Thursday 31 March 2011

The Eagle has fallen

I read Rosemary’s Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth when I was in my early teens. It’s a bit of a boy’s own historical yarn, though not without some female interest, based on the legend of the Roman Ninth Legion, which supposedly vanished from history into the bogs and myths of first-century Caledonia, that terra incognita in Britain beyond Hadrian’s Wall and civilization. I loved it, a gripping story, well-written, well-plotted and well-told.

Now I’ve seen The Eagle, a movie directed by Kevin Macdonald based on the book, sort of based on the book, since there are some serious departures, including all of the female interest. I understand that the name change was to stop potential American audiences assuming it was a movie about golf!

Did I enjoy it? Well, yes, on one level I did: the cinematography is superb; Scotland has never looked more beguiling, beautiful, mysterious and eerie on film, all at one and the same time. But overall the movie was stolid rather than solid; plodding, literal-minded, poorly acted, and not very inspiring. It’s also quite derivative. I was reminded of movies as diverse as Apocalypse Now, Rob Roy, Brokeback Mountain (yes, Brokeback Mountain!) and, above all, The Last of the Mohicans. The Caledonian tribe called the Seal People even looked like the Huron Indians.

It’s also a road movie with no roads. Marcus Aquila, a completely wooden performance by Channing Tatum, is a man with a mission: he needs to recover the honour of his family and Rome by recovering the golden eagle standard, lost some twenty years before when his father led the Ninth into an unknown fate in the north. Invalided out of the army after a clash with some barbarians, he sets out north with Esca (Jamie Bell), a British slave gifted to him by his uncle (Donald Sutherland).

Esca had previously been saved from death in a gladiatorial show by the intervention of Marcus, with whom he forms a bond based on honour and obligation, not liking and trust. No, Esca, does not like the Romans; Esca would far rather the Romans went home! Road movie, yes, and now buddy movie, of a sort, with the tension between the two becoming the core of the unfolding drama. This might have worked and worked well but there is no real chemistry between the two characters, between the sleep-walking Tatum and the unremittingly surly Bell.

On their journey Marcus and Esca come across one Guern, played by Mark Strong, an English actor who affects a bogus American accent. You see, all of the Romans here are Americans, which is clearly intended to give the audience a not terribly subtle message about the evolution of imperialism. So, there you have it: now you know that Guern is a Roman, one of a band of survivors of the Ninth who have made a home from themselves in this wasteland. It’s on his intelligence that Marcus finds out that the standard lost in battle is with the Seal People, the most dreaded of the local tribes.

Enter the Hurons. Actually, on further reflection, I was reminded more of a band of sinister and overgrown smurfs, given that the warriors of the Seal People have taken to painting themselves in shades of dirty blue. So, on the trek goes and the Sea People encountered, Esca helpfully being able to speak their language, Gaelic, incidentally, which did not appear in these parts for another four hundred years. No matter; some poetic licence has to be allowed, as nobody now knows the language of the people who lived in the north of Caledonia, the people the Romans referred to as the Picts, the painted ones. Gaelic serves as a reasonable substitute.

I’m beginning to tire as I write because this is turning into one big spoiler. You’ve doubtless guessed the rest; yes, the Eagle is recovered and a dash made for the Wall, punctuated by a confusing battle between the old boys of the Ninth gathered together by Guern, looking ever so much like a band of beat-up hell’s angels or hairy roadies, and the Seal people – I simply could not work out who was doing what to whom.

By the end I really didn’t care that much that Marcus with Esca, now a free man, in tow was able to bring the Eagle to Rome to the delight and surprise of a group of Ameri…sorry, Roman senators. There he was, quest complete, walking off Brokeback-style with Esca into a Roman sunset (well, I did say there were no girls!).

The movie is a disappointment, not bad just disappointing. So much more might have been achieved by better direction, frustrating knowing what Macdonald is capable of in movies like The Last King of Scotland. So much more might have been achieved with a far better lead. The Eagle does not soar, it flutters; The Eagle does not land, it plummets.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

The noblest Roman of them all

Exactly one thousand eight hundred and fifty years ago this month Marcus Aurelius became Emperor of Rome. He ranks as one of my favourite figures in all of history, not just a ruler but a thinker. His Meditations, never intended for publication, are a brilliant series of stoic reflections addressed to himself, musings on all aspects of existence.

Now I have the well-thumbed Penguin edition as a companion, but I first came across the book years ago in and much older edition, published under the title To Himself, which father has in his library. To begin with (I was in my mid-teens) I did not fully understand the depth and subtlety of Marcus’ thinking, but it grew on me steadily. I would not dare to underline passages, or add marginalia, to father’s antique edition but you should see my own!

I find it so impressive that he found the time for such deep reflection, flights of thought which mark him out as one of the great stoic philosophers, because his reign was beset with all sorts of troubles, the early signs of the profound crisis that was to overtake the Roman world in the following century.

He was to spend so much time in camps, defending frontiers from the onset of hostile enemies. I would guess that the life he was obliged to lead would fill most normal individuals with a sense of weariness, cynicism, frustration and anger, or the kind of all too worldly calculations that one finds in the writings of Julius Caesar, but not him. He is perhaps the best examples ever of his own maxim that nothing happens to a man that he is not formed by nature to bear. “Do every act of your life as if it were your last”, he also said to himself, another maxim to which he remained true.

Future generations of Romans would have just cause to look back on the reign of Marcus as the last golden age. One of the greatest, most benign emperors was to be succeeded by one of the least and most malign. In place of the worthy father came Commodus, the worthless son. It showed the canker that lay at the heart of the whole system of governance established by Augustus, which time after time allowed self-indulgence to triumph over self-discipline.

Marcus Aurelius was the exception, not the rule. There was something almost superhuman about him, something of the apprehension of a god. He was the noblest and greatest Roman of them all. Ave Imperator!

Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Cameron plays Palmerston, plays Blair

Behold the Mother of Parliaments; behold the halls where Melbourne once faced Peel, where Gladstone once faced Disraeli. What do you see? It’s like some third-rate parody, starring two political pygmies - David ‘Tony’ Cameron and Ed ‘the Red’ Miliband. I’m a student of history, of political history in particular. It gives me no pleasure to say this but we seem to be in the final stage of senescence; the decline is over; the fall is to come. Yes, this is the way the nation ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.

There they were those two class acts, mouthing the usual mealy platitudes, a happy consensus over the intervention in Libya, over the neo-Palmerstonian approach of the Prime Minister. Yes, Palmerstonian. You see Henry Temple, Lord Palmerston, a dominant figure in British politics for a good bit of the nineteenth century, is apparently one of Cameron’s political heroes, something I found our quite recently.

What a tale there is to tell here! Palmerston, if you don’t know anything of his career, was the exponent of a particularly muscular form of imperialism, the kind that saw Johnny Foreigner as a shower of naughty school kids who needed a firm smack now and again, as well as the occasional pipe of opium to keep them placid, as the Chinese will know. Civis Romanus sum, was Palmerston’s motto, after his most famous speech, in which he argued that a British citizen should be able to walk the earth as the Romans of old, unmolested by any foreign power.

Cameron has gone that one step further: foreign citizens should be able to walk the earth unmolested by their own governments; sorry, make that unmolested by certain governments. Here we are, battering away at Libya in a mind-numbingly arrogant manner, in the pious hope that we will have peace, justice and the Western Way. But we won’t; we will have chaos; we will have death under a NATO umbrella – small wonder that Pontius Obama is washing his hands.

Here we are, a nation in the financial doldrums, a nation whose armed forces are not adequate for the task they have already let alone this new adventure, a nation now engaged in an open-ended commitment in North Africa with no appreciation of the possible outcomes. Palmerston at least had the means to enforce his will. Cameron, anxious to cut a figure on the international stage, has nothing beyond his own pathetic hubris…and a bomb or three.

I was asked in a discussion on the Libyan crisis, where I argued against intervention, if it would be OK to stay out and allow what will happen happen. Yes, I replied, with not the least hesitation; do we not have enough problems of our own without trying to attend to those of others? Does our attention make things better or worse? The world is full of bad people dong bad things. It is not our divinely-ordained task to set wrongs to right.

We are attacking Libya because we can, not because we must; we are attacking it in the same bullying fashion that Palmerston once dealt with places like Greece and China, though with considerable less self-interest involved; attacking it and ignoring the far greater danger from places like Iran and North Korea, attacking it in the name of bogus notions of justice and human rights; we are attacking it while justice and human rights are suppressed by our associates in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Stupidity makes me angry; hypocrisy angrier still.

There is also the naïve assumption that it’s the Colonel on one side and the rest of Libya on the other, that he has no genuine supporters, no people willing to fight and die on his behalf. They are dying alright, dying in an operation which was conceived - I am convinced it was - as no more than a grand assassination attempt – NATO as Murder Incorporated.

I’m a conservative and I’m a Conservative. I was delighted when Cameron became prime minister last May and I’ve done my best to remain loyal and supportive ever since. But this murderous Blairite idiocy is just a step too far. He is claiming to act in the national interest, claiming that if Gaddafi wins then instability would spread throughout the region. But the Colonel was on the threshold of ending a rebellion. Now it’s almost guaranteed to go on indefinitely, creating the very situation that this bullying aggression was intended to prevent.

I note from tonight's news that mission creep is already creeping; I also note that there is a growing awareness of the exact political complexion of the rebels, that it was not all mad rambling from the Mad Colonel.

The last thing Britain needs in the twenty-first century is a Palmerston by way of Blair; but that is exactly what we have. Cameron, Bruce Anderson wrote recently in the Telegraph, could have ended up looking foolish if his efforts at intervention had failed to persuade our allies. He prevailed; he is going to end up looking a lot more than foolish.

Monday 28 March 2011

The Masque of Anarchy

Decent people did well to keep out of central London on Saturday as a ghastly mob exercised their right to ‘peaceful protest’ against the present government’s cuts (cuts; what cuts?). How much more convenient it would have been if they had marched across the English Channel, the waters helpfully parted by God. How much we would have benefited if, half way across, God had allowed the waters to close again, in a moment of ennui or perhaps exercising His own peaceful right to peace.

Just think how much this country would have saved if these tax eaters, dole recipients, holders of worthless public sector jobs (Assistant Deputy Chief Liaison Officer to the Disabled Black Lesbian Caucus); student nurses, ready to learn how to abuse the elderly in lethally dirty National Health Hospitals; teachers who teach nothing in state schools to pupils too stupid to learn anything; recipients of third rate degrees from fourth rate universities, the work-shy ‘workers’, ignorant and worthless people of all sorts, had disappeared for ever. Oh, I can always dream.

No, instead they exercised their right to ‘peaceful protest’ bringing violence and chaos to the streets of our capital, summoned there by the Trade Unions Council; summoned by the likes of Red Len McClusky, a lover of Cuba, Communism and Castro (what; no peaceful right to protest?), so repellent to look at with his thick nose and his heavy features that he would win any ugly man competition nem con.

Once this mob had gathered it was given the support of the Labour Party in the person of Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, a former member of a government, a criminally incompetent government, responsible for the financial morass this country is in at present. Oh, yes, however he may wish to distance himself from the thugs who rampaged along the city streets, sub-human orcs (sorry, I couldn’t resist that!) who relish destruction for the sake of destruction, his very presence was a spur, an indication of the true worth of his loathsome party. This rampage was planned months in advance, as a casual glance at Twitter and Facebook would have shown. Only an idiot would have failed to realise that a riot was in the offing. Oops, sorry, I’ve clearly given Ed a way out.

Only an idiot and the Metropolitan Police, apparently, who in their handling of the mayhem appeared more Keystone than ever, even more than they did in last year’s march against the increase in tuition fees. What the hell is going on? How much more pathetic can London’s police force become, not the ordinary officers, who had light bulbs filled with ammonia thrown at them, but the command, senior officers so anxious to be goody goody that that they invited civil liberties activists to monitor their softly softly approach. How are these idiots going to cope with the forthcoming royal wedding, another anarchist target?

On Saturday they probably took heed of Ugly Red Len’s admonition to keep their hands off “our kids”. I expect they planned a nice party with the anarchists, all sitting down and singing Kumbaya. What a pity it is that heads were not broken instead, what a pity that the ‘accidental’ mayhem was beamed across the world as ‘their kids’ behaved like the apes and troglodytes they are, what an impression others will have of England. How sorry I feel for the poor benighted tourists caught up in the sickening madness.

Does it get any worse? Yes, unfortunately it does. We have a government that pretends to cut public expenditure while increasing it in practice; we have a government that loses control of the nation’s capital while bombarding that of another; we have a government that last week sent six Storm Shadow rockets flying into Libya at a cost of £1million pounds ($1.4million) each. Yes, that’s quite right: £1million each! We have a government unable to read the intelligence properly, a government so besotted with ‘uman rights that it sees virtue in the ‘peaceful right to protest’ even when that ‘peaceful right’ is the prerogative of low class animals, the vermin of the inner city estates, trade unionists and other such creatures. I could suggest a better use for those rockets, another way of reclaiming the expense, just as efficacious as the waters of the Channel.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

Sunday 27 March 2011

History speaks

“Don’t advance on Moscow”, is the first rule of warfare, according to the late Bernard Montgomery, a British Field Marshal and victory of the Battle of El Alamein. The second is don’t go fighting with your land army on the mainland of Asia. The time has come, I think, to reverse the order here: history has only two examples of failure before Moscow compared with the many examples of disaster in Asia; of disasters, in particular, in Afghanistan, the charnel house of empire.

I once wrote that it should be compulsory for ever new incumbent of the White House to read The Quiet American, the novel by Graham Greene set in Vietnam during the last days of the French occupation. Now another book has been published which should be compulsory reading for every western leader, every neo-con and every moral imperialist – Afgantsy: the Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989 by Rodric Braithwaite. Sadly it has come ten years too late. Actually I have a slight qualification here, a point I will come to a little later on.

There are few better qualified to tell the story of the tragic involvement of the old Soviet Union in Afghanistan than Sir Rodric Braithwaite, once British ambassador to Moscow. He begins with an intimate knowledge of Russia, the Russian people and the Russian sources. He also writes with understanding and sympathy for the veterans of this hopeless conflict, the Afgantsy of the title, who fought and suffered under the most appalling circumstances, often caught between the ruthlessness of the enemy and the negligent indifference of their own commanders. Put out of your mind the Red Army of 1943 to 1945. Think, rather, of the Imperial Army of 1914 to 1917.

Braithwaite’s has a tale to unfold whose lightest word harrows up the blood. It’s a story of suffering: the suffering of the ordinary Russian soldiers, mostly ill-educated conscripts, some 15,000 of whom lost their lives; the suffering of the ordinary people of Afghanistan, over a million of whom lost theirs, often in the most dreadful circumstances. It’s also a story of incompetence: the political incompetence of the Kremlin, sinking into geriatric senescence, and the military incompetence of the Russian central command.

The political and strategic incompetence goes wider, goes so far as Washington, to an administration so anxious to avenge the humiliation of Vietnam that it was willing to offer support to the most antediluvian and obscurantist forces, - the mujahideen that was to morph into al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As late as 1998, ten years after the conflict ended, Zbigniew Bzrezinski, former security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, continued to justify American support for the insurgents;

What is more important in the history of the world? The Taliban, or the collapse of the Soviet Empire? Some stirred up Muslims, or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the Cold War?

Here we have the same kind of blindness that led Francis Fukuyama to announce the ‘end of history’, just before history leapt up and bit him, and Bzrezinski, on the arse. It’s the blindness that caused Congressman Charles Wilson to describe Jalaluddin Haqqani, the mujahideen commander, as “goodness personified.” This incarnation of goodness is now number three on America’s most wanted list.

The Soviet road to hell was paved with good intentions. Although reluctant to intervene in the affairs of the country – contrary to Western perceptions at the time – they came hoping to make a difference, to bring this medieval society into the modern age. But the Afghans, in the main, have only ever wanted one thing: to be left alone. The British know this, or should know this, after some fairly disastrous interventions in the nineteenth century. In fact soon after the Soviet invasion the Foreign Office helpfully provided the deputy Soviet foreign minister with an account of past involvements, only to be told that this time it will be different.

But it wasn’t; it never could be. Afghanistan is easy to occupy but impossible to hold, a lesson that needs to be repeated time and again; the lesson that the Soviets ignored, the lesson that George Bush and Tony Blair also ignored. There might be some excuse for Bush, smarting in the aftermath of 9/11; there is none for Blair, given the Foreign Office warning, given our history. So, hence my qualification above: even if Afgantsy had been published years earlier it is doubtful if it would have made any difference to the strategic blindness of this stupid man.

We are now where we are, where the Soviets once were: the wolf is being held by the ears…just. How to let go, that’s the problem. The Russians wanted out years before their final exit. The problem was always to do so while retaining a degree of credibility, the nightmare bequeathed to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Barack Obama and David Cameron would do well to pay heed to this brilliant and superbly researched account of a multi-faceted tragedy. In the end Afghanistan will be left to its own devices at a waste of so many lives and so much effort. History speaks; it’s such a pity that we fail to listen.

Thursday 24 March 2011

No longer a menace

When I was little one of my favourite TV shows was Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, the adventures of a naughty schoolboy and his dog. This Dennis should not be confused with the American version – he’s not nearly as cutesy! No, the British Dennis is much naughtier, much more of a delinquent – or, rather, he was.

Dennis, with his spiky, unkempt hair and red and black striped sweater, first appeared in March 1951 in a children’s comic called The Beano. He has remained a steady feature ever since, growing in popularity, even as he moved down the generations. He was loved precisely because he was a bad boy, because he got into all sort of naughty scrapes. In so many ways he was the perfect outlet for the childish imagination, crossing all sorts of boundaries. Sadly Dennis is no longer such a menace – no, he has been sanitised, giving way to the onward march of political correctness.

I was amused by William Langley’s article in Sunday Telegraph (Why he’s no longer such a naughty boy) describing how Dennis’ standards – my God! -are improving! A timely piece now that the Menace is sixty years old, mature and increasingly rather tame. The whole thing is really quite risible and ultimately condescending, a possible intimation of an encroaching death. Children know when they are being got at – a clean and didactic Menace is the last thing they want!

There is so much irony here, things that unconsciously reveal adult concerns about children. As Langley says, an airbrushed and bubble-wrapped childhood is increasingly being demanded by TV and much of the publishing industry. So Dennis is no longer allowed to carry his catapult and peashooter; Gnasher is no longer allowed to bite people and Walter the Softie, the Menace’s pansy-like alter ego, the object of his repeated persecutions, has been given a girlfriend, Matilda, to counter any accusations that he might be gay! Remember, this is for a target audience whose average age must hover around eight years old.

In the early comics the strip apparently ended up with him being whacked by the parental slipper for his misdeeds. This was long gone, of course, by the time the TV series premièred in the mid-1980s. Langley says that the punishments sent two clear messages to the millions of children who followed the comic strip: that misbehaviour carried consequences and that corporal punishment was futile. Dennis simply became more ingenious in the pursuit of naughtiness!

It’s all gone, punishment, delinquency, all the endearing naughtiness has gone, all of the trademark things that made Dennis Dennis. Oh, no, we can’t have children being shown a bad example. And this for me is where the condescension comes in, the assumption that children are another species, that they can’t distinguish between right and wrong, that if shown a negative example they will simply follow on mindlessly; that they cannot see Dennis simply as an object of harmless entertainment.

The irony is that as Dennis and Walter merge into an anodyne oneness, safe, washed-out, harmless, real delinquency, real harm in the real world, has become increasingly malign. It’s a complete inversion of reality: speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil, and evil will go away. It does not work like that. The menace, sad to say, is no longer Dennis.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

The Peace President

I wrote the following piece for another site not long after Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. I've decided to archive it here in the light of a discussion on Blog Catalogue, and in the light of recent developments on the world stage.

Those who have read my previous blogs will know that I have little time for Obama politically. Still, I can recognise that he is a clever man, a good speaker and a public figure with a warming personality. I also thought that he had a certain degree of tactical skill. The acceptance of this award proves that he has none.

Just think: how much greater he would have looked if he had declined, if he had simply thanked the committee for its generosity but said that the goals set out have still to be achieved. But he could not, because this unexpected and quixotic decision by the Nobel people came at the end of a bad period for Super Obama, capped by a humiliating personal snub by the International Olympic Committee.

I now have a deeper understanding than ever of Obama: he is no more than a celebrity president for a celebrity age, an age where style and image have triumphed over substance and results. Having failed in Copenhagen he bounced back in Oslo. As far as the X factor stakes go he is still up there with a chance.

Now a word or two about the Nobel Committee. My first reaction on hearing the announcement-after thinking it must be a spoof- was that it says nothing at all about President Obama, nothing about his achievements, and heaps about them, about the obvious political bias of these people and, I would add, their desperate attempts at political correctness. It seems obvious to me that Obama is being awarded less for what he is and more for what he is not; he is not a Republican; he is not George W Bush. I also suspect that he was awarded because he is the first black American president, which, if true, is an act of appalling condescension.

Look back on the history of this absurd prize, to whom it was given and, just as important, to whom it was not. Did you know, for example, that Ghandi was nominated five times but never recognised? Those who were recognised included such doves of peace as Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin. And now Obama joins their company, still at the outset not at the end of his career. From this point forward he has the burden of being a peace laureate who most likely will have to take his country ever deeper into war. On the domestic stage he raised expectations that he has been unable to meet. Now on the world stage impossible expectations have been thrust upon him. Who, but a fool, would accept the role of Messiah for a day?

So, there he stands, with one disappointment laid hard upon another. He is dithering over Afghanistan while Americans die; his health reform programme slips and slips; Guantanamo Bay is still open in the face of all of the liberal hopes; he has provoked a quarrel between the politicians and the generals; he looks less and less plausible. And in the midst of all this, all the domestic and foreign problems, he and Michelle had the time to slip over to Copenhagen to put their weight behind Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, yet another failure, another sign that ‘Obama power’ does not work.

But cast down in one Scandinavian capital he was raised up in another, a form of personal compensation. He did not get the Olympics but at least he got ‘Peace.’ I rather suspect that the celebrity President has not the wit to understand that he did not get peace either, that he is unlikely ever to get peace. It’s the triumph of pious hopes over solid achievements.

Monday 21 March 2011

Assumed Identity

The first thing I have to say about Unknown, a Berlin-based thriller directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is that it’s the second movie I’ve seen in the last three days with a wholly implausible script, following soon after The Next Three Days! The second thing is that it’s also quite derivative – The Bourne Identity did it all so much better.

Have I said too much already? No, I don’t think so, because it’s a little more complex than you may imagine. Yes, it’s about misplaced identity, that much is obvious from the advance publicity, though it ends with an interesting twist, unbelievable, but interesting. Nothing ever is as it seems: life is just a set of Chinese boxes. The central theme of Unknown is scary enough: are you are who you are? Can you prove who you are? What if someone else says they are you and can prove it, down to the finest detail?

Liam Neeson, my favourite mature male actor, plays Dr Martin Harris, a biochemist who arrives in Berlin accompanied by his wife (January Jones) for an international conference. He carries his documents, including his passport, in an attaché case, trusting enough to allow a taxi driver to put into the boot (trunk – for you Americans).

The taxi drives off and we cut to a lingering shot on the said case, left behind on a trolley. One just knows that this is the key to all the follows. Even before this I thought to myself, my God, what kind of idiot would let their passport off-person and out of sight? Perhaps biochemists are in a unique class of idiocy? Actually the idiocy is even less excusable, given the said Dr Harris’ true profession.

No sooner have the couple arrived at their hotel, the Adlon, of course (it’s the best in the city), than Harris realises the case is missing. Without even pausing to tell his wife, now at reception, he jumps into another taxi to take him back to the airport. But this is a bad day that can only get worse. Following an accident, the cab immediately plunges into the River Spree, knocking him unconscious and in danger of drowning. Not to worry; he is pulled free by the driver (Diane Kruger), possibly the most unbelievably glamorous cabbie ever!

After a four-day comma, Harris awakes to discover that nobody knows that he is Harris, not even Mrs Harris, who has conveniently found another Harris (Aidan Quinn), who knows as much as the first Harris; not only that but he has the edge – he can prove he is Harris, which leaves Harris in a limbo. Whew! And so it begins, a helter-skelter of twists and turns, an odyssey through the wintery streets of Berlin in the search for self, or someone who can prove the self.

It’s a scary scenario but unfortunately, given his talents, Neeson doesn’t really convince just how scary; there is just a tincy-wincy touch of autopilot in his performance. Friendless, with no papers and nowhere to go, he is fortunate in managing to obtain the assistance of one Ernst Jürgen, a private detective and world-weary former Stasi agent longing for the bad old good old days, played with consummate skill by the veteran Bruno Ganz (think Adolf, think Downfall), for me the highlight of the whole film. He also manages to link up with the taxi driver, who turns out to be a Bosnian illegal by the name of Gina, another valuable prop in his quest.

Poor Doctor Harris is certainly in need of support: not only can he not prove who he is but there are also some mysterious people on his tail, who clearly intend him no good. What we are treated to is assassination attempts followed by mandatory wild car chases through the streets of the German capital, with the police seemingly uninterested that their city is being turned into Los Angeles!

Now I hate spoilers, or reviews that do little more than rehash the plot, so I’m not going to give too much more away. I will say that the truth within the truth, or the small nonsense within the greater nonsense, is revealed when one Professor Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), turns up, a colleague who is a colleague and who is not a colleague and one and the same time, at least not in the sense that Harris thought he was a colleague, if you take my meaning, which doubtless you don’t!

I’m running away here, being too clever by half. Unknown is enjoyable enough as far as this sort of thing goes, once seen and twice forgotten. It’s hokum, that’s certainly true, but it carries one along quite nicely to the unexpected dénouement. The explosion in the real-life (and excellent) Hotel Adlon was one of the biggest surprises for me, not the sort of thing, one would have thought, that the management would like to place in the mind of some freelance crackpot. Presumably the returns, and the publicity, outweighed the caution.

An explosive ending, yes, but ask yourself, once you’ve seen it, if you were Gina would you really have walked off with that man with no name, knowing he isn’t what he was, knowing what he was, knowing what he may still be? And on that cryptic note I finish.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Cassandra’s Lament

If there is ever some future Chilcot Inquiry over David Cameron’s war on Libya he will, unlike Tony Blair, his avatar and inspiration, be able to wave his little flag: “But it was all perfectly legal. The United Nations said so.”

Oh, yes, there is that vote in the Security Council, with no opposition. But look at the abstentions, five of them, including Russia and China, countries that know how to play the diplomatic game according to the only rules that matter – those once laid down by Niccolò Machiavelli. Now, as western missiles and bombs once again rain down on an Arab country, the Russians are expressing regret over international military action, taken after a “hastily approved” UN resolution.

We used to play the game of diplomatic risk well in this country, in accordance with our own interests, but not any longer. Now muddle, incompetence and confusion is followed by a rush to the moral high ground. Cameron says that the present bombardment is “necessary, legal and right.” I wrote about this “necessary, legal and right” prospect not so long ago (Keep out of Libya), a whisper lost in the storm.

It’s just so frustrating, the stupidity and incompetence is frustrating, just as Cameron’s determination to walk in the paths of the wretched Tony Blair is frustrating. We, for reasons I find almost impossible to understand, given how overstretched our military and how threadbare our finances, are now involved in another dreadful gung-ho war, the hat-trick to add to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Consider what Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy have done, look at the possible outcomes. The Colonel’s offensive may be halted, frozen exactly where it is, leaving him in control of Tripoli and the west with the rebels holding on to Benghazi and the east. This may be a permanent state, with Libya hereafter a divided nation, a political fracture caused by tomahawks. I would hazard that the whole region will be destabilised as a result. I would hazard further that, once the dust settles, the Muslim world will see this exactly for what it is – another act of Western aggression.

But the Arab League is behind this, so the objection goes. Yes, they are, against repression in Libya while some of their hypocritical members enforce it in Bahrain. And what of Yemen, what of the people of Yemen, do they somehow matter less than the people of Libya?

But it’s the ignorance of our great world leaders that perplexes me most, their complete incomprehension when it comes to the Arab world, the tribal nature of the Arab world, the tribal nature of places like Libya. The Colonel for all his lunacy at least gave the place unity, a sense of national identity. David Cameron says he does not want a failed pariah state on Europe’s southern flank, “potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for our allies, as well as for the people of Libya.” But, as Daniel McCarthy wrote recently in the Spectator, a failed state is exactly what Libya is almost certain to become, one of constant civil war between competing tribes, Somalia on the Med.

The rebels are not strong enough to remove Gaddafi by their own efforts, that much is clear, just as the Iraqi rebels were not strong enough to remove Saddam after the First Gulf War. So, what’s next? Mission creep, that’s what, either supplying the rebels with arms, causing yet more loss of life, or sending in ground forces to end the deadlock that this precipitate action is likely to create. Bombing alone is unlikely to remove Gaddafi. Just wait to see how Al-Jazeera reports, just wait to see how it goes down in the Muslim world when the first school or hospital is hit by a ‘smart’ bomb.

I can’t believe that I’m raising this; I can’t believe that our government has not considered this dreadful prospect, a government that launches aircraft carriers with no aircraft, an administration blinded by Cameron’s laughable self-righteousness. Was one Iraq not enough? Are we to see body bags from Libya? Starting one dreadful war without forward planning or proper comprehension may be regarded as a misfortune, starting two looks like carelessness, or stupidity, or a whole combination of things that have nothing to do with the interests of this country and its people. For the love of God, here we are again. Who would have believed it possible?

Oh, mystery, misery! Again comes on me
The terrible labour of true prophecy, dizzying prelude.
Do you see these who sit before the house,
Children, like the shapes of dreams?
Children who seem to have been killed by their kinsfolk,
Filling their hands with meat, flesh of themselves,
Guts and entrails, handfuls of lament -
Clear what they hold - the same their father tasted.

Angst Ridden President

As I write French mirage jets are patrolling the skies over Libya. In Paris President Sarkozy is talking tough, standing on his high-heeled shoes;

In Libya, a civilian population which is passive which requires nothing further than the right to choose itself its destiny finds itself in danger of life. We have a duty to respond to its angst-ridden call.

The future of Libya belongs to the Libyans. We do not want to take a decision on their behalf. The fight that they are undergoing is their's. If we intervene on the side of Arab nations, it is not to impose on the Libyan people, but to apply to a universal conscience that cannot tolerate such crimes.

Yes, Sarkozy, the conscience of humanity, has heard that ‘angst ridden call,’ though less from the Libyan rebels and much more from the French people, increasingly perplexed by the bewildering turns in their foreign policy, by the sheer incompetence of their ‘angst-ridden’ president. He has an election next year, you see, and the Libyan situation is just so convenient, giving the Little Man the chance to pretend he is a Big Man, Napoleon IV, cutting a fine figure on the world stage. There he is, grandstanding in Paris while his bombs fall on the people of Libya.

I find it a little hard to accept homilies from a president of France about a “universal conscience,” one that seemingly “cannot tolerate such crimes.” Where was this ‘universal conscience’, I wonder, when French intervention contributed to the genocide in Rwanda? Is there any greater hypocrisy here, any greater mendacity in a ‘universal conscience’ that is silent at one moment and shouting at the next.

Forgive me if I express just a soupcon of cynicism over Super Mouse and his moveable conscience, one that allowed France to sell the selfsame weapons to the Mad Colonel that were used against those expressing that ‘angst-ridden’ call. I think it must have been another man, possibly a doppelganger, who received the Colonel in Paris in December 2007, telling the press that he was not perceived as a dictator in the Arab world. It was this fraudster, one not sensitive to ‘angst ridden’ calls or the ‘universal conscience,’ who proceeded to sell the Libyans fighter jets worth billions of Euros.

Let’s be frank: French intervention in Libya has nothing to do with humanity and everything to do with prestige, at least the prestige of the country’s beleaguered and ridiculous president, one who is happy to do deals with dictators when it suits and turn on them when it does not, all for the greater glory the Sarkozy.

As French jets now fly in the name of humanity the time might have come to ask Monsieur le Président some awkward questions about Laurent Gbagbo, about a prior commitment to the people of the Ivory Coast. Is there something wrong, I ask, is their ‘angst ridden call’ not quite as loud as that from Libya?

Thursday 17 March 2011

All for love

My attention was drawn recently to The Next Three Days, a 2010 thriller directed by Paul Haggis starring Russell Crowe. I don’t remember this on general release. It’s unlikely that I would have gone to see it anyway, because I dislike Russell Crowe, less for his acting abilities, much more for his loutish off-screen persona, pure prejudice on my part I freely admit.

Well, now I’ve seen it and I’m quite glad that I’ve seen it. It’s far from being a great movie – the script is far too implausible and the direction too uneven – but it is a good one, which managed to engage me on a simple emotional level. The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are far from encouraging, many negative or lukewarm at best, which I find really quite surprising. Perhaps the consensus went out that Crowe needed a turkey.

Crowe plays John Brennan, a mild mannered college professor (Russell Crowe?!), whose wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for the murder of her boss. The evidence against her is circumstantial though Haggis leaves the issue of her innocence or guilt as an open question. It’s only at the very end that the matter is resolved in a series of flashback scenes. No, I’m not going to tell you; discover for yourself!

So, we now fast forward three years. Laura, tried and convicted, has been incarcerated for life in Pittsburgh’s formidable maximum security prison. John is in despair; every legal avenue has been exhausted. Nobody, seemingly not even the family lawyer, believes in Lara’s innocence; but he does, really as an act of total conviction born simply of faith and love. I have to say I was really quite impressed by the way Crowe shaped this character, perplexed and vulnerable, so far from his usual tough guy roles, though I have a caveat here which I will come to in a moment.

Bad news comes: Lara is to be transferred, which will make it more difficult for John and their young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) to come and see her, a piece of news that triggers a suicide attempt. John, as a last act, decides that his only recourse is to help his wife escape. With all the thoroughness of an academic, he begins to research the prospects, consulting one Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), an ex-convict who managed to escape from prison, publishing a book about his experience. John is told that the most difficult part is not the escape but evading capture afterwards. He is also told that he is going to need money, lots of money, to sustain life as both out of the law and out of the country.

Money, now that’s a problem, given all the more urgency when John finds that he has less time to plan than he imagined: Laura is to be transferred in the next three days. He has a house which he can’t sell fast enough; so, what does he do? Why, just the sort of thing any home-loving, mild-mannered college professor would do – he raids a crack den and shoots up the bad guys, making off with their loot!

This is the point where the script descends into a form of parody. John is a little too handy with a gun for a literature professor, a little too controlled, a little too like, well, a little too like Russell Crowe. From this point forward one really has to suspend disbelief big time. No matter; it proceeds at a decent pace after John hits on a cracking plan, false starts all behind.

Now I’m willing him on all the way. His planning is meticulous, including a set of ‘clues’ he leaves for the police. In the end this sets them off on the wrong track entirely, though it struck to me as rather odd that they would seriously believe that an American couple with a young son in tow would make for post-earthquake Haiti!

Yes, the plot is implausible, yes, the direction is not quite as competent as it should be, but this is a decent, well-made thriller, one that does not move at a frenetic, hyper-active pace. The performances are solid, not just Crowe but Banks, unfairly putdown in some of the notices. Credible mention should also be made of some of the minor roles – Liam Neeson gives what I have come to expect of him, and Brian Dennehy, who plays George Brennan, John’s father, is always excellent value. Overall The Next Three Days is a good study of psychological pressure, of the choices that have to be made in extremis, of an ordinary man doing extraordinary things for love.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Sinking a myth

I sometimes wonder which is the more powerful – myth or history. Actually, no, I don’t: I know that myths have a power that defies history, defies any attempt at sober analysis. I recently took part in an online discussion of the general denseness of contestants on American game shows. The point was made that they could not answer relatively simple questions, a question like the sinking of what ship led to U.S. entry into the First World War.

I knew at once that we were in the arena of myth simply by the way in which the question had been framed, in the singular - the sinking of what ship. I’ve come across it before, in British game shows, where the same misleading question was posed and the same wrong answer given. In the discussion thread my initial point was that while Americans may be slow it does not generally take them almost two years to make up their minds!

So, no more of this; let’s get to the point; let me sink that ship that might just be floating in your head. The RMS Lusitania, yes, that’s the one, was sunk in May 1915. America did not enter the war until April 1917, as a result of not one but multiple sinkings. The Lusitania incident may have begun a shift in American opinion against Germany, but there is no direct connection between its torpedoing off the coast of Ireland and Woodrow Wilson’s decision to ask Congress to approve a declaration of war in the spring of 1917.

You may thing the point is overly subtle, but it’s not. The Lusitania might be said to occupy the same place in popular consciousness as the USS Maine, who’s sinking in Havana harbour led to the Spanish-American War of 1898. But if you are going to Remember the Lusitania remember that it was sunk in the first phase of Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign, under which all ships entering British territorial waters were held to be legitimate targets. This was subsequently abandoned in the light of adverse American reaction.

Now move two years forward, or a few months forward from the presidential election of November 1916, when Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election on a slogan of “He kept us out of the war”, not “Remember the Lusitania.” The chance of America entering the conflict on behalf of the Allies was not especially high, so long as Germany restricted its submarine campaign.

It’s now early 1917. There had been a major change in Germany’s domestic politics. In place of civilian government a kind of military dictatorship had been established, directed by the duumvirate of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Under pressure from them, and contrary to the advice of the Chancellor, the Kaiser agreed to a second unrestricted U-boat campaign.

It was the First World War’s Pearl Harbor moment: all parties knew that unleashing the wolf packs in the Atlantic would cause American entry into the war. For Hindenburg and Ludendorff it was a calculated gamble. They understood, quite rightly, that it would take up to a year for the United States to mobilise properly, by which time, with the Allies starved of supplies, the stalemate on the Western Front might be broken. They believed, quite wrongly, that the U-boat campaign would be enough.

So, the sinking began afresh, of ship after ship, vessels whose names, unlike the Lusitania, are now forgotten; but it was the many not the one that caused Wilson to deliver his War Message to Congress on that April evening in 1917.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Justice in the European Style

Let me paint a picture for you, a sketch for a possible future. The countries of North and South America have joined together to form a more perfect, transnational union. This is not just about trade, oh, no; there are directives and ukase of one kind or another, coming from the American Union’s (AU) headquarters in, say, Mexico City.

You are at home, perhaps somewhere in the mid-West. You are a citizen of a free country, one whose legal system draws on the tradition of English common law, going all the way back to Magna Carta. The Constitution is your greatest protection, guaranteeing your civil liberties. Do not be so sure.

Listen; someone is at the door. You answer. There are two officers from the local police force, who promptly arrest you on a warrant issued in Guatemala. You are held prior to deportation. There is no point in sending for your lawyer; for you have been detained under an AU Arrest Warrant. No evidence need be produced and no court, not even the Supreme Court itself, has the power to stop its execution.

The thing is, you see, judges have to assume that all jurisdictions in the AU operate the same standards; that all are equally fair; that from Terra del Fuego to Baffin Island justice is done and seen to be done. So off you go to Guatemala, to an uncertain future, to a country with completely alien legal traditions. Your government has failed in its most fundamental duty – protecting the rights and liberties of its own citizens.

This is a fantasy, you think, some dreadful fictional dystopia. Yes, for you it is; for those of us living in the European Union it’s a reality; it has been since 2004. This Sunday Andrew Gilligan writing in the Telegraph reported on the case of Andrew Symeou, a student of previously unblemished character, arrested at his north London home in the summer of 2009 before being packed off to Greece on a charge of manslaughter.

I don’t want to go into the details of the case other than to say that the evidence against Mister Symeou looks highly suspect, confessions, that’s all, obtained by the kind of methods favoured by the Greek police, from witnesses who have since retracted their statements. But the truly shocking think is the procedures involved, the primitive and backward nature of the Greek legal system, which means that the last thing this man is getting is fair, effective and, above all, speedy justice. The worst thing of all is that he can’t even understand what’s being said in court.

What, there are no translators? Oh, yes, there are translators alright, one of whom concluded her account of a legal argument with the words “Or something like that”, another who translated Symeou’s ‘No’ as a ‘Yes.’ Badly educated and underpaid, these are the people that the accused is relying upon to make sense of the whole bewildering process.

This man has now spent almost two years in Greece, nine months in a maximum security prison and a further year unable to leave the country, waiting for some kind of justice. We are in the world of Josef K, straight out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. After almost two years and three postponements, Andrew S (oh, why not?) finally got a chance to test the evidence against him last Thursday, when the trial finally opened. Yes, it opened and just as quickly closed again. Proceedings lasted all of forty-five minutes, before the judge adjourned, accepting an objection to the latest incompetent translator. As Greek courts seemingly come and go as they please (they don’t even sit on consecutive days), Andrew S has no idea when his nightmare may end.

"Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Carry on Upstairs Downstairs

Last September ITV, the commercial television company in England, began airing Downton Abbey, a new costume drama set in Edwardian England. It was successful enough to warrant a second series, which will be aired later this year.

I so wanted to see it, not just because I love historical dramas but also because the script was written by Julian Fellowes, the English actor, novelist and screen-writer responsible for Gosford Park, a wonderful movie that, amongst other things, explores class relations in the England of the 1930s in a splendidly comic light. Unfortunately I don’t have a telly in my rooms at college, so I missed the debut series. To make good I was given the DVD as a Christmas present.

Now, at last, I’ve seen it…and I rather wish I had not! What a disappointment it is, how ridiculous the script, how absurdly modern the view of Edwardian people and times. I could have excused it if it had the same comic overtones as Gosford Park, but it does not. Oh, sorry, that’s not quite true, because it worked for me on a level of pastiche, so much so that, at first reflection, I thought Fellowes might have written in an intentionally sardonic mood, laughing at those who take this kind of tosh seriously. Oh, yes, it’s tosh alright, a sort of Carry on Upstairs Downstairs

I’m not sure where to begin, so the butler might be the best place. Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the said butler, has a shady past: well, not really - he was once part of a music-hall double act, the Cheerful Charlies; that’s all. Butlers, of course, are the ultimate word in being a gentleman’s gentleman; so when Charles Griggs (Nicky Henson), the other Charlie, turns up he decides to be a right Charlie by attempting a spot of extortion, just to show that Charlie the Butler is no better than he ought to be. He finally enters the grand house, admitted by the front door (really?), wearing a crown derby hat, the sure sign of a cad (it helps to be able to read the signs!) Enter Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and lord of this absurd manor, who promptly pays off this Dick Dastardly! Why not just tell him to fuck off? I would not have been surprised if he had; it would have been quite in keeping with the tone being set!

Lord Grantham has daughters, three of them - Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Finlay). Unfortunately his male heir died in the sinking of the Titanic, an event with which Downton is ushered in, and as the girls can’t inherit the estate in their own right the best thing is to marry the eldest off to some wealthy husband. The duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox) is a possibility, so he is invited to trot along as a house guest. The problem is he is a bit of an Oscar Wilde in sexual preference, not only that but he immediately tries to seduce Thomas (William Mason), a footman. So, it’s bye, bye your gay grace!

Next one Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is found, a distant cousin who turns out to be a frightful middle-class prig, with his even more frightful do-gooding mother (Penelope Wilton), who clashes dreadfully with the old dowager countess (Maggie Smith). Not really the county set, don't ye know.

Poor Lady Mary, faced with the prospect of being married to this tiresome and earnest bore, has a bit of a fling when Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), a lusty Turkish diplomat, turns up in the house, and almost as promptly turns up in her bedroom. There, in the course of the night, the tupping Turk, obviously exhausted by his sexual exertions, shuffles off his mortal coil. Oh, I forgot to mention that he was helped to find the bedroom by a gay servant, one the duke obviously missed, who made the mistake of trying his chances.

Oh, what to do, what to do? Think of the scandal – a naked Turk, a naked dead Turk in her ladyship’s bed! Mummy (Elizabeth McGovern), an unflappable old brick, immediately comes to the rescue, and with the aid of Daisy (Sophie McShera), the scullery maid (the scullery maid!!), carries the said dead naked Turk back to his own bed. All are sworn to secrecy but, alas, Daisy later confides in Lady Edith, the jealous younger sister (what, no Turk?), who promptly writes to the Turkish ambassador, revealing all the facts, the sort of thing that Edwardian sisters did. Don’t worry; Mary gets her own back, putting the kibosh on Edith’s marriage prospects!

I could go on like this, go on about this risible commune, where the upstairs people are equally at home in downstairs worlds, but I’m getting bored with the whole silly farrago. Hugh Bonneville, whose performance is unbelievably wooden, was interviewed recently, saying that people enjoy the series because it reminds them of the simple values of ‘dignity’ and ‘mutual respect’ that used to exist in this country. Oh, not I, Hugh, you dear old thing; it reminds me of something else altogether, like slapstick and farce! No matter; seemingly American folk are also lapping it up, this tale of Never Never Land. :-)

Monday 14 March 2011

Keep out of Libya!

I’m beset with a sense of déjà vu. Speaking recently at the Women in the World conference, ex-president Bill Clinton, king of the liberal interventionists, called for the West to join in the Libyan civil war on behalf of the rebels. “I think we should support them”, he said, “We have the planes to make an appropriate contribution to this.”

Meanwhile, David Cameron, the British prime minister, a sort of political Mister Bean, has been seen trotting along the European corridors of power, trying – so far without a great deal of success – to get agreement on a no-fly zone and targeted airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces. Europe, he believes, must do more to stop the Mad Colonel’s rampage against his own people.

Yes, as I have said, a sense of déjà vu. It’s Kosovo all over again; it’s Clinton in the same role; it’s Cameron pathetically trying to don the mantle of Tony Blair, Britain’s home-grown war monger. Was that a success? Well, I suppose it defends on one’s definition of success. A ruthless bombing campaign directed against civilian targets in Serbia, coupled with support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, a kind of murderous mafia headed by Hashim Thaçi, Blair’s chum, which is alleged to have smuggled heroin and cocaine into Western Europe, as well as butchering Serbs to sell their organs. The outcome was an independent and semi-criminal fiefdom in the Balkans, with Thaçi as Mr. Big. Yes, as I say, it really depends on how one defines success.

How much of this kind of self-righteous interventionism can the world take, I have to ask? How many more pyrrhic ‘successes’ must we celebrate; how many more Kosovos, Afghanistans and Iraqs? But there is more here, a more pertinent question: what business is it of ours, what business is it of Europe and America, to go dashing from here to there around the Third World setting wrongs to right? What incredible arrogance, what hubris, this displays, a nineteenth century gunboat mentality with a twenty-first century gloss of canting hypocrisy.

I have no doubt at all that Gaddafi is a ‘bad man’, a dictator, one under whom I personally would not care to live. But he is still a recognised head of state, one with whom we were quite happy to do business until quite recently. Do we know anything of the rebels? Do we know anything of their politics, other than their desire to get rid of the Colonel? Have Clinton or Cameron even paused to think what a post-Gaddafi Libya may look like? Do I need to hazard answers here?

The point is, like him or not, like it or not, Gaddafi has every right to deal with insurrection in any fashion he sees fit. Throughout history governments have taken action to contain rebellion, not excluding those of England and the United States. Yet there seems to be a special condescension when it comes to places like Libya that allows pontification over what is and what is not acceptable, schoolmasters addressing homilies to naughty children.

It’s as well to remember that we once intervened in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban. We intervene in places like Libya at our own peril. The last thing we should expect after the event is gratitude. That much should be obvious from the fiasco that is Iraq.

Sunday 13 March 2011

City of the Book

My first sight of Jerusalem was in a taxi, driving up from the airport at Tel Aviv. It was a winter afternoon in late November, with the sun well down on the horizon. The colour tones were all light-grey, not drab, just grey upon grey, dramatically punctuated by a brilliant flash of gold from the Dome of the Rock: it was almost as if I had been allowed the briefest glimpse of the celestial city, Zion itself!

It was the new city we drove into, with the old beyond, the Turkish walls prominent on the horizon. My first impression was of sheer ordinariness, all a bit anti-climatic. After all, Jerusalem is a place that one has visited countless times in the imagination - the city of David, the city of Jesus, the city of Mohammed, the city of God. It was only gradually that the reality caught up with the romance. Yes, this is an ordinarily extraordinary place; here I am walking on the flagstones of history itself, on the paths of destiny.

I’ve now visited the city again through the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem; the Biography. What a story he has to tell, tragic and bloody, exhilarating and uplifting; how well he tells it, with style, ease and a superb eye for detail, for the artist’s colourful vignettes that bring the place to life.

It’s the story of us all: it’s the story of civilization itself, of the rise and fall of empires and dynasties; but it is the particular story of the Jews, the people who might be said to be defined by a place that for so long existed only in prayer and longing – “Next year in Jerusalem.” Largely driven out by the Romans in AD 70 and again in AD 135, they began an epic wandering of exile and return, one that has an almost mythic and Biblical quality, a greater Exodus.

In place of the Jews came so many others – the Romans and their Byzantine inheritors, the Persians, the Arabs, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Crusaders, the Seljuk Turks the Kurds, the Mamaluks, the Mongols, the Ottomans and, in 1917, the British, General Allenby achieving something that had proved too much even for Richard the Lionheart. Jerusalem is not so much a place, more an obsession. It was obsession, faith and persecution that finally saw the return of the first people of the Book.

Montefiore’s ‘biography’ is a stunning achievement given the range of time and the vastness of detail that has to be covered, given the stages of the life. History has been laid down here layer by layer, one civilization building on the stones of another, one religion laid down on the beliefs of another, the sediments of time and faith. But given the sensitivity of the place, given its importance in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the kind of archaeology that would uncover so much of what is hidden has always been problematic, particularly around the area of the Temple Mount.

In this particular regard the author touches on the story of one Captain Monty Parker, a louche Englishman, a sort of Flashman-like figure, whose archaeological explorations in the city before the First World War in search of the Ark of the Covenant were carried out with an Indiana Jones lack of finesse. He is the only man in history to have caused a riot that united Muslims and Jews!

The other thing about this deeply impressive and lucid book is that Montefiore manages to pack in so much so effortlessly without seeming to overwhelm one with detail; but there is detail and detail aplenty, from high history to the comically Rabelaisian. I found myself laughing out loud at certain parts, not just his account of Captain Monty but also his sketch of some of the earlier pilgrims, who did not always arrive filled with holy purpose and celestial thoughts.

It’s important to remember that Jerusalem is on so many ways a city of sinners rather than saints (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath visited three times!) There is Arnold von Harff, a German knight, who visited the city in the fifteenth century, armed with a few phrases in Arabic and Hebrew, which leave little doubt as to his profane intentions;

How much will you give me?
I will give you a gulden.
Are you a Jew?
Woman, let me sleep with you tonight.
Good madam, I am ALREADY in your bed.

Yes, there are moments of comedy but it’s heavily outweighed by the tragedy of a place where so much suffering and death has been caused by zealotry and fanaticism. There is the madness of the city during the siege of Titus; the horror of the mass crucifixions that followed its capture; there is the massacre that took place after it fell to the Crusaders in 1099, which caused the streets to stink with decomposing flesh for months after; massacre, mayhem and murder, century after century.

The tragedy, and the pettiness, has even invaded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Christ’s crucifixion, where the various Christian sects acted out ancient debates and hatreds, not stopping, on occasions, short of murder.

Montefiore is an excellent historian, the writer of superb biographies of people as diverse as Prince Potemkin and Josef Stalin. I expect the highest degree of accuracy from him, which makes the occasional minor lapses all the more annoying. It was Louis IX and not Louis XI, the treacherous Spider King, who led the last effective crusade (the idea of the latter on Crusade is more than ridiculous!).

I can excuse that, a mere slip of the Roman digits, but what I find more difficult to overlook is the contention that General Charles Gordon helped to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, which took place fifteen years after his death! But this is a minor quibble that did next to nothing to stop my enjoyment of a work of history that also manages to transform itself into a superlative work of literature. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Thursday 10 March 2011

I come to praise Caesar

I wrote the following polemic last year for another, multi-author site. I’m reviving it here because the subject was alluded to in another discussion elsewhere. Enjoy. :-)

It’s a dangerous thing to put one’s head in the lion’s mouth. Still, I enjoy danger, I enjoy taking risks. I’ve hinted before that I might write in praise of Augusto Pinochet, the late dictator of Chile, the saviour of his country and a friend of my own. So, yes, I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. I come to pull him from under a mountain of dead dogs, heaped upon him by the left in the process of damnatio memoriae.

First, let me say a word or two on the political and historical context. The Cold War, as Niall Ferguson says in The War of the World, was anything but cold; no, it was a prolonged struggle between the communist and the free world in which a series of conflicts by proxy were fought out, all the way from Korea to Nicaragua.

It was a war that threw up some real horrors, as wars do, none worse than Pol Pot, none more genocidal than the Khmer Rouge. It was a struggle, moreover, that the West looked at points as if it might lose, especially in the period leading up to the end of the war in Vietnam, a period which saw the advance of communist and communist supported regimes across a good part of the world. It was a war that saw all sorts of dirty tricks being used, as counter-attack followed hard upon attack. It was against this background that the Marxist Salvador Allende came to power in Chile, backed by a communist-left alliance.

Yes, bad things happen in wars and it’s simply inconceivable for Richard Nixon not to have worked towards the downfall of this regime, given the Cuban example, and given the poor strategic situation across the world. Even so, it’s quite wrong to see the 1973 coup as no more than a CIA-inspired operation. No, the incompetent Allende brought his downfall upon himself. In his brief period of power he had effectively wrecked the Chilean economy. It is a terrible thing to destroy a democracy, of that I have no doubt, but Allende’s democracy was effectively destroying itself. If Pinochet was an evil he was a necessary evil.

The military coup of 1973 was certainly violent, perhaps more violent than strictly necessary. Still, it was considerably less violent than the murderous revolution in Cuba. Pinochet killed his thousands, certainly, but Castro his tens of thousands. I simply do not understand those on the left, alert to human rights abuses in one place, blind to them in another.

I certainly don’t deny that the general came as a surgeon, but after some drastic procedures Chile started a miraculous and sustained recovery. Pinochet’s free market reforms made the country the most dynamic economy in Latin America, a position it retains today. It’s also as well to remember that, once the economic problems had been addressed, it was Pinochet who restored Chilean democracy on a stable and lasting foundation. Contrast that with Cuba where dictatorship deepened as the economy was ruined; contrast that with Venezuela, where a Castro clone is in the process of destroying a naturally rich economy while he increases his personal power.

And, of course, if it had not been for Pinochet, if it had not been for the vital support that he extended during the 1982 Falklands’ conflict our task there would have been all the more difficult. Sadly he was demonised by the liberals and the left; disgracefully he was placed under arrest and held against his will during a visit to this country, a shabby and vindictive return for past favours.

The General deserves to be better remembered, remembered for his courage, his vision and his determination. Time is bringing a better understanding of General Franco; time will bring a better understanding of General Pinochet.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Praising Prussia

Not long before it sank into the sands of time the German Democratic Republic, the old communist pseudo-state created out of the post-war Soviet zone of occupation, decided that it really needed to root itself in history. The people’s state, in other words, tried to graft itself on to the people’s affections by discovering a tradition, an honourable and identifiable past.

The Third Reich was clearly out of the question and the Weimar Republic problematic, so back and back they went. The Second Reich, the adolescent empire of Kaiser Bill, may have been better than what came after, though not by much.

Onwards, ever onwards, through successively disappointing layers until the old pre-unification state of Prussia, formally abolished in 1947, emerged in the light. That was to be the tradition, not just Prussia but Frederick the Great, the very icon of Prussian militarism, was the new avatar, right up there with Karl Marx, history’s oddest couple.

East Germany has gone but Prussia lives, undergoing a second revival in the bold new Germany, uncertain about its future and anxious about its past. It’s such an odd thing to be a communist or a conservative in Germany, for so long a nation without memory, without pride in the past, without a proper sense of place.

It’s almost impossible to get over the ruinous colossus of Hitler, strewn across the path, other than by a Prussian route. After all, it was the Prussians in the military who offered some spark of honour in the bungled Bomb Plot of July, 1944.

Other icons are emerging, notably Luise, queen consort to Frederick William III, Prussia’s very own Queen of Hearts, famous for her courage in trying to save the country from a vengeful Napoleon after the defeat at Jena in 1806. She was among other women featured in Preussens Eros – Preussens Musen (Prussia’s Eros – Prussia’s Muses), an exhibition which opened in the old garrison town of Potsdam last September, dedicated to those who demonstrated strength in times of crisis.

There is more than nostalgia at work here in this reengagement with history. The Germans have been lied to so often by politicians drawing on the fear of past sins. It’s not that long ago that Helmut Kohl, the former Chancellor, was absurdly telling the nation that the only alternative to monetary union was a Europe at risk of war, a point made by Roger Boyes in the latest issue of Prospect magazine.

It’s difficult to believe that he could get away with such abject nonsense. Just imagine the ridicule that would greet a British politician who said that the only alternative to abolishing the pound would be war! But for a nation fearful of its militant past, fearful of history, such a Jeremiah-like warning clearly had a certain persuasive power.

Not any longer. A fresh appraisal of aspects of the past has been encouraged by concerns about the future, concerns about the very existence of Germany as a nation, concerns about the validity of the Euro-zone, about European policy as a whole. Last year Thilo Sarazzin, a former member of the executive board of the Deutsche Bundesbank and a socialist politician, published Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany abolishes itself), raising serious concerns over immigration policy and German identity. The book has been a huge success.

This comes on top of the new Prussian pride, which, in addition to exhibitions and books, is seeing the reconstruction of the old Berlin palace of the Hohenzollern princes, destroyed by the communists after 1945. The crown jewels of the old monarchy are also being returned to the Charlottenburg Palace. Meanwhile the call has gone out for the remains of the last Kaiser, buried in Holland, to be reinterred in his native land.

I can see so many positive aspects in this Prussian revival, not just for Germans but for all the peoples of Europe. Nations can only exist with a proper sense of who they are, where they have been and where they are going. Nations can only exist with active and committed citizens. The cosmopolitan idea, the idea that people can be managed like children by lying politician, by technocrats and by civil servants, the wretched ideal of the wretched European Union, is not enough; it could never be enough. Prussia as an ideal has so much positive value; a land not just of soldiers but of thinkers; the land not just of Frederick the Great but of Immanuel Kant.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Italy and the Dirty Don

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s sleazy and priapic prime minister, is a puzzle. This shady, corrupt, dirty old sexual predator, ever preying on young girls, should have been ejected from office long since. He would have been…in any other country but Italy. But the Dirty Don is a product, a product of history, a product of the Risorgimento, the nineteenth century ‘resurgence’, which saw the creation of the modern state, the imperfect end of an imperfect process.

There is a very interesting piece by Alexander Lee in the History Matters section of the March issue of History Today, in which he argues that Berlusconi type – yes, he is a type – is a direct consequence of Italy’s democratic deficit. It’s a timely article, coming on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the country’s unification, which falls on 17 March.

The thing is, you see, Italy emerged as a state before it became a nation. I would go further: Italy is the nation that never was. Unification was only a partial process, a political process unaccompanied by any deep-rooted sense of common identity. Even today one of the strongest forces in Italian politics, the Northern League, is committed to separation from the south, the old Kingdom of Naples, frogmarched into Italy by Garibaldi and his Red Shirts in 1860.

So there it was: the new nation thrown up on the European shores. But while there may have been some enthusiasm for the ideal of Italy, at least among the educated classes (peasants in Sicily thought it was the name of the king of Piedmont's wife!), there was little or none for democratic accountability. Garibaldi himself saw the individual as less important than the state. The old bone-head and his Red Shirts; Mussolini and his Black Shirts - there is really no difference, just so long as there is a shirt!

Cynicism over democratic accountability was compounded by the style of parliamentary politics that emerged after unification: one of cronyism, localism, corruption and naked self-interest. As Lee says, even for leading figures of the Risorgimento parliament was no more than a market place for sinecures, jobs and contracts. The kickback culture was king; it remains king.

Parliament, then, was simply a theatre of organised abuse, which explains why Italian ‘democracy’ died so readily in 1922, typically in a backstage deal, not in Mussolini’s ludicrously theatrical March on Rome. After the end of the fascist dictatorship it was back to business as usual, with the post-war Christian Democrats retaining a prolonged hold on power by a mixture of cronyism and patronage. Prime ministers Giulio Andreotti and Amintore Fanfani even made government contracts dependant on support of the party, a situation that would not have been tolerated elsewhere.

Politics was just about manipulation and management, not transparency and accountability, and management was about largess and bribes. This culture was aided by the failures of unification, which left people with a local rather than a national consciousness. Italy, Prince Metternich once said, is no more than a geographical expression. Really, once the dust of Garibaldi had settled, once he had taken off his shirt, that’s exactly what it remained, even so far as today. Fragmentation effectively means that politicians can get way with all sorts of chicanery and malfeasance.

Berlusconi is not the antithesis of the Risorgimento, a bogus ‘rebirth’ which never valued liberty and accountability. In so many ways he is its modern representative, the inheritor of a long tradition of corruption and democratic abuses. He continues to hold power not by the will of the people, assuming it’s possible to identify such a thing in Italy, but by the will of a cabal; by deals done behind doors, by offers made that could not be refused. Hey, chase those girls and cue the music. :-)

Monday 7 March 2011

Skinning the tiger

Shortly before the Irish general election last month, which saw the worst defeat of a sitting government since the formation of the Free State in 1921, a letter appeared in the Irish Times, saying that the title of the European anthem should be changed from Ode to Joy to Owed to Germany. It’s good to see that at least some people in Ireland preserve a sense of humour, even if it’s in the shade of an economic gallows.

It’s become the fashion to blame those irresponsible bankers for the woes that have overtaken the world economy since 2008 that we are overlooking the fact that stupid and short-sighted politicians bear a far deeper responsibility. The business cycle is part of our economic life; it always has and it always will. It really should be repeated endlessly: that which goes up must inevitably come down.

People are so easily deluded, forever trapped in the short-term. We should be immune to arses like Gordon Brown, the former British Chancellor and Prime Minister, who announced “an end to boom and bust”, or Bertie Ahern, the former Irish Taoiseach, who said that the “boom can only get boomier”; but we are not; sadly we are not.

There are so many lessons in the Irish farce, which has seen a country that struggled centuries for dignity and independence subject to a new kind of fiscal colonialism, forced to accept the indignity of an EU-IMF bailout, forced to accept that it no longer has sovereign management of its own economic affairs. Where now is the tiger economy? That’s easy: it’s been shot and skinned, its hide hanging on the wall of the IMF.

Bankers do what bankers do, which is to take risks. Politicians do what politicians do, which is to exercise caution. But when politicians join bankers in playing at risk one ends in the Irish Bubble. I make no apology for this expression, echoes of England’s infamous eighteenth century South Sea Bubble, though I may be in danger of downplaying the stupidity involved; for at least the English government of the day did not underwrite the speculators.

So, exercising no restraint at all, believing that the ups would be ups for ever, the Irish government panicked when property prices started to slide, leaving the banks hopelessly exposed. An emergency meeting was held in September 2008, in which Brian Lenihan, then Finance Minister, offered the bankers guarantees not just over deposits but also most debts. Debt, in other words, was nationalised. Taxpayers, in still more words, were defrauded, patsies for the politicians. Amazingly the state took on a potential liability more than two and a half times the size of the national economy. The boom got bustier.

Where has all Ireland’s capital gone, long time passing? Again the answer is easy; look around the place, see all those ghost estates, homes that nobody wants, builders can’t complete and buyers can’t afford. Liquidity has turned to stone, and there it is likely to remain, at least until the bulldozers return the sites to pasture.

I read in The Economist that when the IMF delegation arrived in Dublin last November to rescue the politicians from their monumental stupidity that the Irish Times ran a lachrymose editorial, asking if this is what the heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising had died for. It continued by observing that “The true ignominy…is that we ourselves have squandered our sovereignty.”

Indeed they have: in embracing the European Union as the universal panacea, in embracing the euro, that one size fits all currency, in embracing the finances of Berlin that have no place at all in the finances of Dublin. Now with credit almost impossible to get, Ireland’s membership of the single currency means that it lacks the flexibility to manage the situation with its own internal fiscal tools. In place of the tigers have come some rather desperate looking cattle. Oh, for the power of prophecy.

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Behold, in my dream I stood on the bank of the river. Suddenly seven cows came up out of the river, fine looking and fat; and they fed in the meadow. Then behold, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and gaunt, such ugliness as I have never seen in all the land of Egypt. And the gaunt and ugly cows ate up the first seven, the fat cows. When they had eaten them up, no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were just as ugly as at the beginning. So I awoke. Also I saw in my dream, and suddenly seven heads came up on one stalk, full and good. Then behold, seven heads, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprang up after them. And the thin heads devoured the seven good heads. So I told this to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.”

“Never mind all that”, Joseph replied, “the boom can only get boomier.”