Tuesday 31 July 2012

War By Other Means

Oh, to be in London now the Olympics are there.  Actually, no.  Now the Olympics are in London I’m not!  The city is mad enough at the best of times, so I decided to escape during the build-up, first into the countryside and now north into Scotland.  I’m in Edinburgh at present, on the threshold of a foray into the Highlands.  While here I visited the recently-opened Catherine the Great exhibition being held in National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, a fantastic experience which I intend to write about soon.

Thinking of Russia and thinking of the Olympics, I have an angle that ties in both.  It concerns an incident in the 1956 Melbourne Games, when sport turned into war by other means.  I have to thank Zunnur, who, in a comment on my recent blog on Hungary (Hungary’s Future is all in the Past, 18 July) drew my attention to what I now know has passed into history as the Blood in the Water Match, surely one of the most vivid and lurid spectacles ever seen in whole of the modern games.

It concerned a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary, a simple enough affair that came to symbolise so much more.  It’s December, 1956.  Only weeks before the Hungarian Rising against communist rule had been crushed under the treads of Russian tanks.  Budapest, the capital, was in ruins.  Across the world, where Hungarians were free to express any feelings at all against their ‘fraternal liberators’ they expressed nothing but hatred.  They were free to express such feeling in Australia.

Hungary’s champion water polo team knew nothing of these events.  They had been cut off from news from home while training for the games in adjacent Czechoslovakia.  It was only after they arrived in Melbourne that they learned the extent of the violence. 

Twenty-one-year old Ervin Zador, a star player and the only member of the Hungarian party who could read English, bought a local paper when their flight first touched down on Australian soil in the northern city of Darwin.  No sooner had he read the news than he told his team mates that he was not going back home.

The Hungarians went on to dominate their event, winning through to the semi-finals.  It was there that they met the Russians on 6 December.  Tension was already high.  The audience, dominated by Hungarian exiles, turned their backs as the Russians entered.  When the Soviet anthem was played they clapped loudly to drown it out.  With shouts of Hajra Magyarok! (Go Hungarians!), they waved flags and urged on their countrymen.  “We always had an extra incentive when we played the Soviets, but the atmosphere at Melbourne was another dimension," Zador said. "The game meant so much to us. We had to win the gold medal. We were playing for ourselves, for our families back home, for our country."

Throughout the ensuing match, which the Hungarians won 4-0, there had been kicking and punching from both sides.  No fewer than five players were ordered out of the pool by the referee.  With only minutes left before the end Zador was punched in the eye by one Valentin Prokopov, the Russian player immediately opposite. 

With blood pouring from his eye, giving the encounter its infamous name, the Hungarian spectators in the crowd erupted.  People raised their fists, shouted abuse and spat at the Russians.  To prevent a riot the police were forced to intervene. 

The team went on to beat Yugoslavia in the final. Though Zador was unable to take part due to his injury he stood on the podium for the medal ceremony.  True to his word, he refused to return to communist Hungary, seeking political asylum in the West.  He was joined by no fewer than half of the 100-member party that come to Australia.   Zador went on to settle in the United States, where he worked for many years as a swimming coach. 

I’ve never believed that it’s possible to separate politics from sport, not so long as national passions are involved.  The 1956 national passions were at a height.  The Blood in the Water match seems to me to be proof enough for this contention.  

Monday 30 July 2012

The Times of My Life – a Letter to a Friend


Thank you for your lengthy message on Facebook, a response to my review of Dominic Sandbrook’s Season’s in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, a follow up to the comments you made here.  Before I proceed I would urge you to read this book, the basis, I feel sure, for future exchanges. 

But you are going abroad.  It’s a big book.  You may not have the time or the inclination to read it all.  If so, please just borrow it from the library.  Go straight to Chapter 31, that headed Rats on the Town.  Once you’ve read it I would ask you to address yourself to one simple question: do you really, really think things are just as bad now? 

Anyway, as I said to in response to your comment here, there is no fundamental disagreement between us.  All the faults that you can see I can see also.  My goodness, I’ve written about them often enough; I’ve written about our indebtedness, I’ve written about the awfulness of state education, I’ve written about a judiciary corrupted by alien legislation and alien concepts of law, I’ve written about the problem of mass immigration, I’ve written about the corrosive and malign effects of political correctness, I’ve written about the moral abasement of welfare, I’ve written about a lot more besides.  It would simply be too wearisome, and burdensome, to point you in the direction of all of the relevant articles. 

But these are my green and salad days; this is my life, this is my time; I do not and cannot live by politics and cultural despair alone, much as I admire the work of Oswald Spengler.  Like my parents then, there is a whole different dimension to my life now, personal things which I do not write about by and large on a blog that is chiefly about politics and literature.  Yes, I can see storms ahead, but, unlike so many others, I have ways out.  I’m more or less determined to leave England if Labour returns to office and Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, which I believe will mark a fresh low for our nation (not my emigration but that moron in high office!)

Sandbrook’s account, though he deals with culture, focuses principally on politics, and the politics of the mid-1970s seem to me to be absolutely dire, yes, in so many ways far worse than they are today.  The incompetence of the Labour administration of the time seems stunning, even more stunning than the incompetence of our present Coalition.

Here was a government captive to union power in the way that no government, not even that of Blair and Brown, has been since.  Here was a government that presided over unprecedented levels of inflation, stagnation and decline.  Here was a government that, in its cap-in-hand approach to the International Monetary Fund, took this country to the most shameful depths in its history.  How are the mighty fallen, not even in the midst of barrel.

You clearly have a longer perspective in history than I do; you can make comparisons that I can’t, though I can’t place you exactly.  You say that the 1970s was the time just before you and your friends arrived.  Is this a reference to age, or to a change of location?  Forgive me, but I assumed you were older.  Are you, like me, a child of the 80s? 

I grew up in a time of flux and transition, we all did, all of us who were born then.  Time accelerates. I don’t suppose there was really that much difference between the England of, say, 1920 and that of 1940.  But then we moved gradually into hyper speed. 

You are right - the Britain of the late 1930s is wholly different from the Britain of the late 1970s.  The old certainties had gone; the old sense of cohesion, cultural and ethnic, was going fast.  Who could ever believe from the empty glory of 1945 (yes, despite the triumphs, it was empty) we would descend to the rubbish and rats of 1979, to forms of appeasement that would have shamed Chamberlain? 

But we recovered.  Margaret Thatcher brought us back from a brink, albeit temporarily perhaps.  Her betrayal in 1990 was one of the shabbiest acts in Conservative Party history, an appalling Ides of March, when the old Heathites and the new Europhiles combined in political assassination.  It’s taken decades to recover from the curse of that year.  The Party laboured mightily and brought forth...brought forth what exactly?  Why, the heir to Blair. 

Yes, we probably are more left wing now than we used to be, certainly more left wing than the days of Thatcher, though not as madly left wing as the days of Wilson and Callaghan.  Tony Benn, that old ogre, comes across as politically if not actually clinically insane. 

When I said that I had a natural optimism I really meant the natural optimism of youth.  I was twenty-six at the end of June; I have my whole life ahead; I simply have to have my own seasons in the sun, just as my parents did before me. The various abuses and absurdities I write about here don’t depress me.  Rather they make me angry, and my response in anger is sardonic humour, the empty cry of Cassandra.

I have nothing to say about Future English, as you put it, because I simply cannot see any obvious solutions to our manifold problems.  I begin to despise this present Coalition Government as much as I despised the last Labour administration; I despise all shabbiness and moral compromise. 

We may have slightly different perspectives over the various issues I’ve touched on but there is no reason at all why we cannot share views and have the kind of stimulating discussions that you are looking for.  I am nothing if not intellectually and politically versatile.  

My apologies for wittering on at such inordinate length.  

Ana, one of life's poor players.  

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing

Sunday 29 July 2012

Slumdog Britain

A Red Extravaganza

I didn’t watch the Olympic opening jamboree on Friday; I had more important things to do.  Besides, I can’t stand Danny Boyle, the man who orchestrated the whole thing, that train-spotting slum dog millionaire.  I have now, though; I caught up with it this afternoon on iPlayer. 

Why?  First, because I was bemused by the hysterical onslaught on Aiden Burley, the Conservative Member of Parliament who dared to tweet his disapproval.  Second, because the Sunday Telegraph, which I had always taken to be a conservative and Conservative newspaper, published an article by Dan Hodges, a tiresome Labour Party hack, pouring more dead dogs on the unfortunate Burley.

What, I asked myself; did I buy the hyper-liberal Observer by mistake?  No, sure enough, it was the Telegraph.  I popped over to the Sunday Mail website, hoping for some right-wing sanity, only to be greeted by a copy of a counter-tweet by that fat idiot John Prescott.  This is a man who proved that stupidity and an inability to master the rudiments of proper spoken English is no bar to high political office. Yes, there he was, saying to Burley “That opening ceremony made me proud to be British.  Your tweet made me angry that you are too.” 

I’m getting well ahead of the story here.  What was Burley’s crime; what did he say that caused such an explosion of drivel?  In two chirps simply this: “The most leftie opening ceremony I’ve ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state.  Welfare tribute next?  Thank God the athletes have arrived.  Now we can move on from that leftie multi-cultural crap.  Bring back the red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.”

And that was the stone around his neck, by which free speech was drowned like a puppy. He has now attempted to backtrack, silly man, saying that he was talking about the way the show was handled, not multiculturalism itself.  Look, Aiden, in the rare chance that you ever read this, never apologise and never, ever give the idiots a second chance to bite.  Multiculturalism is indeed a lot of tosh. Our Prime Minister said as much not so long ago, though using a more mealy-mouthed form of words, as did Nicholas Sarkozy, the former president of France.  

So, as I say, in order to form a more perfect opinion, I watched the whole thing this afternoon.  What did I think?  Why, that it was a soggy porridge of leftie multi-cultural crap.  OK, let me be completely fair, like the curate’s proverbial egg it was good in parts; in other parts it was really rotten.  I liked some of the early routines, which were very well choreographed, and I thought the Industrial Revolution sequence was excellent. But in total, as a depiction of our people and our nation, the whole thing was a sad joke.

My goodness, all those not so subtle and not so subliminal Marxist metaphors, what a scream!  How lovely to see, apropos of nothing at all, Boyle's onstage proletariat forming themselves, North Korean-style, into the badge of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, presumably a celebration of a communist-inspired front that would have left this country defenceless in the face of a serious Soviet threat. At the next moment they were a star. The only thing missing was the hammer and cycle.  

Then there were the dancing nurses and the bouncing patients, a tedious and lengthy tribute to the National Health Service, that ‘much loved’ institution, a sequence that might usefully serve in future as a crazy party political broadcast for Ed Millipede and his gang, a sort of Medicine in Wonderland.  And did you know that twentieth century British history seems to have begun with the arrival of the Empire Windrush from the West Indies, carrying lots of black immigrants?  Well, it did, in the gospel according to Boyle.

I looked in the midst of the universal praise for Boyle, coupled with the demonisation of Burley, for some sanity and, thank goodness, I found it, a blog by Douglas Murray in the Spectator (The Olympic opening satire), an organ clearly still to be overtaken by the onward surge of political madness.   As he says, any foreigner watching this farce must have thought that the NHS was our national religion.  Yes, it really should have been followed by another lengthy montage in praise of welfare, maybe with gyrating dole recipients.  The problem with this is that most of them are too obese to dance.  A shabby socialist hymn, that’s the only way I can describe Boyle’s extravaganza, one in which the Queen herself was induced to take part in a particularly embarrassing James Bond parachute sequence

As we moved towards the finale the whole thing became positively infantile, particularly the music tribute, a cross section of our ‘cultural richness’ put together by a moron in a hurry.  For me Murray really hit the spot with these cogent words;

My main fear is that a young person from elsewhere in the world – better educated, but possibly lacking our sense of humour – might take it all literally. They may have learned of a Britain which was a serious country and produced many of the world’s greatest writers, leaders, thinkers and artists. After watching last night’s ceremony they will realise that Britain is in fact a country which, though once inhabited by hobbits, is only around fifty years old and stuck in a state of permanent adolescence. This will make them doubt their teachers and probably end up becoming anarchists.

Overall the spectacle made me cringe.  Only the likes of Prescott could be proud of this idiotic farrago.  If I thought Boyle had any intelligence at all I might have been impressed by his satirical abilities, his Jonathan Swift-like capacity to make fun of absurdity.  But he has none.  This travesty was for him the literal truth of our country.  It’s shaming that so many seem to have been seduced by his socialist agitprop.  I expect Boyle to be awarded the Hero of Socialist Labour, second class, any day now by our Dear Leader, Comrade David Cameron.  

Thursday 26 July 2012

Strormin' Normans

Last year the communities of northern France celebrated eleven hundred years of history with a Happy Birthday Normandie bash www.happybirthdaynormandie.com  Those who joined in were urged to "feel free to awaken your sleeping Viking spirit."  The reference here is to the grant of land around Rouen and the mouth of the Seine by King Charles the Simple to Rollo the Ganger and his seafaring raiders, generally dated to the year 911.  That sort of thing awakens my sleeping Viking spirit, so I'm rather sorry I did not take to my long ship and sail across the Channel.  Now I shall have to wait until 2111!

The Vikings had been raiding the area for some years before Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy.  But they had long since come as settlers, not just pirates.  Charles' grant was really no more that a recognition of political reality, an act of territorial appeasement that was to be the germ of greatness.  It also offered a way of protecting his northern flank from further incursions. 

The settlers, always a minority among the Frankish locals, quickly absorbed the cultural, religious and political mores of their new home, becoming just as French as the French; but they always remained something more, something unique.  Adventures of one season became the new Spartans of the next, a warrior cast of seafaring raiders that became arguably the most effective state builders of the whole of the early middle ages.

In writing about my own Norman ancestry (Norman and Proud, 21 August 2010), I made the following points;

Now settled, the Normans steadily went native, speaking a variety of French and acquiring a taste for wine. But they always remained of singular appearance, not just clean shaven but closely cropped, with heads shaved up the back. As Vikings they were infantrymen but as Normans they became knights, acquiring superb skills in horsemanship.

It seems to me that the other important thing to remember about the Normans is that they never quite lost their ancestral habits. Freebooters they were, freebooters they remained. They became Christian, the builders of some of the greatest religious foundations in both France and England, though they never quite lost their pagan ruthlessness. And they were ambitious; my how they were ambitious, with a hunger for wealth, land and power. They were history’s greatest pirates, opportunists and adventurers.

In a sense the Normans were a nation of younger sons, if can put it like that.  As younger sons they were obliged to make their own destiny, and they did, fanning out across Europe; fanning north to England, fanning south to Italy, where Norman kingdoms were established in Napes and Sicily, fanning to the gates of Byzantium and beyond.  There's was no country for old men.

The most remarkable thing from the perspective of these islands is that in just over a hundred years, nothing at all in the great time sweep of history, the nascent Norman state had risen so far as to be able to overthrow the Saxon monarchy of England, a task that had never quite been achieved by their Viking predecessors. 

In October 1066 William came, he saw and he conquered.  I do not believe the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest to be one of the most significant events in our history.  It was the most significant, nonpareil. It was to change England forever; it was to change both the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons into something wholly different.  It was the end of England's freedom and the beginning of her greatness.

Before 1066 England had been peripheral to the mainstream of European history.  The country really belonged to the Scandinavian fringe, an appendage at the beginning of the century of Canute's Danish empire.  The Conquest changed all of that.  Now England was locked into the new feudalism and into the mainstream of Christian civilization. The country had emerged for good from a Saxon and Viking twilight to become a player in the centuries to come in the great game of European politics.

In time the Normans became English the English became Normans.  The buccaneering spirit that carried the Normans across Europe was to carry the English across the world.  The Norman Conquest had created a new language, a new culture and a new people; it created a new England. That, it seems to me, is no small achievement.  It is why I have no hesitation in declaring that I am Anglo-Saxon, I am Nordic, I am Norman and, what is greater, I am English.  Is there any prouder boast?  

Wednesday 25 July 2012

A Laughing Cavalier

BBC Four devoted an hour recently to one core question – Roundhead or Cavalier: Which One Are You?  These are the two parties, of course, who slugged it out in the English Civil War of the seventeenth century. 

The question is not as obsolete as you might suppose.   The Civil War introduced a great fault line into the history of England and the character of the English that has never gone away; the names of the contending parties have changed, that’s all.  In the place of the puritan Roundheads and the dashing Cavaliers came the Whigs and the Tories, then the Liberals and Conservatives, then Labour and Conservative. 

It’s not all about politics, no, for behaviour and attitude also come into the mix.  There is the fun-loving flamboyance of the Cavaliers compared with the dour seriousness of the Roundheads, a duality captured perfectly in those telly cooks Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith! 

I’m a Cavalier, politically and in every other sense, but with just a soupcon of Roundhead seriousness when it comes to serious things.  But in looking into the past there is nothing in the least Roundhead about me.  My, oh my, how I would hate to have lived in the England of Oliver Cromwell, to have lived under the rule of the saints or the major generals, which amounted to the same thing.  This was Narnia under the White Witch, a land where it was always winter and never Christmas.

Yes, the Roundheads in Parliament banned Christmas, though there is no evidence that Cromwell had any personal responsibility here, contrary to the assertion in the documentary (oops, Roundhead seriousness creeps in!)  They also closed down the theatres and turned Sunday into an unimaginably gruelling ‘day of rest’.  Women were even put in the stocks for taking a stroll or knitting.  Bear baiting, a popular and cruel pastime of the day, was also banned, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators, as the historian T. B. Macaulay observed.  After all this the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came as one huge Cavalier party. 

Alas, the Roundheads, like the poor, are always with us.  I grew to political maturity during the rule of Lord Protector Tony Blair, who headed one of the most namby-pamby, tut tut, naughty naughty, don’t do this, don’t do that administrations in English history, the sort of disapproving regime that would have delighted Cromwell.  Fox hunting, a sport dear to my Cavalier heart, was banned, not because it gave pain to the fox, but because it gave pleasure to the hunters. 

A whole series of bad laws and pettifogging rules followed, legislation that infantilised the whole nation.  Those who don’t live here would have been amazed at the sheer pettiness of it all.  As I wrote in a previous post, many of the hard Labour laws were simply a charter for council jobsworths, the army of snoopers set to police the rules.

In Birmingham Zippo’s Circus was threatened with prosecution if the clown act blew an exploding tuba, this being considered a ‘live music performance’ and thus requiring a licence.  And then there was the seventy-five-year-old blind man who was issued with a £40 fixed penalty notice after his dog pooped in a field, or people returning from a supermarket in Brighton who had their wine confiscated for being in possession of alcohol in a public place.  Even Cromwell’s Major Generals may have baulked at some of this nonsense. 

Julian Fellowes, the actor and writer, was interviewed on the show, saying that Cavaliers are the natural enjoyers of things and Roundheads their critics.  He was talking specifically about the forms of popular culture, frowned upon by the lovers of high art.  He was talking about Downton Abbey, his own smash TV hit, though he never said so directly. 

Ah, now I switch sides; here my inner Roundhead comes out.  You see, I came to Downton Abbey, I saw Downton Abbey and I hated Downton Abbey, a view I made clear in my review (Carry on Upstairs Downstairs, 15 March, 2011).  That fellow Fellowes should not delude himself, though; I hated it not because of its popularity but because it is a risible parody of Edwardian England.  Everything was out of place; there is far too much chumminess in this pastiche, far too much of the déclassé.  There is, in other words, far too much of the Leveller in the Abbey. 

On reflection, maybe this is not a Roundhead criticism at all.  Only a Cavalier knows the proper order of things.  Only a Cavalier knows the value of snobbery.  Only a Cavalier knows that Levellers need to be kept under hoof.  

Tuesday 24 July 2012

From Ana with Love

I haven’t read many spy novels; it’s not really the sort of genre that appeals to me. The one major exception here is the Ashenden stories of William Somerset Maugham, loosely based on his experience of working for British Intelligence during the First World War, but these are intelligent tales of intelligence.  Besides, I love all of Somerset Maugham’s writing.  And – hey – who could possibly forget the Hairless Mexican! 

It’s not Maugham I’m thinking of but another writer altogether, one far more central to this style of fiction.  He is Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels.  As I say, I’ve not read many spy novels, not even many novels by Fleming, but it was one of his books that had a major impact on, of all things, my developing political consciousness. It was From Russia with Love.

I was nine when I read it, my first encounter with James Bond.  It wasn’t meant for me; it was part of father’s holiday reading.  He put it down; I picked it up.  I’m sure he did not mean me to read it – far too adult – but read it I did.  I was horrified and fascinated.  It was the first time I ever came across a description of what I now understand to be a sadistic serial killer, a man who takes pleasure in suffering and death.  It was the first time I ever had a close encounter with communism, no more than a vague bogey man in my mind.

So, there they were, the sadist and the communists, combined in an organisation called SMERSH, a Russian acronym, coined by Stalin himself, literally meaning “Death to Spies.”  From Russia with Love was just topical entertainment, written at the height of the Cold War.  But Fleming’s political purpose, it seems to me, goes deeper.  He makes one loath communism, he made me loath communism, but he also – what an admission! –warmed me to fascism.

Again I had no real idea what fascism was and certainly no conception at this time of the horrors committed by the Nazis.  I just remember the SMERSH operatives complaining about General Franco’s security forces, the ‘fascists’ who had managed to eliminate some of their best agents.  At this point in the book I had such a horror of communists that if they had damned the devil I would have looked for points in his defence.  I’m sure that Fleming was showing, albeit briefly, his own political sympathies here.  His political sympathies had a lasting effect on mine!

Aside From Russia with Love I’ve only read two other Bond novels, Doctor No and You Only Live Twice.  Incidentally, if you only know the character from the movies the novels will come as a bit of a surprise.  Bond is not nearly so smooth and insufferably smug!  Altogether there is a far higher standard of verisimilitude, without all of the outrageous plot devices, i.e. devices, loved by the movie makers. 

I was soaking in the bath this morning when, for wholly unexplained reasons, Bond and SMERSH came to mind, or rather my mind was entered by the shadow of an impressionable little girl from all those summers ago.  I shall leave you with one of my favourite anthems.  Always keep your face to the sun.  

Monday 23 July 2012

Cow Girl Takes a Test

Now that we know this country is bulging with new immigrants, citizenship and what exactly it means to be British has become rather the flavour of the moment.  Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has commissioned a test for those who want to make a home in England’s green and pleasant land, requiring them to know quite a lot about the land of hope and glory!    British?  Know the Bard…or you’re barred, declared the Sun in its inimitable fashion.

The New Statesman’s Mehdii Hasan has clear views on the subject.  He wonders who has the right to define what is relevant to British “culture and history.”  This man who thinks that non-believers, meaning non-Muslims, are unreflective people of no intelligence, like cattle, is raising objections to the document on which the test will be based.  He describes Life in the United Kingdom: a Journey to Citizenship as a “deeply disturbing.” 

I’ve not read it myself, but according to Mehdi it “rewrites British colonial history and presents a skewed and reactionary view of the past.”  Consider the following passage, he says;

For many indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere, the British Empire often brought more regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order than many had experienced under their own rulers, or under alien rulers other than Europeans . . . Public health, peace and access to education can mean more to ordinary people than precisely who are their rulers.

Oh dear, how dire.  The thing is it just so happens to be true, but one dare not say anything in favour of Empire, at least not in the pages of the Holy New Statesman.  That’s bad enough but it gets worse.  The test is a weapon, you see, in the battle to cut net migration, rather than a battle for greater community cohesion.  It has to be; Mehdi has spoken.  Would that include cohesion for cattle, I wonder? 

In writing his piece Mighty Mehdi decided to take the existing online practice test paper, helpfully supplied by the Home Office (www.ukcitizenshiptest.co.uk).  Go ahead; be a devil!  (Non-Brits have a get out of jail free card.)  I was a devil, I am a devil.  I decided to follow in his path and every other member of the New Statesman editorial team.  How could I not, after being told that they all failed, including the Mighty One! 

There are twenty-four questions in all, with a pass set at eighteen correct, that’s a 75% hurdle.  People are given lots of time to ponder their answers, the whole thing timed at forty-five minutes. 

Now, you’re really anxious to know how I got on, are you not?  I won’t keep you in suspense.  I got twenty-two out of the twenty-four right, a pass mark of 92%, and it took me all of two minutes and eighteen seconds!  I failed on two – the number of teenagers in the UK and the percentage of people who define themselves as Muslim, pure guesses in both cases.  OK, OK, I’m mooing loudly, an egotistical pleasure that, on this occasion, I simply cannot resist. 

So, I’m safe.  Mehdi and the New Statesman crew will have to surrender their passports and pay a £50.00 fee to be allowed to take the test again.  I would not allow them that loophole. Send the whole pack to pastures new, anywhere off my meadows!  I, in the meantime, will ruminate in contentment, unreflective cow that I am.  :-)

Sunday 22 July 2012

Satan in Moscow

Ding, dong, bell, Pussy’s in the well, so goes the opening of a traditional English nursery rhyme.  In the modern Russian version Pussy is not in a well but in prison.  She was told by a Moscow judge on Friday that she must remain there, poor beast, until at least January of next year, pending proceedings on a charge of ‘hooliganism.’ 

The Pussy in question is actually three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock band.  Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, all in their twenties, have been in custody since March, arrested for their part in protests against Vladimir Putin’s re-election to the presidency earlier this year.  It’s a sign that the more things change in Russia the more they remain the same; that free speech is a right more often defined by its absence.

The whole case is tinged with some ludicrous colours, nothing more ludicrous than the offence itself.  They were arrested for performing an impromptu punk prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, beseeching the Virgin to ‘Drive Putin Out.’ 

That’s it; for that they will be held for a total of ten months in detention.  When the case eventually, if ever, goes to trial they could face another seven years if convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”  Bail has been repeatedly denied despite the fact that two of the women have young children.  There have even been calls to deprive them of their parental rights along with their liberty. 

How Stalin, sleeping fitfully under the Kremlin Wall, would marvel at modern Russia.  The Orthodox Church, which he and his comrades subjected to systematic persecution, is once again a power in the land.  The hierarchy, which has close ties to Putin, supports the continuing incarceration of the three women, though the majority of ordinary believers want them to be released.

Boris Akunin, a popular writer of crime fiction, has described the “state’s malice” towards the women as “disgusting.”  It certainly is, but there is more than simple malice here.  The whole process is acquiring Gothic overtones, reminiscent of past prosecutions for witchcraft.  Salem, it might be said, has flown east.

On Thursday, Mikhail Kuznetsov, a lawyer acting for one of the Cathedral guards, accused Pussy Riot of being motivated by the same “Satanic forces” that carried out the 9/11 attacks on America.  The punk band is apparently the "tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by creating a schism, guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan. Behind this stands real enemies of our state, and Church."

A heavy indictment indeed, if one believes that opposition to Putin has demonic overtones.  Democracy and free speech would also seem to have a devilish character in modern Russia.  Well, by and large, they always have. Satan is back in Moscow.  Readers of Mikhail Bulgakov will surely love the irony.  

Thursday 19 July 2012

Man Bites Shark

Last Saturday morning, at 9am local time, Ben Linden, a 24-year-old surfer, was killed in a particularly horrific attack by a Great White shark to the north of the city of Perth in Western Australia.  It's a news story I reported on BrooWaha simply as a story (Shark Bites Surfer in Half, 15 July).  

There are aspects to this tragedy that made me uneasy, specifically over the slightly hysterical reaction in the Australian media.  However, with the death so fresh and the shock so apparent, I felt it best just to report the bare facts.  I did, right until the end.  It was only after I found out that surfers were still using the beach in question, despite a local ban, that I felt a brief observation was necessary;

Comment is superfluous in the face of such tragedy, though I think it only right to say that there are some risks simply not worth taking, or if people are prepared to take them the sharks themselves should not suffer the consequences of their foolhardiness. Jaws-style hysteria seems wholly out of place.

Sadly Jaws-style hysteria is what we are getting. Great Whites have been a protected species in Australian waters for more than a decade, after the International Union for Conservation of Nature identified them as vulnerable. Now, in the aftermath of Ben's death, there have been repeated calls for a cull.  Norman Moore, the Western Australian Fisheries Minister, said that is now time to reassess the species population numbers and its protected status.  "Regrettably", he said, "people are being taken by sharks in numbers which we have never seen before.”  

Greater numbers, yes, they are, but what exactly are we talking about here?  Precisely this: five people have been killed in Australian waters in the past ten months.  I agree; it's not a statistic - its five individual tragedies.  Still, the matter should not be taken out of proportion.  We have to understand why sharks are taking a greater interest in human swimmers, clearly not part of their routine food population.  

The answer is we have attracted them, with new and thoughtless forms of high adrenaline tourism.  Cage diving with sharks is a popular pastime in both South Africa and Southern Australia.  When you look into the abyss, Nietzsche wrote, the abyss looks back into you.  

For sharks this baiting with bait has made them more familiar with a human presence, with humanity as a source of easy food.  Great Whites feed mainly on seals.  Even the rare human attacks have not often resulted in the total consumption of the victims, little comfort, in that a single bit from these powerful jaws is likely to be fatal.  The bites, though, are clearly tests.  In future they may become something more.

There were proposals to introduce cage diving into Western Australia.  I understand that operators have now been told that they will not be allowed to go ahead for fear of attracting more sharks and more attacks.  The link here has been a matter of controversy.  Research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation produced findings which are ambiguous at best.  They concluded that baiting kept sharks in an area for longer, but did not prove a link between baiting and attacks on humans.  Well, I can only go on a level of simple intuition here but I think it reasonable to assume that more sharks means more attacks.  If human are there and sharks are there the rest will surely follow.

Sharks are ancient creatures.  They were swimming the waters of this planet before humans appeared.  How much longer, though, is now open to question.  In all of last year twelve people across the entire planet died as a result of encounters with sharks.  In the same year, as reported recently in Prospect magazine, a million sharks died in encounters with humans.  The story surely has to be man bites shark, not shark bites man.  

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Hungary’s Future is all in the Past

Auntie Angela Merkel, in the fashion of an earnest and humourless German Leherin, is in habit of lecturing us all on the dire consequences of the collapse of the European Union.  The alternative is the past, the alternative is German history, and we all want to avoid that! 

The thing is, you see, Auntie and the others who believe in the benighted European ideal have a kind of Marxist view that history has been surpassed and superseded; that the past, so to speak, is all in the past.  I can assure you that it’s not; modern Hungary, the Hungary of the European Union, is example enough to dispel that comforting illusion. 

Just imagine how Europe and the world would react if Germany repudiated the Treaty of Versailles which followed the First World War, the Versailles ‘Diktat’ which so enraged Hitler and the other German nationalists.  Ah, but that is a history too deeply buried.  Who now cares about that distant past?

Hungary does, oh, not about Versailles but about the Treaty of Trianon, its own post-war settlement, concluded with the Allies in 1920.  By this the old Greater Hungry was reduced to a rump, a land-locked central European state, a kingdom without a king ruled by one Miklos Horthy, an admiral without a navy in a country without a coast. Horthy later went on to form an alliance with Hitler, repudiating Trianon and recovering some of the lost territory before the whole dream went belly up.

Ah, but Hungary is such stuff as dreams are made on and its little land is rounded by…places it wants back!  Now I feel sure that Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose conservative Fidesz party came to power in the election of 2010, would not dream of going to war with Austria, Slovakia, Romania, the Ukraine, Serbia and Croatia to regain in whole or in part what was lost, at least not all at once.  But that has not stopped him repudiating the treaty and inaugurating a ‘national day of mourning’ on the anniversary of its signing. 

Viktor is a decent man.  He has declared himself firmly opposed to monuments for such dictators as Lenin, Stalin and Hitler.  Well, they are all foreigners, are they not?  He’s a bit more ambivalent when it comes to Hungary’s Horthy. 

The Admiral is making something of a comeback in a country still traumatised by a ninety-three year old treaty.  Last month a bust of the old boy was unveiled in Csokako in the north of the country by the paramilitary Hungarian Guard, a movement closely allied to the right-wing Jobbik Party.  It’s nothing to do with me, says the prime minister; it’s a matter for local government which monuments are erected or not.  Just as well, I suppose, that it was not Lenin, Stalin or Hitler. 

“Viktor Orban is a man of the past,” Socialist party president, Attila Mesterhazy, said in his annual address in parliament in March. “He wants to bring back a Hungary that’s long gone. That’s why they’re always citing politicians from the beginning of the 1900s. That’s why they’re trying to fashion the state after the Horthy regime, the public law configuration, even parliament.” 

The thing is, though, in Hungary the past is very much the present, with Orban moving the country back into an uncertain future. How I love history; how I love her sense of irony.  

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Egypt through the Barrel of a Gun

No sooner had Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s new Islamic Brotherhood president, assumed office than he showed that he was not a figure to be taken lightly.  The parliament, dominated by his Brothers and dissolved earlier this year by court order (for this read army order), had to be reinstated, he decreed.  The following day he changed his mind.  His office, he said, would respect the court’s decision “because we are a law based nation.”  In other words, he is a figure to be taken lightly. 

I have to ask what brought this epiphany in a mere twenty-four hour period.  Your guess is as good as mine and my guess is the generals  They are ever present in the omnipresent SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the guardian of all truth, justice and the Egyptian way, or the Egyptian way as they see it, which is their way. 

I have said this before and I will say it ad nauseum – in Egypt old soldiers never die; they don’t even fade away.  The other thing I will continue to say is that the so-called Arab Spring was never about freedom and democracy; it bore no relationship whatsoever to the process that ended the moribund communist gerontocracies in Eastern Europe in the late eighties and early nineties.  No; it was about power; it was a struggle over the transfer of power from one self-interested group to another self-interested group

In Egypt the generals may have let power slip in the pretence of democracy but you can be assured that they will never let power go.  Egypt is not a law-based nation; it’s a military-based nation.  Anticipating a victory for the Islamists in the presidential election, SCAF issued a constitutional decree as soon as the poll closed, stripping the potential president of many of his powers, most particularly oversight of the armed forces.  Brothers to the right of them, Brothers to the left of them, the generals were having none of this valley of uncertainty. 

So, then, the future of parliament is in the power of the courts and the courts are in the power of the army.  The only way that Morsi can achieve full constitutional legitimacy is for his Brothers to reassemble and administer the oath of office “This will go down in history as the first serious step towards a democratic transition in Egypt, said Omar Ashour, an Egyptian academic.  “The ultimate test of a democratic transition is whether civilians are in charge of the armed forces.”

In matters like these I often draw parallels with seventeenth century EnglandEgypt now is a little like this country after the conclusion of the First Civil War.  Then there was uncertainty; then the outcome could not be predicted; then there were fractured sources of authority.  In the contest that followed the New Model Army came out on top, the guardians of the revolution as they interpreted it.  Political power came from the barrel of a gun; political power comes from the barrel of a gun.  Egypt is set to prove a time-worn adage.  

Monday 16 July 2012

The Way We Were

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood and make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.  Actually, I couldn’t but Dominic Sandbrook can; he has in Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, the sequel to State of Emergency - the Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, which I reviewed here in October, 2010. 

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book, hovering as it does between history and black comedy.  I found myself laughing out loud at points at the sheer awfulness of our national life in the not so distant past, a past my parents lived through, a history they experienced.  I simply had to ask them if it really was that bad. 

Yes and no, they replied: politically, economically and socially times were bad - a time of IRA terror, a time rampant inflation, a time of irresponsible trade union barons, a time of Marxist militants, a time of drift and decay; but they were young, they were both undergraduates at the same Cambridge college; they were in love; they had their season in the sun.  Perhaps the day will come when I look back at our present troubled times through a soft-focused lens! 

Sandbrook’s title, taken from a whimsical song popular at the time, is deliberately ironic.  The period between the surprise victory of Harold Wilson and the Labour Party in the election of March, 1974 and the defeat of his successor James Callaghan in the election in May, 1979 comes as close as any to marking the nadir of modern British history.  It was a period that ended not in a Summer of Satisfaction but in the so-called Winter of Discontent, when the country, overwhelmed by a great wave of trade union militancy, saw rubbish pilling up in the streets and the dead queuing for burial. 

I knew that Labour governments were dysfunctional but, my goodness, I had no idea of just how dysfunctional.  Harold Wilson, who won two elections in the 1960s, came back to power a sad ghost of his former self, increasingly beset by paranoia and quite possibly showing the signs of early mental decay. He was completely dominated by his long-standing political secretary and confidante, one Marcia Williams, a truly ghastly individual.  At one point she even addressed Wilson in the hearing of others as “You little cunt!”  By the summer of 1974 her influence was so baleful that his inner circle even contemplated having her murdered.  Instead the next best thing served: she was sent upstairs to the House of Lords as Lady Falkender.  This Lady was no lady.  Even the Queen obliquely queried her elevation. 

Sandbrook rightly suggests that the mid to late seventies were not just important as prelude to Thatcherism, surely the most necessary antidote ever devised, but as a “decisive moment in our recent history.”  It was a time of transition, a time that saw the strange death of social democratic England, a time that saw the death of the consensus that had dominated British politics since 1945.  It was the time that saw the end of Old Labour, killed off, ironically, by its trade union allies.  I would say that if one wanted to understand Tony Blair and the modern Labour Party one could do no better than pay close attention to this period.

It was a time when illusions went hand-in-hand with delusions.  In March 1974, when it was clear even to the economically illiterate that it was no longer possible to spend one’s way out of a crisis, Denis Healey, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, proceeded to spend his way out of a crisis.  More and more people began to wonder if Britain was on the road to Weimar, with hyperinflation an ever present threat. 

Actually the country had the worst of both worlds, inflation and economic stagnation, allowing a new term – stagflation – to enter the vocabulary.  The historian A. J. P. Taylor, who prided himself on his left wing credentials, wrote to his Hungarian mistress urging her to “Pray for the recovery of capitalism.  You can’t realise how near we are to catastrophe: all our banks may close their doors in a few months’ time…You are lucky to be living in a Communist country and safe from such things.”  Even Callaghan, Foreign Secretary at the time, said, in a mood of black humour, that if he had been a younger man he would emigrate.  Many did. 

The author does an excellent job in identifying some of the key cultural icons.  There is surely none more iconic than the inexpressibly vulgar Beverly Moss from Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party.  She is a monster of social one-upmanship.  She is also a harbinger of things to come.  Most of all she is a representative of a new aspirational Britain, wholly material in concern, and this includes the trade unionists who, in their devil take the rearmost attitude, killed all hope of a bright new socialist future. 

There is surely no more pathetic case than that of the political fantasist Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Industry, propping up one dying industry after another, full of socialist sentimentalism, when all the working classes really wanted was new fridges and package holidays.  Workers of the world unite; you have trips to Torremolinos to gain.  The trade unions are often seen as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest enemies.  In fact they were her best allies.  “The cowardice and irresponsibility of some union leaders”, Denis Healy later reflected, “guaranteed her election; it left them with no grounds for complaining about her subsequent action against them.” 

I’ve emphasised the politics of the period in this review by there is so much more in Sandbrook’s door stopper of a book, weighing in at a hefty eight hundred plus pages.  He covers so much ground, including the cultural and sporting highs and lows.  The highs and lows, depending on your point of view, might be best represented by the Sex Pistols, a dysfunctional punk band for dysfunctional punk times.  Yes, it was true: there were no more heroes anymore. 

There is also a very good chapter on schooling and the negative effects of fashionable, 'child-centred' educational theories, absurd beyond absurd, particularly in the example of William Tyndale Junior School in Islington.  This school might very well serve as a microcosm of England, an undisciplined free for all. 

Drawing on a huge range of sources, Sandbrook weaves an effective tale, though perhaps a little less effective than that told in State of Emergency.  To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best of books and the worst of books.  It is strong in narrative and anecdote, weak in depth and analysis.  The author’s industry is impressive though, given the quick turnaround between this and his previous book, perhaps a little too Stakhanovite.  I would suggest less labour and more reflection.  No matter; Sandbrook’s limpid prose carries one along quite nicely through an epic comic tragedy. He has the ability to make one laugh and cry by turns.  This is the way we were.  This is the way we never want to be again. 

Sunday 15 July 2012

The Message of the Monoliths

In October 2011, according to the United Nations, the world’s population reached seven billion.  It was the Malthusian nightmare seven fold, except it was no nightmare.  It was the occasion for digging up the corpse of poor old Thomas Malthus, who’s 1798 Essay on the Principles of Population warned that the capacity for population expansion could far exceed the increase in food production.  It was the occasion for giving the gloomy old prophet a good media kicking.

A headline in Forbes, an American business magazine, trumpeted Seven billion reasons Malthus was wrong.  Others followed the general condemnation, including Reuters, which said that he thought that women had as many children as physically possible, deepening the indictment by saying that he argued “without providing any reasons.”  The Independent said that he underestimated human inventiveness and was thus unaware of improvements in agricultural production. 

On and on it went, a perfect media storm, proving one thing: that none of these reputable sources had ever read Malthus.  Ah, but we all know Malthus, do we not?  Even his name has been turned into an adjective, a sure indication of his legacy.  We know him even if only from the pages of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge appears as the world’s first heartless Malthusian, saying that the poor better die and “thus decrease the surplus population.”

The truth is we do not know him at all, few doing him the courtesy of actually taking the trouble to read his book.  Forbes, in a wholly pompous and condescending manner, declared that “he was not a bad person just rather unimaginative.”  I was so grateful for the corrective provided by Professor Robert Mayhew writing in History Today (Malthus and the Seven Billion), who quite rightly said that the problem with imaginative insight lies not with Malthus but with his commentators;

It we dare actually to read Malthus rather than to merely bandy his name around we shall find a complex, subtle and open-minded scholar who pioneered the study of problems that are increasingly important in the age of climate change and concerns about food security.  By letting the real, historical Malthus speak in his own voice we may just open dialogues that help us to address our present and future planetary predicaments.

There are two nineteenth century paths here that one might care to take, the path of Marx and the path of Malthus.  For Marx the earth was a cornucopia, its resources unlimited.  Only Scrooge and the other heatless capitalists got in the way of Nirvana.  Malthus, in contrast, argued that the world’s resources were not limitless, that “The power of population is so superior to the power of earth to produce subsistence to humanity that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

According to the World Health Organisation some eighteen million people die each year from malnutrition and outright starvation.  With the earth’s population heading towards ten billion by mid-century, more people will mean more death, more pressure on land, more pressure on resources, more pressure on food production, no matter how innovative we happen to be. 

Contrary to the ignorant comments in the media, Malthus was not ignorant.  He argued from reason based on a painstaking assembly of facts.  He was fully aware of human inventiveness, arguing that “Necessity has been with truth called the mother of invention…Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state.”  His point was that no matter the great agricultural and industrial improvements of the day, humanity could never be fully free from resource pressure.  Cornucopia’s Horn is not endless after all. 

There is Forbes, in complacent self-congratulation, looking over the past and blind to the present, at least the present for some.  But can it say, can anyone say, what the world will look like in twenty or thirty years from now?  For those a little more cautious than the media pundits Malthus has an abiding relevance.  As Mayhew writes he “…remains a vital well-spring for all who want to think rigorously about the nexus of population, resources, economics and the environment.”

Those who think less rigorously might actually take the trouble to read The Essay on the Principles of Population.  If they have not the intellectual stamina they might consider the fate of the people of Easter Island, a Malthusian nightmare in miniature.  There is a message in those monoliths, even for the heavy-witted journalists of Forbes.  

Thursday 12 July 2012

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

 I don’t think I’ve ever voted with such enthusiasm as I did in last year’s Alternative Vote (AV) referendum.  I voted NO, the most delightful negative ever.  If there were a thousand such referenda I would vote no time and time again.  It was supposedly about introducing ‘fairness’ into our electoral system.  What rot!  Part of the present Coalition deal, it was a way of allowing the Liberal Democrats to be kingmakers for ever and a day.  It was about the strange revival of Liberal England.  How glad I was to put the beast back in its coffin!

Not content with that, Nick Clegg and his gang went forward with another piece of constitutional vandalism; they went ahead with proposals for ‘reform’ of the House of Lords.  The aim here is to turn our venerable and unelected upper chamber into a kind of senate, selected on the basis of – guess what – proportional voting. 

Just imagine the political chaos that would ensue.  The House of Commons could no longer claim unsullied primacy.  An upper house elected on the basis of AV or any proportional system would give the Liberal Democrats disproportional influence.  In any deadlock with the Commons their Senate could claim greater electoral legitimacy.  Clegg’s placemen, moreover, would have fifteen year tenures, a greater opportunity for abuse and the insolence of office I find impossible to imagine, a modern form of the old Whig supremacy.  It all comes down to one thing: this shabby and debased party would have its grubby hands forever on the wheels of power.

It’s obvious that David Cameron has no stomach to this fight, but he dare not depart.  Nick Clegg, huffing and puffing like the petulant schoolboy he is, is threatening to derail the necessary changes to the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies if he does not get his way on the House of Lords.  But - thank goodness – there is still enough backbone in the Conservative Party.  A sufficient number of Tory MPs have rejected his childish attempts at blackmail.  The bill, like a ball, has been kicked into touch!

Clegg, with Cameron in tow, had intended to hammer ‘reform’ through Parliament with a minimum of debate, an absolute disgrace considering the constitutional importance of the proposed change, one of the most important in our history.  But, in the face of rebellion within the Tory ranks, coupled with the Labour Party’s opposition to a foreclosure on debate, the government was forced to drop a timetable motion. 

On Tuesday the bill passed its second reading, with close on a hundred Tories voting against. It passed alright, but it’s now going to be a narrative as long as the tale of the Ancient Mariner.  Threatening to derail the rest of the government’s legislative programme, it is likely also to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing

Cameron, Mister Whichever Way the Wind Blows, now says he will try to “proceed with consensus”.  To echo the words of Iain Martin in the Telegraph, good luck with that.  Saying consensus, consensus, when there is no consensus; there will never be consensus on this ill-conceived, badly thought-out and wholly unnecessary legislation.  Change of this magnitude should be approached with great caution, not on the whim of the Liberal Democrats, the permanent political also rans. 

The real shocker here, though, is not Clegg, acting on his own debased principles, but Cameron, who, for the sake of office, was prepared to push through a measure that neither he nor a goodly part of his own party believe in.  What kind of man is this, what kind of Conservative and, most important of all, what kind of Prime Minister?  There he was, waving the reform flag albeit in a limp-handed manner.  There he was, prepared to destabilise the constitution and our system of government.  There he was, offering support to a bill no matter the damage or the consequences.  All this for what exactly?  All this for Clegg. 

In the Telegraph Martin described Clegg as a “third rate Tony Blair: an unhistorical and restless progressive seeking relentlessly to apply his abstract agenda, with pious, cliché-ridden petulance, to whichever institution he does not like the look of.”  He later retracted, saying that calling him a third rate Blair was overgenerous.  Yes, well, we are all permitted a slip twixt cup and lip. 

I hope the Conservative rebels continue their principled opposition to this unprincipled and opportunist bill.  I hope it really is, as one said, a ‘dead duck.  AV is dead; House of Lords ‘reform’ is dying.  Now let’s have a creeping barrage directed at gay marriage.