Thursday 28 April 2011

Born to reign over us

On the eve of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton I want to register my unqualified support for our monarchy and for the traditions behind the monarchy as it stands. It seems to me particularly important now, perhaps more than at any other time, not because the institution is in danger from republicans, a laughably small band of oddballs and Guardian columnists, but from those in office, like the even more laughable Nick Clegg, our benighted Deputy Prime Minister, a man about as savvy, as hapless and as hopeless as Mister Bean.

I was motivated to write this, not just because of tomorrow’s wedding, an occasion for celebration, but because of an excellent article by Simon Heffer published yesterday in the Telegraph (Politicians, not republicans, are a threat to the monarchy). The article ranges beyond politicians to touch on the attitude of certain sections of the national press. When it comes to royalty some newspapers switch rapidly from the fawningly obsequious to the savagely ill-informed, evidenced by their outrageous behaviour following the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

As a general principle let me make it quite clear that I am in favour of the equality of the sexes and against any form of discrimination on the grounds of religion, always, yes, always setting the monarchy to one side. There inequality and discrimination are an essential part of the constitution. So, there, I’ve said it; now let me justify my position.

Poor Corporal Clegg; he reminds me so much of Henry’s Cat, a cartoon character from my childhood, who “knows quite a lot about nothing and not too much about that,” so the theme tune went. Yes, that’s Clegg, who knows even less about our constitution than Henry’s Cat, seeing the monarchy as just another institution which needs to be ‘modernised’. Modernisation, by the lights of Clegg, would mean allowing the reigning monarch to marry a Catholic, contrary to the 1701 Act of Settlement, whose terms subsequently passed into the constitutions of other realms in the Commonwealth.

Oh, my, how terrible, how can we possibly discriminate against Catholics in the modern age, the age of Clegg? Let me be kind and say as little as I can about James II, the last Catholic king of England, apart from the fact that he was a total disaster as a ruler and as a man! But that’s not the point. The point is that a Catholic monarch, even one with more charm and political finesse than James, would be in an invidious position: Supreme Governor of one church, the Church of England, while professing loyalty to another, the Church of Rome. I find it difficult to believe that Clegg overlooked this obvious contradiction. Cue the Henry’s Cat theme.

Into the mix of ‘reform’ the sexism of male succession has been thrown. Instead, the argument goes, the law should be altered to allow older princesses to take precedence over younger princes. Andrew Roberts, writing in the Spectator, makes the point that if this kind of sex equality had been in place at the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 then Kaiser Bill –“perhaps the most psychologically damaged monarch of the twentieth century” – would have succeeded as king of England!

Look, leave things as they are, the inequality, the sexism and the perceived discrimination. Let everything else change, not the monarchy. It remains the last sacred part of our constitution, wonderfully out of place, irrational, full of mystique and majesty. Wretched asses like Clegg interfere with it at its peril and ours, beginning a process that will lead to goodness knows what end. Well, I could suggest an end: it could lead to an Obama or a Sarkozy; it could have led to – wait for it - President Tony Blair, in other words, to the nadir of this nation.

Let’s have no more babble, promoted often by the press, about succession skipping a generation, no more gibberish about the Queen retiring and Charles standing aside in favour of William. William will be king but only in proper succession to his grandmother and his father.

Let all the sour nay-sayers, deniers and ‘modernisers’ have a rotten Friday. God bless William and Catherine, God bless this marriage and God bless the future of the monarchy, an institution imperfectly perfect, irrationally rational. The others can have their presidents, a traduced and compromised form of monarchy; not us, not ever.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

China in Night and Fog

In December 1941 Hitler issued one of his most sinister directives. Even the name still carries frightful overtones: Nacht und Nebel – Night and Fog. This allowed for the complete disappearance of anyone in Nazi-occupied territory judged to be a danger to the regime. Relatives would be given no information at all, not even if the people they were inquiring about were alive or not. There was no official record whatsoever, no trial and no appeal. It was as if some malevolent god had suddenly plucked random individuals out of existence, gone for ever into the night and the fog.

Night and fog has come to China. Earlier this month Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist and political dissident, was detained at Beijing airport. Nothing has been heard of him since. His family don’t even know if he is receiving the drugs he needs for a heart condition.

“According to the relevant law, the search results will not be shown”, is the message displayed to users of China’s micro-blogging sites, trying to learn something of his fate. Attempting to get over this Chinese Wall of Silence, bloggers started to use an invented name, Ai Weilai, as a forum for discussion. In retaliation all foreign websites petitioning for Ai’s release have been knocked out. So, if you are Chinese and living in China the chances are you will never read this.

The night and the fog have not just embraced Ai. The latest crackdown has seen others ‘disappeared’, so far more than a hundred bloggers, lawyers and activists for villagers’ rights. On Easter Sunday Christians in Beijing, people who refuse to recognise the officially-sanctioned state church, were rounded up and bussed off after they gathered to attend their own service, this in the face of a constitutional right to freedom of worship. Public places have been occupied by police and thugs in plain clothes, ready to descend on people ‘strolling’ as a veiled form of protest. Yes, one can be beaten up for taking a group walk, yet another face of modern China.

Through history Chinese governments have been notorious for their inscrutability, but the Communists have perfected the practice. Relative liberalisation at one moment can quickly be replaced by repression at the next, with no obvious explanation for the change of direction. The suggestion is that the so-called Jasmine Revolution in the Arab world, brought on in part by internet networking, has resulted in heightened sensitivity, a reasonable conjecture, though impossible to prove with any certainty. The authorities were never that liberal when it came to communication on the internet, a form of free expression they would really rather do without.

Information is power, so to be without information is to be powerlessness. Ignorance is Strength, is the Orwellian motto that governs official thinking in Beijing. Almost anything can trigger a new wave of repression, not just calls for greater freedom. If Japan’s tsunami had hit China instead I can guarantee that only a fraction of the news would have been reported, and almost certainly nothing about stricken nuclear plants. Ai’s first big run-in with the state, after all, came not over his brilliantly unconventional art, or his politics, but his attempt to account for all of the schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. There are uncomfortable questions here, you see, over the exact relationship between the authorities and companies who erected buildings not fit for purpose let alone natural disasters.

Night and fog is a measure of the political paranoia which grips China, the fear that besets the government, the fear of the state of its own people. The Communist Party here is no more than an organised conspiracy against the population. Secure in their forbidden cities, and their hidden villas, the apparatchiks look across the nation in a mood of fearfulness, seeing conspiracy around every corner, dissension in every tweet, a threat in every artist.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Up and down the greasy pole

Now I’ve finished Finn! Sorry for the awful pun. I’ve finished reading Phineas Finn, the Irish Member, the second volume of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series of six politically-themed novels. It’s long, in excess of seven hundred pages, but on the whole entertaining and diverting.

The book touches on politics at a whole number of levels. There is the obvious parliamentary dimension, with a thorough-going exploration of the great question of the day, that of electoral reform (it was written against the background of the Second Reform Act of the late 1860s). There is also an entertaining exploration of sexual politics. I find Trollope’s female characters highly admirable, intelligent and well-informed, generally more so than the men. Add to this the politics of personal choice, of integrity, of the conflict between public duty and personal conscience then the mixture is beguiling to a splendid degree.

I have my own personal dilemma. How does one review a classic like this? Is there anything new to be said? I note that many of the reviews on Goodreads simply rehash the plot, which, quite frankly, does not seem terribly imaginative. I’m only going to go as far as saying that the novel is shaped as a kind of rake’s progress, except that Finn isn’t really a rake! In the end he makes the right choice, which – apparently - destroys the political prospects that he has managed to build up, as an outsider, as an Irishman, as a parvenu in a very exclusive English political club. So my review is more of a personal exploration, a series of impressions on the central themes.

To begin with I have to say that it took me a long time to warm to the character of Finn, whom the author continually refers to in a rather irritating fashion as ‘our hero.’ For all his charm there seemed to be no real substance to the man, nothing to explain his rapid ascent through the ranks of the Liberal Party, even so far as becoming an undersecretary of state in the government. He is a man of principle and a man of passion, yes, but both seemed to me to be in inverse proportion to his talents and to his ambitions. Above all, he has a rather irritating and ingratiating style. In essence my assessment of the man is precisely the same as that of Violet Effingham, one of the four women he has a dalliance with;

Mr Finn, when I come to measure him in my mind, was not small, but he was never quite tall enough. One feels oneself to be a sort of recruiting sergeant, going about with a standard of inches. Mr Finn was just half an inch too short. He lacks something in individuality. He is little too much a friend to everyone.

In the introduction to my Penguin edition John Sutherland says that the character comes near to being a kind of political gigolo, which I think was probably the author’s intention, though he doubtless would not have expressed it in such terms. Finn is saved from the fate of a gigolo – just - by the greater power of moral conscience, which, at the end, offers him a measure of redemption.

Finn’s Dilemma, a possible alternative title, is that he has never really established himself in life before he begins his political ascent. A penniless barrister who has never practiced his profession, he decides to enter Parliament at a time when the only payment was for members of the treasury bench. Politics at this time was a rich man’s game, and I really do mean man. Trollope’s women, outsiders by sex, no matter how wealthy, have their own political ambitions - to host salons and live a public life vicariously through marriage, because there was no other way at a time when they could neither vote nor enter Parliament.

As I have said, Finn, initially dependent on his father, an Irish country doctor, for financial support, eventually makes his way into office as an undersecretary to the colonies, which comes with a decent if uncertain salary. Elections and defeat in elections are always just round the corner! This solves one problem only to add another – his office, and his salary, depend on loyalty to the ministry, robbing him of the freedom to speak out on certain issues, particularly that of Irish tenants’ rights.

He also has a way out like the women in the novel – he can make an advantageous marriage; in other words he can link his star to an heiress! His search for a partner is one of the central platforms of the evolving story. His feelings seem genuine enough; his feelings, first, for Lady Laura Standish and subsequently for Violet Effingham and then, tentatively, for Madame Max Goesler, are authentic enough – he is no naked fortune hunter –, but his desire for money to support his political career seem just as authentic. The ease with which he transferred his feelings from Laura to Violet suggests that his love, or his infatuation, is never that deeply rooted.

Was this Trollope’s intention, to suggest something ‘insubstantial’ in Finn’s character? Even his duel with Lord Chiltern, his friend turned rival in the pursuit of Violet, seems almost be based of on a kind of affectation, something not quite real about it all. Love here seems all about profit and calculation. It’s as well to remember, too, that Finn’s pursuit of one heiress after another is all against a background of an ‘understanding’ he has with one Mary Flood Jones, his childhood sweetheart back in Ireland, charming, beautiful, intelligent and – wait for it – penniless!

In many ways Finn’s dilemma interested me less than the dilemma of the female characters; the dilemma of Laura, who finds herself locked in a loveless marriage to Robert Kennedy, a dour Calvinist Scot, who, though a prominent member of the Liberal Party and a cabinet minister, frustrates his wife of her vicarious political ambitions; frustrates her in every other sense as well in a wholly sterile union. Then there is Violet, rich but not free, unable as a single woman to set up an independent household without offending the mores of the age, who in the end seems the accept the relentless pursuit of the temperamentally unstable Chiltern merely to escape from Lady Baldock, the old dragon aunt who guards her lair!

Trollope writes with such verve. The hunting scenes with Finn and Chiltern will delight all sportspeople with their descriptive energy, the very thing that I picked up from the passages dealing with the same subject in Can You Forgive Her?, the predecessor to Phineas Finn. Overall there is much to delight here, an excellent exploration of high Victorian attitudes to politics, to morality and to money. On the downside Trollope has a tendency to intrude his own political obsessions overmuch, particularly over the question of the secret ballot, a measure which he opposed. And, my goodness, how much he lets this King Charles’ Head float into the narrative!

Ever onwards I go, now looking towards The Eustace Diamonds.

Monday 25 April 2011

See Paris and love

I love Easter, I love spring and I love Paris. When I combine the three nothing could be more perfect. I got back from a long weekend in the city earlier this evening, a lovely time in a perfect place, my favourite in all the world. Paris holds no more secrets for me; there is nothing fresh to be discovered; I have been so many times before, from early childhood onwards. Yet it never ever fails to charm.

My parents have a small flat close to the centre, allowing me to explore the city and its surroundings, to develop an intimacy with it over the years. I don’t go as frequently as I used to – it’s a year since I was there last - but I make the most of the time I have had. I love introducing Paris to new people, to friends coming to the city for the first time, or who may not know it as well as I do.

But Easter, the feast of Ostara, a time quickening and renewal, is more personal, a time for greater intimacy, a time for long walks, quite talks, leisurely lunches and magical dinners. It was a time for me and the person who is closest to me, just ourselves alone. We didn’t really do anything special, just relished the opportunity to be together and to reflect, to let the city exert its own romance in some of the more out of the way gardens, or bathe ourselves in the magical light of the most perfect gothic church in Europe, lovers hand in hand.

To Versailles also, not to see the palace – there is no more that it has to tell - but simply to sit once again in the shade of the trees and watch Apollo arise from the waters! The chestnut groves here are special to me, a place I came to in my teens, a place I have brought so many others since, to picnic in dreams. Here I always say my own silent prayer for Marie Antoinette, my favourite queen, who last saw these gardens in October 1789, before being marched off to the capital by the canaille vomited out from the city slums.

From the groves of Versailles on to Montmartre, sitting by the basilica of Sacré-Cœur, looking across the rooftops from the highest point in the city, all bathed in a sublime spring light. Sacré-Cœur isn’t an old church, dating no further back than the 1870s, when it was constructed in part as a memorial to those murdered by the leftist Communards of 1871. I find the interior uninspiring but I’ve loved the building itself ever since I saw it from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, that brilliant white edifice punctuated against an empty blue sky.

This morning we went Père Lachaise to lay some lilies on the grave of the Divine Oscar, forever reposed under Jacob Epstein’s ugly flying sphinx. I see the lipstick tributes are as bad as ever, despite admonitions against such desecration and regular clean ups. If you want to know, yes, I did resist the temptation! I first came here with mother, from whom I inherited my enthusiasm for Wilde, on 30 November, 2000, the hundredth anniversary of his death. I was only fourteen at the time, wholly beguiled by the experience, seeing all sorts of celebrants and outcasts coming to mourn, some attired in late Victorian dress!

In the afternoon, shortly before we left, there was one last thing we had to do – go and sit in the little park at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis, possibly the most romantic spot in the most romantic city in the world. See Paris and live; see Paris and love.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Socialism with a Pizza Face

When it comes to sardonic humour the Cubans lack for nothing; they even make a joke about lacking for everything else. “What are the three triumphs of the Revolution? the question goes, “Education, health care and sports.” So far, so Castro. But then comes the sting –“And what are the failures of the Revolution?” “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

‘Let them eat parades’, the nepotistic Castro dynasty might offer in spurious consolation. The Cubans were certainly doing that recently, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution’s greatest ‘triumph’, the victory over the CIA-sponsored landing at the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961. But as man, even revolutionary man, shall not live by marches alone, the Communist Party met soon after, the first national congress in fourteen years, to review the country’s woes. There is really only one item on the agenda: the appalling state of the Cuban economy and the need for ‘reform.’

With Big Brother Fidel safely parked in death’s antechamber, Little Brother Raul has been introducing a kind of creeping capitalism. But as always in this socialist paradise in the sun it’s a case of one step forward, one step back. “The time we have left is short and the work we have is gigantic”, Raul announced recently.

Indeed, the work they have is gigantic. But the orthodoxy still holds fast that the state should, by the lights of Marxism, occupy the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy; that is to say, the state is running the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy into the ground. Economic liberalisation and free enterprises here advances by the slowest and most cautious steps. Raul laboured gigantically and brought forth…pizzas.

Yes, that’s it, capitalism in Cuba has a pizza face, something, I suppose, that might go part of the way towards addressing the three failures of the Revolution – let’s all have pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner, assuming, of course, that they are not too outrageously expense in a country where a doctor earns no more the equivalent of twenty US dollars a month. The problem is that the doctor might blow the lot in a single night in one of Havana’s privately owned restaurants, ordering, say, pizzas.

It’s the total lack of imagination that strikes one most about Cuba and its ruling gerontocracy. There is Raul with enough wit to understand that something is wrong and too little energy to do anything about it, other than to allow free enterprise on the margins, a nation to be buoyed up by pizza bakers and plumbers, too little energy to escape from the stupid lie of socialism.

It’s amazing to think that a country as fertile as Cuba now has to import some 80% of the food consumed, which presumably includes pizza-making ingredients. The place is not being kept alive by Raul’s laughable experiments in economic liberalisation but by subsidies in oil from Chavezland. The pizza illusion is likely to be preserved for a little longer as this Wonderland slips into the final stages of ideological Alzheimer’s.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Jamie Oliver – the Nanny Cook

I've discovered that Jamie Oliver, a telly cook who could bore for England, not content with lecturing us on what to eat is now lecturing America in a show called Food Revolution. What follows is my response to this news, posted on a discussion thread. It’s been slightly adapted for use here.

I saw this thread yesterday and decided to hold back, for the simple reason that my first emotion was one of anger at the subliminal message that is being peddled by this ghastly cook, this frightful male Mary Poppins. The reference here is a deliberated one, but let me hold off on this for a bit until I've made some more general points.

So, his preaching from the culinary pulpit is being broadcast in the US as Food Revolution, is it? One should always try to understand revolutions, in politics or in food, by looking at previous examples, by looking at the route they have taken. In this regard America’s present is our past.

The last government here, the government of Tony Blair and latterly Gordon Brown, was one of the worst in our history, chipping away systematically at all sorts of civil liberties, seeking to micro-manage lives, right down to the most intimate and personal levels. Things got so bad that it was even the subject of a book - Philip Johnston’s Bad Laws. In the introduction he made the following points;

Yet despite the claim to represent the British people, New Labour actually felt like an alien interloper in an ancient land, preaching the fetish of modernism and despising tradition. It evinced a predisposition to micromanage individual behaviour and ride roughshod over liberties, both of which are very non-British traits.

I wrote my own gloss on this book, posted on 17 May last year (Bad Law), but for short here is one key passage;

We now have more CCTV cameras than any other nation in the world though there is no evidence at all that they are effective in reducing crime. We are observed even more closely than the citizens of such places as North Korea and Cuba. We are beset by armies of parking enforces and clampers, as well as being pestered by a growing army of health fascists. The smoking ban threatens to destroy the pub, one of the great British institutions. Latterly the nation’s health supremo has alluded to the deleterious effects of ‘passive drinking.’ Even school lunch boxes, an intimate bond between parent and child, can be investigated by the healthy eating brigade.

Yes, that's one dimension of this appalling onslaught - the fascists of the healthy eating brigade. And who do you think they adopted as an avatar, who do you think Tony Blair adopted as the food guru, one who would bring a 'revolution' in eating, focused on school lunches? I don't think I need to say, do I?

Oliver was sold as the food Poppins; well, he wasn't; that's just how I see it - a sanctimonious, hectoring Hector, who was out to 'reform' the nation's eating habits. Up and down the country schools, anxious not to appear out of step, anxious not to be victimised by the snoopers, the government inspectors and the do-gooders, adopted 'healthy lunches'.

People were even empowered, as I have said, to look at the contents of lunch boxes and send lecturing written warnings to parents if they did not like what they saw. Even in the worst days of Soviet tyranny I doubt things ever went that far. What was the result? 'Healthy' options went uneaten; children went hungry; mothers were seen at school gates, handing through emergency 'food aid.'

It really is appalling that this disease has now hit the States, this nannying Jamie-knows-best approach. I see from one recent news report that Chicago has even banned home made lunches. My God, what’s happened to America, what's happened to the Land of the Free, when this sort of state-tyranny is allowed to pass without major protest? How far are people prepared to allow things to go? What’s next: compulsory work camps for the deviant eaters?

Oliver is no more than the populist face of the nanny state, a lisping culinary megalomaniac and school-dinner obsessive, as Brendan O’Neil wrote in last week’s edition of the Spectator. If that's not bad enough he, so far as America is concerned, is a foreigner, a sanctimonious outsider. Actually if the American people like him so much I wish they would adopt him on a permanent basis. The sooner my country is free of this ass the better.

I'm annoyed; it's obvious I'm annoyed, but I do emphasise it's not at those who watch this show - it's at the lie they are being sold, that people can be corralled like sheep into adopting a 'healthy' lifestyle, the kind of lifestyle sanctioned by Oliver and his insufferable kind. For America to be seduced by this condescending and patronising food moralist is just too awful. If the price of freedom is fat kids then let it be.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Ingland Is A Bich

Riots have become rather the fashion in London. In the wake of the recent anarchist fiesta I expect the police are more than a little worried about the peaceful prospects of the coming royal wedding. It gets even more worrying; for in our capital public disorder is not just practiced, it’s celebrated.

In Lambeth last week an event was held to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the 1981 Brixton riots, helpfully renamed the ‘Brixton Uprising’ by local councillors. The invited guests included the Jamaican ‘poet’ Linton Kwesi Johnson, who numbers Ingland Is A Bich among his greatest works. The spelling and the use of the upper case, incidentally, is all his.

This delightful event comes after the BBC held its own inimitable celebration. Radio Four broadcasts a show called Reunion, in which people who took part in some past event are brought together to reminisce. Last month it was the turn of those who were involved in the ‘Brixton Uprising’, a one-sided collection of deadbeats and do-worsers would be more difficult to imagine, best represented by that mouth Darcus Howe, a ‘thinker’ and all round professional Black Man. This broadcast was recently described as ‘naively one-sided’ by the Daily Mail, in uncharacteristically restrained language. To hell with restraint: stupid, ignorant and biased serve much better.

No ordinary people were invited, black or white. None of the people caught up in the violence were invited to describe the fear that they felt in the midst of the thuggery, sorry, the ‘Brixton Uprising.’ Writing in the Telegraph, Charles Moore reminds us that ‘Red’ Ted Knight, another of the participants, said in the aftermath of the riots that “We want to break the Metropolitan Police”, a view clearly shared by Captain Anarchy, one of the sponsors of the more recent London ‘uprising.'

He goes on to detail the other things the show failed to mention - that it was the first time in England that Molotov Cocktails were used, the first time that fire engines and ambulances were attacked by mobs. Most important of all, no mention was made of the fact that riot started when the police, condemned afterwards for 'institutional racism', stopped to help a black man who had been stabbed.

No, none of this was raised, even by the tame policeman among the guests. Instead Howe was allowed to witter on about Margaret Thatcher, the great Satan, explaining that she was “getting into Falklands mode”, rather odd when one considers that the riots came a year before the Argentine invasion of the islands.

Furthermore, according to Howe and Knight, the fact that so many additional policemen were sent to assist their beleaguered comrades in Brixton was all part of a ‘cunning plan’ by Thatcher to break the will of those opposed to government ‘cuts’. The simple fact is that, as Moore rightly says, the police were woefully unprepared for these events.

The legend still persists, perpetrated by the likes of Red Ted and Black Darcus, that Thatcher’s was a ministry that severely reduced public sector expenditure when the reverse is true. The riots provided yet another occasion for throwing more money at an alleged problem, this time racism and ‘exclusion’ in the inner cities, all coming in the wake of that old dotard Lord Scarman’s ‘findings.’

One by one new measures came into the light, with millions wasted, yes, wasted, in grants to this ethnic community organisation or that ethnic community organisation. The lie was swallowed whole that the ‘Brixton Uprising’ was something more than a fiesta of crime, looting and rioting in the guise of social protest, as Thatcher herself put it at the time.

On top of one evil came another - the great lie of ‘multi-culturalism’, that nation within a nation approach, the adverse consequences of which politicians across Europe are now becoming aware of. England, sorry, Ingland, was betrayed in those days by people pandering to thugs, looters, drug-dealers and idiots; Ingland is betrayed still.

Monday 18 April 2011

The power of the word

I was taught to read by my mother before I started school at the age of five. All my life I’ve been a passionate reader, moving from one thing to another, one genre to another. With reading I came to writing, something I’ve also been doing since an early age. Blogging for me is simply an extension of the dairies and journals I have been keeping since I was six years old.

From time to time I look back on some of these, a funny and heart-warming experience. It’s easy to see that the quality of my writing is closely related to the course of my reading. In other words, I was learning by example, learning that there is no mystery to good prose – it’s a craft, that’s all, a craft perfected as one comes to understand words and how words are best used.

Now I come to tackle one key question, put in discussion quite recently: is it possible to be a writer and not a reader? Is it possible, to put it another way, to produce decent prose by learning from media other than the published word? Do things like audio books or watching news channels help in producing a good writer?

For me the answer is simple; no, of course they can’t. Audio media and personal interactions might help improve skills in conversation and communication but they cannot, by their own, help a person to become a good writer. Only an understanding of the forms of language, how language is structured and how words are used can do that; only reading can do that. Any fool can write; it takes discipline to write well. The more one reads the better one writes, not just learning how it is done well, but seeing how it is done badly.

I’ve had so many influences, so many writers I have learned from when it comes to good English usage and points of style. I have particular admiration for Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, the best essayists and satirists in the English language. Orwell’s Why I Write and Politics and the English Language deserve special mention for their clarity and example. The latter, in particular, should be compulsory reading for all those in public life, a suggestion I have made on previous occasions.

When I’m writing I have Orwell’s admonitions at the front of my mind, his warnings against the use of stale phrases, ugly compound words and dead metaphors. If one begins writing simply by listening, listening to news media or information channels, one is liable to pick up every sin against language that Orwell identifies, with some contemporary horrors added for good effect!

There us another thing here. The best writers, the greatest writers, are also psychologists, reading the character of others through the written word alone. I’m thinking of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, specifically the section headed Oxen of the Sun, where he moves seamlessly through the various styles of other authors, recreating them in words, dipping from his own personality into the personality of Charles Dickens, to take but one example, so different in every conceivable way. It’s impressive, a tour de force in imagination and art, clearly based on a perfect love and understanding of prose, the inner mysteries of the word.

I’m not going to touch on the technical aspects of writing, notably parsing and good grammar, other than to say that these cannot be picked up other than through reading, understanding what is right and what is wrong, where a comma comes and where it does not. But if you want to follow this route I would suggest starting with Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which provides no better illustration of the power of punctuation!

So, if anyone says that they have seen good writing produced by somebody who is not a reader ask to see the writing and judge for yourself. If it is good I can guarantee you that the writer in question is almost certainly a liar.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Midnight President

There is no justice; life is just so unfair. I know that, you know that, but sometimes it frustrates me so, looking at things from a historical perspective. I wrote recently about Richard Nixon, a man I consider to be one of the most intelligent presidents that America has ever had, inspirational and imaginative. Yet his presidency was systematically destroyed on the flimsiest basis of all.

Now, I turn to Bill Clinton, one of the worst, a man who degraded the office – literally – of president, a chief executive tainted by moral depravity, a proven liar who still managed to survive two full terms in office. He’s a Democrat and I generally find Democrats no more appealing than the British Labour Party, but as a representative of this socialist party he represents the nadir, worse even that that priapic hypocrite JFK, and that really is something.

He’s now pushing on a bit; I guess I should try to be a little more charitable to ex-President Clinton, who, in his dotage, has taken to remembering the good old times in Times Square, remembering just how ‘romantic’ it was before New York’s most famous thoroughfare was cleaned up.

Those where the days alright, the days of Clinton’s youth, the days of pimps, hookers and druggies; a fascinating time. There he was up from Arkansas, a kind of political version of the Midnight Cowboy, watching as a prostitute approached a man in a grey flannel suit, loving the downbeat seediness of it all.

Seediness, yes, that was the leitmotiv of the whole Clinton presidency, a man who turned the Oval Office into his own version of Times Square, a place of blue dresses and stains, a place where he did not have sex with that woman, another insight into this man’s topsy-turvy world. It’s such a pity that he did not invite Dustin Hoffman to join his administration, just to complete the picture, in the guise of Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, of course, perhaps as Secretary of State.

I shall finish with a Clinton joke, one told to me by a good friend of mine from Georgia. It goes like this:-

Hilary –sadly – has died and gone to heaven. There she is in Saint Peter’s office, the man at his desk. Behind him, reaching out to infinity are clocks, clocks and clocks.

“What are they for?”, she asks.

“Well, Saint Peter replies, “for every human soul there is a clock, set at twelve noon at birth. The hands only ever move if a person tells a lie. See, here is Mother Teresa’s, still at twelve; she’s never told a lie in her life. There is George Washington’s, standing at five after; he’s hardly ever told a lie.”

“Where’s Bill’s clock?,” she asks.

“Oh, that’s in Jesus' office; he’s using it as a fan.”

Thursday 14 April 2011

Immoral tales

I thought that the facts in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus had long been settled. Here was an innocent man sent to Devil’s Island on a false accusation of treason. The real culprit, almost a pantomime villain, was Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. The whole sordid affair was then complicated by the division between the progressive and reactionary elements in French society; between those determined to prove the innocence of Dreyfus and those determined to preserve the honour of France and the French army, regardless of the facts, regardless of the treason.

A recent article by Nigel Jones in History Today (A Tale of Two Scandals) caused me to look at the old details in a new light. The scandal that followed the trial and conviction seems to have completely obscured the fact that their never was any treason; that the military information, really low grade stuff, that was to be passed to the Germans was part of a deliberate operation by the Statistical Section, the French intelligence service. Most important of all, Esterhazy was part of the sting, a plant no guiltier of treason than Dreyfus.

It gets murkier. The Germans were deliberately fed fake information or fluff, to use the jargon favoured in espionage circles, to distract them from the real secret, the development of the new 75mm light field gun. It was Esterhazy who came with the promise of secrets that were not secrets, playing a part allotted to him in an evolving drama.

To ensure that the Germans took the bait, there was one definite way of increasing Esterhazy’s credibility as a spy: offer a sacrificial goat. That was easy enough: there was Dreyfus, the unpopular Jewish officer attached to the Statistical Section, thoroughly disliked by Colonel Jean Sandherr, the anti-Semitic chief. He was also given a role: he was destined to be the greatest patsy in history.

What then follows, the whole political earthquake that shook France in the years leading up to the First World War, with aftershocks so far as Vichy in the Second, was in part shaped by issues of national security as well as prestige. For the army and sections of the intelligence service Dreyfus’ guilt had to be maintained, no matter what. Esterhazy, accused of being the real traitor by the opposition, had to be defended, no matter what.

Reactionaries on one side, liberals on the other, that was the other preconception I harboured about the whole affair. But again matters are not so simple; for the anti-Dreyfus camp contained none other than Oscar Wilde, the great dramatist living as an émigré on the Continent after his disgrace and imprisonment in England. In 1898, while living in Paris, he formed an unlikely friendship with the disreputable Esterhazy, who he referred to as ‘the Commandant’, listening sympathetically to his rants against Dreyfus in particular and Jews in general.

It’s an odd episode which, as Jones says, is omitted by most of Wilde’s biographers. One would have expected to find the Irish dramatist and political progressive, author of The Soul of Man under Socialism, to be on the side of Dreyfus, not just because of this but because he, too, knew what it was like to be an outcast, consigned to a brutal penal regime, one which ruined his health. But he took to Esterhazy, even though he was personally convinced of his guilt, simply because he had a fascination with life’s underside, with a decadent amorality. To put this another way: Esterhazy was the Dark Picture, not the light Dorian Grey.

There is an even deeper irony. When Emile Zola, the author and a leading pro-Dreyfusard, learned that Wilde was in receipt of confidential information from Esterhazy, revealing that he had acted under orders, he asked for details of the confession. Wilde refused, not just to protect his new friend, but because Zola, the greatest of the French progressives, notorious for a series of uncompromisingly naturalist novels, dismissed in England as the ‘apostle of the gutter’, was a homophobe!

Wilde now had an opportunity for some return against a man who had once conspicuously refused to sign a petition calling for clemency after his own conviction. Not only did he refuse to reveal any details of his conversations with Esterhazy, which might have lead to Dreyfus’ early release, but he dismissed him with characteristic flourish as a “writer of immoral romances.”

So Wilde, a progressive British literary exile in France, dismissed Zola, soon to be a progressive French literary exile in Britain, chased there after a conviction for criminal libel. Irony is clearly the gods’ favourite form of humour.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Rage against the dying of the light

I took part in an interesting debate recently, causing something of a minor storm, all in the best possible fun, the kind of cut and thrust I love. It centred on one simple problem: why do bad things happen to good people?

It was put from a Christian perspective, of course, the dilemma that emerges from the belief that a benign and loving deity governs human destiny. The paradox, though, seems to me to be very modern - that somehow God exists to eliminate the possibility of mishap and chance. In times past Christians would be more inclined to see that life offers no guarantees, that suffering and mischance were part of the human condition.

My response was really quite simple, opening with my favourite passage from Ecclesiastes;

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The point is, surely, that life is all chance: bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people; there is no necessary reward in being good, no returns for goodness. Virtue may very well be its own reward, for it rarely brings anything more tangible.

One also has to consider the possibility that that God is not good, or if he is good he is not great. One also has to consider that God is indifferent to suffering, or he is entirely arbitrary in his choices, solicitous to some and indifferent to others, a God of lotteries. The final leap here is the possibility that God is no more than a comforting fiction; that he does not exist.

I followed this up by saying that if I were perplexed by this problem, the problem of injustice, suffering and the wholly arbitrary nature of life, I might very well be tempted by Manichaeism, the belief that the universe is a battlefield between the forces of light and the forces of dark; that the material world, the place where ‘bad things’ happen, is the creation not of a benign but a malignant spirit; the creation of Satan.

Reference was made in the discussion to Epicurus, to his view that the gods pay no heed at all to human fate. But there is much more here. I found this passage in The Essential Epicurus which seems to sum up his view, and mine, in a perfectly succinct fashion;

For the assertions of the many concerning the gods are conceptions grounded not in experience but in false assumptions, according to which the greatest misfortunes are brought upon the evil by the gods and the greatest benefits upon the good.

Yes, false assumptions, false assumptions about divinity and goodness. Christians should expect bad things to happen; for Christianity is based at root on the recognition of suffering as part of the human condition; that in suffering there is a path to redemption, the symbol of the cross. For most of history that was the message; it would have been well understood as the message.

Now in the less than spiritual world, the world of iPods, Blackberry and Botox, where no one ever grows old or dies, people are more perplexed when God ‘allows’ bad things to happen to ‘good’ people; perplexed, in other words, by chance. This seems to me to be an unusual state of innocence, born of a naïve theology and a wholly material view of existence, with God simply appended as a kind of celestial warranty.

I’m material, too, a material girl, but I am not deluded, at least I comfort myself with that thought. I hope to do what is right in the course of my life. I don't believe in a personal afterlife, I don't believe in rewards and punishments. Above all suffering for me is not a virtue but a vice. We have one life on this plain and no other. Celebrate it as it is and accept that mishap may happen at any time. Always rage against the dying of the- earthly - light.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Sound and Fury

I spent the Christmas of 2005 with some friends in Moscow, an experience I’ve written about previously (Ana in Moscow). I’m returning to the subject because I’ve found the programme for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera by Dmitry Shostakovich based on the story by Nikolai Leskov. We saw it on Christmas Eve, performed by the Bolshoi Company, though sadly not in the big theatre, which was under repair at the time, although the little theatre is splendid enough. My theatre was not Bolshoi but Menshoi!

I’m so glad to have found these notes which I thought I had lost. There they were, tucked away among various papers and old magazines, the notes of the twenty-seventh performance since it first opened in Moscow in 1935. It was a tremendous production of a brilliantly innovative piece of work, throbbing, vital and impassioned; expressionism at its purest.

Ever since 1934, when it premiered in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, it had been thrilling audiences in Russia and beyond. It marked Shostakovich, who was only twenty-six when he completed the score, as one of the authentic artistic geniuses of the whole Soviet period. Unfortunately for him genius, in the sense of free expression of natural talent, was about to die.

There was one person that the opera did not thrill – Stalin. On the night of 26 January 1936 he came to the Bolshoi with his entourage, comfortably placed in the government box. The composer, who had intended to travel to Archangel on the White Sea for a performance of his First Piano Concerto, received a call from Yakov Leontyev, the director of the Bolshoi, with the news. According to an account later set down by Mikhail Bulgakov, the novelist, Shostakovich rushed to the theatre “white with fear.” He had reason to be fearful; for the dictator, lackeys in tow, ostentatiously walked out before the final act.

Two days later an unsigned editorial appeared in Pravda under the title Muddle Instead of Music. Crude, vulgar and spluttering in its incoherence, the authorship has been in question ever since, though the polemical style suggests that it was penned by Stalin himself, or ghosted under his close direction. Whatever the source, it came in the form of a ‘directive’, that is to say that it was the opinion of the Communist Party itself, something beyond question. Sorry, it could be questioned, assuming one had a penchant for suicide.

“The music”, the author shrieked, “grunts, pants, moans, the better to depict the love scenes as naturally as possible. And ‘love’ is smeared throughout the opera in the most vulgar form.” The composer's use of “petty-bourgeois formalistic contractions” was held to constitute a ‘political transgression.’ The assassination in words goes on in this tone, till it reaches a chilling crescendo –“This is playing at things beyond reason that can only end very badly.”

This was a dangerous time. All of Russia was listening to the overture of a new production: the Great Terror was in its opening stages. Later that year the first of the Moscow Show Trials was to open. Soon millions would be swept away, guilty, most often, of no greater crime that being alive at a particularly malevolent period in history.

To be an artist, young and alive was not very heaven; it was often a death sentence. So many went into oblivion, poets like Osip Mandelstam and writers like Isaac Babel. For months after the Pravda article Shostakovich lived in his own personal hell, fearful of the night-time knock on his door; for that’s when they came, in the night, most often in the early hours of the morning. His opera had already been ‘disappeared’. It was to be decades before the original version appeared again on the Russian stage.

In the end the composer survived, though by what caprice is impossible to say. He survived, yes, but only by performing the most abject acts of personal obeisance, including subtitling his Fifth Symphony, full of all of the ‘right’ political and cultural noises, as A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism. This was the age of denunciation, of all sorts of betrayals, of oneself and of others.

I was there in Moscow, happy to be alive, happy to see Lady Macbeth alive and flourishing in a new Russia, happy that Stalin and the whole Soviet system had been consigned to oblivion. I was happy to take delight in that wonderful mad sensual muddle, that thumping music, full of electric sexual charge.

But there is a lasting casualty of that Pravda attack. Shostakovich was never to write another opera; Lady Macbeth was never to have a successor. Stalin, the petty pace of all mediocrities, creeps in to the last syllable of recorded time. Still, his was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Monday 11 April 2011

The face of Clegg forever

At the beginning of last month I wrote about our forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote (Rotten Alternative). To recap quickly, it’s about changing our present first past the post, constituency based, electoral system in favour of something ‘fairer’, something that supposedly will give an equal weight to all voters and, by happy chance, a greater weight to some parties, most notably the insufferable Liberal Democrats, the party that brought us the European ‘ideal’…and Nick Clegg.

I’m drawn back to the subject by a recent article in the Spectator by Andrew Roberts, one of my favourite contemporary historians, who always manages to speak with a fresh and stimulating voice on whatever subject he chooses to tackle, latterly the Second World War. The article contains some interesting points on Winston Churchill’s views of AV and the mediocrity such a system of voting would induce.

I’ll come on to this in a moment, but first a word about the celebrities who have been corralled into the yes campaign. Celebrity endorsements are virtually guaranteed to put me off a product, but just look at the slebs in Camp Clegg. They include Eddie Izzard, an insufferable prat who passes as a comic. It gets worse; the yes men also include Jonathan Ross, the biggest oik in British broadcasting, bad dresser, worse accent, who enjoys making abusive phone calls to old men. Izzard and Toss, sorry, Ross, is there any better reason for voting no?

Probably not, but there is Sir Winston’s view to add to the mix. As Roberts says, he described AV as ‘the child of folly’ which would become the ‘parent of fraud’, that it was the worst of all possible plans, the ‘stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal of all voting systems’. It would mean that our elections would be determined ‘by the most worthless votes given to the most worthless candidates.’

Most serious of all, Churchill was of the view that such a system of voting would lower the prestige of Parliament and the parliamentary process and, as Roberts points out, he was speaking at a time when respect for our parliamentary system was far higher than it is now, still languishing in the doldrums of the expenses scandal.

Look how pathetic Nick Clegg is, look how he crumbles under pressure, this bland and hopeless man. Look, then, at the future of British politics, with him and his successors forever the kingmakers, the Limp Dumbs in command no matter the popular vote, in the same way that the Free Democrats were so long in command in Germany. The will of the people will no longer matter, just the will of the politicians and the parties, the third placed most of all.

Nobody I know cares much about this vote. At best some express a watery opinion in favour of ‘fairness’. The British are a fair-minded people who will generally go for the ‘fair’ solution. It worries me that we are sleep-walking as a nation onto this Clegg-de-sac, worries me that we will adopt AV on a low turnout, with most people not having the first clue as to what they are voting for. Well, what they are voting for is mediocrity, no quick decisions but unseemly horse-trading, no strong government but an apostolic succession of coalitions, yea, to the very crack of doom. It’s politics without politics; it’s mediocrity in command; it’s the face of Clegg forever.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Capote’s Taylor

Truman Capote was a writer of unique genius, one who could cover so many genres, fiction and non-fiction, the creator of some brilliant literary cameos. I’ve loved his work ever since I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which introduced me to Holly Golightly, a free spirit, the one figure in literature that I identify more with than any other, the delightful, effervescent, wonderful Holly, always travelling and never arriving.

A few years ago I saw Capote, an excellent biopic of the author, played with commendable skill by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It follows in Capote’s steps as he, with the aid of Nell Harper Lee, his childhood friend and fellow writer, researches the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, a quest that would end in the publication of In Cold Blood, in so many ways the definitive non-fiction novel, disturbing and horribly compelling at one and the same time.

The recent death of the veteran actress Elizabeth Taylor brought to mind another aspect of Capote’s work – the detailed and memorable little pen-portraits he painted of some of the celebrities he knew, not the kind of superficial tittle-tattle one usually associates with this kind of thing, but revealing, affectionate and intimate. There are several in my A Capote Reader, an anthology which covers various aspects of his work, short stories, novellas, reportage and travel writing as well as his portraits.

My favourite of his pen sketches by far is A Beautiful Child, an account of the day he spent with Marilyn Monroe, but Elizabeth Taylor, published in 1974, is almost as good, not just for the sympathetic way he depicts her but for the obvious empathy between the writer and the actress, which, in so few words, enables him to get well below the surface.

My rereading was well-rewarded. He describes how he once visited her in hospital, where she was recovering from a bout of life-threatening illness. In response to a question of his she replies that she wasn’t afraid, that she was too busy fighting, that she was not ready, as she put it, to “go over that horizon”, not being the type. She clearly had a ‘type’ in mind, as Capote immediately deduced;

“Perhaps not; not like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, both of whom had yearned to go over the horizon, some darker rainbow, and before succeeding, had attempted that voyage innumerable times. And yet there was some kind of common thread between these three, Taylor, Monroe, Garland – I knew the last two fairly well and yes, there was something. An emotional extremism, a dangerously greater need to be loved than to love, a hotheaded willingness of an incompetent gambler to throw good money after bad.”

When it came to life and relationships Taylor was certainly a gambler, evidenced by her turbulent relationship with Richard Burton, another movie veteran, a relationship itself with enough drama for a movie; a relationship that, in some ways, did make a movie in the screen version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where they played opposite one another in the lead rolls. They were the most celebrated off-screen lovers, as Capote says, since Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

The essay concludes several years after this hospital visit. Taylor is in New York with Burton, where he is appearing in a play. After one performance Capote joins them in their hotel suite, where he shares in a late-evening buffet. When Burton leaves the room to fetch some more champagne Taylor describes their relationship:

Oh, we quarrel. But at least he’s worth quarrelling with. He’s really brilliant. He’s read everything and I can talk to him – there’s nothing I can’t talk to him about…But the most important thing is what happens between a man and a woman who love each other. Or any two people who can love each other.

Capote writes, as Taylor draws the curtains against the rain, she looked at him sightlessly, like Galatea surveying some ultimate horizon. “What do you suppose will become of us?,” she asked, but the answer came already supplied – “I guess, when you find what you’ve always wanted, that’s not where the beginning begins, that’s when the end starts.”

I felt sad the first time I read this, even sadder the second. I hope not to find what I’ve always wanted for some time yet, though I can’t help but envy the actress. I think also of the brilliance of past celebrity, the brilliance of Taylor and Burton, both now over that ultimate horizon, compared with the mediocrity of the present.

Thursday 7 April 2011

A Tale Told by an Idiot

David Cameron, our Prime Minister, wanders the world with a look of bewilderment on his face, understanding nothing, changing his message to suit his audience. A mendacious Tony Blair was bad but a stupid one is so much worse. Yes, that’s what we have in this fatuous ‘heir to Blair.’ There he is, ever so 'umble like Uriah Heep, apologising and wringing his hands over past ‘errors’; apologising for the British Empire.

It’s all part of the Blairite legacy, the politics of apology, the politics of hypocrisy. Blair took it to a fine degree; yes, he was sorry over distant things, things that happened long before he was born, like the Irish Potato Famine or slavery, while sanctimoniously and self-righteously justifying his role in the death of thousands in Iraq. Cameron is shaping up, attempting to walk in those shoes, offering an apology over the partition of Kashmir, an issue over which he has not the first clue, while bombarding Libya.

The trouble with Cameron, and please forgive the crudity of the expression – a reflection of my mood – is simply this: he does not know his arse from his elbow. He understands nothing of our history, more or less telling people, telling foreigners, what he thinks will please them most, even if it means talking this country down, even if it means forgetting the very real achievements of the past.

He read PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics – at Oxford, a course which, as Peter Oborne wrote recently, is notorious for skimming the surface of understanding and historical knowledge. But one would think he would be better advised. This is a man who believed that Britain was a ‘junior partner’ to America in 1940, or so he told Obama, when America wasn’t even in the war. This is a man who, as I wrote recently, considers Palmerston to be one of his influences (Cameron plays Palmerston, plays Blair) clearly with no understanding at all just exactly what Palmerston represented.

Last November he visited China wearing a red poppy. Now in Britain that is a mark of respect, a token of remembrance for the dead of two world wars and all conflicts since. But in China the poppy is a symbol of something quite different – it’s a symbol of humiliation, a symbol of the Opium Wars, when the country was obliged to accept importation of a drug that was ruining the lives of so many of its citizens. It’s not the poppy of Flanders the Chinese remember; it’s the poppy of Bengal, the poppy of Palmerston. Only the most ignorant individual, ignorant of history, could fail to appreciate that. Ignorant and appallingly ill-advised by the Foreign Office, Cameron had to be asked to take it off.

The past, as L P Hartley wrote in the opening of The Go-Between, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. But we should try to understand just exactly how they are done; we should try to have the message translated. Yes, bad things happened, yes, the legacy of Empire is not spotless, evidenced by the Opium Wars, but there was so much good also, so much that is being lost by Cameron’s muddled message.

In recent debate I argued in relation to the India that the British impact was generally positive. Amongst other things this huge country was united for the first time in its history; that it acquired a consciousness of nationhood for the first time. It was the British who ended abuses like suttee and thuggism; it was the British who created an integrated transport system. Above all it was the British who in English gave the people of India their first common language, something that has enabled the country to make an impact on the world economy in the present day. Cameron does no favours in holding out the anti-imperial crutch, the very thing that the likes of Robert Mugabe leant on most heavily as he ruined Zimbabwe.

We need a grown up leader for a grown up world, a leader who will stand up for Britain, a leader who understands our past, a leader who does not wander the world like an absurd penitent, sackcloth here, ashes there, gaffs everywhere. I tried to resist the impression for so long that Cameron was playing at politics, resist the impression that he is a weak, shallow and insincere man, a man not fit for high office. I can do so no longer. He is pathetic, a risible figure, an idiot telling a tale that signifies nothing, nothing beyond his own incapacity and lack of understanding.

Wednesday 6 April 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 of this work, quite rightly says that it is a unique witness to pre-Dissolution England. Or loss was great but without Leland our loss would have been greater still.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Introducing Captain Anarchy, the wage slave

Thanks to the Sunday Telegraph I am able to put a name to one of the oiks behind the recent peaceful riot in London. He is Jack Upton, the son of Jonathan Upton, who was head of the Labour Party’s corporate development when Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997.

Upton Junior, apparently know to his many friends and admirers as Captain Anarchy, heads a group calling itself the Brighton Solidarity Federation (thoughts of the Judean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judea leap to mind), which wants to overthrow the government – naturally – and end ‘wage slavery.’

It just so happens that the Cap’n is a ‘wage slave’ himself, working, or pretending to work, for Brighton Council as an information officer. No, I don’t have any idea what that is either. I may very well write to the Council suggesting that they should do the decent thing and liberate the poor man from his present burdensome condition and, by happy coincidence, reduce the council tax for the good people of Brighton by whatever amount it takes to enslave an information officer. We might have stumbled on a major solution to the country’s financial problems here – end all wage slavery in the public sector. No more information officers, thank you very much.

The dear Captain, a graduate of Essex University, also runs a website for the aforementioned Brighton Solidarity Federation, steers the ship, you might say, a steady hand on the wheel. It was on this site that an article was published, revealing what a lovely time the members had in London, joining with like-minded morons for a spot of anarchist bovver, a photo helpfully provided of a masked man hurling a bottle at the window of a bank. “When we arrived,” the writer proceeds, “we met up with other anarchists who had the same idea.”

It wasn’t the Captain who wrote this article, you understand; of course it wasn’t. No, he’s been busy denying that he was even took part in the ‘peaceful protest’. But, alas, his Twitter feed, which he has been desperately trying to remove, suggests otherwise, suggests that @stormingheaven, the self-styled “Angry commie from Brighton”, was there in spirit, deed and person.

The Telegraph was really quite coy about Captain Anarchy Angry Commie from Brighton’s tweets, but this is not a family newspaper and I operate under no such restrictions. So, hold tight and read the kind of English favoured by Essex alumni. “Ed Milliband. (sic) Doesn’t matter what you say, you are a fucking cunt. Ed Milliband (sic) – this is how it feels to be an irrelevance.”

Having dismissed the irrelevant Mili Minor, the author goes on urge people to join the south London feeder march, with the enticing promise that “his majesty the violent minority rises again.” He, she or it goes on to say that he, she or it feels like going back to its yoof – “but seriously, fuck all police. Vile, disgusting scum.” Captain Anarchy (oh, no it wasn’t him) would know all about vile, disgusting scum, I feel sure.

The poor wage slave has been in such a tizzy. Not only has he –unsuccessfully- been trying to delete his Twitter profile but he has been saying that he has nothing to do with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Brighton, though his many friends, admirers and followers continue to refer to him as “our glorious leader” on their own internet postings.

Apparently the same “glorious leader” is now saying that he has been a “bit out of the loop” recently, loopy, yes, but out of the loop. When asked about the website he said "Yes. I think they use my credit card. I’ve no real involvement with them.” What, the Captain has a credit card which he lends out in his munificence? It makes one wonder just how deep in wage slavery information officers employed by Brighton Council really are.

Monday 4 April 2011

Happiness and the Pursuit of…Salt

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are the three words that form the most recognisable cornerstone to the American Declaration of Independence, the very essence of Jeffersonian principle. I’ve always wondered how one manages to ‘pursue’ happiness, and what one does with it once the elusive little beastie is caught; but this is not the time raise quibbles, especially as the Chinese have now set out on the hunt.

Yes, indeed; last month the National People’s Congress added happiness as one of the commodities to be over-fulfilled in the next five year plan. But it has a special importance in the great scheme of things, more important, officials insist, than increasing GDP. The new plan has been greeted as a blueprint for a “happy China”, though Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, forgot to put on his happy face when he made the announcement, at least according to the report I read recently in The Economist.

Forget about the Liberty element of the equation – Harmony in the old Confucian style and Happiness in the new Communist style are the motors behind a fresh Great Leap Forward, to a world of happy grins and make-believe. Earlier this year officials in Guangdong province announced that it would become “Happy Guangdong”, responding to a cue from Beijing to the effect that the Glorious and Happy Chinese Communist Party wanted citizens to have “glorious and happy lives.” Seriously, I’m not making any of these phrases up!

I have no idea if Thomas Jefferson had an exact definition of happiness beyond the opportunity to lead a useful and fulfilling life, but you can be sure that the Chinese leadership does, a definition that does not include any unwelcome notions of freedom, or even free access to the internet, where the Great Firewall gets higher and Higher by the day, just in case people realise that they are not quite as happy as they should be, that happiness maximisation is falling far short of the quotas.

I can provide you with one small illustration of the problem – salt. Yes, salt. No sooner had Wen made his monumental announcement than the Chinese people were unhappy enough to begin a rush on salt stocks, a wave of panic-buying triggered by a rumour that the iodine in salt was an effective antidote to the potential radioactive fallout from Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Official denials were issued. “It’s nonsense”, declared the government, with the result that the salt panic spread still further! People were observed leaving supermarkets, their baskets over-fulfilled with salt. When supplies ran out they turned to soy sauce and fermented bean curd for their saltiness.

So, I now know what happiness is in China and how one pursues it – just trot along to the local supermarket, hoping that salt has not been pursued out of existence. I imagine future statistics will reflect this sudden upsurge in the GHI – the Gross Happiness Index. Be happy, be Chinese, buy salt.

Sunday 3 April 2011

The man who never quit

I recently said in discussion that Richard Nixon was a great and troubled man whose story could only have been written by Shakespeare. I am certainly no Shakespeare, so you need not expect The Tragedy of King Richard I any time soon! But I admire Nixon as a man and as a politician, along with Ronald Reagan the most outstanding president, in my estimation, of the post-war years.

Are you surprised? How can anyone admire Tricky Dickey, Watergate man, the only president to be forced out of office under threat of impeachment? It can’t be denied there is a lot to deplore in aspects of his career, something of the night, something of Caesare Borgia in a character which often verged on the unscrupulous. In the end, as he himself admitted, he let his country down. Still, he was a man of outstanding intellect and ability, a man of vision and imagination, a man courageous enough to make the bold moves, the moves that make history; a man who rose and fell and rose again, time after time.

Who would have believed that Nixon, who made an early reputation as a red baiter, would be the president to normalise relations with Mao’s China? Because of this he now stands in the same pantheon as Don Giovanni and Falstaff, the only chief executive ever to have inspired an opera!

There is indeed something of the Shakespearean prototype about him - a tragic hero, flawed as all such figures are, flawed in such a way that brought about his own downfall. Consider, though, what he achieved in the area of foreign policy alone, not just opening relations with China but at the same time managing a balancing act with the Soviet Union, which included an important strategic arms limitation treaty, the first major thaw in the Cold War.

He brought American involvement in the war in South-East Asia to an end, though it was to lead to the extinction of the Republic of Vietnam two years later, something he said would not have happened if he had remained in office. It was certainly through his prompt action that Israel was able to recover from its early reverses in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

There is also much in his domestic programme to admire, the way in which he was able to bring America back from the economic and social chaos of the latter part of the Johnson presidency, the closest, perhaps, the country came to tearing itself apart since the early 1860s. In the end it was all for nothing; all for Watergate, that stupid, unnecessary burglary, followed by an even more stupid and inept cover-up that saw the Nixon presidency die by slow and humiliating degrees.

Yes, it would need someone with the talent of Shakespeare to capture the full irony of Nixon’s fate, but Oliver Stone made a credible attempt in Nixon, the 1995 biopic starring Anthony Hopkins. Here we see the man, a life beset with uncertainty and paranoia, with feelings of rejection, but always, always that drive that was to take him from a log cabin, well, a California grocery store, to the Whitehouse. The climb was hard, the fall harder – “To be outdone by a third rate burglary is a fate of biblical proportions.” It is indeed.

What followed was the presidency reduced to its nadir, through the Ford and Carter years, only recovering with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. By this time Nixon had also made his own recovery, showing, even in retirement, that he had lost none of the drive that had taken him so far in life. As a writer and elder statesman he was to gain many new admirers. His television interview with David Frost, the subject of Frost Nixon, a wholly engrossing movie, became the most watched encounter of its kind in broadcast history.

Iago, Hamlet, Macbeth – Nixon managed to combine elements of all three in his own complex and flawed personality. “A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits”, he once said. Nixon never quit. Is there any better accolade, any better obituary?