Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Flapping zippers and missed chances

It was, I suppose inevitably, a French friend who told me the story of the English and French naval captains of the Napoleonic war meeting for dinner on the Frenchman’s ship (fortunately: the food at least was passable).

‘Tell me,’ said the Englishman, ‘why do the French always fight for money while the English fight for honour?’

‘I suppose,’ replied the Frenchman, ‘that everyone fights for what he does not have.’

We all seek what we don’t have.

What France doesn’t have at the moment is a President worthy of the office. Sarkozy-the-little is for ever standing on tiptoes to get himself noticed, always looking for the limelight, and achieving next to nothing.

Meanwhile, as the financial crisis bites, particularly in countries such as Greece, Portugal or Ireland, we need an International Monetary Fund that is enlightened, liberal, capable of playing the long game and not focusing all its attention on the short term.

In Dominique Strauss-Kahn we had the answer to both problems. Under his guidance, the IMF has shown that it can understand the problems of the countries that turn to it for help without abandoning any of its financial rigour. It can demand action to address underlying failings, but without insisting on policies that would crucify the population.

DSK: might-have-been man
And ‘DSK’ was the runaway favourite to win next year’s presidential election in France. With all the qualities to be an outstanding President.

Or perhaps all the qualities bar one.

Obviously, we may discover that the charges against him are completely baseless. It does strike me as odd that a chambermaid was in his room while he was having a shower – in my experience, if hotel staff step into your room while you’re there, they beat a hasty retreat and come back later. So maybe he’s as innocent as a babe in arms, and I’d be delighted if that’s established by the trial, even though it will be too late for France or the IMF.

But if he’s found guilty, or acquitted on a technicality (it's notoriously difficult to get a conviction on a rape charge), I shall merely drop a tear over a lost opportunity. ‘With so many gifts,’ I shall sigh, ‘and so much to contribute to others, why did you never learn the self-control to keep your zipper shut?’

Another case of flapping zipper syndrome in a powerful man.

Another case of always wanting what you don’t have, however much you already do.
The whole story reminds me of the comment an American friend made to me, back in the late nineties. ‘He could have been great,’ she said. She wasn’t talking about DSK, of course. At the time, Bill Clinton was finding it so difficult to hang on to the presidency that he couldn’t do any of the things the office in theory made possible.

Sunday, 29 May 2011


If Luton is known for anything, it’s known as a centre for immigration. Races, cultures, creeds and colours rub along side by side, generally without uncomfortable levels of discord.

My favourite place in the town is Wardown Park, with its trees and its green spaces and the river flowing through it.

So it was a pleasure the other day to see these two characteristic features of the town come together, when I came across the phenomenon of a foreign community blending into the town, on display in the most attractive setting it offers. Yes, a group of immigrants, in this instance from Canada, had been breeding in Wardown Park.

A Canada goose and her brood in Wardown Park
They add to the charm of an already attractive place, wouldn’t you agree?

Strangely enough, given that Luton has a large population from Pakistan, it was in North London that we visited Pakistani friends yesterday. It all went well with entertaining conversation, a plaful toddler and a memorable curry with all the trimmings. In addition she, a barrister on a career break to launch her family, told us about an exchange she had had with a judge.

He had established that she lived in a neighbourhood with a large proportion of residents from South Asia.

‘Ah, yes,’ he said, ‘you have all those wonderful little shops, don’t you? On the street corners. What do you call them again?’

‘We call them newsagents, your honour,’ she replied.

It’s wonderful to know that certain traditions are alive and well. In this instance it's a particularly long-lived and hallowed English tradition, where judicial ignorance only gets pricked by the wit of advocates.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Getting rapturous about another lot...

What a privilege to have been graced with new enlightenment as a result of my posts about the rapture and Mr Camping. A benefit all the more welcome for having been entirely unexpected.

As a result of my most recent post, I received a comment pointing me to a site run by the Merkaba organisation. I was told that it contained information that is proving controversial, which is curious – the controversy has completely passed me by. It’s appalling, isn’t it, how one can live in a society and simply not notice a major debate of this kind?

To my shame, I have to confess I’d never even heard of the organisation before.

The site includes a sonorous audio message which started off by telling me that Harold Camping was talking complete rubbish. Imagine my shock. This cast a wholly new light on the whole Camping prophesy business. Might he have been wrong, I asked myself? Was there perhaps some incontrovertible evidence out there of his having been mistaken? Had I missed it?

It seems that Camping and his followers are suffering from ‘diseased right-brain thinking.’ I hope they’re aware of that – they might be able to get it treated. Though perhaps not those who’ve given away all their worldly possessions in readiness for the rapture, if they’re dependent on the US health system where ability to pay remains a pretty significant factor in access to care.

The Merkaba people utterly reject Camping’s idea that the world will end on 21 September. This is complete rubbish. It will clearly end on 21 December 2012. This is a date not deduced by some ‘dart throw’ method from questionable interpretation of the bible, but one that was (imagine a particularly sonorous voice here) ‘given us by the ancient ones who built pyramids that still cannot be duplicated today.’

I don't want to quiblle, but I rather suspect that we could duplicate the pyramids today. The problem is that nobody can be bothered to do it just to prove some sect wrong.

Anyway, the rapture may not have happened on 21 May, but then it was never going to. Then Merkaba assures me that sometime between the later months of 2011 and the early months of 2012, there will be a ‘massive coronal ejection’ of matter from the sun which will strike the earth and that will bring about the rapture.

Coronal Mass Ejection - the initial sign of the coming rapture?
And then, finally, the end of the world on 21 December 2012.

Isn’t this wonderful? We now have several predicted events we can await with pleasure, knowing that we’ll be able to wake up the following day and have a bit of a laugh at the expense not just of one set of doom-mongers but two. I know you can’t get a hell of a lot of laughs out of prophets getting things wrong, but even a bit of a chuckle is a good way to start a day, and it’s kind of Camping and Merkaba to want to provide us with at least that much.

It may also give me material for a couple more blog posts. And who knows what enlightening comments they might generate.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Sackcloth and Ashes

When we have the energy, and we try to dredge it up most weekends, we play badminton on a Sunday morning. It’s fun and it’s good exercise, but on top of that the atmosphere has its own special charm:  we play to the sound of hymns being sung to lilting African melodies and strong African rhythms.

This is because as well as the badminton court, the centre where we play houses not one but two African churches on a Sunday morning. In one of them, the worshippers turn out immaculately dressed in smart suits or long dresses. In the other, they wear flowing all-white robes. Both congretations sway, sing and dance. The children dress like the adults and smile when we turn up. If worship can be dismally solemn in a lot of churches, in those two it is unstintingly joyous.

Last Sunday, we had badminton, we had our singing and dancing churchgoers, we had sun and blue skies. Everything to encourage good cheer. And yet surely we should have woken to floods and earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and pestilence, with the rapturous amongst us long since raptured. If anyone deserves to be rapt, some of them would certainly be members of our two congregations, and yet there they were on Sunday morning, still among us, still as full of cheer as ever.

Harold Camping, who predicted the rapture and the start of the end of the world for Saturday, is apparently now admitting that he got the calculations wrong. Wrong? You think so? Perhaps that is the truest statement he’s made for a while. Is it time for him to don sackcloth in penance?

But he goes on to say, demonstrating his unerring command of the English language, ‘we have to be looking at all of this a little bit more spiritual, but it won't be spiritual on Oct. 21, because the Bible clearly teaches that then the world is going to be destroyed altogether.’ So he was wrong but basically he was right.

Camping used to be a civil engineer. I was once told that where a  mathematician will tell you that 1 + 2 makes 3, a physicist will tell you that it’s between 2.5 and 3.5 and an engineer will say, ‘well, it’s approximately 3 but let’s say 8 for safety.’ Sound like Camping to you?

That being said, things have started turning nasty – or I should say gone on turning nasty – in various parts of the world. Iceland, for instance, is producing another cloud of volcanic ash for us. The same thing happened last year. And two years before that, one of the first calamities of the financial crisis was the Icelandic banks crashing, spreading devastation far beyond their shores.

Unlike Camping's, Iceland's message is unambiguous
What have the Icelanders got against us? What have we done to trouble their tranquillity? And do they realise they’re playing with fire? I mean, they’ve got enough to contend with as it is, and surely they know that if Britain, France or the US get the impression another country is dissing them, the next thing you know is the bombers go in. Just as soon as the ash clears enough to allow planes to fly.

I wonder whether Camping is looking for the source of our tribulations in the right place. The damp squib that rapture day turned into on Saturday rather suggests that God doesn't really have it in for us just yet.

On the other hand, should we be getting concerned about some character in Rejkyavik?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

It's goodbye from me. And all of you

It seemed important to get this post up in a hurry, since I have it on good authority – well, authority anyway – that the end of times happens this evening. At 6:00, apparently, though of course we’re on British Summer Time here, so I assume we have an hour longer – I presume divine institutions, when organising events like raptures, would base themselves on Greenwich Mean Time when they prepare the schedule for England.

So, it’s goodbye to all my readers. To the small number of you who will be caught up in the rapture, and ascend naked to heaven to join the Lord and his Saints, I can only say congratulations and happy eternity. For the rest, well see you shortly, I suppose, and let’s hope things don’t turn out quite as vile as we've been led to believe.

The authority on which I’m basing my plans for the rest of the day (the rest of time, actually) is of course the Bible, but transmitted via the Reverend Harold Camping of California (natch). At the cost of seeming churlish, I have to point out that he did previously predict the end of times for September 1994, which is perhaps a good reason for marginally downgrading the credit due to his forecast for tonight. Time to take a leaf out of the credit ratings agencies’ books – let’s downgrade Camping from triple-A to A. I reckon that’s about as reliable and rigorous a downgrading as the ratings agencies generally manage.

The biggest problem with Camping’s prophesy, though, isn’t the fact that he’s been wrong before, it’s his name. However seriously you might want to take his pronouncements, it’s really hard, isn’t it, with a name like that? It just kicks off far too many unfortunate trains of thought.
  • For instance, I keep wanting to ask what he’ll do at the end of the world – fold his tent and steal away?
  • Is Camping blessed with second site?
  • Does he have the support of enough strong guys?
  • Should we congratulate him on driving a peg so firmly into the ground?
  • Might the police suspect him of prophesying within tent?

Camping out with the bible
That kind of thing introduces an unfortunate note of levity. Obviously, if he’d been called Tiresias or Isaiah, we might be able to take him much more seriously. And then I might have spent the next few hours cancelling any arrangements for the evening and preparing myself to meet my maker (not, I suspect, an occasion from which either of us could hope to gain very much, as a headmaster once told me when I was eleven).

And I certainly wouldn’t already be planning my first post-rapture blog post.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Dorset moonlight and dance

A good weekend, down in Dorset, celebrating the 50th birthday of my old friend Patrick (a lot older, obviously, than when I first met him and he was just 31 and I wasn’t even 40. Ah well – as I always say, the only way not to grow old is to die young).

Patrick and Mary put us all up in a hotel right on the cliffs overlooking an English Channel as gloriously, deeply blue as the Mediterranean ever is. Amazing for May. It was beautiful at night too, when I took Janka for her evening walk along the beach. There was a half moon which sent one of those staircase reflections over the surface of the sea towards me, the kind of thing which always used to make me feel as a child that I could walk along it to some magical destination. And then, when clouds came scudding across, there’d be a moment when the moonlight became just a patch of silver on the waves before vanishing altogether.

The party itself went well too.

It’s quite extraordinary that some people don’t like dancing. Generally, their antipathy is based on a lack of confidence in their ability to dance, and a fear that they might cover themselves with embarrassment if they tried. The reality is that they probably have only to let themselves go to enjoy one of the great sources of joy for humanity, in every climate and at every period.

My own position is entirely different. When it comes to my ability to dance, I suffer from no lack of confidence whatever. On the contrary, there are few things on which I have greater certainty than my incompetence as a dancer. Nor do I have any unjustified fear that I might cause myself embarrassment by trying to dance. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that if I so much as step onto a dance floor total abject embarrassment would be an immediate and inevitable consequence.

I’ve actually got the moral scars to prove it. Decades ago, two women on separate occasions gave me all that guff about ‘anyone can dance, you just have to overcome your lack of confidence and let yourself go with the rhythm.’ Each occasion ended with them saying, ‘OK, I see what you mean, perhaps you really had better sit down.’ So I spent the rest of the evening nursing a drink while they danced with a series of vastly more talented young men.

It’s extraordinary how attractive to women a young man looks, viewed by a boyfriend sat by a dance floor watching them dance with his girlfriend.

All of which perhaps explains why I was out on Saturday walking the dog on the beach and trying to work up enthusiasm for the moonlight.

Fortunately, there were lots of other things to do during the weekend. On Saturday, we went to Lyme Regis, one of the most precious jewels in the crown of English towns. It’s also a setting used in some remarkable novels, my favourite being Jane Austen’s Persuasion but also including Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Danielle and I visited Lyme in 1981 (thirty years ago – chilling thought) when the film of that last novel, starring Meryl Streep, was all the rage. The poster showed Streep looking fetching in a hood, standing on that iconic place in Lyme, the Cobb, the long, curved jetty that thrusts out into the sea. Inevitably, Danielle insisted on taking a photo of me with my head covered in the same way, in the same place. Since I had a beard at the time, the resemblance to Streep was somewhat less than eery.

She took another picture this weekend. Not sure whether the resemblance is any more striking.

Streep in 1981

Me in 2011. Spooky likeness or what?
And the one horsing around in the background? Here's her attempt at a Streep - not a patch on mine, of course.

Vanessa attempts a pale imitation of my
tribute to a great artist

Monday, 16 May 2011

Fish have rights too

Judging by its window display, the prestigious department store Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street, is proud of the principled stand it has recently taken. ‘We don't sell endangered fish’ they proclaim with obvious confidence in their moral credentials.

Selfridges sides with the fish. Or does it?
That's all very well and fine, but I'm not sure that things are quite so clear cut. After all, we're entitled to ask: they don’t sell endangered fish – what?

In fact, what do endangered fish generally buy?

I suppose they might want to equip themselves with some kind of security system, to mitigate the dangers they face. And if they did, why should we refuse to supply them the protection they crave? Don’t they have rights too, to live in safety?

Is it time to launch a counter-campaign? Or possibly an over-the-counter campaign?

My modest proposal for a possible slogan: not so self-righteous, Selfridges.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Jeff Hall - another Bin Laden moment

‘Any man's death diminishes me,’ wrote John Donne, ‘because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.’

A noble sentiment. Any death is a blow to mankind as a whole. So, because we are part of mankind, it damages each of us individually too. 

It’s a view that’s sometimes gets tested quite hard. For instance when Osama Bin Laden was taken down. Hey, he was Bin Laden. He died. That diminishes me, sure, but it also leaves me in a world that’s just a little bit safer, a little bit healthier. Doesn't that make it hard to feel any real sense of bereavement or do any actual mourning?

I mean, if anyone can be said to have broken the bond that links man to man, it has to be Bin Laden. He led a campaign of indiscriminate destruction of others, without a thought to whether they were innocent or guilty of any offence against those he claimed to represent.  ‘I am uninvolving myself in mankind,’ he seemed to be saying, so why wouldn’t we respond ‘then don’t expect us to be involved with you’?

Even so, perhaps a little more restraint in the partying that followed his death might have been more,well, becoming. Perhaps we could have adopted an attitude that the bell tolls a bit for us because it tolls for him, and that's no cause of celebration, but because it mainly tolls for him, perhaps we'll learn to live with it.

That’s the same sort of feeling I got when I read about the strange case of Jeff Hall in California. Jeff was one of these selfless people who give up their personal time to unstinting service to their community, though in his case it was more specifically to his race. They expect little in return, satisfying themselves with the right to strut about in a smart black uniform, exercise ruthless authority over their underlings and indulge their taste for unsavoury ideas. Jeff was the organiser for the South Western United States for the National Socialist Movement, which strives selflessly to rid its great nation of the lesser races (non-Whites, Jews and so on).

Well, it seems poor Jeff has been shot by his ten-year old son. Shot and killed. No more shall we enjoy his fine presence bestriding the American political stage.

A child killing his father – it’s the stuff of tragedy. A real horror. How will the child ever come to terms with what he’s done? Even though, apparently, Jeff was already preparing him intensively to follow in his father’s footsteps, inculcating in him all the principles he held dear, including his probably idiosyncratic view of the sanctity of human life.

Despite that invaluable grounding, the child is still going to have to learn to live with having broken one of the great taboos of human society. And we in Europe might seize on this opportunity to bemoan once more the easy access to guns that makes the USA so prone to this kind of terrible event. A bad business, we could say, and shake our heads wisely in despair.

But hold on: he was Jeff Hall. It’s another Bin Laden moment, isn’t it? Take a look at the picture the press carried of him. There he is posing with every sign of pride behind a banner with a swastika on it.

All deaths diminish me, but some a lot less than others
Any man’s death diminishes me. Well, it does. But sometimes that mournful feeling comes tinged with a light touch of relief.

As for Hall Junior, I can’t help feeling that what we should be giving him right now isn’t so much a trial in a juvenile court and a long custodial sentence, but counselling and help to rebuild his life.

And perhaps a medal.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

They evoke and inspire, the stations of modern pilgrimage

My love affair with certain modes of public transport continues to strengthen and deepen. Not planes of course, those ghastly flying cigars they stuff you into with far too little space for comfort. You only put up with them for the sake of getting somewhere wonderful, like Barcelona or Berlin, and I've been on flights which I'd have willingly left even for Kinshasa or Kabul.

Nor do I mean those other packed cigars, underground trains. But real trains, the overground ones, only occasionally generate anything less than unmitigated delight. Not least for the little gems to which they sometimes lead us.

Take Barnstaple, for instance, where I went last week. You start by taking the main line to Exeter, insofar as the South West of England, as remote as it's beautiful, can be said to be on the main line to anywhere. Then you change onto a branch line on which the only surprise is that the engines aren't driven by steam. You make lengthy stops at various stations to let trains coming the other way go past.

Barnstaple is near the North Devon coast, from where the locals say that if you can see the coast of South Wales, then it's going to be raining soon. And if you can't see the coast of South Wales, it's raining already.

Barnstaple Station stands for an unchanging world.
And has changed its signs to prove it
I didn't see the South Wales coast (I didn't bother to look: it was raining). What I did see was the sign outside the station with its evocation of a bygone, more innocent world. That green, those pleasantly flattened white logos, so much more attractive than ghastly monstrosities such as the symbol of the London Olympics, the very brand name, conjured up memories of my long-lost youth.

'British Railways' it proclaimed. How appropriate in this pleasant backwater, firmly attached to tradition and essentially conservative. Except it was the Conservatives, led by their harridan leader Margaret Thatcher, who did away with British Railways. There is no such organisation any more.

Except, apparently, on the Barnstaple branch line. Showing that not all conservatives agree with the Conservatives. A most ingenious paradox for those who collect such things.

Barnstaple's salute to long-lost British Rail
Because looking backwards isn't always Conservative
This week I was up in the opposite part of the country, both physically and metaphorically, in Hull, or Kingston upon Hull to give it its full name. In the old industrial heartland of the North, in Yorkshire, Hull has known better times and is climbing back towards better times again.

Reaching the station on Sunday, I was reminded of another trip decades ago when I'd forgotten to bring a book for the journey, but a fellow-passenger lent me a copy of The Chequer Board. It was my introduction to Nevil Shute, an appalling writer and outstandng story-teller. For me, Hull is forever associated wth the charm of the book and the bitter frustration of having to give it back when its owner left the train, before I could finish it and long before I'd reached Hull.

But Hull is associated with a much finer writer, the city's best known son, at least since the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Philip Larkin is the poet who wrote those resounding words, 'they fuck you up your Mum and Dad'. Frankly, I can't blame my Mum or Dad for my fucked-up state, and if my sons suffer from any particular fucked-uppery, they can take the responsibility onto their own shoulders and sort it out themselves.

Still I like the poems, and I like the statue of the poet striding across the concourse at Hull station, his dynamic posture underlining his, the railways' and the town's thrusting approach to the future.

Larkin striding out, underlining the dynamism of the railways.
And of course of Hull
Larkin's reputation has been somewhat tarnished by the stash of pornography found in his house after his death, but if you ask me that was just his last joke on all the worthy commentators for whom the discovery made enthusiastic eulogies rather difficult.

A dynamic poet with feet of clay in the North, conservative resistance to Conservatism in the South. Travelling the tracks keep me instructed and amused.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Poverty producing richness, and an article of surprising effect

Among his many other appealing qualities, Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern major general apparently displayed a pretty taste for paradox. So here’s one for his collection.

If you want to generate rich layers of meaning, sometimes you need to exploit a poverty of language.

For example, the word ‘speech’ in English has meanings conveyed by two separate words in French: the general capacity or potential for speech (‘parole’) and a formal address to an audience (‘discours’). Clearly in this area at least, English is less precise than French, or indeed other romance languages such as Italian or Spanish.

So the title of the most recent hit from the British film industry, The King’s Speech, evokes both the capacity to speak, impaired for the King in question by his stammering, and the specific address given by that King as his country – his Empire, indeed – entered the Second World War. That address is the key event of the film to which all the preceding action tends.

So how can one convey both meanings in a romance language? The simple answer is that you can’t, short of writing something like La Parole/le Discours du Roi which leaves a little to be desired in the snappiness department. So those poor romance speakers – romantics? – have had to pick one or other meaning and leave the other aside.

Strangely, they went for the address, which rather plays down the film’s central theme, of a man struggling to overcome an affliction. In Italian and Spanish, the title of the film is Il discorso del rè and El discurso del rey.

Their extra precision, and consequent greater richness of expressiveness over English, leads to an impoverishment in the interplay of meanings in this title.

Cleverly, and those Frogs are nothing if not clever, in French the title is Le discours d’un roi. That use of the indefinite article, ‘un’ – a King rather than the King – recovers some of the more general sense lost in Italian and Spanish. We’re not talking only about that particular speech, by that particular King, but about the speech of a King and therefore the speech of Kings in general. So the French get a bit closer to the deliberate ambiguity of the English than their neighbours beyond the Alps or the Pyrenees.

How an article can help make up for
impoverishing richness
Fascinating what the choice of an article can do.

Well, of course you may not feel it's that fascinating. But I enjoy collecting little titbits like that.

And I like to think it would have put a smile of satisfaction on the lips of the very model of a modern major general.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Bus travel broadens the mind

Misquotations are by definition incorrect, but they’re not always wrong.

A wonderful example is the severe statement attributed to Maggie Thatcher, ‘a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.’ Though it now looks as though she never spoke those words, it perfectly sums up the arrogance she often showed, her tendency to mistake prejudice for judgement, and her conviction of the superiority of ‘her people’ – even though those people never accepted her as one of their own and they turned on her ruthlessly as soon as they decided that she no longer served their purposes.

It's a judgement that makes me a total failure, of course. To confess the full extent of my ignominy, not only do I frequently use buses, I actually like them.

In the first place, I’d always choose a bus if the alternative is London Underground, which as well as being overcrowded and short of seats, inevitably suffers from all the unpleasantness that goes with the word ‘underground’ itself.

Buses also have actual positive merits to recommend them. For instance, the number 10 which carries me so often between my railway station and my office has recently taken on surprising value as a symbol of international relations. It is operated by the RATP – the Paris transport network. That’s has significance I can only describe as millenarian – I can’t think of a similar French invasion of English daily life since William of Normandy landed at Hastings in 1066.

Ah, ça alors! Zese French, zey are debarking
chez nous again. And on my bus too

You can also meet interesting people on buses. I recently found myself sitting at the front of the upper deck of my number 10, across the aisle from a father travelling with his eight-year old daughter. They were talking what to my ear sounded like Dutch but not in any accent that I associate with Holland. Danielle tells me that Dutch is just ‘homity-homity-homity’ and they didn’t sound remotely like that. And I was impressed by the daughter who was reading adverts off other buses or roadside hoardings and translating them to her father. When I asked where they were from, they gave me what I suppose was the obvious answer: Belgium.

Extraordinary place, Belgium. They haven’t had a government for months, but I was there in March and everything’s running just fine: the trains, the restaurants, the shops. That reminded me of the previous occasion I’d had that kind of experience, in Italy, in 1979. When I arrived, the country had been without a government for four months; when I left, it had been without a government for six months. That didn’t prevent my enjoying some magical times in the glorious Alpine town of Aosta, where I spent many an evening listening to a Mexican friend describing in a Spanish I only half understood the mythical background of his country, while we sipped pink wine in the pink central square filled with the pink light of the setting sun.

You see? You can even get quite lyrical without a government. Perhaps, given where Italy is today in its Berlusconi-fied state, it’s positively easier without a government.

Curiously, Danielle and I had a not dissimilar experience in the last few days, in Madrid. Spain provides the ‘S’ of that dismal acronym PIIGS, the nations including Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Greece, whose financial difficulties are most threatening the financial stability of Europe. And in Spain the sun still shines, the olives are as succulent, the beer is as cold and the churros as delicious and calorific as ever. Which makes me think that the country hasn’t really lurched from doing fabulously well, generating over-optimistic exuberance among commentators, to doing catastrophically badly, inspiring their doom-laden horror – it has gone from doing well to doing less well.

The problem is the commentators. A small change is enough to plunge them from excessive hopes to unjustified gloom. The sad thing is that governments listen to the commentators, so some day if one of the credit agencies decides to downgrade Spain’s credit rating, there might be real problems. But will the rating reflect the financial difficulties, or will the rating cause them?

But back to Belgium. Another frequently repeated saying, again with a lot of truth in it, is that the King of the Belgians is actually the only Belgian. The others are all Flemish or Walloon, with a handful of Germans thrown in for good measure.

As the father on the bus explained to me, at school he found himself obliged to learn Flemish – Dutch without the homity-homity – French and German, to cover the official languages of the Belgian state (it’s not a nation).

‘But then,’ he told me, ‘I discovered that as an IT specialist, I wasn’t going to get anywhere without English, so I had to learn that too. And then I worked in South America, so I learned Spanish. And of course, I’ve also had to master computer languages.’

I wanted to ask him to say something in C++ or T-SQL, but I was nearly at my stop. So I wished them well and left, full of admiration at their linguistic abilities – particularly the daughter’s. I wonder how many of our eight-year olds would be able to translate advertising out of a foreign language?

The experience also confirmed my view that bus travel is a wonderful way to set in motion all sorts of interesting trains of thought . As I hope I’ve shown.

That makes it a pretty remarkable mode of transport, whatever Mrs T. might have said on the subject.

Or, alternatively, never said.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

An appeal - and an afterthought on Bin Laden

For a long time, I thought it was unbelievably difficult to write a novel. But now I’ve written three, it seems to me that it takes a lot of time and some persistence, but it’s not that hard. I don’t say it’s easy to write a good novel, and certainly one of my three needs such heavy rewriting that it may never be worth tackling at all, while the jury’s still out on the other two. But just getting the words on the page is less hard than I thought.

Much more difficult, it seemed to me, was getting a novel published and then winning some sales. But what I hadn’t thought about was just how difficult it was even to get a publisher’s attention. It’s like that moment in Sartre’s Roads to Freedom when French prisoners of war clamour for the bread the German guards throw them, and fight each other for it. The admirable character, the one we’d doubtless all hope to emulate, is the one who refuses to join the scramble.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I like the idea of going that hungry.

So it is with the 4000 or so of us who’ve put novels up on the ‘Authonomy’ website. You have to get your book to climb up to the top 5. Harper Collins have promised to review (not, I stress to publish) only that number. Like Sartre’s prisoners of war, we’re all therefore clamouring for notice. To be honest, to push the analogy a bit further, fighting for bread might not be enough – we’d have to borrow a guard’s machine gun and mow down our fellow captives.

Within Authonomy, each of us chooses up to five titles that we can ‘back’ by placing them on our virtual ‘bookshelves’. The more bookshelves a book appears on and the longer it stays on them, the further it climbs. There’s a lot of bartering – ‘I’ll put you on mine if you put me on yours’. I’m trying to be a bit more like the Sartre character, and only put a book on my bookshelf if I think it’s worth reading, though I have to confess that one of my two is there because I mistook ‘back’ (the book) for ‘back’ (to the previous page). It’s still there (for now) because I didn’t have the heart to remove it though I don’t really like it.

I’m taking my time over my other three choices, reading passages here and there until I find titles I think deserve support.

Would get by better with a little help from my friends
Meanwhile, what of my own Good Company? It may be a drawback that I chose to give it the form of letters (OK, I’ve called them ‘e-mails’ to be more contemporary, but it’s basically the same thing). I chose that form because I write letters with some fluency and ease. Unfortunately, that kind of epistolary novel was popular in the eighteenth century but may not be so appropriate to the twenty-first. The kindest comment I’ve had on Authonomy was from someone who said she’d love to receive letters like mine, though it may be significant that she didn’t actually back the book.

So far, Good Company has done reasonably well, climibing the rankings in just over a month from 4179 to 946. It’s great to be in the top 1000, but that does leave the small matter of 941 further places to climb. It feels to me as though the book needs a bit more support.

So do I get down in the mud and claw at my fellow prisoners with the rest of them? I’d prefer to find a compromise which avoids swallowing quite that much pride. A sensible compromise might be to turn to friends for help. And aren’t the readers of this blog my friends?

So this is my appeal to any of you who can spare the time, to:
  • Logon to www.authonomy.com
  • Register (you don’t have to use your real name)
  • Navigate through to “David Beeson” 
  • Read as much or as little of Good Company as you want
  • Back it, please, if you think it deserves a review by Harper Collins.
And to those who find the time to do that – why, many thanks.

Unrelated postscript

Back here in Britain, The Sun, a so-called newspaper belonging to that noted philanthropist Rupert Murdoch, carries a headline today:
  Bin Laden unarmed – just like his 9/11 and 7/7 victims
Let’s get this straight, I think the world’s a better place for no longer containing Bin Laden and I applaud the US operation that rid us of him. On the other hand, I feel less good about the enthusiastic celebrations the event triggered – death may be a cause for relief, when it’s that of a truly heinous criminal, but joy always seems inappropriate.
As for The Sun’s headline, it implies that the behaviour of terrorists should be a benchmark for us all.
Am I alone in feeling that this sets the bar just a tad low?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Spain: selective respect of commandments

When you live in a predominantly Christian society, even if only in name, it tends to rub off on you even if you’re not directly involved yourself, as it were.

So I have a sense that somewhere or other – the seventh commandment comes to mind – the bible is less than wholehearted in its enthusiasm for adultery. Now we happen to be in one of the most Catholic countries of Europe, Spain, at a time when Christianity is drawing particular attention thanks to the beatification of John Paul II.

In passing, let me say as a longstanding marketing person, that I regard the beatification as a brilliant PR coup. John Paul II enjoys widespread popularity and it makes a lot of sense for an organisation like the Catholic Church which has had, shall we say, its PR challenges in recent years, to make the most of any popularity it can find anywhere.

Anyway, in Spain in its heightened Christian atmosphere, I enjoyed an advertising campaign I came across in the last couple of days.

Spain fails to respect the seventh commandment
Roughly translated it says ‘Are you a married woman? Relive the passion. Have an adventure.’

For the avoidance of confusion, as they say in the contracts, 'adventure' in this context doesn't mean setting off for the source of the Nile or going bungee jumping in the Alps. Checking the website, it turns out to be a service for people in stable relationships who are looking for what we like to think of in Britain as a bit on the side.

As one of my daughters-out-law pointed out to me, wouldn’t it be awkward if both partners signed up at the same time and were put in touch with each other? Still, the service promises manual filtering of registrations, together with complete privacy and discretion. Maybe that covers filtering out just such embarrassment.

A publicly advertised adultery site. A fascinating development for our complex age.

But then there is another commandment, the eighth or ninth depending on your tradition, about not bearing false witness. To many, that's an injunction against lying in general, an exhortation to honesty. 

Perhaps there is therefore virtue in the Victoria Milan site. It breaches the seventh commandment but perhaps respects the eighth. A selective application of virtue, in other words.

Or in other words, in openly offering a service to adulterers, does it not at least have the merit of refusing hypocrisy?