Tuesday 30 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm: Smelly and Orthodox

The day after I left for Tunisia Eric Hobsbawm died.  A former professor at Birkbeck College, he was ‘Britain’s best known Marxist historian’.  I suppose he must have been; it said so in the Guardian, though just how many outside the common rooms and beyond the chattering classes knew of this ghastly old fraud is open to question.  Now you have a flavour of what is to follow.  Read no further if you think it a sin to speak ill of the dead, for I am about to speak ill; Ana’s silver hammer is about to fall upon Hobsbawm’s head! 

For me his passing really does mark the end of a political Cretaceous period.  He was the last Stalinist, the last of the ideological dinosaurs who corrupted intellectual life in this country for so many decades.  I’m rather glad I was away, missing some of the more nauseating tributes, including one from Ed Miliband at the Labour Party conference, where he was described as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family.”  Hmm, yes, I take this as a measure of the Milibands.  If you do not already know that measure you will before I have finished. 

He was also lauded by the BBC, no surprise there, in that Hobsbawm might be said to have defined a large part of the Corporation’s political and intellectual outlook in much the same way that the creepy Jimmy Savile defined its subterranean sexual morals. 

I was disappointed, though, to note that praise also came from Niall Ferguson, a right-wing historian for whom I hitherto had considerable respect.  He was rash enough to describe Hobsbawm’s cycle of books beginning with The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 as “the best introduction to modern world history in the English language.”  What utter rot!  Has he actually read these awful, badly written ideological apologetics, I have to ask?  Either he has completely failed to understand the falsity here or, like so many others, has descended into abject hypocrisy. 

Let me give you this scenario.  Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party - no friend of the Milibands - has taken part in an in-depth television interview.  In the course of this he was asked one key question – if Hitler had achieved the radiant future he promised would this have justified the murder of six million Jews?  He answers in one word: yes.

Now just imagine the perfect storm that would follow, just imagine the ostracism and the denunciations.  Of course it never happened; it’s a fiction.  It is no fiction that Hobsbawm was asked a similar question by Michael Ignatieff in an 1994 interview, namely, if the “radiant tomorrow” had actually been created in the Soviet Union would the death of 15 or 20 million people have been justified?  Yes, came the reply.  Was there a storm, was he ostracised and denounced?  No; instead Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour in 1998.

Hobsbawm remained loyal to his murderous political passions all of his life.  He became a Communist at an early age while living in Germany at the beginning of the 1930s.  In another interview, perhaps more revealing than he ever intended, he said he joined the Communist Party partly because he was Jewish - “if I hadn’t been, I might well have become a Nazi in those circumstances.”  In a deeper sense he did: that sense in which both Nazism and Communism have a similar view of the value of human life.

Unfortunately for us he came to Britain before Hitler took power, though he always held this country, its people, its politics and its institutions in contempt.  Fortunately for him he did not go to the Soviet Union, his ideological motherland.  If he had, as a foreigner, an intellectual and a Jew he is unlikely to have survived Stalin’s purges.

Hobsbawm was a traitor in spirit.  A member of the Cambridge Apostles in the 1930s, it may very well be proved at some future point that he was also a traitor in deed.  His treason in word began early.  A supporter of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, he co-authored a pamphlet defending the Soviet attack on Finland, saying that Stalin was merely trying to protect Russia “from an invasion by British imperialists.” 

There is another irony here.  Let’s assume that this defender of the Nazi-Soviet pact had gone to the Soviet Union instead of taking advantage of British liberty, including the liberty to write laughable twaddle.  Let’s say that, by some miracle, he had survived the Great Purge, no doubt by lauding Stalin and denouncing others.  Well, then, that same Pact would almost certainly have finished him.  For Stalin, as a gesture of friendship and goodwill, was delighted to hand German Communist exiles over to the Nazis.

Instead Hobsbawm became the prime example of the idiocy and bad faith of the British left.  He became a prime example of the alienated intellectual who, as George Orwell noted, took their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.  He became a prime example of the polysyllable-spewing Stalinist that Orwell identified in The Road to Wigan Pier and elsewhere.  The crushing of Hungarian freedom came in 1956; others left the Communist Party; Hobsbawm remained.  The crushing of the Prague Spring came in 1968; others left the Communist Party; Hobsbawm remained.  As Soviet Communism grew senile and sclerotic he grew senile and sclerotic with it.  

Hobsbawm, incidentally, was in the habit of referring to Orwell as the “upper-class Englishman Eric Blair.”  Englishman he certainly was; upper-class he certainly was not.  What marks Orwell out was his decency and his honesty, his contempt for the forms of abject power worship embraced by the likes of Hobsbawm, full of contempt for people while full of love for the Masses.

In the end the Hobsbawm disease is reducible to one thing: the cancer of abstraction.  He remained loyal to the ‘ideals’ of the Russian Revolution, even after those same ‘ideals’ descended to a murderous practice time and time and time again.  But the grand illusion actually goes deeper; it goes as deep as Rousseau and the French Revolution. 

The Soviet Experiment, you see, was for Hobsbawm just the latest expression of 'Enlightenment Values', a belief that it was possible to create the world anew following an abstract blueprint.  Those who are not deluded understand the implications of this – the death of millions.  More human beings have been destroyed by Communism and ‘Enlightenment Values’ than by any other force in history.  And there never was, never could be, a happy outcome, only a mountain of skulls that would have made even Tamerlane blanch.  Not Hobsbawm. 

I have the deepest contempt for this man’s legacy, for the malign impact he has had on the intellectual life of this country, for the way in which his minions and fellow travellers have been allowed to corrupt so much of the media establishment, particularly the BBC, an organisation that has become a national disgrace.  It is indeed a matter of concern, as Michael Burleigh noted in the Telegraph, that such dubious figures have been given licence to dominate the soft culture of the BBC and so many universities. 

I return to George Orwell, specifically to his essay on Charles Dickens, which concludes with the following observation;

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

Smelly little orthodoxy never let go of Hobsbawm’s soul.  I, too, see his face in his writing.  There he is, smirking. His eyes show it all.  They show him to be mean-spirited, unimaginative and small-minded. His is the face of a hypocrite and a liar. His is the face of a twentieth century Communist, smelly and orthodox to the end.  He will be forgotten, his dishonest and derivative books unread.  He was bad rubbish.  Good riddance. 

Monday 29 October 2012

The Mirage of Certainty

The Tremor of Forgery is the first novel by Patricia Highsmith that I have ever read.  It was this year’s main ‘holiday book’, taken with me to Tunisia for no better reason than it is set in Tunisia.  I chose it, in other words, for precisely the same reason that I took Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile to Egypt last year. 

Setting out on a review here is beset with uncertainty, a little like going on safari without a guide, a map or a compass.  I simply have no landmarks, no basis for comparison.  I certainly know of Highsmith’s work, her reputation as a writer of thrillers and crime stories, through film adaptations of novels like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, but as commendable as these may be they are little better than palimpsests. 

The Tremor of Forgery is a simple, subtle and altogether deceptive piece of work, a trap for the unwary, for those beguiled by surfaces.  As I read it the impressions crowded in.  I had no Highsmith to compare with Highsmith.  What I had instead was Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Paul Bowles' Let it Come Down, novels that also happen to be set in North Africa, the latter in Morocco and the former in Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbours in the Maghreb.  But there is more than mere geography here.  All of these books deal with displacement, alienation and moral ambiguity; all, if you like, are about Strangers on a Plain!

I simply loved this novel, loved the author’s limpid prose style, loved the way she handled her themes, loved the psychological insight.  This is no mere writer of crime fiction; this is an author on a far higher plain than poor old, dear old Agatha Christie. 

Her sense of place and time is perfect.  She seems to understand Tunisia, though I have no idea if she has ever been there.  She certainly understands the experience of living in an alien culture, the challenges this presents to the moral lumber and sense of certainty that the outsider brings along with the luggage.

The main outsider here, the narrator, is Howard Ingham, an American writer who comes to Tunisia to work on a screenplay.  His story unravels against the background of the Six Day War between the Arabs and Israelis.  Though this has no direct impact on Ingham, it creates an underlying mood of anti-Western hostility that may or may not have had an impact on Anders Jensen, a Danish artist and homosexual that Ingham befriends. 

Incidentally, as a small aside here, Highsmith, in Ingham’s correspondence, preserves the rather quaint antique dating convention whereby the last two numbers of the year are substituted with a dash.  So we have June 8, 19 – Hey, but we already know this is 1967! 

The Tremor of Forgery creates a tremulous mood right from the outset.  Ingham is alone in a strange land.  There is no word from home, either from John Castlewood, the film director who is supposed to be joining him in Tunisia, or from Ina, his girlfriend and possible future wife, in New York.  Increasingly apprehensive, he decides to work on a new novel, which concerns a morally ambiguous banker.  The ambiguity here is heightened by the fact that Ingham selects The Tremor of Forgery as a working title, only to discard it! 

As time passes – still no word from the States despite increasingly desperate pleas – he makes friends with two wholly contrasting fellow expats – Jensen, whom I have already mentioned, and Francis Adams, another American.  Jensen hates the Arabs, though paradoxically he has gone native, living in a seedy Arab neighbourhood in the seaside town of Hammamet.  More than that, in going native he has taken on the moral ambiguity of his surroundings, where life and death are matters of indifference. 

Adams is a contrast in every way.  A rather absurd character, he is a Rock of Gibraltar so far as Western and American standards of morality are concerned.  Pompous and possibly delusional, he broadcasts a weekly talk show to the Soviet Union, a secret he confides to his new friend.  The content is so laughably self-righteous that Ingham accords him the nickname of OWL – Our Way of Life. 

Bit by bit Ingham’s own standards are corrupted, a reflection in real life of the action in his evolving novel, the elliptical story within the story.  He grows closer to Jensen, his most important confidante, more important than the distant Ina, who remains distant even when she eventually appears on the scene. 

The heart of the mystery is a death, or is not a death – we simply never know.  Ingham absorbs a lot of Jensen’s distrust of the Arabs, one Arab in particular, a notorious thief.  This Arab may, or may not, have attempted to break into Ingham’s hotel bungalow in the dark.  In guarding against the intruder Ingham reaches for the only weapon to hand, his typewriter, which he throws, hitting his target, possibly killing him, or possibly not killing him.  All we know, all Ingham ever knows, is that after a scream, a fall and a scuffle in the dark, there is nobody and no body.  The Arab in question simply disappears, no questions asked.

This is the core of this clever little book, as intense as a medieval morality tale, with modern existential and psychological overtones, made all the more intriguing by an ever present sense of threat.  Ingham tells Jensen. What does it matter?, he responds; nobody cares.  It matters, says Adams.  He suspects that Ingham has had a part in the Arab’s fate, or is failing to tell the whole story.  Drawn between the one pole and the other, Ingham begins to question who and what he is, who and what he has become. 

Do not look for resolutions here: there are none.  When Ina appears, briefed by Adams, she puts pressure on Ingham to confess the whole truth, though there is really no whole truth to confess.  She comes draped in conventional religious morality, though there are clear overtones of hypocrisy here, particularly in the relationship she may have had with the movie director, who has since committed suicide, a relationship that is never fully revealed.

I was so impressed by The Tremor of Forgery, not at all what I expected, far more than a simple crime thriller.  I was all the more impressed reading it in situ, aware of the ambiguity of my surroundings, aware that this was a place where certainties may be no more solid than the mirages I saw in the great salt lake of Chott el Jerid. 

This is a beautifully unsettling story, that, if properly read, may very well lead you to question what Ingham questions; to question who and what we are.  Unlike Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr Ripley, this is a book that is unlikely ever to be made into a movie.  It’s far too realistic for that.  

Sunday 28 October 2012

Come with me to the Kasbah

Tunis by night

Well, I’m back!

I came, I saw, I was captivated.  There really is so much to captivate one in Tunisia, a marvellous place with some marvellous sights and even more marvellous people.  It’s certainly true that the country has not quite recovered from the Jasmine Revolution which saw the overthrow last year of the Ben Ali dictatorship, but overall I thought the place more relaxed and less tense than Egypt

There was no evidence at all of the recent fuss over The Innocence of Muslims, apart from the fact that in the whole time I was there I came across not a single American, something quite unique in my experience. 

I did go to Carthage, virtually the first place we made for soon after settling in to Tunis.  I wasn’t completely disappointed, having been forewarned by others that it was all a bit of an anti-climax.  The sites are scattered and there is really not that much to see anymore of a city consumed by a city consumed by a city.  The best part, in the sense of being most complete, was the remains of baths dating to the reign of Antoninus Pius. 

But the most compelling part, for me anyway, was on Byrsa Hill, the heart of Punic Carthage.  Here it was possible to see the fragments left after the systematic destruction of 146BC, an act of vindictive savagery on the part of Rome.  I thought of Hannibal as I saw the scorch marks on walls from all those centuries ago.  Traces in time; I suppose in the end that’s what it all comes down to. 

Carthage is poignant enough but there are far better survivals from the past.  Later we visited the wonderful amphitheatre at El Jem, just as impressive as the Coliseum in Rome.  It’s a testament in stone to the vanished wealth, prestige and power of the Roman province of Africa

Equally impressive – much more so than Carthage – are the remains at Sbeitla, a town to the south-west of the city of Kairouan.  This was the ancient settlement of Sufetula, were history is layered upon history, from pagan Rome to Christian Byzantium.  The forum is a joy to behold, with temples side by side to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, the trinity of the ancient world. 

As usual I’m rushing ahead, carried away by my enthusiasm, mindful that I cannot possibly include all I saw and did in a manageable blog.  It wasn’t all the past, believe me: there were plenty of excursions into the present for swimming and shopping and generally lazing about.  The seaside town of Hammamet on the Cape Bon Peninsula has a gorgeous beach.  Here we lunched on olives, cheese, dates and figs, all washed down with some delightful Tunisian rosé wine.  Rosé is not normally my wine of choice but it’s highly favoured among the locals, so we were assured by Kemel, our ever dependable guide.  Well, when in Tunisia do as the Tunisians do! 

Oh, I almost forgot to mention my encounter in the city of Sousse.  Here most of the people in my party went off to visit the souk in the heart of the old Medina.  Not in the mood for endless bargaining, I wandered off to have a look at the Kasbah, the early medieval fortress, from the outside.  It was really a measure of how safe I felt.  The men, although solicitous, were not quite as bothersome as those in Egypt.  However, as I was standing and staring, one came up and asked if I would like a tour of the Kasbah.  “Come with me to ze Kasbah” – now my life is complete! 

That same day Kemel took us not to the Kasbah but to the city of Monastir, the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, the first president and founding father of modern Tunisia.  His memory continues to be revered; Kemel certainly revered a man he described as the George Washington or Mahatma Gandhi of Tunisia

It’s certainly true, up to a point, though I did not think it politic to challenge our guide’s enthusiasm or question Bourguiba’s more dubious legacy.  The simple fact is that he was a decent and modernising leader who created a bad system.  Presidents for life are just not a very good idea; for the Bourguibas of this Arab world have a tendency to turn into Ben Alis. 

Incidentally, the golden statue of the founding father as a schoolboy, located right in the centre of Monastir, is positively the tackiest memorial I think I have ever seen, all the more distasteful in that the school he attended was demolished to make way for its presence. 

Where to now?  Oh, yes, come with me to the oasis of Tozeur, from there to the great salt lake at Chott el Jerid, with mirages dancing on the horizon, and ever onwards to the Atlas mountains and the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara.  We did it all, on journeys that took us within an inch of the Algerian border, well, several hundred meters anyway, as close to this dangerous outpost as I ever want to get. 

On the way south we also passed through the city of Kairouan, the first capital of Islamic Tunisia and the location of the historic Great Mosque.  The city, so I was told, is the third holiest place in the Islamic world, after Mecca and Medina

One of my more memorable excursions in the south was on the Red Lizard Train from Metlaoui and Redeyef, a journey over a section the Atlas Mountains through some breathtaking gorges.

But this trip was memorable for another reason altogether. In the ticket office I happened to see two men lying prostrate on thin mats, as if waiting in terminal boredom for the next train.  I really only glanced at them from the side of my eye, paying them no mind.  I only found out later from our guide that they were on hunger strike.

This was the beginning of the second week in October.  They had started their particular protest at the end of September, sustaining themselves with a mixture of water and sugar.  What was the reason for their action?  Simply that their fathers had worked for the railway company and this somehow bestowed on them a similar right.  They wanted jobs where no jobs exist.  Apparently their action was reported with some sympathy in the press, though it’s really no more than a kind of moral blackmail.  I can imagine how popular hunger strikes would become if somehow jobs were found. 

I have no wish to sound unsympathetic.  Unemployment is personal tragedy and a moral evil, all the more tragic in Tunisia where there is no system of public welfare.  But I see this as a kind of metaphor, a living example of the country’s dilemma, the reason why the Arab Revolution was always foredoomed to failure, at least in its wilder expectations.  Hopes, sad to say, have a tendency to fall faster than rain. 

I’m straying too far into politics in what I intended chiefly as a travel report.  So back to travel it is, back to one of the highlights of my whole safari – surfing on the dunes of the desert!  The whole thing was such fun, a convoy of 4x4s, driving sometimes at crazy angles or up and down the biggest sand hills I have ever seen. 

Have you ever seen Ice Cold in Alex, the old war film starring John Mills?  If so you may remember the scene where in the process of trying to get the ambulance up the side of the Qattara Depression in Egypt there was a moment when it slipped back down to the bottom.  The jeep just in front of ours made it almost to the top of a particularly large dune, only to reverse back down to take the whole thing again.  Ice Cold in Alex, I thought! 

We made it to the top alright but one of the people in our group went into a complete panic when she saw the descent before us.  She had to be walked down while I urged the driver on.  “We will do it”, I said, “We will get to the bottom, Inshallah.”  We did, well, obviously!  God willed it. 

For me the most romantic part of this adventure was the stop at Onk Jemal – the Camel Head Rock.  It was here, in a desert camp, that Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) met Katherine Clifton (Kirsten Scott Thomas) for the first time in the 1996 film The English Patient.  A depiction of doomed love, it really broke my heart when I was saw it in my teens.  It was super to stand there and dream.  For the boys another movie location, Star Wars, was not too far away! 

Romance and dreams and dates and deserts and wine and Kasbahs in the sun, this was my time in timeless Tunisia.