Thursday 29 March 2012

Tilting at Windmills

Matt, the fifth Viscount Ridley, is one of the people that I am thankful for. A businessman, a libertarian and a journalist, he has done so much to expose bogus and fashionable nostrums. Rather like a modern Don Quixote he has tilted at windmills, wind turbines, to be exact, relentlessly exposing what I am convinced is the greatest ‘alternative energy’ scam of the age.

Writing previously about wind farms I made the following points;

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

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

Writing recently in the Spectator, Ridley tabled a fresh indictment. As he says, to the nearest round number the amount of energy that has been generated by wind farms comes to exactly zero. But the cost has been huge; the cost in fuel poverty for the elderly, in regressive subsidies which pass wealth to the wealth, in the destruction of rural communities and landscapes, in the loss of jobs, the felling of forests and the destruction of wildlife. Things have gone that can never be replaced.

But for so long the politicians were blind to all of this. In Bath, one of England’s most beautiful cities, the Liberal Democrat-led council even proposed to erect a 240ft wind turbine on the hills just to the south. The scheme was heavily promoted by a local landowner, the only person who stood to benefit in windfall profits. It was only after mass protests, and a threat by UNESCO to take away the city’s world heritage status, was the proposal reluctantly dropped.

Now, it would seem, central government is beginning to blow less wind. The big multinationals, who are investing heavily in offshore wind, are beginning to worry that the cornucopia is not endless, that subsidies may no longer he as easy to get in future as they were in the past. Vestas, which wants to build a turbine factory in the county of Kent, is seeking assurances from David Cameron, the Prime Minister, that he is still behind wind energy. Thankfully, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and master of the purse strings, has made it clear that he at least is dead set against further expansion, all on the grounds of cost.

Quite frankly we have been scandalously misled by an unholy alliance between stupid politicians, the self-regarding green lobby, covetous manufacturers and venal land owners. Even in economically vibrant times the policy made no sense. One would have to cover this fair land from end to end with wind farms to meet even a fraction of our future energy needs. But in these economically straightened times wind appears to be just that – wind. It took austerity to expose this scandal.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Life of Drama

“There is properly no history; only biography”, so wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. I begin to feel this is true, having consumed life after life in my recent reading. There was Savonarola, then Queen Anne, then Wilkie Collins, then John Dee, then Robespierre. And now, for something completely different, there is August Strindberg!

Yes, I’ve not long finished Strindberg: a Life by Sue Prideaux. Published in this centenary year of his death, it’s the first full biography in English of the Swedish literary giant for thirty years. Actually, while he is best known as a playwright and theatrical innovator, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint Strindberg, a man of restless and towering temperament. The dramatist was also a novelist, an essayist, a journalist, a photographer, a horticulturalist, a poet, an occultist, a historian and a painter.

Prideaux begins her masterly study with an observation that comes close to being axiomatic: “During the writing of this book it became apparent to me that outside Scandinavia Strindberg is best known for two things: Miss Julie and alarming misogyny.” It was so alarming that the year after his death Rebecca West wrote that “There will never be – except among the perverse – any enthusiasm in England for the works of August Strindberg, the foremost European masculinist and hater of women.”

And, my goodness, how outrageous his hatred could be! At one point he called on legislators to reconsider the emancipation of “criminal, instinctively evil animals.” It seems to me, though, that the intensity of his passions here carries its own absurdity, almost like the theatrical anti-Semitism of the French novelist Celine. After all, this is a man who was married three times, so he can’t have hated women that much.

His misogyny, moreover, was largely conditioned by developments in his own personal life (paranoia was a recurring problem) rather than the wider political or social world. The Father, a play in which a sea captain is deliberately driven mad by doubts over the paternity of his children, was written at a time when he was having doubts about his own children by Siri von Essen, his first wife.

If you really do see Strindberg through the eyes of Rebecca West then it may come as a surprise that he started out as a great champion of women’s rights, as Prideaux points out, in advance of most contemporary feminist opinion. Getting Married, his 1884 collection of short stories advancing the cause of female emancipation, was considered so scandalous that he was arraigned on a charge of blasphemy.

In so many ways he was a man beyond his times. For example, I was surprised to learn that it was not until 1984 that Miss Julie, a play which deals with sex and class as power relations, was played in an unexpurgated version in his native land. So much for Scandinavian sexual liberation!

Altogether his was a remarkable life, Storm at one point, Stress at the next! If ever any individual proved the truth of John Dryden’s poetic observation that great wits are sure to madness near allied it is Strindberg. A heavy imbiber of absinthe, he came close to complete mental collapse in the 1890s, the period of his self-defined ‘inferno crisis’. It was this time when the Gothic quality of his life achieved a particularly bizarre intensity, detailed in Inferno and From an Occult Diary, his own accounts of the period.

The remarkable thing here this is the lucid description of a spiral down into madness by a man who, in the end, managed to retain control of his sanity. Was it just another role, like his misogyny, a drama being played out in the theatre of his life? Talking of parts I may as well mention him as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Long fascinated by the occult and a believer in alchemy, he makes the claim that he turned some dirt from the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris into gold. Yes, gold, glistening through a drug and absinthe-induced fog!

It was also during the Inferno period that he wrote an admiring review of Edvard Munch’s masterpiece The Scream, that is before he concluded that the painter was trying to murder him! It seems obvious that The Scream is a painting that anyone in a volatile mental condition would do well to avoid, cutting, as it does, into intense states of emotion.

At the end of a journey, one taken through success and failure by turns, from a miserable childhood through mature delusions, we are left with the brilliance of the life, which proves the point of alchemy, in a metaphorical sense at least – some base things can be turned into gold. Prideaux is to be commended on her own alchemic talents, conjuring her way with considerable panache through a life simply packed with incident and drama, onstage and off.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Sperm Bandits

Now picture the scene. By the side of the road a group of male hitchhiker are trying to catch a ride. A nineteen-year-old girl stops to pick them up. The guys refuse to get in. They don’t trust her, they say; they fear they are going to be raped!

You think this is a spoof, well, I can assure you, it's not. The country in question is Zimbabwe, where three women currently stand accused of picking up male hitchhikers with the intent of harvesting their sperm. The victims apparently were drugged or subdued at knife or gun point before the women forced themselves upon them. In one case a live snake was alleged to have been used. Afterwards the ‘donors’ were dumped naked by the roadside.

Reports of male rape first appeared some three years ago, but the story only achieved widespread prominence after the police arrested sisters Sophie and Netsai Nhokwara and Rosemary Chakwizira, three prostitutes, last October, when they were found in possession of a bag of – ugh – used condoms. They were subsequently charged with the violation of seventeen men.

The story is just so bizarre, even more bizarre than the sort of thing that normally comes out of Zimbabwe. For one thing why the sperm was taken in such circumstances has still to be established, though it is thought that it is used in ‘juju’, traditional witchcraft practices designed to bring good fortune. For another it’s unclear why force is used, in that men are not usually noted for their reluctance to donate sperm freely, though possibly compulsion adds, ahem, to the potency.

According to Watch Ruparanganda, a sociologist at the University of Zimbabwe, the practice, which he describes as ‘mind boggling’, is a lucrative business. Apparently he first came across it seven years ago while doing research for his doctoral thesis among the street youth of Harare, the capital. He was told that businessmen would take them to hotels where they were entertained by prostitutes, the only charge being that they hand over the used condoms afterwards.

Though the women have been in custody for several months, appearing in several preliminary hearings, no trial date has been set. Because there is no law in Zimbabwe criminalising rape by women they have been charged with aggravated indecent assault. The anger is such that, according to their lawyer, they have received death threats.

It also seems impossible that the trail process, if it ever comes, will be in any way fair. They have already been paraded on national television as ‘female rapists’, though the evidence against them seems to be tenuous at best. Dunisani Mthombeni, counsel for two of the accused, says that the authorities are reluctant to go to trial because they have arrested the wrong people.

The case has provoked mixed reactions. Zimbabwean women’s rights groups have criticised the reaction as disproportionate, shifting attention away from female rape victims. Men are reported to be afraid, refusing to get into cars driven by women, “Even if she is old”, said one hitchhiker outside Harare. But this has not stopped the local press printing a cartoon showing a naked man trying to attract the attention of women drivers.

I refuse to prejudge the issues here, though I find my credulity stretched to the limits. There is, according to some reports, an international market in stolen sperm, a commodity so plentiful, so readily given - some even paying for the pleasure - it beggars belief that it has any value at all. It’s as well to remember also that Zimbabwe is a country run by Robert Mugabe, where scapegoats and diversions from the misery of everyday life are always welcome. Meanwhile the country’s tourist board could mount a new campaign; not come to Zimbabwe but come in Zimbabwe.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Of Marlins and Men

When I first visited Floridita, a watering hole at the beginning of old Havana, one corner of the bar was chained off in tribute to an American writer. It was allegedly the spot where Ernest Hemingway quaffed his daily daiquiri when he was in town. Whether he sat on that lonely stool or not, I thought it a restrained and tasteful gesture. The next time I went the chain and the stool were gone. In its place was grotesque larger than life figure of Hemingway propping up the bar!

It’s now over fifty years since the real larger than life figure took his own life. I have mixed feelings about the man and his work. When he was good he was very very good, and when he was bad he was awful. I was seventeen when I first came across him in The Old Man and the Sea, a wonderful story of transcendent values, simple in its beauty, the tightness of its narrative and the economy of prose. For me it had almost mythological quality.

Later, at university, I ploughed through his other work, delighted at some points, acutely disappointed at others. It’s perfectly obvious that such novels as Across the River and into the Trees and the posthumous Islands in the Stream would never have been published if they had not come with the Hemingway label. But - along with The Old Man and the Sea - A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not will stand as classics of English literature. So, too, will Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises for introducing the world to a new, more rigorous prose style, though it’s a novel that really did not engage me emotionally. Overall I think that Hemingway did for twentieth century American literature what Mark Twain did for the nineteenth.

His was a truly remarkable life, full of incident and adventure. In a way he became his work and his work became him. There were good and bad things in this; good in that his writing is often imbued with an immediacy and authenticity; bad in that, as time went by, he had to live up to a macho myth, as bombastic as that figure in Floridita. I think in the end it’s a myth that pursued him to death.

Still, for all his limitations, I admire him as a man, as a hunter and as a writer, largely free of cant and dissimulation. There is so much to envy in a talent that was in the right place at just the right time - Paris just after the First World War, where he was befriended by Gertrude Stein and met such architects of twentieth century culture as Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. I read a biography of Hemingway a few years ago – the name of the author escapes me - and was amazed by the amount of incident he managed to crowd in while still writing! Incident, love, life and travel, are all there, including four marriages.

But while there was a huge expansiveness, paradoxically caught in The Old Man and the Sea, a tale of a man and a fish, there is also a narrowness, the narrowness of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which, for all of its value as a work of literature, reduces the great tragedy of the Spanish Civil War to a mere backdrop, a setting for testing the moral courage of Robert Jordan, the novel’s American protagonist. Send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me!

It’s this narrowness that caught up with the man, who began to write in a sort of autobiographical fashion, his heroes really just being dimensions of his own personality and acquired mythos. The buccaneering Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not is tolerable and believable; the figure of Colonel Richard Cantwell in Across the River and into the Trees is a laughable parody.

In general there is a boy’s own quality to his work that is now largely out of sympathy with the times. I like hunting, I’m a hunter, but even for me Hemingway’s blood lust seems excessive. I got no pleasure at all from Death in the Afternoon, his homage to Spanish bullfighters. And as for the female figures in his books, they are also there to be hunted, for me mostly unconvincing appendages, trophies on a wall!

But he was a man for his time, a pathfinder in a unique American tradition. On my own path, I followed him through the tourist traps of Havana, even staying on my latter trips in the atmospheric and idiosyncratic Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he lodged in the 1930s before he acquired his Cuban home. His room, number 511, is preserved as a museum. I stood there, the sun shining through the window, looking at his typewriter and thinking of marlins and of men.

Thursday 22 March 2012

This is What Mitt Romney Actually Believes

I was once stopped in the street and asked if I would like a free personality test. “I don’t want to test my personality”, I responded “It might just test me back.” The proposed testers in question were scientologists, of course, and this is the bait with which they hook their little fish.

Frankly I did not know that much about scientology at the time, other than having a vague impression that it was a weird and cultish movement based on some dubious blend of religion and science fiction. I found out an awful lot more from watching South Park some time later, an episode called Trapped in the Closet, which featured Tom Cruise, an aficionado of the cult. The actual beliefs of scientologists were touched on, accompanied by an onscreen caption saying “This is what Scientologists actually believe”. And, my goodness, it’s weird. It’s beyond me how any normal and reasonably intelligent person could be taken in by this claptrap…even Tom Cruise.

Actually, it was while reading about what Mormons Actually Believe that I recalled the South Park satire; because, in some ways, as a belief system, it’s just as bizarre. To accept it would take a huge suspension of disbelief, or bottomless pits of gullibility.

My interest was spurred by the spluttering advance in the Republican primaries of Mitt Romney, who may end as the first Mormon in the White House. There I assume he will continue to wear the White Combinations that true believers don day and night, presumably changed now and again for the sake of hygiene!

I should say that there is much to admire in Mormons as people, generally respectable, clean-cut, decent-living and morally upright; in so many ways quintessentially American. But Mormonism as a religion seems to me like a parody of Christianity, more akin to a heretical cult than anything else. In some ways it’s also a parody of Islam, with Joseph Smith, the nineteenth century prophet and founder, as a latter day Mohammed, and the Book of Mormon a latter day Quran. Harold Bloom, a literary scholar, described the former as a “creative misreading of the early history of the Jews.”

The Book of Mormon is certainly creative in its tale of one Lehi, a patriarch who parted not the Red Sea like Moses but the Atlantic Ocean! Well, that is to say, so the story goes, he sailed across in 600BC.

Honestly it’s far too tiresome to go in to all the subsequent elaborations, including the appearance of Jesus in the New World. Let me just say that the old Israelite had two sons, Nephi and Laman, who, like Cain and Able, had a bit of a falling out, giving rise to two warring peoples, the Nephites and Lamanites. Mormon apparently was a general who led the Nephites. But since these light-skinned people were apparently all wiped out by the dark-skinned Lamanites I’m not quite sure where the modern Mormons come from. Oh, yes, I do, from a lot of self-deception and, dare I say it, a healthy interest in polygamy among the pioneers. Yes, I know; they no longer do that!

As I say, there is almost no relationship whatsoever between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity, beyond a bland message of salvation through repentance and faith. In some respects the theological mishmash it presents recalls the Arian Heresy, that concerning the separation of Christ and God, specifically condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. Really, in essence, Mormonism is a bargain basement faith, a sort of spiritual Wall Mart, with heaven resembling the Walton homestead! Oh, incidentally, the Garden of Eden was in Missouri.

As for dear old Mitt, I’m really of the 'anyone but Obama' school, though out of the uninspiring Republican pool I would far rather go with Rick Santorum. I’m not sure how much Romney’s beliefs (does he really believe all that tosh?) will go against him with the wider American public, though the Republican fundamentalists take a dim view. I would simply suggest, on matters of religion, that he would do well to keep his mouth shut, and, like Tom Cruise, stay firmly in the closet.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Flames of Homophobia

There is an odd resemblance between Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister in the present coalition government, and Argentina’s President Christina Kirchner. It’s not just the colouring and complexion: they both have a washed-out Botox look about them, faces that seem to be on the verge of collapse. Politically speaking there is also a resemblance: they are both provocateurs.

There is Kirchner, in this anniversary year, making waves over the British ‘occupation’ of the Falkland Islands. There is Featherstone, frantically waving her gay marriage flag, warning church leaders not to “fan the flames of homophobia” in their opposition to this absurdly unnecessary measure.

She clearly has no conception at all what marriage means, no conception of its significance in Christian thought and practice. Gay ‘marriage’ is a joke, a parody of the real thing, just as the black sabbath is a parody of the Christian mass. There is no prejudice here on my part; this is simply a statement of the facts, an understanding that marriage, since the earliest times, was conceived of as a union between man and women for the procreation of children.

Personally I can’t work up any particular energy over this issue; I do not understand why homosexuals need the final step of ‘marriage’ when civil partnerships already exist. Politically the whole thing is just so, well, patronising, a perfect example of the worst kind of trendy gesture politics. Actually I can work up some energy over an increasingly loud-mouthed lobby, one determined to advance its agenda, no matter the cost. I can get worked up by a Conservative government, yes, Conservative, seeking to undermine an important part of the social fabric, as if it has not already been seriously damaged.

Cost, yes; I can also get worked up about the cost implications of Featherstone’s proposal, which will see a Nineteen Eight-Four style purge of all official documents referring to husband and wife. Existing marriage certificates could even be threatened. In future we shall have spouses and partners, though I’m not at all sure who the spouse is and who is the partner!

According to the official analysis released alongside Featherstone’s recently published ‘consultation’ paper (consultation, what consultation?) the cost of this red tape revolution will run into millions. Oh, well, we have money to burn, do we not, in these economically vibrant times? We certainly do, bombing Libya into a new Islamic dark age at one point, introducing gay marriage and undermining Christianity at another. Oops, there I go, fanning the flames of homophobia!

Actually, no, but I am fanning the flames of Liberalphobia, expressing my contempt for all those knuckle-heads like Featherstone who have no greater cause than to interfere in the lives of others, forcing people to accept one fashionable ‘progressive’ cause or another, whether they want it or not. The sad truth about our present coalition is that a predominantly Conservative government is pursuing a social policy agenda that is being set by the Liberal minority.

I welcomed the advent of David Cameron, a refreshing change to the bleak years of New Labour, a refreshing change to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, those sleazy and morally debased ogres. But what a disappointment he has turned out to be, how weak and how vacillating. He is turning out to be a silly, frivolous, inconsequential little man, a politician of no real stature, a man nervous of his own shadow, a shadow in the shape of the risible Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Gay marriage is to be in place by the next general election, to be held, so the gay government marriage agreement goes, not before 2015. Stalin once asked sarcastically how many divisions the pope had. I ask how many people who vote Conservative are in any way enthused by gay marriage. Not many, I would hazard.

There is also, ironically, the illiberal tone of the debate, the terms of which are being set by Featherstone. It’s not about airing views; it’s about silencing dissent, as Simon Heffer argued recently in the Telegraph. It’s about the use of language. ‘Homophobic’ is just another of those words like ‘racist’, a slur to foreclose the argument. It’s being used even so far as churchmen, whose opposition to gay marriage is driven by scripture and canon law, not bigotry. Abuse, vilification and unreason, these are the small coins of a small and feather-brained mind. England does not love coalitions. How right Disraeli was.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

India's Khmer Rouge

India, like China, is a country to watch. If this is to be the Chinese century it’s just as likely to be the Indian one. This is a country that Gandhi would scarcely recognise; a country of rapid economic growth, of new technologies and gleaming skyscrapers; it’s a country of call-centres and Bollywood starlets, of glamour, fashion and high-living; it’s a country of the future.

There are problems; of course, not least of which is atrocious levels of corruption. This led to a series of protests beginning in the spring, with people coming out in support of Anna Hazare, an activist very much in the Gandhi mould, who has taken a principled stand over an issue which affects so many areas of Indian life.

This was the big news from India at the turn of the year (aside from the proposed intrusion of Tesco and Wal-Mart, a form of globalisation that many would prefer to do without), news reported across the world; news extensively reported by the BBC World Service when I was in Egypt.

What is not so widely reported is that India, for all its modernity, is suffering from a stubborn and prolonged insurgency, the kind of thing that seems to belong firmly in the past. Elsewhere in Asia Maoism and the Maoist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge variety are distant dreams; in India they are a present nightmare.

There is the spectre haunting India - the spectre of the Naxalites. This is a Maoist guerrilla movement so named because their rising began in 1967 in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari. These red fundamentalists are active over a huge area in the east of the country, from Andhra Pradesh in the south to the Nepalese border in the north.

By 2006 the situation had deteriorated to the point where Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, described the insurgency as the biggest single internal security challenge that the country had ever faced.

There was really no great exaggeration in this, given that some four thousand civilians had been killed up to that point and 40,000 displaced. These people, often of the most humble origins, left their villages in search of government protection; for the Naxalites, like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, carry fear before them like a banner.

The movement has a reputation for reprisals against perceived ‘class enemies’, really just anyone they take a dislike to, the kind of ugly savagery that was associated with the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. Kanwar Gill, the former Director General of Police in the Punjab, and a counter-insurgency expert, believes that frightfulness lies at the core of Naxalite ideology; that they use the manner of killing to frighten more than the killing itself. Understandable, when one notes that people have been hacked to death with axes.

Last year the Naxalites were responsible for the deaths of almost 1200 people, more than all of the other terrorist groups in India combined. However, the government, whose counter-insurgency operations in the past were often piecemeal, lacking in coordination between central and local authorities, scored a major success when special forces intercepted and killed Malloojula Koteswara Rao, known by the nom de guerre of Kishenji, an important military leader and member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), to give the Naxalites their official name.

Set alongside the deaths of other important figures in the movement, this marks something of a breakthrough. Naxalite killings are also in sharp decline. Last year some 564 people died at their hands, bad enough but a significant reduction over previous years.

Even so, the problem is not going to go away anytime soon. It lies in the nature of India itself; it lies in the uneven picture of development. Mumbai, with its university-educated professionals, is a universe away from the rural communities of the east, particularly the tribal areas, where government, any kind of administration, simply does not exist; where there are no schools, no medical services, no infrastructure, no roads – nothing.

It’s a vacuum filled by the likes of the Naxalites, a point made by Jairam Ramesh, the minister responsible for rural affairs. He went on to suggest dealing with the problem effectively may take another twenty to twenty-five years. It will certainly require resources and a lot of political will. Military solutions are only ever of a temporary nature

India may be rushing into the future but for as long as this problem exists, as long as the Naxalites swim in a sea of resentment, it will continually have to look with apprehension back into the past.

Monday 19 March 2012

My Life as a Dog

Amina Filali was a sixteen-year-old Moroccan girl. I say was because she is now dead. She killed herself last weekend in a particularly horrible manner – she swallowed rat poison. Why? Because she had suffered a double violation: she was raped by a man and then raped by the law of her land. She was forced to marry her violator.

Under Article 475 of Morocco’s Islamic penal code, a rapist, even the rapist of a minor, can escape prosecution if he agrees to marry his victim. It’s a way, you see, of preserving the ‘honour’ of the violated woman’s family.

Amina’s attacker originally refused to marry her, only doing so to avoid a possible ten year jail sentence. She then had to endure five further months of ‘marriage’ before she killed herself. During this time she complained to her mother repeatedly that her husband was beating her. She was counselled to be patient.

There is now a campaign in Morocco to have this invidious law revoked. There is also a Facebook petition, accompanied by a perfect storm of tweets, all expressing horror at this girl’s fate. Fouzia Assouli, president of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, said “We have been asking for years for the cancellation of Article 475 of the penal code which allows the rapist to escape justice.

Rape is always a difficult issue no matter where in the world it happens; difficult for the victims, who often carry the sole burden of proof. It’s particularly difficult in Islamic countries. Not only are women prejudged by law to be second-class citizens but if an accusation of rape is raised and not proved they risk being prosecuted for debauchery. Last year a woman in Afghanistan was jailed for ‘adultery by force’ after she was brutally raped by her husband’s cousin. She was only released by presidential pardon, after a wave of revulsion swept across the world.

There are places in the world where it is better to be born a dog than a woman.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Blood and Freedom

This is a piece I recently had published in the English Standard under a different heading. It's attracted a bit of interest so I thought I would publish it here also, just for the record. It touches on themes that I have already raised in discussion with Nobby on my Restrain of Appeals article (25 January), though it puts the figure of Henry VIII as king in a more focused light.

At the conclusion Chapter XVIII of A Child’s History of England Charles Dickens expressed his disapproval of Henry VIII in very clear terms: “The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”

This is a view that must have coloured many little minds, for the book, which first appeared in serial form in Household Words in the early 1850s, was on the curricula of English schools right through to the Second World War. We now have a slightly more nuanced view of this Tudor giant, but the image of him as a boorish tyrant still informs a lot of popular culture. The truth, rarely pure and never simple, is that Henry in a very real sense was the first true ‘sovereign’ in English history.

I’ll clarify this point a little later but first a word or two on the context of his reign, on the political forces that shaped his style as a ruler. Yes, he was a particularly dominant figure, more so than any of his predecessors on the throne. His more tyrannical actions are explained in large parts by the shallow roots of the Tudor dynasty, planted with uncertainty after a long and bloody dynastic war. It could be dangerous to be alive in his reign, chiefly for those unfortunate enough to have a better claim to the throne, something they were well-advised to keep quiet about.

Henry had one overriding obsession: to secure the future of his line and, in the circumstances of the time, he believed it essential that he had a son. A daughter simply would not do. We can look forward to the reign of Elizabeth, one of the most successful monarchs ever, but Henry could only look back to the example of Matilda, the daughter and heir of Henry I, whose rightful claim was usurped by her cousin Stephen, a preamble to a lengthy civil war.

When Henry came to the throne England had two separate legal systems – the common law of the land and the canon law of the church. Two sets of laws meant two sets of courts, with the ultimate arbiter in all matters affecting canon law being the Vatican. This included all family law, issues pertaining to wills and, of course, marriage and divorce. This was the basis of Papal power in England, which by the early middle ages was considerable.

Although Henry had several children by his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, only their daughter Mary had survived infancy. By the 1520s, on the threshold of middle age, he believed it imperative that the marriage to Catherine, no longer capable of bearing children, be dissolved. An appeal had to be made to Rome. It might have been a relatively simple matter but for one thing – the pope of the day, Clement VII, was in the power of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who just happened to be Catherine’s nephew. The ensuing English Reformation began, therefore, as a matter of dynastic politics.

I hinted above that prior to the reign of Henry English kings had never been fully sovereign. The country, like today, was part of a wider union, subject to the authority of the Universal Church. It was a dangerous thing for an English king to challenge the power of the pope, as Henry II and his son John discovered to their cost.

There is much debate in the press today about the repatriation of powers from Europe, with Prime Minister David Cameron making vague nods in this general direction. But Henry did not talk; he acted. Exasperated by the delays caused in the settlement of his marital affairs, he effectively brought to an end the duality in English law; he ended the power of Rome.

With the aid of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister at the time, Parliament was persuaded to pass the Act of Restraint of Appeals in 1533, a measure I touched on here earlier this year. This had the effect of ending all appeals to Rome, allowing matters to be settled on the spot, declaring to the world that England was an empire, not subject to the rule of a foreign princes or courts

This Act is one of the most significant in English history, going far beyond offering Henry, as head on an independent English Church, a way of breaking the Roman logjam. It was a declaration of political sovereignty, an Act of Parliament rather than a royal proclamation. It was so successful that even during the Catholic reaction of Henry’s daughter, Mary, it was never repealed. For all her orthodoxy Mary remained Supreme Head of the Church, effectively the Pope in England. There were no more appeals to the Papal Curia, no more foreign laws.

Now think of us today, think of the steady erosion of our national sovereignty, think of us subject to the legal vagaries of the European Court of Human Rights, which recently ruled that we could not deport a foreign terrorist, a man with no connection to this country, a man who is a positive threat to our national security.

History has been reversed. We are far more in thrall to the new Roman power than we ever were to the old. How I admire the audacity of Bluff King Hal. For me he is not a blot of blood and grease on the history of England. He is, rather, an avatar of freedom.

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Price of Freedom

I’ve been keeping a close eye on political events in Egypt, an interest spurred by my visit to the country last November. Some news I get via email from people I met while I was there, people with hopes of a better future, mired ever deeper in doubt, especially now that the Islamists have come out of the parliamentary elections as the dominant force, commanding two-thirds of the representation.

A presidential election is scheduled for sometime this year but in the meantime the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) remains in control. The generals may eventually slip into the background, but I don’t think the military will ever relinquish power; I don’t think it will ever give up its role as king maker, one that it has held ever since Nasser’s coup in 1952.

On the streets, still punctuated with violent discontent, the word is that the very models of modern major generals have struck up a clandestine deal with the Islamists. In parliament the liberals, those with the confidence of the street protesters, are fighting a kind of gallant rear guard action. Legislation has been proposed that that would exclude the army from oversight of any future elections. I guess it’s unlikely to succeed, unless the Freedom and Justice Party, the main Islamist force, decide to break their links with the soldiers

The real victim here in the complex game of political poker is Egypt’s ancient but vulnerable minority of Coptic Christians. Incidents of sectarian violence, in part encouraged by the military, have been steadily increasing since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year. Under attack from the extremist Salifist movement, with the army offering intermittent protection at best, the community is going through one of the most apprehensive stages of its history. There is little doubt that they are being singled out as a scapegoat. Thousands have left the country; millions have no choice but to remain.

Freedom is not for free, said one of the banners held up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year. How ironic it is that the secularist dictatorships, the regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad, the last still holding on, offered the greatest protection to the Christians of the Middle East. Now the Copts are indeed discovering that freedom is not for free. It has a price, one being negotiated at their expense.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Blair was Bush’s Barney

No sooner had I seen one movie about a British Prime Minister when along comes another! Actually, The Ghost, directed by Roman Polanski and based Robert Harris’ novel of the same name (he also wrote the screenplay), pre-dates The Iron Lady by more than a year. I haven’t read the novel so I had no compelling reason to go and see the movie and one compelling reason against – I’m really not that keen on Ewan McGregor as an actor. It was a close friend who urged me to watch it and I’m so glad she did.

It works perfectly; a lean, taught and brooding thriller. It’s not just in the story line, descending ever deeper into a sense of menace, but the general atmosphere, the setting and the unrelenting bleakness of the weather. Most of it is supposedly set in Martha’s Vineyard (actually it’s Germany’s even bleaker Baltic coast), though the upmarket resort seems more akin to a wind-swept Devil’s Island! The devil it contains is a certain Adam Lang, a former British Prime Minister, played with languid elegance by Pierce Brosnan, another actor I had mistakenly considered to be largely second rate.

If you’ve seen it you will know exactly who Lang is based on, even so far as his Scottish-derived name – this is a portrait of Tony Blair. We have him in all of his slick, cosmopolitan shallowness; glib, insincere and somehow unreal. It’s good to have Brosnan in the part, not even pretending to have a British accent, because it makes the rootlessness of the real thing all the more believable.

Lang may have been the great deceiver as PM but he wants his place in history. He writes his memoirs, only he can’t write for toffee; his words are as leaden as the weather. So into the picture comes Ewan McGregor, a professional ghost-writer only ever named as the Ghost. He is the Ghost of a Ghost, in that the previous Ghost died under mysterious circumstances.

Into Lang’s world Ghost is thrown, with troubles from the outset. The manuscript of Lang’s memoirs is kept locked away in a seafront house, a modernist pile that makes Hitler’s bunker look cosy by comparison. Here he meets Lang’s personal assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), soon to experience all the latent tension between the two. The latter, in one of the best lines in the film, describes the whole setting as being like Shangri-La in reverse.

No sooner has the writer begun his task, and met his disagreeable client, than the problems begin. There are problems in the memoir, shot through not just with bad prose but inconsistencies and contradictions. There are problems in the wider world, where Lang finds himself in danger of being indicted for war crimes; and here we are dealing with matters pertaining to rendition and torture.

There is a deep sense of foreboding to the whole thing, a mystery never quite explained, a truth never quite attained. Polanski, himself in exile, directs with commensurate skill, creating a a toxic mix of character and situation. One simply knows there is no happy ending to come.

There is certainly no happy ending for the Ghost. To kill one Ghost is a misfortune; to kill two looks like carelessness! The poor chap, mowed down in the street, got far too close to the truth of Lang’s shady and disreputable past. I could not help thinking of the real-life Doctor David Kelly, whose ‘suicide’ was triggered after he supped too close to a coterie of devils. Ghost uncovers evidence that shows why Lang, when Prime Minister, slavishly followed an American line in international affairs; why, to slip from fiction to fact, Blair was really Bush’s dog. Come to think of it, Barney was a Scottie too!

The Ghost is both an enjoyable thriller and a parody, a send-up of Tony Blair and all his works by Harris (clearly a man disabused of an illusion), who consigns him and his awful wife to a kind of hell. I personally can see Blair and Cherie in Celebrity Big Brother, one that never ends, one from which there is no egress. That should be their Sartre-like fate: No Exit! Do I think Blair’s own memoir, A Journey, was ghosted? No, it’s too badly written for that.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Bad Hair Day

How much do you think was spent in ‘liberating’ Iraq? Personally I have no idea but I guess it was an astronomical figure. Then there are the lives, the people that cannot be replaced. I remember a few years ago the parents of a British officer killed in one of the many terrorist incidents that followed the ‘liberation’ of 2003 comforting themselves that his death was not in vain, that he had died, as they put it, ‘helping the people of Iraq’. We helped the people of Iraq alright, Britain and America; we helped to take them from the first to the ninth circle of hell.

This brave new ‘democracy’ isn’t often in the news at the moment. We hear of the occasional terrorist outrage but not much more. But the outrages are not just perpetrated by Al-Qaeda operatives; they are also perpetrated at the behest of the state in acts of medieval barbarism.

Last month Iraq’s interior ministry decided that a haircut was worthy of death. Well, that’s been the practical result of the announcement that the ‘emo’ style was a sign of devil worship, one that the country’s ‘Moral Police’ (yes, they do have a ‘Moral’ police force) has pledged to eliminate. In the wake of this some ninety students have been stoned to death by religious extremists. It’s all part of a wider campaign against people who have adopted what officials call ‘strange’ or Western appearances.

Recently armed men in civilian clothing kidnapped dozens of teenagers judged abnormal in appearance. Taken to secluded spots, they were then stoned to death, their bodies disposed of in garbage dumpsters across Baghdad, according to information given by activists to the Cairo-based al-Akhbar website. The details are grim. One individual who managed to escape says that concrete blocks were first thrown at the victim’s arms, then his legs and finally his head. If death does not ensue the whole process is repeated.

I read an article in the Sunday press, saying that the ‘Moral Police’ have been granted permission by the Ministry of Education to enter schools in the capital to pinpoint students bold or foolhardy enough to adopt an emo look. The suspicion is that the authorities and the extremists are working in harmony in acts of fashion genocide. The victims are young, teenagers mostly. People have been arrested not just because of their haircuts but for something as trivial as wearing jeans.

Yes, that’s the brave new Iraq, a country with forms of murderous intolerance that would have shocked the Spanish Inquisition. Saddam Hussein was bad but what has followed seems to me to be so much worse. My, how we have ‘helped’ the people of Iraq; how well-spent or money was; how well-sacrificed the lives of our soldiers.

Monday 12 March 2012

The Monster of the Idea

In Danton, the 1983 biopic based on the life the French revolutionary, the eponymous hero, standing on the threshold of execution, says that “Everything might go on fine if I could give my legs to that cripple Couthon and my balls to Robespierre.”

George Couthon, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, the dictatorial body that presided over the Reign of Terror, was indeed a cripple. Maximilian Robespierre, likewise a member of the Committee of Public Safety and Danton’s nemesis, was the Revolution’s virginal ascetic, the virtuous ‘sea-green incorruptible.’

Put another way: sans balls! He was not as other men; he was not as the sybaritic Danton, perfect in his imperfections. I wish I could be sure that Danton actually said those words, that they did not simply emerge as a piece of poetic licence; for they really do, in all their crudity, cut to the heart of the matter and the man; they cut to the heart of the high priest of the cult of virtue. Personally I can think of no better epitaph.

These thoughts were brought on by my reading over the weekend of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, a new treatment by Peter McPhee, professor of history at the University of Melbourne and a specialist on France. I think I must be the last person to be reviewing a book on Robespierre, for I have no sympathy whatsoever for the subject, the first of history’s modern fanatics. I’ll try my hardest to be fair but do treat my words with a modicum of caution!

I can certainly be fair to McPhee, whose work is balanced, lucid and scholarly. Any biography of Robespierre presents difficulties because he left little in the way of personal introspection, anything that would give a clue to his psychological makeup. But the author builds up a careful portrait, drawing on what contemporary evidence is available.

The chapters on his early life and schooling are good, showing the boy as the father of the man. Robespierre was one of the brightest pupils at Louis-le-Grand, the leading school in France at the time, where he immersed himself in the Roman classicists, particularly Cicero. He also read deeply into the work of Montesquieu and Rousseau.

Virtue and what it means to be virtuous was to emerge as the leading theme of Robespierre’s life. In 1789 he wrote the duty of rulers was “to lead men to happiness through virtue, and to virtue through legislation.” There is an echo here of the American Declaration of Independence, which, among other things, defines the pursuit of happiness to be an inherent right. But America was fortunate enough to escape real definitions of happiness and how the elusive creature was to be caught; France did not. The chimera was to be conjured up in the so-called Republic of Virtue, Robespierre’s legacy to history.

The paradox is that by any measure Robespierre began as a decent human being, genuinely concerned with the various abuses suffered by ordinary people under the old political order. Though of the left he began his career as a moderate. He was opposed to the declaration of war against Austria in April, 1792, a step urged on by the Girondins, and he was initially opposed to the overthrow of the monarchy later that same year. He also argued against the expulsion of the Girondins from the Convention after the political mood had turned against them. But as the climate turned radical Robespierre turned more radical. A member of the Mountain in the Convention, he was, for a time, their Mohammad.

Georg B├╝chner’s play Danton’s Death, upon which the above named movie was based, has some fascination exchanges between Danton and Robespierre. Picture the scene: it’s the spring of 1794, the height of the Reign of Terror. Danton argues that enough is enough, that the Revolution is drowning in blood. In response Robespierre says that the social revolution isn’t over yet and he who makes half a revolution digs his own grave. For him Terror had become the emanation of virtue, the only certain way that France could attain revolutionary happiness.

McPhee does a superb job in sailing through these stormy waters. He shows a man who came to believe that the destiny of the Revolution ran through his own person. For him patriotism was a black and white issue, with good revolutionaries on one side and evil counter-revolutionaries on the other. In other words, by 1794, Robespierre was no longer capable of discriminating between dissent and treason. Not even friendship got in the way. This absence of subtlety was to consume Camille Desmoulins, once his most intimate associate, insofar as this priggish man could be close to any individual.

Blind fanaticism was the corruption at the heart of virtue. The decisive moment here, the moment that foretold Robespierre’s doom, was the French victory over the Austrians at the battle of Fleurus in June 1794. All at once the military crisis had passed; France was no longer in danger; the justification for the Terror was over.

There are deeper issues here, things the author does not touch, largely, I suspect, because they are beyond the provenance of history, more a mater of philosophical and psychological speculation. What, in the end, would a true Republic of Virtue look like? Could this political Garden of Eden exist beyond the pages of Rousseau and the mind of Robespierre? My own answer is simple enough; that the Terror was to disguise the impossibility of Virtue; it was compensation for frustrated dreams of purity. As I once wrote in a review of Danton’s Death, Robespierre was the monster of the idea, a prototype for others to come. He is the one historical figure for whom I have a particular loathing. McPhee did well to steer me calmly through a rocky life.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Remember the Maine! Remember Joseph Kony!

I wrote an article a few years ago, a comment on a ‘trending’ campaign on Twitter directed against an English journalist. I opened as follows;

I love old horror movies, really old ones, the old black and white flicks with people like Boris Karloff. I’m sure people will have seen some of the original Frankenstein movies. Quite often there are scenes of indignant mobs out with flaming torches, hunting down the monster. But that’s so old-fashioned, don’t you agree? The mob is still with us of course, but it has long since lost the torches. Now it expresses its righteous indignation on the internet, haunting down the creatures that have happened to offend, hunting in a mood of outrage; hunting like a pack.

It’s true; the mass expression of a two-minute hate (yes, the analogy is appropriate) against Joseph Kony, head of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is the latest example. Angelina Jolie has joined in, saying that she does not know anyone who does not hate Joseph Kony. All this flaming passion and outrage was sparked by Kony2012, a YouTube video broadcast last Thursday, one sponsored by a charity called Invisible Children.

The aim was to make Kony ‘famous’. This man carried out a war of terror in northern Uganda for decades, with an army made up in part of kidnapped children, an army responsible for the most nauseating atrocities. No need to make him famous, because he was already infamous. But ‘famous’ he has become in the lights of Kony2012, with over fifty million views of the video. People in the States were encouraged to put up posters in cities across the nation, thus making the fight against Kony and the LRA a matter of ‘national interest’ in Washington. That, so the film makers believe, will ensure that US military ‘advisors’ are sent to Africa to aid in the hunt for Kony.

I wonder if these people understand the potential damage they have done; I wonder if they understand anything at all about the present political situation in Uganda? Ugandan bloggers and journalists, outraged by this moral imperialism, are saying that the film may very well serve to resurrect Kony and the LRA from a long decline. Javie Ssozi, a leading Ugandan blogger, has said that suggesting that the answer is more military action is wrong.

Have they thought of the consequences? Making Kony ‘famous’ could make him stronger. Arguing for more US troops could make him scared, and make him abduct more children, or go on the offensive.

The other thing worth pointing out is that the picture painted of Kony and Uganda by the film is six or seven years out of date. Kony is no longer in the country but hiding away in the jungles of neighbouring states. Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility to tell the truth as honestly as they can; otherwise they risk sinking into the mire of propaganda. Kony2012, with its inaccuracies and patronising view of Ugandans and Uganda, has done nothing more than whip up mass hysteria, the sort of thing that would have been understood by the yellow press of old. Remember the Maine! Remember Joseph Kony! – what’s the difference?

Do not misunderstand me; I think Kony is a boil on the backside of humanity, but this campaign is all surface and no substance; it rose quickly and it will die just as quickly, when the mob turns to some other fashionable trend. There have been people highlighting the Kony problem for years, with a lot more sobriety and a lot more effect. Sending in US troops would be like setting an elephant off in pursuit of the ants, and we surely all know the outcome with that.

Who are these Invisible Children people; what’s their motivation? Is it altruism, a concern for suffering humanity? No, the organisation seems to be a money-spinning operation feeding off pure emotion. I read in the Telegraph that of over $9million it spent in 2001 less than half went on helping people on the ground. The rest apparently went on “awareness programmes and products”, as well as management and media; in other words, a lot of self-promotion.

A spokesman for the Ugandan government, also pointing out that the war is no longer in the country, said that Kony2012 (it really should be Kony2006) is creating a wholly misleading impression, allowing Invisible Children to garner increasing financial resources for their own agenda. It’s clearly been a great success, playing on emotions rather than reason. But it really is time for the hate fest to end.

Thursday 8 March 2012

An English Faust

I’m completely beguiled by witchcraft and magic, by the search for deeper, sometimes darker, forms of knowledge and understanding. I’ve read deeply into lots of sources, including the infamous Malleus Maleficarum – the Hammer of the Witches, a medieval treatise based on misconception and misunderstanding, but one that was to have dire consequences for so many people, particularly women. I’m captivated also by the Faust legend, another dangerous quest.

There is an odd ambiguity in the medieval and early modern understanding of witchcraft and magic. Witchcraft was disapproved of as malevolent magic, though magic, in the form of alchemy, was a reasonably respectable if occasionally risky occupation. It would have been lethal for a woman to set herself up as an alchemist or a magus, for the simple reason that accusations of witchcraft and demonology would quickly follow. Men were on slightly more certain territory, though they, too, were in danger of slipping over boundaries. It was all a matter, you see, of perception…and politics!

Dr Faustus is the stuff of legend; but Dr John Dee is the stuff of English history. His is a fascinating story, one that embraces science and magic, high politics and low comedy. It’s a story long waiting to be told in full. Now it has, admirably, by Glynn Parry in The Arch-Conjurer of England: John Dee.

Conventionally Dee was a scientist living in Tudor England, a man with a brilliant scholarly mind who set off in pursuit of some rather dubious notions. He really stands on the cusp of a great change, a time when superstition, giving way to reason, was still fighting a determined rearguard action. In a profession like his one really needed powerful protectors to avoid accusations of black magic, and as Glynn shows, Dee’s protectors included some of the most powerful in Elizabethan England. His patrons went as high as the Queen herself, taking along William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, her chief minister, and Francis Walsingham, her spy master, on the way.

Dee claimed to be able to foretell the future, a skill particularly desired by those in power. He also had a practical political use as a kind of counter-magus! In 1558 when Elizabeth came to the throne in succession to her Catholic sister, Mary, there were many dangers for the nascent Protestant queen. In France Nostradamus, the court magician of Catherine de Medici, predicted all sorts of dire things for England. Dee was hired to give a different spin and cast a better horoscope!

Dee was clearly a reasonably astute politician himself, at least on occasion. His best ‘prophecies’, in other words, were tailored to support policy drifts, which included casting positive auspices on Robert Dudley’s campaign in support of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, and Cecil’s campaign against the perceived Catholic threat. This was wizardry as a handmaiden to statecraft!

Alas, poor Doctor Dee, astute but not astute enough. He slipped and slipped badly - he made one political contact, one magical contact and one prediction too far. The political contact was a disreputable Polish nobleman by the name of Albrecht Laski. Believing that this man was favoured by the Queen, Dee then hired one Edmund Kelley, a ‘scryer’ who claimed to be able to talk to angels, to back up his prophecy that Laski would be king of Poland. Here Dee took his eye off the political ball; for the player to watch was not Elizabeth but Burleigh, who had no intention of advancing the Catholic Laski’s political ambitions. Down came the house, magic and all.

Now on Continental exile, Dee’s story slips from Faustian tragedy to Rabelaisian comedy. The fraudulent Kelley persuaded him that the only way for him to retain his magical powers was for the two to indulge in a spot of wife swapping. Dee agreed, sufficient proof, if any is needed, that even the most sophisticated minds are not free from risible forms of folly.

Parry has done splendid work in placing Dee, the man, the myth and the magic, in the wider stage of Elizabethan court politics. It explains why his little vessel was subject to such vagaries, moved along in one direction or another by changes in the wind. He also proves one thing that I’ve long believed – that innocence often goes hand in hind with scholarly curiosity, and, goodness, what an innocent Dee was.

There was one nugget of information which I fount wholly delightful. It was Dee who coined the term ‘British Empire’, though with all of his other prophecies this showed no great prescience on his part. His British Empire grew from the spurious contention that King Arthur, no less, had once planted colonies in the Americas. I can just see it - an Elizabethan Englishman in the Colonial Court of King Arthur!

Parry has brought our home-grown Faust out of the shadows. His scholarly efforts are commendable, and weighty. I could only wish that he had carried them a tad more lightly; the long passages from Dee’s own writings are crushingly dull. Still, if you are interested in the occult and the place of prediction in politics, if you are interested in the highs and the lows of an Elizabethan life, then I think you will enjoy this book. I did.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Syrian Pawns

I visited Egypt last November, though I had originally planned to go to Syria. There are some wonderful places there, particularly the remains of Palmyra, who’s Queen Zenobia, a figure of endless fascination for me, once took on the power of Rome. There is also Krak de Chevaliers, the most magnificent Crusader castle in the whole of the East.

I didn’t go, for obvious reasons. After my initial planning last spring the political situation began to spiral downwards in successive stages. It was too volatile, I was advised, too dangerous, so best to look elsewhere. I had a marvellous time in Egypt but I still think of Syria, still hope that one day soon I will, like Saint Paul, take the road to Damascus.

I’m certainly keeping an eye on developments in the country, just as I did last year on Libya, when Sarkozy and Cameron went on muddle-headed humanitarian ‘crusade’, one that has had wholly predictable results, results that I predicted at the time. All the right sounds are being made about Syria, how awful Bashar al-Assad is, how dreadful the massacres of the people, and on and on, but so far the two twits have done nothing but tweet. So, too, has Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, fuming at Russia and China for blocking an anti-Assad resolution at the United Nations.

I despair of our politicians, our leaders, forever incapable of looking below the surface. Look below the surface in Syria and what do you see, the huddled, pro-democracy masses yearning to breathe free, perhaps? No, that’s not what I see. Oh, yes, there is plenty of footage from Homs, the scene, supposedly, of the worst outrages by the Syrian army. But the majority of the country, including the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, is peaceful and unaffected. Sorry, that’s not quite true. As Rod Liddle writes in the Spectator, there have been occasional attacks by the operatives of the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ on civilian targets in the capital.

Even the benighted Dame Clinton (I can just picture her in pantomime) admits that, unlike Libya, large parts of Syria are peaceful, that there is no massive anti-Assad movement as there was anti-Gaddafi. What she can’t see, seemingly, is that the opposition, encouraged by the likes of al-Qaeda, Hamas and Saudi Arabia, is dominated not by democrats but by fundamentalists. Not content with allowing the Islamists to take charge in Tripoli she also wants them in Damascus.

“Democracy and human rights” the early demonstrators against Assad chanted. Oh, no, they did not; they were heard to shout “Send the Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to coffins.” Syria has a large Christian minority going right back to the days of Queen Zenobia. It’s now the largest the Middle East, given that the previously flourishing community in Iraq has all but been destroyed by the Bush-Blair ‘crusade.’ The secular Assad regime has long protected the community, just as it has protected the moderate Alawites and other Shia minorities. Now they all face an uncertain future if the rebellion is not contained.

The Free Syrian Army, whose NATO-sponsored ‘government-in-exile’ is dominated by the most reactionary elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, is fighting a proxy war on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Assad describes them as ‘foreign terrorists’ with some justification, for a great many are, coming from Iraq and Libya. The weapons are supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, countries that could not give a damn about the suffering of the Syrian people. No, in the bigger game of politics they just want to replace the region’s last secular ruler, all the more contemptible to them because he is an ally of Iran. In this game the ordinary people of Syria are no better than pawns.

Don’t mistake my position here; I am no friend of Assad, as unscrupulous and as bloody a dictator as they come. But a backward Wahhibi theocracy would be so much worse; worse for the majority, worse for the minorities, worse for women, worse for those who desire even a modicum of personal freedom.

It’s the hypocrisy that angers me most. Western leaders pontificate about the abuse of ‘human rights’ in Syria while conveniently ignoring those same abuses in Saudi Arabia. Britain and France intervened in Libya in support of ‘freedom’, only to see ‘freedom’ crushed in Bahrain without comment. With no appetite in the West for fresh interventions, the Saudis and Qataris are urging us to arm the rebels, a more cowardly course of action I find difficult to contemplate, one that will only prolong the suffering of the pawns of Syria into an indefinite future.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

The Rise of the Morlocks

Sociology is not my subject. More than that, it seemed to me to be one of more tendentious academic disciplines, the happy hunting ground for all sorts of lefties. Bogus theories compounded by bogus politics that, for me, is sociology.

Or, rather, was sociology. I’m pleased to say that my view here was far too partial! I delight in serendipity, the art of discovering things by chance. Charles Murray is a new discovery for me, a sociologist of unique and refreshing vision. Presently working for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington, he is best known for a book called The Bell Curve. In this he was rash enough to discuss the IQ levels of different ethnic groups, attracting a rush of liberal hatred.

But it’s his views on poverty that I find most compelling, his argument that state action in this area, the so-called ‘war on poverty’, has the reverse effect from that intended – it increases the number of poor people. More than that, it’s corrosive of personal responsibility and independence. This is my own view exactly. In an article I published here at the beginning of last year (The Dead Hand of Welfare, January 11) I opened in combative style;

The one certain consequence of aid, of any kind of welfare, is poverty. Look at this country, look at the dreadful Dependency State, a financial burden that has crippled us for years and resulted in a form of entrenched, institutionalised socialism, almost impossible to shift, no matter the political complexion of any given government. Billions of pounds have been spent and we are not a step closer to ending poverty.

In his work as a number cruncher Murray has added substance to this assertion in an American context. Like Britain, billions have been spent on antipoverty programmes but poverty remains stubbornly entrenched. Worse still, those targeted, the recipients of benefits, have lost the incentive to work hard and raise children within the context of a stable relationship.

Murray is also, I’m delighted to say, a libertarian, very much of my own kidney. He explained himself in What it Means to be a Libertarian, a book published in the late 1990s. In this he calls himself a ‘lower-case’ libertarian, too fond of the “indispensible role of tradition and classic virtues” to go along with the likes of Ayn Rand. Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, his heroes are my heroes!

In 1989 he was asked by the Sunday Times to investigate if we have an ‘underclass’ a term he popularised that same year, in this country. He used three measures in his investigation: drop-out from the labour force among young males, violent crime and births to unmarried women. These, he concluded, were associated with the growth of a class of “violent, unsocialised people who, if they become sufficiently numerous, will fundamentally degrade the life of society.”

He returned to the same theme, again at the behest of the Times, ten years later, saying that Britain had become “just another high-crime industrialised country”, and that the underclass was “driven by the breakdown in socialisation of the young, which in turn is driven by the breakdown of the family.” Last year’s London riots are sufficient proof of his claims, if any proof is needed.

He has now published Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in which he discusses the growing fractures in American society and the dangers presented by an underclass, cut off from a common set of values. His fears are my fears; for, in the end, I suspect the Morlocks will consume us all.

Monday 5 March 2012

Sensational Writer, Unsensational Life

Poor William Wilkie Collins, destined forever to fall under the shadow of Charles Dickens, his contemporary and his friend. Poor William Wilkie Collins, a man who wrote two great novels and a lot of middling ones. But, oh, how captivating this master of Victorian melodrama could be, how mesmerising, how compelling. I read The Woman in White in less than a day, horribly fascinated by the dastardly deeds of Sir Percival Gylde and Count Fosco, two of the most delightfully dark villains in all of Victorian literature! The Moonstone, which I also devoured in a fever, is, as T. S. Eliot once said, the first and best detective novel in the English literary canon.

Collins was a Londoner, born and bred. Like Dickens he is a chronicler of the city in a time of great transition. It’s as well that we remember him in this year when his mentor is being so lavishly celebrated. Peter Ackroyd has in Wilkie Collins, not so much a biography as a literary pot-boiler.

It’s a pity, really, because if I were a publisher thinking of commissioning a work on Collins Ackroyd would be the first writer to come to mind. After all, who could be better? Who could be better than a man who wrote masterly biographies of Dickens and of London? But Wilkie Collins is oddly two-dimensional, almost as if the author was bored with the subject, the occasional flashes of brilliance notwithstanding.

There is much to fascinate in the life of Collins, a man in so many ways wholly untypical of his times. He had none of Dickens bourgeois respectability. He never married. Instead he had two long-term mistresses, one of whom bore him three children. Two mistresses, both of whom knew of the other, meant two households and lots of imaginative juggling. There is an interesting parallel here with his fiction, where doppelgangers abound. I’m thinking specifically of Laura Farlie and Anne Catherick in The Woman in White, shadows, perhaps, of Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, the women in Marylebone!

Like Thomas de Quincy, Collins was an English opium eater. Suffering from ‘rheumatic gout’, a Victorian portmanteau covering a variety of sins (the ‘sin’ in Collins’ case may have been venereal), he took increasing quantities of laudanum, a tincture of alcohol and opium freely available at the time. By his mid-thirties he was drinking to levels that would have killed those not habituated. There were consequences, of course, terrifying hallucinations, the sort of demon that pursued de Quincy, except his pursuer wasn’t a Chinaman (read Confessions of an English Opium Eater!) but yet another doppelganger, another Wilkie Collins.

Ill-health, addiction and domestic complexity did not stop him working, though by his own admission he had no recollection at all of writing large parts of The Moonstone. As a novelist he came at just the right time. Paper taxes had been abolished in the 1820s; there had been important breakthroughs in printing technology and a mass market was developing with the improvement in elementary education.

This was all helped along by the expansion of the railway, with travellers able to buy ‘Shilling Shockers’ at the new stations. The Woman in White was an immediate sensation, the first edition selling out within a short space of time. It also caused what we would now call product placement, with Woman in White bonnets Woman in White perfume and even a Woman in White waltz.

Collins knew his public. He liked to travel around on the new London omnibuses, picking up snatches of conversation, then colouring his fiction. He was really the first modern sensationalist, and how sensational he could be, touching on the lowest recesses of human behaviour – murder, fraud, adultery and blackmail. And, yes, sex! It’s quite rightly said that there is more sex in Collins’ books than there is anywhere else in the fiction of the time, outside underground pornography. In Basil the eponymous hero discovers he has been cuckolded when he listens through a thin wall while his young bride does the wild thing - noisily- with the book’s villain!

Hardly surprising, given his unusual domestic arrangements, he was critical of what he called ‘clap trap morality’. He was particularly critical of the way that women were treated at the time. To compensate for this, as Ackroyd points out, he created in his books fiercely independent women who defied the conventions of nineteenth century femininity.

So, then, there is lots to be going on with about a writer, about his public and about his times. But Ackroyd seems to have taken his own somnambulant trip through Wilkie Collins. It’s a brief life, a mere two hundred pages compared with the thousand or so of the magisterial Dickens. That may not have been so bad – there is far less original material for a life of Collins than there is for Dickens – but the subject does not seem to engage him. His pedestrian treatment certainly won’t gain Collins many new readers. The problem is, in the end, he makes the author sound like a bit of a bore, a measure, I suspect of his own boredom, or, sad to say, declining power as a writer.

I don’t want to be completely unfair. As I said above, there are occasional flashes of brilliance, of the old Ackroyd. He still has a penetrating eye for detail, picking up on the future significance of the magnifying glass in detective fiction from Sergeant Cuff’s use of it in The Moonstone. The prose shines at points but mostly it’s a picture painted in dull monotones. It gives me the appearance of a book written in a hurry. There are far too many crutches, ‘must have’, ‘seems’, ‘is likely’, the sort of authorial interventions to cover lacunae, words and phrases that simply madden me with their silly imprecision, proof that the writer is not the master of his subject. Collins deserves better. At one time Ackroyd could have done better.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Robin of the Right

I’d never heard of Andrew Breitbart, the American conservative activist, author and blogger. I’d never heard of him until last Thursday, when news of his death was announced in a post on Blog Catalogue.

I took exception to the early tone being set, one of minor celebration. Considering that he died at a relatively early age, considering that he leaves a wife and four young children, I described it as despicable and distasteful. There are times when political differences are irrelevant. In response I was given a link to another blog and asked, once I read it, if I would feel the same way. This is part of what I read;

Let’s face facts here; the man was an asshole, fashioned after the many conservative assholes who are currently residing in our media. He was a racist, misogynistic, homophobic elitist bastard, who gleefully attacked the character of anybody who didn’t share his hateful, narrow minded views. He was the model of today’s Republican as featured in our present day media.

What is there to say? If that’s the level to which criticism and discourse has sunk in the States then things really are in a bad way. It seems the justification for this kind of venom was Breitbart’s own invective. Soon after the death of Senator Edward Kennedy he described him as “villain”, a “duplicitous bastard”, a “prick” and “a special pile of human excrement.” The favour has now been returned, with one Kenneth J Bernstein greeting Breitbart’s death using the same terms in a diary entry on the Daily Kos, seemingly an American political blog that publishes ‘progressive’ (how I loath that word) views.

I actually wrote my own obituary on Edward Kennedy, published at the time of his death on the Daily Telegraph readers’ website. It took the form of some musing by Sir Mordred, the rebel knight at the court of King Arthur (Sir Mordred Reflects on the End of Camelot). Here is part of his, sorry, my reflection;

So on to Ted, the last of the ‘great’ senators and the clan’s weakest link. I suppose he deserves the accolade of greatness simply for being around long enough, the Methuselah of the upper house. And what a variety of super liberal and semi-socialist causes he embraced, making lots of sound and fury in the process that signified nothing. Was it enough to wipe away the shame of Chappaquiddick, the shame of leaving a nineteen-year-old woman to drown while he made his escape, the shame of failing to report the incident for hours after? For some it seems to have been, for Super Obama it seems to have been, but not for Mordred; no, never.

There is other evidence of Ted’s turpitude beyond Chappaquiddick. The older Kennedys’ extra-marital exploits escaped press scrutiny a little in the same fashion as royals did at the time, but Ted lived long enough to see the emergence of a much less deferential age. His exploits were a dream for his Republican opponents. In 1988 in a speech on the Regan administration’s secret deal to sell arms to Iran he asked rhetorically “Where was George Bush?” The reply was made on bumper stickers across the land, “Dry, Sober and Home with his Wife.”

Am I speaking ill of the dead? I suppose I must be, but so much ill was directed at me by poets down the ages; so please allow me some return. Even so, while I welcome no one’s death I do welcome the end of a shabby modern Camelot, a tawdry illusion so much worse in every way than the original; an illusion that served to poison America with the lie of liberalism and the lie of socialism.

In other words he was a villain, a duplicitous bastard, a prick and a special pile of human excrement! But I’m not American; I don’t express myself in such earthy terms. Breitbart did, though his faults are nothing compared with those of the tawdry Kennedy.

On the basis of some very brief research I’ve concluded that there was so much to admire in his approach to life and politics. He wasn’t a knight at Camelot; no he was Robin Hood, fighting against the barons who dominate American life.

Time Magazine referred to him as the internet’s “most combative conservative impresario”, which seems to have been a well-deserved accolade, one I feel sure that made him proud. A champion of the Tea Party and baiter of Obama (he described him as Marxist in an interview with the New York Times), he set up conservative websites like Big Government, Big Journalism and Big Hollywood, the three areas of American life which he considered to be dominated by a liberal elite, unreflective of the views of ordinary people.

In an interview with Time he said “Most conservatives are individualists. For years, they have been pummelled by the collectivists who run the American media, Hollywood and Washington. The underground conservative movement that is now awakening is the ecosystem I’ve designed my sites to tap into.”

As I said, a modern Robin Hood of the right, fighting against the vested interests that would silence any view but their own. Yes, he was brave guerrilla, tackling the awful orthodoxies that dominate so much of our life, not just in the States but in Europe also, where the ghastly and unrepresentative bureaucracy in Brussels smothers dissent with silence.

Even if his weapons are not my weapons, his words not my words, I can recognise a fellow rebel. I regret not knowing of him when he was alive. John Donne’s poem For Whom the Bell Tolls comes to mind. We are, indeed, diminished by our loss. But the words I want to conclude with are those of the first respondent on the Telegraph article reporting Breitbart’s death;

Now, we shall see the CLASS of friends and foes. I wish I could say that I expect to witness respectable decorum. But I know, as Andrew would, it simply won't be. The left has divided our people into warring camps. They will rejoice at our loss. So be it. This is a body blow to conservatives, no doubt about it. Time to offer prayers to friends family and to remember him for energy, brilliance and focus. Time to pick up the flag and soldier on.