Monday, 30 November 2009

The bells, the bells. Oh, and the Swiss

Well, that’s a turn-up for the books: the Swiss have banned minarets. And by a big majority, too. More of a turn-down, really: don’t think this has anything to do with protecting Swiss culture or values – it’s a reversal of both. There was a time when Switzerland was the most generous nation of Europe, taking more refugees per head of its own population than any other. But the trouble is that the generous, liberal majority woke resentment in a xenophobic minority that’s now kicking back, as it has in Denmark and Holland.

There was a time when I used to be amazed by how the Swiss welcomed the unfortunate of the world. There was a civil war in Sri Lanka: the streets of Geneva, Basel and Zurich filled with Tamils. There was genocide in Rwanda: they filled with Tutsis. It was a wonder to behold. Today the same streets sport posters of minarets drawn to look like missiles, to make absolute certain of the desired Islamophobic reaction.

What I particularly like about this ban is, of course, the effrontery of its double standards. Switzerland is a country of glorious countryside and charming cities. Both are dominated by the delicate churches with their graceful spires. You can have spires but you can’t have minarets? I’d have thought they would have blended right in. Of course, the other side said that minarets smacked of a striving for political dominance.

You think the people who built the spires were democrats?

The parties who tried to prevent the minaret ban sold the pass anyway. They said that the call of the muezzin would never be accepted but the minaret should be tolerated. So they weren’t really arguing for tolerance – just for a slightly less pronounced discrimination against Moslems. You don’t like the cry of the Muezzin? Nor do I. But it’s hardly the only disturbance of the peace we have to suffer in the name of religious fervour.

I used to live in Croydon, oh, donkey’s years ago. I don’t want to offend anyone living in today’s Croydon, which is a large town in Surrey or possibly a suburb in South East London, depending on your point of view. For all I know, it may today be a thriving, exciting centre of all that is excellent. When I knew it, it wasn’t so much a place as a misfortune. Drab, dull, soulless. But I lived well away from the centre, in South Croydon. That was leafy and pretty and though it wasn’t exactly animated, that very fact meant it was at least quiet.

Except on Sunday mornings. At the time I was in my early twenties and like most young men of that age, I regarded Sunday mornings as a time to sleep until recovered from the excesses of the week. It wasn’t so much a question of what time I got up on a Sunday morning, more of whether I got up in the morning at all. Normally. Except that in South Croydon I was a street or two away from the local church, and on a Sunday at some ghastly hour – 11:00, if you’d credit it – the bells started to ring.

The worst of it is that they rang not only loudly, but badly. People tell me there’s music in church bells. Yeah, right. Four notes played on a descending scale. And even though anyone who has read about my attempts to learn Salsa knows I have no sense of rhythm, I know how to space four notes evenly. But when it’s church bells, it’s inevitably ‘dong, dong,…,do-dong.’

The worst of it? I said this disturbance was limited to Sundays and I thought that was true until I got home early one Thursday evening which, I discovered, was bell ringers’ rehearsal night. Can you believe it? They had to practice to produce that incompetent cacophony.

You don’t like the muezzin’s cry? OK, why should you? But don’t come to me and tell me you like church bells. It’s just another way of making a lot of noise to tell people who don’t share your views that you’re keen on your beliefs. You think it’s musical? You’re just giving way to that oldest of prejudices, acceptance of what is familiar and rejection of what is strange.

Just like the Swiss and the minarets. Tall graceful church spires? Fine of course, because we’ve had them for centuries. Tall elegant minarets? We don’t know them, so we’ll ban them, and take xenophobic pleasure from the offence that causes.

It’s like a kid who refuses to try some new food, on the grounds that he doesn’t like what he hasn't tasted. But much more dangerous.

Oh, and I moved away from South Croydon within three months. Liked the place. Couldn’t stand the racket.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Sea, sand and cynicism: Britain and Oman

A couple of weekends ago I travelled out to Oman, to give a presentation to a small meeting on the fringe of a scarcely larger conference. I didn’t see much of the place – I was only there for 48 hours and travelled straight to the meeting venue, a luxurious but isolated hotel resort on the sea, where the only Omanis were on the staff. Stuck in the resort for the bulk of my time, all I really got to enjoy was summer in November – lovely for someone in England, but not exactly extraordinary, specially as I didn’t even manage to have a swim, enticing though the Arabian Sea looked.

So my exposure to anything really new was limited to the forty minute taxi drive back to the airport. At last I got to seem some of the landscape and it was certainly impressive: dun-coloured rock piled up into steep cliffs plunging down to the deep blue of the Sea. The thing that struck me most, however, was a song on the driver’s radio. It was in the traditional harmonic minor of Arab music, which gives it a lilt and a delicacy that appeal to me – we generally use the minor in Western music to conjure up sadness and melancholy, but in Arab music it can be joyful too.

‘This is good,’ I couldn’t help telling the driver.

‘You like our Omani music?’ he replied with clear pleasure. ‘This is for the national feast tomorrow. It is for Sultan Qaboos.’

Sultan Qaboos. Of course. Suddenly I realised that the word ‘Qaboos’ was returning a lot in the song. Now I’m told that the Sultan is pretty popular. He has brought prosperity to his nation, despite its relatively low oil reserves. That prosperity may not have been shared equitably, but it has at least been shared.

Certainly the Sultan is omnipresent. There were portraits all over the hotel complex. On the drive to the airport, I saw him smiling at us, with or without his wife, from the side of many of the buildings. The song itself in his honour lasted twice as long as most popular songs. Clearly, you can’t get enough adoration. Sincere or sycophantic, it’s difficult to tell: the gentleness of the regime doesn’t, I suspect, allow an opposition outspoken enough to say.

By a strange coincidence, soon after my return to England I heard a radio programme about the moment when Qaboos came to power in 1970. At the time, Britain was still a presence in the area. Officers from the British Army ran the armed forces, some of them on secondment, others directly employed by Oman as ‘contract officers’ – basically mercenaries. One of the latter was Colonel Hugh Oldman who held no less a position than Defence Minister under Sultan Said bin-Taymur.

Britain was worried about its commercial interests, particularly in the face of an insurgency in the South backed by Saudi Arabia. The Sultan was perceived as unable or unwilling to defend the British position in the region. There was a feeling that his son, Qaboos, might be a better bet.

Sultan Said was no fool. There was something of tradition for a Sultan to come to power by ousting his father, so it’s not surprising that he’d kept Qaboos under virtual house arrest for several years. But it wasn’t enough. On 23 July 1970, Qaboos struck. There was brief struggle in the palace, and Said’s reign was over, Qaboos’s beginning.

That easy success might seem suspicious. The BBC have found evidence that Colonel Oldman had put plans in place to slipstream in behind Qaboos if the coup was successful, and to support him with force if it ran into difficulties. What’s more, he had approval for these plans from London: documents making this clear were briefly published a few years ago, apparently in error, but have been locked since (you might almost think the government had something to hide).

So that cheerful song I heard in the taxi was in honour of an absolute ruler who owed his position to a coup against his own father. A benign ruler, maybe, but nonetheless not perhaps one whose route to power was the most edifying.

And isn’t it wonderful that Britain supported him? What a fitting tribute to our commitment to democratic principles. To say nothing of family values.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What do bankers really earn? I mean, really?

The British government is planning to ‘force’ banks to publish the number of their staff who earn more than a million pounds a year.

The quotation marks around ‘force’ are there because I suspect that they’ll be falling over themselves to publish the figures. Each bank will want to show that it has more high-salary executives than the others. The one with 150 £1,000,000 plus men (because you can be sure that virtually all of them will be men) will want to hand out increases to get closer to the competitor with 250.

But the real issue isn’t with the act of publication but with the value to be published. The number of executives earning over a million is easy to work out – it’s zero. The number they’ll be publishing will be the number being paid over a million.

This slack use of the word ‘earn’ is one of the great instances of loose speech in English these days. You earn what you deserve. Given the financial state of the world today, and the role that bankers played in getting us into it, I can’t imagine a single one of them is worth a million a year.

But as we’ll soon find out, that doesn’t stop them pocketing the loot.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

What's in a name?

It’s curious how mental blocks work, isn’t it? I have a colleague called ‘Jon Astbury’. We work together, we get on fine, we talk most days, sometimes several times a day. But he recently he broke some bad news to me. Not that I immediately recognised it as bad news.

‘Have you heard about the new project manager we’ve appointed?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘though I’m glad we’ve made the appointment. We need a few more.’

‘His name is John Astley.’

It took a moment for the significance to sink in.

‘People will constantly be getting us confused,’ Jon added, to make sure I’d grasped the point.

That was it. Complete mental block. The new John started work but there was no way I could remember his surname. All I knew was that it wasn’t ‘Astbury’ but it wasn’t a lot different. Apsley? Asbury? Aspley? No way I could work it out.

The worst of it? I spend a lot of time working with him too. We’ve frequently gone out to see customers together. I have to introduce him as ‘John, why don’t you introduce yourself?’

I finally had to come clean and tell him. He gave me an easy way to master the problem.

‘Just think of the eighties singer Rick Astley,’ he told me.

I didn’t dare admit I’d never heard of Rick Astley. I just smiled and thought to myself ‘right – so now I’m going to learn to remember a name I’ve got a mental block about by thinking of a singer I’ve never heard of.’

But here’s a funny thing. Ever since I heard about Rick Astley, I’ve had no trouble remembering John’s surname. Odd thing, the mind.

Anyway, now I have to move on to the next conundrum. I’ve worked well over the last few years with my colleague Paul Cooper. Today we have a new staff member who sits at a desk not ten feet away. His name? Paul Cooper.

Anyone know any singers whose names could help me tell them apart?

Saturday, 21 November 2009


Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

Peter Mandelson, the grandson of a former Labour Foreign Secretary, made two attempts at being a Cabinet Minister in his own right. Both occasions ended badly, with resignations in disgrace following scandals. He had, however, been a major architect of Tony Blair’s three successive election victories, having proved far more effective at running election campaigns than at building his own career. So when Blair appointed him a British Commissioner to the European Union, it felt a bit as though he was being awarded a consolation prize.

Not a bad consolation, by the way. The salary of a Commissioner is not far short of quarter of a million Euros a year. That would certainly console me for quite a lot of disappointment. But perhaps I’m being too mercenary in outlook and don’t share the selfless spirit of dedication and commitment to principle of most failed politicians.

Talking about failed politicians takes us seamlessly to the subject of Gordon Brown, who swiftly squandered the useful poll lead he’d enjoyed when he first became Prime Minister. He had to face up to the fact that he was going to need a touch of the kind of magic he had shown he couldn’t generate himself, if he was to have any hope of winning an election of his own. Now Mandelson had that kind of magic. Unfortunately, though Mandelson had initially been close to Brown, he had later on thrown in his lot with Brown’s colleague but rival Blair. It must have hurt Brown to have to turn to him for help, but, hey, any port in a storm. Brown bit the bullet and summoned Mandelson back from Brussels.

Incidentally, Mandelson’s salary as a Cabinet Mister is about 160,000 Euros. So, if it’s true that his original European appointment was a compensation for his British disappointment, it would seem that the quantitative, indeed financial, measure of the demoralising effect of losing a Cabinet position is some 90,000 Euros a year.

The recall to London created a gap for a British commissioner to fill the last year or so of Mandelson’s term. Fortunately, there was a candidate available. Never elected to any national post, and only in politics since 1999, Catherine Ashton been appointed to the House of Lords and had held a number of junior minister posts. In her last role she had ensured the House approved the Lisbon Treaty. She might have been obscure but she was loyal, competent and, through her work on the Treaty, familiar with European Union matters. She stepped in to replace Mandelson.

Fast forward a year. As a result of the ratification of the Treaty, the EU is looking for a President and a Foreign Minister (or as we prefer to call it in Eurospeak, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy). We think Blair ought to have the top post, because he’s a major figure on the international stage, a ‘traffic stopper’ – the kind of person who causes the police to hold up cars on his route when he turns up on an official trip somewhere. He’s also British, which we like a lot in Britain, because though we’re not keen on Europe, we’re keen on Europe showing Britain respect by appointing its celebrities to senior positions.

Of course, there are a few tiny problems with Blair. There are those killjoys who feel that a man who really ought to be on trial for war crimes shouldn’t be appointed to positions of high honour. Then there are the leaders of the individual European States who would rather that no-one in a position theoretically superior to their own stop more traffic than they do. Plus they’re mostly from parties of the centre-right – with the exception of Berlusconi who has little to do with the centre – or with getting anything much right, come to that – so they're not going to appoint anyone from the centre-left, and there are still a few who think Blair can be regarded as having some connection with the left.

So Blair gets overlooked. And some obscure character from Belgium gets the job (OK, he’s the Prime Minister, but ‘Belgium’, ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘obscure’ are words that seem somehow to belong together).

So no Brit for President. The others feel bad. The Brits need to have their wounded feelings salved. Specially in a week when the French have robbed the Irish, who are practically British, of a place in the Football World Cup Finals through a thoroughly dastardly hand ball. What can we do to smooth their ruffled feathers?

There’s an easy solution. After all, if the centre-right got the Presidency, the centre-left can have the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. So – hey – how about appointing a Brit from the centre-left? A good plan. BUT just don’t forget we don’t want any traffic stoppers.

So what we need is an obscure Brit appointed by the present centre-left government. Need to get a move on, by the way – the other lot will be in next year.

Who do we have who could fit the bill? I know – isn’t there that lady in the Trade Commissioner position?

So good old Cathy got the job.

Talk about serendipity! There she was, in the right place at the right time.

I bet you one thing, though: she’ll turn out a hell of a sight better than most other potential candidates. And since I’d like to see the EU do well and, if I’m really quite honest about it, I wouldn’t be at all sorry to see a Brit contributing to the process, I’ll raise a glass to that.

In fact I’m going to stop writing and go and get that glass right now. And just say, good luck Cathy – make us proud!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

It’s not the dance that counts, stupid, it’s the dancer

In all the fuss a few years ago about sequencing the human genome there was, to my astonishment, no discussion of what has to be one of the most remarkable genes of all. Even today, no matter how I scan the net for information, I find nothing on the subject.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Salsa gene. This expresses itself in an innate ability, in men or women, to move one’s body in sinuous and graceful ways to the sound of Latin American music, displaying a highly developed sense of rhythm and a talent for gliding smoothly round a dance floor.

Needless to say, this is not a gene that was transmitted to me.

My sons have it, which means they clearly inherited it from my wife, who has dragooned me into attending Salsa classes. I find the experience fascinating. Last night I was being tutored by a pleasant but increasingly bemused woman. At one point she suggested to me that, as well as following all her other instructions (keep counting, move your feet, keep your upper body straight, etc.), I should listen to the music.

‘Listen to the music? As well?’ I exclaimed. ‘How can I do that on top of all those other things?’

I mean, I get the theory. Yes, I can see that in principle listening to the music probably increases your chances of actually being on the beat in your counting. It’s the practice that floors me. After all, I was already trying to do so many things at the same time: thinking intensely, moving my feet, keeping my hands in the right position and counting. That’s a lot more than Gerald Ford, who famously couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. And he got to be president of the United States, for Pete’s sake.

I’m constantly reminded of Einstein. I’ve been told that at one point he drove Yehudi Menuhin, who was trying to teach him the violin, to exasperation. So the outstanding musician shouted at the greatest theoretical physicist of all time, ‘One-two, one-two. It’s not that difficult. Can’t you count?’

It’s great to have at least that much in common with the father of relativity theory. Obviously, it would be more impressive if I could also master relativity, but unfortunately I find it nearly as hard as Salsa.

The real problem is in the counting. The Salsa crowd cheats. They count ‘1, 2, 3, pregnant pause, 5, 6, 7, another pregnant pause.’ Well, that’s obviously going to throw me, isn’t it? What’s the problem with admitting there’s actually a number between 3 and 5? And another one after 7? It’s not really that abstruse, surely? That’s how numbers work after all.

It’s just a conspiracy, I’ve decided, against those of us who don’t have the Salsa gene in their DNA sequence. And it’s getting to me. I keep wondering what would happen if I actually said ‘4’ or ‘8’. I haven’t had the temerity to try it yet. I keep thinking ‘If they’re so loath to use those digits, is it because with their genes they know that terrible results would ensue? Would the roof fall in? Would the wrath of unspeakable South American gods be wreaked on me?’

I suspect, though, that it would just be another terrible Salsa faux pas. And since I make plenty of false steps already, perhaps I’d better avoid that one.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Coming home

I’ve just returned to England from a short business trip abroad. It was odd returning to this country from somewhere with blue skies, hot sun and waves breaking on the beach. We flew into spitting rain on a cold night. You’d think it would have been deeply depressing, and people around me on the plane made it clear that was just how they felt about it.

Somehow, though, I couldn’t share their gloom. I’ve never understood people who say they’re proud to be whatever they are – American, British, Russian, whatever. How can you be proud of something that you didn’t actually do for yourself? All most of us did to become citizens of our nations was get born, and absolutely everyone does that. There should be medals for it suddenly?

Maybe the people who get a nationality by naturalisation have more cause for pride. At least they made an effort, even if it was just completing reams of documents and arguing with bored and possibly racist bureaucrats.

No, the positive feeling I get from England is the sense that in some strange way it’s home. It’s not a glow of pride, it’s more a sense of comfort and ease. I know how the mentalities work, I know what you can banter about and (usually) with whom, I can interpret the body language, the hints, the implications. There’s something relaxing about coming back to your community, the one you belong to, whose codes you can read. And to me at least that’s a pleasure which easily outweighs a little wet and a little cold.

It became particularly clear to me in the train, on nearly the final stage of a long journey. I was sitting opposite a middle-aged man in the uniform of a train employee. Perhaps a ticket collector, clearly off duty and heading home. After letting the first ten minutes of the trip go by in silence until tiredeness forced me to give up trying to focus on my book, he asked me ‘well, have you travelled far?’ A conversation was under way.

He turned out to be a driver. I learned about the things that can make trains late: signalling problems, track problems, even problems with the trains themselves. Recently, leaves on the line have been a major difficulty. ‘It’s like trying to drive a car on black ice,’ he explained, ‘you can’t stop, and that’s if you can get going at all.’ Overall, though, we both agreed that the service on the railways is unrecognisably better than ten or fifteen years ago. In a world where we’re all perhaps too inclined to whinge about everything, it’s good to find something that satisfactory.

He hadn’t been under any obligation to talk to me. He could have kept his own counsel. But weary as I was, I welcomed this brief human contact with a complete stranger.

That can happen anywhere, but it’s easiest in your own community: there’s so much you don’t have to explain. In some hidden corner of my being, there’s something precious in that kind of contact that makes me actually rather prefer it to the sun, the sea and the sand on the beach.

So – no regrets about being home.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Boomerang of prosperity

Alex Salmond is leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister in Scotland – in effect the head of government in his country, for all those areas over which it has devolved authority. Back in August 2006, he declared that Scotland should join ‘northern Europe's arc of prosperity, with Ireland to the west, Iceland to the north and Norway to the east, all small independent countries in the top six richest nations in the world’.

Today Iceland is broke and Ireland not far behind. Indeed, the Irish often say that the only difference between their country and Iceland is a single letter.

So, so sad. It sounded so good when Alex said it back then, just three years ago. And now it sounds so laughable. He can hardly just pretend he never said it. And the worst of it? The electorate, so often so easily fooled, sometimes remembers these things.

A couple of years ago, the SNP was on a roll. Why, even a few months ago they gleefully announced that they would gun for 20 parliamentary seats at the next election – not the Scottish elections, the UK elections: they would be taking 20 seats at the Westminster Parliament, not the Edinburgh one. That would effectively end Labour’s dominance in Scottish politics and be one more nail in the coffin of its hopes of holding back the apparently unstoppable Conservative tide.

But then we got a by-election in Glasgow North East. Labour held the seat with 59% of the vote, admittedly on a desperate turnout of under 33%. The SNP came second with – wait for it – 20%.

‘Arc of prosperity’? More like a boomerang, Alex. And it seems to have come back to hit you.

Postscript: the Tories take heart

Meanwhile the Conservatives felt the by-election showed they could increase their representation in Scottish seats at Westminster – currently just one. I suppose they took heart from the fact that they narrowly beat the neo-fascist British National Party into fourth place, taking a whopping 5.2% of the vote.

The BNP got 4.9% which is a lot too high, but I’m perfectly happy with the Tory figure. If they’re heartened by that kind of result, I wish them lots more of the same in next year’s General Election.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Did they really mean that?

Public address announcements are like cherries in the Spring: you can collect them up and treasure them for enjoyment later on.

For some years, we lived near Paris and regularly had to travel to Roissy airport to collect visitors (amazing how many more people come to visit you when you live near somewhere like Paris than, say, somewhere like Stafford). I always loved the announcement in the car park, which entreated us to pay for the parking in the terminal building ‘before regaining your vehicle’. A√©roports de Paris is a massive great company, earning, or at least receiving, large sums of money, and it amazed me that they couldn’t afford an English speaker to tell them that, with our less complex personalities and perhaps reduced tendency to get into a flap, we prefer simply to return to our cars without engaging in some kind of major combat to regain them.

Then there’s the brilliant announcement on Ryanair flights that ‘passengers may leave the aircraft using the front and rear steps’. I keep wanting to shout back ‘there’s no way I can do that,’ though of course being able to split oneself into two in that way, like some kind of quantum waveform, would be a pretty remarkable party trick, wouldn’t it?

Then today as I was waiting for a train on platform 4 at Stafford station, I heard the announcement ‘the train to Birmingham New Street will arrive and depart on platform 1’. The inconvenience of having to change platforms was as nothing compared to my disappointment at the banality of the information. Now if it had told us that the train would ‘arrive at platform 4 as planned but depart from platform 1’, that would have been startling, interesting and worth watching.

Didn’t happen though.

Monday, 9 November 2009

When a dowdy lady trumps a shiny fellow

David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative Party and barring some currently unforeseeable dramatic event, soon to be Prime Minister, continues to impress.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall. The TV news shows pictures of a dowdy little middle-aged woman wandering around the crowd gathered to celebrate the event, shaking a hand here, pausing to exchange a smile there, engaging in conversation with some who, like her, came through the wall in the first hours that it was opened back in 1989. And who is she? Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. True, the people around her seem to react with great affection to the obviously kind and approachable figure which probably explains why she was so decisively re-elected to her post a few weeks ago. But, oh dear, where’s the charisma, where’s the presence, where's that shiny smile that makes a PR expert like Cameron the man of the moment?

You only need to look at that dull little figure to understand why Cameron chose to pull the Conservative Party out of the European People’s Party to which Merkel’s European MPs belong. Instead, he built a new grouping with really outstanding figures, such as former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topol√°nek, of whom many have rightly said ‘Who?’

Merkel spoke out in Berlin about the demand of citizens of the old East Germany for freedom, quoting their battle cry, ‘We are the people’. So dull, so motherhood and apple pie. You really want to associate with people like Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which banned gay marches while it was in power, on the grounds that they are obscene, or Latvia’s National Independence Movement, some of whose leaders celebrate the exploits of Latvian members of the Nazis’ Waffen SS.

After all, who does Merkel speak for anyway? Leading the world’s third largest economy may win the respect of an Obama, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to work with the Law and Justice Party, one of whose members in the Polish Parliament described the election of Obama as ‘the end of the civilisation of the white man’? How many enlightened people around the world shared that reaction to last year’s presidential election?

So on this great anniversary of the end of the Cold War, let us salute this man Cameron and the courage with which he is prepared to throw off the shackles of the past, and link up with those around the Continent who really understand the needs of civilisation today.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

What the Stones and the Andrews Sisters tell us about life

A few days ago I was killing the time on some long car journey or another by listening to a collection of songs by the Andrews Sisters. In this gloomy time of year, when it’s dark at five, listening to those bright, dynamic songs can act like a real tonic. This is particularly helpful when the night you’re peering through is yet again being lit up by a long string of brake lights coming on, as you reach another set of roadworks or another accident, leaving you wondering when you’re ever going to get home.

All the same, I always feel slightly embarrassed at admitting I like the Andrews Sisters. It’s a bit like admitting I like feel-good movies, which always gives me a sense of shame as though I were confessing to arrested intellectual development. On the other hand, no-one has ever succeeded in showing me what’s so satisfying about feeling bad.

The problem with liking the Andrews Sisters is that most people regard them as outmoded, as though they had a feel to them of woolly cardigans and carpet slippers. Which leads me to my favourite theme, the transience of things.

The Andrews Sisters enjoyed phenomenal, worldwide success. But only for about thirteen years. I suppose their best period was between Bei mir bist du schein in 1937 and I wanna be loved in 1950. They went on recording songs throughout the fifties but as rock and roll took over, they no longer scored the hits that they had in the past. And the sisters, alone or together, went on to enjoy long careers beyond that time, but in a much lower key.

By contrast, the Rolling Stones started their career in 1962 and they’re still going strong today, 47 years on. Patty Andrews, the youngest of the sisters and their lead singer, is still alive today. She saw the Rolling Stones rise to fame at a point when she was 44 and her own career was already past its peak; now at 91, she can see them still filling stadia.

Curious, isn’t it? I put it down to the war. It was a real watershed. It ushered in a profound revision of attitudes culminating in the sixties. In particular, the conflict between the generations testifies to the depth of transformation of values at that time. The generation born after the war wasn’t just separated from its predecessors by time, but by a gulf in experience that left its mark in attitudes and taste, even taste in music.

Of course, many musicians from the war years kept their careers going long after. Among French-language singers, Charles Aznavour just kept right on going, and amongst English-speakers Frank Sinatra had a pretty good crack of the whip (even though he did rather have to reinvent himself in the fifties). They, however, weren’t the mainstream of popular music which was dominated in the forties by bands that faded in the fifties, to replaced by groups that have stayed at the top ever since – just as long as they didn’t break up.

That’s why two or three generations on from the fifties and sixties, the same music – or at least the same groups – retain their popularity. Whereas the bands who were singing their songs a single generation earlier now feel hopelessly out of date.

The progress of mankind isn’t even. Sometimes it moves smoothly; sometimes it goes through sudden, rapid change. The Andrews Sisters were the victims of one of those moments of discontinuity; the Rolling Stones are enjoying the fruits of smoothness.

And of course this allows the Stones to generate one of the most wonderful sounds ever enjoyed by Man, and popular in all ages: that of a cash register ringing.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Schoolkids throughout England know the old doggerel

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Today’s the day we commemorate the moment in 1605 when the Guy Fawkes conspiracy was foiled. He was arrested in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster surrounded by barrels of gunpowder that he was planning to use to blow Parliament up when the King would have been in attendance.

Fawkes was tortured and ultimately he and his fellow conspirators were put to gruesome death by hanging, drawing and quartering (though he cheated his tormentors, throwing himself off the scaffold and breaking his neck before he could be half-hanged and then ‘drawn’, i.e. have his innards cut out of him while he was still alive – governments then were even more charming than they are now).

Clearly this was an early example of religiously-inspired terrorists beaten by the unsleeping vigilance of the authorities, a model for our own times. Of course, there are those who feel he may not have been all wrong – I remember the dying days of another unloved government many years ago, when a poster campaign around the country proclaimed ‘Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven’.

Nevertheless, because protecting the State is a good thing, and torturing and murdering religious minorities a matter to celebrate, we mark the Fifth of November each year with fireworks and bonfires. At the top of the bonfire, we place a ‘guy’, an effigy of a man which kids make in the weeks leading up to Bonfire Night, so that they can take innocent enjoyment from simulating the burning to death of a fellow human being. A good time is had by all.

In recent years, the tradition has begun to fade a bit, mostly under the pressure of US-inspired celebrations of Halloween just a few days earlier. This is presumably on the grounds that it is morally and psychologically much healthier to take delight from the idea that the dead, far from resting in peace, come back in monstrous form to haunt us all – and, what’s more, to extort sweets from us by threats.

There’s nothing uniquely English about celebrating the brutal. After all, the French celebrate Bastille day, commemorating the beginning of probably the bloodiest period in their history, culminating as it did in the Reign of Terror. They do it with a massive military parade, displaying the might of the State in order to commemorate people who rose to overthrow it.

At least they have their fireworks night in July, when it’s usually hot. We have our great outdoor celebration in Novmber. You see, Guy Fawkes failed in his endeavour and we remained a Protestant country, so we like to have a bit of suffering mixed in with our pleasures. So when the fifth of November dawned this morning cold and wet, it seemed completely appropriate. And I smiled to think that Guy Fawkes was getting the last laugh.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Aw, shucks. Obama don't like us any more

There was a curious piece in my favourite newspaper The Guardian (perhaps I should say joint favourite, since I have a soft spot for the scourge of Berlusconi, La Repubblica). It seems that journalist Simon Tisdall is concerned about Obama’s attitude towards Europe: ‘Obama’s coolness towards Europe worries his Nato partners’.

Perhaps it’s too cheap a crack to say ‘hold on: weren’t we supposed to think his coolness was the thing we liked about him in the first place?’, so I’ll resist the temptation.

In any case, Tisdall’s complaint does feel a bit like something from the ‘he’s-stopped-going-round-with-me-at-break’ school of international diplomacy. Who cares what Obama thinks of us? Well, apart from Brown and Sarkozy of course, snubbed when they wanted private meetings with him – but then why care about them either? In any case, if being liked is the issue, we have so much liking for him over here that we hardly need Obama to contribute any of his own. On the other hand, we might start liking him rather less if he doesn’t start delivering soon.

Bring in a climate change deal that sticks, sort out the mess in Afghanistan and avoid getting us into war with Iran, and he can call us tea-drinkers with bad teeth, cheese-eating surrender monkeys and square-headed cabbage eaters for all I care. And if he sorts out those brutal little bullies in Israel, why, he’ll have earned a Nobel Peace Prize into the bargain.

Fail to deal with those things, and as far as I’m concerned he’s just another loudmouthed American blundering around doing more harm than good. Not that he’ll care if we think that of him. He’ll be blissfully indifferent to our opinion, good or bad. A healthy attitude. One that we should emulate.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

London and multiculturalism: a tonic for our time

It was a surprisingly pleasant afternoon in London yesterday, which was just as well since we showed a group of our friends from Strasbourg around the town. St James’s Park, one of the loveliest I know in any city, led us into Whitehall with its wonderful new monument to the seven million women who served or worked in the war – no human shapes or faces, just various a bronze articles of uniform or work clothes hanging on pegs.

From, there we went down to the river and combined a boat trip with a long walk along the banks. The only downside of the boat trip, to the Tower of London, was the running commentary by a man who thought himself funny but wasn’t. He had the gall to ask us to give him a a tip at the end, but we didn’t.

We then walked back up to St Paul’s, across the Millennium Bridge and to the Tate Modern. The latest piece there is an amazing box of darkness (Miroslaw Balka’s This is it), into which you walk with the light behind you so you have the impression of plunging into complete blackness – it’s really extraordinarily eerie – and when you reach the end (which I bumped into, not realising I was there) it comes both as a shock and as a relief to feel the felt-like substance with which it’s covered. It really was a quite haunting way to move from apprehension to reassurance as you walk into the dark. And it’s strange to feel yourself part of a work of art.
So we had a great time, not least because you can walk so far along the Thames these days. When I was a University of London student in the seventies and eighties, there just weren’t the walkways. Rivers can be lovely close to, particularly at sunset on a pleasant day, and opening up access to the Thames as the City has is real progress since my days.

The other change is the increased diversity of people in the streets. When I was a student, London was already cosmopolitan, with many languages spoken in the crowd, and African-Caribbean or South Asian faces, but you seldom heard Slavic languages (their speakers were securely confined behind the Iron Curtain) and saw few Orientals (those you came across were always Japanese, whereas today they’re more likely to be Chinese, if they aren’t Thai, Malay, Korean and so on). That increasing diversity makes the place more vibrant than ever. At the simplest level, we started with a remarkable Japanese meal (in the new Japan Centre in Piccadilly) and ended with our French friends at an Indian Restaurant in Bloomsbury (they were amazed by the kaleidoscope of flavours – and there’s something richly rewarding about seeing French people enjoy cooking in England).

The sheer pleasure of the cultural diversity of the capital made the band of Fascists we saw demonstrating around the Eros monument on Piccadilly Circus a particularly sad sight. They seemed so irrelevant, so out of touch with the reality of life in Britain and what makes it exciting. It was great to see that there were almost as many police as demonstrators.

It’s sad that the country seems to be going through one of its periodic bouts of flirting with the ultra-Right. As well as being brutal, they have views that are so dull, so lifeless, so limited. We need to keep them like they were yesterday, marginal and irrelevant. And enjoying the rich tapestry that is London has to be a great way of dismissing them.