Saturday, 26 January 2013

Danielle Lloyd and other wags

Danielle Lloyd is a mildly famous British WAG (WAG is a back-formation from WAGs, which means footballers' wives and girlfriends). She is famous because her picture sells newspapers and gets clicks on websites, including, I hope, mine, and famous for racist bullying of an Indian contestant on the reality television show Big Brother, though that was years ago. She should be famous for this answer that she gave on BBC One's quiz show, Test the Nation (sic). She was asked: "Who is Winston Churchill?" and answered: "Wasn't he the first black president?"'

More quotations:

Judge: I have read your case, Mr Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started.
F. E. Smith: Possibly not, my Lord, but much better informed.

Judge: Are you trying to show contempt for this court, Mr Smith?
Smith: No, My Lord. I am attempting to conceal it.

Judge: Mr Smith, you must not direct the jury. What do you suppose I am on the bench for?
Smith: It is not for me, your honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.

What is a man, after all, but his old jokes?
John Mortimer

Lord Kilmuir, who heard about his dismissal from the woolsack on the wireless: You have given me less notice than I would a housekeeper.
Harold Macmillan: But good housekeepers are so hard to find.

We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to amuse them. -- Evelyn Waugh

Prince Phillip, in 2000: ‎"People think there’s a rigid class system here, but dukes have even been known to marry chorus girls. Some have even married Americans."

When a Protestant sins he has no-one to whom to confess except his solicitor. Philip Guedalla

Thursday, 24 January 2013

So there will be a referendum on England staying in the EU

If the Conservatives win the next election.

The noble purpose of the EU is not to encourage trade for its own sake but to keep the peace. As a historical fact it was the Cold War and NATO and American continued presence in Europe which prevented war not the EEC or EC or EU, but no one was to know in the 1950s that this was how it would be. 

As things turned out, whether or not the EEC or EU had existed, the only war that might have broken out was with the Communist Bloc or between NATO allies Greece and Turkey. Still, in principle, customs unions certainly powerfully help prevent war. I agree with Cobden, Bright and the 19th century liberals about trade leading to peace. Freedom, democracy, free trade and peace go together. I also think the EU does more good than harm for continental countries, which have little tradition of or desire for freedom in the sense Anglo-Saxons understand, but the EU does far, far too much and integration has gone far too far.  Regulations on corporal and capital punishment, smoking in bars, hate speech, fireworks and social exclusion and a million other things unrelated to trade are not necessary for peace. The case against the EU is not just that it takes away sovereignty and is inescapably undemocratic. It is also the case against the big state encroaching on all our lives including that of the Romanian hill farmer who wants to kill a pig.

England will almost certainly not leave, which is probably a shame. I remember William Waldegrave, the cleverest and perhaps the nicest man in John Major's cabinet in the 1990s and a wet, saying in the end  that it would probably be best if England left the EU but that we had to understand that this would mean relocation to the status of a second class power. England still is a great power, though the English do not realise it, but If our great power status requires us to spill blood and waste money in Iraq and Afghanistan perhaps we do not need it. Though, as Julie Burchill said, in the 1970s we tried being Belgium and didn't like it. 

Very wise words here from Simon Jenkins in the pro-EU Guardian. And how clever Mr Cameron is - he reminds me of Disraeli though Disraeli was a Tory, whereas Mr Cameron is a Whig. But a very clever Whig.

I hope we do resile from the ECHR. But I am not hopeful.

Matt Cartoon

The offal truth

One of the list of things about Americans which make me feel superior is their repulsion from offal. I remember some American humorist saying 'England is a country where people EAT kidney.' I consciously try hard not to be a snob but sometimes I can't help it. I think there is something specifically middle class about squeamishness in the face of offal. Offal is manly and seventeenth century and has no airs and graces, no side. However many wonderful recipes for sweetbreads people write in the quality papers, offal is basic. Offal is, literally, visceral.

I was therefore delighted to read on the BBC that haggis has been banned in the US since 1971 because it contains sheep's lung. Do I ditch my diet and go to the Burns Night Supper at the Athénée Palace on Saturday? I don't feel at home at those things, which are rather Terry and June but I did like reading Burns when I was fifteen and I do love haggis and neeps very much and, why deny it, love the way it repulses other people. 

I first met haggis in the pages of The Beano where they appeared as mobile bagpipes coming over the hills, always with hostile intent. I am not sure how old I was before I realised that haggises were made not born.

Yes, I shall go to the Burns Supper, even though I am too young in spirit for that sort of thing.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Social media are remaking human nature

'''On or about December 1910 human character changed.'' 

Virginia Woolf's famous remark referred to an exhibition called ''Manet and the Post-Impressionists'', in which Roger Fry introduced modernist painting to England. How very much more has human nature been changed by the internet.

Modernism was always about finding a way to shock the bourgeoisie and keep high culture in the hands of a progressive elite. The internet will have a very different effect, of taking power away from the progressive elite.

The democratic deficit in Eastern (and Western) Europe will not be rectified by the EU but it will I hope be by by Facebook and Twitter. This is how corrupt cliques and corrupt media can be outwitted and undermined. Elites on both halves of the Continent have landed their populations in a big mess and I hope now ordinary people can try to take power back from them, starting in Romania.

This article in The Irish Times, which I found thanks to twitter naturally, really is worth reading.

The internet should also I hope make most universities redundant. What they do can be done better on the net allowing people from all classes and social groups to benefit from free education, which at present is too often a means of creating hierarchies of well paid people. We have not yet thought about the consequences of the net and have no idea what vast social and philosophical changes the internet will bring. Historians are of no use here, because history can only be written backwards but has to be made forwards.  

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Romania is a much freer country than England but much less democratic

Is Romania really a democracy? Yes compared to Russia and Belarus, no compared to Western Europe. Greece is a very corrupt (and socialist) country and but Greece is democratic in the sense that elections, as we have just seen, are fought over very real issues. 

How can the EU remedy the democratic deficit in East European countries like Romania?

It's an easy question - it cannot. The ambition to enter the EU helped make most of the  post-Communist countries stay democratic, save for the states of the former USSR, but the EU cannot impose democratic values. It can help by heckling from the sidelines and by offering a good example. The trouble is that the EU is not democratic itself and in Romania the population has no faith in the ideals of the EU, though a lot of hope that the EU will be a source of money and a providential deus ex machina. In the short run democracy can be imposed from above as it was after 1945 in West Germany and Italy, but only in the short term.

On the whole there is a lot more freedom in Romania than in Western Europe. People smoke in restaurants and make sexist remarks and disregard EU regulations. But they do not think government is on their side. Romanians do not have a party system which allows people to choose between parties that reflect different points of view and the EU cannot help here  nor does Romania have politicians who are respected or trusted.The EU might help by hectoring in improving slightly the quality of the judges and thereby building the rule of law. 

The essence of democracy is that one party leaves office after defeat to be replaced  by another party which brings in distinctly different values and laws from as happened in the UK in 1979 and 1997, in France last year, such as has not happened in Russia. This is where rule by the masses comes in and this fear of the electorate colours everything democratic governments do (though obviously the European Commission does not have to worry about electorates). With democracy goes press freedom and independent institutions that police corruption. Perhaps the EU can help marginally here too. On balance though the EU takes power away from electorates, obviously. 

The 1996 election in Romania which ousted the revamped Communists and the 2000 election which brought them back  did represent real change and people who voted for Traian Basescu in 2004 hoped his victory would do so too, but since 2004 all parties have seemed corrupt and not to represent divergent philosophies. In Eastern Europe it is hard to think that there are coherent right wing or left wing programmes. The liberals here are not liberal, by which I mean believing in a free market, and the socialists are not socialist. There are no conservatives, as people do not think there is much worth conserving.

Successful democracies are two party systems where the parties disagree over real issues but agree on a consensus of issues far bigger than the issues they disagree about. This is then called democracy and anyone who disagrees with the consensus is regarded as an extremist or mad. When the parties disagree on a lot things become more fractured.

What is so dull is that since 1945 European politics has become subsumed by economics and governments are supposed to manage the economy. Politics was much more interesting when it was about interesting things like separation of church and state or foreign policy or whatever - things electors can understand. 

Issues that generate heat elsewhere like abortion never get raised as far as I am aware. Many such issues have been decided by the EU anyway. To a larger extent than people realise things are now decided by the EU not by the Romanian parliament and I think most Romanians prefer it that way. And since the alternative is a clique rooted in the Communist regime and the secret police, it is very understandable that they should.

Freedom is unfashionable these days in the West, which is much more authoritarian than Romania (though much less authoritarian than Russia). I see signs of the whole feminist- liberal-authoritarian caravan coming here, via young Romanian academics and people educated abroad. I also see a young generation of the sons and daughters of demnitari (high dignitaries) who resemble their parents. Both species fill me with gloom. Both groups display that contempt for ordinary people that progressive people and rich people usually feel and which Romanians also usually feel. Contempt squared, so to speak. 

I think most of the interesting topics in politics can be dealt with very satisfactorily by referendum, which is by the way a wonderfully conservative instrument. 
How referendums on whether pigs should be slaughtered in the streets, horses allowed on roads or smoking in bars would raise political participation in Romania. But I forgot. These things have all been decided by Brussels, which, like Big Brother, knows best. 

Just ask yourself "Why am I doing this and what do I want out of it?"

I came across this which is worth reading. It originally appeared here.

If you really want to know who you are, just ask yourself "why am I doing this and what do I want out of it?"

If your answer is, "I don't know, does it matter?" you're a schizoid.
If your answer is, "I want to rule the world, or at least a portion of it," you're a psychopath.
If your answer is, "I am scared," you're an avoidant.
If your answer is, "I want attention...I want them to love me," you're a narcissist.
If you really want to know who you are, just ask yourself "Why am I doing this and what do I want out of it?"

Europe as a museum of dead ideas

Charles Moore writes interestingly today in the Daily Telegraph about Europe, but I was less interested in his points about current politics than by these remarks:

In her Bruges speech, Mrs Thatcher made an interesting appeal to her European allies: “The fact is that things are going our way… freedom is on the offensive, a peaceful offensive the world over, for the first time in my lifetime.” Despite her Euroscepticism, she saw European leadership as a rising power in the world. Her successors could not possibly say the same thing now. The European Union is becoming an economic, political, cultural and demographic backwater – a tourist destination, not a great power. This is very sad, but also, for those of us who want our country back, an opportunity.

A couple of years ago I found myself sharing a sleeping car from Bucharest to Belgrade with a Princeton historian, whose work for his Ph.D. thesis on the Sino-Soviet split had taken him around the world. He said that the cities of Europe all seemed museums, with the single exception of London which was a living place, like New York, Shanghai and the cities of China.

The Princeton man was arrogant. I wanted to disagree with him and think I did, at the time, but my heart told me he was right. 

I think we English underestimate our power in the world, cultural and economic as well as military. France and England do still have great military power and Germany has economic power but Western Europe feels like a museum, not just to the Hapsburgs or the Belle Epoque but to the 1950-1973 world, what the Communist Eric Hobsbawm called the 'Golden Age'. The 'Golden Age' was not a bad age at all, in many ways, but we have moved on. The EU cannot become a superpower, for which we in the EU must be grateful, or an economic superpower, though Germany is still one. 

At least Bucharest is no museum, although a Potemkin village was suddenly created about four years ago in the Old Town, where I live. But it is not tourism which makes cities museums, nor does Bucharest get that many tourists. Bucharest has an enormous vitality and changes every day, yet my Princeton historian had spent some days here and considered it too part of a dying civilsation.

Undoubtedly China, the Far East and India are rising in power and Europeans should not take for granted that they will always enjoy much higher living standards than the brown and yellow skinned peoples. Some people say that Western Europe is in decline for economic reasons or because of its political policies. Others because it has lost belief in itself or, according to some, lost belief in Christianity and has nothing to believe in instead, except liberalism and shopping. What is clear is that China and India do not have anything to believe in, any more than the Europeans do. It is not Confucianism, Marxism-Leninism or Hinduism that is conquering the world, nor any new idea. 

As far as religions go, only Christianity, though it is in speedy decline in the rich world, and Islam, which seems to engender economic stagnation, have any vitality. Political religions like fascism and communism come and go. The current political religion is about equality, anti-discrimination, welfare and relativism and it is doing a powerful amount of harm.

At least Europe as a museum is very much to be preferred to demolishing old buildings and clearing away traditions, which is what the 1960s and 1970s were all about in England. 'Young fogeys' who harped after the past in the early 1980s lived to see their ideas become mainstream instead of counter cultural.

Anthony Burgess in 1972 saw England's destiny as a choice between being European or American: 

I used to think that England might become just a place that liked to be visited—like that island in J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose—but now I see that so many of the things worth seeing—old things—are disappearing so that England can become a huge Los Angeles, all motorways, getting about more important than actually getting anywhere. England is now going into Europe, not—as I had once expected and even hoped—America, and I think it will now have Europe’s faults without its virtues. The decimal coinage is a monstrosity, and soon there’ll be litres of beer, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and no cheap wine or caporal tobacco. Absorption, anyway, since England either has to absorb or be absorbed. Napoleon has won.
England has become much more European since 1972 and America has too to some extent -  and Europe has continued to become much more American. The single European currency and the extension of the EU are both Napoleonic but as far as England is concerned I don't think Napoleon has won. At least not yet. As for Europe, it seems to have something of the role in the world that France had in Europe after 1815, or rather from 1848, onwards. I hope Europe does not reach the point of being Vichy.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Eurobarometer - 39% of Romanians think their financial situation is fairly good

These figures are interesting: 39% of Romanians think their financial situation is fairly good. 41% tend to trust the press, which is ridiculous, and 53% trust the television. 44%  trust the EU and, rather touchingly, 20% trust the Romanian government. Only in the UK do more people trust their government than the EU.  

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

We are drawn like magnets to power and repelled by weakness

Politicians are drawn like magnets to power and repelled by weakness. They have no choice. If they behave otherwise, they will have trouble surviving. When they smell blood or fear, they sink their teeth into their adversaries and tear them to shreds, leaving them for dead by the roadside. 
That is what has happened over the past few days to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The invincible leader, the champion of political trickery, singer Sarit Hadad's "cannon," is bleeding Knesset seats in the opinion polls, and the people who were so recently his partners are pecking at his flesh.
Thus began an article by Aluf Benn in Haaretz which I read last week while waiting for my plane home from Tel Aviv. The rest of the article did not much interest me, but a good article only needs a good opening.

It set me thinking. Psychopaths behave in somewhat similar ways. And so, probably, do all of us.

Jackie Collins is not a great writer but she knows human nature. She wrote:

People can smell fear like coffee.
The reason intelligence is attractive is that it is power. A sense of humour demonstrates intelligence and power. Beauty itself is power, especially physical beauty. Schopenhauer argued that beauty represents the will to power which is why, he said, a tree standing in the forest is beautiful while one cut down and lying on the ground is not.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Devastating statistics

From a particularly silly article by Charlotte Leslie in The Observer today:

Devastating statistics show that only 16% of students eligible for free school meals go on to university, as opposed to 96% of private school students. 

Despite doing as well as their privately educated peers at university, for students from state schools comparable academic performance does not mean equal access to the professions – they trail by a gap of up to 15%. And if they do reach the professions, they earn up to £3,000 less. So in terms of social mobility, we cannot afford to assume that a university education is the great leveller.

So we are to understand that the purpose of university is to enable students to get well paid jobs. 

Someone commented very wisely on this article:

Intelligence is largely inherited. That's not a racist statement, it's a scientific conclusion. There are numerous studies that have found this, although the degree of inheritability is in dispute. 

And intelligence is a useful thing in higher education. 

Why is inherited intelligence not mentioned when people talk about equality of opportunity or complain that too many High Court judges went to expensive schools or that not as many Pakistanis as Chinese get good GCSEs? 

And what is wrong with the idea of social hierarchy, come to that? It is inevitable, whether right or wrong.

I agree that intelligent children from poor backgrounds have a harder time. This too is inevitable but can and should be greatly ameliorated. They should be given greater life chances, though not by affirmative action or positive discrimination, but by good schools. 

I was an intelligent boy from a poor background but with highly intelligent parents. It was very easy for me to do well thanks to selective state education which is now disapproved of in the UK and largely abolished. My father, by contrast, had to leave school in 1933 at fourteen because his family needed him to earn a wage. But though there are many very intelligent and bookish children in poor families it is not true that intelligence is spread at random amongst the population or anything like at random. Nor is it good to have a society obsessed with getting on. 

The hugely wider opportunities in life which exist today for children of all backgrounds are the fruit of the unexpected economic miracle that happened in the developed world after 1950, a miracle that happened despite, not because of, socialism, the welfare state and public spending. In England these opportunities have been much curtailed by ending grammar schools (selective education), grammar schools which were the great achievement of a Conservative, R.A. Butler. This is why England is now ruled by people from elite backgrounds like Messrs. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, not by people from obscure families in small towns.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bethlehem, gushing spring of fresh and joyous Christian girlhood

Alexander Kinglake liked the fresh and joyous Christian girls of Bethlehem, which he visited in 1834. People, if you have not read Eothen then do so (follow the link). He would be sorry that in the last thirty or forty years Bethlehem has gone from having a Christian majority to being three quarters Muslim. The Christian girls of the Holy Land still seem fresh and joyous in Bethlehem and Nazareth.

You know what a sad and sombre decorum it is that outwardly reigns through the lands oppressed by Moslem sway. The Mahometans make beauty their prisoner, and enforce such a stern and gloomy morality, or at all events, such a frightfully close semblance of it, that far and long the wearied traveller may go without catching one glimpse of outward happiness. By a strange chance in these latter days it happened that, alone of all the places in the land, this Bethlehem, the native village of our Lord, escaped the moral yoke of the Mussulmans, and heard again, after ages of dull oppression, the cheering clatter of social freedom, and the voices of laughing girls. It was after an insurrection, which had been raised against the authority of Mehemet Ali, that Bethlehem was freed from the hateful laws of Asiatic decorum. The Mussulmans of the village had taken an active part in the movement, and when Ibrahim had quelled it, his wrath was still so hot, that he put to death every one of the few Mahometans of Bethlehem who had not already fled. The effect produced upon the Christian inhabitants by the sudden removal of this restraint was immense. The village smiled once more. It is true that such sweet freedom could not long endure. Even if the population of the place should continue to be entirely Christian, the sad decorum of the Mussulmans, or rather of the Asiatics, would sooner or later be restored by the force of opinion and custom. But for a while the sunshine would last, and when I was at Bethlehem, though long after the flight of the Mussulmans, the cloud of Moslem propriety had not yet come back to cast its cold shadow upon life. When you reach that gladsome village, pray Heaven there still may be heard there the voice of free, innocent girls. It will sound so dearly welcome!

To a Christian, and thoroughbred Englishman, not even the licentiousness which generally accompanies it can compensate for the oppressiveness of that horrible outward decorum, which turns the cities and the palaces of Asia into deserts and gaols. So, I say, when you see and hear them, those romping girls of Bethlehem will gladden your very soul. Distant at first, and then nearer and nearer the timid flock will gather around you, with their large burning eyes gravely fixed against yours, so that they see into your brain; and if you imagine evil against them, they will know of your ill thought before it is yet well born, and will fly and be gone in the moment. But presently, if you will only look virtuous enough to prevent alarm, and vicious enough to avoid looking silly, the blithe maidens will draw nearer and nearer to you, and soon there will be one, the bravest of the sisters, who will venture right up to your side and touch the hem of your coat, in playful defiance of the danger, and then the rest will follow the daring of their youthful leader, and gather close round you, and hold a shrill controversy on the wondrous formation that you call a hat, and the cunning of the hands that clothed you with cloth so fine; and then growing more profound in their researches, they will pass from the study of your mere dress to a serious contemplation of your stately height, and your nut-brown hair, and the ruddy glow of your English cheeks. And if they catch a glimpse of your ungloved fingers, then again will they make the air ring with their sweet screams of wonder and amazement, as they compare the fairness of your hand with their warmer tints, and even with the hues of your own sunburnt face. Instantly the ringleader of the gentle rioters imagines a new sin; with tremulous boldness she touches, then grasps your hand, and smoothes it gently betwixt her own, and pries curiously into its make and colour, as though it were silk of Damascus, or shawl of Cashmere. And when they see you even then still sage and gentle, the joyous girls will suddenly and screamingly, and all at once, explain to each other that you are surely quite harmless and innocent, a lion that makes no spring, a bear that never hugs, and upon this faith, one after the other, they will take your passive hand, and strive to explain it, and make it a theme and a controversy. But the one, the fairest and the sweetest of all, is yet the most timid; she shrinks from the daring deeds of her play-mates, and seeks shelter behind their sleeves, and strives to screen her glowing consciousness from the eyes that look upon her. But her laughing sisters will have none of this cowardice; they vow that the fair one SHALL be their 'complice, SHALL share their dangers, SHALL touch the hand of the stranger; they seize her small wrist, and drag her forward by force, and at last, whilst yet she strives to turn away, and to cover up her whole soul under the folds of downcast eyelids, they vanquish her utmost strength, they vanquish your utmost modesty, and marry her hand to yours. The quick pulse springs from her fingers, and throbs like a whisper upon your listening palm. For an instant her large timid eyes are upon you; in an instant they are shrouded again, and there comes a blush so burning, that the frightened girls stay their shrill laughter, as though they had played too perilously, and harmed their gentle sister. A moment, and all with a sudden intelligence turn away and fly like deer, yet soon again like deer they wheel round and return, and stand, and gaze upon the danger, until they grow brave once more.

"I regret to observe, that the removal of the moral restraint imposed by the presence of the Mahometan inhabitants has led to a certain degree of boisterous, though innocent, levity in the bearing of the Christians, and more especially in the demeanour of those who belong to the younger portion of the female population; but I feel assured that a more thorough knowledge of the principles of their own pure religion will speedily restore these young people to habits of propriety, even more strict than those which were imposed upon them by the authority of their Mahometan brethren." Bah! thus you might chant, if you chose; but loving the truth, you will not so disown sweet Bethlehem; you will not disown or dissemble your right good hearty delight when you find, as though in a desert, this gushing spring of fresh and joyous girlhood.

Quotations for the New Year

"A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril." Sir Winston Churchill

"Shall I tell you what it is to know? To say you know when you know, and to say you do not know when you do not, that is knowledge." Confucius
"In my early years I read very hard. It is a sad reflection, but a true one, that I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now." Dr.Johnson 
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." Alexander Pope in a letter to John Gay
“My parents did not understand the secret of a life really well lived. My father used to say to me: 'Susan, life is just a mass of boredom interspersed with a few expansive moments.’ In many ways my parents were the models of what I really didn’t want to be.” Susan Jeffers, who wrote 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway'
"Life is, I am sure, made of poetry." Jorge Luis Borges 
“Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair.” - George Burns

"My grandfather was the unluckiest man. On his death bed he confessed to two murders and then got better." Bob Monkhouse

'What puts me off about going to heaven is knowing the Dean of Chapel will be there.' 'You must remembered he will be transfigured.' Is this a correct quotation from Joyce? I heard it from Alexander Haydon

"Yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.." A framed motto that hangs from the wall of the Imperial Hotel, Jerusalem. I believe it is a Sanskrit proverb.
"Pessimism is as much fun as optimism when you get used to it." Arnold Bennett  
"I love to do as my fathers did, / In the days ere I was born."  Wilfred Scawen Blunt. I thought this while reading complaints about discrimination against transgender people, whatever they are. 
"Society is perpetually persecuting." A.J. Balfour
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” William Faulkner 

"All the people like us are WE...and everyone else is THEY." Rudyard Kipling 

"Only the dead have seen the end of War." Plato 
‎"The air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe." These words were said by the great Lord Chief Justice Mansfield freeing an African slave whose ship berthed in England. Unfortunately, we are a nation of slaves now. They even want to legislate about the sugar content of Frosties.

His Last Duchess

Photo: Only an official portrait painter could look at the person on the left and come up with the image on the right. Makes you wonder whether portrait painting has had its day when photography is now so good. (Note to hyper-republicans: not an excuse for snarky comments about the monarchy having 'had its day' - I'm already ahead of you.)

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge meet artist Paul Emsley after viewing his new portrait of the Duchess, during a private viewing at the National Portrait Gallery in central London. 11 January 2013.

One of the much loved familiar traditions of English life is universal dismay at royal portraits. It gives the English a warm glow to know that some things never change, despite all the many things that do. This time it is well-deserved dismay at the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Someone brilliantly said that military justice is to justice what military music is to music. Royal portraits are to portraits what military music is to music.

The picture makes the Duchess look tough and slightly coarse, faintly vulgar - like her mother in fact. This is only part of what the Duchess is. She also has vitality, rapacity, warmth, sex appeal and charm.

Royal portraits were never much good and always universally thrashed except for those of the wonderful Bryan Organ who perfectly captured the mood of the early 1980s, the early Thatcher- Reagan era. Though this picture below looked more wonderful thirty years ago.

Diana, Princess of Wales, by Bryan Organ, NPG

Friday, 11 January 2013

Romania’s Rotten Oligarchy

This interesting article by Kostas Vaxevanis in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune this week about Greece reminded me of Romania:

DEMOCRACY is like a bicycle: if you don’t keep pedalling, you fall. Unfortunately, the bicycle of Greek democracy has long been broken. After the military junta collapsed in 1974, Greece created only a hybrid, diluted form of democracy. You can vote, belong to a party and protest. In essence, however, a small clique exercises all meaningful political power.

For all that has been said about the Greek crisis, much has been left unsaid. The crisis has become a battleground of interests and ideologies. At stake is the role of the public sector and the welfare state. Yes, in Greece we have a dysfunctional public sector; for the past 40 years the ruling parties handed out government jobs to their supporters, regardless of their qualifications.

But the real problem with the public sector is the tiny elite of business people who live off the Greek state while passing themselves off as “entrepreneurs.” They bribe politicians to get fat government contracts, usually at inflated prices. They also own many of the country’s media outlets, and thus manage to ensure that their actions are clothed in silence. Sometimes they’ll even buy a soccer team in order to drum up popular support... 

Romania like neighbouring countries is not really a democracy and how could she be? Will she be one? Some look to the EU to help but how can the EU remedy a democratic deficit? 

On the whole there is a lot more freedom in Romania than in Western Europe. People smoke in restaurants and make sexist remarks and disregard EU regulations. But they do not think government is on their side. Romanians do not have a party system which allows people to choose between parties that reflect different points of view. 

The essence of democracy is that one party leaves office after defeat to be replaced  by another party which brings in distinctly different values and laws from its predecessor, as happened in the UK in 1979 and 1997, in France last year, such as has not happened in Russia. This is democracy, rule by the masses, and this fear of the electorate colours everything democratic governments do. In Romania parties leave office regularly but the same 'Structure' of shadowy interests seems to rule. The 1996 election in Romania which ousted the revamped Communists and the 2000 election which brought them back  did represent real change but since 2004 all parties have seemed corrupt and not to represent divergent philosophies. In Eastern Europe it is hard to think that there are coherent right wing or left wing programmes. The liberals here are not liberal, by which I mean pro-business, and the socialists are not socialist. There are no conservatives as people do not think there is much worth conserving.

The present political class or their successors will In power for generations. I wonder if real democracy is possible in Orthodox countries. What Romania needs is a public minded elite and a moral revolution from below but it is not her destiny to resemble Norway or England. Perhaps corrupt but not too corrupt  Ireland might be a role model.

Economics springs from culture which springs mostly from religion and genetics. Roger Scruton writes interestingly on this  here.

Thank God Romania unlike Greece is not in the euro. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Women of a 'certain age and appearance'

Newspaper headline:

Women of a 'certain age and appearance' struggle to get on TV

Is this not a statement of the obvious and why does it matter? The equality obsession in the UK is poisonous. It is really 'sullen socialism'. Women prefer to look at pretty girls just as men do.

Alice Arnold: Women of a 'certain age and appearance' struggle to get on TV

The article says:

Targeting sexism and ageism in the world of television, she argued the BBC ought to do more to put a stop to it.

It seems to me that we are living in a time when people are targeting human nature in order to put a stop to it.

This article about transgender people, whoever or whatever they are, gives me the same impression. The target is not (only) to prevent victimisation but to remake human nature along rational, egalitarian lines. The target is to remake the sexes and even the very idea of the sexes, just as we are remaking nations and the very idea of nations.

I am very impatient with the idea that treating men and women differently is wrong and I find monstrous the idea that age discrimination is wrong. These things seem based on an atheistic and anti-conservative concept of human beings and human nature - the idea that human nature and even human bodies should be recreated according to human ideas. Perhaps this does not make sense. I am chilling on Saturday morning enjoying, after much travel, a clean, warm flat and watching snow fall on the roofs of Bucharest old town.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Back to Bucharest

Back this morning from Jerusalem, a city I love with all my heart, to Bucharest under snow, another city I love. But though exotic, Jerusalem is still in the same cultural zone as Bucharest. The essentially Arab old city of Jerusalem certainly is and modern Israel is a First World country that reminds me of Greece, though more solvent.

I met a Bosnian Serb translator, crossing from Jordan to Israel, who knows Arabs and Israelis very well. She told me, when I asked her, that the Holy Land was definitely part of the Balkans.  I think so too, as is all the Levant, especially Syria and especially the Christian Middle East. 'I recognise everything here from the Balkans', she said. 

But Romania is only half in the Balkans - Romania was only half in the Ottoman Empire and never in the Byzantine Empire. More concretely, in Romania, except the Dobrudja, Muslims were not allowed to settle. Most concretely of all, Romanians have shaorma (everywhere) but not (usually) baklava. 


Bucharest cab drivers are fascinating and form an Aeschylean chorus in my life. The one this evening (he was 62 and looked very ancient) said the Romanians are unfit for democracy because they are ethnically heterogeneous and quotes Mircea Eliade to this effect.

I tried to say that though I agreed with his conclusion I did not agree with his premise and thought heterogeneity was one of the strengths of Romanians but he quoted Eliade at me at every turn. Apparently Romanians are not sufficiently Dacian. I said Romanians are less ethnically mixed than the British.


I have not noticed any changes in the weather in my lifetime but Romanian taxi drivers are unanimous that they have. I am becoming increasingly confident that global warming is not very important but the taxi drivers make me hesitate.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Back to Jerusalem

Back in Jerusalem. Crossing from Jordan by the King Hussein (a.k.a. the Allenby) Bridge is a huge achievement, not to be attempted light-heartedly.

Dear reader, if you find yourself in Petra and want to go to Jerusalem, take a taxi for JD50 to Aqaba and walk across the border to Eilat, whence buses go regularly taking four hours. It takes an hour by taxi or shared car or bus from Amman to the King Hussein Bridge where you wait (for more than an hour in my case) for a bus that takes takes you to the border. On the other side, I waited an hour after passing immigration (which for me was easy) for my luggage to appear. (I had handed it in as we entered the Israeli customs building). I was completely zen, unlike the impish American geezer in his late 60s, who was rolling from one heel to another with impatience) and the Australian journalist based in Jerusalem who was trying to lodge a formal complaint.

Then easy to catch a minibus and at chilly Jerusalem I was, I felt, completely at home, though it seemed months not three days since I was last there.. A nice Christian coffee shop owner whom I knew made me coffee, sent out for a falafel sandwich and made me feel like family. He told me that the Allenby crossing is NOT closed on Saturdays, despite what the people at my hotel in Amman told me. I was zen about this too. It turns out from looking it up on the net that the Israeli side closes at lunchtime on Saturday and so I had already missed my chance by 1 p.m. Jordanian time. But this too is life.

The dear old Hotel Imperial.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Armenian priests, dressed in black, processing around the holy sites. Trying to get past a vast giant of a bodyguard, the name Alexei on his wristband, nonchalantly put out an arm like a tree trunk to stop me. I looked at him and at the weakling boy priests and reflected that the intellectuals need the loyal heavies and that my place belongs with the savants not the thugs but in fact I failed to find my place.

A Catholic Mass in Spanish which I decided to skip and so I tagged onto a tour party. The guide was explaining that almost every tourist group 'You are the one exception' that comes to Jerusalem comes for a pilgrimage, whether Christian or Jewish and for a life-changing experience. (Why were they the exception? Were they an atheist tour group, or Marxists or pagans? They looked far too respectable.) I reflected that my first visit to Jerusalem had not been a life changing experience. I hope this second one will be but I still react in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre first to the darkness, oddness, strangeness and mystery of the ancient churches which share the church (though the Catholic Church no longer feels ancient but 1960s modern), the Mrs. Radcliffe Gothick-Papist feel of the place, before I reflect on the site of the crucifixion and what it means.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Amman and the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom

I must stay in Amman a second night. I cannot cross the Allenby (a.k.a. King Hussein) Bridge till tomorrow, because the Israeli side closes early on the sabbath. The other two crossings remain open all day on the sabbath but they are too far away.

I learnt this from the concierge before I paid for a taxi to take me to the bridge. I felt pleased that the journey was now taken out of my hands and someone else was running things. For a day I am no longer a tourist, a subjective person who travels for no good reason, but am here for a very good, objective, grown-up reason, that the crossing is closed. I walk around the centre of the town (in the shabby little centre, it does not feel like a city), in the pouring rain. My memory of Amman will be of somewhere grey and chilly. Tomorrow, as I leave, it is expected to snow. 

I suspect that back in 1948 there was not a burqa in sight and Jordanian women wore knee length skirts, just as I have seen Egyptian women did in films of the period. Now headscarves are common though so are blue jeans. I saw one pair of women wearing the full veil with only peep holes for their eyes and happening to be behind them in a queue at a street stall I notice that they were English, spoke with classless (meaning middle middle class) English voices and one of them was white (I could tell by her wrists). 

It was good to chill after much effort yesterday at Petra. Good to swim in the pool of the very comfortable, somewhat pricey Hotel Toledo, use the steam bath and blog. I would advise you, though, gentle reader, to get a five star hotel for this money.

Amman had 2,000 inhabitants when King Abdullah I chose it as the capital of Transjordan and it is now the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, known to foreign correspondents as the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom.  Abdullah I first chose the town of Salt, a larger place, but changed his mind after someone in Salt was insolent to him. Amman had no house fit for an emir, so he used the railway station as his palace. 

By the time Transjordan gained independence from England, in 1949, the population had grown by 150% to 5,000 but in 2010 the population of the Greater Amman area numbered 2,842,629. Despite or because of this, the city centre is a non-event, a busy road full of shabby shops and a vegetable market rather than a souk, very unimpressive, but attractive because poor. Like many modern cities, Amman is a driving city not a walking city and has very elegant parts, like the one my hotel is in. The centre, however, has the great charm of letting you know that you are in a small country. You feel a weight lifting from your shoulders in small countries. It is the same in Luxembourg. 

Nevertheless, Amman is not a new place. It was 
known to the ancients as Philadelphia (there is a W.C. Fields joke here) and was ruled by the Nabataeans, who built Petra, before they were conquered by Trajan. To prove its antiquity, Amman possesses two magnificent monuments, the citadel, built by the Romans and substantially rebuilt by the Umayyads, and the Roman amphitheatre (actually there are two but one is in great condition). I went over the citadel without a guide and enjoyed it. I was not in the mood for the repetition of unimportant and not necessarily accurate facts.

The Jordanians are probably Palestinians but then all these identities and nations are pretty new ideas in what were parts of the Vilayats of Damascus and Jerusalem in the Ottoman days. (I repeat myself, I know, but what a shame a democratic Ottoman Empire did not emerge and survive into our day, at peace with Britain and ruled by Greek ministers, with no modern Middle East.) At any rate, Jordanians on the street looked happier than the Arabs in the West Bank and have, despite what Israeli Arabs told me, a much higher standard of living. GDP per capita here is about twice that of the West Bank.

My unscientific but persuasive survey of four taxi drivers and two guides suggests that Jordanians love their King, their Queen and the memory of the old King, King Hussein. On the other hand, all six of my interlocutors were over 40 and the median age here is 22. They all spoke English well and did jobs which earned them good money from foreigners. My last driver, a Bedouin who was born in a tent, was an East Banker, to be distinguished from the West Bank refugees from 1948 and 1967. East Bankers love their king, he says. I asked him why so many of the refugees are still living in tents and realised that until a certain number of years ago most people lived in tents. This is the kind of insight you don't get from reading the newspapers.

I asked about whether you got into trouble with the police for criticising the authorities and was told you can criticise the Prime Minister and the ministers but not the King. 'There is a red line drawn around the King.' 

King AbdullahII has an English mother, is a fresh-faced blue-eyed Harrovian, one month younger than me (a child, in other words) who speaks Arabic badly and is obviously as British as the flag, despite having a curious beard that looks like it may be stuck on with paste. He has a young, innocent, honest face. He followed Harrow with Sandhurst and a year at Oxford. He is the only decent ruler in a region full of horrible leaders. And the King is a king. Monarchies have innumerable advantages over dictatorships. The first of these is that they are legitimate, ipso facto, without need for elections. Elections in this past of the world mean the triumph of religious parties and then, often, no more elections. As Mark Steyn said, a king is his own ideology.

Jordan is the last of the British-client monarchies north of the Gulf. Like the famous Haroun al-Raschid, King Abdullah II likes to go out among his subjects, I was told, in disguise, to hear about their problems incognito. If only he had married Jemima Khan he would be quite perfect for a Richard Curtis film but in fact he is married to a lovely queen from Ramallah in the West bank who has won the country's love.

For other views of Jordan, by people who, unlike me, know something about the country, click here and here.

Talking about blue-eyed Jordanians, my second taxi driver, with skin as pale as vellum and blue eyes, turned out to be one of the Circassians I had read about, Muslims who came to Palestine from Czarist Russia. My waiter at lunch also had white hair and blue eyes but denied being Circassian and I realised he was an albino and wondered if I had caused offence. An albino Arab waiter - straight out of the pages of Bulldog Drummond, John Buchan or William Le Queux. 

The hotel restaurant has filled up since I came in here to blog. Then I was alone except for the secret policeman who was pretending to do the Amman Times crossword(Joke). Now it is full and not of businessmen but holiday - makers. Who are these people who go to a $120 three star hotel in Amman for their holidays in early January? Many of them are Antipodeans and all seem placidly content though only one table of bibulous Australians are positively excited. 

Since the albino waiter I saw a third pale man with white hair and wonder what story John Buchan could have spun from this. Probably he would have me called to see the Minister of the Interior and be told I had to offer my services to save both the King and vital British interests. 

Friday, 4 January 2013

Petra, one of the wonders of the world

My Seven Wonders of the World

The Great Pyramid of Giza,

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem,


Taj Mahal,

Grand Canal, Venice,

St. Peter's, Rome,

The British Museum.

I decided NOT to include the Great Wall of China, which is only a wall, after all, nor Niagara, the first disappointment of American married life. I decided on Petra after today's visit. It is better than Palmyra or Cappadocia or any of the wonders carved out of rock like Lalibela in Ethiopia and the underground city I saw near Gori in Georgia. The Great Pyramid heads the list as the sole survivor from the original list and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is there for religious not aesthetic reasons. I thought of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Royal Maritime College, Greenwich but decided that though sublimely beautiful, as beautiful as architecture gets, they were not wonders. Why didn't I follow my instinct and apply to Trinity? But no regrets was one of my New Year's resolutions.

By the way, until about eight years ago I had only seen the last (but not the least) entry on the list.

A very PC list: 3 in Asia, 3 in Europe (or 2 if UK not in Europe) and 1 in Africa. I hope no-one will suggest I should have looked in the New World for some Inca thing.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

In Petra, with a donkey

King Hussein of Jordan lights Rabin's fag, in the vestibule in the Jordanian immigration office at the Sheikh Hussein bridge. It's so odd these days to see pictures of people smoking, even in Arabia, that I imagined it was a health campaign for a moment. It was King Hussein who said of Dr. David Owen, 'Do you think he's any good as a doctor?' But I digress.

I actually remembered AND charged my camera (actually my colleague at work did) and REMEMBERED TO BRING IT WITH ME AND TO USE IT but now there seems something wrong with it. "What a world, what a world" as the Wicked Witch says at the end of the Wizard of Oz while she is melting. Still I do not really believe in taking pictures. A word is worth a thousand of them, if it is the right word.

I did no research or planning, got to the bus stop at Nazareth at 8.00 and have just arrived at Petra now at five as it is about to get dark. With a taxi from Amman. I negotiated a price for the taxi of JD 150 coming today returning tomorrow night to Amman (leaving Petra after sunset) thinking the JD was US $0.60 when in fact the US dollar is JD 0.60, but it is still a very good price in my opinion.

I found this on the net:

Taxi fare from downtown Amman to Petra is around 80 JD.

So I am paying almost the going rate - which is a fraction of what it would cost in Israel. Plus I have the driver, Ali, for over 32 hours. Not a bad deal. The bus costs only JD 19 return but I had missed the buses for today.

Put up in the Cleopetra (thus spelt) Hotel, a comfortable place that costs JD 27 or somewhat over $40. The plump, kindly Filipino manageress is the only Christian in the little town and is sending money home to her mum and dad. Muslim men, she says, think women are below men and the Arab Christians think the same. She will turn up her nose at them and marry a Christian in some other country. She spent Christmas in Manila where there is a Catholic church.

I knew nothing whatsoever about Petra and told myself to mug up before bed but my Blue Guide and its lists of monuments and kings and unfamiliar deities completely defeated me. How much cleverer I was at eleven.

Woken an hour early because, it turns out, Jordan gave the world three days notice this autumn that she would stay on summer time all through the winter. This is national sovereignty, lest we forget. How recently we in my country could have done the same  but we English are less spontaneous. (In fact we did, one year, while I was at school, beofre the last Ice Age.)It reminds me though of the USSR, which fell 4 hours behind GMT for forty years because one autumn in Stalin's time no-one gave the order to put the clocks back an hour.


Nine and Ali the driver and i reach the entrance to the remains. My entrance ticket costs me JL 50 and Ali JL 1 because I am a foreigner. it is bitterly cold and i regret very much not having a coat. jacket and pullover are not enough but then the beauty of the Siq gorge makes me forget the cold, then the famous Treasury, which you have seen in pictures and then the sun came out.
A picture taken on my telephone, when my camera ran out of battery. The other pictures all seem to be films and then the telephone battery ran out.

The books say you need two or three days. Ali thinks three hours is enough. I gave Petra six and a half hours and do not feel I merely skimmed it, though I should certainly have preferred another day (it was impossible, if i am to have one last free day in Jerusalem). I took a donkey and my fear of heights made this seem like a very bad idea but then my sloth and stinginess persuaded me to stay on my mule. I was it seems committed to pay the JL 25 in any case and 900 steps upward seemed too many. It was fun, though not as much fun as it looked to observers. Petra feels exactly like a nineteenth-century lithograph and on a donkey you enter the lithograph. I wore my Ede and Ravenscroft suit jacket, a pair of khaki slacks and a Lewin shirt and was a reasonable simulacrum of the milord anglais, though I had deliberately abandoned my black umbrella (a cheap and shiny Nazarene one) in Jerusalem.

The Jordanians are much less pushy and practice the soft not hard sell, unlike Arabs in Israel. The man who provided my donkey ride told me he grew up in a cave and his mother still lived in one. The old lady gave me tea en route but did not insist on attempting to sell her handmade jewellery. She and her son both smoked Western cigarettes.

Petra really is quite astonishing and since you only see places for the first time once I advise everyone to give it two whole days, especially considering how remote it is and how much the admission ticket costs. The famous treasury is only one of dozens of tombs equally imposing. I strongly advise mounting a donkey too.

Why did Petra, which was a bishopric in Byzantine times and still existed in crusader times completely disappear and be forgotten until discovered by Burckhardt in 1812? Many other cities died or went tints severe decline under Muslim rule. This article suggests a possible combination of causes though I have no idea whether the theory would fit the specifics of Petra.