Wednesday 29 February 2012

Kaa Livingstone

The one figure I admire above all others in the Conservative Party is Boris Johnson, the present Mayor of London. He is a clever, affable and self-assured chap. Beneath an occasionally bumbling exterior there is a shrewd mind at work. In contrast to Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, he is comfortable with who he is and where he has come from, carrying none of their exaggerated fears of appearing to be upper class ‘toffs.’ Boris is a toff and people love him just the same, or perhaps even more for his honesty! He is, as Nick Cohen wrote in an article last year, the Bertie Wooster of English political life.

This year he faces a fresh mayoral contest with Labour’s Ken Livingstone, the former incumbent defeated by Boris in the election of 2008. If Boris is Bertie, Livingston with his heavy eyelids and generally shifty appearance calls to mind another literary figure altogether – the Indian python Kaa as depicted in the 1967 Disney movie version of The Jungle Book. Last year he published his autobiography, You Can’t Say That. To this I respond I Won't Read That, but according to Cohen, whose judgement I trust, it’s verbose, self-pitying and petty, very much as I see Kaa Livingstone.

Livingstone is a perfect example of the idiocy of the left or the socialism of fools. This has seen supposedly ‘progressive’ elements carry out incredible ideological contortions to ally themselves with some of the most reactionary forces on earth. Yusaf al-Qaradi, spiritual guide for the Muslim Brotherhood, is a man, Kaa hisses, who is attempting to “reconcile Islam with democracy and human rights, in particular women’s rights.” As Cohen pointed out in the political journal Standpoint, he conveniently forgets to mention Qaradawi’s fatwas in favour of the genital mutilation of girls, wife beating, and the murder of gays, Jews and apostates.

Livingstone’s position here is even more hypocritical and disingenuous, for he also overlooks Qaradawis’s links with Jamaat-e-Islami, the far-right Islamist party, whose leaders stand accused of aiding and abetting the Pakistani army’s massacre of civilians during the Bangladeshi war of independence.

So this Kaa, the face of the London left, a face that looks with favour on the most obscurantist forms of fundamentalist opinion. I just hope, like Mowgli, the city evades his slimy grasp in the coming election. Better off with Bertie by far.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Come to Berlin

A question on Blog Catalogue about things to do in Berlin brought back my memories of the city. I’ve only been there once and it was a few years ago now. The Wall was gone, communism vanished and the city reunited. The old centre around the Reichstag seemed to be one huge building site. I shall have to go back soon – I have friends there – just to see how things are turning out, to see if the Bear has fully risen from the ashes like the Phoenix.

I enjoyed the time I spent; we seemed to pack in so much in just under a week. Even before I went I had visited the place in my imagination, helped along by the Berlin novels of Christopher Isherwood, the paintings of George Grosz and the theatrical collaborations of Kurt Weil and Bertholt Brecht. Cabaret, based on Isherwood’s stories, is one of my favourite films. I could just see myself as Sally Bowles!

Speaking of Sally, one of the evening spots we went to was the Bar Jeder Vernunft, where life is still a cabaret! This Art Nouveau mirror tent is really quite charming, all in wood and velvet, an imaginative recreation of the Kit Kat Club. We had a great evening sipping cocktails, listening to music and comedy, being divinely decadent and generally laid back.

Ah, but decadence has moved on since the days of Sally Bowles. If you want to know just how far it’s moved on try visiting a night club by the name of Insomnia. This does not come with any personal recommendation on my part. Let me just say that I’m no prude and I’m not easily shocked, but it was a case of a quick in out because there was too much in out, if you take my meaning. If you are a girl do not go on your own.

Soberly, in the day, one of the first places we made for was Museum Island, specifically to see the Pergamon Altar in the museum of the same name. This originally formed part of the temple of Zeus in the Greek city of Pergamon. It really is quite something, the throne of Satan himself, at least according to some of those who take their cue from the Book of Revelations. I pass no comment on that. What I will say is that it inspired Albert Speer, who used it as a basis for the design of the Zeppelintribüne at Nuremberg, another satanic throne altogether.

Incidentally, the Altar was brought to Berlin from the then Ottoman Empire, where it was reconstructed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Given the dark history that was to ensue it could very well be seen as a harbinger of ill-omen, becoming a kind of gateway to hell.

And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.

On a slightly lighter note I discovered that the Altar impressed not only Speer and Hitler but also – guess who? – Barack Obama! He visited the city in the summer of 2008, the year after me, and, in the hapless and ill-advised style that was to become typical of his ensuing presidency, used the design of the Alter as a backdrop to his Democratic acceptance speech.

Now the last thing this man needs is any more conspiracy theories but that is exactly what he engendered with the Lucifer-endorsed ‘Barapolis’ There are some on the outer fringes of American life, it has to be said, who now believe him to be Antichrist in person, poised in this portentous year to destroy the country. This is something he may very well do if he wins in November, but because he is stunningly incompetent chief executive, not because of any satanic power!

Never mind that; let me get back to Berlin. It’s not a particularly handsome city; it bears no comparison with Paris or Rome, and there still signs of its wartime trauma and subsequent long-term divorce into East and West. Ironically the one building to survive the war completely unscathed was Herman Goring’s Luftministerium, still standing in all its functional ugliness while older and nobler structures were consumed.

The other edifice that survived is the Siegessäule – Victory Column -, the triumphal phallus that celebrates the Prussian victories which led to the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century. It’s possible to climb to the top on the stairs inside the column. I did, and it’s a nice view over the city skyline.

There is another Obama reference here. Sorry, I simply can’t help myself. This man must have some really poor advisers, people with no sense of history or place, because it was used as the location for his Berlin speech, notwithstanding its militaristic and Nazi associations. Hmm, the Pergamon Altar and the Siegessäule; is he really trying to say something, trying to convey a subliminal message? Heil Obama! Expect to see him in Triumph of the Will before the end of the year.

There is more I could say about the places I went to and the things I saw, as well as the people I met. But one thing stands out, the night I dined in the Hotel Adlon. This was one of the places high on my ‘to do’ list. Situated on the Unter den Linden, it has a fascinating history. Sadly the original hotel, one of the most fashionable in Europe, was largely destroyed in May, 1945, set alight by drunken Soviet soldiers. In its inter-war glory days it saw the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin among its guests. Greta Garbo’s movie Grand Hotel was inspired by the Adlon. After the fall of the Wall construction of the new Adlon was begun in the late 1990s. The food was splendid and the ambience magical, as we sat and talked and dreamed of old, happy, far off things and glamour long ago.

Monday 27 February 2012

Penn to Paper

I admire Sean Penn; let me get that out of the way to begin with. There is much to admire in his work as an actor and director. I admired his performance as Sam Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. In review here I wrote;

Penn is truly superb in the part, totally different in every way from his usual onscreen character, at once diffident and subdued, at twice angry and explosive. Bicke is the kind of man who might make normal losers feel good about themselves: he is a failure in absolutely everything – in marriage, in business, in life itself. It’s certainly possible to feel sorry for him. In one scene he goes to visit his family only to visit the dog! But Bicke is such a hopeless case, unable to move on, unable to take charge of his life, constantly projecting his inadequacies on to others.

Sean is such a contrast in every conceivable way; no one could accuse him of inadequacy or failure; no one could possibly accuse him of being a hopeless case…or could they? Hang on just a moment, for I’m about to do just that. As a writer and analyst of political affairs he has taken on the guise of Bicke. Actually he’s gone that one step further: he doesn’t just come across as inadequate; he’s made himself look like a prattling poseur.

So what’s the occasion for this? Sadly for his reputation and self-esteem he decided to put Penn to paper, a piece published last week in the hyper-liberal Guardian, the mouth-piece of the English chattering classes, in which he laments the presence of Prince William in the Falklands (The Malvinas/Falklands: Diplomacy Interrupted, 23 February). Apparently it gives out a message of ‘intimidation.’ What he gives out is a message of laughable absurdity. What he gives out is a tendentious sermon tangled in atrocious prose. It reads as a kind of parody, presumably the sort of high-flown gibberish that he thought was just the thing for the Guardian.

Forget the Falklands, forget the Malvinas, forget Prince William, forget Argentina; let’s just concentrate on the Penn style. Here are a few examples;

This is not a cause of leftist flamboyance nor significantly a centuries-old literary dispute. But rather a modern one, that is perhaps unveiled most legitimately through the raconteurism of Patagonian fishermen.

As a result, we must look to the mutual recognition of this illusive paradigm by both countries.

The manifestation of the islands' names themselves betrays a vague history written by victors and viscounts.

Let's recap: the UK was indeed engaged in diplomatic resolution discussions with Argentina until the Argentinian (sic) people were themselves betrayed by their own leadership's diversion, and the UK's unfaltering support of a dictator who had live rats inserted into female genitalia and electric probes placed on the testicles of men in Chile simply because they had elected for a life, identity, and leadership of their own choosing.

I’m tempted to write LOL; oops, I have, though I really don’t care for internet slang. But, my goodness, one really does feel like laughing out loud over those victors, viscounts, raconteurs and illusive paradigms! I can almost excuse the dictator’s disgusting practices, seeing how Penn pushes live rats and electric probes into the recesses of the English language. In style the whole thing has a risible Adrian Mole quality. For once the Penn is assuredly not mightier than the sword.

The poor man; whatever serious point he is trying to make has been completely defeated by his own verbal and intellectual inadequacies. Oh, my goodness, it’s best for fools to stay quiet and keep people guessing than open their mouths and turn a doubt into a certainly. Please Sean stick to acting and leave the politics to the grown ups; leave the history to the victors and viscounts…and those Patagonian raconteurs.

Sunday 26 February 2012

The Business of America is Bureaucracy

One of the respondents to Obama against the Deer Hunters, presumably taking exception to my claim that he is a socialist, simply posted a link to the Texan-based PolitiFact site, where a similar claim by Governor Rick Perry is dismissed as hyperbole. The economist Bruce Bartlett is quoted, saying that socialism means the public ownership of the means of production, something that Obama does not believe in; so it follows that he cannot possibly be a socialist.

It’s a stunningly naïve view, one that flows, I assume, from America’s lack of direct experience here. Yes, socialism can mean a belief in state ownership but that’s an increasingly old fashioned view, one abandoned by many European socialist parties, including the British Labour Party.

In 1995, on the initiative of Tony Blair, Labour revised Clause Four of its constitution, the original version of which committed it to common (i.e. state) ownership of the means of production and exchange. But it did not abandon socialism, oh no; for the new clause specifically mentioned, for the first time ever, that it was a “democratic socialist party.” Blair’s subsequent governments went on to prove just how ‘socialist’ they were by a massive intrusion of the state into so many areas of public and private life, most often in the form of one politically correct initiative after another.

You see, the modern version of socialism is not about production at all; it’s about control; it’s about the most abject forms of state worship. It literally strangles to death the lasses-faire spirit of free enterprise with ever greater levels of intrusion, ever greater levels of supervision by government or government-sponsored institutions. It owes less to Karl Marx and much more to the German sociologist Robert Michels, who in his book Political Parties introduced the world to the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

Now let’s turn to Obama’s America to see the Iron Law in operation, to see how state socialism is creeping through the system, a little like cancer. The country is being strangled in red tape and regulation. I was amused to read in the Economist that the Federal Railroad Administration insists all trains must be painted with a large “F” at the front. Why? That’s simple: so one can tell which end is which!

Far less amusing is the operation of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Law, a Gordian Knot that even Alexander the Great could not cut through. Adopted in the wake of the 2008 crash, it was designed to stop banks from taking excessive risks, allowing regulators to move in if required. At over eight hundred pages with added commentaries and ‘clarifications’ it’s a prodigiously complex piece of legislation which hardly anyone understands; but it’s there, blocking out the light, a mandate for further bureaucratic expansion.

This is just by way of example. It’s part of a wider trend of bureaucratisation that is such a marked feature of Obama World. Obama’s health care reforms make matters even worse, another jamboree for officialdom, regulation and complexity. It’s been estimated that for every hour treating a patient in the States another hour has to be spent on paperwork. It’s set to get far, far worse; for next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals can claim reimbursement is set to increase from 18,000 to 140,000. Believe it or not this includes nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots!

Here we live under the increasingly irksome diktats of the European Minotaur, living and regulating at the heart of the Brussels labyrinth. But America, at least hitherto, lived under a different political culture, one where people could generally breathe free. The air gets thinner by the day. A culture of free enterprise and initiative bit by bit is being replaced by an engorged state apparatus, by a belief that one can have a law, a regulation and a regulator for every eventuality. The Economist reports that regulations in general add an astonishing $10,585 in costs for every person in employment. As it says, it’s a wonder that the jobless total isn’t even higher.

So, yes, this is the practical application of a creeping form of socialism and oligarchy; this is why Obama stands at the top of an administration that goes against every principle on which the nation was built. The business of America is business, President Calvin Coolidge once said. Not any longer. Now the business of America is bureaucracy.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Misery Woe and Misfortune

I wanted to go to Haiti, one of the places that I thought of visiting during my gap year before going up to university. At school I read Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, set in the Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier, horrible and fascinating at one and the same time. Add to that my discoveries about Vodou and my subsequent reading into Haiti’s past then the magnetism became compelling. But I was warned against going; it was too dangerous, the place was too unsettled, there were too many risks. I went to Cuba instead, a decision I have never really regretted.

I don’t suppose I will ever go to Haiti now. Still, my fascination with the place remains; my fascination with the history, the religion, the culture and the people. This is a country that fought hard for its independence, finally achieved in 1804. But for years after French slavers were not reconciled to its existence. In the end this impoverished country was forced to buy recognition, to pay France for the value of the lost colony and the lost slaves at a cost of some $21 billion in current values. In other words, to achieve full independence, the people of this land had literally to buy their own hides.

It’s easy to forget - indeed, if one ever remembered - that Haiti is the second oldest self-governing nation in the western hemisphere, only seventeen years younger than the United States. But the newly independent American States, already rich, had a huge potential, a manifest destiny to meet. What did Haiti, the slave republic, have ahead; what was its destiny? Why, little but internal divisions, corruption, misrule and tragedy. The first truly ‘anti-imperialist’ nation on earth, and the first black state, it could expect little help or understanding in a racist and colonial epoch. Indeed, its very existence wasn’t recognised by the United States until 1862, until that country itself was fighting a war partially inspired by the fact that some Americans owned other Americans.

In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake came foreign journalists, trying to make sense of the whole thing, trying to make sense of Haiti, a victim of nature and of history; a victim of many perceived flaws of an internal and external nature. As a corrective to some of the more simplistic views Laurent Dubois, a professor of history at Duke University, has published Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, a well-researched, well-written and, it has to be said, engagingly partisan account of the country’s longer quake.

He takes his stand early on, rejecting the prevalent view of the Haitians as either victims or villains;

The true causes of Haiti’s poverty and instability are not mysterious, and they have nothing to do with any inherent shortcomings on the part of Haitians themselves. Rather, Haiti’s present is the product of its history: of the nation’s founding by enslaved people who overthrew their masters and freed themselves; of the hostility that this revolution generated among the colonial powers surrounding the country; and of the intense struggle within Haiti itself to define that freedom and realize its promise.

It’s certainly a catalogue of misery and misfortune, the misery beginning with the forms of slavery practiced by the French, which the author quire rightly describes as ‘murderous’; a system where people were literally worked to death, their place taken by fresh imports from Africa. Freed of one crippling burden in 1804, the people were left with another - a ruinous cycle of debt. To pay off the compensation demanded by the French, the newly independent country was forced to borrow heavily from banks in America and other countries, paying the principle sum plus accumulated interest. The debt to France was only paid off in the 1940s, by which time the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment was spinning ever faster.

That was bad enough. Worse: freedom did not bring freedom; it brought America. It brought a new form of imperialism, attitudes and perceptions that might be best summed up in the words of William Jennings Bryant, Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson – “Think of it! Niggers Speaking French!”

It was Wilson, later wanting to make the world safe for democracy, who sent the Marine Corp to occupy Haiti in 1915, an occupation that was to last for almost twenty years. It’s a pity this episode is not better known, the first of the ‘pacification’ missions that were to be a feature of US foreign policy so far as today. It was a wretched example that might have served as a warning over later interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. As Dubois describes, the American intervention, undertaken in the pretext of reforming Haiti’s chaotic government, was in some ways just as murderous and exploitative as that of the French. Even after the Marines pulled out in 1934 the aftershocks were to be long-lasting.

When one begins to think things can’t get worse they do! Foreign oppressors went; native oppressors came, none more oppressive than the Duvaliers, father and son, who terrorised the country with their Tonton Macoutes militia, thought to be responsible for the deaths of as many as sixty thousand people.

The paradox of this book is that while Dubois argues against the view of ordinary Haitians as victims his narrative shows time and again that that’s exactly what they are, the victims of foreign greed and aggression; the victims of corrupt and venal politicians who served no other interests but their own. His is also an exercise in the narrowness of blame, and he completely fails to tackle the bigger question, namely to what extent are the Haitians responsible for their own shortcomings?

Haiti: the Aftershocks of History is a reasonably good book, though a less than perfectly objective for my taste. It’s certainly better on the early part of the history, falling down over more recent events, particularly in regard to the role played by Jean Bartand Aristide. The coups of 1991 and 2004 are dismissed in a few inadequate lines. The author maintains that the events of 2004 in particular are too recent to evaluate properly. Well, maybe they are but at least the attempt should be made.

In the end I found this book, while commendable in many parts, an exercise in excuses and apologetics, a crutch for a country that surely has show time and again that the last thing it needs is a crutch. The message seems to, even so far as the aid efforts, governmental and non-governmental, that followed the quake, leave Haiti alone and all will be well. It won’t. Haiti needs more engagement with the international community, not less.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Give Patagonia to the Indians!

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Argentina’s illegal invasion of the Falkland Islands, a fiasco which turned out to be a political gift by a gang of fascist thugs to Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister at the time. Argentina has never lost it’s hankering after a group of islands it calls Las Malvinas, though its connection is tenuous at best and the local people, all English speaking, want to preserve their link with Britain.

Now, in this anniversary year, the Argentinean government has upped the ante by lodging a protest in the United Nations over Britain’s ‘militarisation’ of the Falklands. Apparently the military bases on the islands have been modernised to such an extent that they could be used to attack the whole of South America, including Brazil and Chile, notwithstanding the fact that the latter was a valuable ally of Britain during the conflict!

It’s a fantasy, of course, dismissed as ‘complete rubbish’ by Mark Grant, Britain’s ambassador to the UN. But fantasy plays a big part in the politics of Buenos Aries. Fantasy allowed the government to describe Prince William, who is in the Falkland’s at the present as part of a Royal Air Force search and rescue team, as a ‘conquistador.’

Cristina Kirchner, Argentina’s president, Madame Botox herself, has said that the presence of British warships in the islands “poses a grave danger to international security.” Hector Timerman, the country’s foreign minister, not to be outdone by the president, says that the population of the islands is not indigenous.

Yes, an interesting point of view, given that many of the inhabitants have roots in the islands going back well over a hundred years, given that there is no native indigenous Argentinean population. Perhaps we should extend the principle to Argentina itself, perhaps that country should restore the territory to the south of Buenos Aeries it so rapaciously seized from the indigenous inhabitants in the nineteenth century during the so-called Conquest of the Desert which wasn’t a desert at all. Yes, that’s right. Patagonia belongs to the Indians!

Britain has a duty to the people of the Falkland Islands, a duty of defence, a duty to secure the islands from the vagaries of Latin American politics and neurotic governments, fascist at one turn, democratic at the next. As long as they wish us to remain we will remain, no mater how much Botox Christina or Fidel Castro, that pathetic old dinosaur, disapproves.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Obama against the Deer Hunters

This is a piece I wrote a year and a half ago. It has a topical relevance though some of the reference points are now slightly dated.

The United States is a nation built by rebels, built by those hostile to the state, those who sought freedom across the ocean and deep into the frontier. Looking over the country’s history one can see this principle, this hostility to state power asserted time and again, from the Bill of Rights onwards. Last century the House of Un-American Activities was set up specifically to examine those who embraced ideologies that challenged the basic principles on which the nation had been built. Senator Joseph McCarthy also set off in pursuit of those same elements.

How things have changed, how things are changing. The House and McCarthy would not have to look in hidden places for threats to the rebel nation; for the most un-American American is now lodged firmly in the White House. The most un-American American is now the President.

I’m not sure if Americans knew what they were getting when they voted for Barack Obama in November 2008. But what they are getting is arguably the biggest structural transformation in their country’s history, bigger than FDR’s New Deal, which was nothing more than smoke and mirrors in contrast. Obama’s socialism, expressed in the centralised health care system and a redistributive tax programme, comes, as all socialism comes, with an increase in the power of bureaucracy, an increase in state power and authority.

The irony here is that the Democrats are losing the support of the deer hunter vote. Who on earth are the deer hunters, you might wonder, and what have they got to do with American politics? My reference here is to The Deer Hunter, the 1978 movie about men from a blue collar community who went to Vietnam, inspired by now unfashionable ideas of patriotism and love of nation.

Blue collar and working class these people are; socialists they are not. They are people who gain no benefit from the Big State and Obamaism, people who resent their tax dollars being used for welfare programmes and administration; people who resent America being turned into just another ‘social democracy’, just another version of the European Union. Obama told Joe the Plumber, the archetypal deer hunter, that he intended to “spread the wealth around.” What he did not tell him was that it was his ‘wealth’ that would be spreading.

Janet Daley writing in The Sunday Telegraph said that it was unacceptable in bien-pensant circles to express concern over mass immigration or Obama’s heath care programme. They are educated people, sophisticated people, people with a bourgeois sense of morality. Those who do express concern over big government and mass migration are, of course, small-minded bigots, rednecks; just not the right sort.

The thing is ‘the right sort’, these refugees from The West Wing, did not build America. That was the achievement of small people, those who believed in self-reliance, those who had ambition and the drive to clear the wilderness, those who believed that they should benefit from the fruits of their own labour. It was the deer hunters who built America; it’s the liberals and the socialists who are destroying it.

Monday 20 February 2012

A Thriller of the Mind

It’s all about running: running away from something awful; running to something awful; running from fear; running from pain, immediate pain and pain more deeply rooted. It’s all about Martha, who is renamed Marcy May and is expected to address the world as Marlene. Confused? Well, go and see Martha Marcy May Marlene!

This tremendous film from the American independent sector is a double debut, the first outing by director and writer Sean Durkin, and the first screen performance by Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sibling of the vacuous Olsen twins. But there is nothing in the least vacuous about her stunning performance as the enigmatic, vulnerable and damaged Martha, one of life’s natural victims. She conveys so much not by talking but simply by looking.

The premise of Martha Marcy May Marlene is good but it is Olsen’s controlled and understated acting that gives this psychological thriller a special resonance, making the whole thing quite haunting. She impressed me as much as Jennifer Lawrence did in Winter’s Bone, another intelligent movie from the indie sector that I saw in 2010. The parallels here were all the more exact in that John Hawkes appears in both.

In Martha Marcy May Marlene he plays Patrick, a sinister and manipulative Charles Manson-type figure heading a sinister and manipulative Manson-like Family, a cult commune living in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. It is this that Martha is running away from, an idyll of idiocy that serves as a cover for abuse and death. To begin with we don’t know anything of this; we simply see Martha, without explanation, fleeing through the woods.

She runs to another family, that of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Ted (Hugh Dancy), her priggish and unimaginative architect husband. They have a large lake-side home in rural Connecticut. So it’s from bucolic authenticity to bucolic plasticity that Martha journeys. This is the first time that the sisters have had any contact in two years and Martha gives little in explanation of where she has been or what she has been doing, other than she has split from a ‘boyfriend’. Bit by bit we gain some comprehension in flashbacks to her previous life in the Catskills.

Lucy, on the other hand, is uncomprehending in her attempts to comprehend her innocent yet damaged sister, though it would seem obvious that she needs help, a victim of some deep-rooted trauma. Lucy’s world, and that of Ted, is one of shallow materialism, a world that Martha challenges and unsettles. Martha, the holy innocent, shocks her uptight sister when she bathes in the nude. She shocks her further by asking if married people fuck, only to drop in to the bedroom at night when Lucy and Ted are fucking! She can’t sleep; all she wants is comfort and companionship. For her sex was always communal...when it wasn’t ritualised and private abuse.

The film is really a study in dissonance and paranoia, a message heightened by its abrupt ending. Martha has escaped Patrick but he has obviously taken possession like a demon, even so far as stripping her of her previous identity and her previous name. She fears pursuit. Perhaps she is being pursued or perhaps it’s all in her mind; we are never quite sure.

The enigma here is deeper, deeper than the brain-washing that Martha has undergone in her two years in the Catskills. There are unanswered questions about who and what she is, where she has come from, questions that go into her background and that of her self-assured and unimaginative sister. She is certainly damaged by her time with Patrick, a gaunt and hellish guru who spouts the usual psychobabble one associates with such people (death is pure love etc.), but her lack of emotional anchor, the very thing that makes her so vulnerable, is surely explained by something unsaid in her upbringing.

Poor Martha, she simply can’t adjust to the comfortable bourgeois existence of Lucy and Ted. She is haunted and we are haunted by the past. She is between worlds, neither fit for the one nor for the other. Unable to let go of her former life, she phones ‘Marlene’ (all the women in the cult have to address the outside world as ‘Marlene’), immediately terminating the call only to be called back. This compounds her paranoia, her fear of pursuit.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mesmerising movie. One can’t be quite sure where we are, in reality or in a nightmare, a nightmare that is reality. It’s full of tantalising ambiguity, of fractured ways of seeing, a tale of innocence not corrupted but amplified by corruption. It’s a brilliant cinematic essay on psychological disorientation. Like all the best thrillers it’s a thriller of the mind.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Unhappy Breed

I’ve been trying to enlighten American users on Blog Catalogue on the exact meaning of ‘human rights’ when it comes to their practical application here in Europe. It’s difficult swimming against the tide - something I’m rather used to - when people are still dewy-eyed over the principle. How can anyone be opposed to human rights? It’s a jolly good thing; surely we can all agree?

Well, if you are American, imagine this: imagine a court in, say, Mexico City or La Paz laying down the law for the people of the United States. Imagine judges from afar undermining the authority of Congress, the authority of the President, the authority of the Supreme Court; imagine a foreign tribunal undermining the Constitution itself. Can you make this leap of imagination? No, it’s doubtless next to impossible. But this is how we now live in England.

I wrote recently about the notorious example of Abu Qatada (Independence for England, 23 January), a hate preacher and inspirer of terrorists, himself an alleged terrorist, wanted for his part in a bombing campaign in his native Jordan. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg blocked his extradition on the supposition (I really have to stress supposition) that he would not get a ‘fair trial’, this in the face of all assurances to the contrary. He is now at large while the government appeals the ruling.

Ahead of Qatada’s release, Prime Minister David Cameron made his feelings known before the Council of Europe, the feelings, I have little doubt, of the vast majority of the British people;

…the problem today is that you can end up with someone who has no right to live in your country, who you are convinced – and have good reason to be convinced – means to do your country harm. And yet there are circumstances in which you cannot try them, you cannot detain them and you cannot deport them.

Big and small they come, as we are slowly strangled by an alien noose. The small includes the case of Milnd Sande, a male nurse who served twelve months in jail for sexually assaulting a pregnant patient. As an Indian national he should have been deported on release, the normal practice hitherto with all foreign criminals. But he can’t be deported because the Court, under Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, ruled that he had a ‘right to a family life.’ The irony is that his wife and children are not even here. They are somewhere in India on an ‘extended holiday.’

This is not a unique example. Approximately some four hundred foreign criminals a year are using this loophole to stay in the country, including a Nigerian who raped a thirteen-year-old girl, a man who has no wife, children or long-term partner in this country. This comes on top of thousands of others, illegal immigrants who have used the same provision to be allowed to stay, all in defiance of government policy on controlling mass migration.

There is another ruling by the ECHR I have in mind, one with potentially explosive political consequences. Last year it decreed that denying the franchise to convicted prisoners was a breach of their human rights. But these jail birds can only vote if Parliament changes British law. This was a step too far, a surrender too cowardly. By a huge margin the House of Commons voted against any such move, a shock to the government, which supinely had intended to give way. Instead it had to appeal against the verdict.

Despite his veto over the European Treaty amendments last December I have no real confidence in David Cameron’s ability to stand up to the diktats of the ECHR. He, I suspect, will prove to be an appeaser of deeper dye than Neville Chamberlain. Oh, there is lots of manoeuvring and political posturing, attitudes being struck designed to appeal to an increasingly exasperated Tory back-bench, exasperated by Europe, exasperated by the abuse of human rights and exasperated with the laughable Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, who effectively sabotaged any attempt to pull out of the jurisdiction of Strasbourg as part of Conservative Party policy.

What price freedom, what price sovereignty, what price England? Ah, yes, England; now John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II comes to mind;

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England..

The fortress is gone, the wall breached, the moat bridged; the enemy is within the gates. The happy breed gets less happy by the day.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Poor Queen Anne

There are some lines from Rob Roy, an historical drama directed by Michael Caton-Jones, which are forever preserved in my mind. Set in Scotland during the reign of Queen Anne, the duke of Argyll laments to the duke of Montrose “would she had seen a child live to comfort the kingdom”. To this Montrose responds “One might have hoped that a field so often ploughed might have yielded one good crop. In truth, I have seen healthier graveyards than that woman's womb.”

Poor Queen Anne, that’s her own observation, not mine, pregnant at one moment, in mourning at the next. Altogether she had been expecting seventeen times in as many years, suffering numerous miscarriages; and when she did not miscarry her babies were stillborn. Two little girls did survive, only to be carried off by smallpox. William, duke of Gloucester, the only one to survive infancy, died at the age of eleven. She also suffered acutely from ill-health and was so fat that, at the time of her death in 1714 at the age of forty-nine, it took fourteen men to carry her coffin. As it passed her doctor observed “Sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her.”

There is a tendency to see this tragic Queen as a mere parenthesis between the age of William of Orange and the incoming Hanoverians. I’ve long thought it a mistake, a mistake that’s been splendidly corrected by Anne Somerset in Queen Anne: the Politics of Passion.

We tend to forget that Anne was not just the last of the Stuarts but in some ways the most successful. Her reign brought about the union of England and Scotland, thus avoiding a disputed succession. It was a matter in which the Queen herself took a close personal interest, seeing it as one of the great achievements of her reign, an enthusiasm not shared at the time in either England or Scotland. Her time also saw England emerge from long years of isolation and self-absorption as a European power, with the Duke of Marlborough winning a series of stunning victories against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Anne, the younger daughter of James, duke of York and his first wife, Anne Hyde, was never expected to be Queen in the first place, which may account for the woeful neglect of her education. Lack of education was compounded by the fact that she wasn’t the brightest jewel in the royal crown, though she had sufficient reserves of native wit, which was to see her through the turbulent politics of the time.

Brought up as a Protestant on the insistence of Charles II, her uncle, her devotion to the Church of England explains why she was such an undutiful daughter, playing a key part in the overthrow of her Catholic father in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Her place in the succession was then fixed by the Convention Parliament of 1689, coming after her older sister, Mary, and her husband William, if they should die heirless.

Somerset is scrupulously fair to her subject, writing with considerable insight and panache, but it is difficult to like, or indeed feel any kind of sympathy, for the morbidly self-pitying Anne. She could be narrow-minded and spiteful in the extreme, taking umbrage at the least of slights. She was particularly vengeful towards Mary Beatrice, her Catholic step-mother. Dropping one vendetta, she quickly picked up another, quarrelling with both Mary and William, whom she referred to as ‘the Dutch abortive.’

The one great friendship of her life was with the appalling Sarah Churchill, the wife of Marlborough, who took her up as a protégé and then misused her personal power ferociously. Now here I do feel a certain sympathy for Anne, subject to the whims and tantrums of the ambitious Sarah, which did not stop short of outright blackmail. Not only did she accuse Prince George of Denmark, Anne’s dullard husband to whom she was devoted, of having a homosexual liaison, a pure fabrication on her part, but, as the relationship soured, she even hinted that the Queen herself was a lesbian (a word that did not then exist), saying that she ‘indulged in some dark deeds at night’ with Abigail Masham, the lady-in-waiting who had supplanted her in the Queen’s affections.

It was Sarah, more than any other individual, who was to do so much to colour Anne’s posthumous reputation as the plaything of others. The one thing that she could never forgive her for was developing a personality of her own. It’s a wonder that the friendship endured so long, the Queen putting up with hectoring and lectures at regular intervals. Still, Anne could not afford to lose the services of Marlborough, as treacherous a political schemer as his wife, at the height of the war with France. That point came when he was winning England into potential bankruptcy.

Although political parties had still to coalesce, this was the age of faction, with the Whigs on the one side deeply suspicious of the Tories on the other. The author is particularly good on the eddies and flows of contemporary politics, waters full of the most treacherous reefs and rocks! Anne stayed above faction by and large, though her sympathies were for the Tories, which further infuriated Sarah, a relentless partisan for the Whigs.

So far as treachery is concerned, I knew about Marlborough’s correspondence with James Stuart, Anne’s Catholic half-brother and pretender to the throne, but Somerset’s revelation that he was even encouraging George, the Elector of Hanover, to mount a William of Orange style invasion of England to forestall a similar bid by the Jacobites was a complete surprise, a hard nugget of historical information that has been well buried.

The book contains some interesting and plausible conjectures. For example, Somerset suggests rhesus blood incompatibility as an explanation for Anne and George’s tragic reproductive history. It may very well be. It’s touching to note that as miscarriage followed hard upon miscarriage (there was one year she was pregnant three times) “sometimes they wept, sometimes they mourned…then sat silent hand in hand." When George died in October 1708, bringing to an end a quarter century of marriage, Anne was seen “kissing him at the very moment the breath went out of his body.”

As a biography Queen Anne; The Politics of Passion is a wholly commendable piece of work, which is bound to put this much neglected monarch in proper place, showing her to be dutiful and shrewd, notwithstanding her character defects. Where it falls down slightly is in a history of the times. There is a superabundance of quotes from Anne’s personal letters, while what is happening at large beyond a narrow court circle is notable by its absence. This was a time of great energy, of changing ideas and changing patterns of behaviour. Anne is certainly there but I would like to have known more about Anne’s England. Still, this is a good and enjoyable book from an author now well-versed in royal biography.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Maid of Grantham, Made of Iron

One simply can’t avoid Margaret Thatcher at the moment. There she is, staring out from the side of city buses, like the ghost of Conservatism past, a constant reproach to David Cameron, the Tiny Tim of the Party, the God help us everyone Prime Minister. Actually it’s not her at all; it’s Meryl Streep looking remarkably like her in advertisements for The Iron Lady, which I saw last month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the real Iron Lady recently, both in the light of that biopic and in the light of contemporary political developments. I’ve just read a marvellous piece in the January issue (yes, my reading always lags behind; there is so much!) of Prospect, a monthly political periodical. Entitled The DNA of a Generation it’s by John Campbell, the author of a two-volume biography of Baroness Thatcher. I have it in my collection somewhere, an orphan reproaching me for my heartless neglect. Well, in the light of Campbell’s article, it’s jumped into my consciousness, several rungs further up on my ‘to-read’ list.

I never knew Thatcher in the days of her ascendency. I was born the year before her third election victory in 1987, so she is not in my DNA in the way that Campbell maintains she is in the DNA, love her loath her, of everyone over the age of thirty-five. She’s in my political DNA, though; I know of her legacy, her history, her commanding presence in both British and world politics.

The Iron Lady, though not a great movie, makes it clear that there was nothing phony about Thatcher, nothing of the Blair or the Cameron, small men without vision or direction. In so many ways she seems to be the last of the conviction politicians, a woman with an idea and the determination to give that idea shape in reality.

Campbell makes a point that I hadn’t really considered before, that Thatcher was not, as I had assumed, a uniquely British phenomenon. No, she was part of a global revolution against collectivism which swept across the world, bringing in its wake the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In this country she was the expression of a massive reaction against those things which had brought us so low – labourism, Keynesianism and corporatism, all conveniently grouped under the rubric of socialism. She was also a reaction against that awful phenomenon known as one-nation Toryism, a kind of political appeasement.

In Britain the Thatcher revolution released a huge wave of enterprise and energy that seemed to swamp decades of decline. The emphasis here should be on seemed because subsequent governments, particularly that of Tony Blair, showed that it was all an illusion. Still, it was magnificent when it lasted; she was magnificent when she lasted, before she was betrayed by the one-nation euro fanatics in her own party, those wretched men like Howe and Heseltine, traitors with a lean and hungry look.

Napoleon once observed that generals need luck. Thatcher was lucky in her friends. She was lucky to have Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. It was her relationship with him, and with Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, that gave the impression that the old wartime partnership of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had been resurrected, that Britain mattered on the world stage after so many years of irrelevance.

She was just as lucky in her enemies. What a gift to any aspiring leader to have General Galtieri of Argentina as an opponent from without and Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, as an opponent from within. It’s almost as if a comic farce was being performed, with these two morons walking on as pantomime villains, Mr Stuff Shirt Fascist and Comrade Comb Over! Quick, a left hook to the Argies in the Falklands, a right hook to the miners on a summer strike! The result was a massive vote of national confidence in a Prime Minister with seemingly impeccable judgement.

Although her approach in economic matters was guided by those who adhered to the monetarist doctrines of Milton Freedman I don’t think that Thatcher was an ideological dogmatist. With her it was all instinct. Her thinking here was all down to her upbringing. It was all a question, you see, of good housekeeping. Frugality, hard work and discipline were qualities that she learned from her father, Alfred Roberts, a grocer and local politician in the town of Grantham in Lincolnshire. The paradox, as Campbell points out, is that her liberalisation of the British economy released a kind of ‘casino capitalism’ of which she never approved, an economic culture which began with the thrifty world of Alfred and ended with that of Mark, her unattractive playboy son, Mr Lodsamoney in person.

Hers was a rapid trajectory, a sudden ascent and a dramatic decline, almost Shakespearean in intensity. In the end it was more of a tragedy than a triumph, all the more tragic because the real enemy within was within her own government. What came after was the pathetic and incompetent John Major, who presided over a lengthy political civil war. What came after was Tony Blair, a slimy opportunist with no bigger idea than to get himself elected. What came after was Gordon Brown, a charmless Presbyterian ogre. What came after was David Cameron, the focus group Prime Minister, shallow and insincere. They all have one virtue – they make Margaret Thatcher look all the greater, all the more honest, all the more competent. It’s unlikely that her achievement will ever be matched.

Monday 13 February 2012

England Made Me

I now write for the English Standard (, a new online paper designed to advance English views on English subjects, on the subject of England itself, a country that for too long dare not speak its name, though its Celtic neighbours more or less bawled theirs. To date I’ve contributed two articles, one on the poet Rupert Brooke and another on Sir Edward Hawke, the admiral who fought the Battle of Quiberon Bay during the Seven Year’s War, a naval victory over France that led to the ascent of Empire.

Here I am, spreading myself around: Ana the Imp, BrooWaha, My Telegraph (formerly), Boadicea’s Chariot (occasionally) and now the English Standard! It’s all good fun, no hardship at all. I love to write, to express my thoughts, my uniquely individual point of view, over any number of subjects, anything that attracts my eye, the ridiculous, the sublime and all points in between.

Anyway, ES is a fine venture, one that I’m happy to be associated with, flattered that I was invited to contribute. The editorial statement makes it clear that it’s about reclaiming English identity, too long submerged in collective notions of Britishness. It is, I suppose, anti-Union in purpose, in that the Union has served the interests of the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish Loyalists far more than it has served those of the English.

This is a subject I begin to think about more and more, though personally speaking I still retain some Unionist sympathies. I have a slight concern that if the United Kingdom dissolves into its constituent parts that we will be more vulnerable to the monstrous importunities of the European Union, an organisation that I have come to loath. Still the issue of identity politics presses on us ever harder, issues brought more sharply into focus by the last Labour government, conceivably the most treasonable in all of our history.

Three years ago I wrote an essay, again by invitation, to a site dedicated to a single question – what England means to me. In this I made the following points;

Britishness? Ah, yes, now there is a problem. I grew up believing simply that Britishness and Englishness were more or less the same thing though I was very well aware that the Celtic nations had a separate and somewhat prickly identity. It’s been their assertiveness, their determination to be ‘themselves’, to govern themselves, that resulted in our present botched constitutional settlement, one that has really forced me to focus more specifically on simple Englishness. I no longer use British to identify myself other than to say that I have a British passport.

Yes, our present constitutional settlement is botched, badly thought-out and unfinished. It has raised more questions than it has answered, the question over England’s political sovereignty above all, our right to manage our own domestic affairs without outside interference, interference by those who are not English. Where does England fit in the devolved United Kingdom? I simply don’t know. There is, so far as I can tell, no great desire for a separate English parliament, but things cannot go on as they are indefinitely. It’s a house of cards which will fall, I believe, if we ever again have a Labour administration only kept in place by MPs from Scotland and Wales.

Britain is indeed a house of cards, though it gives me no pleasure to say so. People here are increasingly frustrated by the unanswered West Lothian Question, namely how long will we tolerate politicians coming from out-with England being able to interfere with our political affairs when we are unable to interfere with theirs?

This, like the Human Rights Act, mass immigration, the abandonment of ever more sovereignty to the European Union, the after effects of one ruinously expensive foreign war after another, is the legacy of the wholly vile Tony Blair. It’s rather ironic that this man, who seems to have no specific nationality at all, a cosmopolitan free-floater, has been indirectly responsible for a new English assertiveness. England made me; it’s an axiom that I no longer have any interest in denying. God bless the ES and all who sail in her!

Sunday 12 February 2012

Professor Dumb Down

I love legal dramas. Specifically I love the Rumople of the Bailey stories of John Mortimer. I think I must have read them all. I’ve also seen all of the old television adaptations with the actor Leo McKern doing a marvellous job in the part of the heroic fatty, second only to Sir John Falstaff in the annals of English drama!

There is one particular story and episode I have in mind at the moment, namely Rumpole and the Right to Silence. I’ll come on to the reasons for this in a bit, but firstly a word or two on the setting. The action takes place in Gunster, a fictitious university in a fictitious northern English city. The university itself is an awful place, a jumped up polytechnic, a sort of tasty bites outlet, all the more tasty in that sponsorship comes from one Sir Denis Tolson, a super market mogul. The Vice-Chancellor of this academic Tesco is Hayden Charles, full of bright ideas about relevance, another word for pot noodle degrees. His university does not have a library, no, it has a multi-media centre!

So, why this particular slice of Rumpole? It’s because my attention was drawn to an article in the Telegraph by Charles Moore, some candid comments on an interview last week a Parliamentary Select Committee carried out with Professor Les Ebdon, whom the government wishes to appoint to head the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), a body concerned with university admissions.

It’s clear from what he said during the interview that the man is a screaming mediocrity; he is a real-life Hayden Charles! I have a further literary allusion in mind – duck speak from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a reference to words being trotted out like the quaking of a duck without the interference of any kind of thought process. There was Prof Les trotting out a succession of tiresome clichés. He is “passionate about…social mobility…transform hundreds of thousands of lives…best practice…evidence-based…open and transparent” and on and on and on, quack, quack, quack. He went on to criticise Magdalen College, Oxford for interviewing applicants in their “grand formal settings.”

Moore has his own literary reference, to Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. There Jude, of humble origins, dreams of the dreaming spires of Oxford, called Christminster in the book. For Jude it is a “heavenly Jerusalem”, a place he looks on from afar, climbing a ladder, for “the higher he got, the further he could see.” Prof Les (Professor Dumb Down might be better) will never understand people like Jude, Moore quite rightly says. For, without even thinking about it, he rejects the dream that lies behind the phrase “the higher he got, the further he could see.” The “frightening” quality, as Moore puts it, of a great university is part of its allure. It most certainly is.

For Dumb Down dreaming spires and grand halls is all about - horror of horrors - elitism. He would prefer something much cosier, perhaps the glass and concrete of the University of Gunster, replete with its ‘multi-media centre.’ Moore settles on a few home truths about this silly man;

Thanks to a selection process that is run by bureaucrats who naturally advance their own kind, it was only at a regrettably late stage that anyone began to notice the problem with Professor Ebdon. This man is a trade unionist for the former polytechnics. He chairs their “think tank” (actually a pressure group) called million +, whose chief executive was a would-be Labour candidate at the last election. He writes articles in favour of teaching “Mickey Mouse” subjects at university. He is the epitome, the crème de la condensed milk of the cult of educational mediocrity. He seems perfectly nice, by the way, but to put him in charge of who gets in to some of the greatest universities in the world would be like putting a scoutmaster in charge of recruitment to the Army.

It’s especially ironic at a time when Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, is attempting to make the worst schools raise their standards that the government in which he serves wants to appoint a man who hopes to make the best universities lower theirs.

So far as the Select Committee is concerned Dumb Down spoke himself out of the job. This after he made reference to the “nuclear option” of refusing access agreements to universities if the did not satisfy him. He would also like the “tactical strike option” to sanction particular universities, doubtless Oxford and Cambridge.

Approval was withheld. But as the appointment is in the gift of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, dumber than most, it may very well go ahead. Cable, of course, is on the Limp Dumb side of our present coalition government. But, in complete exasperation, I have to ask how a government with any Conservative element, a government with a Conservative majority, could ever have considered the wretched Ebdon for such a sensitive post? How could this petty-minded apparatchik ever command any respect? England does not love coalitions, Benjamin Disraeli once said. I certainly don’t.

Thursday 9 February 2012

The Dream of Pharaoh

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

We have reached the end of days. It’s obvious, is it not, in this year of the Maya? The banking crisis, the euro crisis, war, famine and pestilence are all there; the calendar moves into its final phase. Public debt rises and national economies weaken under the burden. Anarchists occupy New York’s Wall Street; anarchists set up camp outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. The veil has been lifted; all has been revealed; the apocalypse is here!

Actually, we’ve been here before, many times, in the great cycles of our history. There is a timely reminder in History Today by Tim Stanley that chaos and poverty are the historical norms of Western civilization, not peace and plenty. Bad times always appear uniquely bad to those living through them, but they are seldom as bad as all that, or we can at least comfort ourselves with worse examples. In previous ages millenarian sects would rise by the dozen in cataclysmic times, the flagellants would be wandering the streets, their backs all bloody. Now we just wring our hands while we watch the slow motion collapse of the euro!

Oddly enough some of the examples given by Stanley in his article seem understated, or rather it seems odd to me to set the German Peasant’s War, a great national tragedy, alongside the US Bank War of the 1830s, when then President Andrew Jackson took the kind of action that the present Wall Street shower could not even dream of! But, hey, where is the Black Death?!

He’s certainly more on key in highlighting the troubles of the Great Depression, which make our present banking crisis still something of a teddy bears’ picnic. Then there really was war and rumours of wars; then history entered one of its most malevolent cycles, the nadir of civilization. In my own period of special interest, England of the seventeenth century, the world was indeed turned upside down during the Civil Wars, many expecting the Second Coming daily.

Karl Marx was wrong about boom and bust, as he was wrong about most things; it’s not a feature of capitalist accumulation; it’s a feature of human history. It’s there in the Bible in the dream of Pharaoh, the fat years followed by the lean years. The trouble is that we come to believe that the fat years are fat forever; they are not. If communism was the delusion of Marx the end of history was the delusion of Francis Fukuyama, the delusion of a great many of us.

It might be the delusion of democracy itself, which is arguably not the end of historical evolution, but merely a stage passing through, simply a chrysalis. Stanley quite rightly says that the end of the Cold War and the global sweep of democratic capitalism in the 1990s gave the impression that the struggle of history was over, a reverse Utopia from that anticipated by the Marxists. But democracy promised more than it could deliver; and in Russia it delivered chaos.

Now democracy is an inconvenience for the big battalions, as Robert Michels’ iron law of oligarchy takes definite hold in the European Union. Here government of the bureaucrats by the bureaucrats for the bureaucrats makes sure that meaningful democracy shall indeed perish from the earth, or the European part of it at least. Still, the end is not yet. Things might be bad but they could always be much, much worse. Let me rest and dream of the Maya. :-)

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Always Keep A-Hold of Nurse

Scotland is to have a referendum on independence. Though no definite date has been set it is likely to be held in 2014, three years after the ruling Scottish National Party obtained a majority of seats in a devolved parliament that, according to Labour, would kill nationalism stone dead. Well, like every other prediction emerging from the benighted Labour Party, it has proved to be complete rubbish.

Why so late, you may wonder? Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scotland’s first minister, says that it has been delayed merely to ensure that it is ‘well-organised.’ Yes, sure, believe that it you like. It just so happens that 2014 is the seven hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when the Scots led by King Robert Bruce defeated a larger English army, incompetently headed by Edward II.

I have little doubt it’s on a wave of national celebration, of unrestrained Braveheartism, that Salmond hopes will carry the good ship Independence, wandering fruitlessly for so many years, a little like The Flying Dutchman, at last home to port. He even proposes to extend the franchise to sixteen-year-olds, most of whom, I hazard, know next to nothing about politics and quite a lot about patriotic clichés, mythic spiders and what have you.

There is a bit of a risk here of course. The evidence suggests that the majority of Scots, that is those a tad older than sixteen, are not that keen on independence. Here he has the example of the Alternate Vote referendum like Macbeth’s dagger before him, a poll held last year which effectively killed ‘voting reform’, much beloved by the Liberal Democrats, stone dead.

So, instead of a simple yes no he wants a third option, something he calls ‘devolution max’, which would deepen the powers exercised in Scotland, really only leaving defence and foreign policy as whole kingdom responsibilities. The situation would then be akin to the Union of the Crowns, that phase in Anglo-Scottish relations between the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603 to the Act of Union of 1707, which combined both national parliaments.

The trouble for Salmond, a big fish in a little pond (his deputy is called Sturgeon!), is that any referendum would have to have the authority of the UK government or risk being declared unlawful. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has concentrated the first minister’s thoughts here, saying he can have his race but only with the yes no horses. Expect more wrangling in the period leading up to 2014, political battles that may yet dwarf Bannockburn.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, whose bone-headed barons long disgracefully treated Scotland as a kind of political fiefdom, is in a bit of a panic. If Scotland were cast free it would mean the end of their northern block vote, without which they are unlikely ever again to get a clear majority at Westminster. I can’t think of any better reason for Scottish independence. Oh, yes, I can: it would mean that taxes raised in England could actually be spent in England, rather than sent north in doles.

Please do not misunderstand me. I’m fond of Scotland; I have many close friends there. My parents have a cottage in the far north, a place where I’ve spent many enjoyable vacations, long and short. I could only wish that the Scots were fonder of the English, that they could lose a mindset cast so far in the past, cast, yea, even so far back as Bannockburn!

As a postscript I read that Tommy Sheridan, one time leader of the far-left Scottish Socialist Party, has been released from prison, a third of the way through his sentence for perjury. This seedy man was much given to Marxist sloganeering…and visiting Manchester sex clubs. Now the king of the swingers, sorry, make that commissar of the swingers, is free. He says he will soon be back in court, launching a fresh bid to overturn his conviction. Not only that but he will be fighting for an independent and socialist Scotland. I can just picture it – Alba as Albania, a bleak future indeed. The Scots might care to take heed of the fate of Hilaire Belloc’s Jim and always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Past Spirits

I wrote this article at the turn of the year, shortly after visiting the exhibition in question. I held it over until today to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, one of England’s greatest writers and most generous spirits.

I loved all of my grandparents, but father’s father was the biggest single influence in my life. He died when I was twenty, almost six years ago now. I still miss him, I miss the things we used talk about and the stories he used to tell, wonderful stories of his time in India both before and during the Second World War, stories of his life at school, stories of his Norfolk boyhood.

It was he who introduced me to the tingly pleasures of the ghost story. It’s the winter nights I remember best, cold outside, warm within, when he read aloud, fire blazing and lights dimmed (candle light was best), the tales of haunting long ago. It was by his fireside that I was introduced to the delights of Elizabeth Gaskell, Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James (really scary!), E. F. Benson and so many others. It was by his fireside that I first heard Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural, not just A Christmas Carol, the most famous ghost and morality fable ever written, but others like The Signalman and The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.

Like me, Dickens was introduced to ghost stories early in life. It was the tales told in childhood that left him with a life-long hankering after ghosts, which just so happens to be the title of a rather charming little exhibition presently being held in the Folio Society Gallery in the British Library!

Scheduled to run until early March, A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural displays the author’s interest through a variety of printed media. I went not long before Christmas, which added to the general cosiness of the whole thing. So far as I am concerned the way it was laid out could not be bettered. It presents, if you like, a study in ambivalence: Dickens’s fascination with the subject, informed by his childhood influences, on the one hand, and the scepticism of a mid-Victorian rationalist, on the other.

It’s a kind of voyage in several stages, beginning with childhood, illustrations from The Arabian Nights along with a copy of The Terrific Register, a kind of penny dreadful that the writer read in his teens with lasting effect, not surprising, given the lurid nature of its content. He later recalled that it used to frighten the wits out of his head!

But he recovered them sufficiently to treat some of the more farcical Victorian obsessions, particularly with spiritualism, with amusing condescension. Apparitions and other manifestations of the supernatural could be reduced to natural causes, so he believed. In Well Authenticated Rappings, a satirical sketch published in 1858 in Household Words, an uncanny voice in the narrator’s head turns out to be no more than a thumping Boxing Day hangover. There is more of spirits than spirit about you, one is tempted to observe.

While he could mock the spiritualists, Dickens entertained his own fashionable notions, including a belief in spontaneous combustion (think of Krook in Bleak House) and, most particularly, in mesmerism. His own efforts here were to cause a slight rift with his wife Catherine, as an 1853 letter shows, after the author’s magnetism with one Augusta de la Rue appeared to her to be a little too animal!

In the end one is simply left with the ghost story as a story, all rational explanations aside. It’s not about the real or even the surreal world; it’s simply about imagination and the power of imagination. Here Dickens did so much to stimulate contemporary interest. His ghosts, it might be said, are comfortably bourgeois, no longer inhabiting Gothic piles but Victorian firesides; his apparitions are ever more fearful for appearing by the side of something as modern as the railway.

Now let me say a word or two in appreciation of John Leech, the man who created the splendid illustrations that make A Christmas Carol even more memorable. There is the manifestation of Marley, the magnificent Odin-like figure of The Ghost of Christmas Present and, the most chilling of all, The Last of the Spirits pointing to Scrooge’s doom. As an aside here I have to say that a lot of the film adaptations of A Christmas Carol hopelessly miss the point, seeing this encounter as the decisive moment. It’s not; it’s only the final part of Scrooge’s gradual redemption.

Andrea Lloyd, the curator of the exhibition, has written of its theme and purpose;

Dickens is already closely aligned with Victorian ghost stories in many people’s minds largely because of the success of A Christmas Carol. However, Dickens touches upon the supernatural in many of his other works, revealing his thoughts about unexplained phenomena, which in turn reflect the evolving scientific theories and beliefs that were prevalent in 19th century England. At this time people were debating the virtues of mesmerism and animal magnetism, getting caught up in the Spiritualism craze that arrived from America, and actively investigating and recording ghostly phenomena. By engaging with this vogue for the supernatural, and by tapping into the Victorian attraction to the macabre, Dickens created some of his finest works.

He did more than that. As G. K Chesterton once wrote, he did not strictly make a literature; he made a mythology. I thought of Dickens; I thought of the ghosts of Christmas past, not long past, my past; I thought of my beloved grandfather, to whose memory this article is dedicated.

Monday 6 February 2012

Time and History

I originally only planned to publish my recent article on the decline of American power contrasted with the rise of China’s (How Are the Mighty Fallen, 30 January) on BrooWaha. I published it here because the editorial process there was log jammed for several days. Now it has appeared there it elicited an interesting response from a fellow contributor, one who lives in India. I think my own detailed reply, slightly modified, deserves to stand here on its own.

Greatness and power have nothing at all to do with freedom and human rights. The Roman state survived for centuries as a slave power and rapacious conqueror. China has never enjoyed a full democratic existence in the sense that you and I would understand the concept. Even before the Communist takeover it was ruled, when it was ruled at all, by dictators, warlords and freebooters of one kind or another in the period after the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last imperial dynasty.

I’m sorry, I complete disagree with you; the present government of China shows little in the way of communist orthodoxy; it shows not the least interest in exporting its brand of high holiday politics, unlike its economic imperialism. Mao would simply not recognise the China that has emerged after his death. The Chinese government is simply an oligarchy, interested in the perpetuation of its power, a power over which Marxism is draped like a fig leaf. Their brand of realpolitik owes far more to Machiavelli than Marx, more to The Prince than to The Communist Manifesto.

A nation survives by conserving its power, not wasting it. Yes, governments have a responsibility to ensure the security of the land. But America under George W Bush did not contain a threat; it simply made it worse. Where was the logic in invading Iraq, a country with a secular government, a country with no connection to terrorism, a country actively opposed to Al-Qaeda? Where was the logic in invading a country that had effectively been neutralised after the First Gulf War, and neutralised to the advantage of the West?

There are so many things I could say about this disaster, things I have said previously. Not only was the Al-Qaeda genie let out of the bottle, not only was the power of Iran immeasurably increased, but the aftermath of a war, which Bush described as a ‘crusade’, led to the tragic destruction of the age-old Iraqi Christian community, rather ironic in the circumstances. Has the invasion of Afghanistan made America safer? I rather think not. Anyone with even the lightest grasp of history would have kept clear of this ‘graveyard of empires.’

America has spent trillions beyond its means; America is now in hock to China, a further proof of my argument that one power has waned while the other has waxed. If the country has, as you put it, protected its interests, its gone about it in a wholly cack-handed fashion. Would you, as an Indian, someone surely with a better understanding of regional politics and history, ever have envisaged your country invading a hopeless place like Afghanistan, even with the co-operation of Pakistan? Was the British example not enough; was the Russian example not enough? The invasion of Afghanistan did not destroy the Taliban, merely submerged it for a time. The invasion of Afghanistan did not destroy Al-Qaeda, merely allowed it to relocate in the tribal highlands of Pakistan. Muscles were not flexed; muscles were lost.

I am no wiser or prescient in these matters than any other. I cannot see into the future, only project on the basis of present trends. These trends allow me to predict that this will be the Chinese century, but on this question only time and history will sit as the final arbiters.

Sunday 5 February 2012

A Prophet Unarmed

The stones of Florence are suffused in history. The traces of the past are everywhere, the traces of the Medici, from magnificent beginnings to a wretched and degenerate end. The traces are there, too, of Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar who became, for a brief season, the avatar and prophet of the Florentine republic. I had a sense of him in his cell in the Convent of San Marco, where his eagle-beaked portrait hangs on the wall. I had a sense of him standing in the Piazza della Signoria, the site of his famous Bonfire of the Vanities, where he himself was consumed by a great bonfire in May, 1498.

He was an extraordinary figure, one of the meteors of history. He came seemingly as a prophet armed only to end as a prophet outcast. In a sense he was the Catholic Martin Luther, condemning the many abuses of the Church, particularly bad during the pontificate of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, his nemesis. Florence was his celestial city, one that was destined to inherit the legacy of Classical Rome, reforming and renewing the purity of Catholic Christianity.

Born in Ferrara, Savonarola, full of messianic vision, came to Florence at just the right time. The sun of the Medici Renaissance was in eclipse. A new and terrifying disease had come to Italy with the invading French army of Charles VIII. Not yet known as syphilis, it was simply called the French pox. The half millennium was approaching, giving all the more force to Savonarola’s message of the Last Days. Florence was to be the New Jerusalem. Alas, in the end, by his own admission, he was a false prophet, no more than a ravening wolf. Or was he?

In Savonarola: the Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet Donald Weinstein, an expert on the period, has compiled a meticulous and commendably objective biography. He has a fine eye for the man, the place and the times. He also has a talent for pithy and memorable phrases. Savonarola appealed to what he calls the ‘myth of Florence’, a city he mesmerised by his ‘charisma of grace.’

The book does an excellent job in tracing the evolution of the Dominican’s message, moving by stages from one of Christian renewal to outright millenarianism. With the army of Charles VIII, Savonarola’s ‘New Cyrus’, threatening the city, people were more and more willing to hear what God had in store for them. The Medici were exiled. The myth of Florence and the myth of Savonarola came, for a time, into perfect harmony. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The history of Florence, and the biography of Savonarola, in the years between 1494 and 1498 is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a complex tale of faction, counter-faction, intrigues, feuds and wars, the stuff of high Renaissance politics, a labyrinth through which the author spins a fine thread.

In his consistent determination to avoid bias Weinstein lays every fact before us, building his structure brick by brick. He makes it clear that Savonarola, contrary to appearances, was always a prophet unarmed (he was never the city republic’s political master). His power was one of persuasion, a message supported up by the coincidences of the times, the key to his initial success and his ultimate failure. It was his tragedy that he found a power within himself only to denounce it in the end, not only a result of torture but also of an acute loss of self-belief.

Sober and scholarly, Weinstein also has a talent for weaving a gripping story, full of the most memorable characters, all set against the background of papal politics, foreign invasion and Renaissance humanism. Savonarola treats the subject sympathetically, even with a degree of admiration, without falling into the dangers of complete seduction. I’ve certainly come to understand the man much better from a reading of this book, though any personal sympathy I have for him is arrested by the fact he is alleged, personally, to have consigned paintings by Sandro Botticelli to the Bonfire of the Vanities!

I love irony and I love anecdote, and the author also has a taste for both. For example, I was fascinated to discover that Charles VIII, upon whom Savonarola placed so much faith, died after banging his head on a doorframe the same day that the friar was arrested, a strange turn of fate, particularly fateful as the king was short so the door must have been even shorter!

This is a good story, lucid, meticulous and exhaustive. If you have any interest at all in biography, in history, in a fascinating life and in the even more fascinating canvas of Renaissance Italy I can assure you that there is no vanity in reading Savonarola.