Monday 30 April 2012

A Certain Understanding

Speaking in the House of Commons in 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, in a mood of anger against Sir Robert Peel, then Conservative Prime Minister, said that the right honourable gentleman had caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes.  What he meant was that, in repealing the Corns Laws, Peel had stolen the ideas of the main opposition party.

This reference came to mind in reading an account of Nicholas Sarkozy’s speech at Le Raincy on the suburbs of Paris last week.  He’s in a fairly desperate mood, poor man, fighting for his political existence after falling behind François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, in the first round of the French presidential election.  With the two men going forward to a second and deciding contest on May 6 things are not looking good for Sarko, running up to ten points behind his colourless rival in the opinion polls. 

All is fair in love, war and French politics.  Looking for a way of saving his hide Monsieur le Président is alert to any opportunity offered.  There she was; how could he possibly resist?  He caught Marine le Pen bathing and walked away with her clothes.  I can just picture him in drag, an ensemble topped with a blonde wig.  Talk about prêt-à-porter! 

Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front, won’t be standing in the final round, having come third in the first.  I say she won’t be standing but in a sense she will, in that she has become something of a king…sorry, make that queen maker.  She secured almost six and a half million votes in last Sunday’s first round, a record eighteen per cent of the poll.  With less than a million votes separating Sarkozy from Hollande on that occasion it’s a reservoir that he simply can’t ignore. 

So, there he was, talking in a mainly white neighbourhood, the quintessential Parisian denouncing the Parisian elite.  It wasn’t just Parisian urbanites he denounced, no; into the mix came drug dealers, Muslim preachers, Muslims who lock up their wives, police killers and foreigners, foreigners and more foreigners.  “I speak for the people who have had enough of lessons from those who live in the posh districts of Paris”, he shrilled, seemingly unaware that he would have to include himself here. 

The address was to the people of La Raincy, who live not too far from the grim estate of Clichy-sous-Bois, the immigrant and Muslim dominated area where the 2005 riots began, but he really had his eye on a much bigger audience.  Speaking directly to Le Pen’s masses he said “I respect you, hear you, in a certain way understand you.  Because I speak to six and a half million French people, I am supposed to be a fascist?”  His critics, he shouted, were hypocrites who understand nothing of the justified fear that foreigners were trying to rob France of its identity. 

I would say that what’s robbing France of its identity, what’s robbing every European nation of their separate identities, is the cosmopolitan ‘ideal’ of Europe, an ‘ideal’ that Sarkozy promoted in defiance of his own people, who voted against the Lisbon constitution.  However, here I’m simply going to put that fundamental truth to one side and concentrate on the main issue, which is Sarakozy’s opportunism and his hypocrisy. 

I wonder about the ‘certain way’ in which Sarko understands the National Front voters. Do they understand him; do they see through this naked demagoguery, do they see that he is hoping that they will enable him to extend his tenancy of the Élysée Palace for another five years?  Once safely behind those doors one thing can be guaranteed: that ‘certain understanding’ will evaporate as fast as rain on a Parisian summer’s day. 

Meanwhile poor naked Marine is playing her own game.  She is campaigning against that ‘certain understanding’, hoping that Sarkozy’s defeat will destroy his UMP party, allowing the National Front to make gains in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June.  She might reconsider her opposition, she says, she might call on her millions to vote for the President, but only if he agrees to support her parliamentary candidates against the Socialists.  It remains to be seen just how elastic that ‘certain understanding’ is.  

Sunday 29 April 2012

Loving the Blonde Beast

When I was eighteen I wrote to Boris Johnson, the present mayor of London.  He was then shadow Minister of the Arts in the front bench team of Michael Howard, the Conservative Leader of the Opposition.  

Johnson was also at the time the editor of the Spectator, a weekly political magazine that I’ve been reading since my early schooldays.  It was on his watch that an editorial appeared criticising the people of Liverpool for displays of ‘mawkish sentimentality’ over the death in Iraq of a prominent local figure.  They were also accused of wallowing in a ‘vicarious victimhood.’  Howard, in overreacting to the ensuing squeals of protest, ordered Johnson to make a personal pilgrimage to Liverpool, draped in metaphorical sackcloth and ashes, offering a humiliating public apology. 

It all seemed so ludicrous to me.  In my letter I said that it called to mind the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who had to journey to the fortress of Canossa in northern Italy, there to abase himself before Pope Gregory VII. Poor Emperor Boris; he had ‘nach Canossa gehen.’ 

I didn’t really expect a response; it was just a minor gesture of solidarity.  I got one, though, a lovely and thoughtful letter thanking me for my understanding.  Up to that point I had admired him as a politician and as a writer, as well as for his endearing appearances on Have I Got News for You, a BBC comedy cum news quiz.  Ever since I’ve adored the blonde beast! 

This coming Thursday, 3 May, he is standing for re-election in the London mayoral contest, with Ken Livingstone, the former Labour incumbent, the main challenger.  I loath Livingstone, a sleazy, self-regarding and unpleasant little man, a friend of backward Muslim clerics, which is reason enough to support Boris.  But setting the negativity to one side, there are so many solid reasons why BJ is the man for London.  I’ll come on to these in a bit but first ecce homo – look at the man and the enormous difficulties he faces.

I have no doubt that Boris is not just the most important Conservative in London but in Britain as a whole.  As David Cameron’s star wanes Boris’s waxes.  Though not in the government, he has a recognition factor that most front bench ministers would envy.  He’s also hugely popular and I have little doubt that in normal circumstances he would be a shoo-in on Thursday.  But these are not normal circumstances; Boris is swimming against the tide. Shifty Ken has one major advantage; Cameron and George Osborne, the Chancellor, have been batting on his side.

With the present government it’s been disaster after disaster, not least with Osborne’s botched budget.  With the tide of opinion moving heavily against the Conservatives, Boris may drown in an electoral tsunami; he may go under in a deluge of political factors over which he has no control.  The copy gets worse day by day.  No sooner had the government announced that it had loaned a further £10billion to the IMF than even deeper cuts in domestic spending were revealed. With friends like these who the hell needs enemies? 

Writing in the latest issue of the Spectator Fraser Nelson reminds us just exactly what Boris has done for London and Londoners.  His 8000 ‘Boris bikes’ have been taken on no fewer than ten million rides.  Altogether the city is a much more cyclist-friendly place than it was when I was in my teens (I never dreamed then of negotiating the many hazards on my bike!).  Under the watchful eye of our dear Gauleiter there has been a ten per cent reduction in street crime.  The Greater London Authority Tax has been frozen, saving the average Londoner a cumulative £445.  Boris has pledged to reduce it by a further ten per cent if re-elected.  All this and Boris bikes; what more could one ask for?!  

But, as I say, he is swimming against a particularly strong current.  With George Galloway, Britain’s number one Islamist, out campaigning for Livingstone, it’s clear that there is a cynical attempt to play the Muslim card in the same fashion as the recent Bradford East by-election. 

Nelson concludes his piece as follows;

The Mayor matters because he represents a certain strand of Conservatism, unashamed about Tory principles and unafraid of making unpopular arguments. His Toryism is one of tax cuts, standing up for British bankers and defying the European Union when it threatens our prosperity. Boris embodies the rejection of the Blair/Clinton ‘triangulation’ politics, where the least offensive politician is deemed the most successful.

This election was always about more than just London. It is about how we do politics, who fights and who wins. Over the last 20 years, our politics has been reduced into a battle for swing voters in swing seats. This has led our political class in a certain direction, directed by the sat-navs of the opinion polls and focus groups. Boris has defiantly set off in another direction, guided by instinct and brio. And this is why his victory matters so much.

Indeed it does.  I’m campaigning for Boris; I’m persuading as many people as I can to support Boris; I shall be voting on Thursday for Boris.  You see, I love Boris, just as I love London.  

Thursday 26 April 2012

Turbulent Priest

Kings can be dangerous and uncertain friends.  Thomas More, Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, knew as much.  A close political and personal adviser to the king, he harboured no illusions about their relationship, telling Will Roper, his son-in-law, that “If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to fall.”   His head did fall, though not over a castle in France.  So, too, in a way, did the head of Thomas Becket, the martyr Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered for defying the will of Henry II, his one time mentor. 

There is an interesting parallel between the two commoners and the two kings, close collaborators distanced by politics and circumstances.  Becket’s death secured those very privileges and legal exemptions for the church from the general course of common law that Henry had been anxious to end.  His martyrdom marked a - temporary - victory of the sacred over the secular power. 

More’s martyrdom, in contrast, came at the height of a political and clerical revolution that saw the church firmly subordinated to the power of the state.  To confirm the new realities, Henry had Becket’s shrine at Canterbury, long the most important pilgrimage site in England, destroyed.  He was no saint, the king had decreed, “but a rebel and traitor to his prince.”  His namesake and medieval predecessor would doubtless have agreed.

Here we have Thomas Becket in the round, a martyr for one season and a rebel for another; saint and sinner in one. This year is the eight hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the elevation to the see of Canterbury, an occasion marked with the publication of Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim by John Guy.  Others have traced these steps before him, not just in biography and history but also in drama, poetry and film.  Becket, to use what is now rather a hackneyed expression, truly is a man for all seasons.

Guy, a specialist in Tudor history, has created a man for our season in a lucid and balanced life of one of England's greatest churchmen.  He is to be commended because it’s not that easy to find a ‘via media’ with Becket. So much of the material that followed the infamous 1170 murder in the cathedral is hagiography, to be treated with considerable caution.  But Guy builds up an entirely plausible picture with all of the balance and skill of a good historian.

His is a tale of an odd couple - the brutal and domineering Angevin king and the scholarly and principled commoner.  This was never a relationship of equals.  Henry saw in Becket a useful tool, a man who had performed a commendable administrative role as Chancellor, an office he made uniquely his own.  So impressed was the King that he immediately appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury on the death Theobald, though he wasn’t even a priest at the time. 

Soon after came the deluge.  Without even telling the King, who expected him to combine both offices, Becket immediately resigned the Chancellorship.  A great layman was set to become a great churchman.  Most have seen this as the key moment in the evolving relationship between the two men, as if Becket experienced a kind of epiphany, a revelation on the road to Damascus, taking him from one set of attitudes to quite the opposite.  But Guy shows that there was no sudden transformation in Becket’s character; that, even at his most worldly, he had always carried deep reservoirs of inner piety, that he had principles bordering on stubbornness. 

Rather surprisingly, considering that he had been so close to the centre of power, he lacked political subtlety, the real key to his downfall.  There have to be real questions also about the true nature of the friendship between him and the king.  They could enjoy field sports together, but neither man seems to have fully understood the other.  Supporting the sovereignty of the crown at one moment and the sovereignty of the church at the next, Becket embarked on a course of action with a surprising aggressiveness. Henry was not an easy man to play, but a gentler course might have yielded better results. 

But, then, perhaps martyrdom was the ultimate gaol, the ultimate political gesture.  It certainly secured the ‘liberty’ of the church for centuries after the Archbishop’s death, until another Henry appeared.  Becket, as a saint, may have been a heavenly success but in the long run his cause was an earthly failure.  Even Charles I, the only Anglican martyr, who also sacrificed himself on a point of religious principle, considered him a traitor. 

Generally speaking Guy provides us with a well-crafted analysis of a clash between two giant personalities, all against a wider political clash between church and state.  Weakness comes, where all weaknesses come, when he departs from the record into the misty marshes of psychological speculation. His attribution of Becket’s “insecurity of temperament” to his “closeness to his mother as a child” strikes me as so much psycho-padding and hogwash.  There is also, I have to say, a laziness in his prose style at points, places where he overdraws in the bank of cliché.  Expressions like ‘baptism of fire’, ‘getting into a tight corner’ and ‘vibrant social scene’ really do gall. 

Still, my carping notwithstanding, this is a solid account of a fascinating life and interesting times.  I think the author has done a commendable job in uncovering the man underneath the halo, though perhaps at the expense of his royal master; as the one magnifies the other seems to diminish. Bullying and brutal he may have been, but Henry was simply trying to redress a balance, strengthening a state that had lost so much ground during the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda.  An over-mighty church was as bad as an over-mighty subject.  Becket, the great commoner, had the misfortune to combine both dangers.  He was the most turbulent priest in our history.  

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Christian Winter

This is an article I had published on Broowaha on Easter Sunday under a different title.  I want to preserve it here also. 

It’s Easter Sunday, late in the evening. I’m in Paris for the weekend, looking out over the city of lights. It’s been a wonderful few days. I’m not in the habit of writing on vacation, especially when I’m on a romantic interlude in the most romantic city on earth!

I could have held this article over until Monday evening, when I’ll be back in London but, as I say, this is Easter Sunday. There is no better time to draw your attention to the plight of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, now in serious danger of extinction.

These are the original Christians, people whose forebears were settled in the area several centuries before the Muslims arrived. For them the Arab Spring has not brought liberation but persecution and fear, all caused by the upsurge of militant and murderously intolerant forms of Islam.

Most of you will be aware of Hilary Clinton’s attempt to have a UN resolution passed, condemning the government of Bashar al-Assad for the violent assault of the Syrian army on the rebel-held city of Homs. What you may not be aware of is that Islamists in the city have carried out a ‘religious cleansing’, forcing 50,000 Christians to flee from their homes in terror, a fact reported by Douglas Davis in the latest issue of the Spectator.

It’s not an isolated event. Christians in other Syrian cities have come under attack. Bishop Antonine Audo of Aleppo, where a car bomb was exploded in the Christian quarter last month, says that the people are very afraid – “The Christians don’t know what their future will hold.”

Left-liberals are much given to gnashing of teeth over the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis. There are no laments at all over the persecution of Palestinians…by other Palestinians. The threat even extends to Bethlehem, the literal and metaphorical cradle of Christianity.

As Davis mentions in his article (Out of the east), thirty years ago three quarters of the people living in the West Bank town were Christian. A reign of terror by Islamic extremists, involving land theft, intimidation and beatings, has reduced that figure to an estimated ten per cent.

The violence extends to Hamas-controlled Gaza, where half of the Christian
population have left their homes since the terrorist organisation took control of the area in 2007. Hardly surprising when one learns that there have been calls for people to slaughter their Christian neighbours, a chilling fact that seems to have escaped the likes of Alice Walker and all of the other 'useful idiots' who would succor Hamas.

I was in Egypt last November, when I made friends among the local Coptic community, people whose ancestors were in the country in the days of the pharaohs. The email correspondence I receive confirms the reports of growing apprehension in the face of the victory of the Islamist parties in the parliamentary elections. There have been killings and church burnings from Luxor in the south to Alexandria in the north. Last year no fewer than 200,000 people were forced to leave their homes under threat of further violence.
The greatest tragedy of all, though, has to be the fate of the Christians of Iraq, whose exodus from the country in the wake of George Bush’s ill-conceived invasion of 2003 has reached biblical proportions. Before the invasion there were 1.4million. Now only 400,000 are left.

Since 2003 nine hundred and fifty Iraqi Christians have been murdered and over sixty churches bombed. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom warned recently that “the end of Christianity in Iraq” was approaching. Most of those who are left are the elderly, people who exhausted their savings helping their children leave.

Amidst this unprecedented tragedy there is one bright spot for Arab Christians – Israel, a state that guarantees freedom of worship to all faiths. There the community has increased by an estimated 2000 per cent. In highlighting this fact, West goes on to make the following observations;

Never mind the ‘Israeli apartheid’ myths that flourish on Britain’s university Campuses. What intrigues me is why Britain’s political and media classes, normally so sensitive to humanitarian issues, turn away in the face of very real apartheid-style oppression that persists on the Arab world; why they remain silent as Christians are persecuted and the UN Human Rights Council, which last month endorsed the human rights record of Libya’s late Mummar Gaddafi, peddles its bizarre nonsense.

I’m guessing the position here is the same in the States, at least judging by the attitude of Hilary Clinton. I would urge you all, Christian or not, to spare a thought for an ancient community facing annihilation, even if she does not.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Mea Culpa

I’m guilty, I confess it; I am a fellow traveller of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murder, now on trial in Oslo.  Surely you must have noticed the association, even if you’ve only descended occasionally to the realm of the Imp; surely you must have noticed that I swing to the right?  I stand accused along with the likes of Melanie Philips, Mark Steyn and James Delingpole.  

The thing is, you see, if you strip away Breivik’s more outlandish rhetoric there is little to separate his views from mine, or the views of conservative critics in general, and that includes those in the mainstream press.  I have repeatedly condemned mass immigration, multiculturalism, cultural Marxism, Islamic extremism (not Islam as a religion, I have to stress) and political correctness.  I’ve condemned so many other fashionable notions that have served to undermine some of our most cherished institutions, served to undermine our sense of who we are and where we belong.  Breivik’s bêtes noires are my bêtes noires and, as Voltaire wrote, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

Yes, there is little to separate Breivik’s views from those of right-wing ideologues like myself.  It must be true; it says so in latest issue of the New Statesman, and the New Statesman is always right or left or whatever.  They have me and others of my kidney bang to rights!  In expressing a view I deal in misinformation and distortion; in expressing a view I give encouragement to those who deal in death. 

In this respect I am totally unlike Mhedi Hasan, the magazine’s Senior Political Editor.  I’m not a Muslim, you see; I’m a kafaar, an atheist and a disbeliever, a person of no-intelligence; I am cattle.  Let me be completely fair, least I be accused of taking his words ‘out of context’.  This is the context;

The kaffar, the disbelievers, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the teachings of Islam, the rational message of the Quran; they are described in the Quran as, quote, “a people of no intelligence”, Allah describes them as; not of no morality, not as people of no belief – people of “no intelligence” – because they’re incapable of the intellectual effort it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about this world, about the existence of God. In this respect, the Quran describes the atheists as “cattle”, as cattle of those who grow the crops and do not stop and wonder about this world.

Actually, he’s wrong.  Speaking for myself, I do stop and wonder about this world.  I stop and wonder particularly about the New Statesman; I wonder what its Fabian founders would have made of this view; I wonder what George Bernard Shaw would have made of it, given that he frequently attacked religion.  No matter; Mehdi has spoken.  I am cattle; I live my life like an animal. 

The New Statesman has spoken also, drawing a continuum between right wing reflections and mass murder.  I wrote not so long ago condemning the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory in particular and political correctness in general (American Disease, 17 January).  Now - would you believe it? -Mad Anders embraces a similar denunciation in his rambling Mad Manifesto!  So, yes, we of the right are guilty for all of his delusions.  I write; he acts; it’s as simple as that; it’s as simple as the New Statesman.

So, if you are in the habit of coming this way do be careful least I infect you with right wing rabies.  I might write soon expressing my contempt for paedophiles, wife beaters and knuckle-headed New Statesman editorial writers and columnists.  I expect that shall be the spur for another Anders to act, brooding away in some bedsit in lonely and paranoid isolation.  I expect the Old Bill to call on me at some point in the future, arrested as a perpetuator of absurdities.   

After that the rest will be silence, or only the word according to the New Statesman will descend upon you.  In the meantime I shall leave all of you unreflective cattle with the particular words of Mhedi, straight from the horse’s mouth, or whatever other animal he has a preference for.

Monday 23 April 2012

Out of Hell

A picture is worth a thousand words, even when that picture is an amateurish drawing. The drawing in question shows a fourteen-year-old boy, stripped naked and suspended above a charcoal fire. He is secured to the ceiling by a rope tied around his wrists and a chain around his ankles. As he writhed in agony away from the flames, he was secured in place by one of his tormentors by means of a steel hook through his abdomen.

The boy’s name is Shin Dong-hyuk. The time is 1996. The place is North Korea, a concentration camp, to be more exact. Shin was born there, the product of a casual liaison orchestrated by the camp guards to provide more slave labour. His mother and brother were planning to escape. Debased and dehumanised, he informed the guards of their plans. No matter; he is being tortured to find out how much more he knew; he is being tortured for the pleasure of the torturers. Later, with all of the other inmates, he was forced to watch his mother hanged and his brother shot.

We know all of this because Shin is the only person ever to have escaped from a ‘no exit’ camp. His particular story is now the subject of Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea To Freedom In The West, written up on the basis of numerous interviews with the subject by Blaine Harden, a journalist who works for the Washington Post. It invites comparison with Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, which I reviewed here last year (Envying Dogs, 30 August). I’m going to hold off on this for a bit, though.

For over twenty years Shin knew nothing but hunger, cruelty, torture and callous brutality. This was a kwan-li, a camp for political prisoners from which death was the only mode of egress. When I say ‘political prisoners’ I should make it clear that we are not dealing with forms of ‘dissidence’ that any normal person might understand. This is not the world of Kafka; this is not the world of Orwell; they are far too sane to describe real life in North Korea

In 1972 Kim Ill Sung issued an edict, ordering that the sins of the fathers be visited upon the sons and the sons and the sons. In other words, three generations of the same family had to be punished to wipe out the “seed of class enemies.” Whole families, including tiny children, were sent to concentration camps for the most minor of offences. Crimes included not wiping the dust off the portrait of the ‘Great Leader’. Wrong doing, wrong thinking, wrong knowledge, wrong background; it all went in to the metaphysical stew.

The conditions Shin and the others had to face are almost beyond comprehension. The Nazis in their lexicon of death had a particularly sinister phrase – extermination through labour. The North Koreans show commendable zeal in the same process. Inmates in the various camps work fifteen hour days. Inadequately fed, they die of starvation or simple exhaustion.

That is when they are not murdered by the guards. In Shin’s camp there were eight rules which, if infringed, resulted in immediate shooting. Any woman falling pregnant was ‘shot immediately’. This included those who were raped by the guards. I say rape, but there was no crime here; for the guards were at liberty to have sex with any woman they chose, just as they were not at liberty to resist. This is a world without love, without comfort of any kind. Hell could not be so cruel.

It’s a world where Shin saw his first execution at the age of four. The victim had his mouth stuffed with pebbles just in case he tried to say anything ‘unpatriotic’ prior to death. When he was six years old Shin saw a girl of the same age being beaten to death by a prison teacher for having a few grains of corn in her pocket. This is a world where people had so little food that they would pick through cow dung for corn.

Escape from Camp 14 is an important testimony and a harrowing read. Shin’s story is one that needs to be told. There are clearly many other such stories among the estimated 200,000 people who have disappeared into night and fog. If you enjoyed Nothing to Envy you will be moved by this account of blighted lives. I’m reluctant to say anything that might put people off reading. However, as a work of reportage I thought it far less assured than Demick. Stylistically it’s not that engaging. It's repetitive and heavy-handed at points. Above all it is far too self-conscious, the story of Harden as much as Shin.

Still, it’s a timely reminder of the terrible injustices in the world. It’s also an indictment of hypocrisy, the hypocrisy of governments that seem alert to human rights in some places (mostly those with oil) and blind to them in others. It’s an indictment of those who repeatedly condemn the alleged human rights abuses of the Israelis and remain silent about North Korea. It’s an indictment of all those who see virtue in any ‘anti-imperialist’ cause, no matter how wicked and perverse. It’s an indictment of stupidity in all of its manifold forms.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Insolent Delays

A pocket cartoon in last Thursday’s Times just about sums things it up.  There is God, sitting on his heavenly throne, holding a document in his hand.  Turning to an angel he says “Apparently, casting out Satan breaches his inhuman rights.” 

This comes after the latest attempt to cast out that devil Abu Qatada was blocked by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  The whole thing is a comedy of errors, involving the Home Office and arguments over deadlines for appeals, except it’s a comedy without much in the way of humour. 

Theresa May, the hapless Home Secretary, was under the impression that the deadline for an appeal had passed last Monday.  Oh, no, it hadn’t, came the cry from the European wing, as the legal pantomime got ever more ludicrous, it was Tuesday.  Poor Hamlet, on the threshold of self-destruction, musing about the law’s delay and the insolence of office, did not know the half of it!

The Times was clearly frustrated judging by the headline across the front page.  Europe’s court jesters, it stamped.  Prime Minister David Cameron is also frustrated, vowing to force Qatada out of the country, “no matter how difficult”.  The entire government is clear, he went on, that this man has no right to be here.  “I sometimes wish I could put him on a plane and take him to Jordan myself.”

Hmm, that’s not very encouraging, is it?  By his words shall ye know him.  Here is a British Prime Minister illustrating not his determination and competence but his supine powerlessness.  We just know that nothing is going to happen; we just know that the whole process at Strasbourg, a legal morass, is likely to take months and months and months. We just know that the repulsive Qatada is likely to be released once again on bail, a poison in our midst.  We just know that Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, will not allow Cameron to do the right thing, which is to send Qatada on his way, devil take the consequences and devil take the European Court of Human Rights. 

All this comes on the eve of a conference intended to curb the court’s influence on Britain after a series of controversial rulings.  Yes, yes: more jaw jaw and no war war.  You can have many conferences as you like, says Nicolas Dušan Bratza, it’s not going to change a thing. 

Who is Nicolas Dušan Bratza, you may wonder?  Actually it’s Sir Nicolas Dušan Bratza, who just happens to be the British judge who now heads the ECHR.  I know, he sounds about as British as Belgrade; for it is Serbia from whence this man descended upon us, or rather his father did.  There he is now in his Strasbourg lair, no better example of the law’s delay and the insolence of office. 

The Abu Qatada farce is clearly shaping up to be a new version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the interminable legal process from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House.  That case was relatively benign, though, with the law simply serving its own ends.  Now the ECHR serves the ends of criminals, who make use of its interminable delays to evade justice.  As the Times said in its leader, the court is being played by defendants to string out the time in which nothing, in effect, happens. 

I have another literary reference in mind, one of my favourite passages from Alice in Wonderland.  There is Alice in conversation with the grinning Cheshire Cat; 

But I don’t want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can’t help that,' said the Cat. 'We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.'
'How do you know I’m mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,” said the Cat. 'or you wouldn’t have come here.'

We must be mad, literary mad, as a nation ever to have subjected ourselves to this foreign legal authority, even one headed by such a patriotic Englishman as Nicolas Dušan Bratza.  Personally, unlike Cameron, who only talks in his inimitable impotent fashion, I would send Qatada to Jordan, Strasbourg to hell and Nicolas Dušan Bratza to the land of his ancestors for a good long rest.  

Thursday 19 April 2012

The House of European Lies

When did European history begin, do you think? It’s not so easy to answer, is it? There are a number of points of departure. We could, I suppose, alight on Bronze Age Greece, recalled in the epics of Homer. It's as good a starting point as any. Wrong! European history began in 1946! Yes, it did, at least it did according to the idiots behind the House of European History, a massively expensive vanity project being promoted by the European Parliament.

European history began in 1946. When I read about this in the press recently not only could I not stop laughing but Annus Mirabilis immediately came to mind, a poem by Philip Larkin which opens with the following verse;

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

European history began in nineteen forty-six (which is rather late for me) between the end of World War Two and the rise of Sarkozeee!

So, why 1946, you may wonder? Simply because the various governments that make up the EU can’t agree on what went before. They can’t agree, above all, on the course of the Second World War, which among enthusiasts is risibly referred to as the ‘European Civil War.’ Ah, yes, the ‘European Civil War’ in which the Americans, the Russians (not all Europeans), the Canadians, the Australians and many other non-European nations were silly enough to get involved!

Apparently this project goes hand in hand with a Franco-German proposal to create a “European History Book,” to be used in all schools across the EU in order to “foster a common cultural identity.” Like hell it will. It will be an exercise in dissimulation and evasion, an avoidance of inconvenient truths and facts that dare not speak their name.

Metternich once said that Italy was only a geographical expression. If that is true of a country that still shows deep political and cultural fissures a hundred and fifty years after the Risorgimento, a process which brought superficial unity, it is doubly true of Europe. Beyond living on the same continent we, in England, have very little in common with the other nations of Europe. Our history is unique; we show little of the slave mentality that was such a feature of the pasts of so many of our neighbours.

I might argue that there is something deeply sinister about the whole Museum of European History project, something Orwellian along the lines of the Ministry of Truth, where the past will continually be rewritten in the light of Big Brother’s perceptions. It won’t be about objectivity and historical truth but anodyne propaganda. Yes, I could argue that there are sinister motives here but the whole thing is far too banal for that particular spin.

This House of Euro Cards is scheduled to open in Brussels in 2014. In a way it’s a sign of the Nero-like blindness of the Eurorats, singing in a vacuum while Greece and much of the rest of southern Europe burns. Does anyone in this country want this narcissistic project? Want it or not it will cost British taxpayers alone £19million, that’s around $30million.

It’s just another example of the massive waste that is such a feature of an organisation that exercises power without responsibility, the prerogative, as was once said, of the harlot throughout history. Yes, that’s another way of looking at the European Commission, a massively expensive mistress, a sort of Madame Pompadour, kept by the various governments of European Union, who have continually ignored or sidestepped the wishes of their own people, the people from whom the largesse is ultimately drawn.

There are lessons in this for those who care to look, lessons for the French particularly in the decline and fall of the Bourbon monarchy. Ah, but that demands looking at history objectively, not through a prism of self-deception.

There is a madness here that’s almost impossible to fathom, recklessness in the face of political reality, a wilful waste of money in the midst of the deepest economic crisis in decades. The decadence is such to recall the twilight of the last Roman Empire. I guarantee that is something else that will be airbrushed out of the House of European Lies.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Salvation through Love

My boyfriend has tickets for a new production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, which premiers at the London Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera, towards the end of the month. He has contacts with the company, so were kindly allowed to attend a recent rehearsal. I can tell you that it’s all looking good!

I confess that I’m not massively keen of the German master’s ponderously Teutonic total art works. I saw Parsifal last year in the same theatre. I’d heard some extracts before but that was my first full performance. What can I say, other than it’s deeply depressive, almost as depressive as Tristan and Isolde! There is such a negative, life-denying quality to Wagner’s philosophy. I can only agree with Nietzsche, who in Der Fall Wagner – The Wagner Case – contrasted his work with that of George Bizet, contrasted gloomy northern bogs with southern light and sun!

The Flying Dutchman is different, though, because it is one of Wagner’s early operas, written at a time when he hadn’t been completely seduced by his own mythos. Compared with Tristan and Parsifal, those knights of gloomy countenance, it has a much lighter touch with some really super arias. I love the choruses too. I think the Spinning Chorus quite wonderful as is Steuermann, laß die wacht, during which the Norwegian sailors call for the Dutch crew in the silent and ghostly ship to come and join them. They end by rather wishing that they had kept silent themselves!

Thinking beyond the opera, the legend itself has long intrigued me, the story of a cursed ship and crew, condemned to sail the oceans forever. The origin is uncertain, but it seems to have appeared for the first time in the seventeenth century, though possibly of much older provenance in the bowels of nautical folklore. It’s first mentioned in print in A Voyage to Botany Bay, published in 1795, in which the author says;

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man of war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

The tale of a ghost ship was then laced with a curse, though the reason for its particular doom is uncertain. All sorts of macabre layers were added by successive authors, to the point where we have a story of a captain, struggling to round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm. Refusing to go into harbour for the night he said “May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the Day of Judgment.” Thereby he spoke his own doom!

For the Dutchman there is no hope at Good Hope. It was Heinrich Heine who threw in the possibility of redemption in The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, a satirical novel published in 1833. In this he allows the captain to come ashore every seven years to seek true love, thereby finding salvation in the devotion of a woman. This was the spin that inspired Wagner’s own romantic adaptation in the story of the Dutchman and Senta, the one woman who finally proves to be true, even unto death. It’s rather ironic considering that Heine was a Jew and Wagner a notorious anti-Semite!

Yes, OK, there is, like Tristan and Isolde, another ‘love death’ here. But the sacrifice of Senta seems much more human, altogether far, far less tortuous. The whole thing appeals to my romantic sensibilities. Seduced and deluded I may be, but I like to console myself with notions of love greater than death.

So, all in all, I’m quite looking forward to seeing and hearing it in it's full glory, with James Creswell as the Dutchman, and Orla Boyan as Senta, his one true love. I feel certain that it will be a memorable evening. Afterwards we shall have an intimate supper for two, a return to less ethereal forms of romance. You see, unlike Senta, I’m not thinking of throwing myself off a headland…not just yet awhile. :-)

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Profit and Loss

I love fascinating discoveries, just as I love surprises. I was both fascinated and surprised to learn that the American constitution recognises three sovereign entities: the federal government, the individual states and – this is the surprise – the Indian tribes. Yes, the Indian nations are effectively that – nations.

Clearly these sovereignties are not equal. The Civil War showed that federal authority trumped that of states’ rights. The position with the Indians – I refuse to use the term ‘native American’ – seems to be more ambiguous. Their legal status rests on the various treaties signed in the past with the federal government, bargains which were often just made to be broken.

Though one-sided these deals, when they were not breached, allowed the Indians a certain amount of leeway. They could not raise armies or create a separate currency, but they enjoyed the kind of rights normally exercised by fully sovereign nations, including the right to issue passports.

The right to issue passports is one thing; having them recognised quite another. The Iroquois have their own passports but they have no international recognition, as their lacrosse team discovered when it was refused entry into Britain in 2010. But, my goodness, they take their national rights seriously, even separately declaring war on Germany in 1941, as did the Sioux and some other tribes.

It’s actually only in fairly recent times that the supposed rights of the various Indian nations carried any weight at all. The treaties concluded with the government in the nineteenth century were really ‘bad faith bargains’, ignored when it was convenient to ignore them, especially if it was discovered that the territories allotted to the tribes were subsequently discovered to have hidden value. It was not a relationship of equals. The treaties were most often a way of diminishing native rights by removing them into ever more marginal land, a policy of ghettoisation, which in some ways recalls the ‘homelands’ created by the old apartheid state of South Africa.

These ‘red ghettos’, as one Indian author described them, effectively became rural slums, noted more for poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and crime than the preservation of traditional values. These so-called sovereign nations were really no more than federal dependencies, overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A change of attitude came in 1934 when Congress endorsed a degree of self rule, though – amazingly – it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the persecution of traditional religious practices was ended with the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

That same decade the bogus treaties of the past were given real legal substance with the adoption of the Indian Self-Determination Act, beginning the transfer of administrative authority from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the various tribal governments. So what did this mean in practice, what innovations did it bring? Buffalo hunting may have been out but the hunting for punters was in! The business of America may be business but the business of the Indian nations is gambling.

There is another parallel here with the South African homelands, where supposedly independent entities made money through gaming, free of restrictions applied elsewhere. Indian independence, such as it is, has been built in the modern age on the roulette wheel and the slot machine. When early attempts at gaming on reservations came into conflict with state law the matter went as high as the Supreme Court, which in 1987 decided that the tribes, as sovereign entities, could not be barred from running casinos and other gambling facilities. This was followed by an act of Congress which specifically allowed Indian gambling, provided that the proceeds were used for “tribal economic development.”

Now, according to a report I read in the Economist, the various Indian gaming houses take up to 44% of America’s total gambling revenue. Almost half of the tribes across the land have taken advantage of the opportunity, not hunting bucks but making bucks. The key to success or failure here is location: the closer to major population centres the better things are. White settlers in the nineteenth century may not have been welcome; white gamblers in the twenty-first most definitely are.

According to David Wilkins, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, gambling has become the biggest economic boost to the tribes since the fur trade in the nineteenth century. The results, though, seem to be mixed. There have been some positive benefits in “tribal economic development” when the proceeds are spent wisely, which, sad to say, is not always the case.

In some reservations profits, shared out as dividends, are little better than doles, reinforcing a culture of dependency. It has also led to a form of racial discrimination which would be shocking if practiced elsewhere in America. Some tribes have adopted ‘blood quantum’ laws, obliging an individual to prove his genetic antecedents. More than that, thousands have been disenrolled from tribal membership because of doubts over their ancestry. Gaming, or the profits of gaming, is clearly in the blood.

In times gone by the more braves the greater the power. In times present the fewer braves the bigger the pot. For those unfortunate enough to full victim to greed or simple spite the results are fairly dire. The loss of guaranteed revenue is bad enough but what makes it worse is the potential loss of tribal housing, education, welfare and other benefits. Beyond that it entails a compete loss of community and identity.

The whole thing seems quite invidious. But there are bigger questions over the true benefits that gaming has brought to the tribes. Unemployment on the reservations is still eye-wateringly high. Drug and alcohol abuse are both endemic problems, as is obesity and diabetes. Crime rates are twice the national average. For a great many of the people locked into these ‘sovereign nations’ life itself would seem to a game, one in which the odds are not very favourable.

Monday 16 April 2012

Future Past

Dedicated to Marty

I was once asked why I loved history so much; after all, what practical purpose did it serve? A question of this nature, it seems to me, is largely self-referential, already containing, in an age-old rhetorical fashion, its own answer. What practical use is history?

Think about it: what value or 'practical use' is there in anything; why think, why act, why believe, why write? If all of our intellectual life is to be reduced to a material and utilitarian calculus, then we might as well forget about poetry, literature, music, painting and philosophy, none of which have any practical value, as well as history. Why do I study history, why do I think it is important? Because I love the subject: I have as long as I can remember, and I offer no better excuse than that.

Maybe it serves no purpose, and maybe it really is all 'bunk', in the words of Our Ford, the great material God. I could, of course, trade history quotes for history quotes, some hostile and some favourable. My own 'leitmotiv', my guide and my recurrent theme, are the words of Gustav Flaubert, who said that "Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times."

The whole question came up again recently on Blog Catalogue, in a discussion thread touching on the various things people enjoy learning. As part of my response I said that, while I'm interested in lots of subjects, history has a special place in my heart. I was then asked what it was specifically that I found so engaging.

It's a good question but like all good questions it's not that easy to answer. It comes down, in the end, to one thing: each and every one of us is born with a special talent or aptitude. We are fortunate to discover it early in life, if we discover it at all; so many people go through life blind and unfulfilled.

Very early, even before I went to school, I discovered that I had a particular love and reverence for the past, a fascination that grew with the years. My grandfather, an old soldier, did much to stimulate my interest with his tales of the British Raj. But, as I said, I feel a connection with all past times, with vanished lives and vanished glories. As long as I can remember I’ve loved visiting historical sites, ruined castles, old churches and abbeys, thinking of far off things and battles long ago. History has a poignancy that moves me, lessons that we would do well to heed. There are a few lines in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional which sums it up best;

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

We learned that at school, and it passed through my mind when I visited Rome for the first time, standing in the ruins of the Forum, near the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March all those centuries ago. What was once great is now fragments and ruins. Noon, ever so high, will always sink into dusk. Poem was traded for poem. My attention was drawn to some wonderful lines by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky;

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

I cannot address all creation but I can at least address the ages and I can address history. I can think of no better fate, that my future is all in the past

Sunday 15 April 2012

Enemy at the Gate

Who was Britain’s greatest enemy? The answer, according to a poll carried out by the National Army Museum in Chelsea, is George Washington, or at least he was according to a panel of seventy invited guests. All attended an event at the Museum on Saturday, in which a short list of five was considered, each case argued by a historian before a vote was taken.

The others on the list included Michael Collins, the Irish Republican leader, who came second, Napoleon Bonaparte, Erwin Rommel and Kemal Ataturk. In case you are wondering why no Hitler all had to have led armies against the British in the field, which excluded purely political enemies.

All great fun, I’m sure, and I’m rather sorry I was not there among the guests. The five commanders selected came from a broader list of twenty drawn up by the museum’s curators. To qualify for inclusion all had to come from the seventeenth century onwards. Michael Collins is a bit of an oddity, in that he was a guerrilla leader who never commanded an army in the field.

The event itself was preceded by an online poll on the Museum’s website, launched in February. Rather predictably, I suppose, Collins attracted a wave of support around St Patrick’s Day in March. Wider and wider went the net, with the Turkish media picking up on the inclusion of Ataturk, a great national hero. All at once the battle lines were drawn, with the Turk advancing fast on a wave of national pride. Fighting a new Gallipoli, he won comfortably, with 40% of the votes cast. Poor old George came forth, with less than two percent of the vote, alas another Battle of Long Island!

Ah, but the Museum’s strategists were alert to the danger of tactical voting along national lines, hence the final and secret poll. Before making up their minds, the select band focused on a specific set of criteria, not my hero is bigger than your hero, Turkish pride greater than Irish, but performance in battle.

Thinking of the five in question it seems to me to be a rather odd collection. In terms of battlefield performance I have no objection to Washington if the focus was specifically on great commanders, but he was hardly a great enemy in the way that Napoleon was a great enemy, and by that I mean a threat to our national existence.

I admire Washington, a political conservative as well as a skilled commander, as much as I despise the little Corsican upstart, who tore Europe apart in the pursuit of personal ambition. That he was trumped by Michael Collins, of all people, is a demonstration either of the skill of the historian who presented the case or the historical incomprehension of the audience.

The wider list, those who did not make it to the final poll, seems to me to be both eclectic and eccentric. There was Laksmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, the token woman, who was prominent in her opposition to the British during the Indian Mutiny. She may be another symbol of national pride but she can hardly be described as a great enemy or a great commander. There was Ntshingwayo kaMahole, the Zulu leader who won the Battle of Isandlawana in 1879, in the long run of things no more than a little local difficulty.

But, my goodness, where was Michiel de Ruyter, the seventeenth century Dutch admiral who lead the Raid on the Medway, an event I’ve described as a kind of English Pearl Harbor. I would even put Bonnie Prince Charlie or, to be more exact, Lord George Murray, above Ntshingwayo kaMahole…or even Michael Collins! Still, I’m sure an entertaining day was had by all, even by those with a less than perfect grasp of history, which would seem to include the Museum’s landlubber curators.

Thursday 12 April 2012

A Follower of Fashion

I’m a lover of high fashion, a lover of designer labels. There, I’ve said it! For me things are quite simple: I like elegant and well-cut clothes, clothes that complement the line of the body. I dislike fussiness, frills and fluffs. My favourite clothes are those designed by Jasper Conran and Elizabeth Grachvogel. I simply adore Jimmy Choo’s footwear and handbags.

Mostly I dress in a smart casual manner, with jeans and top, as well as a range of skirts, and I’m particularly keen on magic pants. But I always rise for the occasion: a cocktail dress for semi-formal engagements and a full evening dress when I really want to make an impression; and making an impression is wearing something by Armani. Oh, on reflection, perhaps I should have kept quiet about my tastes. The thing is, you see, I might just attract the attention - help! -of Mr Glamour.

Mr Glamour is a new novel by Richard Godwin, author of Apostle Rising, a book I reviewed here last year (Blade Horror, 16 May). There are some similarities between the two, in that both are an exploration of evil and an exploration of the detectives, one male and the other female, in pursuit of evil. But Mr Glamour, if anything, is even darker, a portrait of depravity in deeper shades of noir!

I’m not going to give too much away in terms of spoilers. A decent review is best served as an appetiser, rather than the main course, something to whet rather than spoil the appetite. Let me just say that there is a spectre haunting the world of high fashion and high society, the spectre of Mr Glamour. This is a serial killer with a rather fleshy mission; a shadow who has an appetite that will stimulate other appetites, the emphasis here being on food as well as fashion. I don’t think I will ever again sit in The Ivy, or any other fashionable restaurant, with the same sense of composure!

The whole book is quite compelling. Godwin’s style and delivery seems to be even more assured than it was in Apostle Rising. His sentences are sharp, economical and well-honed, verbal arrows delivered with telling precision, invariably hitting a target. There is also a real sense of style here, expressions and phrases cleverly constructed and placed with simple elegance. Some are highly memorable. “Their evening scrolled by like a meaningless script” – now that really hit home!

In the best tradition of the crime thriller Mr Glamour will keep you guessing, right to the very end. There are cul-de-sacs and false leads aplenty. As I was reading I thought not of a jigsaw but of a shattered mirror. I hope I’m not giving too much away but mirrors and reflections, literally and metaphorically, are important themes. Only when the pieces are put together, so to speak, will we see through the glass darkly.

There are a lot of sexual frolics among the novel’s fashionable set, but Mr Glamour touches on sex at a deeper and more unsettling level. A game is being played, and it’s not a very happy one. The sexual darkness even extends so far as the personal life of Inspector Mandy Steel, one of the officers investigating a series of increasingly ugly crimes. There is light and there is dark, even in the partially damaged face of Chief Inspector Jackson Flare, Steel’s senior colleague, a reflection of a partially damaged psyche. There is a maze here, to be worked through with care; for at the secret heart lies a gruesome Minotaur, one in the process of personal reconstruction, reconstruction through the flesh of others.

Sex, madness, psychosis, voyeurism, religious obsession and death, they are all there in a great whirlwind of images and ideas, themes within themes, puzzles within puzzles nightmares within nightmares. I was guessing right to the end, even so far as the sex of the monster.

Mr Glamour is a superb novel by a writer who is clearly shaping up to be a master of this particular genre. Along with Apostle Rising, it is a book that deserves a place among the best of Gothic fiction. And please, please, Mr Glamour, forget all I said about my tastes in fashion. I’m really quite a simple girl. Come the morning I shall be popping down to Marks and Sparks.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Son of Herostratus

Over two thousand years ago a man called Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis, destroying this wonder of the ancient world. He freely confessed to the crime. It was a way of ensuring that his name lived down the ages. It has, as you can see, despite the best efforts of the authorities in Ephesus, who attempted to damn all memory of him to oblivion. In a way I’m glad they did fail, because Herostratus deserves a place in the Olympian pantheon. He is there for me as the god of mediocrity.

I was away in Paris for the Easter weekend, so I missed the advent of his latest acolyte, a character called Trenton Oldfield (Trenton!) This oik deliberately tried to disrupt the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race by swimming into the path of the rowers. It was a protest, he later said, against ‘elitism.’ Personally I’m thinking of mounting a protest against horses’ arses like Trenton, but sadly there are just too many.

I’ve known people who’ve taken part in previous races. I know just how hard they work; how gruelling the training is, physically and emotionally. They spend months working up to the race, a brief and transitory moment of glory or disappointment. But the important thing is being there. Just taking part is a huge privilege.

To see it spoiled in this way is infuriating. Even more infuriating is the acres of copy that darling Trenton attracted. Here I am, contributing to this inflation of a balloon. What else can I do? I would, like the ancient Greeks, far rather that his name was damned into oblivion. But, sadly, it will forever be linked with the event, forever linked with a noble English tradition. Oh, never mind; the blessings of Herostratus be upon him.

He needs publicity; the whole thing is a fatuous exercise in self-promotion. He has a website which I refuse to click on because I know he is - please forgive the vulgarity – bound to get a sort of Viagra induced stiffy from the number of hits he gets. But I’m glad that Tim Stanley, writing in the Telegraph, did, otherwise I would have no insight into the ramblings of Trenton, a sort of pathetic polytechnic Marxism by way of Adrian Mole;

The boat race itself, with its pseudo competition, assembled around similar principles of fastest, strongest, selected …etc, is an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.

As Stanley says, the only surprising thing about this sad-speak is that is not written in crayon.

We live in the age of mediocrity. These should be no surprise that the Caliban-like Trenton has come to the fore, full of resentment, typical of so many like him, another facet of the louts who protested at government ‘cuts’ across the country last summer…by stealing trainers and tellies. The boat race is ‘elitist’, Trenton says, and “elitism leads to tyranny.” No it does not. Ignorance leads to tyranny; plebeian resentment leads to tyranny; mediocrities like Trenton are the seed corn of tyranny. We need to celebrate excellence in all its manifold dimensions, not reduce everything to a lowest common denominator. Just imagine a world full of Trentons!

Apparently, while not swallowing Thames water, he is a member of the wholly unelitist Royal Society of Arts. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I would not care to belong to a club that has Trenton as a member. He has a bio on their website, more verbal imbecility;

Trenton’s foremost preoccupations include unearthing the socio-political history of fences/railings - including when they shifted from keeping things in to keeping things out, the spaces in cities people have set out to make together, contemporary places of work, emotions in finance, the processes of creating and conceptualising ‘a home’ in a new city, the tension existing between danger & beauty embodied for example in aeroplanes and how social relations (dissolving of nation states and rise of cities) might change on earth with the colonisation of other planets. Trenton is also working on debates within inter-disciplinary urbanism around notions of ‘Darwinistic individual selfishness’ – or ‘Who Dares Wins Urbanism’ attempting to make apparent the predictable, though overlooked failures of individualism within and apparent across the 'leadership' of the centre, left and right.

I can only laugh; I am laughing as I write this, laughing at this absurdist twaddle, forcing me to correct a higher than average number of typos! Now I take my leave of Trenton, safely behind a fence, safely in the keeping of Herostratus. The worst fate I wish him is a special place in Hades, where he will live forever among the commonplace, forced to eat pot noodles while watching endless repeats of Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor and Celebrity Big Brother.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Life on Airstrip One

Democracy and civil liberty are constructs built on one essential foundation – a society that is culturally homogenous. That is to say, there has to be a set of core civic values, things that we can share in our individuality, things that define who we are as a people and as a nation. A respect for the rights and privacy of the citizen come high here.

Alas, such respect is being challenged by the very people we elect to uphold it, demonstrated by the recent proposal to monitor the emails and phone calls of all private citizens, something I touched on in Big Brother might just watch you. We have a government of appeasers, an attitude of mind born of fear - the fear of the minority; fear of what they might think; fear of what they might do. We have a government that would make criminals of us all rather than name the criminals.

The sad truth is our social fabric has all but been destroyed by the lie of multiculturalism, a lie sold by successive administrations. Multiculturalism, of course, is the corollary of mass immigration. The Tiber may not have foamed – yet – with much blood, but Enoch Powell was right when he said that we must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to have permitted an influx of migrants on an unprecedented scale, a movement of peoples not seen since the last days of the Roman Empire.

My thoughts here have been spurred by a recent article in the Telegraph by Ed West (The case for liberalism in one country). In this he makes reference to John Stuart Mill’s Representative Government, a classic of nineteenth century liberalism. I read this some years ago, though I have forgotten most of its content. But there is one key passage that is now fixed forever in my mind;

Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling…each fears more injury to itself from other nationalities, than from the common arbiter, the State. Their mutual antipathies are generally much stronger than their jealousy of government.

Just imagine the likes of Nick Clegg or any of the sad ghosts of contemporary liberalism saying that! It’s something Powell might have made use of, though, alongside Virgil.

Diversity has become the shibboleth that has united the whole political class ever since the time Powell was sacked from the Tory shadow cabinet for showing more honesty than is wise in politics. Thereafter a numbing silence settled on the whole question of mass immigration, a consensus that was no consensus.

I wrote above that we have a government of appeasers, fearful of the minority. People were rightly shocked by the recent mass surveillance proposals but, as West emphasises, what was absent from the debate was the extent to which the snooper state is the direct consequence of mass immigration. The sad truth is that, with the rise of Islamic radicalism, the snooping is never going to go away.

Although the political class in general is responsible for the damage done to this country, the government of Tony Blair carries a particularly heavy burden of blame. I think it will take decades to assess the true legacy of the whole cancerous New Labour project, more treasonable than is possible to conceive, short of a Quisling occupation.

Unrestricted immigration went hand in hand with the war on terror and the appeasement of religious minorities. Il-conceived wars abroad, supposedly designed to fight terror, brought terror to our doorstep. We are far more at risk now from jihadists in London then we ever were in Kabul or Baghdad. The anti-terror legislation introduced by the last government did more damage to our national freedoms than the Taliban or al-Qaeda ever could. All this and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a direct challenge to freedom of speech, legislation that has seen people prosecuted for expressing a point of view.

West makes one core observation;

The British end of the war on terror, and the appalling loss of British lives in Afghanistan, is a product of mass immigration, but such is the way that the sacred cow of diversity must be protected that people would rather accept any course than one that confronted this fact.

When wealthy, globe-trotting liberals espouse the cause of universalism they often describe it in terms of air travel and airports, a world of vibrant, diverse, cross-cultural pollination. Which is great, for the few wealthy enough to use business class. For the rest of us society has become exactly like an airport – endless security checks, CCTV, government snooping, armed police and all-powerful officials who will arrest you for an inappropriate remark. For our own safety, of course.

Yes, life in an airport, that just about sums up the truth of modern England. Perhaps that ancient name should go. Orwell was right; this really is Airstrip One.

Monday 9 April 2012


I cast my eye recently over a review of A. N. Wilson’s newly published Hitler: A Short Biography. Now, A. N Wilson, if you’ve never heard of him, is an omnivorous writer, moving with apparent ease from fiction to non-fiction. His Hitler book, intended for a general audience, is the latest addition to the other critical biographies he has penned.

However, before I read a word of the review, I already concluded that this was pointless book. My first thought was who the hell needs yet another biography of Hitler? My second was it’s only just over two hundred pages long; how on earth could all of that history and drama be crushed into such limited space?

Actually, I’m being slightly disingenuous here. I did not, on first glance, read the review – by Bernard Sims in Prospect -, or, rather, I did not read beyond the words Hitler: A Short Biography. By A. N. Wilson. Harper Press, 208pp, £14.99. That was enough for me. But I came back to it; I read it in full, because the book has occasioned a bit of a spat, a hissy fit fought out on the pages of the New Statesman, a perfect cat fight by two old toms!

It began last month when Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and a specialist in the Third Reich (his three volume history is commendable), wrote not so much a review as an assassination of Wilson’s book, concluding that “It’s hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography.” The answer is simple, prof; it’s by A. N. Wilson, who sells, and it’s about Hitler, who sells!

That might have been that. After all, most of the people likely to buy this book probably don’t read the New Statesman; they may not even read reviews at all. But dear old A. N would not let matters rest; he took up the gauntlet so freely thrown, thus starting a new blitzkrieg, spread over several issues of the NS, a withering barrage of words!

I rather think Evans was a bit miffed that an outsider had intruded into his own lebensraum; he certainly chews the carpet, Hitler-style, in his review. ‘Banal’, ‘stale’ ‘cliché ridden’, ‘unoriginal’, ‘lame’, ‘tired narrative’, came his verbal panzer shells. Wilson counter-attacked on the magazine’s letters page: “All is joy. The war is over. Hitler is dead. Get a life, poor Evans. There is no need to be so cross.”

Evans did not rest; his Stukas screamed down from the sky the following week – “I am cross with him not because I think only specialists should write about Hitler - I explicitly noted the contributions made by novelists and literary scholars - but because he has simply ignored 99.9 per cent of the work on the subject done by historians, and as a result has written a book that is absolutely valueless as well as full of errors, many of them not minor at all.”

I read in the Telegraph that this is not the first war in a tea-cup that Wilson has been involved in. In 2002 he wrote a review of Bevis Hiller’s biography of the poet John Betjeman, calling it a ‘hopeless mishmash.’ Four years later he produced his own biography of Betjeman, citing a passionate love letter written by the poet’s mistress. It was hoax. The ‘mistress’ was Hiller, a lover scorned, coldly calculating his revenge, waiting for just the right moment, penning and planting the said epistle. The first letter of each sentence spelled out “A N Wilson is a shit.”

So there!

Anyway, back to Hitler, back to Simms’ Prospect review, hopefully for a less impassioned view. It was. My initial judgement was right: this is a book not worth reading. Wilson apparently tries to draw some parallels between the 1929 crash in the world economy, which gave Hitler his big opportunity, and that of 2008. He is looking, in other words for a second coming, a new beast, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

That’s reasonable enough, I suppose; these are uncertain times; people are insecure, fodder, one might think, for demagogues. What do we get? Why, such illuminating insights as a comparison between Hitler’s demand for typewriting lessons for children and Tony Blair’s call for a laptop in every British primary school! Ah, yes, a sign of a Reich to come. I have no idea or not if A N Wilson is a shit but he’s clearly had a bit of a downfall.

Happy Easter, guys. :-)

Thursday 5 April 2012

No Sale

I said in discussion recently that Barack Obama’s slogan for the coming Presidential election should be “No, I can’t”, a more honest and apt statement about him as a man, a leader and a chief executive than “Yes, we can.”

There was something else I said, that if a play is ever written about his time in the White House it really should be called The Death of a Salesman. It’s such a pity that it’s already been done. But I wasn’t actually thinking of Obama in the guise of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. It’s another salesman I had in mind – Samuel Bick from the movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

This is a movie about personal drift and decline that I saw last year on DVD, with Bick drifting in ever faster eddies, a yacht without a compass or a rudder. Bick is a salesman in a furniture store, not a very good one, diffident and lacking in self-assurance. His boss tries to motivate him in various ways, pointing to the then President Richard Nixon as an example of the perfect salesman. Why? Because in the Presidential election of 1968 he sold America the idea of ending the war in Vietnam and then failed to deliver. Nothing deterred, he sold exactly the same idea in 1972. Bick, in an increasing mood of despair, then takes Nixon as the avatar for all that is wrong in his life.

Obama is far more like Bick than Nixon. He tries so hard to be a salesman, tried to sell the idea that all that mattered was positive thinking. Time and again he has shown that it doesn’t. As his abysmal presidency, in so many ways the worst in American history, drifts from one nadir to another, he flails around, looking for scapegoats and excuses, looking for his own personal Richard Nixon, if I can put it like that, as an explanation for his failure

I noted from an article by Andrew Roberts in the political journal Standpoint that he is now is blaming the “millionaires and the billionaires” for blocking the recovery – i.e. tax hikes - , the kind of scapegoating that small people always resort to when in difficulty. But it’s the millionaires and the billionaires who have been taking up the reins that the state has allowed to drop.

The Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, a research body which monitors corporate giving trends, reporting from a database of 184 companies that corporate giving has increased by 53% since 2007, not at all bad in the midst of one of the most serious recessions since the 1930s. The total contributions across all respondents in cash and products amounts to more than $15.5billion. The biggest increase of all has been among companies working in the healthcare sector.

There are individuals like Mark Zuckerberg, Mr Facebook himself, who has contributed $100 million to create a better grading system in public schools. And then there is the financier Toby Forstman, who responded to America’s failing education system by setting up the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a programme that so far has provided scholarships to the value of $483million for thousands of low-income children to get into private schools. In foreign aid programmes the state now provides a mere 15%, the balance coming from private capital.

As Roberts says in his article, this is the ‘can do’ attitude that built America in the first place. Get the state out of the way, and then see what happens. This is yes, we can, in sharp contrast to Obama’s no, I can’t, and I never could. All he sells is hot air, big, windy meaningless speeches.

In 2008 many greeted Obama as a new Lincoln, the same grand words, the same lofty vision. In reality he has turned out to be more in the image of Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. Yes, the fact that many of you probably now have to pop over to Wikipedia is a measure of how little trace they have left, a measure of their mediocrity. In generations to come other people, I suspect, will have to do the same for Obama.