Monday 25 March 2013

I am such stuff as dreams are made on

Nothing is forever.  I know that, you know that, we all know that.  Life is all about change and transformation, metamorphosis in its many forms!  I was once Clio the Muse on Wikipedia.  I awoke almost four years ago here as Ana the Imp.  But now I am breaking free of that chrysalis.  It’s time for me to dry my wings and fly away.  There are great changes coming in my life.  Most important of all I’m expecting a little imp!  At one time this is not something I thought I would welcome.  But now I do, a new challenge, my own offering to the future.  I have so much to think about and so much to do, new foundations to put down.  I just want to thank everyone who has contributed here, friends old and new.  Goodbye and good fortune to you all. 
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Sunday 24 March 2013

A Devilish People

I was recently asked to identify the various historical elements that led to the creation of Victorian Britain, the high-water mark of our national story, a time of innovation, of self-reliance and self-assurance, things that now seem a distant memory in our present state of senesce.  It comes really at an opportune time, right in the middle of my Trollope period, a novelist who did much to identity some of the significant political and intellectual trends in nineteenth century English life.  I also have a particularly close acquaintance with the work of Charles Dickens, another great chronicler of the day. 
The transformation that characterised the times, particularly in the Industrial Revolution, is the stuff of a thousand school essays!  The obvious things can be marched out with ease – the improvements in agriculture, in communication, in transport, in technology; innovations of all sorts.  Much of the mechanical improvement was directly related to the ever increasing demand for coal, a power source significant as far back as the Middle Ages.  But the mines go even deeper here, deep into our history.
On the eve of the Victorian period feudalism was a distant memory, effectively killed off as early as the fourteenth century.  In contrast it was a living reality on the Continent, in France, in Prussia and in Russia.  In the case of the latter it was to be a living reality as late as the early 1860s, with shadows long thereafter.  It is England not France that is the true home of liberty.  In France Liberty came late, trailing clouds of terror and bringing streams of blood. 
In England freedom was far more than a word.  From the myth of Robin Hood to the reality of Magna Carta, the first great break on royal power, it was a living reality.  I find it difficult to define this properly but I know a poet who can;
It is not to be thought of that the Flood
Of British freedom, which to the open Sea
Of the world's praise from dark antiquity
Hath flowed, "with pomp of waters, unwithstood,"
Road by which all might come and go that would,
And bear out freights of worth to foreign lands;
That this most famous Stream in Bogs and Sands
Should perish; and to evil and to good
Be lost for ever. In our Halls is hung
Armoury of the invincible Knights of old:
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held. In every thing we are sprung
Of Earth's first blood, have titles manifold.
We recently dug up the remains of Richard III, a reminder of the great fifteenth century dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses.  But that event was far more significant than a simple game of thrones.  It decimated the hereditary nobility that had effectively ruled the country since the Norman Conquest.  In its place came a new nobility, made up quite often of the middling sort.  Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, the two most powerful political figures during the reign of Henry VIII, were respectively the son of a butcher and the son of a blacksmith.  I can think of no other country at the time that where such a rapid ascent would have been possible.
Then there is Parliament, a uniquely assertive body in English history, present from the thirteenth century onwards.  It was to be an effective scrutiniser over time of national finances, granting fresh supply only after various grievances had been addressed.  It may have started on a Continental model of an assembly of estates but it became so much more, the best firm of accountants that the nation has ever had. 
So, if the Wars of the Roses saw the beginning of the end of aristocratic power, the political struggles of the seventeenth century saw the absolute end of royal absolutism.  It is not to be thought that the Restoration of the monarch in 1660, after a republican interlude, marked the victory of Crown over Parliament.  Charles II was to have almost as much trouble from his loyal assembles as his father did from his rebellious ones.  The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the overthrow of James II, sent all pretence of divine right monarchy to the grave.
The long Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an important precursor here, freeing people from more traditional forms of thought and religious practice.  The process was also fairly uniform throughout mainland Britain, uniting people in a common Protestant ideology.  Where there is religious liberty and freedom of thought political liberty follows.  In France such religious liberty was the gift of the state, ended in a stroke of royal absolutism.  As England wakened to freedom France sunk deeper into the sleep of absolutism. 
If any one man supplied the ideological impetus for the Glorious Revolution, and the subsequent Bill of Rights, then it surely has to be John Locke.  For me Locke serves as an avatar of the English intellect, far more precise and empirical than the cloudy abstraction of so much Continental thought.  English itself is a precise language which, if used properly, is concerned with meanings and ends.  It is a language that does not readily lend itself to obscurity.  When it does it simply looks ridiculous.  A free language given to free expression, that is of crucial importance in understanding who we are, in understating our values and our dow-to-earth sense of what is right and what is wrong.  We must indeed be free or die, who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake.  The corruption of our spoken and written language is among our greatest contemporary dangers.
Our political struggles did not end with the Glorious Revolution, merely took on a different form.  The early Victorian period saw a new and bloodless civil war, fought between the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, which expanded middle-class representation in Parliament, and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which saw the final victory of the industrial over the landed interest.  Through this period, though passions were often heightened, problems were solved by pragmatic compromise rather than violence, another characteristic of the English.
Take the career of Benjamin Disraeli, for example, another kind of avatar.  He first made his mark in Parliament by a ruthless assault on Sir Robert Peel, his own party leader and the Prime Minister responsible for the repeal of the Corn Laws.  At the time Disraeli spoke for the landed interest.  But when he became Prime Minister himself later in the century there was no return to the past.  For him laissez-faire capitalism and free trade, defined by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, was the wealth of the nation.
Britain was fortunate in being the first industrial nation among a world of primary producers.  But while free trade opened the agricultural sector to foreign competition in did not entail terminal decline.  Instead the nation’s farms and farmers became more proficient, as proficient as their manufacturing counterparts in adopting new methods and techniques.  Farms became pure commercial enterprises with little of the inefficient and underproductive peasant agriculture that continues to be a defining feature of the French system.
The country was also fortunate in not having a standing army on the Continental model, a drain on national resources.  Instead there was the navy, based on the need to defend ever lengthening trade routes.  Naval officers were generally of a far higher level of ability than those in the army, many of whom bought their commissions.  An idiot could command a regiment; an idiot could not sail a ship.  The defeat of France in the Seven Years War established Britain as the leading sea power in the world, something that was to continue right into the twentieth century.  Secure trade meant growing wealth; growing wealth meant an ever greater flow of capital; more capital meant more investment, and onwards and upwards.
The English don’t do revolution by doing it so well!  The changes are outwardly subtle, so subtle than they can scarcely be seen to have happened.  Consider the difference between the England of Richard III and that of Queen Victoria.  In institutional terms little has changed.  They are all in place, the monarchy, the aristocracy and Parliament, both Lords and Commons.  But the balance between them has changed dramatically and continued to change.  The monarchy is now the decorative part of the constitution, something that would have caused Richard a new winter of discontent! 
If I take Disraeli as one avatar of the Victorian age the other has to be Charles Dickens, at once the least and most political writer we have ever had.  His work is in so many respects another human comedy along the lines of Dante, but he never lost sight of the various social, politic and institutional abuses of his time.  He is really the great giant of mid-Victorian liberalism, best caught in Charles Dickens, George Orwell’s brilliant pen portrait, which concludes thus;
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.
I don’t think there is any better description of the free English intellect.  It’s an insightful portrait of Dickens just as it’s an insightful portrait of Orwell himself. 
The English have never been hung on a cross of theory.  The Victorian age provides plenty of examples of this, of people reaching for practical solutions to practical problems. Karl Marx would have crucified us.  Though he spent many years in exile in London, he never understood the people among whom he lived.   Always expecting great things from the English proletariat, the most advanced in Europe, by the lights of his theory, he came to see that England was the one country in Europe with a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois working class as well as a bourgeois bourgeois! His last recorded words were “To the Devil with the British.”
To be cast to the Devil by Karl, is there any better compliment, I wonder? 

Thursday 21 March 2013

Paper Tiger

It’s by pure chance that I came to David Cannadine’s recently published The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences in succession to Catalin Avaramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism, though they harmonise quite well.  Both are concerned with categories and perceptions, both with the divisions created between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’, both with notions of ‘Us’ and notions of ‘Them.’
Cannadine, a professional historian who professes history at Princeton, comes to us rather in the manner of a prosecutor, bearing a heavy indictment against the profession of history!  Actually his beginning is the profession of politics, or the sort of simple-minded politics embraced by the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in the aftermath of 9/11, a new form of Manichaeism, with clear and uncomplicated division between the forces of light and the forces of dark.   
Historians are to blame here, Cannadine feels, in creating to a general mood of division and derision.  They have spent too much time, he argues, on conflict and very little on collaboration, on disharmony rather than harmony.  Above all, they have failed to celebrate a ‘common humanity.’
The Undivided Past, if you like, is a critique of artificial identity politics.  Professor Cannadine unveils his six paper tigers.  These are religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization.  In cementing differences and creating antagonisms, historians made their particular choices.  The overall result is a kind of interpretive straightjacket. 
The simple truth is that we have multiple and shifting identities, a truth so simple it scarcely deserves repeating.  But the author’s blood is up and his challenge offered. He bears down on “the conventional wisdom of single-identity politics, the alleged uniformity of antagonistic groups, the widespread liking for polarized modes of thought, and the scholarly preoccupations with difference.”  My, how those paper tigers fall, driven down by this mighty verbal onslaught! 
Broadly speaking it’s possible to accept elements of Cannadine’s argument.  All history, to take one example, is not the history of class struggle!  But Marx and Marxism is such an easy target, for the simple reason that ‘class’ is the weakest of all the tigers.  Old dinosaurs like Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, are now themselves consigned to the past with a good part of their tendentious scholarship, though they and their kind still have an abiding influence on sections of the liberal media.
Yes, what a chimera class politics proved to be.  The whole sandcastle was swept into the sea in 1914, when the German Social Democrats, the largest Marxist party in the world, voted for war credits, thus in a single move destroying the Second International.  Here nation trumped class, but even so Cannadine’s method would not allow us comprehend why class-based politics became so important in the Second Reich in the first place.  Why on earth did Bismarck and Bebel not simply celebrate ‘togetherness’?  Altogether there is a conceit and polemical blindness here that I find difficult to accept, for all of the author’s weighty scholarship. 
Actually I’m not quite sure who the author is arguing against, beyond the ghosts of the past, those who rest in the shade of Karl Marx or Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee.  I know of no reputable scholar today who is in thrall to any single one of the six categories.  We all know – surely we do? – just how complex the past is, just how hopeless the search for any imperial model of explanation.  The supposed big division between Christianity and Islam sublimates a great many internal divisions within these faiths.  Historians have long been alert to the truth that wars of religion, for example, are never exclusively about religion.  The Thirty Years War is very fertile ground here. 
Cannadine is certainly no Marxist but paradoxically he seems to have lifted notions of false consciousness from the ideological wreckage.  His fellow historians, you see, have helped to create artificial and misleading perceptions of reality.  Alas, he would do well to remember that the task of historians is to interpret the past, not change it. It there are conflicts the conflicts are real; if there are debates the debates are real, if there is oppression the oppression is real.  We cannot conjure away the things we do not like or approve of by fatuous appeals to a ‘common humanity.’  This book, for all its weightiness, is replete with too many unsupported generalisations and too much, well, pious intellectual conceit.    
There is the professor at the end of the lists, his tigers all knocked down.  The contest was just too easy, the false solidarities all dead.  The only solidarity acceptable from this point forward is human solidarity; it’s really as simple as that.  Come, now, ye academic historians, see the truth and abandon the artificial divisions and celebrate those things “that still bind us together today.”  Yes, I imagine Haitian slum dwellers and Russian billionaires will be delighted to see a celebration of a ‘common humanity’ as the profession of history sinks into a sleep of quietism! 
All history may not be the history of class struggle, but it is the history of struggle, as Arthur Schopenhauer rightly contended.  Yes, we are all human but any attempt to create a ‘common identity’ or a common history is a task that has failed, destroyed by its own absurd contradictions.  There is nothing new in this observation.  As long ago as the 1960s J. H. Plumb described UNESCO’s History of Humanity as “an encyclopaedia gone berserk, or resorted by a deficient computer.”  Speaking of berserkers, there is the European Union’s House of European History, which begins the story in 1946, because the various national governments can’t agree on what went before!  I’ll go with Cannadine’s six categories, liberally mixed, any day over absurdities like this, or over his hippy-like, Kumbaya approach to the past.
At the end I found that The Undivided Past was the biggest paper tiger of all.  It’s entertaining, certainly, at least now and again, though far too prolix and dense in style.  It's also wide-ranging, but that does not compensate for its deficiencies.  My most serious criticism is over the stunning banality of the central message.  Simply put, it’s almost impossible to provide an acceptable definition of a ‘common humanity’ when one proceeds beyond the basics – we are born, we breath, we eat, we grow, we decline, we die.  That’s it, a ‘common humanity’ we share with every other species on earth. 
Historians have to grapple with the past and interpret it for the present and perhaps even the future, with as much honesty and integrity as they can, not be seduced by cosy common room cant. We are in the presence here of a new Francis Fukuyama.  

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Faddishness and Minorities

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”, so the ancient proverb goes.  I’m quietly rejoicing over the great Cyprus bank bungle, the latest symptom of European insanity and a clear sign that the gods are on my side!  I have my eye also on the craziness of our present coalition government in England, the craziness in particular of David Cameron and George Osborne, the Dumb and Dumber of our political life. 
I’m in the mood for quotations; I’m in a particular mood for Disraeli.  England does not love coalitions, he rightly said.  I would update this slightly by saying that England hates coalitions; this Englishwoman certainly does.  The grand old Tory also said that a Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy.  My, oh my, I do wonder what he would have made of our present government and the present leadership of the Conservative Party – a disorganised idiocy, perhaps? 
Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign chief, has a cunning plan for a Tory victory in the scheduled 2015 general election, or so I read recently in the Telegraph.  In the wake of the drubbing the Party got in the recent Eastleigh by-election there are to be no more stupid ideas.  Really?  Then I take it we can see gay marriage and windmills dropping from the agenda?  I have a plan also for a Tory victory, though it’s not really that cunning – get rid of Cameron and Osborne. 
Take the Prime Minister…please.  Mediocre leaders are the rule rather than the exception in the Tory Party.  Margaret Thatcher?  No thanks; let’s have John Major instead.  But, my goodness, on the scale of mediocrity Cameron has no contenders.  He even manages to make Stanley Baldwin look good.  When it comes to breath-taking incompetence there are few better than Call Me Dave.  His latest wheeze was the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing.  Eh, excuse me, Prime Minister, does this not mean that the price of booze will increase when voters have had more than enough of price increases in general?  Oops – goodbye to all that.
Simple truths are simply stated – the Conservative Party led by Cameron is heading for sure defeat.  I was tempted to write that there are lies, damned lies and David Cameron but, on reflection, I think that’s unfair.  It’s better said that he is a little man lost in his own confusion.  Having no identity of his own he took on that of Tony Blair and the metro-cosmopolitans.  The Tory Party went mad when it elected him leader, much as Labour did when it elected Michael Foot.  The Cameron Manifesto is another of history’s long suicide notes.
The credibility of all politicians is pretty low these days, particularly those in the Conservative Party.  It gives me no pleasure to write this because I have only ever voted Tory – a long family tradition – and I have a great many Conservative friends.  But the Party has forfeited all credibility and all trust; people simply do not believe a word it says.  In fact the more Cameron and Osborne say the greater the disbelief.  These men are hopelessly out of touch.  The one great platform the government stood on was reduction of the public debt.  What’s happened?  It’s now more bloated than ever.  Some of the reductions we have had are beyond crazy.  Favoured socialist causes have been ring-fenced while defence spending is being slashed.  We spend millions on foreign aid while depriving tank regiments of, er, tanks.  This really is the political theatre of the absurd. 
Can things get any worse?  Yes, indeed they can.    If people distrust the Conservative Party the Conservative Party distrusts itself.  Call Me Dave’s gay marriage scheme has introduced a huge fissure into the Party ranks, one I suspect will never be fully healed.  Nobody wanted this; nobody needed this except a loud-mouthed minority.  And when it came to standing up to Europe and the European Court of Human Rights the Cameron government is nothing but piss and wind. 
Oh, yes, on the subject of wind we have what the Chancellor calls a ‘renewable levy’, a rip-off tax by any other name, one which will penalise consumers and cripple industry.  And for what?  Merely to placate another loud-mouthed minority, the green fanatics who are set on covering this green and pleasant land with ugly and unpleasant windmills. 
I do not care what Osborne says in today’s budget (I wrote this piece before I knew the details) because it will make little practical difference.  The game is up.  There are simply not enough gay couples, greens and lovers of foreign aid to secure a future Conservative government.  Under Cameron the Tory Party has become a movement of faddishness and minorities.  In future it is likely to become the biggest minority of all. 

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Venezuela's Sawdust Caesar

Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, may have been “poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way”, at least according to Nicolas Maduro, his less than charismatic stand in.  I think the ‘dark force’ may very well have been Chavez himself, anxious to preserve something of his inflated reputation before his country implodes under his poisonous legacy. 
What an illusion the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ was, based on little more than a sharp rise in world commodity prices that enabled Chavez to float on a lot of oil revenue, squandered away in one cack-handed scheme after another.  The corruption and mismanagement was extreme, even by South American standards.  I’m reminded here of one of the jokes that was popular in the old Eastern Bloc.  “What would happen if the communists took control of the desert?”  “Nothing for a while and then there would be a shortage of sand.”  Venezuela, a country rich in natural energy, has suffered periodic power cuts for years.
I’ve long understood that Chavez was a complete fraud.  My goodness, I asked myself, who could not see through the posturing of this manipulative and self-regarding demagogue?  Politically he was an interesting phenomenon.  Supposedly of the left, his inspiration was shallow and eclectic, a ragbag of ideological detritus.  I read recently that Carlos Fuentes, a left-wing Mexican writer, described him as a ‘tropical Mussolini’, which comes extraordinarily close to the truth.  The political technique is just the same, the bread and circuses approach to life.  Now the circus is over and the bread, as Venezuelans may soon discover, is likely to be in ever shorter supply.
The signs are already in place.  Inflation is out of control, a fact that is unlikely to be changed by Maduro’s recent devaluation of the bolivar, the national currency.  Venezuela, after years with Chavez at the helm, is a ship floating at the bottom of every league table of good governance and economic competitiveness, an inconvenient truth pointed out by a recent report in the Economist.  Inflation is bad, poverty is worse, crime is unmanageable.  This, I suppose, must be the true definition of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’  The Revolution in health care, for instance, seems to have involved rotting hospitals and declining investment.  The fact that Chavez had to seek medical treatment in Cuba is a perfect indictment of a lamentable state of affairs. 
So, yes, he exited, stage-left, at just at the right time, no longer around to face the reckoning after fourteen years of corrupt, oil-fuelled autocracy.  His legacy, I suspect, will survive as a kind of grand illusion, a little like that of Juan Peron in Argentina, or a little like that of Mussolini.  

Monday 18 March 2013

Death by Diversity

Observers of the last general election will surely remember the encounter between Gordon Brown and a woman by the name of Gillian Duffy, a voter from some Lancashire constituency or other, a person of no importance at all; just an ordinary individual.  Still, she had her fifteen minutes of fame.  She spoke some unwelcome truths to the then Prime Minister.  She raised concerns over mass immigration, for which she was later dismissed as an ‘awful woman’ and a ‘bigot’ by Brown when he thought only his toadies were listening. 
Gillian Duffy became for a brief time everywoman, or everyperson,  a representative of thousands and thousands of ordinary voters who have effectively been disenfranchised, vote or not, by the political machine, by the social democratic oligarchy that dominates debate and dismisses each and every concern over immigration as ‘bigotry’ and ‘racism.’  The real issue is nothing of the kind; the real issue is numbers.  But it’s become a truth that dare not speak its name, or if it does speak its name – bang! bang!, you are dead. 
Douglas Murray is one of the few journalists for whom I have a particularly high regard.  He says what he thinks, a dangerous pastime in our liberally illiberal culture.  He said what he thinks about mass immigration in the latest issue of Standpoint (“A census that revealed our troubling future”).  His focus is the 2011 census, which does indeed show that we have a troubling future.  The census, and the comment that has followed its publication, shows something else I think: it shows that England, as a nation, is being systematically eroded, worn away, deliberately so, by the politicians, bureaucrats and pundits who govern our lives and dominate our media.
I often use the term England – wrongly, I’m occasionally reminded – to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole.  But here I really do mean England.  Wales, which I do not know that well, and Scotland, which I know very well indeed, have magnified their own distinct identities, just as England’s vanishes by degrees.  The arrogance of the liberal intelligentsia, you know, the Islington set, is quite stunning, the contempt for our past and our traditions palpable.  Murray mentions two of the usual suspects, liberal rent-a-mouths wheeled out on television discussion shows – Bonnie Greer and Will Self, the former who appeared on Newsnight, the latter on Question Time
So, Greer speaks – “There is always this failsafe, spoken or unspoken, that there is a British identity.  That’s always interesting to me.  I think it one of the geniuses of the British – of being British – is that there isn’t this sort of rock-solid definition of identity that an American has.”
She obviously is referring to the English, as I think few will dispute that the Scots, Welsh and Irish have a fairly rock-solid definition of identity.  The argument that the English allegedly do not is a justification for mass immigration, the more the merrier, all in the name of multiculturalism and diversity.  One of the most alarming facts from the census is that native English people are now in a minority in London, the nation’s capital.  Boris Johnson, the mayor, says that we need to “stop moaning about the dam burst.”  Yes, that’s right; let’s just drown.  In 23 out of the 33 London Boroughs ‘white Britons’ are now in a minority.  A spokesman for the National Statistics Office apparently hailed this as a victory for ‘diversity.’  As Murray rightly asks, what exactly are the limits of diversity?  When there are no white Londoners at all? 
Then there is that self-satisfied prig Will Self, the grand ayatollah of soft soap leftism, mouthing away shop-soiled clichés on Newsnight.  The audience was packed with the usual debating fodder (does the BBC keep these people in permanent reserve?), that ‘cross section’ of the English public who clap at every right on remark, sorry, left on remark.  In the wake of the census he said “Up to the Suez crisis...most people’s conception of what being British involved was basically going overseas and subjugating black and brown people and taking their stuff and the fruits of their labours.  That was the core part of British identity, was the British empire. [sic]. Now the various members of the political class have tried to revive the idea quite recently without much success?” 
Do you have any idea what he is on about because, quite frankly, I don’t?  Anyway, his view is in complete contrast to that of George Orwell, who had far more direct experience of Empire than Self will ever have.  Most English people ignored the Empire, Orwell wrote more than once; it wasn’t something that impacted directly on their lives.  The Self argument is essentially that England must be punished for its past ‘crimes’.  The Empire, you see, strikes back in mass immigration.  The Newsnight audience went in to orgasmic hysteria over his platitudes – “The people who line up on the opposition to the immigration line of the argument are usually racists...with an antipathy to people, particularly with black and brown skins.” 
Back we go to Gillian Duffy and her kind, the people who simply don’t matter, the people who are not ‘representative’ enough ever to be included in a Newsnight audience, the people who can be scorned and ignored as their nation is literally swept from under them by the dam burst.  These are the people that Self and the other metropolitan literati can disregard; these are the people who can be damned as racist with the usual self-satisfied smugness of those who know that they are always right. 
I value the tolerance of the English people, one of the defining characteristics of an identity that we are not supposed to have.  But tolerance can be too tolerant.  Is there any other nation in the world that would allow itself to be treated like this, to be told that mass immigration is a necessary corrective for past wrongs?  The implication is that the end of England should be celebrated in the name of diversity. 
We are not and never have been a nation of migrants, another lie perpetrated by the likes of Greer and Self.  Until fairly recently in history our identity as a people was solid and unremarkable.  The mass migration of the French Huguenots in the late seventeenth century, for example, was a fraction of a fraction compared with today’s figures.  Orwell could write about the English in a wholly uncontroversial way.  He couldn’t now; few could.  Perhaps we should call, before it is too late, for our country to wake up.  Either that or face death by diversity.  

Sunday 17 March 2013

Monsters of Imagination

Those who have read Robinson Crusoe will recall the point when the hero discovers that he is not alone on his island when he rather ludicrously finds a single footprint! A duffelpud, perhaps? Defoe is really setting the mood, one of horror and one of fascination. And it’s with horror and fascination that the cannibals made their way into the western imagination, from Robinson’s Island to the feasts of Hannibal Lector. 

I had so much fun – if that’s the word! - in picking my way through An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Catalin Avaramescu, translated by Alastair Blyth and published by the Princeton Press. It really helped me to put the practice in a the wider context of history, civilization and imagination

I love Hannibal Lector as much as the next girl but - oh my - when it comes to the real thing some of the details of the cannibal life are truly hard to take in. I remember when I was in my teens reading about the case of one Armin Meiwes, who lived in the German town of Rotenburg an der Fulda. This man went into a website called Cannibal Café and there advertised for a “well-built eighteen to thirty-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.”

Who on earth is going to volunteer for that? Well, someone did, someone by the name of Bernd Brandes. The actual details of what followed are truly repellent. Let me just say that dinner began while Brandes was still alive, the hors d'oeuvre being a certain part of the anatomy that most men find dear. Found to be too rubbery, it was sautéed and fed to the dog! 

To a certain extent, as Avaramescu explores, cannibalism began really as an invented concept, a dividing line between civilization and savagery. It was another form of ‘here be dragons,’ filling out the space on empty maps, those barbarous places “...of the Cannibals that each other eat.” Cannibals, in other words, entered the western imagination alongside such fabulous creatures as the dog-headed men and monopods. 

For Thomas Hobbes the cannibal was a useful concept, a warning of the depths that the war of all against all could descend to in the absence the social contract and the state. But it became something more in the real world; for the discovery of supposed cannibal ‘savages’ became an excuse for far greater savagery, as the Spanish fully demonstrated in the Americas. The hypocrisy, not just in this, but in much of the practice of ‘civilization,’ was touched on by Montaigne;

I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but lately seen, not among the inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow citizens, and which is worse, under the colours of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead. 

I suppose the modern cannibal, cannibals in the form of the fictional Lector or the factual Meiwes, are really the creation of civilization rather than savagery, a notion supported by arguments advanced by the Marquis de Sade, who saw the absorption of ‘the other’ as a perfect expression of one’s freedom. Alas, there are some forms of freedom one would rather not have. 

Avaramescu has performed commendably in exploring the darker side of human imagination; for this is a journey less into the practice than the perception. It touches on assumptions about barbarism that allowed supposedly civilized societies to behave towards others in a wholly barbarous way. As much as anything An Intellectual History of Cannibalism is an exploration of evil, of ideas and practices that go well beyond the consumption of human flesh.

Thursday 14 March 2013

In Thrall to the Past

This September will mark the five hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, fought in the county of Northumberland close to the Anglo-Scottish border.  In terms of the numbers engaged it is a good candidate to be the largest ever fought on English soil, though most people broadly acquainted with the battle history of this country would probably select either Towton from the Wars of the Roses or Marston Moor from the Civil Wars in preference.  The fact is, so far as the English are concerned, Flodden is a forgotten epic, no matter that it was the most complete victory ever won over Scottish invaders.
It’s better remember in Scotland as a catastrophic defeat and tragic memory.  King James IV headed the company of the dead, joined there by men from virtually every family in the land, including many of the leading nobility.  Their sacrifice is recalled in a lament known as The Flowers of the Forest.  It is also recalled in Marmion, Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem
I know many Scots will resent me for saying this, but James, often perceived as their best and most enlightened king, was a vainglorious and shallow individual, with ambitions far too big for his small country.  It was his disastrous invasion of 1513 – mounted when Henry VIII was abroad campaigning in the Low Countries – that ended all pretence that Scotland was a major independent power.  No significant purpose was served by his military adventurism.  He was aiding France, Scotland’s old ally, though the French time and again had used this partnership of unequals to serve their own cynical ends.  As it was Scotland never recovered from the disaster.  Within a few decades the country was to find that its French ally was a far greater danger to its independence than its English enemy. 

As Scotland heads blindly towards a new pretence of independence (Independence in Europe – what a joke!) it’s as  well to remember Flodden, along  with the political illusions and national vanities that preceded the disaster  At the present it is commemorated by a simple stone cross, erected in 1910, I believe, dedicated to the brave of both nations.  Now there are proposals for a new ‘ecomuseum’, England’s first, a project linking several pertinent sites across a wide area, places and features in the landscape related to the battle on both sides of the Border.  Each site will have its own visitor information and resources. 
I understand also that September pilgrimages are being planned from Durham and from Edinburgh to the battlefield.  I’ve been there myself.  The landscape itself, although a lot of it is now farmland, is largely as it was in the early sixteenth century.  Although the encounter is known as the Battle of Flodden, it was actually fought at Branxton, to the north of the hill known as Flodden Edge.  Tree covered Flodden Edge, the site of the first Scottish camp, is a mournful place.  It least it was that day I walked up, passing the Well of Sybil Grey, marking the place where Marmion, Scott’s knight, died of his wounds.  The sound of the wind lightly passing through the trees was as hauntingly sad as any lament. 

Speaking of which, The Flowers of the Forest is an ancient Scottish folk tune with battle lyrics added in the eighteenth century by Jean Elliot, another Scottish poet.  The English, we are told, “...for ance, by guile wan the day.”  No, they did not!  They ‘wan’ with inferior numbers by superior leadership, superior gunners and superior weaponry.  The Scots, atrociously led, charged in to the affray in an age old manner, lacking all discipline and co-ordination.  Bravery did not compensate for folly. It very rarely does. 
I am fond of Scotland, a country I have visited more than any other.  But if this is a country where the past is paid proper reverence it is also a country in thrall to past illusions.  Perhaps in the end the myth of Bannockburn, Scotland’s one and only great victory over England, will serve to be the most significant illusion of all.  Next year will see the seven hundredth anniversary of this seminal encounter, a high tide which the present Nationalist administration in Edinburgh hopes will float their referendum on independence all the way into a triumphant harbour.  Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, is preparing, in the style of King Robert Bruce, the victor of Bannockburn, to mount his own pale horse.  He is hoping for one battle; he might very well find another.  

Wednesday 13 March 2013

YES, sí (that’s YES!)

So, it’s YES; the people of the Falkland Islands have voted, and they have voted to preserve their connection with Britain. In a 92% turnout 99.8% voted YES, that’s 1513 of the islands’ population of 2900 people. A search is now underway for the three losers who voted no, presumably planted members of Argentinian President Kristina Kirchner’s coterie.

Jan Cheek, a member of the island’s eight-strong legislative Assembly, said that the vote should leave the world no doubt about the wishes of the people. The world should be in no doubt; the world was there to see that the poll was carried out properly, including observers from Mexico, Uruguay and Chile. Brad Smith, the American head of the international team, said that “The Falkland Islands referendum process was free and fair, reflecting the democratic will of the Falkland Islands.”

It’s a real slap in the face to Madame Botox, Argentina’s hapless president, who would allow no voice at all to those she condescendingly refers to as an “implanted population”, notwithstanding the fact that many have been there for generations. The same principle, as I’ve said before, should be extended to the people of Patagonia. Kirchner’s idiocy has even been remarked upon by an Argentinian columnist. Writing in the Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer said that “Argentina’s latest offensive against the islanders may go down in history as a text-book example of diplomatic incompetence.”

When the votes of the people who actually live in a place are dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ one simply knows what one is up against. Do the people of Argentina know what they are up against? I expect a great many do, those who are the victims of their president's mismanagement and incompetence. Her Falklands’ offensive is as much a distraction from her country’s internal woes as General Galtieri’s was in 1982. Her words are inflating faster, if such a thing is possible, than Argentina’s national currency.

I should make it clear that, much as I despise Madame Botox, whose head is as empty as her lips are full, I admire Argentina as a nation. I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago over Christmas and New Year and I found the people unfailingly courteous, particularly those who taught me to tango! It may be a dangerous thing to confess but I have a sneaking affection for Eva Peron (I laid flowers by her family tomb in Recoleta Cemetery), as skilled a politician as Kirchner is incompetent. Argentina was also the home of Jorge Luis Borges, one of my all-time favourite writers, a man of unparalleled genius, who understood the English mind and English literature so well.

It saddens me to see the country so ill-served by Kirchner, little more than a Chavez in skirts. If any one person is responsible for the Falkland’s record-breaking YES vote it is her. It was she in her arrogance and stupidity that pushed for this result. In her dismissal of a properly conducted democratic vote the world should be able to understand exactly what she represents - an old fashioned imperialist by any other name, full of contemp for the wishes of the ‘natives.’ My goodness, why on earth would the ‘natives’ want to be a colony of Argentina under Kirchner? Oh, yes, I know – to see the savings of a lifetime diminish to nothing and to see the economy ruined, all part of her magnificent legacy. They would be able to enjoy a lot of hot air, though. It might be good for floating balloons.

I noticed from a post on Twitter last night that, in the wake of the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron has called on Buenos Aries to take note. “The Falkland Islands may be thousands of miles away”, he said, but they are British through and through. People should know that we will always be there to defend them.” All I can say in response to this is that the Islanders best make ready to form their own self-defence force.

Defend them, Prime Minister; oh, yes, with what exactly? When even the Archbishop of York was moved to criticise dangerous cuts in our defence capability then one knows just how bad things have become. Could we even defend ourselves, I ask, let alone the Falklands? I suppose we can always rely on the Seventh Armoured Brigade, the famed Desert Rats of the Second World War. There is only one problem – soon they will be a tank formation with no tanks.

How I wish we could send Madame Botox and Gay Dave to one of the remoter and uninhabited islands in the Falkland’s group, there to fight it out as best they are able. I just thought as I was writing this of Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, where three totally incompatible characters are sent to hell, isolated in the same room forever and ever and ever. To make up the trio I would add Barry O’Bama. Now that’s really lifted my spirits.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Freedom is the Freedom to Enjoy Pornography

Do you think the world has gone mad?  I don’t.  I know it’s gone mad.  More and more the human race resembles a heard of lemmings, rushing towards that final precipice.  I am the little girl looking at life’s absurdities, shouting, as the parade passes by, that the emperor is naked.  Nonsense, the mass response comes: he is just beautifully dressed!
Speaking of nakedness, I have porn on my mind at the moment, specifically the dire Fifty Shades of Grey by the talentless E. L. James.  Who buys this appalling rubbish, I wonder?  What purpose does it serve?  Is its bewildering success a measure of just how empty the emotional and sexual life of middle aged women has become?  Is it an indictment of middle-aged men?  Alas, I fear it must be.  More than that, I fear its commercial success shows just how stupidly gullible a great many people are, how stupidly gullible most women are, particularly women of a certain age.  These are the people who look before and after and pine for what is not.  Actually they pine for what has never been, for what they have never had, true erotic fulfilment.  All they can do is feast on it vicariously, dining on fifty shades of boredom. 
E. L James is really Julia come to life.  Surely you remember Julia?  A pledged member of the Anti-Sex League, she is Winston Smith’s lover in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  When she’s not having extra Anti-Sex League sex she works in Pornosec, Muck House, as it’s colloquially known, a sub-section of the Ministry of Truth, which produces erotica for the masses.  Specifically she works on the novel writing machines, turning out boring, ghastly rubbish, as she puts it. 
Still, it’s important to recognise that rubbish, particularly pornography, serves a purpose.  It’s often a way of mopping up all sorts of residuals energies and frustrated libidos.  How prescient Orwell was to make an outwardly orthodox member of the Anti-Sex League a functionary in the manufacturing of muck!  For porn, it might be said, is really just a form of anti-sex, judging real sex to be contact between real people, people who are emotionally and physically engaged with one another.  Who knows?  Without porn to compensate for vacuous sterility hordes of frustrated and under-fulfilled proles might cause social chaos.  “The people have such empty lives”, the queen is told.  “Let them read Fifty Shades of Grey”, she responds.
The underemployed members of the European Parliament really should be told that they close down Muck House at their own peril.  This week, you see, they will be voting to ‘ban all forms of pornography.’  This will include yet more censorship of the internet in an attempt to “eliminate gender stereotypes” that demean women. 
Our MEPs, the dear old things, are also proposing the establishment of an Anti-Sex League.  No; what they actually want is for governments to set up state sex censors with “a mandate to impose effective sanctions on companies and individuals promoting the sexualisation of girls.”  Would that include girls, I wonder, promoting their own sexualisation? 
The charge is being led by Kartika Liotard, a left-wing Dutch feminist MEP, bedecked with the characteristic red sash of the Anti-Sex League, who wants "statutory measures to prevent any form of pornography in the media and in advertising and for a ban on advertising for pornographic products and sex tourism.”  So, Amsterdam’s red light specials can - excuse the profanity - get fucked! 
There are of course unenlightened people (aren’t there always?) who see this as just another erosion of free speech.  The accusation has been given added weight by the fact that the parliament has blocked the orgasmic rush of protest emails that followed when news of the measure emerged.  Criticism in any form, the vox populi itself, is being treated like so much rubbish, dumped straight into the Memory Hole by the spam filters. 
Yes, indeed, we move ever forward into a modern version of Orwell’s super state.  It is not governed by malign forces, though, just those who act for our own good; those who know what is best for us in their magnificent condescension.  The anti-porn drive comes soon after a report urging tighter press regulations, including the right of Brussels officials to control and supervise national media, with powers to enforce fines or sack journalists.  Censorship is clearly the wave of the future in our brave new – sexless - Europe that has such people in it.
I have little or no interest in porn.  I agree with Julia - though not E. L. James - that commercial erotica is boring and predictable.  I do not want to read about sex, still less watch other people having sex.  I’m far too hands-on for that.  No empty and unfulfilling fantasies for me, thanks ever so much; I leave that for the mummies and all others who are past it, assuming that they ever drew alongside it in the first place.  No, I could not care less about porn, but I do care more about freedom. I will speak as often and as loudly as I can against Big Brother, or Sister, in Brussels, whose creeping tyranny does not creep any more.  Freedom is the freedom to enjoy pornography, even if it is something as banal and lifeless as Fifty Shades of Grey.  

Monday 11 March 2013

Captain, my Captain

Köpenick's memorial to its Captain

Picture this.  In 1906 a man named Wilhelm Voigt, a life-long petty criminal, was released from his latest term of imprisonment.  Now in his late fifties he’s had enough of his former life.  He wants to go straight.  He wants a job.  He wants a place to live.  But Wilhelm Voigt is invisible.  He has no identity papers.  Without identity papers he cannot get a residence permit.  Without a residence permit he cannot get a job.  Without a job he cannot get a residence permit, and so on in an endless vortex.  He is lost, a little like the Flying Dutchman, seemingly doomed forever to be tossed around on waves of bureaucratic idiocy. 

In one final attempt to break to break the bars of the prison outside prison, he dons a military uniform, that of a captain.  As if by magic he ceases to be invisible.  The clothes have made the man.  He orders some passing troops to fall in, marching them to the town hall, hoping to trace his missing papers.   
On the way he stops at the police station, there ordering the officers to ‘care for law and order’ by preventing all telephone calls to the capital for the next hour.  In the town hall both the mayor and the treasurer are arrested for ‘crooked bookkeeping’.  The Captain orders the safe to be opened.  When the mayor asks for a warrant he points to the bayonets of his soldiers, saying ‘These are my authority’, a line in any other country in the world that would have exposed him as a fake.  The safe is opened and the mayor relieved of a fairly large amount of cash.  A receipt is provided, of course.  After all, this is a society built of paper. 
I know this seems like a fairy story but it really happened.  You may very well have guessed where from the name of the Captain.  Yes, this is Germany, the Germany of Kaiser Bill, Prussia, to be precise, a place obsessed with uniforms and tied tight in regulations, a place where to hear is to obey, a place where everyone only obeys orders.  The little drama took place in the town of Köpenick to the east of Berlin, from which Voigt was ever after known as the Captain of Köpenick. 
He was caught and faced another lengthy term in prison.  But his exploit captured the imagination of a people not generally noted for their sense of humour.  Bit by bit he was transformed in to a German version of Robin Hood, and as such he is still celebrated today.  Even the Kaiser was amused, later pardoning Voigt as an ‘amiable scoundrel.’  But Bill was not a subtle man; the irony and absurdity of the incident and all that it told of the Second Reich was lost on him.  He was pleased, rather, by the obvious reverence that a military uniform carried among the people at large.
A quarter of a century later Carl Zuckmayer, a playwright, wrote Der Hauptmann von Köpenick – The Captain of Köpenick -, a satire based on the incident.  First performed in Berlin in 1931, it was a commentary on contemporary society as much as the past, a commentary and a warning.  Two years later it was banned and Zuckmayer went into exile.  The Kaiser, unsubtle or not, had a sense of humor.  Hitler had none.
The Captain of Köpenick is a play not that well-known outside Germany.  I don’t suppose there is any great surprise in this, in that the humour does not travel that well, or German humor, to say the least, tends to be a little bit on the heavy side.  But it has made one of its rare foreign excursions to London’s National Theatre, which is where I saw it at the weekend. 

In a new English language version by Ron Hutchison and directed by Adrian Noble, it stars Anthony Sher as the eponymous anti-hero.  It was a commendable performance, just as I have come to expect from Sher, an actor of range and depth.  Here he could embrace comedy and pathos with equal ease, as he was transformed from a real nobody into a fake somebody, the talented Herr Voigt! 
Set in the National’s Olivier Theatre, the play made good use of all the technical wizardry at the director’s fingertips, allowing for rapid scene changes, including some wonderful expressionist-cum-cubist Berlin cityscapes in the style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. 
The Captain of Köpenick is as relevant today as it was when first performed.  The continual flow of bureaucratic absurdity from Brussels is sufficient proof of that.  I could only wish that it had been handled with greater skill.  I found Hutchison’s updated version irksome and silly at points rather than funny, descending now and again into outright vulgarity.  More than that, Zuckmayer’s message is obvious enough, the satire biting enough, without the need for the continual reminders, and certainly without the need for the climatic “hysterical Dance of Death.”
This is a play, as I wrote above, that does not travel well.  It might have travelled better with a little more discipline, a little less reverence and a lot less Teutonic stodge Still, Sher, along with some of the supporting cast, makes the experience all worthwhile.  If you are in London, and minded to go, the Captain will be goose-stepping around until 4 April.