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.