Saturday, April 25, 2009

Truths to be told

Last Thurday the University of Delaware hosted a meeting of minds. David Plouffe and Steve Schmidt, the two strategists for, respectively, the Obama and McCain campaigns, went head-to-head.

And found agreement.

The meeting is widely reported by:Malcolm expects that any election junkie will already have made the connection to one or more of those sources. If not, this is your heads-up.

Schmidt seemed to be the more candid, taking his cue from Kris Kristofferson:
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
OK, while we're on that aside, since it's the weekend, let's do it properly:

Yeah: it's a real man's song, but Janis made the distance. There's a fine rendition by the man himself on YouTube (but embedding disabled).

Schmidt on the Obama campaign:

“This was, in my view, the unfinished Bobby Kennedy campaign – the idealism, the passion, the inspiration he gave to people, it was organic and it was real and it wasn’t manufactured at a tactical level in the campaign.”
That's not an original thought: the Obama rail-journey to the Inauguration, claimed to be recreating the arrival of Lincoln in 1861, looks like the joyous recreation of Robert Kennedy's funereal train. Put Paul Fusco's 1968 photographs alongside those of 2009: the synthesis is powerful.

Obama's campaign, which means Plouffe, was mining a rich political seam. The bed rock was Abraham Lincoln in 1861: a photo-essay by Carrie Shell for the current issue of Time makes that point:

The best image, a double-page spread, again through the Oval Office window, of Obama at his desk, with the Lincoln portrait (as above) on the left wall, seems not to be in the on-line gallery.

Schmidt's comment on the symbolic completion of the Bobby Kennedy campaign is a further element. One of the tracks Malcolm keeps on his iPod is John Stewart's elegy for The Last Campaign:
It more than Indiana,
It was more than South Dakota,
It was more than California,
It was more than Oregon,
It was a race against time,
It was always on our mind:
And he died on the road ...
Ever since 1968 the Democratic pretender has attempted to reprise that enthusiasm. Only in 2008 did the road lead to the nomination.

Collapse of stout Party

Schmidt's candid confession also included his frank appraisal of the state of the Republican Party:
"It is near-extinct in many ways in the Northeast, it is extinct in many ways on the West Coast, and it is endangered in the Mountain West, increasingly endangered in the Southwest . . . and if you look at the state of the party, it is a shrinking entity."
He further conceded that, had it not been for McCain as the "favorite son", Arizona would have gone to Obama.

He obviously regards the nomination of Sarah Palin as an unmitigated disaster:
He recounted the frustrations and desperation of the campaign, culminating with the decision that insiders continue to debate: To nominate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, rather than McCain’s first choice, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, for vice president.

After taking soundings on Lieberman, Schmidt said, “It was communicated back to us very clearly from within the party that not only was Senator Lieberman not acceptable, but any pro-choice nominee was not acceptable, [and] it would lead to a floor fight at the convention with an alternate nominee for Vice President put into play.”

“Blowing up the party wasn’t one of the menu items of things that were going to improve our situation,” he said.
On that basis, it looks good for Democrats, all the way to 2012, and beyond. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Have you kend your wee?

Let it not be said that Malcolm doesn't enjoy the Michelin website.

It is informative, and has a fair (though less than perfect) reference and mapping service.

Then there's stuff like this:Now, the OED recognises this as a nonce-word, a past-participle used as an adjective, meaning (for once the OED is succinct) "known", and "Sc." dialect at that. It cites Sir Richard Holland's The buke of the Howlat from around 1450:
Kyngis and patriarkis kend, with cardinalis hale.
So, don't harrumph about Malcolm failing to give full value. And be particularly careful where you stick your hyphen.

But what's a wee-kend? Sounds like the discovery of a wet nappy. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Politically incorrect?

Malcolm is sorely taxed here.

Which is the more incorrect?
  • That the Miss USA "beauty pageant" actually exists;
  • The runner-up at the Miss USA beauty pageant, one Carrie Prejean, says her outspoken opposition to gay marriage cost her first place in the competition;

Hmmm .... memo to Malcolm:


What about your use of the piccy and, err, any slightly salicious interest therein?
Sphere: Related Content
Words, idol words [sic]

Brian Murphy was then Education Officer of the TUC. It was in his home that Malcolm first saw the coming wonders-of-the-age: CEEFAX and PRESTEL. So that means we are back in the mid-1970s.

Brian and Liz Murphy's home in Woodland Rise, Muswell Hill, had no obvious need of wallpaper. Every unglazed, undoored, vertical surface was book-shelved. And the shelves were over-populated.

Even the loo.

To Malcolm, that was Paradise enow.

Now, the higher authority at Redfellow Hovel insists books or magazines are not to be left in the jakes. That makes the works of Ben Schott, so portable and episodic, the ideal companion to necessary moments of evacuation.

And so, by a commode's vicus of recirculation, we arrive at Malcolm's point.

Schott has become a minor, but highly successful industry. Apart from the annuals, the ever-ready solution to "What shall we give Grandad?", he crops up with spreads in the Times and elsewhere. However, he has found a regular home at the New York Times, where he introduces us to the new vocabulary:There is little original about the concept. Every lexicographer has been both kept in useful employ and plagued by the propensity of the populace to devise, adapt and discard words. Each new technology that comes along invents and re-invents a peculiar dialect. "Dot Wordsworth" is doing something very similar to Schott for The Spectator.

No, it's not the same thing that the Oxford English Dictionary, and its rival heavy tomes, attempt to do: they are more reflective, more considered. What Schott and Co are doing is grasping at the Zeitgeist, that we may momentarily reflect on modern instance, as it is plucked fresh and raw. Many of the fleeting terms that Schott describes will be forgotten in days or, at most, weeks: they are, or were little more than metaphors conceived in some fertile brain to explicate or decorate a gossamer moment.

What is intriguing about Schott at the New York Times (go see for yourself) is just how politically he manages to concoct his ingredients: recent entries have been:
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incendiary use of cruel and repressive racist regime to describe Israel's policy to Palestine;
  • the so-called “pottery shop” argument – we [the Coalition Forces] owned Iraq because we (helped) break it;
  • Nursery of Terrorism: the Nickname for Azamgarh, a district in Uttar Pradesh, India, which is the birthplace of a significant number of people arrested for suspected involvement in terrorism.
  • A Gathering Storm: The title of a “religious liberty ad campaign” challenging same-sex marriage, released by the National Organization for Marriage.
And many more.

Young Ben Schott is getting away with murder at the Gray Lady. Long may he be licensed liberally to do so.

Lefties and people of a strong liberal disposition might be well advised to catch him now before they shut him down.

Brian Murphy would have raised a glass (or three) of malt to cheer him on. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 20, 2009

The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 14

Cathal Brugha

Malcolm had no intention of including this one in the catalogue. That's for two good reasons: Malcolm sees Bugha as a tragic and honourable figure; and, to do him justice in a small space, it needed thought. However, he was challenged to do so by a comment from Dewi Harries. So: here goes (on the assumption that what follows is open to subsequent expansion and correction).

The basic facts of Brugha's life are well-established and well-known. He was born into a large family: Thomas Burgess, who was English by birth, and Marianne, née Flynn, produce
d a brood of fourteen. It was a cultured background: the father was an art-dealer. When the father's business failed, the young Charles Burgess left Belvedere College and went into trade. He was already well into the nationalist movement, becoming a member of the Gaelic League by 1899, and adopted the Hibernicised version of his name. His ecclesiastical candle-manufactory, Lalors, prospered: pictures of Brugha (as right), in or out of uniform, suggest the successful, dapper executive.

He took the IRB oath, and by 1913 was a lieutenant in the Volunteers: one of his early actions was at the Howth gun-running. He was out at Easter 1916, Eamonn Ceannt's second-in-command at the South Dublin Union. He suffered multiple wounds (perhaps as many as sixteen gunshots and a granade blast), and was not expected to survive. His recovery was much speedier once the internment order on him was revoked in August 1916: go figure. Then we have the first clue of something really significant: Brugha's immediate effort was to re-form a core leadership for the Volunteers.

Inevitably, at this moment, there was considerable repositioning going on inside the nationalist movement.
Executions and internment meant that, throughout much of 1916-17, the nationalist movement lacked direction. Nor was there any agreed Sinn Féin policy. Factions set republicans against twin-monarchists. Ironically, the British demonising of Sinn Féin was as much the unifying force as anything else. Count Plunkett (father of the executed Joseph, and himself victor in the North Roscommon by-election, but, in Diarmaid Ferriter's brusque dismissal, "contrary and egotistical") was a key and divisive figurehead, to whom Brugha attached himself.

The immediate target for the Volunteers was to displace the Redmondities: further by-election victories in South Longford and East Clare were completed by the anti-conscription campaign of spring 1918. Into this policy vacuum stepped Brugha, the executive, as a pivotal figure. He appears, for example, alongside Plunkett at anti-conscription rallies and meetings, notably that at Beresford Place (10 June 1917, when he was arrested) demanding the release of the republican prisoners in English gaols.

What then ensued was a notable parting of the ways, which reverberates down to the present day. De Valera, Ashe and Brugha were set on moulding the Volunteers into a national political movement. Meanwhile, the likes of the rising Michael Collins were looking to the application of "physical force", derived from the IRB network and its traditions.

Take time out to consider a key passage in Tim Pat Coogan's seminal hagiography. Collins was:
incurring the wrath of Cathal Brugha. Given the differences in their attitudes to almost everything that mattered Collins would inevitably have had to clash with the formulaic, rule-book approach of the older man. Brugha was a 'static warfare' man. He still though of fighting in GPO terms. It's doubtful if he ever seriously believed they could win the war. For him, carrying on the fight was the important thing, keeping faith with the men who had raised the standard in other generations. He opposed Collins over ambushing.
Curious, then, that Brugha spent a fair bit of 1921 in London researching ways to murder the whole British Cabinet. However, what that boils down to is this (and the story has moved on a while):
Collins wanted to strike a spectacular blow like that of the Indian revolutionaries who had bombed and wounded the Viceroy Lord Hardinge in 1912 as he ceremonially entered New Delhi on an elephane, Among the plans Collins considered was assassinating French on the review stand during an Armistice Day march-past on 11 November 1919. The day before, McKee [Collins's number two] told Mick McDonnell that the gunman, firing from an office opposite the Bank of Ireland, would not escape alive. He then asked McDonnell to do the shooting! After a minute's hesitation McDonnell agreed, but he did not sleep that night. Next morning he was both surprised and relieved when McKee said Cathal Brugha had vetoed the operation because it endangered civilian bystanders.
Something of profound importance had happened in the command structure. It goes back to that aching divide between the aims of the political
Sinn Féin and of the physical-force IRB. It can be precisely traced and dated; and it explains the cleavage between Brugha and Collins.

The IRB had aligned with
Sinn Féin on the assumption that it was just another nationalist grouping that might be employed to IRB ends. At the Sinn Féin Feis of October 1917, the IRB had gone along with Sinn Féin's intention of securing international recognition of an independent Irish republic, but the Hungarian "twin monarchy"model still had supporters. The October 1917 pledge was hedged by the condition that the Irish people could then:
by Referendum freely chose their own form of Government.
The Party was republican from the 1916 Declaration: now it had to recognise what being democratic involved. The reformed Volunteers, effectively commanded by IRB men like Collins and Richard Mulcahy, might affirm:
The Irish Volunteers are the Army of the Irish Republic
but they had a separate agenda. As Tim Pat Coogan notes
The Volunteers had their own executive and constitution, and though there was some overlapping of membership between individual volunteers and other national organisations they had a largely autonomous existence from Sinn Féin and the Dáil. The first shooting of policemen, for instance, was not sanctioned by the Dáil.
Which brings us to 21st January 1919.

In Dublin, at 3.30 p.m., the First Dáil convened in Dublin's Mansion House. Since de Valera (the President of
Sinn Féin) and Arthur Griffith were both "Féghlas ag Gallaibh", in English gaols, so Cathal Brugha was installed as Príomh Aire pro tempore.

That same day, at Soloheadbeg, a quarry outside of Tipperary a small group of Volunteers, led by Dan Breen and Sean Tracy, ambushed a cart of gelignite, killing the two armed police guards. This is commonly regarded as the start of the "War of Independence".

Soloheadbeg was an independent action by the Tipperary Brigade: they had not consulted or informed Dublin; but one aim of the ambush was to embarrass the new Dáil into aggressive action.

Collins was the crucial figure here. He was now simultaneously president of the IRB, the Dáil's minister of finance, and the Volunteers' director of intelligence and adjutant-general. He personally condoned the Tipperary Brigade's action; but was under orders from the seven-man Military Council to condemn it. Richard Mulcahy (Commandant of the Dublin Brigade,and about to be Chief of Staff of the IRA) was incensed by Solobheadbeg: he had wanted the Dáil to take power peacefully, without sideshows or distractions, to mark a benign transition to democracy. Collins's ambiguous behaviour was seen as:
a formal reprimand with one hand and a pat on the back with the other.
When de Valera (who escaped from Lincoln gaol on 3rd February
, and was at liberty after the freeing of the republican prisoners on 6th March) was installed as head of the Ministry, Cathal Brugha became the Minister of Defence. This set the scene for a confrontation.

It now became essential to establish the command structure. Dorothy Macardle, in 1937 and re-writing history in de Valera's graven image, explained things thus:
There was some opposition to the control exercised by the IRB. Cathal Brugha, who had belonged for some time to the Brotherhood, became antagonistic to it. De Valéra's membership had never been more than nominal and he had avoided being used by the Brotherhood in any other way than as an officer of the Volunteers. He determined, now, to cease all connection with the secret society and tried to persuade his close associates, Harry Boland and Austin Stack, to withdraw from it. He and Brugha maintained that the movement ought henceforth to be an open one and that no one who accepted responsibility as an elected representative ought to be subject to secret control.
That is belied by de Valera's own actions. On 10th April he declared that the:
Minister for Defence is of course in close association with the Voluntary military forces which are the foundation of the National Army.
It was left to Brugha to enforce the line. On 2oth August, with de Valera in America, he proposed to the Dáil that TDs and Volunteers should take an oath:
"to support and defend the Irish Republic, which is Dáil Éireann, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same".
With Arthur Griffith presiding, and supporting the oath, it was agreed. Even so, the commanders of the separate brigades of the Volunteers were left to apply and enforce it.

De Valera did not come round to the issue until March, 1921. Then, and only then, did he decree that the Volunteers:
are under the Civil Control of elected representatives, and that their officers hold their commissions from these representatives. The Government therefore is responsible for the actions of this army.
When the Treaty negotiations began (11 October 1921), it was essential for the Volunteers to accept discipline. On 21 November 1921 Brugha brought to Cabinet and won the resolution that
the supreme body directing the Army is the Cabinet.
Thus, at critical moments it had been Cathal Brugha who set the pace, and called the tune. In a revolutionary situation he determined to establish democratic and orderly civilian control. So doing, he anticipated that Ireland should become and should remain a democratic nation.

If only for this, Cathal Brugha transcends most of his contemporaries and the confines of this sequence of also-rans.

The rest of Brugha's abbreviated life is easy to relate. He concurred with de Valera, on seeing the Treaty agreement on 3rd December, that "external association" be re-affirmed. So, in the Cabinet of 6th December he was in the minority (four to three) opposing the Treaty. In the Dáil Treaty vote (64-57) of 7 January 1922 he was again in the minority.

In that debate he delivered his virulent speech against Collins. His provocation was an editorial in the Freeman's Journal of 5 January, which had urged a vote for the treaty and for Collins. The paper characterised Collins as the man with a £10,000 bounty on his head who had won the war. Brugha cast doubt, correctly, on both counts. Brugha was motivated by a belief that Dublin Castle was exploiting the charisma of Collins to promote support for the Treaty. When the documents eventually became available, they showed Brugha's judgment was again correct: an official at Dublin Castle, Andy Cope, had been in cahoots with the editor of the Freeman's Journal, Martin Fitzgerald.

Even then Brugha looked for conciliation. He supported the 20th May pact between de Valera and Collins, which was subverted by Lloyd George who induced Collins to renounce his agreement. That, in turn, led to the June 1922 election, won by the Free Staters but with Brugha re-elected to the

He rejoined the Republican forces only when the Free Staters fired on the Four Courts (28th June). He was wounded in "suicidal" action at the Granville Hotel, and died in the Mater Hospital on 7th July.

Malcolm started this piece by expressing admiration of Brugha.

Of the "new" democracies established after 1918, only Finland and Ireland made the distance (Czechoslovakia, of course, was snuffed out by other means).

It could have been a near-run thing. In 1932, in the run-up to the election which brought de Valera to power, Eoin O'Duffy had been pressing for an army putsch. According to one legend, when the newly-appointed Fianna F
áil Minister came visiting, a senior army officer openly wondered: "Do we salute him or shoot him?" It was Brugha's previous efforts which delivered the correct response in both cases..

Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chimes Blues

Today is the birthday of Malcolm's eldest. So he knows where he was forty years gone this early morning.

According to the Guardian, it is also the 79th birthday of Chris Barber.

"I don't have to believe it if I don't want to," mutters Malcolm. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On yer bike!

Two items caught Malcolm's notice in another example of synchronicity:
  1. The 11th annual Blessing of the Bikes will take place at New York's Cathedral Church of St John the Divine (a.k.a. "St John the Unfinished") this coming Sunday. This is an event which now seems current in cities and towns across the US.
  2. Essex County Council (that's Essex, England, for the overseas reader) is finally getting round to filling in the pot-holes which have been used as a "traffic-calming measure". In doing so, the County authorities (who have responsibility for the highways) are over-ruling the local parish council of Navestock. Navestock has tolerated the holes because repairing them took "time and resources" and "If you fill them in, it just allows people to drive faster down these roads. If they're not filled, they have to slow down.".
This conjuncture provoked a Malcolmian moment of meditation.

Malcolm has always admired and envied those brave souls who venture onto the streets of New York above just the two wheels. He still quivers at recollection of a bicycle courier trying to beat the massed yellow-peril cabs away from the lights at 7th and 33rd -- particularly since the lone hero then swerved across several lines of traffic.

Then there's the infamous New York potholes. They are particularly in season about now:
... for the 38 City Department of Transportation service inspectors who spend their days scanning New York City's 6,200 miles of streets for potholes, March brings days of almost constant discovery.

That is because the main cause of the pothole - defined as ''a break in the asphaltic surface down to the base'' - is spring's freeze-and-thaw cycle. Water runs into cracks in the pavement, freezes overnight and expands. A pothole eventually appears.
Nothing has changed very much since that New York Times report from 1987. It's become a topic of annual report:
The [NYC] Department of Transportation says they have fixed more than 200,000 potholes since July 2008.

Once a pothole is reported, the city claims it takes about three days for it to be fixed.
The City even publishes a handy illustrated guide, to show that not all pot-holes are pot-holes: they should, more properly be classified and reported as examples of:
Potholes, Cave-Ins, Hummocks, Ponding Conditions, Manhole Covers, Street Hardware, Failed Street Cut or Old Utility Cut, and Open Street Cut.
Potholes are characterized by a definable bottom surface such as dirt or gravel.
Note that carefully: in some cases, they are seemingly ... bottomless. As with:
Cave-ins generally look like depressions, with a jagged hole and a deep void beneath it.
The Transportation Department then, blithely undepressed, says "Phew!" and continues with other tasks for:
Repair of cave-ins is the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Protection. Call 311.
Some of these holes, however they are categorised, are ginormous, like the Maelstrom capable of swallowing a small warship, let alone a baby-buggy or a Vespa. They seem most frequent at intersections, convenient to pedestrian crossings. They fill with water. A car or truck corners. A spew of foul water drenches everyone nearby up to waist-level.

To cycle in such conditions needs courage of a new dimension, as well as wheels of some super-strength material.

No wonder the cyclists need blessings. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brunetti 18

Malcolm's year is marked by certain inevitabilities, far more significant than most birthdays (including his own) or public holidays.

One such is the annual delight of a new Donna Leon. Now, Malcolm had to postpone his reading of About Face until he had completed Pynchon's Against the Day (for the "plot" of which, three weeks and 1100 pages later, he is little the wiser).

First things first: a book deserves to be well-presented; and Heinemann does just that. The dust-jackets for this sequence (as published in the UK) consistently achieve an atmospheric moodiness. These books are a delight to have, even on the shelf.

Inside the cover we expect, and get, the line map of Venice that we may plot Brunetti's movements:
He loved the campo, had loved it since he was a boy, for its trees and its sense of openness: SS Giovanni e Paolo was too small, the statue in the way, and soccer balls were prone to end in the canal; Santa Margharita was oddly shaped, and he'd always found it too noisy, even more so now that it had become so fashionable. Perhaps it was the lack of commercialization that made him love Campo San Polo, for only two sides of it held shops, the others having resisted the lure of Mammon. The church, of course, had succumbed and now charged people to enter, having discovered that beauty brought more income than grace. Not that there was all that much to see inside: a few Tintorettos, those Tiepolo Stations of the Cross, bit of this and that.

Relish that: a few Tintorettos ... bit of this and that. Wow! or as Alexander Pope said, more felicitously than Malcolm's gasped apostrophe:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Beyond that lies the real mystery: is this a mystery story, a 'teccie, at all? Is not Leon something more than another writer of formulaic crime novels?

On one level, Leon is individual, but predictable. She keeps faith with the genre, while subtly subverting those conventions. The last-but-one chapter shoot-out happens -- but Brunetti is not a direct participant therein. There is no gathering of suspects in the drawing room (though, in this case, the genteel moment of disclosure happens -- but it is an obverse of the Dame Agatha variety). Brunetti rarely breaks sweat as he grinds towards his solution, which -- as is Leon's predictable dénouement -- is an unsatisfactory compromise with the Italian bureaucracies and entrenched interests. In About Face, no arrests and arraignments take place. Loose ends are, as in real life, left untied. In the end, Malcolm heard the echo of Prince Escalus, concluding Romeo and Juliet:
all are punish'd.

Yet, therein lies the satisfaction for Malcolm. Leon uses the Italian stereotypes (corruption, bureaucracy, procrastination) to point universal lessons. In About Face (another of her poignant and telling titles) we have the "EcoMafia". Any visitor to Venice will recognise the context and have an instant appreciation: inland from La Serenissima, the Queen of the Adriatic, loom the smoke-stacks and effluent (and, in a westerly breeze) the smells of Marghera:
The shipbuilding works and the petrochemical and other factories littering the landscape of Marghera had exercised a fascination over Brunetti's imagination ever since he was a boy ... for some years his father kept in contact with some of his fellow workers from the factory. Brunetti could still remember these men and their stories of work and each other, their rough good humour, their jokes, and their endless patience with his volatile father. Cancer had taken them all, as it had, over the years, taken so many of the people who worked in the other factories that sprang up on the edge of the laguna, with its welcoming and oh-so-unprotected waters.

Brunetti deals with the nastinesses and obscenities of life; yet he rises above them. He has his professorial wife, Paolo, with her Henry James specialism. His children grow organically with each episode in his continuing career. Paolo is the last of the Falier dynasty:
"... my father has the ichor of capitalism flowing in his veins, Guido. Because, for hundreds of years, to be a Falier has been to be a merchant, and to be a merchant is to make money."
"This," Brunetti observed, "from a professor of literature who maintains she has no interest in money."
"That's because I'm the end of the line, Guido. I'm the last person in our family who will carry the name: our children have yours." Her steps slowed, as did her voice, but she did not stop, "My father has made money all his life, thus permitting me, and our children, the luxury of not having to take an interest in making it."

This is not just a convenient conceit, allowing Brunetti to move, chapter-by-chapter, between a palazzo on the Grand Canal and industrial squalor. It allows Leon, without being didactic, to debate a changing society, the end of the era, as Venice slips into the mud from which those generations of merchants lifted her. And words like "ichor" make sense only through Brunetti's own cultured interests (in this book, he has been re-reading Cicero).

We make our regular passing acquaintance in About Face with the expected supporting characters: apart from Brunetti's own family, there are the bovine Patta, his superior, and the all-competent enigma of Signorina Elettra, whose introduction this time is the novel's introductory nudge-in-the-ribs:
To enter Signorina Elettra's office was to be reminded that it was Tuesday. An enormous vase of pink French tulips stood on a desk in front of her window. The computer which she had allowed a generous and grateful Questura to supply her with some months before -- consisting of nothing more than an anorexic screen and a black keyboard -- left ample room on her desk for an equally large bouquet of white roses. The coloured wrapping lay neatly folded in the bin used only for paper, and woe to the member of staff who forgot and stuffed paper carelessly in the regular garbage.

One appreciates that even better at a second reading: one of the threads, the wastefulness of the consumer society, is put later into the mouth of the Conte, Brunetti's father-in-law:
"... all those things I was just talking about that we don't want any more: telefonini, computers, fax machines, answering machines ... Most desirable model one year; the next year, useless junk.

"That's the secret, Guido: new model one year, junk the next. Because there are so many of us and because we consume so much junk and throw away so much junk, someone has to be around and pick it up and dispose of it for us."

With that, Donna Leon has made each and every one of us complicit in the greater crimes that are solved, and unresolved -- because in our economy they are beyond any remedy that is publicly-acceptable.

For that reason, Malcolm regards this as something more, something greater than just another well-plotted mystery. And why he hopes to meet a successor, number nineteen, this time next year. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 6, 2009

Don't say that!

Malcolm admits to many neuroses. High on the list, up with the fear of the split infinitive, is acrophobia, the fear of heights.

Early on Tuesday, March 24th, Malcolm followed the lady-in-his-life up more than 460 steps of Brunelleschi's dome.

Under a magnificent blue sky, with the rarest classic puffy cloud to the West, from 90-odd metres up, Malcolm looked out over the red roofs of Florence.

Firmly gripping the metal railings with both hands, he recalled Assissi in '97, Eboli in '80 and Friuli in '76. He muttered, "Not a good moment for an earthquake."

He does not feel good this morning. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 13

Unlucky for some: William Burke

He was born near Strabane in 1792, and (for the son of a Catholic cottier) well-educated. As a boy, he served in the local Manse, then as a baker and weaver, before some seven years in the Donegal militia. By then he was married, with two children. He quarrelled with his father-in-law over rights to a piece of land, and did a bunk to Scotland, leaving wife and children behind.

Burke found employment as a navvy on the Union Canal; and set up house with Nelly McDougal. Since both partners had living spouses Burke, as a Catholic, was excommunicated, and Nelly, a Presbyterian, denounced from the pulpit.

By 1827 Burke was in Edinburgh, trading in second-hand clothing, when he lost ev
erything in a fire at his lodgings. He and Nelly went out of town, to work on the harvest at Penicuik, where they became drinking pals with William Hare and his doxy, Maggie. Hare may have done for Maggie's husband, to get possession of the lodging house business as well as the lady.

Burke and Hare

The career for which Burke and Hare became famous began on 27 November 1827. A pensioner in Hare's lodgings died, owing Hare £4. To recoup the debt, the two sold the corpse for £7 10 shillings to Professor Robert Knox, for use as a dissection specimen. Realising they were onto a winner, Burke and Hare refined their operation. Live specimens were intoxicated and smothered (Hare covered the mouth, Burke applied a body press). At least 15 more corpses were delivered to Professor Knox, at sums between £8 and £14 each.

The last of their victims was a Mary Campbell (or Doherty), done to death on 31 Oct
ober 1828. Neighbours' suspicions reached the police, who found the body in a box in Knox's cellar. Hare turned king's evidence, and was acquitted.

Sir Walter Scott was in the throng to witness Burke's public hanging (see left) in the Lawnmarket on 28 January 1829. It was further ordered that Burke's corpse, too, be dissected: souvenirs of his skin were distributed quite widely. His skeleton is still on display in the anatomy museum of Edinburgh University.

Some vocabulary

Out of that came the verb "to burke", meaning as the OED has it:
To murder, in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did; to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim's body for dissection.
By 1830
, in one of the Last Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb is using the word to describe the schoolboy's Saturday Night scarifying, as he is made ready and presentable for Sunday:
Cleanliness, saith some sage man, is next to Godliness. It may be; but how it came to sit so very near, is the marvel... But to be washed perforce; to have a detestable flannel rag soaked in hot water, and redolent of the very coarsest coarse soap, ingrained with hard beads for torment, thrust into your mouth, eyes, nostrils positively Burking you, under pretence of cleansing substituting soap for dirt, the worst dirt of the two making your poor red eyes smart all night, that they might look out brighter on the Sabbath morn (for their clearness was the effect of pain more than cleanliness), could this be true religion?
From there it is a small leap in metaphor to a secondary meaning:
To smother, ‘hush up’, suppress quietly. Also, to evade, to shirk, to avoid.
That, again according to the OED, is current by 1835, when John Arthur Roebuck is writing a pamphlet on the Dorchester Labourers. We might recognise those better as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Roebuck complained that their defence statements went unpublicised:
Those who spoke in favour of the poor men, were what the reporters call burked.
One expression that definitely does not derive from William Burke is "to look (or feel) a right Burke". This is often, and more correctly spelled as "berk". As Eric Partridge, in his marvellous 1937 Dictionary of Slang, showed, this is abbreviated from the rhyming slang "Berkeley hunt". As Partridge had it:
Berkeley, the pudendum muliebre: C. 20. Abbr. Berkeley Hunt.
Yes, there was and is a Berkeley Hunt
The Berkeley Foxhounds are the oldest pack of foxhounds in the country and can be traced back to the 12th century when they were used to hunt both the stag and the fox until the late 18th century onwards when they hunted the fox alone. The 5th Earl of Berkeley could hunt his hounds from Berkeley Castle to Charing Cross in London. He had kennels at Berkeley, Broadway, Nettlebed, Gerrards Cross and Cranfield. The season would start at Berkeley and progress to each of his kennels to London and then in stages back to Gloucestershire.
That would suggest the Berkeley was the hunt operating closest to the Londoner's experience. How he changed the pronunciation to match the spelling is another matter. However, in view of the rhyming argot, it is as well to know:


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The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 12

"Ned Broy's Harriers"

Neil Jordan's film, Michael Collins, from 1996, depicts Ned Broy (played by Stephen Rea) as Collins' inside man with the police (historically valid). Broy is tortured and murdered by the Brits (invalid: that was the fate of another of Collins' informers, Richard "Dick" McKee, one of the three "shot, trying to escape" Dublin Castle on Bloody Sunday, 1920).

Factually, in March 1918, Collins made contact with Detective Edward (later Eamon, but always "Ned") Broy, a G-man of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. (The image, above, shows Broy later in life, at the Irish Sweeps draw.) The G-Division of the DMP were the equivalent of Scotland Yard's "Special Branch". Broy had control of "The Very Large Book", the central register of police intelligence, where suspects were identified. Through Broy, Collins had access to that information. With Broy's connivance, Collins spent the night of 7th April 1919 combing the police records at Brunswick Street.

Colonel Broy

Broy was out with the Republicans in the Civil War, as a Colonel in the Irregulars. At the end of the War, in 1925, he returned to policing. General Eoin O'Duffy, Kevin O'Higgins's choice for Police Commissioner, had no place for Republicans, and Broy languished as a mere Detective Sergeant.

Commissioner Broy

Ned's hour came round again, when De Valera came to power. Eoin O'Duffy, who had been Commissioner of
An Garda Síochána since 1922, was quickly replaced, on the grounds of political unreliability. The whole Garda hierarchy, all appointed by Cumann na nGaedhael, were distrusted by De Valera (with good reason: we now know O'Duffy was urging a military coup before the 1932 Election). Instead De Valera reached down several tiers, and appointed Broy as the new Commissioner.

The Broy Harriers

Broy set about creating a force-within-a-force, recruiting anti-Treaty veterans to the Garda's "Special Auxiliary Force". These quickly became nick-named the "Broy Harriers" (the Bray Harriers being an established athletics club), and among their early targets were the "Blueshirts": O'Duffy had not gone away, but had taken over the Army Comrades Association (a pressure group of Free State veterans), renamed it the "National Guard", introduced the uniform and a straight-arm salute.

Broy and his Harriers attracted animosity from small farmers. This was the class from which the Cumann drew support, and from which O'Duffy had recruited his Garda. The "Economic War" and the decline in farm prices was already severely affecting this group.

Then there was the "Copley Street masacre" in Cork City. On 13 August 1934, at a sale of cattle seized for the non-payment of land annuities, the "Special Auxiliary Force" fired on a lorry load of protestors, killing one and wounding others: a dozen were arrested for rioting.

President Broy

Even though Broy retired as Commissioner in 1938, the "Broy Harriers", as a pejorative insult from the Republican ultras, persisted for twenty years or more.

Broy was also President of the Irish Olympic Council from 1935 to 1950. He died, aged 85, in 1972.
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Saturday, April 4, 2009

The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 11

Malcolm continues his occasional series, but -- self-evidently -- avoiding the topic we all want: the Blueshirts (sub-titled Crack O'Duffy! East of Jarama!). And there is no excuse for that appalling not-even-a-pun.


This one never passed into general human consciousness.

Guinness had been absorbed into the multi-national that is Diageo. St James's Brewery had one last throw, before its identity was lost and gone
for ever.

At a cost of some £5 million, it attempted to produce a Weizen, one of those decent, sometimes magnificent, German "white beers" (so called mainly because they are not "Dunkel" or "dark").

Now we are into semantics.

Malcolm drinks Weissbiers in Bavaria, and finds the best in Munich. The trick is to mix the essential barley with a proportion (anything from one-third to two-thirds) of wheat: Malcolm therefore finds himself referring to them, loosely, as "wheat beers"

These are, or should be served in a tall tapered glass, with a large foaming head: refuse all imitations. They are "live", so they throw lees, and one needs to be careful to decant bottled Weissbier with some care. Admittedly, Malcolm's mother could shock a barely-competent barman by -- professionally and oh-so-carefully -- cleanly pouring an old-style Worthington White Shield: then, finally and swiftly, tipping a small part of the lees into the glass. Such was the mark of the true cognoscienti. It needed three generations of experience. The amateur should not attempt this at home.

Guinness reckoned it could match over half-a-millenium of German experience within months. This superbrew was going to be Breó: in Old Irish that means "glow". It was even touted as "White Guinness". After £5M in development, a further £300,000 was thrown at advertising. Probably a fair bit of that dosh went to discovering that gorgeous fada over the "o".

Think New Coke. Think Edsel.

Within weeks, Breo had gone the way of the dodo and the mammoth. It took a fair bit of enamel from teeth on the way. It was not missed.

Malcolm still seeks confirmation that anyone, anywhere, willingly bought a second pint.

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The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 10

It's been fully a month since Malcolm's last entry in this occasional series. He confesses that he found Tuscany too engrossing to take time out (decoded: too bibulous). Another reason is that, in logical sequence, he should now have reached "Blueshirt": a topic which needs a lot of temperate thought. Or intemperate vituperation.

Instead, today he offers a reflection on ...

Here we have some ambiguity.

Once upon a time, no respectable Irish gent, out of town, was seen without his blackthorn walking stick. It was an all-purpose instrument: it herded cattle; it suppressed weeds; it could be used as a pointer to guide tourists; gun-dogs happily carried it in lieu of game; it opened gates; it frightened off trespassers; it aided the stagger home after a good evening; it went well with any outfit: all-in-all it was an essential piece of equipment.

However, that was not its most terrifying signification.

Malcolm was reminded of this second meaning from yesterday's Guardian:
The apples of anger are being gathered in across the West Country, where one of England's best-known cider manufacturers stands accused of that most terrible of rural transgressions: pandering to London folk.

The bitter harvest began after the Gaymer cider company, makers of Blackthorn cider, decided to alter the recipe for their famously dry scrumpy. To the horror of devotees, they have sweetened the drink, lowered its alcohol content from 5% to 4.7%, and made it "slightly mellower".
One or twice, in extremis, Malcolm may have imbibed of this stuff. The best he can say of the experience is that, at least, Blackthorn was not sweet cider. It is local (from Shepton Mallet) and ought to have been protected with a formal appellation, like wines, cheeses or Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Clearly, Blackthorn cider has no place in this series of Irish curiosities.

So, to the real stuff.

At peril of one's sanity, health and hope of eternal glory, one should never, ever, ask for a "blackthorn" in an Irish-American bar. Particularly one which ever was frequented by the rock-music critic, Lester Bangs (top right). If Bangs was a "gonzo" journalist, Picasso was merely a dauber.

A "blackthorn" is -- settle for nothing less -- Black Bush whiskey, dry vermouth, Pernod, and a shot of Angostura bitters.

Pass the sick-bag, Alice. Quick! Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cameron's boomerang

It hardly keeps Malcolm awake at night, except for the occasional snigger, but David Cameron's self-impalement on the issue of the European Parliament is worth a passing thought.

The story so far:

When campaigning for the Tory leadership, the only firm pledge Cameron made was to withdraw his MEPs from the EPP-ED group, "within months". That, in itself, tells us a great deal about the state of play in his Party.

The EPP-ED is/was the most effective of the trans-national alliances. The Tory problem is that the EPP is Euro-friendly, and believes in a common electoral system, European defence forces, a EU Constitution without national vetoes, an EU seat at the UN (rather than national representation) and an EU income tax (which means tax-raising powers for the European Parliament): all of that is anathema to Tories, let alone the ultra Europhobes.

Even so, both of Cameron's immediate predecessors could live with the EPP:
  • William Hague went on record: "I simply cannot afford to have my political opponents in the House of Commons suggesting that I am isolated from the mainstream Conservative parties on the continent of Europe."
  • Michael Howard committed himself to "consolidate close co-operation between Conservative and Christian Democratic Parties and the EPP, particularly in the light of European integration".
There is some evidence (admittedly from the Sunday Times) that the reaction among Tory MEPs to Cameron's ex-cathedra utterance was fury, which may have been orchestrated (or, at least, "leaked") by none other than William Hague. Fortunately for Cameron, that discontent was subsumed by the flannelling demand for a Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Remember, that bit of Tory policy was primarily for internal consumption: the pledge may not be renewable after a General Election, no matter what the Irish result eventually is.

"Within months"?

What is it, some forty months later?

The trap-door is now due to spring after the June elections. Then, in Cameron's scenario, the newly-elected Tory MEPs will enter a new conservative grouping. So far, so good. However, a recognised group in the European Parliament will need to have 25 MEPs from at least seven countries. The Tories may well make the first of those qualifications, but seem not to have any hope at all of the second.

So far it seems that Cameron has rounded up some strange potential bed-fellows. As last week's Economist summed it:
The full list of allies is secret. One, the Czech Civic Democrats, has just lost power at home; and its founder, Vaclav Klaus, is noisily sceptical about climate change, a cause dear to Mr Cameron. Detective work uncovers more presentationally tricky cases. The international secretary of the Latvian Fatherland and Freedom Party, Janis Tomelis, recently met William Hague, the Tory shadow foreign secretary, to discuss an alliance. As it happens, the party’s leader in Strasbourg, Roberts Zile, is a mild-mannered economist. But his party includes hardline nationalists who attend ceremonies to commemorate a Latvian unit of Waffen SS troops. Latvian nationalists insist that these were patriots fighting the Soviets, not Nazi war criminals. Good luck explaining that distinction in a British election campaign.
At one stage, Ireland's Fianna Fáil were touted as coming into the tent. Now, sorry, says Malcolm: you're having a laugh there! In fact, FF are bunking from:
that ragtag European Parliament group, the Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN). It has applied to join the European Liberals and is expected to become a member of its political faction in the European parliament after the June elections.
Fine Gael seem not too unhappy to stay with EPP-ED.

At the moment, Cameron's MEP crew include the mouthy Daniel Hannan and the largely-detached ultra-sceptic Roger Helmer: both sit with the Non-inscrits. The core-membership here was the scary "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty" right-wing nationalist group, until it collapsed with the withdrawal of the xenophobic, homophobic, anti-semitic fruitcakes from the Greater Romania Party. That leaves the Non-inscrits trying to hold their noses while sharing space with Le Pen's French National Front.

However, consider this, from Michael White (as shrewd a political observer as any) in this week's New Statesman
Some Labour MPs fear the breakthrough grouping this June may be the British National Party, whose nostrums may appeal in hard times. At his now notorious Tory chairman’s reception on Monday night (no ruckus when I left), Eric Pickles warned against Labour bigging up the BNP threat and dismissed ministerial talk of them getting four or five MEPs.

But two, perhaps, he conceded.
Now, think hard: where would that lot go? So, Cameron's funk-hole with the Non-inscrits is blocked.

Back to square one?

One of Cameron's recent repositionings (they come round at the regular Monday Press conference) was highly instructive:
Mr Cameron said the new grouping would "work closely with the EPP on all sorts of areas where we agree", adding: "We will be happy neighbours rather than unhappy tenants."
What that decodes into is that Cameron has already given up real hopes of having a separate, stand-alone conservative group. The best he can hope for is a sub-let from the EPP-ED franchise (perhaps something as trivial as a re-branded name). That might get him off his hook. In terms of prestige, though, it would only become sellable if the German Christian Democrats were prepared to forgo their numerical precedence and a British Tory was elected as president of the group:
Each Group appoints a leader, referred to as a "president", "co-ordinator" or "chair", who decides which way the Group should vote in Parliament. The chairs of each Group meet in the Conference of Presidents to decide what issues will be dealt with at the plenary session of the European Parliament. Groups can table motions for resolutions and table amendments to reports.
Ooh, er, matron! The screens!

That only leaves the one further difficulty. No matter what, the EPP (or its successor) reflects the thumping majority of its MEPs: it is and will remain generally pro-EU. The British Tories are most definitely not of that persuasion. Then there is the rest of the Parliament's Rule 29, with which a lot of mischief can be made:
a Group['s] ... MEPs must have a common political affinity.
Cameron's Euro-difficulties may just be about to start.
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Thursday, April 2, 2009

The dumbed-down Times

On page 38 of the print edition, The Times has a worthy story, by Sarah Delaney, on Berlusconi wanting to relax planning rules.

What does not accompany the on-line version is the illustration. It is credited to Johanna Huber, and is far more atmospheric than the image right. The Times captions its picture:
Conservationists fear for historic towns such as Porto Azzurro in Tuscany
See what Malcolm means about dumbing-down?

We can be reasonably assured that The Times will pay no regard to Malcolm's e-mail of protest. So, Malcolm makes his case here.

Admittedly, Porto Azzurro is in Tuscany (albeit a dozen miles off-shore). Tuscany extends to 8,880 square miles, which is 1.107 times the size of Wales. More specifically, Porto Azzurro is in the Province of Livorno, which directs us to just 470 square miles (or about three-quarters the size of Greater London).

All that apart, why not simply say Porto Azzurro is on the Island of Elba? Anyone capable of reading The Times should have a rough notion of that location.

Malcolm would also query the relevance of the link from relaxing planning laws to Porto Azzurro. Tuscany is one area of Italy where planning and building control is well-enforced. Even more relevant, all seven islands of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, the largest marine park in Europe, are particularly well-protected by a whole battery of regulations:
  • by law 394/91,
  • by the decree D.P.R. of 22th July 1996;
  • by the ministerial decree D.M. Ambiente of 19th December 1997.
It is tendentious in the extreme to imply this reserve is seriously threatened, even if the appalling Burlesconi has mouthed off. Sphere: Related Content
Another funny thing ...

A day or two back Malcolm found himself (mis)quoting Paddy Roberts' The Ballad of Bethnal Green. That he knew it was a misquotation irritated him. He was, therefore, delighted to locate the original:

For Malcolm, at least, it works as well as it did in days of yore (1959, in point of fact). What's missing here is Roberts' original introduction:
This is a very old English folksong. I know it is a very old English folksong, because I wrote it myself when I was very young.
That needs Roberts's exquisite-enunciation, as is appropriate for a South-African-born immigrant and former BOAC Captain.

Large bits of the Roberts' oeuvre were ignored, though not specifically banned. Many of his lyrics are still the wrong side of risqué, though perhaps the notion of buying Lady Jane:
The most expensive beat
On the sunny side
Of Jermyn Street
Would need substantial elucidation in any critical apparatus.

The most complete Roberts biography can be found here.

But that has to qualify as one of the more unfortunate LP covers of all time. Sphere: Related Content
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