Saturday, 28 March 2009

Tragedy and Farce

Though many of Karl Marx’s views were pretty questionable, he was right to declare that history repeats itself ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’. He was talking specifically about the second French Empire which was indeed pitiful compared to the first, the one that ended at Waterloo. Though the first Napoleon was little more than a military despot who plunged Europe into a quarter century of bloodletting, there was a scale to his ambition and adventures that give them a dramatic quality even today. We still get films about Borodino or Waterloo, but who would make a film about Sedan where the other, smaller Napoleon was trounced by the Germans?

Today we’re going through another of these repetitions.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century Dante included in his monumental Divine Comedy, this outburst against his own country (in Longfellow’s striking translation):

Ah! servile Italy, grief's hostelry!
A ship without a pilot in great tempest!
No Lady thou of Provinces, but brothel!

Italy was the homeland of Rome, the greatest power the Western world had seen up to Dante’s time. It had collapsed into a patchwork of squabbling minor principalities. Declining in power, wealth and status they had watched upstart newcomers usurping the position that he felt should have been theirs.

Italy would go through half a millennium of divisions and domination by foreign powers before reuniting at last in 1860. In the century and a half since then it has arguably still not fully caught up with its more successful neighbours in Europe.

A tragedy.

The only good thing that comes from tragedy is the lessons we learn from it. But if we refuse to learn the lessons, we repeat the mistakes. And that means descending into farce.

Next week the G20 meets in London. Among the top economic powers will be Germany, Britain, France and Italy. The European Union will also be represented.

But how will the European Union find a voice with which to speak?

After all, Germany has decided that it is folly to spend your way out of a crisis. This is a curious position. George Soros is pretty scathing about world leaders and he clearly understands the world economy: he’s made a dollar or two here or there by exploiting the stupidities of national governments. This includes the previous Conservative administration in Britain, when he made a billion dollars out of its mismanagement of the economy, on Black Wednesday in 1992. I heard him tonight extolling the benefits of ‘counter-cyclical’ measures: as the economy shrinks you spend more to shorten the downturn. But Angela Merkel, or at least the people around her, think they know better though both China and the US have gone down the Soros route.

As for Britain, we can never agree with our European partners if we see any chance of getting still closer to the US. I used to think of Britain as the fifty-first State until I realised that if we were, we’d actually have a vote in US elections. As it happens, our policy is decided in Washington and we don’t even get a say in who should be calling the tune out there.

And then there’s France. The French government is always keen to talk endlessly about the Community, but is perfectly happy to sell it down the river if it believes that’s in the nation’s short-term interest. Sarkozy is subsidising the car industry but only if it focuses its rescue efforts on plant in France to maintain French jobs. That kind of protectionism is illegal under EU regulations, but that’s not likely to stop him.

In passing it never ceases to amaze me that a nation like France, far better educated and far more sophisticated in political understanding than Britain, ends up with such buffoons at its head. It’s not even as though they’re fools, like George W. Bush. They’re intelligent. If anything, they try to be too clever and end up being transparently hypocritical. Sarkozy will maintain that his actions are not anti-EU. I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling. All he achieves is to look devious, which is the worst of all possible worlds: the really devious get away with it because no-one sees they’re being devious.

The sad thing is that at the last elections, France really only had a choice between his brand of clever foolishness and an even more pronounced case in his opponent, Ségolène Royal. His equal intellectually, she demonstrated in an unbroken series of gaffes during her campaign that she was even less qualified to be president. At one point, she believed a comedian who phoned her pretending to be the Canadian prime minister, leading her into making a series of damaging admissions over an open telephone line.

Surely the French deserve better than a choice between Sarko and Ségo.

Italy is even more lamentable. No-one, but no-one, deserves Berlusconi. Only immunity as an elected official prevents his conviction as a criminal and today he’s celebrating the merger between his party and that of the successors of Mussolini. But the Italians keep voting for him.

Gemany, Britain, France, Italy. Are their irreconcilably different views going to nourish a common position to be expressed by the EU?

So the G20 will be dominated by the G2 made up of the USA and China, though Europe and the United States are economic equals and China is far behind. But we Europeans can’t pull together, so we can’t pull our weight.

It’s farcical.

Ahi serva Europa, di dolore ostello,
nave sanza nocchiere in gran tempesta,
non donna di province, ma bordello!

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Fairy tales ancient and modern

Spending the weekend with my granddaughter Aya has reminded me of the potency of fairy tales. And that led me on to thinking about some of the modern fairy tales that float around us.

For instance, there’s a widely recounted fairy tale about how President Ronald Reagan (the one with Alzheimer’s) won the Cold War. Of course, like most fairy tales it has a basis in truth – after all, the Soviet Union began to fall apart on Reagan’s watch. Reality, though, tends to be more complex than fairy tales suggest. The Soviet economy had been rotting from within years before Reagan came to office. Economic decline was one of the major forces behind the massive programme of reforms Mikhail Gorbachev launched when he was Soviet leader. And the final collapse of the Soviet Union which followed took place in 1991, nearly two years after Reagan left office.

In turn, all these reflections led me to wonder about where the traditional fairy tales came from. Were they perhaps also based on mis-remembered reality from which most of the complexity has been excluded? This is clearly an interesting question that I felt deserved some research.

It is perhaps not well known that the great ducal library at Kleinzauberdorf has an extensive collection of manuscripts, including a series of letters to a seventeenth century courtier from his brother, a widower who had been fortunate in his second marriage and lived in a market town some fifty miles away. The following is my own translation of one of these letters, and I apologise for any awkwardness of style, for which I and not the original should be held exclusively responsible.

It seems to me that the letter casts an interesting light on one of the most popular stories.

My dear brother

It is with thanking that I write to you for all the hard work you have been doing for getting my daughter admitted to the university. This was very kind though I fear not likely to be rewarded with success since, though I love her dearly, I must admit that she is perhaps not gifted with an intellect to match her looks and did not, as they say, invent hard work.

Though of course that is not seen by her that way, since she is sure she has to do all the work around the house, and my wife’s daughters from her first marriage, who really do help a lot, she accuses of leaving everything to her. But so it is with children, not so? Why we make them I do not know – twenty minutes fun if you are lucky, then twenty years of sorrow.

But I really love her dearly.

Anyway, it seems the problem of the university is completely gone away. Now instead of your help in this regard, I will be asking you something completely different, to come to a wedding no less. She is to marry, and to marry well: the prince, son of our Grand Duke, will marry her. Is that not wonderful? Who would have thought it? And it is so quickly too. They met it seems at a dance and he liked her very much.

This is most pleasing to me. But of course she has great good looks. The prince is not one that is seen by many as a deep thinker but perhaps this is a good thing. Some find my poor little daughter a little strange. Even I think that it is endearing that she talks to the animals in our barnyard, but it worries me when she says they reply to her. Talking to animals is a nice trait of delightful children; hearing animals reply is perhaps more a sign of paranoid schizophrenia.

Indeed, she has some tale of the animals how they took her to the dance.

What is strange is that the prince chose to marry her because her foot fit a particular shoe he found on the steps after the dance. In my experience, it is best not to enquire too closely into garments left behind after dances. And also it is never easy to know what makes a marriage good. I have a good marriage behind me, alas, and thank my stars every day to have made another such since the lamented death of my late wife. In each the success was based, surely, on other things. But I don’t think shoe size was a factor in either.

Still, she and her prince maybe will find this is enough for their joy. I am encouraged by the way he gazes at her with eyes of rapture but which, I suspect, have little else behind them. She calls him her Prince Charming. I suppose a prince who does little except play polo and talk to plants has a certain charm, even if not to me. Fortunately I am not called on to marry him. And if his plants talk to him like her animals talk to her, perhaps they are really suited.

My brother, can I admit something a little shameful? We are all very glad that she has found such a happy match. But we are also somewhat glad to see her leave our little home. Her constant complaints about having to scrape the grate and sweep the yard – when all she really does with a broom is dance around to the sound of birdsong – are a little disruptive to the peace of our household. I think that there is relief among us all that she at last is moving out.

But I am sure you will join me in wishing her great happiness, with just the same sincerity as we all feel. And I shall of course send you your invitation to the ceremony as soon as the date is confirmed.

Your loving brother

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Swing low, sweet chariot

Watching things on television is fine, but nothing beats physical presence. So it was great to watch England play rugby against France at Twickenham last weekend. I’ve heard that crowd many times, but it’s different to be part of it. Why, I even sang Swing low, sweet chariot with the thousands around me.

Of course, when I say ‘sang’ I’m using the term loosely. My formal singing career was over decades ago, though it lasted rather longer than one might have imagined and a lot longer than most people would have hoped. I took singing lessons at school. For a term. The following term, at the time when you’re signing up for optional classes, I was wandering up a corridor when my singing teacher appeared at the far end. He looked up, caught sight of me, spun on his heel and disappeared back into the side turning he’d just emerged from, more quickly than I’ve seen anyone avoid me before or since. I couldn’t take offence: I was far too amused and overcome by admiration at the skill with which he executed the manoeuvre. Nor was there any ambiguity in the message: there would be no second term of singing lessons.

Despite this, I persisted in trying to sing in my untrained but, I fondly thought, beguiling way. It seemed to me that the gusto and enthusiasm I injected into the process would compensate for what I self-indulgently took to be an occasionally lack of precision rather than a complete dearth of talent.

The only appreciative audience I ever had for my singing was my kids, and then only when they were too young to know better, when they were of an age simply to appreciate being bounced up and down on my shoulders to a mangled rendition of Harry Belafonte’s Kingston Town. As soon as they were mature enough to know better – you know, three or four or so – they started to have more important calls on their time whenever it looked as though I might sing.

I’m blessed with a particularly tolerant wife. She’s had a lot to put up with down the years. But when even she burst out laughing at my attempts to join in with the singer at a wonderful carol concert we attended last Christmas, I realised that it really was time to accept what all those around me had long since known, that it was best during communal singing to keep my voice down at the whisper level.

So it was a pleasure and not a pain that at Twickenham I was near a man who sang even less well than I do. I have no idea what key Swing Low, Sweet Chariot should be sung in, but clearly nor did he. And he obviously suffered from the same delusion as I had for many years, that enthusiasm in belting out the song would make up for his inability to get anywhere near the tune.

None of this made my singing any better, but it gave me a pleasant sense of superiority at having had the maturity and wisdom to keep my own singing inaudible. In any case, however softly I sang, I was joining in that great outpouring of communal spirit supporting the England rugby team in its grandiose home. That was a wonderful experience. The fact that I was able to do it in shirtsleeves, in the gentle spring sunshine, made it even better.

I won’t mention the result of course, as I don’t want to upset my many and dear French friends. Let me just say that for the first half, the England try line was just below our seats and it wasn’t bothered much by the French side. By the end, having gone to the match with no more than an anxious hope that England might raise its game to the level of France, it was satisfying to leave it with our hopes exceeded and only our anxiety belied.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Conisbrough was a typical South Yorkshire mining village when I spent the first seven months of 1971 teaching there. It boasted a surprisingly well-preserved Norman Keep and the coal mine at Denaby. The mine dominated the village: pretty well every household had a member working down the pit or, failing that, a near relative from outside the immediate family.

Conisbrough Castle: not a sight I expected to see in a mining village

The school where I taught, Northcliffe County High, had previously had a reputation for being particularly tough. It was the kind of place where teachers would lock themselves in the staff room on the last day of school of the so-called Easter Leavers: these were kids who were getting out at the earliest possible opportunity from an institution which they felt had restricted their freedom while teaching them nothing worth knowing. They liked to lie in wait for any teacher unwary enough to wander into the yard and vent their frustration on him – or her. The legend had it that one teacher had been forced into a metal dustbin which had then been thrown over the school wall. Apparently the experience had been conducive to neither health nor happiness.

By the time I got there, however, the school was being run by Arthur Young, one of the most inspirational head teachers I’ve met. He was a former woodwork teacher and most schools prefer to appoint heads from more academic backgrounds. It took him 33 applications to land Northcliffe County High, presumably because nobody else would touch the place.

‘The worst moment,’ he told me, ‘was when I brought my wife to see the school. That evening, I nearly withdrew my application.’

Well, he didn’t. And he transformed the school. When I was teaching there, the school boasted a new building for the growing majority of students who were preparing to sit exams. Many of them went on to finish school at Mexborough Sixth Form College, in the next town, with a view to going on to university studies, something that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.

There were some colourful characters at Northcliffe. One of my students was Dougie D’Eath, called Dougie Death by everyone – he even spelled his name that way, but then spelling was never his strong point. That was something I discovered in the remedial classes where I tried to teach him to read and gave up teaching him to write. Dougie was tiny but fired by immense enthusiasm and loyalty, even offering on one occasion to lie in wait for another and much larger kid who was giving me trouble, and beat the living daylights out of him. Had the fight taken place, I have no doubt Dougie would have won.

A high point in my stay was hearing another teacher berating a child in a queue outside a classroom. If you know the voice of Alan Bennett, conjure it up now: this teacher spoke in just that camp Yorkshire accent.

‘You’re daft,’ he was saying. ‘I taught your mother, and she was daft. I taught your father, and he was daft. I often wondered what would happen if they got together, and you’re it.’

If the school was tough, the pit was tougher. A few years earlier, the Denaby football team was threatened with expulsion from the local league, for persistent violent fouls on opponents. To be safe, the club decided that for its next match it would field a team of effete intellectuals – men of relatively slight build, who knew how to read a rule book and tried to respect it, even when the ref wasn’t looking.

Just in case the other side took advantage of this emasculated team, however, they kept one of their biggest and most fearsome players as substitute on the bench.

The match got started and was quickly running against Denaby. The opposition took full advantage of the situation and indulged itself in an orgy of violence. Shortly after half time, with the team trailing badly, a Denaby player was brought down in a particularly cynical foul and had to be stretchered off.

The coach looked across the pitch.

‘Release the sub!’ he shouted.

The colossal player rose and loomed on to the pitch. I’ll draw a veil over what happened next. Let’s just say that Denaby was able to save the day.

Conisbrough was kind to me. I spent a lot of time drinking John Smith’s bitter in the Castle Working Men’s Club, where I listened to Ceili music and played bingo. I visited houses that were modest but which had been turned into homes that were rich. I made friends who were warm, kind and loyal.

I returned to Conisbrough in 1972 and 1974, curious to see how the miners’ strikes in those two years were going. The extent and depth of support from the community to the strikers was breathtaking. Shopkeepers gave food, cigarettes, confectionery for free. Since everyone had a relative in the pit, everyone regarded the fight as their own.

NACODS, the union of mine overseers and deputies, the foremen or junior managers, hadn’t joined the strike, though its members were told not to cross picket lines. Under instructions to attempt to work if possible, a Deputy drove down to Denaby one freezing night. There was no picket at the gates. He parked his car and went into the National Union of Mineworkers hut nearby. The men were inside, warming themselves at a brazier.

‘What’s going on?’ he admonished them. ‘Shouldn’t someone be on the picket line?’

There was a chorus of apologies and one of the strikers struggled into his donkey jacket. The Deputy collected his car and drove up to the gate again, to be confronted by the coalminer in the middle of the road. The Deputy wound down his window.

‘What’s this then?’ he asked.

‘Official NUM picket line,’ came the answer.

‘Fair enough,’ said the Deputy, turned his car and drove away.

The second strike, of 1974, has gone down in mythology as having brought down a Conservative government. Of course, that’s an overstatement. There was no revolution, the constitution was respected and there’s no constitutional provision for a government to be brought down by an industrial group, even one as proud and powerful as the miners. What happened is that the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, called an election on the calculation that there would be a backlash against the strike and the swing of votes to his side would see him re-elected. He got it wrong, but not by much: the Conservatives took more votes than Labour but Labour won four more parliamentary seats, enough to form a minority government.

So in a sense the strike brought down the government. And many of us rejoiced, though with hindsight I think we rejoiced too soon. The Conservatives lost again in October 1974 and Ted Heath had to go. For all his faults, Heath was relatively open to the concept that he didn’t have a monopoly on the truth. Another candidate who threw her hat in the ring was never bothered by such inconvenient doubts. She was a former Education Secretary, famous or at least notorious for only one thing: she had put an end to free milk in schools, a measure which saved some trivial amount of money and caused real hardship to some of the poorest children. Obscure, ill-connected and from a modest background, she had no chance of winning the leadership. Her campaign was brilliantly handled by two of the most astute politicians in the Conservative Party, Airey Neave and Norman Tebbit. Working on small groups of Conservative parliamentarians separately, and presenting to each the different aspects of their candidate’s policies that would specifically appeal to them, they persuaded many to vote for her in the first round of balloting only, simply to frighten Ted Heath. Unfortunately, so many cast their votes for her on that basis that she emerged from the ballot with a commanding lead over other candidates. The result: we got Maggie Thatcher as leader of the Conservatives.

The Unions, meanwhile, proud at having unseated one government, flexed their muscles against the next. In the winter of 1978 to 1979 they ran a series of strikes that came to be known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. The result was a popular revulsion against Labour and the May 1979 election was won by Thatcher, with her promise to tame union action.

By 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers was no longer led by the highly effective Joe Gormley who had won the strikes in 1972 and 1974. Though his actions had led to the collapse of a right-wing government, in union terms he was himself a right winger. What that chiefly meant was that he was an inveterate anti-Communist. So he did all he could to make sure that he was not followed into the top job by the Scottish miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, a known member of the Communist Party. That would have been fine if he’d had another candidate available as wily and as effective as himself or McGahey. Unfortunately, the next best placed candidate was Arthur Scargill from Yorkshire. Though not a Communist, he was certainly a radical left winger. It quickly became clear that his programme was to drive another Conservative government out of office, as the best means to avoid pit closures and to defend miners’ jobs.

So he managed to get a strike started in March 1984, the worst time of year since that’s when energy demand is falling. He failed to call a national ballot of his members which might have demonstrated full support for the strike. The Union split, with some members working while a majority struck. At the head of a divided union, Scargill was unable to win support from others or the Labour party. In addition, Thatcher was no Heath. She was altogether tougher, indifferent to the suffering of her adversaries and utterly resolved to see any course of action she had decided on through to its conclusion – a trait which would ultimately destroy her own career when she made some major misjudgements and was kicked out by her colleagues.

After a year long strike of growing pain and privation, the miners were broken and returned to work without a settlement.

Ten years later coal mining practically came to an end in Britain.

Worse still, the principles of Thatcherism with its belief that the best way to look after the poor is to enrich the wealthiest – ‘trickle down’ as it used to be called – remain entrenched in our politics. They inspire even the current Labour government. Peter Mandelson, today’s Business Minister, once told us that the Labour Party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’. Sadly getting filthy rich isn’t likely to be a clean process, and paying taxes is one of the virtues that is pretty quickly dropped. Some of the people that became richest were bankers, and we’re learning every day about the scams they used to avoid paying tax, which hasn’t stopped them turning to the taxpayer to bale them out now that they’ve got us all into trouble.

So we have the filthy rich, and we have the poor that just have to put up with filth.

And what of Conisbrough?

When I lived there it had a population of 16,000. Today, with the pit closed, the population is below 10,000. Unemployment is running at nearly 9.5% against a national average of 5%, but that gives only a partial picture. For many years, officials have been disguising long-term unemployment as disability. In Conisbrough, the sickness and disablement rate runs at over 18% against less than 9% nationally.

That’s the legacy that Thatcher and Scargill left us.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Pizza and protest

Isn’t it wonderful when you get one of those rare days with a couple of news stories that give real pleasure? It makes such a change. Generally, you can go for days at a time with nothing but a monotonous dirge of dismal articles about the latest economic failure or ghastly military fiasco.

Today we got the news, on the front page of The Guardian no less, that after some intense research since about 1990, including flying in experts and flying out special study groups, the leaders of North Korea feel they’ve made sufficient progress in the art of pizza-making to open their first Italian restaurant.

All the comments about making pizza while your people starve are far too obvious, so please keep them to yourselves. I certainly won’t mention them.

Instead, I just want to talk about the tremendous sense of relief this story gives me. For years, we’ve been told by people like Bush (remember him?) to be scared, to be very scared, of North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.

It took them nineteen years to learn to make a pizza.

Hey, they may have imported centrifuges. But they’re probably using them to spin dough. Meanwhile, they’re trying to work out when they should add the capers to their plutonium.

The other great story was the one about Pakistan. You can tell the story one way and it sounds like something we’ve heard dozens of times before: the police refused to take action against protest marches, so the government was forced to give in to the protestors’ demands. Heart warming stuff, but not exactly unprecedented.

But now add back in the essential ingredient I’d left out. The protestors were lawyers.

It’s the world upside down, isn’t it? I mean, these lawyers were expressing an opinion with no-one to pay them a fee?

In any case, how did anyone know whether to believe them?

They’re calling the man the protestors got reinstated ‘the people’s Chief Justice’. The people’s Chief Justice? In the past, I would have assumed that this was just another oxymoron like honest politician, airline food or American humility.

But in a world where the poor and underprivileged can see the battle against corruption and abuse of power being spearheaded by a bunch of lawyers, anything is possible.

And just knowing that the world is that exciting is a powerful antidote to the gloom that permeates the news most of the time.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Thatcher's defeat: the miners' strike reinterpreted

The British media were dominated a week ago by stories marking – celebrating is not the right word – the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the Miners’ strike. This was a titanic conflict in which the National Union of Mineworkers, under its leader, Arthur Scargill, took on a Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher. The strike’s goal was to prevent closures of mines, or pits as the people who worked in them used to call them, and protect coalminers’ jobs: Scargill claimed that he had seen secret plans to close 95 of the country’s 170 collieries making it urgent to defend the industry.

The strike started in March, just at the beginning of the period in which energy demand starts to drop. It lasted a year. At the end of that time, the miners went back to work with no guarantee on jobs or pit closures.

Arthur Scargill has been generally quiet in recent years, but he spoke out with an article in The Guardian to mark the anniversary. The National Union of Mineworkers required a 55% in a ballot of all miners for a national strike to be official, and Scargill famously never called one. His article makes it clear that he was under no obligation to do so. As he has always argued, what was taking place was not a national strike, but a series of regional strikes which the other regions were called on to support. A ballot would hardly have been appropriate. So the failure of the Nottinghamshire miners to support the strike without a ballot was a failure on their part, not a failure by the leadership. And the failure of the other unions and the Labour Party to get fully behind the strike – they tended, like the public, to be much more supportive of the miners than of the strike itself – was not a consequence of the failure of the union leadership to get the support of all its own members before calling on the support of others, but simply a deliberate act of betrayal.

In any case, it turns out that leading a divided union and starting an energy strike in the spring didn’t have consequences quite as disastrous as many of us believed. Scargill told us that ‘the greatest victory in the strike was the struggle itself’. At the start of the strike, Britain had 180,000 miners working 170 mines. By 1994 there were just 16,000 miners left in 16 mines. If this is the way things went with even a partial victory in the strike, it’s hard to imagine what defeat would have looked like.

It’s also comforting to know that Scargill feels he won any kind of victory over the Thatcher government. Had she been allowed to triumph, her government might have been let loose to pursue its agenda of ‘light touch’ regulation in Business and above all, in Finance. The consequences could have been truly tragic. We might have seen the deregulation of the banks and the deliberate stoking up of an artificial boom in credit and in house prices. After several years of apparent success, the ideology of greed might have become so firmly entrenched that even a Labour government following hers would have been powerless to resist it. We might have heard a centre-left Minister declare himself to be ‘relaxed’ about people becoming ‘stinking rich’, on the Reagan-Thatcher trickle-down premise that if enough people become stinking rich, the poor might stink less. By now, we would have had 25 years of a credit and property bubble in danger of blowing up in our faces, precipitating a major credit crisis, a slump in property prices, the collapse of the stock market and potentially the worst recession since the 1920s.

It seems we owe more to Arthur Scargill than some of us sceptics might have imagined.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

In pet training, who trains who exactly?

I’ve previously commented on the technique developed by our cat Misty for ensuring he gets our attention at night. This is to go round any flat surface on which small objects are lying – glasses, watches, pens, mobile phones – and flick them with a paw until they fall off. He does this until the noise, and fear of damage to the objects, forces us to get up and attend to his wishes.

The most spectacular incident of this kind came when he was being looked after by our friends Félicie and Yannick. He managed to push Félicie’s engagement ring off her bedside table and they’ve never been able to find it since. Yannick, honourable man that he is, ensured Félicie ended up with an even better ring, but it astonishes me that we ever got the cat back alive at all. What’s even more amazing is that they’ve even got themselves a cat of their own. Talk about the triumph of optimism over experience.

Meanwhile, Misty continues to develop in intelligence or, at least, cunning. The push-the-object-to-the-floor technique doesn’t always work with me, particularly if I’m sleeping deeply. So now he’s developed the insert-the-claw-into-a-convenient-finger technique. Please understand that I’m not talking about anything so crude as scratching. What he does is altogether more delicate, more sophisticated. If he decides I’m wasting time sleeping when I should be dealing with his needs, he will carefully select one finger from my hand, and one claw from his paw, and with all the precision of a surgeon, insert the claw just underneath the surface of the skin on my finger.

It’s an experience that it is remarkably difficult to sleep through.

But last night, or rather this morning at 4:30, I was more than usually disinclined to get up. This may not have been unrelated to the fact that we had been out that evening, with our friends and neighbours Becky, Mel, Dave and Darren, celebrating Mel’s birthday (‘My 28th,’ she told me, ‘Again’). So after the claw in finger treatment, I rolled over and got my hands under the covers.

This only meant that Misty went back to pushing things off surfaces. Things that fell noisily, even onto carpet. Since I was already awake, it didn’t take long for me to decide I could stand it no longer. I left the comfort of my bed and headed downstairs, preceded by a flurry of fur and tail.

We got to the back door and I opened it. He rushed up, apparently all eagerness, but stopped just inside the door, looking out as though to say ‘yes, that’s the outside. Very pretty. But this is relevant to my present requirements how?’

Half asleep and in the dark – in my dazed state I hadn’t switched on the lights – I blundered into the kitchen and felt around for his bowl. It was empty. Still groping, I got hold of his biscuits and filled the bowl. He started eating, purring loudly – he does have the good manners to express satisfaction when we get things right. He ate heartily and for several minutes while I stood by waiting for him to finish.

He then walked back to the garden door, in a stately manner, and stood there looking at me, as if to say ‘Ah, is this what you were thinking of before? I understand. You know, it’s all in the timing. Then it was inappropriate, but now would be a good time to let me out.’

So I let him out before heading back up to bed.

By then I was awake enough to reflect on what had just happened. I had been completely manipulated by a bundle of fluff whose body weight is under 10% of mine.

It’s often said that you can’t train cats. Why would they need to be trained? They’re perfectly capable of training humans instead.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

René: the sequel

When we last met René*, he’d just finished his long journey from Königsberg in East Prussia, where he’d been serving in the German military, to his home in Hegenheim, Alsace, now once more part of France.

Once he’d recovered from the privations of the War, he joined his two brothers in launching a company building and installing roller shutters. Given that Alsace was now French again, living there involved a lot of paperwork: the ‘fraternity’ bit of the French national motto can sometimes feel a little like big brother, with documents registering your identity and whereabouts with every level of the State, local, regional or national. When in addition you decide to set up a company, the paperwork takes on truly monstrous proportions – believe me, I’ve done it.

Of course, when I say that Alsace was ‘French’, that needs qualification. While the German claim seems to have been consigned pretty firmly to the dustbin of history, even to this day Alsatians don’t regard their province as really French: they still talk of the rest of France as ‘France of the interior’ or ‘Old France’. It’s almost as if the rest were French France, while they live in Alsatian France.

René and his brothers worked long, hard hours, taking no holidays, for five years. By 1950, though, the firm was beginning to prosper. It was time for René and his still relatively new wife to take a few days away. They headed off to Marseille. Not a trip abroad but all the same a trip to another country.

In those days, in French hotels, you had to register your arrival on official little forms which the police came and collected at the end of the evening. This allowed the authorities to compare the names of travellers with lists of people in whom they might have an interest.

At 6:00 on the first morning after their arrival, René and his wife were awoken by loud knocking. René opened the door to be confronted by the Military Police, come to arrest him as a deserter.

‘A deserter?’ he exclaimed in consternation. ‘What am I supposed to have deserted from?’

‘You didn’t show up for military service.’

‘Military service? No-one wrote to call me up.’

‘Your papers were posted on the door of the town hall of the First District of Paris. That’s what we do when we can’t track people down.’

‘Paris?’ cried René. You’ll remember he was last in Paris while technically a prisoner of war of the Allies but allowed to wander at large, still in German uniform. ‘I haven’t been to Paris for years. How was I supposed to read call up papers in Paris?’

‘Ah, well,’ they replied, ‘not our problem. You shouldn’t have made it so hard to find you.’

‘Hard to find me? I’m a company director. I hold a valid French identity card. I’m registered to vote. How come you couldn’t find me?’

‘Where do you live?’

‘In Alsace.’

‘Ah, Alsace,’ they answered, as though everything had suddenly been made clear. ‘French authorities and Alsace. Doesn’t always work, you know.’

René could have answered, but didn’t, ‘We, the French, fought three wars to keep Alsace in France. And now you can’t administer it?’

But it all turned out fine in the end anyway. Before the Military Tribunal, when questioned about why he hadn’t done his military service, René replied ‘But you know that I served three years in the German Luftwaffe, don’t you?’

‘Three years in the Luftwaffe? But, mon brave, why didn’t you say so at once? That changes everything.’

Appropriate papers received appropriate stamps and René was released to enjoy the rest of his interrupted holiday.

What a lesson France teaches us all there. A fine course in good sense and moral relativism. When it comes to service, military or otherwise, all that matters is that you do it. You do it for us, for our friends, for the enemy – hey, who’s perfect? You’ve done it, that’s enough for us.

And life goes on.

* See

Monday, 2 March 2009

I am the enemy you killed, my friend

Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918. The First World War ended on 11 November. Another week, and one of our finest poets would have been spared, perhaps to write with poignancy about peace as he had written with horror about war.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ are the words that are spoken to the poet by the soldier he had killed the day before, as he in turn walks down the slope towards hell. ‘For by my glee might many men have laughed, And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now,’ he tells Owen of the wasted richness that his death entails.

Meetings between living soldiers tend to be more cheerful. My father once met a German who had served in the anti-aircraft artillery during the Second World War, when my father was flying bombers for the RAF. The job of the man he met was to shoot down men like my father. They had, however, both been young men fighting the same war, so far more united them than drove them apart. Soon they were exchanging anecdotes.

The German told the story of his one kill during the war. Their gun emplacement had been badly positioned, just the wrong side of a hill crest. This meant that when RAF bombers came into sight it was far too late to open fire with any hope of hitting them. In frustration they pleaded with the local spotting service to give them the earliest possible notice of the arrival of a plane with accurate information of where it was likely to appear for the brief moment they would be able to fire at it.

One night, they were told that a British plane was on its way, chased towards them by a German fighter. The spotters gave them precise indications of where the plane was going to come over the crest above them. Quickly, they sighted on the position. Seconds later they heard the deep-throated roar of aero engines followed by the sight of a British bomber coming over the hill and down towards them. They opened fire and got in several shots. For the first time ever, they hit a plane and brought it down in the field below them.

They rushed over to celebrate. As they reached the scene, however, they saw to their consternation that the downed plane had German markings on its wings. They had hit the pursuing fighter, not the fleeing bomber. Suddenly and with furious violence, the cockpit cover was thrust back. An irate German pilot emerged. He threw his helmet to the ground, cursed them all roundly, and stalked off into the darkness never to be seen again.

My father’s meeting with an erstwhile enemy was by no means exceptional, or even the most dramatic instance of its kind. For example, Bill Pearce, who had been a radio operator in a Lancaster bomber, travelled to Salzburg after the war, to meet Walter Telsnig who had flown the Messerschmitt fighter that had shot him down. The two became friends. Pearce said that ‘at the time it was war and he was doing what he was supposed to be doing, and was trained to do, and so was I.’ Apparently, the two men spent hours talking and swapping war stories.

Heartening tales. But neither man in the Owen poem would be granted that luxury. Instead, they would be left to mourn ‘the undone years, the hopelessness’ of lives cut short. Men have always told amusing stories about war, because they hide a grim reality. But if, as Owen tells us in another great poem, we really understood that reality,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori