Sunday, 22 April 2018

A shaming admission

It’s worrying how irritated I can become when I’m tired.

That struck me after I’d travelled to Italy to do a presentation. Though it wasn’t that which made me tired.

Do you know Padua? I didn’t. It’s a surprisingly short distance from Venice – it took me longer to get from Venice airport to the railway station than by rail to Padua. It’s a beautiful city, with arcaded streets, a glorious central square whose water features and grassed areas make it half a park, and narrow streets leaping across picturesque waterways or opening up onto great romanesque churches. I walked miles around the city in the evening, getting to know quite a bit of the centre.

But it wasn’t that which got me tired either.

Although I’ve been doing presentations for years, I still get stage fright before every one. Which is ridiculous. I know what I’m doing. I know my material. But I hate the prospect of speaking to an audience unless I’ve entirely mastered my brief, which I seldom find the time to do, and certainly hadn’t on this occasion.

What made it worse was that the presentation was in Italian. That shouldn’t really have worried me, since I was born in Italy, and I’m perfectly happy to chatter away in Italian with people I know. However, I feel that a presentation should be given in faultless language, and it’s only in English that I can get even close to that ideal.

That’s a silly concern. Italians are generally delighted with any foreigner who makes the effort to speak to them in their language. You make a few mistakes? You sometimes can’t find a word and the audience has to help you out? No problem. They enjoy helping. And they’re happy you’re making the effort to be understood, instead of expecting them to make the effort to understand you.

I, however, was anxious. That stopped me sleeping well, so I was up at 5:00. Which, given that I’d flown form England the day before, felt like 4:00. At 6:00, I was out for another inspiring, but long, walk through the cool of the near-deserted streets of Padua as they filled with morning sun.

Early morning sun on one of Padua's many canals
Now that did get me tired.

Still, it didn’t irritate me.

The presentation was shared with a colleague. I’d met him several times but never really got to know him, and working with him was a great opportunity to put that right. I quickly discovered someone who was both likeable and competent, making the experience highly rewarding.

So none of that irritated me either.

After the presentation, he and I decided to have lunch together, before he drove home and I headed to Venice airport. Two people independently recommended us to a restaurant on the wonderful central square, but that was at the opposite side of the city and we didn’t feel like walking that far. Still, we decided to head that way; we were bound to find a restaurant that attracted us before we got there. Or so we assured each other.

Well, we didn’t. But again, there was nothing particularly irritating about the experience. Padua was as lovely on my third long walk through its streets as it had been on the first two. And the restaurant, when we got there, proved to be excellent. The temperature – we seem to have moved, across Europe, from a painfully long winter straight to summer – was uncomfortable for a walk, but that made it an even greater pleasure to eat under a canopy outside the restaurant and enjoy a moment of calm after the stress of the morning.

Even though we then had to walk all the way back across the city to the car.

By the time I reached the airport, I really was pretty worn out. The lack of sleep. All that walking. The simple adrenalin drop I always experience after a presentation. That made it all the more painful that I’d only found a late flight home and would have to wait three hours before taking off.

But not even that got me particularly irritated.

By the simple trick of announcing ‘last call’ just as soon as the gate opened, the staff on my flight managed to get us all on board fifteen minutes ahead of time. A cause for celebration. The plane pushed back almost immediately and off we went.

Except that we didn’t. After quite a while, it was announced that we might have noticed that we’d been taxiing a long time (we’d noticed). Apparently, a passenger had been taken ill and we had to return to stand. Eventually, paramedics took her off the plane, so we have to wait again while her baggage was removed from the hold. So though we’d been early, we were now going to be late.

To make it worse, another passenger mentioned that he’d seen her inside the terminal building, drinking beer after beer until she could hardly make it to the plane. It seems the illness wasn’t even a genuine misfortune but a self-inflicted injury. Inflicted on all of us.

Now that really irritated me.

Another half hour struggling with fatigue in here?
I hardly dare admit what shamelessly ungenerous thought came to my mind. I genuinely toyed with the idea that instead of returning to the terminal, we could just have pushed her out of the plane and let her walk back herself. As for her baggage, we could have sent it after her once we’d got back to London.

A cruel unworthy thought. Revealing the very intolerance I criticise in others. But that’s what tiredness does to me.

It seriously limits my capacity for compassion and fellow-feeling.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Fiddling for Spring

Not for the first time, we went to Wardown House, in Wardown Park, perhaps Luton’s most attractive spot, for a concert at the weekend.

I made the mistake of telling my granddaughter we were going to a concert, and she responded with some enthusiasm, ‘oh! Who are you going to see?’ That left her crestfallen when we replied that it was classical music. I have to keep reminding myself that ‘concert’ doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to different people.

This one was given by a violinist, Joanne Davis, who started off by apologising for having brought along a ‘box’ with her so she could playing backing music to her pieces. She couldn’t, she assured us, bring “the Berlin Phil” with her as there wasn’t enough space.

At least, I think she said “the Berlin Phil”, meaning the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, for which there certainly wouldn’t have been room. Note even for the orchestra, let alone an audience as well. On the other hand, she might have just said “Berlin Phil”. That, presumably, would have been an enormous man with an odd nickname, as well as extraordinary talents enabling him to play rather a lot of instruments all at the same time.

The concert was enjoyable, in a lovely setting. The rather small room (too little for her friend Berlin Phil) is attractively and tastefully laid out and decorated. It’s from the middle of the nineteenth century – what I still think of as ‘the last century’, but that only betrays my age – though the ceiling with its delicate mouldings, I couldn’t help feeling, seemed to be harking back to something rather older: the start of the century or possibly even the late eighteenth.
Wardown House Ceiling
Designed to be old-fashioned?
That would suggest that the owners of the house chose to decorate it in what was already an old-fashioned style. Suggesting that there’s nothing so old or so persistent as conservatism. Still, that’s hardly a surprising observation, is it?

The music included two pieces focusing on spring – the movement by that name from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the Beethoven Spring Sonata. As Ms Davis pointed out, her choices perhaps reflected wishful thinking: it was still cold outside and, while there were odd moments of clear sky, they were interspersed with more rain, the tail end (we hoped) of the infernally long winter we’ve been struggling through.

Joanne Davis fiddling for spring
The hat in the foreground shows at least one member of
the audience thought winter was still here (even indoors)
Well, if the music was aspirational, it worked. Because in the next couple of days spring finally arrived, and with a real flourish. The trees that had been holding back and holding back suddenly burst out. Trunks and branches that had been bare for months covered themselves in green in a matter of forty-eight hours: one could feel the impatience of nature to make up for all that wasted time.

I’m so pleased we went to that concert. Not just because it was pleasant, but because I’m sure our being there contributed to the aspirational effect it produced. In other words, I’m putting down the arrival of spring to Ms Davis having played her fiddle pieces on the season, and our being there to hear them.

And I challenge any of you to prove me wrong.

On the way to Wardown Park
Spring bursting out at last

Monday, 16 April 2018

Baseball Trumping Patriots

It was odd to discover that some colleagues from the US wouldn’t be able to join a meeting I’d called, because it was ‘Patriots’ Day’.

That’s not Patriots’ Day in the US, you understand. It’s not even Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. It’s Patriots’ Day in the City of Boston and in that city alone.

It’s the day the population of that fine city celebrates the moment when its English inhabitants showed, with valour and tenacity, that it would not be denied the rights of Englishmen, forcing out the troops sent there by the English King.

A man increasingly crazed, of limited intellect and devoured by his autocratic inclinations

Although one of my colleagues seemed to blame me personally for the misdeeds of the British troops (apparently, I should have been nicer to the colonists – I promise to do better next time), I am fully in sympathy with the rebels. They set a fine example and one we latter-day Englishmen would surely do well to emulate. In fact, I only regret that all their courage and self-sacrifice have only been crowned, sadly, by their descendants being saddled with a Trump as head of state.

A man increasingly crazed, of limited intellect and devoured by his autocratic inclinations.

That being said, I’m fond of Boston. I’ve not been there that often but each time I’ve got to know it better and the experience has only reinforced by initial liking of the place.

On my last visit, my boss took several us to see a Red Sox baseball game. Now, I’m not going to say that was the high point of the visit, since naturally it was the work we did at our meetings that formed the true high point. Perhaps I’ll just say that had there not been those meetings, it would have been right up there at the pinnacle.

I’d never been to a baseball game before so it was a great educational experience. It’s a bit like cricket, only the advantage lies far more with the man with the ball in his hand, rather than the poor unfortunate holding the bat. Things are rather the other way around in cricket.

Apart from that, and a slight truncation in the time it takes to complete a match, much of the spirit of the game is similar to that fine English game. As, I suppose, befits a nation founded by fine Englishmen.

It wasn’t just the game itself that amused me, however. I’ve always liked the film Field of Dreams. You know, “if you build it, they will come”. You may remember the moment when Kevin Costner talks James Earl Jones into accompanying him to a game at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.

A scene from the film. 
With the green monster - the wall at the back - clearly in view
It was a joy to sit in the stands and look out at the same scene that they saw. Nothing surprising maybe – the filmmakers shot the scene on location. But still it sent a tingle up my spine just to be where those characters had sat and see much the same sights that they saw.

A scene from (my) real life
Wonderful. It wasn’t on Patriots’ Day, as it happens. Still, from a purely personal point of view, it was just as worthy of celebration in my eyes.

Of course, as it happens Patriots’ Day is also the day of the Boston Marathon. Which was run this year in temperatures down to -1 (that’s -1 in real money – Celsius). Making it a pretty miserable experience.

But then, since we’ve already sad that the legacy of the original patriots is now in the hands of the Donald, that may not be wholly inappropriate.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Mission accomplished: déjà vu

It’s always a little sad to see someone who really can’t be expected to know better, take credit for completing a job when they’ve barely even started. Worse still, they may have started down the wrong route. A child, say, who carefully paints all the parts of his new model before assembling it, only to find they no longer fit together afterwards.

Or the US President who claims to have achieved his objective when he has achieved nothing – or, worse still, achieved the opposite of his intent.
Dubya in 2003
That was my first thought when I heard that Donald Trump had claimed ‘mission accomplished’ following the US-French-British missile strikes on Syria. It was exactly the same claim as made by Dubya Bush back in 2003, giving me a thoroughly dire sense of déjà vu. That followed the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Dubya clearly felt he’d achieved a major success, a view that looks jaded fifteen years on, with fighting still raging in the region and the only winners in Iraq being the West’s great bogeyman, Iran.

That didn’t stop Trump making the same claim for his missile strikes. And I suppose he was right in the most limited possible sense: he gave the world notice of his intention to use missiles against Syria, and he has indeed used missiles against Syria. If that was the extent of his mission – to demonstrate the military power at his disposal – then I suppose the mission was indeed accomplished.
Donald Trump in 2018
One might imagine, however, that such an action ought to deliver more than that, however. More than allow Trump a feel-good macho glow (Macron of France, too, I suppose, though whether May enjoys machismo it’s hard to say – but then, little surprises me about her any more). Generally, one would expect the use of massive military force to advance some cause or another, beyond the purely personal. 

Topple President Assad, maybe? 

End the suffering of Syrian civilians after seven years of civil war? 

At least ensure that chemical weapons would not be used against them again?

Maybe that last goal may be achieved, though I think it would take a brave man to assert it. We shall see. And even if it, it’s unclear to me that being killed or crippled is that much less unpleasant by artillery fire than by chemical weapons.

As for overthrowing Assad or ending the war, it would take a high degree of naivety to believe that the missile strikes will have achieved that much. Or even that bringing Assad down, however desirable in itself, would do any more in Syria’s current crisis than the equally attractive overthrow of Saddam did in Iraq.

Perhaps there’s one negative benefit the strikes have produced: they seem not to have destroyed any Russian equipment or inflicted any Russian casualties. That suggests that we may have avoided a third world war for now.

No. It’s hard to believe that these strikes have done anything very much, except persuade people in the west that, because something had to be done about the chemical attacks, it was legitimate to just about anything, which is what has now been done.

That may have made Trump, Macron and May feel better about themselves. Which I suppose is a benefit of sorts. Though they’re unlikely to have done anything for the Syrians or, indeed, for anyone in the West.

Still, Mission accomplished. Again. In some sense of the expression.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The poignancy of memory

I keep on working through my old photos, a process constantly slowed down by the reawakening of memories of moments long past, of people long missed and of events long gone.

There was a morning in 1982 when Danielle announced to me that she really ought to have a pregnancy test. By the time the afternoon was nearing its end, I’d forgotten all about it and when I rang her I began talking about all sort of indifferent matters. Eventually she interrupted me:

‘Don’t you want to hear about the test?’

I managed to bite off the words ‘what test?’ and simply answered, ‘Oh, yes, of course,’ although her tone of voice made it fairly clear what the result had been.

‘Positive,’ she told me.

It wasn’t a shock but it certainly was an overwhelming piece of news. The kind that you know at once is going to leave absolutely nothing the same. And, from this first intimation of his arrival, I have to say that Michael has affected the nature of my life pretty fundamentally ever since (aided and, I like to think, abetted by the arrival of his brother Nicky just eighteen months after him).

One of the first things we had to do was get married. I appreciate that these days it’s far from unusual to have a child outside marriage, but this was 1982 and the dear, sainted Maggie was Prime Minister and making it ever more difficult to acquire British citizenship. We didn’t know the sex of the child at that time. The problem would arise if it was a boy, as indeed turned out to be the case: the French still imposed on young men that ghastly waste of time known as military service and if the child was born, even in England, he wouldn’t inherit British nationality from me – and therefore the escape card from the French military – unless I was married to Danielle first.

As it happens, by the time he turned eighteen French military service had been reduced to a day and he did it anyway. Though it turned out to be as complex as getting married had proved nearly nineteen years earlier. Which is another memory that brings me great pleasure...

So we didn’t actually need to get married, although I’m not at all sorry we did, 36 years on…

The problem with getting married was that Danielle needed a divorce first. You know the Oscar Wilde saying about a second marriage proving the triumph of hope over experience? Danielle was about to demonstrate it.

Her first husband made no problem about the divorce but he spoke no English and all the documents were in that language. It proved difficult to get him to sign in the right place, but eventually he did. We were married on 11 January 1983 and Michael was born on the 29th, so it was a close-run thing.

Incidentally, thereafter I became the specialist in remembering our anniversary, Danielle in forgetting it. That lasted until 2005 when our first grandchild – Aya – was born to my stepson David and his wife Senada also on 11 January. Danielle’s never forgotten Aya’s birthday so she now remembers our anniversary too.

It was a small wedding organised in a hurry. We had some close friends and family there and naturally took photos of them.

Leonard, my father, to the left in his trademark black tie
Alasdhair to the right, in a far-from-trademark beard
The smiles reflect their personalities...
The one I came across the other day was of my father and my old friend Alasdhair. My father was a man of extraordinary gentleness as well as courage and he was an inspiring presence in my life. Alasdhair I had met when we were both 13 and we had remained close through our school days and university. Later, he moved to the US but we kept in contact all the same, seeing each other from time to time but, above all, each remaining a constant known presence in the life of the other.

The photo therefore represents some precious memories to me.

But they are poignant too. My father lived only just over four more months after that picture was taken. Alasdhair did better but succumbed, to cancer, just over two years ago.

The joy is tinged with sadness. I suppose that’s what the passage of 36 years is bound to bring. But the pleasure of finding the photo was undiminished for all that.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A tribute and a denunciation

Bob Wilsker was perhaps the warmest-hearted individual I’ve met. I remember sitting in the back of his car and seeing his eyes in the rear-view mirror. Surrounded by laugh lines, they sparkled with the friendliness that marked him and which said that he saw no strangers, only people he wanted to get to know.

And yet that warmth was in horrifying contrast to the coldness he had experienced as a young adult. A Jew, he had lived in Vienna for over a year under Nazi rule, between Hitler’s occupation of Austria in 1938 and Bob’s escape to Britain in 1939. One sister escaped with him. His other siblings, his parents, his extended family all disappeared with the vast majority of his community into the slaughterhouse of the Holocaust.

A man almost incapable of bitterness, I heard him make only one truly harsh judgement: of the British officials who would walk down the queue of Jews outside the British consulate in Vienna, offering help for payment. Or, in other words, selling entry visas.
Jews waiting for visas in Vienna
A matter of genuine life and death
Those who never received such visas, like most of Bob’s family, were under sentence of death. And the sentence would be carried out within a couple of years. It has always struck me as one of the most shameful features of British history that our country took so few when so many were in such peril.

The car drive on which I was so struck by Bob’s eyes was to attend a session in a criminal court, where we tried, merely by our presence, to support a young man charged with public order offences for having demonstrated rather too vigorously against Britain’s nuclear weapon policies. Bob was very much a man of the centre-Left, opposed to all forms of racism, to militarisation, to political repression. He was, naturally, a Labour supporter.

Were he still alive today, I think he might have been a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But he would equally have been demanding that Corbyn move in a great deal more decisive way, and far more rapidly, to extirpate, once and for all, any trace of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

But I think another issue would have shocked him still further. I think he would have found the behaviour of Israel increasingly unbearable. The use of live ammunition against civilian protestors, which led to the death of sixteen Palestinians and the wounding of dozens more would, I’m sure have sickened him.

As would have the sight of Israel preparing to deport political refugees. Many, above all from Eritrea and Sudan, have managed to make it to Israel. Large numbers have been sent to live in south Tel Aviv, much to the unhappiness of the local, Israeli population. Now it looks as though the government may start deporting these unwelcome migrants.

Warm-hearted Bob only showed resentment when he talked about the closed doors that Britain put up to people in peril for their lives. He hated it that some individuals took advantage of that state of affairs to enrich themselves. Above all, he could never accept that it was reasonable to let so many die because we were simply uncomfortable to take them in.

The discomfort was, of course, an expression of what we call xenophobia: dislike of the proximity of those are in some sense different from us.

Those people were Jews. And now the Jewish state is showing the same lack of compassion and fellow-feeling to those who find themselves, today, in the position of the Jews in the 30s. If Britain’s behaviour then was shameful, so is Israel’s today.

I’ll raise a glass to Bob tonight. A remarkable man, a precious friend it was a privilege to know, and a model of decency and openness to others. It makes me more determined than ever to deounce two great evils: antisemitism wherever it appears and its parent xenophobia, whoever is practising it – even if that is a state set up by the survivors of the most vicious and systematic antisemitism the world has seen.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Older so younger

“The photograph is younger,” says one of the characters in Tom Stoppard’s Professional Foul, to which another replies “it must be an old photograph… How odd… Young therefore old. Old therefore young. Only odd at first glance. The second glance is called linguistic analysis.”

One of the things we discovered while we were clearing out our former flat in Kehl, in Germany, was the huge collection of photographs we’d never weeded, let alone sorted or mounted anywhere. A lot of them are old. And therefore young. Which is odd if you’re not into linguistic analysis.

One of them in particular brought me up short. 
Was I ever so young? Were they?
Ah, the joys of an old photograph
My first thought was to wonder whether I was ever so young.  Which is another odd thought, isnt it? After all, I remember having been a kid. But, hey, this all about that kind of oddness.

At the time I didn’t think of myself as that young. Those two lads, real bundles of fun except when they were real bundles of exasperation, also marked a rite of passage for me. With the arrival of the first of them, it was finally borne in on me, conclusively and undeniably, that I was no longer part of the younger generation. I’d had a stepson for a couple of years by then, but here were two members of a generation younger than mine to whose existence I’d actually contributed (or so my wife assured me, at least).

It was not before time, I have to admit. I was thirty when my first son was born and should already have reconciled myself to being inexorably moving towards middle age. But it took the actual arrival of my kids to bring the truth home to me.

Being reminded of all that by the photo came as a surprise, but by no means an unpleasant one.

But what was most striking about was the arithmetic I soon enough started doing.

That young man who didn’t think of himself as young, has long since stopped being young at all. Long, long since. I’ve lived more than as long again as I’d lived at the time the photo was taken.

As for the two lads – why, they’re 35 and 33 today. Which makes them just older than I was in that photograph.

All very odd. And nothing to do with linguistic analysis. Just with the passage of time and the formation of old, old memories.

Pleasantly brought back by the discovery of an old photograph.