Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Do what you want to do

I strongly believe that one should try to have the courage to do whatever one wants. There is no point in being virtuous or self-denying unless one wants to be.

If only England had free speech

British journalist Brendan O'Neill who is almost always right (despite being a Trotskyite) says: 
"If you make "sexually offensive" comments online you "risk being put behind bars for two years". Terrifying. Further proof of Spiked's insistence that the moral panic about trolling is a far greater menace to civilisation than trolling could ever be." 
ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. Please read this terrible story and this very scary stuff.

Barack Obama is absent from his own presidency

Today I came across yet another article preposterously claiming Mr Obama is the worst ever US president. This one begins:

Barack Obama isn't running merely the worst American presidency since James Buchanan’s, but the worst imaginable presidency in this day and age. 

I haven't read it beyond the first sentence, nor do I intend to. Life is too short to read idiots, but I shall comment on the first sentence.

I am coming to feel that Mr Obama is absent from his own presidency. He is not really up to the job. His medical reform is probably a good thing but his proposed immigration reform is unforgivable and he has no feel for, nor I suspect interest in, foreign policy. Still to compare a mediocre president with one as disastrous as the last one is in very bad taste indeed. G W Bush will I hope be the worst for all time. 

James Buchanan was not so very bad - Lincoln and Wilson were far worse, the two Johnsons too. 

I know I have said this before but it deserves repeating.

One historian recently said that John Tyler was the best but I have not read nearly enough to know. John Tyler annexed Texas, was on the right, i.e. the Southern, side in the Civil War and seems to have done little harm. Henry Truman was very good if you think the Cold War was necessary. I have grave doubts about Franklin Roosevelt - he was a good war leader if you don't think he should have known about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance - or if you don't think he did know and allowed it to happen. Abraham Lincoln need not have gone to war against the South and this is enough in my opinion to make him the worst president of all, excepting George W Bush.

None of them are very impressive compared with British Prime Ministers like Disraeli, Palmerston, Gladstone, Salisbury or the Pitts. In fact, Harold Macmillan or Sir Robert Peel were probably better than any American President I can think of. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Things I learnt over the weekend

Early Muslims including the so-called 'righteous Caliphs' who are recorded, in chronicles written centuries after the event, as having succeeded Mohamed, were presumably what we would now call Islamists, but Charlemagne, Charles Martel and other Christian kings also used the sword to convert pagans to Christianity.

Mohamed's wives were older women whom he married for political reasons, with the exception of Ayesha, who was nine or ten, according to the (not necessarily reliable) Muslim sources, when she married him. Other men of the age married pubescent girls. Mohamed was not unusual in this regard. A thousand years later men were still marrying very young girls. King James II, the last Catholic King of England, Scotland and Ireland, married his second wife, Mary of Modena when he was 39 and she just 15. She was 'tall and admirably shaped', he scarred by smallpox and afflicted with a stutter. For some time she burst into tears whenever she met him.

Jean Marie Le Pen did not borrow the name for the Front National from the British National Front, as I have read many times, but from the organisation that supported a pre-war dictator of Brazil. I am not sure if this is better or worse than the story I knew but it is different.

I heard my first Hayden opera when I attended the one night only production at the Hackney Empire of Life On the Moon, an opera based on a farce by Goldoni and produced by Cal McCrystal, who is or was Physical Comedy Director of the National Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors , an adaptation of another Goldoni play. The evening was utterly charming, the music ditto, but one expected the music which is very Mozartian to soar and it never did. 

Rupert Christiansen is not miles out when he says

If all you want from opera is sugar-coated alcohol-free entertainment that makes no demands of your intelligence or sensibility, then I can sincerely recommend this well-cooked show. The rest of us would be better off sweeping up autumn leaves.

Still it was a very charming silly fairy story and I love fairy stories. The Guardian man liked it a lot. Do go if it comes to your town.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Thoughts for the day

We were not a hugging people. In terms of emotional comfort it was our belief that no amount of physical contact could match the healing powers of a well made cocktail.

David Sedaris

I love to do as my fathers did,

In the days ere I was born.

Wilfred Scawen Blunt.

Throughout history the world has been laid waste to ensure the triumph of conceptions that are now as dead as the men that died for them.

Henry de Montherlant

Abortion is the only event that modern liberals think too violent and obscene to portray on TV.  This is not because they are squeamish or prudish. It is because if people knew what Abortion really looked like, it would destroy their pretence that it is a civilized answer to the problem of what to do about unwanted babies.
Peter Hitchens

Raymond Chandler in Bucharest

I just gave the girls in the office a copy each, in Romanian translation, of Farewell, My Lovely. I spotted copies on sale at the tobacco kiosk in the street below.I envy anyone reading Raymond Chandler for the first time. He is not just a detective story writer but a great writer, a major prose stylist. 

Why is Chandler one of the immortals? Sir Tom Stoppard explains here.
It was not the admittedly enjoyable asides.
     ''You can't tell anything about an outfit like that,''
Marlowe reflects as he smokes his cigarette.
    ''They might be making millions, and they might have the sheriff in the back      room, with his chair tilted against the safe.' '
It was more this, which is what happens next.

''Half an hour and three or four cigarettes later a door opened behind Miss Fromsett's desk and two men came out backwards, laughing. A third man held the door for them and helped them laugh. They all shook hands heartily and the two men went across the offi ce and out. The third man dropped the grin off his face and looked as if he had never grinned in his life.''

Look at it. This is writing at 24 frames per second. The paragraph mimics the action. You get the wait, then the door; you g et their backs before the laughing. The repeat ''laugh'' placed at the end of the sentence pulls the laughter through the intervening time. The ''out'' at the end of the next sentence is the monosyllable made by the door closing.

Chandler, improbably, went to Dulwich, the same English minor public school  as P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester (and Nigel Farage). It's odd that Wodehouse is also a popular writer who will outlive his highbrow contemporaries - whether C.S. Forester does I am less sure. Chandler wrote only six novels - slowly - and the major character in all of them is not Philip Marlowe, their hero, but Los Angeles, a city which Raymond Chandler hated. 

How I should like to make Bucharest the main character in a novel.

Here are some more quotations:

There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

To say goodbye is to die a little. 
He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me.
When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.
From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren't as good as others.

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

There's more Chandler here. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Romanian labour force finally equals the number of retired people

A remarkable turning-point in the Romanian economy has just been reached. The number of retired people and employed people in Romania are now roughly equal, latest figures show.  This is an almost incredible thing. In comparison, in 2000 there were two pensioners for every one employed person.

Figures issued yesterday by the Minister of Labour show that 5.7 million Romanians are now employed, of whom 5.2 million have permanent full-time jobs while 5.2 million receive state pensions - out of a population that has fallen to a fraction under 20 million. So a little over a quarter of the population are now in permanent full-time jobs.

Unfortunately I presume the causes of this change are a high mortality rate, not a high birth rate.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Yazidi girls kidnapped by Isil tell of their captivity

Here are some stories of Yazidi girls who escaped from Isil. The stories are harrowing, hellish but oddly like stories from the Arabian Nights. 

They also remind me of Henry Mayhew's spare narratives and Philip Larkin's poem inspired by reading Mayhew, Deceptions.

When I was a child my parents worried that because I read so much I would live life at second hand, mediated through books, and rereading this post I see that this is exactly what I do.  Illiterates and people who do not like read much see things more clearly. This is why people who read engineering and science at university are dull while at university but become interesting in middle age. They do not see things mediated through literature. Unfortunately they do not escape television and the internet so easily, though.

I have been to Lalish, the centre of the Yazidi religion, and I am horrified by this attempt to destroy an ancient community. Allowing Yazidis asylum in the rich world will do even more to destroy their culture. Even though I would prefer the Yazidis to convert to Christianity the antiquity of Yazidism holds me enthralled. I am convinced that it Is one of the very oldest religions in the world, perhaps the oldest. 

The Americans and British have no choice but to act against ISIS or ISIL or whatever their name is this week, but what is worrying is that this is exactly what they want us to do. It does feel like the beginning of the Vietnamese war. And we Anglo-Saxons are fighting in a region where we have no great strategic interest, oil or no oil, for the interests of countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel, whose interests are not ours.

Meanwhile, in England, the National Union of Students refuses to condemn ISIS/ISIL and speak of ‘Islamophobia’, a very pernicious word that should be expunged from the dictionary. It does considerably more harm, by a way, than that other dread word homophobia. The words racism and sexism by contrast are also used to close down debate but mean something and are, at least occasionally, useful.

Thoughts for the day

When we ask how good a man is, we do not ask what he does, nor even what he believes, but what he loves.

St. Augustine

Through the poet we encounter reality.


Life's like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.


Most affections are habits or duties we lack the courage to end.

Henri De Montherlant

"The first thing to remember is to git interested in yore man's work. If it's pigs..git interested in pigs an if it's leaky taps and cisterns like Mr Bumbling git interested in leaky taps an cisterns.As I 'ave said before most gentlemen prefer the larky sporty tipe , but there are those wot prefers the quiet moony tipe so you will 'ave to be larky and sporty or quiet and moony accordin' to the man you are chasin.."

Mrs Miffins on "How To Get Your Man" by Nathaniel Gubbins

Saturday, 11 October 2014

UKIP, Dad's Army and the Matter of Britain

Jonathan Freedland has written a thought-provoking, if condescending, article in The Guardian, likening Nigel Farage, the leader of the British Eurosceptic party UKIP, to Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army. I think Private Walker is more apposite but let that pass.  (If you don't know the programme it is pointless for me to explain but you might enjoy this.)

I prefer to point out that Captain Mainwaring, Pooterish, self-important, ridiculous, was a hero, whereas his much more agreeable adjunct, Sergeant Wilson, intelligent, suave, funny and upper middle-class, was weak. Mainwaring would have laid down his life for his country. Wilson would have been a defeatist, perhaps a quisling, had the Germans conquered Sussex, at least if not carefully watched by Mainwaring. 

Actually the real myth bequeathed by the Second World War is that fascism is still a great danger or will be in Europe in the next twenty years. Evil morphs.  The nearest thing to a fascist threat today and for the foreseeable future comes from Muslim extremists, not anti immigration parties.

Going to war with Germany with 1939 was in any case catastrophic for Britain, for the country we ostensibly went to war to save, Poland, for our ally France - and for the whole world. This truth is obscured by heroic myths.

In the Middle Ages the Matter of Britain meant the legends of King Arthur (while the Matter of France meant those recounting the imaginary deeds of Child Roland and Charlemagne). In our time the Matter of Britain is the myth of Britain standing alone in the Second World War. It's curious that when we British think about that war it is not war films or stories we think of nearly as much as a comedy programme broadcast over forty years ago about a group of part-time volunteers, in a genteel resort on the South Coast of England, preparing to meet German invaders. It's about a time when Britain was still a great power, still all white, still had class distinction. Instead of being about courage in battle, or the horrors of world war, or about our country's abrupt passage from global domination to a purely secondary role, it's a myth of cosiness, a national comfort blanket, a cuddle. 

As the man says,
The Americans had Private Ryan; we had Private Pike.

Friday, 10 October 2014


Just in case you, like me, forget the exact number of years we have gone without any global warming, it is eighteen and rising. This is good news and very useful when discussing the subject with people who worry about climate change.

15 years age gap is acceptable between husband and wife

A 15 years age gap is acceptable between husband and wife - 16 is not. So said Enquire Within Upon Everything - the 1888 edition we had at home when I was growing up. It also had the rules for cribbage and much useful information.

Nevertheless men still pursue young women much more than fifteen years their junior, as if they never consulted Enquire Within, and at least one British journalist feels this requires explanation. Romanians understand human nature. 

I was shocked when I first came here sixteen years ago to see so many lovely women with men so much older than them. A rather extreme example of a trend was Iosif Constantin Drăgan who was the richest man in Romania. He married a lady almost sixty years his junior, who is now the richest woman in Romania. Later on these age gaps became reassuring and still later one began to see it less and less, partly because more people had more money and partly because so many lovely women, like so many other people, left the country to find their fortune.

Clacton was a defeat for the BBC, the Church of England and politicians who don't like ordinary people

Congratulations to Clacton for choosing an outstanding Member and offending the Anglican clergy, the BBC and people like Dan Hodges and Matthew D' Ancona.

(You might ask why the clergy should dislike the only British political party that opposed single-sex marriage. That's a very good question, which I cannot answer, but according to Damien Thompson they do.)

For the first time in my life I had a vote in a parliamentary by-election and what a by-election! Douglas Carswell, the MP I most admire, swept to a landslide victory for UKIP. More surprisingly - and yet I wasn't surprised - and almost more importantly, UKIP came within a whisker of winning the safe Labour stronghold of Heywood and Middleton. 

What a shame Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, decided Heywood and Middleton wasn't winnable and put little effort into it. 

If the House of Commons was still powerful Mr. Carswell would be UKIP leader now - he would be very good indeed -but the House scarcely matters anymore - except when it roused itself like the Kraken in Tennyson's poem to prevent Great Britain bombing Syria last year.

This is an article worth reading about Clacton by Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson. I grew up in more vibrant Southend-on-Sea (WestclIff-on-Sea actually, though both places are not on the sea but on the Thames estuary) but my family live just outside Clacton and I lived there briefly before coming to Bucharest.

I find that Clacton is a depressing, unlovely place which makes my native town seem beautiful, but I do not much like the slurs of Matthew Parris who wrote

Clacton-on-Sea is a friendly resort trying not to die, inhabited by friendly people trying not to die… These are not wealthy retired professionals (almost 40 per cent of residents have no qualifications at all) and if you associate tattoos with youth, Clacton will surprise you. Father Time is busy with his scythe here: I counted 19 estate agents on Station Road, and you can get a three-bedroom detached bungalow for £94,995. Only in Asmara after Eritrea’s bloody war have I encountered a greater proportion of citizens on crutches or in wheelchairs....

I am not arguing that we should be careless of the needs of struggling people and places such as Clacton. But I am arguing — if I am honest — that we should be careless of their opinions.
In other words, he thinks the electorate is out of touch with the modern world. 

In this Matthew Parris is speaking for David Cameron and the Conservative modernisers. An anonymous 'senior moderniser' is quoted as saying

We have to respect these people. But we must not change our policy to go nearer to where they are ...

Since I was a little boy I have sided with the views of the elderly so I am not able to be objective but Peter Oborne answers Matthew Parris very well here. In fact the argument that the Conservative brand is 'toxic' and the party needs to be socially liberal to win elections has surprisingly little evidence from polling to sustain it but this is not really about focus groups. It's about the values of opinion-formers and the people they meet. 

The truth is that many Conservative politicians, and many more Labour ones, just do not like England very much. Someone on the left said Clacton was classic UKIP territory - white, poor and uneducated. I thought that was supposed to be classic Labour territory but times have changed. The working class have few friends left and very few on the left.

When I went to Twitter and put in the word 'Clacton' I was astonished and saddened at the malice and hatred directed at that blameless town because it had the temerity to vote to leave the EU. You'd have thought Clacton had collectively committed treason. The antiracists who feel entitled to hate Clacton or UKIP voters are, paradoxically, themselves being racist.

The Independent printed a collection of this stuff - which I think would make any reader feel like sending off for a UKIP membership form.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Mass migrations and the remaking of Europe in 1946

It is very odd and not sufficiently remarked that Attlee, Stalin and Truman at Potsdam decreed vast compulsory migrations, ethnically cleansing Eastern Europe to prevent ethnic minorities creating future wars, while in Western Europe within three or four years the vast migration from the colonies to Europe was to begin.

Victor Sebastyan's new book tells the sad story of the DPs.

Thoughts of the day

Oscar Wilde: 

One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

Perhaps one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part.

I found these and many other good things here

Death to child-friendliness

Tiffany Jenkins makes a timely plea
Stop children taking over our museums and galleries.
My favourite museums are ones like the wonderful National Archaeological Museum in Naples that does not even translate notices in languages other than Italian and I like obscure museums where no-one goes.  The Egypt Museum in Cairo also makes no attempt to be interesting to anyone other than scholars and yet it is one of the most interesting museums in the world.

 Sir John Soane's Museum in London, usually empty, is a great favourite. The staff refer to Soane, who left his house and wonderfully eclectic collection to the nation, as Sir John. You almost imagine he is lying dead upstairs and you are in the reign of King William IV - Lamb is slaving away at his desk, Macaulay and Thomas Love Peacock are holding breakfast parties and slavery has just been abolished.

Children should be taken to museums - I always remember with joy my beloved father showing me the Rosetta stone and the National Portrait Gallery was my childhood favourite -but they should not adapt to children. Being child-friendly means in effect coming down to the level of the average child not the brainy one. Museums should encourage brains and not talk down to children or adults. Actual things are far more interesting than plastic interactive animatronics. For children.

Bucharest used to abound in the kind of museums I like, as did all communist cities - dusty places, the sun occluded by heavy net curtains. 

One of my favourites is the the Sutu Palace, close to my flat, otherwise known as the Bucharest History Museum. As a museum it is not interesting and is rarely visited but the house, a lovely boyar's palace from 1834 is enchanting. Patrick Leigh Fermor when it was a house in 1934. In 'The Broken Road', the unfinished third volume of his travels on foot to Constantinople he remembers in advanced old age the "faint and scarcely discernible warp" of the parquet floor in the palace. Nowadays the palace, robbed of life, feels ghostly.