Tuesday 31 May 2011

Whistle down the wind

I’ve always known that the politics espoused by Green parties were fraudulent, that they advance programmes which would require not just deindustrialisation but a major winnowing of the population. They would require, in other words, some form of democide. Oh, not them and their tofu-eating set, just the ‘others’, the outsiders, the unnecessary people. It really is time that we put the whole of the wretched Green movement under closer scrutiny, time we exposed the hypocrisy and the lies.

Matt Ridley has made an excellent start in an article published by the Spectator on 21 May. Under the title of A green dark age, he outlines the damage that is being done to our countryside by the British government’s new carbon emissions target, adopted under pressure from a range of lobbies, including Greenpeace, an organisation which I hold in the deepest contempt.

I’ll come on to the environment issue in a moment but first I want to touch on another point made in the article, namely the burden a policy based on windmills and such panaceas imposes on consumers in a stealth tax, something called the renewable obligation (RO), tucked in to electricity bills.

At the moment RO adds a cool £1.1billion a year to electricity bills. Ridley suggests that by 2020 this could rise to £8billion, a further thirty per cent. The worst thing about this is that as a form of revenue gathering it’s highly regressive, a reverse Robin Hood policy, which robs the poor, even those too poor to pay income tax, for the benefit of the rich.

In what way does it benefit the rich, you ask? Ridley, who is himself rich and a landowner, gives an honest answer. It benefits them in higher wheat and timber prices; in rents for wind farms, and in something called the ‘feed-in tariff’, which pays three times the market rate to those who produce electricity by ‘renewable' means.

In thinking about this I’m reminded of the old Corn Laws, nineteenth century duties on the import of foreign corn which kept the price of food artificially high, to the benefit of an aristocratic and landed interest. Our present energy policy, the invidious RO, gives every sign of being a twenty-first century version of the Corn Laws.

The original acts helped to restrict economic growth by keeping costs artificially high. They acted as a kind of break on the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, we all know what that meant, do we not; it meant Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills. If that’s your perception then it’s time to think again. The other point Ridley makes, all too often overlooked, is that the industrial revolution helped save the environment. As Britain turned from wood to coal as a source of energy the forests, long depleted, started to recover, as did natural waterways.

Now what, what can we expect for our green and pleasant land? More of our landscape will be despoiled, that’s what; once again our forests are in danger as the price of wood escalates. Over the country councils require developers who construct a building of more than a 1000 square metres to generate 10% of energy ‘renewably’ on site. The solution is wood, or ‘biomass’, to use the awful euphemism. So, in the case of London, we have the absurd situation of diesel lorries delivering timber, to be dried and burned on site, producing ever more carbon dioxide. The situation is so ludicrous that it would defy even the wit of Jonathan Swift. According to one estimate, as Ridley mentions, Britain is producing six million extra tons of carbon each year as a result of this redirection of the wood supply. Landowners, moreover, are harvesting their timber younger than previously in this booming green lunacy.

Wind farms, who does not hate the sight of wind-farms? I certainly do. You may think they are necessary as a source of clean and renewable power. If you do I urge you to think again, think of the implications of these hideous blots on the landscape for the landscape. As foreign investors rush in to capitalise on British wind - and the wind of British politicians - just remember that it would take require a farm the size of Greater London to generate as much energy as a single coal-fired power station, assuming a never ending windy day.

Oh, but think of the money to be made; think of the money being made, for example, by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, effectively bribed by developers to stop them complaining about the killing of eagles by wind turbines. Then there are the bats, of course, the damage these things cause to them; but who cares about the bats? You should care about yourself, though, enough to make sure that you live nowhere near these monstrous carbuncles, because the noise generated has caused health problems for those who do. The difficulty here is that, as the contagion spreads, it will be difficult for any of us to escape them.

And all this for what, all this disruption, all this stupidity for what? We see our land destroyed, we see the economy weakened, jobs lost or exported elsewhere; we see an ever greater burden of taxation for what? Even if these green emission targets are met at considerable cost to us all it will make not a jot of difference, as our carbon footprint is that of an ant beside the elephant of China.

At some point in the future, as we go down in a sea of green, we might perhaps recall William Hague, once Foreign Secretary, whose immortal words are carved on his gravestone – “We showed the Chinese the UK’s international moral leadership on this issue.” Yes, remember that as you sit in your blacked-out and freezing home, listening to the sound of the roaring wind.

Monday 30 May 2011

Castles, Ghosts and Witches

I flew up to Edinburgh early on Friday morning for a long weekend with some dear friends who moved earlier this year to a village called Dirleton to the east of the city. It was a trip I was so looking forward to, planned some time in advance. At the beginning of the week things were not looking so good because Vulcan’s hissy fit in Iceland was sending up so much dust and ash! In the end, I’m happy to say, it was all sound and fury signifying nothing.

It’s almost two years since I was last in Edinburgh, there for the International Festival. The city is as beautiful, and as dirty, as ever. The tram works on Princes Street are still not finished, but the thoroughfare is now far less of a mess than it was in August, 2009. This whole project seems to have been something of a local farce. Not only is the route shorter than planned but the scheme is also millions over budget, another massive waste of time and money that looks to be of minimal benefit to local people. I’ve yet to find a soul who has a good word to say about it, although I suppose I should have spoken to the foreign companies who were awarded the contract.

It’s not Edinburgh I want talk about; no, it’s East Lothian, a county in a part of Scotland I had never been to before. Dirleton itself is absolutely delightful. It’s not like any Scottish village I’ve ever seen, more English in appearance and general atmosphere, with a lovely central green. Close by is the most marvellous castle, parts of which date back to the thirteenth century. I adore romantic ruins and this is one is particularly charming, set in such beautiful gardens.

The other romantic delight is the nearby Archerfield House, originally founded in the late 1600s with substantial remodelling the following century. Once the home of Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister at the outbreak of the First World War, the place went in to sad decline after the Second, a fate reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead. Happy to say it has been beautifully restored as a hotel adjacent to two splendid golf links. As guests of my friends we had a round on the Fidra on Saturday afternoon. My game, I regret to say, does not improve. Dash it all: I blame it on the wind!

On Sunday, my appetite whetted by the Dirleton fortress, we did a spot of castle bagging. I was told there was one particular monument that was bound to appeal to me, situated on top of a rocky headland. This is Tantallon Castle, once the property of the Douglas earls of Angus. Actually it’s not at all a castle as traditionally conceived, a keep surrounded by four walls. No, Tantallon itself is in the shape of a huge single wall built to make use of the defensive possibilities of the sea cliffs. In a state of ruin it’s still a formidable and majestic place. Once besieged by the king of Scotland in person, it last saw action during the seventeenth century Civil Wars. Occupied by troops loyal to the crown, it was bombarded in 1651 by Parliamentary forces under the command of General Monck, Cromwell’s artillery chief. After the surrender it was left in a state of ruin, never again reoccupied.

No, that’s not quite true. There is one inhabitant, a courtly gentleman dressed in a ruff, a style favoured in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. This is the Tantallon Ghost, last seen in a photograph taken in 2008, peering through one of the upper windows into the courtyard. Sadly he declined to show himself when I was there, no matter how much I willed it!

There are marvellous views from the grounds of Tantallon over the Firth of Forth and on to the nearby Bass Rock, the same kind of volcanic plug upon which Edinburgh Castle was built. Though this is the first time I’ve seen the Rock it’s not the first time I’ve visited it. No, I came through the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped. It was here that David Balfour, the priggish and self-important hero of the story, was kidnapped and confined for a second time. I remember it principally for the Tale of Tod Laprick, a story within a story, another eerie encounter, this time with a warlock and a shape shifter, one who takes the form of a gannet, in which the island abounds.

East Lothian is rich in the traditions and tales of witchcraft, no place more so than the seaside town of North Berwick, a Scottish version of Salem. It was a place I simply had to visit. It is here in the late sixteenth century, in the green by Saint Andrew’s Church, that local witches gathered, supposedly under the guidance of Satan himself, to cast spells against James VI, returning by sea from a trip to Denmark. The magic was ineffective, for despite the conjured storms the king made it safely to port.

What is certain is that a hysterical witch-hunt followed, in which hundreds of women were arrested, many confessing under torture to meeting Satan at the nocturnal sabbat. Among the accused was Agnes Sampson, also known as the Wise Woman of Keith, a local midwife and healer, who was even interrogated by the king in person. After gruesome tortures she was finally garrotted and burned as a witch on 28 January, 1591.

I’ve written about this before in a piece I called To Kill a King: the Story of the North Berwick Witches. Superstitious James may have been, the author of a work on demonology, but the persecution of these women, healers and innocent victims, had a clear political purpose, proving that the king, as a ‘man of God’, could defy the powers of Satan and the schemes of Francis Stewart, earl of Bothwell, his principal enemy and the real devil behind various conspiracies. I said a silent prayer in memory of Agnes and all the other victims of this tragedy.

From the crimes of the past to the pleasures of the present the weekend was rounded off with a super dinner at Archerfield House. I’m grateful to all concerned for a magical time amongst castles, ghosts and witches.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Democracy made us nauseated

There is a museum in the town of Gori in Georgia dedicated to the life of its most famous son – Josef Stalin. So, all those nostalgic for the old Europe, the Europe of dictators and diktats, can head off in its general direction. Actually, if you are coming from the west, there is really no need to travel that far, either to the east or to the past. No, go to Belarus instead, where a tyrannical past is a living present, where Alyaksandr Lukashenko, the president, acts as something of a curator in a living Stalinist museum.

It’s all in place, a truly delightful reminder of times gone by; there are political prisoners aplenty, sudden arrests, show trails and a planned economy that, in the comforting old style, invariably overfull-fills shortages, a problem addressed by a flourishing black market.

Since last December’s fraudulent presidential election Lukashenko has been busy over-fulfilling the jails of Minsk with his former opponents, using the pretext of a bombing in the city’s subway in early April. A rather convenient excuse at that, a sort of Sergey Kirov Murder or Reichstag Fire moment, which has allowed the petty-tyrant to vilify not just his political opponents but democracy itself. “Before the elections”, he announced, “we had so much so-called democracy that it has made us nauseated.” Given the present condition of the country Belarus must be feeling so much better.

The show trails of people like Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who stood against the Stalin manqué in the election, are clearly intended as an entertainment, intended to distract people from the lamentable state of the economy. As the Economist reported, unable to sustain his pre-election promise to raise salaries, Lukashenka has been obliged to devalue the currency by as much as 30%, thereby wiping out the value of savings.

Oh, but it’s not his fault, he protests; no, it’s all the fault of foreigners who threaten Belarus from abroad, waging "a bitter information and political war" against the country. Who these wicked foreigners, the ghosts of Lukashenko’s febrile imagination, are is just a tad difficult to determine. Doubtless they include Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, who refused to sit in the same room as him during the recent Chernobyl commemoration in the Ukraine. Never at a loss for the most fitting kind of words, Lukashenko responded with a witty broadside: “I don’t want to talk about types like Barroso and other morons and arseholes and the like.”

Alas for this particular Stalinist moron and arsehole his world is moving in ever decreasing circles. Under threat from international human rights lawyers, busy gathering material for a real trial, the places he can go in safety diminish by the day. In the end we may find that old dictators never die; they simply fade into irrelevance, or into Minsk, which probably amounts to the same thing.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

First Aid

I wrote the following article last July on the My Telegraph blog site. I’m reviving it here in the light of recent developments.

This is the age of austerity, the age of fiscal realism. The mad Labour jamboree is over and the country has woken up with the most appalling hangover. Government departments are being asked to consider the unthinkable, reductions in expenditure of up to forty per cent. We are all going to be touched by this in one way or another, the price of past financial irresponsibility.

Wait a moment; I can suggest one possible way out: leave England; set yourself up as a Third World Country, claim poverty and apply for aid, doled out with far less scrutiny than income support. Yes, that’s the way to do it! One department, you see, is set to escape the Treasury scythe, that for International Development (DFID), whose budget is to be ‘ring fenced.’

How extraordinary it is when all sorts of activities important to the interests and well-being of the people of this country are under close examination that foreign aid is to escape. So, fewer schools in England; more schools in the Republic of Ismaelia (Don’t bother looking it up; it’s the fictional country in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!) Except when you look closely there are no new schools in Ismaelia, no, just lots of new jags and mercs. No matter; look on the bright side: it keeps the motor industry going.

Joseph Stalin is reputed to have dismissed the power of the Catholic Church by asking how many divisions the Pope had. Well, at my own peril, I have to ask just how many votes are there in overseas aid? And, in true rhetorical fashion, I will hazard an answer: none, not one. Oh people may say that they care about it; people may say that it’s the moral thing to do, to assist those in need, but nobody is going to vote for it; for we are all governed by self-interest to a greater or greater degree. In other words, this is an area where cuts could be made, savage cuts, with no political repercussions whatsoever.

I admire our new coalition government for the boldness of its actions, boldness far greater, I must confess, than I thought Liberal Democrats were capable of. But still there is a halo of self-righteousness, of do-gooding, of doing good unto those poor benighted foreigners. I’m glad that the government has had the sense to end the doles to China of all places, but much of the aid budget that remains is still used for the most worthless of causes.

The report in the Sunday Telegraph on the stupid wastefulness of so much foreign ‘aid’ was both maddening and revealing. By its own audit the DFID has concluded that a quarter of its projects do not achieve their aims. This means, in practical terms, that some £463million was effectively thrown away last year as ‘conscience money’, thrown away, in some cases, on things that did not actually exist, like the seven hundred ‘ghost’ teachers in Malawi. Then there is the money spent on school text books and improved classrooms in Kenya, except it wasn’t; it went into the pockets of corrupt officials in a project that has cost £55million since 2005.

From large to small this carnival of absurdity goes on. Did you know, for instance, that it cost you £190,991 on “strengthening the voice of older people in the Ukraine,” or almost £1.5million to support a wind turbine scheme on Pitcairn, an island with a population of fifty whose energy needs are met by a diesel generator?

If I ruled the world…sorry, if I ruled Britain not a penny of tax-payers money would be wasted on foreign aid, and I could not care less what the EU or UN targets are (the ring-fenced budget is set to go up). I’m not heartless, just practical. Foreign aid is little better than a scam that feeds corruption, inefficiency and waste across the world. There will, of course, always be instances where some form of emergency assistance is required, as with the Haiti earthquake, but these should be dealt with on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, given the present thinking, charity seems to begin everywhere but home.

Oh Britain, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Other dictators all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Extorted hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Britain, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?


As I say, I wrote this a year ago. All across the world, as it says in the latest Spectator editorial (Charity not Waste), governments have cut overseas donations because they cannot give away money they do not have. Not us. If you think aid goes to the poor, even to poor dictators, it’s time to think again. The chief beneficiary of our ring-fenced aid budget is India, a country that is able to afford a space programme, a nuclear programme and –wait for it – its own foreign aid programme!

We were faced with the absurd spectacle earlier this year of David Cameron pleading with the Indian government for a greater share in their economic boom whole handing out alms...or bribes. As our military budget is now being reduced a further £4billion is being extracted through the tax system for foreign largesse, leaving Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, to point out in a leaked letter to the Prime Minister that it makes no sense at all for the government to pass a law binding itself to Labour’s aid targets. Yes, indeed, it makes no sense; it never made sense, wasteful foreign aid and wasteful foreign wars, cash and crusades. Will we ever be rid of the legacy of Blair?

Tuesday 24 May 2011

March of the Women

In January, 1911 Votes for Women, the paper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, an organisation campaigning for female suffrage in Britain, announced a new song which it described as a hymn and a call to battle. This was March of the Women, composed the previous year by Ethel Smyth. That same month it was given its first public performance by the Suffrage Choir in Pall Mall, introduced by Emmeline Pankhurst, head of the WSPU, as the suffrage movement’s new anthem.

I love it. It’s one of the most stirring songs ever written. If I had been alive then I would have been a militant suffragette alongside Emmeline and Cristobel Pankhurst, two of my all-time heroines. Yes, I would have sung those words at the top of my voice, those wonderful, heroic words;

Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is break-ing;
March, march, swing you a-long,
Wide blows our ban-ner, and hope is wa-king.
Song with its sto-ry, dreams with their glo-ry
Lo! they call, and glad is their word!
Loud and lou-der it swells,
Thun-der of free-dom, the voice of the Lord!

Long, long -- we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven,
Strong, strong -- stand we at last,
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty,
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!)
These, these -- beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.

Comrades -- ye who have dared
First in the battle to strive and sorrow!
Scorned, spurned -- nought have ye cared,
Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,
Ways that are weary, days that are dreary,
Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;
Hail, hail -- victors ye stand,
Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn!

Life, strife -- those two are one,
Naught can ye win but by faith and daring.
On, on -- that ye have done
But for the work of to-day preparing.
Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end)
March, march -- many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.

Such brave words for such brave women, women who fought so tenaciously in the face of hostility and hardship for something that we now consider to be a fundamental right. I’m no great enthusiast for specifically female causes, or for the forms of women’s liberation that emerged in the States from the 1960s onwards, but the campaign over the suffrage was something different, something all women could feel strongly about, no matter their class, politics or religion. Oh, bliss was in that dawn to be alive but to be young, and a woman, was very heaven.

Monday 23 May 2011

Homage to Catalonia

The Tate Modern in London is running an exhibition at the moment dedicated to the work of Joan Miró, who along with Dali and Picasso is part of the triumvirate of genius produced by Spain in the previous century, shapers not just of their own unique art but the art of the world. But Miró had a unique identity of his own, Spanish, yes, but Catalan, the region to the north-east of the country which had such an influence on his paintings, through its landscape, its folklore and its traditions.

Of the three I far prefer Miró, not just because of the quality of his work, the joyfulness and exuberance, but because he was far less of a political artist than his contemporaries; far less of a communist than Picasso, far less of an eccentric than Dali. Under the title Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, the organisers of the exhibition have certainly attempt to give his work a certain political narrative, and those who want to follow this path can do no better than read the essay in the catalogue; otherwise just enjoy the joyfulness of the art.

There really is only one sure thing one can say about Miró – he was passionate about his passion for Catalonia. He may have been linked politically with communism and artistically with surrealism but he was clever enough to keep his distance from both, always following his own independent path.

And what a path it was. I must have stood in front of The Farm, a painting once owned by Ernest Hemingway, for ten minutes or more absorbing all of the wonderful detail. Painted while he was still in his twenties it marks the lifelong engagement of the painter with his land and his home. You will find it in the same room as other less familiar works, including The Rut, Mont-roig, The Church and the Village, House with a Palm Tree and Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), a wonderfully exciting combination of colours and images. One can also see the progression in his work, from the early realism to a more abstract combination of symbols and signs.

It seems to me that there is a unique and personal language in the work of Miró that defies the straightjacket of politics, something that makes him far more interesting than Dali or Picasso. In Dog Barking at the Moon, painted in 1926, the symbolism is as mysterious as it is beguiling. The series known as the Dream Pictures say nothing about external affairs and the outside world and everything about the artist's own personal consciousness.

There are paintings that make a political statement, the most obvious here being Still-Life with Old Shoe painted in 1937, a brilliantly glowing piece of work, and Untitled (Head of a Man), usually interpreted as statements about the Spanish Civil War, as well as the Constellations series painted in the 1940s. But these are the exceptions and, in contrast to Goya and Picasso, more obvious political painters, Miró is far more of a mystic and a visionary, far more poetic in the way that he sees the world.

There is a steady process of simplification, of breaking complexity right down to the most basic elements, simple lines and primary colours. The message is stark and easily deciphered. I look at Painting (1927) and what do I see, a random collection of lines and colours? No, I see desire, I see sensuality.

Over the thirteen rooms you will find more than one hundred and twenty works, not just painting but also lithographs and sculpture. With reference to the latter I particularly liked The Ladder of the Escaping Eye. The ladder, the motif of the whole exhibition, the ladder of escaping, is appropriate enough, though not perhaps in the way that the curators perceived. The escape is in the art itself, the gateway beyond history, the gateway to a parallel universe. It’s Miró’s triumph.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Apocalypse postponed

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

It’s Sunday evening. I’m still here. If you are reading this you are obviously still here. Yesterday was not Judgement Day – only Saturday. Saturday: excellent and fair. Yes, there was no Rapture; Jesus did not come; the righteous - actually more the deluded and self-righteous – were not lifted bodily into heaven, leaving behind little piles of clothing, here, there and everywhere for the rest of us. The end, after all, was not nigh.

The Book of Matthew warns against false prophets in the form of ravening wolves. Actually I think stupid prophets are far more of a danger; prophets like Harold Camping, who runs a network called Family Radio Worldwide, which he used to broadcast the coming Apocalypse, an announcement supplemented by a billboard blitz. “We learn from the Bible”, his website says, “that Holy God plans to rescue about 200 million people. On the first Day of Judgement (i.e. yesterday) they will be raptured into Heaven because God had great mercy for them.”

I imagine Camping assumed he would be first upon whom Holy God would bestow his mercy, the first to shuffle off his mortal threads, because that same Holy God seemingly granted him, and him alone, access to the divine Mind. One begins to appreciate the concern of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation that the Bible in the wrong hands was full of potential pitfalls; that a subtle message was capable of being misread and misinterpreted, capable of misuse by all sorts of charlatans. But Camping is not a ravening wolf; just as silly ass preaching to a lot of deluded sheep.

We’ve been here before; we’ve seen this kind of silliness to which American fundamentalists in particular seem to be prone. One of my earliest articles was a piece I called Christian Whackos and Mooning Messiahs. This concerned one Christine Darg, another American evangelist, who was convinced that Jesus would make his reappearance on earth at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. Certain of the time and the date, she even set up a webcam to record this earth-shattering event. Time passed. Jesus did not come. No Jesus, just lots of profane mooners, anxious to record their arses for posterity. It was the appearance of everyone but Jesus, all those bare backsides, which caused the camera to be removed just as quickly as it was put up.

Yes, it’s funny; people like Darg and Camping are beyond ridiculous, a parody of faith, literal-minded to a numbingly stupid degree. Derision is the best way of dealing with them, and the poor fools who are taken in by their pretensions, pretensions which verge on the comically sacrilegious.

One other way, of course, was to be smart enough to see a potential business opportunity, to be as smart as the atheist in New Hampshire who set up Eternal Earth-bound Pets. Apparently he has more than 250 clients, convinced that they were off to heaven, who paid up to $135 (£83) to have their pets picked up and cared for after the vanishing. “They would be disappointed twice”, he told the Wall Street Journal, “once because they weren’t raptured and again because I don’t do refunds.”

I can only laugh.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Good Boy

The May edition of the BBC History Magazine carries a portrait of King Charles I on the front cover. To the left of his head the text runs Sorcery in the Civil War, followed by smaller font announcing How King Charles I used witchcraft as a weapon in his clash with parliament.

This is bold stuff indeed, certainly enough to draw the curious inside the covers, anyone beguiled by the suggestion that a British king resorted to witchcraft, especially the only Anglican saint. It might be an excellent editorial hook but, if you do look inside, you are bound to be disappointed; for the whole thing is utterly misleading, grounds for possible prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act!

The story is not about the king at all – it’s about a dog. Specifically it’s about Boy, the poodle that once belonged to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the king’s nephew and the leading commander of the Royal cavalry during the English Civil War. In The Prince and the Devil Dog Mark Stoyle, professor of history at Southampton University, examines some of the myths that attached themselves to the poor beast. It has nothing at all to do with Charles but it’s still a jolly good tale about a tail!

Legends still cling to Boy even so far as the present day, some repeated by Terry Deary in The Slimy Stuarts, part of his Horrible Histories series, amusing interpretations of the past for children. There is even confusion over exactly what kind of dog Boy was. In Cromwell, a biopic starring Richard Harris, he is shown as a toy, as if a fighting prince would carry a lapdog into battle! No, though we can’t be precise, Boy was clearly some kind of hunting poodle, more akin to the standard breeds of today. In contemporary engravings he is shown on the ground just to the front of the mounted Rupert.

The interesting thing is that though pamphlets favourable to the parliamentary cause were quick to attribute a satanic quality to the king’s dashing cavalry commander, it was the royalists themselves who brought Boy into the picture in an attempt to poke fun at the superstitious gullibility of the other side. John Cleveland, a Royalist poet and polemicist, penned some verses in late 1642, claiming that the Roundheads all believed in Prince Rupert’s magical powers, and that Boy was his familiar spirit, the demonic shape-shifter that Satan grants to his acolytes. The concept was certainly familiar enough to those reared on traditional fears about witchcraft.

Cleveland had some fun with this, saying that Rupert taught Boy to cock his leg every time the name of John Pym, the leading Parliamentarian, was mentioned. It was a satire suggesting that the Parliamentary party were all superstitious fools, but it came to be regarded by subsequent generations of historians as a true insight into their beliefs, a myth that made it so far into modern English schoolrooms by way of the Horrible Histories.

Cleveland’s satire was such a hit on the Royalist side that by the beginning of 1643, as Stoyle says, they were even drinking toasts to Boy’s health. One anonymous Royalist writer went so far to compose a whole pamphlet about the dog, entitled Observations upon Prince Rupert’s White Dog Called Boy. It was written in the form of a letter, a parody of the canting style favoured by the Puritans, supposedly from a spy in Oxford, the royalist capital, who detailed Boy’s various ‘powers.’ To give a little extra bite the author claimed that Boy was not a real dog at all but a “handsome white woman” in the shape of a dog, a source of sexual favours for the Prince.

It was now that Boy really achieved prominence on both sides, the most familiar familiar England ever produced. It was a huge laugh, a piece of Cavalier condescension at the expense of their opponents, going so far to create a permanent image of the Roundheads. But poor Boy, or Girl, depending on your point of view, came to a sad end, all his powers notwithstanding. He was among the many Cavaliers who fell in July 1644 at the Battle of Marston Moor not far from the city of York. In revenge for the previous mockery Parliamentary writers wrote gleefully of his death.

But Cleveland, and Boy, have had the more lasting revenge, still colouring popular views of their unattractive opponents so far as the present day, still showing the Roundheads as literal-minded, superstitious and joyless fanatics. Well done Boy!

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Tepid Priest

There are some people in public life who would do very well to issue apologies in advance of anything that they might say or write. Perhaps something of a blanket nature would serve, something to cover every contingency. It might proceed as follows: “I apologise for each and every statement that I will ever make, not having said the things I’m supposed to have said, or having the things I have said misinterpreted by the press, because I did not really say that, meaning to say something else.”

Confused? No more confused than Rowan Williams, our present Archbishop of Canterbury, as woolly-minded a man as you are ever likely to come across, one thing at one minute, another thing at the next. To me he is an ass, yes, an ass, no better living example of the paradox of Buridan’s Ass, the creature that died of hunger and thirst because when placed midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water it could not make up its mind between the one and the other.

Archbishop Williams cannot make up his mind about freemasons. He once described this apron-wearing fraternity as having rituals that were “satanically inspired”, that it was incompatible with Christianity and that he would refuse to appoint any member of the ‘brotherhood’ to the clergy, hardly surprising given their Robespierre-like attachment to a nebulous ‘Supreme Being,’ to say nothing of their bloodthirsty oaths! But it was all a big mistake, you see, and he did not really mean to say what he said and was profusely sorry for being found out.

That was a few years ago though the fog in the befuddled prelate’s mind is still to clear. I read in the Sunday press despite misgivings blah blah blah he recently appointed the Reverend Jonathan Baker, a senior Mason, as Bishop of Ebbsfleet. The poor old Archbishop, there are only two things wrong with him: everything he says and everything he does. No sooner was the news of this out than concerns over this latest volte-face were openly expressed, yea even so high as the General Synod.

Ebbsfleet, as we should now call him, or Brother Bishop Ebbsfleet, saw nothing at all wrong with being a Freemason and a senior cleric, nothing at all, at least until last weekend, when he decided that he was leaving the boys only club to concentrate on, to use his words, the “particular charism (sic) of episcopal ministry.” I hope he keeps those secrets, though, just to save the dear man from having his throat cut.

So Freemasons adhering to “satanically inspired” rituals can rise so far in the Episcopacy in the bright new Church of England that has such a man like Rowan Williams at the head of it. Remember this is the same man who said that ‘certain aspects’ of Sharia law seemed ‘unavoidable’ in the United Kingdom. One law for everybody, he continued, was “a bit of a danger.” Yes, over a thousand years of progress in our common law was “a bit of a danger.” Of course that was all a mistake too; he said what he said but he didn’t really say what he said, or what he said was not meant in the way that he said it. Do you know what I mean? Do you know what he means?

Humour aside I can’t be neutral here. I grew up in the Church of England; it’s part of the fabric of this nation, part of its identity, part of my identity. I no longer attend but I have a deep and abiding affection for the institution and its history. To see a man like Rowan Williams in the office of Saint Augustine, to see this inconsistent, confused, wretched hyper-liberal and moral relativist in such a position is tragic. Before this turbulently tepid priest finally departs we may find that he has done as much damage to the Episcopacy as Oliver Cromwell.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Freedom in love

I love poetry as I love words. Poetry is language at its purest, the rise and fall of words, of assonance and of dissonance, the simple music that lies at the heart of expression. I can't write poetry, it's a talent beyond me, but I simply can't imagine life without it, I can't imagine not appreciating the beauty of the music of the spheres. To have no understanding or appreciation of poetry is, so far as I am concerned, to have lead in the soul.

I can still recite the poems I learned in early school, still be thrilled by those wonderful verses. There are so many poets I admire, both ancient and modern. There is no point in listing them all but Catullus, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Lovelace, Rochester Dryden, Pope, Keats, Swinburne, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Yeats, Rilke, Rupert Brooke, T. S Elliot, Stevie Smith and Philip Larkin all come high, though none higher than the sublime John Donne.

But it was Richard Lovelace that I was thinking of recently, the seventeenth century Cavalier poet, specifically of To Althea From Prison, one of the most moving poems ever written, a great tribute to love and to loyalty, the love of a man for a woman, the loyalty of a subject to his king. I find it impossible to say just how much these verses move me, particularly the last. If I have freedom in my love and in my soul am free, angels alone that sore above enjoy such liberty. Is there any finer sentiment than that? God bless your memory, Richard Lovelace, and God bless the memory of King Charles the Martyr.

When love with unconfined wings
Hovers within my gates;
And my divine ALTHEA brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fetterd to her eye,
The birds, that wanton in the aire,
Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying THAMES,
Our carelesse heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty griefe in wine we steepe,
When healths and draughts go free,
Fishes, that tipple in the deepe,
Know no such libertie.

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetnes, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King.
When I shall voyce aloud, how good
He is, how great should be,
Inlarged winds, that curle the flood,
Know no such liberty.

Stone walls doe not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Mindes innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedome in my love,
And in my soule am free,
Angels alone that sore above
Enjoy such liberty.

Monday 16 May 2011

Blade Horror

I acquired an early fascination for ghost and horror stories, a delight to read, a greater delight to thrill. I loved reading tales that heightened my senses, tales that amplified every little creak, every unsettling noise made by settlement, by the night and by the wind. At school after lights out I used to read aloud by torchlight to the other girls in my dormitory, all sharing a shivery thrill.

But when I became an adult I put aside childish things and imagined fears. I still love Gothic fiction, the stories of people like M R James or Sheridan Le Fanu, but they have lost the visceral power they possessed on first acquaintance. I’m an adult now; fiction no longer has the same scary energy.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a genre of neo-gothic in which I have recaptured something of the fascination and thrill of fear. I can think of two novels in particular that caught past moods, that challenged me on the simple level of instinct, that place where rationality gives way to more atavistic emotions. There is Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, both of which terrified me into the old ‘only a story’ frame of mind.

Now they have been joined by a third – Apostle Rising by Richard Godwin. I had no previous acquaintance with the work of Godwin, a writer, I’ve since discovered, of short stories. This is his first novel, a detective story that is so much more than a detective story. Normally I’m not that sympathetic to the crime genre, having quickly read and just as quickly forgotten some of the Rebus stories of Ian Rankin. But Apostle Rising gripped me from beginning to end with its imaginative plotting and clever writing. I try hard to avoid clichés and hyperbole but this book is a tour de force, subtle and horrifying at the same time.

It’s a story of evil. It’s a story of two detectives, Chief Inspector Frank Castle and Detective Inspector Jacki Stone, and their encounter with evil, their encounter with its insidious power, which takes the former in particular to the gate of self-destruction. It’s the story of a cult, of religious mania, of copycat killings, of parallel murders, politicians at the top of the tree and prostitutes at the bottom.

I can’t be sure if this was in the author’s mind but the killings, often carried out in tandem, had overtones of the Manson family and Helter-skelter and the earlier Whitechapel Murders of Jack the Ripper. Some of the details, the horror of the crimes, are so vivid, so graphic in description that I found myself skipping before my imagination went into overdrive!

Godwin has a compelling style, lucid, limpid to a superb degree, prose at its purest. Most of the chapters are short, sometimes no more than a page or so, with hooks that pull one forward. Those passages in italics, which reveal the workings of the killer’s mind, full of apocalyptic, manic and semi-poetic meanderings, make for incredible reading. There are all sorts of unusual twists and turns. I was particularly intrigued by the references to Sir Thomas Wyatt, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Richmond Park and hunting. If you want to find out anymore you will just have to read it yourself!

Apostle Rising is a book full of memorable characters and memorable incidents, a well-crafted puzzle in what I see as the best tradition of gothic fiction. It carried me along simply by its own momentum, by the way it’s shaped and by the clarity of the writing.

The only criticisms I have are on minor points of detail. It thought that some of the police work was not as careful as it might have been, particularly in relation to the final political victims. The last one should have been under closer observation, given his connections with the penultimate victim. Also I was surprised by the way in which Karl Black, the villain-in-chief, a wholly malevolent individual, the novel’s Hannibal Lector, was finally pinned down by the confession, offstage, of his principal collaborator, Jonas Wilkes, who had hitherto shown no sign of co-operating with the police. No explanation for his change of mind is offered.

This is minor stuff, though, and if you think I’ve given the game away by naming names think again; this book will keep you guessing to the end and beyond. And just pray that you never meet Blade.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Interview with an Imp

What follows is copy of an interview with me carried out by Tony Berkman who runs Blog Catologue, a blogger community (blog.blogcatalog.com/.../an-interview-with-anastasia-fitzgerald-beaumont-a- woman-of-purpose-vision-intellect-playfulness/). It was fun to think about some of these things, fun to answer Tony’s questions. My answers may give you a little more insight into my character. :-)

He’s all right! Aren’t you, cat? Poor cat! Poor slob! Poor slob without a name! The way I see it I haven’t got the right to give him one. We don’t belong to each other. We just took up one day by the river. I don’t want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together. I’m not sure where that is but I know what it is like. It’s like Tiffany’s. -

Holly Golightly

Tony: What is the one thing you wish everyone would understand about you?

Anastasia: That my bite really is much worse than my bark.

Tony: Your are an avid reader. In a book review, on GoodReads, you wrote that “…. Holly Golightly, a free spirit, [is] the one figure in literature that I identify more with than any other, the delightful, effervescent, wonderful Holly, always travelling and never arriving.”
Would you mind being more specific about why you relate to Holly Golightly? Is it the fact that she was rebelling against what “traditional” women were supposed to be doing during that time period?

Anastasia: Yes, in part, but there is more. I see Holly as someone totally unique, a force for freedom, not simply rebellion. It’s easy to be a rebel; freedom is a far greater challenge. She stands, if you like as a case sui generis, a totally unique human being, always pursuing her own star. And what a star it is. I can’t imagine other lives not being enriched and enhanced by contact, even of the briefest, with someone like Holly. When Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published it must have caused a sensation simply because she was so untypical, but she hasn’t dated, she’s just as relevant today as she was then, a character who shows that life is simply for living, living in the best and most meaningful way that one can.

Tony: It must have been a tremendous sensation. Your perspective is very interesting and adds more depth to what I perceived her to be. What else is there about her nature that you find so compelling?

Anastasia: She is my avatar, the ultimate imp. She is timeless. If Nietzsche invented the Superman Capote invented the Superwoman.

Tony: Your blog Ana the Imp covers a broad range of topics. You say it’s about ”anything from art to witchraft.” Recent posts you’ve had some movie reviews, some fun political commentary, to covering your feelings about watching the wedding of William and Kate , with your mother. Much of what you write seems riddled with a rye sense of humour especially when you disagree with another’s position. After recent voting you came home to see what the buzz was like on Twitter and you played with other’s online in a somewhat mischievous way. It seemed somewhat like a cat playing with some yarn? Are you mischievous and rebellious by nature?

Anastasia: Yes, I am, I always have been. I was an incredible handful at school, as I feel sure my teachers would tell you, even going right back to primary/grade school. I simply refused to take anything for granted, questioning absolutely everything, especially if it was a contention backed up by no more than the mistress or master’s authority. I really like pulling tails, not to let people rest easy on false and unexamined assumptions. Mischief and humour, I find, are often the best weapons at my disposal.

Tony: You currently live in London. Have you lived in London your entire life?

Anastasia: No, I was born in the county of Surrey, where I spent my early years. From the age of eleven to eighteen I was away at boarding school for most of the time, in High Wycombe in the county of Buckinghamshire.

Tony: Your blog’s subtitle is “This is a tale of succubus,” the Title is “Ana the Imp“? Would you mind describing where your desire to name your blog came from or your vision for your blog?

Anastasia: It suited my nature. Ana is simple enough; it’s just an abbreviation of my first name. An imp is just a mischievous little devil, without malevolence, an appellation which seemed to fit my character so exactly. The ‘tale of a succubus’ reference comes from All Along the Crooked Way, a song by Inkubus Sukkubus, my favourite band. A succubus, incidentally, is not quite so benign. No, she is a female demon who comes in the night to suck all the sexual energy out of men, another dimension to my character.

Tony: Another dimension you appear to have is the need to make certain that you voice your views. This is something I have tremendous respect for. I have read some of your more serious pieces and they are brilliant. They cut through the carnage of difficult issues such as those surrounding the Middle East and the USA’s and UK’s foreign policy. Is this an ability that you have developed through your studies or have you always been able to cut through and communicate complex issues so that they are easy to digest?

Anastasia: It’s awfully kind of you to say so. I’ve always loved words, the power of words. Fortunately I’ve been able to communicate, and communicate with considerable effect, through both the written and the spoken medium. I don’t see any point in complicating issues. If I want to say something, I want to convey a message, then I do so directly without fuss or flap. I so admire the essays of George Orwell precisely because he understood the importance of a clear and uncluttered message.

Tony: Where does the imp or rebel fit into this clarity of writing style?

Anastasia: I like to take people by surprise, not always producing what is necessarily expected of me. I write, or at least I try to write in the spirit of a natural rebel.

Tony: I have noticed that. You love the monarchy yet it is a system of rules and part of you seems to be a rebel? Do you love it because it is one the thing that appears to last despite all the challenges that we face in the world?

Anastasia: I love tradition and I love my country. The monarchy for me is part of the quintessence of England, beyond all challenge; I simply could not imagine my country in its absence. As an institution it places no unduly heavy burdens on us as a people. We change and the monarchy changes with us. But it’s always there, an indication of where we have been and a sign of where we are going, an institution that unites the past, the present and the future. There is no rationality here. This is pure emotion and intuition on my part.

Tony: Your reading list shows you have read over 482 books over the past 6 years and you have another 23 upcoming books to read. To what do you attribute your deep thirst for knowledge?

Anastasia: My parents and grandparents encouraged and nurtured my curiosity and my early love of reading and of books. I was taught to read by mother before I went to my first school, so I already had a head start. I also have the ability to consume things at a terrific rate, to absorb what is important and discard what is not. The homes I have lived in, both in Surrey and London, are cluttered with all sorts of books, to which I had unlimited access.

Tony: Do you see yourself as someone who lives on the borders of society, pushing the edges to see how far you can go?

Anastasia: Yes, in American terms I suppose I’m a frontierswoman, pushing always beyond boundaries.

Tony: Do you have dreams of power and celebrity?

Anastasia: I suppose I must to some extent or other, though I would far rather have meaningful power than shallow celebrity.

Tony: What is it about history that so fascinates you to keep digging and searching?

Anastasia: I think we are all born with a particular talent; it just requires the right kind of stimulus to bring it out. As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by history, by past lives, by traces in time. It helped that my grandfather was a supreme story teller. He served as an officer in the British Indian Army both before and during the Second World War and he used to tell me the most marvellous tales of his life and times, of India and the Raj, of hunts mounted on elephants, of sahibs and memsahibs, of a life long, long past. The past for me is a foreign country, one to which I travel visa free.

Tony: You have fascinating background Would you mind sharing what is it about the “edges” such as witchcraft, imps, and succubus that attracts you?

Anastasia: It’s my attraction to the dark side. Seriously, witchcraft is an ancient tradition, one of power and wisdom, one based on sacred practices, with constant renewal in oneself and in nature. For me witchcraft is the greatest of all the religions, the veneration of the Great Mother, the veneration of Pan, the Great Father. It’s about life and love at the most sublime.

Tony: I’d like to switch from witchcraft to your doctorate. You are currently finishing your doctorate, which is self-directed study, what specifically are you studying and what do you plan for the end result?

Anastasia: My speciality is in seventeenth century England, specifically the political struggles that took place during the reign of Charles II, which saw the emergence of the Whigs and the Tories, the first English political parties. Beyond getting my degree I’m not yet settled on the outcome. I don’t want to teach, that’s certain, so I’m likely to end up in journalism…or politics.

Tony: I believe England needs another great female politician. You certainly would make one. Aside from your travels through history your travels have taken you to many corners of the earth. Is there a particular place or people that touched your heart the most and what was it about this place that resonated so deeply with you?

Anastasia: Yes, the people of Cambodia, the Khmers, a gentle, wonderful race. It’s difficult to believe that such horror could have been inflicted on them in the 1970s by their own political masters. Their experience has served to compound my hatred of communism, of all life-denying ideologies.

Tony: Have you thought about how you’d like to be remembered?

Anastasia: As a good friend and a unique spirit, an English version of Holly Golightly.

Tony: Well Anastasia aka Lady Holy thank you for your time and interest in sharing a glance into your life and views . I am grateful that you took your time do this for the rest of us.

Anastasia: It is always a pleasure. Thank you Tony.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Confucius the Dissident

Close to the end of last month I wrote an article on the arrest and disappearance of Ai Weiwei, a leading Chinese artist and dissident (China in Night and Fog). I now have to report on the recent disappearance of Confucius, yes, Confucius, the ancient sage whose concepts of social harmony had such appeal for the Communist authorities, always afraid of inharmonious times and inharmonious people. But the wind has changed yet again and harmony, at least in the Confucian form, is no longer quite so fashionable.

Poor Confucius, there he is, forever in and out of Chinese history, approved of at one moment, despised at the next. He was certainly the political fashion as recently as January, when a 9.5 metre statue of the old boy was installed outside the National Museum on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square looking on to the Forbidden City. He was there, stared at by Mao, making the mad Chairman leap in hell.

Confucius, you see, represented everything that Mao hated, the traditional values and the feudalism of the old China. Mao came to China, particularly in the Cultural Revolution, a little like Qui Shi Huang, the first emperor, who tried to wipe out all memory of the past by destroying books and by burning scholars alive. Confucius was the past and the past was Confucius, swept into a form of oblivion.

The recovery of memory began soon after Mao’s death in 1976. Bit by bit the sage returned, tolerated to begin with and then celebrated by a nation and a government looking for roots in the past. Just as the Germans tried to spread their cultural message across the world with Goethe Institutes, the Chinese set up their own Confucius Institutes. Abroad it was a new way of selling China, a more acceptable face than that of the malign Mao, while at home Confucian notions of harmony were a corrective to the upheaval of rapid and socially unsettling economic progress.

Not any longer. At the end of April the statue was removed under cover of dark without any explanation. The thing is Confucius is a rather awkward avatar. Oh yes, there is all that stuff about obedience and duty, of deference to the system, but that’s not the sum total of his thought. In the Confucian scheme of things governments have to be accountable to the people and, what is worse from the apparatchik’s point of view, they only have the right to rule through the exercise of ethical conduct.

Ethical conduct is now the last thing that the Communist Party wishes to be reminded of, ever fearful that it might just lose the mandate of heaven, every fearful that it’s own abysmal lack of any ethical code will become increasingly apparent, ever fearful of its own people. I see from a report in the Economist that neo-Maoist websites are crowing over the sudden removal of the “witch doctor.” But the ‘witch doctor’ has proved to be remarkably resilient. The night and the fog may have descended on him but he will re-emerge, a symbol, seemingly, not just of harmony but dissidence.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

The Lost Cause

In Edinburgh there is a memorial to the Scots who fought in the Union Army during the American Civil War. You will find it in the Old Calton Burial Ground, just across from the spot where David Hume, the leading thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, happens to be interred.

It’s quite an impressive piece of work. There, at the top of a plinth, stands Abraham Lincoln in splendid isolation. At the bottom there is another statue, that of a freed slave, holding up his hands in supplication and gratitude, now a rather unfashionable nineteenth century motif. On the east face the monument carries the following inscription – “In memory of Scottish American soldiers. To preserve the jewel of liberty in the framework of peace – Abraham Lincoln.” Yes, it’s impressive, an impressive contribution to a post-bellum mythology.

We have not long passed the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, with the attack in April 1861 on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. To mark the occasion there was an article in one of my history periodicals by Doctor Thomas E Sebrell, a specialist on the subject.

It was particularly good because it corrected several misconceptions that I had, the chief among which was that the residual sympathy for the Confederacy amongst the British manufacturing and ruling class was finally eclipsed by Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, which made intervention on behalf of the South all but impossible. The fact is that this was another ‘wrong move’ on the part of Lincoln, one in a series.

Let me begin by saying that Britain had long been in the front of the campaign against international slavery. The slave trade was abolished by Parliament in the early part of the century and slavery itself abolished throughout the Empire in the late 1830s. During the secession crisis following Lincoln’s election as President in November, 1860 any latent sympathy for the emerging Confederacy was effectively submerged by its adherence to the ‘peculiar institution.’ This changed when Lincoln announced that his chief objective was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.

There were excellent domestic reasons for this: he did not want to alienate the border slave states, particularly Kentucky, of vital strategic importance to the Union cause, but in doing so he lost the moral high ground in Europe. In a letter to Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary, said that the North aimed not at liberation but at conquest. Suspicion of Lincoln was compounded after the introduction of a naval blockade against the South, which starved British manufactures of vital cotton supplies.

It was tricky time. Lincoln may have gained Kentucky but he risked the intervention of a powerful naval adversary on behalf of the South, an intervention that was likely to carry widespread popular appeal in Britain after the Trent, a British mail packet sailing from Southampton to Cuba, was intercepted by a Union vessel on the high seas and two Confederate diplomats effectively kidnapped. Queen Victoria was even moved to write in her diary of the Yankees that “They are such ruffians.” When Prince Albert saw Palmerston and Russell’s letter demanding the release of the diplomats he remarked that this means war.

It was thanks to the Prince’s diplomatic rewording of this bristling missive, and the prompt action of Washington in releasing the Confederates, that there was no war. But sympathy for the South continued on the upswing. By December 1863 the Southern Independence Association, formed in Manchester with the intention of forcing Parliament to recognise the government of Jefferson Davis, had chapters in almost fifty cities and towns across Britain and Ireland. In Parliament over seventy MPs were known to favour the South in contrast with only seventeen for the North.

Palmerston was only waiting for the right moment, either to offering mediation with a view to recognising the Confederacy, or taking such action unilaterally. Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Maryland after the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862 stayed his hand, but then came another dangerous moment for the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln in the wake of Antietam, was widely condemned in Britain, not celebrated.

Remember, Lincoln had not abolished slavery, merely ‘freed’ the slaves who were held in those states beyond Union control. That is to say, in both the Border States and those areas of the Confederacy under the occupation of Union troops slavery remained firmly in place. Russell branded the act as a hypocritical and an illegal violation of the American constitution, which turned slavery itself into a “reward for loyalty.”

So slavery and declining sympathy for the Southern cause had nothing to do with the British reluctance to intervene. The real reason was, as Sebrell argues, quite simple; technical innovations in naval warfare, the introduction of both sides in the conflict of ironclads, had, by the summer of 1863, made the British Navy, hitherto the most powerful in the world, obsolete. A test was carried out on HMS Warrior, the most technically advanced the Royal Navy had, a huge ship itself partially ironclad, to see if it could withstand an onslaught by the squat and ugly little vessels whose prototype was the Monitor. Palmerston was told that every round from the sea monsters had penetrated the Warrior’s iron plates with ease. At that moment it was the Union, not the British, who ruled the waves. At that moment the Confederate cause in Britain was lost.

In the end all that survived was a certain nostalgia, evidenced by the free-standing statue of General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, put up in Capitol Square in Richmond, Virginia in 1875, with funds provided by his English admirers, a reminder the politics were not quite as simple as the Lincoln statue in Edinburgh would suggest.

Monday 9 May 2011

Scotland the Dependent

Last week’s Super Friday, a succession of elections across the United Kingdom, has produced some intriguing results, especially in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party (SNP) is now in command, having enough seats in the devolved parliament to govern without the consent of the opposition. There are runes to be read here, signs to be interpreted, though with a message quite different from that which you may suppose.

I’ve seen some alarming headlines about the end of the three hundred year old union between England and Scotland. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, anticipating a struggle, has already said that he will defend it with every single fibre that he has. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, now has enough votes to leap into the referendum on independence that he has long desired, previously frustrated because of his minority ministry. Oh, but there is so much more here. It would be wrong to see the increase in the SNP vote as a mandate for independence.

I look between the lines. What exactly is it that I see? I see a nation that was shamefully taken for granted by the Labour Party, a nation treated like a feudal appanage, a fiefdom by a party mired in corruption, complacency and neglect. In government Labour set up a Scottish parliament with one aim in mind, and it wasn’t greater justice for the Scottish people; no, it was to see off the SNP, who had the temerity to challenge their political monopoly.

Once the Parliament was set up it was treated from the outset as the second division, a place for placemen and political mediocrities. The Big Boys, including Gordon Brown, the man who treated Scotland with the greatest condescension of all, stayed at Westminster, where the real careers were made.

Holyrood, the district of Edinburgh where the Scottish parliament is located, was for the also rans, reflected in Labour’s colourless and second-rate leadership; the leadership of Jack McConnell, the previous first minister, about as memorable as a wet day in Woolwich, and latterly the aptly named Iain Gray, who had not even sufficient residual wit to understand that the greatest challenge he faced during the recent election campaign came from the SNP and not the Scottish Conservatives, a pathetic bunch of blue socialists, Vichy Tories, as Gerald Warner, Scotland’s greatest export, calls them.

Gerald Warner, if you don’t know his work, is a journalist and columnist. Above all he is a brilliant polemicist, one who invariably aims at the Achilles’ heel. His comments on his native Scotland are bitingly exact, his comments on a culture of dependence that will ensure that the country, no matter how hard Salmond may leap and dream, is likely always to be locked into the Union. I have in front of me We’re all doomed!, an article he wrote in the Easter edition of the Spectator, full of eye-opening facts.

The narrative goes something like this. For centuries before the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the Scots mounted plundering raids into northern England by bands of reivers. It was a kind of subsidy for an impoverished nation, unable to live within its own meagre means. There are no more reivers but the subsidies still pour north, tribute from the beleaguered English taxpayers, a kind of Danegeld without the Danes.

The situation is quite intolerable. Scotland currently receives £1600 ($2000) per capita more in public expenditure than England. This invidious position is soon to be ended, as the so-called Barnett Formula, devised by a previous Labour minister, is being revised. So the SNP, riding high on a national wave, faces a budgetary shortfall of some £4.5billion, the reality of which will kick in well before the proposed referendum is put in place. Just at the present Scotland is a place bogus dreams are made on, its little life rounded with a sleep.

As I have said, Labour, which dominated Scottish politics for decades, treated the place like of fiefdom. But there is something more: it also treated it as a kind of Indian reservation, creating a culture of abject dependency with hideous levels of state expenditure, a tradition which the SNP ministry only continued, and has promised to continue still further. Amazingly, as Warner points out, by 2009 Scotland had attained global statistical significance as the third most state-dependant country in the world, after communist Cuba and war-torn Iraq. Out of four million Scottish voters just over half pay income tax. It’s even worse than that: for most of the tax payers are in public sector jobs dependent on tax.

It’s a vicious circle, a spiral from which there is no escape, certainly not in independence, unless Scotland, or Alba, to use the Gaelic name, wishes to go the same route as Albania. Perhaps there is something to be said for pyramid selling schemes after all, when there is nothing else, not even the builders of pyramids.

This is the reality of Alex Salmond’s brave New Scotland that has such people in it, people who have long lost the entrepreneurial spirit of Adam Smith, the technical ingenuity and business acumen of James Watt, have lost almost everything in the way of a free and productive bourgeoisie. Yes, dependent is the key work, not independence. New reivers will ride south, not able to live by their own devices. Can we afford them any more, can we afford Scotland? These are the questions that can no longer be avoided. For our sakes Scotland may have to have independence thrust upon it, even after the country votes no in Salmond’s referendum.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Dead Parrots

I woke up on Friday morning with the determination to get out and vote as early as possible, to vote NO, to reject the Alternative Vote, the shabby compromise which would have replaced the existing first past the post method of sending our representatives to Parliament, a compromise designed to give the Liberal Democrat Party a perpetual hold on power.

I was happy when I voted, quietly confident that the Yes camp had lost. What a change from earlier this year when I thought that the British people were sleepwalking into this change, driven there like sheep bleating about ‘fairness.’ But I love a fight, especially when I’m in a corner, there always at my toughest. I blogged against it here and on other sites; I argued against it at university in debate, with friends, with anyone who was prepared to listen, people whose minds had not been completely befuddled by ‘fairness.’

Perhaps I need have written or said nothing. In the end the public face of the Yesers was probably the best ally the Noers had. There is Corporal Clegg, of course, the leader of the Limp Dumbs and Deputy Prime Minister, a tremendous asset now that everyone disagrees with Nick. He’s clearly set to become a crutch for the sore losers, now advancing the argument that the referendum, their referendum, was a popularity contest in which Clegg got a good kicking, not because the platform was wrong but because he is Clegg! They did not lose the argument, oh no, of course they did not; the whole thing was just so terribly unfair, the perpetual bleat of these perpetual losers.

Yes, losers like the risible Eddie Izzard, one of the celebrities who fronted the Yes campaign, who, incidentally also supported joining the euro, a ‘comic’ who is in fact a clown, and I say that without a trace of irony. There was Dan Snow, who really is a comic, conceivably the most laughable excuse for a historian that this country has ever produced. There is that fat arse Stephen Fry, professional twit and tweeter, a man who has never had sex with a woman but knows all about how women feel about sex. If Izzard, Snow and Fry are yes the answer always has to be no!

Speaking of tweeting, no sooner had I voted than I went online, went to Twitter, just to see the buzz. There were lots of Yes people there, still rising in the dawn of Armageddon. I simply could not resist a counter-attack, could not resist having a spot of fun at their expense. “Don’t believe what David Cameron is saying”, one response came. “I have no idea what Darling Dave thinks about AV, never having read him.” I replied, “But I sure as hell know what I think!” To another who suggested that all supporters of electoral ‘reform’ leave for some place with a ‘fairer’ voting system I said “Try Fiji!”

Yes, I had a spot of fun; I just couldn’t help myself. I had even more fun on Friday evening, more than my usual intake of champagne cocktails, when it became clear that the people had not just rejected AV but rejected it in such resounding terms, consigning it to a political crypt, there never to rise again. It’s as well to be cautious, though, for there is still poison in the system, still the bleating pleas for ‘reform.

The vote was a vote for conservatism, something the Liberal Democrats find impossible to understand. They are still prepared to tamper with the constitution not in the name of ‘fairness’, a political fig leaf, but for their own sectional interests, to get more of their people into positions of power.

Writing in the Guardian, Tim Farron, a Liberal Democrat MP, helpful ‘reminds’ his Conservative partners in the present coalition government that they are wedded to a promise to abolish the House of Lords in favour of a wholly elected upper chamber, based on, based on what exactly? Can you guess? No? Well, it’s to be based on proportional representation. So, electoral ‘reform’ thrown out of the front door is to be introduced through the back. Here we are; they are already suggesting another pointless, expensive and irrelevant exercise, something else nobody wants, nobody but the Liberal Democrats.

Never mind them; they are once again knocking on the door of Nemesis, once again experiencing the strange death that George Dangerfield wrote of so brilliantly all those years ago, torn apart by the fault line in British politics, which does not allow for a flabby centre. David Cameron says that there should be no gloating over the AV vote. To hell with that; let’s gloat! The Lib Dems are the irrelevant party. I’m reminded of something, oh, yes; I’m reminded of dead parrots.

'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e
rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the
bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

Thursday 5 May 2011


To mark the thirteenth anniversary of the death of Pol Pot, the face of genocide, the Spectator Coffee House Blog recently published an article by Michael Sheridan, which originally appeared in September 1996. In this he maintains that France had a part to play in the formation of the murderous politics of the Khmer Rouge.

The thesis is superficially attractive. A number of the senior apparatchiks of this frightful movement were educated in France, not just Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar, but Leng Sary, Khjeu Samphan, and Hu Nim. They were all there in the late 1950s, imbibing, according to Sheridan, the politics of the Left-Bank during its unyielding existential period.

They absorbed much of their theory, he continues, from the French Communist Party, a thoroughly Stalinist body, steeped in hatred of the bourgeoisie. The Party’s programme included the collectivisation of agriculture, which the Khmer Rouge carried through with a literal-minded and barbarous rigour after they captured Phnom Penn in 1975, which, so says the author, even Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier at the time, found terrifying.

As I say, it’s superficially attractive…and utterly unconvincing. Unconvincing at least so far as a specifically French dimension is concerned. Why on earth should Zhou Enlai, of all people, have found the Khmer Rouge actions ‘terrifying’? After all this man, no more than the abject dog of Mao Zedong, belonged to a government whose actions were no less horrific in the Great Leap Forward, a more exact model for Pol Pot than any theory he absorbed in France. The French Communist Party may have talked about collectivisation – luckily for France it never got beyond talk – but it was Stalin and the Soviets who carried it into practice, with total disregard of the human consequences.

No, the rot is not in France; it is in Marxism itself, in the different mutations of Marxism, - in Lenin, Stalin and Mao, those three monsters of the twentieth century, the Red Century, the most murderous in human history. I suppose it’s possible, though, to argue that there is a more precise French root to the politics of the Khmer Rouge in the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the original monster of the idea, who advanced a thesis based on human perfectibility, an abstraction which turns the real world upside down, one that makes dispensable marionettes of us all.