Sunday, 21 January 2018

A break from the tedium of air travel

Passenger planes are just busses of the air these days. Any idea, from the early days of aviation, that air travel was luxurious has long been lost.
The joy of air travel: waiting, waiting, waiting
It's the queues that are worst, whether for check in, for security or for the plane itself. So picture me, if you will, combating boredom as I waited to board a flight home from Boston the other day. And imagine my relief when the monotony was interrupted by a pleasurable experience.

I was right behind an English couple that was deciding where to store its duty-free purchases. In his carry-on bag? In hers? Some in one, some in the other? I wasn't that interested in the debate but was following it in a desultory sort of way, as preferable to merely chafing against impatience. But as the man turned towards me and I saw his face, a strange sensation came over me. He seemed familiar. Could it be that I knew him?

As the thought occurred to me, I noticed that he too had noticed me and was looking at me more intently than one might expect from a stranger in a queue.

"Gary?" I asked.

"Good Lord. Mr Beeson. Imagine meeting you here."

We couldn't talk for long. Now I would have liked to have a few minutes to chat with them, which naturally meant that the crawling speed of the queue suddenly felt far too quick. Still, we could catch up on a little news, and I learned that Gary had just completed an impressively long consultancy project that had kept him in Boston for four and a half years.

I last met him nearly three years ago. At the time, I was looking for a new job, a state in which I've found myself far too often in the course of a long, varied and not always entirely fulfilling career. He helped me get a couple of interviews with his company - just being invited to interviews, as anyone who's been unemployed knows, is no easy task - and if they didn't lead to an appointment, that was in no way a reflection on his efforts on my behalf, but entirely down to my not having the right mix of experience (and possibly skill, if I'm entirely honest).

However, I first met him long before that. Over quarter of a century ago. We shared a boss then, in a company where I handled marketing and he handled sales.

He was one of the most colourful figures in the long panoply of salesmen I've come to know. A glowing example from the column of those I class as 'successful and deserving congratulation'. There have been plenty in the opposite group, the ones I see as 'inept and in urgent need of firing'.

As an example of the latter type, I was thinking only the other day of Richard, a salesman with whom I had the misfortune of working some years ago. We visited a client who at one point told us, "It looks like a good service, but I'm worried that…"

Before he could go on, Richard interrupted.

"There's something else I want to show you which I'm sure you'll like…"

I wanted to kick him. The client had been about to voice an objection. Nothing is more precious for a salesman. To be told an objection? So you can address it? What could be more helpful? In many cases, clients tell you nothing about what they don't like, but do tell ten other people. And my colleague had stopped this client telling us.

But if Richard couldn't listen, Gary had another fault which was a virtue in disguise: he couldn't hear. That is, he could hear a great deal, but had an invaluable selective deafness to things it was no advantage to hear.

I was in an office where he was talking on the phone. He was apparently talking to the secretary of a senior executive (yes, it was those long-ago days when executives still had secretaries).

"I'm afraid I just don't understand," he was saying. "Yes, yes, I have his letter, but I don't know what he means. I really need to see him again, so we can get to the bottom of what he's thinking."

She was clearly telling him that her boss wouldn't give him an appointment, but he was insistent that he had to have one. And eventually his persistence paid off. After ten minutes, he at last got the appointment he wanted.

I was intrigued by what had been so incomprehensible to him. How obscure could a letter be if even Gary, who was certainly bright, couldn't follow it? I wandered over to take a look.

The letter was a single paragraph. A couple of sentences at most. I can't remember the exact words used, but the gist could not have been plainer. It was saying "no". The client didn't want our product. And he could not have said it more clearly.

A salesman who can't hear the word "no"? I appreciate, in these post-Harvey Weinstein days, that an inability to hear that word is an inexcusable failing in certain contexts; in the sales environment, however, it's a huge asset.

I don't remember whether Gary actually picked up the order in the end. It doesn't matter - he was highly successful across many clients so, even if this one didn't come through, he had an attitude that clearly worked well overall.

It was a great pleasure to run into him again. As well as a comforting break from the monotony of airline queues. If only I could guarantee an experience as enjoyable every time I fly.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Season in the US

It’s always a pleasure to spend a little time in the States. It’s a nation of such diversity that more or less by definition it has to be entertaining to visit. But often it’s the details that I find most amusing.

My present trip took me to Boston first, and then to Chicago on an internal flight with American Airlines. At one point, a flight attendant told us, “as a reminder, please fasten your seat belts”. Unfortunately, she never explained what fastening our seat belts was supposed to remind us of.

She also asked us to sign up with the airline, at aa.com. AA?  Isn’t that Alcoholics Anonymous? Devoted to helping people recover from a debilitating and self-destructive addition? In my experience, there’s nothing addictive about American Airlines. On the other hand, they could do a lot worse than launch their own kind of twelve-step programme. As a public service, here are a few modest suggestions for six they could use to get started:
  • Admit that they are powerless over their lateness and their schedules have become unmanageable.
  • Come to believe that a power greater than themselves, such as proper management, could restore them to sanity.
  • Mastern the notion that sub-freezing temperatures are likely to make de-icing necessary and start the process before the passengers have all boarded.
  • Humbly ask that their inadequacies be removed so that it takes them less than half an hour to get suitcases delivered to a terminal.
  • Admit that it’s completely cheesy to sing ‘happy birthday’ for someone waiting to board a plane and it’s worse still to sing it twice because they’d left someone out the first time.
  • Train passengers to stow their hand luggage fast and get out of the aisle so it doesn’t take twenty minutes to get a plane boarded. And start the de-icing.
The internal flight was to Chicago. People had warned me that the weather in Boston was bitter and balmy it certainly wasn't. Barmy, indeed, would have been an appropriate term for anyone inclined to hang around much outside. But it took Chicago to show me what winter really felt like.
Frozen in Chicago. Though  at least the lake was still liquid
The lakeside was glorious. On the other hand, it was frozen, to the point that staying upright was an interesting challenge. I think I invented a new kind of dance, as I twisted and turned to stay upright as I began to fall backwards, and then did some more exciting pivots and twirls to right myself when I found myself tipping forwards instead. The cold, though, was nowhere as bad as in the city itself: tall buildings cut off the sun and without even that weak heat to warm us, conditions became positively polar. Unwelcoming would certainly go some way to describe it.

Nowhere, though, was quite as unwelcoming as the Trump Tower, with its owner’s name in letters two floors high across the front.
Sign of a stable genius
You might almost believe that the present incumbent of the White House was an utter narcissist entirely obsessed with self.

Then it was back onto American Airlines and a flight back to Boston. Where the temperatures were a lot more comfortable. Making the hour-long delay, apparently pretty much par for the course in the winter schedule, a price worth paying for the improved weather conditions. 

For this second week, I'm staying outside Boston in a New England Bed and Breakfast, where I was greeted by a curious sign in the bathroom. It asked me, politely, to use a particular cloth to remove makeup. Such a courteously worded request is one I'd like to comply with but, since I havent worn makeup since I last took part in amateur dramatics in the late seventies, I find it hard. A real quandary.
A polite injunction. But difficult to obey
New England has delivered milder conditions than Illinois did but, for this inhabitant of old England, where snow happens occasionally and generally lasts only a day or two, it has provided further reminders of what winter means. That made for spectacular views from the windows of the training room where I spent most of the day.

Ah, yes. As I said. Always fun to cross the Atlantic.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Brexit: hope born in an unexpected place

It feels as though a sea change may be under way in Britain. Just may be. And if it is, it’s not a moment too soon.

Nigel Farage:
not the obvious source of encouragement for the pro-EU side
Even Nigel Farage, former leader of the bizarrely named United Kingdom Independence Party – he’s a fan of Donald Trump and apparently keen on making the United Kingdom even more dependent on US whim than it already is – has now suggested that it may be necessary to hold a second Brexit referendum. Why, he’s gone so far as to suggest that Brexit might be defeated in a re-run vote:

I think the Leave side is in danger of not even making the argument. The Leave groups need to regather and regroup, because Remain is making all the arguments. After we won the referendum, we closed the doors and stopped making the argument.

What he hasn’t yet conceded is that, if the Leave side isn’t making much of an argument, it may be because it doesn’t have much of an argument to make. During the referendum campaign in 2016, both sides advanced wildly overstated claims, but Leave’s distortions (£350m a week released for the NHS, a world anxious to beat a path to Britain’s door to sign trade agreements…) won more votes than Remain’s.

Since then we’ve watched a hapless government, faced by an opposition still sitting on the fence, attempting to negotiate a good Brexit deal with the EU. That process quickly revealed that far from saving any money, Brexit was going to cost Britain a great deal. Equally, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no great appetite around the world to hurry up with trade deals favourable to Britain. The United States has specified that a trade deal would require Britain to drop its food standards and other regulations. In any case, deteriorating relations with Trump now make it look as though no trade deal of any kind. is likely to be finalised soon

Though the inept leaders of the Remain campaign overstated their case, the picture that is emerging looks a great deal closer to what they were forecasting than to the rose-tinted optimism of the Brexit side. That may lead to swinging enough voters away from Brexit to reverse the results of the June 2016 referendum. So one can understand Farage’s concerns.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of this will happen. Nobody in government is ready to call for a second referendum (actually, the third: the first referendum took place in 1975 and confirmed our membership of the EU; another would allow the electorate to reverse the sad effect of the second in 2016). The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has again stated that there is no call on his side for a further referendum either, and it is not Labour Party policy.

Even if there were another referendum, there is no guarantee that Remain would win this time. There is a core supporting departure from the EU which is fiercely attached to its views, and unresponsive to any argument. Remainers can only hope that the necessary 2% or more of voters may have switched to their side of the debate, in the light of real evidence. Given the chance, they might just block Brexit at the eleventh hour.

At most what we have are some straws in the wind. Some cause for hope that we might be able to prevent this toxic step. No guarantees of success, but maybe the beginnings of a change in the climate.

Odd that the glimmer of hope has been given some impetus by Nigel Farage. In general, I’d feel no more inclined to turn to him for encouragement than I would to Trump. But in the rather bleak and deeply confused conditions of today, I’ll take whatever comfort there is, wherever it comes from.

Friday, 12 January 2018

How can others trust me if I don't trust myself?

Trust. It’s impossible to live without. And yet it’s so hard to win.

This all came to mind recently as part of the process I’ve been going through to try to make it easier to get into the United States on visits. Honestly, if a European want to understand how ghastly it is for non-Europeans to get into, say, Britain – you know, those demoralizingly long queues at immigration full of unhappy people combating boredom and jetlag – you need to try to get into the US as a non-citizen or resident. You wind backwards and forwards in long lines between stretched ribbons and, as often as not when you finally get to the front of one, you just go through one process – having your retina scanned and fingerprints checked, say – only to step into the next queue.

Which is what happened to me when I arrived in Boston last Sunday.
Smiles, but not that comforting
Trump and Pence: the men whose trust I need
I have therefore applied for inclusion in the US Trusted Traveller Program. This allows you to use a shorter queue and therefore, one hopes, to get in a little more quickly. It does, however, require winning the trust of the United States government.

Now I appreciate that the US only needs convincing that I don’t plan to engage in any criminal activity. It’s not my intention to carry weapons: I own rather fewer than most Americans (none at all). Nor do I plan to smuggle any banned substances, such as drugs – really not my scene: “drugs cause cramp”, Dorothy Parker assures us, and there are some fairly unpleasant penalties associated with carting them around too. Indeed, I won’t even be bringing in simple foodstuffs: we did travel with bananas once, which we’d forgotten to eat in the plane and dutifully handed over the customs officer when we arrived, by which time they’d been reduced to an unappealing brown mass anyway.

In that limited sense, I think I’m worthy of the US government’s trust, even one headed by the notoriously paranoid Trump.

Trust, though, must cover more than simply a reasonable endeavour to avoid downright criminal behaviour. One can’t help feeling that a trustworthy individual can also be relied on in everyday life. And there, sadly, I’m not wholly convinced I can even wholly trust myself.

For instance, when I was waiting to check in my bags for the flight to Boston, the thought occurred to me that I really didn’t need a winter coat for the flight. I took it off, emptied the pockets into my laptop bag, and packed the coat. That left me feeling pleased with myself for being so farsighted, but only until I got through security and decided to buy something.

That’s when I discovered that my wallet wasn’t in my bag. What’s worse, the pouch where I’d put the other things wasn’t properly closed. I cursed my carelessness.

Doubts assailed me. Had I left my wallet in the coat? Or had it fallen out of the laptop bag without my noticing? Worse still, how could I possibly find out?

The answer, of course, was that there was no way. I just had to spend the next eight or nine hours, until I got my case back, combating the ever-returning fear that I’d lost the wallet. An easy flight turned into a far less pleasant experience.

As it happened, the wallet was indeed still in my coat. I needn’t have worried. But it rather undermined my trust in myself – after all, had I concentrated a little more for a minute or two, I could have spared myself several hours of pain.

Not my idea of a trusted traveller.

Still, I’m glad to say the US has agreed to award me that status despite my own doubts. On the other hand, another shock awaited me as I walked into the building when my interview was to take place. Up there on the wall were portrait photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

It’s odd. I’ve naturally seen Trump on TV again and again since he was sworn in. Practically every day there’s some new appalling revelation about the man. Inevitably, I knew perfectly well that he was President.

And yet, somehow, it was seeing those portraits that really brought it home. I’ve seen Federal buildings with portraits of Obama and Biden before. I’ve seen photos of many presidents. They strike me as entirely mundane sights, just what one would expect. But to see Trump up there – well, it really forced me to realise the ghastly truth: that hideous clown really had succeeded Obama in the White House.

In the short term, it wasn’t as chilling a realisation as the discovery that my wallet was apparently missing.

In the longer term, though, it may have far more frightening consequences.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Trump in a missile crisis: a fearful prospect

Probably the saddest criticism Michael Wolff has made of Donald Trump is that everyone who knows him sees him as a child.

This, Wolff says, means that Trump’s constantly seeking instant gratification. When he wants something, he wants it now. He has trouble understanding that anyone can stand in his way and, if they attempt to, his instinct is to try to bulldoze over them.

Recently, I’ve been listening to a great book by Larry J. Sabato on the The Kennedy Half Century. It’s concerned not only with the short presidency of John F. Kennedy but the long legacy he left behind. It’s a compelling tale.

JFK
For all his flaws, 
it’s a chilling thought that Trump now occupies his office
In particular, I was held by Sabato’s description of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union had begun to station missiles on Cuba, only 90 miles off the US coast. That represented a direct, immediate, existential threat to the United States. In turn, that brought the world to the brink of the greatest man-made catastrophe in history. It would have taken little to trigger a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union which would certainly have killed millions and might have left the planet uninhabitable.

Many of Kennedy’s military advisers pushed for an immediate strike on the missile bases. The reasoning was simple enough: the bases are the problem; a surgical strike takes them out; they provide the solution.

But Kennedy’s greatest blunder, the Bay of Pigs invasion right at the beginning of his presidency, had taught him a lesson. He’d allowed his military and CIA advisers to talk him into backing an invasion of Cuba by US-trained and armed insurgents. The operation had ended in colossal and shameful failure, and Kennedy was left looking both dishonest and guilty.

If anything came out of that fiasco, it was the lesson not to be persuaded too quickly by the military and CIA. As my wife pointed out to me when I told her this story, it’s just like asking a surgeon whether an operation is a good idea: that’s what surgeons do, they operate; they’re most unlikely ever to advise against surgery. So it is with soldiers: the military option is the one they’re drawn to most strongly, because it means doing what they do.

During the missile crisis Kennedy, burned by the Bay of Pigs experience, held back. After much debate, he chose a more cautious approach. He drew a “quarantine” zone around Cuba and announced the US would prevent any shipping entering it.

It’s interesting that he avoided the word “blockade” which is generally seen as an act of war, and Kennedy didn’t want to take quite so irrevocable a step that early into the crisis.

He had made his resolve clear, but also showed he was looking for a solution by peaceful means if at all possible. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, reacted to both messages. He ordered ships he’d already sent towards Cuba to turn back and return home. And he offered Kennedy a deal: he would dismantle the missile bases in return for a commitment by the US not to invade Cuba.

Both happened. War was avoided. A small thaw began in the Cold War.

Within a few months the US and the Soviet Union were negotiating a Test Ban Treaty, ending further atomic bomb tests in the atmosphere. It was one of Kennedy’s proudest achievements to see it ratified by the US Senate, one of his last successes before being assassinated.

Sabato points out that the defusing of the crisis was down to a lot of calm assessment of options and highly intelligent decision-making by two leaders. Both had understood that no apparent gain from war would be worth the devastating price it would exact.

But what would have happened with a President in the White House who couldn’t brook any delay in gratifying his desires? Might he not have gone straight away for the military option? After all, that was the one that promised the quickest solution to the most immediate problem. Does a man incapable of deferred gratification see any other option as more attractive?

Trump is sitting where Kennedy sat. Kim Jong-Un is playing the Kruschchev role. That’s not just a measure of the decline there has been in political standards.

It’s also frankly frightening.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Gold at the Epiphany, despite a de-myrrhal

Magis from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.


That’s the second chapter of Matthew from the New Testament, telling us of the visit of three Kings of the east to the infant Jesus, on what is marked today by the Feast of the Epiphany.

Well, we had a visitor on the feast of the Kings. Just one, Marie, and not from the East but the West. It’s true that two others, Moira and Barbara, joined my wife Danielle to welcome her, but they live locally. They hardly had to follow a star to find the place.

Moira and Danielle: two of the seven scintillating sisters
Song and dance in 1987
Today Marie lives in Los Angeles. The time when they’d been closest, indeed had worked together in an active women’s group, had been 30 or more years ago.  That had peaked spectacularly in a 1987 spectacle called ‘The Seven Scintillating Sisters’.

They sang a medley of songs, with dancing and little bits of theatre associated with them. The repertoire included several from that wonderful group, Fascinating Aïda, still going and as entertaining as ever today. This raised some religious questions, but only because the one-off, historic performance was originally planned to take place in a Catholic Church Hall. Sadly, once the authorities got around to reading some of the song lyrics, they changed their mind about the hall hire and the scintillating sisters had to find a different venue at short notice.

In the end, it all went well and everyone enjoyed themselves, in the audience and among the cast. Since then our paths had somewhat drifted apart though, with Barbara and Moira at least, they’d also come together again recently. Adding Marie led to much additional joy and merriment, as one would expect from the Feast of the Epiphany. Danielle, who’s French, made sure that the reunion had a fine English feel – as befits a tea in England – with cucumber sandwiches available alongside scones and tea.

Terribly English.
Cucumber sandwiches with French flair
Marie has discovered a new talent, for jewellery, and presented tokens of her work to the others.

“Gold!” I exclaimed.

“Gilded,” she corrected me.

But hey, I wasn’t going to get picky. Someone had shown up on the Feast of Kings and had brought what certainly looked like gold.

Danielle with her Epiphany Gold
Who cares if it's gilded?
I spent the rest of the evening waiting for other visitors bringing Frankincense and Myrrh. It didn’t happen. That was a slight disappointment, but only because I’ve never worked out what exactly myrrh is, and it would have been fun to find out.

Still, gold’s the really substantial one, isn’t it? And we had that. As well as tea with good friends, including Marie whom we hadn’t seen for seventeen years.

A good day. Myrrh or no myrrh. I’m certainly not complaining.

Moira, Marie, Barbara and Danielle
Four of the seven sisters. A joyful reunion. 30 years on.
Toffee was just adding to the fun

Friday, 5 January 2018

Trump and Wolff: a fine tradition of obtuse authoritarianism

Excellent. I’ve taken delivery of my copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury

My Kindle edition of Fire and Fury
Now I'll decide whether or not I read it, not some tinpot autocrat
I previously had little intention of buying it, and couldn’t have until next week anyway, but Donald Trump’s attempts to block publication made purchasing the book more attractive and brought the launch date forward.

Thus we rush more quickly to our fate by lashing out against it…

This experience evokes a strong sense of nostalgia in me. In 1987, during the heady days of the height of Maggie Thatcher’s power, she was more inclined than ever to indulge in spasms of complete battiness. One concerned a rather bad book, Spycatcher by a certain Peter Wright, formerly of the spook service MI5.

Maggie decided that the book represented a security threat to our fine kingdom. She seems not to have cottoned on to the obvious fact that anything the book contained would have been known by our then principal foes in Moscow, probably well before Wright had got around to writing it down.

She set out to ban publication of the book. Since her writ never ran quite as far as she would have liked – which would have been worldwide (at least) – she was only able to block UK publication.

The result was glorious: the book could be bought anywhere in the world, including in Moscow, but not in Britain. You might almost have wondered whether Thatcher was trying to prevent her own electorate reading about the ineptitude of some of our spies, rather than trying to protect secrets from the Soviet Union.

I wasn’t particularly tempted to read the book, but I was damned if the iron lady was going to stop me. I persuaded a friend in the US to buy a copy and mail it to me, which he kindly did. As it happens, I didn’t read the blessed book for years and when I did, I found it turgid and unconvincing. I struggled to finish it. But at least, I’d made it my choice, and not Maggie’s, whether I read it or not.

The point of this story is that Maggie’s fixation with banning the book turned an obscure third-rate work into a worldwide publishing sensation. Just as Trump’s rantings against Fire and Fury have taken the book from 48,449th on Amazon’s list to the number 1 spot.

By the way he has tried to block a book that claims he’s unfit for office, Trump has demonstrated just the kind of incompetence that makes the case against him. In fact, his reaction to the book condemns him far more powerfully than the book itself possibly could: it no longer matters if the book is entirely false, his reaction to it is authentic and visible to anyone. At least, to anyone with the eyes to see. 

There’s nothing new about any of this.

Nearly three centuries ago, Voltaire spent three years exiled in England. Such was his talent, he not only learned English, he mastered it well enough to write a book in the language, a book that sparkles with humour and provocative insights. His Letters on the English would have made the King of France as apoplectic as Trump is over Wolff – only in the French case, most of his officials would have agreed.

The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil.

Resisting Kings? Restraining their freedom to act? Oh, no, Louis XV would have taken a distinctly dim view.

There was worse still.

An Englishman, as one to whom liberty is natural, may go to heaven his own way.

What? There might be a way to heaven that didn’t go through the one true Church? The clergy would have been as incensed as the King.

No wonder Voltaire didn’t publish.

Well, at first he didn’t. But it must have gnawed at him to have a book that good mouldering in a bottom drawer. He gave in to temptation. He published, though only in English.

Still. Voltaire’s natural audience was his countrymen. Could he bear to deny them something that would enhance his reputation so forcefully?

It seems, naughty boy, he’d prepared a translation and adaption which he called the Lettres Philosophiques. And he let a printer see them. And then another. And then, for good measure, a third. Under strict instructions not to publish.

But they could see how well the book would sell. And when they discovered that others held the manuscript they began to fear that one of the other two would publish it first, creaming the most profitable part of a lucrative market.

Eventually, the book appeared. Without the permission legally required, a permission the authorities would certainly not have granted anyway. And Voltaire was in trouble – worse trouble than Michael Wolff because eighteenth-century France had few restraints on the power of the authorities to make their displeasure painfully known. Trump might envy them their unbridled authority but he doesn’t have it.

Voltaire’s friends got him away from Paris and into the deepest provinces. Eventually they persuaded the powers-that-were to leave him alone, on condition he stayed there, kept quiet and behaved himself.

But something had to be punished, if only for the form of the thing. So the authorities seized a copy and condemned it to be shredded and burned on the steps of the Palace of Justice. A sentence that was carried out in all its brutality.

Except that – actually, it wasn’t. The public executioner could spot a market opportunity as well as anyone else. In his hands was a first edition of the Lettres Philosophiques, a book that was selling (clandestinely) like hot cakes. He was going to burn it? Not a chance.

He substituted some inoffensive and far less marketable text for shredding and burning. Keeping the Voltaire work as a nice little nest egg for later.

Three centuries ago it was clear that obtuse autocrats trying to prohibit a provocative book would only make it more attractive and enhance its sales.

Louis XV was an obtuse autocrat. Clearly, we have another such in the White House today. As Michael Wolff points out, “not only is he helping me sell books, but he’s helping me prove the point of the book”.

I doubt Wolff’s book will be as good as Voltaire’s. But it belongs to the same fine tradition. It’s in that spirit that I’ve bought it.

And I, rather than Trump, will decide whether I read it or not.