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A nation that queues

There’s an abundance of words being spoken in the media about the queue that ends at the Queen’s coffin. That it’s five miles long. That it’s seven miles long. That it will take nine hours, eleven hours. That it sums up Britain, the nation that queues.

The Guardian has an expert professor who studies crowds. He says there are many reasons why people have put themselves through the ordeal of waiting in line to see a coffin guarded by six resplendently-uniformed soldiers and four Yeomen of the Guard.

He’s obviously right. For some, the long wait is a gesture of respect, of grief. For others it’s a spectacle. Far better than the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to take part in an event of mass participation that allows you to be closer to royalty – and an embodiment of history – than you ever have been or ever will be. An “I was there” event to tell your grandchildren about.

I can understand that. When I was 14, my school organised a bus trip to London so that we could walk past Winston Churchill during his lying-in-state. As we filed past the coffin, richly decorated with Order of the Garter regalia, I was well aware of the significance of the event. Well aware of being ten feet or so from the body of a man who according to the narrative of the time, had saved our country. This was no empty pageant. It was an occasion that demanded deep contemplation, not only about Churchill but about the history he helped to write.

It still resonates. A few days ago I was in a village square in France having coffee with friends. We were talking about the Queen’s lying-in-state. I mentioned that I’d been to Churchill’s. An elderly acquaintance chirped up that she’d been there too. She was the only person I’ve ever met who shared that experience. How different we looked then: she in her twenties and me in my teens.

Did my participation cement my lifetime love of history, or was it the other way around: that it was a sense of history in the making that led me to volunteer for the bus? I don’t remember.

Anyway, though there are many events in my childhood that I’ve forgotten, Churchill’s funeral rites were deeply imprinted in my memory.

I suspect that it will be the same for the people in this queue, though the pervasive coverage of the people walking past the Queen, not least the live feed on the BBC, will probably leave as strong a memory as mine. In fact, it’s quite possible that in fifty years’ time many who were not actually there will believe they were. Just as so many people of my age were at Wembley when England won the World Cup.

I shall not be there this time. Nine hours on my feet would be more than my ancient knees could stand. Which puts me to shame somewhat, considering the amount of people you can see on the live feed walking past on crutches.

The live feed is fascinating. Silence, apart from the odd baby (did that mother really stand in line for nine hours with a toddler in her arms?). The soldiers, eyes down, faces invisible anyway beneath the bearskins. How is anyone able to stand so still for so long? The ushers, in tails, knee stockings and white ties, quietly busybodying people into separate lines as they enter Westminster Hall.

The Hall itself, with its roof dating from the 12th Century, under which Charles I and Sir Thomas More were tried and sentenced to death. Where many monarchs, and Churchill of course, had lain in state before. The coffin, draped with the royal standard and laden with the crown, the orb and the sceptre. Interesting that those priceless objects, normally protected under reinforced glass cabinets in the Tower of London, are almost within touching distance of the crowds, protected by men with swords, staffs and pikes. Presumably the serious security is hidden away from view.

And the people. One guy shuffling past with his hands in his pockets. Stopping, taking his hands out, bowing. Most making some gesture towards the coffin: a salute, a namaste, a sign of the cross. But mostly bowing, some perhaps for the first time in their lives.

When I first watched the feed, I was struck by the ethnic make-up of those walking past. Far less black and brown people than the country’s ethnic make-up might lead you to expect. But a few hours later, many more. It would be tempting but misleading to draw conclusions about the mainly white composition of the queue. So no speculation. Just observation.

I also wonder how many of the crowd are tourists, with no direct connection to the country or its head of state. There to witness a unique event that they will tell their friends and loved ones about. But no photos or selfies to prove they were there.

This is no outpouring of unconstrained grief, Diana-style. A more decorous occasion you could hardly hope to witness. It’s as if the visitors have left whatever rage, joy or misery that afflicts them in their normal lives outside Westminster Hall. Nothing on display but perhaps a sense of awe at being part of something much bigger than all of us as individuals. Perhaps the actual funeral will be the moment when the emotional dam bursts, quietly, in pubs or at home, in front of the TV.

For me, as a dedicated people-watcher, the live feed is endlessly fascinating. Who are these people? Some dressed for a day out and some dressed in black. Some with medals, some with babies. Some with almost embarrassed expressions, perhaps aware that they’re on camera. Many with rucksacks, but many without. How could they queue for hours without any means of sustenance?

It’s not for me to ponder gravely on the significance of the event – to talk about the nation coming together in grief, or the beginning of a new chapter in our history. Plenty of people are paid to do that, and their words are spread across the media like treacle. In the murky waters of the social media you’ll find enough contrarians using the Queen’s death to make political points, about freedom of speech, our constitution, people holding hands (or not), or the snappiness of a mourning son, our new King.

Of course I’m interested in most of that stuff, just as I’m interested in watching Donald Trump slowly roasting on a legal spit, and Vladimir Putin explaining away the incompetence of his army, but not today.

Today is about The Queue. For we shall surely not see its like again, and certainly not in my lifetime.

Russia: remembering St Petersburg during a turning point – as a new one begins

I wrote a few days ago in the context of America’s upheavals about how music – be it songs or symphonies – sometimes helps us dream about the country where it originated. We look back to where we were when we first heard it. Where were you when you first heard Sgt Pepper, we might ask ourselves, and what was happening in the world you lived in at the time?

One of those “where were you” moments came to me a couple of evenings ago when I was listening to a collection of Russian sacred music. I bought the recording during a brief visit to St Petersburg in 2014, after a choral concert in a church.

The music is profoundly moving. Though I’m not overloaded with religious faith, I respect and often admire faith in others. I especially treasure the musical output of all faiths, from Sufi qawala and the plainchant of Hildegard of Blingen to the grand choral works of Bach, Handel and Mozart. The Russian Orthodox church has always produced magnificent music for choirs, with its emphasis on the bass voice as the foundation for the liturgy.

Revisiting those anthems, some of which rang out in that church in St Petersburg, set me thinking about the Russia that presents itself to the world today: warlike, resentful, intolerant of dissent and unspeakably cruel to those whom it perceives as its enemies. How could this nation have produced such deep and inspiring evocations of a Christian faith that preaches the antithesis of the values apparently espoused by the ruling elite? And how could Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, actively embrace Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine?

Then I looked back at that visit to St Petersburg. Though it didn’t appear so at the time, it happened at a turning point. After Litvinenko and before the Skripals. After the annexation of Crimea but before the war in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The weather was glorious. It was midsummer, so the sun never set. People were going about their business – enjoying the warmth, getting married, shopping in the markets. We visited the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, where the last Tsar and his family are buried, the fortress where anti-Tsarist revolutionaries were incarcerated, and the Hermitage, a museum rivalled by few others. We were escorted by tour guides, neither of whom were afraid to express their opinions, even though some of them were mildly critical of the government. I had a long conversation with Yelena, the guide on Day 2, who was with us in the church where choir sang and the faithful were kissing icons.

Her views on Ukraine jarred somewhat, though I listened rather than reacted. She couldn’t understand why the West was so hard on Putin. Again, I listened, but I suggested that the main reason many people were antagonistic towards him was because they were afraid of him, especially when his spokesmen came out with bellicose remarks about how quickly Russia could obliterate my country with its nuclear weapons. She claimed to be surprised, but we left it at that. A few days later I wrote her an open letter in this blog explaining at greater length why we feared Putin.

The article was actually an opportunity to give a first impression of a country that has loomed large in my consciousness throughout my life – initially as a potential bringer of destruction and subsequently, after the fall of the Soviet Union, as a potential friend and partner. I made it clear that I felt nothing but goodwill towards her country; that I was full of admiration for its artistic culture, especially its music.

But I also suggested that from my perspective (and needless to say from that of many others), Russia under Putin was headed towards a darker future. And so it has turned out.

The piece was, in my limited way, something of a tour d’horizon. If you’re interested, you can find it under Why the West Fears Putin – Letter to a New Russian Friend.

Of course Russia is not unusual in its tradition of creating beautiful music that rings out alongside the cruelty of its leaders. Yet there’s something rather medieval about the Patriarch calling Putin “a miracle”, while urging him on in his murderous endeavours. A throwback, if you like, to popes calling for crusades and bishops riding into battle. The nature of God’s work seems to have evolved since then, even if Patriarch Kirill, not to mention the fundamentalist right in the United States, seems intent on dragging it back to the elemental.

As I write this, we seem to be on the verge of another turning point. Ukraine’s armed forces have mounted a counterattack against the Russian invaders on two fronts. Will they succeed in driving the Russians out of their territory? If so, will the reported cracks in the nation’s support for Putin turn into a landslide that will sweep him away? And who might replace him? An even more ruthless leadership prepared to take extreme measures in a continued quest to restore Russian greatness? Or a regime that seeks reconciliation with its neighbours and a resumption of economic partnership with the West?

If it turns out to be the latter, the West would do well to avoid taking actions which might heighten the Russian sense of grievance that Putin exploited so effectively. Not to ignore the consequences of the widescale destruction of Ukraine, but to encourage internal reforms and negotiate restitution of the damage to its neighbour without humiliating the new regime. The only way to a stable future must be friendship and mutual respect, as well as recognition that both sides made mistakes after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But one swallow doesn’t make a spring. There are many vested interests in Russia that will resist allowing such a scenario to come to pass easily. The local war isn’t over. The wider, undeclared war between Russia and the West continues. Western Europe faces a hard winter. Most likely, Russia too.

I wonder what Yelena is thinking now, eight years since I met her in St Petersburg. Hopefully she’s well, and still remembers with affection her last visit to London.

To return to the music that inspired this post, the CDs were entitled “Russian Sacred Music”. Yet the choirs that performed it were from Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Would Ukrainian choirs be singing anthems in Russian today? I doubt it.

But perhaps before too long, when the healing has began, aided by music’s power to transcend national differences, they will.

Goodbye to our Queen: a hardy perennial if ever there was one

I never met the Queen, though I did encounter her husband at a couple of functions. So no anecdotes, no special insights.

When I was young, it was cool among my peer group to mock her. Not out of malice, but because she was a safe target. She would never know, and even if she did she would never react. We mocked her antiquated accent, her funny hats and her rather stilted public utterances. She was the epitome of old-fashioned. When we mocked her, it was because there was safety in numbers. It was the age of satire. Every institution – the church, the political establishment and especially the monarchy – was fair game.

Very few of the mockers wanted her gone, just as we wouldn’t want our mothers to disappear. She just symbolised for us the ultimate authority; the face on our coins, the person in whose name we went to war, made laws and brought miscreants to justice. And authority was what we beat our baby fists against.

She was always an object of mystery. Unknowable, unapproachable, not someone you would come cross cycling around Windsor. When we were beyond our youth and getting on with our lives, we would occasionally wonder – with scant evidence to draw upon – what she really felt about the people she had to deal with: pompous prime ministers, murderous dictators and flatulent buffoons like Donald Trump. Only a hint of disapproval occasionally surfaced in the form of a famously grumpy expression. Her self-control, her patience – at least as far as we could see – was superhuman. In an era of letting it all hang out she kept it all strapped in.

We British probably didn’t give her enough credit for the way in which she projected soft power, in a time when her realm’s hard power was slipping away. The visits, the tours and the ceremonies became newsworthy mainly because of the delicious prospect that her husband might produce another “gaffe” (a word seemingly invented for royals and politicians). Did we appreciate how much she was respected beyond our borders, and how much goodwill she generated for the country, especially in France, where I’m writing this, despite the slippery ways of our politicians? Probably not.

We did empathise with her – at least those of us who had children – when she had to deal with the behaviour of her offspring: the peccadillos and, in the case of her second son, activities that embarrassed her whole family. As we grew older, we learned about the pitfalls of parenting, and the limits of our ability as parents to steer our children clear of disastrous decisions. We felt closer to her for that reason.

And then, as she became very old, we marvelled at her ability to carry on, when most of us would have said to ourselves “sod this for a lark. I’ve done my bit. Someone else can do all the hard work now.” As we came to the end of our careers, there she was, still opening bridges, poring over red boxes and suffering fools on a daily basis.

So the woman we mocked in our youth won our respect and affection, not just for the consistency of her values but because of the little nuggets of humanity she allowed us to glimpse. The smile, the dry humour (also known as “quips”, a largely disused word preserved exclusively in association with the royal family), her delight in the company of her horses. We didn’t know her well. She was never the twinkly-eyed fairy grandmother figure that her mother became in the public’s perception. But we did know that she could be relied upon not to embarrass us, not to let us down. And in times of trouble, to say the right words.

Besides, how could we know her? Just as most of us don’t know Mick Jagger, the Dalai Lama and Vladimir Putin. Even those who lined up at the Palace to receive their gongs or had a few brief words at a garden party could hardly claim much more familiarity than the rest of us. Yet every encounter – even if it was from afar, at the Epsom Derby in my case – was imprinted in the memory.

To some extent, she was embedded in our subconscious, and surfaced in curious ways. People used to dream of encountering her when they had no clothes on. My mother, in her dotage at her care home, would tell me that she’d had tea with her the week before. Others, nervous about some social encounter with the great and the good, or terrified of public speaking, would imagine her in the lavatory to remind themselves that we’re all human.

She was everywhere, yet nowhere where she wasn’t wanted. Seemingly inert much of the time, yet always positive in her rare speeches and broadcasts.

If I was asked to choose one word that summed her up, it would be benign. And goodness knows, amidst the blundering, squabbling, fighting, grieving and hating that we seem to encounter at every turn, we have needed a benign influence to sooth our self-inflicted pain.

We will miss her. I will miss her, even though I never knew her, yet knew her very well.

American justice: with lawyers in the signal box, is a train wreck in the making?

Listening to a piece of music can sometimes feel like dreaming. For me, it often sets off a train of thought – not always linear – about the country and the time in which it was written. In recent days it’s been the work of Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, that caused me to reflect on the politics of her country. What was before and what is now. But more on Roseanne later.

After decades of watching, visiting and doing business in the United States, I’m still intrigued by many aspects of the American way of life. My top three are politics, banking and – way out front – the law in all its glory. All, of course, are interlinked. All are essential to the acquisition and exercise of power. I suppose I should add the military as a close fourth, but I don’t rank them above the others on a scale of power factors because notwithstanding Donald Trump’s efforts during his presidency, the generals have been pretty successful in keeping the armed forces out of internal politics, at least since the Civil War.

The legal system is a wonder to behold. Despite having had a few interactions with US lawyers in my time (strictly commercial, I should add – no orange jumpsuits), I can’t say I know much more than the basics. I get the distinction between federal and state law, but ask me how many levels of appeal are possible before a case gets to the Supreme Court, and I would be stumped.

And then there’s the current litigation over the top-secret documents Trump is alleged to have squirreled away. I get that the Department of Justice is the federal government’s prosecuting authority, and the FBI is the primary enforcer. But then weird concepts keep cropping up that I’d never come across before. A special master? A magistrate judge as opposed to what other kind of judge? Given that I’m not American and not a lawyer, there’s no reason why I should have heard of such exotic creatures, the first of which sounds as if it was created for a Marvel movie.

It turns out that the special master would be employed to review the seized documents to ensure that their use will not violate attorney/client privilege and thus prejudice a defendant’s rights. Or something like that. That’s just one example of the bewildering rabbit-holes of due process that seem to provide American lawyers with a very comfortable living, thank you very much. Apart, of course, from those who are foolish enough to work for Trump, and who as a result always stand a chance of not being paid, or, at worst, going to jail themselves.

There are also mysteries in the process of making laws. Why, for example, is it OK for Congress to pass a law that is supposed to be about one thing, but is actually about a bunch of other stuff as well? Take The Inflation Reduction Act, for example. You would think from the title that the act’s purpose is pretty obvious. But this one doesn’t just do what it says on the tin. In fact the outcome Joe Biden is crowing about is the provisions that are intended to deal with climate change. And the relevance to inflation, however worthy the intention, is what?

But what intrigues me most about the current cause celebre is the suggestion by a number of commentators that the Department of Justice, even if they have overwhelming evidence that Trump committed one or more felony that if proven would send him to jail for many years, should not indict him until after the mid-term Congressional elections in November. I understand the rationale: that such a prosecution might have a material effect on the outcome of those elections. But one thought keeps coming to me. If Trump was suspected of committing murder, also a felony, and the evidence was also compelling, would the Department wait until after November to indict him? I find it hard to believe that he would avoid immediate arrest.

Yet here’s a guy being investigated for some pretty serious crimes, one of which is espionage. Would it not be irresponsible to allow such a person to roam the streets for another three months without charging him? Especially given recent press reports that the CIA has lost a number of agents over the past couple of years for reasons unknown. Nobody is outright accusing Trump of sharing secrets with America’s rivals as a possible explanation, even though he did exactly that in a meeting early in his presidency with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. No evidence produced, though the connexion is being implied – seemingly up to the limits of defamation law.

But goodness, what hoops the enforcement agencies need to jump through to bring him to book. Not only is he facing investigation because of the Mar-a-Lago search, but he’s facing proceedings in Georgia and New York for alleged breaches of state or federal laws, not to mention a potential reckoning in the wake of the January 6 storming of Congress. Some of these cases have been grinding on for months if not years. Such is the rich constellation of state and federal laws, each with their own cluster of associated case law, that Trump has managed to duck and dive away from the criminal courts thus far.

Then there are the local ordinances and regulations. In addition to the federal government, each state has its own laws, and each city has its own rules. Little wonder, therefore, that there are so many judges, lawyers, and, for that matter, prisons.

Here in Britain, we have to listen from time to time to attention-seeking politicians promising to make bonfires of regulations (most recently as a rationale for Brexit, despite the fact that leaving the European Union seems to be producing far more red tape than it’s removing). But in the United States, where the annual tax return is almost as long as the bible, it would take a full-scale conflagration to simplify regulations that have piled up on each other over many decades.

One of the favourite catch-phrases used by Americans, often in the context of personal relationships, is “it’s complicated”. Looking from afar (and I haven’t visited the US since Trump was elected), the country’s legal system seems more hideously complicated than ever before. And no stronger evidence of this is to be found in the interminable length of time it takes for major lawsuits and criminal cases to come to conclusion (especially when Trump is the defendant). This can also be the case in the UK, but the US doesn’t have the excuse that it has to contend with a whole class of lawyers withholding their labour because they’re asked to do their jobs for absurdly low fees, as is the case with our criminal barristers. In America, there always seems to be enough money to pay for lawyers. And lawyers thrive on complication and ambiguity, of which there’s plenty to be found in the American legal system.

By contrast, simplicity is the feedstock of demagogues, who project their messages in terms of black and white, for and against. There’s no room for grey, for doubt, for uncertainty. Which is how Trump pulled off his extraordinary ascent to power while using every nook and cranny the law provides to evade jeopardy on his journey.

Whatever Donald Trump might say, America has always been complicated. Even if the years before his election might seem to have been relatively calm, in my lifetime there have been plenty of divisive issues: segregation, civil rights and Vietnam to name but three. Yet such is the vicious, hate-fuelled chasm the nation seems to have fallen into today, that I’m left with the feeling that future generations will think of MAGA in terms of before and after, just as they did after the Civil War.

Which brings me back to Roseanne Cash. In her songs, complicated doesn’t automatically equate to divisive. Her songs don’t demand that you judge her protagonists as Democrats or Republicans. They’re simply ordinary people facing choices and challenges that cross the political spectrum.

But look now. So many themes that repeat themselves in country and folk music – tough childhoods, financial failure, failed relationships, misogyny and violence – are no longer just social problems – wrongs that need righting without pointing fingers in a particular political direction. They’re political minefields that threaten to place the songwriter and the performer in one camp or another – because someone must be blamed – where once they were describing universal human traits.

So it has always been with books, movies and theatre. Yet now, politicised library administrators and school boards in many states have started banning books. Hollywood has long been under the influence of studios afraid of offending not only national audiences but other state entities, such as China. Museums and theatres, long dependent on sponsorship, are finding sources of funding harder to come by because traditional sponsors, such as oil and gas companies, are under attack by pressure groups that disapprove of the source of their wealth.

Let’s not talk about woke, because woke and anti-woke, left and right, conservative and liberal are equally enthusiastic about circumscribing what we see, do and think. But to what end?

The MAGA people dream of an America that once was. But which America? Eisenhower’s America, in which a white majority ruled the roost and minorities were kept in their place? Reagan’s sunny era of deficits and tax cuts? Or that brief period following the collapse of the Soviet Union when there was only one superpower? I’m not sure many of those who follow Trump around the country on his rallies could answer that question, except to say that things are shit and we need a strong leader to make them better.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, also looks back. To pre-Trump, to a time when political violence was not tolerated and elections were not disputed. And further back to a hazy hinterland where the dignity of labour was upheld – a fair day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Sadly, neither side can point to a golden era without being rebutted by the other.

The grim reality is that the recent history of America is of periods of calm interspersed with moments of extreme ugliness. One of those moments was Watergate. It’s fifty years or so since a precedent of sort was established, when Nixon resigned the presidency and was pardoned by his successor. Perhaps some of Trump’s declared supporters are hoping that Biden might pardon Trump in return for a commitment to leave politics and never return. Because they know that he’s a train wreck, but that he’s started a movement that will survive and thrive after he’s gone.

That should not happen. And if the authorities are squeamish about bringing Trump to justice, perhaps they should look beyond America, and reflect that presidents and prime ministers in other countries are not immune to prosecution. Think, in recent times, of Chirac and Sarkozy in France, Najib Razak in Malaysia, Olmert and Netanyahu in Israel. Leaders can be prosecuted, and the institutions that prosecute them can survive. Why should America be any different?

But have things gone too far? Is the country beyond repair? The people of America know better than me. I just think of a Roseanne Cash song. Her words are ostensibly about a relationship, but could just as easily apply to her divided nation:

I’m worried about you
I’m worried about me
The curves around midnight
Aren’t easy to see
Flashing red warnings
Unseen in the rain
This thing has turned into
A runaway train

Long-distance phone calls
A voice on the line
Electrical miles
That soften the time
The dynamite too
Is hooked on the wire
And so are the rails
Of American Flyers

Blind boys and gamblers
They invented the blues
Will pay up in blood
When this marker comes due
To try and get off now
It’s about as insane
As those who wave lanterns
At runaway trains

Steel rails and hard lives
Are always in twos
I have been here before this
And now it’s with you

I’m worried about you
I’m worried about me
We’re lighting the fuses
And counting to three
And what are the choices
For those who remain
The sign of the cross
On a runaway train

This thing has turned into
A runaway train
This thing has turned into
A runaway train
Our love has turned into
A runaway train

(Runaway Train, Roseanne Cash)

Postcard from France: no jury required, thank you

Phillipe Duclos – Le Juge from the French series Spiral

France is still reverberating in shock after our next prime minister, Liz Truss (normally referred to in this place as Madame Straitjacket), reveals that the jury is out over whether it is Britain’s friend or foe. Riots in the street? Waves of migrants bid a fond farewell as they set off from Calais? A new Grande Armée gathering in Boulogne?

Nothing so exciting, I’m afraid. Just that sublime French gesture of indifference: a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by pouf – the gentle expulsion of air in the manner of an understated oral fart.

As President Macron suggested the other day, the presence of all those Volvos in the villages of Provence and the Dordogne is evidence that we British, or English, as the French prefer to say, continue to adore our neighbour much as before, even if the 0.4% of our population who are about to select Mme Straitjacket as our leader would prefer to sit tight in Chelmsford, far away from those smelly French cheeses and gut-rotting wines.

Of course, Macron is right to dismiss the utterings of someone whose opinions are no more considered and nuanced than those emanating from a half-inebriated guest at a dinner party fuelled by Chilean wine somewhere in Middle England. He knows, as most of us do, that the slow-witted Straitjacket and her dumb cronies are probably past their sell-by date before they’ve even reached the shelves.

In two years time, she will be gone, one hopes. France will still be a hop across the channel, as will its smelly cheeses, gorgeous chateaux, churches and medieval squares. No doubt Macron will be ready to extend the hand of friendship once again to a fresh bunch of politicians with a modicum of common sense and emotional intelligence.

Meanwhile, we disenfranchised plebs, who have no voice in the current leadership contest, will continue to enjoy everything our neighbour has to offer. And if the people from the market towns of England chose not to, tant pis to them. More cheese for the rest of us.

Confessions from a second-class (or maybe third-class) mind

When I was a child, I went through various phases of ambition, none of them concurrent. At one stage, I wanted to be Prime Minister. Unlike Boris Johnson, I soon tired of that aspiration. Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson were hardly compelling role models. I also wanted to play cricket for England, until a kindly teacher broke the news to me that village cricket was more likely to be my natural home.

I don’t remember wanting to be rich, perhaps because until my mid-teens we were relatively rich, which in my limited imagination meant living in a big house, having a holiday home and watching my parents go off on foreign holidays while I was at boarding school. All that ended when my father suffered a financial disaster – explained to us offspring at the time as none of his fault, but in retrospect the result of an overenthusiastic appetite for business risk.

Come university, and all ambitions were drowned in the Summer of Love. It no longer seemed important to become the best at anything, only good at being myself. So I stumbled through my twenties, mostly having a whale of a time, succeeding at some things and failing at others. What others would describe as the real world only came to the fore in my thirties. Marriage, a long spell working in another country, the need to support a family. Only at the end of that decade did ambitions re-emerge, though much more realistic than in my childhood dreams. To start a business, to avoid the mistakes my father made and never again to be beholden to “a boss”.

That worked pretty well. There were ups and downs, but thirty years later I ended up with a reasonable financial cushion, plenty of priceless experience and an enduring curiosity that survived decades of the relentless focus needed to run a business.

It was only in my sixties that I started thinking about what might have been. My two school classmates for Advanced Level Greek became distinguished academics. Friends at university had varying careers – some writing books, others producing beautiful music. Though precious few of my acquaintances became lawyers or politicians, something of that ilk could have been my path – after all, for much of his career my father was a lawyer. Our family tree was dotted with clergy. For someone fond of the sound of his own voice, either career could have been a good option.

One thing I always enjoyed was writing. During my business career my output was confined to boring stuff – business plans, sales proposals and marketing materials. It was only when the need to earn a living receded, and I had the time to read extensively, that I started to write about things that really mattered to me: history, politics, travel, religion – all the stuff encapsulated in the headers you see at the top of this post. I wrote because all that input demanded some output.

At one stage I thought that the ultimate “might have been” would have been a career as a writer. Journalism, social commentary, history – who knows? But after ten years and a couple of million words broadcast to a relatively small (but perfectly formed!) audience, made smaller partly because I refuse to focus on one subject, I’ve come to realise that while I might have had moderate success as a full-time writer, I would never have emulated the brilliant work of journalists I read week in and week out, of historians and other published authors whose output has so enriched my life over the past couple of decades.

The reason? I can only conclude that I have what academics, politicians and assorted intellectuals in the past used to refer to as a second-class mind. Does that mean second-class intelligence? Not necessarily. And even if it did it would have been no bar to success. After all, nobody claimed that Ronald Reagan was the most intelligent man on the planet. Similar aspersions are being cast on the two turnips vying to become Britain’s prime minister.

There is a certain cachet about being regarded by one’s peers as being in the first rank of intelligence. The likes of Einstein and Bertrand Russell are considered a benchmarks, or even high water marks of intellectual attainment. But do their achievements condemn the rest of us to a life in their shadows?

Far from it. We are continually assured that there are different forms of intelligence. Emotional intelligence, for example: the ability to keep one’s head while others are losing theirs. Is it not also a form of intelligence to be able to accept and work within one’s limitations? And what of people on the autistic spectrum, who might once have been condemned by educators as slow, and often turn out to have gifts denied to most of us?

But woe betide a person who thinks of themselves as having a first-class mind, and who puts the product of that mind up for public scrutiny, only to be found wanting. Such a person, I suspect, is David Frost, the former diplomat and Brexit negotiator, who has just written Holy Illusions, an essay in which he sets out an analysis of Britain’s deficiencies, followed by his suggestions as to the way forward.

I’m not about to trash his work on the basis that he’s one of those right-wing ultras who’s helped the Conservative party to more extreme positions – most of which I oppose – than any adopted in my lifetime. But someone who takes it upon himself to write a State of the Nation pronouncement clearly has a high opinion of himself. He will also believe that his words, with the help of the think tank that published them, will reach a large audience.

The trouble with his essay is that he can’t decide whether he’s a politician or a sage dispensing dispassionate wisdom from a great height. In his summary of our problems, the sage diagnoses, but the politician is never far away:

Implausible energy policies based on technologies which can’t currently do the job and which seem likely to end up in rationing if not urgently rethought.

“Furring up of the arteries” – over-regulation, antipathy to risk and experimentation, the decline of the spirit of enterprise.

Unsustainable welfare systems, shrinking labour forces, and the declining birth-rate.

Education systems that don’t educate and indeed very often inculcate attitudes inimical to prosperity;

and the social and economic consequences of high volumes of immigration over a prolonged period on a scale that the West has not seen before

You get the picture. Sweeping statements, each of which can be disputed, none of which can be disproved because they’re rooted in the writer’s opinion rather than undeniable fact.

Frost’s paper is not all bad. It’s a useful summary of problems and solutions through a right-wing prism with which those of us who follow British politics reasonably closely would be familiar. It contains the usual prescriptions: small state, self-reliance, regulatory bonfire, scientific powerhouse, low taxes and so on. All the stuff, in other words, being parroted in various forms by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. But as a would-be magisterial overview it hardly appears to be the work of a first-class mind. In fact, in many places it’s a work of intellectual laziness – the very quality Frost deplores in his fellow citizens.

You might, for example, ask this Brexit prophet why, if we’re suffering from shrinking labour forces and a declining birth rate, we were so keen to cut ourselves off from the most readily available source of labour just across a narrow stretch of sea beyond our borders.

Lord Frost also has a dig at opponents of Brexit for blaming all of our problems on our departure from the EU:

…our politics is affected by the willingness — insistence, even — of a large share of political and public opinion to attribute any symptom of the current problems to Brexit (even though the same problems are visible across the West to a greater or lesser extent).

To which one might question why, if we’re all faced with the same problems, we chose to deal with them alone rather in concert with our closest neighbours. Perhaps he could also explain why energy costs in France are capped at 4%, while ours have risen many times that amount.

And then he states that:

All history and experience teach us that free markets and individual freedom produce prosperity and wealth and that state control and collectivism destroy it.

All history? Xi Jinping might disagree with such a suggestion, as might a number of the Gulf autocracies. Likewise Genghis Kahn and his successors, who presided over a hundred years of relative prosperity by the use of fear as the dominant instrument of rule.

There’s one word Frost uses that doesn’t appear regularly in my second-class lexicon: collectivism, as in farms, presumably. At least he doesn’t go the whole Trumpian hog and condemn any effort of a state to protect its citizens as socialism, or dare I say it, communism.

I could go on, but you’d probably fall asleep before I’m done. But it’s a bit of an irony that Frost accuses us of being intellectually lazy, and yet he feels the need to pepper his paper with assertions that have no obvious evidential basis.

None of this is surprising, given that Frost is one of those advisors upon whom recent government policy-makers have relied to fill the gaps left by their own lack of imagination (see my last post for a longer discussion on the empty minds of many of our ministers).

Perhaps it’s as well that we British lack the respect shown in France for intellect. Our suspicion of intellectuals is neatly captured in the phrase “too clever by half”. And in my business career I frequently came across employers who made it a rule not to hire people with first-class degrees because the effort required to achieve the highest honours suggested an unbalanced personality. They might have been thinking of Enoch Powell, in classical terms a first-class mind if ever there was one, but a failed politician who became a watchword for bigotry.

As for me, as the decades have chipped away at any unrealistic sense of my own intelligence, I’m happy to boast a second-class or even third-class mind.

But perhaps we need to re-think traditional estimations of what constitutes intellectual ability. Perhaps we need to be thinking in terms of “a mind fit for purpose”. In a scientist, the ability to win a Nobel Prize, requires a narrow, almost obsessive intelligence, for sure. But for most of us, and especially our political leaders, a broader palette of intelligence and abilities is needed. Joe Biden, for example, may not be a genius. But sooner him at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation than Dr Strangelove. And contrary to David Frost’s assertion, in my view most enduring enterprises, be they governments or businesses, succeed through collective intelligence in various forms rather than through the vision and determination of one person.

So who cares what kind of a mind you have, as long as you do something constructive with it. Me? I’m content to wallow in cheerful mediocrity, unconcerned by what the world might think of my intellect, but concerned only to follow the immortal Delphic maxim: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

From that starting point everything else flows.

My country: flying blind

I don’t believe I’m acquainted with a single one of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who will choose my country’s next prime minister. So I can’t even comment in any small way on what this privileged minority is thinking, unless I choose to believe the opinion polls, the vox-pop interviews and the utterings of the candidates designed to mirror the prejudices of the lucky few. Much as it would be satisfying to sneer at the garage owners, the golf club bores and the upwardly mobile Tory boys, it would also be dishonest, because I’ve never encountered any of them, at least knowingly.

Equally pleasurable would be to recycle the insults thrown at Liz Truss – that she’s a lightweight version of Boris Johnson, that she’s equally a serial liar and that she’s as thick as a two short planks. Likewise the brickbats thrown at Rishi Sunak – that he’s too rich to relate to the rest of us, that his policies will condemn us to years of penury and that under the mask of bonhomie is a nasty mansplaining boor.

I’ve never met them, so I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s almost impossible to judge the character, intellectual capabilities and suitability of either of them for high office. Why? For more than one reason.

First, though both have held senior ministerial positions, they’ve done so in a time when their freedom to operate their ministries with a modicum of independence has been severely limited by the diktat of the prime minister and his acolytes. If something a minister does works, the prime minister will immediately take credit for it. Any disaster will lead to the minister being disowned or sacked.

Secondly, it’s impossible to know – and this applies as much to the prime minister as it does to every minister – what policies, ideas and initiatives spring from the imagination and intellect of the minister, and to what extent they rely on others to do the thinking for them.

In most cases ministers are presented with options – either by their political advisers or civil servants. It’s then the politician’s role to decide on which option to go for. As any fan of Yes Minister or The Thick of It will know, these decisions are usually made with an eye on their standing with the electorate rather than their long-term efficacy. In recent years it seems that the former usually trumps the latter.

This enables a minister without a single original thought in their head to appear far-sighted, wise or just a jolly good person to whom the electorate can relate.

In this case what we don’t know is whether either candidate – or the ones that didn’t make the cut for that matter – has that single original thought, or is simply an empty vessel filled with other people’s ideas and a good enough memory to trot out those ideas and the justifications for them in interviews, debates and casual encounters.

In other words, even if we were one of the few electors, we wouldn’t have a clue who we were electing barring the most superficial impression of the candidate’s personality. Which is how we ended up with Boris Johnson. We’re flying blind. Worse than that, in fact. Whoever is chosen gets to select their team of advisors, who might be the most talented team ever assembled or the most woeful set of dullards. Did those who selected Boris Johnson vote for Dominic Cummings? Obviously not.

As for the ministers whom the next prime minister will select, nobody, not even the Tory members, have any say on whether the likes of Nadine Dorries, Suella Braverman or Priti Patel, three of the more repugnant voices (in my view) in Johnson’s cabinet, will continue in office or be thrown out on their ears.

So it goes. That’s politics.

But how do you judge these people? On what they say, which is usually dictated by “the line to take”? On what they do, which is circumscribed by an untrusting centre and a cautious civil service?

Or do you base your opinions on what a person did before they entered politics? Which, in the case of Truss, is a few years with a couple of multinationals. Effectively, she’s a career politician. And in Sunak’s case, consultancy and hedge fund management, about which the average joe in the pub would no more have a clue than they would about the economics of Outer Mongolia.

It’s true that there are a number of politicians who have had eclectic working lives pre-politics. Wide experience often tends to give the person a wider wisdom, and dare one say it, the ability to think for themselves, which is never popular at the centre of power.

Perhaps, rather than staging debates in which candidates lob policies at each other, few of which are of their own invention, we might get a better insight into the character and potential of those before us by using a technique from the real world: situational interviewing. Rather than asking the person about their fiscal policies, why not describe a situation and ask them to provide an example of how they dealt with it? A crisis, for example, or a lesson in leadership learnt from hard experience. God forbid that they be asked to describe a mistake, and how they recovered from it.

Unfortunately those questions are usually asked of politicians in one-to-one interviews, and are rarely challenging. Which is why you had Theresa May, when asked if she ever broke the rules, reply that she once trespassed though a field of wheat.

Another technique that might be interesting is the panel interview, wherein the candidate is interrogated by several people, any one of whom might have a curveball question up their sleeve, and each of whom is appointed according to their different perspective. In other words, not a random selection of the faithful.

No doubt many of them faced such questions when going through the selection process in their constituencies, but since then, most of them – apart from those accused of indiscretions – have only faced scrutiny over how they are doing their jobs rather than whether they are suitable for those jobs in the first place.

It would be pointless asking them to go through some of the more sophisticated assessment techniques on the market. That would never happen. But at least some structured, penetrating questions that don’t depend on the wit of a single journalist would be helpful. As many Tories would like you to believe, old school isn’t always bad school.

There are several Conservative politicians who have backgrounds worthy of exploring, but they tend to end up in the cold. Rory Stewart, for example, who governed a province in Iraq after the Gulf War and is an award-winning travel writer. Tom Tugendhat had an interesting military career, which included tours in Afghanistan. Beside the military, there are former civil servants, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and even accountants who should be able to to give good reasons why what they learned in those professions qualified them for careers in politics. Not so many social workers and bus drivers I’m afraid – they tend to migrate to other parties. But the current Tory ranks do include a mental health doctor, whose experience should be very relevant in these troubled times.

I have no affection for the Conservative Party. I’ve never voted for them and probably never will. But even though most of its representatives seem to have been pre-selected for their blind adherence to narrow sets of beliefs – and most of those uncomfortable with those beliefs, such as Stewart, have now left Parliament – it would be wrong to assume that all of them are without talent, principles and honesty. Even Liz Truss was probably honest once, before she immersed herself in the current culture of mendacity as the price to be paid for advancement and power.

Who knows? Perhaps the chosen one will confound my low expectations of them and rise to the occasion. If they don’t, they’ll almost certainly be gone in two years time when the next general election comes round.

But my point is, as I said earlier, that we’re flying blind. Not a comforting thought at a time of national crisis. One wonders what might have happened if, in 1940, when Chamberlain resigned, Britain’s future was determined by the votes of 160,000 people.

In politics, especially now, policies are often as ephemeral as passing clouds. What really matters is character. Good luck, Prime Minister. Show us what you’re made of.

Postcard from the Netherlands: snapshot of a wedding

At what stage of your life and under what circumstances do you cease to be a doer and become a watcher?

I was thinking about this a couple of days ago as I was sitting at a family wedding on the outskirts of Amersfoort, a small but comfortable city near Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Thomas, a beloved cousin of my wife, was definitely in doing mode when he tied the knot with Kees, his partner of the past couple of years. Both are in their fifties, or rumour has it. Their love is joyous and transparent – the sort you would normally see shining out from newly-weds in their twenties and thirties. To see two people show such enthusiasm in middle age despite bearing the scars we all acquire in earlier years was a powerful antidote to world-weariness.

What made the day doubly memorable was the gathering of two different clans – one Irish and one Dutch, with a smattering of friends from Germany, Italy and France. Each set of family and friends freely mixed with the other.

Die keltische Bruderschaft

What also made it special was that it took place almost without reference to COVID. Hardy a mask in sight, the occasion made all the brighter thanks to the delight of seeing people face to face for the first time in three years. COVID hasn’t gone away, but attitudes towards it seem to have changed profoundly. In contrast, a year ago our elder daughter was married. Though equally joyful, her wedding seemed like a triumph against the odds. It happened despite the pandemic, constrained by all the workarounds and precautions with which we’d become so familiar.

As for the doing and watching, I was an incidental player in Tom and Kees’s celebration. So I was content to watch, at least as far as the dancing was concerned. In years gone by, my contribution to the art of dance was to make an arse of myself. Stupid dancing, in other words, all gurning and galumphing. In that respect I’m a perpetual disappointment to my wife, who likes a good whirl, not to mention the occasional smooch. Fortunately, her cousin Karl played my part, stomping like a bull in a ballet around the dancefloor, occasionally raising his Irish kilt to display a spectacular pair of golden drawers.

Me? I sat on the side-lines, watching, occasionally getting up to capture some of the more compelling action with my phone. Unlike Auntie Margaret, who, at the age of ninety-one, was up there on the dancefloor skipping around like a teenager. Which reminded me that if you want a long life, watching is not enough. You need to keep doing.

The event was the climax of a road trip. Down from England via the horrors of the Channel Tunnel (see previous post) to our house in Southern France for a week. Then up to Paris for a night, where we picked up Karl and his partner Fiona, and onwards to Amersfoort. A couple of thousand kilometres, all told. After a hard week of gardening and municipal dump runs in our rural redoubt, we had a seven-hour drive past Limoges, Orleans and Chartres to St Cloud, where we stayed at a hotel on the edge of the race course. All very grand, with pictures of former owners, distinguished visitors and sleek racehorses covering the walls. Edward VII, le Roi D’Angleterre, who seems to have left his mark on every spa, golf course and country house of his vintage in Europe, was inevitably there. Sometimes I feel like his stalker, kept at bay only by the passage of time.

From Paris, with our new passengers, we set off again via Northern France and Flanders, where every second place-name reminded us of the destruction inflicted on the region during the First World War: Amiens, the Somme, Cambrai, Ypres, Menin and more. As we speeded effortlessly through country borders, first into Belgium and then into the Netherlands, the contrast with the British border – endless queues for passport stamps in the name of taking back control – seemed ever more ridiculous.

After six hours on the road we made it to Amersfoort. It’s a city known for its rail network, which made it something of a prize for the Germans in the Second World War. Luckily, the old town survived, with its typical Dutch architecture: high-pitched town houses overlooking canals and elegant squares full of restaurants and bars.

Most of us who gathered in the city centre hotel on the night before the wedding headed for the main square, which was about a mile away. It’s been about twenty years since I last visited the Netherlands. I’d forgotten about the domination of the bicycle. Just about everywhere you walk, you’re not far from a cycle path. To step onto one without thinking is to invite death or serious injury, both to you and the cyclist, because none of them wear helmets. So not only do you have to look left and right to avoid oncoming cars, but you need to do exactly the same with the cyclists, who ride down their parallel lanes with the confident expectation that no stupid foreigner is likely to impede their path. I had neck-ache by the end of the evening.

Which brings me to another reality about the Netherlands. Those who cycle look impossibly lithe and athletic. And that includes the old people. Those who drive cars – or many of them at least – reminded me of well-stacked buffaloes carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. I’m not a great fan of cyclists in England, because I often find them arrogant and self-righteous. But I have to say that the contrast was telling.

Kees had organised a bus to take most of us to his house on the morning of the wedding. We followed in a friend’s car, unaware that the bus driver had decided to give his passengers an extensive guided tour of the area. We thought he’d got lost, yet another victim of satnav’s whims. But on the long and winding road to the house, it seems that he was pointing out the local attractions. “On your left, you can see an alpaca farm. And here on the right are the remains of a war-time concentration camp.” Pity we missed the commentary, but it was a nice drive anyway.

For me, apart from the joyous ceremony conducted by a notary-cum-cheerleader called Babs, who treated us to a long exposition of how the happy couple met, before whipping us into a frenzy at appropriate moments in the formalities, much of the pleasure lay in conversations with strangers. The saxophonist-priest who discussed Luther and his impact on the German language. The German-Jewish woman who suspected that her grandfather was a Nazi, but will probably never know because her grandmother, now 101, refuses to say. Was this how her parents escaped the Holocaust? The nephew of a film distributor whose business was wrecked by Netflix, but not before he’d survived a number of riotous encounters with film stars in Germany to plug their movies. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, in town to promote Easy Rider, particularly came to mind. How is Nicholson still alive, the uncle wondered?

Little snapshots like these hardly serve as evidence of the state of nations. But looking out on the well-ordered city of Amersfoort, at the cyclists, at the people gathered in the square for an evening’s eating and drinking and at our fellow guests at the hotel, who included a magnificently dressed Eritrean wedding party, I did get a sense – despite the best efforts of Twitter to convince me otherwise – of a country more at ease with itself than my own.

As for the guests at our wedding, I was one of the very few not to possess an EU passport, which entitles the holder to come and go across the mainland with hardly a second thought about borders. But no matter. I’m a European, and I’ll come and go despite whatever hurdles the jobsworths in my country put in my way.

And I wouldn’t for the world have missed the wedding of Thomas and Kees, the joyful reunions of brothers, sisters and cousins, the fascinating stuff I learned from talking to people I’d never met before, and above all, the love that was so much in evidence on a balmy weekend in the Dutch countryside.

It made the doing well worthwhile.

Postcard from France – beyond the grassy knoll

It was a sign.

The Creator of All Things, so bothered by souls across the world calling for the apocalypse, the rapture, the destruction of Joe Biden and his luciferian hordes, so busy sending us COVID, presiding over forest fires, massacres in Ukraine and lost baggage at airports, all in pursuit of his unknowable Plan, still managed to find time to warn us in his ineffable way: do not go to France this morning.

But we ignorant sinners ignored him. Which must also have been part of the Plan. Let me explain.

A month ago, we had the bright idea of combining a wedding in the Netherlands with a short trip to our house in France. We would drive, which meant that our bags wouldn’t end up in Timbuktoo. It would also give us the opportunity to haul more stuff to France, where we’re busy decorating in our own fusty image the second home we bought last year.

So on a bright Thursday morning, all packed from the night before, we would make an early start for the channel tunnel, a mere 90 minutes away under normal circumstances. Except that it didn’t happen that way. The Creator spoke. Our car, which normally doesn’t give us a squeak of trouble, erupted in the middle of the night in a frenzy of beeping. An ominous red sign indicating battery failure popped up on the dashboard display. Twice we gave it a ride around the neighbourhood to give it a little charge. Twice it started beeping within minutes. It only stopped when we left it unlocked, which meant that we faced a choice. Unpack our worldly belongings and get some sleep, or leave it unlocked and hope for the best. We chose the latter. It was the right call. The car burglars were busy elsewhere that night.

We then had to decide whether to heed the Creator and stay put, or to head for the channel in the hope that the battery would charge normally. But what if the alternator was knackered? In the end, we decided that breaking down in the middle of France during a heatwave wasn’t a good option. So we called the AA. A very nice chap called Rodney showed up an hour later, and pronounced that the battery was terminally ill. As we frantically called around looking for a replacement, Rodney had a rummage in his van. Bingo! He had just the one. An hour later (because in our German car you have to take the driver seat to bits in order to access the battery) he’d fitted a new one and we were good to go.

By now it was 10am, four hours later than we’d originally planned to take off. Even so, after a nine-hour drive from Calais, we should get to the house by mid-evening. But the Creator was probably laughing at our optimism at this point. We’d reckoned without the Great Getaway – the beginning of the holiday season in which thousands of people who would normally fly heeded official advice to avoid airports like the plague and drive to Europe instead.

So we zipped down the motorway, past lines of stationary trucks snoozing on the other side of the contraflow under the inexplicably-named Operation Brock, which is designed to manage the post-Brexit flow of freight heading for the Dover ferries and the tunnel. We were a tad worried by messages from Eurotunnel telling us that while their service was good, we could expect a five-hour wait for check-in and passports. But then another one said that the wait would be two hours. Doable, we thought, though our ETA in our rural paradise was moving towards midnight or later.

Then shortly before we came to the turn-off for the tunnel, the next Eurotunnel message said six hours delay. Merde! Nonetheless, in for a penny and all that – we persevered.

At the turn-off, everything stopped. The queue was about half a mile long and three lanes wide. I then endured the usual criticism from my co-pilot for being in the wrong lane. But this was normal. I’ve spent the last thirty-eight years of our marriage being in the wrong lane, so nothing new.

In half an hour we were past the point of no return and into the valley of death, alongside hundreds of other cars moving almost imperceptibly towards check-in. After another hour, people were starting to get desperate. Those with bursting bladders ran up a bank to the nearest bushes where they relieved themselves in relative privacy. Well sort of. As one guy dashed for cover, a woman ran out from the same spot like a scalded cat. Goodness knows what lay beyond. The first Glastonbury came to mind.

Eventually, after two hours of self-numbing, and giving fervent thanks that we didn’t have a car full of small children or feuding teenagers who never wanted to come with us in the first place, we made it to check-in, past the British immigration checkpoint, through the French one, where I got my cute little passport stamp (my wife, being an EU citizen didn’t have that privilege) and down to ramp to the waiting Euro-train.

And even though we had a nine-hour drive ahead, possibly made longer by forest fires in the south, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Relief to be away from Brexit and all its devilish works. Away from Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Away from Boris Johnson in combat gear chucking grenades among Ukrainian trainee soldiers. Away from Mrs Sunak posing in front of Margaret Thatcher’s statue in Grantham and Mistress Straitjacket posing as Mrs T with her prissy white bow-tied blouse. Away from all the other evidence of my country’s tragicomic decline at the hands of the ideologues, fanatics and incompetents.

Not that France is without its own problems. But a nine-hour drive with only one set of roadworks to slow us down makes its own statement, I reckon.

By around 2am we were there. And the next morning, we were off to the local market, where French, British and other nationalities happily shopped together, loading their carrier bags with cheeses, tranches de jambon, shiny red peppers and juicy fat melons. As they always have and hopefully always will.

It seems that we got off relatively lightly. If media reports are to believed, the six-hour delays and more became reality in the two days following our crossing. The Brits blamed the French and vice versa. Straitjacket, in her role as Foreign Secretary, “ordered” the French to provide more immigration officers, and on our side of the channel the usual politicians rolled out their twisted logic to suggest that the aching bladders, missed weddings and overheated cars had nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the intransigent French. Oh, I almost forgot: and COVID.

And as the cars raced down the M20 towards the grassy knoll by the tunnel, nobody spared much of a thought for the poor truck drivers stuck in their ten-mile queues. Their plight seems to be the new normal. At what point will hauliers decide that enough is enough? Then we in our island fortress might discover that the price of taking back control is an entirely different kind of normal.

But that’s a future delight. Back in the present, walnuts, apples and pears are growing fatter on our trees. The worst of the heat is gone. Tonight we’ll be at producer’s evening where garlic snails, brochettes and chips cooked in goose fat can be bought. Where we’ll chat with strangers and hopefully meet old friends.

Last night we went to a choral concert in a beautiful church nobody outside the immediate vicinity has ever heard of. It featured works by Purcell, Sibelius, Bartok, Debussy and Saint-Saens. We sat next to a marble plaque honouring the twenty-five men from this tiny village who died in the First World War. They surely would have enjoyed a truly European collection finished off by a couple of American songs. Back in the house, we’ve been revisiting a CD of Russian sacred choral music, achingly beautiful pieces, made all the more poignant by contributions by choirs from Kyiv, Moscow and St Petersburg. Choral music, I’ve always thought, is an instrument of peace.

Neither Britain nor France is paradise. Yet both have so much to offer each other and the world beyond. Our problems are not dissimilar. So it seems a shame that our politicians and media tend to dwell on ancient rivalries rather than shared affinity.

When all the current sound and fury has died down, is it too much to hope that we can resume our pre-Brexit relationship – occasionally prickly but usually appreciative of each other’s virtues, values and glories?

I’m confident that we can, because beneath the attention-seeking babble, my experience tells me that in the street, the market and the home, that relationship has never gone away.

And yes, sentimental old fool that I am, I still believe that we’re stronger together. And I’d be surprised if the Creator didn’t feel that way too.

The Long Farewell – Chapter One

Now that Britain’s very own Steve McQueen has subsided into the barbed wire fence while attempting yet another great escape, we should be thinking about what comes next.

Not whether Boris Johnson will be allowed to linger on as a caretaker Prime Minister, because most likely he won’t.

Not even who might win a general election if one was called in the next few days, which would be the appropriate way of allowing the voters to pass judgement on all of their representatives who enabled and participated in Johnson’s lies, or who sat in silence, fearful of their careers, while he and his ministers stumbled from one self-inflicted crisis to the next, or who cravenly parroted “lines to take” created by unprincipled communications officers.

No, it’s the prospect that 100,000 unelected Conservative Party members will get to choose our next Prime Minister. The same people more or less who swallowed Johnson’s bullshit in 2019, despite the fact that his rottenness was as plain to see then as now. Will they be suffering buyer’s remorse? Will they rediscover the concept that competence and personal morality are as important as a sense of humour, a pithy turn of phrase and an optimism as comforting as tea and sponge cake? Or will they just swallow someone else’s bullshit, someone else’s vacuous posturing and chose a candidate with a superficially attractive personality that hides a soft underbelly of mediocrity.

And what of the wider electorate, of whom I am one? Have we been so bombarded with lies and misinformation over the past eleven years, not just three, that we’ve become numb to it all, because we don’t know what to believe? Do we gullibly and passively sup up the lies, or do we curse the political class in its entirety, because we struggle to find anyone who will tell us the truth? Or do we greedily devour the version of the truth that fits our prejudices, while dismissing all other versions as lies?

Cynicism about politicians, their motives and their morals is nothing new. But pervasive disinformation from various sources, spread by the social media, has polluted every corner of the consciousness of anyone who owns a smartphone. And those who still rely on newspapers for their news and opinions are fed diets of outrageous bias by the malignant oligarchs who own a vast proportion of our printed media, Murdoch and Rothermere among them.

And are we so stressed about pandemics, war and the consequent economic shocks that we are no longer capable of thinking beyond the short term, so that we clutch desperately at the straws thrown at us by politicians – the promises made that they cannot deliver because, whatever they claim, they do not have the control that we thought we were giving them in 2016?

That’s a discussion for another day. The day when the reprobates finally throw in the towel and call an election. Though anyone who wishes to see our government gone for good will need to be working on it now, whether the day of decision comes in two months’ or two years’ time.

To drain the poison that has seeped into the country might take much longer. And it won’t happen in isolation because whether we like it or not, the challenges we face – disinformation, inequality, economic hardship, climate change, migration – are global issues.

So much for taking back control.

Quelle horreur: the joys of travel in 2022

Which is worse, I wonder? Waiting at a station among thousands of others for a train that might never arrive? Being stuck on a motorway in a ten-mile tailback without a clue about what’s going on and when it will clear? Or sitting in an airport after your first flight has been cancelled and the next one you booked is delayed into the early hours of the morning with zero information from the airline as to whether it will actually leave or not?

This summer, if you’re a British traveller, I’d say that your chances of being caught in one of these scenarios must be better than 50%.

Best surely to go on a cycling holiday within a fifty-mile radius of home. Or why not hire a horse, a donkey or, if you’re crossing the Alps, an elephant?

Our version of spoilt-brat, first-world hell came last week, when we attempted to fly home after a short trip to our place in southern France. Three days before we were due to fly from Bordeaux, an email came from British Airways to tell us that our flight to London Gatwick had been cancelled. Not only that flight, but every other one for the following three days. Merde! We called BA, asking how they proposed to get us home. They very kindly offered to take us to Madrid, and then on to Gatwick. Given the extreme likelihood that at least one of those flights would also be cancelled, we said no, and could we book an alternative with another airline? Yes, said BA.

So we found a flight with EasyJet that was due to depart a couple of hours later than our original slot with BA. Just about acceptable, we thought. We should get home before midnight, which would give me enough sleep for the morning, when I had stuff to do.

Our house is about two hours’ drive from Bordeaux, so we hit upon a bright idea. If the EasyJet flight was delayed we could drop off the hire car and take a bus into the city centre for dinner. shortly after we hit the road, my wife checked the departure schedule to discover that the flight would indeed be delayed for an unspecified period. But we were still asked to show up two hours before the scheduled departure time. The logic? In case security decided to shut up shop on time.

Faced with several hours at the airport with nothing to do, we decided to pop into the city anyway. What we hadn’t reckoned on was that, what with the roadworks and all that, the bus would make twenty stops before dropping us where we wanted to go. It took an hour. We dived into a brasserie, had a delightful seafood tapas, took a quick look around the very handsome square, and then hopped back on the bus to the airport. Our total time in the city was around 30 minutes.

The most interesting thing about the bus-ride, by the way, is that every stop has a name: Gambetta, President Wilson and so on. Not sure the 28th president of the United States would have been happy about a bus-stop in a banlieue named after him, but there you go.

When we got back to the airport, the flight was listed as “Delayed”. For a while, there were EasyJet reps handing out vouchers for 4.50 Euros on account of the delay. It turned out that we could have stayed in Bordeaux for another couple of hours, because security, instead of closing on time, stayed open for our flight. Eventually, after a leisurely sojourn in Starbucks outside the terminal, mostly spent people-watching, we went in and through security. And there we remained for three hours, cradling our free cups of coffee.

In case you’re not familiar with Bordeaux Airport, by the way, it’s not great. Concrete brutalist architecture, and three entries: Halle A, Halle B and the low-budget cowshed allocated to EasyJet and Ryanair, which rejoiced in the name of Billi. I immediately thought of IKEA bookshelves, but none were to be found.

As we sat waiting for a new departure time, nothing was forthcoming. There wasn’t an EasyJet employee to be seen, so all we could do was sink slowly into our rather uncomfortable seats in the coffee shop. One by one, other departures on the board disappeared. A feeling of dread slowly gripped us as we looked on the web for news of departures from Gatwick, or arrivals at Bordeaux. For two hours, nothing that remotely resembled an EasyJet flight appeared on the radar. A night at the nearby budget hotel loomed. I tried stretching out on a row of steel seats, which didn’t work out well. I’m too bloody old and soft to sleep on hard surfaces, though in my youth, when hitchhiking, I’d been quite happy to curl up in the rain under a hedge.

Eventually, around three hours later than expected, the board announced that we were ready to go. Ours was the last departure showing. Just before us, a flight to Fes had gone, also outrageously late. Had it been possible, I would have been quite happy to zip off to Morocco as an alternative to more hours in the cowshed. But no, EasyJet came good, sort of, and we boarded via that curious ritual wherein you sit down in a crowded departure lounge, and when summoned, thinking that the airplane awaited, you’re ushered to another holding pen where you stood around watching the remaining passengers leaving your plane. It’s called “speedy boarding”, apparently.

Finally we got on the plane. We were greeted by the captain on the intercom, who said that he wasn’t about to give us a list of excuses for the delay. He was nearly out of hours, so he needed to get a move on. He’d tell us all about it after we’d taken off. He did assure us that he was planning to put on the after-burners so that we could get to Gatwick without further delay. I fell asleep as soon as we took off, so I didn’t get the excuses from the horse’s mouth, but I gather there were storms in Ljubljana, a war in Ukraine and a longish delay while they found a replacement crew, because the first lot was out of hours. No mention of the much-maligned baggage handlers, who got the blame on the flight status website.

When we arrived in Gatwick, I passed the captain, who looked red-eyed with exhaustion. I felt sorry for him, but somewhat relieved that he didn’t actually overshoot towards Iceland. I needn’t have worried, because apparently his “brilliant young first officer” landed the plane. I had visions of a twelve-year-old at the controls.

We picked up our car, and satnav took us though a maze of country roads on the way home, because a section of the M25, London’s pride and joy, was closed for repairs. We finally made it come at 3.30am, just as dawn was breaking. Two hours before I was due to get up.

So fourteen hours after we left our little French outpost, we arrived at our English home. In the same time we could have driven back via the Channel Tunnel and made it back with a couple of hours to spare.

Not that I’m complaining. Well, not much. Others have had it much worse than us. At least the nonsense happened at the back end of the trip, which enabled us to use one of the two most popular excuses for absence this summer, the other being COVID.

But what really got to me, as so often happens on these occasions, was the uncertainty. We didn’t even get an email or a text from EasyJet telling us that the flight was delayed. And in the terminal, nobody seemed to have the remotest clue what was going on. And that’s what would have put me in Irish mode – spittin’ fire – had I not been too knackered.

So beware, be warned, bring the travel scrabble and a pair of decent cushions. But never, ever, put your bags in the aircraft hold. You might never see them again.

And we do this stuff for fun? Roll on 2023, when hopefully sanity has been restored. But plenty more madness to live through this year, I suspect.

PS: Just learned that the EasyJet Chief Operating Officer has just resigned on account of the current chaos, but not the CEO. Very Johnsonian, je crois.

Scandi culture – keeping religion private

I don’t often quote posts from Facebook, because so many of them are profoundly uninteresting and, well, unquotable. That probably includes the majority of mine, by the way, unless you happen to share my narrow obsessions. But this little gem from John Whelpton, an acquaintance whose learning far exceeds mine, and whose posts are always stimulating, did get my attention:

Interesting observations on Islam and Scandinavian culture from Mats Andersson, a Swede answering a question on Quora about the reasons so many Scandinavians have a negative impression of Islam:

“Well… there really are two areas where Islam clashes with Scandinavian culture.

Firstly, and most importantly, in Scandinavia—just like in most of Europe—religion is seen as intensely private. Displaying your religion openly is seen as rude and intrusive. It has, with good cause, been likened to waving your genitals in public. It’s indecent, and supremely embarrassing to everyone present—no matter what your religion is. Atheism doesn’t get a free pass, either.

Islam has historically had an explicit imperative to be very, very public about your religion—more so than any other world religion. You are supposed to display it at every turn. About the only thing that could make it worse would be if it was also proselytising; some Christian denominations are more embarrassing that way.

Secondly, do you know how to make friends with a Scandinavian? Traditionally, you get drunk together. Because if you stay the same when you’re drunk, then we know that the inside matches the outside. This isn’t quite as common today, but many Scandinavians are still very suspicious of people who don’t drink alcohol, and again, who are very public about this. On some subconscious level, they are convinced that they are hiding something.

The way to get accepted here, as a Muslim, is actually quite simple. Don’t put on a big show about being a Muslim. Just be yourself, and don’t mention religion unless someone asks.

I just looked this through. Out of 350 FB friends, outside my immediate family, I know the religious affiliation of exactly 8 (of which one is atheist). A further 4 identify as Jewish, but they’ve only ever mentioned it as a cultural or ethnic affiliation, not primarily religious. I had known many of them for years, even decades, until it came up in discussion.”

Interesting observations indeed, on which I offer a few of my own comments.

The idea, as Mats puts it, that in Scandinavia, religion is seen as intensely private. I see no reason to dispute that. But the rest of Europe? Au contraire. In just about every country where, for example, Catholicism is the predominant Christian denomination, religious worship is at the forefront of public life. Processions to celebrate saint’s days are major events in many towns and cities in Spain and Italy. Easter and Christmas are openly commemorated across the Catholic world, from Poland, to Ireland and throughout Southern Europe. Watch a funeral procession in Ireland, and you’ll still see onlookers stop and cross themselves as the cortege goes by.

As for the assertion that Muslims are under obligation to be very public in their worship, I would put it another way: the obligations of Islam – prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, charity and so on often involve communal worship, yes, but Muslims are not required to make public displays of piety. In fact, it’s been my experience that in countries with overwhelming Muslim majorities, worship is often a private activity. Certainly many people go to the mosque to pray, but just as many do so in their own homes or in a private area in the workplace.

I would argue that public worship is no more or less prevalent among Muslims than among Catholics. As for the evangelicals, one only needs to watch a religious channel in the United States (or a Trump rally for that matter) to witness religious fervour that verges on the narcissistic.

It’s not for me to frown upon a culture that disapproves of open displays of religious devotion. But while Mats urges Muslims just to “be yourself” and keep your religion to yourself, that’s hard to do if you feel that your faith defines your identity. And isn’t personal identity everything these days for those who have the luxury of being able proclaim it?

It would be sad if such disapproval results in public resistance over national immigration policies. If rules on refugee admission discriminate on grounds of religion, then Scandinavian nations would be following the lead of Trump’s America, hardly the finest example of an enlightened approach to immigration.

Another point to make is that cultures do not stand still. They evolve over time. When defining a national cultures people often look backwards, not forwards. They focus on “This is how we were”, rather than “this is how we are are”. And often enough, they instil fear over “this is what we are becoming”.

If the Ukraine experience tells us anything about future population trends, it’s that refugee crises – whether they be the result of war or environmental catastrophes – are likely to increase, at least in the short and medium term. If Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark choose to tighten their borders for fear of diluting their cultures, they might allay those fears, but at the same time they run the risk of antagonising countries that are bearing the brunt of new waves of refugees. Since three of those countries are members of the European Union (Norway excepted), such policies wouldn’t bode well for cohesion within the EU bloc.

In the end, the Scandinavian dilemma is one with which, as a Briton, I’m very familiar: are we comfortable with a multicultural society or do we insist that immigrants conform to a monocultural norm? The latter sentiment was one of the drivers of Brexit, of course.

Which path will the Scandi nations chose? A grudging acceptance that multiculturalism is a reality in any society with significant ethnic or religious minorities? Or possibly to adopt the French approach of institutional secularism – laïcité – which I would argue is no more effective than a finger in the cultural dyke?

Or perhaps Mats is simply reflecting a societal grumble that is unlikely to result in any change to the current status quo.

Whichever way, I’m unlikely to get the answer from the horse’s mouth, since I’m not one to get drunk with anyone. So the innermost feelings of those fine people will have to remain unknowable.

And where do I stand? As someone who has lived and worked in various countries, I would opt for a pluralistic society any time. The sparks might fly from time to time, but something tells me that they will be the best prepared to deal with the great population movements to come.

Having said that, I’ve spent time in each of the Scandinavian countries, including Iceland. Each has its own distinct culture (as examined with great gusto by Michael Booth in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People), so beyond the broad brush it’s potentially misleading to talk about a generalised culture within the region.

What’s true for me is that unlike an increasing number of countries I could name, I’m always delighted to return to any of them.

And are they so different from us Brits of a certain age, many of whom who were taught to avoid three subjects at the dinner table: sex, politics and religion?

Introducing Meldrew’s Disease

One of the joys of growing old is cheerfully succumbing to various mental conditions. They excuse all your bad behaviour.

Hypochondria, also known as I Told You I Was Ill Syndrome (per Spike Milligan’s tombstone), is one of them. Every ache and pain – a headache here or a chest niggle there – is the harbinger of a fatal affliction. A heart attack or a stroke, promising imminent death. Or some nasty little cancer that’s likely to have spread around your body before you know it. Yes, we oldies like to keep the doctors busy on the grounds of “just wanted to check”.

I wouldn’t say I’m a frequent flyer at my local surgery, but I do take the view that having paid my taxes over all these years I’m entitled to check occasionally whether I’m about to die. Not that our COVID-ravaged National Health Service will be able to do much about something that comes stealthily in the night and takes me away in short order. Not when you need to wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment and hours for an ambulance. One of the best insurance policies is to be married to a medic, which I am. But still, I don’t complain to her about a symptom unless it seems serious, such as when I find myself writhing on the floor in unbearable pain. It’s the little things that I keep to myself which let the hypochondriacal worm invade my soul.

Then there’s paranoia. A state in which everyday occurrences acquire a sinister hue. Refusing to open innocent-seeming links on emails or text messages for fear of being ripped off by a Russian hacker. Wondering whether berating a rude guy in a restaurant is going to result in a knife in the chest. Taking conspiracy theories personally. Are the aliens about to abduct me? Will Putin send the novichok merchants after me because I was rude about him in a blog post? Worse still, wondering if my wife’s beady eye is watching me for signs of incipient dementia. She has good reason occasionally. Frequent arguments with door frames in our ancient house are quite possibly turning my brain to mush. Outbursts of sweary frustration at software that doesn’t work, at apps deigned by pimply adolescents, at sheep-like audiences who applaud the demagogues on Question Time, as if I give a monkey’s what they think about anything anyway.

I can only say in my defence that my disinhibition is nothing new. Back in 2016 I was in a hotel during a golf tour in France the morning after the Brexit Referendum. My fellow breakfasters were somewhat taken aback when I let out an enraged diatribe at Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and all the other liars and charlatans who had so deceived the British voters. I was lucky not to be escorted off the premises.

But is this tendency towards disinhibition getting worse? I’m not sure, though I do worry that I might get in trouble on the rare occasions when I try to re-landscape my local golf course in fury at yet another incompetently-executed shot. And my wife sometimes has to restrain me when she sees me teetering on the brink of expletive-filled rage at some dumb jobsworth at an airline desk. Swearing at the telly? Guilty as charged. And for many other expressions of outrage at the stupidity of human beings, myself excluded of course.

Nobody these days can be considered a complete package without some real, imagined or threatened form of mental illness lurking in the background. What was once a tendency to drink from a half-empty glass is now depression. Forgetting what you had for breakfast is a sign of incipient Alzheimer’s. Believing that a burst bag of flour vaguely shaped like an arrow outside your front door is a sign that you are about to be burgled is paranoid schizophrenia. Going on a tidying-up binge after our grandson has given a passable impression of a Goth sacking Rome is a manic episode. In fact, any kind of binge is pretty suspect – a sign of an addictive personality.

But it’s not just us oldies, is it? Two hundred years ago, regardless of our age, a tendency to frighten the horses might have been enough to have us be locked away in Bedlam, and even twenty years ago we were reduced to quiescence by chemicals and kept our mouths shut about the reason. These days, though, we feel almost inadequate if we can’t cite some interesting condition on our Twitter bios, or if we can’t find some spectrum to be on.

Now don’t get me wrong. Illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD and dementia are genuinely debilitating conditions. Autism presents many challenges to those who live with its many forms. But it seems to me that the more we are aware of mental illness, the more we are search for those conditions in ourselves and use self-diagnosis as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

Mental health has also become a cudgel with which to attack those with opinions opposed to one’s own. Universities try (vainly) to protect their customers (once known as students) by declaring safe spaces. Unfortunately there are no safe spaces to protect us from Brexit, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s army of vacuous zombies masquerading as a government. Nor, unfortunately from crimes of the mind: racism, phobias of all kinds (which aren’t really phobias but hatred). They exist, and attempts to wrap people into institutional wombs are counterproductive and doomed to failure. One person’s safe space is another person’s battlefield. Better to teach resilience and critical thinking.

Yet the most potent accusation one person can level at another, short of physical injury, is that the person’s behaviour has endangered another’s mental health. As if negative emotions such as fear, envy, loneliness, anger and the occasional bout of gloom are in themselves mental illnesses.

I refuse to use the word woke, because that in itself has become a political cudgel. I also refuse to submit my quirks to close examination, and find reasons from my past to explain my behaviour in the present. All in all, I reckon I’m a reasonably balanced individual, though I leave that assessment to others. And anyway, thanks to my age, I myself couldn’t give a damn either way.

However, I will admit to one condition that hasn’t yet found its way into the database of mental illnesses. I call it Meldrew’s Disease, after Victor Meldrew, my great hero in adversity in the BBC’s memorable sitcom, One Foot in the Grave.

Like many sufferers, I have a catch-all response to all the disasters, stupidities and inanities that trap us in a web of obfuscation and frustration. I use it when I get a ticket for straying into a bus lane in a town that has more road signs per metre than a pine tree has needles. I use it when my phone has forgotten the password for some unnecessary app that I’m forced to use because nobody works in customer service anymore. I use it when the elaborately-constructed tower of junk in my garage collapses into a heap of crap that should have been disposed of in a car boot sale decades ago. I use it when I fall asleep in front of the telly and the cup of coffee I’m holding tips over into my lap and soaks through the armchair beneath. I use it after every act of stupidity on my part for which I can blame fate, an act of god, a natural disaster, Brexit or those bloody politicians. Anyone except myself, of course. For am I not infallible, a paragon of reason and good sense?

The catch-all is Victor’s anguished shriek. I DON’T BELIEVE IT! Which, once uttered, sends me effortlessly into my realm of alternative truth. If I don’t believe it, it didn’t happen, right? Or if it did, it’s someone else’s fault.

To quote Roger Waters, another icon of a bygone era, I’ve become comfortably numb.

At the movies: a top gurn at Mach 10

Two brief reviews of Top Gun: Maverick. Choose your review depending on whether you’re a po-faced politico-nerd determined to derive meta-messages and wider meaning from a much-acclaimed movie (like me at times), or whether you all you care about is sitting back and enjoying the ride (also like me at times).

Let’s look at the ride first. As an “action movie”, the new Top Gun is the equivalent of a high end theme park packed with thrilling variants of the same rollercoaster. It’s held together with a weepy back story rooted in the first movie. It’s superbly choreographed – the aerobatic sequences are a close as you’re ever likely to get to a high-quality virtual reality experience with your backside planted on a popcorn-strewn cinema seat. It reeks of testosterone. Not so much gung ho as hung go. It’s a simple story, easy even for someone like me to understand. In a movie whose co-stars are big, throbbing machines, the tech doesn’t distract you. And, as the icing on the cake, it’s not Marvel. No Norse gods, iron men, aliens, monsters and massed orcs. Otherwise I wouldn’t have walked through the door in the first place.

Now for the meta stuff. Not surprisingly, given the origin of the movie, it’s full of familiar themes – a subliminal advertisement, if you like, for the American Dream. Redemption. The pioneer spirit. The triumph of the individual. Flags everywhere. Respect for the military. A counterpoint to the war is hell school of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Even though much of the work on the movie must have been done during the Trump era, it transcends all of the MAGA nastiness. For American audiences, there’s something for everyone. It ticks all the diversity boxes – a wide ethnic mix, and a kick-ass female pilot makes the cut for the mission. The plot is plausible in terms of current geopolitical realities, yet at a time when the US hesitates to provide weaponry with which Ukraine can attack targets in Russian territory, but politically implausible in terms of the likely consequences. Commercially, nothing to offend the Chinese, so that’s OK. Since the movie was completed before Vladimir Putin returned Russia to its traditional baddie role, it falls to the poor old Middle East to play Darth Vader once more.

Tom Cruise is a miracle of self-discipline, Botox, modern science, CGI or whatever. How the hell can he stay so young-looking? From a parochial British perspective, he’s America’s Cliff Richard. I suppose one day he’ll collapse into a jowly wreck like most of his peers, but clearly not yet. Time for at least one more Mission Impossible movie, as the trailer before the main feature reminded us.

One way or another, did I enjoy Top Gun: Maverick? Hell yes. I went because of the rave reviews, and they weren’t wrong. It’s good to enjoy some primary colours amidst the complexity and gloom. On Tuesday, Jonny Bairstow blasting the opposition away to give England a rare win at cricket. And yesterday, Maverick reminding us that even the old dogs have a bit of life in them, especially when they show the young pups a thing or two.

If only life was always that simple. For the rest of the day, back to my dreams of other movies, in which Trump is wearing an orange jump suit, Boris is hiding in a fridge in the back of a truck taking him and his stuff out of Downing Street, and Rwanda is best known for its mountain gorillas.

Looking for America

“Airplanes were used on [9/11] as the weapon to kill thousands of people and to inflict terror on our country. There wasn’t a conversation about banning airplanes,”. Thus spoke a senior US congressman yesterday.

Guns, guns, guns. Guns in schools, hospitals, supermarkets, on the streets, in people’s homes. To the point that in cop shows the phrase “armed police!” will soon be meaningless, because before long just about everyone will be armed. Photos abounding of proud citizens posing in front of arrays of weapons that would be enough to defend a small town. Other photos of wealthy tourists with sniper rifles posing proudly next to some fearsome African animal they’ve just shot. Parents giving their kids their first gun as a rite of passage, when once it was their first mobile phone and before that their first bicycle.

I doubt if American gun owners care much about foreigners like me pointing out the false equivalence of comparing airplanes, and cars for that matter, with guns. Nor will they care that it’s becoming increasingly obvious that people like me are unlikely to visit the United States again for the simple reason that the country is becoming unacceptably dangerous, and a large proportion of its population is becoming seriously unhinged, like the congressman I quoted above.

I suggest to my American friends that the habit of sheltering under the Second Amendment of the Constitution is corroding their society, a kind of juvenile response along the lines of “Daddy said I could do it”. Likewise, to use the First Amendment to suggest with impunity that gun control activists should be tried for treason and executed. Or, for that matter, that gays should be rounded up and shot in the back of the head “because the bible says so”. Views freely expressed and promulgated through the social media.

Much as I admire America, (most of) its values, (most of) its people and all of its glorious natural resources, the nation’s dark side is becoming darker than a black hole. And like a black hole, it’s devouring all who stray into its gravitational pull.

I’ve been a frequent visitor to the US over many decades. That stopped when Trump was elected. Much as I’d love to visit again, I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. Witnessing at first hand the hatred, paranoia and fear would be unbearable. And I come from a country that’s not without its own divisions.

I shall continue to watch from afar, with emotions ranging from sadness to horror. A small hope, perhaps, that reconciliation and redemption, those ever-present strands in the American narrative, may yet break the vicious circle.

For what it’s worth, I shall always think of myself as a friend of America. That’s what makes it so painful.

Postcard from Scotland (or rather a little bit of it…)

By accident rather than design, my wife and I ended up for the tail end of the Royal Jubilee celebrations in Scotland. We flew rather than drove, which meant seven hours in and out of airport terminals rather than seven hours (or more) battling through the M25 and ploughing our way along Britain’s oldest motorway oop North.

I’m something of a Scotland newbie. Only been there a couple of times, and those trips were on business. This was pleasure. No politics, no royals, no Boris. Just a short stay at a hotel we’d planned to visit a couple of years ago before the pandemic struck. Our booking survived, so off we went at the earliest convenient opportunity.

The destination was the Greywalls Hotel, which sits on the perimeter of Muirfield, one of Scotland’s finest golf courses and frequent host of The Open, one of golf’s four major championships. I wasn’t there to play golf, just to hang out in a part of the United Kingdom I’d never visited before.

What’s worth writing about Greywalls? Well, it’s an elegant Lutyens house built at the turn of the last century. It’s still owned by the family that bought it in the 1920s, rather than by some ghastly hotel chain. It’s packed full of family stuff, original furniture, real books, nothing later than the Sixties. Across the walls are pictures of family members, of team photos of sporting events from the twenties onwards. A wind-up gramophone with 78’s on the grand piano. A croquet lawn looking out over the tenth tee. A tennis grass court. A magnificent walled garden that still, apparently, is as originally designed by the delightfully-named Gertrude Jekyll from Surrey in the 1900s. All over the house, ornaments, mementos, snapshots. A telegram from Edward VII thanking the owners at the time for their hospitality and agreeing to be godfather to one of their offspring.

Aside from the pleasure of sitting outside our ground-floor room watching golfers limbering up for an imminent women’s tournament, what I appreciated most about Greywalls was that it’s so old-fashioned.

No spa, jacuzzi, hot stones and seaweed. No fridge in the room. No kettle. No 24-hour room service. No reception. No plastic room keys, just a normal key on a chunky, leather-bound baton. Nobody bothers you unless you want to be bothered. No one banging on your door every ten minutes shouting room service. No chocolates on your pillow.

Just peace and quiet. Our fellow guests were mainly golfers, many from other countries, including some guys from Detroit on a tour of Scotland’s big-name courses, who had lost their bags (though not their clubs) in transit through Amsterdam. Not all golfers, though. In one of the sitting rooms on our last afternoon were two old ladies chatting away for hours over tea about how well their offspring were doing. They could be patients of Doctor Findlay (a silly in-joke – apologies, non-Brits and anyone under 65 who doesn’t remember Dr Findlay’s Casebook).

The food? There’s a Roux restaurant that does dinner for lots of money per head. We ate instead at a pub 30 minutes walk away that overlooks the Muirfield practice area. Despite being packed out, the owner still offered to pick us up from the hotel and drop us back again. I doubt if the Ivy would do that. We did have breakfast at the hotel, though. Porridge brûlée with whisky and cream. Full Scottish, with black pudding, haggis and locally-sourced bacon and sausage. As a lighter option, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with a spoonful of caviar. The clotted cream tea was pretty good – freshly baked scones and all that jazz.

As for the setting, the fairways of Muirfield stretching out towards the Firth of Forth. Everything in bloom. Sandstone houses with silly names like Wits End and The Colonel’s House (next door to The Other Colonel’s House). The countryside is rather like Ireland. Plenty of trees, a bit of a chill in the air despite the sunshine, and an abundance of golf courses. When we arrived from Edinburgh Airport, we took a taxi, which was outrageously expensive for the 30-mile journey. So for the way back we took a bus into the city, and then a tram to the airport. Much more fun, sitting on the top floor of a double-decker wending its way through villages picking up kids from school.

Because of all the airport nonsense – cancelled flights, endless security queues and so on – we arrived a few hours earlier than we needed to. So we left Gullane, where Greywalls is located, at 3pm and flew home at 9.30pm. By the way, the village is pronounced by the locals as Gullun, as in Gollum, and by the posh as Ghislane, as in Maxwell. Which shows that Scotland has no shortage of Hyacinth Buckets who call themselves Bouquet. (another in-joke, this one from Keeping Up Appearances, an English TV comedy about an outrageous snob played by Patricia Routledge.)

Another similarity with Ireland, which is my wife’s home country, is the preponderance of bungalows, at least in East Lothian. I’d expected to see baronial stone mansions belonging to the prosperous burghers of Edinburgh. There were some of these, but what was surprising and quite depressing was the large number of housing estates built in the sixties and seventies in which the houses were identical. No reflection on the residents – people need to live somewhere – but it seemed as though Scottish architecture must have been through a dark period distinguished by a terminal lack of imagination.

Perhaps I’m just playing the snooty Southerner who lives in an area where hardly any houses are the same, The trouble is, down here the new ones look like miniature versions of Tesco superstores. At least the East Lothian dwellings look sturdy enough to withstand the ravages of the Scottish winter.

No disrespect to Her Majesty and her loyal street party-goers, but a quick jaunt to Scotland was just the job. It made me want to see more, especially the delights of Edinburgh. As my wife said, perhaps it was because we rarely take an internal flight within the UK, but we had to remind ourselves from time to time that we weren’t in a foreign country.

Maybe that’s the way things will end up. I’m not sure I’ll be bothered either way, since I’m used to another different-but-similar country, the Irish Republic. The different constituents of the British Isles have so much more in common than divides them. I can’t see that changing if Scotland starts issuing its own passports. As long as we all get along together and ignore the political headbangers for whom division and strife is their principal source of amusement, we should be fine.

My only regret after this brief visit is that I waited until so late in life to visit Scotland. And while we’re at it, why stop at Scotland? A road trip taking in Yorkshire, Northumbria and Cumbria before we cross the border? A possibility for next year perhaps, provided we can still afford the fuel.

Not so much time and plenty more to see. Still, better late than never.

Happy and glorious, shiny and endless

Despite my somewhat lukewarm attitude towards the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in London, there was one aspect on Thursday that never fails to impress. We do military ceremonies exceedingly well. So well, in fact, that we really ought to offer consultancy services to foreign countries less skilled in the art.

Others put plenty of effort into their parades. But goose-stepping Russians and North Koreans tend to be outriders for the stars of the show: the long lines of scary-looking nuclear missiles capable of destroying a city in an instant that rumble past The Leader on massive trailers. Rather vulgar compared with the main attraction that led the Irish Guards into the parade ground for the Trooping of the Colour: a sweet-looking Irish Wolfhound called Seamus.

We had massed bands on horseback, precision marching by Guardsmen melting under their impossibly large bearskins, ancient costumes and gold braid everywhere. Our senior royals reviewed the troops on horseback. The lesser lights, in horse-drawn carriages, proceeded, as royals do, towards their gathering point in a nearby building, not some temporary podium or in a long line on the Kremlin Wall.

I’m not a connoisseur of military parades, but the ceremony that marks the Queen’s Birthday (not her real birthday of course) beats the hell out of every such event I’ve glimpsed elsewhere. Only the French Bastille Day parade comes close, with the gleaming cuirasses of the Republican Guard and those fearsome sappers from the Légion étrangère with their bushy beards and gleaming silver axes. By comparison, Vladimir Putin’s presidential guard look like cutouts from some 1950s board game re-enacting the events of 1812. When Putin minces past them, one half expects Rod Steiger in full Napoleon rig to pop out from behind a gilded curtain and make rude faces at him.

Yes, we British really are the best in the world at this kind of thing. No matter that our entire army consists of a few thousand soldiers, a similar number of bureaucrats and enough generals to populate a respectable-sized street party, I never fail to be impressed. You could almost forget, unless the BBC reminded you, that these magnificent actors in the pageant are actually employed to defend the country, and to kill people if needed – something that’s beyond my experience. They have my greatest respect, at a time when their counterparts in Ukraine in their war against Russia are daily reminding us what the real job of soldiering is about.

I’m sad to think it won’t be long before they’re employed to decorate another event at which we’re “world leaders”, to use the vacuous phrase beloved of our useless prime minister: a state funeral. The combination of ceremonial, centuries-old tradition, stunning settings and exquisite music never fails to choke me up, be it the farewell to Winston Churchill (the only one I’ve attended in person), Princess Diana, the Queen Mother or the Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen’s send-off will surely be a five-hankie event in our house. After all, she’s the only monarch I’ve ever known. When she goes, for some reason I will feel mortal in a way I didn’t when my parents died. And without question, it will be the mother of all funerals.

When she’s gone, will all the weird rituals beloved of monarchy go with her, swept away by a modernising King Charles? Will the funny hats, the bowing, the scraping, the bizarre titles and the quaint customs follow the Groom of the Stool (who tended to Henry VIII’s intestinal functions) into the pages of history? Probably not. I suspect we’ll have to wait until King William takes the throne for the horses to be replaced by electric tricycles – all we’ll be able to afford by then.

As the Jubilee weekend proceeds with yet more events dreamed up by creative bureaucrats relatively unemployed since the London Olympics, it feels like an endless succession of Sundays. Plenty to watch, see and do. Plenty of excuses to raise a glass to a lady whom we have taken for granted in normal times, mocked occasionally for her old-fashioned ways but for whom most of us feel in our heart of hearts a deep respect, whatever our views on the monarchy. She seems no less a permanent fixture than the much-abused statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, yet her absence from most of the festivities tells its own story.

Perhaps that’s a good thing, because old age turns most of us all into gargoyles, as evidenced by some of the older royals who attended the service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday. Best we remember our old queen by her beautiful smile, which has survived the decades intact.

Best also to remember that behind the unknowable mystique she has cultivated for seventy years sits a human being, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who deserves a bit of peace and quiet while the youngsters play.

Knees Up Mother Windsor

One of the redeeming features of growing old is that for most of us the pursuit of perfection is futile. We muddle through, accepting compromise, realising that apart from death there are no absolutes in human life. We might still expect our children to reach for the sky, but for us that’s no longer a possibility. We admire our heroes for their brief moments of excellence, but we know that sooner or later they will join the rest of us back on earth.

Which perhaps explains another feature of old age: that our expectations and opinions are increasingly framed not in terms of the best, but the least worst. Or to put it another way, if you asked me why I subscribe to the London Times, I might reply that it’s because it’s not the Daily Mail. Or the Telegraph. Or Der Stürmer. I might grudgingly accept just about any Tory politician as Prime Minister because they’re not Boris Johnson. It’s why I was relieved rather than delighted when Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, because he’s not Donald Trump. And almost any successor to Vladimir Putin will be better than him, no?

In Putin’s case, no. The fact that it’s by no means guaranteed that whoever takes over from him will be less homicidal and paranoid serves to illustrate that hoping for the least worst could be considered a pretty bleak outlook. And no, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel or Michael Gove becoming Prime Minister instead of Johnson would be far worse than the least worst.

Which brings me to Britain’s monarchy, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. I hesitate to use the word Jubilee because it’s a curious word that probably won’t make sense to anyone who reads this who isn’t steeped in British (or English?) culture. So let’s call it a celebration.

What exactly are we celebrating? That a woman in her nineties has managed to do the same job for all these years? That she has radiated the same aura of inert decency that allows her to resist the manipulative powers of 14 prime ministers and carry out her role as our unknowable figurehead with integrity and consistency? That she has done so despite the best efforts of members of her family to be far from unknowable, and despite the growing irreverence of her subjects over the past fifty years, starting with the satirists of the sixties and culminating in the sleaze and cynicism of the current decade?

Is she, and the institution she represents, the least worst option for a fragmented nation whose pretentions of importance have slowly corroded over the seventy years of her reign? I would argue yes, or at least someone like her. For if the alternative is an executive, elected presidency, then God help us if we end up with a Putin, a Trump or a Johnson who will do anything to shape our institutions in such a way as to hold on to power for the longest possible time, unanswerable to the only authority that can credibly claim to have the interests of all its subjects at heart and carries the respect of most of them, rather than the transitory and easily manipulated “will of the people”.

And what if we abolished the monarchy and replaced it with an elected figurehead, along the lines of a Michael O’Higgins in Ireland? Then we would be opting for an individual rather than an institution. When our soldiers fight for Queen and Country, and our football crowds sing God Save the Queen, they’re not bowing down to a frail old lady who lives in a palace and is surrounded by flunkies. They’re declaring allegiance to the the intangible order she represents, just as Americans, who are much fonder of oaths than we are, swear allegiance not to Biden or Trump, but to the constitution of the United States. Just as the French say “Vive La République” and “Vive La France”, not “Vive Macron”.

You can certainly argue that the British state’s institutions and our version of democracy leave much to be desired and need reforming on many fronts, but I’m not sure that the election of a popular figurehead every few years will do anything to bring about meaningful change.

So where do I stand, amid the bunting, the street parties and all the other efforts of the ruling party to encourage fuzzy nostalgia and patriotic fervour? Well, most of us love a party – our shower of a government more than most – and I don’t want to play the killjoy. So, we should party away if that’s what we want. Not me though. The last thing a street party belting out Rule Britannia from among the privet hedges needs is a Wat Tyler sympathiser in its midst. I shall celebrate the small things, like a daughter’s birthday and the delights of early summer.

As for Her Majesty, I wonder how she feels about the whole palaver. I suspect that she wants little more than a quiet life from here onwards, but her sense of obligation compels her to go along with the fuss. At least she doesn’t have to preside over Theresa May’s ghastly Festival of Brexit, which seems to have quietly died amongst the piles of rotting paperwork and thirty-mile truck queues heading for our ports. She surely deserves our respect, for her forbearance if nothing else. Even though there’s an argument that the demise of her institution might help us move on from the rocky legacy of our imperial past, I’m not sure that it would leave us in a better place. Besides, “moving on” is hardly the phrase of the moment. The question is: moving on to where?

So I’m content to salute the best of queens, while accepting that for now, the institution she embodies is our least worst option. For now, at least.

Have a lovely weekend, Your Majesty.

We like sheep

“We like sheep” is one of my favourite phrases in Handel’s Messiah. Taken out of context, it’s gloriously ambiguous. After all, I love sheep, even though the chorale is about those of us who stray from the true path of divinely-ordained righteousness. Which is a bit hard on sheep, since all they’re interested in is the nearest clump of grass.

Up to now I’ve refrained from commenting on Boris Johnson, Partygate and Sue Grey’s report, because my voice feels superfluous given the barrage of criticism of a Prime Minister whom I’ve always considered unfit for the role. I’ve spent more than enough precious brain time excoriating someone who should never have left the dusty corridors of those media organisations foolish enough to employ him.

However, in case you’re not utterly sated with coverage of the sorry business (rather than the business of being sorry), a couple of thoughts occur.

First, much of the media comment seems to be focused on Johnson hanging his junior staff at10, Downing Street out to dry. They’re the ones who embraced the culture and picked up the fines, while Boris and his senior officials appear to have got away virtually scot free.

This line of thinking frames the junior staff as victims. I beg to differ. You would like to think that those who work in the Prime Minister’s office are the brightest of the bright – the leaders of the future. Surely anyone with an eye on a future in British politics or the civil service would give their eye teeth to be able to feature a spell at Number 10 in their CVs.

If that’s the case, would it not be reasonable to describe independence of thought as one of the qualities required of these future leaders? And if so, why were they not capable of passing up on the parties, no matter what the prevailing culture dictated? Were they so lacking in perspective as to think that while their friends and relatives outside government were sticking to the rules, they should not also exercise caution, no matter what their bosses did?

Perhaps I’m unkind to expect a bunch of bibulous twentysomethings not to behave like sheep, not (as Sue Grey reports) to leave party detritus for the cleaners to clear up, not to get into “altercations” and not to throw up in a place where Gladstone, Asquith and Churchill once held sway.

But then again, perhaps I’m wrong in my initial assumption. Maybe mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

The second thought concerns the toleration among both the ruling elite and those who voted for them of a shameless liar at the head of our government. Thirty or forty years ago Boris Johnson wouldn’t have got close to power, not only because of his lies but because of his private life and his chaotic incompetence.

So what’s changed in the meanwhile? Is it the availability of “alternative truths”, also known as fake news, that have desensitised us to Johnson’s outrageous, easily proven untruths? As a result, does the majority of voters, not just the perennially disgruntled, believe that all politicians are liars, that everyone else (except us of course) is a liar and that most of us can get away with it? Is the social media to blame, or those who exploit it, be they Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump or every jumped-up politician or business leader on the make? I don’t know, but what seems different is our willingness to believe self-evident lies or to dismiss them as unimportant.

Or is it because we’re more prepared to tolerate loveable rogues with whom we would be happy to share a few beers down the pub? Because their behaviour gives us licence to indulge our own worst instincts?

Again, I don’t know. But what I am sure about is that Johnson had crossed a line with Partygate. People will tolerate a hypocrite, but if their hypocrisy mocks the personal experience of all those who suffered during the COVID pandemic, who stuck to the rules and shed tears for relatives whom they couldn’t visit on their deathbeds and couldn’t mourn as they would have liked, he will not easily be forgiven.

For this reason, I’m pretty sure he will soon be gone. Even if he struggles on, his government will be brought down by the tidal wave of disasters that it currently faces. Which, for me, will be a source of considerable relief, even though I shudder to think of all the other mistakes said government will inflict on us in its death throes.

About the only thing that will save them is the sentiment expressed by an acquaintance the other day: “yes he’s a tosser, but I can’t think of anyone in politics who I would want in his place. They’re all tossers.”

Perhaps that’s what conservatism – in Britain at least – means today. Profound cynicism. What you know rather than what you fear. What you expect rather than what you hope. The least worst option. The trouble is, such political inertia often leads to some form of rupture. Let’s hope it’s not too violent if and when it comes.

Postcard from France: On Decision Day

As I sat on my patio on a windy, drizzly morning in France, my spirits were lifted by the sight of a young buck sprinting past the garden towards the woods nearby. I know it was a buck because it had little horns. But I suppose it might self-identify otherwise, so perhaps I should call it they.

Here in the countryside, you would be hard put to realise that today France is about to elect a new president. I imagine traffic into the towns and villages will be a little heavier – in other words more than one car every five minutes. But there was no sign of that when I went to the boulangerie. And on the drive back, no evidence of the contest except for a couple of motheaten posters of also-rans, Zemmour and Mélenchon.

I don’t pretend to be familiar with the subtleties of French politics. But one thought occurs. The choice facing the electorate is similar to that available to the American people: between the centre and the right. In the US, the left hasn’t had a look-in for years, if ever. A deeply ingrained fear of socialism, and the inability to distinguish between so-called “progressives” and out-and-out communists has meant that anyone using the word “socialised”, as in socialised medicine, is seen by many as unAmerican.

In France it’s not so long ago that a socialist president was in power – most recently Hollande, and earlier Mitterrand. Now the socialists are nowhere, The two-candidate run-off system eliminated Mélenchon, who was France’s only serious option on the left, so his supporters have to choose between Macron and Le Pen. So now the French have much the same choice as my American cousins.

Who will win, and who should win? People I’ve spoken to are betting on Macron, but after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory, I don’t put much faith in received wisdom these days. Either way, as a Brit with a small stake in France’s prosperity, and whose politics lean towards the centre, I would go for Macron if I had a vote. That said, neither candidate seems particularly well-disposed towards my country. Whether that’s because our current government mainly consists of self-regarding clowns or there’s a deeper-rooted animus built on centuries-old rivalry is not for me to say. Certainly I can’t blame them, because the French don’t see politics as a business for clowns.

Another interesting aspect of the election is the argument that has gained traction not only in France but in my country as well. Marine Le Pen has drunk from the Russian money well. So according to her detractors electing her would be “helping Putin”. Likewise the disruption that might be caused if the UK tries to re-negotiate the Northern Ireland protocol signed as part of the Brexit deal would also, it is said, help the glowering dictator.

So it seems that any government with any policy that doesn’t pass the anti-Russia hygiene test is open to accusations that it’s soft on Putin. Just as fifty years ago it would be soft on communism. How gratified Putin must be that he’s become the bugbear-in-chief, around whom the politics of half the world revolves. If he’s achieved one thing, it’s that nobody thinks of his country as an irrelevance anymore.

I have of course been following events in Ukraine as closely as ever. One of my recent diversions has been to use Twitter’s translation facility for non-English posts. That way I get to read posts in Russian and Ukrainian. I can’t say that I’m reading a balanced spectrum of opinion in those languages, but getting away from the anglosphere for a while does provide a richer picture.

For example, I read a thread today in which Russians were discussing an order from the government both to state-owned organisations and private companies to identify employees under the age of 45 who have military training. Does that mean that the Russians are preparing for a general mobilisation? What surprises me is that the state doesn’t have that information already. Perhaps it does, but is using the measure to prepare the population for what might be to come. This is a development I hadn’t read about in any English-language media.

Back to France. As I mentioned earlier, the weather is not great. In the UK it’s often said that bad weather leads to low turnouts. This favours the Conservatives, apparently, because the less privileged voters – or, as the Etonians in government might say, the lower orders – are deterred from turning out in the wind and rain because of the physical difficulty of making it to the polling booths when one has to walk or take the bus. I’m not sure that these days that’s a factor either in England or in France.

Having said that, if you lived on our lonely little hill and you wanted to vote, you’d have a walk of at least three kilometres to reach the nearest polling station. I’ve never seen a bus on our nearest main road, so if you don’t have a car your only option is to walk. Since neither candidate seems to have the kind of community-based organisations behind them that exist in the UK, whose volunteers will drive little old ladies to the polls, I wonder if rural populations are missing out. If that’s the case, then perhaps Macron will benefit, since he seems to draw much of his support from urban areas.

But what do I know? About as much as the beautiful young deer that came visiting this morning. By the time you read this, the result will probably be known. At least one can say this with some certainty: the winner is unlikely to be as mendacious as Johnson or as batshit crazy as Trump. But be sure that whoever wins, the French will always have the ultimate deterrent: the barricades.

At a time when there seem to be so many unresolved crises – social, political and military, – the prospect of a decision is quite refreshing.

Vive La France!

Postcard from France: The garden from hell

I’ve heard it said that when most species, including our own, are wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches will take our place as top dogs in the evolutionary hierarchy. That may be, but they’ll need to fight it out for supremacy with the dandelions.

I was reminded of what ferocious colonisers dandelions are when we returned to our recently-acquired second home in France. It was the first time we’d seen the place in the spring. As we pulled into the drive, we were greeted with thousands of the buggers, risen to a height they rarely achieve in England’s green and pleasant land. They’d already shed their flowers, and were ready to spread their seed far and wide.

It’s been eight weeks since we were last here, and what a dramatic transformation! A nondescript, reasonably under-control garden surrounding the house is now a meadow. Aside from the dandelions, we have buttercups, daisies, little pink flowers, irises and other plants that may have been put there by the previous owners or may have drifted in on the wind. Such grass as survived the stiff competition from other species is two feet high, for goodness’ sake.

On the night we arrived I dreamed of sentient green slime slowly enveloping rockeries, capturing the septic tank and heading for the house. I must have been reading too much about Ukraine. My wife’s reaction was “how lovely – our very own rewilding project”.  I have a well-developed irony detector, but in this case, I was unsure about whether she was being serious. But she knows I won’t tolerate incursions by green invaders. And she also knows how much I loathe dandelions.

So I began the fightback this morning. I took out the strimmer that we inherited from the previous owner, with the intention of cutting back the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the house. Unfortunately my attempt to repel the invader was a failure. Faced with an acre of jungle, the strimmer died before I could cut back more than a couple of square feet. What next? Agent Orange, or risk the monster petrol mover we also inherited?

Another problem is that the designated flower beds are now indistinguishable from what used to be scrubland. And what to attack? The previous owners were keen gardeners. There are plants everywhere that might be weeds or might not. Mme D. told us that there were wild orchids here and there. So when I start my mower offensive, what precious floral treasure will I destroy in the process? Unlike Putin, I have no intention of picking on innocent civilians.

Furthermore, I know no more about gardening than Jeremy Clarkson did about farming when he bought his thousand acres. In fact, the only things I know are how to kill a lawn by overfeeding it, and how to encourage aphids and blackfly to settle on our roses. The sad reality is that my horticultural expertise lies mainly in killing things, such as slugs, ants and other creatures that disturb my quiet enjoyment of our curated nature.

Just as well that in England we have the ever-cheerful Wes, who spends a few hours every couple of weeks repairing the damage I’ve done and generally keeping the place looking nice. It’s also just as well that he’s a diplomat, since over the years he’s had to respond to my wishes, only for them to be countermanded by she who must be obeyed. Since she signs the cheques, guess who’s the decision maker as far as he’s concerned?

Alas, we have no Wes in France. So we have a choice. Either I let rip with the mower and destroy the orchids, or we outsource the job to the guy our predecessors used, who presumably knows where the bodies, or in this case the precious plants, are buried.

Either way, if we don’t do something soon, the rewilded garden will be covered with four-foot tall dandelions and other monsters. At that point I suppose the only solution would be a scythe or some awful weapon of mass destruction we might persuade a neighbouring farmer to deploy on our behalf.

The solution must be found by August, because I very much doubt if our daughter would be too pleased to allow our four-year-old grandson to frolic through a garden of triffids when they come visiting. As a last resort, perhaps we could hire a flock of sheep, but I haven’t seen many of them in the area.

Most likely it will fall to me to do my inept best with the mower. However, since there’s plenty of rain forecast for the next week, will the Honda four-stroke end up being no more effective than a Russian tank bogged down in Ukrainian mud? It’s only now that I realise that one of the most precious hand-me-downs that we found in the house is a stout pair of wellingtons whose previous owner had feet the same size as mine. It’s the first time I’ve worn such footwear in half a century.

All that said, it’s still a joy to be here. As I write this, I’m sitting on a covered patio watching the dandelions leer at me as the rain comes down. Various exotic birds settle on our little barn, also known as the piggery. I haven’t a clue what they are, because my ornithological knowledge is limited to robins, crows, blackbirds and pheasants.

But I do know what I like. At night the owls hoot and what I suspect are nightingales engage in earnest conversation. The dawn chorus is a rapturous symphony of sounds that makes the version in our English garden seem like a string quartet in comparison.

I feel slightly ashamed to be obsessing about dandelions when a nearby country is in flames, people are dying in their thousands and my wretched, Brexit-stricken, COVID-rife country continues to put up with a lying buffoon for a prime minister while I look on with helpless impotence. But at least I can actually do something about the herbal demons invading my little domain. All I ask for is a manicured postage stamp of order. The rest of the garden can have its way, orchids and all.

A sign of impending old age, when your world shrinks and your ability to shape it declines in equal measure. But hey, lovely to be in France, and next week we have Macron vs Le Pen, not that you’d notice in this sleepy little neighbourhood.

The question is: which of them is the orchid, and which is the dandelion?

Ukraine: have we reached peak fake news?

Fascinating is probably not the right word. But as I watch the conflict in Ukraine – or what the media wants to share of it – from the comfort of my suburban English bunker, it occurs to me that people in some parts of the world are getting a crash course in interpreting what passes for news and opinion, both from social and mainstream media sources.

In fact, it’s becoming pretty obvious that thinking about the media in terms of two streams, at least in the minds of consumers, is becoming irrelevant. How many people now rely exclusively on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok for updates on Ukraine and much more besides? How many people still trust just one of the BBC, CNN, Fox, Russia Today or Al-Jazeera to the exclusion of all other outlets?

I suspect that like me they choose a mixture of sources. The common denominator is the level of trust we place in what we read and see. If it’s the case that people stop automatically believing the stuff that the BBC broadcasts “because it’s the BBC”, is that a bad thing or a good thing? Good, I’d argue. Because if we’re stuck in a jungle without obvious paths, we have to find our own way through, rather than rely on the only path available, which might lead us over a cliff.

Our scepticism is a direct result of the so-called information wars. Deliberately-planted disinformation can certainly skew our perception in the short term. But are we discovering that it has a limited half-life? Is Putin’s much vaunted use of disinformation to destabilise Russia’s political and military rivals now working against him? Are we becoming immune to the bullshit because we’ve learned to treat everything as bullshit unless proven otherwise?

That would certainly seem to be the case in the West, where Putin apologists have been widely discredited. Politicians and pundits are having to make rapid about-turns when they realise that those they seek to persuade will no longer buy their arguments. Won’t get fooled again, as The Who once sang. Whether the same thing is happening in Russia remains to be seen. But that country, for all Putin’s efforts to stifle free speech and control the national conversation, is surely far away from Stalin’s Russia, where neighbours were reluctant to speak frankly to each for fear that their words might be reported to informers who lurked on every street corner. The internet is leaky. Stuff will always get through.

Time for a little analogy. I’m currently reading Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. Flyn is a Scottish journalist who takes us to parts of the world that have been dramatically altered by human activity, and subsequently abandoned to nature. The obvious example is Chernobyl. But she looks at many other examples of places seemingly ruined by natural disaster or human habitation, and describes how nature has regenerated in those areas.

Two examples stand out. River estuaries in New Jersey are still toxic after receiving constant streams of chemical effluent from factories dating back to the earliest period of the industrial revolution. Much of the marine life in these estuaries has died out. Some has survived despite exposure to high levels of toxic chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins. One species, the Atlantic killifish, has evolved at extraordinary speed to become 8,000 times more tolerant of these chemicals than its neighbours in nearby unpolluted estuaries.

The second story is of a botanical research station created in a pristine mountainous area of Tanzania more than a century ago. It was populated with hundreds of non-native species of trees and other plants, with the intention of discovering how these alien flora would adapt to different soil and climatic conditions. Over time, funding ran out and the research station was abandoned. One particular tree, maesopsis eminii, prospered. It became pervasive, and changed the eco-system by out-competing with local species. Now, it seems, it has been attacked by a bracket fungus that is causing die-back. In another case, trees producing quinine that were introduced into the Galapagos prospered rapidly, but have also died back, allowing the “substantial regeneration of the native species” beneath the dead wood.

Could it be that humanity has started to develop a resistance to an invasive species of information?

The Ukraine conflict has spawned such a plethora of propaganda that I, for one, have to remind myself to take all the videos, posts and tweets with a pinch of salt. Is it fake? What’s the source? What’s the motive for posting it? I try and be equally sceptical on stuff emanating from both sides.

Just as in Cal Flyn’s narrative nature rarely returns to what was there before, are we moving towards a world in which no information is taken for granted, whether it’s derived from scientific studies of COVID or climate change, or the imagination of trolls in little offices in St Petersburg? I’m not sure. What will continue to matter is what we choose to believe, and the mental processes we go through to arrive at that belief. We will never stop believing in things, even if we cry that “I don’t know what to believe any more”. Nor will most of us who hold on to a religious faith lose that faith, though some will. on the grounds that it’s difficult to believe in a God who allows your entire family to be wiped out by a random missile.

But what will matter will be the journey we take towards our beliefs, which are usually based on life experience, communal values and inherited culture. If much of the disinformation we’ve been inclined to believe becomes discredited in our perception, will we become wiser and less susceptible to new versions of fallacious truth? Perhaps then we will be less easily duped. Or perhaps, as the spreaders of disinformation hope, we shall become so stressed by the effort of discerning truth from fiction that we shall simply swallow the next generation of lies because it’s easier to do so than to apply a rigorous examination of the provenance.

Perhaps the critical question is this. Which comes first: the disintegration of society, resulting in a loss of belief fuelled by fake news, or an initial loss of belief that causes disintegration, helped on its way by misinformation? That’s one for historians and anthropologists to answer. I’m inclined towards the latter. Either way, as we see the real-life consequences of fake news in the form of a deadly war, more of us seem to be are developing the capacity to see through the bullshit.

Scepticism is hard. Most of us don’t have the time or the energy to research the provenance of the information we consume. We rely on others to do it for us. Fortunately, there are more and more people prepared to do this outside the traditional media. So we don’t have to rely on news media owned by Rupert Murdoch and other media barons. In Britain, we have outfits like Bellingcat, that first exposed the identity of the would-be assassins of Sergei Skripal by trawling exhaustively through open-source information, and now trains others on the techniques it uses though workshops. We also have Marc Owen-Jones, an academic whose major area of expertise is tracking bots launched on to Twitter for political motives. And here and there we have characters like the author and radio host James O’Brien, who does a good impression of Socrates as he punctures the prejudices of his listeners.

In other words, we have options. We don’t have to rely on our gut feeling, which often has more to do with our own lived experience than the facts on the ground. We also have evidence of the erosion of cultish belief systems spawned by the social media, such as QAnon. Though some still believe Trump’s bullshit about the 2020 election, and there are still plenty of British voters who still believe Boris Johnson’s lies about any number of subjects, or think they don’t matter, their numbers appear to be getting smaller, if recent opinion polls in the US and the UK are to be believed.

If Putin-style disinformation is losing its potency, it will still be of little comfort to the people of Ukraine, who are being bombed out of their homes by a vicious invasion force. But how many people in that country believe that they’re being governed by a cabal of Nazis led by a Jewish president? And do the thousands of Russian protesters being jailed every day believe what they’re being told by their government?

I may be alone in thinking that we’ve reached a high tide of fake news, and that we’re slowly learning to resist the falsehoods, or at least some of them. Won’t get fooled again? Maybe we will, but perhaps the propaganda merchants will have to think of more sophisticated ways of getting their messages across.

It may be impossible to replace the eucalyptus and bamboo trees in Tanzania with life that once flourished there. It may be that our belief systems have been changed forever since the virus of disinformation has spread across the social media. But if the bitter experience of conflict and division within nations, societies and even families has taught us anything, perhaps it will be enough leave us less prone to lies and manipulation.

Or am I just a victim of a strain of false optimism implanted I know not when, living in a silo of sceptics, while the rest of the world gets on with devouring their favourite falsehoods? Time will tell.

Ukraine: no such thing as an ending

The other night my wife and I went to a one-off screening of The Godfather at our local cinema. Nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, even though the bookshops, both charity and commercial, are full of every book they can exhume about Russia and Ukraine (I bought a couple).

I mention The Godfather because Putin is frequently accused of running a mafia state. I suppose there are similarities in his modus operandi to that of the Corleone family and their rivals. No horse’s heads in the bed, but plenty of unpunished hits using attention-seeking methods that inspire fear, as in polonium and novichok.

But in one striking way, the Putin show diverges from that of the warm but deadly Corleones. Don Vito wouldn’t be seen sitting at a massive table miles away from his underlings. He would be surrounded by his sons, his consigliere and his faithful lieutenants. He would never allow his rivals to see him as an isolated, paranoid leader.

Just an example of how so much that we perceive and experience right now seems to relate back to what’s happening in Ukraine. Like so many people, I imagine, I feel saturated with the hourly stream of news and opinion. I yearn for some sort of ending. An end of the suffering. An end of Putin. And an end of the freshly unsheathed sword of Damocles – the mushroom cloud hanging over us.

Yet there won’t be an end. Just as The Godfather spawned a whole genre of mafia dramas, so this war will have its sequels. If Ukraine somehow emerges intact, what will happen to the thousands of AK-47s handed out to its brave defenders? Will they migrate to organised crime, or to political factions, as happened after the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the Libyan civil war?

And if Putin is brought down by those who brought him to power, or through a popular uprising, will the leadership that replaces him be even more malign? This is the “be careful what you wish for” argument that has held Putin’s regime, for all its nastiness, as preferable to some ultra-nationalist fanatics who might seize power. The counter-argument is that he has turned into the fanatic, and an unstable one at that. So would his demise usher in an even worse regime, trading on the resentment caused not by the frustration of Russia’s imperial ambitions but by millions of ordinary lives ruined by economic collapse?

What will we celebrate when this conflict is “over”? A newly-energised military alliance united against a common enemy? Germany re-arming? China exploiting the chaos? A world-wide recession caused by disruption of the global trading system? Resurgent gangs and militias rushing into power vacuums? The low hum of cybercrime and information wars turning into deafening white noise? Not to mention the mushroom clouds. As if we don’t have enough to contend with already.

Most likely the worst won’t happen and we’ll muddle through. We’ll adapt, reconfigure and get used to a new normal. Those of us who manage to keep our heads above water, that is. And those who don’t will be remembered in seventy years’ time as victims of human folly, or heroes who fell so that the rest of us might prosper. Our descendants will remember the dupes, the evil people and the fatal decisions that led us down the current path. And they will remember the oft-repeated vow: never again.

Perhaps they’ll be wise enough to realise that never again is an unachievable ambition, because each new generation has a fresh opportunity to make mistakes, which they will surely make. The challenges will be different and the lessons learned from the past will only be of limited use.

That’s us humans, I’m afraid. Capable of miracles, yet equally capable of ruining what we create.

Ukraine: porn without shame

Here I am, early in the morning, binging on war porn. Just as I’ve done in every major conflict I’ve witnessed from afar as an adult. Vietnam, Tiananmen Square, Kuwait, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, 9/11, Tahrir Square, Libya, Syria to name but some.

I witnessed only one first hand: Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain. For the rest, I and millions like me have been reliant on the likes of John Simpson, Peter Arnett, Jeremy Bowen and now the BBC’s Lyse Doucet and Clive Myrie. Brave people, for sure, earnestly presenting perspectives and telling stories that can only ever be part of the picture. For in a conflict, as it unfolds, there are truths, lies and ambiguities. No journalist can fully disentangle the strands. And even when it’s over, whose truth prevails?

Often, in the kind of conflict that has erupted in Ukraine, there’s a brief period – before conventional means of communication are shut down – when reports flood in from everywhere. Very different from events like the Asian tsunami, when a catastrophic disaster wrecks everything, and it’s only hours or days after the event that graphic evidence from people on the ground starts trickling through.

We’re in that initial phase now, when the instigators are unable to sustain their stream of carefully crafted disinformation. When Comical Ali continues to lie as American tanks can be seen through the window behind him rumbling through Baghdad.

Sooner or later we will know Zelensky’s fate. We will see bodies of Russians and Ukrainians. We will see tanks on the streets of Kiev. Will there be any surprises, as happened when Yeltsin clambered on to a tank outside the Russian Parliament and a regiment from Tula crushed the coup attempt against Gorbachev? Unlikely. This drama has been carefully scripted.

There are times when I want to turn away from clips of the defiant wounded, of tearful refugees and of relatives grieving for victims of bombs and shells. Please, no more, I want to say, yet I still turn back. Because war is addictive. And if you ignore it you feel guilty for blanking out the suffering of others. But if you watch it, perhaps you do so out of more than concern for those involved. You do so because it’s so far from your own lived experience, because a thousand fictional portrayals of war are less powerful than the real thing, yet your constant gorging of fiction, history and perhaps video games prepare you for the raw meat, but when that comes along it almost feels mundane.

Do you watch with a shudder – there but for the grace of God go I? Do you ask yourself whether you would find the courage to resist the inevitable? Do you wonder what’s in it for you? How will your life be affected? Do you feel that your beliefs are vindicated and pump yourself up in a self-righteous fury? Stop the War, Let’s Go Brandon, or fuck Boris and his oligarch-enabling chums? Or do you watch with a knowing smile at the naivety of those who thought that our somnolent continent would never again witness a war on our doorsteps? All of those things, perhaps.

No matter. War is different things for different people. For the reporters it’s a mission to explain, and sometimes persuade. For their employers it’s a business – a means of upping the ratings and revenues by serving up the tastiest morsels of action and opinion to us consumers. And for us, it’s OK to watch. We can do so without the furtiveness with which we might view writhing bodies on grubby little websites.

In other words, it’s porn we can watch without shame.

But I still feel ashamed. And weary. And yet still fascinated.

The dogs are unleashed

If ever there was an appropriate moment to watch Munich: The Edge of War, the film of Robert Harris’s book, it was probably now. We watched it a couple of nights ago, just as presidents and prime ministers were lining up to sit at one end of Vladimir Putin’s battleship of a table in Moscow.

Not that I’m a believer in grand historical parallels, but Harris’s imagining of a different outcome that might have arisen from the meeting of Hitler and Chamberlain in 1938 keeps coming back to me as we watch Putin making his moves on Ukraine.

Will nobody within his own ranks stop the dictator? When does blind obedience reach its limits? When it comes up against fear and the instinct for self-presentation?

Then my thoughts turn to the home front. We’ll be alright, won’t we? Yes, there will be consequences. Cyberattacks, energy shortages, restrictions on long-haul travel if Putin shuts down Russia’s airspace. But surely the thing won’t go nuclear. Is Putin’s cause so important to him that he’s prepared to risk the destruction of his country in order to gain a few hundred thousand square miles of irradiated wasteland?

For that reason alone, this is surely no Munich moment. Unless, of course, those in the US – and there are many – who care not a jot about “a quarrel between people in a far away land about whom we know little” win the argument that America should leave Europe well alone. Unless there are too many interests here in the UK potentially undermined by the prospect of our role as the Godfather’s bankers coming to a speedy end. Unless Germany is too spooked by the prospect of energy starvation that might result from the closure of Nord Stream 2.

No need to worry, you’d like to think. The grown-ups have got it covered. We children of failing democracies should belt up, prepare for turbulence and sit tight. Just as we did in 2008, and just as we’ve been doing during COVID. It’ll be OK, but if it isn’t, there’s not a damn thing we little people can do about it. So throw away masks, eat, drink, catch the virus and be merry.

And if we do (not including those far-away people of course) come though this crisis relatively unscathed, will we look back and reflect that maybe we earned another year to prepare for the worst, as Robert Harris has Chamberlain believing? Perhaps not, because if the worst was unthinkable in 1938, today it’s all too thinkable, because we’ve been thinking about it ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Perhaps Putin has a point. That Ukraine belongs to Russia. That the end of the Soviet Empire was an aberration that need to be reversed in order to restore an international equilibrium that kept the nukes away for fifty years.

You may think that. You may also ask whether democracy is worth a fig anyway. After all, the Chinese are doing OK with their dictator, aren’t they?

If Putin’s tanks roll across Ukraine with minimal resistance and bee-sting sanctions, we might wish to consider what lessons are to be learned. Or possibly what lessons we have forgotten. The one conundrum those who have survived upheavals in the past have failed to solve is how to deal with a competent psychopath who has gained the power of life and death over nations, empires and all who defy them. Because they have a habit of cropping up under all manner of circumstances, we may see them coming but there is no universal manual on how to deal with them.

While we cling to our sense of moral rectitude over abuses of human rights by the psychopaths who care little about who they kill, how much attention do we give to the rights of other species as we gaily preside over their extinction?

But enough of this prattle. If there’s one thing most of us share with the people of Russia and Ukraine, for all our much-vaunted freedoms to speak and act, it’s a sense of powerlessness. Only a few powerful people can make a difference at this point. The rest of us, however much we’ve been encouraged to believe that our opinions count, have no choice but to wait and watch.

The dogs are unleashed.

Postcard from Aquitaine: the delights of midwinter

A few days ago my wife and I drove through France to our new second home deep in the countryside south of Bergerac. It was the first time we’d stayed there in midwinter. Whereas last time was in November, when the remaining embers of the summer were still glowing, In February the province of Aquitaine takes on an entirely different complexion.

The house itself was freezing – a reminder of my student days living in a draughty house huddled over a gas fire with broken elements. In those days we used to put cling film over the windows to keep what little warmth came from within, and to prevent the ice from forming on the inside of the glass at night. Luxury. Used to dream of having glass in t’windows, as the late Barry Cryer would have said.

Not quite as bad as that, but in rural France most houses that serve as summer homes don’t have central heating, so in the winter we have to rely on wood fires and a couple of electric radiators. It took two days to reach the point at which I didn’t have to wear a woolly hat inside.

The garden hasn’t changed much since last time, though some strange weeds that look like cabbage have sprung up around the place. I must find out what they are, since I’ve never seen them in England. Perhaps we can eat them.

The land is soaked, which explains why it appears so verdant in the summer with what appears to be minimal rainfall apart from the odd violent thunderstorm. The surrounding fields are starting to look green again. What was ploughed earth a couple of months ago is coming to life with little shoots that will eventually become sunflowers, corn or perhaps winter vegetables. Which shows how much I know about agriculture.

Yesterday I saw a wild boar cantering across a nearby field towards some woodland. It was good to know that some have so far survived the hunting season. Though I suspect that given the presence of a couple of guys with rifles whom we passed by this morning, the poor boar is probably by now no more.

On our first night we went down to our local town to eat. In the summer it has about five restaurants catering for the tourist trade. Not a single one was open. The square was empty but for a couple of teenagers having a laugh about nothing.

So the day after we went to another town for lunch. The only restaurant in the square was packed. A four-course meal for thirteen euros, all served within an hour so that the locals could get back to work. Potage, salade, poulet roti with ratatouille and crème brulée, not to mention the demi-carafe of wine and the coffee.  Magnifique.

We hadn’t intended to come down at this time of the year. But most roads into the Far East, where we usually spend February, are closed to all but the most dedicated form fillers. After our experience in Singapore, where my wife was locked up for a few days following a false positive COVID test, we decided not to bother. Plenty of stuff to be done in the French house, so why not?

As everywhere in France, COVID seems to be rife. We’d planned to meet a local carpenter to kick off a project that would make our mezzanine habitable. He and his family are isolating, so no guarantee that we’ll be able to see him. Other people we know in the vicinity have come down with the virus. So despite the mandatory face masks and the requirement to produce a pass sanitaire at restaurants, the bug is getting though, as it is in England only more so.

One aspect of our trip that sent me into raptures of childish excitement is the little tag we bought that enables us to pass through the motorway toll booths without having to stop and feed euros into a machine. This thing goes beep, and we sail though the barrier. The toll charge gets debited from our bank account automatically. Oh joy! No need to wake the sleeping partner every time we hit the peage. I’ve been known to rain about the tyranny of apps. But this is big tech at its best, and you still have a choice whether or not to use it.

The French do this stuff well, which is more than can be said for that well-known multinational, Orange, whose incompetence is monumental They were supposed to connect our internet service in November. Ten weeks on, still nothing. After a couple of conversations with arrogant call centre agents and a visit to the local Orange shop (whose surly indifference to our problem could have been inspired by Aeroflot), we’re still not much closer to resolution. Fortunately, mobile data gets us by.

I can’t use Orange’s attitude as a typical example of the French approach towards customer service, because EDF, our electricity supplier, were quick to resolve another problem, which was that every so often, with the radiators radiating and fan heaters blowing, the power supply would cut out. A call to the English-language help centre diagnosed the problem, which they fixed remotely. No need for a visit from an electrician, sucked cheeks and a massive bill. All done through a little green box at the end of our garden.

The next few days will be spent clearing all the crap from the mezzanine, figuring out where to pay the local taxes, introducing ourselves to the maire of our commune and picking up a token that lets us use the municipal dump. Exciting stuff, huh?

As for entertainment, in the absence of places to go out to at night we’re spending quiet evenings in front of the fire reading books. Just like our grandparents, I guess. Next week there’s the brocante (flea market) to look forward to in the nearby town, followed by another four-course feast in the same restaurant.

Without the complications of Christmas, winter can be a simple season. I love coming to places in hibernation. What better than a few days in your own home, where your isolation is voluntary and you’re as likely to see a wild boar as a person outside your back window?

Hard to believe that in a few months’ time the ground will be baked, the temperature will be in the high 30s and producer’s evenings in the local squares will be thronged with Brits, Belgians, Germans and Dutch. No bad thing for the local economy. But as I look out over the fields and hills dotted with the occasional house, I sometimes feel that I’m in ancient Gaul, not France. Perhaps that’s because the area is said to abound with undiscovered Roman villas and settlements, and what lies beneath the soil seems to speak as quietly as the empty fields above. Perhaps also because the brick canopy above our wood fire contains masonry that would be familiar to anyone living here two thousand years ago.

But dreams of Gaul, garam and Gaius Julius Caesar are quickly dispelled as we turn out on to the main road, where several posters bearing the face of Eric Zemmour, a right-wing rival to Emanuel Macron in the forthcoming presidential elections, are slapped up on a billboard. He’s the only candidate whose posters are to be seen in the vicinity. Does this suggest that his politics – anti-immigration and no friend of France’s Muslim population – strike a chord round here? Maybe, but perhaps he doesn’t have it all his own way. Because on every poster we’ve seen, someone has given him a red nose. Clown, populist, journalist and, er, admirer of women…sounds familiar?

But Zemmour cannot rival our clown-in-chief, so I intend to forget about him unless or until he becomes president. Instead this is a time to savour the bread, the cheese, the solitude and the winter sun. We’re already planning the next trip down, and the one after that, by which time the countryside will have exploded into spring.

I’m a lucky man, I reckon.

Boris Johnson – Britain’s angel of redemption

If I was a religious person, I might well theorise that Boris Johnson is an angel sent by God to remind us that what goes up usually comes unglued. Just as people get sick, recover or don’t recover, so do societies. And just as people, as they rage against the dying of the light, deceive themselves into believing against the evidence that they’re still young when they’re on the road to decrepitude, so do societies believe charlatans who tell them that thanks to them a great national revival is nigh.

Leaving God out of the equation, perhaps we should thank Johnson for his corruption, incompetence and bombastic lying. Just as we should be glad that the Brexit dividend promises to be endless chaos, re-opened wounds, stunted economic growth and megatons of additional red tape. We should also thank COVID for reminding us that without a multi-national workforce we would have been incapable of muddling through the pandemic with only 150,000 deaths. And we should pay tribute to Jacob Rees-Mogg for showing us that a top-flight education is a neutral thing. Like a decent suit, it can be used to hide the ugliness within, especially if it equips us with an array of long words that most of us don’t understand when defending the indefensible in TV interviews. Because every dodgy turn this government makes is a stab in the heart of our destructive self-belief.

Politicians in every country like to make the case that their nation is special. But we British seem over the past few decades of decline to have turned positive self-image into psychosis. The less our power and influence, the more our masters talk it up. Which leaves us with half the country believing them and the other half depressed by the awful truth.

Nowhere is that tendency more evident than in my MSN “news” feed. Not a day goes by when The Daily Express (a paper I haven’t read in print for fifty years or so) doesn’t trumpet some brilliant “Brexit Success”. Likewise the Daily Mail, which recently had a bit of a Prague Spring under a new editor that was duly crushed when the old one returned with his immigrant-bashing, judge-smearing, Boris-boosting headlines.

The Guardian and The Independent, however, tell us the bad news, which is no less demoralising than the good because either way, you end up feeling manipulated. What is truth – the conundrum of our times.

So yes, Boris Johnson is doing us a favour. By making us a laughing-stock among our international peers, by enabling fraud and corruption on a massive scale, by placing talentless nonentities in key ministerial positions, by undermining the rule of law and eroding many of our precious institutions, not least the National Health Service, he is shattering any illusions we may still cherish about who and what we are as a nation. Not special. Not punching above our weight. Not softly powerful. Just one country among many, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and failings.

You could argue that it’s only taken us eighty years to get to this point. But Boris Johnson has delivered the coup de grace to our illusions of grandeur.

And that’s no bad thing.

I’m currently reading Checkmate in Berlin, Giles Milton’s gripping account of a city in ruins after the fall of the Nazis, pillaged and raped (literally) by the Stalin’s conquering armies, its people left starving and helpless among the rubble. Milton’s book, and Harald Jahner’s Aftermath, an account from the perspective of the defeated Germans, are telling reminders of what a desperate starting point Germany faced after the war. Its moment of humiliation was more devastating and traumatic than ours. A dramatic implosion rather than a slow wasting disease. And yet it took until the 1960s before a new generation of Germans came to terms with the bestiality of the Nazi regime and of those who supported it. Those who survived the collapse put the Holocaust and other crimes into a dark closet and kept the door locked. It was all they could do to survive from day to day. They saw themselves as the victims until their children outed them as perpetrators. Unlike Germany, we have never been forced to come to terms with our failings. Until now.

As Sathnam Sanghera points out in Empireland, in which he explores the legacy of the British Empire in terms of its effects on modern mindsets, many of us British are still in denial about the negative consequences of our rise to global prominence. We are only now arriving at a sense of historical balance, three centuries since the beginning of the slave trade and the foundation of our empire. It’s a painful process, and even now it causes us to re-evaluate what it means to be “great”.

Is greatness about power, wealth and prosperity, even if it’s at the expense of others? Or is it about cooperation, compassion and fairness? Is it about ruthless self-reliance, or is it about our contribution to great projects designed to secure the future both of our own species and all the others with which we share our planetary home?

And what of humiliation, since that’s a commonly-used word to describe our current situation? Does being humbled make you humble? Not usually. It tends to make the humbled lash out. And depending on your political outlook, there are plenty of convenient scapegoats to blame.

But Boris Johnson and his minions are doing us all a favour by showing us that arguably we only have ourselves to blame for our humiliation. If we start from that point, perhaps we can buy into a concept of greatness very different from the flag-waving, zero-sum, petty patriotism peddled by the shower we elected over the past decade.

So thanks Boris. You’ve helped us to come face to face with our awful truth. You’ve given us the opportunity to see ourselves as we really are. We may fall deeper into your pit of self-deceit and mediocrity. But at least we can see a way out. And we can start by discarding the great from Great Britain. Call me a miserable, self-righteous git if you like, but good would be good enough for me.

Orbanizing England: are we sliding into autocracy?

A friend emailed me the other day to ask what I thought of an article in the New York Times about the current state of my country. He’s an expatriate Briton who has lived in the US for a number of years. I suspect he’s as well-informed about the UK as I am – he in his North Carolina redoubt and me in my Surrey bunker. Anyway, we share an interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, so it’s always good to bat ideas back and forth.

The article in question is by Maya Lothian-McLean, a British journalist I’d never encountered before. She seems quite proud that she’d never been tainted by association with the so-called mainstream media. Her thesis, which clearly went down well with the NYT people, is that Britain, or more specifically England, is sliding towards authoritarianism. She rolls up all the proposed legislation that Boris Johnson’s government has tabled into a package of evidence pointing in that direction. Her view is that new laws allowing the government to strip dual nationals of citizenship, clamp down on protests, overrule inconvenient decisions by judges, deter social media criticism and lock up refugees as criminals are part of a strategy. The Orbanisation of England, if you fancy using Hungary’s creeping descent to illiberal democracy as an analogy.

I think she’s wrong. What passes for strategy on the part of Boris Johnson’s government seems to me like a series of political sandcastles liable to be washed away by each incoming tide of events that are only dealt with by improvisation and tactical response. In other words, government by the current crowd is a game of political whack-a-mole.

There might be one or two clever people in and around the centres of power with an overarching vision of hostile environments, but collectively they don’t have the wit or the will to hack through the political undergrowth and achieve their aims. Ask Dominic Cummings about the limitations of the machete.

Will they pull off this potpourri of regressive law? Maybe. But Lothian-McLean in her article imagines only extreme examples of what the authorities can do with their new powers. In the real world, if, say, someone who holds British citizenship since childhood and breaks some law unrelated to the original trigger for the measure – terrorism – has their citizenship revoked on the whim of the Home Secretary, the result could be a wave of outrage, and not just among the usual suspects who lurk in the dark ponds of Twitter. And if a group of people who lie down on a motorway in protest against something or other are given substantial jail sentences, their supporters will find other ways to protest. The government would face an endless procession of appeals and angry headlines. How would that go down at a time when successful prosecutions for rape are at an all-time low, when burglaries and car theft are rarely investigated and when the courts are barely able to function without defendants having to wait months and sometime years to come to trial? And when some lockdown parties are punished and others aren’t?

To establish a truly and permanently repressive state, you would need to get the police, the judiciary, the civil service and the armed forces on board. But Boris Johnson and his last two predecessors have all managed to upset powerful factions in each of those institutions in one way or another since 2010. Their cooperation would be far from guaranteed.

So would the removal of the posturing buffoon at the head of our government slow down the widely-feared march towards autocracy? Maybe not. There might be a watering down of some measures. This would allow the new leader to differentiate from the previous regime. But the fact remains that whoever replaces Johnson is going to have to deal with a large tranche of members of parliament who share the authoritarian instincts of Johnson and his Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

The ultimate question is this: do the voters share those instincts in sufficient numbers to return yet another Conservative government at the next election? If not, I’m pretty sure that the worst excesses of the proposed legislation, if passed, can be unpicked by whatever government replaces them. My guess is that the electorate will, unfortunately, stand for an authoritarian agenda promoted by a competent government. After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time. But a combination of heavy-handedness and incompetence? Highly unlikely.

Ironic though, that 150,000 COVID deaths, policing and justice failures, the cladding scandal and the disastrous handling of the Brexit negotiations have not so far brought down this government, but the amorality exemplified by a bunch of parties in 10, Downing Street threatens to do the job. Whether the next election reduces the Conservatives’ grip on power or wipes it out altogether remains to be seen.

But like it or not, it won’t be a set of reactionary and poorly-conceived laws that will see them off. It will be that every time the voters listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s supercilious drawl, or see red-faced, blustering back-benchers like Sir Edward Leigh sounding off about their pet obsessions, they will be reminded that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Eleven favourite countries – I love you despite

From England

It’s the time of year to be kind and generous, to avoid discord and look on the bright side. In that spirit I thought I’d remind myself of my favourite countries, and what I love about them. And why I love them despite.

My inspiration? Once upon a time, a couple of friends. Phil Kirwan and Andy Morton, wrote a song called I Love You Despite for their band, Slender Loris. I remember it as much for the title and the bitter-sweet lyrics as for anything else. I’m incapable of Phil and Andy’s lyricism. But in the spirit of the song, sweet is often best served with an undertone of sour.

France: I love you for the beauty of your countryside. For Saint-Saens, Debussy and Satie. For Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedral. For your cheese, your outdoor weekly markets, your bread and your brocantes. For putting a Russian folk singer/accordionist and a cellist in a tiny church in front of a tiny audience in the middle of nowhere. For your roads, péage or otherwise. For your language and your pride in your history. I love you despite your cussedness, your impenetrable bureaucracy and your intolerance of those who don’t speak your language.

Italy: I love you for Vivaldi and Verdi, for your art and architecture. For Venice, Tuscany, Rome and Puglia. For Pompeii and Herculaneum. For Paolo Sorrentino and Bernado Bertolucci. For your humour, your brightness of spirit, your cuisine and your love of life. I love you despite the litter, the mafia and your bloody national football team.

Germany: I love you for having a conscience. For Bach and Beethoven. For your engineering excellence. For helping to keep the peace in Europe (more or less) since 1945. For being serious, well educated and yes, for having a sense of humour. For welcoming the oppressed and dispossessed. I love you despite your economic success, which has often been at the expense of others, because whose country wouldn’t like some of that?

The USA: I love you for your kindness to strangers. For your ability to adopt, adapt and improve the inventions of others. For your ambition, your restlessness and your relentless positivity. For New York, Boston, Seattle and New England. I love you despite your corrosive mythology (ask Jose Mourinho how hard it is to be The Special One), your divisive politicians and crass blockbuster movies. I’m not ready to re-visit you yet. Please decide quickly whether you’re a democracy or an oligarchy.

Saudi Arabia: I love you because you welcomed me when my life was going nowhere. For your mountains, deserts, wadis and baboons. For souks, shwarmas and coral reefs. For your kindness and your sense of humour. For the idealism of your young, and your respect for the old. For giving your foreign workers a reason other than money for their presence. For Jeddah, a city of character. For inspiring in me a lifelong interest in the history, the cultures, the beliefs and the traditions of your region. I love you despite your pockets of intolerance, your crazy drivers and the mistakes of your rulers.

Thailand: I love you for your tolerance of the bad behaviour of your visitors. For your glorious cuisine, for your green mountains and fertile valleys. Because (as far as I know) you’ve never invaded anybody and you’ve never been colonised. I love you despite your turbulent politics, your scams and your fake Rolex watches.

Ireland: I love you because I’ve married into you, and I’m still married. For your education, literacy and contribution to the English language. For the way you’ve evolved over forty years from a semi-theocracy into something resembling a collegiate European nation. For your golf courses, your feckin’ rain, for your quirks, your jokes, your gombeens, gurriers and gobshites. For your music, for Tayto World (the world’s only theme park inspired by a packet of crisps?), for your bogs and leaping hares. I love you despite your incessant feuding, your bungalows and all the Oirish pubs around the world run by shysters and fake Paddies.

Canada: I love you for being the refuge in The Handmaid’s Tale. For Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Margaret Atwood. I’ve only visited you once, and long to see you again. For surviving so long as America’s neighbour. For your lakes, the Rockies and the frozen north. If I love you enough will you let me in when your country turns into a tropical paradise? I love you despite your terrifying wildlife (ie wolves and bears), your ice hockey (boring) and your obsession with cutting down trees.

Antigua: I love you for Viv Richards, Curtly Ambrose and Andy Roberts, the fiercest cricketers that ever walked the earth. For incomparable boat trips round your island. Because your waiters refuse to be deferential to tourists. For your parishes, a weird throwback to ecclesiastical England. For the view of an active volcano a few miles offshore. For the wood-panelled cathedral in St John’s. I love you despite your rocky beaches and the ever-present threat of seasonal hurricanes.

Turkey: by which I really mean Istanbul, which is one of my favourite cities in the world. I love it for its visible layers of occupation: the walls, the mosques, icons, the mosaics, the cisterns, Topkapi and the incomparable Ayasofia. You have much else to offer, but Istanbul is the jewel. I love you despite, well, let’s say that Britain isn’t the only country with a leader who wants to be World King.

Vietnam: I love you for your history and your willingness to let bygones be bygones. For Hanoi, Hoi An, Hue and Halong Bay. For your stunningly beautiful terrain. For your cuisine and the charm of your people. I love you despite the motorcycles in Saigon, and the loudspeakers in Hanoi – a reminder that Big Brother is still watching.

Any my own country? Too complicated to express in one paragraph, but so many good things soured by so many despites. Just as it’s easy to use a broad brush when looking into a country from the outside, as I have done above, the view from inside out defies objectivity, no matter how fine the portrait.

So about England, I can only quote from I Love You Despite:

If I sat right down
And I wracked my brains
And I made a list
Of the things I feel about you
When the book was closed
And the ink was dry
And the fire was low
I could still not live without you

Andy Morton and Phil Kirwan

Christmas Greetings to one and all.

Getting ready for the Big One

Everyone ready for lockdown then? If the British government can finally decide which way is up, that seems to be where we’re heading. The good news is that in this country we’ve had two (or is it three?) lockdowns so far, so we’re probably getting quite good at it. The bad news? Don’t go there – too many negatives to think about.

As for me, lockdown prep is more or less done. In anticipation of a visit from a couple of relatives yesterday, I tested negative yet again. We’re reasonably well stocked with lateral flow tests, even if the country isn’t. We have plenty of food. The freezer’s full. Once the turkey’s bought, that’s Christmas week sorted. We have a habit of wringing every last bit of goodness out of our seasonal fare, down to the turkey soup, stiffened with celery and potatoes by Day 7. With a bit of luck and an absence of greed we could last ten days on leftovers.

Just as important, I have my reading sorted. Two history books: Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton and Aftermath by Harald Jahner. Both cover the same era – Germany’s struggle to survive after World War 2, and the geopolitical re-alignments that took place with Berlin as the centre stage. Social history: British Summer Time Begins, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Cricket: Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston. River Kings, Cat Jarman’s history of the Vikings and their far-ranging influence. A primer on ancient Roman cookery, and Infamy, Jerry Toner’s study of the dark side of Roman morality. Three historical novels: Hurdy Gurdy, by Christopher Wilson, Cathedral by Ben Hopkins, and The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor. A couple of spy thrillers – Slough House by Mick Herron and Judas 82 by Charles Cumming – round off the list.

That lot, plus a backlog of unread books from earlier in the year, should keep me going for a few months. Unless, of course, I have another go at clearing out the crap in the garage, or start some other ghastly Project.

Exercise? We have fields and a lake at the back of the house, so plenty of time to discuss Omicron with the ducks and geese. We also have a cross-trainer which I’ll be cranking up as an alternative to golf if things get that desperate.

Things that might get in the way? Mass insurrection against new lockdown measures. World War 3 conjured up by Boris as a distraction from his current political troubles. So-called “Brexit Hard Man” MP Steve Baker (who looks as hard as the wobbly Charlotte Russe in my fridge) mounting a coup to prevent our Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Straightjacket from screwing up Brexit. And perhaps less likely, massive celebrations, including dancing, drinking and group hugs in the streets as England’s cricketers regain the Ashes by whupping the Aussies in the last three matches of the current series.

It’s more likely that the days of quiet contemplation and stoic resilience will return. Likewise, sincere or otherwise, a new wave of adulation for the National Health Service.

As in previous lockdowns, I’ll have to get used to watching the news on telly again. This time, I might also plan a few provocations. It’s too late to register my displeasure about the hideous Christmas decorations that adorn some of the houses in the neighbourhood by sneaking out at night and sabotaging their power supplies – all in the name of saving the planet (Santa Rebellion, anyone?). But it’s never too late to indulge in a spot of internet trolling. Even better, maybe I should try and create a few conspiracy theories and see how quickly they fly through the social media. Or possibly invent a new variant of Consequences in which existing theories are merged into one super-conspiracy. Except that QAnon got there first. Rats.

One way or another, when Boris Johnson appears on our screens in his usual verbally incontinent nodding-donkey mode, mangled analogies at the ready, to tell us that we must lock down again, I too will be ready. And if things get too bad, I shall also be ready for a spell of confinement in some secure institution at Her Majesty’s (or Priti Patel’s) Pleasure. It’ll just be a matter of which provocation I choose to achieve that result.

But let’s not forget one thing. Whatever mitigating measures we wearily take against COVID, nothing will stop the pandemic of ignorance, stupidity, bigotry and brain malfunction that’s causing even more pain and suffering than the virus. and for which no effective vaccination has yet been found.

That’s the really big one the scientists have been forecasting for donkey’s years. And we hardly even recognised it as such it when it arrived.

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