Archive for May, 2010

The worst foreign secretary?

25 May 2010

I happened to walk down the street in Westminster where Edward Grey once lived – the man who was British Foreign Secretary before the Great War. There’s a case to be made that he was the worst of Britain’s Foreign Secretaries, and the case was argued by David Owen, once a Labour Foreign Secretary, in a recent review of a book co-written by a former Conservative counterpart, Douglas Hurd.

Grey was responsible for creating the alliance with France which led to Britain entering the Great War, and talks continued from 1906 until war broke out in 1914. Although he told both the prime minister of the day, Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the king of the talks, the cabinet was not informed for five years (when the Agadir crisis broke out), nor did he inform Parliament.

As Lloyd George observed, he also made a more profound mistake: “He did not tell the Germans plainly that Britain would go to war if they invaded Belgium.”

Hurd is relatively kind to Grey: he was not a devious man by nature, and Hurd sees him as being caught up is the diplomatic systems of the time.

Owen, on the other hand, is withering:

The first world war destroyed the flower of our youth and the strength of our nation for no long-term gain. Had Britain conserved its power, both militarily and diplomatically, we would have been able to bring that war to an end much earlier through negotiation, and in doing so profoundly influence the shape of Europe, with every likelihood of avoiding the second world war.

As failures go, it seems fairly catastrophic to me.

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Sunshine’s hit me

23 May 2010

When the mercury starts rising (do people still have thermometers with mercury in them?) I reach for The Bees’ first record, Sunshine Hit Me. The Bees are from the Isle of Wight, and Sunshine Hit Me, recorded in a garden shed and released almost ten years ago in the UK, is perfect summer pop.

I think they knew what they were doing; there’s a cover of an Os Mutantes song which has since popped up in advertisements, quite a lot of fresh tinkling keyboards, and flashes of reggae to lift the spirits. There’s even a song called ‘Sunshine’. Sadly, there’s nothing from the record in listenable quality on youtube, although the Bee’s myspace site has snatches of a couple of tracks (‘Punchbag’ abd ‘Town Version’)  from it.

Above all, they just sound as if they’re having a good time, which is one of the essential components of a summer record. The Beach Boys used to sound as if they were having a good time even though we know now that they weren’t.

The seven wonders of Communism

20 May 2010

My son has been reading the good bits of Ben Lewis’ book Hammer and Tickle to me – the history of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc told through their jokes. Actually, it’s full of good bits. Here’s a couple that catch the flavour of the book.

Everyone knows about the seven wonders of the world, but what about the seven wonders of Communism?

  1. Under Communism there’s no unemployment.
  2. Although there’s no unemployment, only half the population has to work.
  3. Although only half the population works, the Five-Year Plans are always fulfilled.
  4. Although the Five-Year Plans are always fulfilled, there’s never anything to buy.
  5. Although there’s never anything to buy, everyone is happy and contented.
  6. Although everyone is happy and contented, there are frequent demonstrations.
  7. Although there are frequent demonstrations, the government is always re-elected with 99.9% of the vote.

Obviously, the jokes from Stalin’s Terror are the darkest – and cleverest. This may be my favourite joke in the book, at least from the ones I’ve had shared with me:

A clerk hears laughing behind the door of a courtroom. He open the door. At the other end of the room, the judge is sitting on the podium convulsed with laughter.

‘What’s so funny?’, asks the clerk.

‘I just heard the funniest joke of my life’, says the judge.

‘Tell it to me’.

‘I can’t’, says the judge.

‘Why not?’

‘Because I just sentenced someone to five years hard labour for doing that.’

Lewis says that an eighth of the people in the gulag were there for ‘telling anecdotes’, a figure that he finds small but I thought sizeable enough. The joke about the notorious White Sea canal project, built by prison labour, goes as follows:

Who built the White Sea canal?

The right bank was dug by those who told jokes…

And the left bank?

By those who listened.

The point of punishing joke-tellers was to demonstrate that the state would tolerate not the smallest or most casual expression of dissent, as Roy Medvedev tells Lewis. There’s a joke about that as well:

What is the difference between Stalin and Roosevelt?

Roosevelt collects the jokes that people tell about him, and Stalin collects the people that tell jokes about him.

Not understanding

15 May 2010

A couple of quotes which seem to share a heritage – and both re-quoted in articles about the financial crisis and politics.

First up, Gary Younge quotes Upton Sinclair, in a piece on the unelected financial markets:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

Second, the quote from Tolstoy which Michael Lewis used at the front of his latest book, The Big Short.

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Incidentally, Gary Younge also has a great analogy about the behaviour of the banks, and bankers, after being saved from bankruptcy by the taxpayer (on both sides of the Atlantic):

It’s as though you borrowed money against your home to save a wayward relative from penury only to have them roll up a week later in a brand new Porsche and tell you to cut your food bill or they’ll repossess the property.

The cartoon {click to enlarge) is from the topical cartoon site wonkie.com, and is used with thanks.

Strictly business

14 May 2010

When Pink Floyd’s keyboard player, Rick Wright, died 18 months ago I wrote a post about the transition of the band from the avant garde to the mainstream commecial, a process which started with the expulsion of Syd Barrett.

So it’s worth noting the appearance of a new biography of Barrett by Rob Chapman; I saw a review by the novelist Toby Litt, and – more – that it disputes the familiar story that Barrett’s eviction was because the drugs had worked all too well.

Chapman’s analysis of how Barrett came to be ousted by the other members of the Floyd is particularly convincing. “Each will have had to convince their parents, and themselves, that they were going to make a go of ‘this pop lark’ . . . Faced with the prospect of having their best-laid plans sabotaged by a recalcitrant and obstructive spirit like Syd Barrett, they made the hard-headed, but entirely rational, decision to continue without him . . . The rest is accountancy.”

Chapman’s verdict, as summarised by Toby Litt:

Barrett’s problem, like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, was that the pop scene was just too conservative, too protestant-work-ethic.

The photo of Barrett is from Opel Productions’ website, and is used with thanks.

Alone, again

13 May 2010

Fulham’s close-run defeat against Atletico Madrid in the final of the grandly named ‘Europa Cup’ last night reminded me, as it would, of the late playwright Dennis Potter, who is almost as strongly identified with Hammersmith and Fulham as he is with his native Forest of Dean.

At the end of the original UK television version of Pennies From Heaven, of course, Arthur Parker commits suicide (or not) by throwing himself from Hammersmith Bridge.

In The Singing Detective, the detective (Michael Gambon) observes – and this is from memory at the moment – that people go to football matches ‘to be together’. ‘Except for Fulham’ he adds, of a team which would have been in the second or third tier of the English League at the time. ‘You go to Fulham to be alone’.

Purple patches

10 May 2010

I dropped in on the impromptu demonstration for a fairer voting system, called via Twitter and email by Take Back Parliament! in central London, on the way home this evening. I’d guess that there were about 600 people there, which I thought pretty good given that the invitation only went out at midday. The venue, Palmer Street, was outside the building where the Liberals were meeting to discuss the details of a possible coalition offer from the Conservatives, following the apparent silence over the weekend from both Lib-Dems and Conservatives about the likelihood of including political reform in any coalition agreement.

As it happens, Palmer Street is quite narrow and quite high; an excellent location if you’re trying to create a sense of occasion with a few hundred demonstrators; the combination of the band (below) and chants of ‘Fair Votes Now’ filled the available space and echoed back into the building. (It reminded me of a walkabout by Mrs Thatcher in Salisbury that I’d covered at the height of her unpopularity in 1980. Her handlers had chosen one of the narrowest streets in Salisbury so she would seem to be jostled by throngs of admirers even if hardly anyone showed up.)

And as it happened, today’s demo must be the most successful I’ve ever been on. By the time I got home, the Conservatives had offered the Liberal Democrats a referendum on the Alternative Vote (not a particularly fair voting system, but usually a little fairer than the one we currently have); and Labour had topped this immediately (‘see you and raise’) with a proposal for an immediate Bill to introduce AV and a referendum to follow on something more democratic. Whether either can deliver this, of course, is an open question, but as @jon_bartley said on Twitter, ‘Very rare in politics to get a bidding war over who can afford to offer the most fairness’.

‘Smart work for civilisation’

10 May 2010

Controlled anger is one of the hardest registers for a journalist. It is the thinnest of tightropes between ranting, on the one hand, and bathos or special pleading on the other.

So I was impressed to find an outstanding example in the excellent biography of the war correspondent George Steer, written by Nicholas Rankin. Steer is best known (largely, it should be said, as a result of Rankin’s work) for his coverage of the bombing of Guernica, where he broke the story of German involvement, and collected enough evidence to refute the black propaganda that followed both from Germany and Franco’s Nationalists.

But before he arrived in Spain, he had covered the Italian assault on Ethiopia; he was one of the last foreigners to leave Addis Ababa as it fell, he married his first wife there, and later Hailie Selassie became the godson to his eldest child. After he had left the country, the Italians massacred thousands – including many members of the intellectual modernising group, the ‘Young Ethiopians’, which included many Ethiopian friends of Steer’s – after a failed assassination attempt on the Italian Viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. This provoked a long article by Steer in the Spectator – of which this is just an extract:

Marshal Graziani, who executed so many men in Tripoli and who allowed his native troops to massacre Harrar in May, 1936, is distributing bonbons to the Ethiopians whom he has spared. Somebody throws a hand grenade. Graziani survives. The Italians are quickly pulled out the crowd of Ethiopians, and the Ethiopians are machine-gunned to a man. Three hundred dead. I call that smart work for civilisation.

Graziani is carried off to a hospital. The lovely planes take off from Akaki, over the sighing blue gum into the brilliant air. The little tanks rattle through the still-ruined streets. In the afternoon, ammunition is handed out to the Blackshirts, and the biggest massacre since Smyrna begins.

They kill all the Young Ethiopians, all my friends: not one they tell me survives. They are dead because they spoke French, wore sometimes European clothes, behaved decently, loved their country and wanted to make it more efficient and more civilised. But unfortunately the Italians beat them to that game.

Of course, the most famous British journalist to cover the Italian campaign in Ethiopia was Evelyn Waugh, working for the Daily Mail (which inevitably supported the Italian fascists). Waugh later got four books out of his experience of Ethiopia: Black Mischief and Scoop, of course, and two non-fiction books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia (I’m guessing that the pun was deliberate).

The two men knew each other, but didn’t like each other; Steer was sympathetic to Ethiopia’s history and culture, while Waugh, like many Europeans, thought it medieval. When Waugh reviewed Steer’s book on the Ethiopian campaign, Caesar in Abysinnia, he was sharp (Rankin uses the word ‘waspish’), suggesting that Steer had an affinity with the Ethiopians because he had been born in South Africa, and implying that he wasn’t, perhaps, a ‘proper’ European. Waugh’s view of Ethiopians was summarised in a letter in 1935 (this is the original punctuation) to Diana Cooper:

‘i have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organ-men gas them to buggery’.

Which, of course, the Italians went on to do, ruthlessly and illegally. As Gandhi remarked when asked his opinion of Western civilisation: I think it would be a good idea.

Keeping the customer satisfied

8 May 2010

I put on some Simon and Garfunkel, looking for a line I’d half-remembered (“I get all the news I need on the weather report”, since you ask) and going to work next day I couldn’t get a couple of the tunes out of my head.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots to dislike about S&G. I don’t like the teenage miserabilism of ‘I Am A Rock’, or the theft of the English folk canon, or the portentous power ballad that is ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water‘, or the preja vu ‘I got your cultural rhythm‘ of ‘El Condor Pasa‘, or, come to that, the trite social commentary of ‘The Boxer‘.

But listening to ‘America’ (“Kathy, I said, as we boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh”), the lyrics capture perfectly the games you play to break up the tedium of a long journey:

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said “Be careful his bowtie is really a camera”.

‘Cecilia’ is so catchy that I heard a group of women – none of them old enough to have heard the song first time around – break into an impromptu chorus of it at a party recently. (“Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart…”).

Keep The Customer Satisfied‘ sums this up, in its way. Whatever the song’s narrator is up to, it can’t be that bad. It’s only the Deputy Sheriff who’s concerned, and jurisdiction stops at the county line. This is the stuff of misdemeanours rather than felonies. It’s a lot less dark than, say, The Grateful Dead’s ‘Friend of the Devil‘ (“sheriff’s on my trail/ And if he catches up with me I’ll spend my life in jail”).

And I think that’s the secret of the best of Simon and Garfunkel: they’re light enough to be perfect pop songs.

Dreaming in red

7 May 2010

Maybe it’s because we’ve been having an election here in Britain, but I’ve been listening to Robert Wyatt’s elegiac version of ‘Biko’, released in 1984, about the life and death in 1977 of the black anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko – a reminder that politics is often (always?) – eventually a matter of life and death. It’s a moral choice, not a tea party; it has consequences, and not just for you.