Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bad blood leads to good ideas

There are books that change your mind about things. They can either persuade you that you were wrong in a previous belief, or they can at least push you to make up your mind about something which didn’t previously seem so certain. That’s what Jeremy Whittle’s Bad Blood did for me.

This doesn’t mean it’s actually a good book. In fact, the quality of Whittle’s writing is astounding only in the sense that it’s hard to believe he’s a journalist. ‘Would have benefited from extensive editing’ sums it up. A good start would be to eliminate the repetition of thoughts in successive chapters, and sometimes even in successive sentences.

Despite the writing, Whittle paints a compelling picture of the damage doping does to cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular. It has certainly made me abandon a certain ambivalence I used to have, summed up by the question ‘if you can’t eliminate doping, should we just legalise it, if only to re-establish a level playing field?’ No, we shouldn’t. If high performance requires people to do to their bodies what doping does to them, we should settle for lower performance.

That being said, Whittle also shows clearly that doping turns good riders into superstars, and superstars earn colossal sums both for themselves and for the sporting authorities. So we’re talking about an illegal but hugely remunerative activity, which sounds like the start of a pretty nasty conspiracy. The book demonstrates how anyone who tries to speak out against doping, cyclist or journalist, is systematically marginalised and silenced by other competitors with the connivance of the very authorities who should be stamping out the practice.

So doping is likely to be around a long time, with all the corruption it brings in its wake.

My initial reaction was one of depression. But then I realised that there really isn’t a wind so ill that it can blow no good at all. Turn it around: if doping is the key to the Tour de France, then the Tour de France becomes a huge, prestigious, annual tribute to the pharmaceutical industry. We all need pharmaceuticals at different times. But where are the equivalents of the Oscars, the literary prizes, the prestigious awards for this essential industry?

Well, now there is one.

Perhaps we should celebrate the fact. Perhaps, indeed, we should look at extending the model into other industries not currently recognised for all they do. For instance, in this country politicians regularly tell us that we need the armaments industry. It’s a major source of employment. Obviously, it leads to a lot of people being killed, but they’re a long way away whereas the unemployed are on our doorstep. It seems a small price to pay for all those jobs, here, at home.

So here is my modest proposal for a fitting tribute to this major benefactor of humanity. Or some of humanity. Let’s have a yearly, international sporting event to celebrate its successes. The main event should be a marathon, because arms production like war itself just goes on and on long beyond the point where you’d think we’d had enough. We could call it ‘The Tony Blair International Marathon in honour of the charitable use of lethal weapons’.

A subsidiary event, for the amateurs wishing to take part, could be the ‘Saddam Hussein Weapons of Mass Destruction fun run.’ It would be short and obscure and difficult for people to find.

And of course far from being banned, doping would be encouraged. That way we could further support one of our major industries while celebrating another.

See how reading the right book can encourage creative thinking?

Monday, 28 September 2009

The quality of mercy is not strained

It was curious to hear Roman Polanski’s people this morning, lining up the arguments for his being released from arrest in Switzerland without being extradited to the States.

  • It’s been 32 years since the offence
  • He’s lived an apparently blameless life since, and contributed major films to society (at least, if you like his style of film)
  • The victim of the time is now saying the charges should be dropped
  • Polanski’s family suffered horribly, his mother lost in Auschwitz, his father a camp survivor. Polanski himself spent from 1943 (when he was ten) to the end of the war on the run
  • He lost his wife to the most brutal of murders in the Manson killings

All of this is perfectly true. It really ought to be taken into account. There is no value at all in Polanski spending time in gaol. Release him, I say.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we could be as generous towards a few more offenders? And let’s not forget Polanski is an offender: he did plead guilty.

Last weekend it was revealed that there are more former British soldiers in prison than there are present British soldiers serving in Afghanistan. We have a full-scale army of convicts.

It feels to me that the move against Polanski reflects something pretty wrong about our attitudes, but as the British prisons show, it is a problem of society generally and not just of one celebrity film director. If the case became the occasion to review the general problem of our attitude towards retribution, towards handling people who have been hurt far more badly than anyone ever should be, towards rehabilitating offenders, Polanski would have made a contribution to society at least as great as any of his films.

Some might say greater, but I’m not getting into a discussion of cinematic taste here.

    Friday, 25 September 2009

    Mali: the irony of it all

    It’s fascinating to see the protests in Mali against the proposed new family law, which would in particular free women from the obligation to obey their husbands. Among leaders of the opposition were many women, speaking out against a law that would have enshrined their right to do so.

    The real key to the opposition was that it removed a religious consideration from the law. The obligation of obedience on wives enshrined a principle of Islam; another provision would have made marriage a secular institution, not a religious one. That separation of religion from civil life is contentious in many Communities, such as 85% Moslem Mali, though it's a hallmark of the West. The first amendment of the US Constitution famously states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ though even in the US many are uncomfortable with that principle of separation between state and faith.

    Curiously, the roots of the separation lie in the work of one of the greatest ever Islamic thinkers.

    With the explosion of scientific work as a discipline independent of theology, the principle became fully established in the eighteenth century, the century of the US Constitution. The culmination of the process is perhaps best symbolised by the moment when Napoleon asked the scientist Laplace why his latest work contained no mention of God; Laplace replied ‘I had no need of that hypothesis’.

    The road that led to Laplace had far earlier origins. Back in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas remodelled Christian thought along Aristotelian lines. He saw the hand of God in the laws that governed the behaviour of the world itself, and not just in spiritual matters. That meant that it was theologically valid to study the physical universe and its principles in its own right, instead of confining oneself only to the study of the divine.

    Thomas was declared a saint within a hundred years of his birth, but not before having been denounced as a heretic, because many in the Church so just how dangerous legitimising the study of nature might be: it could lead to views such as Laplace’s nearly six centuries later.

    And where did Thomas learn his Aristotle? Above all from reading the commentaries of Averroes, the outstanding Muslim thinker, from the then great Arab city of Cordoba in Spain.

    If Christians realised that the Aristotelian ideas voiced by Aquinas were dangerous, Moslems were equally aware of the danger when they were voiced by his master Averroes. Islam nipped his ideas in the bud, exiling him to North Africa and banning him from public office for much of his life. His ideas could only flourish outside his own religious community.

    So what we’re seeing playing out in Mali this week is a cultural clash between the coreligionists of Averroes and the descendants of those who adopted his principles.

    Isn’t irony one of the great joys of life?

    Wednesday, 23 September 2009

    Frog dreams of Princess

    So Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has written a new novel about a president of the French Republic’s love affair with a beautiful British princess. For those who have mercifully forgotten who VGE was, let me just say he is a former president of the French Republic. His princess character is called ‘Princess Pat’ and it hasn’t escaped the attention of our eagle-eyed journalists that she has points in common with our late lamented Princess Di.

    Did VGE have an affair with her? Who knows. But there are moments when his behaviour is a little bizarre, to the point where one might wonder whether he isn’t a little delusional.
    The most striking aspect of his presidency, in my memory, is that he referred to one of the more bloodthirsty African Dictators, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, as his ‘cousin’ and received some rather fine diamonds back from him as a gift.

    More generally, his use of the name ‘d’Estaing’ with that aristocratic ‘d’ is highly dubious. It was taken over by his grandfather on the basis of the most tenuous of links to the noble family. I was told that on one occasion, when he was Finance Minister, the government decided to launch a new bond issue. The custom in France is to give this kind of initiative the name of the serving Finance Minister. De Gaulle, then President, was told that this particular one would be called the ‘Emprunt d’Estaing’, the d’Estaing loan. ‘An excellent loan name (nom d’emprunt),’ replied de Gaulle, an expression that suggested that the name itself was a loan to which the borrower had little right.

    This didn’t stop VGE at a dinner in the Caribbean, to which he had invited British diplomatic staff, having the tables set out in a rather strange disposition that he explained corresponded to the position of the ships at a victory over the British obtained by his ‘ancestor’ Vice Admiral d’Estaing.

    A man therefore of modesty and tact. One can’t help wondering whether the same qualities haven’t marked his latest literary endeavour.

    Monday, 21 September 2009

    Things to miss, things to share

    There are experiences I’m glad to miss, others that I’m sorry not to witness.

    In the first category was an incident a week or so ago when the driver of a French high-speed train (the famous TGV) saw the body of a man lying between the rails ahead. He couldn’t avoid running over him and, indeed, by the time he’d been able to stop, the driver had to walk back nearly a kilometre to investigate.

    Quelle horreur! With what dread he has must have walked back up the line. Not something I would have liked to have to share.

    To his relief, what he found when he got to the spot was not a dead body but an apparently unhurt but completely drunk young man in a semi-comatose state. He’d come close to giving a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘dying for a drink’.

    Neither the driver nor the emergency services when they arrived were able to wake him, although at one point the young man did come round on his own, just long enough to open an eye and stick a finger up at the crowd around him. He then passed out again.

    In Britain, we like understatement. I therefore particularly appreciated the response of the police to the event. They announced that they were going to give him the time to sober up and then invite him in to give, as the French expression has it, ‘explanations’ of the events that led to his being found unconscious on a TGV line.

    Now there’s an experience I’m sorry to have had to miss. What fun it would have been, don’t you think, to be a fly on the wall during those explanations?

    Saturday, 19 September 2009

    Good neighbours

    It’s funny how nostalgia paints idyllic views of the past. Mining was never a pleasant occupation – it was the second most dangerous in Britain after deep sea fishing. A couple of visits down the pits in the seventies left me with a lasting memory of the lurid glow of the lights, the claustrophobia, the rivulets of sweat in the coal dust on the miners’ bodies, the noise and the terrible sight of seven hundred yards of earth falling five feet when a set of pit props was moved.

    Nevertheless, I remember the image of peace and harmony that was painted by a documentary I once saw on a Welsh mining village where each evening at about 5:00 the men, home and clean after their day in the mine, would come and squat on the front door steps of their narrow houses, to smoke and chat. All gone now, of course: Mrs Thatcher who made so much of her desire to conserve traditions, tore the heart out of those communities when she wiped out coal mining as an industry, and they’ve not recovered to this day.

    Still, some traditions are deeply anchored in the human psyche and though they may be uprooted in one place, they re-emerge in another.

    Where we live in Stafford we’re blessed with excellent neighbours but cursed with north-facing gardens. With the strictly rationed amount of sunshine we tend to get, we can’t waste any of it by sitting facing away from the sun. In Danielle I have a most resourceful wife and so she has simply moved a couple of chairs round to the front of the house. Though this is the unenclosed, public side, that’s where she’s been enjoying as much as she can of a glorious September that has done so much to make up, in light and warmth, for the lamentable July and August we had this year. Again.

    There she sits, reading or knitting. And our excellent neighbours have taken to gathering around. Knitting has caught on among them too, with even Jenny, at fifteen, working on some socks. Her mother Melanie and our other neighbour Becky are also keen. Honestly, at times it’s like the women knitting round the feet of the guillotine in the French revolution out there, with all the needles going.

    Yesterday I was working 200 miles away, down in Kent. I was delighted to get home just in time to catch the last of Danielle’s enjoyment, with Becky, of their afternoon’s sun worship, before its object finally dipped below the horizon.

    It’s wonderful to see a time-honoured tradition, of neighbours gathering outside their houses to talk and take their rest after the efforts of the day, in the companionship that makes a real community.

    Mrs T. said there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. But as usual she was wrong and I have living proof of it on my own doorstep.

    Thursday, 17 September 2009

    How the City got it right

    The fact that there are clear signs of the end of the recession is, naturally, excellent news in itself. The anxieties of the last few months may be beginning to fade and some of the people who suffered most, particularly those who lost their jobs, may have reason to start hoping again. Personally, however, I take particular satisfaction from the first indications of recovery because of a conversation I had a couple of months ago. Not that it really was a conversation: it was more of a one-sided rant in which all I could say was the occasional ‘Oh, I hardly think…’ or ‘it’s surely not as bad as that’.

    The guy doing the talking was someone who ‘does something in the City’. I used to think that we used this kind of phrase because what happens in the City of London, or the financial sector anywhere, is so arcane that no ordinary mortal can understand it. It’s mysterious because we don’t know what they’re doing. Since the financial collapse, however, I’ve realised that it’s mysterious because they don’t know what they’re doing either. That doesn’t stop them posing as experts in anything to do with economics, so you think they’re talking knowledgeably when actually they’re just talking.

    The one I met turned out to be a fund manager. That sounds like a job for people who handle money carefully. It turns out that they actually handle money with extreme carelessness and, unfortunately, it’s not just their money.

    He painted me a picture of complete gloom. The country had been indebted to an impossible extent. An incompetent government had driven it to the brink of destruction. As a result it was now in a lamentable state. He didn’t actually say ‘lamentable state’. He used a fine old English term suggesting previous involvement in sexual activity, but that was what he meant.

    It now turns out that actually our indebtedness isn’t quite as bad as all that. The housing market has stabilised and prices may even have begun to rise. Factory activity is picking up and workers are being taken on. The doom sayers have been gainsaid.

    Of course, he’d never admit he was wrong. He would no doubt claim that he saw it all coming, but that underneath the apparent recovery there lie the seeds of the next and far more destructive catastrophe.

    All this reminds me of a saying of Winston Churchill’s: ‘Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen.’

    Just as apposite a comment on City experts as on any politician, I’m sure.

    Monday, 14 September 2009

    Time to turn down an empty glass

    Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a pretty lousy translation – or so I’m told – of the original Farsi, but a pretty remarkable English language poem in its own right. Steeped in a sense of fatalism, mortality and the transience of life, it’s perhaps not surprising that young men close to death found it comforting to read some of its verses from time to time.

    My father served in bombers in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and flew with a pocket-sized edition of the Rubaiyat in his uniform. I was delighted to inherit it and I take pleasure in reading a passage from it occasionally, just as I suppose he did. I particularly like the last quatrain:

    And when thyself with shining foot shall pass
    Among the guests star-scattered on the grass
    And in thy joyous errand reach the spot
    Where I made one – turn down an empty glass.

    Tomorrow, 15 September, is my father’s birthday. It’s a date I have no trouble remembering, although the anniversary of his death takes me by surprise each year. Tomorrow evening, I must try to remember to turn down an empty glass to him.

    Of course, I’ll fill it first and then empty it. What kind of tribute would it be otherwise?

    Saturday, 12 September 2009

    The Berlusconi syndrome: digging when you're already in a hole

    I had to read the Guardian headline twice. ‘Berlusconi admits suspected pimp brought women to his home, but denies paying them for sex.’ I was so shocked I thought I’d better check an authoritative Italian source.

    There’s one Italian newspaper that the Berlusconi set regards as particularly vile, a particularly scurrilous scandal sheet, so you can’t get much more authoritative than that. It’s La Repubblica. I took a look at it on-line, and there it was: ‘I’ve never paid a woman,’ it quoted Berlusconi.

    What is he thinking of? Doesn’t he see that he’s just making things worse? I mean you may disapprove of men using prostitutes, or you may tolerate the practice, but either way you must surely feel that a man makes things far worse if he adds rip-off to sexual subjugation, and refuses them their hard-earned fee. It’s like Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart tells Peter Lorre, ‘I don't mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.’ You may dislike a lecher, but how much more will you object to him if he’s a cheapskate as well?

    Pity the poor women who allegedly spent the night at his place. They must have felt completely screwed.

    And that’s not a tribute to his manly prowess.

    Friday, 11 September 2009


    It’s anniversary time.

    Of course, there’s the obvious one: today is the eighth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Though it cost fewer lives, in its sheer disregard for anything that gives value to links between human beings, it is the equal in infamy to the bombing of Dresden or of Hiroshima. It was also their equal in the impact it has had on the Western World, as the continued and apparently futile fighting in Afghanistan testifies. So it makes sense to mark the anniversary in sorrow and regret.

    We ought, however, also to remember that the destruction of the Twin Towers wasn’t the only shameful event to blot the eleventh of September. Twenty-eight years earlier, on 11 September 1973, the government and indeed life of Salvador Allende, democractically elected President of Chile, were brought to an end by a violent coup engineered with the full support of the CIA. This was the start of a seventeen-year period of brutal dictatorship which cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives and led to the torturing of several hundred thousand. Years ago, I met one of its victims, a young man (young at that time: he was my age) who was gradually losing his hearing as a result of having been struck in the head with a rifle butt by a soldier. His offence? He was a member of the MIR, the Marxist group that resisted Pinochet for a time. He’d been manacled to ropes hanging from a ceiling so that he was forced to stand on his toes at all times, but had discovered he could slip one hand out of a manacle and therefore get some sleep with both feet flat on the floor. The soldier’s anger was caused by discovering him in that position.

    ‘I never understood why he did it,’ he told me, ‘he was a young campesino. What did he have to gain from the coup?’

    So if we mark our respect on this day with a minute’s silence, let’s think of Santiago in 1973 as well as New York in 2001. Let’s remember, while we agree with George Bush and Tony Blair’s loathing for Osama bin Laden, that the shameful counterpoint for their sentiments was provided by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s enthusiasm for Augusto Pinochet.

    But enough of all this negativity. Today also has personal value for me. Because today is the last day of my first year as a blogger. My first post went up on 12 September last year and to my slight surprise, as I put up number 124, I find I’m still going.

    It’s an interesting exercise. An amateur runner can compare himself with Usain Bolt – it’s the same sport at a different level – and when I write these pieces I think of Michel de Montaigne, who gave us the concept of an ‘Essay’. What he was writing, he told us, were the ‘essais de mes facultés naturelles’, trials of his natural faculties. And that’s just how I feel each time I start to prepare a new post. There are always two great questions this kind of writing imperiously demands I answer: can I find anything to write about and can I shorten what I’ve said? I also used to wonder ‘is it worthy saying in the first place?’ but gave up on that one as a needless complication of the process.

    So on 12 September I move into year 2 of my career as a blogger. I shall raise a glass to that moment, to the Chileans who have regained their freedom, and to the hope that some day we’ll have sorted out the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan and be able to put 9/11 behind us, in a more profound sense than just turning the pages of a calendar.

    Wednesday, 9 September 2009

    ATMs and shattered dreams

    ATMs or, as we quaintly like to call them on this side of the Atlantic, Cashpoint machines, never cease to amaze me.

    Somewhere deep down inside me, I can’t get over the idea that they are somehow giving me money. My instincts haven’t grasped that they’re simply, parsimoniously, doling out to me money that I’ve already handed over to the bank.

    Of course, I suppose even that is pretty remarkable: after all, for some months we’ve all of us grown used, as taxpayers, to handing over huge quantities of the stuff to the banks and watching it vanish practically without trace – we only hear of any of it again when some re-emerges in bumper bonus payments to the people who got us into our present mess in the first place.

    Have you noticed that the process of getting money from these machines includes a glorious moment when there’s a sort of riffling sound from inside, as though some huge roll of banknotes is being flicked through?

    I like it partly because it’s a confirmation that cash is actually going to emerge in response to my request, something I’m never completely confident of until it actually happens. But I particularly like it because it conjures up an image of someone in an eyeshade and a waistcoat over a capacious belly, with sleeve garters on both arms, peeling off notes to hand over my winnings.

    Have you been struck by the length of time for which this lasts? Flick-flick-flick-flick: it sounds like a substantial payout.

    And then my five miserable notes emerge from the slot.

    It leaves me with a sense of betrayal each time. The machine has built up my hopes and then dashed them. I just want to shout, ‘where’s the rest of it then?’

    Monday, 7 September 2009

    Points for citizens

    Some weeks ago the British government came with a new scheme which, at first glance, I found worrying.

    It seems that we might soon have a system of points for foreign residents. Get enough points, and you can win that supreme prize, the envy of the world, British citizenship. Lose points, and access to the promised land recedes.

    The strange thing is that the point count is only for people seeking citizenship.

    It’s like adoption. We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that people are suitable to become parents by adoption. But if they want to become parents by the usual self-indulgence, no-one bats an eyelid. I suppose the thinking is ‘you want a kid, you feckless parasite? Make one yourself, but we’re not giving you one.’

    When I was left in sole charge of my then eighteen-month old son – my wife being in hospital with our one-day old – I fed him bananas and cream, topped with Smarties. He was stuck with me by an accident of birth that enabled me to get away with such deplorable behaviour. But can you imagine an adoption agency’s outrage? They’d regard me as a pernicious influence, likely to traumatise the poor child. And it’s true that he can’t cook to this day.

    At the time, of course, he didn’t complain. On the contrary, I think he was impressed by what a gastronome Daddy was.

    Now the same kind of thinking applies to citizenship. If we’re going to count points for naturalisation candidates, perhaps we should do it for those who have citizenship by accident of birth too. So your passport would become like your driving licence: get too many strikes against you, and you lose it.

    This was the aspect that I at first found worrying. Because the points are going to be awarded for such good traits as learning to speak English, and deducted for such bad traits as protesting against British troops. I can imagine that this would just be the thin end of the wedge. Next we’d be penalised for being British while thinking there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We might lose points for wondering whether the private sector really did always do things better than the public. We might be putting our passport at risk if we were ever outlandish enough to believe that the Metropolitan Police were a bunch of blundering bullies for roughing up people in, or simply on the edges of, protests in London, on one notable occasion leaving one them dead (of course, this is not a view of the Police that I would like anyone to think I share).

    All this made me a bit anxious about the points-for-passports scheme. But then I realised that it could become a force for major social improvement. You just need to get the criteria right. For example, you could lose points for:

    • thinking that the right place for emptying a car ashtray is in the gutter as you wait at a set of traffic lights
    • describing any institution in Britain (the health service, the system of justice, the armed forces) as ‘the envy of the world’
    • believing that what really matters in any news item about an air crash is the number of Britons suspected to have been on board
    • regarding it as amusing to have far too much to drink one night and telling all your colleagues about it the next day
    • believing that anything published in the Daily Mail or any newspaper owned by the Murdoch group is true before getting it verified by at least two independent sources
    • complaining loudly and bitterly about immigrants to Britain while eating a curry
    • proclaiming that the role in this country of the Church of England, the Royal Family or the House of Lords adds value to the life of ordinary citizens
    • thinking that there’s anything ‘special’ about the relationship between Britain and the United States
    • believing that foreigners are charmed by our cheerful temperament and endearing sense of humour when we get drunk in their bars and throw up on their streets
    • regarding the behaviour of the French, the Germans, the Italians or the Spanish as arrogant and selfish, while Britons are models of tolerance and civilisation
    • thinking that the best form of dress for a winter’s night is a short skirt, a thin blouse and plenty of exposed midriff, preferably spilling over a waist band
    • failing to see that toffs at play, such as Ascot race goers with their amusing hats or Henley regatta spectators with their smart blazers, are anything other than bumptious, self-satisfied snobs
    • not realising that despite having plenty of practice, England supporters in any sport are lousy losers, and because they’ve had so little experience of it, ghastly winners
    Perhaps if these were the criteria for deciding who gets to keep their citizenship, we might turn the country into a much more civilised place.

    Saturday, 5 September 2009

    Puli Economics

    We’re just home from a short break in our old home in Kehl, just into Germany outside Strasbourg in Eastern France. We always have a great time there. One major pleasure is that each visit is an object lesson in how poor stereotypes can be in describing people. The sheer warmth and kindness of the population in Kehl never cease to surprise us, and even more amazing is how laid back they are, undermining the strict formality, the bureaucratic insistence on order, which tends to be associated with the image of Germans abroad. In Kehl, we’ve never seen it.

    The dominant experience of this trip, though, was the surgery on Janka. She is our Puli, our rasta dog. I’m delighted that I may have been premature in my last post on her subject when I attributed her difficulties in walking to precocious aging. Our vet in Kehl identified her problem as actually being caused by torn cruciate ligaments in both knees. He and his wife, working as an excellent team, treated one of the knees during this trip.

    Janka: Puli or Jamaican Shepherd?

    Yesterday, only four days after the operation, Janka was beginning to move properly again. She had all four feet on the ground when walking, instead of carrying the one on which she had had the operation, and she even managed to run a few steps. Of course, she has a lot more rehabilitation in front of her – it sounds as though we shall be taking her for water therapy, would you believe, in which she’ll be made to walk on an underwater treadmill to rebuild muscle – but the progress has been spectacular already. Above all, it was great to see her tail wagging at full tilt again yesterday – she seems to have recovered her good spirits.

    The experience also highlighted an interesting point about economics. Janka only cost us 400 euros. I have to admit we bought her in Hungary, the homeland of the Puli – though only thanks to Americans, who kept the breed going when it was in danger of dying out in the old country – and had we bought her in the West she might have cost three times more. Anyway, let’s take the 400 euro price as our benchmark, and call it 1 Puli.

    The operation, carried out in Kehl, cost 800 euros or two Pulis.

    We were reticent about having the operation there knowing that she would have a fourteen hour car trip back to England within a few days, so we checked with our English vet. They could certainly have done the surgery for us and provided all sorts of follow-up. The operation alone, though, would have cost £1700, nearly 2000 euros or five Pulis. We thought long and hard about it – seconds and seconds – and opted for the vets we know and trust, who would charge us 40% of the English price.

    That reasoning is for only one knee and once this once has recovered, she’ll need the other one done. Add a little extra for medication and aftercare, and we reach a total price of four to five Pulis for treatment in Germany and nearer eleven in England.

    So why don’t we just put Janka down and have five new Pulis instead? Or even, assuming we based ourselves on English prices, eleven new Pulis?

    Because, of course, none of those Pulis would be Janka.

    Which goes to demonstrate that there is no inherent law to determine price. What matters is what the market will bear. And the market is made up of individual customers making individual purchasing decisions.

    In any case, I have no idea where we would put eleven Pulis.

    Wednesday, 2 September 2009

    Power corrupts

    Having missed it on TV, Danielle and I are currently catching up on the series The Tudors on DVD.

    It’s absolutely infuriating in the unnecessary liberties it takes with history: for instance, why does it give the name ‘Margaret’ to Henry VIII’s sister Mary, particularly as he actually had another sister called Margaret who had a completely different life from Mary’s?

    Still, these are only factual errors and they’re easy to check. Where the series does well is in its direction, pace and performance. Above all, it’s strong on psychological plausibility: I believe in the motivations and therefore I believe in the characters.

    When Henry VIII became King, humanism was all the rage. In its extreme form, it led to radical challenges, most notably in Luther’s breach with the Church in Rome. It also produced other more moderate thinkers, the most outstanding being Erasmus who stayed inside the Church, believing he could defend it best by helping to reform it. Erasmus’s close friend Thomas More was a leading figure in Henry’s early administration, eventually becoming his Lord Chancellor.

    Many people must have hoped that Henry would be as principled in his life as Erasmus and More were in theirs. So it must have been a disappointment to see how quickly he started to litter his reign with corpses: within a year, his father’s two leading Ministers had been executed for treason. The most senior Minister in the early part of his own reign, Cardinal Wolsey, was eventually arrested for treason and only avoided execution because he died naturally on his way to face the charge. Thomas More himself, after succeeding Wolsey, was executed for refusing to back Henry in making himself head of the Church of England. The downfall of Wolsey and More flowed from the King’s obsessive insistence on marrying Anne Boleyn. That didn’t stop him putting her to death in turn when he tired of her, justifying himself in doing so by executing five others, including her own brother, on the false charge that she had had adulterous relations with them.

    What’s most striking about all this blood is that so much of it was spilled on grounds no stronger than the King’s whim, to eliminate obstacles to his getting his own way.

    Curiously, years ago I studied a similar figure from two and a half centuries later, Frederick II of Prussia, known as ‘the Great’. He had given rise to similar hopes and many had expected him to be a ‘Philosopher King’. He and Voltaire maintained an extensive correspondence on philosophy and literature, in the course of which, among other things, Voltaire helped him with his written style in French: it was the language of intellectual endeavour at a time when no-one who wanted to be taken seriously internationally would have dreamed of writing in German or, indeed, English.

    Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire’s longstanding partner and a major intellectual figure in her own right, had warned him to beware of Frederick. She may have been influenced by Frederick’s coolness towards her: he was not only homosexual but, unusually, also a profound misogynist. She unfortunately died a few years later, a few days after giving birth. Her death was entirely in keeping with her life: she was surrounded by her longstanding lover, Voltaire, her husband and her new lover, the father of the newborn child.

    Without her guiding hand to restrain him, Voltaire accepted Frederick’s invitation and escaped oppressive France to live in the Philosopher King’s court in Prussia.

    What a disappointment it turned out to be. Frederick was as demanding as Henry, insisting that his courtiers dance attendance on him whenever it suited him. Nor was he tolerant of opposition to his will. Voltaire, who was good at it, soon fell out with his former friend and fellow Frenchman Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Voltaire wrote a brilliantly spiteful, deeply unfair but wickedly funny series of satires against Maupertuis that destroyed his reputation for two centuries. For the record, I wrote a biography of Maupertuis in the 1980s, which I hope contributed to moves to rehabilitate him, though I didn’t try to hide those flaws in his temperament which did him as much damage as Voltaire’s attacks and, indeed, provided material for them.

    Frederick was not going to put up with this kind of behaviour towards the president of his Academy. Voltaire’s texts were seized and publicly burned by the executioner.

    Ironically, this was exactly the fate of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques in Paris (although tradition has it that the executioner burned a different book and kept Voltaire’s: the work had become all the more expensive for being condemned). The enlightened King of Prussia behaved as badly as the conservative, absolutist King of France.

    The cases of Henry and Frederick confirm the historian Lord Acton’s judgement that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Whatever their principles as young men, both lost sight of them once they were able to indulge their desires unshackled.

    Too much power is bad for people in government, and worse for the governed. In Britain, for instance, in five out of seven general elections in the last thirty years, governments of one party or the other have been returned with landslide parliamentary majorities. It hasn’t done government itself any good. With a huge majority, a government only has to dream up some new scheme for it to be all but enacted. This is no way of ensuring we get good law. Maggie Thatcher lost power over a disastrous initiative, the so-called poll tax. Tony Blair took us on an Iraqi adventure that has left a trail of bodies far longer than King Henry’s.

    Limiting power. It isn’t easy, but the examples of Frederick and Henry show how important it is. To say nothing of the examples of Maggie and Tony.