Sunday 30 October 2011

Heil Merkel!

I wrote at the end of my most recent post on the European Union that I was utterly tired of my country being held hostage to German history. I had already hinted, in discussion with Chris Coffman, that this was something that I intended to write about more fully.

Botheration – my lightning has been stolen! Well, a bolt or two has been taken from the armoury by one Sir James Pickthorn, whose letter on the present mad muddle over the euro was published by the Daily Telegraph on Friday. I think I shall allow the parfit, gentil knyght to speak for himself;

The words of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, summoning the spectre of war if the euro is not saved show how out of date the European project is. The idea that France and Germany will restart the
[Franco]-Prussian War, the Great War or Second World War is ridiculous. The message of these wars was and is that countries like being sovereign, and that democracy and free trade are valid ideals.

It isn’t an entirely new suggestion, of course, that we either have European integration or we have a German invasion of Poland. I’ve come across it several times before. I heard that tired old frump Shirley Williams, the moth-eaten Grand Dame of the Liberal Democrats, trot out the Europe or war formula. I came across it also in reading Edward Heath, Philip Ziegler’s biography of the wretchedly incapable prime minister who took Britain into Europe in the first place.

Williams and Heath belonged to a generation of post-war cowards, people who betrayed this country because they were afraid of Germany, afraid of the German past, afraid that a German past might very well be a European future without the discipline of a trans-national super state. They were, if you like, the deeper appeasers. Always they lacked the intelligence to see that old quarrels had been superseded by new global realities, or that Germany, having taken a bad road twice, the second time at such cost, was never going to take it again.

So Britain was seduced into the European ‘ideal’ by fear of Germany, by an act of abject moral and political cowardice that did not stop from hiding the full implications for national sovereignty in our accession to the Treaty of Rome. We have to go in, you see; otherwise the German wolf might get us. It was a fairy-tale for children. Yes, that’s exactly how I see Europe – a fairy tale for children. And always keep a-hold of Brussels nurse for fear of finding Berlin worse.

But if Heath and the like were afraid of the Big Bad Wolf of German revanchism the Germans were even more afraid of the Big Bad Wolf of German revanchism, judging by the words of that daft diva, Merkel – it’s Europe or it’s war; it’s the mad design of the euro or a mad design on Poland.

Where the evidence for this bogus historical nightmare comes from I’ve not the faintest idea but I am absolutely sick and tired of the damage it has done to my country, to our sovereignty and to our ancient political liberties. I become increasingly convinced that this nation was betrayed by Heath & Co, people who looked for guidance in the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup of history, only to find their own stupid reflections in the dregs.

I used to believe, a la David Cameron, that it would be possible to renegotiate the devil’s bargain concluded by Heath: that some restoration of sovereignty was possible in the repatriation of powers.

Things have gone too far for that; Europe is a bally, bloody mess which I personally want no part of, a mess politically and a mess economically. Let them get on with their own crazy projects, turning Greece into an outpost of the Fourth Reich, the Reich of complete mediocrity, hocking the Continent to China.

I sincerely hope in the course of my lifetime to see this nation take the bold move and get out altogether, which I feel would be the people’s choice if the people were allowed a choice. If that means that Germany will turn rapacious eyes east the Oder, too bad; that’s something that I shall just have to live with, that and the prospect of Adolf Merkel.

Thursday 27 October 2011

American Whispers

I went to see The Help yesterday, the day it premiered in London. I imagine there is little point in saying this, but for those who have not seen it, or not heard of it (well, there might be a few!), it’s a comedy drama set in the segregated South of the sixties, based on Kathyrn Stockett’s novel of the same name.

It’s my kind of movie, one that deals with serious and interesting themes in an adult way, one that has a serious and interesting story to tell, one that’s so much more a shallow fest of special effects or tiresome thrills. I would have gone to see it at some point though perhaps not quite so soon, perhaps not with the same sense of curious urgency. Why, then, did I go with the premiere crowd? Simply because of an article in the Sunday Telegraph, one headed The Film Dividing America, written by Philip Sherwell. I’m going to come to that a tad later but first let me give you a straightforward review.

To begin I should say that I haven’t read the novel, so I have no standard for comparison, though I understand from comments elsewhere that the book is better, which is most often the case.

What I can say is that I thought The Help was a good movie, a lovely combination of melodrama and human interest with some sparkling comic touches. It’s not a great movie; the script is a little too flabby for that, and Tate Taylor’s direction a little less disciplined than it should be. But, my goodness, some of the performances are gold, none more so than that of Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, a black maid with attitude before people knew what attitude was!

It’s the ideal chick flick, my ideal chick flick, and not simply because the action is mostly set in a female world! I was beguiled by so much I saw. Yes, it’s mawkish; yes, it’s manipulative (all the best movies are); yes, it covers so much unpleasantness with a gloss of sugary sweetness. But I don’t care. The movie aims for the emotions and it’s right on target, inducing tears and laughs by turns. I cried, I laughed; it hit my target.

I saw it and I understood it as a perspective movie (hold that in mind; it has an important bearing on what I intend to say later), looking at a particular issue, the racism of the unregenerate South, from a particular set of social and interpersonal relations: that between black maids and their white mistresses.

To my mind the characters recreated some memorable figures from the storehouse of American culture. Minny, for me, was a more contemporary version of Mammy, the housemaid from Gone with the Wind. Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelen, played by Emma Stone, another sparking performance, is a grown up Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and not just because she serves in the role of a narrator; she has the same intelligent detachment from the world around her.

Skeeter is both part of the privileged white society of Jackson, Mississippi, and yet outside of it, alienated by its callousness, including the callousness of her own mother, responsible for the dismissal of a much-loved maid. She perceives the racism that others do not, the hypocrisy and the cruelty that her contemporaries do not, all married, comfortably housed and wholly reliant on exploited black labour. She is most uncomfortable with the truly awful Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard - the character was awful; her depiction was excellent!), the Wicked Witch of the South, who’s Home Help Sanitation Initiative brings segregation into the home and workplace in the most degrading and humiliating manner.

It’s Skeeter’s alienation from the comfortable world of her upbringing, when the greatest influences, the nurturers and the carers, were the black housemaids, that leads to a new project: she, as a writer, will allow the submerged maids, the underpaid and exploited ‘help’ to speak for themselves.

From tiny voices a roaring storm grows. With some initial reluctance, the maids, headed by Minny, tell Skeeter their various stories, a stream that feeds into the wider consciousness of the day, increasingly shaped by the growing Civil Rights movement. The Help is a superbly acted and emotionally effective movie, an indictment of the old Jim Crow laws of the South, which still manages to be full of simple human warmth that overcomes even the deepest social and racial divides.

But it’s the movie that’s dividing America, so says the Telegraph. I actually think that’s a gross exaggeration. The American reviews I’ve read, both positive and negative, show no deep fractures that I can detect. There are highly critical voices mentioned in the article. There is Wendell Pierce, the star of The Wire and Treme, who has described it as “passive segregation lite that was painful to watch”, that it is a passive version of “the terror of the South.” Then there is Max Gordon, a New York-based writer, who said that it ignored the real heroes of the era by ignoring the real horrors. “This is not the South of lynchings and beatings”, he told the Telegraph reporter, “it’s the comfortable Holywood take of the civil rights era.”

He’s quite right, of course: it’s not the South of lynchings and beatings, but neither is it Mississippi Burning. As I said above, it’s a perspective movie, a view of the past from a particular angle, of unequal and abusive power relations, which was surely far more typical of the times than lynchings and beatings.

The black actors, headed by Spencer, have come out in defence of the movie, criticising the laughable forms of political correctness, based on the assumption that there is only one way of looking at past injustice. I myself see the criticism as a form of maximalism – the insistence that only the big picture will do, that all history has to be gathered in an instant, that there are no small stories to be told. But there are, thank goodness, and there always will be, stories on a simple human level, stories that make for compelling cinema. I think that change does begin with a whisper, not a shout.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Obama and the American Nightmare

In responding to a question on whether or not Barack Obama had shown great leadership I wrote as follows;

I think he is the worst, least competent, president in American history, an accolade I once awarded to James Buchanan but have since changed my mind. I think the buck stops everywhere but the Obama House. I think he shames the free world, which has long expected a lead from Washington, with his stunning incompetence. I think his capacity for high office is zero and counting downwards. I think he is a crypto-Marxist who has created a poisonous ideological atmosphere in the States, standing over a house divided almost as badly as it was on the eve of the Civil War. Do I think he has shown great leadership? Why, of course.

Taking out that final twist of irony that is exactly what I think. I could say that Obama was responsible for America’s present malaise, but he’s really too little a man for that, an individual of no real historic significance, beyond being the first black face in the White House. No, he is more of a symptom of a disease than the disease itself.

The nature of that, the nature of the disease and its pathology, I am really finding quite difficult to determine. But there is America, a crypto-Marxist as chief executive, an America whose business seems to be anything but business, an America where people can gather in one of the nation’s leading cities, decrying the very capitalism and enterprise which made it great in the first place. There, in New York, are the socially and politically suspect, playing at being Arabs, desperados in search of doles, the antithesis to everything that America represents, as bad, in their own way, as the communists and anarchists of the past.

At the end of his 1969 Silent Majority oration, Richard Nixon said of the war in Vietnam “Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” Vietnam could not defeat America, the Soviet Union could not defeat America, Iraq could not defeat America, no power on earth could defeat this great country. Nixon was right: only Americans can do that; only Americans have done that.

I’m a historian; I like to draw parallels with the past. Every Empire declines, some more rapidly that others, but who would have believed that the American decline would have been so rapid. It’s just over twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the United States, Ronald Reagan at its head, as the preeminent power on the earth, the victor in the Cold War. It was the occasion for The End of History, Francis Fukuyama’s premature celebration of all that was good and true and noble.

Now here we are, here America is, in retreat across several fronts. It took Rome four hundred years to travel from the zenith of Augustus to the nadir of Honorius. It has taken America a mere twenty to go from the hopes of the age of Reagan to the mediocrity of the age of Obama.

Yes, Obama is a symptom; he’s not the cause, but his own weakness and incompetence has compounded the many problems confronting the nation. There is nothing inevitable here. The problems are bad but they are not intractable. The will and the vision are needed to overcome them; simple determination is needed, the ability to do what is necessary.

I take this point, this present time, to be the trough of American history. There is a way up but only when Obama is in the past, only when American can see this weak, incapable and fatuous man was the wrong choice at the wrong time. With a man like this history never provides a right time. Big, meaningless and windy speeches, head turning this way and then that, that’s the only trace that Barack Obama will leave behind, a silly and insincere voice in the depths of the American nightmare.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

A Lesson on Smugness

Last month the Sunday Times Magazine carried an interview with Rowan Atkinson, the comedian and rubber-faced gurner (from the verb ‘to gurn’; go on, look it up; it’s even on Wikipedia!), which I quickly read and just as quickly forgot. I’m not a fan of Mr. Bean, I never have been; there is too much of the holy playing-the-goat about the man, or, maybe, just the goat.

I did, however, take note of his comments on Church of England vicars, people he’s rather fond of parodying;

I used to think that the vicars I played, or the exaggerated sketches that were written about clerics, were unreasonable satires on well-meaning individuals but actually, so many of the clerics that I've met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society…I believe that all the mud that Richard Curtis and I threw at (vicars) through endless sketches that we've done is more than deserved.

Well, there you are. Do I feel obliged to defend hard working clerics from Atkinson’s scatter-gun? No, not really; I’m sure they can defend themselves much more effectively than I. I don’t feel the need to say anything about them but I do need to say something about smugness, the smugness of millionaire comics.

You see, there are clerics and there are clerics. If you are familiar with Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series of novels, a chronicle of high and low politics in the nineteenth century Church of England, I feel sure you will remember the self-effacing Septimus Harding, just as you will remember the oleaginous Obadiah Slope. Of these two Atkinson for me is more of a Slope than a Harding, more of a self-promoting and pompous hypocrite than a man of simple emotions and sincere beliefs.

Yes, I can see Slope driving a $3million sporstcar, just as Atkinson does, or rather did, before he and it had an encounter with a tree in Cambridgeshire last month. But would a clerk in holy orders attempt to raze a decent house in Oxfordsshire and build a glass and steel carbuncle in its place? His neighbours are not at all pleased. Still, they have nothing to fear, he said, from “modern design”. Perhaps not, and I dare say they are a lot safer now that the Atkinson-mobile has been put out of commission.

So, here is a man living and lording in a fashion that most Church of England priests could never envisage, people who, as the Spectator said in a recent editorial, live humbly and dedicate their ministry to the lives of others without expectation of reward. Not so the profane goat, who feels able to comment in a wholly presumptuous, arrogant, smug and general way about clerics, regardless of their actual merits or demerits. Perhaps, considering the wealth he has made from his parodies, some kind of tithe might be in keeping, really just as a form of compensation, or as a tax on the mouths of self-righteous prigs.

Monday 24 October 2011

Perishing Democracy

I was recently reminded of the brave, bold words of Abraham Lincoln, delivered at the consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg in November, 1863. Then he said that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. It may not be perishing from the earth, but it’s certainly perishing in Europe.

Reflecting on this, I remember reading an insightful opinion piece on the Charlemagne page of The Economist on the mind, the collective mind, of the bureaucrats who run the European Union. I’m being disingenuous because no mention was made of a ‘collective mind’ – a ‘hive mind’ for the Trekkies among you-, that’s my particular spin. Rather the point was made that hard-line Eurosceptics believe that there is a Minotaur at the heart of the Brussels labyrinth plotting a dictatorship, which the author considers to be “cheap demagoguery.”

I certainly consider myself on the hard wing of scepticism when it comes to the whole European project (actually, no; I'm a Dawkins-style atheist), but I have never advanced that particular view. I believe, rather, that the Eurocrats, my preferred term, represent a new senatorial elite, a post-democratic elite; that they are, by this standard, just as much of a danger to democratic self-determination as the advocates of an old-style tyranny. They are the philosopher-kings, the guardians, of Plato’s Republic; the priests, if you prefer, of the sacred flame.

Their outlook, their attitude and, yes, their condescension, is based on the single guiding idea behind the Treaty of Rome and all that followed: nationalism is a ‘bad thing’ and democracy, insofar as it embraces nationalism, is not that desirable when it comes to advancing the interests of the Community as a whole; and the interests of the Community are their interests.

This credo of anti-nationalism carries distinct risks, at best making the Eurocrats push for higher levels of integration than most Europeans - and here I mean real Europeans - are willing to bear; at worst it makes them sound hostile to democracy. They are the philosopher kings after all; they know best. When the French and Dutch voted against the EU constitution in 2005 the view in the labyrinth was that it was nonsense to put such complex proposals to ordinary voters. They don’t hate democracy; they just equate democracy with selfishness and populism.

The only effective counterweight to this frightful condescension is a pan-European democratic movement, but nobody believes in that, or if they do they are most awfully self-deluded. As far as the European parliament itself is concerned I find myself partially in agreement with Charlemagne, who wrote;

The European Parliament is the great disappointment of the European project. It is the revenge of the B-team; an assembly lead by posturing second-raters dedicated, in their every waking moment, to grabbing new powers at the expense of national governments…ordinary voters have no idea who represents them in the parliament, or even whether the left or the right dominates there…As a result, the parliament has utterly failed to capture the public’s imagination.

I say partially in agreement because I’m not disappointed at all: the parliament is a joke; it will always be a joke, the biggest sinecure in human history, a retirement home for political mediocrities and clowns. It makes the idea of Europe look ridiculous, the idea that the Continent is more than a collection of nation states. And long may that continue.

That brings me back to the benevolent philosopher kings in Brussels, those people in the high castle who know what is good for us, who will deliver what is good for us, whether we like it or not. And what is not good for us is government of the people, for the people, by the people.

For God's sake let's do the sane thing and get out. I'm utterly tired of my country being held hostage to German history, this endless blue crucifixion. And on that hangs another tale entire. :-)

Sunday 23 October 2011

Wallis and the Shanghai Technique

Wallis Simpson was guilty of four things: she was a woman, she was a commoner, she was a double-divorcee and she was an American. But, notwithstanding all these handicaps, she still managed to storm the House of Windsor. She shook the fusty old English establishment and she got her man, even when the man happened to be a king! The surprise here is even greater because there was something manly about this femme fatale.

I’ll come to this in a bit but first a word or two about a wholly compelling individual, a social climber, a sort of American Becky Sharp, the unscrupulous character from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, one who climbed high enough to catch the affections of the heir to the throne

In 1936 Edward VIII, who recently succeeded his father George V, made it plain to the English establishment, politicians and churchmen alike, that he intended to marry this double divorcee, his long-standing mistress, an unprecedented move. Oh, no, you are not, came the response, not if you want to remain as king. Oh, yes, I am, and I don't want to be king. Wallis and love came before throne and duty. Edward abdicated and, as Duke of Windsor, married his Duchess.

They were such an odd couple, the handsome and debonair prince and the gauche, angular and rather masculine Wallis. Look at her picture. She’s not just conventionally plain; she’s positively ugly. But what she lacked in looks she made up for in wit and personality. She also made up for it with other talents, at least according to long-standing rumours, talents acquired in some of the less salubrious fleshpots of old Shanghai.

It’s a subject taken up by Anne Sebba in THAT WOMAN: The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor. Among other things the author touches on, ahem, Wallis’ carnal expertise, including a speciality in oral sex, “which would not have been standard education for most British or American girls of the day.” No, it would not.

But there is, she goes on to say, a far deeper and darker secret, something that would account for her appearance and her personality. The suggestion is that she might have suffered from a condition now referred to as Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD) or intersexuality, something that apparently affects 4000 babies each year in the United Kingdom alone. I can only describe this as nature not making up its mind, producing a child that is not quite one thing and not quite the other.

Accepting this argument - and I have to say there is a more than usually high level of speculation here - , Wallis was born a girl but with the male XY chromosome. Over time, as a baby with this condition develops, the build up of testosterone in the system produces physical characteristics more associated with males.

It’s also possible, the author further suggests, that Wallis was born as a pseudo-hermaphrodite, with the internal reproductive organs of one sex and the external organs of another. This is a matter incapable of any proof but apparently, and amazingly, although she was married twice before she met Edward she once told a friend that she had never had sexual intercourse with either of her husbands, refusing to allow anyone to touch her below what she referred to as her “personal Mason-Dixon line.”

Writing in 1958 the biographer James Pope-Hennessy said that she was one of the very oddest women that he had ever seen – “She is flat and angular and could have been designed for a medieval playing card. I should be tempted to classify her as an American woman par excellence were it not for the suspicion that she is not a woman at all.”

The whole thing is quite intriguing and I confess I am intrigued. But I’m also cautious, wary when people overuse expressions like ‘might have’, ‘would have’, ‘could have’ and so on. Sebba's’ thesis is fascinating but it relies overmuch on speculation and surmise rather than evidence. It can never be proved conclusively. The truth might be much simpler: that Wallis was just an ugly woman with charm enough to win a prince, that and the Shanghai technique.

She’s quite the fashion at the moment, dear Wallis, first a biography and now a movie. I’m so looking forward to seeing W. E., the new biopic directed by Madonna (that’s reason enough for going to see it!), scheduled for release here in January. The advance signs are not good, but – who cares? – I’m such a sucker for this sort of thing, with an almost endless capacity to suspend certain forms of disbelief.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Speaking for Franco

I noticed from a report in the Times that there are plans to move the body of Francisco Franco, the one-time dictator of Spain, from its present position in the basilica in the El Valle de los Caidos - Valley of the Fallen – near Madrid. The former ruler is an embarrassment to the brave new Spain that has a tired old socialist government headed by Jose Zapatero in it.

A commission has been set up to decide if he should be exhumed prior to re-interment in the capital’s El Pardo cemetery. It will submit its report after the general election, scheduled for 20 November, which just so happens to be the anniversary of Franco’s death in 1975. With the right-wing Popular Party expected to win, the suspicion is that the possibility of a corpse eviction has been leaked; that – in combination with the electoral date itself – there is a subliminal message here: a vote for the right is a vote for Franco. Even those who have campaigned for justice for the victims of Franco accuse the government of using the mausoleum for electoral ends.

Meanwhile the decrepit relics of the International Brigades are set to gather in Madrid to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the formation of armed units that would have handed Spain to Stalin. One of these dinosaurs is quoted in the Times, saying that he fought because “he believed in democracy” and that “these things are still important to me and the Spanish today. There are still fascists who are against democracy.”

Yes, well, maybe there are, just as maybe there are some still around who remember the Barcelona May Days of 1937, when the communists and the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, demonstrated their enthusiasm for ‘democracy’, events that George Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia.

In the light of hypocrisy and body snatching I have decided to reinter one of my corpses, a piece I wrote on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Caudillo’s death. Here it is, slightly updated. Hold on to your hats!

Marcus Ana Speaks!

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So it was with Caesar…so it has been with Francisco Franco, one time regent of Spain, one time Caudillo de España, por la gracia de Dios. This year marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of his death, and while the left-wing junta that governs Spain today has done its best to wipe out his memory, removing the last statue from Madrid in 2005, its time to say a word or two his favour.

General Franco happens to be one of my political heroes. There, I’ve said it: I’m a fascist. No, I’m not, but, then, neither was Franco. He was conservative, deeply so, part of a Spanish tradition of conservatism going right back to the early nineteenth century. It was his task, as he understood it, to preserve Spain, to preserve Spanish traditions, to preserve Christian civilization, to defend it against the communist subversion of the Popular Front.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: the Spanish Civil War is one of the least understood conflicts in modern European history, a source of left-wing mythology, evidenced by Ken Loach’s tedious movie (did he ever make a movie that wasn't tedious?) Land and Freedom. The war was not a simple struggle between left and right, between workers and ‘fascists’. It was a complex event best understood in the context of Spanish history as a whole rather than set against contemporary events in the rest of Europe. The red-beret of the Requetés, the Carlist militia, a movement that harmonises so well with my own romantic and royalist vision, was just as important in the Nationalist camp as the blue shirt of the Falange.

In the end the Falange, the ‘fascists’, if you prefer, though there were major differences between the Spanish and the German and Italian versions, were no more than an ideological and ceremonial gloss on Franco’s conservative dictatorship.

Do I then defend dictatorship? No, I do not but I think Franco was a historical necessity. If he had not begun the military rebellion in 1936, or if the Nationalists had lost the Civil War, the course of the Second World War might have been very different, no, let me be more precise: it would have been very different.

With the likes of that Stalinist apparatchik Dolores Ibárruri, the appalling La Pasionaria, in control of Spanish affairs Hitler would have had all the excuse he needed to invade after the occupation of France in 1940. With Spain gone Gibraltar would have gone. With Gibraltar gone the Mediterranean would have been an Axis lake. In that event the war would have taken a very different course.

Spanish ‘democracy’ under the murderous Popular Front was an illusion. Even without the intervention of the Nationalists the country was torn between gangs of anarchist thugs - people who specialised in the mass murder of priests and nuns - on the one hand, and the communists on the other, all presided over by a weak liberal centre. The government continued to depend on Stalin for political and military support. Even Julian Besterio, a moderate socialist politician, admitted at the time that if the Civil War had been won by the Republic the communists would have taken full control, which would have been a disaster “for every other element of our democracy.”

So, yes, Franco saved Spain. In his long rule after the conclusion of the war in 1939 he also brought peace and stability, the basis for the Spanish Miracle, the sustained period of economic prosperity from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. At the time of Franco’s death in November 1975 the rate of Spanish economic growth was second only to that of Japan.

I admire Franco as much as I admire Chile’s Augusto Pinochet; I admire him for all the reasons I have given. The fact that his memory was condemned by the European Parliament, the fact that the Polish MEP who spoke in his favour was shouted down as a “Nazi” – by a German socialist, ironically - simply adds to the mix. If the European Parliament condemned the Devil I would look for arguments in his favour.

Franco’s time is past but his country has every reason to be grateful for him and what he achieved. It’s thanks to him that Spain was not wrecked by the communists in the same way that they wrecked Russia and the lands of Eastern Europe.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Comrade Spart has the Floor

I was amused to see that Private Eye, Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Britain’s only satirical magazine, is now fifty years old, an event celebrated at a bash recently in London’s Guildhall. Once the most irreverent publication on the newsstands it’s become – The horror! The horror! – a national institution, something of a kiss of death for a publication that is noted for it’s brilliant lampoons of all sorts of people, from pompous politicians to talentless celebrities.

I’ve been reading it on and off for years. It was a regular source of amusement when I was at school, the most irreverent and iconoclastic girl in the place! I simply loved the way it pricked so many overblown bubbles, with its trusty, rusty sword of uncomfortable truths.

I had my favourites among the brilliant lampoons. The Secret Diary of John Major, a former prime minister, used to send me into fits of giggles with its Adrian Mole style parodies. And then there was Tony Blair in what was surely his true vocation in life – a sanctimonious and trendy vicar. Even better was the paranoid bulletins issued by Comrade Gordon Brown, very much in a North Korean fashion.

Set these political parodies to one side. My absolute favourite spoof was Dave Spart, the humourless left-wing prig, representing some absurd organisation or other, like the National Amalgamated Union of Sixth-Form Operatives and Allied Trades.

Dave Spart, my goodness, what can I say about Dave Spart? Spart has to be experienced. Spart, whose dialectical diatribes ended in all sorts of grammatical absurdities, illogical knots and silly non-sequiturs. With his heavy, clunking and infelicitous style he just captures a certain type so perfectly. They get everywhere, these people, coming out with some Spartist claptrap or other about a hegemonic bourgeoisie…or hegemonic bankers!

Here is a prime example of Spart speech:

The right wing press have utterly, totally and predictably unleashed a barrage of sickening hypocrisy and deliberate smears against the activities of a totally peaceful group of anarchists i.e. myself and my colleagues, who demonstrated in non-threatening balaclavas, due to the cold weather, and carried heavy walking sticks to negotiate the cobbled streets. Ahem, eh, we were merely asserting our rights to forcibly occupy the citadels of capitalism and oppression, such as the Ritz, Fortnum and Freemasons and Ann Summers, the unacceptable face of the sexual and industrial complex, who objectify women as mere sexual chattels and thereby make themselves a legitimate target for peaceful acts of, eh, rioting and arson. Small wonder the fascist police blatantly did nothing to obstruct us in the smashing up of the hated cash point machines of global capitalism and the spray painting of the Nazi lions in Trafalgar Square, and thereby deliberately making us look bad, which is not surprising, given that many of the so-called anarchists were probably undercover police officers…, such as Steve, who I've never liked and did not want to join our collective in the first place.

A parody too far, do you think? Well here is an actual Spartist report from the Guardian newspaper, headed Politics as usual has failed. Students must take direct action by Michael Chessum and Jonathan Moses, published last November, criticising government education policy;

And mobilise we must. The coalition's proposals represent a nigh irreversible transformation of higher education, and the commodification of knowledge and learning...Dismissed as apathetic, our generation has suffered from unparalleled self-perceived impotence: its seminal moment, the Iraq war, saw the biggest wave of protest in recent British history – along with the clearest refusal of government to listen to it. What resulted was frustration among a growing and mobilised section of young people.

Spart on, comrades!

Yes, that’s the Spartists for you. They are individuals who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else, often condemning most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, ending up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, blinkered, hare brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.

That’s indeed what I think, but they are not my words – they are a bit too Spartist in style and tone! No, it’s a definition of the type from the Urban Dictionary. That’s a sign that one has really made it into the big league – a definition in the Urban Dictionary!

Look out for the breed in all their risible absurdity, look out for their writing, always characterised by heavy, impenetrable paragraphs, sonorous and censorious, unleavened by any kind of humour, peppered with grammatical howlers and spelling mistakes. Ah, what would life be without the Spartists? They truly are a thing of fun and a joy forever.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Weight of History

I bought Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Hangmen six or seven years while I was studying modern Russian history in sixth form at school. I never read it, though, because it was squeezed out by another book published at about the same time – Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

My present fascination with the writing of Vasily Grossman persuaded me to turn to the long-neglected Raysfield for some additional background information on the nature of the Soviet state and the terror apparatus it spawned. I’m rather glad I did because this is a good book, though not a great one, a reasonably through treatment of the people and the institutions without whom Stalin could not have functioned in the way that he did.

It’s a set of mini-biographies, or perhaps pathologies is a better expression, of Stalin himself and the successive heads of state security, appointed after the Bolshevik coup in late 1917. They are there in all of their fanaticism and depravity.

Imagine, if you will, some kind of reverse Darwinian progression, with successive stages of moral, sometimes physical, degeneration. Imagine also a progress in inhumanity and cruelty that is a perfect echo of the progress and inhumanity of communism at large. Now picture the men; picture Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka, the first in a long line of sinister acronyms, and then those who came after: Viacheslav Menzhinsky, Genrik Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrenti Beria. These are the principal players, though the book also features some of those spawned in their shadows, even deeper levels of ugly depravity.

It’s also a biography of the institutions themselves and their evolution, from Cheka, to GPU, to OGPU, to NKVD, to MGB, to the FSB of today. These awful acronyms both display and hide so much. They are the cords in a binding wrapped ever closer around the body of Russia, tighter and tighter, as freedom was squeezed to death. The awfulness was there right from the beginning in the system created by Lenin; Stalin simply made it even worse, with the aid of his various hangmen.

I knew more about some of the men featured in this book than others, quite a lot about Dzerzhinsky, who, if he had survived, would almost certainly have gone the same way as Yagoda and Yezhov, men who supped too close to the devil, and nothing at all about Menzhinsky.

I thought of Yezhov, who presided over the hysteria of 1937 and 1938, which we now know as the Great Terror, as the individual with most blood on his hands, but the weight is heaviest on Menzhinsky, head of the OGPU at the time of forced collectivisation and a state-induced famine that lead to the death of millions. There is genocide here, ethnic-cleansing before the world had ever heard of ethnic cleansing. The urban terror, the Yezhovchina, of 1937 to 1938 was bad, but the rural terror of 1930 to 1933 was even worse.

Rayfield tells his story well, scholarly but with a strong seasoning of passion, though I do have serious reservations over some of his more dubious judgements. In Murdering the Old Guard, section six of the book, he says that Stalin was no more a communist than a Borgia pope was a Catholic. That’s a rather odd contention because the Borgia pope – I assume he is thinking of Alexander VI – was a Catholic, just as Stalin was a communist. The difference is the one was an aberration of a system of belief and the other its most refined expression. More seriously, I think his analysis of Stalin’s relations with Hitler both weak and seriously inaccurate at points, showing that his grasp of the twists in Soviet foreign and ideological policy is not quite as strong as it should be.

The conclusion, though, is superb. As he says, it is a paradox that Russia’s two greatest novelists Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in all their work insisted that only by full confession could the crimes of the past be absolved and life become endurable again – “…yet today’s Russian state refuses to abjure Stalin and his henchmen.” Hardly surprising when that same state is run by a man who is by career and choice, as the author puts it, a successor to Yagoda and Beria, a state where “..the FSB has taken, in alliance with bandits and extortioners, the commanding heights of the country’s government and economic riches, and goes on lying to, and when expedient murdering, it’s citizens.”

How much worse the situation seems to have become since I bought this book, how much Russia moves in an ever downward spiral, crushed under the weight of its unrequited history;

Until the story is told in full, and until the world community insist that the legacy of Stalin is fully accounted for and expiated, Russia will remain spiritually sick, haunted by the ghosts of Stalin and his hangmen and, worse, by nightmares of their resurrection.

Monday 17 October 2011

McGuiness’ Albatross

In June of last year I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph reader’s blog site, one headed Machine Gunn McGuiness – it’s time for some answers. It was written in the wake of the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when a number of people were shot dead by the British Army in Londonderry.

The Parachute Regiment was held to blame for that tragedy, but the responsibility was also thrown obliquely on Martin McGuiness, the public face of Sein Fein/IRA, a man for whom I have nothing but the deepest contempt. I concluded my piece with the following remarks;

There are, however, some more immediate questions to be answered by a man now in government in Northern Ireland; there are questions to be answered by Martin McGuiness, Deputy First Minister. The dead of Londonderry had to have their day and David Cameron was right to make the statement he did in Parliament. But that day has passed. Now I hope the Tory back-bench will ask some pointed questions when Saville is subject to more detailed scrutiny. Was it, perhaps, the custom, I have to ask, to walk around with sub-machine guns in Northern Ireland? Was McGuiness giving it some air or intending to practice for a knee capping or a dozen? It really is time for some toughness here, time to make Machine Gun McGuiness smirk on the other side of his face.

Not only is this man still smirking but he is attempting to smirk his way into the office of president of the Irish Republic in an election to be held towards the end of this month. But everywhere he goes he is followed by his own legacy, a legacy of IRA violence. This is a man who was imprisoned twice in the 1970s for membership of this terrorist organisation, the first time after being caught near a car containing 115kg of explosives and 5000 rounds of ammunition. And as the Saville Inquiry concluded, he was likely armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun on Bloody Sunday and probably used the weapon. He and his kind certainly contributed to the tensions which lead to the shootings.

He says he left the organistation in 1974, but as a recent Times report concluded, few believe this to be true. All the evidence suggests that he went on to become the IRA’s northern commander and the head of its army council. There are atrocities thereafter that he certainly knew of or approved, like the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing

Thankfully he is pursued by his murderous legacy even in the Republic, where people generally might be inclined to be more sympathetic. In Athlone he had an encounter with the son of an Irish soldier, who’s father was killed by the IRA in 1983, demanding to know who was responsible. Another uncomfortable encounter followed with the brother of an Irish policeman, killed in County Meath in 1984, who accused McGuiness of having his "family’s blood on his hands." The sister of Mary Travers, shot dead in Belfast in 1984, called his campaign "an insult to the victims of the IRA."

And so it is, to all the victims of the IRA, north and south of the border, north and south of the island’s religious and political divisions. He offers the usual weasel evasions, saying that he never killed anyone himself but refusing to say if he ordered others to kill. He says that he cannot remember the oath he took on joining the IRA. And if you believe that you will believe anything.

He is a liar, a coward and a killer, of that I have not the least doubt, one who hides behind the worst kind of hypocrisy and dissimulation. The past cannot be discarded, the past of a man like this, which he carries around his neck like a curse, the same curse as the Ancient Mariner.

Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung."

Sunday 16 October 2011

De-crusading the Crusade

It’s the kind of copy that most historians would kill for, not just a review of a forthcoming publication, but the forthcoming publication featured as a news story! And so it was on Friday, when the Times devoted a half page in its news columns to Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: the Call from the East, scheduled for publication in February. There it was, under the heading Historian lifts his sword against the accepted view of the First Crusade, truly splendid stuff.

Ben Hoyle, the paper’s arts correspondent, reporting from the Cheltenham Festival, even concludes with the imprimatur of Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author who ranges between Stalin and Jerusalem, who says that the new sojourn into the Crusades is “a missing part of the puzzle.” Well, yes, but there is one tiny problem – it’s nothing of the kind. I’ll come to this in a moment but first a few words on the basic thesis.

According to the press release issued by Harvard University Press, the publishers, Frankopan, director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at the University of Oxford, is “countering nearly a millennium of scholarship by emphasising the overlooked eastern origins of the crusades”. A thousand years of scholarship – my goodness; what a claim! Sorry, that’s a digression. The argument is that the whole thing was rather less about religion, less about crusades, if I can put it like that, and much more about politics, territory and power.

Though I’m far from being an expert on the crusades, that’s something I had already picked up on from a reading of Sir Stephen Runciman’s classic three volume study A History of the Crusades, slightly dated but still meaty, supplemented by John Julius Norwich’s History of the Byzantine Empire, another triple decker. Neither of these books overlooked the ‘eastern origins’ of the Crusades, the argument that is supposedly set to destroy the Thousand Year Reich of scholarship.

The process that led to the declaration of the First Crusade in 1095 began over twenty years before, in August 1071, to be precise, when the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes was defeated and captured by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert on the eastern fringes of the empire. Thereafter the Turks moved steadily westwards, overrunning most of Anatolia, now modern Turkey, and threatening Constantinople itself.

The loss of Anatolia was particularly serious because it was the main recruiting ground for an empire that desperately needed soldiers. Where were these to come from now but the Christian West? In this atmosphere of growing crisis the Emperor Alexis I Comnenos appealed to Urban II, the reigning pope. He simply wanted mercenaries. What he got was wholly unexpected and, in the end, wholly unwelcome – he got a Crusade.

Western Christians may have been dim but not so dim that they did not know that Jerusalem had been under Muslim occupation for over four hundred years. It was the new stories of Seljuk attacks on pilgrims, as much as Alexis’ appeal, that motivated Urban, present at Clermont in France for a church council. It was an ideal opportunity to assert his authority in the east as well as the west by proclaiming a great religious enterprise, one which captured the mood of the moment. God may have willed it; Urban certainly did.

Now I have no wish to be unkind, and one should be careful with publisher’s hyperbole, but if Frankopan is seeking to marginalise the religious fervour of 1095 to support his thesis then he is a fool. It’s a crucial part of the mix. How else does one explain Peter the Hermit and the fanatical crowds who followed him east? How else does one explain the large scale pogroms that followed in their wake, the Jews of Europe being a more immediate target than the Muslims of Asia?

It’s certainly true that the real Crusade, the professional Crusade, if I can put it like that, headed by professional soldiers, was a complex phenomenon. Religious enthusiasm was there, so, too, was land hunger, in what was essentially a Norman expedition, headed by landless younger sons, people who were to carve out counties, principalities and kingdoms in the Levant, from Edessa in the north to Jerusalem in the south. In the end, guided by the Normans, who had a well-established tradition of hostility to the Byzantines, the Crusaders were to be as much a danger to the integrity of the Eastern Empire as the Turks.

It’s all there – strategic desperation, religious fervour, ambition, political hostility, land hunger, all contributing to the complexity of the First Crusade. To abstract out one dimension, no matter how important, backed up by the claim that one is ‘overturning’ a thousand years of scholarship, is a step too far in hyperbole and self-promotion. This is not a missing part in the puzzle. It’s just some rather tiresome academic inflation.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Death Crosses the Rio Grande

We have a serious problem with mass immigration in England. The United States, I know, has similar difficulties, with migration across the Rio Grande now at alarming levels.

Naturally enough, this kind of thing produces a backlash, especially in times of economic difficulties, a time when there are too many people chasing too few jobs. This is certainly the case in England. There is also, I have to say, an additional fear: namely, that we are allowing in too many people with traditions inimical to our way of life. Right across Europe there are concerns over the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

That’s not something that affects the States, at least not to the same degree. But there is another alien tradition, I recently discovered, serving to deepen anxieties about immigration, going beyond concerns over mere numbers. It’s not just people who are coming in: Death is there also, riding on their backs – “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

It’s not some nebulous concept I have in mind, not some apocalyptic revelation; no it’s Santa Muerte – Saint Death -, the patron saint of Mexico’s drugs cartels. Illegal immigration may very well fuel xenophobia but, let’s be frank, death cults have a tendency to fuel it even more.

Santa Muerte is fairly typical of the religious syncretism found right across Latin America, combining Catholic with pagan traditions. The trouble is that this gruesome spectre, with its toothy grin and scythe, has the loyalty of a particularly vicious tribe of devotees, the pushers of a new kind of murderous Juggernaut.

The fear is real enough: that Mexico’s vicious drugs war is pouring over the border, not in part but in whole, a war that in a mere five year period has been responsible for some 35,000 fatalities. This is bad enough but the death cult gives the whole thing an even more alarming gloss. Santa Muerte is following the main narcotic routes throughout the US, from Arizona to New York. She was there in a tunnel discovered a few weeks ago, a tunnel some six hundred feet long running right under the border, looked over by a shrine to the saint.

People have every reason to feel worried by this phenomenon, a sign of a deeper malaise. By their very nature gangs are territorial and fissiparous, drug gangs more than most, but the Santa Muerte cult provides them with a perverse cultic and iconic focus, a possible basis for cooperation and unity. Writing of this in the Daily Telegraph Tim Stanley said;

The goal of these groups is to undermine democracy and govern autonomous secret societies through family, blood and religion. It’s a global trend. The Lord’s Resistance Army that slaughtered and raped its way across Uganda from 1987 to 2007 was led by a man who claimed to channel the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the culprit behind this apocalyptic criminality was the death of Communism, which deprived thugs and thieves of a secular ideology to justify their actions. Organisations like FARC and the Real IRA converted overnight to pushing drugs. But in Mexico, family and religion filled the vacuum left by the failure of socialism.

The assumption in Europe, particularly in the pages of the hyper-liberal Guardian, is that American fears over Hispanic immigration has been brought on by racism, nothing more, and that the country is on the threshold of a new Jim Crow era, a time when racial apartheid was law. But the truth, for once, really is pure and simple: mass immigration, coupled with the importation of malign foreign cults, represents a serious threat to American civic and political culture.

As the country faces a threat from without it also faces a new threat from within, brought on by a loss of confidence and direction, shown in the wave of populist, anti-business hysteria sweeping across the land, a canker spreading outwards from New York, given encouragement even so far as the Obama House. It’s worth reflecting on this, as we here in England also face a threat from an informal alliance between jihadists and anarchists. Santa Muerte, it would seem, has a long reach

Wednesday 12 October 2011

A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

It’s one of the most remarkable paintings in the whole of western art – it’s Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes known as The Arnolfini Wedding, painted in 1434. It’s one of my favourite paintings, one of the great draws in London’s National Gallery.

It’s remarkable in two senses: for the freshness of Van Eyck’s vision, the intensity of the detail, for the range of objects that might mean something, might have some symbolic significance, or might mean nothing at all, other than that they are objects in a well-appointed room. It’s remarkable also for its remarkable history, passing through the hands of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons into those of Joseph Bonaparte, whose bottom was placed on the throne of Spain by big brother Napoleon. Joseph, I was delighted to discover, was called Pepe Bottles – Joe Bottles - by his less than enamoured subjects, so known for his prestigious intake. Looted by a British officer from the dipso royal’s baggage after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, the Arnolfini Portrait eventually made its way into the National Gallery.

More than any of this it is remarkable for its subject, a prosperous Flemish merchant couple, the first depiction of ordinary people, people who were not aristocratic or royal, just the middle class from the Middle Ages. It celebrates property, of course, it celebrates domestic comfort and wealth, as other paintings celebrate the landed wealth of the nobility.

But still there is a wonderful immediacy and homeliness to the painting; we know these people in their sheer ordinariness; we can identify with them as real human beings, not some grand statement about power. There is also an abiding mystery about this intense little oeuvre, a sense of otherness which raises all sorts of questions. It’s an enigma that's been taken up by the art historian Corola Hicks in Girl in a Green Gown: the History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, sadly unfinished at the time of her death last year.

Beyond the fact that it’s a depiction of a merchant and his...his what, exactly? Is she his wife or his girlfriend? Is this a marriage or a betrothal? There is no certainty at all on the point, despite the misleading title. There is certainly a bond between the two, a couple who are, perhaps, already married, or who have simply announced a union to come. Is the lady in green pregnant, as so many have assumed from her bloated appearance? Would a pregnant paramour have been shown at such times in such a way? Why has the painter depicted himself in the mirror in the far wall? And why, as Hicks herself asks, does the man look like Vladimir Putin?

No, he's not Russian. He is, rather, a member of the powerful Arnolfini clan of Italian merchants, well-established in Bruges by the fifteenth century. Exactly who he is, though, and, even more intriguingly, who she is, the lady in green, has proved slightly more problematic, despite decades of speculation and art criticism. It may be one of two Giovanni Arnolfinis, though neither was married in 1434. So far as he is concerned it's certainly a fully-realised portrait of a particular individual (he was to appear again in the work of van Eyck), though she seems to be more of an ideal, a type reminiscent of the painter's Madonnas. Is she there at all, was she there for the sitting, or is she yet to come, not yet emerged from the shadows of the Platonic ideal, a future promise? Oh, and the celebration of fecundity may be no more than a celebration of cloth, another sign of the merchant’s wealth!

Hicks turns her thoughts to several themes, to the symbolism and the significance not just of the central act of union, but the surrounding paraphernalia - the dog - faithfulness? -, the mirror, the rug, the clothes, the glass in the windows, the furnishings, the single lighted candle and even the oranges by the window. Oranges, still a luxurious and expensive import, are another sign that Signor Arnolfini was a man of substance, a display of conspicuous consumption. They are also a reminder of Eve's gift to Adam, a fruit, interchangeable with apples, as the produce from the Tree of Knowledge. Even the bed is a sign of wealth, a sign that this was a man who could afford to put one in his front room! What we are looking at here is a celebrity couple, a kind of illustration from a fifteenth century version of Hello magazine, people who have made it and want others to know that they have made it, a bourgeois ideal!

The title of Hick's book is a clear nod in the direction of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the Mona Lisa of the North, Johannes Vermeer's later masterpiece, another mystery about an unnamed woman, another intrigue, a wonderful vacuum filled by speculation and fiction. Likewise, we will never know any more than we do about the Girl in a Green Gown; we will never come a step closer to her and her individual destiny.

Hicks is good, but she is much better on the history than the mystery, which, paradoxically, I find quite pleasing. Some enigmas are best left as they are, to intrigue and perplex for all time. But the greater mystery is the artist himself, employed at the time of the Arnolfini Portrait as a painter in the court of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. Why, and by what manner, did he come to see the world in such a radical and realist fashion, in a fashion completely different from the conventions of late medieval art? We simply do not know.

Meanwhile one central question remains: why does Arnolfini look like Vladimir Putin?

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Treason by any other name

In July 1940, while Britain was in deep in the darkest valley of the Second World War, a coruscating polemic appeared in print. This was Guilty Men, an attack on the forms of appeasement pursued since 1930, which had brought the country to this pass in its history. The author, one ‘Cato’, focused on a number of named politicians, headed by Neville Chamberlain, the former prime minister.

It was actually the work of collaboration between three people, including Michael Foot, a journalist and left-wing fire eater. There is a slight whiff of hypocrisy here, in that Foot, a future leader of the Labour Party, was himself a ‘guilty man’, opposing British rearmament in the 1930s. But the book still went a long way to demolishing the kind of dangerous political consensus that occasionally descends on even the most mature democracies, a consensus supported by ‘official’ news channels like the BBC, portraying critics of the prevailing orthodoxy as crackpots, outsiders and eccentrics.

Now a new Guilty Men has appeared. It’s a polemic no less important at this point in our history than its predecessor. As we look at the debacle in Europe, as we look at a crisis that was utterly and banally predictable over the euro, the one size fits all currency, the time has come to expose the guilty people, the guilty institutions, and the guilty publications who would have involved this country in the whole wretched fiasco, who saw our membership as the only course, as a foregone conclusion that only the mad opposed. We have a new ‘Cato’ collective, less coy than the first; we have Peter Oborne and Frances Weaver, whose devastating critique was published at the end of last month by the Centre for Policy Studies.

It premiers with an observation that I, for one, consider to be almost axiomatic;

Very rarely in political history has any faction or movement enjoyed such a complete and crushing victory as the Conservative Eurosceptics. The field is theirs. They were not merly right about the single currency, the greatest economic issue of our age – they were right for the right reasons. They foresaw with lucid, prophetic accuracy exactly how and why the euro would bring with it financial devastation and social collapse.

And how! This is a crisis that is set to run and run, as more and more German wealth is poured into a Greek black hole. Even on the sidelines we, as nation, cannot avoid the fallout from this financial and political lunacy.

Financial lunacy, yes, exactly, lunacy, as the authors of Guilty Men point out, that was supported for so many years by the Financial Times, a paper that pretends to be the leading economic publication in this country, with the emphasis now very firmly on pretends. It’s salutary to recall what this publication said of Greek entry into the euro in January 2001 – “With Greece now trading in euros few will mourn the death of the drachma. Membership of the eurozone offers the prospect of long-term economic stability.”

One by one the authors pick out their targets, covering them with withering fire, from the Confederation of British Industries, an interest-group that seems to represent the interests of its own conceited bureaucracy best, to the Marxist-dominated BBC, an organisation which has nothing to learn from Dr Goebbels when it comes to the techniques of propaganda.

Betraying every principle of its charter, the BBC became a partisan player in the whole debate over Britain’s fiscal future. Programmes supposedly objective in content were heavily weighted in favour of comment from Europhiles. The pro-euro position was identified as the centre ground, the inference being that its opponents were outside reasonable limits, in the wilderness of political extremes.

Rod Liddle, at the time editor of the Beebs’s Radio 4 Today programme, said “The whole ethos of the BBC and all the staff was that Eurosceptics were xenophobes and there was the end of it. The euro would come up at a meeting and everybody would burst out laughing about the Eurosceptics.” He was even told in a meeting with one of the Corporation’s senior figures that he had to understand that “these people are mad.”

Who laughs now, I wonder; who now calls them mad?

There are named individuals among the guilty, a menagerie of has-beens, never-have-beens and loony tunes. These are my sentiments, alright, but they are not my words. No, they are the words of Andrew Rawnsley writing in the Observer in January 1999. There is only one small difference: his menagerie of has-beens, never-have-beens and loony tunes were the people who were warning that the euro was a foredoomed project.

Who were the people he described as ‘substantially sane’, you may wonder? Well, the wretched shower included Tony 'the Liar' Blair, Peter ‘Gay Lord’ Mandelson, Ken ‘Fatuous Belly’ Clarke, Michael ‘Judas’ Heseltine and Charles ‘the Soak’ Kennedy. Yes, that was his coalition of the ‘normal’.

I don’t like to go too far, but I am angry, angry at these guilty men, an anger which sees forms of treason in the way that they attempted to undermine the best interests of this country. I sincerely hope that future generations view them with as much contempt as the original appeasers, who, for all their faults, simply represented a national mood. What mood the new appeasers represented, beyond their own purblind venality, I have yet to determine.

If you enjoy watching fish wriggle on a hook, if you enjoy hubris brought low, if you enjoy shouting ‘I told you so!’ you will love Guilty Men.

Monday 10 October 2011

Iran: the Republic of Iblis, the Republic of Death

It’s over a year now since I first wrote about Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery (Evil Law – 30 August, 2010). She’s still in prison though it seems unlikely that the sentence will ever be carried out, insofar as it’s possible to predict the actions of the vile clerical-fascist Iranian regime. The truth is that it has been sorely embarrassed by the international reaction to this barbarism, embarrassment that opens the door to another story about injustice and oppression.

It’s a universal principle of justice that people accused of crimes have the right to an effective defence, and I place the stress here on effective as opposed to some tame lawyer, who acts as an adjutant to the prosecution. Ashtiani’s lawyers had the courage to defend her to the best of their abilities, the reward for which has been torture and exile. Now the lawyer defending one of her lawyers has been forced to flee for his life.

Safe in an unnamed location in Turkey, Naghi Mahmoudi recently told the Times of the plight of his client, Javid Houtan Kian, formerly the junior barrister on Ashtiani’s defence team. The details are quite chilling. Even if Kian was released today, his lawyer said, “he would never be able to return to normal life because he’s suffered so much physical and mental torture.”

Although Mahmoudi agreed to represent Kian at the beginning of the year, it took several months of pleading before he was allowed to visit his client, being held in the prison at Tabriz. His reaction on seeing him was one of shock: Kain’s teeth had been smashed, his nose broken and his hands and feet showing signs of cigarette burns.

During the three hours the two were allowed together, always in the presence of a guard, Kian compiled a three-page description of the treatment he had received. He was beaten by up to twenty men at a time, as well as being doused in water and left in the freezing courtyard on winter nights. It’s not just his hands and feet that been burnt with cigarettes but also his genitalia.

No sooner had the interview concluded, with Kian pleading that Mahmoudi tell the world of his plight, than the transcript was confiscated by the prison governor, saying that it was all lies. The lawyer was also banned from returning to the prison, though he subsequently learned from others that his client’s condition had deteriorated still further.

Ever fearful for his own safety, and living under constant petty harassment, Mahmoudi decided he had to leave when he received a demand that he present himself at Tabriz, not even pausing to say goodbye to his mother. From his Turkish refuge he said “Lawyers have to defend people however dangerous the situation.” The danger reaches a unique level when the government abuses them merely for doing their job – “It’s a terrible and frightening regime. It doesn’t believe in the law or anything. The only thing they think about is keeping power.”

There is no law in Iran, there is no justice; there is no God, rather ironic when one considers that this is a country that conceitedly refers to itself as an ‘Islamic Republic’. It’s nothing of the kind; it’s the Republic of Iblis, the Republic of Death.

Sunday 9 October 2011

I judge therefore I am

This is my response to a discussion on Blog Catalogue, under the heading “We are all racists”, the proposition being that we automatically judge people who are different from our own ‘tribe.’ My remarks are addressed to the poster.

Ana Speaks

I don’t suppose that you’ve ever heard of Enoch Powell, a British politician once almost universally condemned, even by his own Party, as a ‘racist’ because of his famously infamous Rivers of Blood speech, in which he gave warning of the possible effects of mass immigration. He was once asked in a television interview with David Frost if he was a racist, to which he replied;

It depends on how you define the word “racialist.” If you mean being conscious of the differences between men and nations, and from that, races, then we are all racialists. However, if you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another, then the answer is emphatically No.

So, yes, by the first definition, I, too, am a racialist. I agree with the argument put forward in your post that we are all racialists to that extent. Beware always of the small-minded and stupid here; for all too often their denials of racism disguises the fact that they are racist in the second sense of Powell’s definition, a form of psychological compensation for their own worthlessness.

Where I differ from you is over the question of skin colour. I do not believe that there is a ‘black race’ any more than there is a ‘white race’. If I judge people it’s most often a cultural reflex rather any on the basis of deductions made on the basis of skin colour. If I entered an underpass and saw that the exit was blocked by a gang of youths it would make no difference at all to my level of apprehension if they were white or if they were black.

Did you ever see Crash, the 2004 movie directed by Paul Haggis? It’s really quite clever, exploring race prejudice on a whole number of levels, not just the obvious ones. Here, in London, some of the worst racism is not white on black, but black on black, with people from the West Indies hating people from Somalia.

There is also the wider question of prejudice, which can overlap with racial perceptions, though not always. I admit my own shortcomings here: I dislike gypsies because I have seen how gangs of East European Roma operate in London. They have no place here; I don’t want them; I don’t know anyone who does. Less specifically, I dislike fat people and I dislike the stupid, probably the first more than the second, because they have the power to do something about their affliction and chose not to. See; prejudgement in the purest sense!

We live in a complex world, too complex, in so many ways, to be taken in without forms of mental categorisation. I judge therefore I am. :-)

Thursday 6 October 2011

Tears Flow

Vasily Grossman, as I wrote here quite recently, was a writer of unique genius, a great war correspondent and an even greater novelist. Earlier this year I read Life and Fate, a panoramic novel set in the Second World War. I don’t think I’ve ever been as overwhelmed by a work of fiction, at least not since I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s an astonishing tour de force, a description of people and places and events delivered with freshness and stunning insight. Even before I finished I offered the following comment;

As a novel it is also intensely honest, making no allowances for the ideological shibboleths of his day, so honest that the book was ‘arrested’, yes, arrested by the KGB in the early 1960s. Grossman was subsequently summoned to the office of Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologue of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, who told him that the book could not be published for another two or three hundred years, an act of extreme censorship coupled with a paradoxical recognition of its lasting importance. Fortunately, a copy of the manuscript was smuggled out to the West, where it was published and hailed as a work of genius.

Sadly Grossman was unable to enjoy his literary triumph: he died of stomach cancer in Moscow in 1964. At the point of his death he had no reason to suppose that Suslov’s prediction was not true, that it would take two centuries for his great work to emerge from the ideological shadows. But he was already working on another novel, a novel that could not have been published in the old Soviet Union in two millennia, never mind two centuries. This is Everything Flows, which I finished today in one feverish sitting, stopping only to top up my tea from the samovar.

Yes, Everything Flows is a novel, unfinished at the time of the author’s death, but it’s also a kind of testament, a political and philosophical indictment not just of the moral corruption of communism but of Russia itself, of that dark place in the Russian soul that forever eschews freedom in favour of slavery.

The criticism is trenchant. Life and Fate could be taken in large part as a demolition of Stalinism, an altogether more honest testament that Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. But Everything Flows goes deeper; it goes so far as Lenin, still sleeping away in Red Square, the supreme icon of national servitude. For a moment, for the briefest of seasons in the spring of 1917, Russia scented freedom. The path lay open. Russia chose Lenin, who came not to liberate the country but to refine and amplify the most regressive features of its history;

And so it was that Lenin’s obsession with revolution, his fanatical faith in the truth of Marxism and the absolute intolerance of any dissent, all led him to advance hugely the development of the Russia he hated with all of his fanatical soul…Did Lenin ever imagine the true consequences of his revolution? Did he ever imagine that it would not simply be a matter of Russia now leading the way – rather than, as had been predicted, following behind a socialist Europe? Did he ever imagine that what his revolution would liberate was Russian slavery itself – that his revolution would enable Russian slavery to spread beyond the confines of Russia, to become a torch lighting a new path for humanity?

Russian history, paradoxically, went into reverse. Stalin quickened the process, taking it as far as it would go, substituting freedom with the most abject forms of state worship, something that had not been seen since the days of Ivan the Terrible. By the 1930s, the time of collectivisation, the time of the Terror Famine, the time when the state deliberately starved millions of its own citizens to death, the Russian peasantry was more completely enslaved than it ever had been under the Tsars. It’s almost as if Alexander II, the Liberator, the man who ended serfdom, had never lived. That was the legacy of the Revolution.

There is a witness here, a man who filters these thoughts through his head. He is Ivan Grigoryevich. His freedom died earlier than most. Sent to the camps as a young man, he returns thirty years later, a ghost from the past, a husk of a ruined life. Stalin is dead but there has been no proper reckoning; there never will be a reckoning. Such reckoning as there is comes only as an act of moral and historical reflection.

There are those that Grigorivich left behind, like his cousin Nikolay, a mediocrity who prospered in a time of mediocrity and bad faith. This ghost is not entirely welcome, neither by Nikolay nor by his wife, both of whom remained ‘free’ insofar as freedom involved all sorts of shabby compromises. This is a theme, this guilt come resentment, that Solzhenitsyn was to take up in Cancer Ward. These are the little people, the beetle people, who prospered at the expense of those far more talented, who died or disappeared.

The novel ranges over some of the tragedy, looked at in simple human as well as grand historical terms. There is the tragedy of the Terror Famine, told by Anna Sergeyevna, Grigorivich’s lover, full of guilt for the part she played;

How the kulaks suffered. In order to kill them, it was necessary to declare that the kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans said that the Yids are not human beings. That’s what Lenin and Stalin said too: The kulaks are not human beings. But that’s a lie. They are people. I can see now that we are all human beings.

There is the tragedy of Vasily Timofeyvich, Ganna, his beloved wife, and Grishenka, their infant son, explored in a brief and incredibly poignant chapter, killed by starvation, lying in their hut over the winter, not separated even by death.

There is the tragedy of Masha, arrested in 1937 at the height of the Great Terror, madness within madness, simply for being married to a man that the state had declared guilty. Separated from her husband and her child, she was sent to the gulags, convinced that it was all a mistake, that her sentence would be revoked, that they would all meet again never to be separated. In the end hope died;

A year later Masha left the camp. Before returning to freedom, she lay for a while on some pine planks in a freezing hut. No one tried to hurry her out to work, and no one abused her. The medical orderlies placed Masha Lyubimova in a rectangular box made from boards that the timber inspectors had rejected for any other use. This was the last time anyone looked on her face. On it was a sweet, childish expression of delight and confusion, the same look as when she had stood by the timber store and listened to the merry music, first with joy then with the realisation that all hope had vanished.

This could have been an angry book, a bitter one; the anger caused by so much betrayal, the anger of history, the anger of an author whose life’s work had been frustrated. But it’s not; it’s a bold, moving and scrupulously honest book, a story told on a number of narrative levels, a story told with simplicity, insight and tremendous clarity. It stands as a noble testament. If you love Russia, if you love the past, if you love the truth, if you love freedom I urge you to read this. If you can do so without descending at points into tears then you have far greater powers of emotional control than I have, than I will ever have. Everything Flows is a great work of literature. It is an even greater tribute to the human spirit.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

True, poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but, in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where, removed from the sight of the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can. These slums are pretty equally arranged…the worst houses in the worst quarters of the town…The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead. Moreover, ventilation is impeded by the bad, confused method of building of the whole quarter, and since many human beings here live crowded into a small space, the atmosphere that prevails in these…quarters may readily be imagined.

Where is this do you think? Is it some third world city, perhaps? I’ll tell you in just a moment, but first let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of another city, in another place, in another time. The narrative goes like this;

The woman…crouches in the acrid fumes…tending the stock in her shop; the mangled remains of a wooden kitchen unit, broken microwave ovens, lengths of fire house and a meat slicer without a blade. To her right is one of…the largest dumps, spilling from its gates in a cascade of plastic bags. It stinks and is swarming with flies. To her left, written in huge letters, is the market’s slogan: a motto supposedly designed to give meaning to a life lived off rubbish…”If you don’t work hard today, tomorrow you will be working harder to find a new job!” It is unclear how she and her husband could work any harder. His day is spent trawling the city for the detritus of urban life. Hers is spent putting it into a state that might earn a few pennies…The woman, too nervous to give her name, describes life as “very difficult and without any feeling of security.” What little she and her family have could be bulldozed at any moment.

Yes, it’s two worlds, two times, two systems. It’s a tale of two cities; the first is London, described by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England. It’s a description of a city during the high noon of laissez-faire capitalism. It’s the bleak age of the bourgeoisie, as someone once described it, the time of Ebenezer Scrooge before the haunting. It’s a past time.

The second is the present time, not in the heart of a heartless capitalist state. No, it’s the condition of the working class in a worker’s state; it’s the condition of the working class in a communist state. This city is not London or Manchester; it’s Beijing.

The London of the 1840s had its chroniclers, not just political radicals like Friedrich Engels but moral radicals like Charles Dickens, who appealed to the conscience of his middle-class readers in such works as Oliver Twist, Hard Times and A Christmas Carol. Those who attempt a chronicle of Beijing in the second decade of the twenty-first century face dangers that past reformers never did. A Chinese Dickens, or a Chinese Engels, for that matter, would almost certainly end up in one of Beijing’s ‘black jails’, the secret prisons where critics of the system can be held for indefinite periods without trial or legal representation of any kind.

It was in one of these places that Ai Weiwei, the brilliantly unconventional artist who has become the conscience of the nation, ended up earlier this year, held for some eighty days, his family not even being told of his whereabouts. Nothing chastened, he has since written a kind of Tale of Two Cities, or a tale of two Beijings, the city of the obscenely rich and the city of the wretchedly poor, in a country where several hundred households are worth more than $100million, while 100 million have to manage on $100 a year.

Like Dickens he has drawn attention to the underbelly of the capital, the other city, a city choked by filth and pollution, a constant nightmare, as he put it, of violence, numbing abusiveness and fear. This is the city of the migrants, people little better than slaves, people without any kind of civic rights, people who can be removed on a whim, constantly at risk from the arbitrary violence of the authorities.

China, in its present state of social, political and economic development, is one of history’s oddest paradoxes. Not only does it have an economy based upon forms of rapacious capitalism that might even have shocked Engels and Dickens, but the abuses are also held in place by Communist oligarchy that allows no room for dissent, for any form of social conscience or reforming impulse, an oligarchy that exists for no other purpose than to perpetuate its own monopoly of power. Thus is the reality of modern China in this anniversary year, the anniversary of the revolution of 1911, which saw the fall of the last imperial dynasty.

There is anger in the country over various social abuses, anger which finds some outlet in social media sites, anger which deepens the paranoia of the authorities, ever fearful that individual fires may turn into a general conflagration, fearful that the Arab disease might be contagious.

But setting to one side the complaints given air on micro-blogging sites like Sina Weibo, most Chinese would seem to be largely indifferent to the plight of the migrant subclass. Given the appalling misery inflicted on the country in the time of Mao Zedong, people are content with new forms of relative prosperity, prosperity and a quiet life. Put it another way, there is no audience for Engels, for Dickens or for Al Weiwei. Reform, if it comes at all, is a long way in the future, or lost in the past.