Sunday 31 July 2011

Dada History

Throughout history there have been periods of calm between storms, to use the cliché, though these might be better described as illusions or mirages. I’m thinking of Weimar Germany, specifically of the period from the end of the post-war inflation in 1923, a time which saw the revaluation of all values, and the Great Depression of 1929, a time which saw the devaluation of all lives.

This was the golden age, to use yet another cliché, a period when the country flourished, sustained by short-term credit allowed for under the Dawes Plan, a scheme to stabilise the German economy and thus secure a continuing stream of reparation payments to the victorious allies. The whole thing was built on an absurdity that simply could not last, a belief in no tomorrows.

But that today, while it lasted, produced a mini-renaissance almost without parallel in history. It was the time of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, the time of George Groz, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weil, Arnold Schoenberg, Lotte Lenya, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich and so many others, architects, musicians, scientists, writers, actors, singers, players of all sorts who strutted and fretted their hour upon a brilliant stage. What players; what a theatre.

In Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s Otto Friedrich comes as a spectator, charmed, captivated and bewildered all at the same time. I have mixed feelings about this book, an interesting though somewhat uneven treatment of an important subject. Although it is offered as a portrait of Berlin, and a good bit of the action is set there, it’s really more of a general cultural and political history of Weimar Germany, one not confined to the 1920s.

It’s quite an old book now, originally published as long ago as 1972 at a time when many of the people who witnessed life in Germany before the rise of Hitler were still alive and able to give accounts of their experiences. There are artists, intellectuals and scientists. But where are the ordinary people, where are the ordinary Germans, the Berliners themselves? If you are looking for a fluent social history this is not it.

What is it exactly? Let me put it this way. The chapter dealing with the new scientific theories of the day – God Does Not Play at Dice – shows how all certainty seemed to vanish, all notions of predictability and Newtonian law. Instead the universe was depicted by Werner Heisenberg and others as something quite random, a bit like a Dada montage, after the artistic movement more given to anarchy than order. Well, this is a Dada book, with bits and pieces falling here and there!

I hope I’m not being too harsh; there is certainly a lot here to intrigue and charm, but it lacks focus - the overall treatment is far too random. Friedrich does not seem clear over what he is trying to achieve. There is a bit of everything: a bit of political history, a bit of social history, a bit of intellectual history, of the arts, of music, of architecture, of the theatre, of the cinema. All are visited but with no real thoroughness.

The anecdotes of people like Lotte Lenya are certainly interesting but in the end I felt a sense of frustration. The lengthy account of the political intrigues and machinations which saw Hitler emerge as Chancellor in January 1933 is really quite pedestrian, material far better handled elsewhere.

The problem is the author is not true to his subject. There is no real intimacy and too much incidental chatter. After over three hundred pages I was no closer to understanding what life was like at this time in the German capital than I was at the outset. Although far less sweeping in scope, Roger Moorhouses’s Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45 is a much more assured, mole’s eye view of life in the city.

I did enjoy Before the Deluge to a degree but it did not satisfy my hunger, a hunger to know what life was really like in one of the most intriguing cities in one of the most intriguing times in history. I want to know what it was like to be there on the opening night of Die Dreigroschenoper – The Three Penny Opera – specifically at the point when the Kanonen-Song was heard for the first time, turning the mood of the audience, the creation of one of the theatre’s greatest spectacles. That would have been something. Alas, I shall just have to wait. :-)

Thursday 28 July 2011

China’s Creeping Catastrophe

It’s over thirty years since China adopted its one-child only policy, a draconian measure designed to cope with the perceived problem of overpopulation. But the agrarian China of 1979, not long emerged from the nightmare of Mao, is a very different place from the high-tech China of today.

High fertility rates are most often a consequence of poverty, not wealth. Economic modernisation and the growth in personal wealth have the effect of reducing the number of children people have anyway, without the need for state intervention, which almost invariably has the effect of making things worse, or creating new and unintended problems.

China is facing a demographic crisis alright, but not the kind originally anticipated. It’s not that it has too many people: it now has too few of the right kind of people; there are too few young people to carry the future burden that has been placed on their shoulders. China, in other words, is growing old.

But the crisis, or the potential crisis, goes still deeper. Despite over sixty years of Communist rule, China is a nation wedded deeply to tradition, to a tradition that places a far greater importance on male over female children. No male child means that a long chain with the past is broken, that the family name disappears, that one’s ancestors have been consigned to a deeper oblivion.

When preference, and politics, meets with technology, when tradition meets the ultrasound, the outcome is depressingly predictable: female foetuses are aborted until nature gets it ‘right.’ In the more heavily populated eastern provinces of the country, places where the one-child policy is imposed with all the rigour at the disposal of officialdom (forced abortions, even at a late stage of gestation, and the confiscation of ‘illegal’ children were routinely deployed at one time) the ratio of male to female children is now shockingly out of balance.

This femicide is bad enough in itself but it means that there are thousands of males born in China today who will never find a partner. And as problems tend to be built on problems there is evidence that girls are being kidnapped for forced marriages.

There is also the issue of corruption, a huge problem in a country with a political system fearful of any kind of popular scrutiny. According to Caixin, the Beijing-based news agency, surplus children were routinely taken into orphanages, there to be sold on to foreign parents at a price up to $5000 a head, with kickbacks to the bureaucrats involved.

Reporting on this whole issue recently, a leader in the Economist made the point that demography is like a super tanker; it takes decades to turn around. If change is to come it has to come soon. But with the Chinese gerontocracy tied to the one-child policy as an act of political faith it’s difficult to see how the country can escape a creeping catastrophe.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Let the Storm Break Loose

“Is the EU mortally wounded?”, Larry Sidentop asked in an article published in the July issue of Prospect (A crisis of belief). I hope so, Larry, I certainly hope so. I would like to update Voltaire’s observation about the Holy Roman Empire, that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The European Union is neither European nor a union. Rather it’s the most awful hybrid, something that might very well have been created on the island of Doctor Moreau.

There they were, those ‘idealists’, the politicians and bureaucrats who tortured this creature into existence, determined that they knew what was best for the peoples of Europe. The best was to escape history, democracy and destiny; the best was to submerge our unique and varied identities in something unreal, a structure cosmopolitan beyond the definition of cosmopolitan. The reaction is setting in, touching on things that go far deeper than sovereign debt.

"Are Europeans willing to shed national identities?", another question put by Sidentop. No, the answer is coming, from Finland to France. There is no secret here. A little bit of sense, an understanding of history, should have demonstrated that change happens slowly; that it takes centuries for a common identity to emerge.

But Europe has been transformed almost overnight; transformed by rapid expansion of membership from the east; by massive migration of peoples, something, I would hazard, that has rarely been paralleled since the time of the late Roman Empire; by the abolition of so many national currencies in favour of the one size fits all euro, a unit of value that really should have been called the Procrustean (thanks Calvin!)

Above all there is the migration of power, away from national parliaments to the super bureaucracy in Brussels, a system of decision making and governance which effectively makes democracy irrelevant. As this ‘ideal’ has waxed so support for integration has waned, with half of the citizens of the EU now doubting that it is a 'good thing.'

The problem, you see, is that the European project was at root based on distrust, based on the assumption that the whole business of integration and harmonisation was too complex for ordinary people to understand. Democracy was tried and found wanting, something people who live outside of the new super state may not fully appreciate.

Earlier this decade a new constitution was devised and put to a limited vote. In both France and the Netherlands, the very heart of the original community of six, it was decisively rejected. The constitution is dead; long live the constitution. Yes, the Frankenstein monster was revived and dressed up as the Lisbon Treaty, with no need for more votes. Oh, sorry, the Irish had to keep voting until they got it right.

With Euro-sceptic parties gaining strength across the Continent, the Eurocrats may come to regret their ignorance of history. Sidentop puts the point reasonably well;

From the outset, in promoting integration, they have failed to understand how difficult it was to create the nation states of Europe—overcoming prejudices of tribe and caste, dialect and region. Creating the social solidarity and willingness to make sacrifices for other citizens, which alone offer a stable basis for political union is, inescapably, a very slow process. American national identity took a century to form. When Robert E Lee was invited by the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln to assume command of the federal armies, after 24 hours of deliberation he declined, replying that he was a Virginian before he was an American. And, after a far longer period of time, consider how imperfect European state formation remains. Separatist movements in Catalonia, northern Italy and Scotland testify to that.

Now the Greek crisis looks set to accelerate the process of integration, which means more centralisation, which means an almost complete loss of national sovereignty, of centuries of inherited tradition. It means all power to the Soviet-style technocrats of Brussels, a new kind of Orwellian state, based not on violence and intimidation but malign forms of repressive tolerance, of indifference to the popular will.

Make no mistake, democracy, meaningful democracy, in the sense of popular empowerment, is dying in Europe. We live under a tyranny far less representative, far less responsive, than that which outraged the American rebels of 1776. It really is time to take heed. Come, European people, stand up and let the storm break loose. :-)

Tuesday 26 July 2011

A Vixen’s Tale

I’ve now completed The Eustace Diamonds, the third in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series of political novels; another milestone passed; another three to go! I enjoyed Can you Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn, the Irish Member though not nearly as much as the story of Lizzie Eustace and a legacy which brings more trouble than pleasure. It seems to me that the author is much more assured here in his treatment of themes, of plotting and of character, his style much more relaxed, perceptive and gently ironic.

The Eustace Diamonds is said to be the least political of the six. The Pallisers hardly feature at all – though Plantagenet’s obsession with decimalisation makes yet another appearance! -, apart from Lady Glencora's brief lobbying on behalf of Lizzie, taken in as is almost everyone else by this duplicitous woman, such a contrast to the earnest and po-faced Alice Vavasor of Can you Forgive Her?

Yes, Lizzie Eustace is an anti-hero. She reminds me in some ways of Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (was this the author’s intention?), though she doesn’t have the same kind of wit or native cunning. Becky makes things happen; things tend to happen to Lizzie, though she is not averse to scheming and lying to try and turn them her way.

It may not be a political novel as such – though the politics of property features highly – but it offers the most marvellous insight into Victorian mores, into contemporary attitudes to property, to wealth, to social relationships and to marriage. Like Vanity Fair, it’s essentially a comedy of manners or a social satire, though not quite as sweeping and as richly textured.

Lizzie Greystock, the daughter of an impecunious Admiral, is a social climber who has climbed quite effectively, making an advantageous marriage to a baronet, Sir Florian Eustace, who conveniently dies, leaving her - as Lady Eustace - with an income, a castle in Scotland and fabulously rich set of diamonds. However, that is not the end of her problems; it’s the beginning.

My, those diamonds; what a burden they are, and not just for the footman who is obliged to carry them from place to place in a strongbox! The problem is that the lawyer acting for the estate insists that the diamonds are not hers at all but an heirloom which should be held in trust, in the face of Lizzie’s insistence that they were a personal gift from her late husband.

I think a Victorian audience would have been more sympathetic to the legal nuances arising here, which now seems all so refined and perhaps rather pointless, especially as the jewels will eventually pass to Lizzie’s younger son, the heir of the Eustace estate. I confess I did not quite understand the motives of Camperdown, the family lawyer, in his relentless pursuit of Lizzie, yea, even so far as the Court of Chancery (Dickens’ Bleak House should be sufficient warning to those who want to take matters there!), especially as John Eustace, her brother-in-law and the nominal head of the family, does not show the same determination. Of course the more legal time the greater the costs, sufficient motive in itself, I suppose.

It’s Lizzie’s misfortune to alienate just about everyone around her, including Lord Fawn, her fiancé, a rather tepid individual and ineffectual member of the Liberal government (her final letter rejecting his already withdrawn marriage proposal had me in stitches!), though her cousin Frank Greystock, whom she deceives without scruple, remains loyal almost to the end.

Abandoned by most decent society, she cultivates her own déclassé and ever so slightly disreputable set, including one Lord George de Bruce Caruthers (one can just picture the twirling moustaches!), a potential suitor and a ‘Corsair’ (Lizzie is an admirer of the poetry of Byron), the grasping Mrs Carbuncle and Lucinda, her self-centred niece, and Sir Griffin Tewett, a man with little in the way of grace or finesse, recalling for me Sir Percival Glyde, the villain of Willkie Collins' The Woman in White. There is also the oleaginous Mister Emilius, the clergyman, who is playing his own disreputable game. All are destined to dance an amusing and wholly mercenary quadrille!

As always some of Trollope’s descriptive passages are quite brilliant, particularly the hunting scenes in which he excels, something I discovered from the two previous novels. The pursuit of the fox is fascinating but not nearly as fascinating as the pursuit of Lizzie the vixen, the most elusive quarry of all.

There are a few things that puzzled me. I’m thinking specifically of Frank Greystock’s treatment of Lucy Morris, the penniless governess he falls in love with and promises to marry, only to neglect her, leaving his conduct, particularly with regard to Lizzie, who has her own designs on him, open to speculation.

It all comes good in the end, though the action here seems to take place ‘off stage,’ so to speak. Was it simply Frank’s insistence that made Lucy acceptable to his family? Was he having second thoughts? He couldn’t visit her while she was a guest of Lady Linlithgow because of her disapproval, but why did he not write?

Sorry; this is Trollope’s novel, not mine, and even with such lacunae it’s a jolly good read, an everyday story of upper class, and shady, Victorian folk. I was completely beguiled, no sooner finished than moving into the foothills of Phineas Redux, my next stage in the journey.

Monday 25 July 2011

Duck Speak

I never tire of saying just how much I love the writing of George Orwell, particularly his essays, the true heart of his genius. His concerns are my concerns, especially when it comes to the question of good English usage, though I can only muster a fraction of his insight and literary brilliance.

I share the same passion for language, a belief that the corruption of language comes from a corruption of thought. He was writing at a time when the greatest threat to accurate and meaningful expression came from the malign ideologies that dominated the middle part of the last century. In Politics and the English Language, an essay published in 1946, he makes the following observation;

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Yes, that’s it exactly; language becomes ugly and inaccurate because thought is ugly and inaccurate, the one reinforcing the other in an ever tighter circles. The more extreme examples, the sort of thing favoured by Stalinist publicists, the sort of thing that Orwell proceeds to analyse, are gone. Or are they? Well, the stupid, like the poor, are always with us, so I think I might be able to amuse you with something I came across recently.

I should say that I was the target though I think it best if I avoid mentioning the context and the circumstances; it wasn’t here, that much I should make clear. I’ll just say it was in response to my efforts to add a little balance to the ongoing hysteria over Rupert Murdoch and News International. In reaction a barrage of meaningless, and contradictory, epithets were thrown in my general direction, to which I responded in general terms, drawing on the expressions themselves;

Meanwhile I shall continue to buy the Times in my corporate, right-wing, fascist, libertarian, anti-government, laissez-faire liar, anarcho-totalitarian manner! I sometimes think that George Orwell was never born or that stupidity really is the wave of the future, like a clown throwing verbal tomatoes at a face forever.

It was only after I published that comment that the players in Hamlet came to mind. Oh, how I regret not adding that I was the best in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

Poem unlimited and speech unparalleled! That’s the thing about left-liberals – they are more ridiculous than dangerous. Yes, I do despise them but I laugh at their sheer intellectual incapacity far more than I frown at their ideas. They have no ideas, not an original thought, just a cycle of clichés, round and round for ever, as in a washing machine. They do not think; they are incapable of thought. The words come, yes, but from the vocal cords, not from the brain. They are the beetle people of Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose language is not New Speak; it’s Duck Speak. :-)

Sunday 24 July 2011

A New Old Young Plan

Be assured: the crisis is over. The smug smiles said it all, as the European leaders emerged from the end of last week’s summit on the euro debt disaster. They emerged bearing gifts to the Greeks, a second bail-out of the profligate nation worth over $130billion. The details are all a bit vague, though; who, exactly, is going to pay what? Never mind that. Rejoice; the crisis is over; the euro lives; the European ideal lives. The crisis is over…until the next time.

I have only one thing to say: keep a close eye on Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. That smile is, I predict, set to freeze before her mouth turns down at the edges. She seems to have become the architect of a new old Young Plan, with Germany set to pay foreigners subsidies far into the future, just to preserve an economic absurdity, that and the political credibility of Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, an even greater absurdity.

The Young Plan, if you are unaware of the history here, was a scheme, devised by an American banker in 1929, to regularise the reparations payments imposed on Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. It was supposed to make them more manageable by spreading them out over time, a period of sixty years to be exact. It upset quite a few people then; it should upset people now: for once again Germany’s future has been mortgaged.

There are no reparations, of course, in the brave new fraternal Europe, just the internationalisation of national debts. A ‘joint liability’ it’s being called, as the Greek sovereign debt is swallowed whole along with Greek sovereignty. It’s really a German liability, something I’ll come to in a moment, but first consider inglorious Greece.

The mountains look on Marathon--
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

So wrote Lord Byron in a mood of romantic reverie, dreaming of the ideal of Greece. Another poet, perhaps a Greek one (do the Greeks write poetry anymore?), may soon express a similar sentiment as Europa, or the bull, stands on the grave of this country, a country that for centuries fought the Turks for freedom only, in the end, to give that freedom to the Germans.

Why, oh why do the Germans want this? It will be German taxpayers, principally, who will pay, Young-plan style, for the acquisition of Greek bad debts. They have gained nothing by this fraud other than a greater personal burden, their future for a dubious Greek present, for an even more dubious currency, based on ideology not fiscal realism, a currency that even the Bulgarians (for the love of God – the Bulgarians!) are shying away from.

No matter, I feel sure that the pensioners of the Fatherland, many of whom survive on no more than 1000 Euros a month, think it all worthwhile; think that it is a jolly good thing that their Greek equivalents, who retire more than ten years earlier, receive more than twice as much.

The reality is that the problem of Greek solvency has not been addressed; it’s being hidden behind back-slapping and cheesy grins, all part of a kind of political medicine show. There is no long-term plan for dealing with the economic fecklessness of the Greeks, just a faster and faster bail-out of a decrepit old trireme, sinking by perceptible stages.

Merkel, contrary to past assurances, contrary to the law of her own country, has bought Greek debt to saddle on German taxpayers; more moussaka, less sauerkraut. The cheque’s been signed, the deal has been done. The Germans can boot this woman out of office but she has bequeathed to them of legacy that makes Young look benign.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

Earlier this month I wrote about the crisis besetting News International which led to the closure of the News of the World, clearly a cynical exercise in damage limitation which has not limited the damage (The Decline and Fall of the News of the Screws). I think people, particularly British people, are probably sick of this story by now, which looks like running, and running interminably.

The sudden death of Sean Hoare, the journalist who first revealed details of the phone hacking culture on the News of the World, has added to the fevered speculation; oh, sorry, not so much fevered as stupid, the usual evidence-free conspiracy theory that the imaginative love. I met murder on the way – he had a mask like, well, anybody you like really - the Devil, Miss Jones…or Rupert Murdoch.

Things have gone far too far, so much so that I now have to express some sympathy for the Devil, to praise Caesar, not to bury him. I won’t be the first. William Shawcross recently said a word or two in his defence in the Spectator, as did Roger Cohen in the latest issue of Prospect. With the wretched Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, attempting to whip up a lynch mob against Murdoch and all his works, now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the party, to speak of the positive contribution that the old Devil has made to British journalism and broadcasting in general.

My view here was already beginning to alter, especially in the light of Miliband’s clownish antics. But it was Gordon Brown’s intervention against Murdoch in Parliament, an act of unbelievable hypocrisy, that made the alteration all the faster.

Then there is the BBC, which has behaved with a nauseating lack of partiality in reporting this story. Its monopoly was threatened by Murdoch’s bid for a controlling share in British Sky Broadcasting, so all the poisons that lurked in the mud hatched out, one presenter on the Today programme going so far as to describe Murdoch as the “most evil man in the world.”

Let’s have a closer look at the Devil, ‘the most evil man in the world.’ Writing before the current crisis, Simon Jenkins, now a columnist in the ultra-Liberal Guardian, said that Murdoch was the “best thing that ever happened to the British media and they hate him for it.”

Yes, the best think that ever happened, and yes, they really do hate him for it; the socialists, the liberals, the pseudo-journalists, bad writers aplenty. By taking on the antediluvian print unions in the 1980s, wedded to practices that would have been thought too restrictive even by medieval guilds, he breathed fresh life into a medium that was effectively dying. He stood by the Times at the most difficult point in that paper’s history, for which alone he deserves praise, not calumny.

He continues to subsidise this journalistic flagship, subsidising the losses it makes from the profits of the Sun, rather an irony considering the differences between the two publications. Our newspaper industry is better and more diverse because Murdoch was prepared to make the bold moves, the moves Anthony Hopkins said in the movie Nixon that make history. As Shawcross says, if Murdoch’s business is destroyed the diversity of the British media will suffer seriously. We will all be the poorer for that.

The thing I can admire most about Murdoch is that he is a great risk-taker, that he plays the long shots with an almost intuitive understanding of what will work and what will not. So far as this country is concerned he is an outsider, a ‘colonial’, but he represents a buccaneering spirit that took Britain so far in the nineteenth century. He stands, in other words, in the tradition of the great innovators and entrepreneurs, a spirit that has just about been bled out of this land.

So much of the comment being made at present is based on petty-spite and envy, when it is not simply motivated by baser political considerations. Murdoch is a modern Citizen Kane, Cohen says, and resentment follows people like him as closely as success. It will take a lot for News International to withstand the pressures that it is presently under. I sincerely hope it does.

However, in the end, Murdoch may quit this country, now little more than an outpost of his international media empire, may quit the various media and broadcasting interests he now holds. In the end excellent papers like the Times, by far the best for foreign coverage, and the Sunday Times may disappear altogether, either that or they will fall into the hands of some Russian gas giant or other rather like a football club, a prospect I personally do not welcome. If I have to have a Devil I would rather have the Devil I know.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Word Master

I’m in the process of reading The Complete Essays of Michel Montaigne, a labour worthy of Hercules. Please don’t misunderstand me; if it’s a labour it’s a hugely entertaining one. I’ve read some of his essays before though in a highly abridged edition. The full collection weighs in at thirteen hundred pages, full of all sorts of surprises and delights.

Montaigne is the father of the essay as a literary form. In so many ways his own personal technique, his assaying has never been bettered in style, range or content. I’ve not long finished On Democritus and Heraclitus, where he says of himself:

I take the first subject that Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expand them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me; I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.

It’s just so brilliantly put, this technique of playful serendipity, the one I try myself with a fraction of the skill or the insight. There is not the least artifice in the way that Montaigne looks at things, though there is a slight tendency to self-deprecating understatement. He is the subject of his book, and spending a little leisure in pursuit of the subject is neither frivolous nor vain, as he himself suggests!

Montaigne also has a quality I admire most in a writer: a simple love of words. In introducing On the Vanity of Words, the essay that follows on from the above, the editor says that, despite the author’s mastery of language, he despised words and admired deeds. But that seems to me not to be a wholly accurate reading; for, drawing on classical examples, what he really despises is rhetoric, and rhetoric here is the worst kind of artifice; an abuse of words, an abuse of meaning and an abuse of language. Montaigne does give examples of bad usage, particularly in overblown technical terms, but he does so in words that are anything but vain. In other words, he disproves his own argument, or he proves the subtle irony of his intellect.

On Democritus and Heraclitus has another passage that I particularly like:

I do not think that there is so much wretchedness in us as vanity; we are not so much wicked as daft; we are not so much full of evil as inanity; we are not so much pitiful as despicable.

Vain, daft, inane and despicable, watching the news night after night, discovering the latest antics of some politician or celebrity, it’s a conclusion that is almost impossible to escape.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

History in a Charter

There is a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indian Jones, in a bluff, threatens to blow up the Ark of the Covenant, captured by the Nazis. The bluff is called by Dr René Belloq, a French archaeologist in the pay of the Germans, who says “Yes, blow it up! Blow it back to God. All your life has been spent in search of archaeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it open as well as I. Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This...this is history.”

I remembered this on reading that the City of London’s copy of Magna Carta was recently returned to the Guildhall from the Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell, where it has been resting for the past five years while the strong-room in which it is normally kept was being renovated. We are simply passing through history; Magna Carta is history.

London’s copy is not one of the four extant originals signed by a reluctant King John at Runnymede in the summer of 1215. It’s a later version, authorised by Edward I, John’s grandson, in 1297, though it has the distinction of being the best preserved, the one that is consulted by Parliament when its clauses become relevant.

According to an article I read in the Times it’s valued at £20million, an entirely nominal figure because it will never be sold, could never be sold. Magna Carta is literally priceless. At the Guildhall itself it is not normally on view, being kept secure behind fire doors with an eight hour resistance. The only other danger it faces is from insects, which could consume the thirteenth century vellum. To guard against this those who care for it carry out regular ‘bug hunts’, to use their own expression.

Magna Carta itself is better known for its principles than its contents, a good bit of which is concerned with the property-rights of the thirteenth century aristocracy. Unlike, say, the American Declaration of Independence, which takes it as one of its cues, the language is dry and legalistic rather than poetic and inspirational.

Dry it may be but it is still the basis of so much that we have come to value as central to our liberties. It was the first serious attempt to limit the power of the executive, the first attempt to determine that monarchs were also subject to the law. Most important of all, though this was never the intent, it is a kind of constitution, a prototype for all that followed across the Anglo-Saxon world.

Take chapter 29, still the best known and by far the most relevant: “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised [deprived of property] or exiled or in any way destroyed…except by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” In these few words, as the historian David Starkey wrote, lies the kernel of the three great legal freedoms: the rule of law, the security of property and the right to trial by jury.

There is also something even more fundamental in elementary notions of political freedom, a balance of rights and duties. In the reissue of the Charter by Henry III in 1225 it is recorded that the liberties had been given by the crown in return for a grant of taxation. Such grants were to become the prerogative of Parliament, the basis for still further compromises and concessions.

No taxation without representation, the political battle-cry of the American Revolution, stems from the principles that Magna Carta introduced to the world. It is a document that should be cherished, one that shows the enlightenment of medieval barons compared with the thugs and tyrants who control so much of the modern world, individuals and oligarchs who are governed by no law but their own.

Monday 18 July 2011

Bloodless Drama

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865 immediately conjures up one name – John Wilkes Booth. But there were others involved, or implicated, in the conspiracy that led to this seminal event in American history. They included one woman, Mary Surratt.

I confess I had never heard of her, not until I saw The Conspirator, a historical drama directed by Robert Redford. Surratt ran a boarding house in Washington in which Booth and a group of Confederate sympathisers, including John Surratt, her son, met first to plan the kidnapping and then the murder of Lincoln along with other members of the Federal government.

Surratt was caught up in the sweep that followed the assassination in Ford’s Theatre, though her son escaped. She was eventually convicted and hanged in July 1865 as a co-conspirator, though the question just exactly how much she knew, how culpable she was, remains open, and Redford makes no attempt at closure. One of the highlights of the movie is Robin Wright’s depiction of Surratt, a perfect study in stoic ambiguity. Clearly I can’t speak with any authority on her innocence or guilt though it would seem obvious that she stood trial for her son, whose guilt was the greater. The irony is that when he was eventually caught, at a time when the initial panic and outrage had died away, he was released after a mistrial.

This is a good story which should have made for compelling cinema. Sadly it did not. I thought the script plodding and the general treatment stuffily didactic. There is simply no emotional engagement, rather odd considering the potential here. Because I’m so keen on history and courtroom drama this movie should have worked for me on so many levels. It was all the more disappointing that it did not. There was loving attention to detail, certainly, in creating the general atmosphere of the America of the 1860s but the overall effect was like a heavy pudding – bland and stodgy.

There are good performances by a first class cast. Wright, as I have said, excels as Surratt, James McAvoy is good as Fredrick Aiken, her idealistic defence counsel, slow to accept that his client has any defence at all, and Kevin Kline was superb as Edwin Stanton, the Secretary for War, who seems to have taken control of the government in the wake of Lincoln’s murder, pursuing the conspirators with a single-minded determination. But even this could not lift The Conspirator above the mundane.

The movie, in its heavy-handed manner, comes with a serious point. The trial of Surratt and the others, conducted by a military tribunal, did not just trample their constitutional rights – it ground them into the dust. If the war had been fought, to use Lincoln’s words, for a new birth of freedom this was most certainly not it. Even Aiken’s attempts to obtain a writ of habeas corpus and have Surratt tried by a civil court were frustrated by edict of President Andrew Johnson.

One would have to be blind to miss the subliminal message (Kline even bears a strong resemblance to former vice-president Dick Cheney!), that no matter how great the emergency we stamp on civil liberties, on the legal principles established by Magna Carta, at great peril. Yes, all very important, if only it could have conveyed in a fashion that feels a little less worthy, a little less like a movie made for TV. Where, oh where, was the stardust? The Conspirator is not full-blooded; it’s anaemic.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Gordon Brown, the Sewer Rat

We haven’t heard much from Gordon Brown, our late, unlamented, prime minister, the man who bankrupted Britain, since he was ejected from Downing Street with as much lack of personal dignity as the scheming and the treachery that took him there in the first place. But we heard from him last week, the raging bull, raging in Parliament, attacking Rupert Murdoch’s News International as a “criminal media nexus” engaging on “law breaking on an industrial scale.” On he fumed about ‘rats’ and ‘sewers’ and the like.

This had nothing to do with the phone hacking fuss that saw the demise last week of the News of the World, though he certainly drew on that for additional ammunition. It was brought on, rather, for altogether more personal reasons.

In 2006 the Sun, another horse in the Murdoch stable, improperly, according to Brown, accessed the medical records of his son, Fraser, revealing that he suffered from cystic fibrosis. The odd thing is that it’s taken five years for this to come out, and clearly just at the right moment, to inflict even more damage on News International. In the court of public opinion the shout went up “How awful!”, “How awful!” David Cameron even offered the former PM his sympathies.

Oh, it’s awful alright, but not for the reasons you may suppose. Of all the hypocrisy and hand-wringing that has been demonstrated over the past week in the wake of the News International scandal Brown’s is by far the worst. Let me put it plainly: he used his son, his own son, as part of an act of the basest political vengeance. If there are rats, he is the biggest; if there are sewers, his is the deepest.

The fact is that the Sun did not obtain the information in the manner suggested but from another father, whose son also suffered from this condition. The fact is that the Sun cleared the story with Brown and his wife before it was published. The fact is that they both asked for the widest possible coverage, pushing for it to be published in other papers. The fact is they tried to make political capital out of personal unhappiness, the most sickening fact of all.

The publication of this story did nothing at all to sour Brown’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch or News International. The first interview that he gave after becoming Prime Minister in 2007 was with a Sun journalist. Rebekah Brook, the former News International chief executive, was editor of the Sun at the time of the cystic fibrosis story, though that did not stop her coming to Downing Street as a personal guest of Sarah Brown. Moreover, it did not stop the Browns attending her wedding in 2009.

The real reason for the rupture has nothing to do with medical records and phone hacking. No, the real reason is the Sun, the newspaper that supposedly ‘delivers’ the outcome of British parliamentary elections, abandoned Labour in support of the Tories prior to the election of 2010. Brown, noted for his rages, noted as the Mad Mrs Rochester of the Downing Street attic, rang Rupert Murdoch saying that “I will destroy you.” That’s what it’s all about: petty spite and vengeance. At once my sympathies switched to Murdoch. I simply cannot stomach hypocrisy seasoned by treachery, treachery, moreover, by a kind of vicious Holy Willy, a canting Presbyterian Scot.

Let’s look a little more closely at the sewer and the rat. Brown expresses contempt for the techniques employed by News International. But this is a man who, when the phone hacking allegations first emerged in 2009, refused to set up an inquiry. He now says that his efforts to do so were obstructed by Sir Gus O’ Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary. That’s an outright lie, as the good knight has since confirmed.

It get’s worse. The moral tone of Gordon Brown’s sewer-like premiership was set by political thugs like Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride. The altogether loathsome Damian McBride served as a special advisor on Brown’s staff until 2009, when he was caught trying to disseminate lies about opposition politicians, lies that did not stop short of embracing one MP’s wife. The emails in question were issued from Downing Street. It was a culture of political poison that makes News International look almost amateurish.

I’m sure Dante would have found a special place in the Inferno for Gordon Brown. Yes, of course, the Eighth Circle, that dedicated to the treacherous and the fraudulent. It’s there, specifically in the sixth section, where the hypocrites are to be found, weighed down forever by gilded lead cloaks, representing the reality behind the appearance of their words and actions in life.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.

Thursday 14 July 2011

The Dawkins Delusion

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine…

Actually, no, I couldn’t but I can a tale unfold that might make you smile, perhaps even laugh. It concerns atheist, rationalist, feminist, progressive and sceptic folk; it concerns people not noted for their wit or their humour; it concerns, most particularly, Richard Dawkins, an atheist god and his fall from grace into disgrace.

Before going a step further I have to thank Michael Ezra, a friend and fellow tweeter, who drew this delightful brouhaha to my attention, with links to all sorts of places and rational forums that I would never have visited, places where oh so liberal folk are busy tearing Dawkins apart, yea, even so far as the New Statesman (when is this sexist publication going to be renamed the New Statesperson?) So, Michael, thanks!

Let’s begin at the beginning, let’s begin at the Dublin conference of atheists and sceptics last month, addressed by Holy Dawkins. But as man – and women – shall not live by doubt and dismissal alone, one of the participants, in a mood of romantic timeout, thought he would try his chances. Indeed he did.

Let me set the scene for you. It’s late, four o’clock in the morning to be exact. Dog-tired after a day of doubt, debunking and drinking, a woman leaves a hotel bar and gets on the elevator, making her way to her room, bed and a godless rest.

Before the doors are fully closed a chap jumps on board. A bit nervous and a bit awkward, he says to the woman “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?” He just wanted a spot more scepticism but she assumed that his mind was on another topic beginning with the letter s and did take it the wrong way. No, she would not, a lame proposition put down by a quick rebuff. And that, as they say is that. I know; I’m an expert in the art of the cutting brush off!

No it was not, because the woman Randy Roger the Sceptic tried to inveigle with offers of coffee was a certain Rebecca Watson, apparently, as I now know, a leading American sceptic (forgive the k-less spelling) who runs the excellent Skepchick site. It has to be; the New Statesman says so.

Now Rebecca, rather than brushing the whole thing off, goes home and posts a video on the excellent Skepchick site, saying, amongst other things, that she does not welcome chat-ups from sex-starved sceptics on the elevators of foreign hotels. It makes her uncomfortable, you see, when men sexualise her in that manner. I rather expect it makes Rebecca permanently uncomfortable to be seen as an object of sexual desire, anywhere, anytime. She most certainly does not want a bash from other God-bashers. It creeps her out. These guys creep me out, too, but that’s by the by.

So, that’s that, you might think, but no; enter Dawkins on a donkey, riding in to the comments section of the excellent Skepchick site, rather sceptical about dear Rebecca’s sexual scepticism. He expresses his view in a letter to an imaginary Muslim woman;

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so …

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


Talk about the God that failed! At once his adoring acolytes were not quite so full of adoration; at once they gathered together with cries of “Crucify him!” “Crucify him!” And, my, how they have, in an explosion of blogosphere outrage made worse by his cack-handed attempts at further explanation. Those nails, how they must have hurt going in, judging by this sharp example;

It makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic. But let me spell it out for you instead of just getting mad (though I'll do that too):

Words matter. You don't get that because you've never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don't have people constantly explaining that you're subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don't have people saying you shouldn't have rights. You don't have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don't live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.

Well, I’ve referred to Dawkins as a prat, a four letter word; does that not count?

And so it went on, blah, blah, with Watson chipping in, saying her own piece in hyper-feminist mood;

To have my concerns—and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault—dismissed thanks to a rich white man comparing them to the plight of women who are mutilated, is insulting to all of us. Feminists in the west have been staunch allies of the women being brutalized elsewhere, and they've done a hell of a lot more than Richard Dawkins when it comes to making a difference in their lives.

Sceptic chick (chick? My goodness!) turned by degrees from angry chick to furious chick to vengeful chick, so much so that she called for a boycott of Dawkins' books. Perhaps there should be a public burning of The God Delusion? My, what a delicious irony there would be in this immolation of the atheists’ bible!

Scepticism grew by the hour as more and more people raised doubts about the existence of Richard Dawkins. Where is the evidence? Perhaps it’s all a delusion? Perhaps someone could write a book and organise a conference. No sex, please; we’re sceptics.

Doubts were raised about the Dawkins, verily, so far as the New Statesman, where one David Allen Green weighed-in in the pompously sanctimonious style I associate with that publication: “Can Richard Dawkins still credibly pose as champion of rational thinking and the evidence-based approach? In my opinion he certainly cannot, at least in the way he did before.” How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of scepticism perished!

So, bang goes Richard as the high priest of rational thinking and the evidence-based approach! All this, all this pointless and petty fuss because some stupid guy had the temerity to approach a humourless frump. I think God must have set it up just to have a good laugh at these clowns. It’s simply wonderful to see the rationalists descended into such risible irrationality. This is a tale worthy of an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Behold, Grandma Moses, the Useless Idiot

Alice Walker, a professional American African American woman, wrote The Color Purple and she’s been dining out on it for years. Alice Walker, the professional American African American, is a well-known radical, active in all sorts of progressive and fashionable causes, and she’s been boring people relentlessly for years.

Alice Walker walks in a higher plain: she walks with Gandhi; she walks with Martin Luther King; she even walks with Jesus. She drips with compassion for all children, “humanity’s most precious resource”, to use her own words, though she can’t even manage a human relationship with her own child, Rebecca, who has said that she felt “more of a political symbol that a cherished daughter.” Shades, I think of Charles Dickens’ Mrs Jellyby from Bleak House, as another blogger noted. Like Mrs Jellyby, the “telescopic philanthropist”, Alice Walker is a prig; a sanctimonious, preaching, hypocrite. Worst of all she is a self-important, self-regarding fool.

So, what’s brought this on? I should say that I had little interest at all in this woman, the avatar of the second rate, grossly inflated beyond all proportion, famous for being famous, an individual whose talent stands in inverse proportion to the size of her mouth.

She is not a writer for whom I have any respect, representing all that is cankerous in modern liberalism, exposed so brilliantly by Nick Cohn in his book What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way. I would continued to have ignored her but for the fact that she decided to join the so-called Freedom Flotilla 2, an act of political agitprop by the murderers of Hamas, supposedly intended to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza. She has not the first clue over the true objectives.

I recently wrote Eyeless to Gaza, an article published on BrooWaha, the online newspaper, drawing attention to the political realities behind Freedom Flotilla 2, an armada made up partially of the malicious and partially of the moronic. I made it plain that this is an ‘aid’ convoy that carries no aid. What it does carry is a lot of left-liberals, useful idiots, as Lenin is once supposed to have described such people. Of Walker specifically this is what I said;

The useful idiots, incidentally, include Alice Walker, the American writer, who has joined the flotilla, saying she is concerned about ‘the children.’ Perhaps she might have considered talking with Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli-Arab journalist, who has actually spoken to ordinary Palestinian people, as opposed to the publicists of Hamas. If she did she would have discovered that there is no shortage of food and that shortages of medicine are caused by infighting between Fata and Hamas. The latest news from the Gaza Strip itself confirms this, officials blaming Fata for “political blackmail”

I really don’t see this woman now talking to anyone, or being able to make any sense of what’s being said to her. Prior to sailing with the pompously named Audacity of Hope - thankfully now ‘becalmed’ in Greek waters along with the rest of the diminishing armada - she issued a statement so sanctimonious that people watching her at the press conference could not possible have missed her halo;

I see children, all children, as humanity’s most precious resource, because it will be to them that the care of the planet will always be left. One child must never be set above another, even in casual conversation. Not to mention in speeches that circle the globe…we must do everything in our power to cease the behaviour that makes children everywhere feel afraid… So, Gazans, and especially the children, we are on our way. We are coming. We hear you. We are coming

And on that note she floated away. Actually I’m surprised she needed a ship at all. Surely the waters would part before this modern Grandma Moses as the Red Sea parted before, well, Moses!

They are coming alright, or rather they are not, which is probably as great a relief to the people of Gaza, spared this woman’s oleaginous embrace. The ocean of compassion, incidentally, does not extend to the children of southern Israel, for all Walker’s maudlin mawkishness, children whose homes have come under attack by Hamas rockets. These terrorists, moreover, with no qualms at all, hide the launch sites in civilian areas, effectively using Palestinian children as a shield. Does Grandma know?

Howard Jacobson, a prize winning British author, wrote an excellent expose of Walker in all her laughable hypocrisy. Beyond highly charged emotionalism the woman gave not a single valid reason for joining the flotilla, for wanting to end a blockade absolutely necessary to prevent the terrorists who control Gaza from getting hold of more weapons.

One would have to be a complete fool not to see through Walker’s partiality, to see through all her tendentious colour purple (oops!) prose. Alice Walker comes in peace, with the side possibility of wished-for martyrdom (but who would dare assault a ship carrying Grandma Moses?). If the Israeli military attacks, she said, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. Let there be some Jacobsen light;

Wrong on a thousand counts. As a writer, Alice Walker must understand the symbolic significance of words. The cargo is a cargo of intention. It is freighted with political sympathy and attitude. It means to blunder into where it isn't safe, clothed in the make-believe garments of the unworldly, speaking of children and speaking like children, half inviting a violence which can then be presented as a slaughter of the innocents.

Even before the deed, Alice Walker has her language of outraged moral purity prepared -- "but if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us..." The Israeli response is thus already an act of unprovoked murder, no matter that the flotilla is by its very essence a provocation. Whatever its cargo, by luring the Israeli military into action which can be represented as brutal, the flotilla is engaged in an entirely political act. To call it by any other name is the grossest hypocrisy.

Meanwhile Grandma cools her heels in Greek waters with the other useless idiots as this gesture begins to look more farcical by the day. The Israeli government has behaved brilliantly in becalming the armada politically, something even the Guardian has been obliged to admit. Even the IHH, the terrorist front based in Turkey, has withdrawn support, because of ‘technical problems.’ In point of fact it’s because the Turkish government is anxious to restore its previously good relations with Israel, disrupted by last year’s flotilla.

So Walker sits still, I assume, audaciously hoping on the Audacity of Hope. She might be moved to entertain the others with a rousing spiritual or two. Or perhaps not, just in case the waters of the Aegean are not quite as obliging as those of the Red Sea.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Putin’s Potemkin Democracy

Lieutenant Kijé is a soldier who never was. He was born by sleight of bureaucracy and he died by sleight of bureaucracy. The anecdote dates back to the late eighteenth century, to the time of Tsar Paul of Russia. First published in the 1870s, it tells of man, originally named, Kizh, created by a misprint on a list of officers. Paul sees the name and promotes him from second to first lieutenant.

Having come to the attention of the Tsar, nobody dare admit that there is no such person as Lieutenant Kizh. Bit by bit he is promoted, until he becomes a full colonel. At such an elevated rank the Tsar now demands to see him, only to be told that he is dead by the nervous officials. “What a pity”, he says, “he was such a good officer.”

This splendid little satire on the stupidity of bureaucracy and the blindness of autocracy was turned into a novella by Yury Tynyanov, a Soviet author, in 1927, with Kizh now as Kijé. Still later it was made into a film with a marvellous score by Sergei Prokofiev.

In so many ways it’s the perfect parable, illustrating the absurdity that has long formed part of Russian history, where openness and freedom are constantly imperilled by servility in the face power, the power of the state and the power of the ruler. It immediately came to mind when I read about the six month travel ban imposed on Boris Nemtsov, formerly deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and a leading critic of Vladimir Putin, the increasingly autocratic prime minister.

What was Nemtsov’s offence? Oh, it was terribly serious. Last year he published a pamphlet drawing attention to Putin’s relationship with Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire energy trader. Following legal instructions, a correction was printed by a newspaper in March. It was too short, the judges said, and because the author was determined not to have co-operated fully with the court a travel ban was imposed. The connection and the logic here is quite beyond me.

It’s laughable in its absurdity, an indication that Russia has moved full-circle back to Soviet days, when such devices were regularly imposed on those critical of the regime. It’s also an open admission that Russian law is an ass, Putin’s ass. In general the treatment of Nemtsov provides evidence of the premier’s increasing paranoia in the run up to next year’s presidential election.

Official intolerance against any form of opposition grows by the day in Putin’s Potemkin democracy. The reference here, of course, is to the artificial settlements allegedly put up by Prince Grigory Potemkin, chief minister to Catherine the Great, to impress the empress on the value of the new conquests he had made in the Crimea, an illusion, hollow and unreal.

Recently the Justice Ministry refused to register the People’s Freedom Party, co-headed by Nemtsov, preventing him fielding candidates for the parliamentary election scheduled for December. No such ban was placed on the pro-Kremlin Right Cause party which registered at the same time. This selectivity comes despite President Medvedev’s promise to encourage greater political competition. But Medvedev seems himself to be little more than a Potemkin head of state, keeping the place warm for Putin.

Competition and openness, any kind of freedom really, have always been problematic when set against the kind of court politics that have changed so little from the days of Paul to those of Putin. It’s all cronyism and intrigue set against an obsequious and fawning officialdom, falling over itself to carry out the will of the throne. Russia may have a modern face but it is little more than a mask, behind which little has changed.

Monday 11 July 2011

Beatified Bones

If you’ve read A Morbid Taste for Bones, Ellis Peter’s medieval murder-mystery, you will understand just how important holy relics were for any aspiring religious institution of the day, not just bones but skin, finger and toe nails, blood, hearts, anything associated with the saintly. And the trade wasn’t just in body parts. Bits of the true cross, the crown of thorns, the nails of the crucifixion, they were all there, right across the Christian world.

The thing is, you see, relics were big business; relics brought fame, fame brought pilgrims, pilgrims brought money. Where there is a demand there will always be a supply, with the suppliers not all that scrupulous or that bothered with authenticity. Saint Mary Magdalene must have been the oddest looking person who ever lived. She had eighteen arms. That’s not so bad, I suppose, because they had to be spread across five bodies!

It’s easy to smile with condescension from the sceptical heights of the present on the gullible enthusiasms of the past. But relics and the pursuit of relics was in so many ways the defining feature of medieval Christianity, both in the Catholic west and the Orthodox east. In Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe Charles Freeman does a first-class job of putting the whole thing in proper perspective, in a fashion that is both scholarly and entertaining.

The passion for body parts defined medieval Christianity, separating it from the classical past, where pagan writers associated it with necromancy and witchcraft, or from a Judaic tradition which found the practice wholly repugnant. But for the Christians of the Middle Ages, the high noon of faith, relics were far more than objects of morbid curiosity or simple veneration; they had power, the power of the living Christ and the saints; the power to heal, the power to work all sorts of miracles.

When I was nineteen I walked with a group of friends on the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Greater, son of Zebedee, were supposedly laid to rest in the early Middle Ages. We went as curious tourists but for the millions who came before us, those who trod this way in earlier centuries, a visit to the saint was a way of lessening the burden of sin, of decreasing the time one had to spend in purgatory.

It couldn’t go on, of course. As faith waned credulity waned also, not all that surprising when one considers that Rome boasted along with the heads of Peter and Paul some of the manna from heaven, five loaves and two fishes from the feeding of the five thousand – clearly well past their use by date – and the foreskin of Jesus, the only fleshy part he left on earth. Elsewhere one could find the breast milk of the Virgin Mary in such abundance that John Calvin, the reformer, observed “Had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers.”

A lot of it is dryly amusing, the obvious fraud which must have been obvious even at the time, but Freeman tells his story without condescension. Relics are no longer fashionable, not even in the Catholic Church, but its owing to them that we can still admire splendid reliquaries or, more important, the churches and cathedrals that were built to magnify them. These bones, as Freeman suggests, shaped the Gothic, grand reliquaries of light and space.

Freeman, as all good historians should, attempts to understand the past in its own terms. In Holy Bones, Holy Dust he explorers the way in which relics played a part in past identities, in the religious experience of ordinary people, that cross-section of humanity that Chaucer brought so vividly to life on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

Freeman’s book is an excellent reminder that relics were once central to human identity. Once, I wrote, but pause for a moment and think. Relics, the veneration of objects, might be said never to have gone away, merely to have degenerated into a secular form. Here we are in an age where people on EBay determinedly bid for an item associated with celebrities, living or dead, things that carry no promise or power whatsoever.

I can picture in my mind’s eye the pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, ready to set out for Canterbury. I bequeath on them the miracle of foresight, the ability to look into the modern age. See how they laugh at our credulity.

Sunday 10 July 2011

The Decline and Fall of the News of the Screws

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

Yes, what is it you want to read about? Murder, George Orwell proceeds; for this is the opening paragraph of the Decline of the English Murder, an essay published over sixty years ago. What we have been reading about over the past week is the decline – and fall – of an English newspaper, the News of the World, the one the author mentions in his opening, for so long something of a national institution.

British people will know all there is to know about this downmarket publication. If I tell those of you who are not from these islands that this newspaper is known colloquially as the News of the Screws then you may get a flavour of its style and content. Murder was certainly a favoured topic, as was sex, sex and more sex, scandals of any kind, especially those involving the great and the not so good. For the long time it has been the best selling Sunday newspaper in England, at one point having a print run greater than any other newspaper in the world. Not any longer. Today it closed and closed for good. There will be no more news of the screws.

The paper, established in 1843, has been part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire since 1969. It’s also long been a kind of vox populi - the peoples’ voice – loud and harsh, certainly, but going in for a fearless – and ruthless – exposure of the hot topics of the day. News reporting was part of its make up, but as the world of publishing became ever more cutthroat, as the pressure to be the first to get hold of the story became ever more intense, it could not resist a certain amount of news creation.

Still, the mass readership lapped it up, Sunday after Sunday, the more salacious the story the better. In order to keep its edge the paper took to hacking into the phones of public figures. There is no news here; this practice was uncovered some time ago, the occasion for an ongoing scandal and undisclosed payments to those whose privacy was attacked in such an unscrupulous and underhand fashion.

I would guess that most of the readership did not care that much that their favourite Sunday read was behaving in such an unethical manner. They may love celebrities, they may love to read about celebrities, but this comes with quite a high degree of prurience, jealousy and petty-minded resentment.

Celebrities are the new aristocracy. If the peasants defer to them they also dislike them; they are more than happy to see them fall on their faces. So, who cares if their phones are hacked, who cares if their latest peccadilloes are exposed? Those who live by publicity shall die by publicity. The News of the World has spoken; the News of the World is the voice of the people.

Alas, the journalists hacked several phones too many; they started to hack the phones of the people. The people here included Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl; they included the families of those killed in the 7/7 suicide attacks in London; they included the phones of the relatives of soldiers killed on active service. It all came out last week. At once the mood turned. At once a tsunami of national disgust overwhelmed News International, the company that publishes the News of the World and several other Murdoch papers.

The peasants rose. But this is the modern world; there are no more pitchforks and torches. Instead the masses took to Facebook and Twitter in their attempts to undermine the Bastille. Advertisers, the chief source of any newspaper’s income, were put under pressure. Accounts were closed, first a trickle, then a flood.

The pressure was too great. Last Thursday James Murdoch, son of Rupert, announced that the News of the World, carrying no adverts, would publish its final edition on Sunday, with the loss of some two hundred jobs. It’s really an exercise in damage limitation. Not only was the scandal no longer sustainable but it also had the potential to impact on the corporation’s wider interests, including its ongoing attempt to gain a controlling interest in British Sky Broadcasting, the largest subscription television service in the United Kingdom.

I have mixed feelings here. I never read the News of the World; the kind of story it carried carried no interest for me. I think the editors behaved deplorably over phone hacking, a gross breach of privacy which has done so much damage to the credibility of the press. But I also think that the journalists are victims. If some of them behaved badly I have no doubt that this was a result of a bad corporate culture, one where the Murdochs set the mood.

And then there is the people, those who cheered at one moment and howled at the next. I’m not keen on internet flash mobs but I’m even less keen on hypocrisy. It was the public that demanded the kind of story that kept the News of the World on edge, always seeking to maintain or increase its circulation. Cheering or howling, there is nothing more contemptible than a mob, particularly in a mood of self-righteous indignation.

Thursday 7 July 2011

O Brave United World

The Pink News, Europe’s largest gay news service (it has to be, it says so), is in a celebratory mood, celebrating that the United Nations recently passed a ‘historic resolution’ calling for “universal rights for gay, lesbian and trans people.” A ‘trans person’, don’t you just love the jargon?

The UN is rather in the mood for grand gestures at the moment, gay rights one day, internet rights the next. Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur (excuse me?) from Guatemala, called for the governments of the world to protect citizens access to the internet as a key tool for enabling their human rights. I imagine the gay bloggers and trans people from places like North Korea and Iran will be absolutely delighted with this breakthrough on all fronts.

I’m expecting further advances by the day. Let’s see: we could have a resolution to the effect that it’s a human right not to die or, if we must, it’s a human right to go to heaven or Wisconsin, whichever is the closest.

Enough limp attempts at levity. I have nothing but contempt for the UN, as big a failure in its own way as the old League of Nations. The hypocrisy the place generates is stunning. Here we are, an empty statement on gay rights which will do nothing to stop judicial murders in Iran. Here we are, a statement on internet rights that will make not one bit of difference to the plight of the dirt-poor peasants of Guatemala.

Oh never mind the little stuff. Look, rather, at the big picture. Here we are, an organisation that sanctions aggressive action against Libya on the grounds that civilians had to be ‘protected’, presumably on the assumption that civilians are more important there than in Syria or Zimbabwe. Here we are, an organisation that created a safe haven in Srebrenica, only to stand back, impotent in the face of mass murder. Here we are, an organisation that stood back in the face of genocide in Rwanda. Here we are, an organisation that declared the war on civilians in Darfur was not genocide, a great comfort, I feel sure, to the dead.

Looking over the history of the UN there is only one point that it acted with any effectiveness, in 1950, when a common front was presented against the communist aggression in Korea, only possible, though, because the Soviet Union had absented itself from the Security Council. But ever after it was no more than the sum of its divergent parts, a forum for the likes of Communist Castro of Cuba or Islamist Amadinejad of Iran to launch verbal attacks on the United States from a safe haven within American soil.

Still, at least it keeps Rapporteurs gainfully employed. What on earth would we do without them, trans people and sanctimonious resolutions?

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Dragon Baba’s Den

“What’s so funny?”, my partner asked, as I was overcome by a fit of the giggles. It was last Sunday morning. I was looking through the Sunday Telegraph, opening at the International News section, not usually noted for its humour. But there is was – an illustration of some Indian guru, sporting the most ridiculous Afro hairdo that I think I have ever seen. I had to put my tea down!

The story ‘God’ and the secret stash by Gethin Chamberlain concerns one Sai Baba, yet another tiresome Indian ‘holy man’, yet another fraud. He’s dead now but apparently he had a following of fifty million people worldwide when he was alive, people who paid - paid being the operative word, it would seem - for his message of ‘love and service.’ If I tell you that his followers included the risible and money-grubbing Sarah Fergusson, duchess of York, then I think you will have a fair idea of the true value of ‘love and service.’

It seems to be the old, old story: stupid and spiritually impoverished Westerners like the Daft Duchess and Goldie Hawn, a fading actress and another acolyte of Hair Man, reaching East for supposed spiritual richness. And what do they discover? Why, a laughable phoney, busy soaking the rich, and busy, it now appears, sexually molesting his younger followers, deluding everybody by passing off cheap trickery as miracles.

No sooner had the bogus Baba entered another state of incarnation – a snake, probably – than the rumours started to spread. He has an ashram in the town of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, within which there is a personal lair, a dragon’s cave, locked away since his death in March. Well, giving way to popular demand, it’s now been opened. And what was found therein, a new wave of enlightenment, perhaps, a revelation from beyond the grave? No, just loot, lots of loot.

Like Fafner, the old Baba was sitting on a horde, in a room stacked with gold, diamonds and cash. Apparently the haul amounts to some £1.6million in rupees, 98kg of gold and 307kg of silver. I don’t expect the Nibelung haul was half so valuable! Apparently there are good grounds for believing that there is even more, secreted away elsewhere, treasure sent by his many followers in the belief that it would help in spreading the message of ‘love and service.’ The police intercepted members of the Baba’s Sathya Sai Central Trust driving away with the equivalent of £50,000 in cash. It was to pay for a memorial, they said.

It’s not just the fraud that amuses me it’s the awful vulgarity of the whole thing, the vulgarity of the living Baba. When he and his hair occupied this mortal plain as many as 10,000 people would crowd into the ashram’s central hall, a gaudy palace in white and blue décor, replete with golden lions and chandeliers. One look at this and I would have been off! But, no; in they came, cricketers, Bollywood stars, politicians and the duchess of York, herself something of an expert in downmarket vulgarity.

I don’t suppose there will ever be an end to this kind of nonsense in a world where people are rich in goods but poor in sense. One Baba goes and another Baba comes. For every wise person there are ten thousand fools, waiting to be gobbled up by the dragon. We only have one existence, one life. Celebrate it as it is in all of its carnate imperfections, and tell the Babas to bugger off, peace, service, ashram, golden lions and all

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Mirror, mirror on the wall

The best artists are those who offer new ways of seeing and the best pictures are those which offer themselves as a challenge. Hieronymus Bosch died in 1516 but his art still seems astonishingly modern to me, as bitingly satirical in its own way as the paintings of George Grosz in the twentieth century, rather a paradox considering that his style was late Gothic, untouched by the new fashions which had emerged out of Renaissance Italy. Bosch is a Pre-Raphaelite before the Pre-Raphaelites!

Like Grosz, Bosch looked on the world with a bitterly cynical eye. The two men could not be further apart - Grosz the left-wing chronicler of Germany after the First World War; Bosch a Christian pessimist troubled by the apparent ascendency of evil, a theme he touches on time after time.

I have before me a print of Christ Carrying the Cross, a painting in the collection of the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in the Belgian city of Ghent. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, touching on a very ordinary theme in late medieval art. I simply can’t look at this in a detached frame of mind, or look with equanimity at the ugly throng through which Christ and the two thieves make their collective way to Calvary, suffering and death.

The suffering has already begun, the devils already at work in taunting and mockery. There, on the right-hand side, are the two thieves. At the bottom is the bad thief, turning on his tormentors in defiance, ugliness returned for ugliness. At the top the good thief, sneered at by a particularly vicious looking friar, already looks corpse-like in hopeless resignation.

In the middle of this human storm, and in the middle of the painting, is Christ with his cross, a little like the eye in calm serenity, ignoring all of the malevolence, deeply introspective, the only sign of emotion being a single tear forming on his lower lashes. His serenity is mirrored in that of Saint Veronica on the bottom left, looking down at the veil which she has given Christ to wipe his brow, the cloth now showing an imprint of his face.

The noteworthy thing about the crowd, friar and all, is that it is not Biblical, at least not so far as dress. These are the people of sixteenth century Flanders, people the artist would have been familiar with: merchants, clerics, soldiers, some prosperous burghers of the day, judging by their headgear and general apparel. The figure to the right-hand side of the good thief even looks like a Duke of Burgundy.

Bosch was a Catholic and this work, thought to have been painted some time after 1500, possibly on the threshold of the Reformation, is an act of faith in a time of uncertainty. But what is it saying, exactly? Is there a message in that malevolent friar, I wonder? He, representing a mendicant order, an order given to charity, is the most malign among the crowd, teeth like fangs, his face showing no grace or Christian mercy whatsoever. Why put a friar in a picture that lifts him out of his own history and places him among the first century Jews of Palestine? Is this an observation on the state of the Catholic Church, the church of those monster popes Alexander VI and Julius II? These are just questions. I don’t have any answers.

This is a dark painting, pessimistic in outlook. There is no humanism here, the intellectual fashion of the day, and precious little humanity. Simon of Cyrene is present, certainly, the man who helped Christ carry his burden, but he, looking upwards, is cast into the shadows under the Cross. Then there is the blind side, the fourth wall, occupied across the ages by other spectators, shifting members of that crowd, people like me and like you. Do we participate? Are we, too, among the mockers? Is this a mirror?

Michael Prodger, writing some weeks ago about this painting in the Spectator, points out that Carl Jung, the psycho-analyst, claimed Bosch as an early discoverer of the unconscious. In fact Jung is not the first to make such a claim, even though the terms used were different.

José de Sigüenza, a Spanish historian and theologian born later in the same century that Bosch died, wrote of him that “The difference between the work of Bosch and that of other painters lies in the fact that the others depict man as he appears on the outside. Only Bosch dared to paint him on the inside.” Look, see; it’s not a very comfortable suggestion.

Monday 4 July 2011

Let a Million Bloggers Bloom

Let a hundred flowers bloom, Mao Zedong once said, only immediately to start rooting up the garden. Now, in a wholly modern development the frustrated promise of free speech has found a new outlet on the internet, where a million bloggers have been talking. They have been, loudly and persistently on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like micro-blogging service. The hot topic recently has been the fate of the people in the People’s Republic, the fate of those bold enough to stand as independents in elections.

I had always assumed that voting in China was a kind of dance routine choreographed by the Communist Party, a dull, meaningless and wholly predictable quadrille. But at the lowest level of the electoral pyramid citizens can actually vote for other citizens, people who are not part of the official apparatus; or at least they can try to.

Even in local elections the Party has long attempted to micro-manage affairs, assuring that only approved candidates get through. But, emboldened by the forms of communication and solidarity offered through the internet, an increasing number of real independents are putting themselves forward. According Li Fan of the World and China Institute in Beijing more than a hundred people have declared their candidacy for the elections to the various people’s congresses that will be held across the country in the coming months.

The Party is nervous, the Party is always nervous, never more so than now with the Arabs showing the world a networking revolution. Silence is no longer an option, especially as Li Chengpeng, an author, critic and micro-blogger, has announced to his three million followers on Sina Weibo that he is prepared to stand.

The Economist reported that the emergence of such candidates has been accompanied by a series of local disturbances across the country. Although the details are hazy it appears that thousands of police officers were required to suppress a riot in the town of Zengcheng in Guangdong province, brought on by an altercation between security guards and a street vendor. Before this there had been serious disturbances in Lichuan in Hubei after the death of a local legislator and anti-corruption campaigner in police custody. Such incidents, according to Xu Chunliu, a Beijing blogger, are only encouraging others into politics, himself included, as he announced to his twelve thousand followers.

Meanwhile a government official in an interview with a state-run news agency said that independent candidates had no ‘legal basis’ and that campaigning in ‘non-approved settings’ – meaning Sina Weibo – would not be tolerated. “Soliciting votes through the internet”, the Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, declared, “could destroy the operating rules of Chinese society.”

In other words democracy is a threat to civilization as we know it, meaning a threat to oligarchy as the Chinese have experienced it. Bloggers of all countries unite! Bloggers of China keep on writing on the new Democracy Wall.