Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Craft of Clarkson

For Malcolm, Hell, if it does exist, must involve Jeremy Clarkson in some form. Far worse than endless fire and brimstone: a continuous loop of Clarkson videos blasted away for all eternity... Now that is a more terrifying incentive to climb Jacob's ladder than any Jesuit or Alpha Course.

Except, he has a style, a way of writing, a sense of drama. Take the current issue of The Sunday Times (and, indeed, as much of it as possible, as fast as possible, and never bring it back.) Clarkson is reviewing the Rolls-Royce Phantom drophead:
The Phantom is a first cousin only to the God of silence, and manners, and breeding. It is an exquisite car and I would have one tomorrow if it weren’t so bloody expensive. That and the fact my wife has said she would divorce me. And then kill me with a knife.

And now comes the convertible and, oh deary me. When I came home to find it sitting in my drive, all huge and brilliant, I’m afraid I started to dribble....

And then my wife came home. “Jesus H Christ,” she said. “What is that monstrosity doing here?” An argument ensued. She said it was vulgar. I said she was from the Isle of Man so she’d know. Some doors slammed. And I went for a drive.
Now that simply works as a piece of writing. It's got the lot: balance and contrast; light and shade; 5W+H (Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?). It seems to tick a fair number of the seven levels of meaning, too: the literal, the metaphorical, the allegorical, the ... [Oh for crying out loud, Malcolm, give it a break!] And it's got a main and a sub-plot, for goodness sake.

Malcolm drools over writing like that. And he loathes cars of all kinds, but the bigger, shinier , and more opulent then the more gross, offensive and and tasteless.

A short while back, he was making a similar point that some of the best journalism is hidden away in the supplements and between the display advertising. Here the writers are often younger, hungrier, more innovative, less pressed to file several thousand words by bed-time. And so there is a higher quality quota.

It's not a matter of talent, or at least of talent alone. It is what distinguishes craftsmanship from getting-the-job-done. It's the recognition that the last ten-per-cent of the work takes ninety-per-cent of the time. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 28, 2007

Monkeying with the numbers

Some 70 minutes into the England-Tonga game came a jarring remark in the commentary.

There had been a period in which England had been passing the ball hand-to-hand quite successfully, and totally out of character with some of their recent performances. Farrell over, right between the posts. Wilkinson slots it home. Nice stuff. Game sewn up.

Then the moment. Tonga had proved to be the best of the Pacific islanders. OK, fair enough. Despite having a total population of barely 100,000, "the size of Chesterfield".

For a start, Chesterfield is only about 70,000: to get to the 100,000 mark one has to add in the outlying areas, especially Staveley. Malcolm has genealogy that stretches back to Chesterfield, of which he is quite proud. He has a fond memory of going to Chesterfield to watch the 1961 Australians play Derbyshire. It snowed. No play. The main event of the day was drinking bitter with his cousin, Ralph, and watching Frank Misson running laps round the boundary.

Perhaps a better comparison might be Hartlepool, with a population below 90,000.

The reason Malcolm suggests this is because there was a time, some forty years ago, when he seemed to spend an inordinate number of Saturdays playing one or other of the Hartlepool rugby clubs: Hartlepool Rovers. West Hartlepool, Hartlepool Athletic, Hartlepool Old Boys ... He came to the conclusion that every Hartlepudlian male between 15 and 50 must be turning out for one team or the other.

And they were evil buggers too. If they didn't knacker you in the scrum, they'd drink you under the table afterwards. And every member of the pack seemed to be built on the proportions of a barn-door.

Just like the Tongans, indeed. Sphere: Related Content
Is The Economist declaring for Hillary?

There's a certain fascination in decoding the Lexington column in this week's (any week's ) Economist.

The column runs through an overview of the state of play:
  • Clinton has led the Democratic hopefuls from the beginning, and is now firming up a decisive lead.
  • The massed ranks of nay-sayers are composing their arguments that her campaign will stumble and fall, and particularly so in the Iowa caucuses (the main objection being that, last outing, Kerry was running third in the State until the final week).
  • The Republicans, Giuliani especially, have her in their sights.

Lexington demolishes the arguments against her taking the Democratic nomination:
  • Her opponents are falling further behind.
  • She has commanding leads in polling across the country, despite what difficulties Iowa throws up.
  • Her political machinery is polished, potent, efficient and effective, and harnesses the Party's heavyweights.
So that brings it down to:
Do Democrats really want a candidate who has so much baggage, wayward husband and all, from the 1990s? And do they really want to run the risk of handing the Democratic crown to such a polarising figure?

The simple answer to both questions is “yes”. Most Democrats associate the Clinton years with peace and prosperity rather than stained dresses and disappearing furniture. Bill Clinton left office with a job-approval rating of 66%. Three-quarters of Democrats, and 53% of voters in general, would like him to play an active role in a future Clinton administration. Nearly nine in ten Democratic voters (88%) express a positive view of Hillary's candidacy; 38% express a very positive view.
Which leaves the Giuliani factor:
Mr Giuliani seems less impressive in person than he does in the polls. His speeches are poorly prepared and convoluted, and he is given to silly gimmicks, such as stopping in mid-speech to the NRA to take calls from his wife on his cell-phone.
And so to the bottom line, the clincher:
Inevitable is too strong a word. But Mrs Clinton looks much more like a president-in-the-making than any of her opponents, Republican or Democratic.
Malcolm remembers that, in 2004, The Economist endorsed Kerry over Bush:
It is far from an easy call, especially against the backdrop of a turbulent, dangerous world. But, on balance, our instinct is towards change rather than continuity: Mr Kerry, not Mr Bush.
Tuesday, 4th November, 2008, is still well over most of our horizons. Even so, Malcolm is prepared to risk a few hostages-to-fortune that, absenting cataclysms in the meanwhile, he can predict The Economist's front page for its issue of 31st October next year.

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Oooh, no missus!

No... no...hold on...
wait a moment...

Either she's the best Frankie Howerd impersonator in town, or she just doesn't get it.

Here's Ann Treneman doing the 'Conference Sketch' on page 25 of Malcolm's Times:
Mariella [Frostrup] wondered what he had done when he [Gordon Brown] was young.
"I played sports," he announced (he didn't say during which meal). He had gone to University at 16 but, in the first week, hurt his eye playing rugby.
"I spent several years in and out of hospital. Some of you may not know this but this was the Sixties and Seventies. At my hospital at 9 o'clock in the evening—this was the NHS, free at the point of need!—and I was only 17 and 18, they would serve all the patients with drinks!'
The audience barked, possibly with shock.
"Yeah! You could have Guinness. You could have beer! Free beer for all the workers!"
Oh god, where does one start?

Look, Anne dear; that is true. Arthur Guinness and Co believed that their product was healthy and good. They provided, free of charge, one third of a pint bottles for patients in hospital. Malcolm knows that, for sure, because, at the age of barely sixteen, because of a broken arm in a rugby game, he was in the Meath Hospital, Dublin, and was provided with, and—yes— joyfully imbibed the stuff (and looked for seconds).

So what?

Meanwhile, Gordon's punchline: you simply didn't get it, did you?

Well, dear, there's this song, you see. It used to be very popular among the Lefties. Particularly after pay-day.

Some say it came from the Wobblies (and they're still out there, you know!)

Everyone can make up verses to infinity. Basically, it goes like this:
[Invent your own iambic dodecasyllabic line, as offensive as possible, or]
We'll hang [any four-syllable name] from a sour apple tree
When the red revolution comes.
Then the only other rule is that every verse, however inane or inflammatory, has a rousing chorus:
Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever!
When the red revolution comes!
After a requisite intake of mild, bitter and comradeship, everybody staggers home, carolling an obligatory final chorus:
Free beer for all the workers! Free beer for all the workers!
When the red revolution comes!
Gordon knew that. The Labour membership knew that. The Times readership, alas, remain no better informed from Ms Treneman's efforts. Sphere: Related Content
de dee-dee-dum-dum...

The BBC website is doing a small piece of self-puffery—and why not?—by wondering:
The Shipping Forecast can be heard four times a day on BBC Radio 4, giving details of conditions in the seas around the UK, Ireland and beyond.

Each broadcast attracts hundreds of thousands of listeners, many of them with no connection to coastal waters - so what is its enduring appeal?
Malcolm notes that this is being done by Kevin Young, Entertainment reporter. The only link to this being "news" is an approximate anniversary:
The broadcast was already part of the Home Service when it was rebranded as Radio 4, 40 years ago this week.

The schedule for the first day of Radio 4, on 30 September 1967, has an entry from 2345 to 2348, describing a "forecast for coastal waters".
The nearest thing to an explanation for the phenomenon is given by Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4:
"It scans poetically. It's got a rhythm of its own. It's eccentric, it's unique, it's English...

"It's slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can't really comprehend unless you're one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel."
The Shipping Forecast has a quite remarkable footprint in popular culture: as wikipedia will explain in full, it has appeared in lyrics by Blur, Radiohead, Tears for Fears, Chumbawamba, British Sea Power and Jethro Tull.

Of greater significance, famous Seamus did for the shipping forecast in number VII of his Glanmore Sonnets sequence, which are central to his 1979 collection Field Work:
Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.
There's a lot going on here. Heaney had removed to Wicklow from Belfast, north to south, city to countryside. He acknowledges the duality of his own tradition: nodding equally at Paddy Kavanagh's sonnet sequence Temptation in Harvest (which marks Kavanagh's removal from Monaghan to Dublin) and, in Sonnet X, Thomas Wyatt (the pioneer of the English sonnet). There are also references to Joyce ('inwit' in Sonnet IX), Shakespeare (inevitably, perhaps) and Wordsworth. The more Malcolm reads those lines, the more antitheses he finds: land and sea, Anglo-Saxon past ('keel-road, whale-road') and modern, morning and 'closedown', storm and shelter, 'gale-warning' and 'clearing', the French and the English names. Above all Heaney is reminding himself, then us, of the instabilities of life, particularly of emotional life, which perversely repeat into an eternal pattern of continuity.

Carol Ann Duffy uses the shipping forecast to illustrate and conclude her sonnet, Prayer (a bane in many a GCSE English candidate's studies, inevitably juxtaposed with George Herbert, from which it borrows):
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Again the contrasts: 'prayer' but 'faithless', 'console' but 'pain' and 'loss', the anonymous simplicity and distance of 'Grade 1 piano scales' with the personal complexity and empathy of 'the lodger looking out across a Midlands town'. It is held together by two conceits: the metaphor of 'prayer' as a natural, non-religious ritual, and the unexpected and ordinary universality of music.

Heaney ... Duffy ... and the shipping forecast's appeal, according to Mark Damazer (above), is so "English". Well, well.

Above all, we all seek a full-stop, a closure to each episode, to each day. And that is the wider signification of the post-midnight shipping forecast. It is a sonorous formula of some 350 words, which follows a ritualistic order. The shipping areas, as they are recited, form a clockwise pattern around the British Isles: the names visualised on a chart following a clock's hands from 12 o'clock all the way round the face of the dial. It is delivered at dictation speed. It is comforting, especially in the warmth of a bed, while, however briefly, musing on the lot of all poor souls at sea. It is full of marvellous names, real and metaphoric: the mundane rivers (Tyne, Humber, Thames, Shannon) and the islands (Fair Isle, Wight, Lundy) rubbing along with the romantic (Hebrides, Trafalgar, Fitzroy -- formerly Finisterre). And for the older contingent (including Malcolm) the mysteries: where did Utsire come from? where did the Minches go? the significance of 'veering' versus 'backing'?

Malcolm's father was a strict observer of the late shipping forecast, followed by the metronomic repetition of Sailing By, followed by sleep. As he became deafer, so the volume increased: nobody in the house would miss out. Dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee. So that was why Malcolm had it played as the fade-out music at the end of the crematorium service. And why, perhaps, in due course it will see Malcolm out, too. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Re-writing a wrong

Malcolm contends that anyone with even half-an-interest in US politics needs the daily feed from At worst (which is not infrequent) it is a recital of the miscalls and misdemeanors of the US media Right. At best it can be dynamite.

Today there is an example of the latter: a re-appraisal (by Eric Boehlert, who has a useful track record on this one) of the Dan Rather Memogate/Rathergate affair.

Cis-Atlanteans may need a reminder here. As the 2004 Presidential Election campaign proper was getting under way, on 8th September CBS aired 60 Minutes Wednesday, a regular news and features programme with a venerable history. The producers had received documents which apparently showed George W Bush had defaulted on his service with the Texas National Guard (since this was 1968, it was itself a cop-out from serving in Vietnam). The material showed Bush was declared unfit for duty and put on suspension. A fortnight after broadcasting these and similar allegations, CBS withdrew the claims, apologised, fired the producer (Mary Mapes, who has just posted her version on huffingtonpost) and shortly afterwards Rather retired, or was forced to do so.

Rather has now issued a writ against CBS for damages.

Ever since, whenever the incident has been mentioned, the media have been anxious to make clear that the claims in the so-called Killian documents were disproved. There has been some mockery of Rather for his action against CBS.

Boehlert is now re-opening the original story, reviewing Bush's record with the National Guard:
Using Bush's own military records, I'll list 10 glaring discrepancies regarding his fraudulent military service, none of which is based on the disputed memos that were aired by CBS News in 2004.
Many of those "discrepancies" seem to rely on missing paperwork, or instructions given to other agencies in the military which went unregarded: all coincidentally working in favour of Bush.

Here's Boehlert's accusation:
In spring 1972, after receiving $1 million worth of taxpayer-funded flight training, Bush unilaterally decided he was going to stop flying and attempted to transfer from his Houston base to a non-flying, paper-pushing postal unit in Alabama. The request was denied. While Bush searched for a new unit, he took the summer off, never bothering to show up for his mandatory monthly drills. Bush was eventually ordered to report to a flying unit in Montgomery, Alabama. There is no evidence Bush ever showed up there, which means he missed more weekend training sessions. In July of that summer, Bush also failed to take his mandatory annual physical and was grounded by the Guard. In 1973 Bush was supposed to return to his base in Houston but again he was a no-show; his commanders in May 1973 claimed they had no idea where he was. Then between the summer of 1973 to the time he was discharged in 1974, there's little evidence that Bush ever attended training sessions, which means for nearly two years Bush snubbed his Guard duty.
Bush has precious little reputation left to tarnish, personally or politically. There is another issue: the Rovian manufacture of George W. Bush as a credible candidate for public office, following a very chequered early life, is one of the great confidence tricks (some might say, dirty tricks) of all time. There is now a mission for and its like to ensure that the public are not misled, duped, lied to and finagled by the Right again. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

King Billy, the Pope,
and a changing view

Malcolm starts from the facts, only the facts, ma'am.

Try finding "Peter Mills" with very few clues to go on. Now try with his near-namesake Pieter van der Meulen, whom the BBC Northern Ireland website assures us was William III's court painter.

There was an Adam-Frans van der Meulen, who worked at the court of Louis XIV. He produced Baroque battle scenes of the kind that clutter the walls of public galleries and palaces, which Malcolm, for one, walks past in ignorance: any relation? Does it matter?

Well, perhaps, if our Pieter's recent appearance on the radar is anything to go by.

Here's what Malcolm knows:

In March 1933 the Northern Ireland Government paid £209 4s 0d for a painting by said Pieter van der Meulen, showing William III landing at Carrickfergus. Do not expect this to represent 14 June 1690 or Carrickfergus with any authenticity: that's not the point with these works. Expect, instead a heroic monarch, surrounded by other worthies, all presumably represented with some nod at actuality, against an all-purpose stage-set. It is history being written (or, in this case, painted) for the victors. Right.

Here's an earlier BBC description:
Unionist MPs cheered when they heard of its acquisition. But those cheers gave way to bewilderment when the canvas was unveiled.

There in the foreground is a figure which looks like King Billy on his white charger.

But floating above him on a cloud is someone who appears to be Pope Innocent XI, apparently blessing his ally as he makes his way towards the Battle of the Boyne.
The cruelty of critics

Two months later:
In May 1933 a group of visitors from the Scottish Protestant League were touring Parliament Buildings when they came face to face with King Billy and the Pope

An enraged Glasgow councillor, Charles Forester, threw red paint over Innocent XI.

His companion Mary Ratcliffe slashed the canvas with a knife. Both were arrested and fined £65 when they appeared in court in Downpatrick.

The painting was restored for a cost of £32 and 10 shillings.
Another version of the same story is even more sinister:
In 1934, a former RUC Inspector and "extreme right-wing bigot", Unionist MP John Nixon (1880 - 1949) led a gang of Loyalists into Stormont where they slashed the painting with a knife and threw crimson paint over the image of the Pope.
The "monumental", but (by the 1930s, in James Craig's Stormont) politically-incorrect painting went into store, until, in 1975, it went to the Belfast Public Record Office. By 1983 it was back at Stormont, where it had remained stacked in the Speaker's Office. It had a brief mention last year:
Damian McCarney, who writes for Daily Ireland and the Andersonstown News recently had a private viewing.

In his opinion, "a reproduction of it doesn't do it justice".

"Whenever you first encounter the painting you are awe struck by the size of this epic tale unfolding in front of you," he said...

"Here's a painting which attracted controversy and was attacked for no justifiable reason.

"I think a lot of people can respond to that. It has echoes of the sectarian past and now we're coming to a more tolerant period in history now is the time for it to be restored to its rightful place in the southern corridors of the Stormont assembly."
Now we have more voices suggesting it is time for the work to be put back into public view:
The SDLP's John Dallat said a prominent place in Stormont should be found.

He said it would "intrigue visitors and certainly put another slant on our previous beleaguered history"...

Alliance Party Assembly member Sean Neeson said that during the summer a request had been made for the painting to go on loan.

"Clearly it is quite a significant painting," said Mr Neeson.
Notice nobody has expressed any opinion on the thing as a piece of art.

And that is appropriate, for it was conceived as a propaganda piece, which is what it has remained.

Only in Northern Ireland could such things happen. Even last year, the Beeb felt the need to tread lightly: the central character "looks like king Billy", the figure on the cloud "appears to be Pope Innocent XI" who is shown "apparently blessing his ally". Curiously, identification seems to have firmed up now: why could that be?

The Boyne

William imported 6,000 additional troops from England, hired 7,000 Danish mercenaries, with Scots, Germans, Swiss and (of course) Dutch in the 37,000 total strength. James's army of 25,000 included 6,000 from France, half of them Germans and Wallooons, but 5,387 Irish went to France, cancelling out the addition. Here's James Lydon, with the view from Coláiste na Tríonóide:
In Europe news of the [Williamite] victory was celebrated as an important success for the Grand Alliance by Catholics in Spain and Austria, where Te Deums were sung in thanksgiving in the cathedrals. The battle of the Boyne deserved the notoriety it received. Not only had two kings joined battle to see who would rule in England, but troops from many parts of Europe had fought in remote Ireland for a cause which would determine whether France would be dominant.

But the battle of the Boyne was less significant in the history of the struggle within Ireland itself. Despite the huge forces involved, only about 1,000 Jacobites and 500 Williamites were killed; most of the Jacobite army escaped to fight another day.
What was more significant, in Irish terms, was Aughrim, the following year. Lydon again:
It was the worst disaster in Irish miltary history and made a Williamite victory in the Irish war inevitable. If the Boyne passed into Protestant folklore, then Aughrim became part of the Catholic Irish folk memory, kept alive by poets and story-tellers as 'Aughrim of the slaughter'.

Well, Malcolm thinks, two really.

One is that not all art is good. Too many miles of canvas went to produce over-inflated ego-massaging, that the great might feel better about themselves, impress their subjects, and somehow convey to posterity an over-inflated reputation. Which is why these flummeries should not greatly matter, and why the modern study of history was born, to prick that bubble.

Second, and more salient, we must see things from a broader perspective.

Malcolm has frequently found himself in arguments where he has wished he was as certain of anything as his opponent seemed of everything. Charles Forester, with his (doubtless premeditated) red paint and Mary Ratcliffe with her (conveniently-available) knife were objecting because the image before them offended their assumptions and prejudices. The truth is not always as clear-cut as we might wish. Lydon for the last time:
When Derry closed its gates against the Catholic Duke of Antrim on 17 December 1688, it was not because of any rooted objection to James II, but rather because of a panic created by the revelation of a supposed plot to massacre Protestants. The citizens, in fact, behind the closed gates proclaimed their loyalty to King James and swore 'to persevere in our duty and loyalty to our sovereign lord the king'.
Malcolm, however, will not be rushing to tell that out to his in-laws in the RBP. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Nasty Party

Since the earlier effort today, Malcolm has realised whodunit:
Labour Historian Brian Brivati and [Iain Dale] have compiled a big feature for the Telegraph website which has just gone live.
Fair enough. No problems so far.

Scroll down the subsequent comments on Dale's page, and we find this:
Geoff said...

If I had a sniper rifle with 21 bullets then you've made a magnificent list. I'd need the extra bullet just to make really sure of Polly Toynbee. There's a big risk that you'd miss her tiny brain the first time around.

Make that 143 bullets.

If I read the additional 80 entries then I'd be looking for a machine gun so for the sake of my blood pressure I won't click on the link.
Well, thank you, Geoff at 10.12 p.m. last night: you've confirmed something. And it isn't your numeracy. Sphere: Related Content
Who's Left?

The Telegraph is celebrating the Labour Conference by listing Britain's 100 most influential Leftwingers.

The first two individuals are Gordon Brown (natch) and Tony Blair. One is a recognition of the reality: the other, the Cheshire cat of British politics, (disappeared except for the rictus grin): a nod at "legacy". The precedence of one, at least, will be gone in a twelve-month.

The bronze medal spot disturbs Malcolm: Alex Salmond. This takes the Scot Nats on their face value, as a self-declared party of the Left. Malcolm demurs from reciting his numerous objections to Salmond and the Tartan Tories of the SNP being "Left". If it were so, it would be a world's first for an oil economist and his paid creature of a major Bank.

After that it's a beauty parade of Cabinet Ministers, political advisers, union bosses, the usual suspect journos, a couple of Greens, with the odd nod at blue-sky merchants on the way. All the way down to Blasted Pilger as la lanterne rouge.

A real curiosity is Gerry Adams (number 85): that must represent a double mischief, in putting him on a 'British' Left-list and so low down, too. Malcolm would have thought that Máirtín Mag Aonghusa deserved at least at much acknowledgement.

And there's Billy Bragg (number 80) as "one of the party’s elder statesman" [sic]. Bragg's proposal for sorting the Upper House has some validity. His songs are worth half an ear. Malcolm would suggest that, in the scheme of things outside the Metropolitan bubble, Dick Gaughan has been at least as significant.

Fortunately, these exercises are little more than page-fillers, inflating the vanity of those who need such, but inevitably ignoring claims of many worthier bods. Were they to be taken seriously, as a kind of check-list for precedence on Lenin's Tomb, that would be a nightmare.

All Malcolm can add is it kept him amused for a few moments, before he returned to real life.


Far more significant is the issue which prefaced the list, the problem of definition: what is the Left?
Until 20 years ago the answer would have been straightforward – to be on the left meant believing that the state could transform society into a more equal place. Today being on the left cannot be reduced to this formula because many of those who would see themselves as “left” have little time for state intervention, let alone ownership of industry or direct taxation or even equality.

Perhaps the left should be defined as “radical” or “progressive”. But such a definition is hard to sustain in an era in which revolutions have come from the right—the Thatcher revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union for example.
That caused some serious harumphing from Malcolm. He accepts that the term "Left" may be degraded, even over-elastic (as this list proves), but there remains one essential shibboleth: that little word 'equality'.

Malcolm tends to the antinomial at the best of times, but here his differentiation is precise. The Left/Right thing is not a dead metaphor. Let him recapitulate. The conceit come from the French Revolutionary Convention of 1792-94, and refers to where in the Chamber the factions seated themselves. On the Right were the Girondists. On the Left, the Montagne (named because they occupied the higher benches). A fuller description looks like this:
The Girondists were the party of orderly progress, sweetness and light the men who dreaded all violent, i.e., energetic measures... Such men, however well-intentioned they may be, must always in the long run become the tools of reaction from their timidity and hesitancy. The Girondists desired a doctrinaire republic, led by the professional middle-classes, the lawyers and literateurs. Their main strength lay in the provinces, the name being derived from the department of the Gironde, whence some, of their chief men came...
The Mountainists advocated uncompromising revolutionary principles (besides aiming to some extent, at economic equality) a vigorous policy and strong centralisation in, opposition to the Girondists, who favoured strictly middle-class republicanism, a timid and vacillating policy, and federalisation, or local autonomy. The struggle between the Mountain and the Gironde was in part a struggle for supremacy between Paris and the departments.
So far, so good? Fair enough. That section of Malcolm's argument is hereby dedicated to Bob Mitchell, distinguished son of Kinnegad, in the County Westmeath, and MA of Trinity College, Dublin, who maintained that, "History began in 1789, and everything earlier was archaeology." And then went off to study medieval trade routes.

Malcolm now humbly submits that adherence to Liberté, égalité, fraternité is as good a way as any to define a Leftist.


Fortunately, the Declaration of the Rights of Man is quite clear about two of these ideals:
  • Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These bounds may be determined only by Law [Article 4].
  • The Law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to take part, personally or through their representatives, in its making. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes [Article 6].
The fraternité bit amounts to: Do as you would be done by.

According to wikipedia, the French did not get their motto until later:
it was only in 1848 that Pierre Leroux revived the phrase. Pache, mayor of the commune of Paris, painted the formula “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la mort” on the walls of the commune. It was under the Second Republic that it took on its final form and only under the Third Republic was the motto made official.
There's something seriously confusing there. Jean-Nicholas Paché was Mayor of Paris in 1793-4 and originally a Girondist. He is not to be confused (as a casual reading of that quotation might do) with the Mayor during the 1871 Commune: Jules Ferry, later twice Prime Minister in the 1880s.

Pierre LeRoux could qualify as the original woolly Christian Socialist. He is often credited for giving the French the word "socialisme" in 1834. English had recognised "socialist" the year before, when it appeared in The Poor Man's Guardian of 24th August. There are earlier uses of "socialisme" (for example The Globe of 13th February 1832), but there it implies the antithesis to "personnalité". The Encyclopedia Britannica believes that Robert Owen's followers were using "socialism" by the later 1830s.

The motto was current in Paris by 1793, and was undoubtedly widely displayed, and painted on walls. It was not original: Fénelon made the connection in the later 17th century. Robespierre was proposing it as a national motto in 1790.

Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Serendipity as art and science

When he was first married, and lived out in the Sticks, Malcolm's pad backed onto Guildhall Street (left). So his immediate neighbours included the Constitutional Club (who chucked bottles into Malcolm's garden when he stood as a Labour candidate), a newsagent (whose dog piddled over Malcolm's front door each day she delivered the morning Guardian) and a knicknackery called Serendipidy.

It was a "nice" shop, mainly selling the ornate, expensive and barely useful, but he came to like the word.

He was made even happier when he discovered the origin of the word. Horace Walpole wrote a letter to a friend living in Florence:
It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand 'serendipity'?
Unkind souls have even suggested that Walpole was guilty thereby of a piece of self-publicising, in that he was the author of The Three Princes of Serendip. That would be remarkably precocious of him, for the book appeared in London in 1722, when Walpole was just five years of age.

By chance, by the laws of serendipity, Malcolm came to scan this week's New York Times property (sorry: 'real estate') supplement. And thereby hangs another tale.

The best thing for any casual passer-by to do at this moment is to by-pass Malcolm's maunderings and go directly to the hyperlinked source. Enjoy.

The Village

You ignored the advice? Or you came back? Oh, well.

Now that his eldest daughter, who has appeared previously in these entries, has married, moved to Joisey, and spawned, Malcolm finds himself in New York occasionally, but regularly. Each visit normally means percolating down to the Village before taking the A Train (or the C or the E or the 1,2 or 3 for that matter) up to Penn. And each percolation usually involves an extended rest in a place of liquid refreshment.

This is, after all, one of the more homely parts of Manhattan, very much human-sized.

It is, as Gerry Shanahan's article makes clear, a veritable mother-lode of serendipitous discoveries. He started at 66 Perry Street, a key marker for Sex and the City fans, as is the Magnolia Bakery at 401 Bleeker Street (where the cupcakes are so popular, customers are rationed to a dozen). He continued:
A friend visiting and walking with me on, say, Bedford Street, will hear, “That’s the oldest house in the Village that’s still standing, from 1799” (No. 77), and “That’s the narrowest house in the city — nine and a half feet wide; Edna St. Vincent Millay lived there (No. 75 ½).” On Grove Street, it’s “They say John Wilkes Booth plotted Lincoln’s assassination here” (No. 45). On Bank Street, it’s “Here’s where Lauren Bacall lived when she was crowned Miss Greenwich Village 1942” (No. 75).
Lauren Bacall as "Miss Greenwich Village"! Ha! A likely story! But, incredibly, true: Betty Joan Perske was new York born. By another of those weird serendipities, she is the better-looking cousin of Shimon Peres.

Her mother (who was separated) moved into 75 Bank Street (on the corner of Bleeker, and just across the road from Abingdon Square) when Betty was 17, and just before her "Miss Greenwich Village" moment.

She went into the theatre and onto Broadway as Betty Bacall (her mother's maiden name was Weinstein-Bacal) , before being spotted, and re-renamed, by Howard Hawks. On the way, she sat on Harry Truman's piano (right). And, sixty-odd years later, and now 83 years young, she is still there, to be snapped shopping locally in SoHo (left). Yikes!

On the same block, at 63 Bank, Sid Vicious succumbed to a heroin overdose. Head the other way, towards the river, and 105 was home to John and Yoko before they moved to the Dakota.

Shanahan (a good County Clare name, that) writes far too well to be mere page-filler between the property ads, but exemplifies what makes the by-ways and back-pages of the New York Times such a preposterously-good read.

Malcolm lingers with Shanahan on Bedford Street. Take 75½, "the narrowest house in the city" (right), because it was built to in-fill a carriage entrance. The connection to Edna St Vincent Millay is barely valid, for it was only a few months in the six decades of her life. She was in her late twenties, in her "open" (but discreetly managed) marriage with Eugen Boissevain, and already anticipating the Sex in the City ethos. Where else could she be but Greenwich Village? Try this for size:
According to [Max] Eastman, while at a cocktail party Millay discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist. He asked her, "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?" She responded, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?"
That, to Malcolm, defines 'feistiness'. Shanahan could have added that the same house has more history: it was also home to John Barrymore and Cary Grant (with his live-in boyfriend). Further down Bedford Street, at number 69, was home to William Burroughs in 1943-44.

Double back, across Commerce Street, and pass 81 Bedford, where, in the early 1950s, the CIA conducted experiments with LSD. Malcolm loves his anecdotage, but this one is a doozy.

Colonel George H. White
, a.k.a. 'Morgan Hall', was managing part of MK-ULTRA, the CIA's programme to manipulate human behaviour. 'Operation Midnight Climax' (better believe it!), was the second phase of LSD testing, and involved using prostitutes picking up men in bars:
Unknowing customers were treated to drinks laced with LSD while White sat on a portable toilet behind two-way mirrors, sipping martinis and watching every stoned and kinky moment.
Enough, already!


Malcolm's reverie takes him further along Bedford, across Barrow, and would like to serendipidously slip through an unmarked door at 86 Bedford into Chumley's. Lee Chumley opened his illegal basement bar here in 1928.

Despite its anonymity, a fair quota of American literary greats apparently found their way here (which is more than Malcolm did at his first attempt) . The worthies are memorialised by a recent plaque above the brown door. This is the only obvious clue to locate the joint: it almost spoils the fun of the neighbourhood, watching the tourists unable to match the picture in their DK Eyewitness guidebook with the reality around them. Inside, photographs, book-jackets and memorabilia line the walls. Passing trade also included Simone de Beauvoir:
In Bedford Street is the only place in New York where you can read and work through the day, and talk through the night, without arousing curiosity or criticism: Chamby's [sic].
A good number of beers should be available, the food more than acceptable, the fire in winter welcoming. Expect it to be tatty and cash only, but enjoy one of the few bars in the tourist guides guaranteed not to disappoint.

At which moment Alcuin's self-composed epitaph (translated by Helen Waddell, who is this entry's Ulster connection) comes to mind:
The world's delight I followed with a heart
Unsatisfied; ashes I am and dust.
Chumley's ashes and dust came last April 5th, a Thursday that will live in infamy. Contractors dislodged a chimney, which collapsed into the bar. Some six square yards of 1830s brickwork came down, causing number 86 and next door to be evacuated. As of now, the bar remains closed; and Malcolm would have appreciated Shanahan going the extra furlong or two to bring confirmation that it will, indeed, reopen next month. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 21, 2007

Criticism is healthy

Malcolm has found his mind coming back to Herr Christian Pauls, the German Ambassador in Dublin, and the small furore over his reported remarks.

Anyone coming late to the party might usefully refer to the report in the Irish Independent: the Irish Times is briefer and less detailed, but both seem to agree on the key points. It is a curiosity worthy of record that the fullest report (and an offensive illustrative photograph) seems to have appeared in the (London) Times: in itself Malcolm finds that telling, in all sorts of ways.

Pauls was speaking in German, and accepts he described the Celtic Tiger society as "a rougher, less caring one" (this was translated as a "coarser" society). He drew attention to Irish immigration policy (noting that Ireland had learned nothing from the German experience), the inadequacy of Irish health services (in particular the "chaotic" hospital waiting lists), and the sheer greed evident in Ireland (here pointing out that minor government ministers earned more than the German Chancellor, and that consultants regarded €200,000 jobs as "Mickey Mouse" money). His throw-away line about cars (that the average age of a car in Germany was nine years, while Dublin roads are full of recent registrations) seemed a particular point of resentment. There was also a dismissive comment about the position of the Catholic church.

Now that was Malcolm's take, and, to be frank, he recognised most of those points as common ground. However, inevitably, Dermot Ahern ordered a formal Foreign Affairs rebuke: but then (as Malcolm views things) Ahern is UCD, a Louthman, and a solicitor, three impediments to a sense of humour.

If one issue which should have torpedoed the Fianna Fáil General Election campaign, it was and is Health. Despite the prosperity enjoyed by a minority in the Tiger economy, the public squalor is general. Nowhere more so than in health.

Even now Ireland budgets 10% less than the EU15 average for health provision. In the last quarter century the population has increased by a quarter, but hospital beds are down by a third, to just 12,000. Head-for-head, Ireland has a quarter fewer doctors, and three-quarters fewer specialists than the same EU15 average.

Ireland (Health) 101:

The Irish population is sheeped-and-goated from square one. One is eligible for health service on the basis of having (or not having) a medical card. Those possessing the card are entitled to GP services, hospitals, prescribed drugs, dentistry and opticians, maternity care. To arrive at this desirable status, one needs to be 70+, or receiving benefit. Single-parent families (and pretty well everybody else) are subject to a means test. Something like a quarter of the population qualify for the card: this number seems to decline by two-thirds of one per cent annually. Producing such a card is, in addition, a social stigma.

So something like half the population are covered by private health insurance. In the main, such privileged individuals are still treated in the public hospitals, but jump the queues. Numbers on the waiting lists are difficult to ascertain, but are believed to amount to 1% of the total population, and are highly politically-sensitive. Here's the BMJ:
The Republic of Ireland's hospital waiting list system is "flawed, unequitable and in need of re-engineering," a leaked report from the Harvard Association has said.
The Irish government should "depoliticise" the waiting list and treat it purely as an ethical issue based on patients' medical needs, according to the report by the group of 50 Harvard graduates—all management specialists, but none of them working in the health service field...
The group was led by Professor Ray Kinsella, director of the Centre for Insurance Studies in the Graduate School of Business at University College Dublin. It found that surgical patients who had been categorised by a consultant as "routine" might be "left waiting indefinitely for years without a realistic expectation of treatment."
Mary Harney

The Minister for Health is Mary Harney (of the defunct Progressive Democrats), who has been in the post since 2004. This is the lady who commandeered a military aircraft to fly to open a friend's off-licence in Leitrim (and had to apologise because EU money was involved). It was her mother who, last year, jumped the queue (which included emergency cases) for hip surgery. Harney's stewardship means Irish health services are ranked 25th of the EU25+Switzerland.

Yet, Fianna Fáil transfers brought her back into the Dáil, and — boy, oh boy — did she need them. Her first-preference vote collapsed from over 20% to just 12.5%. So she remains enstooled.

Cui bono?

But not everyone is unhappy. Harney had forced BUPA out of the Irish health-insurance market by insisting on "risk equilisation". In effect, this meant that BUPA (which had been about a third cheaper) would be subsidising its main rival VHI (which is in the penumbra of state-control, and has more older subscribers) by around €161 million a year. So BUPA sold out to the Quinn Group, of which the Belfast Telegraph says:
The Quinn Group has grown from modest beginnings in 1973 to become a conglomerate with interests in the manufacture of building products and glass, insurance, packaging and property.
One of the most recent successes of the group has been its insurance arm, Quinn Direct, which in March posted the largest profit yet reported by an Irish non-life insurer. The Co Cavan based operation made a pre-tax profit of £158m in 2005, a growth of 52% on the previous year.
Not surprisingly, health insurance premiums in Ireland continue to increase by 10% a year.

The Quinn Group is the creation of Séan Quinn (Ireland's richest man, worth £2.3 billion, and rated 177th richest in the world). Mr Quinn has, it goes without saying, a healthy relationship with Bertie Ahern, whom he lends the odd helicopter.

There is even a curious story that Mr Quinn slipped his €6.5M a year retirement package past his company board just moments before (State secret) budget changes would have limited it to €5M.

All in all, then, Malcolm grits his teeth and joins Kevin Myers in urging promotion and respect for Herr Pauls. He got it right. Which is more than can be said for Mary Harney and her arch-liberalism. Sphere: Related Content

I'd like to thank my ....

No, Malcolm can't quite manage it. It's the fuss about finding a backless, strapless couture dress in his size.

However, he is indeed deeply honoured to be number five in Iain Dale's list of Irish Blogs (and one ahead of the far more assiduous, informative and deserving Mark Devenport of the BBC). Dale's blogspot, which Malcolm has castigated from time to time, is by a country mile the most acceptable Toryism available, and tells it how it is. It makes the others (ConservativeHome, for one obvious instance) look humourless, narrow, griping and mealy-mouthed.

The list is headed, quite properly, by the estimable Slugger O'Toole, without whom no Malcolm morning (afternoon or evening) is complete. Slugger's onlie true begetter, Mick Fealty, should be instantly listed as a national (which nation, however?) treasure.

What is even more peculiar is that Malcolm pontificates on purely Irish topics only a few times a month. He resolves to do better in future. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Shit-of-the-year nominee:

This is, word-for-word, from Tory Diary on ConservativeHome:
The Daily Mail is reporting that Andrew Pelling was held by police yesterday on suspicion of "assaulting his wife". He's been released on bail.

Andrew was elected as the Conservative MP for Croydon Central in 2005 with a majority of just 75 votes, and retains his position as an active London Assembly Member and Councillor in the area.

If this is proven to be true and his wife presses charges, he will face a difficult parliamentary election.

Comments have been disabled on this post.
Pelling uses his own website to say of himself:
Andrew does not really see himself as a politician.... Even the Leader of the London Greens called him 'the acceptable face of Conservativism."
Andrew, who lives locally, also has an independent streak.

The Mail (for all its innumerable faults) does this kind of story quite poetically, with the right admixture of offended horror and salacious detail. So, here's how it goes:

His first wife, of 18 years, went back to Japan to care for her father. In those ten months, Pelling started an affair with Lucy Slaytor, half his age and a Tory campaign worker, even installing her in the house with his three teenage children:
... daughter Elizabeth said her father brought Miss Slaytor home while her mother was away.

Elizabeth said: "She spent a whole weekend here.

"She just thrust herself upon me and my sister and brother. They told us together over breakfast that they were in love and wanted to get married and have children. We all felt awful. We couldn't believe he was doing this to us."
Now, Malcolm finds this next bit sooo touching:
After his relationship with Lucy Slaytor was made public his first wife, Sanae, accused Mr Pelling of posting envelopes containing housekeeping money through the family home letter box so he could avoid her.

She said at the time: "Once my children ran out to catch him before he left, but he drove away. They were in tears. They couldn't understand how their father could choose a woman half his age over them."

Mr Pelling moved in with Miss Slaytor's parents and admitted putting cash through his wife's letter box, saying: "I am proud that I support my wife and our children financially."
It's that nice "I am proud..." that sets the whole thing off, don't you think?

The Mail's news item is rounded off by two other details:
Mr Pelling hit the headlines again in February this year when he advised two constituents to vote for the BNP...

In January he tabled a parliamentary Motion marking the death of chef Rick Stein's dog, Chalky.
ConservativeHome's treatment tells Malcolm all he needs to know about the Tory mind: that friendly use of the first-name, 'Andrew'; the bit about the 'difficult parliamentary election'; that ambiguous 'active' and the refusal to allow comments.

Meanwhile, let us not forget where the leader of the Conservative Party stands:
... stressing that families must remain the bedrock of society and should "matter more than anything else in our society", Mr Cameron insisted: "If we can get the family right, we can fix our broken society."
Sphere: Related Content

Mervyn in the Lion's den

The Manager wanted no trouble, And took out his purse right away: And said, 'How much to settle the matter?'
And Pa said, 'What do you usually pay?'

Mervyn King's "grilling" by the Commons Treasury Committee turned out to be a light toasting (which Malcolm watched, courtesy of BBC24). He was on the spot because he was scheduled to report on the August inflation statement (which, inevitably, went by the board).

King's "get out of gaol card" was played early and, in effect, was predicted by Malcolm just yesterday: the need to reconcile four separate pieces of legislation. Those four pieces turn out to be the Takeover Code, the Market Abuse Directive of 2005, the freezing of a bank's deposits once it goes into liquidation, and the lack of a guarantee once deposits fall below 100% of commitments. At least, that's how Malcolm heard it.

The members of the Committee seemed non-plussed by the tri-partite control of the market, with the Bank, the Financial Services Agency, and the Treasury all involved, and apparently largely overlapping. King was effective in sloughing the Bank's responsibilities off onto the other two, and (again as Malcolm heard it) onto the FSA.

King seemed almost anxious to maintain that division of labour and responsibility: “The Bank of England is not responsible for individual institutions: we act when the FSA come to us.” And that was King's other trump: the FSA had not come to the Bank, so the first King knew of the Northern Rock problem was a regular meeting on 14th August.

So, as in the previous and celebrated case of Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom and the Blackpool Zoo:
The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.
Two conclusions fall out of all this:
  • it really is time for a new Banking Act, to sort out Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? That should occupy the time of the Commons for several months.
  • the public have a right to know.
In particular, King's declaration that he would have wanted everything done in secret is not good enough. If it were applied to any business other than banking, any trading other than money, someone would properly be done for insider trading. For weeks Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom were being invited to place their savings in the Northern Rock, which those in the know (notably the TSB, which was being inveigled to take the Rock over) wouldn't touch with a barge-pole.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Darling Revolution
(and the Gedankenexperiment)

Catching Alistair Darling on the morning news, yesterday, was an exercise in soft-soap and snake-oil. It was, indeed, so soothing that it took Malcolm a while to realise that a significant element of the Socialist dream had been achieved.

Early afternoon, Malcolm was engaged in something mind-bogglingly banal (OK: he was browsing the Tory blogspots. Confession over). Then a synapse made contact, and he recalled the days when the Irish Labour Party had a constitution red in tooth and claw. Was it Clause IX which made the British Labour Party's Clause Four look wimpish and mealy-mouthed? In short, he recalled the commitment to nationalise banking and insurance.

And now, under 'New Labour', that has effectively come to pass in Britain!

Let the scarlet banner fly from Islington Town Hall once more! Comrades, the inevitable day of proletarian liberation is coming! Well, not quite yet, perhaps. Even so, what happened yesterday was as surreal (and inevitable) as Ted Heath nationalising Rolls-Royce back in 1971.

As he was working himself out of his morning torpor, that he might pronounce thus to the universe, Malcolm discover that the same thoughts had occurred to Simon Jenkins in the Guardian:
The first thing to remember about the collapse and de facto nationalisation of Northern Rock is that it was essentially about house prices.
Well, yes, that's part, a large part, of the story, but it's not the key plot device. Jenkins comes close to an analysis when he says:
Brown's ... priority was to make house purchase even easier. Ownership "must be open to all those wanting to get on to the housing ladder for the first time". To this casual extravagance he added the meaningless statement that "one of the great causes of our affordable housing for all". The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed with this flight from economic logic. Stamp duty should be reduced, first-time buyers subsidised and "affordability" extended.
Then he gets blinkered by his English Heritage (deputy-chairman's stool-of-office, 1985-90) and Pevsnerist England's 1,0o0 Best Whatever hats:
For half a century home ownership in Britain - termed a "right" by Brown - has been indulged beyond economic reason. It has sucked savings out of the productive sector. It has tied up pension money that should be helping the economy in the stock market. Its tax reliefs have immobilised young people who, in most countries, remain in the more fluid rented sector until later in life. It has led to mass hysteria with every price rise or fall. Housing sees the British, their rulers and their newspapers, at their most innumerate and irrational.
As a result Britons are the most wasteful users of Europe's most precious resource - living space. In Britain 70% of housing is owner occupied, against 40% in Germany and less than half in most comparable countries.
Again, there is more than a grain of truth in that. Malcolm, however, doubts whether Sir Simon and the fragrant Lady Gayle (of whom wikipedia says: 'During her brief Hollywood career, she was typecast as a brunette sexpot'), famed residents of Primrose Hill, confine themselves to a basement rented maisonette. Any more than the privileged lifestyles of bankers will be greatly cribbed, cabined or confined by this Northern Rock thing.

The larger picture is going to be found on the financial pages. Rumblings are already anticipating the earthquake to come. The last few days have shown that the rules and regulations of bank management will have to be reviewed and modernised in the next session of Parliament. And here the Financial Times is (quite literally) on the money:
The extraordinary spectacle of Alistair Darling, the chancellor, resorting to a verbal guarantee of all UK bank deposits, on national TV, shows that the old tools don’t work. The Bank had little power, legal or moral, to corral other lenders into a private sector rescue of Northern Rock...
The chancellor’s blanket guarantee was, therefore, necessary but takes moral hazard to a new level. Two remedies exist. First, a clear mechanism is needed, in the event of a crisis, to ringfence state-guaranteed deposits from the banks that gathered them. The improvised compromise whereby Northern Rock shareholders are beneficiaries of the government’s politically influenced objectives is deeply flawed. Second, if all deposits are state-guaranteed, there must be tighter supervision of banks by the Financial Services Authority, which may have taken its eye off the ball.
The FT starts its article by referring back to the last time we went through this:
According to one account, the UK’s banking crisis of 1973 was largely resolved at a secret, 90-minute meeting at the Bank of England. The City’s gathered great and good agreed to create a “lifeboat” fund, worth the equivalent of a third of the system’s capital, to offer credit to smaller lenders. A discreet statement the next day calmed markets, the Treasury was barely involved and the Bank’s financial commitment was contained.
That was then: this is now. The general public are no longer to be fobbed off by the persiflage of the great and the good on their way to a well-deserved City lunch. This one will have to go to the floor of the Commons, and Chancellor Darling will need a full blueprint of how he intends the new dispensation to work. It makes Malcolm recall John Strachey (What are We to Do?, 1938):
Sir Robert Peel in introducing the Bank Act of 1844 (one of the essential statutes completing the legal framework of British capitalism) to the House of Commons asked the famous question: "What is a pound?" Neither he nor any honourable member was able to provide an answer. ... historically a pound sterling is a pound weight of silver. Peel, no doubt knew this perfectly well. But this piece of historical knowledge did not help him much in his bewilderment over this extraordinary thing, money, which his new Act was (he hoped) to regulate; this thing which was evidently a linch-pin [sic] in the economic life of society; which could dislocate that life catastrophically if it got out of control; this thing which everybody both used and worshipped, but which nobody understood.
So Malcolm hears many ghosts, among them Strachey and Morrison, Bevin and Stafford Cripps whispering from the shadows.

It may not be clean, but there are many ways, even a few socialist ones, to skin fat-cats. Now, Dr Schrödinger (another distinguished resident of Dublin, remember) may be able to help us on this one: if a fat-cat is put into a tight regulatory box, when does the mixed economy stop existing as a mixture of states and become one or the other? Sphere: Related Content

Monday, September 17, 2007

Heavy metal

A Heathrow Airport worker has been dismissed for wearing a nose stud. This via the BBC news website.

We are reminded that, last year, British Airways got into a tizz about the wearing of an ornamental cross. BA backed down when the defenders of the faith came across loud and aggressive.

This time round:
Amrit Lalji, 40, of Stanmore, north-west London, who worked for caterers Eurest, said she wore the tiny piercing as a mark of her Hindu faith.
Well, fair enough, thinks Malcolm. To each his own, etc., etc.

However, what about the aesthetic susceptibilities of the rest of us? Since Ms Lalji is, it seems, working with the public, does the customer have a right to a point of view? Can, or should a line of "decency" be drawn? What are the limitations on acceptable dress-code and appearance? Malcolm wonders when he is entitled to walk away from something or someone whose manner or dress (or lack of it) or openly-declared and advertised beliefs offends him.

Malcolm admits to a prejudice against mutilation, especially that which is voluntary, self-inflicted and in the cause of personal adornment. Even worse is that which is imposed as some kind of property-brand. The child-in-arms with ear-rings is, to him, an open-and-shut case of child-abuse.

Permissiveness works both ways. At what point does another's objectionable attitudes, behaviour and appearance intrude on our life-style? Is it the first or the fifteenth tattoo? The "tiny piercing" or the full faceload of metal? Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, September 16, 2007

MR 4 TL — true.

It is many years since Malcolm would have counted himself a "regular" reader of the Spectator. Now he finds himself regularly adding it to Thursday's pile from W.H.Smug's.

Why, for heaven's sake?

Well, one can easily dispense with the liverish Oborne and the like , but the book reviews have an edge on those in The Times. Unquestionably, the magazine has improved out of all measure since Matthew d'Ancona moved from the Telegraph to take over the editorship. The added depth and coverage are evident, while style has not wholly lost out to gravitas. The real reason, one suspects, despite Malcolm's emphatic denials, is his growing pash on the delicious Tamzin Lightwater (a pseudonym as transparent as—well—"Malcolm Redfellow").

This weekly "Dairy of a Notting Hill Nobody" improves by the week. From the very beginning there was speculation whose hand was up the glove-puppet's skirt. Names which appeared on the Tory blog-sites suggested Blasted Boris and d'Ancona himself. d'Ancona himself wrote:
Like many people I meet since I took over, Geordie [Greig of The Tatler] wants to know the true identity of the 'Notting Hill Nobody', the Cameroon press officer who writes a new diary in the Spectator under the nom de plume, Tamzin Lightwater. All I'll say is that it isn't me. Beyond that, like Manuel, I know nothing. But this isn't enough for Tory frontbenchers who are ringing me up: 'Look here, who is this person Tamzin?' says one. 'It's got my girls in a terrible tizzy. They all think it's based on them. Who is it?'
That's understandable, for Tamsin seems to be ahead of the news and on the spot with the gossip of Conservative inner-circles.

Here is the punch-line from this week's column:
V annoying call from Labour Party Bev. ‘So, to recap, you’re going to charge people for going to the supermarket, supertax their holidays and fine them for watching their own televisions. While we are going to cut taxes, boost business and clamp down on immigrants. And people are going to vote Tory because ...?’ I could have cited any number of policies, not least our super new pledge to teach every child in Britain to make scrambled eggs. But quite frankly, it’s beneath me.
Tamzin has a promising clone at the New Statesman, going under the name of Tara Hamilton-Miller. Typical of the Old Staggerer, she is a whit more intense, and lacks the Speculator's whiff of acidic sparkling cyanide. For example:
When David Cameron first adopted the notion of "quality of life" as a political issue in September 2005, he made a crowd-pleasing speech defining it as high-performing local schools, available GPs and tackling crime-riddled urban areas. The crossover to strictly environmental issues has had a mixed reaction from his MPs.
Many are uncomfortable with the rhetoric, and some with the substance, such as the idea of replacing GDP as a major indicator with a Happy Planet Index. One younger shadow secretary of state visibly blushed when asked about the idea of such an index. Having not read the report, he thought it was a pop group that Dave had downloaded. A press officer has found the phrase so buttock-clenchingly intolerable that he mumbles "HPI" under his breath. He is relieved that so far he has not been asked to explain what it means.
This is Michelin two-star stuff: mérite un détour. Tamsin, for Malcolm, is the full vaut le voyage.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 14, 2007

Coming to terms: six years on
(and seventeen months of Bush still to go)

Malcolm freely admits he is still trying to get a perspective on the madness of these last six years.

The event

He arrived home mid-late afternoon, that Tuesday. Before he was into the house, his wife called out that his daughter was safe. Why? What?

All television channels were rolling the news feed: the smoke and horror of Manhattan, three thousand miles away and five hours time difference.

His daughter should have been going into work in one of the buildings which subsequently collapsed. She should have arrived at the World Trade Center by the PATH link from Hoboken. (Until now, Malcolm had thought that meant "Passage under the Hudson". He now sees it means "Port Authority Trans-Hudson" Corporation.)

What saved the daughter was the baby, just a few months old, and needing to be delivered to the day-care facility. He had filled his nappy, twice, so she had missed two trains. As a result, and somewhat flustered, she pulled in very late at Hoboken to be told that the PATH was not operating, and that everyone should go home. Hoboken station is right on the waterside, and the plume of black smoke just across the river was only too obvious.

Cell-phones were not working, partly because of the consumer overload, partly because of deliberate official intervention, and partly because the aerials on top of the WTC had been taken out. Her husband was in Dallas, Texas, at a conference. She could not contact him. By some strange dispensation she was able to phone London. So a strange bouncing of messages took place. She phoned London. London phoned the husband's sister in Los Angeles. She phoned Dallas. And vice versa. And for some time.

The husband, and three New York colleagues, rented a car (the only transportation available, remember) and drove, non-stop, from Dallas to New York: thirty hours, 1550 miles. They were not the only ones.

The daughter assumed that the rest of her team, for whom she felt responsible, could be under the rubble: in fact all were safe, but she would not know that for two days. Other members of her company, with whom she had worked, were on American Airlines flight 77.

That evening, the 9th September, she eventually arrived back at her hometown, and collected the baby from day-care. Later she discovered that the nursery helpers, way past their usual hours, were still caring for two uncollected children. Learning that, she says, was the moment it all closed in on her.

The consequences

Perhaps those subjective recollections were what clouded Malcolm's objective judgments. Or perhaps he merely went with the flow.

The deposing of a fascist dictator is a good thing, yes? And Saddam Hussein and his Baathist régime were a blood-bespattered lot, who had consciously moulded their structures and methods on the Nazi example.

There was, and is, clear and incontrovertible evidence that Saddam's Iraq was a military threat, that it had invaded its neighbours, and deliberately and earnestly sought weapons of mass destruction. Nay-sayers should refer to the Supergun Affair, and recognise that Saddam did initiate both nuclear weapons and biological weapons programmes. What the US and UK did not know (because the Iraqi totalitarianism was so opaque) was that these had not been sustainable.

So far, so ...

Malcolm is still not sure whether he would not repeat his acceptance of the military option.

Organising the aftermath

When the American and British forces crossed the Rhine in 1945, and brought about the collapse of the Third Reich, what happened next (at least in the Western Zones of Occupation) was well rehearsed.

The US Army had some practical experience: they had administered Mexico in 1847-8, the former Confederacy after 1865, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba after the Spanish-American War, and the Rhineland after World War I. From this experience, a committee in the War College in 1939-40 had actually produced a manual on administering occupied territory.

Nor were the British, having run an empire, any further behind.

As early as the beginning of 1941 the Intelligence Training Centre of the War Office began courses at St John's College, Cambridge, "to train officers in postwar reconstruction and other missions incident to military operations in foreign countries".

Some fifty months later the investment paid off. And three years after that, a new, dynamic and democratic Federal Republic of Germany was up-and-running. And after that came the Wirtschaftswunder.

Anyone who wants to get into this period, in Malcolm's view, should start with the fiction and romance, and then work back to the history. Leon Uris creamed the popular market with the near-weepie Armageddon, published in 1963, but covering the period from the mid-1940s to the Berlin Airlift. Still available (if only on the second-hand market), still as good as any other historical thriller. For a less emotive, more satisfying read, then it's John le Carré, including his impression of Bonn as A Small Town in Germany. In passing, for Malcolm, Len Deighton (especially the historical reconstructions Bomber and Fighter, and the marvellous Bernard Samson series) trumps le Carré every time. Philip Kerr's revived Bernie Gunther (of whom, doubtless, more anon) also catches the mood.

Au suivant!

And then ...

A briefing paper prepared for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers eight months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq concluded that the U.S. military was not preparing adequately for what the British memo predicted would be a "protracted and costly" postwar occupation of that country.

... the memo "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action" notes that U.S. "military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace," but adds that "little thought" has been given to, among other things, "the aftermath and how to shape it."

Who is thereby seen to be derelict of their duty? Who should be held responsible?

Clearly the American authorities bulldozed their way through (and apparently without) any contingency planning. That implies we can no longer trust the Pentagon's forward planning (including that of General Petraeus, just this last week) until they prove themselves and their judgments to the contrary.

Equally, the UK systems, under the new Prime Minister, need to be more wary, more transparent, more credible and less credulous in their actions and interpretation of American initiatives.

And now...

A wholesale stream of "I told you so" confessions and self-exculpations are being loosed on the public. As token of that, by courtesy of the New York Times Book Update, Malcolm receives notice of The Terror Presidency (a nice, ambiguous title, that) by Jack Goldsmith. Malcolm regards the New York Times Sunday edition (which arrives in umpteen sections over two days), of which the book section is just one part, one of the journalistic delights of the world. It makes our domestic Sunday Times seem small beer.

Goldsmith was for just nine months, from the autumn of 2003, head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the US Justice Department. As such he was, effectively, the main scrutineer of legal opinion on the actions of the Presidency.

Goldsmith was a conservative republican loyalist, and got his job on that basis. Even so he found the White House's shenanigans unacceptable. Here's he lays out his stall:
I was briefed on some of the most sensitive counterterrorism operations in the government. Each of these operations was supported by OLC opinions written by my predecessors. As I absorbed the opinions, I concluded that some were deeply flawed: sloppily written, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the President. I was astonished, and immensely worried, to discover that some of our most important counterterrorism policies rested on severely damaged legal foundations.
Goldsmith puts that, and himself, in a very specific, significant and physical context: sitting under the framed photograph of a predecessor, Elliot Richardson. Richardson had been ordered by Nixon to sack the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox (and so frustrate further investigation into Watergate): Richardson had refused, and honourably resigned.

The New York Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, says:
The portrait of the Bush administration that Mr. Goldsmith — who resigned from the Office of Legal Counsel in June 2004, only nine months after assuming the post — draws in this book is a devastating one. It is a portrait of a highly insular White House obsessively focused on expanding presidential power and loathe to consult with Congress, a White House that frequently made up its mind about a course of action before consulting with experts, a White House that sidelined Congress in its policymaking and willfully pursued a “go-it-alone approach” based on “minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense.”
Malcolm sees a sad truth in that; it tells us nothing new. It reinforces all that we felt, and feared about the Bush/Cheney Administration.

For Malcolm, that leaves three areas of questions:
  • How many more of these "revelations" are to come from other White House defectors and discards? Can this Prsidency be besmirched any further? Will this one emerge as the most discredited Presidency of modern times? Or of all time?
  • How can the next Presidency clean the Augean stables, rebuild a relationship with the people (not just the American people, but those of the entire US sphere of influence) and live, like every previous President had to, eventually, within and under the Law? And when will the Supreme Court scent the wind, assert itself, and regain its pre-eminent position in the tripartite system?
  • Can we wait that long?
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