Friday, July 1, 2016

The past has to be controlled as much as the present

No, I still do not think that Putin is another Stalin or Hitler (and for that we may be truly grateful) but some of the ideas are worryingly similar. No, it does not surprise me - no country could have gone through what the various parts of the Soviet Union did for seventy years and emerge with sanity intact. Nor was there enough time to recover in Russia before Putin's rise to the top.

We have news of another trial of someone posting inconvenient truths on social media. This one is a little unusual.
Vladimir Luzgin, a 37-year-old man from the Siberian city of Perm, was prosecuted, convicted, and fined 200,000 rubles ($3,100) for posting an article on social media containing the well-known historical fact that the Soviet Union in collaboration with Nazi Germany invaded and partitioned Poland in 1939.
It is no longer the present that matters but the past as well - the factual truth cannot be told about either.

The Great Patriotic War remains the one sacred untouchable in Russia and the truth about Stalin's role in the high casualty rate, the Nazi-Soviet Pact or what happened in the reconquered Soviet territories and the conquered East European ones in 1944 - 45 cannot be told. Curiously, there is a kind of an ambivalence about attitudes. When there is talk about Soviet crimes, Russians rightly point out that they were not the only ones doing them - the other nationalities were involved as well. All were victims and executioners. But when it comes to the Great Patriotic War, only Russians appear to have fought and suffered. The ease with which Ukrainians, literally Russians' brothers and people who fought and suffered much in the war, could be described as fascists, carrying out fascist policies as laid down by the German invaders all those decades ago, did quite genuinely shocked me. I thought the Russian people will not accept Ukrainians as the enemy. Many did not but far too many did.

A fascinating article by Ksenia Polouektova-Krimer on Open Democracy describes the constant frenzy about the Great Patriotic War and how it is whipped up by the government for its own purposes.

Austria is about to become the EU's whipping boy - again

The Austrian Constitutional Court has ordered a re-run of the recent presidential election in which the Green candidate won narrowly over the so-called far right candidate from the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs or FPÖ because of "irregularities in counting postal votes".

In fact, the President of Austria has very limited power and the election is little more than symbolic of the general peasants' revolt that is going on in the West. (No, I don't really think the Brexit vote comes quite into that category but that needs to be discussed separately.) Naturally, since this party is not part of the political establishment it is described as far-right and populist, which once again raises the question of when does democratic become populist? Aristotle had some very clear distinctions between democracy and demagoguery but the modern line between the two tends to be whether the party agrees with a rather narrow range of "acceptable" opinions. There is no particular evidence for instance that Norbert Hofer, "the gun-toting candidate of the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ)" intends to overrule the legal or constitutional system of Austria.

When one looks at the ideology of the party one finds something of a muddle (and isn't that true, alas, for most parties?). They are liberal and pan-German, they are for individual freedom (gosh, how very "fascist" of them), smaller government and low taxation but also for increased welfare. They are, above all, eurosceptic though not withdrawalist.

Well, this should be an interesting re-run of the election and an interesting time for the EU who has just acquired another headache.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Elegies and Evening Classes

Taking time off from Brexit and all its problems, I turn once again to murder and education, this time to murder in the Extra-Mural Department of the university in Bantwich, a city that bears some resemblance to Liverpool, where the author of Words for Murder Perhaps, Edward Candy or, in reality, Barbra Alison Neville (née Bodson) attended evening classes at the Royal Institution at one stage of her varied career.

The novel, first published in 1971, is not nearly well known enough though it was republished in 1985 by The Hogarth Press. It is a highly literate novel with an excellent plot in which people who share names with addressees of well known poetical elegies, human and feline, are killed off. Could it be someone obsessed with this rather dark but beautiful form of poetry? Could it be Mr Roberts, lecturer in English Literature and part-time tutor in the Extra-Mural Department, who has unexpectedly decided to give a course on Crime Fiction, Past and Present? Certainly Inspector Hunt, who cannot quite make up his mind whether he feels inferior to all these intellectuals he has to talk to or not, is inclined to think so.

After all, the first person to disappear is William Harvey, namesake of the famous Dr William Hervey or Harvey to whom Abraham Cowley addressed a fine elegy. The Bill Harvey of the novel is a more successful labourer in the Eng. Lit. field than Gregory Roberts who had, moreover, walked off with the latter's wife, thus causing a nervous break-down. No wonder Inspector Hunt becomes interested though he can prove nothing and other bodies multiply, each accompanied by a quotation from the appropriate elegy. Arthur Hallam, an Egyptologist, is poisoned and lines from Tennyson's In Memoriam are quoted; a young man, called Edward King is knifed and reference is made to Milton's Lycidas; even a cat is found drowned in a gold fish tank and the killer (as we know by then) writes out a line from Thomas Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.

What makes the novel pleasant to read is that, while there are a great many literary allusions, to elegies and to novels of crime, there are adequate explanations of the more obscure ones. In general, the description of the Department and its denizens, the swiftly drawn portraits of many characters and the clever description of police procedures and the relationship between Inspector Hunt and Superintendent Burnivel, who had appeared in Edward Candy's previous novels, are all excellent.

There is, however, one problem: there are no clues for the reader. But none. We know about the elegies, we know that Roberts, though a somewhat nervous person with a load to carry from the past, probably did not do it (no Christie, this), we know that there are some other shenanigans going on in the Department but what we do not know and do not find out until the very end is any connection between the characters who appear in the novel and the victims. Even when the killer's name is pronounced by someone in some other connection and the Superintendent reacts unexpectedly, we do not know why. What is it about that person's name that has sent Burnivel helter-skelter in pursuit? And that is something of a fly in the ointment.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Well I was wrong ....

... but for once I am very pleased and feel that many years of work have not been wasted. Brexit has been voted for by just over 51% of the electorate with a nearly 72% turn-out. Some anomalies, of course. London voted to Remain, as did Northern Ireland and Scotland. All that will have to be sorted out though I am quite happy to start campaigning for independence for London. No, not to rejoin the EU but to begin the formation of the Anglosphere.

I shall be spending most of today broadcasting to Russia about the result on various channels so will not have time to blog again till much later or tomorrow morning. I see my job now as a continuation of the past: providing information and analysis as we move towards and into negotiations.

Yesterday I was thinking about my first meeting with Alan Sked in 1991 at the house of Eva Taylor, widow of A. J. P. Taylor, our common supervisor and what came out of that. What a long way we have come. I claim some credit.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

My last rant

Not my last rant in general, of course, but the last one before the vote. After this I intend to say nothing on the blog until the results come through. As before, I have a bad feeling about it all and not just because of the many problems with Remainiacs, the government and the completely irregular use of the civil service to provide propaganda, not to mention the dreadful murder of Jo Cox MP, but because, as I have pointed out once or twice, our campaign was badly run and focused on the wrong issues.

I fully intend to rant about other subjects and, in due course, about the result and future plans.

Before I begin, I should like to link to Lord Ashcroft's explanation as to why he is voting Brexit and to Sam Bowman's (of the Adam Smith Institute) as to why he is voting Remain.

First of all, let me explain that I do not have a particularly high view of Lord Ashcroft's or anybody else's opinion polls but his own view point was interesting to read as I agreed with a great deal of it.
Forget the hysteria. Leaving the European Union would not put a bomb under the British economy or end western political civilization as we know it. But nor would it mean another £350 million a week being spent on the NHS, and staying does not mean that 80 million Turks will arrive at Dover. For voters struggling to make sense of the referendum campaign, this sort of thing has hardly helped.
Indeed not. While I see nothing wrong with the fact that the campaign on both sides was heated (though more light would have been welcome) I do think the hyperbole, to put it at its most polite, has been appalling. I am not impressed by politicians, who know that nothing they say can every excite the sort of fervour that remaining or leaving the EU has done, whingeing away about the coarsening of political discourse. Coarsening? Have a look at the discourse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now, that was coarse. But one look at both campaigns makes one despair of human reason.

Lord Ashcroft makes the point that to remain in the EU is not to choose stability as developments will happen and they will not be of our making. Therefore, the choice is between two kinds of instability and which one would you prefer?
Of course leaving would create uncertainty; any worthwhile venture carries some risk. There will be new deals to negotiate and new relationships to form, and it may be rocky to start with. But when it comes to trade with EU partners, and other areas where cooperation is vital, pragmatism will surely win the day – and as I know from my own business career, there are plenty of opportunities outside Europe.

But most importantly of all, this is a decision for the long term future of the country. The question is not whether the world’s fifth largest economy could prosper outside the EU – of course it could – but whether we should tie ourselves to a union whose ambitions are so very different from our own. Maybe our future governments will be able to protect Britain from the worst of them. But why take the risk?
Sam Bowman takes a different view though not in everything. He, too, dislikes many of the arguments used by the Leave campaign about immigration and about the economy. Then he tackles the main issue:
I like and respect many Leavers, but I’ve never shared their enthusiasm for democracy – I want liberty and prosperity, and I don’t want to trade that in just to give my stupid next-door neighbours more power over my life. To the extent that the EU does restrict democracy it is often for the best, preventing governments from doing nasty, illiberal things (like restricting immigration or subsidising domestic firms). There’s a small chance that a Jeremy Corbyn could be elected – if he is, under the British political system he would have basically unlimited power to do whatever he wants. The EU limits that power, and in my view that’s a good thing.
Why limiting the power of the people, often expressed in a remarkably stupid way, should be a plus in an organization where other bodies have no limits is not something I can understand. But I think that people should be able to read the liberal/libertarian argument for Remain. Mind you, I have no desire to hear complaints from Mr Bowman either when he finds that what he gets is not what he voted for.

I have written before about a number of things I have found wrong with the Leave campaign but did not mention that I disliked the focus on immigration and the endless chanting about Turkey coming in. What started as a perfectly sensible point about controlling our own borders, part of democracy and accountability and on being able to decide who can get welfare and social housing became a distasteful attack on immigrants, not really softened by the occasional comment about a points system or rational immigration. The issue became central to the campaign to the exclusion of almost all other matters. As it happens, I do not think that has won any votes apart from people who were already going to vote Leave. Oh, and Turkey is not coming into the EU any time soon. What David Cameron does or does not say about it is irrelevant - he will not be Prime Minister by then.

What of the event that was supposed to change everything and give Remain a great advantage, the dreadful murder of Jo Cox MP. Any words one uses about the actual event will be trite and inadequate but, moving on to the political significance of it, I do think that my first instinct that it will make no real difference was correct. The swing back to Remain would have happened, was going to happen and was predicted by many of us: it is the natural move towards the status quo that we all expected. It was obvious that the 6 to 10 points' lead was not enough to counter that. On the other hand, the swing was no bigger than expected either. Despite a number of efforts on the part of the Remain campaigners, the electorate, so far as we can tell, did not fall for the narrative that this was all caused by the nasty Leave campaigners. Can any of them be really as nasty as Alistair Campbell in this tweet sent two days after the murder?

Once again, we can be grateful that we live in a country where such an event is so rare as to be unthinkable (until it happens, of course). Curiously, though over the last few months I have overheard many discussions on the referendum and Brexit, as well as taking part in many such, often with casual acquaintances from a non-political world, I have heard nothing around me about the killing. It is as if people cannot quite believe it has happened. What one did hear was strange sentimentality from the media, politicians and political geeks. The idea that an MP is honoured by the people of her constituency being deprived of the right to vote for a candidate from the other main party is bizarre and yet there were people tearfully asserting that David Cameron made the right decision in denying that democratic right.

The number of sitting British MPs assassinated since 1812 is eight: Spencer Perceval, who was also the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, by the somewhat unhinged John Bellingham because of private debt; six from Lord Frederick Cavendish, killed in Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1882 to Ian Gow in 1990 by Irish terrorists of various organizations; and now Jo Cox, whose murder is still being investigated. That, thankfully, is a very low number.

That the Remain campaign tried to cash in on the event has been well documented here, here and here  Will Straw (son of Jack), who is apparently campaign chief for Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) was particularly obnoxious in his instructions to his troops as reported by Guido and, surprisingly, the Evening Standard. Of course, we shall not know until tomorrow (and really not even then) whether the secular canonization of a fairly average left-wing MP of whom most of us had never heard before will succeed. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, they say, but surely that does not apply to politicians. Therefore, I have great pleasure in linking to a somewhat tart but entirely accurate account of the real Jo Cox and her husband here. I do not suppose it will affect anybody's voting intentions but do read it if you can. I do not necessarily agree with everything the article says but it is true that Jo Cox was not among those politicians who had tried to unravel the deeply unpleasant saga of the gangs who were grooming children and teenagers and she, together with her husband, were there on Bob Geldof's boat, shouting abuse at the fishermen. Yes, I know they thought it was a UKIP stunt and I was outraged by Niger Farage hi-jacking the flotilla for his own purpose (it had been agreed that he would not be seen to be leading it but the only way to ensure that would have been not to allow him on it) but the boats were full of fishermen who, we all agree, suffered mightily from the EU. In the case of the Coxes', people of the Labour and NGO elite, sympathy begins a long way from home.

And that, I think, is enough about that. I have also said enough about the campaign to make it clear why I have not been happy with it and why, I suspect, it will not be successful. I may be wrong but would it really matter if we lost this referendum. I have never been a great fan of plebiscites and the dire level of the campaigning justifies my wariness. It looks like the result will be close and that will mean the the winners will not be seen as enjoying legitimacy. If we win, we shall need to make sure that the victory will have some kind of meaning and is not frittered away by unhelpful politicians and civil servants; and if we lose we shall have to start thinking of the next stage: prepare for intellectual guerrilla warfare.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Gervase Fen makes his appearance

Well, here we are back with murder and education than which there cannot be a more obvious link. And talking of links, Bev Hankins is collecting them all on her blog, My Reader's Block.

So, Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, a man who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about English literature and many other things. His outward appearance, with the ruddy face and the spiky brown hair that is slicked down with water but fights back, appears in all the books. He shuffles and fidgets when he is bored, he is rude to everyone unless he happens to feel particularly sorry for them, he goes through various stages of sulking, boredom, excitement and an uncontrolled desire to quote from Lewis Carroll in every investigation.

The first one, The Case of the Gilded Fly, published in 1944 and taking place in October 1940, also tells us a lot about his personality.
Nigel [the Watson of this novel, a journalist on holiday] reflected, as he turned in St Christopher's at twenty to six that evening, that there was something extraordinarily school-boyish about Gervase Fen. Cherubic, naive, volatile, and entirely delightful, he wandered the earth taking a genuine interest in things and people unfamiliar, while maintaining a proper sense of authority in connection with his own subject. On literature his comments were acute, penetrating and extremely sophisticated; on any other topic he invariably pretended complete ignorance and an anxious willingness to be instructed, though it generally came out eventually that he knew more about it than his interlocutor, for his reading, in the forty-two years since his first appearance on this planet, had been systematic and enormous.

If this ingenuousness had been affectation, or merely arrested development, it would have been simply irritating; but it was perfectly sincere, and derived from the genuine intellectual humility of a man who has read much and in so doing has been able to contemplate the enormous spaces of knowledge which must inevitably always lie beyond his reach. In temperament he was incurably romantic, though he ordered his life in a rigidly reasonable way. to men and affairs, his attitude was neither cynical nor optimistic, but one of never-failing fascination. this resulted in a sort of unconscious amoralism, since he was always so interested in what people were doing, and why they were doing it, that it never occurred to him to assess the morality of their action.
In fact, Fen spends several chapters wondering whether he should tell the police who the murderer is, something he had worked out within a few minutes of finding the body. The victim had been a poisonous creature and the murderer is, in many ways, an admirable one. What to do? The problem is solved by the murderer who repeats the crime in a far more gruesome fashion with and an innocuous victim. Fen decides that justice must take its course.

The plot takes place mostly in Fen's college, St Christopher's, which has a surprising affinity with St John's, where Crispin or, rather, Bruce Montgomery, had been an undergraduate and organist. Not all the novels or short stories do take place there but several include it, as well as the theatre and Oxford in general, together with the appalling railway system.

Crispin was a great admirer of John Dickson Carr and this, his first novel, was a "locked room" or "impossible" killing. The solution, which Fen realizes a little later than he would have liked, is not entirely credible but that matters little. What is of far greater interest is the reason why the shot is not heard (apart from the inevitable silencer): two young men are listening to the radio, the Third Programme, to be specific, where very loud music is being played. The music is the Overture to Die Meistersingers, which is followed by Ein Heldenleben. These are staples of concerts nowadays but did the BBC really broadcast music by Wagner and Richard Strauss in October 1940, the height of the Blitz? I presume, Bruce Montgomery, the musician, knew whereof he wrote but I still find it hard to believe.

There are other interesting aspects in this novel, some to appear in later work, some not. There is Fen's relationship with the Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman, who is an amateur but highly regarded literary critic, while Fen is an amateur and highly regarded detective, the only literary critic who is also a detective in fiction, as he puts it. Each prefers to discuss their own amateur and the other's professional work and each is periodically thwarted, except that Fen does actually solve cases, as is mentioned in The Case of the Gilded Fly. Indeed, he solves this one, causing himself and others great unhappiness.

Crispin also steps outside the conventions of the detective novel slightly by having Fen gloomily hope that Gideon Fell will never hear of his slowness in recognizing a clue. In subsequent books there will be bolder conversations between author and character and hilarious references to the publisher.

Then there is Dolly Fen, Gervase's very practical and down to earth wife with whom he has several children. Dolly and the children are referred to in other novels and short stories but never really appear again, which is rather a pity. She is a delightful character who keeps him under some sort of control and whose opinion he values highly.

And finally, the references to English literature and, especially, Shakespeare. It is hard to get through these witty novels without having to look up at least one reference, maybe more. In some ways these books are even harder work than Sayers's, also full of quotations and allusions. The gilded fly? It's from Act 4. Scene 6 of King Lear:
Ay, every inch a king:When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause? Adultery?Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:The wren goes to 't, and the small gilded flyDoes lecher in my sight.Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard sonWas kinder to his father than my daughtersGot 'tween the lawful sheets.

Just a couple of links that might interest readers

On my agenda is the next Tuesday Night Blog about murder in education (and who wouldn't) as well as one final pre-referendum rant that should include some comments about Jo Cox, about the horrible murder and about the way it is being used by the Remainiacs. But first a couple of links from different parts of the Leave spectrum.

All sorts of people are now stating in public whether they will be voting Leave and Remain, often giving reasons, some of which are interesting while some less so. Some kind of a report produced the result that people with better education and better jobs and generally more hip and outward looking are more likely to vote Remain. Leave is for the uneducated oiks and people who are grubbing around in their memories. I am afraid I am finding it a little difficult to find the exact report, having seen merely references to it on social media (oooh, hark at her - she uses the social media at her age!) but I find this sort of argument a waste of time. Having a degree does not mean you are particularly intelligent of politically savvy and that is before you even start looking at what kind of degrees and well paid jobs we are talking about.

Indeed, bearing that in mind, what are we to make of the news in today's Evening Standard that David Beckham is passionately in favour of Remain? And that Victoria Beckham is so proud of hubby for backing the Remain campaign? Yesterday we were told that Premier League bosses are in favour of Remain as well as some business leaders and an assorted number of Nobel Prize winners in economics. A random collection, one must admit and not one to inspire one particularly, especially when one recalls the luvvies.

Meanwhile, here are two links to pieces some readers might like to have a look at. The first is by a young man, aged 30. He was, according to his mother, from whom I have the link, undecided but thought that instead of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch or David Beckham he would find out more about the EU before making up his mind. I have already written about the stupidity of simply accepting that "young people are going to be pro-Remain because they look outwards". Well, here is what happens when they or members of other age groups find out the truth. Read Costas's piece about his research. As it happens, I do not agree with all that stuff about the Bilderbergers and share one friend's view that life would have been much easier if Prince Berhardt had held the first meeting at the Palm Court Hotel but I do agree with his point about the left. There is still some left-wing opposition to the EU but it tends to be on the edges and the far left. What happened to it?

My second link is to a piece from one of those uneducated oiks, the well known historian, journalist and author, Tim Stanley. As a sort of historian myself I entirely agree with all his points, especially when he says that Brexit is about the future not the past, let alone nostalgia. When people mutter about uncertainty, I point out that there is always uncertainty and why is that so bad?

Tim Stanley destroys both Leave and Remain myths, and how right he is.
Let’s not talk about the past but the future: the EU is planning to create a unitary state. Its leaders have said as much – higher taxes, an army, greater authority for the bank are all on the table. The EU has decided that only faster integration will see it through the present crisis. They might be correct: what the EU wants to be it can only be if it is effectively one country. But that is not in Britain’s national interest, something we’ve signalled by remaining outside the Eurozone.

So we can either ride this train as far as the driver wants to go or we can jump off now. A so-called leap in the dark actually gives us back control of our policy making. It's a vote for democracy, a vote to say: "We govern, we are in charge." We can make the choice of whether to take more or less migrants; we can write new trade agreements and we can reaffirm our strategic interests in the developing world.

For Schama is right: I am a European by historical chance. But my great-grandfather also worked for an Indian nobleman and my mother was raised in the Caribbean. When I was at university my first specialism was Kenyan history; then I switched to the study of the USA, a country I regard as my second home. I am not a little Englander. But I am also not a little European. We are shaped by history but need not be imprisoned by it. And one thing I find most exciting about Brexit is it gives us the chance to start over again, to write a new chapter in our country’s history. Brexit isn’t nostalgia. It’s ambition.
Enjoy both pieces and spread them widely. We still have a very little time.