Friday, May 27, 2016

Forever England? Britain, Germany and the European Union


Cambridge in early Spring

I recently received a magazine from my old College. On its front is an idyllic picture of the Cam. Inside, amongst reports on fund-raising and on improving access to what was always a rather stuffy, public school dominated place, and a piece improbably entitled "I Was Hitler's Neighbour", is an excellent article "European Integration - Realistic or Idealistic", by Mathias Haeussler.

I am old enough to remember Britain's first somewhat hesitant efforts to join what we used to call the "Common Market." We had a debate about it at my school, not many miles from the coast of what before statehood used to be called "The German Ocean". The local M.P. attended, speaking in favour of entry. He lost, and said he would report the result back to the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan no less!

I remember making a nervous contribution to the debate, saying that everybody on both sides seemed to think that the British/English were a special people, superior of course to continentals and to former subjects of the Empire, and I begged to differ. That went down like a lead balloon.

Around the same time we had been treated to film shot at the school, its sound track featuring some patriotic Shakespeare, selected and read by a pompous boy who now sits on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords.

I have never been comfortable with that kind of patriotism, always wondering what place Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had in that scheme of things, and sympathising with that great Tory Dr Johnson's acerbic comment that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. So I have not bought the T-Shirt.

Anyway back to the article. Haeussler talks about the wide conceptual gulf between Germany and the U.K. He speaks about Germany's "unique historical burden and its central geostrategic position." For post-war Germans the European Union was the framework in which it sought rehabilitation in order to "mitigate fears of a potential revival of German power."

Britain by contrast, on the periphery of Europe, with a more global history, initially opposed the creation of the European Community. The British observer at the Messina Conference in 1955 made clear his view that the policy of creating a union would not work, and if it did the UK would do all in its power to obstruct it. So, as Haeussler explains, Britain only applied to join "to preserve its political and economic influence in light of the European Community's unexpected successes." The French leader General De Gaulle earned ridicule and opprobrium for daring to veto Britain's application for membership not once but twice. Eventually De Gaulle departed, and in 1973 the United Kingdom joined, the enduring legacy of an almost forgotten Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, who within a year was out of office.

The 1975 referendum, the first ever held in the United Kingdom, was the result of an existential split in the Labour Party. The remain campaign was supported by the leaders of all the main political parties, and also the rising Tory star, Margaret Thatcher. No mention that I can recall was made in the campaign of the aims of "ever closer union" mentioned in the Treaty of Rome. Britain's governing elite well knew of the aspiration for deeper union, but believed it would never come to fruition, and in any case had a devilish plan to stop it by pushing for an expansion of membership of the community.

In the event those arguing to remain secured a convincing victory, and in subsequent years those on the left of British politics became more reconciled to what was once reviled as a "capitalist club", whilst opposition grew on the right. So here we are again, being asked to make a decision because a Prime Minister leads a party that is totally disunited over our membership.

Now as in 1975 I am turned off by both campaigns. It is hard to believe the economic scare stories of a Prime Minister who only a few months ago was claiming that if he didn't get the (minor) changes he wanted he would support a campaign to leave. It is similarly hard to take seriously an ambitious Churchillian poseur linking the idea of a European union to the aims of Hitler when a few months ago he professed to be agonising as to which side he should support. I also recoil at scaremongering about millions of Turkish citizens coming to live in Britain.

George Bush: a strong supporter of Turkey joining the EU!

It is extremely unlikely that Turkey will join the EU in the foreseeable future, but of course it is an inconvenient fact that successive British Governments have been strong supporters of Turkey's membership, and none more so than former Foreign Secretary William Hague . The reason for British support was part NATO/United States inspired, but it has to be seen in the context of the Foreign Office's 40 year long machiavellian policy of promoting expansion to make a deepening of European Union impossible.

My own feeling is that De Gaulle was right and Britain should never have been allowed into the Union. It would though be incomparably harder to leave than in 1975, because our economy is now far more integrated into that of the continent, and the world we inhabit is far more uncertain and unstable than that of 40 years ago. I am also certain that in or out, Britain has a very real interest in the future political and economic arrangements on the continent. For over 300 years, from the reign of Louis XIV in France, a constant of British Foreign Policy was the prevention of the continent's dominance by a single power, and much money was spent and blood spilled in pursuing that policy. Clearly the European Union is in a state of flux, engulfed by multiple global crises that have afflicted the world since 9/11, the post-Iraq war destabilisation of the Arab world, and the beginnings of the Great Recession in 2008. I doubt whether it would be wise for Britain to surrender all influence over this process and join Norway and Switzerland on the sidelines.

My gut feeling is that Britain will vote to remain, and I suspect that as in 1975 it will not even be close. I do not expect the referendum to settle the issue. Germany has a clear idea of its place in the heartland of Europe. It cannot seriously entertain isolationist or go it alone policies. Britain, said Dean Acheson in 1962, "has lost an Empire and not yet found a role." Over 50 years later that still remains true. Dr Haeussler concludes his article with the comment that "Whichever way the vote will go on 23 June .. it certainly won't solve Britain's problem with European integration."

40 years ago I went into the polling booth intending to vote to remain, and at the very last minute changed my mind. My young daughter saw my vote and said "I will tell Harold Wilson [the Prime Minister] about you." Her comment convinced me that I had voted the right way! Who knows what I shall do this time?

Postscript Since writing this I have come across this article by Patrick Stewart which has brought me to my senses. This time I have a postal vote, so there will be no last moment changes!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Norvège Nul Points : Corruption the Nobel Way


Corruption the Nobel Way, Dirty Fuels and the Sunshine Revolution by Harald N. Røstvik

Norway regularly comes top or near the top of every index that tries to measure the quality of life across developed countries. According to Harald Røstvik, a Norwegian Professor of Architecture, educated at Manchester University, with a passion for sustainability, we have all got it wrong. Far from being a peace loving country, Norway, perhaps the richest country on the planet, is steeped in corruption and its whole economy based on the export of fossil fuels and armaments.

How asked Harald Røstvik can a nation "so beautiful and rich, seemingly based on consensus, breed famous dark fiction writers like Jo Nesboø as well as breeding a person able to be staging a death and defiance massacre at Utøya?" The author seeks to explain by unearthing Norway's "many dirty little secrets" here are the main points of the indictment:

1. A climate damaging nation - with very high and unsustainable emissions of Carbon dioxide
2. An imperialistic colonial power - through its oil companies it has ties in the most corrupt regimes in the world, and Norwegian companies have regularly engaged in corrupt practices to gain advantage in those countries; Norway has spent billions lobbying the US Government, and a Norwegian Company for some time held the contract to maintain the notorious Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, used to hold terror suspects; Norway also owns land on Antarctica: Queen Maud's land is apparently 7 times larger than mainland Norway;
3. A considerable exporter of arms, ammunition and napalm; Norway has 120 weapons and manufacturing companies,is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world, and it doubled its exports between 2005 and 2012.
4. Norways prisons are full to the brim, and the Government is looking to rent space in Sweden, whose prison cells are half empty;
5. A Class society, with Norwegian households owing more than the Italians; the high cost of living has led to increases in poverty, with 75,000 children living below the poverty line; the most unequal of the Nordic nations;
6. High divorce rates; big mental health problems;
7. A dependence on oil wealth which has stifled development in other areas, particularly alternative energy. Even its large hydro electric power industry could produce far more energy than it does.
8. Monopoly in the food industry, with consequent higher prices than in neighbouring countries, despite the high subsidies to farmers

Perhaps the most alarming point Røstvik raises is the Norwegian intolerance of whistle blowing and any criticism of the country. As a result Norway is the least transparent of the Nordic nations. The author describes what he calls a "loyalty culture" in which many top jobs routinely go to people with political affiliations, mostly to the Norwegian Labour Party, and"nepotism is practised in a big way."

"Norwegian wood is very good but according to the author many of its wood burning stoves are damaging to the nation's health
Undoubtedly the author speaks from personal experience as a critic of Norway, and an advocate of sustainable models when he describes Norway as a difficult place to live and operate:
The alternative truths are difficult to present to a broad audience. Inconvenient truths are not popular, especially not if they question the beauty of our oil, natural gas, hydropower and arms exporting industries that feed us. We have turned into a shrewd nation where climate change discussions are marginalised .. Instead of fierce debate people go home into their cosy homes and read about - everyday tiny nothingness .. In 2013 another Norwegian bestseller was a book on firewood .. NRK the state broadcaster sent a 12-hour TV 'national firewood evening, night and morning on prime time ..it became a hit .. The New York Times had a full-page coverage. .. It was hard to figure out whether the world was laughing at us .. or praising our down to earth attitude. The NYT article started as follows:'The program consisted mostly of people in parkas chatting and chopping in the woods and then eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace."

The author presents an interesting follow up to this. Certain older wood burning stoves are apparently polluting the air and the author argued that they should be banned. He claims that the state TV channel argued against him in a 12 hour TV programme without calling him to put his case!

It is impossible for me to evaluate this book, but the author certainly presents a great deal of information that was unknown to me, a frequent visitor to the country over 25 years. I was particularly surprised to read about the Norwegian Armaments industry, and the tangled web of intrigues that Norwegian Companies have been involved in, especially in Iraq soon after the American invasion in 2003. One Norwegian I know who like the author has strong Mancunian connections, is very pleased with the book: it corroborates many of the points that he has made to this rather sceptical listener over the past 10 years or so, particularly about the unwelcomeness of criticism in Norway, and the somewhat nauseating attempts to suck up tho the United States, which culminated in the ridiculous award of the Nobel peace Prize to President Obama only a few months after he had become President..

I doubt though whether Corruption the Nobel Way will get the attention it deserves in Norway. Even Amazon does not stock it, except in Kindle form, and I bought my copy from the Architectural Association Bookshop in London. It is though a good read for anyone interested in Norway or the inter-connectedness of the modern world. "No Country is an island", as John Donne might have said.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The House of Windsor and Appeasement

Neville Chamberlain and his wife pictured with the King and Queen after signing the Munich Agreement in 1938; both appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen

The publication by the Sun of pictures of the young Princess Elizabeth and more significantly perhaps her mother, then the Duchess of York, performing a Nazi salute in 1933-1934 in the company of Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, has apparently caused some consternation in the Royal Family.

Andrew Roberts pointed out some time ago that the House of Windsor has an enduring sense of insecurity. (1) Created in the first World War when its designation was changed from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, its founder, George V was soon to witness the dethronement of his cousins the Tsar of Russia and the German Kaiser. If there was one thing that united the House of Windsor for the next two decades it was opposition to another war against Germany which it not unreasonably feared might be fatal both to the British Empire and to the Monarchy itself.

For those who take a Manichean view of history, particularly beloved by Americans, the baddies in the 1930's were Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, and Neville Chamberlain. The hero of the decade, with whom the Royal family, or particularly George VI and his wife, have to a large extent become associated in public memory, was Winston Churchill. The film The King's Speech helped to prolong this myth, for such it was.

Churchill, a supporter of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, was very unpopular with the Royal Family throughout the decade. The King and Queen, contrary to conventions of political neutrality, were firm supporters of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, and very sorry to see Winston Churchill succeed him. When Chamberlain arrived to resign in May 1940 the King said that he thought he had been treated most unfairly, and suggested that Lord Halifax should be his successor. He was most disappointed when Chamberlain disagreed. Apparently the Queen was particularly opposed to Churchill. She wrote a note to Chamberlain expressing her regret at his resignation.

I can never tell you in words how much we owe you. During these last desperate and unhappy years .. we felt safe with the knowledge that your wisdom and high purpose were there at our hand. I do want you to know how grateful we are, and I know that these feelings are shared by a great part of our people. Your broadcast was superb. My eldest daughter told me that she and Margaret Rose had listened to it with real emotion. In fact she said 'I cried Mummy'. (20)

Another happier moment on the Balcony at Buckingham Palace: with Churchill on VE day

The current storm has renewed calls for the Royal Family to open its archives to allow researchers to investigate its links with the Royal Family's German relatives in the 1930's. Clearly there is little chance of this happening for many years.

As Max Sebald so aptly put it, ".. forgetting is what keeps us going." History and memory are not synonyms. History aims to help us reconstruct and understand the past and arrive at some kind of truth, albeit provisional. Memory is bound up with our identity, both individually and collectively. In response to the Sun, Buckingham Palace significantly tried to reinforce our memory of the Royal Family's "dedication to the welfare of this nation during the war ", and the Queen's 63 year record of service.
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1. "The House of Windsor and the Politics of Appeasement", pp 5-53, Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (London 1994).
2. ibid p 40.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Anthony Burgess: made in Manchester


International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, complete with Christmas tree

Anthony Burgess or John Anthony Burgess Wilson as he was known in his youth, has a reasonable claim to be the greatest man (or woman), and certainly the greatest writer, that Manchester has yet produced. But I suspect that whilst most Mancunians may have heard of or even have seen the film A Clockwork Orange , few know who wrote the book on which it was based, and fewer realise that he was born in Manchester. Fewer still I suspect know of the existence of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

The typewriters on which Burgess hammered out his numerous books and articles

Sited in an old industrial building, off the beaten track, but close to the large student population at Manchester's two Universities, the Foundation has a small performance space, a book lined cafeteria, and houses much of the extensive collection accumulated by Anthony Burgess: books, typewriters, music, archives. Its windows display improving quotations, somehow appropriate for a city associated with nineteenth century liberalism and a belief in the perfectibility of man.


I AM PROUD to be a Mancunian Burgess wrote in his autobiography, and even claimed to have imported the word into the Italian language:

Italians do not realise that the British are honorary Romans, and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a citadino mancuneinse, cioè romano.

Burgess's associations with Manchester after 1940, when he received a cordial notice of induction into His Majesty's Army, were tenuous to say the least. His mother had died during the flu pandemic shortly after his birth and, somewhat detached from his father's second family, he never returned to live in the city. After the war he taught in Birmingham and Banbury and from the 1950's spent much of his life overseas, in Malaya, Malta, Italy, the United States, the Alps and elsewhere.

At the time of my birth, Manchester was the great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian .. Manchester's Free Trade Hall housed the Hallé Orchestra, one of the finest in Europe .. Manchester was encircled by fine colliery brass bands and beefy choirs, and its musical acumen, of which Ernest Newman and later Neville Cardus were the critical voices, far surpassed that of London. Its cosmpolitan musical taste was kept sharp by the Italian and German Jewish colonies. It was, under Miss Horniman, the focus of a theatrical renascence that learned from Ibsen but expressed, in plays like Hobson's Choice and Hindle Wakes, the Lancashire soul. (1)

Despite his international success, Burgess never lost his northern prejudice against the south and the Oxbridge dominated establishment: the Manchester Guardian debased itself when it moved to London and was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism and the BBC stole the Hallé's best players. (2)

.. the difficulty of removing the observer from the observed.

One might have imagined that he would at last have found a heroine in Margaret Thatcher: from a similar social background, she presumably stood for the "right kind" of radicalism, and despite a Methodist rather than Catholic upbringing, perhaps shared his strong sense of original sin. She and Burgess certainly shared an aversion to high taxes, which he avoided by living abroad, but alas her credo was too philistine for his tastes:

Some things cannot be considered in terms of a market economy, and the chief of these things is education … The ruling philosophy is utilitarian. Education is of little value unless, directly or indirectly, it leads to the expansion of the Gross National Product. Of what use is the study of history, philosophy, archaeology? … Mrs. Thatcher presumably sees no use in the teaching of moral values. There is little evidence in contemporary British life that it is considered better to help the sick and suffering than to kick them in the face.(3)

Shakespeare exhibition at the Burgess Foundation
A polymath and a man of eclectic tastes, Burgess had an obsession with language and music, and a profound knowledge and appreciation of Shakespeare, Beethoven and James Joyce. Arguably he spread himself far too thinly, insisting on regarding himself as a composer despite all the evidence to the contrary, and producing too much and too varied a range of fiction, not to mention the numerous critical and non-fictional studies.

His was though a major talent, very much a product of pre-war Manchester, an industrial city in decline, proud of its liberal heritage, with a cosmopolitan intelligentsia centred around the Victoria University, which provided an environment unmatched in most other parts of the United Kingdom. It is easy to understand Burgess's affection for Manchester, and also why he felt it had little to offer him after his graduation. He deserves to be remembered as one of Manchester's famous sons.
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1. Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God(Vintage edition 2002) p.15
2. ibid
3. See the Burgess Foundation blog

Monday, January 19, 2015

Two Exhibitions: Turner and Schiele


A rather hurried 24 hours in London to look at two very different but highly recommended art exhibitions nearing their end. Firstly, with Timothy Spall's portrayal of the artist in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner still fresh in my mind, a visit to the Tate to see the Late Turner exhibition.

William Parrott,"Turner on Varnishing Day" c. 1840

There were six rooms to negotiate amongst the inevitable crowds, a stunning reminder of just how much Turner produced in his later years, and rather too much to absorb in a single viewing.

I spent quite a lot of time looking at two paintings displayed side by side, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino and Ancient Rome; Aggripina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. These paintings were both exhibited in 1839, but have rarely been seen together since, one now residing in California and the other at the Tate.

AcientRome, Aggripina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. 1839

Turner's painstaking, detailed attempt to recreate the architecture of Imperial Rome was not fully appreciated by contemporaries, but I found it an absorbing piece of work. No reproduction that I have seen really does it justice.

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino 1839

Once the property of British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino was acquired in 2010 for a mere £29.7 million by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and is in remarkable condition. For me these two paintings alone made the exhibition worthwhile.

For the second exhibition we were transported from utilitarian Imperial Britain whose inevitable decline and decay was perhaps Turner's subtext, to late Imperial Vienna, to the intellectually vibrant and sexually charged world of Freud, Klimt and Mahler, whose decline had long been anticipated and was now imminent.

The Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld was smaller than the Turner exhibition, but was also very crowded, and here as at the Tate the viewers seemed predominantly female, something I have not noticed before.

Unlike Turner, Schiele's life was very short, at 28 a victim, like fellow Viennese painter Gustav Klimt and millions of others, of the influenza that struck the world at the end of the First World War, so one cannot really even hazard a guess what a "late Schiele" exhibition would have looked like.

Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief 1914

Some of Schiele's portrayals of the female figure are challenging even today, and must have been even more so at a time when few women even bared an ankle. At one point in his short life Schiele was imprisoned and the police seized a hundred or so drawings held to be pornographic. He was found guilty of displaying erotic drawings in a place accessible to children, and spent a total of 24 days in prison.

Two Girls Embracing (Friends) 1915

The exhibition also displayed a number of striking self-portraits which are a little less well known than his images of women. For me the most memorable picture, perhaps because I have no recollection of having seen it before, was the Male Lower Torso, produced in 2010, the same year as a number of rather tortured self portraits.

Male Lower Torso 1910
Schiele's pregnant wife died on 28th October 1818, as three days later did Schiele himself, on the same day the Austro Hungarian Empire, so long in the dying, was finally dissolved.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sri Lanka: After the Tsunami

"The Queen of the Sea": Wreck of the holiday train in which some 1700 people died On December 26th 2004

I have visited Sri Lanka many times. Perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the most poignant visit was in April 2005, just a few months after the Tsunami in which over 30,000 Sri Lankans had died. The most horrific sight we saw was the wreckage of the train, close to the main road between Colombo and Galle, near the village of Telwatta.

Tourists surveying the damage

Close up of damage to a second class carriage

Close by were the temporary huts and tents in which those who had lost their homes were living. I have often wondered how long people remained in them before they were re-housed.

Temporary housing on the Colombo Galle road

Temporary housing among the palm trees

Tents on the beach

Perhaps the most surprising sight was this sign photographed outside a tent, not far from the train wreckage.

Antiques open for business?

I remember that our driver found it amusing, and I suspect that I did too. We were not sure whether it was an indication of its owner's sense of humour, or of an indefatigable spirit and a determination to get his antiques business going again.

We also visited the cricket stadium in Galle, which had been badly damaged by the Tsunami, and was used as a temporary camp for people displaced by the Tsunami.

Cricket ground at Galle just after Tsunami

Renovation of this stadium did not begin until over a year after our visit.

Cricket ground at Galle April 2005

On our return we were taken to visit the Turtle Sanctuary which had been almost destroyed, but had somehow managed to reopen in March. Apparently in the aftermath of the Tsunami local fisherman, desperately in need of money, had turned to turtle egg poaching.

Tank in turtle sanctuary damaged by Tsunami

I did wonder at the time whether we were being voyeuristic in visiting the scene of so much recent horror, but people were very glad to see us, to witness their plight, to encourage tourism to recover and perhaps to put pressure on the authorities whose response was much criticised. I remember one man in particular going out of his way to shake my hand and tell me how grateful they were for the response of the Government and people of the UK to their tragedy. "We will never forget their generosity" he told me.

Among many memories of this trip is the remarkable story we were told when revisiting a hotel on the south coast in which we had stayed on a previous visit: apparently one of the elephants kept there had sensed that something catastrophic was happening, had broken free from its chains, picked up its keeper, and charged to higher ground before the tidal wave arrived.

I notice that Laura Davies, the UK's Deputy High Commissioner in Sri Lanka has written a blog in which a number of people have been invited to share their reminiscences of this dreadful calamity. It is well worth reading.