Friday 30 March 2012

Now or never: books to read

The Gospels, the New Testament with a commentary,  the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus, in King James rather than Douai edition
The Bible designed to be read as literature 
Marcel Proust
Anna Karenina
War and Peace
The Idiot
The Trial
Henry Green
Under the Volcano
Edmund Burke
Sons and Lovers
The Sentimental Education
Try Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
Reread the whole of Shakespeare
Pickwick Papers
Tristram Shandy
Mill on the Floss

Dante and Ariosto in Italian is a sweet dream but life is too short. I haven't read Shakespeare since my teens except for A Midsummer Night's Dream and I know I would love to reread Chaucer's English Works

Sunday 18 March 2012

Meditating on Hitler and the euro

Three newspaper stories about Germany caught my attention this morning. 

First a review by Nick Cohen in the Guardian of a biography of Hitler by A.N. Wilson. A biography of Hitler by A.N. Wilson? I thought I would like to read it. Bringing a novelist's eye to history is exactly what I am trying to do. It sounded like it would teach me some things about Hitler and the modern world until I read this wonderfully damning review in the New Statesman. How satisfying to have written that.

As for Nick Cohen's review, well, of course decline in religious belief brought forth monsters like Nazism and Communism although religion, especially but certainly not only Islam, has brought forth its own monsters. Fascism was very certainly the antithesis of liberalism (Dr. Goebbels said 'This is the end of 1789') but it was the apotheosis of nationalism, another French revolutionary idea. 

Digressing, it is because people read no history, reject the idea that Man is inherently bad which priests and psychologists both teach us, preferring Enlightenment ideas about human perfectibity, that they cannot understand the very terrible slaughter by the Germans of the Jews and single it out from other terrible slaughters, in Russia for example. Germany is one of the homes of the Enlightenment, the land of Goethe and Heine. Turkey, Syria, Cambodia and Rwanda are not. 

As for race and racial hierarchy being widely discredited that depends where you live. Most people in Romania where I live believe in both. They place Greeks fairly near the bottom for example, slightly below Turks but well above Indians. They confuse Indians   with Gypsies whom they place at the nadir. They place the English near or at the top. This used to amuse and slightly shock me but it no longer does. Of course ethnic groups (also known as races) have their characteristics.

I imagine Wilson probably has fun with the sheer boringness of Hitler, his lower middle classness, the dull autodidactic table talk recorded  by Martin Bormann and used to comic effect in  Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler. George Wyndham before the First World War said the gentlemen of Europe must not abdicate but they did and were replaced  by men like Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Franco. All such dull and insignificant men who became, thanks to the First World war and its sequentiae, very significant indeed.

The third story was a thought provoking article by Jonathan Friedland also in the Guardian about Germany the reluctant giant. It made me see how the whole history of the post-war period until this moment is a meditation on the Second World War and Nazism. This is the reason for the European Union and the euro. It was also the reason for the Cold War and America's engagement with the wider world. Cold warriors viewed Communist Russia  as the equivalent of Nazi Germany, overlooking the distinction that Russia unlike Germany was a satiated power and not given to military adventures within Europe. It was much of the reason why Stalin forced Communism on Eastern Europe in the first place. It is the reason why talk of races and racial superiority and the psychology of nations became profoundly unfashionable and why the colonial empires were dissolved. It is the reason for an unprecedented migration of brown-skinned people to make their homes in the formerly white countries where they will presently form the majority. It is even the reason, by extension, why discriminating on the grounds of sex, religion, sexuality, even age are no longer permitted by law. By further extension it is part of the reason why hierarchy can only be publicly justified by meritocratic arguments, why traditions are  considered oppressive and the masculine and martial virtues such as patriotism and love of battle are no longer considered virtues at all. 

For it is not just Germans that feel guilt for Nazism but, strangely, all the Western world including the countries that defeated Hitler at such terrible cost. And yet there is no such feeling in any of the former Communist countries, including those such as Romania which aided him.

Friday 16 March 2012

President John Tyler’s Grandson on Still Being Alive

John Tyler was President of the USA 1841–1845. Why does this story, about his two grandsons, who are still with us, make me so happy? Schopenhauer would say it appeals to the will to life.
"The past is never dead. It's not even past." 

Sixteen years after leaving the White House, when Civil War seemed inevitable, Tyler, who was a Virginian, chaired a peace conference between representatives from the North and South with the goal of keeping the Union intact. When his peace efforts failed, Tyler embraced the Confederacy . He was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, but died without taking his seat. In Yankee eyes he died a traitor. In my eyes he chose the right side, since I can see no possible justification for the North invading the South to prevent the South seceding. 

I wonder if Washington and Jefferson would have done the same. Presumably they would, since both rebelled against the UK, both were proud Virginians and both were slave-owners.

Note: there is nothing on the net to suggest that the two grandsons are not still alive in June 2013. Long life to them both.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Norman St. John Stevas has died

The then Norman St John-Stevas talks to Margaret Thatcher at the state opening of parliament in 1979
    Another intimation of mortality. Norman St. John Stevas's name came up on google news and of course it was because he had died. Michael White my favourite political writer has it here. He has received one of the Daily Telegraph's funniest obituaries almost comparable the best one of all, that of Denisa, Lady Newborough.

    I canvassed for him in Chelmsford while I was up at university in 1983 at the fag end of my Third Year - he was almost the only Tory I could bear to canvass for in those days though now I think he was Wrong but Wromantic and Mrs. Thatcher Right but Repulsive. He called her the Immaculate Misconception. 

    In fact his affectations were very silly. He did not have style, unlike the impossibly beautiful Sir Ian Gilmour who was fired at the same time in 1981, the first two of Mrs. Thatcher's opponents, the Wets, to be dismissed. But he was witty and the kind of person who might have been an Independent MP sitting for one of the universities - I cannot forgive Labour for abolishing the university seats. (Though the wonderful biographer and former clerk of the House Robert Rhodes James would have done that better.)
    The inimitable and deeply lamented Frank Johnson called Lord St. John of Fawsley Lord Cringe-On-All-Foursley. Johnson did a very funny sketch of canvassing with Stevas (this much loved Victorian monument 'now in danger of demolition') in the Chelmsford election in 1983 a week or so before I went canvassing with him (he was expected to lose but scraped in ahead of the Liberal, Stuart Mole).  

People like Stevas, Nicholas Fairbairn, Clement Freud and Leo Abse made politics interesting. Much bigger men like Michael Foot and Enoch Powell did the same. Fitzroy MacLean somewhat earlier. Now we have only Boris.

    I admired in my youth the panache of people like him and Noel Coward never suspecting they were homosexuals. I have always been innocent. Simon Hoggart called him the thinking man's Larry Grayson. This is in a day when homosexuality spelt the end of a political career. After we had finished canvassing he was met by his merchant banker friend and Stevas playfully ran his fingers on said friend's thigh. I always assumed as a practising Catholic that he must be a non-practising homosexual and realise that that was innocent of me but I see the obituary says this is what he claimed to be and probably was.

I also remember meeting him as a teenager with my father in the House when he was shadow Education Secretary, my father extolling grammar schools and Stevas's look of disdain and dislike which my father missed.

The last time I saw him was at an exhibition of drawings by Max Beerbohm in a private gallery in Mayfair in around 1986,“consule Planco”. 1986 then seemed disappointing modern and bloodless, as the present age always does to people who look backwards, but now it suddenly seems as far away, ancien regime and elegant as 1897. Where did 25 years go? 

Some Walter Bagehot quotations

  • A friend told me yesterday that my friend Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote books about Bagehot and felt I had been entertaining angels unawares. How wonderful to be paid to read and write about Bagehot (and how I feel I have wasted my life by not being a historian or writer). This led me to find some quotations. Do read his essays. He is as good a prose writer as Macaulay or Newman:

    The reason that there are so few good books written is that so few people who write know anything.

    Can an undying creature debit petty expenses and charge for carriage paid? The soul ties its shoes; the mind washes its hands in a basin. All is incongruous.

    The trouble with mysticism is that it is true.

    A constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities.

    A family on the throne is an interesting idea. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life.

    A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.

    A man's mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault.

    A severe though not unfriendly critic of our institutions said that the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it.

    All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality - the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.

    An influential member of parliament has not only to pay much money to become such, and to give time and labour, he has also to sacrifice his mind too - at least all the characteristics part of it that which is original and most his own.

    Conquest is the missionary of valor, and the hard impact of military virtues beats meanness out of the world.

    Dullness in matters of government is a good sign, and not a bad one - in particular, dullness in parliamentary government is a test of its excellence, an indication of its success.

    Honor sinks where commerce long prevails.

    In every particular state of the world, those nations which are strongest tend to prevail over the others; and in certain marked peculiarities the strongest tend to be the best.

    It is good to be without vices, but it is not good to be without temptations.

    Men who do not make advances to women are apt to become victims to women who make advances to them.

    No great work has ever been produced except after a long interval of still and musing meditation.

    No real English gentleman, in his secret soul, was ever sorry for the death of a political economist.

    Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind.

    One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.

    Poverty is an anomaly to rich people; it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.

    The best history is but like the art of Rembrandt; it casts a vivid light on certain selected causes, on those which were best and greatest; it leaves all the rest in shadow and unseen.

    The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.

    The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.

    The greatest mistake is trying to be more agreeable than you can be.

    The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.

    The habit of common and continuous speech is a symptom of mental deficiency. It proceeds from not knowing what is going on in other people's minds.

    The real essence of work is concentrated energy.

Christianity is not about ethics

Christianity is not about ethics - it is in a sense not even about religion, is in many ways anti-religious.

Jesus did not really preach ethics and disapproved of the ethicists, devout Sadducees and Pharisees of His day - He came to save us from religion in a sense. He did not preach against the Law but he preached something much greater than the Law.

Ethics is what non-believers imagine Christianity is about whereas Christianity teaches us to ask for divine grace not to follow an ethical code by our own efforts. 
Certainly in  Romania you feel that ethics is not at all central to Christianity. Ethics in the Romanian Orthodox Church seems peripheral while the liturgy is central. And Romanians combine an instinctual religiosity and interest in the otherworldly with a realistic appreciation and understanding of the worldly. This is I suppose why people in the Orthodox countries are more religious and in many ways less moral than in Western countries. Things here tend to be about people and emotions not rules.

Eugene Ionesco's remark is very true: religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries.