Tuesday, 2 September 2014

P J O'Rourke and the boomers

Ghastly right-winger that he is, I have always found P J O'Rourke hilarious. I particularly loved that his book on international conflict and crisis was called "Give War A Chance". Anyway, his latest tome, "The Baby Boom, How It Got That Way And It Wasn't My Fault And I'll Never Do It Again" is a bit variable. You have to love a writer who puts in ahead of the foreword a quote from Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha bit of the Bible (I always used to get him mixed up with Ecclesiastes, because I could never remember which one you were supposed to read and which one not, but Ecclesiasticus is the Wrong One) "How can he get wisdom... whose talk is of bullocks?"  But a lot of this is a description of a 1950s-to-early-60s childhood in Ohio, attracting the reaction "So what?" And why do Americans have to refer to brand names all the time? For us ration-book Brits the only brand names with any nostalgia quotient are probably Spangles and Golden Wonder, neither of which exists any more. He refers to Depends and Levitra, both of which I had to look up (incontinence pants and Viagra variant, since you ask, neither of which probably existed when US boomers were children).

But O'Rourke's boomer credentials are impeccable. He used to be editor of National Lampoon. Largely because he was/is funny. He took a lot of drugs, at the right time. He lived in a shared house called Big Green.

Who are the boomers? Opinions differ. Most agree that the oldest ones were born in 1946, conceived usually by returning soldiers. The youngest, however, were born anywhere between 1959 and 1964, depending who you believe (O'Rourke goes for 1964). What did boomers have that was cool, and that has lasted? Our music, of course. We had the Beatles. We had the Rolling Stones. We had the Kinks. We had the Who (none of these American, just saying). Except that all these people are/were war babies, born in the 1940s. Not boomers. Who are the boomer musicians? The late Sid Vicious? Morrissey (at the younger end)? Elvis Costello? Well, I grant  you him, but it's not the same, if you get my drift. So what did our generation produce? We went into politics, some of us. The Clintons are boomers, at the top end of the age group, and so may Barack Obama be, at the bottom end. Tony Blair definitely is. Angela Merkel. But the boomers' time in the political sunlight was brief. David Cameron is younger than that. Nigel Farage doesn't count. Our time there is over. Fun while it lasted. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Like the rest of our lives really.

Artists? Writers? Not that many. Martin Amis, if  you like him (I do) scrapes in (born 1949). Jonathan Coe. David Mitchell is too young. Margaret Drabble is too old. The writers I choose to read, mostly, are older or younger than the boomer generation.

But P J O'Rourke is funny. And concise. He notes, rightly, that the tax bills to fund the boomers' retirement are barely starting to come in, adding that that ought to galvanise those Generation X slackers into doing some work, besides which it would help them get over the death of Kurt Cobain. Just as well, then, that we don't want to retire. If we did, we'd have to admit we were old. Our parents wanted to retire. Some of them did so in their fifties, because their working lives were quite hard, and they were glad when they were over. Us, no. We've been having a pretty good time, all told. Quite a lot of us died young without any wars to kill us off, unlike now (I've lost several friends my own age and younger), but (and I'm talking about Brits, here) we had home cooking not junk food when we were children, we played out, we were not driven around, we were allowed chips only once a week, and we acquired self-reliance by being outside the house without adults from early on. We never grew up, and we are going to live for ever.

That's not an indictment of my generation, it's a snapshot opinion of it. Will later generations think of us kindly?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Desert Island Discs in Yorkshire

Yes I know, posting your desert island discs is frivolous and shallow, but hey, I'm on holiday.  In Yorkshire, since you ask, for the walking, to help mend my leg. It's so cold for August I've had to buy warm clothes, even though I knew the summer clothes I would wear in Alsace would not do in Leeds. The tracks are in no particular order.

1. The Moody Blues, 'Nights in White Satin''. Tune of my teenage years, and I have never tired of it. One of the great swooning ballads of all time.

2. The Rolling Stones, 'Paint It Black'. It's not the greatest thing they have ever done, but I think it is the clearest and the most powerful. Most pop songs, rock anthems etc are not about death, or not entirely, even the girl-group tragedy ones (see below), but this one is.

3. The Hollies, 'Bus Stop'. A near-perfect pop song, with the then-great voice of Graham Nash.

4. The Shangri-Las, 'Remember'. The best of the girl groups. 'Rock Dreams', back in the day, called them "three schoolgirls in black leather". I love the pauses in this. I will never get tired of it as long as I live.

And now, moving a little nearer the present day:

5. Stromae, "Formidable". He sings only in French. The most famous Belgian. All human life is there. And every line is simple, as Brel was. "Tu etais formidable, j'etais fort minable".

Back again to the past:

6. Jacques Brel, "Amsterdam". A dead famous Belgian. He of course also sang only in French, but nobody asked about that then. A perfect chanson. "Comme des oriflammes, le long des berges mornes."

7. The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields For Ever". For the nonsense of it, though I suspect John Lennon took the words a little more seriously than I do.

8. Tom Lehrer, "The Periodic Table". Just because. No one else could.

A bit old, all these. And yet I like a lot of today's modern beat combos. I'm sure these favourites will change over time, but that is what I would take if I had to go today.

Book? To Kill A Mockingbird. (Tussle between that and Wuthering Heights, but the latter has too much property in it, which wouldn't really do on a desert island.)

Luxury item: Tussle between a supply of Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream and pen and notebook to write with. The latter wins, by a whisker.

The one record I'd choose of them all? Difficult, but it's the Brel.

Just a bit of fun. You? Love to hear it.

An artificial water war

David Aaronovitch, writing in today's Times (£) expresses concern at recent statements and lobbying by the Angling Trust and (allegedly) other organisations promoting angling. Their stance, he writes, is that other river users, and specifically canoeists, are damaging the riparian environment for anglers. This may of course be true, though it does seem to me that it is not canoeists who leave tangled lines on riverbanks which cause injury and death to water birds and other animals. I therefore took the opportunity to cast a cursory look at the document Aaronovitch refers to, namely 'Conflict on the Riverbank', published late last year by the Angling Trust. My attention was drawn to these words:

Angling Trust National Campaigns Coordinator Martin Salter said:
"The Angling Trust has been challenging the claims being made by militant canoeists that they should have
a right paddle up every river, stream or brook in Britain irrespective of ownership or the impact this has on wildlife or other people's enjoyment. The rights of navigation are clear in law and there are thousands of miles of navigable rivers and waterways to which canoeists have legal access. We also have well worked voluntary access agreements in place which allow canoeing on some rivers such as the Dart and the upper Wye at times of high water when fishing will not be affected.

"They should have a right paddle"? Who edits this stuff? John Howarth?

Be that as it may,there are voluntary agreements in place in respect of various of the rivers of England which aim to secure harmonious use of the rivers by various users - walkers, including dog walkers, cyclists, anglers, canoeists, and, oh I don't know, hang-gliders and aficionados of naked riverbank yoga for all I know. So it's surely possible for everyone to play nicely together. And as Aaronovitch points out, even if canoeists do damage the experience of fish-torturing that anglers enjoy, those canoeists have precisely zero influence on the leisure experience of walkers, runners, cyclists and (probably) naked riverbank yogis. So this is anglers trashing canoeists. Now I am neither an angler nor a canoeist, but I am a user of the riverside, as an occasional walker and cyclist there, and in the past few months I  have become a gardener on a riverside plot in my home country of France (where the rules are a bit different - let's not go there). I see canoeists and anglers apparently happily coexisting on my local rivers.

Anyway Aaronovitch's piece (he declares an interest as a sometime canoeist but is fairly even-handed on the whole) is helpful in drawing the nation's attention to this piece of meretricious bollocks.
The rights of navigation are in fact not very clear in respect of a great many rivers and other water bodies in England. Where they are they tend to favour canoeists, as Mr Salter knows, perhaps because canoeists have no effect on the wildlife ecology, as Mr Salter should also know. Banning canoeists from rivers, including school groups and children's holiday clubs, would be SUCH a popular cause in an election year, hein?
And "We" have well worked agreements? Who's "we"? This is a manufactured and artificial conflict. Mr Salter has form on this, going back to his time as Labour MP for  Reading West, and before. First it was "Trash the Cormorants!" (He urged mass culls of cormorants by shooting, attracting the ire of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, among others). Then it was "Trash the Otters!" (Little Tarka Must Die!) and, at least as worryingly, it was "Trash the East Europeans!" (who apparently don't torment fish for pleasure as True Englishmen do, but often fish just for some dinner (perfectly legal on most English rivers most of the time)). Leaving aside the question of how he could tell when it had been East Europeans doing Bad Things (did the fish report that a Nasty Polish Man Did It And Ran Away?), this last attracted the enthusiastic agreement of Joe ("Send 'em Back!") Baker of the Reading  Anglers' Association,  so I think we know whose vote was wanted there.

As the election approaches, what do the candidates where you live think about banning canoeists, otters, cormorants and East Europeans from the rivers?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Rob Wilson, 'Eye of the Storm'

A long and tedious period of recovery following an accident in early February this year has curtailed my activity somewhat, but I am mending and back. A sick bed gives plenty of time for reading. Even more, it gives the opportunity to read the new books as soon as they come out. I do tend to try and do this anyway, rather than leaving them on a reading pile until everyone has forgotten why they might have been interested in the first place.  Dickens and Austen, by contrast, won't mind if it thus takes me a bit longer to finish reading them.

I do take an interest in the career of Rob Wilson, elected for the constituency of Reading East in the Conservative interest in 2005, and representing that constituency to this day. That is largely, but not entirely, because he was my successor as MP for that constituency. He has written a couple of interesting books, and this is one of them. People at the centre of events seem to be willing to talk to him. This book is about political scandals, and those at the centre of them, hence its title. For those readers who don't remember what the scandals were all about, be assured, it doesn't really matter.

Andrew Mitchell, who was innocent of what he was accused of ("Plebgate", anyone?) handled his scandal much less well than did Chris Huhne, who was entirely guilty. Probably because MItchell really did not imagine, to begin with, that accusations could simply be made up out of nothing. Well, yes they can, Andrew, and that is why most people still have some vague notion that you spat in the face of a serving police officer, or some other such poor creature. Whereas Chris Huhne, who was guilty of perverting the course of justice and went to prison for it, has been more or less forgotten, and if he is remembered no one is quite sure what if anything he did wrong. Mostly when people say there is a conspiracy against them they are not believed, as Mitchell wasn't. But sometimes it's true.

On the Jeremy Hunt affair, who seemed to me, as an outsider to all this, like a scandal that never was, Wilson cites a senior Tory as saying that the subsequent Labour motion, on which the LibDems abstained, although they were and are in government, was "typical LibDems - a high moral tone and low politics". Wilson describes Hunt's political survival as "a testament to his temperament and his resilience". It is the psychology of those in the eye of these storms that is beginning to emerge as interesting here. Those who can compartmentalise, and those who can stand outside their own emotions, seem to survive best.

Some language issues with the book ("steely" is rather too much of a favourite word); use of cliches ("little did he know": surely only used ironically these days?) and some iffy use of modals (a linguist writes).

Note that Jacqui Smith would not have been done over if it had not been for a malicious neighbour in London. This is how it always happens. "Officials took the unusual step of removing all the newspapers from Smith's sight" - hah! Porn films, we all remember. But I never claimed for any of this stuff, only rent. Why did these people do it? We got paid enough to buy all the DVDs we wanted. Smith said, allegedly, that sometimes when she meets people she thinks "Where were you when I needed help?" What did you expect, Jacks? For Smith "throughout the difficult period, her sister Sara would look after her in London, and would cook for her after work". Oh really? Where are the tears for the rest of us, who had no such creature to look after us?

He's a big fan of Stewart Jackson, the Tory MP for Peterborough since 2005, clearly. I've never been able to afford a house with a swimming pool. Others. John Swallow. Phil Jeffery. Nadhim Zahawi, quoted on his expenses scandal, "For two and a half weeks everything stopped." Really? I had this stuff for seven years. Very nearly non stop.

Charles Clarke, he says "made little attempt to reach out to backbenchers". I think that's wrong. He did. What he didn't do was call that in when the time came. Why not? He had more history in the party, and in various left groupings from NUS times on, than most did.

When you are at the eye of the storm, most of your friends will turn against you. Your family will undoubtedly turn its back on you. Your spouse won't, unless there were pre-existing problems. That's just how it is. This book doesn't analyse all that, but the psychology of scandal is ripe for a book. And this one will be part of its source.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Balkans: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Rebecca West, writing just before the Second World War, on her travels in the Balkans. I have done my own little bit of that travel, which is why this book took my interest. This edition, too, is introduced by Christopher Hitchens, but despite that I still think West is dodgy politically, and possibly intellectually too. However, this is the best travelogue I have ever read, by quite a long way. Studded with gems, such as this on the divide between peasants and bourgeois (which still meant something in the 1930s) "there is no man in the world, not even Stalin, who would claim to be able to correct in our own time the insane dispensation which pays the food-producer worst of all workers". She's right about the last bit, but - Stalin, the peasant's friend? In 1937?
On the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then existed in living memory: "Such a terrible complexity has been left by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which some desire to restore; such a complexity, in which nobody can be right and nobody can be wrong, and the future cannot be fortunate". Look forward to the 1990s and that is true, but I do not think I blame the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the Yugoslav wars of that time.
A little politically incorrect by the standards of the left of today, I am glad to see: "the people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broad-minded ... would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today."
Things not a lot of people know: Robert Adam was inspired by the Roman Emperor Diocletian's palace at Split: "When we look at a facade in Portman Square or a doorway in Portland Place, we are looking at Roman Dalmatia."
She talks to a Dalmatian professor in Split who had been a friend of Admiral Lord Fisher, about whom I learned, as often in my young days, from an Al Stewart song: "Admiral Lord Fisher is writing to Churchill, calling for more dreadnoughts; the houses in Hackney are all falling down."
She's a bit odd on sexuality; perhaps because she was a renowned feminist she felt the need to keep putting things in about it. But they are strange (to our ears now) sweeping statements, such as "But of course in a country where there is very little homosexuality it is easy for girls to grow up into womanhood."
On the culture and religions of the Balkans the book goes from marvel to marvel. In Kotor, where suddenly there are Orthodox churches, in contrast with most of Catholic Croatia, she notes "the dark, hugged mystery of the Eastern Church and the bold explanation proffered by the lit altars of the Western Church".
She is totally pro-Slav and pro-Serb, and sees Gavrilo Princip as a kind of hero. Those killers could not be sentenced to death, because they were all under twenty-one. But 13 conspirators were sent to Austrian prisons, and by the end of the war, three years later, nine of them had died in their cells. The three young men who were convicted of the killing are buried in Sarajevo. Are their graves still there? Are they still marked? West and her husband went to see them. I wish I had.
She is impressed, as most are, by the relentless, almost hilarious good looks of the people. "... one of those pale women with dark hair who even in daylight look as if one were seeing them by moonlight".
Elsie Inglis's Scottish Women's Hospital was in Serbia in 1914-15. Who knew?And what courage those women had. I'm glad she mentioned it.
Boy is this a long book. Knocks Patrick Leigh Fermor into a cocked hat though, and that's not something I thought I would say. "If Protestantism has done much harm by making religion identical with ethical effort of a limited kind it has done a great deal of good by putting down in black and white the ideas of Christianity, and showing us what life will lose if we abandon them."
Social history in the small mentions. She travels with a work-basket with silks in it. Did they have huge trunks and an army of bearers? Perhaps they did.
She describes the blood sacrifice of lambs and cockerels on a particular rock in Macedonia on St. George's Day, for women's fertility, in fairly nauseating detail. She is utterly disgusted by it, and says, rather oddly, that she has been living in the shadow of that rock all her life.
Byzantine titles are just wonderful. Sebastocrator and Grand Logothete, Grand Domestic and Sacellary.
The old Serbian poem about the battle of Kosovo Polye in 1389 (that battle was treated as a recent memory when I first went to Kosovo in 2001) tells West that "what the pacifist really wants is to be defeated". Not to avoid war, not to prevent bloodshed, but to be defeated. "Kill us, we deserve it."
And then "We said goodnight and stood in the porch under the Dorothy Perkins roses." How does she even know a Dorothy Perkins rose to look at? And why are they called that? And what do they  have to do with the shop?
This is a wonderful book. There is much more in it than I have been able to describe. The lives of the bloody and not so bloody Serbian kings, especially; the Austrians and Germans who treat the Balkans as their colony (she is not very pro-German), the architecture, peasant and bourgeois life, the Jewish and Greek minorities, and much much more..

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

do we do God?

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, had a reception for Christian leaders in the UK just before Easter. His speech there was reported in the Church Times, as you might expect, but quite widely elsewhere too. He said he appreciated Christian values, which he characterised as hard work, humility, giving and social action. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Perhaps slightly more crowd-pleasingly, he said "Jesus invented the Big Society". Alarm bells sound. Jesus did no such thing. The notion of the Big Society (not a new one of course) may to some extent have been informed by what are described as Christian values. I would suggest that subscribing to such notions is in culturally various ways part of all faiths, and that those of no faith also very often live by a similar moral code - which David Cameron did say. He also, and this is a little more worrying politically, described himself as a "member of the Church of England". Well, fine. So am I. Although it's not a body you really "join", other than to be baptised and confirmed. I am never sure how much you are a "member" if you have been baptised and confirmed but never go into a church.

Where I would question Cameron's wisdom in this speech is in his including mention of his own faith. That is a matter between him and God, as it is for us all. It is not, and never should be, part of any political strategy, still less a plank of an election platform. Cameron came dangerously close to making it so in that speech. Alastair Campbell famously said "We don't do God". Tony Blair of course does very much do God, though even he does it quite politically - he waited until he was out of office to go over to Rome. But maybe that is because there is an established church in England, something I personally would like to see abolished - any political leader has to work with that, and so there is an MP who is the member for God in the Commons, and there are bishops in the House of Lords. Anyway, David Cameron talked about Christian values and praised his local vicar, as well as indicating that the Church had helped him when his son died some years ago. Nothing wrong with that. David Cameron has a reception for Eid and for Diwali, and nobody thinks there is anything wrong with his doing so. At those receptions he does not describe the UK as a Muslim country or a Hindu country, even though there are millions of adherents to both those faiths in the UK.

Now a "group of 50" cultural luminaries have written a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which they bemoan, as they put it, Cameron's designation of the UK as a "Christian country", which they call divisive and wrong. They say he should not appropriate Christianity as representative or descriptive of the UK. You may agree with them. (I always wonder how these open letters get produced so quickly. Do the luminaries all text each other and get together in an Islington wine bar the same night to thrash out a text? I fancy not. Perhaps one of them would like to get in touch and tell me how they do it). But David Cameron did not call the UK a Christian country. What he did was allude to the extent to which Christianity has been woven into the fabric of British life, and to refer to the unique liturgy of the Church of England, the beauty of its churches, and so on. So, luminary brothers and sisters, what you did was set up a straw man "We are a Christian country!" and knock it down "Oh no we're not!" A venerable political tactic, but not a very respectable one, and thus not much respected by the voting public.

It has been reported that Cameron's "Christian" focus is intended to win back the mostly older demographic which has moved from the Tories to UKIP. I do not imagine that that demographic is especially devout. Listen to Nigel Farage's utterances,and look at his personal style, and you would take his constituency to be an utterly materialist ("He's after your job!") and a frivolous ("Mine's a pint!") one.

In short, I think all this "controversy" is just rubbish. Manufactured. Dreamed up. And the public Do Not Care. So, "group of 50", you have wasted your time. No one cares what you think about what Cameron thinks about the Church of England.

Oh, by the way. I am an Anglican. I attend the Anglican church in Strasbourg, France. At one time I didn't like some of the things that were being said and done there. This happens in all organisations. Not all members are pleased with everything they do all the time. So I thought, could I go somewhere else. Not being a Roman Catholic, I could have gone to one of the French Protestant churches, which in this part of France are quite numerous. But I am not a Protestant. "The Church of England by law established" is a reformed Catholic church. So there. Not a lot of people know that.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sarah Wollaston, Nigel Evans,and "blog bullies"

Nigel Evans MP was accused of rape and sexual assault. There was a trial, and he was acquitted of all charges. End of story, you'd think? He walks free, with his name cleared? Not so fast.When the allegations first emerged he resigned the Tory whip. At the time of writing it has not been restored to him. Why not?
One of the key witnesses for the prosecution was one Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, a person I do not know, unlike Nigel Evans, whom I count as a friend. Sarah decided not only to support the allegations made against Nigel, without evidence (and yes I know evidence is difficult in cases of rape and sexual assault) but to be a witness for the prosecution and to call him a drunk and a debaucher of young men. I think this is a disgrace, to her personally, to the office of MP, and to the polity of England. Fortunately the judge and jury rejected this poison. Now Sarah has been given a big piece in The Times (£), with a nice blonde smiley photo of her above it, in which she complains about "male blogger bullies" who were HOWWID to her about her hate-filled outpourings. Well, diddums, Sairs. In fact the remarks made were rather mild, though of course "blogger bullies" do exist. I should know. Well, I'm not male, and I used to be an MP, but some years ago when the online climate was rather different from now, and I'm having my say. You want some, Sarah, you can have some. 
A prominent Tory backbencher has hit out at “aggressive male bloggers” who, she claims, target female MPs.
Sarah Wollaston said that certain parts of the political blogosphere were “quite aggressive in their approach towards women”, particularly when discussing sexual violence or gender. “If you stick your head above the parapet you can expect some quarters of the aggressive blogging community to go for you,” she said. Yes, Sarah. It's called having your say, and other people having theirs too. Freedom of speech, dontcha know.
Dr Wollaston, the Totnes MP, faced a barrage of criticism last week after Nigel Evans, the deputy speaker, was cleared of a string of sex charges. One of the alleged victims was in a Westminster bar with the former GP Like a drink do you Sarah? If not, what were you doing in the bar? when an “off-the-cuff” remark about an alleged assault triggered a sequence of events that led to the court case. Dr Wollaston was contacted by a second man — a friend of the first — who alleged that he had been raped. Ah I see, you were drinking with the alleged victims and winding them up to make police complaints.
The MP listened to their complaints and took them to John Bercow, the Speaker, who said that he could not help. She then passed on police contact details to the alleged victims, who contacted the officers, prompting the arrest last year of Mr Evans...
In an interview with The Times, Dr Wollaston was keen to stress that she was in no way challenging the verdict in the case, adding that she empathised with Mr Evans and his ordeal. Oh yeah?
She confessed, however, that the fallout from the case had been “very difficult”, particularly in the online sphere. Did you CWY, Sarah? Did you THCWEAM and THCWEAM till you were THICK? Nigel's life and career have been ruined. Nothing will ever be the same again for him, personally or politically. And he is innocent. How do you sleep, Sarah?
She singled out The Daily Telegraph writer Dan Hodges, the libertarian blog Guido Fawkes, and the Tory publisher and writer Iain Dale, saying that she had been reading their “really quite aggressive attacks” about her handling of the allegations...
Wollaston said that it was striking that much of the criticism of her had come from male bloggers. “I haven’t had any women writing critical articles and I do think that’s very interesting,” she said. You have now, Ms Wollaston. “I think there are some very aggressive male bloggers out there and they target women MPs.”...
Well, I hope you're happy now, Sarah Wollaston. I hope your constituents are happy with your spending your time and your MP's salary trashing a colleague's life and career. Wetting your knickers now because not everyone likes your pretty blonde hair and sweetie campaigns against booze and fags? It could get worse. And if you think that's a threat, it is. Oh, not from me, you understand. From the nasty horrid "male bloggers" who have been so BEASTLY to the lovely Sarah. But still, Ms Wollaston, next time you are in Strasbourg, do come and say hello. Perhaps we can have a refreshing glass of mineral water together.

Sue me.