Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The question (from a possibly dangerously liberal useful idiot): So what IS going on in the Ukraine? Just more willy-waving or it is rather less serious? Discuss

Many years ago, when I was about 35 and my father was 62, he described me as ‘dangerously liberal’. I laughed my socks off. How on earth, I thought, can one be ‘dangerously’ liberal. Could one be ‘dangerously’ enlightened or ‘dangerously’ considerate? Wasn’t to be called ‘dangerously’ liberal just as nonsensical?

Well, dear reader, I still think it is, or would be, nonsense to describe someone as ‘dangerously’ enlightened or ‘dangerously’ kind, but I now see my father’s point about the dangers of being overly liberal. Unfortunately, he is now dead these past 21 years, so I can’t tell him. I suspect it was folk who were ‘dangerously liberal’ who were regarded by the Soviets as ‘useful idiots’. (I thought it was Lenin who first used the term, but according to Mr Wikipedia, so far no one has found the phrase used in his published work of transcripts of his speeches. Anyway, it doesn’t actually matter who first said it: we all know what it means, and if you don’t, you probably are one.)

My father was of the generation who fought in the war. Although he was born in 1923 and under 17 when war was declared in September 1939, after two years at Cambridge (where he gained a ‘wartime degree’ which he never converted into a full degree by spending one more year at college after the war), he enlisted (or was called up – I don’t know which, but it isn’t relevant) and after serving in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, he took part in D-Day.

Then, at some point, he joined Army Intelligence, I think because he had a gift for languages and spoke excellent French and German. His link with ‘intelligence’ lasted in one form or another until he retired, although I am hazy about details to the point of knowing more or less nothing specific. And exactly how those links gelled with something that I do know about him – that he campaigned for the then Liberals in either the 1950 general election or the one held the following year (perhaps he was asked to keep tabs on them, but I suspect that at 27 he was still something of an idealist) - I really don’t know. At some point in the early 1950s he went to work for the ‘BBC Monitoring Service’ in Caversham (and coincidentally in the building my old school, The Oratory School, had been turfed out of during the war to make way for whatever government agency thought it needed it) and I think it is now generally agreed that that organisation had more to do with Her Majesty’s secret intelligence services than Aunty (as we once knew the BBC cod affectionately.

As a kid I once asked him what he did there, and he told me that staff listened to foreign radio stations to pick up news which might be broadcast in bulletins by the BBC. And perhaps they did, or perhaps some of them did. I really don’t know. I once, many years later, asked my father what his politics were, and he, rather proudly I felt at the time, described himself as a ‘right-wing radical’, whatever that can mean, which is everything and nothing. In 1959 he was posted to Berlin as the ‘BBC’s Representative’ where he had an office and three staff in Savigny Platz.

The office also had its own studio from which my father weekly broadcast a short talk beamed into East Germany (Die Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and which I know think, knowing just a little more about his role in Berlin, that were used to pass on message to whoever MI6 wanted to pass on messages. His boss in the BBC was head of what was known as the German Service. Why, I have often since asked myself, would the BBC want a German Service although it didn’t want, need or have a French Service, an Italian Service or, to labour the point, an Austrian Service. The BBC also had a correspondent in Berlin, and he never used the studio. Why not I wonder?

After we had been in Berlin for a year or two, a certain Charles Wheeler became the BBC’s correspondent in Berlin. (It must have been his second posting there if his Wikipedia entry is right, because it says he served as the Berlin correspondent for three years from 1950. Well, he would have been 33 at the time, so it’s very possible. All I know is that he served there as correspondent in the Sixties. I know because we went around to his house several times and I met him and his wife Dip. However, I simply think the Wiki entry is just wrong, and that his stint as correspondent in the Sixties was his only one. Furthermore, the entry makes no mention of his first wife — I don’t know her name — who, I understand, had an affair with one John Freeman, who she married after divorcing Wheeler.)

Wheeler, who was undoubtedly a very good journalist, was, I think avowedly, liberal, although not in the political sense. I suspect he knew or at, the very least, suspected my father had links — whether extra-curricular or not — with the security services and disapproved. I do know, partly from comments my father made later in life, that the two didn’t really get on and rather disapproved of each other. Perhaps Daddy (I always called him that, even though as I grew older I felt it did sound rather daft, but could think of no reason not to) also thought Wheeler to be ‘dangerously liberal’.

Later in life, just a few years before he died, I asked my father about his links with the security services and he did tell me a little, although the story was consistently that he ‘helped out a little’. What the truth is, I really don’t know, and I’m not inclined to speculate, mainly because I’ll probably get it wrong and there’s very little indeed to be gained from doing so.

I’ve been rattling about my father — as preambles go the above must surely take some beating — because although I don’t share what I think must have been his politics, I now fully understand what he meant by ‘dangerously liberal’ and why he called me that at the time. (It is, perhaps, also quite pertinent that I am said to look rather like him, have inherited several of his mannerisms and traits, can get very short with people on the phone as he did and in many other ways take after him. But it would also be fair to say that in many other ways we are quite different.

I do feel that he, like many of his generation, had his salad days cruelly cut short by World War II, and where I was free to indulge myself, grow my hair long, smoke dope and take acid and generally postpone maturation and adulthood for many years, he and his generation had to grow up very fast indeed. I think it is something which is sadly rather forgotten these days.

For example, he once told me that by the age of about 22 he was a captain and in charge of many men whose lives depended on him making the right decision on the spot. At 22 I was doing very little but feeling sorry for myself, falling in love, having as much sex as I could — though by no means enough — and wondering what the hell to do with my life. I was, of course, as I have detailed in previous blog entries, entirely convinced that I was ‘a writer’ but did absolutely nothing about it at the time which only shows the degree to which we can all con ourselves thoroughly if we really put our minds to it. But to conclude this preamble: my father described me as ‘dangerously liberal’ and ever since then I have been very conscious of the dangers of possibly being a ‘useful idiot’. And that, on a route perhaps for more circuitous than is necessary, brings me to the question of: what the bloody hell is going on in the Ukraine?

Here are supplementary questions: are the Russians really intent on, as some fool Ukrainian politician suggested a few days ago, ‘starting World War II? What are the U.S. objectives in this whole sorry saga? Does Putin have some strategy or is he just busking? Just why is the EU getting involved and does it have any strategic interest? There are many, many more questions, but of which the final question must be: when, as I intend to, I write what I am about to write, am I still being, in my father’s rather succinct accusation, being ‘dangerously liberal’?

. . .

You and I, though not John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov, our very own William Hague and whatever prat the EU has in place to fulfil the role those three perform, can only go on what our media tell us. I like to think — and a report from Kiev on the World Tonight reinforced in me the impression — that ‘Aunty’ BBC does do its very best to be objective. Kerry, Lavrov and Hague (and, of course, the EU Prat) are privy to intelligence reports which you and I will never get to hear. The problem is that, courtesy of that old favourite conspiracy theorists the world over, ‘wheels within wheels’, their own intelligence services might well have an agenda of their own.

But even bearing that in mind (i.e. ‘news is what doesn’t appear in our newspapers’) they undoubtedly have a fuller picture of what is going on than we poor saps do. One thing which has remained in my mind was a commentary from a Russian (most probably on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight) who, I gathered, was reasonably independent, who insisted that both sides, the Russians and the West, have miscalculated and fundamentally misunderstand each other and the situation on the ground. Perhaps from him, perhaps from elsewhere — I really don’t remember where — I got and get the impression that Russia’s main motivation is to re-establish a national Russian pride. And, perhaps in a ‘dangerously liberal’ way, I find I have a certain sympathy with that. It’s as though it feels — note ‘it feels’ not necessarily ‘it has been’ — pushed a little too far, to have lost a little too much face since the demise of its Soviet empire and has decided enough is enough.

We can argue until we are blue in the face the ‘rights and wrongs’ of whether or not, for example, Crimea is an ‘intrinsic part of Greater Russia’. At the end of the day all we get is a cacophony of opposing views. And at the end of the day the question is irrelevant. Putin (whose popularity, incidentally, is said to be soaring in Russia, although there are also a great many who don’t want to give him the time of day) says that Russians in other counties must be protected.

One observation trotted out time and again is that Hitler said something very similar about Germans in foreign countries, and look how that ended. But whatever his objectives, I don’t for a moment think Putin has any of the wacky ideas which drove Hitler. And I think — this quite possibly ‘dangerously liberal’ commentator thinks — that it would be very silly indeed to write off such nationalistic sentiments, however much they strike us Westerners as irrational. We here in the West are apt and dismally unimaginative enough to insist that ‘our’ values are the only worthwhile values and that values which deviate from those are, at best, noth worth taking seriously, and, at worst, must be actively opposed.

What are the facts? What is the sentiment in Eastern Ukraine? For every report I have heard that many there feel a kinship with Mother Russia, I have heard other reports that suggests that many Eastern Ukrainians, despite feeling a kinship and valuing their Russian heritage, want to keep a distance from Moscow and retain their independence. What is, or better, what might be the purpose of massing Russian troops just the other side of the border with Eastern Ukraine as we know they have been? I find it incredible to accept that Putin is planning some kind of invasion to annex Eastern Ukraine, because what would be the purpose?

At the end of the say he would gain very little but lose a great deal. And are there, perhaps, a great many Russian ‘businessmen’ who are doing rather nicely, thank you very much, and would prefer stability rather than instability because the suspect they would have too much to lose? I would find it far easier to believe that the 70,000 Russian troops are there ‘just in case’ they are needed ‘to protect the lives of Russians’, even though any such action would be driven by sentiment rather than rationality. Another commentator suggested that Putin has rather painted himself into a corner.

Taking over Crimea was one thing. Trying to take over Eastern Ukraine would be quite another and, at the end of the day, more trouble than it is worth. Yet if such an action were driven more by nationalistic sentiment than rational thinking, would if even matter that Russia had a great deal to lose? I heard, years ago, a suggestion that what distinguishes humankind from all other forms of animal life (because for better or worse we are merely just another form of animal life on the planet) was not the ability to act rationally, but the ability and propensity to act irrationally.

Then there is the very odd and worrying question: just what does the U.S. have to gain from all this? Why is the U.S. getting involved? I’d best immediately make clear that I refuse to accept at all that it is acting in the interests of ‘democracy’, of ‘what’s right’, of protecting freedom? In my eyes the U.S. lost all such credibility when it invaded Iraq for no reason I can make out, and had previously made a complete fool of itself by starting, then losing, the Vietnam War (and, it has to be said, the U.S. has form in these matters: the Spanish/American war was a pretty cynical debacle, too, even if the U.S. apparently ‘won’). So what has it to gain by ratcheting up that tension in the Ukraine?

There is a good case to be made out that it was U.S. meddling in the first place which kicked off the whole sorry saga. And why is it so content to pal up with a whole range of unsavoury neo-fascists in Ukraine, many of whom are members of the ‘interim government’. OK, the previous president was a kleptomaniac and corruption was rife. But although that president has now gone, corruption is apparently just as bad and getting worse.

So what is the U.S. game plan? Does it even have one? Closer to home, why it Britain getting involved? Wouldn’t it have been a lot more sensible to have remained strictly neutral and perhaps later been in a position to act as an honest broker. But no, we had to jump in with both feet and are now hitched to the American bandwagon from which it will prove impossible to unhitch ourselves. (The former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, by the way, when invited to join in the bunfight which was Vietnam, was wise enough to reply ‘thanks, but no thanks’. It didn’t make him any friends in Washington, but thank you, Harold.)

Then there’s the EU, that great political irrelevancy of our time: what on earth makes all the politicos — men and women who give the distinct impression of having hightailed it to Brussels to make a career for themselves because they simply didn’t have the nous to make it in their home countries — in Brussels think? What does the EU have to gain? Does it have some arcane strategy by which the EU will benefit in the long run? Perhaps it does, but I can’t think of any.

Then there is us, you and I, here in the West. And then there are the Ukrainians themselves, without a working government and living in a failing economy. What do we and they have to gain from it all? Or better how much exactly do we have to lose from all these shenanigans, the conduct of which we have no control over whatsoever. Am I being ‘dangerously liberal’?

My father, were he still alive, might say so. I rather think I’m not. My view in this as in many other matters is that it’s pointless to do something for no very good reason whatsoever. And that is what seems to be happening here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Kissing and making up? Or do Val’s claws go in rather deeper than we thought? Meanwhile, Segolene shows she really is Royal. And we can now all be ethical - all you need is self-regard and a smattering of narcissism

Quick look at the viewing statistics of this blog and yet again the saga of French President Francois Hollande, his dick and the women in his life is its main attraction. At the time of writing this particular entry has 33 ‘daily’ views (I am using quote marks because I don’t know how ‘daily’ is measured, as if, though, it mattered), 107 weekly views, and 452 monthly views. So that entry is attracting substantially more interest than most others and the obvious question is: why.

What is is it about Flamby and his sex life which attracts so much interest. Well, I don’t know and care even less. But as the First Rule Of Blogging is to ‘give the suckers what they want’, I spent a good ten minutes earlier today to bring you the latest on Frances’ latest sex machine and related matters. First off is the claim, made in a book about Flamby, that he and Valerie Rottweiler are still an item. According to a journalist Elise Karlin

The most recent official portrait of the French president

(motto: No Rumour Too Trivial) in a book called The President Who Wanted to Live His Lives, the affair never really ended. The Daily Telegraph, from which I filched this particular snippet, quotes the book as saying that he recently met her for a meal at their favourite restaurant and brought her a bunch of flowers. (See, the French know how to do these things. And you can bet he didn’t buy them a few minutes earlier as an afterthought when he filled his car with petrol and spotted them next to the newspapers when he went to pay.)

That’s all fine and dandy, but the piece also goes on to give another reason which, if true, would go some way to explaining why Flamby wants to keep the Rottweiler onside. It seems she knows quite a bit about a meeting — a ‘compromising meeting’ no less — he had with Jérôme Cahuzac. This is the chap who sat in the French cabinet tasked with ensuring all French men and women were playing fair and paying the taxed they owed but who came unstuck when the press found out he had a secret Swiss bank account (is there any other kind and, for the record, I don’t). Well!

What exactly was ‘compromising’ about the meeting Hollande had with Cahuzac we don’t know but what is certain is that Hollande wants to make damn sure we won’t, and if that means taking the Rottweiler out to supper (and perhaps getting his end away later on), it’s a price worth paying.

What of Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children Hollande jilted to take up with Valerie Rottweiler, before telling her to sling her hook so he could start squiring the actress Julie Gayet? Well, I have to admit she had a great deal of my sympathy to start with — I mean four children does seem to speak of come kind of commitment and she did very much seem to be the wronged woman.

But if another story I have traced down is true, we should, perhaps, cut back a little on the sympathy and ask ourselves whether she is not just as big a cow as the woman who replaced her in Flamby’s bed. Segolene, it seems, has been living up to her surname. There were claims that she has ordered all her female staff ‘not to show cleavage’ and that all her staff should stand up when she passes them in the office. In fact, it was said that her approach is now announced before she enters a room so her staff can do exactly that. Furthermore, when she has lunch, no one is allowed into adjacent rooms because the cause to much noise.

Curiously, her spokesman has denied that she had ordered her female staff not to show cleavage, but did not deny the other claims. That doesn’t of course, make them true, but a nasty little tick like — well, like me — might suggest that they could well be true. Well! Further details here.

As if this weren’t all French enough — it has the two essential elements: sex (Royal, Trierweiler and Gayet) and food (Flamby), here’s another story which threatens to transform the whole business into a cliche. Another Telegraph story claims that one Nicolas Sarkozy, another gentleman who finds it supremely difficult to keep his dick in his trousers tried to seduce La Rottweiler. It’s all so very different from the kind of scandal we are accustomed to here in Old Blighty where a Cabinet minister can be hounded out of office for not renewing his or her library card. And when sex is involved, 99pc of the time the politico in question has been secretly batting for his own side.

. . .

You probably think self-indulgence is more or less eating too much chocolate or sleeping in when you could be getting up. But there are interesting variations, depending upon your pretensions. Here is a form of self-indulgence I came across a few minutes ago. To my mind it’s not far

We’re ethical, so there!

from the sentiment behind a nauseating phrase you might have had the misfortunte to come across: ‘Intelligent people like us.’ It is a phrase sometimes used by a couple you might well be hearing more about, Sian and Simon Smugg.

For the record, I’m not ethical and hope to Christ I never shall be. I’d never live it down.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Life, death, football, Moyes, Manchester United, money, tears, second-hand opinion and anything else I can throw into mix. Plus why – why! – all this bloody interest in Francoise Hollande? And a quite fascinating royal tale!

I had for some time been toying with the idea of a post about Manchester United, their new manager David Moyes and how to all our dismay – that is to the dismay of all the club’s supporters – they have been a mediocre to bad side this season. But as anyone with two ears and a radio or TV will know events have overtaken me. Moyes is no longer the ‘new manager’. He is now a ‘past manager’, sacked after just ten months into a six-year contract.

Analysis – the technical term for interminable waffle – has been abundant about what, why, where, when, who, to whom, with whom, to whom it should have been and did the Glazers use a condom when they shafted Moyes, and I am only repeating various things I have heard on the radio this morning. My view is that Moyes should have been given more time, at least another season, if not two, to show his mettle, and then been shafted if United proved unable to regain the glory they achieved under Alex Ferguson. But I am old-fashioned. It has often been pointed out that Ferguson got several years grace when he was appointed 28 years ago, but the world of football was very different then. Certainly, it was already about money, but to my mind, what with the fabulous sums available for one reason or another for clubs who win the Premier League title and/or make it into the Champions League, it is now far, far more about money than ever before.

Incidentally, I am not one of those – in fact, I am the complete opposite of those – who bang on, usually in the pub with a pint in their hands, about how ‘our modern players are overpaid, overgrown big girls’ blouses who should cut their hair and get a proper job’ – elaborate in your own time, if you so wish, but before that get the fuck out of my blog. Yes, they are paid

enormous sums, certainly more than you and I could hope to see in a lifetime, but they are the one asset the club which employs and pays them have. Not one penny (cent, centime, pfennig) of all the fabulous sums being made by clubs through TV rights and coverage and the sale of all the tat which is generally known as ‘merchandise’ would be made if it were not for those players.

The players make it all possible. They are the source of all the money, and long go are the days where a man would play professional football in the winter and work as a painter and decorator in the summer to feed his family. Oh, and when George Clooney or Leonard DiCaprio or Jennifer Lawrence are paid $5 million for a part in film, you don’t hear the wiseacres sounding off in the pub (pint in hand) and opining in unison: ‘It’s a farce, I wouldn’t pay him/her in washers! All that bloody money just for standing before a camera and speaking words someone has written? It complete bloody, total lunacy! My two year-old could act/play football/paint/compose music/run the country better – and he’s even more of a narrow-minded, bigoted halfwit than I am! Only goes show doesn’t it?’

But back to Moyes. The Manchester United fans seem to be split pretty evenly down the middle between those who are saying ‘thank God, about time, now get someone in who can really do the job’ and those, like me, who think this is really not the way to go about things and that if patience were ever a virtue, now is the time to find out.

The villains of the piece are, and have been for some time, Malcolm Glazer and his sons Joel and Avram who own the club (and have several sporting interests in the US). And they are unashamed businessmen who will readily admit they are in it for the money. And when times are good there is a lot of money to be made. They have never been particularly popular, but then with the exception of some clubs, owners rarely are. They got off to a bad start with the fans when they bought Manchester United in 2005, but highlighting their talkover would be very disingenuous: there has been trouble at United long before and, like Liverpool for the past 20 years - until now - they have also had their time in the wilderness, especially after Matt Busby retired (and like Alex Ferguson wouldn't bugger off and let his successor get on with it).

One of the many interesting and, I think, pertinent points made this morning is that when Alex Ferguson finally retired at the end of last season, he wasn’t the only one to leave. There was something like a wholesale changing of the guard from the chairman David Gill down (and someone mentioned their lawyer who was apparently a very smart cookie but who also retired last year). When Moyes moved in from Everton, he brought with him his own staff and got rid of much of the previous infrastructure. It’s been said that the players didn’t happily adapt to his style, which is very hands on and tough, and that he lost the confidence of some players early on. It’s also been said – and this is my view – that the playing squad he inherited from Ferguson was not all that good and that United had been quite lucky to win the title last season.

As someone pointed out on the radio this morning it was a question of the opposition underperforming – all three contenders, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool were going through their own managerial upheavals and not playing to the best of their abilities. I must say, I was surprised

when United won the Premier League, and they were most certainly not playing well and winning until Robin Van Persie joined them from Arsenal after Christmas (NB I am told it was before Christmas). It would be no exaggeration to claim that Van Persie salvaged their season last year.

That things were not all rosy in the garden might be gauged from the fact that Ferguson even hauled Paul Scholes out of retirement to bolster his midfield, which is a pretty unusual move. I was puzzled that Moyes didn’t play Ferdinand more often. And it has to be said that all the dithering over buying players just before the season started last August didn’t look good as the only player he did land was one Marouane Fellaini who – in my view, at least – was rather less effective in midfield than had Moyes played a peanut butter sandwich.

But what do I know? As Liverpool’s great Bill Shankly once said about football: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’

(Note to American readers: When I and Shankly refer to ‘football’, we mean what you know as ‘soccer’. It has always puzzled us in the rest of the world why you couldn’t also refer ‘football’ as ‘football’ – because that is what is it is – and find some other name for your ‘football’, which we call ‘American football’.)

But there you go – as Moyes has now – and it all history now. I feel that United are now in for a few rough years, that they will, as they have in the past in similar circumstances, go through quite a few managers before they hit upon a new Matt Busby or Alex Ferguson, and that the time has come to acknowledge as much. I can’t see the Glazer family selling up yet or even for some time because there is still money to be made from the club. But it’s not going to look very pretty for a few years now.

PS Just been considering what I wrote earlier on and I thought I might add that it is, perhaps, possible that Moyes’s style was wrong for the kind of side Manchester United are when they are at their best. But even then the man should have been given at least another season to prove himself either way.

. . .

I am still baffled by the interest shown around the world – now even Brazil – about bloody Francoise Hollande and his wandering dick. The blooger statistics tell me that he is still the most visited post in the ’ere collection and has been for several months now. So what give? Folk dying by the hundreds in Syria, a new dictator is slowly easing himself into place in Egypt, the Ukraine could or could not spark a new war in Europe, David Moyes gets the push, but all folk seem to want to know is: who is France’s president Francoise Hollande shafting this week? Odd.

. . .

A fascinating story has come my way courtesy of a friend on the Mail’s gossip column, who – whisper it quietly! – gets to hear these things! It seems David Moyes’ maternal great-grandfather was, by his third marriage, related to the daughter of the Silver-Stick-In-Attendance to Prince Heinrich-Wilhem Graf von Anschluss zu Lubeck-Treppenwitz, Queen Victoria’s, second nephew three times removed who in his younger days was something of a card!

As a young man and chafing a little at the inconsistencies and incongruities of life in late 19th-century Schleswig-Holstein at the court of his father, Prince Heinrich-Wilhem upped sticks and sailed to the Spice Islands where he landed a job training the local Sawab of Molucca’s racing elephants! Unfortunately, he did not show the prowess in that profession as he had at hockey – he captained the Lichtenstein national side at the 1749 Brussels Olympics – and was unceremoniously shown the door when two of his elephants died of alcohol poisoining! As they say, it’s a small world!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Price Of Shoddy (cont.) with another rather lengthy preamble. And the latest on Hollande: nothing at all. Then a little bit on diaries v blogging (and if it doesn’t make too much sense, blame the several glasses of wine I have supped writing this entry)

I promised in my last entry to continue it, and I shall try to outline the link between me, my life attendance at the OS, the ‘middle class’ and Gilbert and Sullivan.

I didn’t speak any German when I started at Die Steubenschule, but I understood if very well, as our mother always spoke to us in German from the off. So German has never sounded like a ‘foreign language’ to me as do French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Serb, Iranian, Arabic and all the other tongues you will get to here if you walk the few short yards from where I work in Kensington High Street (West London) to, say Robert Dyas at the other end. I think because I understood it (though I was nine and a half and so much of it, especially the convoluted concepts the Germans just love coming up with) will have passed me by) I picked it up rather quickly as children do and as my younger brother and sister picked up French several years later. More to the point I also soaked up German culture, German ways of thinking.

I remember that in order to learn German more quickly, I would read Kasperle books. Kasperle was a character who got up to mischief and his escapades were recorded in stories. Later, I read Karl May who, although he didn’t visit the United States until he had grown rich and famous, wrote volume upon volume of Wild West stories based on a German who went there and was known as Old Shatterhand and was big friends with an Indian chief called Winnetou. (Karl May was in his way a quite extraordinary man, and his life and work is worth a blog entry of its own.) I doubt whether young Germans between the ages of seven and 13 read Karl May anymore, but for at least two generations he, his stories and his characters were an intricate part of their early lives. So what has this got to do with the OS, the ‘middle class’ and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Well here’s the thing (©Siobhan of Perfect Curve in TwentyTwelve and more recently W1A): when I arrived at the Oratory in early September 1963 (one of just two ‘new boys’ who hadn’t gone to prep school), I had no idea who Gilbert and Sullivan were. I had never heard of Father Brown, G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc (and an OS old boy), the Just So stories, Kim, Rudyard Kipling, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales and the rest, all an intricate part of the early years of a certain kind of middle class child (in our case Roman Catholic middle class boys) as Karl May was of that of a young German lad. And I felt totally out of it, and in a way have felt totally out of it ever since.

We – that is the others but not me – were expected to be totally au fait with the songs and lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. Snippets and lines would be thrown into conversation (as would snippets from other writers). I wasn’t. And I felt it keenly. I felt like a complete outsider. And because I felt it keenly, I rather took – I’m ashamed to admit – against many aspects of the kind of cultural references I was expected to understand but didn’t.

Then, more recently – far more recently – for this reason and that I have come to understand the writings of W.S. Gilbert more (Arthur Sullivan only provided the music, whereas Gilbert didn’t just write the libretto and lyrics, but took on direction, costume design and pretty much every other job involved in staging the comic operas.

Gilbert was a perfectionist: he had a vision of what he wanted and wanted to get it right. Ironically, and it is an irony which would not have been lost on Gilbert, the adoption of the comic operas he and Sullivan produced into the canon of British middle class life is, in a sense, completely opposed to what motivated Gilbert. Gilbert was a satirist, and in his lyrics he lampooned and sent up the attitudes he saw all around him. And as people don’t like being laughed at, especially the kind of self-important people Gilbert was laughing at, he sometimes got into trouble.

To this day I am unfamiliar with Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. I like their tunes, or at least the few I know, but to this day hearing someone rave about them and repeat how ‘marvellous they are’ immediately recalls my homesickness, unhappiness and feeling out of the loop, so much the German fish out of English waters of my early years at the Oratory.

I once heard some of Gilbert’s short stories read on Radio 4, and it was perhaps then that I realised there was rather more to him and his work than just being just another of the totems a certain kind of British middle class values. (I say ‘a certain kind of British middle class because, to be frank – and I have said so before – there is not one British middle class, but several and, more to the point, although they might get on quite well in public, in private, when amongst their own, they want nothing to do with the others. To say that often they dislike the other ‘middle classes’ intently would be no exaggeration. It is a peculiarly British failing, but one which must be acknowledged. Sorry, but there it is.)

The other night, a friend I drink with when I take a break in my trek homewards on a Wednesday night from civilized Kensington to the wilds of North Cornwall at the Brewers Arms, South Petherton, was trying to recall certain Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics. We – he, an avowed left-winger with a grudging admiration for the anti-EU rhetoric of Nigel Farage and UKIP, not an avowed left-winger (in fact, an avowed independent who dislikes ideologies of any stripe) and with no particular enthusiasm for Mr Farage and is gang of golf-playing gin-swiggers – were talking about education in Britain and the perpetual problem that one the one hand it seems obvious to encourage skills, particularly academic ability and on the other so many folk were in the past condemned to a life of drudgery because on one given afternoon they did not perform and failed their 11-plus.

These days, of course, we have comprehensive schools, and, in my view, a good thing they are, too. But further up the academic ladder, at what some called ‘tertiary education’ but what you and I know as ‘going to university and getting a degree’ the situation in Britain has, in our view, gone rather awry.

It was then Paul, for that is his name, tried to recall the lyrics of a certain song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. I published the lyrics of the whole song yesterday, but here are the relevant lines:

When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

The dilemma is, of course – and it is reflected in the dilemma at the heart of the debate as to whether private education is morally acceptable or not, in that it is generally believed that having a private education brings you certain advantages – can you really have too much of a ‘good thing’? I can already think of several points which could be made here, but I shan’t make them, for the sake of brevity. But let me repeat:

When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

As they say in those tawdry and, at the end of the day fundamentally trivial and thoroughly pointless debates they have on the late-night radio: think about it.

. . .

I mentioned in my last post that I was rather puzzled by the intense interest my post about the shaggin history of one Francois Hollande found and the amount of attention it received. So, always willing to live up to the motto of this ’ere blog (Ever Keen To Please – and not, as some suspect, No Joke Too Weak To Be Included) I have been frantically been googling ‘Hollande’, ‘shagging’ and ‘does he have a big willy’ for the past few minutes, but can come up with nothing about the man except that he recently re-shuffled his Cabinet, has appointed his old squeeze (and mother of his several children) Seglene Royale as his Minister for the Environment to that new Cabinet and held its first meeting. Well – and please don’t blame me – as excting news and inflammatory revelation goes that particular snippet is still-born, as in ‘who give a fuck’.

Various Radio 4 commentaries have heard these past few months all agree that France Is In The Shit and economically going to hell in a handcart rather faster than others – Angela Merkel, for one – would like. Hollande has had exactly zilch to say about the situation in the Ukraines, Egypt, Syria or North Cornwall. Not quite the statesman I’m sure he would like to be. The trouble with a blog such as this is that sooner or later you paint yourself into a corner.

. . .

Years ago I used to keep a ‘diary’. In fact, it was more than that. It was also what I later came to understand as a commonplace book, something in which you write down quotes you had come across and which you like and wanted to remember; or pieces of prose you wanted to record because they struck you at the time as particularly interesting, wise or otherwise memorable.

I say ‘at the time’ because what in the past I might once have thought ‘wise’ and an ‘insight’ almost always became, later one, once my skin began to sag and I began to prefer nights in to nights out, as pretty banal and obvious. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they were necessarily banal and obvious. What is obvious to an old fart might not at all be obvious to a young fart. It is always far to easy to write off our youthful idealism once we have become tired and resourceless.

The ‘diary’, which I shall now refer to as my diary (without the ‘ironic’ quote marks) was written in A4 hardback ledgers. I still have them, although I have never once bothered to read them. But that was also the point: not only have I never bothered to read them and never intended to read them, so absolutely no one else will read them. For why should they? But that complete privacy meant I could let my hair down and say and record things and thoughts I cannot do here. This is public.

This is read by at least three people I know, one of whom (my sister) who knows me well. Can I really dare to write things which are so personal or which might reflect on me in such as way that she would think badly of me? Of course not. Most people who happen across these scribblings have

Me (in a mellow mood)

no idea who I am and care even less. If some refer to this blog regularly, for whatever reason, they might have some kind of notion as to my character, but as none of use, at the end of the day, really knows anyone else in his or her entirety, surely that doesn’t matter. But it does.

But by going public and using Google’s blogger facilities and posting these scribblings and ramblings online, I have chosen to go public and must thust edit myself. I could, of course, start another utterly anonymous blog, but what would be the point of posting online – for the attention of the world, or why else post online – what I want to keep quiet. Use an alias, I hear you say. Well, no. Why not? Because. It’s strikes me as too much of the cowards way out. Just as a traitor is never completely trusted by those he serves by his betrayals, so publishing anonymously strikes me as a no-no. Just a thought.

The reason I don’t go back to ‘writing a diary’ (it was written by hand) is simply that I find typing 10,000 times easier than writing. My and begins to hurt even after a few lines. So there you have it: you get the story, but not the full story.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Price Of Shoddy (with a rather long preamble on why I never quite got the ‘middle class’ thing, and even then I don’t actually yet get to the point. More, as they say, follows). And then there’s the mystery of Ukrainian interest in one Francois Hollande’s sex life

I can’t deny that I have been ‘middle class’ all my life, although I can think of some who wish I weren’t and that I would disappear without trace and stop embarrassing them and the rest of their tribe. But I can insist, in all honesty, that I regard ‘what class someone belongs to’ - a perennial preoccupation, not to say an utterly bizarre hang-up, of the Brits from the dawn of time and until the world ends - as important in the grand scheme of things as whether they stir their tea clockwise or anti-clockwise.

What I can’t deny is that my younger self, my younger far more insecure self, a self who wanted to fit in, was, at times, greatly uncomfortable that all too often he didn’t fit in. Now I really don’t give a shit (believe me, in fact, I often make a virtue of it), but it was not always like that.

At nine, at the beginning of June in 1959 this little British kid - British because his father was English - was whisked away with his older brother, and his younger sister and brother to live in Berlin, where their father had been appointed the BBC’s representative. (Quite why the BBC needed a representative in Berlin at the time when it also had a correspondent, one Charles Wheeler and quite how much my father’s work dictated by the needs and demands of Her Majesty’s security services is for another blog entry.)

We - my mother was part of the party - were met at Templehof airport by my father, and there exists somewhere are rather touching photo of the six of us walking throught the arrivals hall, taken, I should imagine, by some photographer of other who made his living taking pictures of groups such as our in the hope that we would be a copy or two of his picture. I can’t think where it is, but suspect my sister might have it. (Please advise me on this, Marianne.)

My father took his newly arrived family to the flat the BBC had rented for us in the Olympischer Straße, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, that was just opposite the ‘minor’ exit of the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station. We lived there for a few months before we moved to a house on the Heerstraße (no 115). We arrived at the beginning of June and as the German term didn’t end until several weeks later, I was enrolled at Die Steubenschule down the road, a German Grundschule (primary school) after I had attended just one day at an English school set up for Army and diplomats’ children and didn’t like it.

A few months later, we moved from the flat to a house in the Heerstraße (number 115), where we lived for the next four years. In April 1960 I was enrolled in the Jesuit Das Canisius Kolleg in Berlin-Tiergarten where my older brother had been since the year before. But this entry is not about Berlin, me or my family’s time there. I only mention Berlin because when four years later my father went back to work in London and we all move back to Henley-on-Thames, I was to all intent and purposes a young German lad who happened to speak English without an accent.

As (as I believe) the years of our late childhood and early adolescence have a particularly important bearing on our psychological make-up, I believe those four years in Berlin from when I was nine and a half until I was 13 and a half have formed my personality ever since. And crucially, being a German lad, and the Germans, whatever else their faults and hang-ups, being rather less - make that a lot less - concerned with bloody ‘class’ than the British cousins, I, too, had very vague notions, if any at all, about what ‘class’ was, and cared even less.

I did, however, like all children at that delicate age between outright childhood and the first squalls of puberty, want to fit in. The trouble was that I didn’t. I didn’t fit in in the slightest. From the relative innocence of live at my German Jesuit college, where the emphasis had been on what I now realise were the positives in life, I was enrolled at The Oratory School, where, if I remember, the emphasis, at least among us boys, was on rebellion, disruption, confusion.

The Oratory, which now likes to style itself, after a chance remark by its founder Cardinal John Newman, as ‘the Catholic Eton’, was in September 1963 when I washed up at its doors a rather down-at-heel place. As I was very, very unhappy there in my first term and ran away three times (although as my family lived just eight miles away in Henley, it wasn’t too difficult, so my comments should, perhaps, be viewed in that light.

At the time, the Sixties, there were, I think, six Roman Catholic boarding schools in England (and all of them public schools - I make the distinction because the two are not synonymous, and, anyway, if I don’t, I am liable to wake up in a few days time to find a dog turd pushed through my letterbox). They were Stoneyhurst, Ampleforth, Downside, Douai, Beaumont and The Oratory School. If I remember, the conventional wisdom was that you put your son down for Stoneyhurst, Ampleforth or Downside, and if they didn’t cut the mustard - that is they were too thick - they would be soaked up by the Oratory. How true or not that is I don’t know. But I do know that many boys at the Oratory had older brothers at the other three schools and were also meant to go there but, for some reason, didn’t.

Quite how Douai and Beaumont fitted into this picture I don’t know, but I do know that Beaumont closed in 1967 and Douai in 1999, but the Oratory didn’t just survive but is now thriving (and now purveying the ‘Catholic Eton’ bullshit). It was at the Oratory that I first came into contact with a certain kind of English middle class life, its values, its pretensions and hagiographies. And that is where Gilbert and Sullivan come in.

To be continued.

But, as a taster, what gave this entry impetus was a friend, a Wednesday night drinking companion at the Brewers Arms, South Petherton, Somerset, bring to my attention the lyrics of a song from The Gondoliers. We were talking about education in Britain, the most recent drive to make sure everyone - and that is everyone - has ‘a degree’ and the very odd way that the admirable drive to ensure no one is disadvantaged in Britain has developed in rather odd ways.

Here are the full lyrics, and below that the parts of them I find particularly telling. It is sung (I think, I’ve never seen the operetta):

There lived a King, as I've been told,
In the wonder-working days of old,
When hearts were twice as good as gold,
And twenty times as mellow.
Good-temper triumphed in his face,
And in his heart he found a place
For all the erring human race
And every wretched fellow. 
When he had Rhenish wine to drink
It made him very sad to think
That some, at junket or at jink,
Must be content with toddy. 

With toddy, must be content with toddy.

He wished all men as rich as he
(And he was rich as rich could be),
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody.

Now, that's the kind of King for me.
He wished all men as rich as he,
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody!

Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats,
And Bishops in their shovel hats
Were plentiful as tabby cats
In point of fact, too many.
Ambassadors cropped up like hay,
Prime Ministers and such as they
Grew like asparagus in May, 
And Dukes were three a penny.
On every side Field-Marshals gleamed,
Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed,
With Admirals the ocean teemed
All round his wide dominions.

All round his wide dominions.

And Party Leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

Now that's a sight you couldn't beat
Two Party Leaders in each street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

That King, although no one denies
His heart was of abnormal size,
Yet he'd have acted otherwise
If he had been acuter.
The end is easily foretold,
When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

Up goes the price of shoddy.

In short, whoever you may be
To this conclusion you'll agree
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

Now that's as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree.

When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

. . .

I shall, as promised, carry on with the above an eventually link up Gilbert and Sullivan and this rather sad lad who was totally at sea in the English ‘middle class’ with all its arcane customs and tribal values. But before I leave you tonight I must, I really must ask: what is the fascination with Francois Hollande?

The statistics detailing who has been reading this blog, where they are based and what in particular has interested them show that this post has been attracting the most attention by far. But why? The man is something of a joke, will never be remembered as a great French president and his most notable distinction is having an over-active dick. But is that really enough to generate such interest, especially as, according to the interest, most of it is coming from the United States, the Ukraine and China.