Occurrences: Book Eight

Kerfontaine

3 January 2011

The Saint Sylvestre meal at Pont Scorff was lovely: delicious food, and not too much fuss. At midnight, everyone raised the glass of champagne we’d just been given, wished each other ‘Bonne année, bonne santé!’ and that was that.

New Year’s Day was beautiful: still, bright and — for the turn of the year — extraordinarily mild. We did the same walk we had done on Saint Stephen’s Day, but in the opposite direction.

I was saddened today to see that Pete Postlethwaite has died of cancer at the age of 64. He was a wonderful actor, on film, television and the stage; I’ll never forget his funny and poignant performance as the brass-band leader in Brassed Off. No age, 64: five years older than me. Don’t waste time. Get on with things. End of New Year resolution.

Birds seen this afternoon during my walk around the grounds: jays, numerous; a thrush with a patch of maroon on the right of his breast; a green woodpecker; an innocent, peace-loving heron being harassed and chased away by a mob of crows; two male robins who, against all the folklore I’ve been told, seemed to be coexisting quite happily within a few feet of each other on the lawn; blackbirds; wrens; a bullfinch. The place is clean and cut back; Jean-Paul has done a great job with the débroussailleuse in the wood. The buds of the early camellias are already bulging; the edges of the packed petals of the white one, which flowers first of all, can be seen pressing against their green casings.

I’ve been reading more Hazlitt since Christmas; Helen gave me a beautiful two-volume first edition of Table Talk, the first volume published in 1821, the second a year later. As I think I wrote last summer, there are times when Hazlitt’s relentless rhetoric, his determination to lay it on thick, to hammer the nail another dozen times after he’s already driven it home, can tire. But then, what wisdom he has, plainly but beautifully uttered! The essay ‘On Familiar Style’ is a description of and a set of instructions for good plain prose writing which I salute with enthusiasm and can only hope, humbly, to try to practise in my own prose. The essay ‘On Corporate Bodies’ says everything that needs to be said about the wickedness of the banks in the years leading up to 2008, for instance, though it was written about 200 years previously. And then there are the familiar and easier classics like ‘The Indian Jugglers’ and ‘Whether Actors Ought to Sit in the Boxes?’ You get the feeling that Hazlitt was something of an obsessive in his hatreds: he can’t get the Edinburgh Review out of his system. Injustice offended him so deeply that he had to attack its perpetrators time and time again. There is a deep sadness in ‘On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority’, born of his realisation of the impossibility of expecting the mass of the common people to do otherwise than think as they are told to think; he might have been writing about the readership of The Sun or the Daily Mail in the UK, or about those in America who watch Fox News every night for their dose of ignorant, self-righteous opinionation and prejudice. That sadness is contradicted by his occasional and, I think, excessive optimism about the ‘the People’. He ends ‘On Corporate Bodies’ hopefully thus: ‘In short, the only class of persons to whom the above courtly charge of sinister and corrupt motives [he’s been charging corporate bodies, notably in the City, with such motives throughout the essay] is not applicable, is that body of individuals, which usually goes by the name of the People!’ If only it were so. The German people voting for Hitler, the Italian people voting for Berlusconi, teach otherwise.

Fitzpatrick Grand Central Hotel, New York

17 January 2011

I flew over yesterday for the second of these Teaching Channel visits. This time, after three days in New York, I’ll be in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Francisco again, before returning to London in 11 days’ time. I’ll be meeting all the production companies in their place of work.

Getting into America at JFK Airport always requires patience. I queued for a full hour yesterday. When I finally arrived at the desk, the officer was charming and full of jokes. It was as if we were having a beer in a bar. I couldn’t help but respond to the bonhomie, but I was thinking, as I glanced back at the snaking line of about 500 people waiting, that perhaps less chat and more action would be welcomed. It was freezing cold outside the terminal building, with snow piled up beside the road. About 200 people were queueing for taxis. This second wait was just short of an hour. A cheerful Ghanaian then brought me here at illegal speed. I have since discovered that there is a way of getting to JFK from Manhattan by train: Penn Station to the Jamaica hub, and then the Airtrain to the airport. I shall try that on Wednesday.

On 8 January, a deranged man shot in the head and critically injured a US congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, who was holding an open-air constituency meeting outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. The man killed six people and wounded 13 others at the same time. Giffords seems to be making a remarkable recovery in hospital (90% of people shot in the head die), although it is too early to say whether or not she has suffered permanent brain damage. It would be amazing if she hasn’t; the bullet entered her head at the back and came out at the front.

Giffords is a Democrat in a largely Republican state. She supported Obama’s health-care reform. Before the mid-term elections last year, she was one of a number of Democrats whose names appeared, on the unspeakable Sarah Palin’s website, in the cross-hairs of a gun-sight icon. At the time, Giffords spoke prophetically about the danger of conducting political debate thus. After the shooting, the local sheriff lamented the atmosphere of hatred into which polarised American politics has descended. His testimony was eloquent; one should never make assumptions about a person’s politics on the basis of appearance, but when a stout Arizona law-enforcer begs for civility and respect instead of threatened violence in politics, it strikes a chord across the country in a way that a liberal Democrat from California or New York could not.

Republicans and conservatives outside the Republican Party have of course denied that there is any connection between the actions of a crazed young man and the tone of recent conservative polemic. But they know that there may be, and they know that many people think there is. Evidence gathered from the man’s history and from his rambling anti-government threats on the internet confirm that there is.

The good that has come out of this (though I doubt whether it will last) is that the extremists within and beyond the Republican Party have been given pause. Before, the lynch mob felt that the spirit of the times was with them. It was all right for presenters on Fox News night after night to plant in white Americans’ minds the thought that Obama hates white people. It was all right for activists in the Tea Party, grotesquely claiming an association with the heroes of 1773, to talk about ‘Second Amendment solutions’, meaning their right if necessary to take up arms against the federal government. Immediately after the shooting, Republicans of all sorts, including the most feral, were loud in their condemnation, and sick-making in their recourse to the usual clichés about keeping Ms Giffords in their prayers. They are, for the moment, rattled.

Barack Obama has been magnificent in the crisis. He is a statesman and an orator, as his words and actions have once again shown. He declines in public to make the connection between the individual act and its political context which I and thousands of others have made, though the temptation to do so must be strong. He behaves as a president should behave at a time like this; he unifies. I so hope that he will gain political benefit, though he would not have wished it to come this way. It’s probably too much to hope that at least part of middle America will realise that they have for once elected a president worthy of the office, and that he stands head and shoulders above any Republican competitor currently in sight. It’s extraordinary, in this extraordinary country, that the possibility of Sarah Palin getting the Republican nomination for president in 2012 still exists. I don’t think it’ll happen, but it’s a damning comment on the state of political discourse here that some people think that a person as stupid and dangerous as her could ever represent this country at the highest level.

Noe Valley, San Francisco

27 March 2011

Helen and I are in America until mid-May. We flew to New York three weeks ago, stayed there for three nights, and came to San Francisco on 9 March. We’re settled in a delightful apartment in this quiet, well-heeled, slightly alternative district, where it’s easier to buy gluten-free food than food with gluten in it. The apartment has a private deck out the back, which it will be a pleasure to use once the weather improves. The locals keep saying the cold, wet, windy weather we’ve had this month is highly unusual.

I agreed with Andrew Bethell that it would be more satisfactory for me to be here full-time, with Helen, than to keep flying back and forth across the Atlantic without her. At the moment I’m being paid three days a week for doing a five- or six-days-a-week job, but it’s a good daily rate and I’m enjoying myself. The arrangement lasts until the end of May. I shall soon know whether I’ll be asked to return for a further period (in which case I shall want to be paid a full-time wage) or not. I shall be happy either way. If I come back, I shall be very well paid and I’ll have the chance to see Teaching Channel properly develop into the service to American teachers we want it to be. If I don’t, we shall have our usual pleasant summer in France and Italy, and I can resume the poetry writing which I’ve entirely deserted since Teaching Channel began to absorb my attention.

We return to England on 12 May because on the evening of Saturday 14 May we’re holding an event in the church in the Inner Temple to mark the 10th anniversary of the Ros Moger and Terry Furlong Scholarships which a group of us organise under the auspices of the Canon Collins Trust. We’ve helped more than 50 students from southern Africa to pursue higher education in South African universities. I’ve edited a booklet of testimonies by some of the students. It looks great (beautifully designed by a woman called Aine Cassidy, whom I haven’t yet met physically but who was recommended by Matthew Rudd — who did design work for me when I was at Channel 4 — just as I was leaving for America) and contains moving accounts of what small amounts of money, in our terms, can do to transform lives in that part of the world.

Two weeks after that, we shall be back at Rodellosso, where we were last summer. We decided then, impulsively, to book the place for three weeks, including the date of my 60th birthday, and maintaining that arrangement was the only condition I set when I agreed to come to America. It will be wonderful to see that same landscape at the green beginning of summer.

Most of the time I’m in Europe, I’ll continue to work, by phone, Skype and email, but I will have a proper holiday around the time of my birthday. That’ll give my deputy, Erin Crysdale, a good chance to hold the reins for a while. After Italy, we either return here or go to Kerfontaine.

Recently I’ve read a splendid biography of Flaubert, by Frederick Brown, which caused me then to reread Madame Bovary. It’s a magnificent and profoundly pessimistic book. It was interesting to read in the biography how even those who were sympathetic to it, who knew that Flaubert was a great writer and supported him at the time of the obscenity trial, nonetheless wished that the book might have contained some pointers to the morally good; might have had a character or two in it whom one could admire, and of whom one could say, ‘That’s how we should be.’ But of course the strength of the piece, in our modern terms, is precisely that it refuses to do that. (Actually, there are two characters in the book whom one can unequivocally admire, though they are minor: Emma’s good-hearted father and the boy Justin, who helplessly adores Emma sexually in her last desperate days, who is helplessly present when she eats rat poison, and who weeps by her grave at the very end, until the grave-digger who also grows potatoes in the graveyard surprises him and wrongly assumes that he has been stealing his potatoes.)

Writing the word ‘unequivocally’ reminds me that we went to see a production of Pinter’s The Homecoming on Thursday. (That’s not equivocal. That’s unequivocal.) It was easily the worst production I’ve seen, but it didn’t matter. As with Shakespeare, so long as the actors say the lines audibly, I’m satisfied. The greatness does its work. There were obviously lots of people in the audience who’d never seen the play, didn’t know what happens in it, and the sudden intakes of breath, the sighs of disbelief at what was being said and shown, the shrill, nervous bursts of laughter, were testament to the play’s unsettling power half a century after it was written.

I haven’t written anything during recent months about the extraordinary sequence of events in the Arab world. In Tunisia, there was a rebellion against the oppressive rule of the dictator there. The rebellion was led, not by Islamist fundamentalists, but by people simply demanding the same freedoms that we enjoy in the West, and aware of those freedoms because of the new technologies which have in recent years connected previously dispersed parts of the world, and have given oppressed peoples living under dictatorships easy ways of communicating with each other. The dictator fell.

Then the mood spread to Egypt, where Mubarak was a tougher nut to crack. Much blood was spilt when thugs employed by Mubarak tried to put down the rebellion, but in the end he departed. The army is ruling the country until September, when the people are promised the first free elections they have known. Those who made the revolution fear that the elections will bring success to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and to the rump of Mubarak’s puppet political party, rather than to the forces of secular openness and freedom that they represent. My hero in Egypt is Mohamed ElBaradei, who was for 12 years Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and who justly, together with the IAEA, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He has said that he will run in the Egyptian presidential elections, but I have no idea what are his chances of success. He is exactly the kind of wise, open-minded, internationalist leader that Egypt needs. To be sure of his qualities one need look no further than the fact that the Bush administration did everything it could to prevent him from gaining a third four-year term in charge of the IAEA in 2005. John Bolton, one of the vilest of the underlings in that administration, was given the job of trying to discredit ElBaradei. His efforts failed.

The spirit of rebellion then spread to Yemen, to Bahrain, to Algeria, to Syria, to Libya… In Bahrain, forces loyal to the royal family which controls that little island, which represents the Sunni minority and has kept the Shia majority in subjection for decades, brutally suppressed an uprising calling for the same democratic rights as were being demanded elsewhere in the Arab world. This was embarrassing for America, which stations its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Indeed, the whole chain of events in these Arab countries has exposed the hypocrisy of the West, which has happily sold arms to oppressive governments in the region, speaking publicly of the need for security there while congratulating itself privately on the profits its arms manufacturers have been making, only to discover that the arms were being used to put down the very democratic values the West claims to treasure.

And then, Libya. Same story to begin with: the people had had enough of Gaddafi’s brutal and quixotic 41-year reign. They rebelled. Different response from the regime: whereas in Tunisia and Egypt the dictators left, having killed some people but not changed the overall outcome, Gaddafi made it clear that he was willing to destroy his own people in whatever numbers necessary in order to maintain his hold on power. He began to use aeroplanes and tanks to attack the rebels, and looked certain eventually to impose a temporary bloody peace at the cost of thousands of deaths and full-scale destruction of towns and cities, especially Benghazi, which had proclaimed its rejection of his regime early on, and had declared itself the cradle of a potential new government. Gaddafi’s rhetoric is similar to that used by another monstrous African leader, Robert Mugabe: he presents himself as a valiant opponent of colonialism. The West only wants us for our oil, he says. Being a maverick Muslim, he is also able to declare that challenges to his power come from ‘Crusaders’ (us, the West) and Islamist fundamentalists.

Anyhow, the United Nations has done something which I applaud and which will, I hope, restore its reputation as the only international agency with the right to authorise violence in order to prevent greater violence. That reputation was disastrously damaged by Bush and Blair when they went to war in Iraq in 2003 without a UN mandate and against the advice of the wisest voices at the time (including ElBaradei, who described the invasion of Iraq as ‘a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than [solves] it’). This time, after long debate, the Security Council passed a unanimous resolution (Russia and China abstaining rather than voting against) authorising the use of force to prevent Gaddafi attacking his own citizens. The resolution came just in time; Gaddafi’s tanks were close to Benghazi. Suddenly, the game changed. Gaddafi’s counter-revolution was stopped in its tracks. As I write, it looks as if his regime will come to an end, either by military defeat or by a palace coup to drive him from power, leading to some kind of arrangement with the provisional government established by the rebels.

The micro-history of revolutions is extraordinary. A young man called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010. I simply quote from Wikipedia: ‘Twenty-six year old Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole income earner in his extended family of eight. He operated a purportedly unlicensed vegetable cart for seven years in Sidi Bouzid 190 miles (300 km) south of Tunis. On 17 December 2010 a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce. Bouazizi, who had such an event happen to him before, tried to pay the 10-dinar fine (a day's wages, equivalent to 7USD). In response the policewoman slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his deceased father. A humiliated Bouazizi then went to the provincial headquarters in an attempt to complain to local municipality officials. He was refused an audience. Without alerting his family, at 11:30 am and within an hour of the initial confrontation, Bouazizi returned to the headquarters, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. Public outrage quickly grew over the incident, leading to protests. This immolation and the subsequent heavy-handed response by the police to peaceful marchers caused riots the next day in Sidi Bouzid that went largely unnoticed, although social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube featured images of police dispersing youths who attacked shop windows and damaged cars. Bouazizi was subsequently transferred to a hospital near Tunis. In an attempt to quell the unrest President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in hospital on 28 December 2010. Bouazizi died on 4 January 2011.’

And look what has happened as a result.

Noe Valley, San Francisco

3 April 2011

A week has passed. Last Monday the weather changed; it has been warm and sunny since. This morning we ate breakfast out on the deck (as they call it in America — terrasse as I would call it at Kerfontaine). Spring is fully here, and for a European it’s spring on speed. Flowers are in bloom that I would expect to see in June and July in England or Brittany.

Yesterday we took a long walk, up and down the hills along Castro Street, left on Oak Street until we got to the park called the Panhandle, which leads to Golden Gate Park, then all the way along Golden Gate Park (stopping for an hour in the De Young Museum) to the Pacific Ocean. The great booming breakers were urged on by a strong wind off the sea which blew sand in our eyes.

Golden Gate Park is a magnificent example of what a park should be in a great city. The site, on sand dunes, was chosen in 1870. After trial and error, the designers discovered a variety of European grass that would take root in the sand and stabilise it. Tree planting soon followed, so now there are magnificent mature trees of many varieties, deciduous and coniferous, and countless kinds of wild flowers, I imagine at their best at this season. There are special attractions for which you pay, like the De Young, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Were I a native of the city or were I here for a long time, I would come to love this park as much as I love Regents Park.

We took the N tram all the way back from Ocean Beach into the city, then changed to the J to get home, sitting together pleasantly tired and quiet.

Work is going well. The programmes (‘programs’ in American) are coming in now, and tomorrow we make the website available to an invited audience, for user testing.

Last week I didn’t get round to writing about the other immense event which has shaken the world in recent weeks. On 11 March, an earthquake under the sea off the north-east coast of Japan triggered a tsunami which by current estimates killed 27,000 people. This is a small number by comparison with the death toll in last year’s earthquake in Haiti or that in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, but still represents a terrible catastrophe. And there has been a consequent disaster which didn’t occur in either of the other two cases: a nuclear power station was badly damaged and has been leaking radiation into the earth, the air and the sea. No-one knows to what extent more people’s lives have been or will be cut short by radiation poisoning. For the moment, the debate about the wisdom of using nuclear fission to generate electricity has entered another doubtful phase, as it did after the disaster at Chernobyl and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island. In particular, people are asking why the authorities allow nuclear power stations to be built in earthquake zones.

There is universal admiration for the calm, mutually supportive way that the Japanese people are enduring the agony. I read yesterday that Tokyo, which is 400 kilometres south of the devastated area but which is greatly affected by the shortage of electricity caused by the damage to the power station, is in a state of self-denial; people consider it inappropriate to enjoy themselves in public, or to consume too freely, while their compatriots are suffering so terribly up north. And of course, in a country which has known nuclear annihilation and then the effects of radiation poisoning for many decades after 1945, the fear of what is in the wind must be ever-present.

In Libya, much blood has been spilled this week as the civil war continues. Gaddafi’s better equipped forces have retaliated against the rebels, who have enthusiasm and moral right on their side, but who are struggling to get organised and who need better weapons. The coalition forces, empowered by the UN resolution to protect Libyan civilians, aren’t sure to what extent they should use that resolution to proactively attack Gaddafi, with the risk of causing civilian casualties. I’m sure the West is doing some things in secret to help the rebels. What France, the UK and the US want more than anything else is for Gaddafi’s closest associates to recognise that the game is up and to betray him. His foreign minister managed to get out of the country to Tunisia this week, and then defected to Britain. That was a big propaganda coup, but there hasn’t been another since.

Meanwhile, in other Arab states where the people’s desire for the same rights and freedoms that we enjoy in the West has expressed itself in protest, the dictators have resorted to familiar and contemptible arguments to justify their repression. As convenient, they announce that the protests are promoted by sinister foreign elements (which might include Shias if you’re a Sunni autocrat, or Sunnis if you’re a Shia autocrat), by Al-Qaida, by ‘Crusaders’, by the West’s greed for oil, by European powers nostalgic for their former colonial dominance. There’s a little bit of truth in some of these accusations in some cases, but overwhelmingly they miss the point, which the autocrats can’t or don’t want to see: their people know the kind of world they’re living in, because of the unstoppable spread of communications technology, and they want their human rights.

Assad in Syria is one of the nastiest of the Arab leaders; either that or he lacks power himself — former eye doctor turned head of state when his father died — and is a puppet of brutes around him. He’s been promising the Syrians reform for the ten years he’s been president, but it hasn’t come. His speech on television this week was like one of Mubarak’s speeches early in the Egyptian crisis: ‘I’m not giving an inch’. I fear that, if the protest movement in Syria continues to gain courage and strength, there will be another blood bath, and another dilemma for the UN and the world’s big powers.

Two unspeakable ‘Christian pastors’ in Florida, who staged a mock trial of the Koran and then burnt a copy of the book, are responsible for numerous deaths in Afghanistan, including those of several UN workers. Predictably, the Taliban took up the provocation intended by the pastors, and have committed murders in revenge. And today the Taliban have slaughtered Sufi Muslims in Pakistan.

The barbarity is endless, and of two kinds: secular barbarity, as in Syria, where the regime’s desire is simply to retain power; and religious barbarity, as in Florida, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the Ivory Coast, a struggle for dominance is in its final stages, with the forces of President-elect Ouattara, who won the country’s election last year, about to overcome those of the tragically foolish President Gbagbo, who has refused to accept his defeat. Thousands of people have died in the conflict which has followed Ouattara’s eventual and understandable decision to take his legitimate power by violent means. Gbagbo won’t last much longer.

All in all, not a good week for the brotherhood of man.

Rodellosso, between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza, province of Siena

12 June 2011

We’re staying in the same house as in August and September of last year. At that time, months before I knew that I was going to be working in America, Helen proposed the idea that we should return for a three-week holiday, with friends coming and going, to include my 60th birthday, which is next Thursday.

It’s the first time I’ve been in Tuscany at this season. The place is, if anything, even more enchantingly beautiful than it is at any other season. The fields are green with wheat, barley, oats and rye; wild flowers abound at the roadsides; as the long light evenings draw to an end, the sun sets next to the silhouette of Montalcino on its hilltop.

As I probably wrote last year, we are exactly equidistant from San Quirico and Pienza: 4.5 kilometres in each case. To compare them properly, I turn to Yeats: ‘Both beautiful, one a gazelle.’ The gazelle is Pienza, above us to the east, named — or renamed — after Pope Pius II, a native of the place, who gave much money to re-establish it as a civitas, a place where the virtues of urban living could be practised and developed, where men and women could come to realise that life can be more than grubbing from the soil. In short, unlike Mrs Thatcher, Pius II believed that there is such a thing as society. This morning we stood outside the Bar Casello, between the Via d’Amore and the Via del Bacio (and couples do stand under the street sign to kiss), on a stone pathway, leaning on a balustrade and gazing southward across the immense scoop of the green and blonde valley towards Radicofani and Monte Amiata.

Being a gazelle, Pienza is besieged with tourists, even so early in the season. It has too many shops containing things that a sensible person can do without. If I had to make a choice, my heart would belong to the sister who doesn’t quite achieve gazelle status, but who is lovely enough to satisfy the longings of any reasonable homme moyen sensuel. San Quirico, below us to the west, stands quietly within its walls, outside which little vegetable gardens are thriving almost visibly, given the combination of rain and heat that we’ve had. A church and a chapel, each about a thousand years old, mark the two ends of the town, linked by a straight street about half a mile in length. Halfway up the street is the Piazza della Libertà, where a very good cappuccino can be had at the Bar Centrale. Last night we dined handsomely at the Osteria del Cardinale. I eat as much tripe as I can get when I’m here; it’s almost impossible to find in restaurants in England, now we’ve all become so bourgeois — and how strange that that word has come to mean what it does, when it started out simply meaning people who lived in bourgs, borghi, like San Quirico and Pienza. Anyhow, my tripe, covered with a spicy tomato sauce, was delicious. ‘Eat like a peasant, drink like a nobleman’: I did, on a Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004. Afterwards we wandered in the town, which was celebrating the Festa di Barbarossa, commemorating a meeting there between the Emperor of Germany, he of the red beard, and representatives of the pope of the day, at which the two great powers tried to reach an accord. I haven’t studied hard enough to know whether or not an accord was in fact reached; nor, I think, had the young men who entertained the crowd in the quartiere next to the chapel with dazzling performances of 50s American pop numbers — Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the like — causing wild outbreaks of rocking and rolling on the uneven ancient stone slabs.

During our first week here, we rented all five apartments in the house, and the friends who joined us then — Mike Raleigh, Kate Myers and David, Lindsay and Tom James — gave me a wonderful and appropriate early birthday present: a 1766 two-volume first edition of Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy. I’m halfway through the second volume, which is about Italy. He’s a bad-tempered so-and-so, and occasionally tedious, but often wonderfully informative about the details of daily life in France and Italy 250 years ago. For example: ‘With all their pride, however, the nobles of Florence are humble enough to enter into partnership with shopkeepers, and even to sell wine by retail. It is an undoubted fact, that in every palace or great house in this city, there is a little window fronting the street, provided with an iron-knocker, and over it hangs an empty flask, by way of sign-post. Thither you send your servant to buy a bottle of wine. He knocks at the little wicket, which is opened immediately by a domestic, who supplies him with what he wants, and receives the money like the waiter of any other cabaret. It is pretty extraordinary, that it should not be deemed a disparagement in a nobleman to sell half a pound of figs, or a palm of ribbon or tape, or to take money for a flask of sour wine; and yet be counted infamous to match his daughter in the family of a person who has distinguished himself in any one of the learned professions.’

Smollett’s way from Florence to Rome passed, as it had to, along the Via Cassia, right next to where we are staying. His carriage broke an axle-tree just south of Buonconvento, which is 15 kilometres north of San Quirico; our Land Rover, at about the same place, developed serious trouble in its cooling system, and is currently being attended to in a garage in San Quirico. I think Smollett paid less for the repair than I shall, even allowing for inflation; but I am of opinion (to use that lovely 18th-century phrase) quite opposite to his, on the character of Italian people on whom the traveller is obliged to depend. Smollett says (not for the first time in the book): ‘I repeat it again; of all the people I ever knew, the Italians are the most villainously rapacious.’ My mechanic Valerio gave me the use of a little rental car for almost no money, and supplied me with two bottles of wine because the next day was the Festa della Repubblica. It remains to be seen how efficient he will be in repairing the Land Rover; but he’s made a good start in terms of customer relations.

After a week more of this idyll, we shall drive to Marseille (in a fully repaired car, I trust), stay three nights with Mary, leave the car there for her to drive it in convoy with Jacques to Kerfontaine in July. They are going to re-paint the outside of the house. We shall take the train to Paris on 21 June, stay a night there, then fly back to America. My contract has been extended to the end of August, although I’ve negotiated to spend the second half of that month working by internet and phone from Brittany. Despite my previous determination to ask for a full week’s pay for a full week’s work, I’ve accepted a continuation of the three-days-a-week compromise I’ve had up to now, because the daily rate is good, and I’m enjoying myself over there. After the end of August, I don’t know. I shall be quite content if that’s the end of the matter; there will be a permanent, American chief executive in place by then, and he or she may or may not want me. If he or she does, and if I like him or her, I’ll go back one more time, until the end of the year. But that’ll be it. I’m a European, not an American. They tend to eat dinner too early, for one thing. But I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved at Teaching Channel so far. The trouble is, there’s too little content; we won’t turn the heads of millions of American teachers with 35 hours of commissioned programmes, whatever the quality. Funding decisions are, as the Americans say, above my pay-grade. On the other hand, as the Americans also say, in life you have to see the doughnut, not the hole.

Rodellosso, between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza, province of Siena

16 June 2011

Today I am 60. I feel melancholy. It’s nothing to do with the passage of time, reflections on my mortality, anything like that. I think I have a little of Leopardi’s sadness in ‘Il sabato nel villaggio’:

‘Questo di sette [that is, Saturday] è il più gradito giorno,
pien di speme e di goia:
diman tristezza e noia
recheran l’ore, ed al travalgio usato
ciascuno in suo pensier farà ritorno.’

It’s not that I’m thinking about work tomorrow. I won’t be working until Monday, and in any case the prospect of work doesn’t sadden me. It’s the sense that once a looked-for day arrives, it doesn’t carry the charm which it promised in anticipation. I experienced this feeling every Christmas Day when I was a child. It will pass.

San Francisco

10 July 2011

Leaving our apartment in Noe Valley, I walked up the steep — and then precipitously steep — slope through quiet streets of pretty, wooden houses, each painted differently in a pleasing mix of colours, then crossed a bridge over a highway, then climbed further through a more modern estate of apartments and houses, not so attractive, until I came up to Twin Peaks, high above the city. From either one of this pair of hills is the most wonderful view: to the east, San Francisco and its bay, looking across to Berkeley and Oakland, with the traffic on the Bay Bridge twinkling in the twilight; to the north, the Golden Gate Bridge and the hills of Marin County; to the south, the Saint Bruno mountain; to the west, the Pacific. Watching the sun descend into the sea on a clear evening, bracing yourself against the high wind which nearly always blows up there, then turning slowly around 360 degrees and taking everything in — the planes taking off and landing at SFO and Oakland Airports, the stars appearing one by one in the darkening sky, a new moon getting up behind the Berkeley Hills — has been one of the great, panoptic experiences of my life. I’ve done this about five times since I’ve been here.

Kerfontaine

26 August 2011

Much has happened in the ten weeks since my birthday. We flew back to New York on 22 June, and spent five days there. Then on to San Francisco for what turned out to be my last stint at Teaching Channel. A new chief executive, Alan Arkatov, took up his post on 1 July. We met and talked a few days later. I told him that I would stay on beyond 31 August, if he wanted me to, on two conditions: that I remained the second-in-command of the organisation, and that the daily rate I had been receiving for my fictional three days’ work per week should be paid to me for the five days a week I was actually working.

I returned to New York on 11 July. Arriving back in San Francisco on 15 July, I spoke on the phone to Alan. He was very complimentary about what I’d done for Teaching Channel so far, but he said didn’t need a second-in-command at the moment, and he didn’t like the idea of my being in France, while still working, in the latter half of August. We didn’t get on to money. So I suggested that I should finish, definitively, on 11 August, the day before we had booked flights to return to Europe once more, and that Erin Crysdale, who had been my deputy since December, should take over my post on 12 August. Alan thought about the idea, phoned Erin twice, and on the second occasion offered her the job. She accepted.

My strongest feeling after the phone call with Alan was that of relief. As soon as we met, I knew that we were very different characters, and I wasn’t sure that I would retain the freedom of action in my role that I had had with Andrew. By the time I left, Alan had — I think and hope — come to realise that Teaching Channel would prosper only if it regarded the continuation of the kind of work I had started as its central task: to use the art and craft of high-quality narrative television to show American teachers engaging and sometimes inspiring examples of their collleagues at work. He has a number of other ideas for promoting and extending the service, some good, some in my opinion distractions from the central task. He was very gracious in his thanks to me when I left. His principal task is to secure regular funding, from the Gates Foundation or whomever, which would among other things enable Erin to commission in larger quantity than I was able to. $5 million a year would be an adequate commissioning budget. We shall see.

The other Teaching Channel colleagues were sad to see me go. We had a party on a boat belonging to Mark Cattell, a close friend of Erin’s — and now a good friend of mine — on my last evening. The boat is moored at Sausalito, and we chugged around the bay near there, drinking champagne and eating sushi. There was a beautiful sunset and an almost full moon.

The chance to work in America has been wonderful. It may well not happen again. I’ve made some friends who will, I think, be friends for life, however often or however rarely we see each other in future.

The next day Helen and I packed and took a taxi to the airport in mid-afternoon for the overnight flight to Heathrow. I slept well on the plane after dinner, so didn’t feel too bad as we changed planes and flew to Charles de Gaulle on Saturday afternoon. I’d hired a car, and we drove down empty motorways to Kerfontaine, arriving about eleven. David, Lindsay and Tom were here to greet us. They had been staying for a fortnight already. Mike Raleigh and Kate Myers had joined them for a few days and had already departed.

Mary, Jacques, Tess, Sophie and Jacques’ mother Lucille had been here earlier. Jacques painted the outside of the house. It shines like a wedding cake now. The guests following had done a great job weeding and replanting the overgrown borders: tedious work to me, for which I’m very grateful. David, Lindsay and Tom left the following Wednesday, and I spent then three days mowing lawns and clipping bushes. The place looks fine now, although the big hedges will need cutting soon. I’ll do that with Jean-Paul. So, je cultive mon jardin (with a little help from my friends).

In the world outside, the major current event is the endgame of the conflict in Libya, about which I first wrote in March. There has been a full-scale civil war, which Gaddafi is just about to lose. Many thousands have died. The rebels, whose administration is called the National Transitional Council, have had increasingly decisive help from the NATO bombardments of Gaddafi positions and facilities which the UN authorised. It’s becoming clear that outside countries, notably the UK and France, have provided secret support to the rebels in terms of training and equipment, and in the co-ordination of the final advance on Tripoli. Gaddafi loyalists are resisting strenuously, but not for much longer. The whereabouts of Gaddafi himself are unknown at the moment.

Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of resistance in Syria continues. Again, thousands are dead. Unlike in Libya, it will be impossible to get UN backing for any kind of military intervention there unless — God forbid — the suppression were to get dramatically worse, and possibly not even then. Russia and China would veto it. So the West is left with lesser weapons such as a ban on the purchase of Syria’s oil, freezing of some of its assets abroad, and visa restrictions. I just hope that events in Libya, which has been the toughest liberation struggle yet in north Africa, will embolden Syrian people to believe that what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and will shortly happen in Libya, really could happen in their country. But the violence will be dreadful. The Assad regime is just as vicious, in a more calculating, less crazy way, as the Gaddafi regime has been.

World capitalism has been experiencing one of its periodic fits of unreason, made worse by palpable political failings on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, there was an almost complete breakdown of communication in Congress, which was only resolved a few hours before a deadline — midnight on 2/3 August — which would have meant that, theoretically, America would have defaulted on its enormous government debt. The problem was that the legal debt ceiling needed to be raised, to deal with the immediate danger of default, as part of a longer-term plan to bring the budget deficit down. The budget deficit had been brought about, first, by the ruinous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; secondly by the Obama administration’s evident need to borrow money after the 2008 crisis, to avoid the possibility of a complete collapse of America’s financial and industrial system.

The mid-term elections last November brought into Congress extremists in the Republican party not prepared to countenance tax rises of any kind as a contribution to lowering the budget deficit. This despite the fact the some of the tax cuts and tax breaks introduced by the Bush administration defy justification by any reasonable criterion. It cannot be right that the billionaire bosses of hedge funds pay a lower effective rate of tax than the humblest secretaries working in their organisations. It cannot be right that oil companies get generous tax breaks when they continue to post multi-billion-dollar profits every quarter. All the Democrats in Congress, the whole Obama administration, and quite a few of the more moderate Republicans understand that. But the zealots don’t, or won’t. America has needed to borrow so much because of the wars and the disastrous results of laissez-faire attitudes to financial institutions introduced in the Reagan and Thatcher period; that is, because of essentially Republican attitudes and actions (though I admit that it was under Clinton that the Republican-dominated congress took the fateful decision to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, a decision which theoretically he could have vetoed). America had a budget surplus when Clinton left office. It’s extremist Republicans who have refused to apply sensible remedies, involving a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts, to a problem their own ideology and party has created.

In the end, at the last minute, a compromise was reached, but a far less satisfactory compromise, attending less radically to the problem, than could have been reached if Washington were anything other than a dysfunctional site of governance at the moment.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the problems of countries in the eurozone with large public debts, principally Greece, but also Portugal, Ireland and then more worryingly Italy and Spain, have meant that the governments of all the eurozone countries, plus the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, have been struggling to protect Europe’s weaker brethren, and have faced the possibility that some countries might need to leave the euro and re-establish their own currencies, and the outside possibility that the euro itself might collapse.

It’s here that one sees the wickedness of the power of unbridled private money. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about bad or incompetent politicians and political systems. The previous government in Greece lied about the public finances; Papandreou has had to clear up the mess. The previous government in Ireland allowed an unsustainable property boom to develop, based on borrowed money. Berlusconi (whom the Italian electorate will, I think, finally reject at the next elections) has brought the whole government machine in Italy into disrepute as a result of the evident corruption and illegality of so many of his actions. It’s true that in too many countries of southern Europe it’s too easy not to pay tax. But so powerful are the centres of private money in the world, and so easy is it for money holders to enrich themselves even further by taking advantage of the weaknesses and problems of states, that the heads of government in Europe find themselves in constant crisis mode to outwit the activities of people in front of computer screens who gamble on the movement of debt and debt interest with no regard at all to the damage in the real world which their casino games cause.

It is possible, I’m sure, to redress the balance of advantage in the lending and borrowing of money towards states and away from private finance, even within the system of international capitalism which is here to stay. But it requires international consensus, and since 2008 such consensus has been so hard to achieve, decisions in the right direction so feeble, that unless there’s another scare on the scale of 2008 or worse, I fear that states will continue to be the mongoose and private money the snake.

Earlier this month, there were riots in London and other English cities of a kind and on a scale that has not happened in my lifetime. The riots of the 70s and 80s were essentially race riots, to put it crudely; black and brown people, especially young men, expressed their rage at the abuse and harassment they had over many years received from the police. It is true that this month’s riots were sparked by the shooting dead of a 29-year-old man of colour in Tottenham. He was in a minicab; he had a loaded gun with him; he was confronted by armed policemen who shot first. The remaining details have not yet been published. The following day there was a peaceful demonstration to protest at his killing. Then, quite unexpectedly, anarchy took over. People with no connection to the dead man, people of various ethnic backgrounds including many whites, young women as well as young men, began to loot, break and burn property all over London, and later in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and other cities. The violence continued night after night. The police were initially overwhelmed. The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London rushed backed from their holidays. Parliament was recalled for the second time this summer recess (the first was because of the News of the World scandal, which I haven’t written about yet). After five nights, and with greatly increased police presence at all the trouble spots, the violence ceased.

The most dreadful individual incident occurred in Birmingham. Three young men, Asian Muslims, who were standing defending their property, were run down and killed by a man in a car. I haven’t read whether the driver was a racist, or drunk, or simply lost control of the vehicle. The father of one of the men made a heroic and successful appeal for calm in a context where there could have been full-scale intercommunal fighting and more deaths.

Some of the magistrates’ courts stayed open all night, and through the following weekend, to deal with those arrested, whose number I think was more than two thousand. Many of the hearings were adjourned so that trials could take place at higher courts, where harsher sentences could be imposed. It’s clear from the sentences already passed that there’s an element of exemplary justice in the punishments, which I approve of.

Of course, the riots provoked a spate of agonised or enraged sociological questions and suggested answers about why they happened. Within an inevitably complex set of reasons, this is what I think.

There has been for a generation now now an underclass in British society created by the upheavals of the Thatcher government. These people aren't necessarily poor in the sense that the unemployed were poor in the 1930s; they have some material goods that the poor of the 30s couldn’t have dreamed of, notably the hand-held electronic devices which the rioters used to communicate information about where to gather next to loot and burn. But they have no sense of a stake in the society, no pride, however rarely spoken or thought, in being citizens. Quite often, their parents have been completely ineffective as models of right behaviour and attitude. They’re out for themselves, because they reason that no-one else will care for them or value them. Of this hopeless group of people, only a small minority will actually commit crimes, but that minority made up the majority of those who went out into the streets on those nights. I admit that, among the rioters, there were some who weren’t poor at all, in any sense: young people from middle-class families about to go to university; people with paying jobs and cars who succumbed to greed in the madness of the moment. The press made much of these cases. But, from what I’ve read, most of the criminal acts were committed by people of the kind I’ve described: almost entirely young (30 and under), mainly but not entirely male, of many ethnicities, outside the social consensus in which the comfortable majority of British people live.

What examples are these footloose people, living in a less deferential, less hierarchical society than two generations ago, a society with less fear built into its structures: what examples from public life are these people offered in our instant-communication world? The bankers of 2008, still obscenely rich and apparently beyond sanction for their acts of greed and stupidity which often came close to criminality, and should in some cases have been pursued through the courts; the members of parliament who routinely robbed those who had elected them through their abuse of the expenses system; journalists who hacked the phones of the murdered and the bereaved, and were paid well for doing so; footballers and their hangers-on who, normally quite legally as a result of the absurdities of the market for their talent, live lives of Babylonian luxury whose details are constantly offered to the underclass through the internet, gossip magazines and trash TV. And the footloose say, ‘I’ll have some of that if the chance presents itself.’

I must say that I don’t know what we can do about this. Labour, despite sincere efforts, made only the smallest dent on the inequalities it inherited in 1997, of which the most grievous was that twice as many children in Britain were poor in that year as had been poor in 1979. It had Sure Start, the minimum wage, the tax credits for low-income families, and other measures. But it committed its own dreadful errors too, with its excessive courting of and admiration for the wealthy and powerful. I’ve written before about the hypocrisy of Cameron’s ‘broken society’ mantra; it was his political forebears, not Blair and Brown, whatever their shortcomings, who almost broke British society. I really think that the only solutions are the old, practical, prosaic ones: more apprenticeships, a good variety of training schemes leading to worthwhile work in trades and professions, job creation in areas of greatest unemployment, a balancing of the rewards of work against benefits to make work the more attractive option, where it exists.

Meanwhile, more young people than ever want to go to university, and are qualified by their A-level results to do so. Conservative ministers, in power, congratulate these young people and their teachers; they don’t say on radio and television, as they did in opposition, that results are better only because exams are easier.

Cameron and — to a lesser extent — the Home Secretary, Theresa May, made contemptible statements at the height of the crisis criticising the police, and suggesting that it was only when they intervened that the problems of inadequate police numbers were solved. Their desire to get political credit out of the affair disgusted me. Certainly, the police were overwhelmed at the beginning; the riots were sudden, unpredictable and, because of the use of hand-held communications gadgets, unprecedented in the speed at which they spread. But it was a police decision to rapidly increase the numbers on the streets of London on, I think, the third and fourth nights; nothing to do with Cameron coming back from Tuscany to chair a meeting. As one of the police chiefs said, pointedly (I paraphrase), ‘We’ve had to take some unfair criticism from people who weren’t there.’ Everyone knew who he meant.

Brest airport

13 September 2011

Not for the first time, my short flight from Brest to Southampton is delayed, so what better way to fill the time than to write the diary? Actually, I’ve just been finishing the first English poem I’ve written since leaving Teaching Channel and re-applying the brain to the old art. It’s called ‘Internal Eclogue at 60’. The first voice is bucolic and full of philosophic melancholy about mortality, driven by Ecclesiastes chapter 9 verse 5, which I’ve paraphrased as ‘The living know that they have to die / and the dead know nothing at all’. The second voice brusquely tells the first to stop whingeing, be grateful that he’s had such a lovely life so far, and just get on with it. I’m pleased with the piece. The first part could almost stand by itself, but only almost; it drifts too close to a world-weariness which has been a theme for thousands of poets for thousands of years. Just when you think that’s all there is, the metre changes (from dactyls to iambic fourteeners) along with the bucket of cold water from the new voice.

I say ‘the first English poem’, because I’ve also written my second French poem (the first being the short tribute to Albert which is on his grave). This is a version (closer to an imitation than a translation) of last year’s comic poem ‘Vacheries’. I did it because on 4 September I went to the Fête de Saint Guénaël, as I always like to when I’m at Kerfontaine on the first Sunday in September. Annick had given a copy of the English poem to Dominique Gragnic, the farmer at Saint Guénaël who’s a good friend and the main organiser of the fête, and whose cows had given me the idea for the poem in the first place. Dominique asked me to read out the poem, in English followed by a rough prose French translation, as part of the entertainment after lunch (squeezed between a display of wood-chopping by lumberjacks from Finistère and an illustrated talk by an enthusiast for traditional Breton games). A crowd of about 300 listened, smiled very slightly at what I thought were quite good jokes, and applauded politely. I determined to do a proper French version, complete with rhythm and rhyme. Annick helped me, as she always does when I try anything difficult in French.

The Libyan revolution is almost complete. The head of the National Transitional Council made a good speech today, promising a democracy within ‘moderate Islam’, and appealing to his supporters not to take individual revenge on Gaddafi loyalists. There have been some revenge killings, but on a small scale by comparison with Gaddafi’s atrocities. Many of Gaddafi’s close allies have fled to Niger. Some of his family are in Algeria. No-one knows where he is. His whereabouts matter less than the establishment of a new government in Libya, and a final end to the war. I hope that he will be captured at some point and sent to the International Criminal Court, where his trial will go on for years. Of course it would be cheaper and more straightforward if someone would kill him (I remember feeling the same way about Milosevic), but that would make him a martyr in his supporters’ eyes, and the important job that the ICC does is to continually remind potential and actual tyrants that they are not beyond the law.

Camden Town

14 September 2011

Yesterday’s delayed 40-minute flight to Southampton was notable for its ending. After crossing the Isle of Wight and the Solent, the plane travelled inland, did its usual 180-degree turn and approached the airport via Winchester, giving me a beautiful view of the town and the cathedral. There were rain clouds about and the ride was bumpy. We skimmed over the perimeter fence. I always sit up straight in my seat just before the moment of impact on landing; I have a — probably wrong — idea that in the event of a crash I might sustain less damage in that position. The plane hit the ground with one violent bump, and then another. I looked out of the window to see that we were heading for the sky again. The air hostess announced that the captain had ‘discontinued the landing, and that there was no cause for alarm’. We did another circuit of the Solent, and the captain came on in reassuring tones: the wind had changed at the last moment; it might have been difficult to bring the plane to a halt; the safest thing was to take off again. Everyone was calm. There were a few British jokes about learner drivers. The second landing, after exactly the same approach, was successful. There was light applause. But I noticed four fire engines in attendance as we taxied.

I’m briefly in London on Poetry Society business. There has been full-scale war in the organisation in recent months. The war’s causes are too tedious too recount in detail, even to myself. The main facts are that, early this year, the chair of trustees took some actions, I think sincerely intended for the director’s benefit, without — according to the director — having consulted her. (He insisted he did consult her.) The director resigned, citing wrong treatment by the trustees. There was a fear that she might sue the trustees for constructive dismissal. The trustees took their own legal advice. The chair, only in post since last November, resigned. The dispute became public knowledge, and eventually led to the holding of an extraordinary general meeting, at which the members of the Society by a large majority declared that they had no confidence in the trustees. The trustees decided to resign as a body. The annual general meeting of the Society, usually held in November, was brought forward to tonight. The director resumed her post, as announced by an email from the acting chair of trustees, which included an apology from the trustees. A new board will be voted in tonight (in marked contrast to the usual situation, where it is difficult to find enough people to serve as trustees, there are more than 30 nominations for about a dozen places) and then, as the next item of business on the agenda, we shall resign.

While all the blood was being spilt, I was in America. I tried, completely unsuccessfully, by phone calls and emails, to bring the director and the then chair of trustees to an understanding before their positions became irreconcilable.

I’m sorry that I won’t be a trustee of the Society any more. I think I did a bit of good in the educational area. I can’t help reflecting that I was on the panel which appointed the director, so I take some responsibility for that; then, when the director told me that she couldn’t work with a previous chair of trustees, I had a hand in getting a new chair appointed at last year’s AGM. He was the person she said she wanted. The Society then made a successful bid to the Arts Council for a three-year funding award, to everyone’s great satisfaction, before the trouble broke out, causing the Arts Council to say that its promised funding couldn’t be guaranteed unless the Society got its governance in order.

Part of the difficulty has been that poets and people interested in poetry are too well educated and too self-important. At the height of the dispute, around 40 emails a day were clogging up my inbox. People weighed in from all sides with prolix, exquisitely turned expressions of rage, contempt and self-importance. Well known poets, with honorary positions on the Society’s notepaper, announced their resignations, evidently without knowledge of the prosaic reasons which had brought about the dispute. It has all been a bloody and unnecessary mess, causing me to recall my old law of inverse proportionality: the nobler the cause which brings a group of people together, the more vicious can be the actual behaviour of those people towards each other.

London is exquisite today: the welcoming, breezy, invigorating air of early autumn. The rowans carry great bunches of full ripe berries.

I haven’t written about my reading recently. In America, I went on from Madame Bovary to three of Balzac’s novels: Cousine Bette, Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet. I hadn’t read any Balzac until now, although I read Graham Robb’s biography of Balzac last year. I have the feeling that three Balzacs are enough. I get the idea: a savage, cynical account of the pettiness, insincerity and self-interestedness of most French people, at least of the upper class and the ‘respectable’ bourgeoisie. You have to imagine how some of the scenes would have played to the contemporary audience: for example, the encounter at the beginning of Cousine Bette between the vile man (forgotten his name for the moment) and the respectable wife, where he straightforwardly proposes adultery, and then the pathetic turning of the tables later in the novel where she goes to him to offer her honour, by which time he is no longer interested. The novels are easy to read, and offer wonderfully detailed portraits of Paris and (in Eugénie Grandet) provincial France in the first half of the 19th century, but somehow they didn’t deeply engage me, I think because the author’s unchanging attitude to the characters he had created seemed to me to be represented by a sneer.

Being in America, I thought I should read some Faulkner, and here the rewards were great. I started, by lucky chance, with something easy by Faulkner standards: The Unvanquished. Then I opened Absalom, Absalom! I stuck with it, steadily, night after night, skipping nothing, making my eyes take in the unrelieved pages of solid narrative print even when there were long sections I couldn’t understand. When I got to the end, I started at the beginning again straight away. I don’t think I’ve ever done that with a book before. This time, it yielded itself. The last 50 pages felt like an exaltation second time round. I had taken it in; I had got it — the whole extraordinary portrait of the South, with its unspeakable racism accepted as normal life, the codes of behaviour which bound people and which one can only reach now by an extreme effort of imagination, the brutality. It is an epic masterpiece by the highest standards of world literature. Then I went on to the easier but equally astonishing As I Lay Dying. I love the line where the husband, once his wife has breathed her last, says, ‘The Lord’s will be done. Now I can get them teeth.’ When the carpenter son narrowly escapes drowning in the flooded river, the main thing the family is concerned about is retrieving his tools. They put cement on his broken leg, without greasing it first. Characteristically, the climax of the action — to bury the decomposing corpse in the graveyard of the town where the mother was born — is thrown away in a subordinate clause. By then, we are more concerned about the fate of the pregnant teenage daughter who wants to have her baby aborted, and her encounter with the corrupt chemist. The husband gets his false teeth in the end. It looks as if he may have found another woman too, the same day as (or is it the day after?) he’s buried his wife.

Now I’m in the middle of the long short stories in Go Down, Moses. Faulkner is a great writer. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get to him.

Since we’ve been in France, I’ve read the biography of De Gaulle which Stephen Eyers gave me for a recent birthday or Christmas. Very good. The General was an impossible, unreasonable, vain, stiff, deeply honourable, great and courageous man. And the night before last, I finished Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a wonderful account of those astonishing talents of the second half of the eighteenth century, who saw everything as interesting and were constantly inventing, and who helped to make the Midlands the cradle of the industrial revolution.

Kerfontaine

29 September 2011

The annual general meeting of the Poetry Society passed off without violence. About 150 people were present in St Giles in the Fields church. The meeting lasted nearly three hours. Unnecessarily long speeches were made by a few self-appointed consitutionalists. The acting chair of the outgoing board of trustees handled the gathering very well. It could have descended into chaos with someone less firm and clear in the chair (metaphorical chair — she stood throughout). The former finance manager of the Society explained the financial position clearly. 12 new trustees were elected, the counting of the votes being scrutinised by a high-court judge. And that was it. It may be that other members of the outgoing board were present in the crowd, but I didn’t see any. There was no need at all for me to have been at the meeting, but in some sort of virtuous way I had thought I ought to be, having been absent throughout the most difficult months of the dispute.

I flew back to Brest two days later. A smooth landing this time. Since then, we’ve had Peter Adams to stay for five days; on the last of those, my brother Mark and his wife Gill arrived in their newly acquired 20-year-old mobile home. I must confess that I’m not a fan of mobile homes; they seem to me to manifest a right-little-tight-little individualism, a desire to stay in a comforting, familiar bubble while travelling through Here Be Strangers Land. They’re everywhere now; they infest Europe. On the weekend of the big bicycle race in Plouay at the end of August, about 200 of them — huge, vulgar things with names suggestive of daring and adventure (the opposite of the characteristics of the people inside them) — are parked by the finish line.

But I love my brother and his wife, and they love their mobile home, so that’s that.

Earlier this month, I helped my brother Andrew and his wife Beryl buy a 10-year-old Mercedes Sprinter van, French-registered and therefore left-hand-drive, so that they could drive it to Bulgaria, where they’ve just bought a hectare and a half of land in a village, with two houses on it, one 300 years old and one 50 years old, for the equivalent of £12,000. Admittedly, the houses need some work. The encounter with bureaucracy on both sides of the channel was instructive. The vehicle couldn’t be insured in France, because Andrew doesn’t live here. It couldn’t be insured in the UK, because it’s French-registered. Having told the truth about Andrew’s residence (currently a tent in Wales) to two insurance companies in Plouay, I decided that the only way to enable him to drive the van legally was to lie about his residence, saying that he lives here with us. This I did at a third insurance company, which agreed to insure him. Arranging for the van to have a new carte grise (the French equivalent of the logbook) entailed two trips to the sous-préfecture in Lorient and the payment of more than 200 euros. Then the registration plates had to be changed; I hadn’t realised, in all the years I’ve been driving in France, that until two years ago registration plates stayed with the driver whenever he or she changed vehicles. In 2009, France went over to the system we’ve always had in the UK. So vehicles registered before then are issued with a new, permanent nombre d’immatriculation the first time they change hands after 2009. This all required further negotiation and expense. I think Andrew’s going to leave the van in Bulgaria, and re-register it there, so its identity will change once again.

Andrew’s great skill in carpentry has turned the van into another mobile home, in the sense that there’s now an upper and a lower storey in the back, the upper storey perhaps 18 inches below the roof, allowing for comfortable sleeping for two but not a great deal of other activity. Somehow, I feel more sympathetic to this hand-made mobile home than I do to ready-made ones. And of course, 38 years ago, Martyn Coles, Pamela Dix and I set off from London on a supposedly round-the-world tour in a Ford Transit van with a mattress in the back wide enough for three. We cooked on a Calor-gas stove. So enough high-mindedness about mobile homes.

I’ve done two more poems. ‘The Squirrels and the Nut Trees’ is about the entertaining raids on our walnut and hazelnut trees which the red squirrels have been making this month. ‘An Argument of Fowls’ was suggested by a sight we saw last Friday, at about eight o’clock in the evening, just before going into Brice’s restaurant in Lorient. There’s a building site nearby (I think it’s for the redevelopment of a school). On the arm of the huge yellow crane dominating the site were perched thousands of starlings. Against the background of the clear sky at dusk, each bird was perfectly, individually visible. Their collective noise was loud and raucous over the traffic. I wondered whether they would roost there. After we had eaten the first course in the restaurant, I went out again, to see them descending in great dark clouds to the planes and sycamores below. And then I remembered how I had enjoyed learning the collective noun for starlings — a murmuration — when I was at primary school. So I had a poem. I’m sure I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again: the hardest thing, for me, is to get a worthwhile idea in the first place. Once I’ve got that, I can usually make a presentable poem. I think ‘An Argument of Fowls’ is one of the best I’ve written.

The Libyan revolution is still not complete; two pro-Gaddafi towns are holding out. But they will eventually fall, and then the huge task of rebuilding the shattered country will begin. A major challenge for the new government will be to hold together the various factions and tribes which have overthrown Gaddafi. I’m not optimistic that this will be achieved without strife. But at least the new government has the support of almost all the major countries of the world, and of the UN.

Today, the German parliament voted to approve the rescue plan for Greece which the eurozone’s leaders agreed in July. 10 of the 17 countries in the eurozone have now agreed to the plan. Expert opinions of all kinds about what will happen to Greece, and to Europe, can be found in the newspapers, on radio and television, on the internet. Here is a selection.

Greece will default, leave the euro, reintroduce the drachma, and heavily devalue. Greece’s default will bring down several banks. Portugal, Italy and Spain will find it increasingly difficult to meet their commitments to creditors, and may have the leave the euro too. The euro will collapse. The euro will be reinvented as the currency for the richer, more disciplined countries of northern Europe. None of this will happen. The eurozone leaders, with great difficulty, will save Greece, which is rapidly putting its economic house in order amid savage self-flagellation, and will ride out the waves of strikes and other popular protests. The European Financial Stability Fund will be quadrupled in size, to about 1.6 trillion euros, which will be more than enough to calm the markets.

I’ve read articles which say all of these things. I don’t suppose that even national leaders and their close officials know exactly what will happen. If I had to bet, I would bet on the most boring scenario: that the euro will be saved, and that the countries in the eurozone which have been most fiscally irresponsible will be brought into line for the time being. The question then will be: will it be politically possible to extend and permanently maintain fiscal similarity, which is the natural corollary of monetary union, in all the eurozone countries?

I have to admit to a growing sense of euroscepticism in recent months: not a position usually held by a socialist. For a long time, I’ve taken the rather exalted view that, after two terrible wars, the European Union has been the instrument — clumsy, expensive but necessary — to guarantee peace and prosperity on the continent. I’m not so sure now. I can see, easily, the need for legally binding international treaties on matters which cross national boundaries, such as the protection and repair of the environment and the fight against transnational criminals. I can see the desirability of reciprocal arrangements on health care for foreign travellers and foreign residents (such as we now are for about half the year). Despite the eurozone’s current difficulties, I can quite see the advantages of a single currency for a group of countries whose economies and fiscal arrangements are similar. And I can easily agree to the idea of free trade between as many countries as consent to it. But I find myself asking whether these important examples of international collaboration require the great lumbering machine of the EU. Couldn’t agreements be concluded bi- or multilaterally? Do we need a European Commission, a European Council of Ministers and a European Parliament? I read the serious newspapers most days, and I do my best to remain politically informed, but I can’t name a single thing that the European Parliament has done which has had a beneficial effect on my country, my family or me. (Was there some agreement on maximum charges for mobile phone calls made abroad?) Of course, the stories about the corruption and luxury lifestyles of some of those on the European payroll are meat and drink to the right-wing papers in the UK, and those excesses should be curbed; but we had our own Westminster scandal two years ago, and no-one is suggesting closing down the Westminster parliament. That’s not the main point. The main point is: do we need all that machinery in order that countries on the same continent should come to agreements on matters which mutually affect them?

When the EU invented the post of President of the European Council, I assumed that this would see the end of the six-monthly rotation of that presidency by the head of state or government of one of the EU countries. But no; Herman Van Rompuy is President of the European Council, at least until the end of May 2012, and possibly for another 30 months beyond that. Simultaneously, the six-monthly rotation continues. Currently, Poland holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. How could I have been so foolish as to confuse the Presidency of the Council of the European Union with the President of the European Council? Every dog in the street knows the difference.

Nonetheless, countries are still queuing up to join. If you’ve been through an intercommunal war in the Balkans, or the upheavals associated with the end of Communism in eastern Europe, the EU must look like a safe haven, and membership must seem the certificate of arrival in the haven, whatever I think.

Camden Town

10 November 2011

We’ve been back in London for 10 days. Last weekend we went to Aldeburgh for the poetry festival. The usual mixed bag: Roger McGough was the best for me; he performed his witty, touching lyrics like a man who knows how to work an audience. Too many poets choose the wrong poems for performance — poems which are too dense to be appreciated properly on one hearing. And too many poets don’t know how to perform anyway. Heather Loxton, as ever, had booked a lovely house, right by the sea, for the eight of us. We lunched at The Lighhouse on the Saturday. Afterwards, Stephen and I took our annual walk to Thorpeness, on the shingle by the waves going, on the easier higher hard path coming back. On the Sunday afternoon, Helen and I drove on to Norfolk, and spent three nights with Adam and Hazel, belatedly celebrating Adam’s 70th birthday, which had occurred on 3 October. We took them out for a posh dinner at Morston Hall. We twice visited Sheringham Park, which I really enjoyed. We climbed up the gazebo (a modern construction, which I suppose replaced an earlier tower) for a view above the tops of the oaks to the nearby coast. Humphrey Repton laid out the park. I learnt that it was he who invented the phrase ‘landscape gardener’.

European affairs lurch on. Today, Greece has a new prime minister. He is Lucas Papademos, who used to be a vice-president of the European Central Bank. I’ve greatly admired George Papandreou’s efforts to clean up the mess left by the previous New Democracy government, which had simply lied to Greece, Europe and the world about the state of the country’s finances. It may be that Papandreou’s policies were excessively deflationary, but the situation he inherited was dire. However, he completely astonished his European allies, and notably France and Germany, by announcing that he would put the latest agreement forged between him, the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF to a referendum. Apparently, none of his own cabinet colleagues knew that he was going to do this. There was no coherence to such a proposal; none of the previous bitter medicine he was asking the Greek people to swallow had been prefaced by an invitation to them to say whether they wanted to swallow it or not. It’s not clear to me whether the announcement was politically calculating (I can’t see how it would have been from his point of view) or just the desperate act of an exhausted man who wanted to commit political suicide. Or perhaps he was too tired to think straight. Anyhow, it has led to his downfall. Papademos is a non-party technocrat who will attempt to put together a coalition government.

Camden Town

12 November 2011

Something to celebrate: the end of Berlusconi. He resigned today, having brought his country close to ruin through corruption and incompetence. If ever a man gave politics a bad name, if ever an already rich and powerful person, once he had added political to his existing media power, used the new levers at his disposal to benefit himself and to hurt his country, it was he. There are plenty of other leaders across the world who have done and are doing the same thing, I know. But Italy is particularly close to home; and the sorrow is, Italians voted for him time and again, like trusting children. I remember writing that the thing that finally caused me to abandon my faith in Blair — a faith I stuck with for pragmatic reasons long after most of my friends had abandoned him — was his decision to take his family summer holiday with the Berlusconis, at Silvio’s expense.

User of under-age prostitutes; evader of tax; creator — via the links between the governance of Italy and the control of opinion he exercised through his media empire — of the closest thing to a monopoly of thought which has recently existed in western Europe; racist (‘I like President Obama’s suntan.’); disastrous failure as Italy’s chief minister: farewell. Or rather, fare ill. People came out to shout abuse at him as he left office; he was apparently shocked. He should have been grateful that they didn’t string him up, as their forebears did a previous leader in whom they had unwisely put their trust.

An academic economist and former European Commissioner, Mario Monti, has been invited by the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, to form a new government. One can hear the sighs of relief from a thousand miles away. A person of great intelligence and fierce honesty is going to govern Italy, for a change. Interestingly, as a younger man Monti studied at Yale University under James Tobin, the Nobel Prize-winning economist now most famous for his proposal of a financial transactions tax, an idea which in recent years has been nicknamed after him, and which every major economy should introduce as soon as possible. Which of our leaders will have the courage to do so, and to face down the inevitable howls of protest from the bankers, remains to be seen. Certainly no-one in the current UK government.

So, within two days, Athens and Rome, two cities which were experimenting with advanced systems of government when the rest of us Europeans hadn’t progressed beyond local tribal warfare, have realised the limitations of the very representative democracy which they taught us.

Camden Town

25 November 2011

It’s a beautiful, almost spring-like day here in London in late November. The weather since we returned from France has been abnormally mild.

Last weekend we spent with David, Lindsay and Tom in Shropshire. Delightful. Climbing up the gazebo in Norfolk two weekends previously had made me wonder, not for the first time, about the etymology of that word. (I suppose the first time I wondered was when I came across it in Yeats’s poem about Lissadell and the two girls in silk kimonos.) I thought, ‘Surely it can’t be the case that someone just took the word ‘gaze’ — what you do when you get to the top of a gazebo — and added the inflection for the first person singular of the future tense of a second conjugation Latin verb?’ Then, when I was in Shrewsbury with David on Saturday, I bought an almost new copy of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The entry for ‘gazebo’ says: ‘1752, supposedly derived from gaze, on the pattern of Latin future tenses in ‑bo, such as videbo I shall see, placebo I shall please; but the earliest quotation of gazebo calls it a Chinese Tower, suggesting an altered form of an Oriental word.’ Amazing!

We’ve been to the theatre twice. First we saw a splendid production of Juno and the Paycock at the National, brought over from the Abbey in Dublin (speaking of Yeats). Sinead Cusack was Juno. There was a moment of splendid confusion towards the end of the second act, reminding one that things can go seriously wrong even in the most distinguished theatres. The door at the back of the tenement room, giving on to the staircase, was closed. Mrs Tancred, whose son has been killed in the Civil War and is about to be buried, is supposed to knock on the door, be admitted, be supported emotionally by the women already in the room, and utter the heart-rending speech which includes the cry: ‘Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!’ Mrs Tancred knocked, Juno went to the door and turned the handle, but it didn’t open. She tried again. It was stuck. The actors improvised as best they could, one by one trying the door. Eventually Ciaran Hinds, who played Captain Jack Boyle, gave up the pretence and said ‘Has anyone got a key?’, which brought gales of laughter from the audience. A technician came on stage and frankly apologised for the problem with the door. The curtain closed and the house lights came on. We chattered cheerfully for five minutes. The house lights went down again, the curtain opened and the play resumed at a point a few seconds before the knock. But of course when the knock came again and Juno went to the door and it opened easily, there was more laughter and a tremendous cheer from the audience, giving the actor playing Mrs Tancred, Bernadette McKenna, an almost impossible task with her speech. She did well but it was a bit wooden. I expect it was better the next night.

Last Tuesday we saw The Comedy of Errors, also at the National. It was, I think, the first preview, and there were actors on the stage who weren’t sure of their lines. But the set is spectacular, and the two Antipholus’s, the two Dromios (each wearing Arsenal replica shirts) and Adriana and her sister, played as Essex girls, were all very good.

I was quite ill with the flu during our last week in France. I didn’t want to do anything except sleep and eat, and then sleep, read and eat. It was strange how strong my appetite was, even though I couldn’t taste anything. I stumbled out of bed to the kitchen, wolfed a large plate of food, and stumbled back. When I got to the reading stage, I read Nicholas Murray’s biography of Matthew Arnold, which has caused me to read and re-read much of Arnold’s poetry and some of his prose since. I have added him to my list of heroes, because he combined a long career in the service of state education with an imaginative life; he believed in the importance of state education as a civilising and unifying force in society, which was part of his belief in an active state, at a time when most opinion was for a minimal state, and let the market do the rest (plus ça change…); he was a modern European when most of his educated contemporaries were, in their heads, in ancient Greece or Rome, otherwise not venturing beyond Calais; and he was a determined Liberal when that was as progressive as you could be within the spectrum of realistic politics. Unlike almost all the people he dined and corresponded with, he actually knew and saw every working day the condition of the poor, through visiting and inspecting elementary schools. One morning he was at a school, I think in Bethnal Green; that evening he was placed opposite Disraeli at the dinner table of his friend Lady Rothschild at Mentmore. He had some views which you just have to say were wrong, such as that Shakespeare isn’t improved by being staged or, worse, that the sooner the Welsh language dies out, the better; and there’s an unfortunate remark in an early letter complaining about the inability of women to teach — a piece of stupidity I hope he regretted later, for he was loved and respected by the teachers and head teachers of the schools he visited, many (most?) of whom must have been women.

I’ve always reluctantly agreed with Arnold’s theory of the remnant: that in each of the three classes of society (in his terms, barbarians [upper class], philistines [middle class] and populace) the majority is a lump; they just do what their upbringing and socialisation has taught them to do. But within each class there is a minority which is self-aware, which understands that the world doesn’t have to be as it is; it could be a better place. I suppose a Marxist would say that Arnold’s idealising was just wind, and didn’t actually change anything. Who can say whether that’s true or not with regard to Arnold’s criticism? But his work in the schools did make a difference; he was courageous in his opposition to payment by results and excessive testing, and was an eloquent supporter of the kind of humanistic, exploratory, broadly-based curriculum which we know works. And, of course, he has left us a small number of very beautiful poems (as well as quite a few which seem impossibly mannered and remote now). My affection for ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ and admiration for ‘Dover Beach’ are enhanced by the memory of my father’s love of them, and his ability to quote extensively from them. ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ and ‘Balder Dead’ are fine, exotic narrative pieces. One criticism I have of them is that they often try to do something which Homer does splendidly and Dante does with genius: employ what Seamus Heaney brilliantly calls ‘head-clearing similes’ — the comparison between an epic or awe-inspiring sight or event in the mythical or supernatural world of the poem and a happening in common everyday life. In Arnold, these nearly always seem forced. They never do in Dante.

When Arnold met Disraeli, the latter (I’m not sure whether he was Prime Minister or leader of the opposition at the time), in explaining why he didn’t write novels any more, said something like, ‘I am one of those fellows who can only do one thing at a time’ — a remark with which I am in sympathy, since I didn’t write a single poem during the nine months I was working for Teaching Channel. But I’m moderately pleased with the output this autumn. Since the four poems, three English and one French, about which I’ve written earlier, I’ve done six more, of which the best are a tribute to Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-Picking’, called ‘After “After Apple-Picking”’, written in the same manner as the original; and ‘“The Leaving It”’, which speculates on my own death in a rueful, part-comic way, using good irregularly occurring rhymes. And I’m pleased with two comic efforts: a tribute to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the master-engineer of London’s sewage system; and a complete remaking of the ‘poem’ I wrote in about 1984, just after Betjeman died, playing on the fact that he had said ‘fuck’ on television (admittedly, he was quoting Larkin’s ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but still) and then, later in the same valedictory series, regretting that he hadn’t had enough sex in his life. My first effort rather wasted a good idea; it was a sort of prose-poem which just about limps into verse at the end. The new version is quatrains in iambic tetrameters rhyming ABAB, a form which Betjeman used a lot, and it’s much better.

Peter Hetherington didn’t much like the first version of ‘The Squirrels and the Nut Trees’. He thought it prosaic, and he didn’t approve of the self-referential beginning (‘The squirrel in my other squirrel poem…’). So I remade that too yesterday. It’s shorter, not self-referential, and much more poetic (four triplets, iambic pentameters, half-rhymes across the three lines of each triplet; although I know that such technicalities don’t in themselves make anything poetic). I hope he likes it better.

Since the last time I wrote about the Arab revolutions, Gaddafi has been found and killed. Most members of his family have been killed or captured, or have fled into exile. The new government has made a good start, with a cabinet of ministers representing a range of the factions which overthrew the Gaddafi regime, and no place for extreme Islamists. Tunisia has held its first elections. David, Lindsay and Tom were in Tunisia for their usual autumn holiday on the day the elections took place. They said how proud were the people they spoke to about what had happened since they were there last year. In Egypt, just as I write, there is much confusion. A huge popular movement, whose point of focus is Tahrir Square, wants the military to stand down immediately, and the postponement of parliamentary elections, due to start on Monday, which the protestors believe will be rigged by the soldiers. One prime minister resigned earlier this week, to be replaced by another who is no more acceptable to the protestors. Terrible brutality has been committed against them either by the military itself or by the riot police who are supposed to take their orders from the military — brutality not on the scale committed by the Mubarak regime in its dying days, but still terrible. At least 40 people have died; hundreds more have been injured; the torturing of detainees continues. Meanwhile, there are plenty of Egyptians who do want the elections to go ahead, and seem to think that the military is sincere in its statement that it is only an interim force until presidential elections are held next year (at a date brought forward also in response to the Tahrir Square protests). It would be wrong to say that the revolution has descended into chaos, but it’s certainly true that the army has mistaken the mood of a large section of the people. It should have moved much more quickly in the democratic direction, as happened in Tunisia. In Syria, where the repression has been worse than anywhere else in the region, the forces of opposition are organising, and there is a real chance of a civil war here too, unless Assad stands down — an unlikely prospect — as the Turkish prime minister and the King of Jordan have publicly advised him too. The Turkish prime minister compared Assad to Hitler and Gaddafi: a remarkable change of tune from a man who was recently an ally of the Assad regime. That regime is the most evil, the most brutal, the most implacable of all the tyrannies that have been or are being overthrown at the moment.

There will be a big strike here in the UK next Wednesday, bringing together several million public-service workers whose pensions will be cut, pension contributions increased, and working lives made compulsorily longer as part of the government’s programme of debt reduction. The government has offered some concessions as the likely size of the strike has become clear, but not enough to persuade unions to call it off. Essentially, the unions don’t see why they should pay the price for the greed and stupidity of the banks and the financial markets whose actions have brought us to this pass. Nor do I. Nothing more clearly illustrates for me the gulf which exists between most people in this country and those who make the government’s economic and fiscal policy than George Osborne’s refusal to contemplate a Tobin tax — a tiny tax on all financial transactions, perhaps at the rate of one two-hundredth of their value — which would bring ten of billions of pounds into the exchequer every year. Other European countries are seriously discussing how to make it work. Osborne says it would be a blow to the heart of the City. John Major is wheeled out to agree with him. Meanwhile, the folk in the City are beginning to lick their lips at the prospect of another massive New Year bonus, as the unemployment figure rises to a height not seen since the last time the Conservatives were in power. Of course it would be best if the whole world were to agree to a financial transaction tax at the same time, but that’s not going to happen. Occasionally, a country has to be courageous enough to do something because it’s the right thing to do, and let the others come along later. The notion that the City would close down, or lose its pre-eminence in the financial world, because of a tiny tax on share and foreign-exchange dealings, and on the exotica of casino banking which almost broke the world’s financial system three years ago, is nonsense. I remember, when Labour brought in the minimum wage, how many millionaires in Parliament and in the City there were saying that we could never afford such a luxury…

Camden Town

26 November 2011

Skimming back through the diary entries this year, I notice that I promised myself that I would write something about the News of the World affair, and that I haven’t done that. A public inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson is currently being held into disgusting practices which senior figures in the Murdoch newspaper empire condoned and even encouraged, and into similar misbehaviour, but on a lesser scale, within other newspaper groups. Essentially, journalists at the News of the World, whether on the staff or freelancers, routinely invaded the lives of private citizens and were well paid for doing so because the stories such invasions generated, whether true or false, sold more newspapers. They hacked into people’s phones, stalked them as they walked down the street, camped outside their houses, used deceitful means of gaining private information. To some extent these practices, deplorable and — in the case of the phone-hacking — illegal as they were, were tolerated by the public when the victims were celebrities. There was a vague feeling that footballers, actors and pop stars were complicit with the journalists and photographers in perpetuating the cult of celebrity. That all changed when it became known that a teenager called Milly Dowler, who had been sexually assaulted and murdered, had had her phone hacked into after her death. At about the same time, the claims by senior people at News International, the part of Murdoch’s empire which runs its UK newspapers, that phone-hacking had been the anomalous work of the odd ‘rogue reporter’, were shown not to be true. The public mood changed. The Murdochs — Rupert and his son James — then did an extraordinary thing: they announced that they would close the News of the World after its edition of Sunday 10 July. The reason publicly given — deep regret at the discovery of these deplorable practices — was nothing to do with the truth. The truth was that at this time, Murdoch was hoping to buy all the shares in BSkyB, the UK’s main satellite broadcaster, which he didn’t already own. Murdoch’s newspapers, especially The Sun, have bought him influence over governments Conservative and Labour which I don’t think any newspaper tycoon has ever had in this country. Not Northcliffe, not Beaverbrook. But by Murdoch’s standards they don’t make huge amounts of money. Their value has been the political influence they give him. The money-maker in the UK has been and is BSkyB. So the Murdochs closed the News of the World in the hope that this gesture would persuade the government to continue to look kindly on their bid for 100% control of BSkyB. There had been a deeply embarrassing incident just before Christmas last year when poor innocent Vince Cable had been tricked into telling journalists posing as citizens in his constituency that he had ‘declared war on Murdoch’, when it was his decision whether or not to refer the bid to the competition authorities. It looked as if Cable might have to resign; he kept his job, just, but the right to make the decision was taken away from him. Murdoch must have chortled at Cable’s embarrassment. However, now the boot was on the other foot. Parliament was asked to work an extra day in order to ‘debate public confidence in the media’. This meant: should we allow the Murdoch bid to go ahead? Remarkably, MPs agreed, I think unanimously, that it shouldn’t. In fact, Murdoch bowed to the inevitable a few hours before the Commons voted, and withdrew the bid. I hope Cable chortled in his turn. I also hoped at the time that the government would go further and declare that Murdoch was not a proper person to run a television service, which it has the right to do. That would have meant that Murdoch would have had to sell his share in BSkyB completely. This hasn’t happened, although it might still, as more and more revelations about News International’s practices are made to the Leveson Inquiry. The most affecting testimony this week came from the parents of Madeleine McCann, the little girl who was snatched from her bed while they were having dinner on holiday in Portugal. These were not celebrities; at least, not until they were forced to be. Their treatment by the press, and the lies about them they were obliged to read, are dreadful.

I’ve said that Labour in government was as culpable in sucking up to Murdoch as the Conservatives had been previously and have been since — until this summer. A significant difference between the two parties in their relationship with Murdoch, however, lies in the fact that the current Prime Minister actually hired a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, to be his director of communications. It’s extraordinary that a person so mired in the filthiest tactics of tabloid journalism should have been regarded as an appropriate person to act as spokesperson for the highest office in the land. Every toff needs his thug, I suppose. Cameron had to sack Coulson, of course, but it did him only passing political damage.

The Press Complaints Commission, the means by which the press supposedly regulates itself, has failed completely. It should be replaced by a body with statutory powers.

I remember writing in September 2010 about the Labour Party’s wrong judgment in electing Ed Miliband as leader rather than his elder brother David. It was the the union vote which caused Ed to squeak past David by the tiniest of margins. Here we are, four days before the biggest and most morally justified strike held in this country for decades, and what have the unions got for their support for a clever, likeable man who simply doesn’t have the qualities necessary to lead his party and to make a future Prime Minister? The most tongue-tied, facing-both-ways, faint-hearted responses to the legitimate question: ‘Do you support this strike?’. The Conservatives must be so much enjoying Miliband junior’s complete failure to lay a finger on their leader.

Camden Town

28 November 2011

I’ve just been for a walk along the canal through the midst of the enormous building site behind Kings Cross. Huge works are being accomplished there. I walked back along the road and crossed the new pedestrian bridge across the canal to a huge, refurbished warehouse which is the new home of Central Saint Martin’s School of Arts and Design. It’s a magnificent achievement, a splicing of the old building in front with a new structure behind. They’ve enclosed what was once an open space and created a great atrium for displays. Outside, in all directions, hundreds of workers and scores of machines were busy. It was an encouraging sight on a dry evening with a new moon in the sky. Unfortunately, energy and investment like that are the exception, not the rule, across the country as a whole. I wait to see whether the government has any significant proposals to address the problem of the mass unemployment which its excessively deflationary policies have brought about in the short time it has been in power. The Chancellor makes his Autumn Statement tomorrow.

Camden Town

29 November 2011

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and the report from the Office of Budget Responsibility contain great quantities of bad news. Rises in public-sector pay will be capped at 1% for two further years from 2013. The growth forecast for 2011 is revised down from 1.7%, as predicted last March, to 0.9%. The forecast for 2012 is revised down from 2.5% to 0.7%. The possibility of another actual recession cannot be discounted. The prediction as to the number of public servants who will lose their jobs rises from 400,000 to 710,000. Government borrowing over the next five years will be £111 billion higher than predicted last March, although the cost of servicing the debt is lower than predicted because of the low yields on gilts (a small piece of good news). The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the structural deficit for 2014/5 will be 2.8% of GDP; only eight months ago, it predicted that the structural debt for that year would be 1%! The couple and lone-parent elements of the working tax credit will not be uprated with inflation in 2012–13, so many poorer working people will see an actual fall in the value of their income. A previously promised increase in the child element of the working tax credit of £110 above inflation will now not take place. The Treasury admits that the overall effect of the changes in working tax credit mean that an extra 100,000 children are likely to be classified, by the government’s own measure, as living in poverty.

The levy on banks will be increased, which is a blessing in itself, but by a paltry amount, meaning that the levy will continue to yield only about £2.5 billion a year. The Chancellor explicitly ruled out a financial transaction tax, which would yield tens of billions a year; he said that it would be a tax on pensioners, not on banks, presumably employing the argument that share dealings often involve huge amounts of money invested in pension funds. Such an argument carries exquisite hypocrisy (a Tobin tax might be set at half of 1% of the value of each transaction) as the government prepares to damage the pensions of public-sector workers by making them pay more, work longer and eventually get less than at present.

The proposals to do something about youth employment, welcome in themselves, have simply revived, under other names, the efforts Labour was making when it left office, efforts which the new government immediately cancelled. So the effect is that time has been wasted doing nothing. The Chancellor hopes that pension and insurance funds can be tapped for serious sums of money (tens of billions) to invest in infrastructure projects. There is no guarantee that this will happen. I suppose the government would underwrite the risk. The idea is remarkably similar to Labour’s private finance initiative. Meanwhile, the government’s proposal to spend an additional £5 billion of its own on infrastructure projects is pathetically unambitious.

I can see that, in a world held in thrall to the financial markets, confidence in a government’s fiscal rectitude is essential. It just offends me that obvious major sources of new income — the Tobin Tax, taxing capital gains at the same rate as income, and serious efforts to combat tax avoidance and evasion by companies and wealthy individuals — are ignored. The poor and the moderately well off will pay the price, for the next few years at least, of the government’s policies. As unemployment rises to levels not seen since Thatcher’s time, their suffering will intensify. And the pain won’t even be justified in the government’s own terms: its income will diminish further as poverty and unemployment bring diminished income from tax and increased outgoings in benefits.

Yesterday, millions of Egyptians voted for the first time in their lives in something approximating to free elections. As ever when this happens after the overthrow of tyranny, most memorably in South Africa in 1994, the sight is deeply moving. There is a long and complicated process to be gone through, with three stages, before a parliament will be formed. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do well; perhaps it will be the largest party. If it does in the end wield a decisive influence on the composition of the parliament, the question will be: will it respect the values of openness and toleration of difference which are the best features of Western democracies, or will it attempt to impose a benighted theocracy based on Sharia law, as the Taliban, I fear, will attempt to do again in Afghanistan once the West has pulled out?

Camden Town

30 November 2011

Today was held the largest and most morally justified strike the UK has seen for at least 30 years. Local government workers, civil servants, teachers and NHS workers walked out to protest at government proposals to damage their pensions by making them work longer, pay more into their schemes, and get less pension at the end. The government justifies this robbery by saying that we’re living longer and that, in any case, we have to tighten our belts in order to get the state’s finances back in order. Of course the unions recognise that we’re living longer; in at least two of the four sectors which went on strike today, recent negotiations (that is, in the last three or four years) with the employers were successfully concluded, taking account of this welcome fact. The government’s proposals are not a belated attempt to rescue a situation which had become fiscally unsustainable because of the improvidence of the previous government; they are simply a raid on the living standards of public-service workers. The government also says that public-service pensions are ‘beyond the dreams’ of most workers in the private sector. The average annual pension in the NHS is £5,000 a year; and that average includes the high pensions that top doctors and surgeons get. If private-sector pensions are worse than that, the answer is to do something about those pensions, not to hurt public-service pensions in a kind of race to the bottom. Major sources of funding are available to the exchequer, as I wrote yesterday; there is no chance that the government will take advantage of them, because they would slightly inconvenience the rich and the comfortably off. The Camden street cleaner and dinner lady will, if the government gets its way, pay for the follies of the bankers.

I accept that the government made some concessions to the unions once it saw that the strike was going to be big and had widespread support. They are welcome but inadequate. I hope the unions will continue to take action, including more strike action in 2012 if necessary, to annul or at least seriously amend the government’s proposals, which it has said it will impose in any case.

Camden Town

10 December 2011

In Brussels in the early hours of yesterday morning, David Cameron employed the UK’s veto to prevent the European Union amending the Lisbon Treaty so as to impose much greater fiscal discipline on the 17 EU countries which use the euro and on any of the other 10 countries in the EU which wished voluntarily to accept that discipline; the amendments would also have brought about a greater degree of supervision and regulation of the financial affairs of all 27 member states, including those not in the euro-plus-volunteers group.

The eurosceptics in the Conservative party are of course triumphant, as is the right-wing press. The Liberal Democrats are enraged and embarrassed; it is a mark of their helplessness as the junior member of the governing coalition that they, the most straightforwardly pro-European party in parliament, have to swallow this. Labour says that Cameron has made a historic error; that our influence in Europe will be irrevocably diminished henceforth.

I find myself in a peculiar position, especially after the eurosceptic thoughts I allowed myself a few weeks ago. I am not going to join the chorus of know-alls who say that Cameron’s decision marks the end of our significant role as a European power. I can see that, if you have the only internationally traded currency in Europe which is not the euro, you don’t want that currency supervised and regulated anywhere other than London. To that extent, I think that Cameron did the right thing. I guess (but who can say?) that Gordon Brown would have done the same. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Cameron did the right thing for very mixed motives. He asked the other Europeans, notably France and Germany, for something which he knew they would not give him — a treaty change imposing disciplines on 27 countries, but with a complete opt-out from those disciplines for one country. Knowing that he was making an unacceptable demand, he also knew that when the demand was refused and he employed the veto, he would be cheered in many quarters as a conquering hero when he returned home, as he has been today and as he will be again in the House of Commons on Monday.

Sarkozy and Merkel got exactly what they wanted: fiscal discipline for the euro group plus non-euro volunteers (who might be all the other countries but the UK) without the tedium of dragging a large, unwilling member through the legalities which will now follow. I read this morning that Cameron, having used the veto and having heard that the other Europeans were going to construct an agreement outside the Lisbon Treaty, petulantly said that the euro-plus-volunteers group wouldn’t be able to use the institutions of the EU to police the agreement, because the agreement wouldn’t strictly be a piece of EU law. ‘I’m taking my ball home; not only that, but I’m forbidding you to play football in this playground, even if you get another ball.’ Merkel apparently said something like, ‘We’re going to do it anyway,’ which shut him up.

The irony here, and the reason why my position is peculiar, is that the UK does need exactly the kind of control over its financial sector which the treaty change would have brought about and which the euro-plus-volunteers agreement will bring about; it’s just that we need to do it ourselves.

Camden Town

15 December 2011

Today, a French court found former president Jacques Chirac guilty of embezzling public funds when he was mayor of Paris, and gave him a two-year suspended prison sentence on corruption charges. Very good. The old man won’t go to jail, but a point has been made; no-one, even a former head of state, is above the law. Chirac wasn’t in court to hear the verdict; he’s discovered recently that there’s something wrong with his memory, and standing trial can be so stressful for a character as sensitive as his. I imagine that, starting tomorrow, he’ll make a remarkable recovery, though he won’t publicise this welcome and unexpected change too widely.

Kerfontaine

29 December 2011

We’ve been here for a week. Before that, we made our usual pre-Christmas visit to Shropshire. We were there for longer than in previous years: Helen for eight days, I for four. One joy of quasi-retirement is that there’s no need to race down dark motorways on winter Sunday evenings along with everybody else. We saw all our Shropshire friends.

Stephen and Theresa joined us on Christmas Eve, and left yesterday morning. It’s the first time we’ve had company here at Christmas. It was a wonderful merry time. I know how much our guests appreciated it, after the hard year they’ve had. Theresa’s mother died in February, Stephen’s in October.

As Theresa was leaving, she described these quiet days between Christmas and New Year as 'unspoken for'.  I thought that was beautifully put.

In Brittany of old, this week was a favourite for weddings.  For the rural working class, it was the year's only holiday; contracts with farmers were annual, finishing on Christmas Eve.  A new contract began on the day after New Year's Day.  So there was time even for a three-day celebration, which some weddings were. Talking of farm labourers, Stephen, who was born and brought up in Bournemouth and who's eight years older than I am, remembers an old man in rural Dorset telling him in about 1950, 'Farmer's paying I for not working.' He was referring to the paid holidays which the Labour government brought in after the war, 10 years after Léon Blum's Popular Front government introduced them here. A point on which the Breton labourers insisted in their contracts was that they shouldn't be fed salmon (that's wild salmon of course, straight out of the river) more than twice a week.  They wanted meat, and didn't see why 'farmer' should get away with providing food too often which it hadn't cost him anything to produce.

Kerfontaine

30 December 2011

At the end of a year which has seen astonishing changes in other Arab countries, the plight of the Syrian people remains heart-breaking. Assad’s forces have killed at least 5,000 civilians, the great majority of whom were unarmed. Mass imprisonment and torture remain a routine weapon of repression by the forces of the state. The Arab League has sent a delegation to inspect the situation. This is a welcome development in itself; I can’t remember a previous occasion on which a pan-Arab body showed any particular concern for human rights in an Arab country. But I don’t have any great hopes for the effect which the inspection will have. I expect that the delegation will mildly chide the regime, offer the pious hope that it will behave better in future, and go away. During the last four days, according to the BBC’s website, about 120 protestors have been killed. I expect that many more deaths are occurring as I write, since Friday has become the traditional day of principal protest in the Arab countries whose people have been demanding the rights and freedoms which we so complacently enjoy in the West. I can see no future for the country other than a civil war, as happened in Libya. The Syrian opposition is divided. It can only win a civil war, and overthrow the Assad regime, if it unites behind the best organised military force in the opposition, which I think is the Free Syrian Army. And it will probably need the help of the outside world, through the UN if possible, as the Libyan opposition did. That will be much harder to get than was the case in Libya, since Russia still obstinately refuses unequivocally to condemn the Syrian government, and would probably veto any kind of intervention, rather than abstain in the vote, as it and China did over Libya.

It isn’t very long — certainly less than two years — since I sat in a Syrian restaurant in London, in my capacity as International Development Executive (an absurd title which I made up myself) at Teachers TV, in the company of the Syrian Minister of Education, the head of the British Council, various people from the Syrian Embassy and from United Kingdom Trade and Industry. The minister spoke little English; he had brought along his daughter, an extraordinarily beautiful young woman who was studying for a PhD at Edinburgh University and who of course spoke perfect English, as translator. We discussed the possibility that Syria might set up a pan-Arab equivalent of Teachers TV. The minister told me that President Assad’s wife has a great passion for education. (During my time as International Development Executive at Teachers TV, all the Arab countries which with I had contact had autocratic leaders with trophy wives who were a) gorgeous to look at and b) had a passion for education. Often, the wives were given a few billion dollars to go away and set up an educational foundation of some kind. This arrangement got the wives off their husbands’ hands and gave them something appropriately female to do once they’d had children. I never heard of a leader’s wife who had a passion for economics or for the geology of oil exploration.) The head of the British Council made an elegant, optimistic speech saying that though political differences might divide our countries, surely we could find common ground on the cultural front. How misplaced such optimism seems now! At the end of the evening, there were the usual enthusiastic exchanges of business cards and eyeball-to-eyeball promises that we were going to do something great together. During the following weeks, I wrote repeatedly to the minister’s office, the British Council, the Syrian Embassy and UKTI, trying to push forward our good intentions in practical ways. There were two or three half-hearted replies; then further communication ceased. Mind you, that was par for the course after these privileged international get-togethers; practical outcomes were exceptional.

Once we had stopped talking business, the minister’s daughter told me how she missed the shady gardens of Damascus where she could drink cool drinks on summer evenings. She spoke so lyrically that I became for a moment another of those educated European men for whom the Orient has exercised such a fascination over the centuries, with sexual desire lurking not far below the surface of cultural curiosity.

Kerfontaine

31 December 2011

Outside, the light is failing on this drizzly, grey last day of the year. As Albert used to say at about this time (I’ve probably written this before), ‘That’s enough work for one year. If people haven’t done enough by now, it’s too late to make up for it.’

We’re going to the same restaurant in Pont Scorff that we went to last year.