is the devil.

The mad squirrel was not chosen by chance. The Russian slang word for delirium tremens, that condition of deep alcoholism where people start to hallucinate, is belochka, meaning little squirrel. It’s now to be seen if Little Squirrel is any more effective than Lemonade Joe, who was mad for other reasons altogether. God save Russia, because Russia may not be capable of saving itself.

Sunday 27 February 2011

The Arab Winter

Things are moving so fast in the Arab world that it’s sometimes hard to keep up with events; events, that is, after the wave has passed and the revolution over. The world’s attention is now on Libya and the beleaguered Colonel Gaddafi. There is still half an eye on Egypt, because while the old dictator may be gone the structures that brought him to power are still in place. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, some prescient words from a song by The Who, an old British rock band.

In writing before about Egypt (Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt) I made the following related points;

Revolutions are all very well when they produce the results one approves of, but they don’t always do that, do they? If you are reading the book Egypt please don’t make the mistake of reading Eastern Europe 1989; read Iran 1979…What do the Egyptians want themselves? For some time now polls have shown that they want democracy…but they also want sharia law, a glaring contradiction. The source of law can be God or it can be the people; it can’t be both. Will another Nasser emerge – could the country take more of the absolute misery that he inflicted on it? – or someone altogether more sinister, more brotherly?

The brotherly reference is, of course, to the Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest political force in the country, poised rather like the Bolsheviks in the wings. But if one wants to look at Egypt’s possible future, and the possible future of Libya, look back, back to where the upheaval began: look back to Tunisia. Unfortunately most of the media seems blind to developments there, which is rather a pity, because things are far from good.

There the so-called Jasmine Revolution led to the fall of President Ben Ali in January. Now an interim government is in place, weak and uncertain. Ben Ali was a dictator, yes, there was corruption, yes, there was high unemployment, yes, but with all this Tunisia was one of the most advanced in the region; the wealthiest, the most secular and the most progressive.

The regime was the least brutal and the people the best educated in North Africa, a point made in a recent report I read. The veil was banned in public, polygamy was outlawed, mosques were shuttered outside prayer times and men required permission from the local police to grow beards. Sex education was mandatory in schools and pupils were taught the separation between religion and state. Radical Islamists opposed to the secular order were exiled or imprisoned.

Now what? They are back, that’s what, back in their hundreds, demanding an Islamist state. There have been widespread demonstrations calling, amongst other things, for the banning of alcohol in a country where much of the wealth came from the tourist industry. A Polish Catholic priest recently had his throat cut, the first sectarian murder in modern Tunisian history, and anti-Semitic slogans have appeared outside the main synagogue, this in a country where the persecution of Jews was previously unknown.

The agenda has been set even before elections are held; violence and intolerance is spreading, a power vacuum is being filled by people who want less democracy rather than more, who want laws supposedly made by God - meaning themselves – rather than by the people.

Actually, when I say the Islamic militants want less democracy that’s not quite true: they want democracy insofar as it offers a route to power, then we shall see. What shall we see? Why, the most awful forms of cultural totalitarianism, theocracy in the Iranian style. Returning to Egypt it’s possible to deduce what that might involve. Just before that fall of Mubarak a poll carried out by the Pew Research Centre found that a majority of people support stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft and death for apostasy.

I would not for a moment seek to deny ‘democracy’ as a right of all peoples, the right to chose their own destinies, even if that destiny takes them into a new dark age. Yes, I feel sorry for people who take a more tolerant view of life; I feel sorry in particular for women, some of whom have been demonstrating in Tunisia in a futile rearguard action against the onset of fundamentalism. I feel sorry that they are threatened with ‘democracy.’

The point is ‘democracy’ has become such a mantra that people seldom pause to consider that there is no single road here, no one size fits all. In Morocco free and fair elections have seen the fundamentalist Party for Justice and Development grow bit by bit, election by election, to the point where it comes ever closer to forming a majority in parliament. In Gaza democracy laboured and brought forth Hamas, an openly terrorist organisation.

I have no solutions here and I can see no way forward. My view might be dismissed as pessimistic though I would argue that it is simply realistic. This Arab spring is already showing clear signs of turning into winter, with no summer in between.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Tory Diaspora

The American War of Independence conjures up so many heroic images and so many myths, anything from Paul Revere’s Ride to the winter at Valley Forge; from the gallant Minute Men to the ferocious ‘Hessians’, the mercenary army of a ‘tyrant’ king.

Have you ever considered what happened to the losers, those who fought on the ‘wrong side’? I’m not thinking here of those dreaded Hessians! No, the people I have in mind were the colonists who remained loyal to the crown, loosely grouped by the Patriots as ‘Tories’.

Their story is told in Liberty’s Exiles: the Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire by Maja Jasanoff. The book contains some intriguing snippets of information on the social and demographic composition of those who supported the crown in the struggle. They were not all conservative by any means, not all the upper echelons of colonial society.

There were the slaves, some 20,000 of them, who agreed to fight for the British in return for freedom. These included some two dozen men who had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the leading author of the Declaration of Independence, and one Henry Washington, once the property of…well; I don’t think I really need to tell you, do I?

Imagine the scramble at the end of the war in Indochina in the 1970s, as those who had sided with the Americans in Vietnam and Cambodia tried to get out by whatever means possible. Imagine a similar scramble in 1783 with the loyalist cause lost. Uncertain of their future in the new United States, some 60,000 people made for the borders, some to Canada, some to the Bahamas, some to Britain, some to the West Indies, some even going as far as India and Australia. The oddest of all is those who sought refuge in Sierra Leone in Africa, there setting up a Utopian community in one of the most unpromising environments on earth.

There were also the Indians, the native allies of the British. Here special mention should be made of Thayendanegea, also known as Colonel Joseph Brant, chief of the Mohawks, who had fought for the crown both in the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War) and the War of Independence. He came to London, creating a sensation at a costume ball by appearing in full Mohawk dress, his face covered in scarlet war paint. Doubtless seeing an Indian for the first time in his life, an Ottoman diplomat, probably oiled with drink, got it into his head that Brant’s painted face was really a mask. He took him by the nose and made efforts to pull it off, whereupon the mortified Mohawk took out his tomahawk and swung at the head of the offender. Exit Turk pursued by an Indian!

Although some black Loyalists also ended up in London, where they were reduced to beggary, far more took refuge in Jamaica, not at all welcome by a slave-owning society. The presence of these men, the yeast of liberty, paradoxically made the condition of the island’s large slave population even worse than it was before, just to ensure that the idea of freedom was contained.

Jasanoff gives some idea of what conditions were like by drawing on the diary of one Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation overseer. Runaways had their heads cut off and stuck on poles as a warning to the others. Those guilty of minor offences had their cheeks sliced and their ears cut off. Of one slave caught eating sugar cane Thistlewood notes “I had him flogged and pickled, and then made Hector shit in his mouth.”

Some of the impoverished blacks who ended up in London were aided by an organisation called the Committee for the Black Poor, who mounted what must count as the first ‘back to Africa’ movement in history. Ships were chartered to carry some two hundred people to Sierra Leone, where they landed and set up home in 1787 on land bought from the local Temme tribe, anticipating later developments in Liberia by some decades.

The whole thing, the story of the white and black diaspora from the United States across the globe, to every corner of what was soon to emerge as the second British Empire, is quite fascinating. It was the first great refugee crisis in British history, the story of whole groups of people as well as unique individuals. It’s the story of Elizabeth Johnston, a young mother from Georgia who spent thirty years looking for a new home, a pilgrimage that took her from Britain, to Jamaica and to Canada. It’s the story of any number of others like her, white, black or red.

There is another important aspect to this story. The émigrés played an important part in the building of the second British Empire, that’s certainly true; but they did something even more important – they helped determine its evolution and its character, at least in the Anglo-Saxon parts. Though they had remained loyal during the American Revolution, they carried into exile many of the democratic ideals of the Thirteen Colonies. Having enjoyed a high degree of liberty in their old homes they did not readily adapt to distant and paternalist rule. The British authorities themselves, learning from the American experience, and anxious to avoid further uprisings, were later to hand out responsible government to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

What happened to Joseph Brant, you may wonder? Well, after failing to catch and scalp his Turk he managed to set up home with his people under British protection in Ontario, a particular group of ‘Tories’ who were to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that would almost certainly have been denied them in the land of the free.

This is an important book on a neglected subject. Exhaustively researched, it is virtually guaranteed to be the standard text in this area for some time to come. I only have one minor quibble over the author’s unfortunate tendency to slip at points into a slightly infelicitous use of jargon, which is why I am giving it four stars rather than five.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

The days of Herod the King

I visited the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, on the first full day I spent in Jerusalem. It’s all that is left of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great, destroyed when Titus, son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, sacked the city in 70AD during the Jewish Revolt. Standing there looking rather lost, we were approached by a local guide, Hasidic, judging by his dress and appearance, who proceeded to tell the story. “It was built by Herod”, he said, “who of course was not a Jew.”

Though surprised I did not pursue the point; not here, not in this place, not with this man. I have to stress this was not for any fear of his reaction but simply because I did not want to cause any offence, or to raise issues which I may not have fully understood or appreciated. Still, I thought to myself, what was Herod if not a Jew? Why would a man who was not a Jew dedicate himself to re-founding the Temple of Solomon?

That was a few years ago. I think I understand a little better now. By the lights of my Orthodox guide Herod was not a Jew; he was far too unorthodox for that, a man who had a foot in the Greek and Roman as well as the Jewish world. But there is something else: he was not a Jew simply because he was not a Judean – he was an Edomite, the son of Antipater the Idumaean, Semitic, yes, but not quite ‘one of us.’

Despite his achievements, including the Temple, Herod has a poor reputation in both Jewish and Christian tradition. A poor reputation? No, that’s far too mild: he came to me, as he came to all those raised in the New Testament, as a monster, as a killer of babies, the man who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents in an attempt to destroy a new-born rival, Jesus, king of the Jews.

I don’t want to dwell on this. All I will say is that it is certainly something the historic Herod was capable of, something any ruler of the day was capable of when told they were faced with a rival, from within their own families let alone without. Herod was ruthless but no more ruthless than any other, no more ruthless than, say, Cleopatra, his contemporary, who freely murdered some of her nearest kinfolk. Herod may have been mad, bad and dangerous to know, but he was so much more than the monster depicted in Mathew’s Gospel.

I’ve been reading about Herod in Simon Seabag Montefiore’s recently published Jerusalem: the Biography, and in an article by Geza Varmes, Professor Emeritus in Jewish Studies at Oxford, in the latest issue of Standpoint (Herod the Terrible or Herod the Great?)

Setting aside a particularly grim family history, there is so much to admire in the man as a soldier, as a ruler, as a builder and as a politician. His gamesmanship was astonishing. One slip, one false move, could have meant disaster. His genius, it seems to me, lay in recognising the limits of his power and the challenges he faced, in exploiting those challenges to maximum advantage.

The world was changing: the Romans were the dominant force, though the transition from Republic to Empire was not fully complete. Herod had to negotiate his way around powerful rivals including Cleopatra, more venomous in every way than the asp that eventually killed her. She, in her ambition to take over Herod’s kingdom, had the potential to call on the support of Mark Anthony, her lover and master of the east.

Despite this Herod always managed to stay high in Anthony’s favour, something else that may very well have brought his destruction. In the final civil war of the Republic he was obliged to take the side of his powerful mentor, though fortunately for him he took no part in the Battle of Actium, which saw the victory of Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. Still, it was a tricky moment. Herod came to see Octavian at Rhodes and skilfully won him over. He was confirmed as king of Judea and adjacent provinces.

I was about to write that the old survivor descended by stages into murderous paranoia, less the Massacre of the Innocents, more the Massacre of the Relatives. Paranoia, however, is the wrong word, suggesting imaginary fears; Herod’s fears were anything but imaginary. The scheming and treachery within his family, which saw the execution of Mariamme, his much beloved wife, the victim of a Desdemona-style whispering campaign, and Alexandra, his much hated mother-in-law, was real enough. The family tragedy grew ever more intense as Herod approached the end, embracing the destruction of his sons Alexander and Aristobulus, accused of plotting parricide by Antipater, their half-brother. If he was mad he had reason to be.

Herod was a complex man, a mixture of good and evil, light and dark. The Massacre of the Innocents, whether it happened or not, stands as a kind of metaphor for his brutality, not just the family brutality but the ruthless way he could on occasions behave towards his subjects. A brute for Saint Matthew he was also a brute for Josephus, the Jewish chronicler who provides the most complete record of his acts, which explains why he has so few friends today, either among Christians or Jews.

It’s rather a pity in so many ways for the simple reason that there was also brilliance. A political realist, Rome, he recognised, was an unshakable part of the new world order. For the Jewish people it was a pity that the Machiavellian example he set was not followed. Judea had to find a place in that order and not be seduced by religious and messianic zealotry. If it had the destruction of the Temple, the Diaspora and all that followed may have been avoided.

Herod may not have been a good man, but he was a great one and the great are seldom good. He deserves to be better remembered, to be better understood.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Star-crossed lovers

There are some books that have a lasting impact on one’s life, books that leave an indelible mark on one’s deepest emotions. For me there are a number, but Victoria by Knut Hamsun occupies a special place as the most captivating and heart-breaking love story ever written. I read it in my mid-teens, in the full flood of my most romantic period.

It’s a short novel; I finished it in less than two hours in a single sitting, overwhelmed by the poetic intensity of the prose, overwhelmed by the story of Victoria and Johannes, two people put on earth to love one another. They do, but there is no happy ending; events, social class, expectations, a sense of duty and circumstances all get in the way. It’s a story of love only fully declared in death, only fully revealed in an ending that absolutely numbed me, reduced me to uncontrollable tears.

I’ve now read it again, though I never thought I would; the first time was painful enough. But it came up in a discussion recently, so I decided to take the risk, if risk is the right word, with the aim of refreshing my memory and adding this appreciation.

I did not recapture the same raw emotions, knowing what was to happen, knowing the course plotted by fate and the writer. Besides, I’m older, a little more controlled, not quite so ready to give over to same teenage passions. Well…that’s not entirely true. There may not have been the same quantity of tears, but there were tears, terrible sadness over beautiful and frustrated love.

If you know Hamsun’s work you will know just how wonderfully he writes, how lyrical and poetic his prose. There are some passages that just leap out, memorable and brief. Here are a few of my favourites;

The days came and went: mild, lovely days filled with the bliss of solitude and with sweet memories of childhood – a renewed call to the earth and the sky, the air and the hills.

If she only knew that all his poems had been written to her and no one else, every single one, even the one to Night, even the one to the Spirit of the Swamp. But that was something she would never know.

What, then, is love? A wind whispering among the roses – no, a yellow phosphorescence in the blood. A danse macabre in which even the oldest and frailest hearts are obliged to join. It is like the marguerite which opens wide as night draws on, and like the anemone which closes at a breath and dies at a touch. Such is love.

…it is strange to think that all I’ve ever managed to do was to come in to the world and love you and now say goodbye to life.

Their days came and went; they came close, but they never managed to meld; there is too much misunderstanding, too many things left unsaid. So, yes, you’ve probably been here before, you will know the mood – it’s a story of unrequited love, Norwegian echoes of Romeo and Juliet, of Heathcliff and Cathy. In its directness and simplicity Victoria is a peerless story of an imperfectly perfect love, one that will remain with me forever.

Monday 21 February 2011

Heil Big Brother!

I originally wrote this for Retarius and Anastasia, a site which I share with an Australian friend of mine. My discussion with Yun Yi on my previous blog reminded me of some of the issues raised, so I’m publishing it here also.

There they are, all wearing black shirts, all raising their right arms in stiff salute, all shouting ‘Sieg Heil’, all praising Adolf Hitler and his commitment to ethnic purity. Where are we exactly – in the back streets of Munich or Berlin, or any other place in the west where unregenerate extremism continues to exercise its baleful fascination? No, as a matter of fact this is Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.

Yes, indeed, there is a Nazi movement in Mongolia, including a group which goes by the name of Tsagaan Khass – White Swastika -, led by a man who calls himself, wait for it, Big Brother. Please stop laughing; it’s all true! Big Brother has a rather confused view when it comes to Hitler, which involves some bizarre cherry-picking;

We don’t agree with his extremism and starting the Second World War. We are against all those killings, but we support his ideology. We support nationalism rather than fascism.

What Big Brother fails to mention is that in Hitler’s racial pyramid the Mongolians came close to the bottom. It’s such a bizarre irony that Nazism is now embraced by at least some among the ‘degenerate horde’ as a positive ideology.

There is really no great surprise in this. Racist nationalism is often adopted by people with a deep sense of personal grievance or inferiority, people who excuse their own failings by scapegoating some minority or other. In Germany it was the Jews. I confess I don’t know an awful lot about Mongolia but I’m guessing that Jewish people are something of a rarity. No, it’s not the Jews that Big Brother and his kind are getting upset about – it’s the Chinese, or the Chinks, their term, not mine.

China is imperialistic and evil, the message goes out; the Chinese are a danger to the ‘pure blood’ of Mongolia. Just how is this danger manifested, you may wonder? Well, you see, the Chinese have a lot of money, allowing them to come and ‘take’ Mongolian women.

This fear of deracination is not simply the fantasy of a fringe; it feeds on wider prejudices among the nation. One of the most popular urban myths in Ulan Bator is that the Chinese government has a secret policy of encouraging its male citizens to come and have sex with Mongolian women. A popular hip-hop track regularly played the capital’s bars and clubs is called Don’t Go Too Far, You Chinks, with a chorus of “shoot, shoot them all.”

There have been attacks on some foreigners, something that the US State Department has warned potential visitors about, though those in most immediate risk from this xenophobia seem to be Mongolian women themselves, threatened with head shaving if they sleep with foreigners. Tsgaaan Khass takes an altogether moderate approach here, insisting that its role is simply one of “law enforcement.” Their policy is to carry out targeted checks, going to hotels and restaurants to make sure that Mongolian girls are not involved in prostitution and foreigners are not breaking the law.

We don’t go through and beat the shit out of everyone. We check our information and make sure its right.

Now that’s a reassurance, I feel sure you will agree.

Breaching the wall of silence

There was a story on the main evening news broadcast here last week abut Lele, a six-year old Chinese boy kidnapped three years ago and now reunited with his family. I was moved to tears by the warmth of the reunion of the little boy with his parents and community, and by the sad tragedy that for every child found hundreds are still missing, many never to be recovered.

There is a combination of things at work here, things that have turned child kidnapping into an epidemic in China. As part of a scheme aimed at controlling a booming population the Chinese Communist government introduced a one child policy a number of years ago. This is all very well if the child is a boy; for by long-standing Confucian tradition there is a preference for male children, to carry on the family name, amongst other things.

So, in a country where children are at a premium, especially boys, a vicious black market has grown up, specialising in kidnapping. I read in the Sunday press that an estimated 70,000 children are sold by gangs every year, some fetching as much as £10,000.

It’s a terrible scandal; it would be a terrible scandal in any country but China. Why? Because it embarrasses the communist authorities, unwilling to lose face, unwilling to admit the scale of the problem. Parents of missing children often get only the most perfunctory assistance from the police. Worse than that: if they become too persistent in their quest they start to face official harassment. Peng Gaofeng, the father of Lele, was told to give up his campaign because it was disrupting ‘social harmony.’

In the end it wasn’t the police, the government or the party that found Lele; it was the ordinary people in a marvellous display of simple human solidarity. Twitter is banned in China but there are other microblogging sites, places that give the people a voice, empowering them in the way that they were never empowered before. With the help of Deng Fei, a journalist, Lele’s picture was tweeted to people all over the country. He was eventually spotted in Jiangsu province, some 2000 kilometres from his home.

Commenting on the power of the microblog (they are used by an estimated 100million people in the country) Deng said;

With this tool, everyone can express themselves immediately. Things can no longer be kept secret. Microblogs break the monopoly on information. They mean it can flow freely. A lot of things in China are caused by the lack of transparency here. So a lot of things will change now.

It truly is the breach of the Great Wall of Silence, a way around official complacency and unofficial corruption. Unfortunately this true voice of the people, so long gagged, exists only by the indulgence of the state. Like Twitter the microblogs could be closed at any time if they are perceived to threaten the monopoly of the party, or if they are found to disrupt a fictitious ‘social harmony’. I wish I could share Deng Fei’s optimism but the sound of silence is always to be feared.

Sunday 20 February 2011

The asses of the law

Earlier this month I mentioned that the European Court of Human Rights had issued ukase to the effect that prisoners in British jails should be given the right to vote contrary to a principle long established in English law (Time for an English Tea Party). This caused so much anger that Parliament recently voted to reject this undemocratic diktat by unelected judges.

The problem is that in nursing the passage of the Human Rights Act, the last government not only allowed foreigners leverage in our constitution but gave judges a direct political role, allowing them to interfere with the will of Parliament. We’ve had some truly absurd judgements on human rights, including the right of prisoners to have access to pornography.

The rejection of the vote edict was a positive first step in reasserting Parliamentary sovereignty. The danger, as I said in my previous blog, is that defiance of the law gives prisoners the technical right to begin proceedings for compensation, potentially costing the country millions and proving that crime does pay.

We are so used to judges becoming objects of derision, so used to the law as a braying ass, that it’s a refreshing surprise when one manages to do the right thing. The one in question is the High Court’s Mister Justice Langstaff, who at the end of last week not only rejected a class action brought by almost six hundred criminals under an earlier European ruling, but ordered each of them to pay £76 in costs, which I understand amounts to almost two months wages inside. So, boys and old lags, you will have to do without the snout for a while! I wonder if anyone really believes that these jail birds were ever interested in voting in the first place. No, the compensation, the easy money, is the thing.

The press here have reported the judge’s decision as a “rare victory for common sense.” But it’s more than that; for Justice Langstaff has recognised one of the core principles of our constitution, something beyond the wit of the European mafia, namely that foreign judgements should never be allowed to trump laws passed at Westminster. His ruling not only keeps thieves and murderers from having an input into our political process, it’s also a sound box in the ears to the seedy legal shysters who pushed this action in the first place.

Apparently Jean-Paul Costa, the president of the European Court of Human rights, reacted to Britain’s defiance of the Strasbourg ruling by likening the country to Greece under the rule of the colonels, which makes me think that the poor old junta must at least be worth an honourable mention. Meanwhile this laughable little man’s circus dances on, ruling that paedophiles have the right to ask that their names be removed from the sex offenders register. What next, I wonder? It would not surprise me if sending people to prison in the first place amounted to a breach of human rights.

What worries me is that, bit by bit, ruling by ruling, I’m beginning to react to the very expression ‘human rights’ with contempt, beginning to think that the whole thing is nothing beyond the latest risible notions of political correctness. But there are places in the world where there are real breaches of natural justice, where people are persecuted on the flimsiest pretext. It’s as well to remember this next time the underemployed asses in Strasbourg issue yet another piece of comic absurdity.

Pagan born- loving Inkubus Sukkubus

I mentioned in the comments on my previous blog that Inkubus Sukkubus is my favourite band, something I’ve written about in the past. I’ve been following them since I was in my mid-teens, after attending one of their London concerts with a group of friends.

It all fell into place more or less at the same time. Since I was little I’ve been enchanted by tales of witches and witchcraft, of spells and of magic. My interest was further cemented after I saw The Craft when I was about twelve. Then came Inkubus Sukkubus and Candia Ridley, the most beautiful witch I had ever seen. I was thrilled, I was captivated, I was hooked.

If you don’t know their work, Inkubus Sukkubus is an English pagan and Goth band formed in the late 1980s by Candia Ridley, the lead vocalist, Tony McKormack and Adam Henderson. Their songs inspire me, the music and the lyrics, to which I have often danced through the night, danced the magic circle round!

Their best album is the classic Beltaine, which includes some of my favourites like Beltaine itself, Wytches – this has such an effect on me-, Supernature and I am the One. From Belladonna and Aconite I particularly like the lead track and Samhain. From Wytches there is Pagan Born and Vampires.

I could go on and on; there is so much. But my all-time favourite, my theme tune, the tale of the succubus herself is All Along the Crooked Way from Vampire Erotica. Enjoy…and beware. :-)

Underneath the darkened sky
All along the crooked way
The same story once again
Of sorrow and of pain
One fool in a dream
One black-hearted queen
A tale of unrequited love
That's written in tears, written in blood
She smiles, he cries
He begs, but she denies
As tonight becomes tomorrow
All joy will turn to sorrow

This is a tale of a succubus
A tale of love, pain and lust
Cheated Heart and a broken trust
And death, and death!

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Where there's love, there is lust
Where there's a boy to give his heart
There's a woman to tear it apart
Where there's giving, there's taking
There's faking, and there's breaking
Where there's trust deceit's right there
The dream becomes the nightmare!

To despair she'll take him
A shadow she'll make him
Before hi, the open grave
On his wrist, the razor blade
Young man, hang your head and cry
It's time to suffer, time to die
Abandon you the dreams of youth
Abandon love, hope and truth!

She will crush you, she'll excite you
She'll destroy you, she'll ignite you
She'll take you to a world of darkness
And death, and death!

On a night of dread and wonder
Hear her heartbeat turn to thunder
Now's the time for soul surrender
And death, and death!

Thursday 17 February 2011

Gently Johnny; Sex, Sacrifice and the Wicker Man

If you go to my profile page here you will see that I’ve listed The Wicker Man as one of my all-time favourite movies. I do stress that this is the 1973 original directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer, not the ghastly 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage. The movie recently came up in a discussion on Blog Catalogue in a post by my friend Yun Yi. So, taking my cue from this, I thought I would say a little more on the subject, really just to clarify any confusion that might remain.

To begin with I’m not quite sure exactly when I first came across it. It was on television, certainly, but how, where or when I simply can’t remember. What I do remember is that I made a huge impact on me (I was just beginning my flirtation with witchcraft and paganism), particularly the ending, when Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sacrificed by a modern-day pagan community, anxious to appease the gods of the earth and thus ensure a fruitful harvest. I’ve watched it dozens of times since, and that is not an exaggeration.

The movie has an interesting history. It was made in the days when cinemas offered two features in a single sitting, the main dish and a minor starter. The Wicker Man was the minor starter. No matter: the studio executives in both Britain and the United States were so perplexed by the movie and its themes that they insisted on quite hefty cuts, which had the effect of completely distorting the time sequence as well as removing some superb scenes.

The movie was shown in a bowdlerised version and that was that; it was expected to die, the usual fate of the B feature. It did not; it grew and grew, catching the imagination of horror fans everywhere, until it acquired a huge cult following. Now fully restored in the director’s cut, it holds a 90% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an aggregate of all reviews, not bad for a film made almost forty years ago.

As I said in a previous blog, so far as I am concerned The Wicker Man is the best pagan-themed movie ever made, full of drama, sexuality, ritual and song. The sacrifice at the end recalls the fate of the Roman captives after the Battle of Teutoburger Wald in 9AD, when many were allegedly burned to death inside huge wicker effigies.

For those who don’t know the movie, or who are confused by its themes, as I said on Blog Catalogue it’s essentiality about the cycles of life; about sex, death and reincarnation. The community of Summerisle, a remote Scottish island hidden away from the world, lives by its produce, apples principally. They also worship the old gods and are completely free of any form of inhibition or Christian concepts of morality. Sex is not just practiced, it’s celebrated as the generative force in nature, represented by the Maypole, the image of the penis.

A crisis comes when the crop fails. A sacrifice is needed and that sacrifice has to be a male virgin, Sergeant Howie, a policeman from the mainland, lured to the island on the pretext of a report about a missing girl. He arrives two days before the great festival of May Day and is steadily manipulated to the point where he takes on the guise of Punch, the great fool victim, in a procession. He is king for a day, and who but a fool would take on that roll? In the end the virgin, Christian policeman is led to his appointment with the Wicker Man.

Everyone should be satisfied; firm in his Christian beliefs, Howie is accorded a martyr's death; he will sit in heaven among the elect. Firm in their pagan beliefs, the islanders look to a renewal of their fertility, though whether the gods are listening or not is never revealed.

Apart from the story I just love the mystery, the magic and the music. My favourite scene is that which features the singing of Gently Johnny, as another virgin is sacrificed, this time to Aphrodite in a living form. Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the community leader, offers a boy, Ash Buchanan, to Willow Macgregor (Brit Ekland), the daughter of the pub landlord, the community’s sexual vamp. Willow and Ash fuck, the people in the bar sing, Lord Summerisle muses;

I think I could turn
and live with animals.

They are so placid
and self-contained.

They do not lie awake in the dark
and weep for their sins.

They do not make me sick
discussing their duty to God.

Not one of them kneels to another

or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago.

Not one of them is... respectable
- or unhappy
all over the earth.

This is cut to a scene with Howie praying by his bedside, as the sounds of Willow’s sexual encounter come through the wall. These are scenes of innocence and guilt, I’ll leave you to decide which, but the pagans will know, yes, they will know. :-)

I put my hand all on her knee
She says to me do you want to see?

I put my hand all on her breast
She says do you want to be kissed?

I put my hand all on her thigh
She says to me do you want to try?
I put my hand all on her belly
She says to me do you want to fill 'ee?

Gently, gently, Johnny,
Oh gently, gently, Johnny,
Johnny, my jigaloo!

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Plodding Romance

I’m such an enthusiast for lost causes, movements which I imbue with my own romantic vision: the Cavaliers of the English Civil War, the Confederates of the American Civil War and the White Guard of the Russian Civil War.

I have a particular enthusiasm for the latter, for the men and women who tried to save Russia from Lenin and his criminal band. I have a particular enthusiasm for the leaders of the White Army; men like Anton Denikin, Pytor Wrangel and Aleksandr Kolchak. Ever since the fall of communism there has been a new appreciation of these people, once defiled. When I was in Moscow I was able to lay some flowers on the grave of Denikin, reinterred with honours in Donskoy Monastery in October, 2005.

It was therefore with considerable anticipation that I recently approached The Admiral, a 2008 Russian-language movie about Aleksandr Kolchak, once an Arctic explorer, an admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy and finally head of the anti-Communist forces in Siberia as Supreme Ruler of Russia, captured and executed in February, 1920. Vilified by the Soviets, there are now monuments to his memory in both Saint Petersburg and Irkutsk.

The Admiral, unfortunately, is a plodding disappointment, a movie constructed in such a way that it inevitably invites comparison with David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, far superior in every sense. Doctor Zhivago is a love story set against the grand sweep of Russian history, a tale of ordinary lives being submerged by history.

The Admiral is also a love story, that between Kolchak (Konstantin Khabensky) and Anna Timiryova (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), a poet and his long-standing mistress. The couple are handsome, just as handsome as Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Julie Christie as Lara, but sadly there is no chemistry at all, no spark of life in their tepid romance. Their exchanges are wooden, their encounters barren.

The other point of contrast is the handling of the wider themes, the handling of events. In Zhivago the scenes of war, of revolution and of civil war were woven effortlessly into the lives of the principle characters. But with The Admiral, despite some impressive moments, including the early footage of naval combat during the First World War, history seems to hang around, waiting to be introduced at periodic interludes.

I was so looking forward to seeing this movie. A reassessment of the career of Kolchak and the struggle of the anti-communist resistance was long overdue. My disappointment at this uninspiring and plodding effort was therefore so much the greater.

No sex please, we’re Turks

I read – though I can’t swear to the truth of it – that when people in Hungary encounter some extraordinary mishap they are consoled with the words “Never mind; more was lost at Mohács field” (Több is veszett Mohácsnál). The reference here is to the Battle of Mohács, fought in August 1526 between Hungarian forces led by King Louis II and those of the Ottoman Empire, commanded by Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest of all the sultans. It was a disaster for Hungary, so much so that it occupies a place in the national consciousness similar to that of the Battle of Kosovo for the Serbs.

Given his prestige, given this victory, given the way that Turkish forces advanced so far as the walls of Vienna under his leadership, given that his death was followed by a long drawn-out decline, Suleiman continues to occupy a central place in the consciousness of Turks.

Now this iconic figure is the centre of a new battle, one that ranges the country’s Muslim conservatives against the secularists who take their stand behind the memory of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey. It’s the great fault line, becoming ever wider because of; because of what, exactly? Well, it’s because of a television drama series!

The series penetrates right into some of the places that conservative Turks would much rather not go: namely, into the harem. Suleiman is not just shown as the great soldier and leader; he is also shown as a man, a man with ordinary passions, a man lusting after Roxelana, the love of his life. Just as bad, he is shown drinking goblets of wine, particularly unpalatable for the conservatives.

It does not really matter if it’s true or not, it does not really matter that his son and successor was such a notorious drunkard that he has gone down in history as Selim the Sot, to see a national hero, caliph as well as sultan, breaking a fundamental Muslim commandment against the consumption of alcohol is another step too far.

Things are so bad that Halit Ergenc, the actor playing the sultan, has received death threats. Even the government has been moved to intervene. Bulent Arnic, deputy prime minister, has called for the series to be scrapped. “It shows him”, he said, “in his harem, fond of drinking and in certain scenes that I cannot find words to express.” Well, let me express it then: it shows that Suleiman was a man.

RTUK, the state media watchdog, has warned the broadcasters, Show TV, that they are clashing with the “national and moral values of our society.” Meanwhile protesters have gathered outside the studios, ushered there by the Islamist Saadet party. In spite of this the producers are fighting back, saying that “the children of the Sultan were not conceived by pollination…he did have a sex life and a family.” As is the way with these things the controversy has boosted the ratings tremendously.

It all seems so minor, I know, such a silly fuss over what are, I imagine, not having seen the show, some very chaste sex scenes. Still, its significance should not be minimised: its part of a bigger struggle over Turkey’s identity as a nation. Is it to remain a secular and modern republic in the fashion of Atatürk or is it to retreat into more fundamental courses, a place where sultans and caliphs may have all the sex and alcohol they like, just so long as the population remains in a state of benighted ignorance?

Tuesday 15 February 2011

In the name of the books

I hugely enjoyed Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a medieval mystery set around a hidden monastic library, a treasure house of knowledge; but it was not knowledge accessible to everyone, not even to Brother William of Baskerville (no need to guess the inspiration for that particular name!), the novel’s oh so rational Franciscan sleuth. It was him I thought of in reading recently about John Leland, a real-life bibliophile who saved so much that might otherwise have been lost.

We are used to libraries as public institutions. This is a relatively modern development, though. For hundreds of years books – aside from a few in private hands – were kept in religious institutions, not always readily accessible to other clerics let alone members of the wider community.

John Leland, who was born in London in the early years of the sixteenth century, came at just the right time, a crucial turning point in England’s history, just before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, when so many libraries were destroyed, their contents lost. Originally a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey, he was given the task by Thomas Cromwell of touring England’s monastic libraries, with the aim of obtaining documentary evidence that would support the king in his desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled.

So, off he went, this book hunter, on a journey that took him to places as far away as Tynemouth Priory in the north-east to Glastonbury Abbey in the south-west. Some of the monks were welcoming, others less so, though none were in a position to deny the king’s commission, or to object when Leland ‘borrowed’ some of their collection.

Just as Brother William was gripped by a childlike sense of wonder when he finally penetrated the maze-library of the Italian monastery, so, too was Leland at Glastonbury;

I immediately went to the library, which is not open to all, in order to examine most diligently the relics of sacred antiquity, of which there is so great a number that is not easily paralleled anywhere else in Britain. Scarcely had I crossed the threshold when the mere sight of the ancient books struck my mind with an awe or amazement of some kind, and for that reason I stopped in my tracks for a while. Then, having saluted the genius loci, I spent some days searching through the bookshelves with the greatest curiosity.

His recording and borrowing, which allowed some priceless manuscripts to pass into posterity, came not a moment too soon. Henry’s quarrel with Rome descended ever deeper into acrimony and bitterness. In 1536 an act was passed allowing for the dissolution of many of the country’s religious houses. The business was handed to men like Richard Layton, who carried out the task with all the subtlety of the Vandals descending on Rome. Even a radical Protestant like John Bale, a friend of Leland’s, was moved to condemn the actions of men who used the leaves of irreplaceable manuscripts as lavatory paper or to clean their boots.

With the disappearance of the monasteries ancient libraries disappeared also. In the end there was nothing left, an act of greed, short-sightedness and stupidity than comes close to breaking the heart of all those who love books and revere the past. As I type I feel – what do I feel? – a sense of sorrow and anger, as if the great library of Alexandria had been wilfully destroyed for a second time, on this occasion in my own land. The fact that this happened over half a millennium ago seems to make no difference.

Thanks to Leland something emerged phoenix-like from the ashes – De Viris Illustribus, an invaluable bibliography, a record of what was and what remained. A huge enterprise, he set out to describe every writer and every book he had come across in his travels. James P Carley, editing a new edition, quite rightly says that it is an unique witness to pre-Dissolution England. Our loss was great. Without Leland it would have been greater still.

Monday 14 February 2011

For S

You know me; you know me better than anyone. Love is important to me; love personally expressed and deeply felt, not empty conventions and social rituals. I admit I have in the past enjoyed the frippery associated with Valentine’s Day – or the festival of Juno, as I have long thought of it -; it flatters my ego, the cards and the gifts, though I was never inclined to take it seriously, or the saccharine sweetness in which the occasion is draped.

Today was different; you made it so special, as if the only people in the world who mattered were the two of us. I write I can’t thank you enough for your wonderful gift, though it seems so hackneyed, so stale. Still, it’s true: I can never thank you enough. This evening was sublime, everything about it: the food, the wine, the setting; you arranged it all perfectly, a perfect surprise.

Who knows what or future will bring, who knows how we will end, but I will always love you for this moment, this perfect moment, those perfect moments. This is why I’m making an open declaration, so all of the people who know us, all of our friends and past lovers, will understand.

All day long I have been working
Now I am tired.
I call: "Where are you?"
But there is only the oak tree rustling in the wind.
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines in on your books,
On your scissors and thimble just put down,
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you?
I go about searching.

Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes,
You tell me that the peonies need spraying,
That the columbines have overrun all bounds,
That the pyrus japonica should be cut back and rounded.
You tell me these things.
But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud, sweet Te Deums of the Canterbury bells.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Lots of grit

The western is not the kind of movie genre that I normally find appealing. Two things took me to see True Grit: the persuasiveness of my boyfriend and the fact that it was written and directed by the Coen brothers. I’ve been a huge admirer of their work ever since I saw No Country for Old Men. Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially as it looked to be no more than a rerun of the 1969 movie of the same name, starring John Wayne. Second bites, in my experience, are generally disappointing if not disastrous.

This was no second bite: this was a tour de force, a brilliant movie filled with grit. Based like its predecessor on the novel by Charles Portis, True Grit is a story with strong mythological overtones, a fable where a murder invokes the pursuit of the Furies. In this case, though, there is only one Fury – fourteen year old Mattie Ross, brilliantly played by fourteen year old Hailee Steinfeld, for me the highlight of the whole film. Controlled, full of Presbyterian self-righteousness and Biblical notions of right and wrong, her Mattie is as electric as Electra.

Mattie’s father has been killed far from home by Tom Chaney, a hired hand played by Josh Brolin, who promptly flees into the dangerous Indian territories of Oklahoma, a place where nobody cares enough about the dead man to pursue him, not even the law. Mattie arrives to collect her father’s body, while her less capable mother cares at home for her younger siblings; but she comes with a supplementary motive: she wants to see his killer pursued and hanged.

There was something about Mattie, something about Steinfeld, which reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. Different in so many ways, they both possess the same qualities of determination and self-reliance well beyond their years, a desire above all to do what is right and necessary, no matter the adverse odds. Both are tough in their own ways, though not so tough that a child-like vulnerability occasionally comes to the surface.

My, what self-possession Mattie has, what incredible single-mindedness. The movie has some wonderfully comic moments, none more so than her horse trading with Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) the horse trader. One almost begins to feel sorry for the poor man, crumbling under the girl’s onslaught!

To track down Chaney Mattie finally hires a US Marshal by the name or Rueben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a disreputable, dishevelled and hard-drinking, one-eyed lawman played by Jeff Bridges, who mumbles and grizzles his way through the movie. Don’t misunderstand: he does the part well, though I found his dialogue a little difficult to follow at points. Rooster, despite his faults, has exactly what Mattie wants – he is a man not readily daunted; he is a man with true grit…almost enough to match her own.

In the eventual pursuit (Rooster makes the mistake of trying to give Mattie the slip), they are joined by a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf – invariably pronounced as La Beef - , played by Matt Damon, a pompous and slightly dandyish character who is after Chaney for a separate crime. As they journey together into the territory of the Indian Nations, where Chaney is believed to have joined with the gang of one ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), a highly effective tension builds between them, conflicts of character and conflicts of motive.

There is so much to enjoy in this movie; the script, the acting, the score, the characterisation, the scenery and the slightly-archaic dialogue (At one point La Boeuf says to the straight-talking Mattie “You give very little sugar with your pronouncements.”) The cinematography is truly excellent, with little of the summer-time ‘prettiness’ of more traditional westerns. A winter’s journey, the palette is one of muted tones, of greys, of creams and of browns; muted, yes, but with a simple, stark beauty.

As I have already said, there are some superb comic scenes, including a perfectly surreal moment when what appears to be a bear enters stage right riding a horse. This isn’t Davy Crocket wearing a coon-skin cap, this is a dubious travelling dentist and all round medicine show, who just happens to be wearing the whole hide of his particular animal, the head on top of his head!

In the end Mattie gets her man. In the end Rooster, who has little in the way of finer feeling, develops a father-like solicitude towards his young employer, riding hard with her to a get a doctor after she has been bitten by a rattlesnake. In the end there is a coda with Mattie, now twenty-five years older, missing part of her arm from the snake bite, having taken another body, that of Rooster himself, back for burial in her family plot, there musing how time finally catches up with us all.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Freedom is a noble thing

You may not know this, in fact I am reasonably certain that most of you will not know this, but after the Republicans and the Democrats the Libertarian Party is the third largest in the United States. It defines itself as the party of principle, of minimum government and maximum freedom. Could there be any better desideratum, I ask? No, there could not; for these are the principles on which America was built; these are the principles upon which all free societies should stand.

There is so much ignorance over libertarianism, over precisely what it means. It does not entail a free for all; it does not mean licence. While it is true, as I have said on several occasions, that my personal libertarianism – it is such a personal philosophy – comes close to anarchism, at least in the form advanced by Max Stirner, a considerable gap still remains. While I would prefer no government and no state, both restraints on natural liberty, I fully recognise that such a condition could not exist anywhere east of Eden. Instead I will go with the definition given by the US libertarians;

Libertarians support maximum liberty in both personal and economic matters. They advocate a much smaller government; one that is limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes, promote private charity, tolerate diverse lifestyles, support the free market, and defend civil liberties.

Let me put this another way, let me put it in the form of a joke, one recently told by James Delingpole;

Have you heard about the vast Libertarian conspiracy? We’re going to take over the government – and then leave you alone.

Oh, my, how we need to be left alone; how we need to be free. Yes, free from all of the silliness of the interfering and bloated state; free from all of the health fascism, all the exhortations to do this and don’t do that. We could save millions by cutting government to the bone, by doing away with all of the unrepresentative extra-governmental bodies set up to monitor this or that aspect of our lives and our conduct. Above all we need government to stop treating us as if we were children.

Yes, the state is there, or should be there, only to protect our basic rights. This is what used to be referred to in this country as the night-watchman state, a condition where the sovereignty of the individual, the individual’s right to freedom and property, was respected. The problem is that a new type of state began to emerge from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, one that in the name of ‘reform’ created a form of feudal servitude, spending the money of the citizen, taking increasing amounts of personal income from tax creators to pass to tax eaters. As the state waxed liberty waned.

It’s not a question of ideology or party politics. The Conservatives, I regret to say, were just as bad as the Liberals, Disraeli just as bad as Gladstone. Both began a process of interference which combined in David Lloyd George, who opened a new, more intense style of intervention that is still being followed to the present day, a ruinous path of taxation and welfare that benefits nobody, that creates more problems than it solves.

No, that’s not quite right: it benefits the agencies of the state; it benefits the bureaucrats. We are robbed of personal income as we are robbed of choice in so many areas of our personal life. I would like to reverse it all, clear out the Augean Stable, clear out government and return sovereignty to where it belongs, to each and every one of us. There is no nobler cause than freedom.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

I Give you the Man

The following was stimulated by an exchange I have just had on one of my social networks. Enjoy. :-)

There are many thinkers and writers that I admire, people who in same fashion or other have made some worthwhile contribution to our common culture, to the culture of humanity. There are also many that I detest, and I make no apologies for using so strong a word, those whose thought and words have had what I consider to be a baleful influence on history.

My attitudes can be quite complex. I can admire the sheer intellectual industry of someone like Karl Marx, while rejecting the political philosophy that arises, dangerously comprehensive, dangerously Victorian in its all-consuming arrogance. But the one figure that I despise more than any other, who, so far as I am concerned, has no redeeming features as a writer or as a man, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

First, ecce homo: consider the man, consider the hypocrite. In the mid-1740s he began a relationship in Paris with one Thérèse Levasseur, the details of which ore outlined in Confessions, his autobiography. By this woman he was to have a son and as many as four other children whose names and sexes are not even recorded. One by one Thérèse was persuaded to give these children away to foundling hospitals, places where the mortality rate was even higher than the average for the day.

There is no certain evidence but on the balance of probability all of Rousseau’s children died in these places. He later made one attempt to discover the whereabouts of his son, some ten years after his birth, but no record of his existence could even be found. Edmund Burke was later to write of his conduct:

…his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labour, as well as the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honours the giver and the receiver; and then he pleads his beggary as an excuse for his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks, and forms her young; but bears are not philosophers. Vanity, however, finds its account in reversing the train of our natural feelings. Thousands admire the sentimental writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish.

Yes, this is the key not just to the man-who was later to lecture women on the best means of child rearing-but the forms of thought he produced, the substitution of arid formulas for genuine feeling and real life. Denis Diderot, another apostle of the Enlightenment, was later to describe Rousseau as “…false, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and wicked.”

Oh, but how he loved in the abstract, how he eulogised the species in his Discourse on Equality and The Social Contract. In these we have people, men, to use his own expression, more as antique Romans than modern Europeans; men who are offered as expressions of ‘virtue’, as gestures of virtue, if you prefer, who may very well have escaped from the paintings of Jacques-Louis David.

What is to be done?, Rousseau asks at the conclusion of The Social Contract. Cultivate virtue, the answer comes, a new contract where the individual will find freedom in submitting to the ‘general will.’ Yes, here is the shadow of Robespierre; here is the manifesto of the cold-blooded fanatic, here is the Republic of Virtue; here is the guillotine and the Terror, here is the abstraction coming like a vampire to suck life dry.

Edmund Burke was brilliant in his prescience. As early as 1790, when his Reflections on the Revolution in France was published, he could see the course of events, he could see contemporary moderation turning to destruction and dictatorship. The excesses of the Revolution were no accident. They were built in, rather, from the outset, rooted in Rousseau’s personal vanity, arrogance and general moral failings. They were rooted, I would add, in his failures as a human being coupled with a seductive intellectual power, enough to seduce the likes of Robespierre, Saint-Just, Marat, Desmoulins and all the other ogres of 1789. Rousseau was their spiritual father, just as he stands as the spiritual father to all of the tyrannies that followed. Rather apt for a man who had not the courage to be a real father.

The descent of the hermit state

There can be no more peculiar place in the world than Communist North Korea. One wonders what it is about Marxism that produces such a theatre of the absurd? But pause for a moment and think about it: Marxism, wherever it spread, was never more than the ideology of high holidays, setting its baleful economic effects to one side. North Korea is not the product of ideology; it’s the product of history – its own.

It’s certainly been isolated by ideology in modern times, though more by political developments elsewhere within the old communist bloc. At the end of the Korean War – actually it never ended – the North, fearful of future American reprisals, was highly dependent on the Chinese and the Soviets for its security in a nuclear age.

Kim Il-Sung, the first leader (he is still leader, dead or not) of the North, was a devotee of Stalin. So when Khrushchev cut the ground from under the idol political distancing began. China was left as the only friend. But then came the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which Kim saw in no better light than Khrushchev’s liberalisation. Now the regime's isolation was close to absolute. The collapse of communism across the world more or less completed the process. Even China is now a capitalist country with a red gloss.

North Korea retreated, retreated into itself, retreated into its own history. That history was one of isolation and the most absolute forms of monarchy. For five hundred years, right up to the Japanese occupation in 1910, the country had been ruled by the same royal house. Foreigners were forbidden to enter and subjects forbidden to leave. Even part of the coastline was cleared to ensure that people did not come into contact with outsiders.

Add to that the Confucian tradition of filial piety and ancestor worship then something of the bizarre cultural politics of the North becomes more understandable. It’s because of this that Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994, is still officially the head of state. So, we have a state that, having embraced Marxism, or its own version of Marxism, has barely escaped the feudalism that has marked its past, feudalism in every way more absolute than anything ever known in Western Europe, more terrible for the ordinary people, who get as thin as their overlords get fat.

North Korea is a fearful, unstable and uncertain state, one that cannot break from the ever decreasing circles into which it descends. History is not fooled; history is never fooled.

Return of the Voodoo Prince

It was through Graham Greene that I alighted on the weird world of Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier. Actually Greene’s novels took me to all sorts of strange places but the land explored in The Comedians is stranger than any other.

If you don’t know the story it tells of a country that flits between absurdity and nightmare, all presided over by a president who is perceived as an incarnation of Baron Samedi, a leading Voodoo deity, the spirit of the graveyards. This is a world where ‘naughty children’ are carried off in the night by Tonton Macote – Uncle Gunnysack - , a Creole bogyman who gave his name to Duvalier’s militia. It’s a world where nothing is quite as it seems, where nothing can be taken for granted. It’s a picture of a country descending into barbarism.

Papa Doc died in 1971 to be succeeded by his son John-Claude, generally known as Baby Doc. It’s difficult to describe the forms of ‘governance’ favoured by Papa and Baby; dictatorship, certainly, but one resting on a form of disorganised chaos. Medieval robber barons behaved with a greater sense of responsibility than the Duvaliers, who existed by extortion, the proceeds of the drug trade, the selling of body parts and the looting of foreign aid, all while the country descended ever deeper into the most abject poverty. The nightmare finally ended in 1986, when Baby was overthrown in a popular uprising.

The nightmare ended? Well, actually, no: Haiti is a place where all dreams turn to nightmares, though some nightmares are worse than others. It may be difficult to believe but the Voodoo age of the Duvaliers is now looked on with a certain degree of nostalgia by a people who have suffered disaster after disaster, natural and man made, earthquakes and socialism.

Now Baby has returned after years in exile. He is there, he said, to help rebuild his country. At Port-au-Prince airport he was greeted by cheering crowds. Haiti, I’m sure it will come as no surprise, is a country where one does not expect to die in ripe old age. I imagine there are few people now alive, few amongst that crowd, who actually remember Duvalier and the Tonton Macutes.

What he represents is an idea, an idea of stability and order, an idea of poverty not quite so dire. For people still living beneath scraps of corrugated iron in a capital still in ruins after last year’s earthquake, stability and order is the kind of nightmare they could live with. What they have now is the socialism of René Préval, one dark dream too many. When one understands that a faded corrupt former playboy represents hope one begins to disentangle the tragedy of Haiti.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Turning Front

The French political right is possibly the most fractured in Europe, a condition of its history. To the right of the Gaullists, to the right of the right, are those who stand against the tradition of 1789. They are the people, if you like, of the Vichy tradition, those who were never fully reconciled to the loss of Algeria. It’s a tradition represented by the National Front, headed until recently by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Like him or not, Le Pen is one of the giants of post-war French politics, occasionally spoiling the feast of the more traditional parties, a little like the ghost of Banquo. In the presidential election of 2002 he beat the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, into second place, forcing the left and centre-right into an unholy alliance behind Jacques Chirac in the second round to ward off the monster. His catchphrase “If anybody doesn’t like France, they should leave” was even echoed by Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the 2007 election, a sign of how far the Front’s message has percolated into the mainstream.

I’m not keen on Le Pen, I must say; he’s too much of a bruiser, too lacking in subtlety, not quite the gentleman. Still, I agree with those sentiments; I would like to see them applied to my own country, I would like to hear leading politicians say that if you do not like Britain then leave, go, go in peace, but go. People who talk down this country, people who do not value its traditions of tolerance and freedom can get lost, the quicker the better. Please do not misunderstand me: so far as I am concerned this has nothing to do with race, or colour, or ethnicity, or religion. It has, rather, everything to do with attitude.

I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Le Pen and the French far right. Le Pen is dead; long live Le Pen. No, the old chap is not really dead; he’s just taken a back seat, giving way to Marine Le Pen, his daughter, who came top of a leadership poll last month. A lawyer by profession and a mother of three, she is far more personable, far more chic, as the French would say, in every way, carrying little of her father’s ideological baggage. She’s got class, unlike Nick Griffin, the glass-eyed fright who heads the British National Party. She appears on television without looking shifty and evasive, in the way that Griffin looks shifty and evasive.

Her biggest asset is that she carries nothing of the Vichy-Algiers tradition, looking to give the right a new direction, away from past neo-Nazi fixations which kept it penned (Le Pened?) in an electoral ghetto, going so far but no further. She has taken a stand on the tradition of French secularism, making it harder for more established politicians to attack her ‘extremism.’ Her main advantage, besides being the new attractive face of the right, is that people are fed-up with the political mainstream, fed up with both Gaullism in the Sarkozy form, and fed up with the Socialist alternative. Marine’s approval ratings have now reached an impressive 33%, higher than her father every achieved in his heyday.

The ruling UMP party is worried. The fear is that the 2012 presidential election could turn into 2002 in reverse, with Le Pen beating Sarkozy into a second round contest. It does not seem likely, but with Little Nic reshapping the debate on the future of France in terms defined by Marine she has already scored a kind of victory for the new respectable front.

Traces in time

I mentioned yesterday that we have the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1911, with three supplementary volumes appearing in the early 1920s. It’s been in our family now for close on a hundred years, bought by my great-great-grandfather just before the First World War.

It’s so intriguing, not at all like the modern day Britannica, which consists mostly of dictionary-length entries, hors d'oeuvres that never satisfy the appetite. The eleventh in contrast has lengthy articles, often by the leading experts of the day. Where else, I wonder, could one find a collection that contains submissions by people as diverse as Leon Trotsky and Harry Houdini?

I spent hours dipping into it in the past, following trails, dreaming in the company of serendipity. Clearly a lot of the information is obsolete, superseded by later scholarship, but its real value is that it has, in itself, become a fascinating historical document, reflecting many of the preoccupations and concerns of the day. Things that occupied a significant place in Edwardian consciousness have now diminished to mere footnotes in history. I’m thinking specifically here of the 1897 war between Greece and Turkey, to which several pages are devoted.

It’s the old pull-out maps that I love most, maps that reflect the political geography of the day. There is a wonderful one of Europe before the Balkan Wars, with the Ottoman Empire still stretching from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. The Germany Empire stands proud in the centre of the Continent, France seemingly deprived of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine forever. To the south is the land of the Habsburgs. Look to the east: there is the Empire of the Tsars; there is no Poland, no Finland and no Baltic States. It truly is like coming across the outlines of a vanished civilization, the highways where people went and can never come again.

Monday 7 February 2011

Wicked Wiki – a remembrance of things past

I remember exactly how I came across Wikipedia, that great internet phenomena, for the first time. It was 2005; I had just seen Capote, a movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, based on an incident in the life of Truman Capote, the American writer. I needed to find out more about this fascinating man, the author of In Cold Blood. Having nothing to hand (the only edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica we have at home was published in 1911!) I turned to the internet. There it was, not just an article on the writer but a whole universe of free information on every conceivable subject.

Founded by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia, an offshoot of Nupedia, has just passed its tenth birthday. Unlike its parent it’s based on a totally novel approach – it can be edited by literally anyone, experts and amateurs alike; one does not even have to be a registered user.

There are both benefits and drawbacks here; benefits in that a vast range of knowledge is brought to bear and articles can be updated by the minute; drawbacks in that it attracts saboteurs, trolls and – possibly worse than either - know it alls who know nothing. Articles all too often become battle-grounds, particularly in the more contentious historical subjects. It has been said time and again though it still merits repetition: Wikipedia is a good point of departure but a bad terminus.

Intrigued by the novelty of the whole thing, I started to contribute anonymously in a small way before registering in the autumn of 2006, taking the identity of Clio, the Greek muse of history. Although I edited some pages, and contributed a few original articles of my own, basically just for fun, I quickly got tired of some of the geeks and dickheads I came across. So I then switched my attention almost exclusively to answering questions on the reference desk, a place where my view could be challenged but not edited. This is how I introduced myself on my user page;

Who am I? No fancy colours, no designs, no mission statements (and definitely no user boxes!), just a few simple facts. My name, part of it anyway, is Anastasia (not the grand duchess, though both my mother and my boyfriend claim I act like one). I was born in June 1986. I am English, conservative and patriotic. I love history, politics, literature, philosophy and travel. I have been fortunate to have covered a good bit of the globe, in one capacity or another, and hope to catch up with most of the rest over the next few years.

My prime function here on Wikipedia is to answer questions, chiefly on the Humanities Desk, when I am able, and within the limits of my intellectual competence. I enjoy good company, both men and women, but I have a great problem in tolerating fools. This has been my chief weakness. Apart from that I am practically perfect in every way!

Why Clio? Because Clio, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, is the muse of history and heroic poetry, and has been my ever present mentor since I was a very little girl.

It was fun. I got to know lots of other users quite well by simple interactions, a spot of cut and thrust, people I came to admire. I got to know Retarius, a user from Perth in Australia , the first to introduce me to the blogosphere. Lots of people were very kind to me, giving me a range of Wiki awards for my contributions, all proudly displayed on the page of Clio the Muse. I also attracted my first online stalker, an obsessive individual who followed my every step, even going so far as to try to track me down in real life!

I finally abandoned ship in the spring of 2008, not because of this but principally owing to academic demands. But more - I was starting to get bored. I do get bored so easily, always looking onwards to some fresh and more interesting challenge. I’m now here, on my personal blog, though for how much longer I can’t be sure; nothing is forever.

I still use Wikipedia; it continues to be an excellent source for quick referencing. It’s a brave and bold initiative and although, at the grand old age of ten, it’s beginning to look just a tad ‘middle aged’ it still has a lot to offer, always provided one is on guard. Happy birthday Wikipedia, Wales’ Great White Internet Whale!