Friday, September 14, 2018

I feel the itch, so let me scratch a little more (though whether you are in the slightest bit interested is neither here nor there. You are probably far more concerned with your own sodding itch)

That bloody itch to write, often nothing more than the obsession of a barroom bore to hear the sound of his own voice. And sadly I suffer from it. Well, at least I’ll admit to an itch to write - deciding whether or not I also have an obsession to hear the sound of my own voice I shall leave to those who don’t like me (and undoubtedly they will claim I do).

It’s odd: I enjoy writing these blog posts, but to be quite frank I have very little to say and certainly nothing at all to say of import. But then I do enjoy writing them. Sometimes, though - sometimes - I feel guilty that ‘I haven’t written a post for a while’ and an urge comes over me to post something. I like to think that I always manage to resist the temptation to drone on about nothing on particular, but perhaps that is just what I like to think. Certainly pretty much every day something occurs to me that I feel I should like to write about, and there are several things I often repeatedly feel I should like to write about, but being conscious that the role of barroom bore might fit me far better than I would be comfortable with, I keep schtum.

. . .

One thing which has been on my mind is ‘advice’, giving it and listening to it. The usual crack about ‘advice’ is to ‘listen to it, then ignore it’. Well, do what you think is best. I’ve found that some advice is very good, although all too often by the time I realise that a piece of advice I was given was invaluable, it is far too late to act on it.

A while ago I did, in hindsight rather pompously and presumptuously, offer the suggestion that there are only two worthwhile pieces of advice which could be passed on to a would-be writer - a would-be writer like me, of course, though I’m sure there are many others - but (a great example of Sod’s Law) I am finding it more than a just little difficult to listen and act on my own advice.

Those pieces of advice were simple:

1) Get it done.

2) It doesn’t have to be perfect from the off - you have all the time in the world to re-write and re-write and re-write again to get it into the shape you want it to be when you finally present ‘it’ to the world.

That first piece of advice stands proud and tall, and will be forever true. The songwriter Randy Newman says the same thing, though puts it rather differently: ‘Turn up.’

As for the second piece of advice (there is no deadline on knocking into the shape you want before presenting ‘it’ to the world), the irony is that 99.99 per cent of the world are not in the slightest bit interested in ‘it’, however much you think they should - or hope they might - be. When it comes to ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’, those 99.99 per cent are, whatever they might say, wholly and exclusively interested in their own ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ and not in the slightest bit in your ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’. That’s what I tell myself, at least, and I do believe I am happier for finally having realised it, though at 68 - 69 on November 21, 2018 - it is still a comparatively recent insight.

I mention this for a very good reason.

When I retired on April 4 - five months and ten days ago - I was genuinely looking forward to finally proving to myself - ‘myself’ being the only judge whose judgment I could ever respect on the matter - that I was not just another of life’s bullshitters, all talk and no walk, and that I would get on with doing what I have planned and intended to do since I was 16. I shan’t spell it out here, but I have spelled it out previously, and that should suffice.

Well, I have not been lazy, but I have been less productive than I am happy with, although I am not quite as culpable as I might be implying.

. . .

At the end of June I began reading a novel by Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises - and really wasn’t much impressed. Yet that novel, called Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises in Britain, was and is regarded as ‘a masterpiece’. So where did that leave my judgment that it was nothing of the kind? Was I really that far off-beam? Puzzled and not a little intrigued as to what I might have been missing, I turned to page one of the novel as soon as I had finished it and read it again, yet still my judgment was the same: it is by no means a bad novel, but a masterpiece? Really?

I decided I would write a blog post about the novel and my apostasy, and work began. I searched the internet for reviews, for the views of others on the novel and the like, hoping that somewhere someone might agree with me. That search quickly dredged up a book published two years ago by a Vanity Fair journalist called Lesley M M Blume called Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. My
search also dredged up quite a few reviews of her book - all very positive I should say - which were additionally useful to me in that the reviewers all added, to a greater or lesser extent, their two ha’porth worth on Hemingway’s ‘breakthrough’ novel.

Within days I began writing, then re-writing, then searching the internet again and dredging up more information about the young Hemingway, his time on the Kansas City Star and a little later on the Toronto Star, then his sojourn in Paris, his marriage to his first wife and a lot more. But the more additional information I dredged up, the more I felt that what I had written so far needed to be refined a little, then a little more. So far I have written more than 11,000 words of that piece, and still I am conscious that it needs further refinement and further thought, and the process is going on. But back to my ‘advice’.

Am I getting it ‘done’? Yes, but slowly and a lot slower than I am happy with. But I am getting it done. As for the second piece of my advice - that it doesn’t have to be perfect from the off - to that I am, sad to say, tone deaf. Yet because I am conscious of my shortcoming in that respect - well, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I weren’t - I have not abandoned hope. I am just conscious that I must work harder, as in a lot harder.

. . .

What I have written so far falls into three distinct categories - Hemingway’s writing, the claim made that somehow his novel chronicles a ‘lost generation’, and the man himself, his ambition and ruthless drive to make it in the literary world. But when I re-read what I have written, I realise that the whole piece needs a better shape. My other problem is that I am an inveterate tinkerer and that when I sit down to read what I have written so far with a view to gaining some kind of overall perspective to enable me to shape it properly, I already get bogged down with re-writing this phrase, that sentence, cutting and pasting elsewhere this paragraph. So progress is still slow.

I am also conscious that unless the whole bloody piece is interesting, the 11,00o words I have so far written (though despite repetition which I must deal with, it will probably become even more) are unlikely to hold the interest of many people. And if truth be told whatever you are producing - whether it is a blog post, a poem, a short story, a novel, an opera, a sculpture, a sonata, a painting, a play or whatever onanistic enterprise of yours you have persuaded yourself the world lacks - must achieve but one thing: it must hold the interest and attention of the reader/listener/viewer.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether the great and good, those folk who make it their business to decide what is ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ (and very often make a very good living from their pontifications) praise or condemn your ‘work’: if it holds the interest and keeps the attention of the reader/listener/viewer, you have succeeded. If it doesn’t, you have failed. It’s all very straightforward and rather simple (although the great and good - with both eyes on their income and bank balance - might be inclined to add that my claim is not simple, just simplistic. But who cares?

NB In past posts I think I have hinted at my view that ‘art’ is not ‘a thing’ or ‘an entity’ of some kind, but ‘a process’ (as in ‘art’ is what people - ordinary people like you and I - do). Furthermore it is essentially a lot more straightforward and accessible than the great and good who decide what is ‘art’ and what isn’t ‘art’ are prepared to allow. I often think that my view can be explained quite simply: on the one hand there might be a discussion on whether a work ‘is art’ or ‘is not art’.

On the other hand there is often heard the claim that ‘this is art’ but that ‘this isn’t art’. I contend that the distinctions between ‘art/not art’ and ‘good art/bad art’ are mutually exclusive: both cannot exist in the same universe. If they could, we would find ourself faced with the silliness that ‘bad art’, however ‘bad’, is still ‘better’ than a piece which ‘isn’t art’. Does that make any sense? Discuss. (Hint: no it doesn’t.)




While writing my long blog entry on Hemingway’s ‘masterpiece’ and why I think it is nothing of the kind, I am doing more than just writing another blog post. I am also trying to learn how to write. I don’t find putting down words on paper (so to speak) at all difficult, but I have long realised that there is far, far more to ‘writing’ than merely choosing words and then shuffling them in a certain order: there is also the absolute necessity of thought, and clear thought at that. (The writer Truman Capote remarked - and used the witticism several times about other works by other authors, being the sort who knew when he was onto winner - that Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road ‘is not writing but typing’) . In a sense writing is pretty much 90 per cent ‘thought’ and just 10 per cent ‘getting it down on paper’, and it is the ‘thinking’ which I don’t find very easy.

I am also trying, and so far not succeeding very well, to learn a little more discipline. I can be, and have on the past been disciplined, but it does not come easy to me, and I have still some way to go. Part of that discipline is finishing something, in this case my long post on Hemingway’s first novel, and so I have resolved not to begin my next project until this one is done and dusted and completed (and I do have my next project in line up).

. . .

Something else I realised quite some time ago was that I sharpen my thought and views best in conversation. Discussing this or that with someone, preferably someone who disagrees with me, I am far more able to hone my thoughts, to spot the flaws in my arguments, to realise how best to ensure my contentions lead on one to the next, than when I am pondering something on my own. Something akin to that happens when I write these posts: I clear my head a little.

Along those lines, though the the connection might not be obvious, I find I think ‘better’ and my imagination is ‘freer’ when I am away from home, preferably abroad and on my own. In fact, I like it quite a bit. Two days ago, I drove down to Truro - only 32 miles away - simply to visit a branch of Nationwide to withdraw some money, but also to treat myself to a pleasant meal, but oddly, ‘freed’ from being here at Lanke Cottage, St Breward, I breathed a little easier. I really don’t know why, but I do know that when I travel - alone - I love it. And it is true, my imagination is sparked a little more.

So perhaps, 2,200-odd words further down the line, you might understand why I quite often feel that itch to write. But here’s the thing: usually I write these posts and publish them, returning a day or two later to read them again and correct this or that literal and rephrase this or that piece of obvious gobbledegook. This time around the new, improved ‘learning to write’ me has already been through what I have written so far - twice - to make sure those silly glitches are sorted out beforehand. My mate Pete would be proud of me (eh, Pete?) though I don’t doubt he has already spotted more than one infelicity of some kind or another. Can a leopard change his spots? Probably not, but at least he can try.

PS Once I have complete the piece, I shall post it here, but as it might well be long, I shall split it into three or four and post them on my alternate blog where it might be read in greater comfort.

Monday, September 10, 2018

History isn’t bunk, Mr Ford, and I wish I knew far more of it

What with one thing and another - leaving Britain in June 1959 when I was nine to go and live in Berlin (after my father was posted there by the BBC), attending German schools for the next four years, returning to Britain in July 1963 and starting at a RC boarding school (which was then by no means of the first order), my education was in many ways quite patchy to downright bad.

For example, I began Latin at Das Canisius Kolleg in Berlin-Tiergarten when I started as a Sextaner (as in Sextanerblase) in late August 1964. Lessons were quite straightforward and methodical (our textbook as Ludus Latinus - the Latin game). I did Latin for the next three years, progressing from I don’t know what to I don’t know what - I have since forgotten most, though not all of it - and when we returned to Britain and I started at the Oratory School in Woodcote in early September 1963 I carried on with Latin. Except that I didn’t carry on at all - I came to an abrupt halt.

In Latin at the OS, we were pitched straight into Virgil’s Aeneid, and to this young German kid who spoke with an impeccable English accent but was, in fact, German, it was complete gobbledegook, blank bloody nonsense. Whereas our Latin classes in Berlin (Das Canisius Kolleg was and is a Jesuit college) it had been a slow and methodical progression of learning verbs and tenses, nouns, genders and cases, and slowly building up an notion of what the language might be, Latin at the OS as in reading and translating large chunks of ‘Virgil’ was a mystery to me, and moreover a mystery which my three years of learning the basics of Latin grammar in Berlin did bugger all to solve.

All of my fellow intake at the OS in 1963 - except me - had attended a English prep school and had already been immersed into Virgil, so the Latin classes were simply a continuation of what they had so far been learning. I’m not suggesting that they all knew a great deal more than me, but at least it what we were going through in class wasn’t utterly baffling. I can remember nothing about the classes - and even less about the Aeneid and Virgil except that he also be also wrote a long poem about farming and another about bee-keeping.

That when it came to grammar Latin nouns were declined differently in both countries didn’t help, either: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative in Germany but in England nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative. As for pronunciation, Lord help me. I had learned the German way of pronouncing Latin and the English way sounded hideous, and I never got used to it.

My education in history - any history - was worse: abysmal to non-existent. We did none at the The Sacred Heart, the RC primary school in Henley and none at my first German school, Steubenschule, in Berlin-Charlottenburg (and that is what I remembered it was called, not die Steubenschule, though I can’t find anything on the net to check either way.)

Then for the next three years at Das Canisius Kolleg it was ‘ancient history’ starting with - as far as I remember - Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. Quite why I can’t suggest. Why no German history? They had as much of history as everyone else but preferred to start us off in 700BC, so, no, it was ‘ancient Rome’ and I can
remember nothing. So when I landed at the OS I and ‘had history’, I was pitched straight into the doings of some dude called Henry VII (left) and his Court of Star Chamber. And that, dear friends, was it. I’m sure we also did history in fifth-form but I remember absolutely nothing.

Since then I have over the years picked up a lot more and do know a little. We also did history as part of my five-strand foundation course at Dundee University, but all I can remember of that is that if our lecturer used the phrase ‘and at the end of the day’ once, he bloody used it 1,000 times.

The irony is that I find history interesting and the more I know, and the more I know about the different approaches to history and what we can draw from knowing it, the more interesting I find it. A few years ago I became acutely aware that I knew no history at all and went on a self-designed crash course of getting to know more British and Continental history, and read a number of books in a series called ‘The Plantagenets’, ‘The Tudors’, ‘The Stuarts’, that kind of thing. The series wasn’t called this, but might well have had the rather twee title of ‘Adventures In History’ or some such, they usually do when you are still at the 2 x 2 = 4 level I was operating on. But I’m not proud. At least I acquired a broad outline of what the bloody hell happened in Britain between ‘the Dark Ages’ and the 19th century.

. . .

I brought up history because it has one very distinct advantage over current affairs: to a large extent it is ‘over’. All right, that is obviously a gross simplification and I can already hear various bores clearing their throats, murmuring ‘are you sure?’ and readying themselves for a long and arcane historiographical discussion, but I’d rather not to into that here, if you don’t mind. My point has more to do with how little we know - and in a sense can know - about what is going on now, this week, this month, this year. (Incidentally, whenever a discussion such as this comes up, there is alway some wiseacre who resorts to quoting what is now a sodding cliche by the philosopher George Santayana. I shall not be quoting it.)

Yes, we know the ‘facts’ but it is the relevance of those facts and what underlying trend we might discern which is bloody difficult. If we were to look at say what the Brits call ‘The Glorious Revolution’ when William of Orange was invited to invade the country and usurp the throne, we can try to trace what happened, who did what - for example, the ineptitude of James II - and suggest various patterns. Can anyone really do that at the moment? Can anyone - although many try, almost always for good money coughed up by a media which should know better - really tell us ‘what’s going on’?

In the US the nation is into its second year of the erratic and bewildering presidency of Donald Trump. You reading this might disagree, but I am far more inclined to agree with the analysis that the man is a narcissistic, sociopath who has the world view of a dim New York cabbie. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned his baffling subservience to Russia and Vladimir Putin is easily explained if one accepts the overwhelming likelihood that he is deeply, deeply, deeply in debt to various Russian billionaires. That is certainly not ‘a fact’, but a real probability.

Here in Britain we are also in deep shit. I am not about to launch into a ‘Brexit - right or wrong’ discussion, mainly because that is now irrelevant. What is relevant is that next March (or possibly later if wiser heads prevail and the government asks for the date to be postponed so a few more ducks can be put in the row) we shall be leaving the EU.

Well, quite apart from no one having the faintest clue what the economic result of that might be - and I are thoroughly persuaded things are really not looking good - the political setup her in Britain is in no state to deal with what could become a constitutional crisis. Both of our major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, are in complete disarray and pretty much split down the middle. (That happens to both parties periodically, but never at the same time.)

Abroad the far-right is gaining ground in several countries, most notably in the general election last night in Sweden. They didn’t do quite as well as was expected by many, but they did well enough. It’s not that they might be part of the next Swedish government - both the right-of-centre and left-of-centre blocs say they will have nothing to do with them in a possible coalition - but that the number of Swedish citizens who are won over by their illiberal arguments has grown and might grow even more.

Germany, too, has its far-right problem, mainly in the former East Germany, and although I believe its democratic sinews are as strong as in any other Western European country, it is not a problem which can be ignored.

Elsewhere, we have the growing totalitarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Putin (who has just raised the pension age in Russia) facing street protests, China having to deal with the apparent megalomania of Xi Jinping (but he is having to deal with the fact that his - what amounts to a - power grab is not going quite as easily as he hoped, Libya is falling apart, Egypt is getting restless again (a Lebanese woman visiting who complained publicly of the day-to-day sexual harassment of women in the country was jailed for eight years. Today’s news is that her sentence has been reduced to one year and that she has been released, although I am hazy on the details).

Historians - or even common or garden bloggers of my ilk - alive and at work in 2218 will have a fair idea of what was going on. They might point to the increasing liberalisation of Western Europe once World War II ended, a process which seemed to culminate in the end of the Soviet bloc and the emancipation of its various client states in Eastern Europe. That event even persuaded one historian, Francis Fukuyama, to publish a book with the title The End Of History. How different it all looks now.

In the US there seems to be very real talk of what can only be described - but which never would be - of a coup d’etat to remove Trump from office before he does something really, really stupid (At the height of his spat

Vice-President Mike Pence indicates how long the knife should be he would like
to bury in Trump’s back (for the sake of the American people, of course)


with North Korea, he is said to have wanted to ‘go in there and fucking kill’ Kim Jung Un. And he was all for the US invading Venezuela and had to be talked out of it by his staff.

The Western World traditionally pays little attention to South America and what is going on there, mainly, I suppose, because what does go on there has little effect on what happens in its own world (folk who like to bang on about butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon rainforest notwithstanding), but there, too, seems to be something of a sea change in affairs. In Brazil, by far the biggest country, the presidential candidate ahead in the polls is actually sitting in a jail cell and his biggest opponent belongs to the far-right. And given Brazil penchant for resorting to military rule when and if, the Western World might be better advised to pay more attention.

Finally, of course, there’s the ticklish matter of ‘global warming’. It would seem to be real and ongoing, although I still can’t rid myself of the suspicion that a kind of apocalypsarianism is partly at play - folk love a disaster, although not one in their own backyard.

I shall be 69 on November 21 and I am keenly aware that we ageing folk are often inclined to doom-monger, so I am doing my best not to. But in many ways it isn’t looking quite as good as it did when the smug gits in the EU organised parades for the introduction of the euro and were pretty much convinced that Nirvana was just around the corner. Was it hell.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Off to a concert in Fowey...

Fowey – Tuesday, August 21 at 18.30 local time.

I’ve arrived in Fowey for a chamber music concert at a St Fimbarrus church (the town church for local Prots, I should imagine) and I am sitting in the courtyard of The Galleon just around the corner supping a beaker of ‘house red’. The beaker, sadly, is plastic – this is the week of the Fowey Regatta and, the barmaid tells me when I was presented with my plastic beaker and wondered whether I might not get one made of the more traditional glass and no pub within ten miles serves any drink in glass. It’s plastic or nowt. I suspect that had I arrived not in levis and an F&M blue shirt but in ermine and pearls and ordered a bottle of 1963 Chateau St Vitus (an exquisite vintage I’m told), they might have pushed the boat out a little and suspended their ‘plastic glasses’ rule. But I didn’t, so they didn’t. Modern life, eh!

The concert, by a German band from Cologne – the Chamber Philharmonia of Cologne – will be playing the Vivaldi, Mozart and Paganini. I’m rather hoping it will not be Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which are very pleasant piece, but were ruined for me by incessantly hearing them in cheap London wine bars in the 1990s. They are up there with Ravel’s Bolero (which he once confessed he wrote as a joke for people who don’t like music), Handel’s Zogan the Priest (Zogaz? Zodor? Sodor? Look it up, cos I’m not going to), the Water Music by the same dude and that piece by Elgar from his Riddle Symphony Brits love to listen to when they want to cry (which isn’t often, but, you know, occasionally when needs must and they have to persuade folk on the Continent that ‘they bloody well DO have feelings and it’s an insult to claim otherwise!’)

Anything but Mozart will do me and as for Paganini, well, I know nothing, so again, surprise me.

I arrived over an hour ago to make sure I would find parking, did find parking rather more easily than I expected, and so have the pleasure of sitting here writing. Hmm, what else?

. . .

Been getting on with a blog entry I will eventually publish about Ernest Hemingway’s first published novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. My entry will be about how I don’t think it’s ‘a masterpiece’ as is claimed in the blurb on the back of my edition and how I don’t think Hemingway is ‘a writer of genius’. Whatever the lad told himself, however many theories he has about writing, however much he wanted to cut a dash with all the modernist pals he befriended, then ditched as soon as it suited him at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday soiree, a ‘writer of genius’ is able to produce rather better stuff than what his first novel consists of – of which his first novel consists? Discuss.

I have been beavering away at completing the piece since the middle of July, and been castigating myself (quietly – my wife isn’t in the slightest interested in my literary pretensions, so schtumm, schtumm is the working principle). Having a great deal of time to do write such things is a double-edged sword in that the longer you have, the longer you take, and it is not easy to when you sit down to write something like that not to be sidetracked into such essential tasks as sourcing the etymology of the word ‘bumf’ and scouring the internet for the definitive answer to whether the word ‘dosh’ (as in ‘money’) really did begin life as Jewish merchant slang in Manchester or whether it has a less noble provenance.

To be fair, I’m putting in a great deal of effort into it and, well, there’s no other way of putting this, teaching myself how to write. By that I mean – after all even this blog entry is ‘writing’ – that as far as I am concerned ‘writing’ is something like 9/10s thinking and only 1/10 getting words down on paper. As someone who could, given half the chance talk the hind legs off a donkey and who has for the past 44 years ‘dealt with words’ as a reporter, then sub-editor (US copy editor) much as a bricklayer ‘deals with bricks’, I don’t find the ‘getting words down on paper’ particularly difficult. It’s the thinking – the organising, the train of thought, the ‘argument’ so to speak, the making sure the reader reads what I want her of him to read – which I don’t find easy. So I’ve got to learn.

I won’t rehearse here what I want to say in that entry, but I will confess that it is a perpetual exercise in cutting back. At one point I had reached over 7,000 words and still hadn’t got down even a third of what I thought I wanted to say, and realise I was pissing in the wind. I didn’t though start again, but courtesy of the magic of word processors began re-writing. That is all well and good except that the exercise demands rigorous editing to make sure you don’t repeat yourself several times.

What else? Well, nothing. It is now 19.08, the concert starts at 19.30, the ‘box office’ opens at 19.00, so I must consider winding down. I shall not post this just yet, however, but return to this establishment (as in pub) afterwards and add a little more, especially whether our musical guests from Cologne have eschewed cliché in the form of Vivaldi’s Four season, and settled for real music. Actually, as I imagine none of them knocked around in cheap London wine bars in the 1990s, they might be unaware that I – who did – am so scornful of the Four Seasons. Hold that thought. Chin, chin (the Italian version of ‘pip, pip’.

. . .

I had intended to return to The Galleon after the concert to finish this off, but as it was I fell in with an Irish friend of my brother-in-law and his partner who had also both been to the concert, and although we did return to The Galleon, there were other things to do and talk about. (If I remember, we had several glasses of wine/beer/gin - each to his/her own - and we sorted out the world admirably, although as is usual after such occasions I can’t at all recollect what our admirable solutions to its major problems were. But never mind, I’m sure there are others.)

The first part of this entry seemed rather sparse and after not completing it while in Fowey, as planned, I was going to complete it the following day, but by then I had lost the thread and still haven’t found it. So this must stand alone.

There are three more concerts coming up at St Fimbarrus, but only one interests me, a piano recital. Think I’ll go, but first I want to sort out where might be best to park in the late afternoon as it was all a bit of a pain last Tuesday. And with that I’ll wish you all a bon mot.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

OK, I’ll come right out of the closet: I am a pro-semite and have been for many years. There, I’ve said it, now condemn me. As for anti-semites, there are plenty around, but I don’t think Corbyn is one, he’s just a chap who doesn’t seem to have grown up much (and there are plenty around just like him)

Looking at the list of countries in which live those who have visited this blog recently live, the chances are that some reading this haven’t heard of the troubles the Labour Party here in Britain is having with accusations of anti-semitism. British readers most certainly will have done so. The most recent twist is in the whole affair is that the party’s leader, one Jeremy ‘Jezza’ Corbyn, many years ago laid a wreath at a memorial in Tunisia to - I hope I’ve got this right - Palestinian freedom fighters/terrorists (delete as applicable to your personal bias/prejudices/principles/political beliefs - again, delete as applicable).

I’m not about to come down on one side or the other wholesale on whether some in the Labour Party are anti-semitic or whether it is just - as some suggest - simply a Tory plot to discredit Jeremy Corby. But I have to add that I have and often do come across anti-semitism generally, and it isn’t necessarily anything one might expect it to be.

At it’s most obvious in a civilised country like Britain, it is straightforward and often quite marked unpleasantness about and towards Jews. For example, here in St Breward lives a, now elderly, couple who were originally from either then then Southern Rhodesia or South Africa. I know them only very vaguely through my stepmother (the middle-classes like to stick together down here), but about 15 years ago and out of the blue, the husband rang me up to invite me to supper. I was very surprised.

It turned out that he, who had been a businessman in South Africa before retiring to North Cornwall, felt that the local parish council, and especially its finances, were very badly run and he wanted to get himself elected to shake it all up. The invitation to supper was intended to enlist my support, though that in itself was a bit of a mystery as I have no clout over anyone at all and my one vote would not have swung it for him.

To get to the point: in that original phone call inviting me to supper he made a reference - why I didn’t understand then and still can’t recall 15 years later - to some businessman he had known in South Africa, describing him to me along the lines of ‘you know the sort, a Jew, always looking for a fast buck, you know the sort’. Well, I don’t know the sort, and to this day I regret not telling him to stick his supper invitation up his arse.

That is the kind of overt anti-semitism which is quite obvious. But there are more invidious kinds. There will be the off-colour jokes about Jews that might be told, the throwaway remarks which involve an expression like ‘well, he’s Jewish, of course, so what can you expect?’, the subtle nudge-nudge, wink-wink from those who realise that these days the have to watch their step in such matters but, you know, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, ‘he’s Jewish, know what I mean?’ There’s even the very odd remark you might occasionally hear that ‘of course I’m not anti-semitic, why some of my good friends are Jewish’, which fact, of course, absolves you of all suspicion.

. . .

I must come out straight and confess that I am truly baffled by anti-semitism. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am baffled by how people can be so coarse and unfriendly as to be anti-semitic, but I am baffled in the sense that were a Chinese man to come up to me and address me in Chinese, I would be equally baffled. I would have no idea what he wanted or what he was saying. I find anti-semitism as incomprehensible as I would that Chinese man.

I realise I am in danger of seeming to be trying to polish a halo, so please accept what I say in the previous paragraph as a simple statement of fact. I shall add, though, that I have a definite liking for much that is Jewish, not least their wit and humour. That is not too say that I expect all Jews to be witty and funny, because I have also met some real bores. But there is something about their - German word alert! - Weltanschauung which speaks to me quietly and resonates with mine. I couldn’t and can’t tell you why. (As it happens the same is true of the Italians, but I don’t want create confusion here.) As we are talking of anti-semitism and anti-semites here, you might as well put me down as a pro-semite.

. . .

Take a cross-section of any group and compare it with a similar number of any other group, and if your samples are big enough, I suspect you are bound to come across pretty similar proportions of boring people, witty people, left-handed people, dull people, stingy people, spendthrifts and so on. And were you to take at random, say, 1,000 Tory supporters, 1,000 Labour supporters and 1,000 Lib Dem supporters, you are very likely to find an equal number of anti-semites in all three samples. What would be notable, though, is that given the suggestion by Labour and Lib Dem supporters that they are always and quite naturally on the side of the angels and always hold the moral high ground, and that Tories are the spawn of Satan, you might suspect that they would disown anti-semitism with abhorrence. Well, that’s the theory. In Labour, it seems, the practice is rather different.

I can’t actually remember when the whole row over ‘anti-semitism in the Labour Party’ began and I don’t give any credence at all to the claim that it is all a plot by the Tories to smear the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for the simple reason that a number of - Jewish - Labour MPs and prominent Labour supporters, notably MPs Margaret Hodge, and Luciana Berger are equally concerned by what the - Jews - regard as growing anti-semitism. Ms Berger has even been receiving anti-semitic hate email. I don’t doubt that in this whole fuss the more shit Corbyn finds himself in, the more the Tories like it. Christ, they are only human after all, but I don’t buy that they are behind it all? What, are they secretly training up Labour supporters in anti-semitism simply to discredit Corbyn?

Corbyn supporters now claim that the row over anti-semitism in Labour is also bieng fostered by anti-Corbyn elements in the party as a way to oust Corbyn. There’s not doubting at all that a great many Labour MPs feel Corbyn and his leadership are a catastrophe waiting to happen, but the claim falls very short on logic: certainly they believe that Corbyn’s brand of pie-in-the-sky socialism will only ensure Labour doesn’t get the electoral support it might otherwise get, and that a more centrist set of policies would be far more acceptable to would-be Labour voters. But even they will draw the line at doing anything to ensure the Tories are returned to power.

. . .

As for those Corbyn supporters, well, they are a rum bunch. Corbyn has many, made up of starry-eyed and, presumably, so far non-taxpaying youngsters, who often treat him like a rock start (sic), to the standard gaggle of old lefties who might well trot out such sagacities as ‘that bitch Thatcher, eh, I would have strangled her myself if I had had half the chance’. The point is, though, that a group called Momentum (here and here) which in a sense is now the power behind the throne, is attempting to take over the Labour Party or, to be fair, as they might see it to ensure that Labour begins to follow a path more likely to bring about a socialist Britain if they get to power. And Momentum are no slouches and have studied their Leninist tactics well.

So, for example, they are doing their best to make sure each constituency has an election candidate who supports Jeremy Corbyn and his policies and that if a constituency doesn’t, they do their best to becoming the ruling voice in that constituency so that the MP can be deselected and replaced with a candidate in tune with their thinking.

I can’t fault them on that tactic at all: if I were in charge of Momentum, I would do exactly the same. However, I am not and I agree - though I am not a Labour supporter (or for that matter a Tory or Lib Dem supporter - with the moderate Labour MPs who fear for their party’s future and don’t think Labour has a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting enough electoral support to form a new government if Jeremy Corbyn is in charge.

. . .

It is among this gaggle of Momentum activists and Corbyn supporters that rather too many anti-semites are turning up. The immediate impetus for this blog entry, though, is an ongoing spat I am having with a Facebook friend, a college friend from 50 years ago and an out-an-out Corbyn supporter. I went to visit him a few months ago, and apart from seeing each other last winter when a friend of his and his wife who have settled in the US came to Britain and we all met up, I hadn’t seen him in years.

On my visit to his home on the Kent coast, it became obvious to me that when discussing particular issues, we pretty much agreed. Where we differed was in how we might got about tackling the myriad inequities in British society. I like to think - I stress ‘I like to think’ because we can all kid ourselves on - that I am far more aware of the complexities of political life and how something might be achieved than he is. He, on the other hand, thinks the sun shines out of Corbyn’s arse and - I have to say this even though he is a year older than me and if not yet 70, is most certainly pushing 70 - strikes me as having a distressingly adolescent political mindset.

The Facebook spat has been ongoing for over a year. He is a great one for ‘sharing’ the posts of this or that left-of-centre to far-left pressure group and I am a great one for pointing out how utterly simplistic their take on political and social problems are. A while ago, I even suggested that given the venal nature of Facebook - venal as it is only in it for the money, despite all cuddly ‘sharing’ bull - he might well spend some time going into the background of these, very slick, Facebook groups whose posts he shares and discovering whether their motives are indeed pure and sincere. With some of them I do doubt it, as in the more posts that are shared, the more money is made. Sharing rings the tills why Facebook is incessantly trying to get us to share.

One of our major points of disagreement is Israel and its - I have to say appalling - responses to attacks by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As far as he is concerned - and he seems to be quite serious about this - Israel is well on its way to becoming a ‘fascist state’. I point out that any comparison between Israel, even under its current Netanyahu government, to Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy is utterly ludicrous and - see above - almost verges on anti-semitism. Nonsense! he says, it is not ‘anti-semitic’ to condemn Netanyahu and Zionism

Well, of course, it isn’t, but then that isn’t quite what is going on. Why, I asked recently, is his outrage, publicly expressed by often sharing’ this or that post about Israel, restricted to that one issue? Why, I asked him, has he not expressed outrage (as in hasn’t bothered posting on Facebook about it) by the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar (once Burma) or the treatment of the Uighurs in western China by the Han Chinese?

His answers - as far as I am concerned - have been disingenuous to the point of nonsense. He is outraged about what is going on in Israel, he says, because Britain - i.e. his country - had a part in the creation of the state and the displacement of Palestinians, and there is no such connection of that kind with Myanmar or the Uighurs. On another occasions he insisted that you can’t concern yourselves with all the evils in the world and you have to be selective. So why is it always Israel, I ask?

This is what he wrote:

‘In the end - and we’ve had this discussion before - there are only so many things one can take on board in this very imperfect but wonderful world. I am drawn to what is closest to me and what is perhaps most obvious to me. Brexit, Trump and, coming out of my support for Corbyn - you say naive, I say not yet as terminally cynical as some others - and the attacks on him using anti-Semitism. This leads inevitably to an examination of what these attacks arise from - so Israel, the Palestinians and the more one looks at it, the ghastly unsolvability (is that a word?) if that situation, which leaves Israel with only a very fascist-seeming approach.’

Today, and this was the immediate impulse to write this blog entry, he posted a picture (this one) of Margaret
Thatcher shaking hands with Menachem Begin, a former prime minister of Israel and before that a former commander of the freedom fighters/terrorist group (see above) Irgun.

When, I asked, was murder not murder? How, I asked did the terror acts of the IRA from the early 1970s until the Good Friday Agreement (which claimed many lives) differ from what Irgun had done?

And given the terror acts of the IRA, how did he square his abhorrence of Margaret Thatcher shaking hands with Menachem Begin with Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiastic and very public support of Gerry Adams (both pictured below) when Adams was a commander of the IRA?


In response someone else, presumably one of his one Facebook friends, gave this very silly and wholly hollow response. (NB Confusingly my comments and subsequent responses wereattached to another anti-Israel post, one which reproduced a letter written in 1948 declaring that Israel was well on its way to becoming a fascist state) She again somehow tried to insist that concentrating on what was going on in Israel was acceptable:

‘There are many open sores in the world of human rights. Talking about one at a time is practical, not romantic.

I pointed out that it was notable that the ‘one’ on which it was practical to concentrate always seemed to be the troubles in Israel. I then asked this woman:

‘Tell me exactly when one murder is acceptable and another isn't. Were, say IRA murders acceptable (in as far as they were fighting for an Irish 'homeland' without British rule) but Irgun murders unacceptable (even though they were fighting for a Jewish 'homeland' without British rule)? Was in your view the Enniskillen bombing acceptable? Was the bombing in Deal acceptable? Were the bombings in Birmingham acceptable? And if the IRA were murderers (whatever the cause) what distinguishes Jeremy Corbyn meeting Gerry Adams from Thatcher meeting Begin? Do tell me, I might be enlightened. Or is it a question of one rule for some, one rule for others? A little intellectual honesty never goes amiss.’

I got this fatuous response, something of a non-response:

‘You are attempting to reframe the discussion to suit yourself. I refuse to be drawn into such a hostile, futile domain.’

Forgive me for being so longwinded and reproducing these response verbatim, but I do want to try to show just how slippery some are in debate.

. . .

My main point? I am appalled at how Netanyahu is responding to Hamas, how Arabs are now being given lesser rights, and how settlers are going anywhere they choose. But I am not in the slightest convinced that the condemnation from some on the left is merely an expression of their equal horror. Sadly, I am rather persuaded that for many - though they might not know it and would certainly deny it - their attitude to Israel - the sole democracy in that neck of the woods, with the rule of law, and independent judiciary and regular elections (oh, and their prime minister, one Benjamin Netanyahu, currently being investigated by the police on suspicion of corruption - is at heart nothing but tacit anti-semitism.

. . .

Oh, I cannot but admire how Israel built up its country, turning parts of a scrappy, scrubby land into productive, green country. I admire how it defends itself in the face of out-and-out aggression. I don’t admire some of the measures it takes, especially recent measures, but I think we should always remind ourselves that the stated aim of the - authoritarian regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran is to wipe Israel from the face of the Earth.

I don’t blame the Israelis in the slightest in refusing to countenance a debate with Iran (not that one has been offered) on just how far off the face of the Earth it is acceptable to wipe Israel.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My dilemma: how to you patch things up with a stepmother when you really don’t give a fuck whether or not things are patched up? It would only be for her sake.

Although this blog is the descendant of a diary I once kept for about 15 years, it differs in at least one respect in that I have so far avoided writing about people - family and friends - who might read it. Neither do I care emotionally to spill my guts. As it happens I don’t have a great much to spill emotionally, certainly a lot less than when I was writing my diary from around 1980 to 1995 and splitting up with girls (especially one in particular), but even if I did, I wouldn’t record it here for the world to drool over. The major advantage of keeping a written diary is that, with very few exceptions, no one will ever read it. Blogs, on the other hand, are public knowldge. If you don’t want something to become public, don’t put it in your bloody blog.

As for friends and family - not so much news of them, which I do occasionally record here, but comments about them which might not always be complimentary - they, too, must accept that they will have no place here. As far I know, no family have ever read my blog, except in the early days my sister, and only two friends occasionally do so, and I have nothing unpleasant or even uncomplimentary to say about either of them.

But I am about to break my rule and give an account of a very recent family matter, and the reason I have no compunction about breaking my rule is that I really don’t give a fuck who gets upset. It concerns my stepmother, and two very odd and very hurtful comments she made. As a rule and given her less than happy circumstances, I would allow them to wash off my back like water off a duck, but oddly when she made the second comment - and given our history - something snapped in me.

. . .

She hooked up with my father more than 55 years ago when she was in her mid-twenties and he was just over 40, though who hooked up with whom I can’t say and I don’t know. It would be dishonest to say that she thereby wrecked my father’s marriage as I don’t think it was in a very healthy state anyway. Nor shall I speculate further, as no one can know the dynamic of a relationship a couple - in this case my father and mother - has. But I do know from there on in there was often an uncomfortable and edgy atmosphere in the house, and Christmas breaks were never very happy going on on occasion quite awful.

My mother died suddenly of a heart attack in January 1981 at the comparatively early age of 30 - I found her dead - and in the months and years following her death, I got to know far more details of the affair and just what had been going on.

When we returned from Paris in 1972 (the year I graduated) we were back living in Henley-on-Thames, from where many commute to London where my father worked (indeed my sister did daily as she attended a French school in London). My father chose not to commute and to stay in London during the week, telling my mother he slept in one of the bedrooms at Broadcasting House the BBC kept for late night/early morning announcers. I doubt she believed him though. My stepmother, who also worked for the BBC, owned a flat in Blackheath, and my father had been shacking up with her there since 1972.

In the mid-seventies my stepmother inherited several thousand pounds from an aunt and bought herself an old granite cottage in the village of St Breward, about six miles from Bodmin. Her parents were both Irish and had moved to Cornwall in the mid-1930s where her father took over running a mental health hospital in North Cornwall. Her two sisters and brother were born in Ireland, but she was born in Bodmin.  (NB Wrong, as I discovered tonight, after asking her oldest sibling. They were all born in Bodmin. The parents came over in the late 1920s and all of their children were born in Cornwall.) Apart from living with my stepmother in London, my father also used to spend weekends with her at the cottage, telling my mother he was staying with a friend while he was ‘working on his book’. There was no phone, he said, so he could not be contacted. I doubt any sane woman would accept such a story, especially as I’m sure my mother already knew of the affair.

After my mother died, my father sold the house he and my mother had built on Greys Road, on the outskirts of Henley (at Gillotts Corner if you know Henley) for around £82,000. That - a tidy sum - would be the equivalent of around £276,000 in 2018. The money was used to add to and extend my stepmother’s cottage substantially. In 1983, my father retired and my stepmother took early retirement.

. . .

I have known my stepmother since I was 15 in 1965. She, her sisters and their uncle, a GP who was not short of a penny and who owned a small holiday cottage on small island on the Thames at Henley which they all used to visit, I simply knew as my father’s friends. When my stepmother met my father and found out we lived in Henley, our he (and his family) were invited to join them there on a weekend afternoon, but we only went once or twice as I’m sure my mother suspected something was going on.

Late in 1965 we moved to Paris where my father had been posted as the BBC’s ‘Paris representative’. (It is only recently that I have been wondering why the BBC had ‘correspondents’ all over the world, but ‘representatives’ in only one or two cities, but I can’t tell you or even suggest why. Perhaps his posting had something to do with what I suspect was the second string to his bow, his obscure connection to Britain’s SIS (more here 1 and here 2). Perhaps it wasn’t, but I’m not going to speculate.)

From 1965 until 1968 I was at school in England and until 1972, when we returned from Paris, I was at university in Dundee, and such was the rather fraught and generally unhappy atmosphere at home that I rarely ever spent school breaks at home in Paris. (It didn’t help that although I generally got one reasonably well with my father, he and my older brother clashed quite regularly.) I particularly remember the first Christmas in Paris, in 1965 (I turned 16 in the November of that year). My father picked up myself and my older brother from the Gare du Nord and drove us home in a taxi. It was evening and as we drove along beside the Seine with all its lights, I distinctly remember feeling very proud of my father. I also distinctly remember that he stank of whisky.

It was late, and we went to bed almost as soon as we got in, but within minutes a terrible row broke out downstairs - the house had three floors - between my mother and father which went on for some time. My mother appeared and came upstairs to where we children were sleeping (my sister was only ten and my younger brother eight) mother, not a small women, wearing a pink baby doll night dress and weeping. I suspect she had tried to initiate ‘intimate relations’ - sex - with my father but he had wanted none of it. The rest of the Christmas break was downhill from there on.

. . .

I wasn’t reacquainted with my stepmother for 15 years until after my mother died. When she died, and, to but it bluntly, she was out of the way an no longer a barrier to my father and stepmother going public, my father set about easing me in on the fact of his affair. I discovered my younger brother had been eased in rather earlier than me.

I was invited to spend a weekend at my stepmother’s flat in Blackheath and immediately sensed that the story I had been told - that she was an old friend he had turned to when my mother died - was bullshit. There was an especially silly charade when I was given the guest room to sleep in and he made out he was sleeping on a camp bed in the living room. I offered him the guest room and said I would sleep on the camp bed. No, no, no, he said that’s fine, don’t bother.

I didn’t take to my stepmother, but didn’t dislike her, either. I was neutral. I found her pretentious, and her snobbery and airs and graces irritated me, and she had a very annoying habit of pulling me - and my young brother and, for all I know, everyone else - up short on points of etiquette. But I said nothing, probably because I am by nature quite direct and I either speak out or not at all. Although my years working shifts on the nationals in London taught me a modicum of diplomacy, I had not then learnt the little I might now have.

My mother died in January 1982, and I spent the Christmas of 1982 with my girlfriend’s mother in Harwich where she, who had split from her father, now lived. The following year my younger brother and I were invited down here to Cornwall to spend Christmas with my father and my stepmother.

. . .

From the off it was agony. Everything was phoney, no one could relax, the bonhomie abounding was so fake, it could well have been prosecuted by trading standards. Before my mother died we had always celebrated Christmas in the German way on Christmas Eve. Hoping, I suppose, somehow to recreate those Christmases, my father and stepmother emulated them. I suppose they deserve credit for trying but I wished to Christ they hadn’t.

The following morning on Christmas Day, I woke up and thought ‘I don’t want to be here’. I realised the huge upset I would cause by walking out, but I also remember thinking that this was a watershed: I could carry on trying to be honest with myself (after a fashion, I should add, because I don’t doubt I am just as capable of kidding myself as everyone else) or start playing the silly, phoney games my stepmother seemed to prefer, the ‘let’s pretend for the sake of form’ crap. I decided to leave.

I packed, went downstairs to the kitchen where my stepmother was preparing Christmas lunch and told her I was leaving. She said something along the lines of ‘I think you are very wrong’ and I left. My father and brother were out somewhere at the time and my father didn’t speak to me for several years. But to this day I know I did the right thing.

I don’t quite remember how long it took, but there came about a reconciliation of sorts with my father. But it was by no means immediate. My brother was living with me at the time in my house in the Maypole, Birmingham, and whenever my father rang him and I andwered the phone, he would not say a word except to ask for Mark. But in time, at least two years, the situation began to ease and I began to visit him and my stepmother down here in Cornwall.

By then I was living in Cardiff, working for the South Wales Echo. But I never felt at all easy with her and I didn’t much like her. Being a middle-class sort of chap, I was polite and affable, but what was especially galling - quite apart from her airs and graces, snobbery, and her habit of lecturing on matters of etiquette - was when she informed me, referring to my crime of walking out on Christmas Day, that ‘all was forgiven’. She didn’t just say it once or twice, but rather often over the years, far, far too often for my liking. I, who would either have to let rip or say nothing, always said nothing. Christ, I deserve a medal.

My father developed cancer in the early 1990s and died in 1991. My stepmother, unsurprisingly, was devastated. She had retired in 1983 at the same time as my father when she was just 46 and had looked forward to many years of a comfortable life with him. I visited her once or twice while I was living in London, when I married a local woman and myself moved down here to St Breward (although I carried on working in London for another 22 years).

While he was on his deathbed, my father asked myself and my younger brother ‘to take care of Paddy’, and I took the request seriously. My stepmother and I rubbed along OK, although we weren’t in each other’s pockets and I never felt at ease in her company, but with my father no longer around, I was conscious that she needed a bit of company. I can’t say we became bosom pals. And the ‘all is forgiven line’ was still trotted out on occasion.

Eleven years ago, two days before her 70th birthday, my stepmother suffered a very bad stroke. She was in a coma for three days and stayed in hospital for several months, first in Truro then in Bodmin. A few days after she had come out of her coma, she gave me enduring power of attorney, and I have been making sure her bills are paid on time and all the rest ever since.

After leaving hospital, she moved into a care home near the north coast and lived there for several years. She then moved into one of the two cottages she owns adjacent to hers (she had jointly bought the first with my brother, and later inherited the second from her sister when her sister died). She moved into that because at the time it was thought easier to adapt to someone who was as physically disabled as she was. Several years later she moved back into her original home, and that is where she lives now.

. . .

To some it might seem that the account above indicates it has all been at the back of my mind and that I have been chewing it all over for the past 36 years. Actually, I haven’t. So my dad had an affair? So? I haven’t had one while married, although I did a fair bit of two-timing, but none of us is kitchen-clean and I gather my parents’ marriage was most certainly not in the best of health. (In fact, my sister told me that she had been informed - by whom I can’t remember but whoever it was should have known better - that my parents had her ‘to save the marriage’. Not a nice thing to be told.) I honestly thought it was all water under the bridge, and I astonished myself when all this came rushing back to me the other morning - especially that sanctimonious and infuriating ‘all is forgiven’.

I shan’t go into details of what was said because that would be too tedious, but several months ago my stepmother pretty much accused me of trying to steal a table from her. That did sour me rather badly. Then the other morning she said something similar and something inside me snapped. And that was it.

I know myself well: I can get noisily angry but that is always just like a sudden summer storm, over almost before it has started. But when, as has happened and has happened again, I get so furious that I am in complete calm, but in a state of white fury, I make sure I watch my step and keep my mother shut. And there is no going back.

My stepmother has been affected by her strokes - she had two more a few years ago - and can do little for herself. But mentally she is all there, although she sometimes takes a little longer to respond to questions. I have no idea what is going through here mind, but it wasn’t what she said, but what she obviously believes about me. As I say something snapped.

My dilemma is that she is helpless, pretty much, and relies on me in several ways, so this state of affairs cannot carry on. But I don’t care whether or not I ever see her again. I have had it with her, completely, but I can’t abandon her. And I shall not, but . . .

I am going to try to patch things up for her sake - me, I really don’t give a fuck - but not at any price. I am certainly not going to play some phoney little game about it all being ‘a misunderstanding’, the line she took before, and I am not and shall never engage in more of that thoroughly fake middle-class politeness and phoney bonhomie which gets up my nose at the best of times. I have had it - but somehow I’ve got to find a way through. And, dear reader, at this point I am utterly clueless.

Even ‘talking about it’ with my stepmother as my ‘cousin’, her nephew (he, his wife and his mother are staying) suggests is out of the question because I would have to say things she would hurt her very badly indeed - how do you tell someone that she is a total pain in the arse and that her airs and graces and snobbery are supremely irritating and still hope to have a reasonably friendly relationship?

As I say, I am utterly clueless.