Saturday 31 October 2015

Tragic explosion kills dozens in Bucharest nightclub

I do hope none of my readers had loved ones injured in the terrible fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest and my heart goes out to everyone whose life is touched by this.

There were 300 to 400 people ere at a free concert given by a group called Goodbye to Gravity in the club on Friday night. 27 are reported dead, hundreds injured and the death toll will probably rise.

A fireworks display around the stage set the club’s ceiling caught fire. When the first sparks flew, the lead singer joked that they weren't part of the heavy metal band's performance. Then there was an explosion and heavy smoke, then a stampede for the door.

Health and safety has always been a joke in many or most restaurants, bars and clubs in Bucharest.

The accidents and emergencies departments of Bucharest's hospitals were overwhelmed. What will happen when the inevitable earthquake comes?

Bogdan Oprita, at the Emergency Hospital in Strada Floreasca, said it was the worst bloodshed since the revolution.

Violeta Maria Naca, an ambulance worker, said in a Facebook post:

There was a child with 70 percent burns. I was crying. The flesh was coming off him. He was asking whether he would live. If it was serious," she wrote. "He was almost in a coma. Blood and tears were coming out of his eyes. He asked me to hold his hand. I told him I had a boy the same age.
Delia Tugui, who was at the concert with her husband and son, said on Facebook:
The lead singer made a quick joke: 'This wasn't part of the program.' The next second, he realised it wasn't a joke and asked for a fire extinguisher. In 30 seconds the fire spread all over the ceiling. People rushed to the entrance but it was too narrow, and people panicked.....Friends were looking for each other under the pile of people. It was a nightmare....I realised that those on the other side of the bar would not get out alive...I was two metres from the door and I barely got out.
Then there was a blast and her hair caught fire.

Here is a witness account in an interview with the BBC.

It might not necessarily be just about a  Romanian club, bar or restaurant ignoring safety regulations, which most do. We shall find out. Several major nightclub fires around the world, so the press says, have been caused by fireworks igniting foam used for soundproofing, including one in the U.S.A. that killed 100 people in Rhode Island in 2003, but why does anyone set off fireworks indoors ever?

This tragedy has shown what a beautiful, emotional place Bucharest is. It's a village where everyone knows everyone and what they are thinking (London in Gladstone and Disraeli's time was like that). I can never make up my mind how a city which has so much sense of community and cohesion (patriotism, shared values, religious faith) has at the same time so very little (widespread corruption, ruthless individualism). This tragedy showed the sense of community as Bucuresteni lined up to give blood, theatres and concert venues were closed and the clubs emptied by common accord.

Hotel Continental, Cluj

I stayed in the Hotel Continental in Cluj once, in 2004, in a beautiful first floor room overlooking the square. Patrick Leigh Fermor drank in the bar in 1934. A wonderful old-fashioned hotel. I am told it has been closed for a long time for renovation and I fear the worst. At the very best its ghosts will be exorcised.

Thursday 29 October 2015

The new religion

This is an interesting article by an Anglican clergyman, written in 2009, headlined
Britain is no longer a Christian nation.
The Rev. Paul Richardson says
Disestablishment will actually pose major problems for society. Every country needs shared rituals and celebrations to foster a sense of community and provide a backdrop to major national occasions. 
We are going to have to invent a new civil religion. Already the process has begun with the observance of Holocaust Day and increasing focus on Human Rights as providing a shared basis for morality.
This is exactly what is happening in Britain, where Christianity is in steep decline and other religions are flourishing thanks to large-scale immigration. We are seeing a new secular religion based on human rights, many of which are entitlements rather than freedoms, and are in fact restrictions on the freedoms of other people, such as employers, for example. We are also seeing welfare considerations taking the place of the sacred.
I again quote Edward Norman, whom I consider the greatest living Englishman and our best historian. He was an Anglican Low Church clergyman, who in the end has become a Catholic.
"Extraordinarily enough, the leaders of the Church manage to identify the present welfare idealism - which is based in Humanist materialism - as fundamental Christianity, an application of the love of neighbour enjoined by Christ. But preoccupation with material welfare, whatever higher considerations may become attached to it, cultivates worldliness, and is an enemy of authentic faith."

"The Churches themselves, in fact, have rushed to acclaim the new humanism - the `caring society - as the very essence of Christianity. But it is actually quite pagan, concentrating as it does on the merely worldly needs of people in a way which is plainly contrary to the renunciations indicated in the teachings of Christ. This is not an academic matter. For when Christians identify the present secular enthusiasm for humanity as basic Christianity - the love of neighbour - they are in reality acclaiming and legitimising their own replacement."

Charles Glass on the origins of the Syrian war

I have been saying that, unlike the disastrous chaos in Iraq and Libya, the war in Syria cannot be blamed on the USA, the UK or France. It pains me to read about a lecture given by foreign correspondent Charles Glass, in which he argued that this might be my mistake.

He said that the U.S., Britain and France had long harboured a wish to get rid of the Syrian regime. When the Syrian revolution began, his contacts in the opposition told him they were determined to keep the movement non-violent, “to use a strategy the regime couldn’t cope with”: mass civil disobedience and general strikes. Instead, they told him, the Western powers and their allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey “persuaded members of opposition to take up arms, and turn peaceful demonstrations in a civil war.”
Is this true?  It is impossible to know but it must reflect how some people in the 'moderate rebel' camp remember it. Some in the opposition might have interpreted the declarations by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton that "Assad must go" as a sign of support for them to remove Assad by any means. it is widely believed that the Qataris and Saudis were pumping in weapons from early on in the "Syria spring".

Glass pointed out that  if the United States and its Islamist regional allies prevail, “that means Jahbat al Nusra [al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate] wins, Syria will be religiously cleansed, and its people will be enslaved to an ideology they don’t believe in.” This is exactly what I have thought for years. He thinks total victory for Assad (surely impossible?) would mean a bloodbath. But a bloodbath is what is happening at the moment.

On the current trajectory, Glass said, the most likely outcome is not victory for either side, but “a long and bloody war with a big impact on Europe that endures as a problem in U.S. foreign policy for years to come.” 

I imagine this is what will happen. But if Iran, Saudi Arabia, the USA, and, I suppose, Russia were to come to a deal a peace could come quickly.

In an interview on Monday Mr Glass said:the US is still allowing the Saudis to give weapons to the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, including anti-tank weapons.

Either this is fine with American policy and consistent with it, or they’ve simply lost control over the course of events.

Tony Abbott urges Europe to close its borders

This week we learnt that 710,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the EU so far this year. 38% were (apparently) Syrians. This is an historical event as important as the end of the Cold War.

Tony Abbott until five weeks ago was the Liberal [Australian equivalent of Conservative] Prime Minister of Australia. On Tuesday night at the Guildhall in London, before an audience that included many British cabinet ministers, he delivered  the Margaret Thatcher Centre's annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture.

Tony Abbot is a devout Catholic and was a Catholic seminarian. He had these words to say about how the West should deal with migrants, which are worth two minutes of your time.

Implicitly or explicitly, the imperative to "love your neighbour as you love yourself" is at the heart of every Western polity. It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees. It's what makes us decent and humane countries as well as prosperous ones, but – right now – this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error.

All countries that say "anyone who gets here can stay here" are now in peril, given the scale of the population movements that are starting to be seen. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of people, living in poverty and danger who might readily seek to enter a Western country if the opportunity is there.

Who could blame them? Yet no country or continent can open its borders to all comers without fundamentally weakening itself. This is the risk that the countries of Europe now run through misguided altruism.

On a somewhat smaller scale, Australia has faced the same predicament and overcome it. The first wave of illegal arrivals to Australia peaked at 4000 people a year, back in 2001, before the Howard government first stopped the boats: by processing illegal arrivals offshore; by denying them permanent residency; and in a handful of cases, by turning illegal immigrant boats back to Indonesia.

The second wave of illegal boat people was running at the rate of 50,000 a year – and rising fast – by July 2013, when the Rudd government belatedly reversed its opposition to offshore processing; and then my government started turning boats around, even using orange lifeboats when people smugglers deliberately scuttled their vessels.

It's now 18 months since a single illegal boat has made it to Australia. The immigration detention centres have-all-but-closed; budget costs peaking at $4 billion a year have ended; and – best of all – there are no more deaths at sea. That's why stopping the boats and restoring border security is the only truly compassionate thing to do.

Because Australia once more has secure borders and because it's the Australian government rather than people smugglers that now controls our refugee intake, there was massive public support for my government's decision, just last month, to resettle 12,000 members of persecuted minorities from the Syrian conflict – per capita, the biggest resettlement contribution that any country has made.

Now, while prime minister, I was loath to give public advice to other countries whose situations are different; but because people smuggling is a global problem, and because Australia is the only country that has successfully defeated it – twice, under conservative governments – our experience should be studied.

In Europe, as with Australia, people claiming asylum – invariably – have crossed not one border but many; and are no longer fleeing in fear but are contracting in hope with people smugglers. However desperate, almost by definition, they are economic migrants because they had already escaped persecution when they decided to move again.

Our moral obligation is to receive people fleeing for their lives. It's not to provide permanent residency to anyone and everyone who would rather live in a prosperous Western country than their own. That's why the countries of Europe, while absolutely obliged to support the countries neighbouring the Syrian conflict, are more-than-entitled to control their borders against those who are no longer fleeing a conflict but seeking a better life.

This means turning boats around, for people coming by sea. It means denying entry at the border, for people with no legal right to come; and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go.

It will require some force; it will require massive logistics and expense; it will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever.We are rediscovering the hard way that justice tempered by mercy is an exacting ideal as too much mercy for some necessarily undermines justice for all.

The Australian experience proves that the only way to dissuade people seeking to come from afar is not to let them in. Working with other countries and with international agencies is important but the only way to stop people trying to gain entry is firmly and unambiguously to deny it – out of the moral duty to protect one's own people and to stamp out people smuggling.

So it's good that Europe has now deployed naval vessels to intercept people smuggling boats in the Mediterranean – but as long as they're taking passengers aboard rather than turning boats around and sending them back, it's a facilitator rather than a deterrent.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Death of a minor literary man

The author of the Confessions [of a Window-Cleaner, etc.] series was a Cambridge man. Who knew? Christopher Wood died at the same time as Michael Meacher, Lisa Jardine and Maureen O'Hara, in what the headmaster in Alan Bennett's 'Forty Years On' (John Gielgud in the original version, Paul Eddington in the one I saw) called 
'the magnificent equality of death'. 
Michael Meacher's obituary was as dull as the man. Maureen O'Hara's I haven't read but she probably had more sex than Mr. Meacher - possibly more than the window cleaner for aught I know.

Henri de Montherlant wrote about all the people who lead utterly different lives and who die at the same moment. Did he make an analogy with birds suddenly migrating to the other side of the world? I don't think he did and if not I am doing so.

Saturday 24 October 2015

48 hours in Lebanon

I love Arab cities. I love that certain smell they have.

TAROM in February had a special offer selling return tickets to most of its destinations for EUR 100  for dates throughout the year and I, somewhat unthinkingly, bought a ticket to fly from Bucharest to Beirut this weekend. I arrived here at 2.15 on Friday morning. I'm dismayed to find my plane back leaves tonight, or rather tomorrow, at 3.30 a.m. This no longer seems such a good idea.

The streets have no lamps but busy streets are lit intermittently by shop windows. Staying up for the plane I'm whiling time in the terrace of Bricks, which flanks a dark street. It's a fun bar popular with expats and UN people (UN people and USAID people and international organisation people bestride developing countries like collosi, but the prices at Bricks are no dearer than anywhere else, which means London prices). I got talking to a nice Syrian who insisted on standing me a drink and told me Russia's intervention in Syria might be positive. The Syrian regime recognises that it is stronger but no longer autonomous. Russia certainly cannot win the war for the regime, has an interest in the regime surviving but not necessarily in Assad surviving. 

Had he met Assad? Yes many times in small meetings and he is 'useless, completely useless, a really poor quality person". His wife, "a complete bitch, a horrible person, is much smarter". I suggested that Assad is mere a front man for the gang in power and my new friend agreed

What he said is what I had imagined. I said that whatever happens a democratic election would be a disaster because it would bring Sunni Islamists to power as in Egypt and, had the army not intervened at the cost of huge loss of life, Algeria. He wholeheartedly agreed.

I asked the driver of the first taxi I took about the refugees from Syria. They cause no problems, he said, "but we are a poor country". Then he mentioned the migrants in Europe and without stating mine I asked his opinion."It's very bad. I lived in Italy for ten years and know what they're like. They're thieves and bad people." I asked him his religion, a question that I know can cause offence in the Lebanon, to check for anti Muslim bias. "I'm half and half. My father's Muslim, my mother's Christian".

The migrantophobe taxi driver asked me if I liked Porsches but my answer that I take no interest in cars killed that gambit, so he asked me if liked women, and satisfied that I did very much, said 'Women are the life.' Which I suspect is true. What did Aldous Huxley say about intellectuals and sex?

Don't come to Beirut for the monuments. Come, instead, for the restaurants, bars, if you like bars, and clubs if you like clubs. 

Wandering around the new, rebuilt, old town in Beirut (the original was destroyed in the war) is hard to do. Things are cut off by barbed wire and armed soldiers are everywhere. It smells of death and the rebuilt cathedrals and mosques have no charm for me. I did enjoy a signpost in French that read, 'The Grand Seraglo: Presidency of the Council of Ministers'. I climbed the steps to find the Seraglio but the way was barred by barbed wire.

The one sight that is worthwhile is the wonderful National Museum which I loved when i was here fore a few hours in 2006 but it was closed today because of a public holiday. For which I am glad as it made me venture out to Byblos instead and, better than Byblos, see the amazing Jeita Grotto. Some of the statues in the National Museum are extremely beautiful, but nothing man-made compares to the Grotto - and I speak as one who usually prefers the works of man to God.

The food is great. Breakfast at my hotel (a rare affordable one in the centre, the Mayflower) included delicious foul and sublime tomatoes that were poems. Like tomatoes used to be in Romania ten or fifteen years ago. There are many ways in which Romania has deteriorated not advanced. Vegetables, fruit, meat and not by any means just food.

Thursday 22 October 2015

Jeremy Corbyn as Ramsay Macdonald

He does not look bad in white tie unlike John Major, who looked absurd - but then Mr Corbyn is from a good family. he doesn't look good but much better than John Major.

He doesn't look like Compo in white tie, at any rate. There is usually a resemblance, though Compo was much more benign. 

But the Spectator says he caused offence by texting from his telephone over dinner - a breach of protocol.

What is frightening is that there are people who actually welcome Mr Corbyn as leader and genuinely think he might be Prime Minister and think that would be a good thing. Robin Lustig, who until recently read the news on BBC Radio 4, thinks so. So does Canon Giles Fraser late of St Paul's and now of the Guardian. So do a lot of respected intellectuals. It is very dismaying that, unlike agreeing with Viktor Orban, there is no stigma attached to liking Corbyn.
Martin Amis at least does not. In an article in The Sunday Times, he called Mr Corbyn humourless.
Many journalists have remarked on this, usually in a tone of wry indulgence. In fact it is an extremely grave accusation, imputing as it does a want of elementary nous. To put it crassly, the humourless man is a joke - and a joke he will never get.  
He is undereducated. Which is one way of putting it. His schooling dried up when he was 18, at which point he had two E-grade A-levels to his name; he started a course at North London Polytechnic, true, where he immersed himself in trade union studies, but dropped out after a year. And that was that....
...To my eyes, he doesn't have the eager aura of an autodidact. It is a fair guess that his briefcase, or his satchel, contains nothing but manifestos and position papers.
Mr. Blair looked at ease in white tie, but Mr Cameron looks wonderful in it, exactly as if he wore it every night, even when dining alone.

I remember reading the obituary of a bachelor duke who always wore white tie even when dining alone, which he usually did. One can't pretend that England is not in decline now that dukes introduce themselves by their Christian names.

Monday 19 October 2015

Hearing the birds sing

A little boy sees and hears birds with delight.

Then his “good father” comes along and feels he should “share” the experience and help his son “develop.” He says: “That’s a jay, and this is a sparrow.”

The moment the little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing. He has to see and hear them the way that his father wants him to.

Father has good reasons on his side, since few people can afford to go through life listening to the birds sing, and the sooner the little boy starts his “education” the better. Maybe he will be an ornithologist when he grows up.

A few people, however, can still see and hear in the old way. But most of the members of the human race have lost the capacity to be painters, poets, or musicians, and are not left the option of seeing and hearing directly even if they can afford to; they must get it second-hand.

The recovery of this ability is called “awareness.”

Eric Berne

Saturday 17 October 2015

A Syrian refugee talks to me about Syrian refugees

I think it's useful to report what a Syrian Christian friend of mine, who fled to Bucharest from the war, has to say about her fellow Syrian refugees. She is an intelligent and honest woman in her thirties, married with children,

She said to me tonight via Facebookthat demographic changes have consequences and Syrians know better than other people what effects large numbers of Syrian refugees might have. She worries about how Europe will being changed by Muslim refugees and said that, before the war,
In Aleppo there were neighbourhoods where even the state could not go into unless really armed. They are the people who throw themselves into the sea and become asylum seekers.
It is good that Germans are extending help to refugees. We are refugees as well. But Germans have to be careful. This might change Europe. In London my cousin says she cannot go to fully Muslim neighbourhoods wearing skirts or having drinks. In Syria I used to get harassed only for not being veiled. Men used to follow me and try to touch me. They threw acid on my friends. Just for not being veiled.
Germans need to hire more policemen and spend more on covering immigrants' expenses. I don't argue with this. But having a domestic lion is not like having a domestic cat.
Muslims in general still have the idea of conquering Europe and imposing Islamic laws. Many videos on YouTube testify to this. They all came to Europe as pacific migrants. They have to be controlled.
Substituting populations is not the answer.

All Muslims think about is their religion, unlike West European governments.

No one in the Middle East sees that the interest of a country in general is more important than their religious loyalty.
My friend says she is terrified of the Islamisation of the West and blames Muslim voters for the change of government in Canada this week. I wonder how many Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi christians agree with them.

Things worth repeating that I recently read

'The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.' D.H. Lawrence. 
I think of it as childlike. Certainly it's Protestant, possibly Calvinist.
'…this dreary Welsh Methodist bastard of a screw – not that I have anything against any particular kind of bastard, but that is the kind of bastard that he is.'
Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy
'He is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.' G.K. Chesterton 
'Good is something you do, not something you talk about.' Gino Bartali
'I’m hungering to hear, to be told, and to receive, things which I don’t know where to find elsewhere, and which I feel I shall be the poorer if I don’t hear and receive, and which I feel in some sense I shall die if I don’t have.' Enoch Powell, No Easy Answers (London: Sheldon Press, 1973), in answer to the question, 'Do you consider yourself a religious man?'  
'Nineteenth-century historians, as Herbert Butterfield reminds us, took seriously the task of researching and writing “objective” history. I recall seeing traces of this in an Orthodox Jewish lady I had as graduate student in the early 1970s at NYU. This woman had planned to do a dissertation on the fate of Jewish communities in Galicia in the twentieth century but then abandoned her topic. The reason she gave made me respect her forever: She refused to prepare a dissertation on a subject she could not treat with the proper degree of objectivity. This refusal would now be ascribed in all likelihood to inexcusable moral indifference. Truly sensitive historians, we are told, should have zero tolerance for reactionary rule or for what until recently were considered natural hierarchies....What they consider to be scholarship is a form of proselytizing—or a means of helping the practitioner advance professionally by means of useful political postures.' Paul Gottfried, speaking to the 2011 H.L. Mencken Club conference

Friday 16 October 2015

The growing likelihood that Britain will vote to leave the European Union?

The Economist today worries about
the growing likelihood that Britain will vote to leave the European Union. 
Is it possible? I had assumed there was no possibility that the UK would vote to leave. If Economist disapproves of something it usually turns out to be a good idea.

I feel like I did when I slowly realised that Jeremy Corbyn - JEREMY CORBYN - could be Leader of the Opposition.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Romania in quotations

As a collective personality, the Romanians are Oriental in their souls although Latin on the surface. Their patience is almost unending but they are quick to explode in argument; they are peace-loving yet would disintegrate without controversy. They are passive but strong in their resistance; spontaneously adaptable, still difficult t influence. They are romantic but never escape from reality. They are charming yet cruel in their ridicule, warmly emotional but calculating, generous yet concentrate on the ‘main chance.’ They are opportunistic but lose interest after they have gained the advantage; they seize the moment, still adopt the long view. 
Donald Dunham in 1947
I came to Bucharest two years ago with a legion of conquering heroes. I leave with a troupe of gigolos and racketeers. 
Field Marshal August von Mackensen in 1918
Romania is not a barbaric country. She is only too civilised. That is the problem.  
Emperor Francis Joseph in 1893 (did he have in mind the sexual mores of the boyars?)
The undisguised revulsion with the peasantry, on the other hand, is so exclusively Romanian and unheard of in the other Balkan discourses as to render indeed the Romanian claims of unBalkanness authentic. 
Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans. 
These were Western women, but about them hung the flavor of the harem. Countess WaldeckAthene Palace (1943) 

The Romanians possess to the highest degree the capacity of receiving the blows of fate while relaxed. They fall artfully, soft and loose in every joint and muscle as only those trained in falling can be. The secret of the art of falling is, of course, not to be afraid of falling and the Romanians are not afraid, as Western people are. Long experience has taught them that each fall may result in unforeseen opportunities and that somehow they always get on their feet again. 
Countess Waldeck, Athene Palace(1943)

Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries. 
Eugene Ionesco 
Those who hold no position in government, spend their time in absolute idleness, or in visiting each other to kill time.....In their habitual state of inaction, brought on by a natural aversion to every serious occupation which does not immediately relate to their personal interest, both sexes, enjoying the most extensive freedom of intercourse with each other, are easily led to clandestine connexion: the matrimonial faith has become merely nominal. 
William Wilkinson, An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820)

I think that if Romania came one day by a miracle to get rid of all its sins and the faults of its leading political class and if, as if by magic, it gave up its selfishness, intrigue, corruption, incompetence and its scorn for the masses, still, even in that situation, this country could not make good progress if our political personalities did not get rid of their lack of seriousness.

Mihail Manoilescu, Memoirs (1927)

Here are two sentences by me. For the first I'll get attacked.

Romania is the Orient dreaming that it is France. 

The Balkans is not a geographical expression but a state of mind.

Sunday 11 October 2015

This year's influx of migrants could add 6 or 7 million to Germany's population

This news is six days old but I missed it. According to a confidential German government document, leaked to the newspaper Bild, 1.5 million migrants will enter Germany this year and each refugee, once settled in Germany, can be expected to be followed by between four and eight relatives. 

This influx of predominantly young people could add between 7% and 9% to the ageing German population, which now numbers 80 million. 

Saturday 10 October 2015

Sir Geoffrey Howe, Mogadon Man, the dead sheep, the man who did for Mrs. Thatcher, has died.

Lord Howe of Aberavon, better knowns as Sir Geoffrey Howe, the man who did for Mrs. Thatcher, has died, a week after his long-time Labour opponent Denis Healey

They used to say the least inviting sentence you could overhear on arriving at a party was 'Geoffrey Howe's in sparkling form tonight'. He was famously a very boring speaker. Both his delivery and the content was soporific. Denis Healey called him Mogadon Man, said being attacked by him was like being savaged by a dead sheep, a line he made famous but stole from the sketch-writer, Andrew Alexander. Healey asked a propos of something that he'd done or not done how he could sleep at night, said he had no difficulty sleeping. 'And if I did I would open a copy of Geoffrey Howe's speeches. (Everyone is dying at the same time - Andrew Alexander died recently too.)

But Geoffrey Howe's speech following his resignation, which caused Margaret Thatcher's downfall (how recent it seems), though he read it, was the least boring speech made by anyone in the House since the Norway debate in 1940 which brought down Chamberlain. The Commons had started to be televised a couple of years before and 'that speech' was seen live by millions, including me. It was like watching a political assassination live. It was watching a political assassination live.

Shortly after the speech Denis Healey met Howe in the division lobby and said
Geoffrey, I didn’t know you had it in you!
The Labour MP Rhodri Morgan who was present said
Geoffrey just smiled his shy little half smile and wedged his way past, knowing that on that day his place in history was secure.
Of course that was his invariable smile.

It's charming to know that Healey and Howe, who clashed for  more than ten years at the dispatch box were friends. When Healey was on This Is Your Life in 1989 Howe paid him a warm tribute. It's odd that Howe died within days of Healey - their lives were entwined for so long, like characters in a roman fleuve. They shadowed each other for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Lord Healey was introduced into the House of Lords the day before Lord Howe and acted as a supporter during the latter's introduction ceremony.

The last time I heard him he was making a quite incredibly boring and very objectionable speech in the House of Lords in favour of the UK getting rid of miles, pints etc. I realised the that he was never a conservative.

I cheered on his famous resignation speech which brought about her fall. I now think that with all her faults she was right on very many things and on the most important thing of all, resisting the EEC, as the European Union was then called.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher's biographer, who enormously admired her, wrote a good piece today about her nemesis. It ends:
In private, Howe was charming and funny, and had many real friends. In public life, he was close to being a pillar of state. History will surely see him as one of the most conscientious, able and honourable ministers. Critics who say that he lacked the killer instinct should remember what he did to Margaret Thatcher.

Quotations I found recently

Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning. John Henry Newman.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. Rumi.

Finally, at a moment when there appeared on the bridge that spanned two centuries of decadence, a superior force of genius and will which was strong enough to consolidate Europe and to convert it into a political and economic unit, with the object of ruling the world, the Germans, with their Wars of Independence, robbed Europe of the significance - the marvellous significance, of Napoleon's life. And in so doing they laid on their conscience everything that followed, everything that exists to-day, -this sickliness and want of reason which is most opposed to culture, and which is called Nationalism, -this ''ne'vrose nationale '' from which Europe is suffering acutely; this eternal subdivision of Europe into petty states, with politics on a municipal scale: they have robbed Europe itself of its significance, of its reason,-and have stuffed it into a cul-de-sac. Nietzsche.

Monday 5 October 2015


Someone just asked me what Timisoara is like. 

I wanted to get there in January 1990 and kicked myself for not getting there sooner when I did go in 2003 or 2004 - now that seems a vanished world too.

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled...

I found this, that I wrote for Vivid in 2006, about a city I had visited two years earlier.


Bargain-price city breaks have done to tourism what the tank did to warfare. Not only are far more people flying to far more places than ever before but increasingly sophisticated consumers constrained by time rather than money are taking several weekend breaks  a year to supplement their annual foreign holiday. Romania is one of the few countries so far relatively little touched by cheap air rickets but all that is about to change

Nowhere are their effects further reaching than in the former Communist bloc. Eastern European cities, beautiful, until recently obscure, and for Western tourists delightfully cheap, are being transformed and with them whole economies and societies. Budget airlines have done far more to integrate East and West than any initiative from governments or Eurocrats. Tallinn, Riga, Bratislava, Cracow and a score of others have become tourist meccas. As soon as she joins the EU next year Romania too will lose her innocence. 

A number of Romanian cities will make popular destinations but number 1 will undoubtedly be Timisoara. Ryan Air is already said to be planning flights and two Italian budget airlines already fly there. Sibiu and Sighisoara are not close to airports. In any case, for me, Timisoara is the most perfect city in Romania. Already it attracts more foreign visitors than any other city in the country except the capital.

A visitor to Timisoara from Bucharest will be struck by an utterly different atmosphere. A much higher-minded atmosphere. For one thing, Timisoara is capital of the Banat which until 1918 was part of Austro- Hungary and belongs, even more certainly than Transylvania, to Central Europe and not the Balkans. The baroque architecture of Timisoara has a lightness of touch that feels as much Italian as German and the city is home to a sizeable Hungarian minority as well as smaller Serb and German communities. Not far away there are plenty of vestiges of the Hapsburg ethnic jumble including Czech, Slovak, Serb and Croat villages. And in the last eight or ten years significant numbers of Italian businessmen have been draw to a city which is closer to Venice than to Bucharest

For almost two hundred years, until the early eighteenth century, Timisoara like most of Hungary (but unlike most of present-day Romania) was directly governed by the Ottoman Empire. But today nothing of the Moslem world remains. The city the Austrians rebuilt in baroque after they reconquered in 1716 earnt the name ‘the Little Vienna’. Later in the nineteenth century it was the first town on the continent to have horse-drawn trams and the first to have electric lighting. Its most famous son is Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan.

But Timisoara is widely-known abroad, if at all, as the place where the Romanian revolution of December 1989 broke out.  It was the decision by President Nicolae Ceausescu to use deadly force to suppress demonstrators here that was the catalyst that led the army to defect to the side of the uprising. For several days the attention of the world was centred on events in the city despite the Communist government’s complete news blackout and wild stories flew around about the numbers of people killed by the authorities. Timisoara is proud of its role and has nominated itself ‘the first free town in Romania.’ Everyone here believes that the revolution that was launched in Timisoara was stolen by apparatchiks and party hacks in Bucharest.

The jewel of Timisoara is Piata Unirii, one of the loveliest and best-proportioned squares in Europe. It houses not one but two exquisite eighteenth century cathedrals, one Roman Catholic and the other Serbian Orthodox, as well as a series of superb baroque buildings. But instead of the cold grandeur of the original Vienna, the square has a relaxed and abandoned feeling, the slightly down-at-heel formal garden in its centre a place where children play and adults sit and talk. Hard to believe that the square was the scene of many horrible public executions including that of Gheorghe Doja, leader of a peasants’ revolt in 1514, who was cooked alive, his flesh fed to his followers.

A short walk through a maze of attractive old streets leads to Piata Libertatii, another fine square, and then to Piata Victoriei. Piata Victoriei is the modern centre of the town. In architectural terms it is a rather mediocre example of the Hungarian eclectic style that flourished at the turn of the nineteenth century. Much more interestingly it was one of the focal points of the 1989 Revolution. Students of recent history can follow a trail that will lead them to the Protestant church where Pastor Tokes’s arrest sparked an unprecedented gathering on the streets of ethnic Romanians and Hungarians, Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox. After his arrest a bloodied Tokes appeared from a window urging the crowd to dissolve but his appearance had the contrary effect. The rest as they say is history.

In Timisoara the different communities live together pretty amicably and much more so than, for example, in Cluj where irredentist politicians long won votes by stroking chauvinism and distrust. And during the 2000-2004 period when the ex-Communist party, the Social Democrats, and its ‘barons’ (local politicians who dispensed patronage and were accused of widespread corruption) were in power in local authorities throughout the land Timisoara remained a redoubt of the opposition. The city looks out and forward while other cities seem to look backward and inward. It is way ahead of any other provincial city in Romania in the number of international companies that have factories or offices here and will soon have a flourishing tourist industry. EU accession will open the borders of a multicultural city that is at the crossroads of Europe and the city is assured of a prosperous and exciting future. But for many of us, like Romania as a whole, it will never be nearly as charming again as it is now before it has been discovered. Go (or go back) quickly.

Sunday 4 October 2015


Ninety percent of paid work is time-wasting crap. The world gets by on the other ten.

John Derbyshire

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.

Rick Warren

The secret is not to care what anyone thinks of you.

Julie Burchill

The sure way to be disappointed is to trust easily.

Dorothy Williams 

You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks — habitually stinks, I mean.

George Orwell

He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars. General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.

William Blake

One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.

Bertrand Russell

We are all born American. We die French.

Evelyn Waugh

Saturday 3 October 2015

What are your favourite book titles?

The best ones I can think of are: 

The Well at the World's End,
The Wood Beyond the World,
A Horse Called Ampersand,
The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
Love in the Time of Cholera,
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,
The Room in the Dragon Volant (a novella, I admit),
The Worm Ouroboros,
At the Back of the North Wind,
Hangover Square,
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen,
When William Came (Saki - it's about a German invasion),
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (a Lord Peter Wimsey murder story),
A Far Cry from Kensington,
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul,
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.
Why are so many recent books (recent meaning published in the past thirty years)? Perhaps the best of all are both recent by my definition.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil.
Oddest and least inviting title? I nominate Geriatric Dentistry in Eastern European Countries. I once thumbed through a copy of this very rare book in a shop in the Charing Cross Rd.