Whom to marry

Spurred on by family word-of-mouth, we have been streaming the hit TV show The Bachelor, in both its American and British versions, and enjoying it.  The experience is both weird and compelling: distasteful on first viewing, but full of benign, almost illicit interest thereafter. Continue reading

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UK’s perfect storm

For British politics now, the truth is that we are living through a fivefold crisis, unfolding horrors every day; trapped in a nightmare from which there seems no escape.

An existential crisis: the very concept of the Union is now under threat as the four countries that make up the UK wonder aloud about its resilience and adjust their breakaway plans accordingly.

A constitutional crisis caused by government’s attempt to exclude Parliament from meaningful roles in the Brexit process, as shown by the Miller case, and by the lamentable behaviour of most MPs which is dragging the legislature down.

A legislative crisis brought about by the needs for regulatory alignment with the EU, with all those new statutory instruments now required, and broken links repaired.

A government crisis: as all Whitehall hands are sent to the Brexit pump the business of government has ground to a halt.  Think of everything not happening. British politics is ill.

A socio-economic crisis: the impoverishment looming especially for the many who voted Leave, post-Brexit unrest, the rise of thuggish populism and the post-austerity revelations showing just how divided we are.

Even to write about all this is depressing; fearful, too.  Where are heading?



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Apocalypse soon

Accessing the media nowadays risks plunging into a sea of grime and gloom. At this stage in human history there appears to be so much to go wrong.  But this is true of any age.  The feeling has been personified with imagery transmitting angst.  Thus, for instance, the four horsemen of the apocalypse as imagined by the writer of Revelation two millennia ago – Disease, Famine, War and Death – there are certainly more in the meme now.

It only takes a moment to draw up a modernised list of threats to our well-being – to that of all of us – to arrive at a dozen horsemen now.  Some of these risks are old, familiar ones; others are rebadged or new; all are baleful.  These are my candidates.

  • Pandemics: epidemics writ large over millions
  • Climate change: the base and driver for so many adverse circumstances now
  • Diminishing resources: oil, living space, water
  • Environmental degradation: desertification, ice sheets, plastic,
  • Geophysical catastrophes: earthquakes, eruptions, flooding
  • Nuclear accidents: Chernobyl, Fukushima
  • War: including war crimes, cyberattacks
  • Globalisation: cross-border depredations, banks v states
  • Maximum surveillance: in the air, on the street, in your home
  • Artificial intelligence: job-killers
  • Despotisms: the encrustation of populism, sick societies
  • Religious fanaticisms: the perversion of misunderstood ideals

The truly frightening thing about this list is how little governments seem to be doing to counter such threats (and refrain from exploiting them), and protect us from them.  If so, perhaps it should be regarded, on a larger scale, as an illustration of where and how, at this stage in human history, we are wilfully blinding ourselves in the face of uncomfortable and damaging realities.

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The Russians are coming

My own take on the CBW attack in Salisbury is that it has three objectives and plays to three distinct audiences.  The first objective was to carry put a live-firing exercise to see if the Novichok agent could be used effectively by deploying it against a civilian leading a normal life in a provincial city and, if so, by what method of malign administration.

Second, the attack would answer the important tactical question about how well, or not, local services would react to identify, respond, contain and attribute the agent.  It’s the aftermath that the Russians will be studying right now: how well are we handling this attack and what effect is it having on public and government opinion in the UK?

Third, it is a drama intended to play to three principal audiences in particular.  The most immediate of these is the UK government: a warning reminder that despite having a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Britain would find it difficult to undertake any kind of serious retaliatory action or military might.

Then there are the countries bordering Mother Russia, including the Baltics: a demonstration, if any were needed, of the power just over the eastern horizon and its willingness to ignore international norms and agreements concerning state use of CBW capability.

Third audience: the Russian people who are, by all accountns, happy to see any kind of force used to bolster Russia’s standing in the world, and used dramatically.  Coupled with cyber-warfare, this is a package of threats designed to warn, and warn decisively.  Welcome to the new age of state hostility, symbolised by an old man and his daughter slumped, barely alive, on a park bench in Wiltshire.


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When the cars came

An interesting old picture postcard appears on the Hanslope village noticeboard this week.  It shows our High Street as it was in 1907: completely empty save for a family on bicycles, stopping to have their picture taken on a sunny summer’s afternoon.

The date is notable. It’s the decade when the majority of wheeled traffic in London, fifty miles from here, changed from horse-drawn to motorised vehicles.  This obviously happened at different times in different parts of England.  My great-aunt Muriel Nash was, we were told, the driver of the first sports car to be seen on the Isle of Wight, and that was in the Twenties.  I reckon that cars of all shapes and sizes came to Hanslope during that decade.  There are none parked in the photograph from 1907; how son that would change.


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Trump time

I am not an American citizen, so I have no right to criticise the choice of president the American people made in November 2016; except to take on the role of critical friend of the office whose holder has some influence on every other person in the world and comment accordingly. Continue reading

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Italian pride

Stendhal’s love of gossip, acerbic comment and piercing observation throw up a continual stream of delight. Here he is, in 1816, on Italian pride speaking truth to power.

In Bologna, it would take more courage than I possess to hint that Mr Astley (of Bond Street) makes better boots that signor Ronchetti – a well-known shoe-maker of the city, renowned for his love of paintings no less than for his dauntless stand against [Marshal] Murat.  Murat had ventured to observe that no one outside Paris understood how to make a pair of boots fit to be worn; in revenge, Ronchetti refused point-blank to make him a complete pair.  The King of Naples, having approved one boot by trying it on, demanded its fellow. “Have it made in Paris, Sire!” retorted Ronchetti.  (from: Stendhal. Rome, Naples and Florence; tr Richard Coe. London, 1959.  p189)

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The British abroad

Britain and Europe: an 18th century warning

“Upon the whole, I think it is next to an impossibility for a young man of fortune to pass a year or two in Paris, the southern parts of France, Italy, &c. without running a great risque of being beggared by sharpers, or seduced by artful women; unless he has with him a tutor, who is made wise by years, and a frequent acquaintance with the customs and manners of the country: an honest, learned Clergyman tutor, is of less use to a young man in that situation, than a trusty Valet de Chambre. A travelling tutor must know men; and, what is more difficult to know, he must know women also, before he is qualified to guard against the innumerable snares that are always making to entangle strangers of fortune.”

From Philip Thicknesse A year’s journey through France and part of Spain.  Dublin, 1777  Volume 1, Letter 14.  (Project Gutenberg)

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Protect us!

For all that has been said or written about the Brexit-Trump ‘Off with their heads!’ phenomenon (coming to your local democracy soon) one basic factor stands out.

As most voters would agree, the prime duty of the state is to protect its citizens from harm.  By harm, we don’t just mean terrorism and other threats to our safety and security.  It comes in many forms.  Most of them, real and unreal, as widely perceived, come from the effects of many things: globalisation, neoliberalism and turb0-capitalism, casino banking, asset stripping, wage deflation, automation and permanent job loss, heightened concerns about immigration and culture change, increased inequality and poverty, carnage in the streets, malfeasance in the public realm, politics as usual, the collapse of family values, climate change and many others. Take your pick.  These represent real fears.

Against these threats and others like them, government has been seen to be ineffectual, culpable in some way or other, and seemingly uncaring.  In all democracies we have not been protected.  Whom did we trust to do this?  Why are things worse than before?  Who is to blame?

It is in vain that members of the ‘elite’ seek to rebut such charges by protesting that most of them are beyond their control, or that of anybody else.  They know that data analysis shows that this anger and these fears are more often and more clamantly to be found in voters who are comparatively older, less informed and less well-educated. They have nothing left to rage with, as someone has put it, but their votes.

In this context, politicians falter, media get contaminated, and misperceptions and outright lies spread like weeds.  “The centre cannot hold”, said Yeats, if the interaction between citizens and tribunes gets sick and throws up political ectoplasm like Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and Erdogan.  They all, in their several ways, mislead us and feed on people’s fears: fears rooted in ignorance of where our real threats are coming from and of how we can set about collectively dealing with them.

Those fears somehow have to be countered, their psychic wounds healed.  This is now the democracies’ prime mission, surely: to educate and inform, above all to communicate, all in the context of promoting some measure of realism, the ‘art of the possible’, and new and wiser solutions to the problems that enslave all of us with fear. And yes, it is the elites, particularly the Fourth Estate and the commentariat, who must do a major part of this.

As FDR said, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. Let that be the mantra taught to all of us by leaders with authentic charisma, optimism and ability.  It is our responsibility to find them and elect them, and then hold them to their promises.

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The mowing of a field

This passage, the opening lines of an essay by Hilaire Belloc, was one of those pieces we were shown at school, some 50 years ago, as an example of fine English writing.  I have just discovered it again accidentally through the benign agency of the great Project Gutenberg.  I find that I still agree with the judgement.rural-scene

THERE is a valley in South England remote from ambition and from fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of the grass in summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land. The roads to the Channel do not traverse it; they choose upon either side easier passes over the range. One track alone leads up through it to the hills, and this is changeable: now green where men have little occasion to go, now a good road where it nears the homesteads and the barns. The woods grow steep above the slopes; they reach sometimes the very summit of the heights, or, when they cannot attain them, fill in and clothe the coombes. And, in between, along the floor of the valley, deep pastures and their silence are bordered by lawns of chalky grass and the small yew trees of the Downs.

The clouds that visit its sky reveal themselves beyond the one great rise, and sail, white and enormous, to the other, and sink beyond that other. But the plains above which they have traveled and the Weald to which they go, the people of the valley cannot see and hardly recall. The wind, when it reaches such fields, is no longer a gale from the salt, but fruitful and soft, an inland breeze; and those whose blood was nourished here feel in that wind the fruitfulness of our orchards and all the life that all things draw from the air.

In this place, when I was a boy, I pushed through a fringe of beeches that made a complete screen between me and the world, and I came to a glade called No Man’s Land. I climbed beyond it, and I was surprised and glad, because from the ridge of that glade, I saw the sea. To this place very lately I returned.

From: Hilaire Belloc The mowing of a field; in Modern Essays, selected by Christopher Morley 1921



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