Saturday, 8 December 2018

J'accuse revisited for our time

When he saw all the books his friend Roman Polanski had on the subject, the author Robert Harris asked the film maker, ‘have you ever considered doing a film on the Dreyfus Affair?’

That was back in 2012. According to Harris, Polanski told him that he’d wanted to for a long time but had never found the right way it. Inspired, Harris, author of major bestsellers such as Fatherland and Enigma, set to work at once.

The Dreyfus affair tore France in two in the late 1890s. On the one hand, there were the ‘anti-Dreyfusards’ who were convinced that a young officer, Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of espionage and drummed out of the French Army before being exiled to Devil’s Island off South America, where he was held in conditions close to torture, deserved his fate.

On the other hand, were the ‘Dreyfusards’ who believed that the conviction of Dreyfus was based on rigged evidence. Ultimately, they felt, it reflected the fear of a solid, Catholic and often royalist establishment that hated the changes that were being forced on French society and identified their source as the sinister figure of the ‘outsider’ – men such as Dreyfus, an ambitious Jew from a family that had the gall to be prosperous.
An excellent novel and an excellent history
The brilliant perception of Harris in writing a superb and compelling novel – An Officer and a Spy – was to frame it as a thriller and present the story not through the eyes of Dreyfus, but those of Georges Picquart.

Why a thriller? Harris tracks the painful process of establishing who had really been selling military secrets to the Germans. And still was, since one of the consequences of Dreyfus’s conviction was that the real spy was left free to continue his treasonable work. These are the elements of a great thriller, and Harris wrote a fine one while sticking closely to well-documented and closely researched historical evidence.

Why Picquart? He may not have been an anti-Semite but he certainly wasn’t particularly fond of Jews. But what he had was a powerful sense of justice and of his duty. An army officer, he was transferred into intelligence where he was tasked with tying up the loose ends of the framing of Dreyfus. But, unfortunately for his superiors, who went right up into the government, the closer he looked at the case, the more convinced he became that Dreyfus was innocent and a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was the real culprit.

Picquart was subjected to pressure to the point of persecution. His liberty and even his life were threatened. But he battled on and ultimately Dreyfus was released while Esterhazy escaped into exile in England. He spent the rest of his life in Harpenden, just seven miles from where I live now. Though that’s not why we moved here.

As well as his novel, Harris also delivered a script to his friend in 2013. Polanski was delighted. Though the action was to be set in Paris, the financial conditions were better for making the film in Poland, so the director headed there in 2014 to start planning the film.

Sadly, as you know, Polanski has problems of his own, chiefly with the law back in the US over having sex with a thirteen-year old, in the scandal that led some to suggest he make a film to be called Close Encounters with the Third Grade. Once Polanski had travelled from France to Poland, the US authorities could launch extradition proceedings against him, which they promptly did. Eventually, the proceedings failed, but in the meantime the film project had suffered serious delay.

In the meantime, France had introduced new tax incentives for film makers. After further delays to wait for certain actors to be available, filming started in Paris this year and the film is due for release in 2019. Polanski changed the title to J’accuse, the famous headline printed above an open letter novelist Emile Zola wrote denouncing the case against Dreyfus.

The celebrated headline over Zola's open letter to the
 French President, denouncing the anti-Dreyfusard conspiracy
The film might prove topical. After all, roll on nearly twelve decades from the Dreyfus affair and we find, in Britain, a nation just as irreconcilably divided over a major question of the times. Brexit has shattered British society from top to bottom and neither camp can see any merit in the other.

But because there is division, does this mean the truth is somewhere in between, in the middle ground between Brexiters and Remainers? Some might think so. But, in the Dreyfus case, was justice somewhere in the middle ground between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards?

The answer’s obvious. Dreyfus was not guilty of the charges against him. His treatment was indefensible. It even gave cover to the real criminal, Esterhazy.

There isn’t a half-way house, the sides are irreconcilable. You can’t release Dreyfus and keep him in prison. You can’t play a key role in Europe and turn your back on it.

Worse still, as we look back on the affair now, it’s clear the anti-Dreyfusards were driven by the worst of motives. They hated the Jew, the man whose presence in their army questioned their primal beliefs about the nature of France. They saw those who came to Dreyfus’s defence as despicable, because they put belief in the rights of man over the authority of the establishment and the grandeur of France. And they were happy to spread and believe lies to support their stance.

In the same way, Brexit has been based on lies deliberately spread and willingly believed. Brexiters are driven by hostility to outsiders, to those who arrive from abroad and work harder and often with more talent than they do. They must know, because after two years of debate it’s hard to deny the evidence, that there is no form of Brexit that will not leave Britain economically worse off than staying in the EU. But Brexiters are prepared to pay that price for the sake of ‘taking back control’, sometimes and revealingly expressed as ‘taking back control over our borders’, in other words making sure they can keep out people who look different or speak differently from them.

If only it were their economic wellbeing they were sacrificing to this goal. We live in a world in which the greatest powers are run by autocrats – Russia has had the authoritarian Putin in power for a generation, China’s Xi Jinping is turning increasingly dictatorial in a nation which is emerging as the great power of our century, and the United States has elected a narcissistic adolescent president once and may do so again.

What counterweight is there? Only Europe which, beset by populists and xenophobes, is struggling to maintain an oasis of democracy and human rights. And that’s the aspiration that Brexiters are setting out to undermine.

It’s not hard to imagine a film maker and a writer twelve decades from now turning their attention to the Brexit debacle. I think they’ll have little doubt that, like the anti-Dreyfusards, the Brexit camp got things desperately wrong because they were driven by base motives. Remainers, like Dreyfusards, fought a long battle for a more generous, more open and more equitable society.

At least, I can imagine that conversation if there is still a space in the world next century where liberal thinking is possible. Which I very much hope. Though I don’t think anyone can guarantee it.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Mighty. Glorious. Useless

In my previous post, I wrote about the crass ineptitude of leaders – in this case military leaders – who sent nearly quarter of a million young men to their deaths in the Gallipoli campaign. That figure, incidentally, only covers the men over whom they had authority. There were nearly 50,000 French casualties too. Meanwhile, the casualties on the Turkish side, for which the men who launched the landings were indirectly responsible, were even higher.

Since writing that post, Ive been on a trip in the course of which I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in Stockholm. I took the opportunity to visit a museum dedicated by the Swedes to another monument to incompetence.

This is the Vasa museum. The Vasa was a magnificent, heavily armed battleship launched by the Swedish navy in 1628. Note that I wrote ‘magnificent’ but not ‘state-of-the-art’. The museum exhibit frequently repeats and heavily stresses the words ‘the power and the glory’. This ship was designed to express power and glory, specifically of the Swedish king of the time, Gustavus Adolphus.

I have a strange personal relationship to that monarch. When I was about ten, my history teacher spent some time teaching my class about the Thirty Years War. At the end, he held a kind of impromptu, verbal test in which he ran through the story again and would interrupt the narration every now and then to ask the class a question. You know, things like ‘who led the Austrian forces at that battle?’ or ‘which King issued that decree?’ Eager to please, I kept leaping in with the answer ‘Gustavus Adolphus’ and was wrong every time. It may have been that I just liked the name. Eventually, the teacher asked a question which he actually addressed, by name, to me.

‘Louis the thirteenth,’ I said.

He flung up his hands in despair.

‘No,’ he cried, ‘Gustavus Adolphus.’

Sweden’s policy of strict neutrality in foreign wars now has a three-century pedigree and has served the country well, judging by its prosperity. A lesson more warlike nations would do well to remember. Glory may be glorious but it puts no bread in anyone’s basket.

Back then, though, like Britain or the United States today, Sweden still hadn’t learned that lesson. Gustavus Adolphus wanted other nations, notably (just then) the contemptible Poles, under (horror of horrors) a Catholic King who (to make this worse) was also his cousin. His shiny new ship was just what he needed. It would dominate the Baltic and have that ghastly cousin Sigismund III of Poland-Lithuania quaking in his boots.

Looking down the length of the Vasa
To make the point all the more clearly, it had a particular magnificent sterncastle. That’s the bit at the back. Stepped decks, soaring upwards, full of splendour, adorned with statues carved from wood and brightly painted, the structure could also be used as a fighting platform for riflemen in close combat. Along with the ship’s main armament of 48 cannon, it must have given the ship a daunting presence.

Sadly, it also had bit of a minor drawback. Perhaps, as the event would prove, not that minor. The height of the sterncastle made the ship just a tad unstable.

Just a bit more than a tad, to be strictly truthful. Indeed, after its splendid launch, setting out to show the Poles and any friends they might have a thing or two, it managed to get just 1.4 kilometres down the channel towards the Baltic. There, in the words of the exhibition documentation, it ran into trouble when it first met a wind stronger than a slight breeze.

Not to sugarcoat it too much, it turned over. And promptly sank.

A fair bit of power. Lots of glory. But absolutely no use to anyone.
Ornate and elaborate:
nothing stern about the Vasa's stern
Well, that’s not quite true. It lay at the bottom of the harbour for nearly three and a half centuries, at which point the Swedes brought it back up to the surface and set about restoration work. The waters and silt at the bottom had clearly been kind to the ship, because – again according to the museum – 95% of the structure of the ship now on display is original.

There it stands ready to impress anyone with an hour or so to spare. Tall, graceful, a fine monument to power and glory. And a fair measure of futility.

Impress and amuse, perhaps, would be more accurate.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Ignorance compounded by stupidity, and a longed-for homecoming denied

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.


A friend of mine once told me how little she liked those lines. Crass nationalism she found them, and I can see her point. After all, it doesn’t even talk about Britain but merely about England – as so often with the English, the Scottish, Welsh and (arguably) Irish are simply left out of account.

She may be right. And yet to me the key word is the last: ‘home’. These are lines expressing a wistful longing for home, and the speaker’s heartbreak at knowing it will never be realised. England is named only because he happens to be English.

The poet, Rupert Brooke, was indeed English. And he was never to return home. There is some corner of a Greek island that he’s made forever England. 

Rupert Brooke's grave on the Greek island of Skyros
In April 1915, he was shipped out to the far easternmost parts of the Mediterranean, to join an army that was tasked with landing on Turkish territory, on the Gallipoli peninsula that guards the entrance of the Dardanelles. This is the first part of the narrow waterway linking the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. Where it opens into the Bosphorus stands Istanbul, then capital of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

The army’s mission was to seize that capital and force the Turks out of the First World War.

Some weeks ago, I had dinner in Berlin with a German-American colleague and her German partner. He, the partner, at one point said to me, ‘Have you read Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson? Because if you haven’t, you should.’

It took the advice of a young German for me to discover a book by an American that would illuminate a strange and painful episode of British history.

Lawrence in Arabia isn’t the same thing as Lawrence of Arabia though it chiefly focuses on the same man. It’s a remarkable study of the duplicity and incompetence principally of the British, but also of the French and Turks, in the Eastern Theatre of World War One. It’s also an enthralling retelling of the stories of some extraordinary men: the Jewish agronomist and spy Aaron Aaronson, the American oil man and spy William Yale (yes, his family founded the university), the German anthropologist and spy Curt Prüfer and, above all, the larger-than life figure of the British warrior and spy, T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

T. E. Lawrence in Arab dress
When the British decided to land their forces at Gallipoli, they did so against Lawrence’s advice. He argued for a landing instead at Alexandretta, modern day Iskenderun, where the Turks were desperately vulnerable – as they knew themselves, given that the roads were terrible and the railway in a desperate state following heavy flooding. For Lawrence, a force of only a few thousand could capture it and threaten to split the Ottoman Empire in two. Even less optimistic colleagues felt 20,000 would do it.

But the British chose the Dardanelles instead. They made several attacks before the main landings, giving clear warning of what was to come. It also made no sense to go for the end of the Gallipoli peninsula. The main German adviser to the Turks couldn’t believe his luck when they did, as he had expected them at a far more difficult spot to defend further up the Dardanelles. Scott Anderson points out that ‘one would be hard pressed to find a worse landing site most anywhere on the three-thousand-mile long Mediterranean coast of the Ottoman Empire’.

Yet it was here that they attacked. Their first day objective was to ‘secure a small village some four miles inland, and then to advance on the Turkish forts just above. Over the next seven months, the British would never reach that village, but would suffer nearly a quarter of a million casualties trying.’

A quarter of a million lost in failure when 20,000 might succeeded elsewhere.

Meanwhile, an army from British India went gaily up the Tigris with little idea of what lay ahead of it. At Baghdad, they were turned back and retreated to the town of Kut where they were surrounded and besieged. The British lost a golden opportunity to save their men when Indian troops stumbled into a Turkish citadel which had been left undefended, but were ordered out because it hadn’t been properly bombarded beforehand. When they tried to capture it later, they failed at a cost of 4000 men. Two relieving forces lost 10,000 each and the garrison at Kut was obliged to surrender ignominiously.

Lawrence himself would write, ‘British generals often gave away in stupidity what they had gained in ignorance.’

Rupert Brooke died even before his generals would compound their ignorance with stupidity. A mosquito bite became infected. In those pre-antibiotic days, sepsis was impossible to treat. He died aboard ship on 23 April 1915, two days before the landings started.

Lawrence also spoke of the simple soldiers sent out by Britain. ‘We were casting them into the fire of the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours… All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman.’

Not a single death was worth what the British Army had been sent out to win. Brooke had been washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home. A lamentable waste that he and thousands of others weren’t left there to continue enjoying them.

Burying Turkish dead at Gallipoli


Saturday, 1 December 2018

Forced march to a metaphor for life

For months – or is it years now? – my wife Danielle has been joining Nordic walking sessions run by one of Luton’s fine leisure centres.

‘It’s excellent exercise,’ she would tell me, ‘you really know you’ve done some sport when you’ve finished. It’s a lovely setting, too. And the people are great. You ought to come along.’

Somehow, I always had something else to do. Excuses, of course, for not taking part. What I don’t understand is why I was even looking for excuses. I enjoy walking. I enjoy sport, for that matter. And when we used to live in Germany, I even took part in Nordic walking sessions there, and they were tough: they started at 6:00 in the morning. Ah, yes. The Germans. When you’re doing something demanding, you just have to make sure it really is demanding.
Having followed Danielle into Nordic walking,
I followed her around the Nordic walk
For whatever reason, I dodged and ducked and avoided taking part. Until just now. Which is pretty silly, since we’re planning on moving away (from the country, not just the town) early in February. If I’m to enjoy, and benefit from, these Nordic walking moments, I’m truly going to have to get my act together: I only have a few weeks to do so.

Because I really did enjoy it. And no doubt benefited, too. Certainly, if the ache in my legs was anything to go by, I must have done. As a good Englishman, steeped in the country’s puritanical traditions, I know that it’s only if it hurts that a thing can possibly be doing you any good.

It surprised me that it was so much fun. For me, walking is something I do with the dogs. And I do it – slowly. Generally I’m chatting with the other people out with me or, when alone as is more commonly the case, I have earphones in and I’m listening to an audio-book. Recently, that’s been some Le Carré novels (or his autobiographical sketches, The Pigeon Tunnel) interspersed with a couple of recommendations from colleagues: Prisoners of Geography, a highly readable account of how geography often determines a nation’s behaviour, and Lawrence in Arabia (note the ‘in’ rather than ‘of’) which is proving a fascinating study not just of Lawrence but of all the extraordinary, seismic events that took place in the Middle East in World War One and whose consequences we’re still feeling today.

What that means, of course, is that though I pick places I like, I tend not to notice them that much. I’m generally listening to the book and paying little attention to what’s going on around me. Which is a bit sad. Sometimes I become aware of that and decide I should snap a photo of a scene that’s particularly striking in its beauty, but that only means I’m looking at things through my phone instead of listening to it.
Sometimes I stop listening to the phone
and use it to take a picture of the scenery
Nordic Walking’s different. It’s a social activity so something as solitary as listening to a book is out. And, in any case, it’s much more of a forced march than a country stroll, so I’m not sure I’d be able to spare the attention to a book. That may have been what put me off.

But, naturally, it has other charms. It’s certainly more physical. It feels a little more like a challenge. And it isn’t that bad: I had no trouble keeping up with the leaders. Which gave me a certain satisfaction.

Of course, I found myself following Danielle all the way round. Straining to keep up with her. But that was satisfying too.

After all, theres no better metaphor for a marriage that has lasted 35 years  so far.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

To Rome - by broomstick?

My Italian colleague Paola has asked me to meet a friend, who is also a business contact, at a hospital in Rome.

That was an easy decision. Rome is where I was born and one of my favourite cities. I agreed without hesitation. On the other hand finding a time all three of us could make proved significantly more difficult. In the end, we settled on Monday 7 January. But, since my confidence in the ability of airlines to run to schedule is strictly limited, I decided to fly in the day before, 6 January, and told Paola so.

‘Ah,’ she replied, ‘will you be coming by broomstick?’

At first, the allusion struck me as obscure. Or possibly offensive. Was she referring to my age? To my looks? To my inclination to transform perfectly innocent people into field mice and feed them to the cat?

On the other hand, I get on well with Paola. Perhaps she meant it in a more complimentary way. Was she referring to my wisdom? My constant willingness to help out the virtuous needy? My ability to find a positive way through any dilemma, however difficult?

But then I remembered the Befana.
The Befana’s on her way.
And so am I. Though probably by plane. And without the gifts
She’s a witch who pops into children’s houses, with gifts and sweets for the good ones and lumps of coal for the others. It has to be said that as a general rule, Italians being Italians and doting on children, kids are pretty automatically deemed to have been good. 

The Befana shows up in time for Twelfth Night, on 6 January. Strictly speaking, that means she makes the trip on the 5th, but the kids enjoy the presents on the following day. Even so, it’s clear Paola was assimilating my arrival to the Befana’s.

That’s really quite flattering. It suggests my visit is welcome. Which is preferable to the alternative.

Interestingly, the myth says that one of the things the Befana does is sweep the floor before she heads off again. That may be a metaphor for clearing away all the problems and the bad events of the previous year, so that we can start the new one with a clean slate. Curious, isn’t it? Is that the source of the association of witches with broomsticks? Of course, generally we think of witches as travelling on their broomsticks, rather than using them to sweep stuff away.

It has to be said that the idea of brooms for sweeping, rather than flying, is at least rather more plausible. Though I’m not sure whether, in a story about witches, plausibility really comes into it.

In any case, and I hope this won’t come as a major disappointment to Paola, I’m not travelling by broomstick but by British Airways. My hope is that BA will make the trip less cold. Quicker and more reliable would be good too, but I don’t want to ask for too much.

The other thing is that I shan’t be bearing gifts. Just a presentation of a hospital information tool, which may be useful – I hope it will be – but rather lacks the allure of presents from a witch. And there’ll certainly be nothing there that’s good to eat.

Oh, well. It looks as though my friend Paola may have to swallow quite a bit of disappointment. I just hope she can take some comfort from the fact that I won’t, at least, be bringing her a lump of coal. Unless she decides that my presentation is worth no more than that.

Oh, the pressure, the pressure.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Half a loaf may be better than none, but a sourdough loaf's better than either

Preserving and developing its skills is vital for any society.

Back in the European middle ages, there was quite a structure for doing that. Young people, sometimes as young as 10, could bind themselves to a master craftsman in order to learn the elements of the trade. The master took the apprentice into his house (mostly it was his rather than hers, though some trades, such as seamstresses, included women) and had his cheap assistance for a period of some seven years in return for little more than board and lodging.

The apprenticeship ensured that the set of skills of one generation was transmitted to the next.
Apprentice bakers at work. A while back
On completion of this period of learning, the new craftsman typically became a journeyman. I used to think that journeymen were so-called because they journeyed from master to master. In reality, the name comes from the French word for day, ‘journée’, as journeymen could charge by the day for their work (it has to be said that it was also the word ‘journée’ that gave English the word journey, since the day was the unit for measuring a voyage).

However, it was not uncommon for journeymen to journey. Often they travelled for three years, as ‘wandering journeymen’. This was the way new technology spread. The journeyman might travel to a master who had some smart new technique, and learn it by working with him for a while. On his return, he would bring the new skills with him and, if he became a master, he’d pass them on to the next generation.

Incidentally, to become a master, a journeyman was generally required to produce a sample of his skill, to persuade the existing masters that he was worthy of being admitted to their number. That sample was called a ‘masterpiece’. It’s a glorious misuse of the term to apply it, as we do, to an outstanding work by an established master of a trade or, more commonly, an art – a masterpiece wasn’t an outstanding work by a master, but the final examination piece for admission to master’s status.

Overall, it was a pretty intelligently designed system. It meant craft skills could pass from generation to generation, and improvements to them would spread across society. It has, in part at least, survived right up to our days.

That made me delighted to learn that my wife, Danielle, was undertaking an apprenticeship. She recently became an enthusiastic convert to sourdough bread. And, as generally happens when she discovers a type of food that appeals to her, she has focused attention and energy on learning to produce it herself.
Jo's loaves for sale. Jo on the left
That made it all the more welcome when she found a local baker, Jo Bottrill, making a huge range of sourdough loaves, which she sells through Jo’s loaves. At first, Danielle was merely a client. Then Jo gave Danielle some starter dough, to get her going. Since then we’ve had more and more varieties of sourdough bread, and we haven’t bought a loaf from a shop for weeks.

Which led to the latest stage in Danelle’s journey into the sourdough world. She volunteered to work a day a week with Jo as an unpaid apprentice. And that’s what she’s been doing since last week.

So Danielle is a new recruit to a wonderful, time-tested system for ensuring that we maintain and extend our skills. And she’s using the system to keep us provided with excellent bread in a variety of forms. Win-win, I call it.
Danielle's latest load,
ready to come out of the Dutch oven, in our English oven
On the other hand, back then apprentices could start as young as 10, and not generally over 15. Does Danielle fit in that range? Not quite.

But hey, what’s half century between friends? Especially when really important skills are at stake. And some excellent loaves.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Labour languishing where once it soared

They’re funny old things, opinion polls. A bit discredited, in Britain. At the 2017 general election, they pointed towards a sizeable Conservative win, which would have justified Theresa May’s calling of an early General Election. She’d hoped to increase her small majority in the House of Commons. In the event, she did far worse than the polls suggested and lost her majority altogether.

That left egg on the faces of the pollsters, Theresa May, and those, including me, who felt that Jeremy Corbyn would lead Labour to a defeat of historic proportions.

Indeed, Corbyn supporters never tire of telling the rest of us that under his leadership, Labour achieved the biggest increase in its popular vote since World War 2. Which is true. It’s also true, however, that he still lost the popular vote to May and emerged with far fewer MPs. His supporters are less inclined to mention that, though it’s also true.

Given how much better their man performed than the polls predicted, they now like to dismiss unfavourable polls as fake news. Curiously, that doesn’t stop them triumphing on those occasions when a poll, even a single, isolated one, shows a Labour lead – not a frequent occurrence these days. I suppose its very rarity makes it all the more welcome to those frantic to prove that Corbyn is proving effective.

Well, the polls may indeed be only a poor guide to what will actually happen in an election. But between elections, we have no other indication of the state of the parties. And in the past, they’ve often proved more accurate than in 2017.

For instance, most of us in Labour went into the 1997 general election confident, though not complacent, about winning. The confidence was justified by the massive win, and it was based on excellent poll standings. Take a look at the graph. It shows the standing of the two main parties, as an average of the previous fifteen polls, from the moment where there are fifteen onwards.

How Labour fared in the polls in the runup to victory, and now
The lower pair of lines shows how, in the first seventeen months following the 1992 election, Labour had gone from trailing the Conservatives to establishing a healthy lead over them. The lead tightened in the actual election but Labour still won a landslide victory.

They were helped by the fact that the Conservatives were massively split, above all over Europe. The then Prime Minister, John Major, even called his anti-EU colleagues ‘bastards’. It has to be said that he was also rather a colourless figure, short of charisma or even any manifest talent for his office.

Today, the Conservatives are led by a colourless, uncharismatic leader with no manifest talent for her office. Her party is even more split than Major’s over the issue of Europe. Moreover, some of the most outspoken among her Brexiter critics, notably Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, have set a new benchmark in bastardy.

Now look at the upper pair of lines, covering the seventeen months since the 2017 election. Unlike 1992, Labour under Corbyn started with a lead over the Tories, which seems to have dissipated. Now the two main parties are essentially level-pegging, and Labour may well be a little behind, though the difference is well within the margin of error for any opinion poll.

Things can change, of course, as they did in the 2017 election. But there is one big difference: back in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn was still a fresh face, a break from the old style of politics represented by establishment figures who were beginning to look well past their sell-by date. Since then, Corbyn has become far better known. He’s tried to steer a careful course between Brexiters and anti-Brexiters, committing to neither side, in order to avoid offending Labour voters from either. Unfortunately, that is very much the old-style, tired electoral game, where it matters more to count votes than to defend principles. His is a stance which rather takes the sheen off his appeal as a fresh, more principled figure and leaves him, instead, looking just as stale as his predecessors.

That might not matter if the approach were working. But the polls suggest it isn’t.

A big last-minute surge? Well, it can’t be ruled out. But given the image Corbyn projects today, I think it would be reckless to count on it.

Back in 1993, we’d already had fourteen years of Tory rule. But John Smith had taken the Labour Party to a position where, for the first time, our poll standing meant we could look forward to a forthcoming election with some optimism.

That is emphatically not the case today. At the moment, it looks as though Labour might win enough seats to form a minority government, as May leads now. Or it might lose again.

Opinion polls may not be reliable, but we have no other measure of where we stand. And the picture they paint today is far from pretty.

Corbyn supporters, and Corbyn himself, are calling for an early general election. Maybe they ought to be more careful what they wish for.