Friday 21 February 2014

Words and phrases I hate

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The phrase I most hate is 'his or her'. It is not wrong, of course, but very clunking and almost unknown until forty or fifty years ago. Much more correct is saying HIS to mean 'his or her'. 

But in my business emails I use 'his or her' for fear of some scandal. Max Beerbohm said that
the Nonconformist conscience doth make cowards of us all.
Nowadays feminism has taken over from the Nonconformist conscience but the two are essentially the same thing - puritanism.

My second great hate, germane to the first, is using 'their' to mean his (or her) - 'their' instead of 'his or her' is simply wrong. HIS is the word.

Of course I know that everyone says ' his or her' nowadays. This makes no difference. 

I am not criticising foreigners when I say I hate the following mistakes. My criticism is only for native speakers, of course, but the solecisms I hate (I do not claim to be original but I am very sincere) are 

1. 'Presently' used to mean at present rather than 'in a while'. This is the semantic equivalent of the sin against the Holy Ghost. Misusing 'presently' is not just ignorant but vulgar. It is the kind of thing you often get in e-mails full of impenetrable business jargon - the capitalist equivalent of the 'language of wood' used by Communists up to 1989.

2. 'Decimate' used to mean reduce to one tenth. It means reduce BY one tenth. There is no excuse for this, except I suppose ignorance.

3. 'Less' when 'fewer' is meant makes me react as if I heard a knife scraped against a plate.

4. 'Disinterested' used to mean 'uninterested' means the speaker or writer is not well-read.

5. 'Fulsome' used to mean 'full' or 'effusive', instead of insincere. This is a common, venial error, but annoying all the same.

Here is a site 
"for people who have silently wept into a crumpled copy of their workplace’s mission statement; who have been underpinned by a strategically aligned, innovative, creative, sustainable synergy."  
However much people say there is no reason why you shouldn't split infinitives it almost always sounds dreadful to me when they do. Shakespeare never split one and nor did John Dryden, Alexander Pope or the King James Version of the Bible. Dr. Johnson very rarely split one, although there was no prohibition in those days against them. That came as recently as the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, so the rule is not old but it is well-known. Rules are made to be broken but you should know what the rules are before you break them. I dislike split infinitives because they usually sound ugly, not because I am a clerical fascist or other social pariah.

On the other hand, I do not get cross about misusing 'comprise' to mean comprised of and I am not omniscient. I only recently learnt the difference between homogenous and homogeneous. 

People who read my blog a lot will also know that I hate it when people use Mumbai, Yangon, Beijing, etc. when writing English, rather than Bombay, Rangoon or Peking. We do not call Bucharest Bucuresti in English. I wish I could revive Persia and Constantinople and quite often do.

I dislike 'kids' to mean children and never use it except to mean young goats - and I also HATE 'hi'. And strangers calling me by my Christian name, though my software in the office, with which I send out mass mails, ashamed-makingly, makes me commit this solecism.

I once did not (often) say 'OK' but computers made that word inescapable. I used to say 'phone' but hearing an Etonian friend of exquisite good taste, a chevalier sans raproche, using the word 'telephone' made me resolve always to do so and I keep this up.

I was brought up to say 'five and twenty to' or after the hour when telling the time and kept this up until my mid thirties when someone mocked me for it and I let it drop. It is rather working-class. The only person other than my father who used it was a railway porter when I asked him the time.

I like the word 'ain't' which my parents told me earnestly never to use. I remember Enoch Powell shocking Bill Grundy by using it on TV. This was before the Sex Pistols shocked him out of his job by saying 'f-' on television. Now the f-word is commonplace on television, so I read, but 'nigger', even mumbled in an outtake, is a sacking offence. And so it goes. Does anyone use 'ain't' anymore? A boy who lived down the road whom I played with when I was little used to use it.

'Ain't' is perfectly correct, just vulgar. Pardon is non-U which is not the same as vulgar. I remember Jilly Cooper's child offended her neighbour by telling her that 'Mummy says it is better to say 'f-' than to say 'pardon'. This kind of snobbery about U and Non-U was the most lasting influence I brought away from Cambridge, I suspect.

I very much hate truanting, beloved of the BBC in the 1990s, instead of playing truant. Apart from being illiterate it has the sad smell of social workers about it.

I abominate Brit. I dislike Briton too which makes me think of bearded Druids. It's pompous and 18th century. 

(I am launching a campaign to say England when we mean Britain, but this is material for another post. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Scotland, a great country that I love with all my heart and hope one day to visit. But Disraeli signed the Treaty of Berlin as 'Prime Minister of England' and Churchill always spoke of England not of Britain. So did almost everyone until forty years ago.)

The truth is that a case can be made for all the words and phrases I object to being correct, on the ground that they have all been used in the past in the way I complain of and therefore are legitimate. Liberal and prescriptive attitudes to grammar, as to politics, are in the end disguised psychology, but split infinitives sound very bad and 'presently' misused is not the way civilised people speak. Perhaps it all comes down to class and attitudes to authority in the end. Lots of things do.

Here I stand. I can do no other. Please tell me what words and phrases annoy you.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

'Learning maths is even more pointless than Latin'

This interesting article by Simon Jenkins in today's Guardian is a refreshing diatribe against mathematics. 

I wonder what subjects schools should teach. What come to mind immediately are: driving, typing, religious instruction (as opposed to religious education), cooking, history, literature, especially poetry (but nothing after 1945 please), German and at least one other language, probably Spanish or Russian (and teach lots of grammar rather than trying to get thirty boys to make conversation), history of art, useful non-team sports like tennis that people will actually play in adult life and, most important of all, psychology. 

The most important are the life lessons taught by other children in the playground - and these can be incredibly painful for children who do not fit in.  Philip Larkin put it well.
When I was at school I thought I hated the human race, but when I grew up I realised it was just children I couldn't stand.
It would be much better to skip these often very damaging playground lessons which are a form of child abuse. If you can afford a private tutor for your child, get one. In Bucharest they are affordable.

In fact, a lot of schooling can now be done at home over the internet which is the best place for children to learn but if I am right we should need to decide whether schools are necessary to educate children or to enable mothers to go out to work. There is no longer much need for many universities. Most universities should become virtual and teach largely online. This will enable a much wider access to university - to everyone of any age, class, nationality and educational achievement who has sufficient access to the net. There should only remain a few major universities in each country, for educating a small academically-minded elite and for conducting research. Such universities should only teach real subjects and this would not include vocational subjects like law or medicine, or still less that trahison des clercs 'business education'.

I think teaching comparative religion to British schoolchildren instead of Christianity (or another religion if the school is Jewish or Muslim) was the most significant development of that very socially liberal decade the 1980s and will have immensely far-reaching and disastrous consequences.

I do not agree with Simon Jenkins that teaching Latin is necessarily a bad idea, unless like me you were taught using the Cambridge Latin Course and therefore not taught to write Latin. If you are taught by that accursed course, which is still widely used, and get a grade A at A Level, as I did, you still cannot read Latin - or not without a crib. So what is the point? My school gave me a choice between German, Latin and Russian as the second foreign language and I wish I had learnt Russian instead of Latin. If I had, I could now read Pushkin in the original and make myself understood in Samarkand or Yerevan.

In any case, Latin should just be for the fairly few children (few boys at least, more girls) who have literary tastes (as should most courses at universities, come to that, except for maths and the hard sciences). Latin should be accompanied by Greek, which gives you very many more good things to read. Latin literature is overrated. One learns a language to read poetry, as prose can be translated. Catullus is wonderful, I must reread Horace now that I am the age to enjoy him, Virgil and Ovid are very good indeed but none are as good as Shakespeare and English literature has many more great poets than Latin. Latin, though, is enormously influential. Ovid begat Shakespeare, for example. So there is a case for teaching Latin, though not an overwhelmingly strong one. The same is true of maths.

Writing this rigmarole, I am put in mind of the Mock Turtle:
'We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—'
'I'VE been to a day-school, too,' said Alice; 'you needn't be so proud as all that.'
'With extras?' asked the Mock Turtle a little anxiously.
'Yes,' said Alice, 'we learned French and music.'
'And washing?' said the Mock Turtle.
'Certainly not!' said Alice indignantly.
'Ah! then yours wasn't a really good school,' said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief.
These words are uttered sublimely by Sir John Gielgud here. 

Tuesday 18 February 2014

What the UN really wants from the Catholic Church - it's much more than just about preventing sex crimes

"The UN watchdog for children’s rights denounced the Holy See for adopting policies allowing priests to sexually abuse thousands of children. 
"It heavily criticised the Vatican’s attitudes towards homosexuality, contraception and abortion."

The terrible crimes again children by Catholic priests are truly appalling but the recent Report by the UN Committee on Children berating the Church goes much further than saying this and criticising the Church for the way it responded to the crimes. The Report itself is an extraordinary attack on the Church and, in fact, on Christianity. The Catholic Church's response has been far too mild. 

My friend who wrote this analysis says, "clerical sex abuse was homosexual in nature" - I'd like more information about whether this is so. Most victims of these terrible crimes were boys but some were girls. In any case, people should know that the UN wants the Church to change her teaching on women, abortion and homosexuality. 

This is almost unbelievable but has passed without notice by journalists who spend their time criticising the Church. The UN Children's Committee is not an institution to be respected but an enemy worth fighting. As Guy Crouchback felt about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy - it is 'the modern world in arms'.

An interesting analysis is here.

Monday 17 February 2014

"I’m annoyed at hearing ‘you’ll kill children’ in the foreign media. We don’t use that kind of language anymore."

The Belgians are “surprised” that much – not enough, but still much – of the world is repulsed by the country legalising child euthanasiaFrom the Reuters story:

Bart Sturtewagen, chief editor of De Standaard, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers, said that after 12 years of legal euthanasia in the country, Belgians had grown used to it as an option for the final stages of their lives. “I’m annoyed at hearing ‘you’ll kill children’ in the foreign media. We don’t use that kind of language anymore. It’s a very different debate on a different level,” he said..
In Belgium the age of criminal responsibility is 18 but when this law is signed by the King there will be no minimum age below which a child in Belgium is deemed too young to give consent to being killed. At present the age limit is 12.

The last country in Europe to legalise abortion is a pioneer in child euthanasia. This is not just about Belgium but is a trend spreading across Europe. 

Europe is dying in so many senses.

The floods in Great Britain are not caused by climate change - official

For a sixth week storms continue to batter Great Britain. It is a lie that the floods have anything to do with climate change. My friend Tom Cain put it beautifully on Facebook (I quote with his permission).

In case you believe the lie that the floods - whose immediate cause is wet weather brought on by a shift in the jet stream - have anything to do with climate change, listen to Professor Mat Collins. He's the Associate Professor in Climate Systems at the University of Exeter, and co-ordinating lead author to the International Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report, Chapter 12: “Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility.” Collins said at the weekend: "There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jet stream to get stuck in the way it has this winter. If this is due to climate change, it is outside our knowledge." 
Just guessing, but my suspicion is that having devoted his entire career to the study and modelling of climate change, Collins (a) knows more about it than David Cameron, Ed Miliband, et al and (b) would be only too happy to ascribe the deluge to climate change if there were any scientific justification for doing so. But there isn't. So he doesn't.

The ideology of climate change (it is an ideology because it is no longer susceptible to scientific disproof) reminds me of Whittaker Chambers's explanation of Communism as
'in fact, man's second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: 'Ye shall be as gods.' It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man's relationship to God. The Communists vision is the vision of Man without God. It is the vision of man's mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world." 
If the weather is awful this does not mean the climate is changing but if the climate is changing - and Bucharest's taxi drivers seem unanimous that it is this, and if human activity has some part in the process, this  does not mean human activity is of crucial importance or that we can prevent warming. We are clearly living in the end of an Ice Age. This was clear to me, who hates physics, as soon as climate change was first bruited abroad. 

I should be a guru or at least a famous writer.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum in the introduction to Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 quotes Hannah Arendt, who said the story of how East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria became Communist after the war
 while unspeakably terrible, is without much interest of its own and varies very little.
Naturally Miss Applebaum thinks otherwise and sets out to show the manner in which each country became Communist. Each country of course was sui generis but each became Communist because Stalin and the international communist movement which did his bidding willed it. Hannah Arendt is right. The history of these years is very harrowing and not in the end particularly enlightening.  

Let us always remember that Eric Hobsbawm, C.H., referred to the process by which these countries became satellites of Stalin as the 'East European revolutions'. This man Hobsbawm  was accorded great respect when I read history at Cambridge in the 1980s.

Anne Applebaum takes us through the results of a quarter of a century of historical research since the end of the Cold War and this adds much to the story. She reminds us that the Communists in 1945 believed in their doctrine. They believed they could win free elections because had they thought they would inevitably fail to win mass support they would not have been Marxists. This is a point worth making and stressing. The Communists who took power in the region in the late 1940s were working for a foreign power, were therefore traitors, from a democratic or conservative point of view, but they were also dedicated idealists and brave men - in most cases at least. There were a few exceptions, of whom one might be Bierut Boleslaw, who became leader of Poland. Nothing much is known about what he did in the war. Like the other 'Muscovite' Communist leaders he was a spy but his career is very murky before 1945. Miss Applebaum speculates that he was a double agent whom Stalin could blackmail. Perhaps, though Stalin could blackmail anyone living in the Communist bloc.

We should always bear in mind that what is long in the past was once in the future. No-one expected the USA to keep troops in Europe after the war. The fact that they did so is Stalin's greatest failure. It was expected that Britain would face the Communists alone, with only shattered France's support, and Britain had been almost destroyed by her Pyrrhic victory over Germany and Japan. Britain had no means of stopping Russia imposing Communism on Eastern Europe, though her prestige is the reason Stalin insisted that a Communist Greece was out of the question - he said Britain would never tolerate it. Even with the decision of Harry Truman to keep his men in Europe and wage the Cold War the Western powers had no means of leverage in Eastern Europe. Yet for some reason East Europeans blame America and Britain for selling them out in Yalta. It makes no sense yet everyone in Romania continues to trot out this idea.

Stalin would have been better off allowing the Finlandisation of Eastern Europe - allowing the Eastern European countries to have democratic systems in return for their being the USSR's allies as Finland was. This would probably have meant the USA leaving Europe to its own devices. If Stalin wanted a cordon sanitaire, as he did, to protect the USSR from Germany and Britain, a ring of Finlands would have provided this, but he wanted more. He believed in the inevitable victory of Communism and wanted to export the revolution. And Soviet society needed an enemy - so the Cold War served his purposes. When Khrushchev offered to permit the unification of Germany - in effect handing over the DDR (East Germany) to the Federal Republic in return for German neutrality America and NATO foolishly turned down the offer. Ulbricht was horrified by Khrushchev's offer but it was only Eisenhower who saved him and the DDR.

I learnt from this book that Churchill did ask his planners in spring 1945 to look at the possibility of war with the USSR in central Europe. The plan called Operation Unthinkable turned out, predictably, to be completely impractical and unaffordable. What was tragic was the decision not to push further East when the Allied armies had the chance in 1944 and 1945. Eisenhower’s decision to liberate Paris rather than attack Germany, for example, meant the Iron Curtain was further west than it need have been, but in any case Romania's fate would have depended on Stalin. Romania would have only been saved from Communism had the Allies attacked Germany via Yugoslavia rather than via Italy or had Britain and France not gone to war with Germany at all in 1939. 

The blurb reminded me of something I had forgotten, that Anne Applebaum is married to Mr Sikorsky, the Polish Foreign Minister. (He was a member of the Bullingdon Club and is alongside David Cameron and Boris Johnson in that famous photograph). Her book is very strongly weighted to Poland, covers Hungary and East Germany in detail, does not say much about Czechoslovakia, elides Romania and Bulgaria and does not cover Yugoslavia or Albania at all, nor the countries that ended up back in the USSR.

For me the most interesting part was the history of the Polish resistance to the Communists, particularly the WiN. What a great country Poland is – I yearn to revisit. I learnt that there was some sort of a Hungarian resistance too. What interests me more is the moving and heroic story of the Romanian and Ukrainian resistances, but these are not mentioned.

Conflict between Muslims and Christians had already led to the forced migrations of Greeks and Turks before and after the First World War. In 1945 and 1946 a Procrustean reordering  of East Europe's ethnic minorities further north took place. An ethnic war was was fought between Ukrainians and Poles which the world ignored. Ethnic Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians were expelled from the places across Central and Eastern Europe in which their families had lived for many centuries. The whole story of displaced persons - the so-called DPs- is calamitous. Coming after the slaughter of the Jews by the Germans, by 1950 a terrible simplicity had been imposed on Eastern European countries which had hitherto been ethnic mixtures. 

Attlee, Stalin and Truman at Potsdam in 1945 ordered these vast movements of people to get rid of the ethnic patchwork that had led to war in 1939. At almost the same time, oddly enough, the ethnically homogeneous countries, Britain, France and Holland, began to become rapidly multi-ethnic. British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, agreeing to the ethnic cleansing of Turkey in 1923, had agreed that ethnic minorities do not live happily side by side but the British Government by the 1960s had changed its mind.

I was recently reading Mircea Eliade’s Lisbon Diary, written while he worked as a diplomat in Salazar’s neutral Portugal. For him the defeat of Germany by Communist Russia was a disaster because it was a disaster for Romania. It is hard not to agree with him  that Romania would have been much better off had the Axis won, her Jews apart, and we do not know what their fate would have been in Antonescu’s Romania had the Axis won.

Things are as they are and happened the way they happened. There is not much point in wondering what would have happened if ...except to remind ourselves that there was nothing inevitable about the way things happened. To think otherwise is to fall into the Marxist fallacy of historicism. Stalin won the Second World War and so did Communism and many left-wing ideas. The Communists eventually gave up their grip on Eastern Europe but socialists and Marxists remain influential because they had been on the winning side in history. The defeat of the Nazis, a very good thing in itself, also led to a big left-wing shift in thinking. Had, say, the Kaiser won the Great War in 1915, or the Great War been avoided or had Nazi Germany not gone to war things might have been completely different. It might be that colonial empires still stretched across Africa and Asia, Europe remained white or the USA were still isolationist as the founding fathers intended. The EU, on the other hand, might have existed in a Europe dominated by the second or third German Reichs. We do not know. As it is, Communism was finally defeated in Eastern Europe, thankfully, after more than forty years of horror. 

In Western Europe, as a response to Stalinism, the democratic left largely won the battle of ideas, meaning ideas like: decolonialisation, confiscation of money from the rich, redistribution of income, the state being responsible for planning and managing the economy, the welfare state and legislating for sexual, racial and every other kind of equality.  

The one hopeful chapter in this book is the last, about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, even though it was a brave, sad failure and repressed with much bloodshed. Anne Applebaum makes the point that no-one expected the uprising - Western experts and Communists alike assumed the Hungarians had been brainwashed to accept totalitarianism. In fact, every fresh generation is born with an instinct to discern truth from falsehood. This is why we must never lose hope.

Friday 7 February 2014

Snobbery with violence: John Buchan and Al Qaeda

I have been sick for a couple of days and stayed at home, unable to do much work. The one consolation for being sick is that reading John Buchan becomes possible. He is my comfort blanket. So I reread Greenmantle.

My mother read The Thirty-Nine Steps to me when I was five and I loved all his books. Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and his companions, Sandy Arbuthnot and Peter Pienaar, are family, though, on this reading, the fourth in the group, the dyspeptic John S. Blenkiron, is an unconvincing stage American. His American accent sounds horribly false. 

Buchan is the link between Robert Louis Stevenson and John Le Carre, but is closer to the former. How strange to see what books become classics, but a classic is simply a book that continues to sell well after its copyright has expired. John Buchan is now a classic writer, while Wyndham Lewis is forgotten and George Meredith is fading away.

Buchan is a very fine writer and is in my heart's blood, but I long ago outgrew him. I am astonished to remember that I read Buchan's novels with pleasure while at university - how young I must have been then - but only when sick can I now read them. They are far too light. They depend on a number of extraordinary coincidences and consist largely of a series of chases, something Buchan excelled at.

I got half way through Greenmantle in November 2001 while sick and then put it down, but not without noting that this book, which I had always considered deeply old-fashioned - that is a large part of its charm - had suddenly after September 11 become topical.

For those who missed out on Greenmantle in their adolescence, it is about a German plot in the First World War to organise a jihad or holy war to rouse the British Mahometans in India to fight for the Caliph against Britain. 

It was the Caliph/Sultan/Ottoman Emperor's decision (in fact the decision of the disastrous 'Young Turk', Enver Pasha) to declare war on the Allies and Turkey's subsequent defeat which led to the end of both the Caliphate, which Al Qaeda wants to restore, and the Ottoman Empire, It created the mess we have today in the Middle East. Regular readers of my blog already know my lament. If the Turks had stayed out of the war there would have been no Saudi Arabia, no Israel, no Syria or Lebanon, no Armenian genocide and Turkey might retain her huge Greek population along with a lot of oil.

 Sandy Arbuthnot's words throw light on the impulse which has led to Al Qaeda.
"The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by and by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked.....And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft... It isn't inhuman. It's the humanity of one part of the human race."
The problem comes, Arbuthnot says, when this longing for purity and the "simplicity of the ascetic" is replaced by "the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilisation". This sounds like Osama bin Laden.

The BBC were dramatising Greenmantle on Radio 4 when the terrible bombings took place of the London tube by, as it turned out, British Muslims in 2005. The BBC pulled the serial for fear of causing offence, though it is not clear how it might have done. Charles Moore wrote beautifully about this and about the book here.

Nowadays I feel like the protagonist of Graham Greene's wonderful The Ministry of Fear, who says, during the Blitz, apostrophising his dead Edwardian mother, 
The world has been re-made by William Le Queux
A shame Hitchcock who filmed The Thirty-Nine Steps did not film Greenmantle as he wanted to. He thought it a better book than The Thirty-Nine Steps. (I disagree. The Thirty-Nine Steps is sparer.) However, they could not agree on a price for the rights. 

Two more serious books that suddenly became topical on September 11th were Joseph Conrad's great masterpieces, The Secret Agent, the world's first spy novel, which Hitchcock improbably did film, and the second one, Under Western Eyes. Everyone nowadays should read both of them because they are about the psychology of terrorism, but Greenmantle is also a rattling good yarn. Read it if you have not outgrown rattling good yarns or if you are sick.

Alan Bennett, in his very funny first play, Forty Years On, parodies Buchan hilariously and refers to him, Dornford Yates (very droll) and Sapper (an unpleasant fascist without literary skill) as purveyors of 'snobbery with violence'. It's a sublime pun, but in fact there is not much violence in Buchan and it is of the most wholesome kind. Hannay is always a clean fighter and a chevalier sans raprocheEven when faced, in one book, with a man who holds in his hand anthrax with which he proposes to poison a town Hannay does not fire at him unprovoked. Come to think of it, Buchan is not at all a snob either, though very establishment.

Mr. Bennett borrowed 'snobbery with violence', by the way, with permission, from one Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalkwho in 1932 had used it as the title of a pamphlet. The Count sounds interesting. He was a New Zealander, who is described by Wikipedia as a 'poet, polemicist, pagan and pretender to the Polish throne'.
It was a  great surprise to me when a biography of Auberon Herbert came out called The Man who was Greenmantle and I discovered that the whole improbable story was based on historical truth. You can read about Herbert, the remarkable man who was the basis for Sandy Arbuthnot and who twice declined the crown of Albania (as did C.B. Fry, the cricketer), here.

I knew I was feeling much better last night when I skipped most of the last two chapters to reach the end. But it was fun to have remet old friends.

Now I have returned to Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, a highly acclaimed historical novel set in Burma, which is much more adult, very easy to read but no-one can know whether it will be read in a hundred years' time and the statistical chances are slim. It has in fact a lot in common with Greenmantle, including an exciting plot and the themes of war and imperialism. For Buchan the British Empire is good, for Ghosh bad, Buchan's heroes are thoroughly chaste and know nothing of women, whereas The Glass Palace has plenty of sex, but both simply reflect the ideas of their times, without original thinking. People do not read novels to be asked to reconsider conventional ideas.

A lot of Buchan's conventional ideas seem to me sound, especially his strong belief in the great men theory of history, which I remember Alan Bennett mocks very amusingly. Marxists, who see history as propelled by class struggle, tend to hate the great men theory and yet the history of Marxism-Leninism is not about great historical forces. It is about Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and some others. Let's not forget Pol Pot too.  

The story of Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and the beautiful, evil Hilda von Einem is very far-fetched, but so is the real history of Lenin's plots, which remade the world. If only Richard Hannay had been able to stop Lenin as he stopped Hilda von Einem and the Black Stone how much misery we should have been spared. If Sandy Arbuthnot, who knew many curious places and people in Aleppo, were in Syria now, in one of his impenetrable disguises, we should be much safer.

Monday 3 February 2014

Life as a party which I gatecrashed

George Kennan said, 
"One sometimes feels a guest of one's time and not a member of its household." 
Actually I never really felt like a guest. I always felt a bit like a stranger who had wandered into a party uninvited. I think this is the human condition and I remember Monsignor Gilbey used it as an argument for the existence of heaven, but I feel this applies more to me than to most of those around me. They seem to belong at this party.

For example, unlike the others, I never heard of any of the famous men who die these days. I had never heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Lou Read or Pete Seeger or Phil Everly. I think I had vaguely heard of Maximilian Schell, though I might have suspected him of possibly being either a woman or a soft porn film. 

I just put 'black singer died' into Google to remind me of the name of one Barry White, of whom I had not heard when he went to a better place. I heard of Freddy Mercury a day or two before his death, thanks to the BBC News.

I just now came across someone in his late 30s lamenting that he had met someone in their teens who had not heard of Heath Ledger. Nor had I but - and this is the killer - he died a decade or more ago.

I am evidently no longer young. But I realised this when I realised I was older than Basil Radford was in The Lady Vanishes.

A character in that wonderful novel, The Rector's Daughter, says of himself that he ignored his own generation and this was very priggish. I did too and agree that it is a very big mistake. Although, if you were in your teens in the 1970s, when almost the actors, singers, television stars and politicians were pretty ghastly, the fault is venial. 

Think of President Nixon.... and those dreadful suits he wore...and Patty Nixon. Though in retrospect he was rather a good president. Harold Wilson, Edward Heath....Cilla Black, Slade, all that awful rhythmic uneuphonious noise called music. The architecture, the executive semis in grey brick with Georgian bits stuck on unconvincingly. Even Pope Paul VI, though I wept when he died, was scarcely an impressive pope.

The only two famous 1970s figures whom I can think of with affection, offhand, were the comedians Eric Morecambe and Eric Sykes. Were there any others?

But there were wonderful Englishmen alive in every decade and the death of one of the finest, Kenneth Rose, last week hits me hard. I wish I had met him. He was the author of one of of the funniest books I have ever read, his biography of King George V. Sir Harold Nicolson who had written the King's official biography said in despair that he did nothing for years except stick stamps into albums. Rose, on the other hand, with a free hand that was denied Nicolson, turns the King into one of the immortal comic characters of English literature.

I remember so many stories from that book and wonder which ones to quote. Perhaps the story of how the King and Queen were shown round the world's first plastics factory by Sir Alfred Mond the Chairman of ICI who explained the process by which plastics were made in great detail. At the end the King turned to the Queen and said,
'Isn't that marvellous? And it's all made with milk, you know. Isn't that right, Mond?'
To which Mond replied,
'Yes, sir.'
Yet the King, though no intellectual, and in some ways very flawed, is yet an attractive figure, saying to one of his Prime Ministers (probably Baldwin?) that 
I worry that my subjects don't say their prayers at night. 
The King said when someone's homosexuality was mentioned,
I thought people like that shot themselves.
I remember my lecturer, David Cannadine, in a review of the book, thought that remark deplorable. I thought it showed a charming unworldliness. (James Callaghan, by the way, did not hear about homosexuality until he was in his thirties, despite being in the navy. If only such innocence were possible now.)

Rose's equally amusing The Later Cecils, which has wonderful anecdotes about twentieth century members of the Cecil family, is exactly the kind of book that makes Guardian readers foam at the mouth. It deserves praise for that but it has many other merits. The story that comes to my mind is about the Rev. Lord William Cecil, presented with a statuette by wartime refugees whom he had housed. He looked at it, his mind turning to the reasons why they had been billeted on him, and said mournfully,

War is a terrible thing.
I own but have not opened Rose's life of Lord Curzon. Curzon's patrician glamour and what one biographer called his 'rollicking pomposity' made it easy to overrate him, especially in our egalitarian era. 

The Telegraph's obituary makes it clear that Rose was a charming social climber. Social climbing was one of many pretty harmless activities that I always used to consider morally wrong but in fact I wish I had been one. I often tell myself that these days but do not bother to do anything about it and thereby miss out on kindred spirits and good conversation.