Monday, 30 April 2012

Romania loved France and France permitted herself to be loved

In the late 19th. century, 'Romania loved France and France permitted herself to be loved.'

We all know that feeling. I certainly do, at least.

Norman Tebbit on David Cameron, emails and homosexuality

Norman Tebbit, who was eighty last month, is an absolutely lovely man and and very intelligent indeed. Here he is on tremendous form and his wit and sheer niceness shine through. Yet it is interesting that people extol the charm of Michael Foot who was disastrously wrong about everything and who took money from the KGB and bristle at the thought of Lord Tebbit whom Foot called famously a semi-house trained polecat. I do not say Foot was a traitor nor believe he was but he was effectively an enemy of his country. 

I also greatly hate the May Day bank holiday he created, a completely un-British, rootless, pointless thing, like a concrete bunker in a lovely piece of pasture land. He could have chose one week before, 23rd. April,  St. George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday.

Or maybe Foot did not take money from the KGB. Someone told me he won large damages in court when he sued the man who alleged that he did. He did not need a bribe to be on the Left in any case. I think this squib applies to Foot and the Russians. 
You cannot hope to twist/Thank God the British journalist/But seeing what the man will do/Unbribed there's no occasion to.

Lord Tebbit's blog post is very interesting on how technology has changed government and politics.

I was foolish enough to dislike his and Mrs Thatcher's policies but I met him at a drinks party at the Cambridge Union in around 1982 and was enormously impressed by his mind - and we Cambridge undergraduates were great intellectual snobs - also by his charm. Curious that he is now a social conservative - he and the Thatcherites were not in the 1980s, one of the things that made me dislike them, along with what I mistakenly thought was their indifference to the poor. 

He was a great debater and here is characteristically and effortlessly conclusive on homosexuality and Christianity. 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The new despotism

David Hume said 'nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few'. 

I have just read a wonderful book which deserves to become a classic  by Stefan Hafner called Defying Hitler, an eyewitness account of how the Nazis took over German society very easily and quickly, their ideas, especially anti-Semitism, becoming widely accepted by people who would have been horrified by them in the 1920s. I was reminded inter alia of how the ideas of political correctness have become accepted. People shop colleagues for making sexist or racist remarks, people lose their jobs for trifling jokes or get sent to prison  for saying 'Your horse is gay' or sending tweets using the word 'nigger'. A possibly disturbed  woman with a history of depression who rudely and with many four letter words complained on a train about there being too many blacks in her country had her strange rant recorded on passengers' telephones which went viral on the net. She spent Christmas in gaol, her  daughter was taken into in care and her life devastated, much to the satisfaction of most of my Facebook friends from the British literary and journalistic worlds. And so it goes. 

Paradoxically, it is because of horror at what the Nazis did that we have this new Nazism. As Churchill said, “The fascists of the future will be called anti-fascists”.

People always draw the wrong lessons from history.

My father and George Bernard Shaw

My father's first job was as a delivery boy for Sainsbury's and on his bicycle one day he knocked down George Bernard Shaw in about 1935 or 1936. This is my family's only brush with a literary giant. My father told me Shaw retired to Ayot St. Lawrence shortly after. 

Alex Woodcock-Clarke trumped this by telling me that his stepmother's uncle, Lord Howard de Walden, on his first day in Germany in 1931 ran over Hitler. How curious, I thought, that not only that the history of the world would have been so very different had his Lordship killed Hitler but Howard de Walden would have been consumed by guilt about it till his dying day. 

Though when I said this to Alex, he said, 'That doesn't sound like him.'

My father's collision with Shaw brings to my mind Alan Bennett delivering meat to T.S.Eliot's mother-in-law. He has often told this story and did so here in a lecture:

I was born and brought up in Leeds, where my father was a butcher, and as a boy, I sometimes used to go out with the orders, delivering the meat. One of our customers was a nice woman called Mrs Fletcher, and I used to go to her house and she had a daughter called Valerie. Valerie went to London and became a secretary and she got a job with a publishing firm and did well in the firm, and became secretary to the chairman, whom she eventually married. Now the publishing firm was Faber and Faber, and the chairman was T.S. Eliot. So there was a time early in life when I thought my only connection with literature would be that I once delivered meat to T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law.
Some time after that, when we'd left the shop but were still living in Leeds, my mother came in one day and said, 'I ran into Mrs Fletcher down the road. Nice woman. She was with a tall fella, elderly, very refined. She introduced me and he passed the time of day,' and it was only some time afterwards that I realized that without it being the most seminal encounter in Western literature, my mother had met T.S. Eliot. 

Bennett adds:

...if we take T.S. Eliot to represent Art and Literature and Culture and everything in the upper case, my mother indefatigably in the lower case to represent life, then it seems to me that what I've written teeters rather indecisively between the two. 

The Oldie, a paper I do not read, apparently ran a riveting series of articles in which members of the public talked about their chance meetings with the famous. They were collected in a book and I read a review of it by Craig Brown. You could read a three volume biography of Anthony Powell and know him less well than you do after reading this story, as retold by Brown:

A plumber recalls being called out to fix a burst pipe for the novelist Anthony Powell. The plumber rang the doorbell. "An elderly man opened the door and looked at me quizzically. 'Yes,' he said. 'How can I help you?'

'Hello,' I smiled, thinking that my overalls, the toolbox in my hand and my van behind me would make my quest obvious. 'Well?' he said.

'Mr Powell?' I asked. (I pronounced the name Pow-well.) 'There is no one here of that name,' he intoned."

The plumber apologises and drives off, imagining that he has come to the wrong house. After driving around in the snow for 20 minutes, he is directed back to the same house. The same man opened the door. "This time I tried a different tack. 'Does a Mr Powell live here?' 'No,' he said. 'However, do you mean Pole?' I nodded. 'Ah! Then go round to the back door, the leak is in the kitchen.'

My great-uncle Joe once got talking to a nice cove on a park bench who turned out to be Delius.

David Cameron, who is he?

Is the public beginning to make up its collective mind about David Cameron and decide he is rather lightweight after all and a sphynx without a secret? The public always makes up its mind about a Prime Minister at some point, sooner or later, and usually unfavourably though not in Margaret Thatcher's case and not for a very long time with Mr. Blair.

At  a great distance, Mr. Cameron seems, like Churchill's pudding, to have no theme. I loathed Mrs Thatcher but now admire her partly because she had a theme. Edward Heath whom I do not admire also had a theme. Major and Wilson did not really, despite the classless society and the white heat of technology.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

My London, and Welcome to It

"London has a wicked, dry and often cruel sense of humor. It is clever, literate and dramatic. It is private and taciturn, a bit of a bore, and surprisingly sentimental. And it doesn’t make friends quickly, is awkward around visitors." 

I take back completely what I said about A.A. Gill. This is a good article about London written for Americans but it seems to me sad that you can no longer distinguish between Londoners and foreign visitors.

I love London very much indeed. Disraeli said there are two countries: London and England. I love both but much prefer London. And London I have noticed in my rare trips back in the fourteen years I have lived in Romania has become happier, more polite, cleaner and has become happy in its skin. And whereas everyone seemed to hate London in the 1970s from the 1980s onwards people began to like the place and they like it even more nowadays and take pride in it, something which previously they did not. And for reasons. London used to be a shabby defeated gimcrack place, like much of England, in the James Callaghan era. 

But London (which rules England)  seems to be becoming very far removed from England. To some extent all capital cities in Western Europe are. Brussels and Oslo (Oslo?) will probably have non-white majorities in thirty years and so possibly will London. Capital cities nowadays are starting to have more in common with one another than with their hinterlands (I owe this idea to Alain Cardon). What you think about that will depend on what you think about tradition, shared values and social cohesion. I like all three but especially tradition. 

Things are in many ways much better now but I think the London of 1950, with men in detachable collars, insipid food, sexual conservatism and all white apart from lascars living near the docks also has great charm. Sans bohemians except in Fitzrovia and among some very rich people, sans the pill, sans rock music, sans central heating.

Desire is the essence of existence - Spinoza


Le désir se situe dans un champ complexe fait de nature, de culture, mais aussid'une part insondable de liberté. C'est l'accomplissement de soi à travers l'autre. Parler du désir, c'est parler d'autrui..  Malek Chebel.

Rapes broken down by ethnicity and religion

I never thought about this until I read by chance on the net that all rapes committed in the first three months of this year in Oslo were committed by Muslims. I did not know if this were true but it seemed odd that we have so many statistics about race and religion these days but not in reference to crime. 

I found these figures from 2010 which come from the BBC:
Muslims represent 12.6 per cent of the total jail population in England and Wales, compared with a proportion of about 3 per cent of the general population. One reason for this over-representation is because about half the country’s Muslim community is under 25 and criminal behaviour is at its highest among the under 30s.

I wonder what the figures are for rapists.

I investigated further (how wonderful the internet is if one knows how to skim). Further research on the net turns up this about the Oslo rapes on the Islamophobia Watch site:

The claim that "all rapists in Oslo are immigrants" is based exclusively on the figures for "assault rape", i.e. rape aggravated by physical violence, a category that included only 6 of the 152 cases and 5 of the 131 identified individuals. All of those 5 individuals were indeed of African, Middle Eastern or Asian origin. However, the police report adds that in other cases of assault rape, where the individual responsible was not identified and the police relied on the description provided by the victim, "8 of the perpetrators were African / dark-skinned appearance, 5 were Western / light / Nordic and 4 had an Asian appearance".
Which falls some way short of substantiating the claim that all perpetrators of aggravated rape in Oslo are of non-western origin, never mind the assertion that "Muslim immigrants" are responsible for all rapes in the city.
The police report also points out that "it must be stressed that the strong over-representation of people from minority backgrounds for several types of rape can not be interpreted as meaning that foreign culture is a causal explanation of rape" and that "the statistical difference in criminal behaviour between ethnic groups disappears when controlling for socio-economic conditions". It concludes: "Gross generalisations that have given the impression that the rapists are only foreigners – and largely Muslim – prove inadequate and erroneous."

Grammatical errors cost lives

I am not as conscientious a person as I wish I were, but I am rather Prussian about using will and shall correctly. 

Who was left to drown because he said, 'I will drown and no-one shall save me'?

Professor Geert Hofstede on Romania

Thank you to David Pratten for posting this link in a  comment on my site. This is an exceptionally interesting take on Romania. 

The question Professor Geert Hofstede asks in his site is also worth thinking about: will there be one big world culture in fifty years time?

A Romanian academic economist told me that he thinks in 50 years Romania will no longer exist. I said surely people will still speak Romanian in 50 years time but he looked doubtful. English is more economically useful. A young Romanian Yale graduate whom I know hopes that by that time the majority population of Europe will be African, which she says will be a fitting recompense for the sins of European colonialism.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Black and White Minstrel Show

What was wrong with The Black and White Minstrels Show on BBC TV continuously in the 1970s in which the singers blacked up (they did not look like black men but oddly stylised)? Well, for one thing, they were hideously boring and mainstream and utterly middle-aged - even I who hated pop music also hated them. They seemed then in that innocent age to be the zeitgeist and I accordingly hated them. They also took every song they sang and turned it into lift music. But my parents, my grandmother and all my great-aunts absolutely loved the programme.

But why were the minstrels offensive? As a matter of fact, they were not - no-one was offended. Should they have been offended? Why should anyone be offended by white men blacking up as black men? 

One of the many mysteries of modern life. No one understands but no one likes to ask questions.

Yes, Sir; there are two objects of curiosity, — the Christian world, and the Mahometan world

"Yes, Sir; there are two objects of curiosity, — the Christian world, and the Mahometan world. All the rest may be considered as barbarous." (Dr. Johnson.) 

I have not yet gone beyond these worlds except to Bombay, Madagascar and Mauritius. Israel does not count, being part of both the Mahometan and Christian worlds. Delhi and Agra do not count either.

I wonder if he is right. Possibly, although the Chinese and Japanese would disagree. It all depends what you makes you curious. Barbarism and civilisation are more intermingled than in his day. Look at the United States for example.

But from the tourist point of view there might objects of curiosity in South-East Asia and China. Bombay, Madagascar and Mauritius were not interesting from the architectural or historical point of view though from the point of view of food India would be peerless were it not for the medical problems.

I am off to Ethiopia, the third oldest Christian country, and Zanzibar in August as a delayed birthday present to myself and will thus stay in the Christian and Mahometan worlds. Dubai where I stay en route is also Mahometan but I am not sure if it will be an object of curiosity. How much I want to go to Sana'a in the Yemen for 24 hours but it although I am a courageous traveller it seems foolhardy to go there at the moment, alas, though I am tempted. Sana'a is certainly an object of curiosity.

Government falls

So the Romanian Government has fallen. Over lunch today my gaze kept straying from the lady I was lunching with to the television set which carried the debate live. The camera seemed very preoccupied by Elena Udrea's bottom. Actually this was nicer than Victor Ponta grinning like Alfred E. Neuman, the boy on the cover of Mad magazine.

Alfred E. Neuman ran in the 1956 U.S. Presidential election on the slogan, 'You could do worse... and always have!' Mr. Ponta who is now forming a government probably feels the same.

Mary Beard

Mary Beard who is presenting a TV series about Ancient Rome and AA Gill are having a spat. Apparently he was rude about her appearance and my feminist Facebook friends are twittering about it.

Where do I stand?

She called Patrick Leigh Fermor blokish which is impossible to forgive.

Patrick Leigh Fermor's lament for the way tourism has ruined Greece she described, in true Cambridge spirit, as 'predictable'. She is a minor enemy of civilisation. 

She is rather right-on but I assume she knows Septimius Severus was not black. Some history teachers think he was and he even features among a list of 100 Great Black Britons (he spent some time at York).

Gill should not be rude but on the other hand Miss Beard does seem to go out of her way to make herself physically repellent. It does seem like a statement on her part. I safely assume she will not read this.

I cannot bring myself, on the other hand, to read anything by Gill. He is almost as unpleasant as Hugo Rifkind. 

P.S. Miss Beard quotes here Fermor on tourism in Greece which after he wrote these words transformed Greece. He seems very sympathetic to me:

After conjuring up a picture in Roumeli of the modern Athenian taverna (‘Docile flocks converge on them, herded by button-eyed guides … all Manchester, all Lyons, all Cologne and half the Middle-West at heel’), he looks to the future: ‘In dark moments I see bay after lonely bay and island after island as they are today and as they may become … The shore is enlivened with fifty jukeboxes and a thousand transistor wirelesses. Each house is now an artistic bar, a boutique or a curio shop; new hotels tower and concrete villas multiply.’ 


Offence: Rothstein Williams was insulted by the term 'darling'
Offence: Rothstein Williams was insulted by the term 'darling'

These stories appear every day and are a good reason for never reading the Daily Mail. (I do not but this was brought to my attention by Ruth Dudley Edwards.)

Many air stewards seem to me likely to be homosexuals and this one is black but he complained about being victimised by having his religious beliefs offended when he was repeatedly called darling

In a free country you should be able to offend anyone's religious beliefs. The purpose of blasphemy laws is to prevent God being offended not man and in a truly free country there would be no unfair dismissal legislation.

I can understand not liking being called mate but I like guv. I rarely get called darling but would welcome it. I doubt if I should feel otherwise were I - which I thank the Lord I'm not, sir - an Adventist. 

I often forget names and can understand why people use endearments instead. All the waiters at Boodles are called Charles and have been for centuries to get round this problem. 

The Queen's very closest friend calls her 'Ma'am darling', which is so sweet.

The Melton Breakfast by Sir Francis Grant

"The Melton Breakfast by Sir Francis Grant, R.A." which my father had as a jigsaw and which I did many times. It breaths the spirit of Surtees and virile, hierarchical mid-Victorian England. More importantly, it has wonderful red jackets. Red is my favourite colour.

Surtees is no good, by the way, unless you hunt which I do not, and I have no idea why I read so many of his books. If only I been focused instead of a promiscuous reader.. 

 Mr Jorrocks openly debauches housekeepers in a way you do not expect in a Victorian novel, but sporting novelists and their readers evidently preserved a little of the old eighteenth-century licence. 

By the way, I have no interest in horses (beautiful and noble beasts but animals do not interest me) but the one writer who writes well of this world is Arthur Morrison, in his detective stories about Martin Hewitt. Just as Trollope and Balzac are the only fiction writers who can make business interesting, Arthur Morrison is the only one who makes the turf come alive. I have not yet read his famous book A Child of the Jago. I shall. It is about a boy growing up in Hoxton, the infamous slum in the East End where my grandfather grew up. He danced as a boy in music halls at the intervals for pennies, a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin, fought at the Somme and lived long enough for me to remember him.

MP accused of 'xenophobia after complaining that Polish cannot make decent bacon sandwich

Barry Sheerman, the Labour M.P., a particularly nasty piece of work who hates religious schools and the Catholic Church, is accused of xenophobia when he complained Poles do not know how to make a good bacon sandwich

Xenophobia became a prescribed way of thinking in the late 1980s and it is blackly amusing to see a man of the Left hoisted by the Left's own petard, but really how silly and, more importantly, how scary this is. 

Someone said political correctness is a clown with a sword in his hand.

is this ever strange witch hunt for racists and racism ever going to slow down or stop before our whole society is reconstituted on left-wing lines? Or will it just get worse?

I was introduced to the grilled bacon and tomato sandwich in the House of Lords staff canteen. A wonderful place with every day a different milk pudding: tapioca; semolina; etc, etc. And everyone who worked there was English and pale. I still think the grilled bacon and tomato sandwich is the best ever meal, beating even a good curry or haggis or steak and kidney pie. How I want one as I write this but in Romania there is no proper bacon and I do not have a grill.

The new face Batumi, Georgia. It is too late - they have already made it nice.

Georgia is the most enchanting country I ever visited and I really must get back there soon. I meant in particular to get to Batumi the country's Black Sea resort where the young Stalin spent some time and which I have seen compared to Havana, run-down, louche and full of sub-tropical atmosphere. I know that President Saakashvili was at one point in discussions with Dino Patriciu about developing the place but they fell out about money. 

But it seems according to an article in the Guardian that I am already too late.

Batumi has undergone a four-year, radical £350m facelift aimed at turning it into a hip resort. It now boasts a lovingly restored historic old town, and the attractive Seaside Park has striking public art and cafes, upscale hotels and a host of chic nightclubs and restaurants..

It does sound very unappealing. 

When places change it is best to get there before they change even more but Batumi sounds too far gone. I must hurry back to Tbilisi before they make that nice with US aid money given after the war with Russia for which the Americans feel guilty. In many ways Tbilisi is my favourite city, something Bucharest used to be. 

In my lifetime, the two scourges have been broken families and property development. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Girl, 6, was abandoned at side of A-road by school bus

A story in the Daily Mail about a 6 year-old schoolchild dropped by a school bus 50 yards from the school gates 15 minutes earlier than usual. Her parents are 

This makes me very ashamed of my country. And incredulous. What is to blame? Is it mothers no longer stay at home and care for children and compensate by over-solicitousness? Is it decline of religious belief and the end of stoicism, which are replaced by hypochondria and a curious and unhealthy obsession about children? Is it all down to Diana, Princess of Wales  and touchy-feeliness and the Daily Mail? Or do the English just have too few things to worry about? 

The last explanation sounds plausible even though in fact England has a lot to worry about. As the Anglo-Saxons fail to reproduce themselves and lose belief in life after death, individual children become more important.  But a nation which fails to reproduce and loses belief in God is in a very bad way. That includes the children as much as the adults.

Good morning

'There's nothing quite so lonely as an early morning street sweeper' said Cyril. No, early morning is never lonely, evenings are. Mornings are beautiful and full of hope. Mornings are the daughters of God.

When I was a boy I wrote sonnets to morning even though I hated early rising and I still know that morning is a mystical experience shared by us all.

Vice and virtue

Patience is the most important virtue at work and pride is as always the greatest vice.

A hanging matter

I am and always have been opposed to capital punishment.  Yet I always think less of people when I learn they oppose capital punishment and always think being in favour of hanging is proof of a good heart.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The evil eye

The evil eye is supposed to inflict bad luck and be motivated by envy. At first sight this seems distinct from evil in the usual sense but it is interesting that evil people, or at any rate psychopaths, do stare in a remarkably strange way and evil people are actuated primarily by envy. They envy everything for evil is a vacuum, a negation, not a real thing in itself. Especially they are drawn to good people, whom they wish to harm. 'His life had a daily beauty in it which made mine ugly' was the only explanation Iago gave for his crimes.

Ira Einhorn

I remember a beautiful psychopathic lawyer who loved Bach and played me a concerto on a CD and then told me 'That was written from pure hatred.' Those words made me feel sorry for her. I also felt sorry for her when she told me once that she hoped there was some tiny shred of humanity in her.

The psychopathic stare is a well documented phenomenon. Dr. Robert Hare, the greatest contemporary authority on psychopaths, writes, in Without Conscience:

Many people find it difficult to deal with intense, emotionless, or "predatory" stare of the psychopath. Normal people maintain close eye contact with others for a variety of reasons, but the fixated stare of the psychopath is more prelude to self-gratification and the exercise of power than simple interest or empathic caring.


Some people respond to the emotionsless stare of the psychopath with considerable discomfort. Normal people maintain close eye contact with others for a variety of reasons, but the fixated stare of the psychopath is more a prelude to self-gratification and the exercise of power than simple interest or empathic caring. ... Some people respond to the emotionless stare of the psychopath, with considerable discomfort, almost as if they feel like potential prey in the presence of a predator.

I have been on the receiving end of many such stares from two psychopaths I knew well (both highly intelligent and beautiful female Romanian lawyers) but I out-stare them effortlessly. I am an habitual starer though not a psychopath.

Apparently there may be a genetic basis, at least some think, to psychopathy. Psychopaths' brains when scanned often differ slightly from those of normal people, but brains develop in childhood, just as personality traits do. One interesting fact is that psychopaths are said to be more likely to have blue or green eyes than the general population. If this is true then Romania has fewer psychopaths per capita for blue and green eyes are rare in this country of brunettes. But 
I wonder. Some psychopathic traits seem not unfamiliar in Romania: lying; mimicking; haughty body language; arrogance; promiscuity; lack of ethics; skill at betrayal; inability to work hard. Deep waters.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Lords

Of course I love the hereditary peerage (I love Iolanthe too) and my first job was in the House of Lords. I remember the Lords when the 4th Lord Russell with his beard half way down his torso would spend the nights asleep on the red leather benches behind the throne. I remember too the previous Lord Mowbray with his piratical eye-patch:

Lord (Noel) Annan once recalled an occasion when a fellow peer quoted the famous lament of Sir Ranulph Crewe over the medieval nobility: "Where is Bohun, where's Mowbray, where's Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality" — whereupon a voice piped up from the Conservative benches saying: "Mowbray is here!" "There, indeed," recalled Annan, "was the premier baron of England, fighting fit and at his place in that hour."

But sometimes you really do have to move with the times (imagine an upper house in which sat as of right the great grandsons of John Prescott and Margaret Beckett). Even in 1910 the Tories wanted an elected second chamber - my solution is an Upper House elected for 15 year non renewable terms one tranche each year.

Or better by members of the public for 1 year terms, like jury service. But unlike jury service it would have to be voluntary. And only people over 30 with no criminal record, who could read and write English well.

The bishops? There is a conundrum to which I have no answer. The Catholic Church now believes in the separation of church and state which I have always thought utterly sad. I want the Anglican bishops to stay and do not want the Catholic bishops to become part of the (in the modern sense of the word) establishment by sitting there (they would not be allowed to by the Pope anyway). But Hindu and Sikh leaders in the Upper House?

This is the end of an old song.

Monday, 23 April 2012

St. George's Day and I shall buy a rose for my buttonhole

Cry Harry and St. George!

Though my patron saint St. Edmund was once patron saint of England until replaced by St. Edward the Confessor. 

People say

Do people in England still say 'It's a free country' in the way they used to? I imagine only ironically because it evidently no longer is.

I remember when you often heard people (women) say  'Aren't our police wonderful?'

Books read (and films seen) this year of grace 2012

The High Window*, Raymond Chandler
The Long Goodbye*, Raymond Chandler

Muhammad, Karen Armstrong
Stalingrad, Anthony Beevor 
Defying Hitler, Sebastian Hafner
Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-45, Roger Moorehouse
This Business of Living: Diaries 1925-50* Cesare Pavese
Relapse into Bondage Alexandru Cretianu
Friends and Heroes*, Olivia Manning
Waugh in Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh - I reviewed it here

History of the Roumanians* R.W.Seton-Watson 
A History of Romania Kurt Treptow
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi - Geoff Dyer
In Ethiopia with a Mule, Dervla Murphy - I reviewed it here
Tippoo Tib: The Story of His Career in Zanzibar & Central Africa, Heinrich Brode  

Bold means I loved it. An asterisk means I have read it before. 

What a masculine, middle-aged, philistine and shamefully short list. I am a cigarette paper's breadth away from reading military history, which is the last refuge of the middle-aged male. In fact I tried Beevor's Stalingrad on a recommendation from an aesthete friend but it bored and repelled me. 

I read Chandler for the prose style not for the plot, though he is  a good storyteller. I thought when 14 that The Long Goodbye was too long and too much trying to be a proper novel. Now I absolutely loved it except the ending with the silly twist which I merely skimmed without attempting to understand it.

Karen Armstrong is not worth reading as she does not mention that the evidence for her subject's life is extremely late indeed (two centuries after the event) but the new book by Tom Holland on the origins of the Koran sounds good. Holland apparently went to my college years after me and took a Double First in Classics and History and has many books to his credit. I try not to be jealous.

Hafner's book, to my great surprise, an account of his uneventful life in Berlin in 1933, found among his papers and published ten years ago, is absolutely wonderful. It is beautifully written and deeply horrifying because of the sheer normality of his life as he describes it in Berlin in 1933 and the ease and rapidity with which Germans accepted Nazism and Nazi indoctrination. I hope it becomes a classic and is read in a hundred years' time as it deserves to be. People follow like sheep. I saw a somewhat faint parallel with another totalitarian ideology with a whiff of sulphur, political correctness, which has made cowards of us all in recent years. 


The Moorehouse book is not particularly well written or strikingly insightful, but it efficiently covers the ground. The story of Stella Kübler, the beautiful blonde Jewess who was used by the Nazis as bait to uncover Jews hiding in Berlin, chilled my blood. One solitary Jew was permitted to survive in the Jewish cemetery burying Jews according to Jewish practice. He was still alive when the Russians came. This is what a friend of mine Madeleine Farrar-Hockley calls Hitler porn but my excuse is that I know very little about German domestic history during the Nazi period, the subject is important and I am interested in biographies of cities, writing as I am one a book on Bucharest. 

Olivia Manning's third volume in the Balkan trilogy, set in Greece, which I reread while spending the weekend in Athens and Hydra, inclines me to think that the reason I like the first two so much is because of my love of and interest in Romania not Manning's writing. She does not create characters. Her characters are clearly drawn from life in many cases and therefore do not come alive. It is the invented ones like Yaki who live. 

Films seen

The Blue Dahlia (1947)*
The Brasher Doubloon (1947)
Albert Nobbs (2011)
In a Better World (2011)

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Owl Critic

This doggerel has absolutely no literary merit but my father loved it and loved to read it aloud to me when I was a young boy and for this I greatly esteem it. It is a poem to be read aloud and is for those who enjoy heavy 19th century humour as I very much do. I have no idea who wrote it. Something brought it into my mind this evening for the first time in decades. It is a great joy to meet it again and I couldn't resist sharing it. 

The Owl Critic

"Who stuffed that white owl?" No one spoke in the shop;
The barber was busy and he couldn't stop;
The customers waiting their turns were all reading
The Daily, the Herald, the Post, little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

"Don't you see, Mister Brown,"
Cried the youth with a frown.
"How wrong the whole thing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is_
In short the whole owl, what and ignorant wreck is;
I make no apology;
I've passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskillful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from the beak to his tail,
Mister Brown ! Mister Brown !
Do take that bird down,
Or you'll soon be the laughing-stock all over town!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"I've studied owls,
And other night fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his tail canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He can't do this, because
"Tis against all bird laws.
Anatomy teaches.
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can't turn out so !

I've made the white owl my study for years.
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears;
Mister Brown, I'm amazed
You should have gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd !
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him didn't know half his business
And the barber kept on shaving.

"Examine those eyes,
I'm filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They'd make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there's not one natural feather."

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch.
The owl very gravely got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he would say;
"Your learning's at fault this time, anyway;
Don't waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I'm an owl; your're another. Sir Critic, good day!"
And the barber kept on shaving

Reprinted in Ward's Natural Science Bulletin No. 3, Rochester, New York, April 1, 1882, page 15

Sunday blues

In England in my day, as Tony Hancock said, Sunday was so depressing that Saturday was ruined knowing the next day was going to be Sunday.

Saturdays in my childhood became depressing in the afternoon with wrestling on the television (which we never called the telly) and Mick McManus and then it was downhill. Sunday was Mass and shopping at the Jewish shop, which was allowed to open till 12.30 p.m., for things we had forgotten to buy on Saturday. Sunday lunch and Forces Favourites and The Clitheroe Kid  followed by an old film on TV were great. Except that Sunday's depressingness seeped in. And then school on Monday which was Belsen. And yet I remember my childhood as blissfully happy. Confusing.

Bucharest the capital village

The villages are the true Romania, not the towns. In fact the towns, when they are not German as all the good looking ones are, are villages which have expanded. 

Bucharest is a village too. Like all Wallachian villages it straggles a road, in this case the road from Vienna and Brasov to Giurgiu and Constantinople which became the famous  Mogoşoaia Bridge (so-called because it was made of planks sitting on mud) and was renamed the Avenue of Victory (Calea Victoriei) after Romania achieved independence from the Sublime Porte. But Bucharest is a village in many senses. Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips, everyone knows the inside track and is shocked at your naivety or ignorance if you don't know it. No village goes in for character assassination more than Bucharest. 

Bucharest has most of the defects that the word parochial summarises but I like parochiality and think it the only antidote to the globalised internationalist spirit of the age. On the other hand unlike real villages Bucharest has restaurants, opera and lots of highly intelligent people. The best of both worlds perhaps but sometimes an escape to the countryside is a  great delight.

An old-fashioned restaurant

In my 14 years here Romania has grown up and become less exciting and so have I. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than the Old Town in Bucharest where I have lived since 2000 which until around 2006 was edgy. Now it is a standard inauthentic piece of hospitality industry plant just like the centres of every other European capital. I except Minsk and Tirana but Minsk and Tirana are new cities with almost nothing old in them and no-one visits them except for reasons.

The Blanduziei  Restaurant a couple of hundred yards from the Old Town close to the porticoed front of the National Bank in Str. Academiei, and five minutes from my flat, is a refuge from the gallimaufry  of newly opened restaurants and bars, an oasis of civilisation in a sea of kitsch. Though unkind people might describe it is an oasis of kitsch which is also possibly true. It is a restaurant I walked past for eleven years before last summer I started going there and is just my kind of place. A pretty Romanian terrace with a good gypsy band and inside a brown and purple  chiaroscuro which looks nineteenth century. Although the waiter informs me that the Blanduziei under its present name dates back only to about 1970 he also says there was  a restaurant on this site from the 1870s and Mihai Eminescu the national poet ate there.  

The other night I ate a chicken breast and Bulgarian salad in the open air and chastely drank mineral water in the cool air, just warm enough to eat outside. Two other solitary men sit at tables in the terrace both wearing hats. The gypsies play Ionel Ionelule. I feel this could be the 20s or 30s, we could be characters in a story by Mircea Eliade.

Downstairs when I brought Ronnie and Rupert to talk about the books we are writing I felt like a Republican conspiring to overthrow the monarchy in the 1870s. Ronnie and Rupert though they are around fifty groaned at the  1930s musica populara – they were playing the wonderful Ioana Radu - and I remembered people  at school sneering at my pre-war taste in music. One of the many things I love about Romania is that people of all ages like the wonderful Romanian popular music of before the war. I hoped British people by the age of fifty would have learnt to like old music too but it seems my generation is blighted by bad taste as by original sin. I except myself from the first, the curse of 1970s ideas and tastes. 

Orthodox Easter in Bucharest, last weekend

The tiny Catholic Church in Greece celebrates Easter on the same day as the Orthodox, a timid step towards healing the Great Schism. I wish the Catholic Church in Romania did the same. Instead this year as most years Easter fell on a different date depending which side you take in the Great Schism. For Catholics Easter was a week earlier.

For the first time in a quite a few years I was in Romania for the Orthodox Easter and shall try to be so every year. Next year perhaps I'll go to the Bucovina and go to Mass in one of the painted monasteries as I did ten years ago or in the Maramures or in Milea 23 in the Delta. Easter I realise is best in the villages. 

As my friend Alison Mutler, said ‘Romania is a most magical country at Easter. Romanians really get Easter in a way they don't in other countries (myself included, I am always touched after all these years).’

Theologically Easter of course is much more important than Christmas but in Catholic and protestant countries Christmas is much more important in real life but in orthodox countries Easter is given its rightful pre-eminence.

Good Friday is not a public holiday but many take it off and in the countryside it is considered like the major saints’ days an unofficial holiday.

Catholic churches close on Maundy Thursday to reopen late on Easter Saturday but the Orthodox for their Easter behave otherwise.

On the evening of Good Friday I went to Mass in what is to my mind the most beautiful church in Romania, the Stavropoleos Church a three hundred yards  from where I live. Until a  few years ago I had the Old Town almost to myself at night but now the streets are full of light and noise and in the early morning  loud with the sons of Belial flown with wine. The Stavropoleos Church (actually a  monastery with enchanting cloisters) seven years ago used to share an empty pot-holed street with secondary buildings of the  National Bank and the empty behemoth of the state-owned Caru cu Bere, the late 19th century German beer hall which now privatised buzzes with life and laughter. The church is a hundred yards from a thriving Japanese restaurants something like many things that would have been unimaginable but now seems like it was always here. Yet in the church and crammed outside the faithful of all ages gather to hear Mass.

The friends I was supposed to be meeting has her telephone switched off and so eventually I have to walk away with reluctance before we get to the ceremony of the burial of Our Lord where a simulacrum the coffin containing of His body is taken to be buried. I saw this last year in Hydra, enchanting Greek island where cars are not allowed and the narrow streets of the little island were full of burial processions from the many churches. Romania is said to be the most religious country in Europe but as Eugene Ionesco said Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in catholic or Protestant countries. It is much more centred on God and about the other world and  the liturgy than about ethics or social responsibility. It is a very individualistic faith but one that is embraced by the community as a whole. It almost is true to say here what is no longer true of Italy os Spain that belief in God seems as natural as believing the sun will go down tonight and rise tomorrow.

The Romanians revere their priests and religious but many respect the Church as an institution rather less. The Church though it is always easily top of institutions Romanians respect (there really is not a lot of competition) it is damaged by the fact that it cohabited and collaborated with the Communist regime and by its wealth. Even here in the Balkans the idea that the church is the oracle of God has to fight hard against Enlightenment ideas and belief in a  personal relationship with God unmediated by priests.
For Midnight Mass my friends chose a very good location in the Izvorul Tamaduirii (healing spring) church in Strada Monateriei behind the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Under an archway  the church has a large courtyard. The priests at Midnight came out of the packed church and said Mass to the one waiting outside in the rain, something that at many churches does not happen. The words of the nativity story from the Gospel are sung beautifully in Romanian. A paschal candle is born aloft from the church and the candles of the faithful are lit one candle from another. The beauty of the words and music and ritual and the faith of the congregation formed a critical mass, something deeply moving and almost tangible. Within half an hour the streets of Bucharest are sprinkled with candles.

I love very much the Orthodox Mass and wonder how different the Catholic Mass was before the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. The Orthodox Church does not let light in on mystery.

I saw at Mass that it is faith and the Church which is one of the main reasons why Romania is such a wonderful place to live. I wish I did not think all this will be swept away by money, foreign ideas, comparative theology and human rights taught in schools according to EU directives and  the idea that all this is terribly picturesque but parochial and out of date.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Smelling Thackeray

Thinking about the strange pungent small of the pages of Thackeray's Collected Works in the Smith, Elder edition, bound in the green buckram popular edition. I didn't like Thackeray but loved that smell. Aged 13, I tried to make my way through The Newcomes and quite a few other books of his, bought for pennies, because of that smell which only Smith, Elder editions of that era have, the heavy cream paper and the illustrations which tantalisingly promised much more than Thackeray ever delivered.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A political trial in Oslo?

It is blackly amusing that a Blairite, despite himself, wants the death penalty for the Norwegian who massacred so many young people. I suspect he did not feel the same thing about the people who blew up bombs in the tube in London - because this killer is more of an affront to Blairite or social democrat values than Al Qaeda, even though his ideas and those of AL Qaeda are not very dissimilar. Or maybe perhaps because the social democrats are nowadays deeply afraid of the masses whom they came into existence to champion and fear that a trial might to make this dreadful man a hero in the eyes of some. This by the way is what a historian predicted to me would happen some months ago. 

I do think this vile man (I will not name him and help him become famous though inevitably he is), rather like Nelson Mandela at his trial, is being given far too much chance to make political points which have nothing to do with the matter being decided.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Lord Sudeley

Dear Lord Sudeley shines like a good deed in a naughty world.  Here he is in a letter today to "The Daily Telegraph". 

"SIR – Before the debate in the House of Lords on the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposal to evict all existing peers except for 16 bishops and abolish a House of Lords which has served the nation since Saxon times, here is a tip for the peers: use the Parliament Acts and hold up all legislation for a year – a year’s unpaid holiday is what parliamentarians need to study the implications of their Pandora’s box of ill-thought-out plans for reform." 

They should have tried this before they evicted most hereditary peers. Now we need an elected second house, with peers elected for 15 year terms, one tranche each year. Indeed the Conservatives first proposed an elected upper chamber in 1910. 

Bagehot said the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it. Maybe in his day. When I worked there I was full of admiration for the Upper House, which in the 1980s had infinitely more intelligent and informed debates than the lower House.

A friend of mine who is related to the heiress to Sudeley Castle told me she was surprised to receive a letter from Lord Sudeley, whom she had not met, proposing marriage on the ground that it would be a good thing to reunite the title and the castle after many centuries. He has said that he can tell by a peer's face whether his title was created before or after 1800 and he lists in Who's Who among his recreations 'ancestor worship' and  'cultivating my sensibility'. Unlike some Tories of his class, he is no wet but was President of the Monday Club and now is President the right-wing Traditional Britain Group. He sadly lost his seat in Parliament along with most of  the hereditary peers in 1999.

Shopping porn

Santayana  said:

 "Luxury requires an aristocratic setting to make it attractive". (He could have added to make it interesting too.) Still excess has its own zest which Coco Chanel said is the secret of beauty.

Interesting that, though materialism was despised by the 1960s generation, consumerism and celebrity worship are the most important and lasting legacies of the 1960s,  ahead even of racial equality and the discovery that women like sex too.  

There is a thriving genre of shopping porn of  which this about the ill-named Posh Spice is a good example, which excites a large audience, probably one imagines of women and possibly very epicene men. 

Another legacy I suppose is that Posh Spice's lack of class means so very much less than it would have fifty years ago when Christine Keeler made such an impact because she was a prostitute who looked like a lady.   

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Business is not interesting. People are. Business is interesting because it is what many people do with their time. This insight I adapted from something said to me by M. Alain Cardon to explain what he does. He is really a philosopher, in the sense that Plato would understand, rather than a management guru or executive coach.

Epitaphs on politicians

I met a man who told me working in a children's bookshop was like living in heaven. Yes. 

The English give their most profound authors to children to read. Swift, Carroll, Belloc.

Here is Hilaire Belloc on politicians. The first epitaph seemed to me the only fitting comment on Ted Kennedy's ducal funeral Mass, given by a Cardinal and many priests in Boston Cathedral:

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

And these apply to very many Romanian politicians, in all parties: 

This, the last ornament among the peers,
Bribed, bullied, swindled and blackmailed for years:
But Death's what even Politicians fail
To bribe or swindle, bully or blackmail.


The Politician, dead and turned to clay,
Will make a clout to keep the wind away.
I am not fond of draughts, and yet I doubt
If I could get myself to touch that clout.

Causing pain

"I do find that the left have a tendency to suffer actual pain if exposed to non-left opinions." Ruth Dudley Edwards, who usually right about everything and very wise even when she is not right.True and beautifully put. 

I felt the same when I was anti-Mrs. Thatcher but I do not remember why.