Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Kaleidscope landscapes and a fishy canine meal

After my memorable sixtieth birthday on Saturday, marked with a Volcanic grill, it was my son Michael’s turn to celebrate his thirtieth yesterday.

We went to a place that rejoiced in the name of ‘El Golfo’, here on the spectacular island of Lanazarote. 

El Golfo makes up by its striking appearance for its lack of originality in naming (it lies on a bit of a bay which could I suppose, if viewed in the right light and through narrowed eyelids, pass for a gulf). The guidebooks directed us to the nearby lagoon, and I suppose lagoons aren’t that common, so it made sense to make a bit of a feature of this one. As it happened, it wasn’t half as impressive as what was on its landward side (a sandstone cliff that glowed increasingly golden as the sun set) or on its seaward side (a strip of black sand on which blue sea was crashing in white foam).

Green lagoon and golden cliffs near El Golfo

Since the lagoon water was green and the sky was turning pink, we were plunged into a kaleidoscope of colours that sounds garish to describe but was much more harmonious when we were in it.
Black sand between the lagoon just visible to the right and the sea.
With my shadow to show it was sunset
Just rubbing in the point about the sunset

Once the sun had set, we headed off to one of the thirty or so fish restaurants which seemed to make up the bulk of El Golfo village. There we were presented with our choice of fish, including one that was livid red with a mouthful of teeth.

‘Dog fish’, the waiter told us, and pointed to some vicious looking incisors to make the point. It turned out that its bark was a lot worse than our bite, and the poor creature disappeared inside us rapidly and to the pleasure of all present, bar the vegetarians (who had to make do with peppers and mushrooms and such like).

A good evening which none of us will forget in a hurry.

It was also the occasion, and this may come as a surprise to anyone reading this, for me to discover that my phone includes a function to take panoramic pictures. Magic, isn’t it? And it’s only taken me eighteen months to find out.

P.S. After the dogfish, two of us shared a local dessert known as ‘Bien me sabe’. I think the name means something like knows me well and whoever invented the dish had certainly read me like a book. Both of us, actually. We raced to the bottom of the bowl and then wished there’d been more. Outstanding.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Let's get out of the EU just like we got away from the US

To be chief of staff to Tony Blair is a bit like being keeper of the curious compounds to the Borgias, so I’m not always inclined to regard Jonathan Powell with relaxed confidence. Nevertheless, he spent a while in diplomacy – another of those jobs not always marked by its qualities of straightforwardness and frank speaking – so he probably knows a bit about how one state ought to handle their relationship with others.

Powell: probably an authority but, hey, a Blairite. Lock up the spoons.

So it was interesting to read Powell’s paper in Monday’s Guardian about David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. As he argues, the speech was designed to win Cameron an immediate boost in short-term popularity, and it seems to have worked: the latest polls show him 3 or 4 points closer to the Labour opposition than he was before.

However, as Powell says, Cameron’s made any such gain at the cost of launching a five-year campaign over whether Britain stays in the EU or not.

Cameron has said he will only campaign to stay in the EU if he is first able to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership. Until he pulls off that fairly improbable feat, he’ll presumably have to hold his peace; and if he fails, as seems likely, what will he do? He claims to be a convinced Europhile: would he have to argue against his conviction?

In the meantime, the Eurosceptics will be under no restraint to silence their increasingly virulent attacks on British membership. On the contrary, they’ll take encouragement from Cameron’s having declared open season on the EU.

So our membership of the EU is at risk. The Eurosceptic current in the population is delighted. They see the millions it costs us to be members but somehow miss the hundreds of millions in additional trade it provides us; they see the way it forces us to let Johnny Foreigner in but don’t see that new arrivals are less inclined to claim benefits than native Brits and do jobs we can’t persuade anyone else to take on; they see that the Union imposes legal restrictions on us but don’t see that the same provisions guarantee us rights, including the opportunity to live and work in any of 26 other countries.

Now there’s nothing new about this kind of unenlightened thinking. Most peoples, but the Brits more than many, love to focus so much on the shortest of short terms that they lose track of the long-term advantage they’re giving up. Funnily enough, I’ve just been reading some more about one of the more obtuse instances of Britain behaving that way in the past.

Back in the eighteenth century, Britain fought a bunch of wars against those perpetual party-poopers from across the Channel, the French. Given the opposition, the Brits naturally won, but it cost a bit.

‘Blimey,’ they said, ‘who can we get to pay for this?’

So they took a look across the Atlantic and saw those enterprising colonists making money out in America. ‘I know,’ they said, ‘we’ll tax them.’

Sadly, the Colonists didn’t see things quite the same way. ‘Raise your own bloody money,’ they said, ‘we’re taking our ball away and won’t play any more.’

I read recently about John Adams of Massachusetts and Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania heading a delegation to visit the Lords Howe, one brother an Admiral, the other a General, in New York. Classic, isn’t it, that Britain was represented by two sprigs of the nobility, old Etonians, occupying their top positions thanks to their birth, because their talent certainly wouldn’t have got them there?

John Adams was worried about the likely behaviour of the Howes, but was astonished and delighted by the smooth courtesy and polished charm the two gentlemen displayed over dinner. Again, perfect isn’t it? Their descendants combine urbanity and incompetence in just the same measure.

Admiral Howe: not a lot of cop militarily, apparently
But he doesn't look a bundle of laughs either, to be honest

The discussions led nowhere and within days the Howes were in action against the colonists, winning crushing victories. However, each time they whipped the dastardly Yanks, the Howes went back to their charming dinners for another month or so, while their opponents slipped away and regrouped ready to attack again when the opportunity presented. And isn’t that appropriate too? Cameron wins his little skirmishes and then relaxes on his laurels while the war slips away from him.

Now Cameron 
isn’t an eighteenth-century general. Or even an admiral. And the EU isn’t a set of British possessions. But the North American colonies turned into the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, and Britain’s short-term approach ensured that it would be no part of that. All for the sake of a little money they needed right then, and didn’t get anyway, and for want of a strategy properly elaborated and consistently applied, they turned their back on pretty cracking opportunity, the best they probably ever had.

Today, Cameron is looking at the possibility of working more closely with one of the world
’s biggest economic blocs, one likely to grow still more powerful in the future. He has deliberately adopted an approach that will marginalise Britain from it. He’s done that for the sake of an uncertain short-term gain. 

That feels like exactly the kind of respect for tradition that we appreciate in Britain.

‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history’ said Aldous Huxley. He was British. He was well placed to know.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Want to remember your big six-oh? Celebrate in a desert

There are times when you just have to do something memorable, and there’s nothing much more memorable than plunging into a desertic, volcanic landscape, desolate though not barren, as life clings on to the surface of an apparent wilderness.

Especially memorable if you’re going there for lunch.

Timanfaya national park: just the place for a memorable lunch

One of my sons summed it up. ‘It’s really lunar, isn’t it?’ Unfortunately he then confused me by adding, ‘It looks martian.’ Still, I think I got the message.

Yes, I won’t forget my sixtieth birthday in a hurry. It’ll be like remembering where I was when I heard that JFK had died, though as it happens I don’t think I actually do remember where I was. Still, you get the message.

The national park of Timanfaya (pronounced to rhyme with ‘I’m on fire’, as long as you stretch out ‘fire’ in a bit of a southern drawl) is on Lanzarote, the island a whole bunch of us are visiting in the Canaries at the moment.

On the highest point of the highest peak of the park, stands a restaurant where you can get volcano-grilled barbecue. No burgers as it happens, but hey, why would I want a burger? I always think of them as belonging to Calais in Northern France and coming in a six-pack.

Rodin's Burghers of Calais. In Calais. Of course
Magnificent but hardly appetising.
So instead we had sardines or chicken, steak or Argentinian sausage, according to taste. All excellent, though I couldn’t help feeling that bringing sausages all the way from Argentina was perhaps taking a demand for the esoteric in gastronomy a little too far.

The grill sits above a vent down into the heart of the volcano. It generates quite enough heat to singe your meat more than adequately. I’m not sure whether it’d be hot enough to destroy a ring of power and bring down the Dark Tower, but as it happened no-one had one on them to try the experiment.

I guess rings of power aren’t that easy to come across. Presumably, they all hang around waiting for one ring to rule them all, one ring to find, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. And it was nothing like dark enough today.

That didn
’t stop it being a great and memorable experience. As was dinner last night, overlooking the port at Playa Blanca (the ‘white beach’ turned out to be a short strip of perfectly ordinary sand laid down artificially – honestly, people will say anything if they think it’ll bring tourists). The food was outstanding and the evening provided just as memorable a celebration for the birthday of one of my sons; on Tuesday we’ll go and celebrate the birthday of another; the third made the error of being born in the summer, so he’ll just have to tag along and drink toasts to the the rest of us, but he seems to be doing that with gusto so I imagine he doesn’t see it as a hardship.

Then, the birthdays over, I suppose we’ll just have to find some other way of entertaining ourselves for the rest of the week on this charming little island. Not that I expect that’ll prove to be too much of a hardship either.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Canaries: not just for the birds

Odd to be out here in the Canaries. No complaints, mind: we’ve leapt in a few hours from harsh, though exhilarating winter to gentle spring. Balmy weather, not weather it’s barmy to be out in.

In any case, I could hardly object to our destination, seeing as I chose it. Even so, I was a little ambivalent about the place, if only for the name. I mean canaries sing in prisons, don’t they, bringing retribution down on themselves and suffering on their friends? They get stuck in cages on the end of long poles pushed by miners into pockets of gas, to die themselves instead of their masters.

Note to self: avoid any underground sightseeing, however picturesque the caves are said to be.

‘Canaries’ is also the affectionate term used for Norwich City Football Club, for those fond types who are fond of them. Since I count some good friends among them, I
ll say no more on the subject, especially since I don’t believe in mocking the afflicted. 

Chirpy little birds. OK, yeah, right

Finally, the birds themselves. Terribly cheerful chirpy things. Brightly coloured. Much cultivated by little girls with pigtails and embroidered dresses.

Turns out the real place is rugged, mountainous and sea-girt. What a relief.

Lanzarote: a lot more impressive than those little birds
Or even Norwich City FC

I also felt relief when it came to my driven need to change my watch to local time, long before the plane lands. On this occasion making the change took no time at all: the Canaries are smart enough to stick on the same time as Britain. 

Lanzarote also apparently has a barbecue restaurant inside a volcano. I have to see this before I believe it, but I’m told they grill the meat over a vent down to molten lava. Sounds like an interesting new twist to the story of Frodo and the Cracks of Doom in the Lord of the Rings. Guidebooks warn against visiting too often because the sulphur ingested is a health hazard. It makes the experience sound irresistibly attractive, don’t you agree?

Getting here was quite an experience too. We flew on an airline called ‘Monarch’, hardly a congenial to my political predilections. Perhaps appropriate when travelling from the domain of one royal sovereign to another, but a short burst of republicanism would have been refreshing.

At the airport, they stuck labels on our bags marked ‘fit to fly’. Well, I like to think I’m still reasonably but fit, but enough to fly? There’s this whole thing about weight and strength and surface area and all that; it’s against to me.

Then we hit the shopping and what I like to think of as the bottle bank. We were making our selections in some delight over the special offers when the kind of besuited person I persist in thinking of as ‘older’, which probably means he’s the same age as me, came up to tell us to put the bottles back on the shelves. I was about to wax indignant at his officiousness when he pointed out ‘if you’re going to Lanzarote, you can buy duty free.’

Now that vaguely rang a bell for me. Some special arrangement still affected duty for the Canaries (those birds again! See how they constantly attract unfair treatment?) I’d forgotten all about it but it was great to find out about it again: not only were the prices even cheaper but the bottles were bigger. And, irresistible temptation of them all, there was no limit on the number we could take.

We struggled out of the shop bearing bags of duty-free acutely painful to carry, causing one of our party to rechristen them ‘heavy duty.’ Anyway, it means that it no longer matters whether the weather stays warm or turns cold, the lubrication available to us will guarantee delirium through it all.

I just hope I’ll still be able to get a more accurate view of just what those Canaries are really like. And enjoy some sulphurous Crack-of-Doom-burgers.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

When doing nothing achieves so much more

It isn’t always what politicians do that marks them out as special, it’s what they don’t do.

Take the case of Britain, for instance, where our revered government – well, government – does or says very little that redounds to its credit or anyone else’s benefit. I long for them to do nothing, because that’s when do least harm.

In the past, others have chalked up positive achievements by the things they didn’t do. It’s always struck me, for instance, that Churchill’s greatest contribution to Western civilisation came in a negative sentence of just four words: ‘We shall never surrender.’ At the time, the possibility of surrender to Nazi Germany was being actively canvassed at the highest levels, most notably by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. Churchill’s determination to close that avenue strengthened the will of Britain as a whole to keep up the fight.

Did the right thing by not doing the wrong one

Now Britain didn’t win the Second World War: that’s an achievement for which a larger share of the credit must go to the US and the lion’s share to the Soviet Union, with its 20 million dead. But it would have been far harder to rid the world of Nazism had Britain not kept the war in the west going long enough for the US to join and help take the pressure off the Soviets.

Curiously, that refusal to surrender echoes the attitude of another remarkable leader over a century and a half earlier, although in his case he wasn’t strengthening but opposing Britain (despite being British himself).

George Washington doesn’t enjoy a particularly illustrious reputation as a soldier. Certainly, he displayed an extraordinary degree of personal courage: he was famous for his coolness under fire, happy to ride among his men in combat, despite being strikingly tall and therefore a tempting target. Nor did he shirk many fights, tending rather to get stuck in even when the odds or the conditions were decidedly against him. The result is that he fought a lot of splendid battles but didn’t win many.

What he did, on the other hand, is refuse to lie down and admit himself beaten. After each defeat he would simply withdraw and regroup, ready to fight again. Eventually, worn down by that appallingly unsporting behaviour, made all the worse by a little help from the French, the British decided they’d had enough, and rather than miss yet another London season, did the gentlemanly thing and surrendered, since he clearly never would.

So what he didn’t do was far more significant than what he did.

But the really key thing he didn’t do came later in his life. Massively popular, in a new nation containing a large current of opinion that would willingly have made him King, he reached the end of his second administration and, instead of standing again for a third term he would certainly have won, he stood down.

Now that really was remarkable. He was a military man, after all. The mere fact that he might not have been particularly effective in war was neither here nor there: armies often achieve their most striking, though not necessarily most glorious, successes against their own people – just ask the Pakistanis or the Burmese.

Knew when to hang on – and when not to
He could have clung to power as, in his time, happened everywhere else around the world, but he chose to give it up. Nothing in his political life became him like the leaving it.

David Cameron: are you listening?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Winter: season of ambiguities

One of the worst libels against the British is that, though snow is far from infrequent in this country, we’re always caught unprepared by it. There’s simply no truth in this vile slander.

I mean, it’s true that however much warning forecasters give, the transport services always fall apart as soon as the first flakes drift down. But that doesn’t mean we’re unprepared. On the contrary, every single year we
re completely ready for things to work out exactly as they always do: the snow starts and immediately things snarl up on roadways, railways and runways.

So what do we do? Well many of us try to avoid using the roads at all. A friend tells me that she and her husband have simply left their car under its blanket of snow. 

As for those who can’t avoid driving, at least they have the satisfaction of being able to engage in that wonderful pastime of moaning about their fate. Another friend told a pitiful story of spending an hour and a half driving to work, an hour and a half at work and two and a half hours drawing back. I wasn’t sure, however, whether he was complaining about the traffic or about the unusual experience of having to devote five and hours to work.

Personally, I’ve been enjoying the snow. I had a meeting with a client yesterday and went by train. It’s great to join in the general atmosphere of shared adversity, as everyone stands around wondering whether a train is going to show up or not. That’s the way I imagine the war years, with the solidarity that comes of facing collective hardship, and it was great to experience it without even facing the danger of a German bomb.

It was a pleasure as well to head to a meeting in snow shoes and casual clothes, and see that my client had done the same. Working without a suit? What a liberation.

Overall, the whole was quite a pleasurable experience. Even the travel was fine. The great linguist Saussure brilliantly illustrated the problem of ambiguity with an example based on trains from his home city of Geneva: the 8:00 a.m. train is unambiguously the 8:00 a.m. even if it leaves at 8:05, even if it leaves at 8:15, even if it leaves at 8:25; but if it leaves after 8:30, the departure time of the following train, we get ambiguity. Which train is it?

Well, yesterday the local railways were wonderfully, gloriously ambiguous. As in the 13:48 arriving at 14:40. So – was it still the 13:48 hopelessly delayed or the 14:12 running pretty late or the 14:32 running barely late at all?

And then I realised. It didn’t matter. I wanted a train and if it showed up not long after I arrived at the station, what on earth did I have to complain about? Why should I care which train it was? The ambiguity was neither here nor there.

Considering how much time I spend most days trying to find the word that says exactly what I mean, it was a glorious liberation to be able to forget all that and just go with the flow of ambiguity. And I still got home at a sensible time.
See? There's fun to be had in winter too. I can assure you I’m completely ready for it. Who said we British were unprepared?

Luton winter fun in People's Park
If youre in the middle of winter too - have a great one.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

An apparent disappearance reveals a salutary truth about public services

Apparent disappearance is a lovely expression, isn’t it? It embodies a paradox and, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, I have a pretty taste for paradox. 

Still, apparent disappearance wasn’t so funny the other night when it was my mother who had apparently disappeared. There are those, after all, who’d say that to lose even one parent looks like carelessness. You’ll understand that it was particularly worrying since she’d had a fall the previous day and, as I think I can reveal without being unduly indiscreet, my mother isn’t a spring chicken. What made things worse was that I live nowhere near her and nor does my brother.

She hadn’t really disappeared, of course. In fact, she’d made every effort to get in touch and tell us where she was, but she’d been given a ‘dodgy phone’ and the message hadn’t got through.

So what does one do in those circumstances?

Well, I rang the police. And that’s the point at which my experience of the evening suddenly took a huge turn for the better.

The young policeman was polite and friendly, and quickly took down my mother’s details and my own. It turned out that a colleague of his had also got involved in the case, because before he’d even finished checking information with me, she was able to tell him that my mother had indeed been taken to hospital.

He gave me the hospital’s phone numbers; reception transferred me rapidly to the emergency admissions unit and, after no more rings than one might expect in a busy area, a member of staff answered and told me that they were expecting my mother shortly, but that for the moment she was still in the Emergency Department completing a series of scans and other tests.

Half an hour later I rang again and spoke to her. She was clearly not at all disheartened and the tests had shown up nothing worrying – she had been in pain but it seemed it was only a matter of some severe bruising. And her account of the evening was similar to mine: ‘the paramedics and the staff here have been so helpful, so friendly, so kind.’

In other words, both she and I had received exactly the kind of service we could hope for. And at no point had she been asked to produce a credit card: the much-maligned NHS had treated her superbly and efficiently and, true to its fundamental principles, at no charge.

I was, of course, delighted to have tracked down my mother and found her in no worse health than might have been expected, and indeed in far less bad condition than we might have feared. Nonetheless, I’m still troubled. Now it’s over the fact that so many people, large numbers of whom really should know better, aren’t apparently as outraged as I am at the way the British government is interfering the hell out of the public services.

Of course there are many examples of appalling behaviour by policeman, even of downright corruption. Of course there are many examples of lamentable performance by hospitals, with patients treated badly or even cruelly, to the point that some have died unnecessarily. But these events are shocking precisely because they’re rare. Overall, the police and the NHS perform superbly, as I found by personal experience when tracking down my mother.

And whats all this stuff about efficiency savings? I couldn’t have asked for more efficient service. If only David Cameron and his colleagues could say the same about their own work, as they constantly paint themselves into corners and have to reverse their policy decisions.

It was a shame that I had my highly encouraging experience of the police and the NHS on the same day I learned about government plans to make a massive reduction in the starting pay of policemen and women. Meanwhile, a series of half-baked reforms are still reducing pay in the NHS, demoralising the staff and making changes which have no sense except in so far as they let  in ministers’ friends from the private sector to take over services.

The NHS, the police: much more impressive than government
So why not get off their backs, Cameron?

Just how long are we going to put up with this undermining of services that we need so much and which are being provided so well?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Communiqué from Crusader Grand Global Headquarters

Major blows against infidels

It is with pride that we announce the latest hammer blows struck by the forces of the peace-loving West against the dastardly ranks of Moslem extremism.

Divinely inspired armies of the Republic of France, supported by their time-honoured ally, Britain, are engaging the cruel savagery of soldiers of jihad in the African state of Mali. They are marking major victories against the barbaric foe, giving up only the town of Diabaly since their arrival in the country.

French forces crusading against jihad

We naturally wish them continued success and ultimate victory, so that the West can again triumphantly build another great monument to the success of Western tolerance and civilisation, to set alongside our previous glorious achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We understand that some voices are being raised against this kind of noble endeavour. We strongly urge anyone harbouring such thoughts to consider the nature of the foe we are up against: these are people who do not understand justice, who execute their will cruelly and without respect for their victims or for due process of law, violently repressing anyone they identify as offenders without giving them the right to representation or a proper hearing before anything we would recognise as a satisfactorily constituted court.

Before you side with Moslem extremists, remember that this is what happens if they take power.

Clarification on an unrelated matter

We have received questions about the beheading of a certain Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan citizen, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Let us make it clear that we have absolutely no information on the subject. The trial was conducted in Arabic, which we do not speak, without translators and behind closed doors, unlike the execution which naturally took place in public. Nor was there a counsel for the defence we might otherwise have interviewed.

In the absence of any information about the case we have therefore chosen not to entertain any criticism, based on such obscure foundations, of our great and noble Saudi ally. Please also bear in mind that Rizana got very nearly 20 years of life, and that this incident, though unfortunate, at least prevented her having to deal with the inevitable inconveniences of growing old. Or indeed of getting married, going through pregnancy and bringing up a family. 

Unfortunate event
but a protest inconvenient to the grander cause

In any case, we have far too much to do keeping Moslem extremists driving forward in their insatiable drive for conquest and the seizure of power by naked military violence. This makes it impolitic to criticise our good friends and allies.

Especially as criticising them might push them to restrict our access to their oil. Or, heaven forfend, to raise its price.

Honestly. Try to get real.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

A dog's life on a bracing day

‘Bracing’ is a great word, isn’t it? It does for weather just what ‘interesting’ does for a film, the kind you didn’t walk out of, and which you didn’t exactly dislike, but for which you can’t actually point to any redeeming features.

On winter walks, ‘bracing’ means it was wet, cold and muddy, but somehow you didn’t enjoy it any the less for all that, though on the face of it there’s no good reason why you wouldn’t find it frankly miserable. We spent a couple of hours today picking our way round the muddiest bits of rutted paths, hands stuffed in pockets despite the gloves, noses glowing like traffic lights on stop.

That was in Ashridge forest, one of our favourite places. We particularly like it in May when the bluebells are out, or in the autumn when the leaves are turning, but even with bare trees and ice floating on the puddles in the tracks, it was full of charm today. We saw a colossal herd of fallow dear and a monkjack dodging between the trees; we saw my favourite white horse who, as usual, I fed with some handfuls of grass though it hurt to take my glove off to pick it and all I could get was some miserly tufts; and naturally we saw huge numbers of dogs, including our own Janka who’s never so delighted as when she can be in that forest.

She was barking in pleasure from the moment we pulled into the car park.  Once out the car and into the field that leads to the edge of the woods, she was wild with excitement. Belying her twelve years, she reverted to puppyhood, racing in every direction and barking at anything that caught her attention, from an unusually high grass blade to a glimpse of her own shadow.

We met a woman walking two dogs who said she always took them for a long walk before going to Ashridge, so that they wouldn’t be that excited when they got there. Clearly Janka isn’t alone in getting carried away by the sheer joy of the place. On the other hand, why would we walk off her exuberance beforehand? If Janka can’t be a little wild in a forest, where else should she be?

Sharing Janka’s pleasure would have made the walk worthwhile anyway, even if we hadn’t enjoyed it for its own sake: there’s a strange quietness in winter woodlands which is gently soothing, and it was good to share it with Danielle and our middle son Michael, over for the weekend from his home in Madrid. We wrapped the expedition up with a burger which exactly fitted the appetite the walk gave us, especially as what we ate wasn
’t any old burger, but one made of veal and topped with bacon: Ashridge is managed by that venerable institution, the National Trust, and not even its burgers are ordinary.

Besides, just before we reached the end of our walk, the sun slipped below the clouds and flooded the landscape with light. No particular warmth, for sure, but golden light that transformed every prospect.

As the sun flooded in, we enjoyed Ashridge as much as Janka
Despite the bracing cold and the mud

It was a useful reminder that a winter walk can be just as rewarding as it can be bracing. A sentiment which Janka entirely endorses.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A house divided: can Europe save a troublesome island from self-sought isolation?

Are you looking forward to watching the film Lincoln as much as I am?

Lincoln: Europe would do well to heed his words

A remarkable figure in world history, the 16th US President he had quite a way with words. Do you remember ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’? He was thinking about his own nation, about to be riven by a bitter civil war. In it he led the ‘North’ (really the northern and western states) against the deep south that was trying to secede from a Union he was determined to preserve. 

Curiously, though, they were not the first to threaten secession. Even before the United States were twenty years old, there were secessionist rumblings in the States of the North East. Wealthy traders saw their livings and privileges threatened by the more radical southerners, with their greater commitment to republican and democratic principles (yes, even though they held slaves...) and their anti-monarchist and anti-British sentiments.

Though their privileges set the New England elite against more modest layers in society, the classes were united in their dislike of ‘aliens’ arriving on their shores with strange and possibly dangerous ideas.

These days the ‘house divided’ is no longer American but European. Once more the early hostility is coming from the North, and again it is fuelled by both wealthy businessmen concerned with their bottom line and by a more popular, xenopobic current that feels threatened by anything foreign. But in Europe it isn’t multiple states moving towards the exit, but just one: Britain.

It is led by a government devoid of ideas and unable to develop a set of policies that make sense even in their own terms; it is, for instance, poised to lead the country into an unprecedented triple-dip recession (three recessions with no sustained growth in between). That clueless government is positioning itself as the spokesman for the anti-European current in society.

Certainly, it speaks for the wealthy frightened of having to help the less fortunate states of the south of the Eurozone: leading Conservative ministers come from that milieu. They are, on the other hand, finding it difficult to represent the wider circles from the middle or working classes worried about immigration. The result is that they’re being increasingly outflanked to the right by UKIP, the UK Independence Party. This makes ministers speak ever more stridently against Europe, though they don’t seem to be wining back any support.

Despite the name, UKIP is not a group specifically concerned with independence, but a traditional party of the far right: recently it has been speaking out against gay marriage and, though it claims to be concerned about uncontrolled population growth, it focuses on immigration (adding about 100,000 a year) as opposed to the birth rate (700,000).

Meanwhile the government stance is provoking increasingly hard responses from other EU nations. Leaders are warning David Cameron that they would far rather see Britain stay in the Union, but if it comes to it, they will not go overboard to hang on to us, or not at the price of making radical changes to Treaty arrangements with which the other 26 members can live, just to accommodate him.

Even Angela Merkel, seen by Cameron as his closest ally, and who’d indicated that she was willing to see Treaty renegotiation, is now backing off the idea. To make matters worse, the US, through the person of Philip Gordon at the State Department, has warned Britain that pulling out of the EU would weaken our position in the world.

As it naturally would. This is no longer a world in which a middling-size nation can expect to be heard. The US, China and India already pack a far more powerful punch than Britain, and soon they’ll be joined by Brazil and Russia. Europe as a whole can hold its own in such company, but an island on the fringe of the continent won’t long last as a major economy, whatever UKIP claims. As Philip Gordon made clear, hoping that the US will bale it out is a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, the anti-European rhetoric keeps ratcheting up. There is opposition, for example, to the European Arrest Warrant as being an unwarranted incursion into our affairs. However, when Jeremy Forrest, who despite being a maths teacher clearly preferred to think with his genitals rather than his brain, cleared off to France with a fifteen year-old girl from his school, it was a European Arrest Warrant that got him swiftly back to Britain to face trial.

But the anti-European vitriol overwhelms such reasonable considerations, making Europe a house divided. Fortunately, unlike the US, no-one on the Continent is going to use force to keep Britain inside the Union if it ultimately shows itself no smarter than Mr Forrest, and absconds like he did. No, the other EU nations will wave us sadly goodbye, and turn back to strengthening a house once more united.

While Britain will be stuck on the sidelines trying to persuade others to take us as seriously as we take ourselves.

Ah, for a European Lincoln to save us from our own worst instincts. Sadly, there seems little prospect of finding one soon. Instead we just have to make do with what I suspect will be a fine film about the original instead. 

Lets hope that the story of a giant will help console us for the petty manoeuvrings of the pygmies who surround us today.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Theseus complex: when the father kills the son

It’s been a long time since there’s been a real breakthrough in psychoanalysis so, in a spirit of becoming modesty, I wish to offer mine. 

Behold the latest syndrome to add to the canon of psychoanalytic conditions: the Theseus complex.

It’s basically the Oedipus complex in reverse, in which a father wishes to murder his sons. I used to suffer from it on a chronic basis – attacks at irregular but relatively frequent intervals, for instance when the boys woke me at 6:00 in the morning. Especially if it was by peeing in the bed. I have to admit, however, that the specifically Freudian and therefore sexual aspect of the original was missing: I didn’t want to murder them to marry their mother. After all, I already had.

The name comes from Theseus’s murder of his son Hyppolitus, following the attempted seduction of the son by his wife. That’s Theseus’s wife, not Hyppolitus’s. I don’t think Hyppolitus had a wife and, if he had, I rather hope a seduction would have been successful.

It occurred to me that the Theseus complex was far more significant than might at first seem likely when I read, the other day, about the Chinese father who hired virtual assassins to go after his son’s avatar in the charmingly named game, ‘World of Warcraft’. Concerned that his son was playing the game far too much, he took the drastic step of enlisting the support of two other gamers to track down the avatar and take him out.

May not bring out the best in the human spirit

It’s not clear to me that any offence has actually been committed. It probably isn’t a crime to commit virtual murder; after all, pretty much every gamer on ‘World of Warcraft’ and any of a large number of other games, would be guilty otherwise. In terms of the game, it may not be an offence, but I guess it might be viewed as offensive. And morally, of course, it’s unforgivable. Pure Theseus complex. It’s like letting the air out of the tyres to stop the kids driving away. That’s cunning but unlikely to endear you to them, even if Dorothy Parker advised it: ‘the best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant – and let the air out of the tires.’

The Chinese father's action was never likely to have succeeded, of course, as the experts pointed out. Since people get killed all the time in the game, what’s one death more or less? 

I understand that father and son have become reconciled. On the other hand, I imagine trust will be harder to re-establish.

Still, I suppose we should at least be grateful that the whole thing remained virtual. We have rather too many of the other kind of killing around the world at the moment. Maybe the father set a good example in this case: getting angry and bitter? sick of your friends, colleagues, relatives, the people flying the wrong flag or refusing to fly your own?

Go on-line and take them out there.

That would represent progress of a sort, don’t you agree? Which is sad considering that it's pretty distasteful, and if thats progress, what does that say for the way things are today? But at least it would preserve the peace and make the world a significantly less dangerous place.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Soldiers to secure peace? Time to learn a lesson

‘From the nature of things, soldiers quartered in a populous town, will always occasion two mobs, where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace.’

Interesting observation. Soldiers may not be the best people to help make or keep the peace. Curious, actually, that we even need to be told that: after all, we train our soldiers to be as good as we can get them at waging war. So why should they be all that good at quelling disturbances? Their specialty is creating the biggest disturbances of all.

It’s not just mobs, of course, but the equation applies in other areas. Take ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ (don’t they sound much less unpleasant than roadside bombs?): for every one an occupying army defuses, it usually provokes the planting of two more.

The Western Nations bringing peace to trouble communities

That would be a lesson we could do with learning, as we blunder around Iraq or Afghanistan or, who knows, perhaps Syria next. Britain and America, in particular, would do well to take heed, since they seem among the most inclined to wander in first and worry about how their military will be received afterwards.

To keep the lid on civilian trouble you need the police (and to be honest they’re not always as good at it as we might like), not the army.

It may amuse you to know that the words I quoted were spoken by a lawyer who was defending a group of soldiers who had fired into a disorderly crowd – in his terms, a mob – and killed five of them. The victims were the lawyer’s countrymen; the soldiers were part of a foreign occupying force.

You’ve got to admit it was a brief that took courage to accept.

And to general amazement, in front of a jury also made up of his countrymen, he got all the soldiers cleared of murder (two were found guilty of manslaughter and received relatively minor sentences). Lawyer and jury showed a commendable, not to say exceptional, preference for the rule of law and natural justice over their political inclinations.

A great story though, sadly, not a very recent one. The civilian deaths occurred in 1770, in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers were British. The lawyer for the defence was John Adams, later second president of the (independent) United States.

The British and the Americans. Them again. Sad, isn’t it? The British clearly never learned the lesson Adams tried to teach them. And though he had obviously got his mind around the idea, Adams’ countrymen seem to have forgotten it.

The consequences are tragic for the servicemen and women we send out to wage our wars. They’re even more tragic for the civilian populations on which we descend.

And yet we were warned nearly two and a half centuries ago...

The young John Adams. He knew a thing or two...

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Starting 2013, looking back at 2012

The story has it that Tsar Nicholas I once proudly proclaimed that Russia had two generals in which she could confide, Generals Janvier and Février.

Well, maybe. But this year, the English equivalent ‘Janvier’ is proving far too feeble to put up a fight on Nicholas’s behalf. Well, not unless he could persuade his enemies to stick to the North of the country and kept them out of doors, where they might get drowned.

Not that I’m complaining, mind. If I have to put up with the general dreariness of winter with its painfully short days and, in the wettest English year on record, the tiresome rain, I’d rather it was at 10 Centigrade than -10, any day of the week. Any year of the millennium.

The Russians will just have to make other arrangements to defend their territory.

We had our first badminton coaching session of 2013 today. We love the coach, who’s well into her seventies, with a level of fitness that would be enviable in someone twenty years younger, breathtaking in someone her age.

Like most sports coaches, she has a salty way of expressing herself.

‘Well, if you thought the shot was going out, why didn’t you call it out?’

‘You’d get to those shots a lot better if you didn’t superglue your right foot to the floor.’

‘If you think you’re supposed to play shots off the frame, why do you think they bother to string rackets at all?’

I suggested to one of the other players that she’d missed her calling in life, in diplomacy.

‘British Ambassador to Argentina perhaps?’ he suggested.

‘A perfect appointment. I can just see her saying to them: “You what? You wanted which islands from us? And you want them when?”’

Though, thinking about the advice she offered me repeatedly this morning, what she would probably be saying to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would be ‘you need to get to your shot early. Otherwise your opponent will smash you straight back and you won’t know what hit you.’ Be warned Mrs Kirchner: that’s what happened last time.

Listening to a couple of 2012 retrospectives, I particularly enjoyed some remarks about the US elections.

‘There were moments in 2012 that made you proud to be British,’ said one commentator. I was already bracing myself for more self-congratulation about the Olympics, but instead he surprised me. ‘Like when Mitt Romney became a candidate for President.’

Great value at $18
A statistician pointed out that the US elections had cost an average of $18 per head of the US population. By contrast, the 2010 General Election in Britain cost only 50p a head. But I’m not a cheapskate: I’d be more than willing to fork out another ten or eleven quid to take me up to the US level if we could get rid of that dismal waste of space Cameron, and replace him with someone more like Obama.

Bad buy at 50p
Come to think of it, I still have some US dollars in my wallet. Where could I send them in the States so that we can get the Tea Party out of Congress and get things moving over there too?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

At the brink of the Fiscal Cliff

So the US House of Representatives went to the brink of the fiscal cliff, peered over and wisely decided this was not the moment for a great step forward. 

Averting disaster by compromise only became possible because, for a brief moment at least, its opponents were able to wear down the stubborn resistance of a group viscerally opposed to any tax increase, the Tea Party. It draws its name from the insurgents who, rather than pay the tax Britain had imposed on tea, dressed as Indians and invaded three ships in Boston in 1773 to empty the chests they contained into the harbour. Their action came to be known as the Boston Tea Party.

The modern Tea Party supporters see themselves as heirs of those rebels. The claim only shows how little they understand the history to which they appeal.

The reality is that they are the heirs of the other side in that dispute. It wasn’t between tax-loving Britain and tax-hating Americans: on the contrary, the Brits hated tax at least as much as the colonists. The problem was that they had wracked up huge debts, not least in fighting successful but massively expensive imperial wars; like most people who are keen on military spending, such as the modern-day Tea Party, they wanted their cake and they wanted to eat it, to enjoy the fruits of war without paying the taxes they entailed. So they came up with this brilliant wheeze of getting the Americans to pay instead.

Backfired, of course. Within ten years Britain had been forced to recognise US independence. In trying to dodge its own fiscal responsibilities, the British government had lost a prized possession. If only the Tea Party had enough sense of history it might see that it’s running the same risk – of cutting off its own nose, and that of most of its compatriots at the same time – if it doesn’t learn that sometimes you need to be ready to pay for things.

It’s not as though no-one can see that. Even within the Republican Party, people are beginning to speak out. I’m indebted to a Facebook friend who shared this comment of Jon Huntsman, briefly a candidate for the Republican nomination for president at the last election: ‘In my party, compromise cannot be seen as analogous to treason, which it has been recently.’

Jon Huntsman: closer to the spirit of the founding fathers...

Absolutely right. Again, if the Tea Party knew anything about its own country’s history, it would appreciate its tradition of seeking compromise. As early as in 1790, within a year of the formation of first George Washington administration, there was a dispute over the public finances and taxation.

At stake was whether the Federal government should take over – ‘assume’ – the debts of the states, as promoted by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to establish the credit of the new nation on a more stable footing. A number of States had cleared much of their debt, notably Virginia and all the other Southern States apart from South Carolina. Why, they argued, should they be funding the debts of the feckless North East?

Leading the counter-attack against Hamilton was James Madison, a Virginian and leading ally of Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, also from Virginia. As a result of Madison’s tireless campaigning, the Hamilton plan was stalled twice in Congress.

Shades of today? You bet. The parallels are extraordinary.

But here’s where the two stories diverge. Appealed to by Hamilton, Jefferson didn’t simply indulge the knee-jerk instinct to side with his ally Madison. Instead he hosted a dinner for the two men. Over that table, Hamilton and Madison worked out the details of one of the first great compromises of US history: Madison would not support the Hamilton bill in Congress, but he would stop organising against assumption of debt; in return, Hamilton would agree to shifting the national capital from its temporary home in New York, not to one of the great commercial centres of the North East, but to a patch of land on the Maryland-Virginia border, where it stands today; in addition, Virginia would be offered a deal on its remaining debts to sweeten the pill.

Jefferson, and then Madison, had subordinated their narrow sectional interests to the needs of society as a whole.

Compromises by their nature satisfy no-one. They’re messy and unappealing. But, wow, they’re preferable to national bankruptcy. Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton understood that.

Jon Huntsman understands that.

What’s with the Tea Party that stops them understanding it? Do they really think that politics is all about dressing up as Indian warriors, breaking into ships and throwing tea into a harbour? Will they learn that it sometimes requires statesmanship too?