Saturday, 7 January 2012

Coming down to earth

If Christmas is a family time, we did it right this year. We saw my mother and my brother; we had our granddaughter with her parents in the run up to Christmas; and at various times over the Christmas and New Year period our other two sons and one of our charming daughters-out-law.

It was only on Monday that our daughter-out-law left, to start a new job in Madrid, proving that jobs can be found in Spain despite the much trumpeted unemployment. One son went on Wednesday, the other on Friday, so the wind-down after Christmas has been tapered, not brusque, making the transition back to work, which I found painful this year, easier than it might have been.

Now, though, we’re back to our own devices, with little to show for the festive period but a large number of bottles for recycling and some kilos to lose.

One lasting legacy of the family visit is a recommendation my son Michael made to listen to a great podcast series: The History of Rome by Mike Duncan. This is the internet at best: somebody who has nothing to gain by it has simply prepared and delivered a history of Rome in dozens of bite-sized episodes, with just the right level of detail to be informative while remaining entertaining. 

Listening to this excellent series I was particularly struck by the history of Etruria. It was the home of the Etruscans, a nation of extraordinary wealth and culture. And indeed power: in the early years of the city, Rome was ruled by Kings and the last of these were Etruscan.

Many centuries later, in a struggle with another and equally ruthless imperial power, Benjamin Franklin would tell his fellow revolutionaries, ‘We shall hang together or we shall hang separately.’ The Etruscans were hanged separately. They wouldn’t bury their differences and they paid the price. 

Take Veii, once their wealthiest city, their jewel, not ten miles north of Rome. Never heard of it? Nor had I, or if I had, I’d forgotten. Today it’s part of a village in the Rome municipal area. With some fine ruins. 

I can imagine the scene, just before the slaughter of the population when Veii fell to the Roman siege (the soldiers broke in through the sewers, demonstrating that for all their love of honour, Romans valued success still more). I picture a worthy citizen, not realising that he would meet a violent death within a few hours, declaring ‘Veii has always stood proud and wealthy, the greatest of the Etruscan cities, and we’re certainly not giving up our independence to them, far less to those upstarts from down the road who’ve had the temerity to send an army against us.’

The rest, as they say, is history. Etruscan has vanished as a language. The people of Etruria were completely assimilated into Rome, speaking Latin and playing their own part in Roman life within a few generations.

Veii: not a lot left. The price of standing aloof?
Over the Christmas period, the British Conservative Party moved ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. 

That statement may seem unrelated to what came before, but bear with me: I shall explain.

That Conservative lead is particularly bad news for Labour. In mid-term, an Opposition needs to be building up a good lead in the polls if it’s to win the next election: there tends to be a swing back to the incumbents in the final stages, so the Opposition needs a cushion. Being behind is pretty desperate.

What caused the Conservative surge? 

On 10 December the Daily Mail referring to a historic moment the day before, told us ‘Defiant Cameron stands up to Euro bullies...’ This was the historic moment when Cameron vetoed changes to EU treaties so that the whole organisation could get behind attempts to solve the Eurozone crisis.

Others less inclined to see Cameron as a latter day Titan taking on the erring gods have taken exception to the word ‘veto’. Usually a veto, as they point out, stops something happening. This veto meant that 26 countries would go ahead and do it anyway, but without Britain. 

I sometimes wonder whether Cameron only realised that afterwards. Because as soon as hed cast his vote, he told our EU enemies, sorry partners, that they couldn’t hold their discussions in EU buildings - you know, ‘if you’re not going to play by my rules, I’m taking my ball away.’ Later on, Britain backtracked from that position - civil servants, who are professionals after all, probably pointed out that this might not be the best way to make friends and retain some influence among people whose support we might need again some day.

But the virulence of Cameron’s initial reaction does rather suggest that he caught himself by surprise, doesn’t it? I can see him saying ‘well, you can’t do that because I’m saying ‘no’, so there, now what you are you going to do, eh, don’t look so clever now, do you? What do you mean? You’re going to go ahead and do it anyway? What without us? You’re going to ignore my veto? Well - if that’s the way you want to play it, you can’t use these nice offices then...’

In Britain though we tend not to think about the after effects of this kind of gesture but prefer to concentrate on the gesture itself. People loved it. ‘Standing up to to the Euro bullies’. Wonderful stuff. And it got him a tick up in the polls. Ahead of the opposition. Brilliant.

That got me thinking of other times in history when people have struck out on their own and told their partners to get stuffed. The Italian city states, for instance. Our daughter-in-law, when our granddaughter’s family came to stay with us, gallantly stood in a queue at the National Gallery for four hours so that we could all go and see an exhibition of paintings by her long-time favourite, Leonardo da Vinci. 

I particularly liked the pair of fabulously beautiful portraits of Ludovico Sforza’s wife and mistress. I often wonder how each of them must have felt about the other picture. And I can just imagine Sforza saying ‘Milan isn’t just an Italian city. It’s a proud and powerful centre with a long history of its own. We’re not going to be sucked into some kind of bogus unity with the rest of the peninsula.’ But while Leonardo was there, the French turned up and sacked the place, and over the next few centuries, Italy was regularly the playground of invading armies.

Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine: Ludovico Sforza's mistres
Culture, wealth, sophistication - but they were no protection against the French
One of the places I particularly liked in Alsace, where we used to live, was the Haut Koenigsburg, a fine castle beautifully and inaccurately restored by the German Kaiser Wilhelm (Alsace is like that: what country it’s in depends not just on geography but also on history). Why did the castle need restoring? Because it had been overrun a Swedish army. Swedish for crying out loud. Why the Swedes? Because until all those little German princedoms finally got together and sank their differences, Germany, like Italy, was a wonderful place for other countries to fight their wars.
Like Veii and the other cities of Etruria, the proud little Italian and German States were hanged separately because they wouldn’t hang together. 
Well, the Conservatives have drifted back behind Labour again. Not by much, but still behind. It’s as though after the excitement of the veto that never was, cold reason has reasserted itself. Ater all, nothing has changed. The French and the Germans haven’t surrendered to us. The economy is still dire. Unemployment is still rising.
It’s a bit like us taking out our empty bottles and resolving to lose those extra kilos. After the warm glow of the festive season we’ve had to come back to earth. Reality once more exerts its sobering influence.

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