Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel

this is historical fiction at its very best.  The story, we know.  She is telling the story of the life and work of Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary to Henry VIII, and this book tells the last three weeks or so of the life of Anne Boleyn, with references to earlier times.  We know the ending (and Anne has long been a hero to me) but the story still is gripping.
The notions are contemporary: "This is about, which will you have: Henry Tudor or Alessandro Farnese? The King of England at Whitehall, or some fantastically corrupt foreigner in the Vatican?"
German scholars speak "the many varieties of their tongue" - as they do today, and it was German scholars who were the Protestants that Henry was not.
Old England: "Did they pick the quinces?  It can't be long till we have frost.  I feel it in my bones."
Anne, indeed, is called "a bag of bones" and the book says judges herself more harshly than any others can.  When taken to the Tower she cries out that the lodgings are too good for her.  She has not after all, had a son for Henry.  Though the daughter she had for him lives to be the greatest monarch England has known.  Arguably.  And with red hair.
Those condemned long for life despite themselves: "you think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas: rising and falling, emitting sighs.  You must thrive in spite of yourself, and so that you may do it God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone."
Cromwell, in this book, says "they do not say she is innocent.  They are not able.  It may be that she is, but none of them will give his word on it."
"I have only a little neck", says Anne.  "It will be the work of a moment."

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Obliged to Offend: What Christopher Hitchens left behind

Obliged to Offend: What Christopher Hitchens left behind

and more of us should read him, and think on these things.

right or left? it's all kicked off in Strasbourg

Dieudonne, pictured left, is a "humourist" who was very popular in France in the 1990s, and still I think draws big audiences.  He has been booked to appear at the Zenith in Strasbourg, a very large venue, on 12th June, which is between the two rounds of voting in the presidential election.  This is controversial (a number of his shows have been cancelled by local authorities in recent times) because Dieudo, as he is known, is a very political figure.  He was thought to be on the left in the 90s, and was active in circles which condemned France's colonial past, and still describes himself as of "the real left".  In fact he is on the Jew-hating far right, and has stood for election more than once on an anti-Zionist ticket, fulminating against "the lobby" - well, you get the picture.  Marine Le Pen jumped at the chance for him to be godfather to one of her children, and you can see why from his picture. Our Socialist deputy, Armand Jung, candidate in the elections to the National Assembly, which take place on 10th and 17th June, takes a dim view, and has put out a statement to that effect, in which he expresses dismay that "ce triste individu"  should be appearing in Strasbourg, capital of human rights, to promote values which are contrary to those of the French Republic, in an attempt to influence the elections. He says it is for the local authorities in Strasbourg to take responsibility and take a decision, and he is right.  He notes that the UMP candidate has chosen to write to the President about it.  As far as we know the Front National candidate has remained silent on the matter - so far.

Write a letter to the President, when something actually needs doing?  That's not how to get things done.  An elected representative, or someone who hopes to be one, should be taking action, not writing letters.  Remind you of anyone?

Amanda Coe, What They Do In The Dark

I don't remember why I bought this book, I may have seen a review of it some months ago, or someone might have recommended it to me.  Anyway it was an interesting read, though not a pleasant one.  Set against the background of a film shoot in the mid-1970s, it is superficially about an unlikely relationship between two girls from very different backgrounds, but in fact is a coming of age story and is about character and the crushing of assumptions.  As a great many books are.  The most obvious word for it is "dark" - but that implies that Something Horrid Happens and you guess what it is from about page 17.  Not the case here.  Something Horrid does indeed happen, and it is shocking, and I still feel a bit sick from having read it yesterday, but it is Not What You Think.

I don't know how old Amanda Coe is, but I suspect she is too young to remember what life was like in England in the mid-1970s, at least as an adult.  The period detail is there, and is OK, but there is not quite enough of it, and it does not quite convince - as if she does not have the confidence to put it all in.  A book that starts with the obituary of a child star and has the context of a film starring Dirk Bogarde as a paedophile (well, who else would you have cast, in the 1970s?) might be about exploitation and corruption, might it not?  No, actually, in this case.

Amanda Coe has, apparently, written scripts for the TV programme Shameless, which I have seen once or twice and found lame and unconvincing.  It shows.  I didn't grow up on a sink estate, but I know that people from Rough Backgrounds are not really as she writes them.  I know enough to know that.  The character of the child Pauline, from just such a background, deserves a more rounded treatment than she gets.  But the fact that I can even write this in this way shows that I believed in the characters, to an extent - I could also immediately see all the characters in a TV series.  Which is presumably what Amanda Coe intended.  I wonder if it will happen.  I can't say I liked this book, but I was mad to know what happened next, and ill with dread at the Something Horrid that looms larger with every page you turn (which I didn't, because I read it on a Kindle, but you know what I mean).  And that's no small achievement.  This was her first novel, and I shall look out for what she comes up with next.

Monday, 28 May 2012

the life of Dickens

I said that his would be the year in which I would read Dickens, never having really done so - I had the Pickwick Papers read to me during a series of childhood bouts of tonsillitis and I am glad of it, and have seen a number of films.  Also I have read A Tale of Two Cities.  But that is about as far as it goes.  So now is the time.  So I thought I would find out about Dickens' life.  I had heard a lot of rather snooty people who Know About Books mention "the blacking factory" - but it turns out he worked in a factory as a teenage boy, putting labels on tins of shoe polish.  Who hasn't done that sort of job?  Well, not writers in the middle nineteenth century, that is for sure.

Claire Tomalin has written rather a good tour of Dickens' life.  He had some good epithets,  describing the Tories of the time as a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains".  One thing I did not know is that Dickens was invited to stand as Liberal MP for Reading in May 1841, his friend Thomas Talfourd (after whom a street is named, in Park ward, east Reading) having tried to persuade him, without success. I think all MPs for Reading should have a street named after them.  Don't you?  There has only ever been one female MP for Reading.  Who was that?  Oh, please yourselves.

Dickens was hugely adventurous, travelling in America, and in France (well, Strasbourg) by bone-rattling coach, mostly, and touring his work - his readings from his works were hugely popular - and was vastly physically energetic.  He was married, and had quite a lot of children, and got tired of his wife - this much is clear - and shacked up with another - probably - and may or may not have had a child with her, but if he did, it died.  He did not go to a university, and had to work enormously hard all his life, and died before the age of 60, after at least one stroke.

He was a slim man, largely it seems because of his lifelong love of vigorous exercise.  His food and drink intake was problematic.  Late in his life, while touring, his intake was like this:

"At 7 in the morning, in bed, a tumbler of new cream and two tablespoonsful of rum.
At 12, a sherry cobbler and a biscuit.
At 3 (dinner time) a pint of champagne.
At five minutes to 8, an egg beaten up with a glass of sherry.
Between the evening readings, the strongest beef tea that can be made, drunk hot.
At a quarter past 10, soup, and any little thing to drink that I can fancy."

A food and drink intake like this, if continued for any length of time, would have resulted in not only skinniness and chronic constipation but an enlarged liver.  Which is probably what killed him.

Well, there was a lot of exuberance, and a lot of intolerance, and a lot of energy.  Now to read the books.  Or as many of them as i can.  The Tomalin biography is a pretty good introduction.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

it gets better - Mr Salter engages in dialogue!

he has commented on the Chronicle story referred to - like this:

Just for the record. My solicitors were contacted by officers from Operation Weeting earlier this month regarding some phone records that had just come to light and which are currently the subject of investigation. Ms Griffiths is of no relevance to the attempt to bribe a police officer in 2000 in the wake of my spat with the NoW over their Sarah's Law campaign and only of passing relevance to impersonation incident in 2004 which was a follow up by the NoW to her Mail on Sunday deselection allegations.

Along with other former MPs I agreed to provide Tom Watson with examples of illegal behaviour by News International to assist his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. I remain convinced, as I said in my statement, that there was a culture of criminality in parts of News International which had a corrupting effect on our public life. I await the outcome of the three police enquiries and Leveson with considerable interest.

Martin Salter 

I'll refrain from fisking for a little while, would be interested in what readers think.  It is not his usual prose style, especially the missing article in line 4, would simply point out that if he was seeking to provide Tom Watson MP with examples of illegal behaviour he has not done so.  It was not illegal to go to his house and try to speak to him.  Oh and Mr S - why did you not sue?  Especially over the fraudulent housing allowance claims 1997-2001?  Hein?

my response to the lies

The Reading Chronicle published this yesterday, so here is my response to it.  I have also put it in the comments box on the story, and they have said they will publish a shortened version in the dead-tree remix.

I read with interest your copy of a press release from a Mr Martin Salter titled "Ex-Reading MP tells Leveson he was a News of the World target". Apparently Mr Salter is upset that the now defunct News of the World ran an "unpleasant" story about him refusing to back its Sarah's Law campaign in 2000. Poor love. Journalists not always being nice about people in public life? That must have come as a terrible shock to the notoriously publicity-shy and reclusive MP. Understandably still traumatised 12 years later by the dreadful discovery that there are parts of the print media which are sometimes unwilling to copy out his press releases, Mr Salter has attempted to heal those wounds by providing his tale of woe as evidence for Tom Watson MP to present to the Leveson inquiry. What Tom Watson was thinking when he agreed to accept this stuff is another matter. But I have read Tom Watson's ghostwritten book "Dial M for Murdoch", which is not only crammed with inaccuracies but reveals that Tom Watson at one stage believed himself to be mentally ill. We're with you on that, Tommy-boy! Mr Salter takes up the story. The News of the World went to his home! Shock! Horror! They had a photographer! Anguish! Terror! He was indeed terrified. He had to stay away from home for the Whole Day! In case the Nasty Men came back! I am reliably informed that he spent the day in Reading West, where he knew the press would never find him. They were searching for him, of course, in Reading East. A cunning stunt, I'm sure you will agree.

Anyway, the reason I have taken up my pen is that Mr Salter's press release contained the following:

"In 2004, former Reading East MP Jane Griffiths, (punctuation errors either Mr Salter's or the Reading Chronicle's) attempted to "smear" him with "a series of wholly false and ridiculous allegations" in an "angry interview" with the Mail on Sunday after she was deselected by her local Labour party." First, matters of fact. No smear. A smear is an allegation, usually untrue, but anyway intended to make the person it is about look in some way bad or as though they have done something they have not done. Everything I said in relation to Mr Salter was factual. Not only this, but he said so himself at the time, telling MPs and anyone who would listen that he had "coughed to the dope". (No, me neither. I think it's a secret language they speak in Staines.) "Ridiculous" my words may have made Mr Salter seem, but "false" they were not. If they had been, why did he not sue me? He brags about his litigiousness often enough. Also, I was not "angry" during the interview. The journalist and I had a good laugh together. I've let the journalist know about this nonsense, and I have of course contacted both Tom Watson MP and the Leveson inquiry team. Second, why was this nonsense given in evidence to the Leveson inquiry? There is no connection with phone hacking. Except in Mr Salter's dreams. He tells us that on the day in question the Horrid Newspaper Man made 20 calls to him, which he ignored. He also tells us that to this day, eight years on, he is still "trying to figure out" if there had been "an attempt to illegally access his voicemail messages". No evidence for it, Martin. Sorry mate, you're just not interesting enough.

I am grateful to the delightful Sally Stevens of Berkshire Media for allowing me the opportunity to reply to the nonsensical falsehoods peddled by Mr Salter in the pages of the Reading Chronicle. It does the heart good to know that not all newspapers allow lies and smears to go unchallenged

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Salter and the Leveson Inquiry

Ain't  Google Alerts wunnerful?

If it wasn't for them I would not have discovered this evening that the Reading Chronicle has published on its website a report of evidence given to a certain inquiry by one M. Salter, which refers to remarks made to media outlets by yours truly some years ago and describes these remarks as lies.  I refer to a story which can be found here

It contains serious inaccuracies, in particular in that it states that comments I made to the media some years ago (Mail on Sunday, story by Jonathan Oliver in 2004) were untrue, when in fact not only are they factual, but Martin Salter acknowledged them to be so, stating that to a large number of people in the House of Commons at the time, including to at least one shadow minister, in, inter alia, the following terms "I coughed to the dope, but not to the grope".

I have asked the Chronicle why, in publishing this piece, they did not contact me for comments, as I was named therein.  I contacted their news desk and of course their editor in chief Sally Stephens (kisses, Sals), I hope they respond.  I also sent a message like this to the Reading Evening Post (Andy Murrill and Hilary Scott)

I said this to the Chronicle: I would also request that you do not publish this piece in the paper version of your publication, or indeed in any other version.  I hereby offer you the opportunity to withdraw from publication of any inaccuracies.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Jane Griffiths

Well, we'll wait and see, won't we?

targeted? how exactly?

the Leveson inquiry goes on, and Tom Watson MP has been giving evidence to it.  According to this report, Watson referred to the "targeting" of then MP Martin Salter for opposing "Sarah's Law" as an example of the power wielded by the Murdoch empire.  He's got that one way wrong.  First of all, Salter was not actually targeted at all.  He was pictured in the News of the World, with about eight other MPs, all of the pictures seriously unflattering, because all had responded to the paper's call on MPs to support "Sarah's Law" with vocal opposition.  (Me, I threw that letter in the bin and ignored it all).  That was the extent of the "targeting" that took place.  Anything else was in Mr Salter's press releases,  Even His Master's Voice frames their copy of his press release as a question, perhaps because even they balked at the reproduction in his press release of the completely false story that a paediatrician was burned out of their home because of the activities of News of the World journalists.  Didn't stop them copying it out though.  Allegedly, Devon and Cornwall police at one stage had evidence that an investigator was looking at Mr Salter's activities.  Well, if one was he didn't work very hard at it, or he would have found the fraudulent housing allowance claims from 1997 to 2001 (when disclosure rules came in) - about 48K trousered for a non-existent London flat.  I posted about the allegations last year here.  Now Mr Watson, I have read your book 'Dial M for Murdoch' (great title, shame about the numerous inaccuracies) and you ought to be a bit more careful.  I don't know if Leveson questioned you about the "targeting" but he ought to have done.  What? Exactly? Happened?

the French language

I have been in France for almost five years now, and though I speak English at home and work almost entirely in English, I do have to speak French every day, and I watch French TV, read French magazines and newspapers etc - I was recently congratulating myself that I speak it quite well these days.  I am even at the top level (nationally) in French classes, which I still take very week.  Wrong.  It is a plateau thing.  I know enough now to know how much I don't know.  Lady Jennie, a blogger who is American, married to a Frenchman and has been here a long time, educates us about the French language here.  Who knew?  "Bof", which people say all the time to express disdain, lack of approval (it's used in film reviews to mean "not up to much") is an acronym, "beurre, oeufs, fromage" (butter, eggs and cheese) which used to be a sign on creameries some decades ago - it has to do with the black market, especially during the German occupation.  (Here in Alsace the German occupation signifies something rather different, but that's another matter).  Read it anyway, francophone or not, it's interesting.

Monday, 21 May 2012


well, he is never dull.  On the strange creature who was Jorge Luis Borges, who admired Videla and Pinochet, and hated the Perons (Hitchens calls Evita "whorish") and was sexually perhaps a little dysfunctional.   Hitchens says that the critic F.H. Bradley has the right epitaph for Borges "For love unsatisfied the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand."

On America and American writing, Hitchens says that "Augie March" is the Great American Novel.  Well, that made me download it to my Kindle, but it will take a lot to push "Huckleberry Finn" off his perch for me.  I'll let  you know when I've read it.  Hitchens also tells us that Saul Bellow, who wrote "Augie March", went to Mexico to find Trotsky and got there the day after old Leon had been ice-picked, and viewed the body with blood in its hair.  Really?  This sounds like an urban myth.  Can anyone confirm?  I seem to remember a film about Trotsky, made in the 1970s with Richard Burton in the title role, in which the killing scene was made to look like a bullfight.  Must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hitchens is brilliant on Malcolm Muggeridge.  Boys of a certain generation (my brother) were quite often big fans of Muggs.  Not me.  Bloke was never off the telly, and this is what Hitchens has to say about why.
"...he was drawn compulsively to that which he found loathsome.  Television, he could plainly see, would be the death of literacy and the handmaid of instant gentrification: it would instill cheap and commercial values and invite the nastiest forms of populism.  He fell for it like a ton of bricks.  He wallowed exuberantly in its corruption.  He was a natural.  He was perfectly well aware, as his diaries show, that he was expending his spirit, in a waste of shame.  But he enjoyed it, and excelled at it, and he may have hoped to turn the greatest weapon of crass modernity against itself."  Marvellously, Hitchens goes on to mention a 1969 film of Muggeridge's, entitled "Something Beautiful for God" which Hitchens says "launched the person that we all came to know as Mother Teresa|, an then goes on to say nothing about her.  And yet we know what Hitchens thought about Mother Teresa, which is what I think too.  That she was a ghastly pro-totalitarian old bitch who sucked the dicks of dictators.  Excuse crudity.

And when I went to see 'Fahrenheit 9/11' - I could not stay until the end - I wish I could have written about it as Hitchens did.

"To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability.  To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.  To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious.  'Fahrenheit 9/11' is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness.  It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of 'dissenting' bravery."

Hitchens (writing in 2001) on the defeat that year of the Taleban in Afghanistan.  "We are rid of one of the foulest regimes on earth... no possible future government in Afghanistan can be worse than the Taleban... those ultralieftists and soft liberals who said don't bomb, leave Afghanistan alone, etc... needn't be teased too much now.  The rescue of the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 taught them nothing; they were for leaving Bosnia and Kosovo to the mercy of Milosevic; they had nothing to say about the lack of an international intervention in Rwanda."  These people, or the generation that now follows them, are now saying "Syria is not our war".  Whose war is it then?  The person who said that to me recently would say "the Syrians' war".  He is a Christian who believes in a one-state solution for Israel-Palestine.  A Palestinian state.

Well, pardon the cliche, but we won't see the likes of him again.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

some little Hitchens treasures

on Grahame Greene, Stamboul Train, which I have not read, though I have read a number of his others and forgotten them, must try harder "One must see unblinkingly into the pettishness and self-deception of the human condition.  Innocence is another word for prey.  Survival is the law."  Seems about right to me.  Also, excellent to bring the word "pettishness" back into the vocabulary.

on Evelyn Waugh, just the joyful little phrase we do not use often enough "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole" - en passant, he says Bruce Chatwin was an overrated society traveller.  So indeed he was.  "they had loitered of old on many a doorstep and forced an entry into many a stricken home" (of journalists) - well, quite so.  Waugh does not seem to use many commas, perhaps I have become more American in my wish to use them.

on Byron, very interesting, except I have never read Byron, I grew up in in a Romantic age, but the last thing any of us wanted to do was to read the Romantic poets, at least in my circles.  And of course Byron died young.  Which is the Romantic thing to do.  Oh and by the way old Lordy-babe's recipe for apricot fool is fab.  I use it every summer.

on James Joyce - well, how silly I am, I had not thought before this that I should read the Odyssey and then read Ulysses again.  Incidentally we are having a Bloomsday here in Strasbourg next month, vg.  But which edition should I read?  (Of the Odyssey, obviously).

I'll finish up with Hitchens tomorrow.  Because I've got a lot more to say.  About other things.  I can't do Hitch justice.

politics in France

Yesterday, 18th May, was the deadline for candidates' names to go forward for the parliamentary elections.  The Left has been trying to form an accord in 55 constituencies where the Front National (which was in third place with 18% of the vote in the presidential election) has a chance of winning, by standing one candidate, from the party of the left with the best chance.  The Front de Gauche, consisting of the Parti de Gauche and the Parti Communiste, has not been able to  reach agreement with the Parti Socialiste.  The Greens, the other party in this "coalition", have less say, because their vote in the presidential was so small at 2.3%.  But the head of their party, Cecile Duflot, has got ministerial post. Anyway, agreement has mostly not been reached.  Pity.  The Front National may well elect one or more deputies next month.  Marine Le Pen is certainly cock-a-hoop, especially at the apparent disunity of the Left.  As well she might be.

In other news, a Francois Hollande election pledge was to return to a five-day week for schools.  At the moment there is no school on Wednesdays or Saturdays.  From now they will have the choice - Wednesday mornings or Saturday mornings.  The teachers are against a return to five days, and the tourism industry is against a return to Saturdays, as it says people won't go away for the weekend so much.  The school day is long, from about 8 a.m. to as late as 6 p.m. in secondary schools, though there is a two-hour lunch break for most.  It is quite hard to get a response from many offices which deal with administration of various kinds on Wednesdays, as they are mostly staffed by women of an age to have children at school, and very many of these women work a four-day week so as to be able to take care of their children on Wednesdays.  Women's participation in the workforce is high, largely because of the amount of state-funded childcare which is available.  There is free full-day care available for children from as young as two, so long as they are toilet trained.

So you see, it's all a bit different on this side of the Channel.  Fabulous health system, lots of tedious bureaucracy, bakeries to die for, everything closed on Sundays.  No car tax.  VAT at 19% on lots of things.  Everyone goes on holiday at the same time.  Concept of customer service non-existent. No school uniforms.

Tunisia - things you thought you knew

who started the Arab Spring?  that fruit seller who set himself on fire in Tunisia after being victimized by Ben Ali's cops, right?  Probably wrong.  From World Affairs, here is an interview with the alleged cop (middle-aged, female) who allegedly started it all.  No she didn't, she says.  And no she isn't.  And she went to prison.  It's good to have assumptions exploded.  But maybe Syria, not Tunisia, is the place to be thinking about now.  World, where are you?

Friday, 18 May 2012

data storage

I've been musing about this lately.  It all started when my aunt died, in February, and my sister and I spent a couple of days in her house, which had been my grandmother's house before it was hers, going through photographs and papers.  This inspired me, because there were so many photographs which could not be dated, nor the people in them identified, to go through the several boxes of printed photographs I have, which are not in albums and which date from before I was born up to about 2006, when my photography became exclusively digital.  So I have been doing some of this every day, writing the dates if I am sure of them, and identifying the people.  Getting rid of a lot of rubbish photos at the same time.  They will go into albums eventually.  Should have done this years ago, and do not want anyone else to have to do it when I am gone.  A great many photographs on CDs too, from about 2002 to 2006, and I am going through those and putting them into iPhoto, so they are stored in the cloud.

Then I went to see my mother in April - she has recently moved to a semi-sheltered place, and she needed help in sorting out her possessions.  A lot of photographs there too, on paper, but she can sort those out herself, and largely has done so.  She did a university degree in her sixties, and has a lot of notes from then, on paper.  She didn't use a computer at that time, but she had some floppy disks with the notes.  I had to throw those away, as there is no way to have access to the data on them any more.  She had a couple of those disposable cameras, unused, which I took away and gave to my granddaughter.  Who was most interested in them (she is four) but wanted to know how you look at the photos on the camera, and was amazed to be told that you can't, you have to take the camera somewhere and the people give you the photos on paper - and you have to PAY for them.  If you can even still do that.

We also have a whole bunch of VHS tapes and a functioning video player, and now have to start the process of converting them to DVD, if possible.  Although watching films on DVD has probably had its day.  There will be no more hardware.

So I guess what is important is to be alert.  If the data you have, and want to keep, are stored in a form which is going out of use, then convert them to something which is accessible.  You might  have to do this several times in a lifetime, and for all I know that process is going to speed up.

Microfiche, anyone?

this might be intruding on private grief

but it's good fun.  Handbags at dawn among the LibDems.  Read it here.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hitchens on Kipling

Christopher Hitchens' writing has the gift, among others, of making me think again about writers I have read, and wanting to read some I have not.  Like many children of my generation I read, or had read to me, Kipling's "Jungle Book" and "Just So Stories", but did not really read him other than that.  And his reputation is not a good one, these days.  But Kipling was all-get-out interesting, as Hitchens shows us.  He praised Indians as equal human beings, not a fashionable view in his time and milieu, but opposed independence.  Hitchens notes that in the first fourteen years of the twentieth century British politics was almost completely remade by the forces of organised labour, Irish nationalism, and female suffrage.  This, I suspect, is right, and Kipling understood it as few others did.  He cites here George Dangerfield "The Strange Death of Liberal England", published in 1935.  Which I have not read, but surely must one day soon.  Hitchens notes too that as a boy he saw bound volumes of Kipling in his school library, with a left-handed swastika on the covers, and as I was informed in the comments on a previous post this was not uncommon before 1939 - but Kipling insisted in the mid-1930s that the symbol be removed from all editions of his work, in which too he was ahead of his time.

I have posted previously about this symbol, as I found it on a book given as a Sunday school prize to my late great-uncle Ridley, always known as Tigs, when I recently helped begin to clear my aunt's house after she died in February this year.  Another thing we found was a diary that Tigs kept of a trip he made to southern Africa, by sea, in 1959.  This is being serialised as the Tigs' Trip blog, and you can read it here.  Fascinating social history.

ladies and gentlemen, introducing...

photo Le Monde
the new government of France, under Prime Minister Ayrault (who?), looks like this, well, some of it does.  There are 34 ministers, 17 of them women.  Pretty good going, but Sarko's government looked like this at first, and it didn't last.  But hostilities have already kicked off.  Martine Aubry, who wanted to be prime minister and is not, has declined to be in government.  She remains first secretary of the party, and as such has control over selections and nominations for constituencies.  The parliamentary elections are on 10th and 17th June, so she has moved fast, putting one of her own in the constituency of the Somme and deselecting one of Hollande's most loyal lieutenants - and so it goes.  Constituencies in France do not have names but numbers - we live in Strasbourg constituency no. 1 - which has taken some getting used to.  Another difficulty for the parliamentary elections is that the Parti Socialiste is in partnership with the Greens, and so must deselect some of its candidates and replace them with Greens.  This is not going down well. Also, those appointed to government have been told that if they are candidates for parliament they will lose their ministerial jobs if defeated at the election - and there I was thinking that separation of powers was not properly understood in the UK. Sigh.

But people seem to be prepared to give Hollande a fair go, although without much enthusiasm.  That's pretty much how I feel too.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Le Monde sucks up to the new President

Francois Hollande of course, who takes office tomorrow.  In a piece with a large picture of DSK and entitled "the debt the French Left owes to Nafissatou Diallo" (the chambermaid, remember?) and which begins by saying that a statue of her should be put up, the newspaper (which has a philosophy corrrespondent btw) disses DSK all round the houses and praises Francois Hollande's political flair - which we have not had a chance to observe yet.  If Diallo had not raised the complaint she did, causing the police to be called,  it says, the affair of the parties in Lille at which prostitutes were present, attracting an action for "proxenetisme" (pimping) against DSK (he says he didn't know they were prostitutes) might have hit the public domain during the primaries, or worse, during the presidential campaign.  Well yes, it might.  But was it the left which removed DSK as candidate?  I think not.  There is some evidence that it was in fact Sarko's people.  We may never know.  But there is no evidence, nor any likely to emerge, that it was anyone close to Francois Hollande or the Parti Socialiste.

Julien Dray, a Socialist deputy, a man of the left (also a Jew and a freemason and someone who was sufficiently out of favour with the PS leadership in recent times, over matters financial as it happens, though no evidence of wrongdoing was found, to be deselected as candidate for the regional elections) had a birthday party on 28th April, during the presidential campaign, to which he invited many senior PS figures - including Francois Hollande.  Who didn't go, because he found out DSK and his wife were going to be there.  How embarrassing that would have been, trills Le Monde, although it does note in the same paragraph that the whole campaign was darkened by the shadow of DSK.  Embarrassing for Francois Hollande to be upstaged, is more like it.

In February 2011, before the Sofitel affair broke, DSK allegedly met Hollande in Paris in a borrowed flat, and asked him if he, Hollande, would stand against him, DSK, as he, DSK, was considering putting his name forward.  According to DSK's friends, Hollande gave a non-committal and equivocal answer.  According to Hollande's friends, Hollande said "I'm taking it all the way, and I'm going to beat you".  Hmmm.  Hollande managed to fight the whole campaign without once mentioning DSK, although provoked many times.  Sarko mentioned him before the campaign proper started, describing Hollande as a second-choice candidate, and then not until 2nd May, between the two rounds of voting, when he felt threatened and judged the DSK brand toxic enough to change voters' minds - he said he would "take no lessons from a party which had rallied round DSK".  He was wrong in that judgment, as the result shows us, and you can interpret that as you wish.  I know how I do.  Namely that the brand was not that toxic.  Which says to me that the French public could have supported DSK.  We'll never know now.

The piece, by Ariane Chemin, ends by citing Sarko, on 13th May 2011, just before the Sofitel affair took place, as saying to journalists that Hollande was lucky, because DSK was a product not to be found on this earth (hard to translate, that bit) and "comme un ovni qui arrive" ("like a UFO coming in to land").  Sarko allegedly then scanned the horizon, hand over the eyes, as if looking for an approaching craft.  The next day flight AF023 came in from New York, with a seat booked in the name of Dominique Strass-Kahn.  DSK wasn't on it. 

And so we are on the eve of the handover to President - Hollande.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Love. poverty and war

is the title of a book of essays by Christopher Hitchens, published in 2005, which I re-read very recently because I was thinking about him when he died earlier this year.  He was such a great writer and such a clear thinker.  No-one writing now seems to come close.  Unless, readers, you know different...

I thought about Hitch because I happened today, by chance, on an interview with Andy Kershaw, who used to do world music on Radio 4,  Kershaw quoted the title and referred in the interview to Hitchens himself.  Apparently they went to North Korea together.  How cool is that?  I used rather to like Kershaw's radio stuff, being a Womad fan and all - the only festival where you spend most of your time with your back to the stage.  Anyway, that's in the past - the last Womad festival I went to was in 2003 and I won't be going again, but that is another story.

Kershaw was being interviewed because he was appearing at the Hay festival, so naturally enough he has a book out.  Damn, one-click ordering, curse you, there it was on my Kindle before I knew what I was about.  You'll remember Andy Kershaw, with his Lancashire accent - he went a bit bonkers a few years ago on the Isle of Man, and was a bit down and out and a fugitive from justice for a while, but now he's a lot better.  I thought his book might be interesting.  We'll see.

Hitchens was wonderful.  In the very first essay in  his book he debunks Churchill and prays in aid Josephine Tey's book 'The Daughter of Time' which is one of my great faves - I bought it recently for a young Australian relative who is studying Shakespeare.  Where was I?  Focus, woman, focus.  Ah yes, the Second World War.  He reminds us that the British burned the French fleet in north Africa, with many French lives lost, and that the fleet was there to get it away from the Germans, who did not acquire a single vessel.  He also reminds us that the Roosevelt administration recognised Vichy France.  He points out, probably rightly, that Churchill's demarches were opportunistic, vainglorious, and, crucially, lucky.  More Hitchens jewels later.  I have to go and celebrate Manchester City's victory with significant other.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

the boomer President

Only a few months ago I was having a conversation with someone in which I remember saying that the baby boomers - my generation - have had their day in the sun, they have been n political power and are now out of it, the world's leaders are a new generation.  I was thinking of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton now out of power, and of Obama, Cameron and Clegg, all born in the 1960s, but I wasn't right.  Francois Hollande, the new President of France (technically not yet, as the investiture has not yet happened) is my age.  There have been a number of programmes about him, his family and his political career so far, as you might expect, given that he is France's second Socialist president ever and the first one was Francois Mitterrand, whose shoes cannot be filled by anyone alive.  And of course pictures of a young Hollande, the clothes, the hair, all that, remind me of my youth.  Though Hollande was too serious and too political even in his teens to have been in any way counter-cultural (as we used to call it then) or cutting-edge (as we didn't).  But none the less, we are talkin' 'bout my generation.  Here, and not only here, the boomers are giving something back.  Because that's what we wanted.  We didn't want to tear down the society we lived in, despite what the older generation said, we wanted to improve it.  That's why we didn't do much in the way of creating paintings and symphonies, we were more of an activist generation.  The Beatles were the soundtrack of our youth, but they were older than us, war babies.  The visual artists shaking things up in the 21st century are younger than us.  Writers, yes, there are some.  William Boyd (whose latest, Waiting for Sunrise, is unopened on my table in hardback, a pleasure to come) and Hilary Mantel (whose latest, Bring Up The Bodies, currently has me in thrall to my Kindle) were both born in 1952.  Ian McEwan and Martin Amis were both born in 1949.  So those are all boomers.  But you don't find out much about how our generation grew up from any of their books.  Interesting that you don't.  What they all do is tell stories, mostly from other times and other places.

The surname Hollande comes from how those Protestants fleeing religious persecution in the Low Countries, then under Spanish rule, were dubbed by the locals in northern France, where some of them found refuge.  So Hollande may well have Protestant heritage.  This would be most unusual for a French President.  It would be most unusual for a French person outside this part of France, which anyway has been German in living memory. Although I suspect Hollande is an entirely secular individual, and the question does not arise.  His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, has Hungarian Jewish antecedents, and that was never really an issue, despite the terrible history of Jews in France in the twentieth century.

It's too soon to say what Francois Hollande will do.  I fear for the international future - I cannot see him providing the kind of leadership Sarkozy did in the Arab Spring, but I hope I am wrong.  He is going to reduce France's dependence on nuclear power, he says.  Wrong.  And the unionised workers at the Fessenheim power station not far from here will not like it one bit when he closes them down.  His government will be formed next week, and will probably include at least two Greens (those Greens are not a bit high-minded, you should see them treading on each other's heads in the hope of a ministerial post) which will tie his hands a bit.  Parliamentary elections take place next month, and in some places the Parti Socialiste is trying to kick out PS incumbents or selected candidates to make way for Greens.  With predictable and messy results.  This is happening here in Strasbourg too.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the left candidate for the presidency, is to stand against Marine Le Pen of the Front National in Pas de Calais in the north.  Should be fun.  What's going to happen there?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Bring Up The Bodies

I completely loved Wolf Hall, after a slow start, and now I have been pulled in from the start of its sequel by Hilary Mantel, as the falcons fly in the late-summer sky, named after dead women and with flesh between their claws.  The king, a redhead, is sunburned, having lost his hat.  What is not to like?  And the story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn is one we all know.  Nonetheless, she is still pictured to this day in the lobby of the House of Lords.  Why is that, when others who have suffered political or dynastic defeat are forgotten?  Henry VIII died a believing Catholic.  We know this too.  I have not got far into the book, and will write more when I have read it.  But I say now, read this book.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

RIP Vidal Sassoon

cutting Mary Quant's hair
he was a real revolutionary.  I always dreamed of getting my hair cut by him, one girl from my school, Louise Taylor, did and boasted about it for the next two years.  He got the nation to say goodbye to the crimped shampoos-and-sets of the previous decade.  My own hair is naturally very curly, with a tendency to frizz, true Celt, so you can imagine a haircut like this was hard to come by, but I did manage something like it for a while when I was twelve.  I'll find a photograph and scan it in so you can see.  Sassoon was a great anti-fascist who spent his early years in an orphanage.  No north London Guardianista he.  Thank you Vidal Sassoon for changing the way we looked at ourselves.  We the baby boomers salute you.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

that head-butt

here is what the Reading Chronicle had to say about it (so it must be true).  It's clear that Gareth Epps. former councillor and leader of the Reading LibDem group, had a go at Reading Labour when the Church ward result was announced, referring no doubt to the disgraceful desperate racist dog-whistle leaflet - the response by Wee Georgie Loughlin was physical violence.  In character.  For Georgie.  Gareth Epps made his view - disgust - at that leaflet public before election night.  Rightly in my view.  The response, according to the Chronicle, of senior LibDems was to distance themselves from Gareth Epps.  Shame on them.  Because if that is what he said, he was right.  And if Wee Georgie attacked anyone physically - and I have seen him do it before, he is a loathsome violent dysfunctional little git - nobody should be "distancing" themselves from anything, but charges should be brought and laid.  I wish they would be.  It is clear from the Chronicle piece that something did happen.  Despite the denials from Was and from Reading Labour, which have appeared as comments on this blog.  Because Dave Peasley, no stranger to tussles of various kinds I believe, was involved, and cannot be gainsaid, nor does he have party political loyalty to consider.  Makes you think really, why don't we all just start biffing our opponents?  It was Was who said, where is Basher when you need him?  But Basher kept the biffing domestic, for the most part, and confined it to women in the political sphere, hein?

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

anti-fascist? my arse

When is the Labour Party going to stop harbouring racists and winking at alliances with, and support for, racist groups and individuals, to say nothing of racist dog-whistle tactics?  Just asking...

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Best Blessings of Existence 32

in which the song remains the same, but Emma B gets engaged

The 1983 General Election was a milestone. It confirmed the Tories as ‘the Party of Government ‘for the foreseeable future. It determined suits and heels (pussy bow optional) as the uniform for women politicians; party notwithstanding. And it changed her life irrevocably.

Although she didn’t know it at the time.

By June 9th 1983, she had lived for almost a year in Binley village near Gridchester with a husband, a daughter and a dog.

‘Village’ was a misnomer for the down at heel corridor linking Gridchester and Fairway with its handful of shops, pubs and small station. It boasted a playing field for dog walking; good transport links (she could not drive) and inexpensive housing. Their Victorian terrace was a bargain – and the source of much quiet satisfaction when she needed to boost her spirits.

Which was most of the time because she was not happy.

She was not unhappy. The white heat of pain occasioned by Paul’s desertion recurred intermittently if at all, as a type of dull ache with little of its former intensity. Vanessa and Splosh made welcome replacements for Ursula, Verity, Jack and Perdita, because they were hers – and the others were not. Away from Chudleigh, the Truscotts and the Chases, Paul was tractable; most of the time. It helped that his school (although fee paying ) was not a boarding establishment with endlessly probing tentacles – and the fact that Nicola was not to be spotted rounding a corner at any hour of the day or night was a positive bonus.

But it was a grey world and as such, unsuited to a vermilion person....

She missed her job.

Since January 1983, she had worked as a temporary lecturer at Gridchester College of Further Education, although ‘lecturer,’ like ‘village’ was a misnomer. Her students had, in the main, failed at school and were repeating ‘O’ level English Language. Some were studying English alongside Music Technology and Computing Science. It was a job and helped to finance clothes, food and budget holidays It paid for Vanessa’s new nanny, Christine. It got her out of the house.

It was a job and not a career. She hated it.

GC’s base was an ugly 1960s office-style block with lots of glass and stairs and external porches where students smoked and loitered between classes.
She had a small locker in the ‘staff area’ but there was no sense of an English Department; colleagues came and went and then were not there any more. The majority had short-term contracts like her and there was no opportunity to progress beyond courteous exchanges at the beginning and end of the day.

By June 1983, the questionable pleasure of setting and marking comprehension exercises was wearing thin; when there were any to mark, because a good number of students left before the second half of term and were not replaced. An A level Literature adult education class provided some job satisfaction, but a solitary swallow makes neither a summer nor a career.

It was better than nothing –but not much.

Attitudes towards working women in northern England circa 1983 were prehistoric. Or at least, working mothers.

Her qualifications were excellent and Andrew Penn had written a superb reference, but as soon as potential Head Teachers in the vicinity of Gridchester knew that she had a baby; a career post was out of the question.

If she had given birth once, she might do it again and then there would be all the inconvenience and expense of maternity leave and (worse still) maternity pay. Far better to employ good old Joseph (married, two children, stay-at-home-wife) or Isobel (empty nester, husband a doctor).

Such qualms were irrelevant to the Principal at GC who was happy to employ yet another woman on a short term contract (and short money). No-one stayed long but vacancies were soon filled. Here today, gone tomorrow and everyone happy!

It was the battery-hen level of teaching.

Paul by contrast was, as her father observed, as happy as a pig in muck. Fairway Grammar School enjoyed a prestigious reputation and an academic record that dwarfed the social claims of Chudleigh.

It was an achievement to lead its English Department and Paul was not going to let anybody forget it – especially Donald and Gillian, who were invited to stay at the earliest opportunity. She had not been enthusiastic, but Paul was adamant and there was nothing for it but a metaphorical girding of the loins.

The weekend got off to a poor start. Donald had taken a wrong turning and they were disgruntled – especially Susan who had stuffed herself on the journey only to deposit the contents of her stomach in the downstairs toilet on arrival. After the obligatory house tour, Paul dismissed her frantic eye signals and spirited his brother off to The Duke of Clarence for a swift half.

The Duke of Clarence, Paul’s pub of choice (or necessity, because Binley boasted but two) had more in common with The Fleece at Necker’s than the Falcon at Dorlich. Her own view of The Duke matched her opinion of The Fleece, but Paul was thoroughly at home, donning greatcoat, flat cap and army boots and puffing at a briar pipe with gusto.

The patrons of the pub had nothing in common with Percy, Frances Hunt and the Truscotts; apart from a penchant for alcohol. They would have been required to use the tradesm0n’s entrance at Chudleigh - which was appropriate, because that is what they were.

Paul’s new drinking companions were refuse collectors (binners) from the Council; shop-floor workers from the local spice factory, and odd-jobbers who supplemented the dole with casual farm labouring; stints at car boot sales and back pocket cash from poaching.

They were neither salt of the earth northerners nor horny handed sons of toil.

Their female appendages supplied food, sex and cleaning and were taken to darts matches and shows at the Working Man’s Club. They earned pin money by running catalogues or childminding and sometimes encountered brick walls and sported bruises. When one left, with or without the children, a replacement was generally in situ within a fortnight.

Paul was in his element; academia and its trimmings at work; dumbing down via fancy dress and an assumed northern accent at home. He swam with ease between two social milieus. She did not.

It was small consolation to reflect that Donald, in sports jacket, neatly pressed slacks and Italian loafers would have shared her unease, shifting from buttock to buttock in The Duke; suspecting that his brother’s unsavoury companions were laughing at him. Anything would have been preferable to the kitchen chats with Gillian whilst preparing the evening meals.

The kitchen was her first Waterloo; it was little more than a scullery and could not stand comparison with Gillian’s palatial avocado-tiled glory, complete with Aga and hostess trolley.

The inadequacies of her kitchen naturally segued into the inferiority of the food cooked within its premises – the bouef bourguignon – such a wonderful dish if you don’t want to do anything too complicated and the expensive cheeses – not everyone has the time to make profiteroles, but I’m quite famous for them in Picks Norton – old habits!!

And if these and similar conversational sallies might be ignored, the fact that her Christmas present from Gillian, year on year was a variant on French Cookery for Beginners could not.

Vanessa’s presence, asleep or awake, did nothing to stem the torrent of information about Nicola and the kiddies and an unconscionable number of Donald and Gillian’s Picks Norton friends appeared to be in the throes of adultery or divorce: Terribly sad; of course Nemone was devastated and has taken him back – but he’ll never change – that sort never does…..I’m afraid she’s made her bed…..

And this was before the barbs about her little job, her weight (sometimes those pregnancy love handles are there to stay!) and Gridchester itself (it’s very NORTHERN isn’t it?).

I thought that went remarkably well said Paul, after farewell kisses had been exchanged and Donald was ensconced behind the wheel for the return journey.

Of course, Doz made a prat of himself in The Duke – they thought he was a poof because he was downing spritzers! Maybe he is a poof – what do you think?! laughing merrily en route to the hostelry.

It was easier not to…

Vanessa ate and grew and Nanny Christine who arrived on the dot of 7.30am and left at 5pm, Monday – Friday was an asset when Vanessa contracted whooping cough at 10 months. She was practical, pleasant and local with a friendly extended family and a nice boyfriend who had recently set up in business as a plumber.

Apart from a level of maintenance payments that prohibited anything other than cheap French gite holidays, Paul appeared to have forgotten the existence of Ursula, Verity, Jack and Perdita and was now father of one daughter and owner of one dog.

She had wanted him to love Vanessa and the sight of her husband holding a gurgling baby up to a Paul Klee poster in the living room: There was a fish and a dragon and a walrus! And Sinbad the sailor, IN HIS LITTLE BOAT!!!

was proof of that, surely?

But she did not like the fact that for Paul, three children in another part of the country had now ceased to exist. The thought that she did not choose to articulate was that if he could forget about Ursula, he could forget about Vanessa... She began to write letters to the children; lively, newsy epistles about the house and the dog; their father and half sister.

Conscience letters

Years later, Nicola told her that when Ursula saw by the handwriting on the envelope that the letters were from her, rather than Paul, they remained unopened.

Perhaps it was just as well…

At half term, Paul decamped to Cambridge for his regular visit to the Colleges; tweaking ‘contacts’ with the aim of opening doors for the Fairway English Literature applicants.

It was surprising what a word in the ear of an Admissions Tutor could do in advance of a candidate sitting the Entrance Examination, and she marvelled at the naivety of her own teachers, who had assumed that Oxbridge scholarships were a reward for excellence rather than a trinket in the gift of a particularly grubby type of behind scenes insider trading owing much to ‘influence’ and little to ability.

Paul, whose own Third was never mentioned outside the house (despite being one of her favourite reference points during marital arguments) organised these trips with military precision; wheedling accommodation and dinners out of a web of academic contacts. Rigorous forward planning ensured that he rarely paid the price of a drink or a meal and his assiduous name-dropping about High Table at Corpus with Professors X and Y had the salutary effect of enhancing his credentials as a guest at academic jollies on home turf.

She was never invited to accompany him.

It was, in any case, a chance to invite Lynne to stay. Lynne and Paul did not get on and, after Vanessa’s birth, the pretence that they did was quietly shelved by all. She visited Lynne on her own; Lynne returned the visit in Paul’s absence; they spoke on the telephone when Paul was at the pub – or at Fairway - or just out.

Lynne’s visit at the beginning of May 1983 coincided with the run-up to the 1983 General Election.

They slipped into the old groove easily enough, but (there was no denying it) they moved in different worlds and the shared reference point; Dorlich circa 73-77 was beginning to acquire the patina of a distant era. Christine babysat, and they spent the last day shopping in Gridchester prior to a meal in the new pizzeria, Geppetto’s.

Lynne spent the last day shopping

The overflowing carrier bags spilled into the aisle and she suppressed an unworthy desire for one of the waiters – dressed in an absurd Don Corleone costume – to trip and decorate the perky little suits from Benetton with spaghetti carbonara.

Her meal.

Lynne was picking at a light salad caprese and if she ate like that every day it was not surprising that she was a standard size eight in every shop. The white jeans and trendily distressed leather bomber jacket looked exactly right for the high flying executive with a new pixie haircut and a studio flat in Islington. Her own yellow flying suit looked exactly what it was – the adoption of a fleeting fashion trend, by a mother with weight to conceal and little to spend.

It was not fucking fair.

As usual, Lynne avoided direct mention of Paul but confessed to being ‘on the loose’ after her two year relationship with Joe had reached its natural conclusion. Not that she seemed unduly perturbed; work was consuming every waking hour and she was preparing for her Senior Civil Service Interview Board, prior to a year’s secondment to the Climate Change division of a City Insurance giant.

The thought of the English Language retake group at GC was unbearable - why oh why had she chucked the PHD place; why had she taken Paul back?

Why had she gone out with him in the first place?

And as for Sandra, continued Lynne, no – really – one piece is fine thanks
(spurning the bread basket)

She might as well be dead! Maybe she is dead!

(Although that was unlikely; Sandra Milford had a habit of recurring when least expected and in the most peculiar places).

I bet she’s still with that bloke – you know, that wet drip she works for at Biscuits? I think she screwed him on the last day of THE HOLIDAY FROM HELL – she stayed out all night – although, rather her than me; he looked as if he’d have really nasty damp hands – and after we got back I just didn’t see her. At all! Typical bloody Sandra!

It was typical of Sandra. For the duration of the Potts romance, she had been completely off radar, in geisha mode with bound feet, only to come slithering back, making a third everywhere they went, after he ditched her.

They sipped espresso, laughing nastily. The delicious dénouement of the Potts affair was always guaranteed to warm the heart.

That – and three large amarettos – after which the world seemed much friendlier and she decided not to sue for divorce after all……

Twenty four hours after Paul’s return, the divorce option was, once again, viable.

His Cambridge week had been wonderful; he had emptied the new and second hand bookshops; the dinners were to die for and he was considering applying for a schoolmaster sabbatical!

And he had bought a black fedora hat –which I must wear to The Duke – Fatty Hodges will die! kissing Vanessa and waving cheerily as he set off for the pub at a brisk trot, accompanied by an excited Splosh on the lead.

He had not bought her a present

She poured herself a glass of red – bugger the diet – what was the point? He wouldn’t notice if she dressed in one of Fatty Hodges’ bin-liners, contents included.

The door bell rang and Vanessa clapped her hands. It was a ridiculous baa baa-black- sheep chime which had seemed fun a million years ago.

She opened the door upon a middle-aged couple wearing matching red cagoules and clutching Election literature. The Election was in three weeks’ time.

Something about their earnest, hang-dog expressions and cagoules (how pathetic can you get – red waterproofs!!) irritated her, just as she always felt affronted by the unsought-for visits from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And so she began.

Twenty minutes later, having treated them to a potted history of the Party and her family’s involvement in it since its inception in the 1890s, castigating their complete failure to make impact in Binley; the wilful arrogance of assuming that voters in her street would naturally support the Tories and the woeful performance of the national leadership, she assured them that yes, she would indeed be voting for the Party as per usual. They scuttled off down the path and she retuned to her drink, with the sensation of a job well done.

Of course, she had been economical with the actualite.

She had always voted for the Party – except for 1979 when it mattered.
The thrills and spills of her relationship with Paul had obscured the basic necessities of life – such as filling in voter registration forms. She had forgotten, and polling night 1979 found her disenfranchised; holed up at Percy’s ghastly Election bash and eating smoked salmon cornets in the midst of a nest of Tories.

Percy’s sterling qualities were obscured by his bumper blue rosette and apart from Philippa Truscott who had defiantly voted for the Liberal candidate; the guests might have been disporting themselves at the Triumph of a Roman Emperor. Every now and again, a pundit from one of the three main parties would loom into view on the giant television screen and Percy proclaimed a particularly repulsive Tory grandee to be a wonderful chap – knew him at Oxford – coming man – LOTS OF BOTTOM!!!

A major sexual scandal featuring this individual shortly after the 1983 General Election proved that he had rather too much bottom…..but that was a separate matter and the general point was that she had failed to vote in 1979 and thus considered herself to be unpleasantly implicated in the unfortunate outcome.

Once bitten, twice shy.

She began to watch the television Election coverage with a dedication bordering upon obsession – to the amusement and then irritation of Paul. Evenings followed a strict pattern:

Home from GC; feed and bath Vanessa; feed Splosh; prepare the evening meal; story for Vanessa and then bed.

ITN News; News at 6; Channel 4 News; BBC News at 9; News at 10; debates; pundit programmes – and the same again the next night, accompanied by a bottle of Rocamar and Silk Cut cigarettes from the Off Licence across the road.

The presence of the General Election in the house forced Paul to take up nightly residence in The Duke.

She did not care.

Twenty-nine years later, this General Election with its ageing Leader; the longest suicide note in history; battle buses and disastrous result, remained more real to her than her own victories and near miss defeat.

One of the television stations accompanied its Election coverage with full frontal shots of the battle buses and theme music from the series FAME.

As time ticked by; the strains of this song and shots of the Leader, looking more and more like Laurence Olivier in the TV production of King Lear, struck an increasingly tragic note.

I can catch the moon in my hands Don’t you know who I am…?

And she had a horrible shock on the eve of poll to see none other than her old bonk (boyfriend would be stretching the truth), Derek Kingsmill, being interviewed as one of a group of candidates at risk of losing formerly rock-solid seats.

Lowerbridge was about 40 miles away from Gridchester; it was weird to think that Derek Kingsmill was at present, not a million miles away from her house and even worse to discover that his intrepid regional interviewer was none other than her two nights’ stand ( boyfriend would be stretching the truth), Robbie Nantwich!

At first glimpse (and her eyes were fixed to the screen as if by indelible thread) they had not changed.

Both men were young (31) and both had fashionably collar length hair. But Robbie’s angular features were complemented beautifully by a well – cut deep maroon velvet jacket and Derek looked distinctly pudgy – as if he was recovering from mumps or toothache.

His voice was squeaky and he kept clearing his throat; erhum, erhum, in between desperate attempts to make an assertion that he expected to increase the 18,000 majority, sound credible.

And there they were, on the television. And here she was ……watching them…..

On Election Day, after her stint at GC; she came home, bathed and put on a bright red tee shirt underneath her denim dungarees. Then, leaving Vanessa with Christine, she walked to cast her vote at the Primary School turned Polling Station.

She was near to tears.

The result was going to be disastrous; her vote in Binley would be like a grain of sand in a Tory desert – whereas in Dorlich, 79, it might have made a difference. The sight of her two cagoule callers, wilting bravely amidst the over-fed, paunchy Tories was unbearable.

Why did they have to be so pathetic – and wimpish? Why did they have to lose?

She walked up to them and gave them a shortened version of her doorstep lecture. The male cagoule person looked at her and said:

Well why not join us, love? Make that ‘difference’ you’ve told us about!

And handed her a membership form.

She took, it, voted, walked home. Paul, who had voted Tory earlier in the day, was at the pub.

The Tories won a landslide, and the MP for Gridchester North increased his majority by 14,000. Derek Kingsmill entered Parliament for the first time with a majority of 1,780.

She bought Irene Cara’s version of Fame and played it obsessively:

I’m gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame

I’m gonna live forever
Baby remember my name


And she completed the membership form and posted it, using a first class stamp.

France votes, and Hollande has already got it wrong

this pic taken last week in Goersdorf in the Vosges
This post might be illegal, as in France you are not supposed to publish or broadcast anything that might influence people's votes on the last two days of an election.  So sue me.

Francois Hollande is likely to be the President of France by this time tomorrow.  Here at rue de Molsheim we are making no plans for this evening, other than to watch the results coverage.  Our satellite channels, whose reception is erratic to say the least, appear to be being received correctly today (fingers crossed) so we will have more than French terrestrial coverage to choose from. Tomorrow is not a public holiday in France, as it is in the UK, but Tuesday is (VE Day, the cheek of it, considering France's contribution to the defeat of fascism in Europe) so a great many people have "fait le pont" and taken tomorrow off work too, as I have.  We thought we would hop across the river to Germany on Tuesday, where, surprise surprise, that day is not a holiday.

Anyway, while I would have voted Hollande if I had the vote in French national elections (give it time give it time) I am worried for the future of France, and of Europe, under his presidency.  He appears to be clueless about world politics, he has never held ministerial office (though neither had Tony Blair) and if he has a core of steel, as all politicians must, it is well hidden.  They are voting in Greece too today, and I believe they are hoping for a beginning of the end of "Merkozy", but I would say to them - be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.  Oh and good luck May Zanni, if I could speak enough Greek I would be in Athens now, campaigning for you.

M. Hollande, if you are elected today, think on this: you will owe your victory to the people of France who work hard, and who think they deserve better than high prices and rising unemployment (they do).  You will also owe it to the failure to vote by thousands of people who voted Front National in the first round.  You will need to ask those people why, and you will need to take them with you if France is to prosper in polity as well as economically.  I do not think you can do this.  I do not think you want to.  You will need to consider France's place in Europe and in the wider world.  France's colonial past gives it a voice in Lebanon and in north and west Africa that other great powers, to use that old-fashioned moniker, do not have.  Use it well, and lose the Guardianista non-intervention mask.  It doesn't suit you, and it shouldn't suit France.

he's the man
And be a bit more grown-up.  Politics is not nice sometimes.  People in it do not always behave nicely. Tell your party to be grown-up about DSK.  Walking out of a birthday party just because he was invited, this is playground stuff.  Besides, I think DSK may be right.  I shall read the Epstein book about the affair, which comes out next week, with great interest.  And of course you know, M. Hollande, that DSK is head and shoulders above you in intellect, political stature and world statesmanship.  What's that you say? You knew that but you don't want to discuss it?  Francois, come back!  Francois?  Francois! *sound of tumbleweed*

Friday, 4 May 2012


to all the Labour councillors elected yesterday.  No congratulations to the Reading boys who thought a racist dog-whistle campaign in Church ward was a good idea.  Desperate men.  Especially no congratulations to George Dickhead Loughlin who, at the Reading count last night, thought it was a good idea to head-butt a former councillor from another party, who was only saved from serious injury by the physical intervention of one Dave Peasley - if there was a pub fight near me I'd be glad if Dave was minded to intervene.  And no congratulations to M. Salter for his co-authorship of the racist dog-whistle leaflet in Church ward.   Even he wasn't bragging about it when he turned up at the Reading count, unshaven and slobbish and staying well away from Church ward. Update: but he got into the victory photo, looming over her from behind, bad idea. I was especially pleased  to see Daya Pal Singh and Rose Williams elected.  Rose needs no hints from anyone on how to be a good representative.  I just hope the boys let D.P. Singh get on with the job.  I know he will do a good one.   And Tony Jones always spreads a little happiness wherever he goes in politics, so Good News.

The new Labour councillor for Caversham - if the same gang of malevolent lard-arses is still there in Caversham Labour then I wish you luck.  You are going to need it.

Azam Janjua - thanks for all your work for the people of south Reading, and Reading as a whole.  It was a privilege to work with you, and the people of Church ward were luc ky to have you as their representative.

Now, about that Labour vision for Reading ...