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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The trumpet sounds

For all that he swears in public that he will stay on as candidate for the presidency, Mr Trump conveys a different impression.  To me he looks like a man trying on a role for size; it intrigues him, just as he wants to see how far he can get in it – and yes, get away with it – without really lusting for the White House.  He’s probably not given too much thought to what he would do if he were elected in November.  Despite the blustering promises to take clamant action from Day One, Mr Trump is not really looking that further ahead.  Rather, he is in the moment, and loving it, and being brazen about it, not particularly caring who comes with him in the storyline, but alert to the risk of getting bored by this whole show.

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Why are we voting?

Now that the Brexit campaigns are winding down, we are entitled to ask what they were all about.  Not Europe; not even migration.  Judging by what ordinary people going about their lives in front of the media’s lens had to say, the EU referendum offered an opportunity to lash out against the ‘way things are going’: turbo-capitalism, globalisation, inequality, the standard of living, genteel deprivation; above all, a chance to wonder aloud, who makes the decisions that affect me and mine without any participation by me?  “You work, we rule, they said.  We worked, they ruled./ They fooled the tenements. All men were fooled.” (from Empires, by Douglas Dunn).  Whatever the result of the vote tomorrow, this sullen bewilderment and anger has to be addressed, and healed.

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Referendum blues

Ever careful not to be seen as partisan in the Brexit debate, the BBC sallies into the streets to find out what ‘ordinary people’ think.  Presumably they edit the pieces so that we get a truly unbiased view of what the vox pop is saying.  What is astonishing is the number of times respondents claim that they do not know which way to vote in the referendum because they do not feel adequately informed.  Given the amount of coverage in the media, how can this be?  Where have they been? If they end up in the polling booth with only a very superficial knowledge of the issues involved, how far does that invalidate the result?

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Windsor tenacity

Looking at the newly published pictures of HM The Queen and her three male heirs in line of succession, I am reminded that some time ago I posted some speculative trivia predicting how the British throne would pass from generation to generation. Let’s try that again. Continue reading

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Jefferson on French ladies

Thomas Jefferson on the difference in life styles between Frenchwomen and American ladies Continue reading

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Why do the people?

One by one, rich Western democracies have been undergoing voters’ revolts against the status quo: populist insurgencies overturning party political norms and taking bites out of allegedly uncaring, washed-up governing elites.  Continue reading

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