Thursday, 15 April 2021

Hunting

Looking for something else on this blog, I read a post from 2018 about political reporting. Reading it, it occurred to me that since then very little has changed in that regard, except possibly for the worse. It struck me that while fox hunting has been banned in Britain, politician hunting has not. Where once there were men in pink coats on horses, with other riders galloping behind, now we have journalists who do not have horses but who are just as forceful when it comes to hue and cry.  This may explain why are leaders are less good than they might be: who would put themselves forward in order to be hunted - and, of those who did decide to, who would survive the relentless deliberate goading of journalists, designed not to illicit information but to humiliate and undermine? 

This revelation came to me when I was watching some interviews conducted by AF Neil with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The interviews were bruited abroad as absolutely brilliant, but to me they seemed - and they still do - to be absolutely perfect examples of why politics is broken at this time. Instead of asking questions of interest and waiting for answers as they once did, journalists now hector and bully.  They lay traps for gotchas and they are ruder than anyone should be. This is considered great journalism, and in the last year there has been the added element of panic stoking, when a genuinely useful journalistic task would have been to engage in analysis of risk and the potential effects across all areas of life of various strategies to deal with it. But that might involve some serious work and complex thinking. 

In those interviews in 2018 the examples that struck me as egregious were many. I picked out only two. The first was when Andrew Neil asked Johnson this:

"Someone who's worked for you, who knows you well, says you're all flaws and no character. The British people will face huge and unprecedented risk with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, won't they"

To me, that wasn't actually a question - essentially Neil was hurling an anonymous insult at his interviewee and expecting what? That Johnson would say, "You're right. I'm awful". Or could it be that he just hoped to elicit squeals of joy from admiring journalistic colleagues - "Ooo look at Andy, being butch and showing no respect, that's how we do it these days, spit on the lot of them, while never being prepared ourselves to take on these hellish jobs".

And to Hunt, Neil sneered that his business wasn't as big as those founded by people like Steve Jobs - because, once again, why should you show any respect for anyone who wants to be a member of parliament, even if you, the interviewer, have never set up a company or created new jobs for anyone, or indeed ever tried to do anything constructive, preferring to go into what is no longer a studio but an arena and attempt to tear and rip away any tattered vestiges of respect the public might hope to retain toward their elected representatives. 

Imagine if journalists subjected themselves to these kinds of experiences. But they never do. The media like to remain firmly in a pack, hunting, not hunted. Their prey is politicians and anyone at all who tries to do anything positive. It's actually both sickening and hugely corrosive for democracy and decent government - you have to be prepared to be hounded if you decide to go into any form of public life - not merely questioned, but spoken to with unbridled viciousness, as if you deserve it just for daring to try. It's called bullying, and political interviewers have become the entitled, arrogant bullies of our age. Journalists have become one of the major reasons the world is in a mess.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Dream Leader

In the latest issue of the New Yorker is an article by John McPhee. As I revere his writing, I turned straight to that page. 

I brought with me to my reading my preoccupation of the moment - something that has increasingly been on my mind as this last year has progressed. That preoccupation is: why are our leaders so second-rate at the moment and, if I am so critical of them, what is it I want instead?

I have no answer to the why but, in John McPhee's description of Paul McHenry Washburn, Captain in 1988 of the SS Stella Sykes, US Merchant Marine, I have found a perfect summing up of what it is I expect from a leader:

"He was aloof, commanding, understanding, sympathetic, and utterly adroit in the skills of his demanding profession ... from the engine room to the bridge the ship was running on respect for him."


Monday, 12 April 2021

Reading: The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians is the 14th or 15th novel by Graham Greene that I have read in the last year and a half. I find him entertaining and I admire his diligence - although I suspect he would hate that second adjective: I have the impression that effortless, politely disdainful, insouciance, what we might now call cool, was the effect he was aiming for. In this regard, as a figure he reminds me a little of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens - all three were or are aiming fairly obviously to appear nonchalant (although why an attitude that borders on indifference and apathy is so often charismatic is something difficult to comprehend - perhaps it was a useful attribute when we were hunter/gatherers). Of course, the very fact that an effort, however faint, is discernible, means that none of them ever were or will transcend being poseurs and reach the state of true and genuine cool. 

All three do manage to be icy to some degree though - and, speaking of icy, Greene remained friends until the end with the coldest man ever to come out of the fairly chilly culture that is upper middle class England - Kim Philby. Greene's loyalty to a monster is something that I cannot understand.

But let us return to The Comedians - it is not the best (or the worst) book that I have read by Greene, who is definitely patchy. However, it is, like almost all his work, diverting, not least because of its setting, impoverished, terrorised Haiti during Papa Doc Duvalier's violent reign. 

The story begins at sea, on a boat that is on its way to Haiti. In the closed world of a ship, amid some typical Greenian grotesquery - most notably the desk "littered with great swollen phalluses ... like a massacre of pigs", which is the result of the ship purser's decision, given the lack of balloons onboard, to blow up condoms as decoration for the shipboard party - and some fairly heavy handed hints of impending menace - "the flat grey sea ...seemed to lie ... like an animal, passive and ominous in a cage waiting to show what it can do outside" - we are introduced to the three main characters: Messrs Brown, Smith and Jones. As their names suggest, Greene is presenting the reader with emblems as well as characters. 

Brown is the narrator, a man born in Monte Carlo and claiming to be detached and rootless as a result, a condition he seems to regard as something to be proud of. I think he is confusing indifference with Romantic alienation, just like those who wish to be cool. In his apathetic self-aggrandisement, Browne quotes possibly the worst line of all Romantic poetry, the bit about "rocks and stones and trees", from Wordsworth's A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal. 

Habitual readers of Greene will recognise Brown - he is a new iteration of the narrator in The Quiet American and, like that figure, for all his claims of detachment and having "forgotten how to be involved", he is very involved - even obsessed - with a woman he knows will never wholeheartedly love him, partly because she has a child whose name is Angel. Presumably Greene thought the allusion would help to remind the forgetful or unenlightened among his readers that all women in his fiction, even the prostitutes, are really the Madonna.  

Brown tells us the tale of the interweaving experiences of the three men - Brown, Smith and Jones - during their time on Haiti. His tone is world weary and melancholy, everything is in a minor key - indeed, very little Greene wrote is not steeped with this minor key melancholy; even Monsignor Quixote, despite that book being essentially a comedy. Brown explains that his world-weariness has only come to full maturity since - and in part because of - the events he tells of in the book. At the time of which he tells, he admits, "I still regarded my future seriously", while now he can no longer be sure that it is possible to "describe as serious the confused comedy of our lives". Looking back, he sees that as far as Haiti and life there goes, the novel's central trio "were only a subplot offering a little light relief". 

The character called Smith is another Greene retread. If Alden Pyle from The Quiet American had grown old he might well have become something like Smith, an evangelical vegetarian who once stood for US President. In the 11 years between The Quiet American and The Comedians, Greene's attitude toward Yankee naivety seems to have become more nuanced. While Smith is seen as largely laughable and naive, he is also allowed to display determination, courage and integrity. "Wasn't it possibly a flaw in character to believe so passionately in the integrity of all the world", Brown asks himself about Smith, but ultimately he sums him up as "an old man with beautiful manners", adding that "suddenly I realised how much I missed him", somewhat undermining his claim to be entirely emotionally null and void. 

Finally there is Jones, the unikely beating heart of the novel. Jones, a liar, a conman and a crook is a man who "wore his ambiguity like a loud suit". He admits that "somehow I couldn't find what I was intended to do." In some respects, he is Brown's mirror image. Although Brown owns a hotel, while Jones owns nothing, although Brown, it is implied, is tall, good looking, possibly even debonair (in my mind, he appears as a poor man's Cary Grant or as James Stewart in a very bad mood), while Jones is tiny, "with dark Pekinese eyes" and flat feet, what both men share is a taste for dissembling - they are among the comedians of the title and their relationship is constructed on that basis:

"Interrogation, partly concealed, was to be the basis of our relationship in the short time it lasted: we would snatch at small clues, though in great matters we would usually pretend to accept the other's story. I suppose those of us who spend a large part of our lives in dissembling, whether to a woman, to a partner, even to our own selves, begin to smell each other out. Jones and I learnt a lot about one another before the end, for one uses a little truth whenever one can. It is a form of economy."

Each has a loose understanding of the difference between right and wrong. In an earlier incarnation, Brown sold fake paintings to those willing to be fooled: "I once sold an imitation Pollock to a man who had Walt Disney dwarfs planted in his garden, around the sun-dial and on either side the crazy paving", he confides. "Did I harm him? He could afford the money." 

Furthering the identification between the two, Brown encourages us to believe that both he and Jones at the start of the novel simultaneously reach a crucial moment, the "point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives". 

But there are major differences. Jones, unlike Brown, possesses the ability to make women laugh. Both Brown's mistress and his favourite prostitute mention this aspect of Jones’s personality with fondness. Furthermore, despite the two men sharing a fairly fluid approach towards honesty, Jones may be more reluctant than Brown in his waywardness, if Brown's speculations, articulated in one of the book's most lovely passages, are correct:

"I wondered whether perhaps in all his devious life he had been engaged on a secret and hopeless love affair with virtue, watching virtue from a distance, hoping to be noticed, perhaps, like a child doing wrong in order to attract the attention of virtue."

In addition, unlike Brown, Jones has a guiding dream - in fact he has two: "You have to have two in case the first goes wrong", he explains. One, his back-up, is to set up a golfing resort on a coral reef not far from Haiti, with "a long bar made of coral called the Desert Island Bar". The other is to be a hero.

According to Paul Theroux in the introduction to my edition, the book was written at a time when Greene was short of money, due to the failures of an accountant (Theroux suggests that Jones may be modelled on this figure) and possibly this led to some slipshod stylistic moments. The book's opening line strikes me as stupendously unwieldy, especially from the author of Brighton Rock, which has one of the most arresting opening lines in all fiction. One of the first things we are told about Mr Smith is that he has "large innocent hairy ears"; the concept of innocent ears is one I find hard to accept. There are also dissonant moments I think could have done with cutting, such as the exchange between a young American couple about the female partner's ability to swim the backstroke: it is snobbish and pointless and rings quite untrue. Similarly, there are quite a few clunking similes, such as "The rain was hammered into the ground like a prefabricated wall." 

But there is much to enjoy in the book, including many good lines. Perhaps the one that stands out as being ideal for these times of government imposed restrictions in the name of safety is the narrator's remark that "security can get on the nerves just as much as danger".  

Potential readers should be warned that there are a couple of moments of unutterable racism - my least favourite is "his face dripped with tears like a black roof in a storm". On the other hand, some of the racism goes the other way: a Haitian official observes: " My personal view of every white man is very low. I admit I am offended by the colour, which reminds me of turd. But we accept some of you - if you are useful to the state."

Unlike The Quiet American which takes your breath away with a late twist, The Comedians has no plot surprises. All the same, above all because of the character of Jones, I recommend it. And despite my reservations, including the fact that the character he elects in this novel as the person with true heroic integrity is a Communist, I will go on reading Greene. I think he was utterly mistaken in his hatred for America, his armchair Marxism and his loyalty to Kim Philby (and don’t get me started on his behaviour toward the women in his life) but, in the end, although he was a bit of a swine and a bit of a show off, he was, in his writing, a great entertainer. In other words, he was, in all senses, one of those people he called "the comedians".

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Covid Consequences

After a few weeks’ break, hairdressers reopened yesterday in Hungary. Today my husband, who hates it if his hair brushes his ears or flops in his eyes or falls over his collar and has consequently been chopping away at himself for a few weeks, went to get his hair cut. The lady he went to stood behind him, looked down at his hair & then looked at him in the mirror, her expression half amazement, half horror: Mit történt? she asked (what happened?)

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Gone

My cousin Belinda, with whom I spent huge amounts of my childhood, died suddenly last week. She was part of the fabric of my life.

While many people approve of the saying, "God made our relatives, thank God we can make our own friends", I have a different perspective. I thank God for giving me relatives, as the bond between my relatives and me seems to me more durable and often more truthful than the bond of many of my friendships. Additionally, precisely because my cousins haven't been chosen by me from my own private bubble, but are mostly people who have quite different outlooks from mine and who lead lives quite different from my own, they broaden my horizons. My life is enriched through being in contact with them. 

And I'm especially grateful that I was given Belinda as a cousin, because I know she would never in the normal course of events have chosen me as her friend - I wasn't very good at riding, I was rather serious and gloomy, and I was younger by almost two years. Yet she was stuck with me and somehow between us, though neither of us would normally be soppy enough to admit it, an unlikely but deep and lasting bond was formed.  

My childhood memories of Belinda are almost exclusively in horse related settings. She was a skinny little girl with buck teeth who lived almost constantly in jodhpurs and blue aertex shirts. She had a wonderful Welsh mountain pony called Charlie who was so reliable that at the final stop during a dressing-up race at a gymkhana when I, to Belinda's shame in front of her pony club colleagues, leapt on in great haste and realised too late that I was facing backwards, Charlie cantered genially to the next stop, without blinking an eye. Charlie's replacement after years of solid service was a skewbald called Harlequin and, making up the numbers was a huge bay hunter called Trilee. She belonged to my aunt, Belinda's mother, but, before the arrival of Harlequin, when I was staying, I would ride Charlie and Belinda would ride her mother's horse.

If the weather was good - that is to say, if it wasn't actually pouring - Belinda and I could be found either at the stables, attending to the ponies with dandy brushes, currycombs, hoof picks and all the other things that transformed grooming from the mere process of brushing a horse into a recondite art which only initiates could practice, or riding through the shady Hampshire lanes, or hurtling across fields, often, if Trilee was involved, not entirely in control.

There were also winter dawns when an enormous truck would arrive and the horses would be loaded, ready to be taken to a meet of the local hunt. Not that I was anywhere near brave enough to go hunting. I was a total amateur, while Belinda was fearless and rode like the wind. 

If the weather was bad we would either pore over books about the Spanish Riding School or a treasured volume called Horses of the World or play with the greatest toys ever made, Julip ponies, which could only be bought from one place, a small shop in Beauchamp Place in London. They had manes and tails of real hair and tiny exquisite saddles and bridles and rugs. They had owners, but their faces and features were never as carefully rendered as those of the horses themselves - which was exactly as it should be. 

The horses were handmade from some kind of rubber that, sadly, perishes. As a result, Belinda and I each discovered years later when we went to find our beautiful toys, planning to hand them on to our children, that our much loved horses had turned into rather revolting, misshapen objects that would only terrify a child. 

Away from both live and toy horses, we were capable of other pastimes. At granny's, after one visit when our brothers, having tricked us into believing they would play horses with us, instead tied us both to a tree with our skipping ropes, we learned to divert our attention from equine things. Instead we would head either to the compost heap, where we spent astonishing amounts of times imagining the dead flowers we found there were ballet dancers, or to a little bridge over the river Itchen, which ran along the bottom of granny's garden, where we spent whole afternoons playing pooh sticks. Talk about simpler times. 

In Trebetherick, in Cornwall, where Belinda's parents had a holiday place, I remember running round and round the house, imagining we were in some complicated adventure involving the kidnap and rescue of Cattie, Belinda's beloved companion, a small oddly shaped and frankly fairly hideous thing that appeared to have been fashioned from a knitted string dishcloth - I doubt if there was ever a more underserving object of affection. And of course there were races up Brae Hill, and trips to the beach at Daymer Bay or Greenaway - but only after the grown ups had amused themselves by getting Belinda to mention her Wed Wubba Wing at least half a dozen times, (she never was able to say R). 

In her early teens, while practising dressage in a field where no one would easily hear her, Belinda fell from Harlequin when he shied at something. Terrifyingly her foot caught in the stirrup and she was dragged for some time. In the end, a man in the next field turned off his tractor and heard her screams, but by that time she needed to go to hospital, where she spent quite some time. When she came out, horses had lost their charm. 

Around the same era, Belinda started to come to stay at our house in London. She was always absurdly excited by being in the city. Each year we would go together to Olympia to visit the Daily Mail Boys' and Girls' Exhibition, which was actually a complete swiz, full of stalls selling total trash, with just one or two gimmicks, such as the chance to see a Dalek, to attract the crowds. Somehow we had a great deal of fun there all the same. We saved up our pocket money for it and we spent masses on the most hopelessly stupid things. I suppose the worst of our universally dreadful purchases was the can of spray-on hair colour which turned out to be a kind of pink paintlike substance that dissolved much of the hair on which it landed. The highlight of all our annual visits was seeing inside a Dalek.

After my mother returned to her native Australia and took me with her, I saw less of Belinda for a while, although we always met up in London when I came back to see my father - we would go to a film, (most notably, we saw Cabaret and Fellini's Roma together) and afterwards to whatever was the latest London fad, eg The Great American Disaster

When Belinda finished school, she was sent off to learn something called Speedwriting, so that she could become part of that now long gone but at the time thriving species, the hilariously hopeless female secretary. As spelling was very much not Belinda's strong suit, she found it extremely difficult to read back her misspelt shortenings of already misspelt words. I don't know how it came about but an unsuspecting military historian was her first client. She went off to his house in Carlyle Square each day and took pages and pages of Speedwriting notes as he dictated his forthcoming book. When she had typed these up, she presented him with a manuscript in which he set out his theory that Napoleon's initial successes were the result of a combination of heavy duty candelabra (cannon), huge numbers of sausages (soldiers) and the skilful deployment of large bananas (battalions) across the battlefield. She wasn't asked back to Carlyle Square, but other work was always available. I remember visiting her in an office near Fenwicks, where her only role seemed to be to make her bosses laugh. It was a gentler age, before the advent of management consultancies - although luckily for everyone Belinda did eventually find a vocation more suitable to her talents when she discovered the craft of gilding.

When I came back to Britain and decided to live in London, Belinda was quite extraordinarily hospitable to me. She slotted me into her social life as if I'd always been there and any time that she was having people for dinner or a party - often - it didn't seem occur to her that I shouldn't come along. Although some of the people I met through her would not pass muster in today's woke culture - (a man known as the Groper who always wore a purple rubber glove springs to mind) - I am overall endlessly grateful to her.  My life in London could have been extremely lonely, had it not been for her kindness 

Which is not to say that Belinda was an old softie by any means. Like all of my family, including me, she was extremely impatient. Which was why, when she mentioned that she was going to do Bed and Breakfast at her house, I had my doubts. While sociable, none of us, not me, not my father, not Belinda, are full of good cheer at all times, and particularly not at breakfast. When I inquired some time later how the venture was going, she asked me if I thought that she was unusually formidable. I replied by asking why she was asking. She explained that at the end of a week-long stay, she had asked one American couple if they had enjoyed themselves and they had said they had but then, very nervously, had admitted that there had been one small problem - they hadn't been able to find the switches on any of the lights (presumably they were not familiar with the British habit of having the buttons on the lamp's stem) but hadn't dared tell her. Additionally, after the departure of some guests who she had not liked and felt she had been particularly tolerant and gracious to in the circumstances, she had been unable to find the brand new towels she had provided for them, bought from Peter Jones two days before their arrival. She had assumed the couple had nicked them and had gone about feeling livid for several days. But then she had discovered the towels, in the linen cupboard, still in their cellophane wrapping, inside their Peter Jones carrier bag. At which point she realised that the couple she thought she had been so kind and hospitable to must in fact have been so utterly terrified by her demeanour that they had preferred to dry themselves on loo paper or the curtains or who knew what, rather than approach her to ask if they could possibly have even a single towel. 

Belinda was a mother of four, grandmother of four more, a very good amateur painter, a brilliant cook and able to transform any house she lived in into a haven of comfort and charm. These are achievements that are of more value than many of the things for which people become famous and celebrated nowadays. Belinda was also always much better at having fun than I am - and shrewder, more practical and possessed of far more commonsense. In an antic frame of mind, she could be very naughty, enjoying nothing more than trying to make me burst out laughing on occasions when that was the last thing I was supposed to do.

I wish I'd had a chance to say goodbye to my cousin. I already miss her presence in the world.


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

First As Tragedy

It's not true what they say about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. It's tragedy and then more tragedy really. 

I realised this when I came across a passage in Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh. It's a novel I started to read decades ago, but somehow lost sight of; consequently, I am having the infinite pleasure of reading it for the first time now. 

The passage that caught my eye concerns the government's requisitioning of a big house to turn it into a hospital for air-raid victims. The result seems to me to parallel exactly the idiocy of the UK government during this pandemic, focussing solely on those with the current virus, forgetting the care they owe to those with other ailments:

"So there was the house ... and the government moving in to make it a hospital ... It's full of beds and nurses and doctors waiting for air-raid victims and a woman in the village got appendicitis and she had to be taken 40 miles to be operated on because she wasn't an air-raid victim and she died on the way."

I wish we would learn things.

(Oh, I've just looked up the "first as tragedy quote". No wonder it's wrong - it's from the single most destructive lunatic the world has ever seen, and the nastiest piece of work personally: that is to say, Karl Marx.)

Monday, 8 March 2021

Creeping Socialism

One night recently, having explained to my husband that I really could not stand another episode of the BBC News, with its nightly tide of tabloid tearjerking and government sponsored panic-stoking, he compromised and put on an episode of Spectator TV. 

At the start of the episode, there was an interview between Andrew Neil and  a statistician called David Spiegelhalter. During the interview Spiegelhalter expressed himself extremely proud and deeply moved by the fact that no-one in the United Kingdom can obtain a vaccination against coronavirus by paying for one.

"You can't buy it", chimed in Neil, and both men seemed to find this a reason for rejoicing.  The exchange has been puzzling me ever since. Here it is:


I was under the impression that the United Kingdom, like all European countries, worked on the principle of free enterprise. While the United Kingdom does seem to be showing unwonted efficiency in ensuring its citizens are vaccinated (and in that context has anyone else noticed how none of his colleagues ever seem to mention Nadhim Zawahi, the minister responsible for this success, or hand him a crumb of praise), I bet the whole process is costing a pretty penny. As for the rest of Europe, don't get me started: the vaccination process, run by various governments, with the 'help' of Brussels, but completely unsullied by any assistance from free enterprise, is an absolute total mess.

Where would the harm be if private enterprise was allowed to run in tandem with national government-run and -funded health services? I'm not suggesting that anyone should be deprived of the right to get vaccinated at government expense, but what if they were also allowed, should they choose, to remove the burden of their individual vaccination from government and pay for it to be done elsewhere? How could that be immoral? It wouldn't be pushing anyone out of the way; it would be turning to an alternative source and lightening the burden on the government. If the health services aren't a dreadful drain on the government, why did poor old Captain Tom Moore feel the need to stagger up and down his garden to raise money for them? 

Yet in the health provision area anything involving offering payment for service, if you can afford to, is considered shocking and grubby and vile. Thus when a clinic in the north of England found that from time to time it had leftover vaccine that needed using up at the end of the day, the people running it decided it was perfectly okay to give the extra vaccinations to friends and relations of the staff; doing anything enterprising with them, such as selling tickets in a money-raising raffle that would give the right to anyone whose ticket was drawn to expect a call to come in immediately and get a leftover shot would have been seen as outrageous and vile. 

To reiterate, I am not suggesting that anyone should miss out. I am not suggesting that the most needy shouldn't be given for free everything that the service is able to provide. What I am suggesting is that, if some people have money they want to spend on getting a vaccination, why should anyone feel proud that there is no opportunity for them to take pressure of the government-funded health service by getting themselves vaccinated at their own expense? Why would it be a sin to save taxpayers' money and speed up the process, so that everyone could get back to normal life more quickly? Isn't government having sole control of the supply of any substance anathema in a free enterprise system? Does no one else think the most urgent thing we need to achieve is to get each of our nations back to normal as quickly as possible so that businesses currently shut down can reopen and the economy can be dragged back from the brink of total collapse? Have I missed some important event, such as a Bolshevik revolution? Are we all socialists now?