In October 1962, Fidel Castro nearly killed me, along with most of the population of his country and a good proportion of the rest of us. Not because he particularly wanted to create a near-extinction event of a magnitude last seen when an asteroid crashed into the earth a few hundred miles from his back yard. But his pact with Khrushchev was the price he chose to pay for preserving his revolution from the vengeful superpower next door.
Had he not chosen the Soviet Union as the role model for the new Cuba, there is little doubt that the Yanquis sooner or later would have launched another attempt to return Cuba to its sleazy old ways of oligarchs, money-laundering and mafiosi. The reward for being a client state of the world’s other superpower was three decades of hand-outs from the Soviet Union. And when the USSR went into liquidation, Venezuela happily stepped into the breach and shipped huge quantities of oil to Cuba at cost.
There are plenty of obituaries to choose from, and plenty of comments from politicians. To Donald Trump he was the devil incarnate. To Jeremy Corbyn he was an inspiration. So far we have heard nothing from Nigel Farage, our newly-minted world statesman, not that I care much for his bar-room opinions. But it’s hard not to think of Fidel as anything other than a mirror who reflects our prejudices back to us. An enemy of freedom who tolerated no dissent and ruthlessly suppressed his opponents. The benign leader who gave his people world-class healthcare and education, yet denied them the one thing that would best capitalise on that investment: freedom of speech and thought. An indefatigable supporter of African independence struggles.
What I take from his life is that he exemplifies what seems to me to be an abiding political principle.
Most armed revolutions start with good intentions. If they fail to evolve beyond the control of the original instigators, they end in sour ossification. Thus it was with Fidel’s sponsor, the Soviet Union. New dawns turn rancid, especially if the elites they create entrench themselves. And why wouldn’t they? If you have launched a violent revolution, you of all people would know to make it impossible for a revolution to dispose of you. If a revolution isn’t rapidly followed by evolution, it eventually becomes the plaything of those who brought it about. As in Robert Mugabe, Kim Il Sung and his family, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Enver Hoxha and assorted Baathists in Iraq and Syria.
The only reason that Fidel ended up as an iconic figure of the 20th century was the accident of geography that placed Cuba 90 miles from Florida. Otherwise by now he would be a half-forgotten former tinpot dictator, ranked in importance with Stroessner of Paraguay, Pinochet of Chile, Noriega of Panama and Peron of Argentina, along with all the other generalissimos who over the past century contrived to make South America second only to Africa as the worst-governed continent on the planet.
Castro was neither hero nor devil. He was an intelligent guy with a keenly-developed survival instinct whose ideals transformed themselves into a sense that what was good for Fidel Castro was good for Cuba. Rather like the new leader across the straits, I suspect. The people of Cuba will no doubt thank him for ensuring that his country didn’t become another Haiti, even if generations of exiles will lament the lost opportunity to turn their homeland into something like the neighbour to which they fled.
My abiding memory of him is of Khrushchev’s dupe. The man who nearly killed me. Once the madness passed, he was just another dictator.
Happy Thanksgiving y’all! And I mean all.
Now that Black Friday has spread its slimy tentacles across the internet to encompass the globe, perhaps it’s time for every country to embrace another American tradition, and give thanks for national deliverance.
In the case of the United Kingdom, I suspect that the most appropriate symbol of our fortune would be a scrawny old pigeon pumped up with water injected by a poultry producer in Norfolk whose workers come from some faraway country of which we know little. I’m joking of course. We have much to be thankful for, do we not?
Let’s see now….
First up, Nigel Farage is fed up with everybody in the UK being nasty to him (Very Unfair, as the president-elect might tweet). So he’s planning to emigrate to the United States. “How will he get a Green Card?” my wife asked when I broke the joyous news. “Well…”, I replied, “The Walrus’s best friend? Think about it.”
Sadly, Nigel is unlikely to be our next ambassador to the court of St Donald. Perhaps he can be persuaded to change his mind about going to America, and we can offer him a cushy number as Our Man in Asunción. Think how much a trade deal with Paraguay would transform our national prospects.
Second, let us give thanks for my local Member of Parliament, the ultimate Mr Boring, who has dared to do what hundreds of po-faced automata in Parliament have shrunk from. Philip Hammond, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, has through his Autumn Statement, effectively admitted that Brexit will make us worse off. Very much worse off.
In the words of Robert Peston, one of the UK’s most respected financial journalists:
“….the rise in the national debt compared with expectations at the time of the March budget is much more than most expected: by the end of the parliament the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts government debt at £1.945 trillion, up from £1.725bn.
That is an increase in the cash level of debt of an eye watering £220bn (to use an adjective favoured by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond).
Now £78bn of that is due to the expected post-referendum slowdown in the economy, £16bn is from government spending and tax decisions, and most of the rest is the result of measures taken by the Bank of England in August to avert recession (its initiatives to help banks lend and to purchase bonds).
So it’s reasonable to characterise that £220bn increase in the national debt as the financial cost of Brexit.”
£220 billion over four years? Stuff and nonsense. And anyway, I’m sure all right-thinking Britons will agree that a minor increase in the national debt will be a price worth paying for freedom from EU bureaucracy, the ability to negotiate our own trade agreements and the power to impose our own rules on immigration. Thank you for your honesty, Mr Hammond. You’re fired.
Thirdly, let us give thanks for Deloitte, the consultancy, who suggested in their now infamous memo that in order to disentangle ourselves from the EU, we would need 30,000 more civil servants. Either that, or other programmes that are on the government agenda would have to take second place to what in effect is an act of institutional destruction. Which won’t happen, of course. Excellent, all those new jobs thanks to Brexit. Even if you halve that number, that’s still one ginormous recruitment drive.
And from where will these potential mandarins be sourced? It’s not quite the same as hiring a few turkey pluckers in Norfolk. Will we drag retired civil servants out of their comfortable retirement? Or raid the private sector? Surely we can persuade a few bankers to jump ship for a tenth of the salaries they’re currently earning and no annual bonuses.
No? Not to worry. We’ll muddle through, as we always do. All this stuff about being unable to cope with the Brexit workload is propaganda cooked up by lazy civil servants anxious to make sure that they can still have Friday off to play golf. And if not, there’s no obstacle that a few thousand more bureaucrats can’t clear. As for Deloitte, their disloyalty has been exposed for all to see. They will soon find out what happens to peddlers of inconvenient truths.
Next, let us give thanks for Ed Balls, the former Labour minister whose artistry on Strictly Come Dancing gives hope and encouragement to all those politicians who realise that Brexit is a slow slide to disaster, but don’t have the courage to say so for fear of their jobs. There is a life beyond politics! Think of Nadine Dorries, who outshone all the D-listers on I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here. And Gorgeous George Galloway, resplendent in his pussy suit in Celebrity Big Brother. Who would not embrace a deselected MP in some future blockbuster – Celebrity Rehab perhaps? Thanks to the dancing buffalo, we now have the opportunity to purge Parliament of all but the true believers. Ship out the doubters!
Let us also rejoice in the fact that we in Britain are entirely free from the malign influence of false news and lying politicians, unlike our cousins across the pond. When we are told about the massive influx of funds that will flow post-Brexit into the National Health Service, we know it to be true. When we are told that Boris Johnson is an agent of the Russian FSB, with a mission to spread confusion, division and indigestion across the EU member states with his after-dinner speeches delivered in Latin and his incomprehensible Etonian humour, we know it to be true. How lucky we are that in the nation that gave the world John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin and Alf Garnett, the notion of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is still so eagerly embraced by our upstanding politicians and newspaper editors. Post-truth? Not in our backyard.
We should also glory in our ethnic and cultural purity. The fact that ever since our ancestors dragged the bluestones from Wales to Stonehenge, we have resisted the malign attempts to change our culture by the Romans, the Saxons, the Normans and all the other interlopers who have tried and failed to dilute our essential Britishness. What did the foreigners do for us? King Alfred, Henry V, William of Orange, Georg Freidrich Handel, Prince Albert, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Benjamin Disraeli, Gustav Holst, Isiah Berlin, Philip of Greece, Peter Ustinov, Salman Rushdie, Freddy Mercury, Helen Mirren, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lewis Hamilton, Moeen Ali, Anthony Sher? Foreigners all, of little account.
Yes, we Brits have so much to be thankful for. And I haven’t even mentioned Andy Murray, our glorious Queen, fish and chips, our rapidly improving climate and the flourishing industrial heartlands of the North.
So Happy Thanksgiving, my wonderful homeland. Enjoy the pigeon, and count your blessings that those mangy pilgrims sailed off to America all those years ago, leaving us free from dissent and division. The harvest is good. It’s morning in Britain.
Well, we might have a few shortcomings, but fear not. In the immortal prose of The Donald: “Hang in there, Britain. When I’m done draining our swamp, Nigel and I will come over and fix yours. Great country!”
The Young Pope is magnificent. Laden with symbols and portents. In other words, ominous.
HBO’s series about Lenny Belardo, who becomes the first American pope, passes my dream test with flying colours. I know that I’ve seen something special when I dream about it, not only at night but in my waking hours.
The sets, the acting, the script, Jude Law’s portrayal of a tortured soul and the unpredictability of the plot have embedded themselves in my conscious like few other dramas in recent times.
I’m wondering why I’m so enthralled. Perhaps because the timing is exquisite. Here is a man who appears from out of the blue and threatens to change everything. Sounds familiar? Then again, I suppose if you try hard enough, you can make connections between most things that dominate your thoughts. At least Carl Jung thought so when he talked about synchronicity.
And we certainly seem to be living in fearful times, when superstitions normally confined to the subconscious come to the fore. We see meaning in the accidental, intention in the coincidental.
Anyone who is familiar with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will know that the ancient Romans were deeply superstitious. Here’s his wife Calpurnia, urging the great man not to venture out on the Ides of March:
Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.
Now I’m not generally one to don my toga and stare out over Capitoline Hill (or in my case, the garden of my suburban home) looking for gloomy omens, even though much of what I’ve written since the coming of Brexit and Trump has been pretty doom-laden.
But the other day, for no particular reason, I happened to glance out of the window. There, on our back lawn, was a flurry of feathers. A predator – a kestrel perhaps, or maybe a hawk – was devouring a pigeon. The victim was still alive, twitching. I went outside to identify the aggressor. Before I could make out more than the familiar hooked beak and fantail, it carried the pigeon aloft and flew away. What’s more, the pigeon was scarcely smaller than the bird that carried it.
To say that it was an unusual sight was an understatement. In thirty years of living in the house and looking out on our very tame garden, I had never seen a bird of prey, let alone one feeding on another bird.
If I were Calpurnia, I would have immediately recognised the event as an omen. A forewarning of a greater power feeding on a weaker one, perhaps. But my world is far more mundane, and I thought little more about it other than that it was rather an odd thing to see. Only later, when I went into magus mode, did I make a connection with Donald Trump – The Walrus, as I called him in a previous post. A predator if ever there was one, whose seizure of the US presidency was as unprecedented as the appearance of the avian raptor in my garden.
Then another strange thing.
In the opening sequence of The Young Pope, to the accompaniment of Jimi Hendrix’s magical rendition of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, Belardo is seen striding past a gallery of old masters. An animated fireball sets buildings in the pictures alight, and finally topples what looks like a waxwork of a former pope. The Pontiff’s face is set in a permanent smirk. He turns and winks at us.
As I was watching the TV last night, I was thinking of writing about the series. I was curious as to why the director choose that song. So I went to the web for a closer look at Dylan’s lyrics:
There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth
No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
Did Paolo Sorrentino, who created the show, see Dylan’s verse as being about the end of days, or perhaps the corruption of power? Or was he hinting at Belardo’s internal struggle – his Greater Jihad? Is Belardo the joker or the thief?
And then, bang! As if through an act of God, at the very moment that the lyrics appeared on my IPad, Hendrix’s opening riff to All Along the Watchtower came ripping through as the soundtrack of an advert.
I thought back to the pigeon and the predator. I thought of omens and synchronicity. And I started thinking of Trump and the fictional Belardo as two sides of the same coin.
Trump the demagogue, ever present, in your face and in your mind, yet unknowable. What lies within? What drives his narcissism, his ten-year-old petulance? And Belardo, an orphan whose emotional wounds are all too clear, who shrinks from human familiarity and will not allow himself to be seen by the laity. Whose past is blameless. Whose message is uncompromising: no love is more important than our love of God.
Belardo is unknowable too. Like Trump, he’s unpredictable. Not afraid to use the symbols of power to enforce his will. A believer of mystique and mystery. Cruel yet compassionate. Calculating yet impulsive. But all in the service of God, rather than for the greater glory of Donald Trump.
In my fevered imagination, Belardo is the Anti-Trump. A chain-smoking ascetic stands opposite Trump’s teetotal self-indulgence. A pope who is loyal to nobody (not even to God, it seems) and a president-elect who prizes loyalty above all things.
Just occasionally two parallel events seem to act as a counterpoint. The one illuminates the other. Thus, to me at least, the coming of a real-life president and a fictional pope, both seemingly intent on bringing down the watchtowers constructed by their recent predecessors, is a perfect example of what Jung would have called a synchronicity event.
Well, maybe. I’m only up to Episode 4 of The Young Pope, and The Walrus hasn’t even taken the oath of office.
Silly nonsense, I know. It’s only a TV show, whereas The Walrus and his band of oyster-guzzling Carpenters are frighteningly real. But still, contemplating the divine, I find myself wondering how many of America’s religious right embraced Trump’s flagrant immorality and voted for him out of a sincere conviction that he’s the Antichrist – the catalyst who will bring about the final confrontation between good and evil, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. Enough to swing Pennsylvania and North Carolina perhaps.
Time, no doubt, to don the toga, examine the entrails and scour the sky for signs. Or else to fish out the old bible I haven’t read for many a year, join the Adventists and eagerly await the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
On second thoughts, I reckon I’ll just get a prescription for Prozac, sit through the final episodes of The Young Pope in a beatific haze, and wait for a real-life Anti-Trump to deliver us from Armageddon.
For the second time this year I happened to be away from home when a great political event took place. On Brexit day I was in France. This time, when Trump triumphed, I was ten days into a holiday in Thailand. It was an appropriate place to witness from afar a political death. The country has just lost its king. Memorials to the longest-reigning monarch in the world were to be seen on street corners, in public buildings, in restaurants and hotels.
King Bhumibol was an emotional anchor for a country wracked for most of his reign by political instability culminating in regular military interventions. He was their talisman. Whatever pain the generals, the demagogues and the corrupt elite might have inflicted on his people, he was there for them – a model of wisdom, benevolence and rectitude, willing to intervene on their behalf not through constitutional right but through authority that comes from respect.
The sense of loss, of an era coming to an end, of uncertainty about the future, was not just reflected in the official period of mourning declared by the military leadership. It was personal. Thais speak about the monarch not as “the King” or “our King”, but as “my King”. Pictures of him at work and play adorn homes as well as public places, as if he was a member of his subjects’ families as well as the national icon.
Now the rest of us join the Thais in wondering what comes next. Whether or not I was unconsciously influenced by deep foreboding on account of Brexit, which I deplore, the books I chose to bring with me reflected previous times when the world has turned upside down, and the effect of turmoil on individuals, families and groups within societies.
I didn’t deliberately choose those themes, but I guess they reflected a state of mind that should be evident from most of what I’ve written in this blog over the past six months. At the risk of sounding pompous, the certainty that I have less time left than I have already lived causes me to spend more time trying to make sense of what has led to now, of why now is what it is, and what future nows might unfold.
So for those of you who might share similar preoccupations, here’s a brief summary of the six books I’ve read over the past couple of weeks. Not a dud among them, but not a barrel of laughs either.
East West Street. A deeply moving account by Phillipe Sands, an eminent barrister and professor of law, who pieces together the history of his Jewish family from their origins in Lemburg (also known as Lviv and latterly Lvov). He intertwines the lives of four men and their families. Three of them lived few streets away from each other: his maternal grandfather, Leon Bucholtz, along with Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. The latter two were lawyers who subsequently had a profound influence on the development of international law. The fourth person was Hans Frank, Hitler’s viceroy in charge of Poland and the other occupied territories in the East.
As a member of the team of lawyers preparing for the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, Lauterpacht created the concept of crimes against humanitye team of lawyers preparing for the Nuremburg Trials. Lemkin first coined the term genocide. Although Lemkin’s concept was not universally accepted by the four powers represented at Nuremberg (for fear that the term being used to describe earlier historical events of which the victors were not proud) the two lawyers were authors of two enduring planks of international law, even though they didn’t see eye to eye on the details. Lauterpacht was focused on crimes in terms of their effects on individuals. Lemkin believed that prosecutions for war crimes should be conducted on the basis of crimes against groups.
In Sands’ narrative, all roads led to Nuremburg. For Frank, the trial ended with the death sentence. At the time of the trials neither lawyer was aware of the fate of their extended families and Frank’s part in it. Only subsequently did they and Leon Bucholtz discover that their loved ones were among more than two thousand residents of nearby Zolkiev who rounded up, shot and buried in a forest outside the town. Other family members ended up at the Treblinka death camp.
When we talk blithely about a world turned upside down in the wake of Trump’s election, we should read this book and consider the fate of Lemburg/Lviv/Lvov, a city that over thirty years ended up by treaty or through invasion within the borders of three separate states, and whose population suffered endless turmoil.
You don’t have to be Jewish and to have been robbed of a normal family history to appreciate the legacy of Lemkin and Lauterpacht. Thanks in large part to the work of two outstanding lawyers, tyrants, warlords and their foot-soldiers know that today there is an International Criminal Court waiting for the opportunity to reward them for their efforts.
Although East West Street is an invaluable primer of the origins of international criminal law, in essence it’s a book about individuals and their stories, eloquently told by an author who has through his work encountered more than his fair share of inhumanity. To that extent, you sense that Lauterpacht, with his emphasis on the individual, is the greater influence on Sands as he weaves together the strands of human tragedy and survival in this impressive and compassionate book.
SAS: Rogue Heroes – The Authorised Wartime History. A rattling yarn about Britain’s Special Air Services (SAS) in the Second World War. Ben MacIntyre, who specialises in “untold stories” from that war, was given access to the SAS diaries that document every operation the organisation undertook from its foundation in the North African campaign through to the end of the war. Full of eccentrics, psychotics and feats of incredible bravery. At the heart of the SAS founding ethos was training and planning – conventional military virtues – overlaid with improvisation, versatility, team spirit and determination up to the limits of human capability. It’s a template that has survived in special forces to this day.
The saddest part of the book was the long list at the end of those who didn’t survive – victims of battles against the odds, cock-ups and Hitler’s policy that all captured commandos should be shot. There are also poignant stories of those who did survive and couldn’t adjust, including Paddy Mayne, one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers. A hard-drinking international rugby player and solicitor, he died within ten years of the end of the war, after running his car into the back of a farmer’s truck at the end of a late-night drinking session.
Purity. Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel – dense, intense, intricately plotted and with a rich array of three-dimensional characters. It’s a story about relationships between mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, set in California, Bolivia, East Germany and Colorado. The themes are enduring, and the main characters revel themselves in increasing depth as the story progresses. What more could you ask for? This is my first Franzen novel, and it’s as good as anything I’ve read for years.
Conclave. Robert Harris’s latest tale, in which he describes a papal conclave – the process to elect a new pope. Full of arcane details, skulduggery and unholy ambition punctuated with unexpected external interventions – acts of God, you might say if you were one of the cardinals locked into the Sistine Chapel for interminable rounds of inconclusive voting.
Harris is one of those novelists I can count on not to disappoint. I’ve read most of his previous stuff. Conclave isn’t his very best – I rate his Cicero novels higher – but the story races along, and has an interesting if slightly unbelievable final twist.
The Plot Against America. Philip Roth’s 2004 novel is about what might have happened if the Nazi-sympathising aviator Charles Lindbergh, running on an isolationist platform, had taken on and defeated Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. It was frequently cited during the US election campaign, which is why I decided to read it. With exquisite timing, I started it the day before the election, and finished it the day after.
It’s a tale of insidious anti-semitism. Roth’s own family is ripped apart as one side takes the view that things won’t really be that bad, and the other foresees an apocalypse. As Britain takes on Germany alone, we readers know what is about to happen in occupied Europe, but the Jews of America oscillate between denial and resistance.
The parallels are obvious. Did Hitler have a hold on Lindbergh? For Hitler and Lindbergh, read Putin and Trump. Even if Roth’s novel was written from the perspective of a Jewish family in New Jersey, and today there are many other targets of Trump’s wrath, we are seeing the same sentiment of cautious optimism. Trump will draw back from his campaign rhetoric, won’t he?. Things will turn out OK, won’t they? Until they don’t.
In Roth’s tale they do eventually work out. With Trump we will have to wait and see.
The Maisky Diaries: The Wartime Revelations of Stalin’s Ambassador in London. Ivan Maisky was the Soviet ambassador to the UK between 1932 and 1943. The very fact that he survived in his post for that length of time shows that he was an extraordinary individual. Stalin’s purges carried off many of his high-ranking colleagues, and he too came close to disaster. He was extraordinary not just because of his survival skills. He cultivated relationships across Britain’s political and literary spectrum. As evidence by the diaries, he was a highly accomplished writer. He was a man of letters and a lover of the arts.
His diaries are fascinating because they offer the perspective on English society of an outsider who was capable of donning the mask of an insider. He was aware that everything he wrote would at some stage be read by the leadership in Moscow, and would be used in evidence if he ended up as the accused in a show trial. He was therefore careful to bend the knee to ideology. Often, if he wished to make a point in his dispatches to Moscow that Stalin might not appreciate, he was careful to attribute those views to one of his British contacts. But you still get the sense that if you had sat down with him beyond the earshot of informers, he might have revealed the soul of a man who was a bolshevik only by convenience.
The politicians he describes in the run-up to the war are, with a few exceptions, a complacent and deluded lot. Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare come in for the worst of Maisky’s scorn. Subsequent events proved him right. His favourites were Lloyd George and Churchill. Lloyd George, as the elder statesman, was never afraid to share his views with anyone prepared to listen, and he undoubtedly helped Maisky to better understand the subtleties of British politics. The relationship the envoy formed with Churchill long before the war was based more on respect than affection. It was clear to him that here was a man with more backbone than most of his peers put together.
For those of us not privy to the often tortuous complexity of international diplomacy, Maisky gives a fascinating blow-by-blow account of the shifting sands of negotiations between the German, British, Soviet and French governments in the run-up to the Second World War. In those days communications were mainly by notes, telegrams and letters and often conducted through the subtle intermediation of the ambassador. Summits were rarities, and even high-ranking envoys like Maisky would make interminable rail trips to attend international conferences, such as meetings of the League of Nations in Geneva. A far cry from shuttle diplomacy, which seems to have reduced all but the most influential modern ambassadors to the status of bag carriers.
Maisky fell foul of his masters in the end, during a late flowering of Stalin’s reign of terror. He was accused of being a British spy. He came within an inch of the firing squad, but was saved by the death of the leader. He still ended up in jail for five years, and remained in disgrace until the Sixties. But he died at the ripe old age of ninety-one, despite predicting in his diary that he wouldn’t make it past his seventh decade.
It’s a fascinating read, excellently edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, who rediscovered the diaries in 1993. He provides illuminating commentary throughout.
A pretty heavy selection for a holiday, you might think, and you’d be right. But if ever a time could be said to be ordinary, this sin’t it.
A final note: the links to Amazon are not sponsored. I include them for convenience, not as a recommendation to buy from the site. There are still a few independent booksellers out there, though sadly the last one in my town closed recently. Don’t let them all die.
The grim visage staring at you in this picture would be enough to scare the living daylights out of 007, Luca Brasi, ISIS, Kim Jong Un or a pack of rabid attack dogs. Uncle Fester on steroids. The face of a serial killer, a torturer, a Christian-persecuting Roman emperor, a paranoid eunuch at the court of a fratricidal Ottoman Sultan?
I’m not a fan of Madame Tussauds. Waxworks look, well, waxy, and often nothing like the intended subject. But this one, before they stuck the yak hair on top of his head and plastered him with orange, captures The Walrus rather well, I think.
Would the American people have elected him if he’d appeared before the people without the cirrus cloud hovering those grim features? I don’t think so. A few months ago I wrote a post about the difficulty bald politicians face in achieving supreme power, especially in the US and the UK. Think back to every elected prime minister since Churchill, and every president since Eisenhower (apart from the accidental one thrown up by Watergate). A quirk of follicular genetics determines your perceived fitness to lead. More on that subject in Politics – why do the baldies always lose (unless they’re up against other baldies)?
Anyway, just when you think America has elected Ernst Stavro Blofeld as president, he comes up with this rather plaintive tweet:
Ah OK, that must have been the version with the hair. Makes you want to pass the poor guy a hankie.
The wonderful thing about America is that you can say all kinds of things about elected officials – provided they are not threatening or libellous – without some G-man or lawyer with a writ knocking on your door. Not so in some other parts of the world – Turkey for example.
Should that cease to be the case in the near future, then the rest of us have real cause to worry. Until then, happy days for cartoonists, political sketch writers and John Oliver. If only Theresa May was such an easy target!
OK, so Trump won.
Enough of the wailing and gnashing of teeth. I had those moments yesterday, but I’m over them, because neither I nor anybody else can do anything about it.
Brexit, on the other hand, I’m not over, because so long as there is an opportunity to influence the outcome, either towards a reconsideration of the whole deal or a mitigation of the effects of a hard Brexit, I’ll continue to make my voice heard.
But Trump is a done deal, so now it’s time to take a hard look at the new reality with which we must now come to terms.
As an immediate reaction, a few thoughts have been going through my mind since yesterday. Here they are, in no particular order:
It will not be the first time that America has elected a President with a few screws loose, but with Trump at least we know where the screws are. This was not the case last time a potentially unhinged president was in office. Richard Nixon’s paranoia was pretty well known, but it was only after his resignation that the full extent of his obsessive, depressive and drink-fuelled behaviour while in office became known.
In Trump’s case most of the stories have come out already, though don’t be surprised if more seep out in the next couple of months. Barring more gruesome revelations we know what to expect. Hopefully there will be a shrink close to the White House to raise the red flag when things get out of hand.
Ace negotiator? That remains to be seen. Many successful negotiators I’ve come across don a mask of inscrutability. In Trump’s case there will be enough information from his media career, from the election campaign and from the numerous stories from people who know him (and don’t like what they saw) for a negotiating opponent to be armed with perhaps the most accurate and comprehensive psychological profile of any president in history.
Contrast Trump with Vladimir Putin, a cold-eyed poker player whose opponents are still trying to figure out even after sixteen years in power. The only thing Trump has going for him is his reputation for unpredictability, something he shares with Putin. But at the heart of Putin’s unpredictability lies a talent for lateral thinking. Trump’s, it seems, is rooted in low emotional intelligence and impulse control. Should be interesting watching them together.
Trump may do nasty things, but nasty things happen anyway. 9/11 didn’t happen on the watch of a narcissistic demagogue. Nor did the financial crisis of 2008. And nor did the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. The known unknowns under Trump may be different from those Hillary Clinton might have had to deal with. The consequences of a weakened NATO, of trade wars, of climate change denial, of the destruction of Obamacare and the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear deal are as yet hard to predict. But stuff happens that is beyond the control and influence of the United States. Trump’s administration is going to have to deal with the unknown unknowns just as any other would.
There will be no quick fixes, so be prepared for an impatient President. Walls take time to build, factories even longer. All the fixes required to “put Americans back to work” will take time. So in the early part of his presidency, bar one or two landmark pieces of legislation, expect Trump to gorge himself on gesture politics. Then, as the next election draws nigh, expect him to blame others for his failures and beg the electorate for more time “to finish the job”.
The tools he used to climb so high might ultimately lay him low. Or, to put it another way, the genie of extremism he has released will not meekly return to its bottle upon his inauguration in January. His opponents will use the same weapons to attack and undermine him as he used against Hillary and everyone else who spoke against him. As president, he will not be able to lash back as he has done during the campaign. For a candidate to accuse his opponent of criminality is one thing. For a president to abuse and slander his fellow-citizens is quite another. The American people will not take kindly to being described as losers. Expect an endless anti-Trump campaign on the social media.
In terms of his behaviour and his utterances he will be under scrutiny as never more. He will be called out on every act of hypocrisy and every failure to keep his campaign promises. The well of popular discontent on which he drew will be available to his enemies, especially when he fails to deliver the miracles he has promised. The activism last seen when America was in Vietnam has returned. The young are no longer quiescent and compliant, as they were through much of the 80’s and 90’s. Donald Trump will be under the media gun from Day One.
His dominance in domestic politics is unlikely to last beyond two years. Even though both houses of Congress are under Republican control, that can change in 2018. The Democrats will re-group. They will exploit every failure on Trump’s part with a vengeance. And there will be failures. His opponents will fight tooth and nail against reactionary legislation – on Obamacare and abortion, for example. The Democrat-leaning media, both print and online, will be relentless.
So if Trump isn’t very careful – or very lucky – he will find himself in the same situation as Obama did for the final six years of his presidency: fighting against a Congress dominated by his opponents. That could be the point at which he will start to contemplate unconstitutional means to enforce his will. With success? I suspect that America’s institutions are stronger than Donald Trump, and that he would meet opposition from his own side, many of whom will continue to find him profoundly distasteful, not to mention a threat to their continuance in office.
What of the outlook for the United Kingdom during the Trump presidency? Well, I suppose one thing that stands out is that if America’s shield no longer provides us with protection against the territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin, we should be grateful that we still have Trident. Our nuclear deterrent would not be enough to protect the Baltic states and Ukraine. But should NATO dissolve or weaken, our military strength should provide us with fresh leverage in our Brexit negotiations with the European Union. It’s also conceivable that Theresa May will yield to the warnings of the generals and increase our defence spending.
In political terms, we already have the most right-wing government in living memory. The left is divided and weak. The centre is painfully ineffective. That should be to Trump’s liking. Will he place us up the queue for trade negotiations? Quite possibly, provided we adopt the appropriate begging posture. But be assured that the devil will be in the detail, and it may not be pretty. There will be no favours just because the President’s mother was Scottish and he loves our golf courses.
Will Trump’s protectionist policies force us to rethink Brexit? Unlikely, but you never know. Should there be some form of Trump-induced economic or geopolitical shock, the pressure on the UK to seek safety in numbers may become irresistible.
How about our European soon-to-be-former partners? Will they succumb to the far-right wave that is sweeping through western democracies? Le Pen in France? Wilders in the Netherlands? Conventional wisdom says that Trump’s victory makes it more likely that Le Pen will prevail, because America has already done the unthinkable.
I’m not so sure. It may be that events in America will serve as a warning not to underestimate the demagogues. Perhaps France and other countries will form temporary centre-left coalitions to defeat the extreme right. There will certainly be a reaction against Trumpery, whether it comes from the grass roots or through a realignment of traditional political forces.
But one thing is pretty certain. The discontent that found its lightning rod in Trump will not go away. One way or another, the European Union – and the United Kingdom – will need to address the causes in their own back yards. That could mean a bumpy ride in Europe and quite possibly the rest of the world over the next four years.
Fasten your seat belts. It should be interesting.
I don’t even live in the US, yet all my vital signs are telling me that one more intervention, one more lie or one more scandal that isn’t a scandal will send me off the deep end. Two days to go until the moment of “truth”, and I eagerly await the news that The Walrus is a paedophile, a drug runner or an infiltrator from an endangered planet far beyond the solar system. Or that Hillary isn’t actually alive – the person we see on our TV screens is an animatronic reconstruction, endlessly emoting the same stuff from rally to rally.
I’ve had enough. And yet this election thing is addictive, isn’t it? If I do survive until Thursday, I shall probably collapse with grief at the thought that the whole 18-month reality show is over. I’ll go into a long depression that will only be relieved when Theresa May does us all a favour and calls a general election in the UK.
In the event that our UKIP-lite government decides not to give us another chance to vote down Brexit, all is not lost for election addicts. After all there’s still the fascinating prospect of watching the French and the Germans tearing themselves apart next year.
By that time I fervently hope that Nigel Farage, our very own Mr Toad, will have departed from Britain to take a job with Trump TV, because that will mean that The Walrus will have failed to get elected. Even better would be if Boris decided to re-apply for his US passport, and took some of his shifty mates off to America with him.
As you will have noticed if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’m finding it harder to think of politicians without thinking of animals. Ferrets, cockatoos, giant sloths, rats, snakes and chipmunks keep coming to mind when I look beyond The Walrus and Mr Toad. I’ll leave it to you to work out who I’m thinking of. How I would love to be a cartoonist!
Moving on from such trivia, we really aren’t living through democracy’s finest hour, are we?
Four years ago, you would have thought that the number of countries that don’t practice some form of democracy or other was decreasing by the month. Even in the Middle East, you could see absolute monarchies creaking under the pressure of the Arab Spring. Today Egypt is a dictatorship and Turkey is moving in that direction. Let’s not speak of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, except to question to whom they will turn should they wish to adopt some form of democracy when the dust has settle and the bodies have been buried.
The shining beacon on the hill that is American democracy? I don’t think so. A system in which personality outshines policies. In which partisan divides prevent any coherent form of government. In which the equivalent of the GDP of a medium-sized country is spent on a perpetual round of election campaigns. In which the exposure of lies and borderline criminality no longer disqualifies candidates. In which unscrupulous partisan officials connive to suppress voting. Hardly an inspiring example for the huddled masses.
And what of the United Kingdom? A country in thrall to a few unscrupulous media owners and editors who hurl abuse at reputable judges trying to defend the sovereignty of parliament. Politicians whose principles are subject to their career prospects. Just as in the US, lies, empty promises and meaningless visions abound. The Mother of Parliaments is looking a bit raddled these days.
So to whom will those searching for a model of self-government turn in 2017?
To Russia perhaps, whose population seems to value most highly the preservation of order and the restoration of national prestige even if the price to be paid is that the rulers fleece the ruled. Or China, where you can criticise anything except the one thing that should always be subject to criticism – the political order.
If you were an American, disgusted with the moral pollution of the current election campaign, where would you turn to for a new home? Canada perhaps – viewed by many as the last remaining exemplar of liberal democracy. Curiously enough, I read in one of the main UK newspapers (not the one that rails against “Enemies of the People”) that there has recently been a surge of enquiries from Americans about emigrating to my country. Good luck with that, folks.
Me, I’m staying put. It would take a lot to persuade me to leave Britain. Our values may be seriously corroded, but we’re not broken yet, whatever Mr Toad might say. I would far rather live with Eeyore, Tigger, Badger and Piglet than the Walrus and the Carpenter.
A final word of encouragement to my cousins across the Atlantic: it’s not too late. Surprise and delight the rest of us – go kick that sand in the bully’s face. Make sure he never gets near government again, and slinks off to run his TV station – which, of course, goes bankrupt in a couple of years.