Friday, 21 February 2014

Words and phrases I hate

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The phrase I most hate is 'his or her'. It is not wrong, of course, but very clunking and almost unknown until forty or fifty years ago. Much more correct is saying HIS to mean 'his or her'. 

But in my business emails I use 'his or her' for fear of some scandal. Max Beerbohm said that
the Nonconformist conscience doth make cowards of us all.
Nowadays feminism has taken over from the Nonconformist conscience but the two are essentially the same thing - puritanism.

My second great hate, germane to the first, is using 'their' to mean his (or her) - 'their' instead of 'his or her' is simply wrong. HIS is the word.

Of course I know that everyone says ' his or her' nowadays. This makes no difference. 

I am not criticising foreigners when I say I hate the following mistakes. My criticism is only for native speakers, of course, but the solecisms I hate (I do not claim to be original but I am very sincere) are 

1. 'Presently' used to mean at present rather than 'in a while'. This is the semantic equivalent of the sin against the Holy Ghost. Misusing 'presently' is not just ignorant but vulgar. It is the kind of thing you often get in e-mails full of impenetrable business jargon - the capitalist equivalent of the 'language of wood' used by Communists up to 1989.

2. 'Decimate' used to mean reduce to one tenth. It means reduce BY one tenth. There is no excuse for this, except I suppose ignorance.

3. 'Less' when 'fewer' is meant makes me react as if I heard a knife scraped against a plate.

4. 'Disinterested' used to mean 'uninterested' means the speaker or writer is not well-read.

5. 'Fulsome' used to mean 'full' or 'effusive', instead of insincere. This is a common, venial error, but annoying all the same.

Here is a site 
"for people who have silently wept into a crumpled copy of their workplace’s mission statement; who have been underpinned by a strategically aligned, innovative, creative, sustainable synergy."  
However much people say there is no reason why you shouldn't split infinitives it almost always sounds dreadful to me when they do. Shakespeare never split one and nor did John Dryden, Alexander Pope or the King James Version of the Bible. Dr. Johnson very rarely split one, although there was no prohibition in those days against them. That came as recently as the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, so the rule is not old but it is well-known. Rules are made to be broken but you should know what the rules are before you break them. I dislike split infinitives because they usually sound ugly, not because I am a clerical fascist or other social pariah.

On the other hand, I do not get cross about misusing 'comprise' to mean comprised of and I am not omniscient. I only recently learnt the difference between homogenous and homogeneous. 

People who read my blog a lot will also know that I hate it when people use Mumbai, Yangon, Beijing, etc. when writing English, rather than Bombay, Rangoon or Peking. We do not call Bucharest Bucuresti in English. I wish I could revive Persia and Constantinople and quite often do.

I dislike 'kids' to mean children and never use it except to mean young goats - and I also HATE 'hi'. And strangers calling me by my Christian name, though my software in the office, with which I send out mass mails, ashamed-makingly, makes me commit this solecism.

I once did not (often) say 'OK' but computers made that word inescapable. I used to say 'phone' but hearing an Etonian friend of exquisite good taste, a chevalier sans raproche, using the word 'telephone' made me resolve always to do so and I keep this up.

I was brought up to say 'five and twenty to' or after the hour when telling the time and kept this up until my mid thirties when someone mocked me for it and I let it drop. It is rather working-class. The only person other than my father who used it was a railway porter when I asked him the time.

I like the word 'ain't' which my parents told me earnestly never to use. I remember Enoch Powell shocking Bill Grundy by using it on TV. This was before the Sex Pistols shocked him out of his job by saying 'f-' on television. Now the f-word is commonplace on television, so I read, but 'nigger', even mumbled in an outtake, is a sacking offence. And so it goes. Does anyone use 'ain't' anymore? A boy who lived down the road whom I played with when I was little used to use it.

'Ain't' is perfectly correct, just vulgar. Pardon is non-U which is not the same as vulgar. I remember Jilly Cooper's child offended her neighbour by telling her that 'Mummy says it is better to say 'f-' than to say 'pardon'. This kind of snobbery about U and Non-U was the most lasting influence I brought away from Cambridge, I suspect.

I very much hate truanting, beloved of the BBC in the 1990s, instead of playing truant. Apart from being illiterate it has the sad smell of social workers about it.

I abominate Brit. I dislike Briton too which makes me think of bearded Druids. It's pompous and 18th century. 

(I am launching a campaign to say England when we mean Britain, but this is material for another post. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Scotland, a great country that I love with all my heart and hope one day to visit. But Disraeli signed the Treaty of Berlin as 'Prime Minister of England' and Churchill always spoke of England not of Britain. So did almost everyone until forty years ago.)

The truth is that a case can be made for all the words and phrases I object to being correct, on the ground that they have all been used in the past in the way I complain of and therefore are legitimate. Liberal and prescriptive attitudes to grammar, as to politics, are in the end disguised psychology, but split infinitives sound very bad and 'presently' misused is not the way civilised people speak. Perhaps it all comes down to class and attitudes to authority in the end. Lots of things do.

Here I stand. I can do no other. Please tell me what words and phrases annoy you.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'Learning maths is even more pointless than Latin'

This interesting article by Simon Jenkins in today's Guardian is a refreshing diatribe against mathematics. 

I wonder what subjects schools should teach. What come to mind immediately are: driving, typing, religious instruction (as opposed to religious education), cooking, history, literature, especially poetry (but nothing after 1945 please), German and at least one other language, probably Spanish or Russian (and teach lots of grammar rather than trying to get thirty boys to make conversation), history of art, useful non-team sports like tennis that people will actually play in adult life and, most important of all, psychology. 

The most important are the life lessons taught by other children in the playground - and these can be incredibly painful for children who do not fit in.  Philip Larkin put it well.
When I was at school I thought I hated the human race, but when I grew up I realised it was just children I couldn't stand.
It would be much better to skip these often very damaging playground lessons which are a form of child abuse. If you can afford a private tutor for your child, get one. In Bucharest they are affordable.

In fact, a lot of schooling can now be done at home over the internet which is the best place for children to learn but if I am right we should need to decide whether schools are necessary to educate children or to enable mothers to go out to work. There is no longer much need for many universities. Most universities should become virtual and teach largely online. This will enable a much wider access to university - to everyone of any age, class, nationality and educational achievement who has sufficient access to the net. There should only remain a few major universities in each country, for educating a small academically-minded elite and for conducting research. Such universities should only teach real subjects and this would not include vocational subjects like law or medicine, or still less that trahison des clercs 'business education'.

I think teaching comparative religion to British schoolchildren instead of Christianity (or another religion if the school is Jewish or Muslim) was the most significant development of that very socially liberal decade the 1980s and will have immensely far-reaching and disastrous consequences.

I do not agree with Simon Jenkins that teaching Latin is necessarily a bad idea, unless like me you were taught using the Cambridge Latin Course and therefore not taught to write Latin. If you are taught by that accursed course, which is still widely used, and get a grade A at A Level, as I did, you still cannot read Latin - or not without a crib. So what is the point? My school gave me a choice between German, Latin and Russian as the second foreign language and I wish I had learnt Russian instead of Latin. If I had, I could now read Pushkin in the original and make myself understood in Samarkand or Yerevan.

In any case, Latin should just be for the fairly few children (few boys at least, more girls) who have literary tastes (as should most courses at universities, come to that, except for maths and the hard sciences). Latin should be accompanied by Greek, which gives you very many more good things to read. Latin literature is overrated. One learns a language to read poetry, as prose can be translated. Catullus is wonderful, I must reread Horace now that I am the age to enjoy him, Virgil and Ovid are very good indeed but none are as good as Shakespeare and English literature has many more great poets than Latin. Latin, though, is enormously influential. Ovid begat Shakespeare, for example. So there is a case for teaching Latin, though not an overwhelmingly strong one. The same is true of maths.

Writing this rigmarole, I am put in mind of the Mock Turtle:
'We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—'
'I'VE been to a day-school, too,' said Alice; 'you needn't be so proud as all that.'
'With extras?' asked the Mock Turtle a little anxiously.
'Yes,' said Alice, 'we learned French and music.'
'And washing?' said the Mock Turtle.
'Certainly not!' said Alice indignantly.
'Ah! then yours wasn't a really good school,' said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief.
These words are uttered sublimely by Sir John Gielgud here. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

What the UN really wants from the Catholic Church - it's much more than just about preventing sex crimes

"The UN watchdog for children’s rights denounced the Holy See for adopting policies allowing priests to sexually abuse thousands of children. 
"It heavily criticised the Vatican’s attitudes towards homosexuality, contraception and abortion."

The terrible crimes again children by Catholic priests are truly appalling but the recent Report by the UN Committee on Children berating the Church goes much further than saying this and criticising the Church for the way it responded to the crimes. The Report itself is an extraordinary attack on the Church and, in fact, on Christianity. The Catholic Church's response has been far too mild. 

My friend who wrote this analysis says, "clerical sex abuse was homosexual in nature" - I'd like more information about whether this is so. Most victims of these terrible crimes were boys but some were girls. In any case, people should know that the UN wants the Church to change her teaching on women, abortion and homosexuality. 

This is almost unbelievable but has passed without notice by journalists who spend their time criticising the Church. The UN Children's Committee is not an institution to be respected but an enemy worth fighting. As Guy Crouchback felt about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy - it is 'the modern world in arms'.

An interesting analysis is here.

Monday, 17 February 2014

"I’m annoyed at hearing ‘you’ll kill children’ in the foreign media. We don’t use that kind of language anymore."

The Belgians are “surprised” that much – not enough, but still much – of the world is repulsed by the country legalising child euthanasiaFrom the Reuters story:

Bart Sturtewagen, chief editor of De Standaard, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers, said that after 12 years of legal euthanasia in the country, Belgians had grown used to it as an option for the final stages of their lives. “I’m annoyed at hearing ‘you’ll kill children’ in the foreign media. We don’t use that kind of language anymore. It’s a very different debate on a different level,” he said..
In Belgium the age of criminal responsibility is 18 but when this law is signed by the King there will be no minimum age below which a child in Belgium is deemed too young to give consent to being killed. At present the age limit is 12.

The last country in Europe to legalise abortion is a pioneer in child euthanasia. This is not just about Belgium but is a trend spreading across Europe. 

Europe is dying in so many senses.

The floods in Great Britain are not caused by climate change - official

For a sixth week storms continue to batter Great Britain. It is a lie that the floods have anything to do with climate change. My friend Tom Cain put it beautifully on Facebook (I quote with his permission).

In case you believe the lie that the floods - whose immediate cause is wet weather brought on by a shift in the jet stream - have anything to do with climate change, listen to Professor Mat Collins. He's the Associate Professor in Climate Systems at the University of Exeter, and co-ordinating lead author to the International Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report, Chapter 12: “Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility.” Collins said at the weekend: "There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jet stream to get stuck in the way it has this winter. If this is due to climate change, it is outside our knowledge." 
Just guessing, but my suspicion is that having devoted his entire career to the study and modelling of climate change, Collins (a) knows more about it than David Cameron, Ed Miliband, et al and (b) would be only too happy to ascribe the deluge to climate change if there were any scientific justification for doing so. But there isn't. So he doesn't.

The ideology of climate change (it is an ideology because it is no longer susceptible to scientific disproof) reminds me of Whittaker Chambers's explanation of Communism as
'in fact, man's second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: 'Ye shall be as gods.' It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man's relationship to God. The Communists vision is the vision of Man without God. It is the vision of man's mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world." 
If the weather is awful this does not mean the climate is changing but if the climate is changing - and Bucharest's taxi drivers seem unanimous that it is this, and if human activity has some part in the process, this  does not mean human activity is of crucial importance or that we can prevent warming. We are clearly living in the end of an Ice Age. This was clear to me, who hates physics, as soon as climate change was first bruited abroad. 

I should be a guru or at least a famous writer.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum in the introduction to Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 quotes Hannah Arendt, who said the story of how East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria became Communist after the war
 while unspeakably terrible, is without much interest of its own and varies very little.
Naturally Miss Applebaum thinks otherwise and sets out to show the manner in which each country became Communist. Each country of course was sui generis but each became Communist because Stalin and the international communist movement which did his bidding willed it. Hannah Arendt is right. The history of these years is very harrowing and not in the end particularly enlightening.  

Let us always remember that Eric Hobsbawm, C.H., referred to the process by which these countries became satellites of Stalin as the 'East European revolutions'. This man Hobsbawm  was accorded great respect when I read history at Cambridge in the 1980s.

Anne Applebaum takes us through the results of a quarter of a century of historical research since the end of the Cold War and this adds much to the story. She reminds us that the Communists in 1945 believed in their doctrine. They believed they could win free elections because had they thought they would inevitably fail to win mass support they would not have been Marxists. This is a point worth making and stressing. The Communists who took power in the region in the late 1940s were working for a foreign power, were therefore traitors, from a democratic or conservative point of view, but they were also dedicated idealists and brave men - in most cases at least. There were a few exceptions, of whom one might be Bierut Boleslaw, who became leader of Poland. Nothing much is known about what he did in the war. Like the other 'Muscovite' Communist leaders he was a spy but his career is very murky before 1945. Miss Applebaum speculates that he was a double agent whom Stalin could blackmail. Perhaps, though Stalin could blackmail anyone living in the Communist bloc.

We should always bear in mind that what is long in the past was once in the future. No-one expected the USA to keep troops in Europe after the war. The fact that they did so is Stalin's greatest failure. It was expected that Britain would face the Communists alone, with only shattered France's support, and Britain had been almost destroyed by her Pyrrhic victory over Germany and Japan. Britain had no means of stopping Russia imposing Communism on Eastern Europe, though her prestige is the reason Stalin insisted that a Communist Greece was out of the question - he said Britain would never tolerate it. Even with the decision of Harry Truman to keep his men in Europe and wage the Cold War the Western powers had no means of leverage in Eastern Europe. Yet for some reason East Europeans blame America and Britain for selling them out in Yalta. It makes no sense yet everyone in Romania continues to trot out this idea.

Stalin would have been better off allowing the Finlandisation of Eastern Europe - allowing the Eastern European countries to have democratic systems in return for their being the USSR's allies as Finland was. This would probably have meant the USA leaving Europe to its own devices. If Stalin wanted a cordon sanitaire, as he did, to protect the USSR from Germany and Britain, a ring of Finlands would have provided this, but he wanted more. He believed in the inevitable victory of Communism and wanted to export the revolution. And Soviet society needed an enemy - so the Cold War served his purposes. When Khrushchev offered to permit the unification of Germany - in effect handing over the DDR (East Germany) to the Federal Republic in return for German neutrality America and NATO foolishly turned down the offer. Ulbricht was horrified by Khrushchev's offer but it was only Eisenhower who saved him and the DDR.

I learnt from this book that Churchill did ask his planners in spring 1945 to look at the possibility of war with the USSR in central Europe. The plan called Operation Unthinkable turned out, predictably, to be completely impractical and unaffordable. What was tragic was the decision not to push further East when the Allied armies had the chance in 1944 and 1945. Eisenhower’s decision to liberate Paris rather than attack Germany, for example, meant the Iron Curtain was further west than it need have been, but in any case Romania's fate would have depended on Stalin. Romania would have only been saved from Communism had the Allies attacked Germany via Yugoslavia rather than via Italy or had Britain and France not gone to war with Germany at all in 1939. 

The blurb reminded me of something I had forgotten, that Anne Applebaum is married to Mr Sikorsky, the Polish Foreign Minister. (He was a member of the Bullingdon Club and is alongside David Cameron and Boris Johnson in that famous photograph). Her book is very strongly weighted to Poland, covers Hungary and East Germany in detail, does not say much about Czechoslovakia, elides Romania and Bulgaria and does not cover Yugoslavia or Albania at all, nor the countries that ended up back in the USSR.

For me the most interesting part was the history of the Polish resistance to the Communists, particularly the WiN. What a great country Poland is – I yearn to revisit. I learnt that there was some sort of a Hungarian resistance too. What interests me more is the moving and heroic story of the Romanian and Ukrainian resistances, but these are not mentioned.

Conflict between Muslims and Christians had already led to the forced migrations of Greeks and Turks before and after the First World War. In 1945 and 1946 a Procrustean reordering  of East Europe's ethnic minorities further north took place. An ethnic war was was fought between Ukrainians and Poles which the world ignored. Ethnic Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians were expelled from the places across Central and Eastern Europe in which their families had lived for many centuries. The whole story of displaced persons - the so-called DPs- is calamitous. Coming after the slaughter of the Jews by the Germans, by 1950 a terrible simplicity had been imposed on Eastern European countries which had hitherto been ethnic mixtures. 

Attlee, Stalin and Truman at Potsdam in 1945 ordered these vast movements of people to get rid of the ethnic patchwork that had led to war in 1939. At almost the same time, oddly enough, the ethnically homogeneous countries, Britain, France and Holland, began to become rapidly multi-ethnic. British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, agreeing to the ethnic cleansing of Turkey in 1923, had agreed that ethnic minorities do not live happily side by side but the British Government by the 1960s had changed its mind.

I was recently reading Mircea Eliade’s Lisbon Diary, written while he worked as a diplomat in Salazar’s neutral Portugal. For him the defeat of Germany by Communist Russia was a disaster because it was a disaster for Romania. It is hard not to agree with him  that Romania would have been much better off had the Axis won, her Jews apart, and we do not know what their fate would have been in Antonescu’s Romania had the Axis won.

Things are as they are and happened the way they happened. There is not much point in wondering what would have happened if ...except to remind ourselves that there was nothing inevitable about the way things happened. To think otherwise is to fall into the Marxist fallacy of historicism. Stalin won the Second World War and so did Communism and many left-wing ideas. The Communists eventually gave up their grip on Eastern Europe but socialists and Marxists remain influential because they had been on the winning side in history. The defeat of the Nazis, a very good thing in itself, also led to a big left-wing shift in thinking. Had, say, the Kaiser won the Great War in 1915, or the Great War been avoided or had Nazi Germany not gone to war things might have been completely different. It might be that colonial empires still stretched across Africa and Asia, Europe remained white or the USA were still isolationist as the founding fathers intended. The EU, on the other hand, might have existed in a Europe dominated by the second or third German Reichs. We do not know. As it is, Communism was finally defeated in Eastern Europe, thankfully, after more than forty years of horror. 

In Western Europe, as a response to Stalinism, the democratic left largely won the battle of ideas, meaning ideas like: decolonialisation, confiscation of money from the rich, redistribution of income, the state being responsible for planning and managing the economy, the welfare state and legislating for sexual, racial and every other kind of equality.  

The one hopeful chapter in this book is the last, about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, even though it was a brave, sad failure and repressed with much bloodshed. Anne Applebaum makes the point that no-one expected the uprising - Western experts and Communists alike assumed the Hungarians had been brainwashed to accept totalitarianism. In fact, every fresh generation is born with an instinct to discern truth from falsehood. This is why we must never lose hope.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

'Gender workshops' in Polish kindergartens - is this the future of Romania?

This article from The Guardian is written by a Pole  who is outraged at attempts to prevent kindergarten pupils from being taught about homosexuality. It is headlined

Poland is having a sexual revolution in reverse

with the implication that this is a bad thing. It deserves as much exposure as possible. I wonder if it is the future of Eastern Europe, including Romania.

The writer talks about
"Gender workshops. These are basically sex education classes – still hardly available in Poland – which were organised in pro-equality nurseries and schools." 
Lord have mercy.

Sex education should happen at home, at least to start with, and it can do much harm if it happens at too young an age, but in nurseries.... 

And pro-equality nurseries...

This is so much like the something invented by the late Michael Wharton, but it is happening. Now. In Poland, of all places, which I hoped would defend Europe against things like this, as once they defended us from the Turk and later from Lenin.

Stuart Hall, the black British left-wing theorist, whose death was announced this week, is quoted in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph as saying

“Remember 1968, when everyone said that nothing changed, that nobody won state power. It’s true. The students didn't win. But since then life has been profoundly transformed. Ideas of communitarianism, ideas of the collective, of feminism, of being gay, were all transformed by the impact of a revolution that did not succeed… So I don’t believe in judging the historical significance of events in terms of our usually faulty judgement of where they may end up.”

It seems the events of 1968 in Western Europe ended up with children in pro-equality nurseries in Catholic Poland being taught that they can construct their genders, whatever that means. 

In 1968 students demonstrated in West Berlin against capitalism but on the other side of the wall the 1960s social revolution did not happen. The EU is now seeking to impose the ideas of the Western 1968 by force. It will succeed and I wonder if Easterners will even try to stop them.

Actually, that is not quite true. The Iron Curtain was not completely impervious. Curiously enough, the social revolution did happen in a very etiolated form on the Communist side but it was confined to sex before marriage, which by the 1970s was becoming normal in provincial Romania, and a taste for Western pop music. What being subversive meant in 1960s Romania was being in favour of freedom and opposed to the big state, exactly the opposite of what rebels wanted and are achieving in the West.

120,000 Romanians in the UK

According to national insurance data there are 120,000 Romanians in the UK. There are 89,000 Bulgarians too.

Western European countries are becoming patchworks of ethnic groups as Eastern European countries have moved in the other direction. It is paradoxical that  Eastern Europe became very much less diverse because of the cruel forced movements of people in the 20th Century. Cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul, Prague, Vienna and Bucharest all became mostly mono-racial before 1950 while Paris, London and many Western European towns and cities went after 1950 in the other direction. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Religion has outlasted all its competitors

A clever university friend wrote this. It interested me for Terry Eagleton’s point, in Melanie McDonagh's words, 
"that religion has, over time, trumped all the attempted substitutes: Reason (practically deified in the Enlightenment), Nature (ditto, by the Romantics), nationalism, and above all, culture, endowed by what passes for our own intelligentsia with all the ennobling effects of religion without the tiresome necessity of belief." 
She is right, though, that, despite the putative inadequacy of the alternatives to religion, Great Britain is ceasing rapidly to be a Christian country at all.  

This does not mean Britain is ceasing to be religious, just because indigenous Britons are ceasing even to give God a thought. Religion is a sense of the sacred that binds people and cultures together and many things can be sacred. The place of the sacred in Britain is increasingly taken by welfare and equality of opportunity, an essentially religious concept. These form a thoroughly materialistic ideology, but it performs many of the functions of a religion. This creed is buttressed with the imperative of being non-judgemental and being judgemental about being non-judgemental. It is the intolerant ideology of tolerance. 

Christianity is considered right-wing, though most British priests and clerics are leftish. It is gravely tarnished by so many terrible incidents of priests interfering with children and it suffers because post-Christians are terrified of Islam and prefer to oppose religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, rather than get into the post-colonial swamp that is critiquing Islam. 

Christianity would be in sharp decline in any case. In a world of technological change the supernatural seems a hypothesis for which man has no need, as does sin. In W H Auden's words,
What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?
Although a Middle Eastern religion, which draws most of its adherents from the poor world, Christianity suffers because it is seen as white and European. Before I believed, I objected on this ground. It makes absolute truth claims in an era when truth is a suspect idea, it is a tradition in a time when the rebuttable presumption is that traditions are outmoded and oppressive, in a scientific age it is unscientific, it makes value judgements, including about sexual morality, and it even talks about wives obeying husbands, though this is played down nowadays. 

The modern British attitude to Christianity seems to be Lord Melbourne's:
It has come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.
Still less, of course, is religion welcome in the sphere of public life, or not at any rate Christianity. lslam is a different matter. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Nazi fatigue

"A Labour MP has apologised for the offence caused by remarks about the Holocaust but denied seeking to equate its horrors with Israel's treatment of people in Gaza."

I am so bored by people likening the Israelis to the Nazis. So bored by people likening anything or anyone to the Nazis. And bored by people complaining about other people likening people to the Nazis. And bored by people apologising for comparing other people to the Nazis. 
Let's all stop mentioning the Nazis in political discussions. The harm done by inapt analogies with the Nazis is immeasurable. It has led to a host of evils, at least from a conservative point of view, including the always burgeoning non-discrimination obsession. It is like a cultural computer virus infecting the Western mind. Sometimes it feels like a cancer, taking over the developed world. 

There is nothing I hate more than people praising the Nazis, I should add - as one or two sad people do. When I saw someone on Facebook saying

 'The Nazis ran a good and interesting show apart from the antisemitism, until 1941'
it made me feel sick. But people who admire the Nazis are very few and are not a threat to anyone any more. People who worry about Nazism are generals fighting the last war. Evil morphs. 

This comes from a blog post I wrote years ago:

The whole history of the post-war period until this moment is a meditation on the Second World War and Nazism. This is the reason for the European Union and the euro. It was also the reason for the Cold War and America's engagement with the wider world. Cold warriors viewed Communist Russia  as the equivalent of Nazi Germany, overlooking the distinction that Russia unlike Germany was a satiated power and not given to military adventures within Europe. It was much of the reason why Stalin forced Communism on Eastern Europe in the first place. It is the reason why talk of races and racial superiority and the psychology of nations became profoundly unfashionable and why the colonial empires were dissolved. It is the reason for an unprecedented migration of brown-skinned people to make their homes in the formerly white countries where they will presently form the majority. It is even the reason, by extension, why discriminating on the grounds of sex, religion, sexuality, even age are no longer permitted by law. By further extension it is part of the reason why hierarchy can only be publicly justified by meritocratic arguments, why traditions are  considered oppressive and the masculine and martial virtues such as patriotism and love of battle are no longer considered virtues at all.  

For it is not just Germans that feel guilt for Nazism but, strangely, all the Western world including the countries that defeated Hitler at such terrible cost. And yet there is no such feeling in any of the former Communist countries, including those such as Romania which aided him.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Are Palestinians descended from Jews?

Semites have much in common whatever their religion. You see that clearly looking at Muslim and Christian Arabs and Jews in close proximity in Jerusalem. I wondered how many Arabs are descended from Jews who converted to Islam or Christianity.

Of course, the internet knows everything if one looks. I came across this:

"A majority of the Muslims of Palestine, inclusive of Arab citizens of Israel, are descendants of Christians, Jews and other earlier inhabitants of the southern Levant whose core may reach back to prehistoric times. A study of high-resolution haplotypes demonstrated that a substantial portion of Y chromosomes of Israeli Jews (70%) and of Palestinian Muslim Arabs (82%) belonged to the same chromosome pool" 

This is discussed here at length.

This does cast a fascinating light on the whole long Arab-Jewish debate. 

One of the very many sad aspects of the story, though I admit a very minor one, is that after the arrival of the Ashkenazi Jews in large numbers the indigenous Jews of Palestine - ceased to be exactly like their Muslim and Christian neighbours, except for their religion, and became deracinated, semi-Americanised. So did the Middle Eastern Jews, whom I have seen referred to as 'black Jews', who found refuge in Israel after they were expelled in 1948 by the new Jewish state's neighbours. 

Some people, of course, believe the theory that the Ashkhenazi are not descendants of the biblical Jews at all and instead are Khazars who converted to Judaism, but that is another, fascinating story. I never believed it. As I said, Ashkenazi seem to me to be clearly Semites and this very interesting recent news seems to refute the idea, while suggesting the Ashkenazi can be traced to Europe rather than to Palestine.

Snobbery with violence: John Buchan and Al Qaeda

I have been sick for a couple of days and stayed at home, unable to do much work. The one consolation for being sick is that reading John Buchan becomes possible. He is my comfort blanket. So I reread Greenmantle.

My mother read The Thirty-Nine Steps to me when I was five and I loved all his books. Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and his companions, Sandy Arbuthnot and Peter Pienaar, are family, though, on this reading, the fourth in the group, the dyspeptic John S. Blenkiron, is an unconvincing stage American. His American accent sounds horribly false. 

Buchan is the link between Robert Louis Stevenson and John Le Carre, but is closer to the former. How strange to see what books become classics, but a classic is simply a book that continues to sell well after its copyright has expired. John Buchan is now a classic writer, while Wyndham Lewis is forgotten and George Meredith is fading away.

Buchan is a very fine writer and is in my heart's blood, but I long ago outgrew him. I am astonished to remember that I read Buchan's novels with pleasure while at university - how young I must have been then - but only when sick can I now read them. They are far too light. They depend on a number of extraordinary coincidences and consist largely of a series of chases, something Buchan excelled at.

I got half way through Greenmantle in November 2001 while sick and then put it down, but not without noting that this book, which I had always considered deeply old-fashioned - that is a large part of its charm - had suddenly after September 11 become topical.

For those who missed out on Greenmantle in their adolescence, it is about a German plot in the First World War to organise a jihad or holy war to rouse the British Mahometans in India to fight for the Caliph against Britain. 

It was the Caliph/Sultan/Ottoman Emperor's decision (in fact the decision of the disastrous 'Young Turk', Enver Pasha) to declare war on the Allies and Turkey's subsequent defeat which led to the end of both the Caliphate, which Al Qaeda wants to restore, and the Ottoman Empire, It created the mess we have today in the Middle East. Regular readers of my blog already know my lament. If the Turks had stayed out of the war there would have been no Saudi Arabia, no Israel, no Syria or Lebanon, no Armenian genocide and Turkey might retain her huge Greek population along with a lot of oil.

 Sandy Arbuthnot's words throw light on the impulse which has led to Al Qaeda.
"The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by and by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked.....And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft... It isn't inhuman. It's the humanity of one part of the human race."
The problem comes, Arbuthnot says, when this longing for purity and the "simplicity of the ascetic" is replaced by "the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilisation". This sounds like Osama bin Laden.

The BBC were dramatising Greenmantle on Radio 4 when the terrible bombings took place of the London tube by, as it turned out, British Muslims in 2005. The BBC pulled the serial for fear of causing offence, though it is not clear how it might have done. Charles Moore wrote beautifully about this and about the book here.

Nowadays I feel like the protagonist of Graham Greene's wonderful The Ministry of Fear, who says, during the Blitz, apostrophising his dead Edwardian mother, 
The world has been re-made by William Le Queux
A shame Hitchcock who filmed The Thirty-Nine Steps did not film Greenmantle as he wanted to. He thought it a better book than The Thirty-Nine Steps. (I disagree. The Thirty-Nine Steps is sparer.) However, they could not agree on a price for the rights. 

Two more serious books that suddenly became topical on September 11th were Joseph Conrad's great masterpieces, The Secret Agent, the world's first spy novel, which Hitchcock improbably did film, and the second one, Under Western Eyes. Everyone nowadays should read both of them because they are about the psychology of terrorism, but Greenmantle is also a rattling good yarn. Read it if you have not outgrown rattling good yarns or if you are sick.

Alan Bennett, in his very funny first play, Forty Years On, parodies Buchan hilariously and refers to him, Dornford Yates (very droll) and Sapper (an unpleasant fascist without literary skill) as purveyors of 'snobbery with violence'. It's a sublime pun, but in fact there is not much violence in Buchan and it is of the most wholesome kind. Hannay is always a clean fighter and a chevalier sans raprocheEven when faced, in one book, with a man who holds in his hand anthrax with which he proposes to poison a town Hannay does not fire at him unprovoked. Come to think of it, Buchan is not at all a snob either, though very establishment.

Mr. Bennett borrowed 'snobbery with violence', by the way, with permission, from one Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalkwho in 1932 had used it as the title of a pamphlet. The Count sounds interesting. He was a New Zealander, who is described by Wikipedia as a 'poet, polemicist, pagan and pretender to the Polish throne'.
It was a  great surprise to me when a biography of Auberon Herbert came out called The Man who was Greenmantle and I discovered that the whole improbable story was based on historical truth. You can read about Herbert, the remarkable man who was the basis for Sandy Arbuthnot and who twice declined the crown of Albania (as did C.B. Fry, the cricketer), here.

I knew I was feeling much better last night when I skipped most of the last two chapters to reach the end. But it was fun to have remet old friends.

Now I have returned to Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, a highly acclaimed historical novel set in Burma, which is much more adult, very easy to read but no-one can know whether it will be read in a hundred years' time and the statistical chances are slim. It has in fact a lot in common with Greenmantle, including an exciting plot and the themes of war and imperialism. For Buchan the British Empire is good, for Ghosh bad, Buchan's heroes are thoroughly chaste and know nothing of women, whereas The Glass Palace has plenty of sex, but both simply reflect the ideas of their times, without original thinking. People do not read novels to be asked to reconsider conventional ideas.

A lot of Buchan's conventional ideas seem to me sound, especially his strong belief in the great men theory of history, which I remember Alan Bennett mocks very amusingly. Marxists, who see history as propelled by class struggle, tend to hate the great men theory and yet the history of Marxism-Leninism is not about great historical forces. It is about Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and some others. Let's not forget Pol Pot too.  

The story of Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and the beautiful, evil Hilda von Einem is very far-fetched, but so is the real history of Lenin's plots, which remade the world. If only Richard Hannay had been able to stop Lenin as he stopped Hilda von Einem and the Black Stone how much misery we should have been spared. If Sandy Arbuthnot, who knew many curious places and people in Aleppo, were in Syria now, in one of his impenetrable disguises, we should be much safer.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Paul Theroux goes back to Africa, forty years after

Carl Jung said that, 
Among all my patients in the second half of life--that is to say, over thirty-five--there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.
This, though he might not know it, is the theme of Paul Theroux's account in Dark Star Safari of the journey he took in 2001 across Africa, where he began his career, from Cairo to Cape Town, mostly by bus. It means one more of his long, arduous, frequently bad tempered overland journeys and at the end of this one he turns sixty. Almost as impressive as the  long very uncomfortable journey was the fact that he avoided the internet and emails throughout. He ends by celebrating, if that is the word (it is not), his sixtieth birthday in Cape Town at dinner with the novelist Nadine Gordimer. He wanted to keep his birthday a secret but she knew because she read it on the internet. The book is a reflection on time and ageing, as much as on Africa.

I came across this book lying around Ruby Backpackers where I was staying last August in Ilha de Mocambique. It has been read by a lot of white people in their twenties who make similar trips by bus and hitch-hiking around Africa. They made me feel guilty about travelling around Mozambique by plane or car but I was slightly unclear about why one would want to spend weeks in Madagascar or Malawi. There are not very many sights in those countries, if, like me, you think historical monuments and interesting towns are what constitute sights. One plummy voiced English 25 year-old who had rented out his flat in Amsterdam and was backpacking around the Dark Continent illuminated me. 'There are the sights and there is the fun of travelling.' The discomfort is a lot of the fun.

The problem with travel books, however good, is that, unlike novels, biographies or history, they do not always give you a strong reason for persevering after several chapters. You enjoy the writer's prose style, or not, get the idea and put the book down. In this case I was carried along and wanted to know how the journey would end. 

Very badly is the answer. In the last two or three pages Mr. Theroux's belongings, left in the safe of his hotel in Johannesburg, were stolen. Despite his atheism he was grateful that the notes for the book by a  'miracle' were saved. Then, on his way home, stopping over in Addis Ababa, he ate something which infested him with parasites. These things stayed with him for a year and caused him a lot of pain, defying doctors' attempts to expunge them and no doubt contributing to the crotchetiness of his writing. Perhaps there is something to be said for going on holiday in Greece.

Africa is not nearly so remote as it was when Paul Theroux went out to teach in Nyasaland just before it became independent. Nowhere is. Although he manfully eschewed the internet, he could have walked into an internet cafĂ© in most of the small poor towns he passed through. And Africa is now on the tourist trail. He takes one of the innumerable Nile cruises along with a number of his fellow Americans, while waiting for his Sudanese visa, and cuts a shrunken figure there. He fulminates against people who come to look at big game or worse to shoot it rather than talk to Africans. I take his point completely, but all travel is voyeuristic, whether you look at cheetahs or poor people.

I thoroughly enjoyed and strongly recommend the book but I do not think I would like Paul Theroux if I met him. Now I have finished the book I am rather glad to be rid of him, his misanthropy and his closed mindedness. A lot of time is taken up describing how much worse things are in Africa in 2001 than they were at the time of independence. This is important but it is something I think we all knew. Few, surely, are surprised. Oddly, this does not lead him to give any credit to colonialism, not even in the case of Nyasaland which, he says, as independent Malawi, was 'a tyranny from day one'. He has the usual prejudices of an American liberal, but political thinking is not his strong point. 

The European powers simply came to Africa to pillage the place of its mineral resources, he says. In fact, even if their motives were not altruistic, the colonialists built roads, operated railways, created drainage systems and brought that word people are nowadays uncomfortable with, civilisation, to Africa. As a Portuguese diplomat said to me recently - we were discussing the Portuguese Empire - the Africans would have colonised Europe had they had the chance. Yes indeed and with truly disastrous results.

Mr. Theroux tells us that the Tazara railway  in Tanzania, which was built by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, had the 'commendable' purpose of freeing Tanzania from her dependence on apartheid South Africa. He does not ask himself whether apartheid was less commendable than Maoism or whether good relations with South Africa might have been more useful for the ordinary Tanzanian than good relations with Mao's China. Left-wing socialism in fact was disastrous for Tanzania and everywhere else in Africa.

We are shown sympathetically the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer whose land is being squatted on by war veterans encouraged by the Mugabe Government. But Zimbabwe was still a relatively comfortable place, much more so than her neighbours, and I realised that this is the legacy of prosperity created under white rule. Kenya sounds a dystopia, as does, despite her being a sort of First World country, crime-ridden South Africa.

Unlike me, Mr. Theroux does not like towns and says
Urban life is nasty all the world over but it is nastiest in Africa.
A bit sweeping surely. Indeed Sub-Saharan Africa has very few interesting towns but one that is old and attractive is Harar in Ethiopia, where Mr. Theroux stayed a week and I stayed two nights two years ago. We stayed in the same hotel (I kick myself for not having stayed in the one Evelyn Waugh put up in). I enjoyed Mr. Theroux's account very much but when accidentally reading my account I thought mine even better. You can judge here

Maputo is not enchanting, as some claim, but it has a charm and a vibe. It is a pleasant and relatively safe place on which Mr. Theroux is too harsh, as he is on Addis Ababa. On the other hand, ten years have passed since he wrote and Mozambique and Ethiopia have both seen very rapid economic growth. 10% a year in many years.

Arthur Rimbaud gave up writing poetry and settled in Harar as an arms dealer. 
'He liked Africa for being 'the anti-Europe, the anti-West, which it is', 
says Mr. Theroux. This is why those British and Americans in their twenties go there, because it is the least globalised place left (Burma and North Korea excepted). These are the reasons that drew me to Eastern Europe when it was communist and Romania was much more remote than Nairobi. 

Some of what Mr. Theroux is looking for is suggested in this passage, where he has found a minibus going where he wants to go, in a small town in Malawi:
The vehicle reeked of diesel oil and chicken blood in the evening heat, and was half-filled with passengers. I stood near it listening to the racket of the nighttime insects. The market was ramshackle and very dirty, run by grannies and ragged boys. A man was roasting corncobs on a smoky fire. A short distance away, glowing in moonlight, was a huge cactus, like a saguaro with upraised arms.
These lines for me are beautiful. if this kind of travel does not appeal to you, dear reader, (it does to me, up to a point) Paul Theroux does it so that you don't have to.

Many good and great writers are not very clever and Mr. Theroux is one of them. This does not matter except at the end where he spends a railway journey in Mozambique arguing against Christianity with a pretty, young American girl missionary who is working with homeless people and prostitutes. He seems to think, quoting an article he has read written by a feminist, that prostitution is an economically realistic way for young women to get out of poverty. All else aside, this ignores the fact that few men in Africa seem, so he tells us, to use condoms and a very large number of Africans have AIDS. 

There are so many, very intelligent objections to Christianity, but Mr. Theroux's objection is that Africans have enough problems without believing in sin and eternal punishment as well. He also likes Africans to remain animists because this is their culture. Hmmm. He is arguing with himself and asking himself what the purpose of life is and not finding one. 

But Paul Theroux was raised a Catholic and though it does not seem he still is one the only Christians in the book for whom he has praise are Catholic nuns who devote their lives to Africa, unlike his bĂȘtes noires the aid workers who come in and leave. If he is an atheist he is a Catholic atheist.

Paul Theroux's ten rules for travel writing are here.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Paul Theroux's ten rules for travel writing

1. Leave your camera at home

Be in the moment. When you take photos you're not looking close enough.

2. Go far away

And go to places that people tell you not to go to.

3. Disconnect from your old world

Avoid the internet. And your family.

4. Don’t think you’re interesting

It’s other people who are interesting.

5. Never carry anything that needs a battery

They always need charging. And they're a distraction anyway.

6. Observe intently

Chances are, you won't be coming back.

7. Be friendly and receptive

Having an attitude when you travel won't get you anywhere.

8. Keep a small notebook handy

And make notes immediately. You'll be amazed by how quickly you'll forget things.

9. Dialogue is essential

Make your work full of human conversations. The best books are about human encounters

10. Make sure you capture the sounds, the smell, the feel of a place

That will be much more interesting than any museum you may visit.

Mr. Theroux also tells fibs. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star where he retraces the journey he took thirty years earlier in 
The Great Railway Bazaar he tells us reveals that he re-arranged facts. He actually met an important character in The Great Railway Bazaar in a guest house, but pretended that he encountered him on the train "because I wanted to give my trip some drama". I wonder if all travel writers do that, and suspect they do. It is artistic licence but it would not do in a blog. Not in this one, anyway.

I agree with all these rules and keep almost all of them, especially Rule 2, though in future I shall stay closer to home (but home is in Bucharest which gives me an interesting leeway). I usually forget my camera or forget to take it out but I often forget to make notes in my book too. I do tend to dive into internet cafes to write up my thoughts and always get seduced by social media and gmail. 

It is important to travel to places where people warn you you will be killed. Hungarians in 1990 told me I would be killed if I went to Romania. One concerned man said 
'Paul, if you go to Romania you will die there' 
and I hope he is right. In 2002 Romanians told me i would be killed if I went to the Republic of Moldavia and in Moldavia they told me I would be killed if I went to Transnistria. In sleepy Tiraspol, the capital of that strange, self-styled country, unrecognised by the outside world though occupied by Russia, I felt very sorry for the Transnistrians. They had nowhere to beg others not to visit or of which to say, 
'You're crazy. You'll be killed.'
In fact I have two rules for countries. First that before they give you a visa the cultural attache must talk to you for half an hour and second that people should warn you 'You're crazy. You'll be killed.' I said all this very tactlessly to the Pakistani Cultural Attache in Bucharest, a very nice man, and he, slightly disconcertingly, replied 
Well, I didn't use those exact words when Ahmed said you wanted a visa but I did say why on earth does he want to go?
For my visit to Iraq click here.