Monday, 31 October 2011

Cambridge: higher level beings and devouring to protect

One of the advantages of having visitors from abroad, in this case from France, is that we find ourselves spurred out of our indolence to do things we might not otherwise have done and which prove a refreshing change from just quietly vegetating at home. 

Yesterday, we travelled to Cambridge. Going there always makes me feel as though I was being bestowed some kind of honour. Like Oxford, Cambridge doesn’t so much pretend to be a cut above anywhere else in the kingdom as know that it is. I’m glad, however, to discover that it’s no more above a bit of marketing skulduggery than anywhere else: we went principally to visit an exhibition entitled ‘Vermeer’s Women’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which actually contained just four Vermeers (out of about 40 paintings). I suppose a title such as ‘wonderful paintings of women by Vermeer’s contemporaries and compatriots, with a smattering of canvasses by the master himself to act as a hook to get you in’ would probably not have been quite as seductive. As well as being less easy to say.

The Lacemaker: one of only four Vermeers,
but a great show anyway
In any case, it was a great exhibition which introduced me to some other painters I barely knew, and it was free, something I suppose we should take advantage of: one of these days our government will wake up with a shock to the fact that we still have free museums and slap charges on them. 

There was a wonderful notice in the café of the museum, calling on us not to try to reserve tables while we were at the counter buying our drinks. This, it told us, was because of the ‘high level’ of visitors. Like I said, this was Cambridge and it was an honour for mere mortals just to be there: it had raised us to a higher level, which is so much more flattering than merely being counted among some high numbers. 
In Cambridge one moves among higher beings
If I had to take issue with anything in the sign, it was with its final thought: ‘I apologise for any inconvenience caused.’ OK, inconvenience to those of us who weren’t reserving tables, but surely much greater convenience for those who would find a table available as a result. The apology should have been coupled with a note of gratitude – ‘I apologise for the inconvenience caused but thank you for the convenience generated for others.’ 

In any case, we decided that we were a French group and celebrated Gallic tradition by ignoring the injunction. 

Later on, we crossed the road and had dinner in a fish restaurant. As we emerged I saw another sign, proclaiming the restaurant’s commitment to protecting ‘all forms of marine life.’ 

If that's protection, who needs predators?
What the heck? They’d just served us various bits of marine life. Cooked to perfection. And we’d eaten them. 

If that’s what they call protection, I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of their aggression.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Euro: dealing with teenagers

There are times when Europe offers the most wonderful political theatre, even against the background of the most solemn, painful difficulties. 

I’ve already talked about David Cameron being told to shut it by Sarkozy, providing a riveting display of the family-tension view of the political scene in Europe. Merkel and Sarkozy are the parents in this scenario, struggling to come to grips with most testing financial crisis the continent has seen for the best part of a century. Cameron’s in the role of the teenager with the baseball cap. 

‘Come on, Dad’, he’s saying, or perhaps ‘Daaaad’, ‘you’ve got to get this sorted, you’ve got to get the shed fixed up before the band comes to play in it at the weekend.’ You should never snap at a disturbed teenager, but surely we can sympathise when eventually harassed parents cracks and round on their whingeing offspring? 

‘Put a sock in it, son,’ Dad replies, ‘can’t you see we’ve got something slightly bigger to sort out here?’ 

But Merkel and Sarkozy have another troublesome boy. To their South, they have Berlusconi. He’s even worse than Dave because he thinks he’s funny. 

Isn’t it ghastly when a teenager starts trying to show off the wit he doesn’t have? You remember Silvio likening a German MEP to a concentration camp kapo? You only have to look at Silvio’s smile to know he thought he was being devastatingly hilarious. 

Then there was the time he kept Merkel waiting while he continued an apparently interminable mobile phone conversation. How stereotypical is that? 

Now the parents have actually put together a bit of a plan to get the family out of its hole. Will it work? It’s hard to say but it seems pretty clear that, without their latest measures, things would have been far worse, far sooner. 

Silvio’s comments? Yesterday he told us that the euro was a ‘strange’ currency because it can be ‘attacked on the markets.’ Does he mean unlike the lira, the pound or the franc? He’s the fourteen year-old who’s opted for the ‘Introduction to Economics’ course and hasn’t realised that reading the first half of chapter 1 doesn’t make him an expert. 

He also declared that the euro is a currency that ‘convinces no-one’. Now it must have been nice for all those people who laboured through all those hours of summit meetings to hear that from one of the major beneficiaries of their efforts. 

The parents have found a way that might help save the house. Dave is sulking in his room, playing his guitar with the amp turned up too high, refusing to contribute anything while still insisting on being fed. 

Silvio doesn’t think that saving the house makes much sense, because he doesn’t like the colour of the walls. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when Merkel and Sarkozy were asked at a press conference last week about the assurances Berlusconi had given them, they shared an ironic, and probably weary, smile before they tackled the effort of coming up with an answer. 

Merkel and Sarkozy struggling to stay serious-looking when
asked about the reliability of Berlusconi
That smile wasn’t well received in Italy. I can imagine that it caused even more pain than suffered by Cameron and his friends when he was told to shut up. 

But was it any the less deserved?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A curious question, but irrelevant. Or perhaps not?

It may not be a burning issue of our times, but I’ve often wondered who won the Battle of Waterloo. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to the consensus view that Napoleon lost it. The question is whether it was won by the Duke of Wellington’s British and Allied army, a view much favoured in this country, or by Marshal Blücher and his Prussians, a view which is of course merely vile, self-serving propaganda.

Meeting of the victors: but which of them clinched it?
Putting it another way, ‘could Wellington have won without Blücher or did the Prussians make all the difference?’

It’s been interesting to read Andrew Roberts’ book Napoleon and Wellington and get a new insight on the question.

Here’s the sequence of events.

On 16 June 1815 the French fought Wellington’s forces at Quatre Bras (indecisive) and the Prussians at Ligny (French victory on points). 

Funnily enough, at Ligny Napoleon revealed the problem that was to beset him throughout this, his last, campaign: a series of monumental errors of judgement. In this instance he sent one of his generals, d’Erlon, marching with his infantry between Quatre Bras and Ligny and then back again, with the result that in the end those forces took no part in either battle. The presence of d’Erlon at Ligny might have made Napoleon’s victory decisive, knocking Blücher’s army right out of the campaign; as it was the Prussians were able to retreat and regroup.

In the course of the battle, Blücher himself was unhorsed and then ridden down by French cavalry, leaving him concussed. This was crucial: Blücher, who was a little mad, was a staunch Anglophile and committed to supporting Wellington, but while he was out of action, command devolved onto his number 2, Gneisenau, who was an Anglophobe and, oddly enough, not mad at all. Gneisenau regarded the British – strictly the English – as disloyal schemers, a view it’s hard to believe anyone could hold of my fine people.

Now what surprises me is that Gneisenau didn’t take the opportunity to get well out of the way, retreating eastward towards Prussia. Instead, he went North which meant he could stay in contact with Wellington. When Blücher came round he fully endorsed Gneisenau’s line of retreat and again assured Wellington that he could count on Prussian support. 

Wellington, in the meantime, had pulled back to an area known as Mont St Jean. Later, after it had taken place, he gave the battle he fought there the name of the nearby village of Waterloo. 

He’d already reconnoitred the place and decided that if he was going to have to fight, he'd want to fight there. There are dips in the ground where he could adopt his favourite tactic, of having the bulk of his men lie down on the ‘reverse slope’, i.e. behind the ridge of a hill, where they were relatively safe from cannon fire. They would suddenly emerge just as attacking enemy troops were approaching the top. This meant that having spent an unbearably tense time charging uphill at an apparently empty line, they would find themselves faced at the last moment by a lot of men with guns. I imagine that must have been dispiriting.

Wellington had also obeyed his other ruling principle: he’d made sure that he had clear lines of retreat towards the coast. That had always been his style: he would sometimes retreat even after victories, preferring to protect his men than expose them unnecessarily, not out of any particular love of them (he often called them the scum of the Earth) but because he knew Britain would be parsimonious about sending him many more.

The fact that he took such care over his lines of retreat was one of the reasons Gneisenau trusted him so little. He expected him to decamp for the Channel ports and England if ever things turned bad, and he was probably right, though Wellington was probably not being disloyal so much as judicious. 

So when the 17th of June dawned, Wellington was in position on Mont Saint Jean, with his retreat to the coast fully planned and ready to go at a moment’s notice. But he didn’t retreat. He stayed in place all day and didn’t budge. That in turn meant that on the 18th, he was ready for Napoleon. 

The battle started at 11:30 and by 1:30 the Prussians were already arriving on the field, drawing away Napoleon’s reserves to the point that, though he could give Wellington a very bad time for four hours, he was never able to land a decisive blow. At 5:30, the battle swung against the French. At 7:00 the British-Allied forces began their advance; already being squeezed by the Prussians, the French Army broke and fled. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now the interesting point is that Wellington stayed put on the 17th when he could have gone. Roberts argues, and I’m sure he’s right, that he did that precisely because he knew that the Prussians would turn up. Had they cleared off, so would he. But because he knew they were coming, he stayed put, ready to fight the battle. 

In other words, the question ‘could he have won without the Prussians’ is irrelevant. Because he wouldn’t have fought the battle at all without the Prussians. A prudent general, it was only the absolute certainty of being able to count on them that made him take on Napoleon at all. 

Interesting if, like me, you’ve been irked at not knowing who won the battle. Of course, you might say that's hardly a key question for today, and I admitted as much myself at the start.  

But then again, is it really so completely irrelevant? We Europeans do after all face another burning issue today, the saving of the Euro. The French and the British seem to be at each other’s throats again. And, once more, it all turns on whether the Germans are going to throw their considerable weight into the fray on time.

Monday, 24 October 2011

How to interest the public in the public interest

It is perhaps because politics tends to be so dull that we go to such lengths to remove all political content from it.

So its not the near-bankruptcy of Italy that puts us off Berlusconi, it’s his inclination to buy sexual favours from under-age girls. In Britain, what really interests us isn’t the fact that the (now former) Minister of Defence wanted to buy an aircraft carrier and leave it without aircraft, as an economy measure, it’s that he’s been flying his boyfriend – or perhaps his non-boyfriend – round the world with him, to make sure that they don’t even have to be separated by international summits.

Of course, the politicians have got smart to this as well. It’s been fascinating to watch what’s been happening in France. The opposition Socialist Party recently launched an exciting new initiative: a primary election to pick the candidate to stand against Sarkozy for the presidency next year (basically to select someone to take up the baton so lamentably dropped by Strauss-Kahn in a New York hotel room – more histories de cul as the French so colourfully express it).

‘Let’s consult the electorate,’ the Socialists claimed, and allowed anyone to vote, whether members of the party or not. So they presented the exercise as a major extension to democracy – but then they would, wouldn’t they? And I’m sure it was tremendously democratic. 

But there was a second benefit, too, which just goes to show that when you do things right, the gods smile on you. Because for months the media kept focusing on what the different candidates were seeing, about politics and – far more – about each other; they gave the Party conference much higher-profile coverage than usual; and, since the election, as is traditional in France, took place over two rounds, the Socialists had public interest up to near frenzy pitch not for just one Sunday, but for two in a row with the full week in between. What a great launch for François Hollande's drive for the Elysée Palace.

Now as an old and unredeemed marketing man, let me assure you that you just can’t buy that kind of publicity, even if you had the budget for it. All round Europe, other opposition parties must be green with envy. They’d give their eye-teeth to be treated that seriously by the media. It drove such minor matters as Sarkozy’s war in Libya or his eleventh-hour negotiations to try to save the euro right off the front pages.

Of course, he did his best to get back at them, reacting with precisely the kind of political initiative that one might expect: his wife produced the first child ever born to a sitting president in France. Good attempt, but sadly not enough by a long stroke. The French aren’t that impressed. After all, compared to a Socialist Party pulling off a marketing coup, it isn’t all that striking to learn that Sarko and Bruni knew how to produce a child. After all, they’d both done it before.

The happy expectant couple
But we knew she had it in her
And it’s all terribly sad, in a sense, because for the first time since I've heard of Sarkozy, he's just done something for which I can feel unqualified admiration. Yesterday he told David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister and misfortune, that this might not be a bad time for him to stop moaning on about the Euro, which his country isn’t part of, and shut up.

Sarkozy telling anyone else to put a sock in it is all a bit pot and kettle, of course, but if the kettle really is black, who can reasonably criticise the pot for saying so?

Friday, 21 October 2011

Remembering a fine place on a grisly anniversary

It was 206 years ago today that a British fleet engaged the combined Spanish and French fleet off Cape Trafalgar in Southern Spain.

I think you’d have to say the meeting didn’t go well. Exchanges weren’t cordial. At the end, 22 Franco-Spanish ships had been captured (or in one case sunk). There had been 15,000 casualties, 4500 of them dead, though many more died of their wounds, including the Spanish Admiral who succumbed several months later. The British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, died before the battle was even over.

The French Admiral, Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve had an even more bizarre fate. He was captured and taken to England, and then sent back to France where he ‘committed suicide’ by stabbing himself six times in the lungs and once in the heart. Seven stab wounds! He must have been really determined to end his life. Or at least someone was. It at any rate shows that the ‘expedient accident’ or ‘expedient suicide’ isn’t an invention of the twentieth century but was already being pioneered in the nineteenth.

We visited Cape Trafalgar only a few weeks ago. It’s a lovely spot, crowned with a fine old lighthouse, and with beaches on either side. We watched a glorious sunset there and it was comforting that the red glow was just sunlight, and not fire or blood.

At Cape Trafalgar, looking out towards the former scene of carnage
A son and a daughter-out-law add their own grace to the coming sunset
It’s funny that a sea battle, even one that would ultimately be so crucial to the outcome of one of Europe’s great struggles, leaves so little trace of its passage. OK, OK, funny but pretty obvious, I suppose, given the nature of the sea: you don’t get shell craters or barbed wire or anything. And, to be honest, in time even the traces of land battles disappear, of course, living on only in memories, if there. Which reminds me of a story I once heard about a visit to the then Soviet Union by three giants of history, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon.

The Soviet top brass, delighted and a little overawed by such illustrious guests, lay on a wonderful visit for them, showing them everything most calculated to impress about their nation and their military. At the end of the day, they ask for their guests’ views.

‘With such an army,’ says Alexander, ‘I would indeed have fulfilled my ambition of conquering the world and moving on to others.’

‘With such logistics,’ says Casesar, ‘I would have built an empire that would have lasted to this day.’

‘With such a press,’ says Napoleon, ‘no-one would ever have heard of Waterloo.’ 

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Wish I weren't there...

Talking about what was then the latest technology for high-quality reproduction of great music, Michael Flanders, half of the historic Flanders and Swann comic duo, pointed to the extraordinary lengths to which people would go, to get the exact effect of having an orchestra playing to them in their sitting room.

‘Personally,’ he commented,  ‘I can't think of anything I should hate more than an orchestra actually playing in my sitting room.’

I thought of that the other day when I saw a sign on a platform at St Pancras International station.

Be in a station, wherever you are. Bliss.
It was a real Flanders moment for me.

‘Why on earth,’ I wondered, ‘would I want to recreate the experience of standing in a station when Im somewhere else? After all, I only go to stations to get somewhere else.’

Still it’s progress, I suppose, of sorts, and who’d want to stand in the way of that particular freight train? 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The tale of the Fox and the Cat

We seem to be living a bit of a fairy tale in England at the moment. The last week has all been about the Fox and the Cat.

Now you may need to adjust the image you have just brought to mind. Are you thinking of something straight out of Disney or Pixar? Perhaps a charming red ruffian with a bushy tail and a pointy snout alongside an equally charming but cunning grey-backed, white-bellied, wide-whiskered slick feline, both equipped with winsome smiles, possibly thigh boots, floppy hats and twirled rapiers?

If so, think again.

The Fox in this story is Dr Liam of that ilk. He set out on his career modestly enough as a mere GP (actually, since I have friends who are or were GPs, perhaps I should say his career started out in a blaze of distinction in the prestigious profession of GP). From there he rose through merit to the dizzying position of former (as of yesterday) Minister of Defence.

Why did he provoke so much debate? For bombing Libya? For not bombing Syria? No, it’s human interest that has grabbed our attention. And he’s been paying a lot too much interest to one human in particular, a certain Adam Werritty, a former flatmate, the best man at his wedding, who got into the habit of treating the Defence Ministry and the House of Commons as merely extensions to his own office, into which he could wander more or less at will. He even had visiting cards run up with the House of Commons logo on them and describing him as an adviser to the Minister.

Now I love references to men as ‘former flatmates’.  Just what are we being told here? Is it really a key aspect of their lives that they once shared accommodation? If it is that crucial, it feels rather like those so-called news articles we get from time to time to tell us that two politicians shared a hotel room, which somehow don’t leave me with the impression that I’m being asked to admire their thriftiness and the consequent savings for the taxpayer.

If Fox and Werritty had anything to hide along these lines, and I really can’t be bothered to try to find out, then all I can say is that having the latter acting as best man at the former’s wedding strikes me as going to extraordinary lengths to camouflage it.

The only interesting aspect of the whole story is Werritty’s completely unmerited access to a Cabinet minister, his inclusion in missions to foreign governments, and his apparent inability to distinguish between government business and the needs of an ideological organisation he set up with his flatmate.  This smacks of just the kind of sleaze that submerged the previous Conservative government, John Major’s, in its last years. Since I’ve been praying for the fin of our current régime from the day it was first formed, anything that has a fin de régime feel to it is more than welcome to me.

The political versions weren't quite that endearing

What about the cat?

He was produced, metaphorically, for our delectation by another Cabinet Minister, Teresa May, the Home Secretary. At the Conservative Party Conference, she launched an attack on the Human Rights Act. Amazing, isn’t it? You’d think everyone was in favour of human rights, but the Conservatives never cease to astonish. You can’t even count on their being keen on motherhood (particularly among the unmarried) and I suspect they don’t like apple pie either. Perhaps they’re afraid the undeserving poor might develop a taste for it.

As part of her denunciation of the pernicious workings of the act, May pointed to the case of an illegal immigrant who a court ruled could not be deported – because he had a cat. ‘And I’m not making this up,’ she assured her adoring audience.

Turns out she was, actually. The application to deport this man was indeed rejected, but on the grounds that he’d established a long-term partnership in this country (partnership, yes, yes, it was another case of flat-matery). The judge in reaching his decision relied on the acceptance of the defendant by the partner’s friends and relatives, with all the usual signs of family life such as visits, shared meals and so on. Oh, and by the way, the defendant and the partner had bought a cat together, a small piece of additional evidence that they were in their relationship for the (relatively) long haul.

Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister, is my favourite Conservative, as Ive remarked before. He immediately hit back at May. ‘Laughable and childish’ he called his Cabinet colleague’s comments (soon to be ex-colleague, one suspects, though not because May will go).

The ever admirable David Cameron intervened and naturally came down on the side of right and justice, so Clarke had to apologise. 

‘I do rather regret the colourful language I used,’ he announced, which is pure, vintage Clarke – it sounds like an apology but retracts absolutely nothing.

Oh, well. It’s been a fun week. Nice to have politics focused on cats and foxes instead of the usual rats and snakes. And as usual when I hear about Clarke up to something, I’m left wondering yet again just how much longer he’ll survive among this particularly loathsome variety of serpent.

And, more to the point, why on Earth he wandered into the snake pit in the first place.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Uncomfortable inside a time warp wrapped in a historical anomaly

Years ago, I was delighted to have the opportunity to set foot, for the first time in my life, on a little corner of the rapidly dwindling British Empire. I broke a journey to Australia in Hong Kong, just a few months before it became independent. Or rather, was handed back to China, which I suppose is independence, though not for any meaning of the word that I would recognise.

I only had 36 hours there, but I enjoyed every moment, even the bit when I got drenched to the skin in a sudden tropical downpour – just the kind of thing that ought to happen, one feels, in South East Asia. I took the tram up Victoria Peak, I took the ferry across to Kowloon, I had that strange but quintessentially far Eastern experience of being plunged into a human wave, as I walked in the rush hour towards a commuter train that was just emptying: extraordinary how those thousands poured past me without jostling me or even coming close to infringing the little bubble of private space they left around me.

With wonderful food on top of the rest, it was a sheer joy, but it wasn’t actually terribly British Empire. It felt like a little bit of China where the street signs happened to be in English. Which, after all, was what it really was.

So it was fascinating, while we were in Southern Spain on our recent holiday, to pop over to Gibraltar. Now that really is a little corner of the British Empire. In fact, it’s a little bit of England set down in the Mediterranean. The experience was doubly like stepping into a time warp. 

In the first place, because it represents a bizarre anomaly, British by virtue of England having been on the right side of a war fought alongside the Germans and against the French over who should rule Spain – don’t ask, just another ghastly mess of the kind the so-called Great Powers liked to spring on their own subjects and each other from time to time.

A historical gun at a bizarre angle:
an appropriate symbol for Gib?

Turns out to have been a depressing gun.
I should say. Think how the Spaniards must have felt.
Gibraltar’s had plenty of time since 1704 to squeeze all the Spanishness out of itself, and in my view isn't any the better for it: I felt much more comfortable in nearby Andalucia. 

Because the rock’s so small, the place feels crowded; because the only thing to do there is take advantage of the tax status to make money, it feels as though it’s in a constant rush; and because it’s completely artificial, owing its existence to a strange anomaly of the history of war, it feels out of joint with its surroundings. Claustrophobia, self-obsession, dislocation. Those were the feelings that predominated for me.

The other sense of being in a time warp came from Gibraltar's particular form of Englishness. It’s out of date by forty or fifty years. We naturally had to have a pub lunch – you can't avoid so English a gesture if you’ve travelled all the way from England to the other side of Spain and another little bit of England. And it was a completely authentic experience: exactly the stereotypical English pub lunch. But not of 2011. It was exactly as I remember from 1970. 

Just to spell it out, to make sure there’s no ambiguity in my message, let me stress that these days I delight in amazing foreign visitors by taking them for meals in pubs, just to show how well you can eat in them (well, some of them). It shatters the shameful reputation of the British for serving unspeakable food.

1970 was right slap in the period when Britain earned itself that reputation.

The Spanish like to make it difficult to leave the rock, so that people who go there are uncomfortable about the experience. Personally, I already felt quite uncomfortable enough, but I naturally had to queue at the border just like everyone else. The impatience of those around us was palpable, and frankly I shared it. Visiting the place had been fascinating, and I'm really pleased I went there, but at the end of the day I was anxious to get back to the twenty-first century and something a bit more like civilisation.

Queuing to get out of Gib, and back to reality
So, how do I feel now about the British Empire? If I’d needed any proof that British imperialism had little to commend it, Gib provided it. And as for the rock itself? If the Spaniards want it, then as far as I’m concerned, they can have it. But poor things: do they really know what theyre wishing for? 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Taking steps to ensure a successful holiday

Back at work after a memorable break in Portugal in Spain.

As I pointed out before, I really enjoyed Portugal. However, one of the things that made the place so charming was that it was so hilly – you get some breathtaking views, but at the cost of breath-shortening climbs. Right from the start, in Lisbon. Flights of steps everywhere. 

Lisbon: getting us in the mood for steps
‘Hilly place,’ I commented at one point, as I paused just before the top of a particularly gruelling climb.

‘Can’t hide anything from you,’ remarked my son Nicky.

Now that’s one of my favourite lines, so getting it thrown back in my face like that underlined one of the less agreeable aspects of ageing parenthood: eventually your kids take over from you and give you as good as they ever got. I used to have a monopoly on cynicism in family, and it’s chastening to have to share it.

Steps in the Moorish castle in Sintra.
Smartarse in the foreground
Funny thing is, the stairs seemed to be everywhere we went in Portugal. Lisbon. Sintra. Lagos. Glorious sights, back-breaking climbs. I increasingly thought of the trip as the ‘step holiday’.

Oh, no. Not again.
Near Lagos. No, not that one. It's in Africa.
Still, the country was worth it. Wonderful place. We’ll have to go back. 

Funnily enough, previously Id wanted to go to another country first. Another country I’d never visited: Russia. Not quite the same weather as Portugal, I understand, but the languages - don't they sound so similar? ‘Sh’ and ‘awl’ everywhere, all dark ‘l’s and palatisation. I was very tempted to visit another country with such smooth sounds.

But now Im less keen. Not sure I can handle all those steppes. 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A privilege to plead guilty to this charge

Isn’t it glorious when you face an accusation so flagrantly true that you can frankly find no answer for it?

Many years ago when I was in my twenties I hadn’t yet developed the strict moral standards I now uphold as a respectable member of the community. This led to my being accused on one occasion of being a ‘fucking little Communist Jew’. The person who made the accusation was upset by certain activities I had been engaging in, with the full and indeed enthusiastic consent of the woman involved, on the grounds that he was related to her, though only by marriage. ‘Little’ is a failing I’ve always had and never found any way of remedying. A Communist I most certainly wasn’t, but I knew that my accuser was so far out to the right of the British political spectrum that he would hardly have made the distinction between my mildly left-wing brand of social democracy and the views of Stalin, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Finally, a Jew I have always been, at least by blood – something that came as part of my inheritance, like the littleness.

So I found it difficult to come up with any kind of answer to the accusation. Just what part of it could I legitimately challenge?

The other week I faced another of those unanswerable accusations, though I’m glad to say on a very different subject.

‘I’d have to suspect you just don’t like privilege,’ I was told, by a good friend who happens to support the Conservative Party – living proof that some nice people can bring themselves to back the nasty party. The tone was one of reluctance, as though the allegation was so shameful that it was difficult for a friend to voice it. 

What could I say? ‘Privilege’, as Terry Pratchett points out, is a word derived from roots that mean private law and, yes, I loathe the idea of private law. If law is to make sense at all, it has to be public and to apply to everyone. I profoundly loathe the idea that some people should be above it, or worse still, should be able to make their own.

Pratchett - right on privilege as he is on so many things
In fact, it slightly shocked me that anyone could imply that it might be possible to like privilege. I thought that practically everyone despised it, except perhaps those who enjoyed it, and even they, if they had any conscience at all, felt a little shamefaced about it.

Of course my friend didn’t really mean privilege. I was actually being charged with disliking wealth. Now that's not right. I have no problem with people enjoying wealth. Someone can drive a better, or at least more expensive, car than I can? They can take better, or more expensive, holidays? They can eat at better, or more expensive, restaurants? Welcome to it. If you’ve got the money, go ahead and spend it.

But – you have money so you can buy better healthcare than the inhabitants of those neighbourhoods of Glasgow where life expectancy is 54? You have money that will buy your kids a better education than the inhabitants of those miserable neighbourhoods that burst into flames in this summer’s looting in England? You have money that open doors to you and your family that will remain closed to others?

Well then, yes, wealth is buying private law. And then, yes, guilty as charged – I’m not keen, not keen at all.

The offence isn’t as much fun as the one I had to confess to in my twenties. But it is at least a tad more principled.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The importance of knowing when not to say ‘now’

Sitting here in Southern Spain, my mind turned the other day – as whose wouldn't?  to the question of the separation of Norway from Sweden.  Fortunately, I had with me a book on Scandinavian history – as who doesn’t?  so I was able to satisfy my curiosity.

Funny story, actually. If only for what it shows of how much more effective deviousness and bad faith are in achieving great change, than mere heroism, war or even simple straight dealing.

Norway spent centuries and centuries under the rule of Denmark. But the Danes chose the wrong side in the Napoleonic Wars, so after Waterloo they got Norway taken away from them. Poor old Norwegians, though: no sooner could they begin to dream of running their own affairs, than they were handed over to the Swedes or, at least, to the Swedish king. He happened to be French and a former of Marshal of Napoleon’s, which is quite funny when you think about, since his side had just been beaten. Twice actually - once in 1814, but in the following year Napoleon forced the match into extra time, and got beaten again.

Still being handed over to a king was better than being handed over to a country. The king agreed to let the existing Norwegian institutions continue, in particular the parliament, which Norwegians called the ‘Storting’, which translates roughly as the ‘Great Thing’. 

That's a little curious from the British point of view, as the only great thing about parliament for most Brits is when its in recess and the politicians all go off on holiday. As it happens, I don’t agree with them because I find it good for my soul to get in the daily burst of moral indignation that parliament provides.

Anyway, the Storting continued to operate and tension between the two countries grew through most of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the Swedish kings tried to muscle in on Norwegian affairs and extend their authority, while the Storting pushed back, trying to preserve and even extend its prerogatives. 

Something similar happened between England and Scotland, which also continued as two nations sharing a monarch long before they merged into a single state. In the British instance, however, the Scots eventually got absorbed, possibly because the English were wilier than the Swedes, but more likely because they could muster a lot more fire power than the Scots and had shown down the ages that they were more than prepared to use it.

At the turn of the century, a new conflict broke out between Sweden and Norway over a question that they would prove unable to resolve. And here’s where it becomes funny: it wasn’t one of those great questions that shake continents, of freedom and slavery, of the rights of subjects and the prerogatives of kings, of privilege and oppression. No, it was a matter of utter triviality.

And that’s not unusual. The American colonists’ break with the mother country was triggered by the price of tea. The First World War was precipitated by the assassination of an Austrian Grand Duke. The iron curtain collapsed over a PR blunder, when a press officer who didn’t know when the Berlin Wall was due to open, announced ‘well, now, I suppose’.

In Norway’s case it was over the demand to have separate consular representation from the Swedes. Not even separate ambassadors – just separate consuls. The two nations couldn’t agree the terms of the arrangement and the quarrel festered for years.

Things came to a head when a character called Christian Michelsen won a majority in the Storting. He precipitated matters by pushing through a measure to set up separate consulates without royal authority. Obviously the king wasn’t going for that, so he vetoed the legislation. Michelsen’s government resigned en bloc.

Now here it all comes down to a single word. Since Michelsen controlled the Storting, without him the king couldn’t appoint a government which would command a majority. He declared himself unable to form a government now.
Michelsen reported to the Storting that the king was no longer able to form a government at all, neatly failing to mention the word ‘now’. The picture Michelsen therefore painted was one of the king washing his hands of Norwegian affairs for good, so the Union was in effect over.

Christian Michelsen:
understood the need for discretion, even over a single word
That made it pretty much a done deal, apart from a bit of shouting. There were some stirring speeches, war funds voted in Sweden, troops moved around a bit. But not a shot was fired and good sense eventually prevailed. In 1905, Norway became independent.

This seems a perfect parable for so many human affairs, doesn’t it? A trivial matter precipitates great change. A noble goal is achieved by underhand means. But the Scandinavians settled the business without loss of life – for that at least they deserve admiration. 

And, as we bomb the Libyans into democracy, perhaps a little envy.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The slavery of the credit ratings

I have to say that my first visit to Portugal lived up to my warmest expectations, and I’d be more than happy to return and get to know the place better. However, a sign we saw on our last day left me feeling uneasy.  

A worrying sign of our times?
Standard and Poor's – what have you done?
Has a proud nation been reduced to reviving a shameful trade? Is this what a credit rating downgrade can do? Will it in any case be enough to haul the Portuguese out of their financial difficulties?

And a question that particularly bothers me – where do they get their stocks from?

Note, by the way, the touch of delicacy: the slave market is shut on Sunday. On the Lord’s Day, we don’t trade in human flesh. Something to admire, surely, in that nod to piety?

Postscript. On a recent News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, Jeremy Hardy commented on Standard and Poor's clean bill of health for Lehman Brothers (the bank went broke three months later). He suggested it was time to rename the credit ratings agency, ‘Substandard and Very Poor’.