Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The voices of the nameless women

New Year’s Eve is on us. Just time to salute Murasaki Shikibu in her jubilee year of 2008.

Who was she? We really don’t know. She wrote an extraordinary book, The Tale of Genji, with a cast of 400 characters who evolve and age in step with each other over 1100 pages of the English translation, with insight so deep and emotional intensity so believable that in the end you feel familiar with a world completely alien to ours: that of the court of Heian era Japan, in the early eleventh century. Even if you have to read the work in English as I do, the communication feels immediate.

It’s a world where everything takes place behind paper screens, far too slight for privacy, but more than enough to cast shadows and maintain mystery. Women wait in the half light for men to come to them from their lives of action. Emotions remain half-expressed and motives confused. Although so much is concealed huge effort is devoted to protecting, usually unsuccessfully, reputations based on the little that is visible.

That’s the book. What about the writer? She may have been Fujiwara Takako but that’s speculation. At the time, it was regarded as impolite to use people’s names openly. Even in the novel, the male protagonist is referred to only by the surname he’s given, Genji, while the leading female character is called after purple wisteria, Murasaki, with which she’s associated in a poem.

Murasaki Shikibu’s diary contains an entry for 1008 in which an officer seeing her and realising she is the author of the Tale of Genji says ‘I think Lady Murasaki must be somewhere here!’. She comments ‘I listened, thinking, “How can she be here in a place where there is no such graceful person as Prince Genji?”’ The officer was trying to be clever; her silent put down is to compare him unfavourably with her shining Prince. But to others she was already the Lady Murasaki, after her own character. As for Shikibu, that’s a title which had been held by her father. So she’s known by a former title of her father’s and the nickname – not the name, which is unknown – of one of her characters.

It’s that diary entry that made 2008 the millennium year of the book, since it was clearly known by then. But that doesn’t mean that it might not have been available earlier.

Murasaki’s father did her the great favour of giving her a boy’s education. Culture was the preserve of men and culture was Chinese, not Japanese. Murasaki’s book is in Japanese, the language of trivial, frivolous writing, suitable for women, but she had learned her skills in the language of intellect. A similar phenomenon took place in the West: three centuries after Murasaki, Boccaccio wrote his remarkable collection of short stories, The Decameron, in his native Italian claiming that this was appropriate in a lightweight work intended for the entertainment of women: again, everyday language is linked with women. His serious work was in Latin. The Decameron continues to be read by millions, the Latin works by a handful of academics. Similarly, the ‘great’ Chinese poetry of the Heian period is the subject only of weighty erudition, whereas the Genji continues to be read by many: there are even three English translations available.

Murasaki isn’t the only woman writer of the period. Her rival Sei Shonagon left us her Pillow Book which is widely read both in Japan and in the West. She may have been Kiyohara Nagiko but again that’s speculation. ‘Sei’ is a clan name and ‘Shonagon’ a title, though who held it we don’t actually know (except that it was presumably a man). She is more outgoing than the reserved and gentle Murasaki, much more open both about her loves and about her intellect: she makes no secret of having mastered Chinese as well as any man. Through gossip, insight and wry observation, she again talks to us directly down the ten centuries between us.

A little later, the Sarashina Diary gives us a portrait full of wistfulness of a woman who spent her life in aspiration and hope but for whom joy was muted by loss or disappointment. One unqualified joy was the gift from her aunt of a complete copy of The Tale of Genji. This nameless writer was Takasue no Musume – the daughter of Takasue.

The much earlier Kagero Diary, often translated as The Gossamer Years, is by Michitsuna no Haha, the mother of Michitsuna, defined by her son as the Sarashina lady is defined by her father. She was apparently one of the great beauties of her age, and felt that such beauty entitled her to a glittering destiny. She indeed married Fujiwara no Kaneie who later became Regent of Japan, but she was a secondary wife only. She spent most of her time at home, only seeking relief in later life with an increasing number of pilgrimages to monasteries. Shut indoors she waited for Kaneie who seldom came – indeed, what came much more often was news of his dalliances with other women. The sense of claustrophobia is oppressive. It’s also hard not to sympathise with her railings against the frustrations of her existence but just as hard not to feel put off by the arrogance she betrays and her intolerance towards others. The frankness of her self-portrait, with its defects as well as its strengths, is breathtaking.

2008 was the official millennium of The Tale of Genji, whether it was really the thousandth year since its publication or not. As the year slips away tonight, I’ll raise a glass to Murasaki Shikibu, to Sei Shonagon, to the daughter of Takasue and to the mother of Michitsuna, to all those nameless women whose gentle voices sing to us still today.

And wish all my friends, including the ones I haven't yet met, a happy 2009.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

It's a cat's life in Kehl and Stafford

Misty, our cat, is a fan of our life down here in Kehl, opposite Strasbourg. That’s not to say he dislikes his life in Stafford: on the contrary, both he and Janka our dog, seem to thrive on a place which at least has the advantage of never suffering from uncomfortably oppressive temperatures.

For Misty, the main advantage of Stafford is the delightful young lady only two doors away from us: slinky, sexy, doe-eyed. This is Molly, a tortoiseshell with whom he seems to have struck up a mutually enriching relationship. It has to be a platonic relationship since neither is in possession of the necessary organs to make it anything else, but they seem to derive a great deal of pleasure from it all the same.

Sadly, neither of them lives in a house with cat flaps. That means that we frequently see one of them sitting on the grass in front of the bay window, watching the other lying on the sill just the other side of the glass. Once they are both outside, they disappear in a flash of fur into the hedgerows to terrorise the local birds.

Now one of the great advantages of Kehl is that it provides Misty with all the cat flaps he needs. He can get out of the flat, onto the back steps, out into the garden or, if he so chooses, down into the cellar. Kehl gives him freedom of movement. No wonder he likes the place.

Getting here, on the other hand, is another matter. Fourteen hours in the car. That’s about 825 minutes too long for him. He generally lets us get into the journey before he starts expressing his dissatisfaction, sometimes until we’re actually clear of Stafford, but then for the next thirteen and three quarter hours he protests by stalking round the car – if allowed, under the driver’s feet – and mewing piteously. And loudly.

This time was no exception. So it was a real delight to see the way he immediately took off to make the most of the place once we’d got here, in particular, making extensive use of his cat flaps. He popped in quickly for some food, but then vanished outside again. He didn’t show up in the morning, or at lunchtime when we would normally expect him to be hungry, or indeed in the early evening. I found myself reduced to wondering around the neighbourhood calling ‘Misty – pss, pss, pss’, something I always feel makes me look like a complete buffoon. But it was all to no avail.

Finally, at nine o’clock, there was a single mew in the corridor outside the sitting room. There he was, but far from showing any delight at seeing me, he just gave me a look I could only describe as baleful. What was he unhappy about? In order to protect his food from Janka, we keep it in the shower room off our bedroom, with the door held open just wide enough for Misty, just too narrow for Janka. The bedroom door was only just ajar and Misty felt I should open it for him, even though it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to do it himself.

Once he’d eaten his fill he had a quick look-in on us in the sitting room. Not to be stroked or anything, just to acknowledge our presence. He then disappeared into the night again.

I began to wonder what he’d been doing.

In Kehl, Misty’s best friend is the black male upstairs, Pistache. They’re inseparable. In fact, if Janka is out of the flat, Misty invites Pistache in to share his food.

So I can imagine them hooking up when Misty first got here.

‘Hey, Pistachio-o-o-o,’ says Misty, ‘surprised to see me?’

Pistache looks up from the mouse hole he’s been keeping under murderous surveillance. The petrified mice inside are momentarily forgotten in the rush of pleasure at hearing his old friend’s voice again.

‘Miiisty, mate. Gimme some paw. How’s it going? When did you show up?’

‘Just an hour ago. Just time for a bite and then I thought I’d pop out and catch up.’

‘Good for you. We’re just getting started. We’ve got some mice down this hole and we’ve found some starlings that have perched on much too low a branch. We’re planning a concerted attack. You in?’

‘Am I in? Does a mouse roll over and die? Why do you think I put up with fourteen hours in that awful car? You bet I’m here to join in the fun with you guys.’

Pistache gives him a quizzical look.

‘But it’s not that bad where you go, is it?’

‘Hey, no, it’s fine. Nice neighbourhood. Boy, you should see Molly from two doors down.’

‘Molly? A broad?’

‘Tortoiseshell. About five. What she doesn’t know how to do to a bird pinned down under a paw just isn’t worth doing.’

‘Sounds good. You should take me with you some time. I’d like to meet her.’

‘Sure. But are you man enough for the fourteen-hour trip? That takes toughness.’

‘Man enough? Man enough? You got not more balls than I do. Our days of being man enough for anything are long gone. Best we’re ever going to do with a chick is hunt mice.’

They sigh. At that moment, Tara, the Siamese from three doors away comes up to the group.

‘Hey, Tara,’ says Pistache. ‘You should hear about Misty’s girlfriend Molly.’

‘Morry? She nice for you, is she Misty?’ Tara’s purring but there’s an edge to her voice that leaves Misty feeling uneasy. ‘You like your Morry better than Tara, Misty?’

‘Mouse,’ shouts Misty and as a single unit they spring in pursuit.

The reality may differ in minor matters of details, but I’m sure that in general terms that’s the way things are. And why Misty vanishes so long each time we come back here.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The words to say it: the English-French mésentente

Familiarity breeds contempt and the English and French are just too familiar with each other. A trip from England to continental Europe generally starts in France. As for the French, 300,000 live in London alone, making it one of the top ten French cities. But as in families, the deeper the ties the worse the animosity. Like many an Englishman, I love the Six Nations rugby tournament. Lots of the matches are enthralling, but the only one that really matters is England-France. If England loses all the others and ends up bottom of the table, victory in that one match means the season isn’t a complete failure.

In 1904, the two nations decided to bury the hatchet somewhere else than in each others’ heads, and signed the ‘Entente Cordiale’. French name: first blood to France. But the most important thing is that it was only an Entente: we fought and wasted our millions of lives side by side in the First World War, but we had only an ‘understanding’, not an Alliance.

Eventually we did become allies, but in NATO where our relationship was diluted by the presence of all the other countries. Even then, de Gaulle, not known as an internationalist or anglophile, pulled France out of the integrated military structure in 1966. When de Gaulle called for the US troops to leave France, the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked ‘Does that include the dead Americans in military cemeteries as well?’ The French, who helped kick the British out of the American colonies, are famously the oldest allies of the US but also the most troublesome.

Even in Britain, the French have their allies: the Scots are proud of their ‘Auld Alliance.’ There’s even a pub of that name in Paris. That Alliance is, however, much more widely remembered in Scotland than in France. It’s like Britain which has a special relationship with America, though America seems to have no special relationship with Britain.

The real tension between Britain and France comes from the English, and that’s what the Entente was meant to solve.

One of its provisions was that each nation teach its children the language of the other. But teaching and learning aren’t the same thing. The English just won’t learn French, or any other foreign language. As for the French, if they’re finally and slowly beginning to master English, it’s only really for the sake of the Americans. We already speak the language and know we can’t get the Americans to listen. The French have got to learn English to make the discovery themselves.

In any case, the problem goes deeper than the linguistic incompetence of the populations. There’s a fundamental problem in the languages themselves. The words simply don’t match up, so how can the thoughts?

For example, there’s no French word for ‘privacy’. Now France is on the brink of entering the 21st century so it knows that privacy rights are a priority. It’s come up with the idea of ‘le droit à la vie privée’. But privacy and private life are not the same: an Englishman likes to enjoy privacy even in public. Anyway the people most concerned by the right to a private life are those who live in public, the politicians or stars, like the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his model-turned-singer wife, Carla Bruni. Of course, one can be forgiven for thinking that French law now exists primarily for the convenience of the first couple, but to us in England we feel it should also protect the private individual (and try to translate that into French).

English has no word for ‘solidaire’, the adjective derived from solidarity. The French complain about it, but they pull together and support each other, and it pays off, for example in the better protection they’re enjoying from the credit crunch. They are solidaires. The English are sometimes notoriously solid or even stolid. But solidaric? solidaresque? solidarious? It’s a gap and it can’t help an entente if one partner expects the other to be solidaric, but the other partner doesn’t even know the word.

Similarly, English has no word for ‘intègre’, as in displaying integrity. I don’t think French public life is any more intègre than British – or indeed Anglo-Saxon, the concept the French use when they extend their thinking beyond Britain to include the vaguely English-speaking peoples in Australasia or North America. Perhaps the French still have the aspiration to be integral, while we Anglo-Saxons, more cynical or more realistic, have given up on the idea.

It’s clear from the languages themselves that the nations set store by different things. The French value partners who are solidaric and integral. An Englishman would just like them to keep out of his face, for God’s sake, just back off and leave him some space. It’s no surprise that the entente has turned out to be more of a mésentente.

In a sense, though, none of this matters. England beat France in Paris during the last Six Nations Championship. If they can pull off the same trick at Twickenham in the next campaign, well, solidarity, integrity, even privacy will count for nothing. A victory over the old adversary: how can anything else mean as much?

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Making a pig's ear of a dog's breakfast

Faced with a mess, the noble thing to do may seem to try to clear it up. Sometimes, however, the best thing is to do nothing at all.

When it comes to describing a complete mess, the expression ‘a dog’s breakfast’ seems to me to say it all. It conjures up graphically the sense of joyless chaos caused by lack of planning or organisation. Like a presentation when nobody has the latest version of the slides and in any case the projector doesn’t work. Or the small Middle Eastern war that turns into an open-ended military occupation.

‘A pig’s ear’ means something similar. I find it less evocative, but I suppose a pig’s ear has little aesthetic appeal and shows no obvious evidence of practical effectiveness. Like a dog’s breakfast, it suggests that whatever effort went into it was wasted by lack of forethought on the part of people with little gift for design.

Danielle, my wife, has begun cooking us porridge from time to time. No dog’s breakfast this, but one of the great contributions of Scotland to international culture, alongside shortbread and haggis. And I say this even though Dr Johnson defined its main constituent as ‘oats: cereal eaten in England by horses and in Scotland by men’. Let’s say in passing that Brad Delong writes ‘Oats: A grain that in England is fed to horses, and in Scotland to people... which is why England has such fine horses, and Scotland has such fine people’:

While we were eating our porridge recently, Danielle pointed out to me in the gentlest possible terms that it would do neither of us any harm if I did the washing up a little more often. Keen to show myself receptive to this kind of suggestion, I turned straight to the sink when I took my empty bowl out to the kitchen. I was greeted by a ghastly sight: the porridge saucepan with the remains of the oats stuck to the bottom, under a few millimetres of murky water; what looked like the sad remnants of the cat’s food had also got mixed into the ugly mess. It looked like a real dog’s breakfast but I set out with determination to clear it up.

Inevitably, as I tipped out the water some bits of meat in clumps of porridge were washed into the sink where they clogged up the plug hole. Removing them was an unpleasant task but it had to be done. Then the saucepan had to be scraped. All the gunk then went into the bin.

It was at this point that Danielle came out to the kitchen. ‘Oh my God,’ she said, ‘what have you done? That was Janka’s porridge.’

It was then that I remembered that Janka, our dog, had also developed a taste for porridge. No wonder, a few minutes earlier, she’d refused to go out: she was waiting for her share which was cooling under a little water in the sink.

‘Didn’t you notice that I’d put bits of meat in it? That was for her!’ continued Danielle.

What I’d cleared up wasn’t a dog’s breakfast. It was the dog’s breakfast.

Not a very successful outcome of my resolution to be more helpful. In fact, I’d made a complete pig’s ear of it.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The patient patient and other stories

We already have monuments to the Unknown Soldier. Somewhere in England we need a statue to the Unresponsive General Practitioner. It would show a seated figure, man or woman, with pens in a top pocket, an air of abstraction and a hand hiding a barely stifled yawn.

It would be dedicated to those selfless individuals who make sure that healthcare expenditure in England is kept within sensible limits. For a price. A high price, since the new GP contract of a few years ago, but who can grudge them their salaries when we think of the service they provide in controlling access to care?

Like most companies, mine offers death or invalidity in service insurance. To qualify, you need to complete a health declaration and the insurance company needs a questionnaire filled in by a GP. I duly completed the declaration and registered with a surgery. I even went to see the GP, since I have a minor chronic complaint and need a prescription to get the medication.

So far so good.

Three months later the insurance company wrote to say that the questionnaire hadn’t been returned by my GP. Despite two reminders. So I e-mailed the practice. I had a response immediately, even though it was a weekend, from a manager who passed on my e-mail to an assistant. Who wrote on the Monday morning to say she was tracking things down. And again on the Wednesday to say she’d found the questionnaire and would ask the GP to complete it. And again on the Friday to say that he’d been ‘poorly’ (who gets poorly these days? Only GPs, I assume. The rest of us just get sick). He was going to deal with it on Monday. On Monday she wrote to say that he hadn’t had a chance to complete it but would look at it when he was next in on Wednesday. And again on Wednesday to say that he had promised to deal with it on Thursday. And finally on Thursday to say the questionnaire was complete and would soon be in the post.

The practice had seen me just once. Otherwise they had nothing on me, unless they’d received my old records from when I was last in the UK, 13 years ago. British authorities seem to be pretty good at losing people’s records in the post or in railway carriages, but I have little confidence in their being able to get them from one GP’s surgery to another over a decade later. More likely that my old records are somewhere in a landfill site by now.

So how much work did my GP have to do? Under ‘known conditions’, he could list the complaint for which I'd been to see them. Under anything else – well, he could give my name and address and pretty well nothing else. He didn’t even have to put the thing in the post – someone else was going to do that. What are we talking about? Five minutes work? And in nearly four months culminating in two weeks with a reminder every couple of days, he couldn’t find five minutes?

Cynics might suggest that he was slow because this isn’t one of the myriad services for which a GP can charge an additional fee. But I have faith in my doctors. I know these are altruistic people motivated by the desire to serve. And they know that the NHS can only survive if access to its services is rationed. They selflessly hold up, delay, obstruct.

It preserves the financial equilibrium of the service. And it teaches us patients patience.

And a postscript without relevance to the above

The news is full of strange stories these days. I don’t mean about recession. That’s just run of the mill. I remember the oil crunch in the 70s, Black Wednesday in the 80s, the John Major recession in the 90s. Every time we get howls of ‘catastrophe’ and reminders of how much better things were three years ago. Just like now. You remember the golden age of 2005? When nobody complained about the economy and everyone was happy? And loved the government?

No, I’m talking about the interesting news. Like the fact that the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Germany has just published an issue of its journal dedicated to China. On the cover they printed a few lines of Chinese characters which a resident scholar told them were inoffensive. It turns out that they refer to job opportunities for young women in a branch of industry that I won’t mention in this family-oriented blog.

And then there was the tale of the Austrian actor in a play that ends with his committing suicide by slashing his throat. It was fine until unfortunately he found himself playing the part with a real, sharp knife rather than the blunt one he was expecting. And found himself lying on the stage in a pool of his own, completely authentic blood, being applauded by the audience for his realism.

Fortunately, he’d missed his carotid artery – though not by much according to the doctors who treated him – and he’s back in the play, acting with a bandage around his throat.

The police are investigating just who gave him the knife.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Travelling into the wild lands

What a drive I had yesterday, from Stafford to Edinburgh. Even though Stafford is a long way northwards up England already, close to half way on the long decline between civilisation and Scotland, it still takes forever. To think that Englishmen in the distant past travelled so far, and into such ghastly weather, to bring civilisation to the painted people north of Hadrian’s Wall. It fills me with nothing less than a sense of awe.

I imagine the Scots think it was pretty awful too.

The one good thing about long car drives in Britain is listening to the BBC. Radio 4 really does talk radio extraordinarily well. And I say that even though the BBC broadcasts in a form of English described by my good friend Mark Reyolds as ‘some near-incomprehensible island dialect with only a distant relationship to English’.

That hurt, Mark. It was cruel to suggest that my language was incomprehensible to you. You haven’t appreciated the trouble we take to use only short and simple words when talking to North Americans. Of course one realises that it’s not right to strain transatlantic intellects, so we try to avoid difficult terms, like ‘supernumerary’ or ‘cerebral’. That makes it really galling (look it up) to have one’s efforts slapped down in this way.

Listening to the radio, I was particularly struck by the latest phase of the OJ Simpson saga. He’s just been sentenced to fifteen years in gaol and his lawyer claimed that he hadn’t been given a fair trial. Thoughts of pots and kettles went rattling round my mind. Was he under the impression that his first trial had been fair?

The other story that got me was the falling interest rates in Britain. If things go on this way, rates could end up negative and my bank would have to pay me for my overdraft. I can imagine the letters. ‘Dear Sir, we write to bring it to your attention that you have an unauthorised overdraft on your account. While this situation persists, we shall be paying you a charge of £25.00 for every transaction. You should note that if you allow the situation to continue, the effect of these charges will be to return your account to credit at which point we’ll start charging you again, and then who’ll be looking bloody silly?’

Despite the beautiful diction and limpid clarity of the language on the BBC, there came a time when I decided it was time for some music instead. Of course, I like to cultivate an image of myself as sophisticated and intellectual, which means having to listen to BBC Radio 3, the upmarket classical music station. But I have to confess that it plays music I just can’t recognise, often that I can’t even recognise as music. So instead I tuned in to Classic FM, which does the easy listening stuff. That means I can recognise most of it, but often at the level of thinking ‘I know that piece – now where did I hear it?’ The trick is to wait to the end and listen to the announcer, but I find that if you get only a single phone call in a five hour car journey, it’s sure to be just when you want to hear something on the radio.

Last night they were broadcasting Mozart. Even I can generally recognise the five or six pieces that easy-listening broadcasters trot out when they’re doing Mozart. When I first tuned in, I was greeted by the sound of a horn playing one of the catchiest and most distinctive themes from the whole of Mozart – I can never remember which horn concerto is which but it was obviously one of them. So I was surprised when the announcer told us we’d just been listening to the Jupiter symphony. ‘Funny,’ I thought, ‘I didn’t realise that it had a horn solo.’

Half an hour later, we had the announcer back on, barely able to contain his enthusiasm over the pleasure we had in store for us. ‘The most whistled tune’ around the corridors of Classic FM, ‘the catchiest tune’ in Mozart. Yes, you guessed it. He announced the fourth Horn Concerto and we got the Jupiter symphony.

You learn so much more from Radio 3, but boy it leaves you feeling uncultivated and inadequate, like an Englishman talking to a Canadian. But on a long night drive what you need is Classic FM, for the opposite sensation: the warm pink glow of complacent superiority you can only get from spotting someone else’s error.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

No time for a novice

At the end of the summer, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced that the current climate of economic meltdown was ‘no time for a novice’.

The remark was obviously directed at the Conservative Party’s David Cameron, Leader of the official opposition and Prime Minister in waiting – not that it looks as though he may need to wait that long: his party still leads in the polls and the election has to take place by May 2010. He’s certainly a novice. He only became a Member of Parliament in 2001 and has never been a minister.

The less obvious, but only slightly less obvious, second target of Brown’s remark was his own Foreign Secretary, David Milliband. He too has had a remarkably swift rise up the ladder: like Cameron, he only entered parliament in 2001. Over the summer, when Brown was looking increasingly like a forlorn cause (20% behind, swiftly losing support within his own party) Milliband seemed to be positioning himself to challenge him for the leadership and therefore the position of Prime Minister. Brown was almost certainly administering him a sharp put down.

This kind of tactic isn’t limited to Britain. One of the least fair attacks on Barack Obama during the US election campaign was the McCain camp’s claim that he didn’t have the experience to become president. As it happens, he’d had four years as a senator. Before Lincoln became President, he’d only had two years as a member of the House of Representatives. While at the time views were more mixed, particularly in the Southern States, today most commentators reckon he did pretty well in the job.

William Pitt the Younger, who became British Prime Minister at 24, apparently replied to the accusation that he was too young and inexperienced for the post, ‘Gentlemen: these are faults that are being remedied daily’.

And that’s the point. Using the argument that a politician should not be elected because of lack of experience is deeply unfair, because the only way to get that experience is to be elected. Pushed to its conclusion, it becomes an argument for never changing government: after all, in a parliamentary system, once a party has been in power long enough, no-one in the opposition will have experience of office. Does that mean you can only ever re-elect the governing party? By that argument, we would never have seen Blair triumphantly entering Downing Street in 1997. While in hindsight that might not seem so bad a thing, the alternative would have been the continuation of one of the dreariest governments of recent times, John Major’s.

So a simple commitment to fairness requires that we stop using lack of experience as a weapon against political candidates.

That at least is the position in principle.

In practice we may need to be more pragmatic.

Cameron’s rise to the top seems less meteoric when you take into account how short a distance he had to travel. He started at Eton, one of the most prestigious independent schools in England and perhaps the most expensive. From there he travelled effortlessly to Oxford University where he was a member of the Bullingdon club, alongside George Osborne who is now Finance spokesman in his parliamentary team. The Club brought together the richest conservative students so that they could enjoy themselves in the innocent way of youth, for instance by booking entire restaurants, trashing them and then getting their Daddies to pay for the damage. From there Cameron became a political adviser, then a member of parliament, and in 2005 leader of the Conservative Party, poised for the move into Downing Street.

What has fairness got to do with any of this? Surely with a candidate like that, you can’t judge an objection on the grounds of whether it’s fair or not. The only criterion has to be ‘is it effective?’

I’m delighted that the ‘no time for a novice’ objection failed against Obama. Wouldn’t it be great though if it worked against Cameron? My only fear is that it may be too late.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Confused about Marathons

Having taken up running regularly, sacrificing my legs to my conscience, I’ve begun to be troubled by the thought that I should perhaps be planning to run a Marathon.

I’m far from persuaded that it’s a good idea. For example, the London Marathon goes from Greenwich to Westminster Bridge. For a few pounds, you can do the trip much more pleasantly by boat up the Thames. You're even regaled over the loudspeaker by anecdotes about Judge Jeffreys or Christopher Wren or other people connected with places on the route, some of which may well be true. Why spend four hours pounding the roads instead?

However, I still feel the compulsion at least to think about training for a marathon, a prospect so tiring even to contemplate that it has until recently been causing me some anxiety. That was until I had what I thought was a brain wave.

My reasoning was as follows. The worst part of a marathon must be the end. Well, a marathon is 26 miles 385 yards long. So I’ve taken to practising getting really good at running 385 yards, on the basis that once I got to the last stretch I’d be fully prepared to complete the race. And it’s been going well – I’ve even been getting quite quick.

But now I’m assailed by doubt again. Have I got this wrong? Have I actually been practising the first 385 yards?

Does anyone have any advice?

Sunday, 23 November 2008

23 November: another day, another anniversary

Yesterday was 22 November so today is the 23rd. Yesterday was the anniversary of the French forces entering Strasbourg in 1918, today is the anniversary of their entering the city in 1944.

Kehl is a little market town in Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Head towards the station from where we live and turn left, and you’re on the road to the Bridge of Europe into the once more French city of Strasbourg.

In February 1941, the man who would one day be General Leclerc, commander of the most famous Second World War unit in the French Army, the ‘Deuxième DB’ or second armoured division, captured the Libyan oasis of Kufra from the Italians at the head of 400 soldiers he had marched across the desert from Chad. In military terms, it was a minor engagement. In moral terms, it was colossal. It marked the return to the war of the French. And however small, it was a French victory over Axis forces. From it came Leclerc’s ‘Kufra Oath’: ‘Swear not to lay down your arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, are floating once more over the cathedral in Strasbourg.’ Why Strasbourg? Because it’s as far as you can travel eastward in France without reaching Germany. With French forces in Strasbourg, the Germans would effectively be out of France.

Given that at the time of the oath, France was divided into an occupied north and a south governed by a puppet government of the Nazis, it took vision to pronounce that oath.

On 23 November 1944, Maurice Lebrun, a tank commander in Leclerc’s Division, climbed the long staircase to the bottom of the cathedral spire. From there, leaving his companions behind, he hauled himself up the spire itself to attach a French flag to the top. Perched 200 metres above the ground, with German snipers still at large, he later claimed that he took comfort from the fact that at that range and with the wind that was blowing that day there was little chance of anyone getting an accurate shot at him. At any rate, the flag was up and the Koufra oath honoured.

Head back east from Strasbourg and you reach the French end of the Bridge of Europe. Kehl is little over a couple of hundred metres away. But that little extra distance is occupied by the Rhine, a pretty effective barrier. Allied forces didn’t reach Kehl for nearly five more months, until 15 April 1945, little over three weeks before Germany’s final capitulation.

On 23 November 1944, the very day of the liberation of Strasbourg, the Gestapo marched nine men down to the Rhine. They were members of the resistance network in Alsace. They were shot on the river bank, presumably in full sight of their allies celebrating their victory on the other side. It’s hard to imagine what purpose was served by those deaths, unless it was to send a message of ultimately empty defiance.

Kehl too suffered over the coming months, at the hands of both sides. The Allies turned their artillery on the town, and once the civilian population had been evacuated, German soldiers looted it.

Today the Kehl authorities maintain a plaque on the side of the Bridge of Europe, framed by climbing roses. It lists the names of the nine men shot and points out that they died for us all, for a Europe free of barbarism. I often walk there with our dog Janka and always feel drawn to the plaque.

As it happens, the best monument of all is the bridge itself, with the traffic constantly rumbling across it, including swarms of cyclists and pedestrians. That open border is crossed in both directions by people on errands of critical importance or none at all, at any time of day and on any day of the week. It’s a constant traffic of life.

On an anniversary like today, it may be no bad thing to think that 64 years ago all that was coming across that stretch of river was death.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

22 November: an ambiguous anniversary

Today’s the 22nd of November and since we're just outside Strasbourg, it’s only fitting that I mark this important anniversary for the city.

I know it’s important because one of the main thoroughfares is the ‘rue du 22 novembre’.

It took me a while, though, to work out what it was commemorating.

Couldn’t be the end of the First World War – that was the 11th, the famous eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven in the morning, and the governments who chose to wait for that auspicious moment didn’t care that doing so was going to cost a lot more lives.

Couldn’t be the liberation of the city in the Second World War either, because that was the 23rd. People can be dumb, but dumb enough to get an anniversary like that wrong? Feels unlikely.

Then I found some obscure references and got them confirmed by my friend Mark Reynolds of

In 1918, Alsace was part of Germany, following its conquest from France in 1871.

As in many German cities, there were uprisings in the cities of Alsace in the dying days of the war. They started in Colmar but reached Strasbourg on the 10th of November. Soldiers and workers set up the Republic of Councils of Alsace, perhaps loosely modelled on what was happening in Russia where the Republic of Soviets (the Russian word for Councils) had emerged a year earlier, but wholly independent of the Soviet Union and without its monopoly of power by a single party.

The Strasbourg Council at work

The Alsace councils were radical, backing the strike movement that broke out immediately and decreeing increases in workers’ wages. They were also keen on establishing Alsace as a nation in its own right, neither German nor French. They were by no means universally welcomed and the mayor of Strasbourg, in particular, called for military support to restore order.

However, he appealed not to Germany, but to France, which had regained its old possession of Alsace, along with the department of Moselle in Lorraine, following the end of the war.

On 17 November, French troops overthrew the councils in Colmar. And Colmar has its ‘rue du 17 novembre’.

On 22 November it was Strasbourg’s turn to see the French troops move in and to get itself a new street name.

French troops enter Strasbourg on 22 November 1918

So tonight, when a number of our friends will be visiting us in our flat in Kehl (just in Germany, just outside the erstwhile Alsatian republic) we’ll have to raise a glass to the events of that day. But whose health should we drink?

And does it matter as long as the wine is good?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Descartes's cracked ceiling

I’ve always found the story of how Cartesian coordinates were discovered deeply dissatisfying.

The tradition is that Descartes was sick in bed and looking at the ceiling when he saw some cracks in it. He wondered ‘how would I tell somebody the exact position of any one of those cracks?’ It came to him a flash of inspiration: ‘I know: I’d tell them the distance to the crack from one wall and the distance to the crack from another wall perpendicular to the first. That will determine the position uniquely.’ And so Cartesian coordinates were invented.

All very well and fine, you’d think. It’s another Newton-and-the-apple moment. Great as far as it goes.

But look at all the things it leaves untold.

Why was he looking at the ceiling instead of reading a book like anyone sensible would do? Surely a book would have been more fun. He’d have enjoyed himself and centuries of school kids wouldn’t have been put through the agony of studying his discovery ever since.

And anyway why would he want to identify the position of a crack exactly to someone else? Couldn’t they just look and see it for themselves? In any case, the issue isn’t to determine its position, but to repair it or at least paint over it.

And then there’s the most worrying aspect of all. How did the cracks get to be there in the first place? Subsidence? Seismic activity? Did he check whether the house was still structurally sound? The cracks might have been symptoms of serious risk to members of his household. What steps did he take to minimise it?

But that’s the problem. The story’s been told and retold by mathematicians. These are people who spend for ever establishing things like with the number 1 and a successor function you can derive the whole of arithmetic, as if not knowing that ever stopped anyone counting. Really important things just pass them by.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Rockin', rollin nostalgia many miles away

I’ve just tracked down a recording on You Tube of the Seekers singing Morningtown.

Do you know the song? In the right mood you could describe it as sweet. In another mood, you’d just think ‘what is this cloying drivel?’ Not something to say too loud: I like Australians and they like to think that whatever they do, they do better than anyone else. They’re often right, though perhaps not as often as they believe. We need to humour them, so it would be wrong to suggest that this Australian group from the sixties was anything but extraordinary. Let’s just say that the song can seem extraordinarily cloying.

Strangely, it’s precisely that cloying quality that gave the song its importance to me.

The British army stages an annual endurance event called Ten Tors, in which young people walk 35, 45 or 55 miles, depending on age, in teams of six across tough terrain on Dartmoor, in Devon, south west England. Dartmoor is one of the few wild areas left in the country and has the magic of anywhere that has not been tamed, that you have to treat with respect – it can kill you if you don’t – while enjoying its flashes of sudden beauty.

Typical Dartmoor terrain, with the Devonport Leat that takes water to Plymouth

Ten Tors takes place over a weekend and an essential part of it is the Saturday night spent out on the moor, sleeping if you’re lucky, shivering in the cold and wet if you’ve sacrificed protection against the elements to a desire to keep your pack light. Your aim is to visit ten of the granite outcrops called tors, getting a card stamped at each one.


The first time I did Ten Tors was in 1967. I hadn’t trained hard enough. Within the first few miles, with thirty still to go, I realised that I was already in far more pain than I should have been. By the evening, I was exhausted. We slept, using the term loosely, wrapped in space blankets, under polythene sheets, with rivulets of moisture trickling down necks, shoulders, thighs, and calves, while gusts of wind regularly blew under the polythene. The following day, I found a team-mate in front of me and another behind, and they forced me to keep up a decent pace for five or six miles, until their own energy flagged and they couldn’t push me along any more.

Well, we made it in the end, and later I was delighted that we had. At the time, though, I had no sense of elation. I felt lousy physically, and humiliated morally: I had performed weakly, delayed my team and made their own expedition more painful.

There had only been one moment of comfort and Morningtown had been central to it.

It happened at about the second Tor. I was already in trouble. As we reached the Tor, I heard a team of girls resting on the rocks and singing Morningtown – sweetly, of course. These weren’t sirens displaying their charms on the rocks, singing sailors to their destruction. They were fourteen year olds like me, shapeless in their oilskins, and they weren’t even great singers: their voices were pretty but slight, only just audible where the Tor gave shelter from the wind. Even so, the song conjured up a world a long way from where I was. It represented kindness and gentleness. Everything that was different from the cold, the wet, the brutality I was going through and which was, as my gut told me, going to get worse.

What I particularly liked about the moment was that I knew it was transitory. I’d never see them again. We were only in the same place for a few minutes. I didn’t know who they were, and though I remember them, I’m sure they don’t remember me. I was given a brief respite and it left a memory that stayed all the longer because the moment had been so fleeting.

That’s why Morningtown means far more to me than the song itself deserves.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The envy of the world

Change, many in Britain feel, is synonymous with decline. So our rightwing press – which is most of it – resounds with denunciations of deplorable initiatives, usually by government, to undermine some cherished, once grand institution. We might read:

‘The British judicial system is the envy of the world. And yet the government has struck a blow at the very roots of that system more damaging than anything even Hitler’s blitz could throw at us.’

On looking into it more closely, you’ll probably find that what government has done is to issue a timid consultation paper into whether top lawyers’ fees are a little excessive, or whether a few more women or even – don’t say it too loud – one or two more blacks among our judges might improve the balance of the courts.

What I really like is the idea that Britain is the envy of the world. I picture the little boy in his village on the Limpopo who has been caught stealing rice from his neighbour. He’s facing the council of elders with his guts churning in trepidation. ‘Oh, woe is me,’ he’s saying (sorry for the old fashioned turn of phrase: I couldn’t afford a better translator), ‘if only I was up in front of a beak in London. Then I’d be sure of a proper hearing, because the British judicial system is the envy of us all.’

And it isn’t just the judges. The world loves our army too. US forces breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that British units are on the way. ‘Oh, thank God,’ they all say, ‘we can go home at last. The Brits will have this insurgency sorted in no time. Our work is done.’

Emotions run high on the other side too. In Afghanistan, the British have been using snatch land rovers, vehicles whose armour plating might best be described as discreetly understated. So there’s consternation among the Taliban on seeing a British patrol approach. ‘Hold the bomb, boys,’ they call to each other, ‘we’ll keep it for a tank. Just throw a can of lighter fluid at this lot.’

The National Health Service is another beacon to the world. Our NHS dentists are like precious stones, which is presumably why finding one these days is like drawing teeth. As for our General Practitioners, no other country can rival their talent. Where else do doctors reach a diagnosis with so little evidence? A visit to a GP goes something like this:

‘Ah, hello doctor. I’m afraid I’m a little worried about the pain/ache/twitching/smell of putrefaction [delete as applicable] from my arm/leg/head/lungs.’

‘Ah yes. How long have you had the problem?’

‘Since yesterday. I thought I’d better see you about it quickly.’

‘Good.’ He scribbles on a pad, tears off a sheet and offers it to you. ‘Take this four times a day for two weeks. That should clear it up.’

‘Really? Shouldn’t you examine me or get some tests done or something?’

‘Oh, no need to bother with all that just yet. Let’s wait until you’re ill.’

The only British organisation that isn’t regarded as the envy of the world is our favourite whipping boy, the BBC. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, recently joined in the fun. Two BBC comedians had overstepped the mark in their pursuit of bold and iconoclastic humour, and broadcast some pretty ugly, pretty tasteless material. One of them resigned, another has been suspended. Lesley Thomas, the controller of the channel that broadcast the material has also gone, which is a pity since she was good at the work and will be missed. You’d think that would close the chapter. But when the BBC is down, you can trust Cameron to put the boot in. So he issued what for want of a better word we have to call a ‘thought piece’ about the corporation, in particular castigating the high salaries of the top executives.

After all, what have BBC executives done to win our admiration or loyalty? OK, they may have produced outstanding nature programmes, brilliant adaptations of the classics, fine new drama, informative and balanced news broadcasting, fascinating historical series, excellent radio. Even, with a few exceptions, some pretty impressive comedy.

But apart from that? What have they achieved? Compared to our judges, our generals and our doctors, what claim do they have to be the envy of the world?

Postscript with little relevance to any of the above

Lord Salisbury, prime minister at the turn of the twentieth century, pointed out ‘If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the military, nothing is safe.’

Don’t know why that appeals to me. It just does.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Dovedale: who needs Switzerland?

In Pride and Prejudice, though Elizabeth Bennett’s visit to Derbyshire ultimately leads to far more, her initial aim is to see some of the beauty spots, such as Dovedale. And having just been there myself, I can vouch for its being worth the trip.

England doesn’t really do deep gorges encased in cliffs, but if you’re happy with gentle green slopes, woodland alternating with grassy banks and a river dancing down the middle, then Dovedale’s charm is for you.

The rich green that is the hallmark of the English countryside comes at a price, and we paid that price during our visit: it didn’t rain constantly but it did rain repeatedly. And when we got up on to the tops of the hills, it wasn’t just the view that was breathtaking but also the gale.

Still, the place is worth a little physical discomfort, and it’s easy enough to dress for the weather.

Janka wrapped up warm like the rest of us

A plaque at the entrance to the valley points out that Byron claimed, ‘I can assure you there are things in Derbyshire as noble as Greece or Switzerland’. As it happens, the river Dove is the border of Derbyshire, so half of Dovedale is in Staffordshire. But, as we were told in the nearby pub where we had lunch, the best bits of Derbyshire are in Staffordshire.

The pub, by the way, was just as impressive as the dale. It served outstandingly good home cooking, nothing out of a packet or a tin, nothing out of a microwave. Delicate, sophisticated. Far better that most pubs. And a great place to take our French visitors, demonstrating that you can, despite the increasingly discredited myth, eat well in England.

So who needs Swizterland? Dovedale has it all. Except perhaps the Alps. And the skiing. And Lakes Geneva, Thun, Zurich or Lucerne. Or the cities of Geneva, Zurich, Thun, Lucerne, to say nothing of Basel. Or the compliant banking system. Or the pharmaceutical industry. Or fondue or Rösti or perch fillets. Or the decent weather.

Postscript that’s only vaguely related: Misty’s misfortune

Before we set out for Dovedale, I let Misty out and then forgot to get him back in, so he spent the whole day outside. That wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fireworks. There’ve been a lot of them recently.

Sensible countries have their firework days in the summer: the US on the fourth of July, the French on the fourteenth, the Swiss on the first of August. In England, our fireworks celebrate the moment when we tortured to death Guy Fawkes for having tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, an offence for which most people today would probably have let him off with a caution. As he was arrested on the fifth of November, we have the party when it’s cold, generally wet and miserable.

Because they’re so close, there’s a tendency to conflate Guy Fawkes day with Halloween, so we have fireworks on the 31st of October too. What’s more, people buy their fireworks early and, having bought them, can’t resist the temptation of letting some of them off immediately. So we get firework explosions pretty well every night for two weeks from late October.

I don’t mind, but the cat and the dog hate it. They cower in a corner behind the furniture when they’re indoors. But poor old Misty wasn’t even able to do that. He was out there in the dark, the cold, the rain with no protection from the bangs.

My wife Danielle looked at me as though I was something that Misty might have dragged in, had he been in at all.

We periodically went outside, calling ‘Misty! Pss, pss, pss. Come on Misty!’ He does come when called, usually – all of Danielle’s cats have responded to their names, but with Misty it’s more hit and miss than with the others. He didn’t show up.

By about ten at night, with a crescendo in the firework noise, Danielle decided to head out looking for him. Her demeanour towards me was that of someone who is very deliberately not saying what is on her mind about people who leave cats outside when they should be indoors. She took Janka to help with the search, although when you say ‘Where’s Misty?’ to Janka all she really does is rush around barking, without actually finding him, unless he’s right under her nose.

Danielle had been gone only a few minutes when there was a mew at the back door. When we opened it, Misty shot in and immediately demanded food. Once fed, he headed upstairs to find a bed that met his demanding standards of a place to rest from the day’s exertions. Cool as cucumber. Bold as brass.

Misty relaxes

Meanwhile Danielle was out there frantically searching. However, I had no more success standing on the doorstep and calling ‘Danielle! Pss, pss, pss. Come on Danielle!’ than when I tried it with Misty.

But of course there was a happy ending. Danielle and Janka came back eventually and anxiety was replaced by relief, frowns by smiles. And I stored away a valuable lesson: make sure the cat’s indoors before setting off for the joys of England’s answer to Switzerland.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Obama: not a black politician

I’m struggling to train myself not to think of Barack Obama as a black politician, but as a politician who happens to be black.

Jesse Jackson is a black politician. Throughout his career he’s been an outspoken champion of the rights of his underprivileged black fellow citizens. It's made him a powerful voice against injustice but, as he demonstrated when he ran for president, it's also made him unelectable. Unlike Obama.

It’s not surprising that Jackson hasn’t always been Obama’s greatest fan, whatever he may say now. Back in July, he accused Obama of ‘talking down to black people’ and said he wanted ‘to cut his nuts off’. It would be hard to view this as an enthusiastic endorsement, except for someone nursing ambitions of a singing career as a castrato.

Obama didn’t just win overwhelming black support. His support among all groups, white as well as black, Asian as well as Hispanic, has given him the right to be considered president elect of the whole of the US. His problem isn’t about who voted for him, but about dealing with the 59 million who voted against him and managing the inevitable disappointment of his supporters, whatever their racial background.

That’s the kind of problem of success that Jesse Jackson never ran the slightest risk of having to face.

No wonder his initial view of the Obama candidacy had a bit of a surgical edge.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Terror of the schools

It was intriguing to learn that in the most recent year for which figures are available, 1540 children under five were excluded from English schools for physical or verbal violence.

Where do they get the capacity to be that threatening at that age?

It took me until I was at least ten before I could become a really sustained irritation to my teachers. From that age, however, I did carve myself something of a niche as the most disruptive pupil in my school. It destroyed my hopes – never bright – of a sporting career, as for two years I missed every Wednesday afternoon sports session in punishment for some misdemeanour or other. The process culminated in the headmaster telling me one Wednesday morning, ‘David, you are the only child on detention this week out of 500 and I’m not going to keep a teacher back just for you. So instead I’m going to cane you.’

I’m as keen an opponent of corporal punishment as the next liberal, but I have to admit that from a purely personal point of view I preferred it to the alternative: six strokes of the cane caused little pain and were over in seconds. Detention took hours and was real punishment. Not sufficiently unpleasant to stop me cheeking my teachers, but desperately tedious all the same.

The only problem with being spared detention is that I didn’t have any sports kit with me, seeing as I hadn’t needed any for such a long time. Or did I actually own any at all? My parents could safely have avoided the expense.

My real fear of teachers came once I was a parent. When my elder son came home from his second week at school, he was looking frightened.

‘What is it? What’s worrying you?’ we asked him.

Tearfully, he explained ‘my teacher says I have to take off all my clothes to have a pee.’

Our blood ran cold. This was in the middle of one of the periodic scares about child sexual abuse. They were making our son take off all his clothes to have a pee? What was going on?

It was Friday evening so there was nothing we could do. We tried to enjoy the weekend but it wasn’t easy with that shadow hovering over us. But eventually Monday morning came and I confronted the teacher. She looked at me as though I was slightly pitiable if not crazy.

‘We told him that he’d have to change for P.E.’

Unspoken but unmistakeable was the reproach ‘just what were you about to accuse me of?’ Given what had been going through my mind over the weekend, that wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss with her.

Physical Education! She was talking about changing for games. It seems that sports kit was becoming an issue in my life again. A ghost from my past had come to haunt my weekend.

Perhaps it was long-delayed retribution for having caused my own teachers so much pain. Karma, basically.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Ghosts that haunt us yet

It’s impossible to generalise about nations. Every country has its Obamas and its Kennedys, but it also has its Quayles or its Palins, and you take the rough with the smooth. Even so, I have to admit to a particular tenderness for the Irish. I don’t remember ever really disliking an Irishman and most have amazed me with their wit and their warmth.

This is odd. Mutual goodwill is not common between the English and the Irish. An Irish friend, surprised at my supporting Ireland in a rugby match, told me ‘No Irishman would ever support England, you know. If England were playing Zimbabwe he’d support Zimbabwe.’ Seen from Ireland, the gulf between the countries is much wider than the Irish Sea, and it runs with blood not water.

What’s true in general isn’t always true in particular. A few years ago, my mother came across a woman with a soft Irish brogue who seemed familiar. ‘Don’t we know each other?’ she asked, ‘Surely we’ve met before.’ They were close friends from the war years who hadn’t seen each other for half a century. They’ve renewed a friendship that’s been close and cordial ever since.

Soon after the war, the friend took my mother to a meeting addressed by James Larkin, Junior. He was a recently elected member of the Daíl, the Irish parliament, and the son of ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, the trade unionist who had been an ally of James Connolly. Connolly was the outstanding figure among Irish Patriots and was shot after the 1916 Easter Uprising by the British, though he was in a wheelchair as a result of the injuries he’d received during the fighting. Perhaps I should say ‘shot by the English’ rather than ‘by the British’. The Irish don’t have an argument with the Welsh, or even really with the Scots: although it was Scots Presbyterians who expropriated Catholic lands in Ulster to form the ‘plantation’ with consequences that still reverberate today, every Irishman knows that the dastardly hand responsible was actually English.

As the two young women arrived at the younger Larkin’s meeting, my mother's friend whispered ‘now you just watch him: he won’t make it to ten minutes without mentioning Cromwell.’

It’s said that the tragedy of the Irish is that their memories are too long, and the tragedy of the English is that their memories are too short. To most Englishmen, Cromwell is a vague memory from schooldays, of the man who sent Charles I to the scaffold. Most Irish people, on the other hand, feel that without their sustained resistance Cromwell would still be rampaging through their land today, at the head of a British – sorry, English – army. I always tell Irish friends that Cromwell was the man who brought Ireland the gift of peace, but usually only get a mirthless laugh in response.

My mother timed Larkin. He mentioned Cromwell within the first five minutes.

It was a great pleasure to make some new Irish friends eighteen months ago. We met on neutral ground, in the home of a Hungarian in Strasbourg, surely ideal conditions for setting aside historical rivalries. They were charming, warm and witty. Each time we’ve met them since has been as enjoyable as the first. One of my regrets at moving away from Strasbourg is that it makes it more difficult to see them.

But for all that – they’d mentioned Cromwell within ten minutes of our being introduced.

Deep, and wide, that Irish Sea. And it still flows red.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Dancing delicately around a dilemma

The Daily Telegraph is backing a campaign to set up a memorial to airmen of Bomber Command from World War 2. The Torygraph, as many of us think of it, is the paper of Queen, Country and the greater good of the Conservative Party. Picture a middle-aged cardigan-wearing man complaining about the behaviour of the kids outside his comfortable suburban house; add as subtext that he finds their behaviour all the worse because they’re probably black; that’s the model Torygraph reader.

The BBC interviewed Tony Iveson who, among other missions for Bomber Command, helped sink the German battleship Tirpitz. He spoke out against the nation’s failure to recognise the role of the airmen. Even Churchill, he said, had refused to give them credit for the part they’d played in achieving victory.

My father was a bomber navigator. He flew in Stirlings. The Stirling had short wings which meant that itcouldn’t fly high enough to keep out of the worst danger. He repeated to me the story that the wingspan had been shortened so the plane could fit into RAF hangars, although I now believe this may be a bit of an urban myth. The upshot was that the Stirling was principally used for transport after 1943. So my father was never in Bomber Command.

He wasn’t at all sorry about it. Not because flying in transports was a safe option: it wasn’t. My father towed gliders to the failed assault on Arnhem, where the British First Airborne Division was all but wiped out. It was on the return from one such flight that he was shot down himself. He also carried paratroops or flew on single-aircraft missions, dropping supplies to the French resistance or bombing precise, small targets. He told me about the bleak sense of isolation on that kind of mission, alone against the night sky, above countryside held by an enemy. They were the occasion of some of the best moments of his war: someone in a French house forming the curtains over a lighted window into a ‘V’ for victory, someone with a torch in a garden flashing a ‘V’ in Morse. Small signs saying ‘you’re not alone, we’re on your side.’

He was glad to have missed the mass bombing raids against German cities: Cologne, Berlin, Pforzheim, the long litany culminating in Hamburg and Dresden. Between 300,000 and 600,000 dead civilians. The Air Force commanders and the politicians claimed they were targeting industrial complexes that happened to be in cities so the civilians were just collateral damage. However, I’ve seen estimates of the impact on the Germany economy that placed it at no more than 1%. What’s more, the raids on Germany diverted resources from the North Atlantic convoys and it was their losses that brought the country closest to defeat as food and fuel ran perilously low. The raids took place because they were an easy way, for a long time the only way, to hit back at Germany, and because the Allies hoped it might break the German will to fight.

Killing civilians to destroy your enemy’s morale has a name. We call it terrorism. Many people get upset if you use that term for the carpet bombing of German cities. But isn’t it curious that over sixty years on we don’t have a memorial to the young men of Bomber Command? If Churchill failed to congratulate the bomber crews, wasn’t it because underneath it all his conscience was uneasy? He sent them but he didn’t like what he’d sent them to do. It’s like rubbish collectors, sewage men, anyone who does our dirty work. We need them to do it but we don’t invite them in for a cup of tea afterwards.

We may know today that Bomber Command didn’t really help the cause of victory, but the airmen thought they were because that’s what they’d been told, and they risked their lives for it: 44% of them were killed. And like it or not we’re as indebted to them as our parents or grandparents: for better or worse, our lives today are possible because of the victory in 1945, and the boys who died gave their lives to win it – however misguided the strategy they’d been ordered to carry out.

Today we’re doing it all over again. We send young people to Iraq and Afghanistan. We give them defective equipment and they get killed or hurt, physically or mentally, and when they come back they get little gratitude and less help.

At this time of year Britain is awash with people selling paper poppies to commemorate our war dead and to help support today’s veterans. I always disliked the sentimentality of the poppy pushing and distrusted the implicit glorification of war and nation, causes that did so much damage to so many who stood to gain so little. Wearing the poppy also struck me as a pressure to conform as well as a rather creepy display of self-righteousness. So I never bought any.

Last year, though, I changed my mind. I bought a little poppy-shaped lapel pin, though because I still felt bad about the exhibitionism angle, I didn’t actually wear it. But we’re being so miserly to our soldiers that I felt I had to make some gesture for them.

I’ll do it again this year. Because however awful what they did was, the boys who flew out over Germany on those night-time raids did what we asked, and in 55,573 cases paid for it with their lives. They deserve their memorial. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to support a cause backed by the Telegraph. So instead I’ll buy a poppy in their honour and then hide it in a drawer.

Funny old thing an uneasy liberal conscience.

Wouldn’t give it up for anything, though.

Monday, 27 October 2008

The happiness of the middling-distance runner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that keeping fit is good for you. And running is particularly good because it doesn’t need much equipment and you can start on your doorstep. It wipes you out, but that must be good, because if the medicine doesn’t taste horrible then it can’t be working. As for enjoyment, running gives you the same pleasure as banging your head against a wall: the relief is wonderful when you stop.

Of course, it’s important not to think of running as a purely physical exercise. It’s principally a moral activity. The first step before you even hit the road is the one your will takes in driving you out at all. Every nerve in your body is screaming at you ‘Going out for a run? In this? What’s wrong with the couch?’ but you go out anyway. A first, moral win.

The next thing is to keep going. Marathon runners talk about the ‘wall’ they meet at about twenty miles. They have to run through an obstacle of light-headedness and unsteadiness to make it to the end of the course. I’ve always admired that courage and determination. From a safe distance.

Well, now that I’ve taken up running myself I know what that wall is like. I meet one at about three minutes, a second at about ten, a third at about twenty. There may be more beyond thirty minutes but I don’t go there very often.

Though it did happen once. On that occasion, I forced myself through my successive walls, much against my body’s insistent protestations, and set myself a new record of running a full hour. Some achievement. Unfortunately I was in the picturesque, enchanting but dense woodland of Cannock Chase, and it took me less than an hour to get lost. And for the sun to set. So I was blundering around in woods in pitch darkness.

When I say ‘lost’ I really mean ‘lost’. I’ve looked at a map since to discover where I went and I’ve never worked it out. All I know is that I must have been travelling at right angles to the proper direction. I’d been going East when I thought I was travelling South. Or possibly travelling North when I thought I was going West.

Fortunately I eventually found my way off the Chase and to a road with a street name. By sheer chance, I had my phone on me, so I rang my stepson David, in Edinburgh. Once he’d stopped laughing at my predicament, made worse by the fact that it was now raining as well as dark, he went on to Google Maps to check out the street I was in and gave me not just directions, but excellent directions. Remote guidance. He knew where I was better than I did, even though I was there and he was three hundred miles away. It was Sat Nav on a mobile phone which I didn’t know had it.

He took me on roads and across open country, even through woodlands, but this time in the right direction. And eventually I breasted a hill and saw the sight I’d longed for: my car.

It was like Cortez seeing the Pacific, Amundsen realising he was at the South Pole, Marco Polo reaching Beijing. Ecstasy.

A trip that I had planned to last an hour had taken three and a half. I was exhausted, my feet hurt and the rain was pouring down my neck. But somehow I felt great. Strangely exhilarated. I went home believing that I’d had a special evening, instead of realising it was just an abnormal one.

But that’s it, you see. Running. It’s about moral achievement not physical.

No wonder my body dislikes it so much.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

My big friend is bigger than your big friend

There are times when being able to call on a large friend is a tremendous boon. Our cat Misty demonstrated as much yesterday.

Generally, he enjoys his life over here in Stafford. The only problem is the other cats – they’re not proving cool at all. There hasn’t been a cat living here for a long time and the others have come to regard what is now our garden as an extension of their own territory. Yesterday, Misty was out there enjoying the sun (you have to be quick, before the clouds come back over, but when it’s out it’s pleasant, reminiscent of places where the temperature sometimes gets into the twenties). All was apparently going well until, suddenly, he was at the back door mewing piteously to be let in (this is not our place and so we haven’t put in cat flaps).

It was Janka our dog who heard him and alerted Danielle. They dashed down to see the neighbour’s cat in the garden, behaving in a proprietorial and threatening manner towards Misty, who was scrabbling at the door to get back inside. Danielle opened the door, but before Misty could get in, the black, furry, barking bundle that was Janka was out after the interloper. The latter took one look at the noisy black mass bearing down on him and, not realising that Janka has the killer instinct of a rag doll, decamped.

Misty had got indoors but turned to watch the scene. To his astonishment his tormentor was being put to ignominious flight. Slowly he came back to the door and peered out. The garden was undoubtedly his again. The sun had returned. He went back out, found himself a patch of sunny grass and started to lick himself down again. ‘This place is mine, for my enjoyment,’ he was clearly saying. ‘Come back here and my big, black, noisy friend will sort you out.’ His demeanour radiated calm self-satisfaction.

Of course, when I was at school I could never say ‘my big brother is bigger than your big brother’ because I didn’t have one. ‘My kid brother is bigger than your kid brother’ doesn’t have the same ring of reassurance to it. But I’ve always had a hankering after the joy of having a big, powerful friend to leap to my assistance.

Or at least I did until Bush and Cheney took over the White House. When I suddenly realised that one’s friends can sometimes be just as worrying as one’s enemies.

Still, at least the old arrangement still works for Misty.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Smile, Gordon, and the whole world smiles with you

It’s great to see Gordon Brown looking so cheerful.

Last weekend the Eurozone leaders got together in Paris to talk about the financial crisis, and they invited Gordon to come along for the fun. You might have expected them to look as though they were laying a wreath; instead they were wreathed in smiles. Surprising really, since Gordon isn’t known for spreading an atmosphere of good cheer. In fact, in recent months he’s been more than usually dour. As well he might.

Brown started off with a bang. We’d all got a bit sick of Blair down the years and so Brown got points for just not being him. And things kept going his way. It is said that when Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister a journalist asked him what was most likely to derail a government; ‘Events, dear boy, events’ he replied. Well, sometimes events can be a politician’s best friend. In his first few months, Gordon faced floods, unsuccessful terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow and some foot and mouth released by a government lab. Flood, war and pestilence. He responded with firmness and with calm. He was the nation’s rock. And his stock flourished. Bad times were good times.

This was odd. After all, if you took a bit of a closer look, you might have raised a smidgen of a reservation or two. After ten years in office, you’d think the government might take some responsibility for the lack of adequate flood defences. And the foot and mouth virus got out of a government laboratory. As for the terrorists, well what did Gordon do about them? They screwed up their own mission with no help from him. They couldn’t get their bombs to go off in London and the only casualty in Glasgow was the terrorist himself, dying a lingering death from his self-inflicted burns.

None of that mattered. We weren’t picking nits. We gave him credit for it all.

And then it all went wrong. Northern Rock was the first bank to go. Not so much a rock as just plain rocky. Gordon dithered over how to rescue it. Then it looked like he might call a general election. And he dithered again, finally bottling out, which just made him look frightened of the opposition. His credibility slipped away. His rock, like Northern Rock, turned out to be built on sand.

In September of this year, things hit rock bottom. Or rock bottom so far. The Conservative opposition under David Cameron were 24% ahead. Labour was lower in the polls than before its historic defeat in 1983.

Then came the financial crisis. Bad times again turned out to be good times. They gave him a second lease on life. He bought banks as though they were going out of fashion. He nationalised away as though overnight it had stopped being a taboo Socialistic practice. He acted like a man who knew what LIBOR meant, what ‘liquidity’ was, how a derivative worked. He won praise from unexpected quarters: the latest Nobel economics laureate, Paul Krugman, wrote from across the Atlantic in The Guardian that ‘the British government went to the heart of the problem and moved to address it with stunning speed.’ ‘Stunning speed’? Our Gordon? The ditherer of last autumn? Who’d have thought it?

Our wise and indomitable Gordon has returned. Gordon, you are our rock and on this rock we shall build our bank. The Conservative lead has fallen to 12%, still massive, still enough for a colossal victory, but a lot less than just a few weeks ago. And Gordon has learned to smile.

He comes into his own when the going gets tough. He flourishes on adversity. But not just any adversity. The financial crisis is a bit like the foot and mouth release: he can argue that he’s not really responsible for it. David Cameron’s Conservatives naturally say he is. Of course, the reality is that the light-touch regulation that let the banks rip and led to the present crisis, was introduced by Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative leader, Maggie Thatcher – we’re harvesting what she and Reagan sowed. Blair and Brown were so dominated by her political success they never challenged her thinking. So if we want a political scapegoat, then it would have to be Thatcherism and the baleful influence it has exercised over both main parties for decades. And if you’re going to blame one of the parties, why not start with the Conservatives who gave us Thatcherism rather than Labour who just didn’t dare challenge it?

But Gordon can plausibly argue that politicians aren’t to blame. He points out that the crisis started in the US. That’s great, because everyone likes to blame the Americans. But he also talks about the global nature of the crisis. That’s even better: what’s everyone’s fault in general is no-one’s fault in particular. And he doesn’t have to go there either: this crisis has a ready-made scapegoat. It’s the bankers with their fat-cat bonus cheques. Now there’s a target which has everything. No-one likes bankers, the men in suits who offer you an umbrella when the weather’s fine, and take it away when it starts raining. And we love blaming the bankers for lending to us because otherwise we might have to blame ourselves for borrowing from them. And then where would we be? We’d have to admit we brought the crisis on ourselves. Where’s the satisfaction in that?

So Gordon is laughing all the way to the bank, which he can nationalise with our money, and use as his launching pad for a comeback to make Bill Clinton envious (and Hillary even more so).

Events have conspired to help Gordon out of his hole when he couldn’t help himself. No wonder he’s smiling. And the more broadly he smiles, the more firmly the smirk is wiped off Cameron’s face. Cameron will probably still be elected in 2010, but at least he’s having some anxious moments on the way. Anything that shakes his imperturbable smugness is fine with me. Bring it on and give us more.

Sadly, though, no joy is ever unalloyed. The fly in this ointment was evident in the group photographs from Paris last weekend. If Gordon was cheerful, his host Nicolas Sarkozy was positively gleeful. He’s only had two years as French President and is therefore even less likely to be blamed for the crisis than Gordon. In two years, his most striking achievement has been to marry a pretty woman. Now all he has to do is slipstream behind Gordon and emerge looking like a man of decisiveness who delivers results. And get re-elected.

What a price for France to pay for a glimmer of hope in Britain! Keeping Cameron out of office is a dream. That it might help Sarkozy get back is a nightmare. The very thing that’s putting the spring back in Brown’s step boosts the chances of le petit Nicolas. Just goes to prove that in life you can’t have everything.

In the meantime, Gordon’s smiling. Let’s enjoy the good times while they last.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Misty moves in

Misty, our cat, has now joined the rest of the family in making the transition to Stafford. He couldn’t come before: British legislation against rabies kept him out until October. That may seem cruel but you only need to see the scenes outside certain pubs in England, at 11:00 on a Saturday night, to understand why we don’t need any more crazies foaming at the mouth in this country.
We made the trip over as comfortable as possible for him. The back seats were down in the car, so he had plenty of space to wander around. He’s a slightly curious cat in that he seems to like nothing more than to cuddle up to our dog Janka who, among many admirable qualities, has a scent which it would be hard to call self-effacing. Many humans among our nearest and dearest grin and bear it to humour us, but I’m at a loss to understand how a cat with his fastidious tastes can put up with it. But he actually seeks it out.

Misty exhibits his unusual predilection for the richly pungent society of Janka
On the trip over he shared his space with Janka and could enjoy her company to his heart’s delight. Nevertheless, he left us in little doubt that he wasn’t particularly enjoying himself. He purred a lot, but then he was on the feline equivalent of Valium and the vet had told us the drug would make him purr. When not purring he was wandering around the car in increasing distress and protesting loudly.

However, that all came to an end when we got into Stafford. He just took to the house as though it had been specifically designed for him. He ran up the stairs just to see how you got to the top. He then ran down again to check on the opposite experience. In the car he had disdained all food, in Stafford he kept going back for more. He jumped on the bed overnight to sleep between us, and got up with me at the crack of dawn this morning to follow me around wherever I went, purring loudly all the time.

Today he went out before it was entirely daylight. He’s learned how to get from the front of the house to the back, no mean feat since we’re in the middle of a terrace. He’s been up to the top of a pine tree after a squirrel, which he didn’t catch, and got down again eventually when Danielle stood underneath and talked him back to Earth.

Janka had always liked Stafford. With her fur, she’s not that keen on temperatures in the twenties and above. Stafford doesn’t suffer from excessive heat or, indeed, from excessive dryness either. That suits Janka.

Now Misty likes it too. Quite a vote of confidence for this little place we now inhabit.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Blurring health and virtue

‘How are you?’ I asked a colleague I met on the stairs a little while ago.

‘I’m good,’ he replied.

When asked how I am, I tend to reply ‘well’, or ‘not particularly well’ or ‘less well than before I saw you’ or something else appropriate. But ‘good’? Who am I to say? Surely that’s for some properly constituted moral authority, a Creator, or at least Priest, a Judge or at any rate a moral philosopher. It’s hardly for me to make that call.

The other greeting that’s becoming increasingly common these days is ‘how are you doing?’ All I can ever find to reply is ‘how am I doing what?’ Sadly, that seems to kill the conversation.

Should I be answering ‘good’?

Friday, 10 October 2008

Whereof we cannot speak...

… thereof it might not be a bad idea to keep our mouths shut.

Calvin Coolidge was the US president who came to be known as ‘Silent Cal’. It’s said that he was approached at a dinner party by a young woman, who told him that she had taken a bet that she could get more than two words out of him. ‘You lose,’ he replied and said nothing further to her.

Told of Coolidge’s death, Dorothy Parker asked ‘How could they tell?’

Taciturn though he may have been, Coolidge nonetheless found the words to write an article called ‘Whose Country is this?’ in Good Housekeeping magazine (of all places) in February 1921. He pointed out:

‘There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.’

There are people out there who, silent though they may be, could never be silent enough. In this world of Bushes and Palins, any of us can surely make a list of such people: I’ll leave it to you to make your own.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Carving pumpkins in Strasbourg

The secondary advantage of having Canadian friends, alongside the primary one of the pleasure of enjoying their company, is that it enables us to experience North American traditions without any sense of unease. There is in most Europeans, or at least certain Europeans, or at any rate this particular European, something that one might think of as a residual sneer towards the United States. However hard one may combat one’s anti-Americanism, there remains a little voice inside us saying ‘It’s what the Yanks do’, a judgement which by itself makes the thing seem somehow less sophisticated, more infantile, less meaningful.

Of course, the sneer is entirely reciprocated. A couple of days ago, I heard Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, at a meeting of the Christian right, describing a view put to him by a BBC correspondent as ‘very European’. I don’t think he used the phrase to communicate admiration or even tolerance. In Casablanca, Peter Lorre asks Humphrey Bogart ‘You despise me, don’t you?’ Bogart replies ‘If I gave you any thought, I probably would.’ Gingrich’s comment had the same cordiality without the wit.

This is strange. I mean this is the same Gingrich who became speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994 on the back of his ‘Contract with America’ and the Republican Revolution it embodied, and stepped down four years later when the Republicans lost five seats and the ‘Contract’ sank without a trace. He’s also the man who waited till she was recovering in a hospital bed from cancer surgery to tell his wife of eighteen years that he was divorcing her. Presumably it’s the scale of his achievements and the depth of his Christian convictions that entitle him to look down on others from so high.

Be that as it may, friendship between the US and Europeans is sometimes tinged by a little mockery. Not so with Canadians: they’re civilised. We seek their approval, we’re not indifferent to their estimate of us. So when some Canadian friends in Strasbourg say to us ‘come and carve some pumpkins’ we go, with joy in our hearts, to carve pumpkins.

And what a source of unbounded good cheer it was! The invitation suggested we bring our own pumpkin. Our flat is in Kehl, in Germany but next to Strasbourg. There was some kind of festival in the morning. There seem to be festivals most weekends, ever since the Kehlers discovered that the Strasbourgers are more than happy to travel across to buy goods of the same quality – sometimes the same goods – as they get in Strasbourg at reduced prices. Since then, excuses seem to be found for getting a lot of stalls into and around the market place on an increasingly frequent basis, to tempt Strasbourg Euros into more welcoming homes in Germany.

To my amazement, one of the stalls was selling nothing but pumpkins. Big ones, little ones, pointed ones, flat ones, orange ones, grey ones. I suggested to my wife that we pick one up to take with us. ‘Picking it up’ was the start of the problem. The Germans are sharp on quality but that doesn’t mean sacrificing quantity. My wife was soon back home without the pumpkin, saying that even the moderate sized one she’d bought was too heavy to carry and could we stop on the way to Strasbourg to pick it up. When I could carry it.

Once in Strasbourg, we set out for our friends’ new address. They live in Mill Square. We headed for where we thought it was but once there realised we were in Millers Square. We found Mill Street and Mill Embankment but it took a while and two passers-by to get us to Mill Square. By this time the pumpkin which started out weighing down my shoulder had reached a psychological weight of some 30 kilos.

We got into our friends’ new and lovely apartment. We were greeted with great warmth and kindness by them and the others already there – less chronologically challenged than we, they had been there for up to two hours by then. Our enormous pumpkin went under the table.

Now I have to make a confession. I am gifted with the same sureness of touch in matters of plastic art, whether carving, modelling or painting, as Newt Gingrich in following through social transformation or in inter-personal relationships. It had been my unstated hope that my wife would at some time be the centre of an admiring and cheerful circle watching her convert our pumpkin into some wonderful artwork. It seems, unfortunately, that she was nurturing a similar belief about me, though presumably without the same expectations of wonder.
Our pumpkin remained untouched under the table. We had chosen one that was particularly good for turning into pumpkin soup and was distinguished by its green colour, so there was no way we could pass it off as anyone else’s in among all the orange ones. I could feel its baleful presence boring into my mind and casting a pall over my enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant evening.

Our hostess started with cheerful and infrequent suggestions that we should carve our pumpkin. As time wore on, the repetitions came increasingly often and with increasing firmness. My wife’s expectations and mine were diametrically opposed but it didn’t take me long to work out whose were going to have to give way to the other’s.
So I stood knife in hand facing up to my vegetable adversary. How complicated can it be to carve a pumpkin? Even kids do it. You just have to make a hole in the top in order to scoop out the insides and then various holes to suggest a face. There’s no technique to it.

Well, actually, there is. Cut the top out with the knife angled the wrong way and you can force the top into the body of the pumpkin, but you can’t get it out. A conundrum. In the end we had to cut a second line around the top and make eyeholes big enough to push a hand through to force the extended top up out of the pumpkin. This left little room to make what might be thought of as a truly artistic face. But in the end something was done. And with the help of four people, we were able to scoop out the inside and make space for a candle. Which is now burning attractively within the pumpkin on our terrace back in Kehl.

Yes, in Kehl. Just as it was made clear that we weren’t going to get away with not carving the pumpkin, it was made clear that we were not going to get away with leaving it behind either. So it had to be lugged back to the car and then into our flat. And there it mocks us, Gingrich style, with staring eyes and sardonic grin.

A fitting tribute to a North American pastime which is a source of unadulterated joy to all.