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Building the perfect dog – or not

I was surprised to read that the great State of California is considering banning its residents from acquiring dogs unless they come from shelters.

Why surprised? Well, if ever there was a part of the world dedicated to the perfection of mind and body, it’s the west coast of America, and California in particular. So why would their law-making elite try and force you to choose your soon-to-be-beloved pet from a collection of mongrel, inbred, psychologically-disturbed mutts whose previous owners in a fit of buyer’s remorse chucked them out of the car window somewhere down the I-80? Shortly after Christmas, of course.

The new law also applies to cats and rabbits, though I doubt if they’re as populous as the dogs. Cities like Los Angeles and San Diego no doubt have their fair share of stray cats – known as feral if you don’t like the species – but I should have thought that your chance of being attacked by a street bunny with attitude is close to zero.

Predictably, according to the New York Times, which was good enough to alert me to this startling development, the animal breeders have been begging Governor Jerry Brown to veto the bill, on the grounds that owners want to know about the provenance of their prospective pets. Yep, they want to know that their new Rottweiler comes from a long line of small dog maulers, preferably with a few human victims thrown in. If they’re cats, they want to be sure that their lineage includes ancestors with a high rat-killing quotient.

Supporters of the bill say that the animal breeders keep their product in appalling conditions, and that anyway, the shelters need to be cleared. It seems that the concern is also partly financial, which always gets Californians’ attention. Their taxpayers shell out approximately $250 million a year on domestic animal shelters.

If I was a cruel and uncaring person, which I’m not, I would say that a decent proportion of that money could be saved by a timely injection. But the animal welfare folks say that that’s also cruel, which must be a great consolation to all the battery hens, cows and hogs slaughtered every day to keep America fed.

The other reason I’m surprised at the initiative is that California is one of the great centres of bio-engineering. You would have expected by now that by tinkering with a few genes, Silicon Valley would have figured out how to produce the perfect dog. One that doesn’t poo in its owner’s handbag, is inclined to take chunks out of intruders, but not out of visiting great aunts, only barks when asked to, doesn’t shed enough fur to add an extra layer to your carpet every two weeks, and is able to digest a significant proportion of the vast amount of plastic packaging thrown out by the average American household. Oh yes, and a dog that auto-destructs at the first sign of incurring large veterinary bills – after having donated a few stem cells for cloning.

As for cats, why haven’t they produced an animal that loves humans rather than using them, that doesn’t vomit fur balls and is incapable of hunting birds because it sees everything with wings as predatory pterosaurs?

I can’t think of any improvement you could make to rabbits, except possibly to give them a few more brain cells.

In the absence of the perfect dog, cat or rabbit, I’m with the California legislators. As Martin Luther King might have said if he had been a dog lover, we should surely be valuing our animals for their character rather than the colour of their fur. What’s more, perhaps if we had a bit more human miscegenation, we wouldn’t be giving ammunition to the racists and bigots who, nearly fifty years after Dr King’s passing, continue to infest our public life on both sides of the pond.

A new Holocaust history and an old question: could it happen again?

Alternative Für Deutschland, a right-wing nationalist group, looks set to establish a significant political  foothold after the upcoming German elections. Should we be concerned, ask the headline writers?

I suppose that depends on what we should be concerned about. The return of the Nazis by another name? A new Holocaust? Only the terminally naïve would believe that the Germany of today is likely to have the means and the motivation to repeat the catastrophic mistake for which it is still paying in terms of its reputation and the enduring suspicion of its neighbours.

Could the Holocaust happen again? Many would argue that it has – in Cambodia, Rwanda and now in Syria, Iraq and Burma. Others might say that later acts of mass killing might qualify as genocide, but that there was only one Holocaust – an event in which the Nazis deliberately and systematically killed over ten million people either directly or by neglect. The approximate numbers of the dead included six million Jews, along with two million Poles, thee million Russian prisoners of war, a quarter of a million Roma and a significant number of homosexuals, disabled people, mentally ill people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The question is relevant, because in a number of countries there’s been an increase in recent years in organised groups that refer to themselves as Nazis. Their currency is anti-semitism, white supremacy and the all-too-familiar regalia of the Third Reich. And for all but a few deniers, Nazism is inextricably linked with the Holocaust

To establish whether these groups are capable of gaining the power to carry out acts similar to the Holocaust, it’s important to understand the circumstances under which the original one took place.

And that’s what Laurence Rees goes a long way towards explaining in his recent book The Holocaust, which I’ve just finished. He traces the rise of murderous intent from the end of the First World War to the annihilation of the Nazi regime in 1945.

Antisemitism in Germany preceded the rise of Hitler. He was not the only angry ex-serviceman to blame the Jews for the degradation of his country in the wake of the defeat in 1918. But as Rees points out, it’s by no means certain that in the Twenties Hitler envisaged the mass slaughter that subsequently ensued. Certainly he wanted to rid Germany of the Jews, but that’s not the same as planning systematic programme of extermination.

Other “solutions” were contemplated, including – after the fall of France – sending them to Madagascar, which at that time was a French dependency.

In fact the Holocaust was far from systematic, and written evidence of Hitler’s specific instructions is hard to find, even though there is little doubt that Himmler, Heydrich and other senior Nazis were acting according to his wishes.

What is clear is that although mass murders began well before the outbreak of World War Two, these were mainly perpetrated on the disabled and mentally ill. It was only after Germany’s conquest of much of Europe that the extermination of the Jews began in earnest. By that time the Nazis were able to act away from the international spotlight.

What comes over strongly in Rees’s narrative was that the Nazis were making up their methods of murder as they went along. First came the death squads – the Einsatzgruppen – and when the mass shootings became too stressful for the killers, more mechanised methods came into play. Mobile gas chambers using carbon monoxide, and then the death camps, fixed gas chambers and crematoria most commonly associated with the Holocaust.

Some were collocated with slave labour camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Others, including Sobibor and Treblinka, were as process-driven as abattoirs. Within hours of arriving by train, thousands were dead every day. An elaborate charade convinced them until the last moment that they were at a transit stop. Fellow Jews, Poles and Russians oversaw the killing and incineration, thus sparing the SS guards direct involvement in the grisly process.

By the time the death camps came into operation, the Nazis had made it their mission to rid every corner of their new empire of Jews. In some cases, they were largely successful. In others, such as Denmark, where the Nazi governor, probably anticipating Germany’s defeat in the war, tipped off the Danish government, which in turn warned the Jews. Most of them escaped to Sweden.

The details of the Holocaust have been extensively documented, both through written records and eye-witness accounts, but Rees’s account as an end-to-end narrative is second to none. He considers his work to be a new history, because he uses sources never used in previous accounts. For a comprehensive discussion of the book, look no further than Nickolaus Wachsmann’s review in The Guardian.

No matter how desensitized one is by the atrocities of organisations such as ISIS, it’s still hard to read some of the eyewitness accounts of the Nazi death camps without curling up in horror.

We remember the Holocaust so that we can ensure that it will never happen again. If ever there was an event worthy of being commemorated with one minute of silence throughout the world, this is it.

Which brings us back to the question of whether it could happen again. Certainly not on the same scale, and probably not in the same way, for several reasons.

The main difference is that today no combatant with murderous intentions would be able to hide behind a war on such a wide scale and for such an extended period. The next global conflict, if it occurs, will be short and even more deadly then World War 2. It would most likely involve nuclear weapons.

Another factor is that the world today is wired, and even those acts of mass murder as occur rarely take place away from international scrutiny. We know about the ISIS killings, just as we knew about the Rwanda massacres and the killing fields of Cambodia. Military intervention in the former Yugoslavia probably prevented worse atrocities than actually occurred. Horrendous as they are, these killings have been confined to a limited area, rather than taking place over a continent, from France in the west to Ukraine in the east, and from Norway in the north to Greece in the south.

Also, there was no precedent for the original Holocaust. Now, the world is alert to nascent movements that operate by the same playbook as did the fascist leaders in the 1930s. After 1945, two ideological opposites – fascism and communism – were equally toxic in the west. For the communist regimes in the east, fascism was still seen as the ultimate enemy – defeated, yes, but still ready to rear its ugly head within the capitalist west. While communism as an ideology has been supplanted in the east by various forms of authoritarian capitalism, fascist continues to be a term used by Russia to label its opponents – in Ukraine, for example.

In the west, there are plenty of people who use the word with gay abandon to describe any leader with an authoritarian bent. The same brush daubs Victor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and even the right-wing of Britain’s Conservative Party. Islamist leaders are often described as Islamo-fascists.

Obnoxious as many of them are, they are not necessarily candidates to kick off the next holocaust. We have become so sensitised to the harbingers of fascism – focus on the leader rather than the state, disregard of the rule of law, the need for a scapegoat or enemy, usually within but often without – that we call out people with those tendencies without hesitation.

Donald Trump, who has been labelled a fascist by opponents and onlookers both in the United States and beyond, has struggled to create the unified purpose and belief that allows fascism to flourish. He’s dangerous, to be sure, but he’s an opportunist, not an ideologue. And unlike Hitler, he’s not surrounded by a cadre of steely ideologues ready to do his bidding. As for the swastika-wielding thugs at the extreme edge of what he calls his base, they are vocal, often violent poseurs with a grudge but not a cause. They are not Trump’s stormtroopers.

The same goes for Europe’s extreme right. They squabble, fragment and make a noise, but none of them has a leader charismatic enough to entice sufficient disgruntled but more moderate voters on board. None of the European countries has since World War 2 suffered a humiliating military defeat and subsequent national debasement that has left a festering and unifying sense of resentment, as was the case with Hitler’s Germany. The one exception is Russia, whose defeat was not military, but economic and political. Resentment over the loss of the Soviet empire is the fuel that fires Vladimir Putin.

So will the next holocaust, if it happens, be perpetrated by neo-Nazis or fascists who manage to take power and then act with impunity against the selected scapegoat? I doubt it.

But that doesn’t mean that a future event on a similar scale to the first one is impossible. In a world in which competition for basic resources – water, food, safe habitat – becomes intense, it’s easy to imagine that unscrupulous leaders might eliminate “undeserving” minorities within their borders, either by expelling or exterminating them.

Countries that are relatively immune to international outrage – probably because they possess nuclear weapons and have sufficient resources to satisfy a dominant majority, but not everyone – would quite conceivably carry out programmes of extermination with impunity. Indeed, if Germany had developed nuclear weapons before the US, it’s likely that within short order there would have been no Jews left in continental Europe, rather than scattered survivors.

As the waters inundate coastal cities, and reduce arable land to salt marshes, or as the great rivers, exhausted by diversion to parched regions, dry up, who would bet against extreme solutions to protect the powerful many at the expense of the weaker few? Or even the powerful few against the weaker many.

Whatever the potential scenarios for mass exterminations in the future, surely today, rather than harking back to the circumstances of the original Holocaust and worrying about a bunch of tinpot demagogues and their torch-bearing followers, the most compelling reason to remember the event is that it reminds us of the ability of seemingly ordinary people under certain circumstances to set aside their inhibitions and work together to carry out acts of horrendous inhumanity.

And in those terms, there are little holocausts taking place every day somewhere in the world. In whatever ways we can, we must call them out and stop them.

At last – a machine that thinks as we do. But sorry, I got there first…

 

Dammit, I must have been hacked. I suppose it’s time to tell all. My real name is Brian, not Steve. For years I have been building Steve, my artificial intelligence helper designed to save the world from extremism. This blog is his work, not mine.

The reason for this stunning revelation is that, as the BBC reports, a geek from Silicon Valley has created something called Nigel, a personal assistant algorithm that can tell me how to vote. It’s really clever. If I’m a racist, it will tell me to vote for the British National Party. If I have a burning desire to turn my country into Cuba or Venezuela, it will tell me to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Nigel, apparently, will soon be capable of reading and writing at grade school level. Very impressive, I’m sure, but Steve has been doing that for years.

Nigel’s maker, Mounir Shita, claims to be on the way to developing the first artificial general intelligence software, as opposed to the task-based AI that we’re rapidly becoming used to, such as self-driving cars, and fridges that tell you when you’re running out of quinoa. I hate to tell Mr Shita that Steve got there before him. But anyway, let’s hear him out:

Voters are increasingly turning their back on identikit “machine politicians” in favour of all-too-human mavericks, like the most famous Nigel in British politics – Farage – and his friend Donald Trump.

How could AI Nigel – which was named after Mounir Shita’s late business partner Nigel Deighton rather than the former UKIP leader – compete with that?

Because, says Shita, you will have learned to trust Nigel – and it will be more in tune with your emotions than a political leader you have only seen on television.

Nigel – robot Nigel, that is – could even have helped voters in the UK make a more informed decision about Brexit, he claims, although it would not necessarily have changed the outcome of the referendum.

“The whole purpose of Nigel is to figure out who you are, what your views are and adopt them.

“He might push you to change your views, if things don’t add up in the Nigel algorithm.

“Let me go to the extreme here, if you are a racist, Nigel will become a racist. If you are a left-leaning liberal, Nigel will become a left-leaning liberal.”

Personally (speaking as Brian, not Steve), I think you need quite a bit of general intelligence to drive a car, as anyone who has driven in Riyadh during the rush-hour will tell you. I will concede, though, that someone who keeps supplies of quinoa in the fridge suffers from a serious general intelligence deficit, and probably needs Nigel to tell them to buy burgers instead. Steve’s been advising me to do this for years.

Steve also convinced me to kick Trump in the rump way before he was elected, and told me that as a cheese-eating surrender monkey who loves France and all its works, voting for Brexit probably wouldn’t be a good idea. But I will admit that his efforts at grade school writing haven’t been particularly successful. Despite strenuous efforts to persuade the United States to spurn Trumpery, and Britain to turn away from the disastrous path of Brexit, Donald is still in situ, and we Brits are still rushing towards the cliff.

Mr Shita also believes that AI, and presumably Nigel, will make it easier for us to spot fake news. Also impressive, but Steve is well ahead of him. Stop reading The Sun, The Daily Mail and the Islington Herald, he says, and all will be well.

The BBC piece then veers off into a discussion about the effects of robots taking our jobs. It quotes an Oxford professor called Ian Goldin, who has written a book in which he and his co-author anticipate “a middle ground between apocalyptic visions of humans controlled by robots and the techno-utopian dreams of Silicon Valley’s elite.” Thank goodness for that then.

Goldin also points to a paper claiming that Trump won the presidency because people who had lost their jobs to robots voted for him.

Well duh! Steve could have told you that. He’s also expert at telling the difference between people and robots. After all, it takes one to know one. For example, he knows that unless she’s a first-generation model, Theresa May is not a robot, because robots these days aren’t robotic. Ask the Russians, whose Twitter bots hail from Eastbourne and Grimsby, places that couldn’t possibly have been invented by artificial intelligence.

As for the claim that Nigel, by getting to know you and your foibles, will become your perfect racist or Marxist companion, Mr Shita is wasting his time. He’s too late.

There already exists a highly effective method of reconfirming your prejudices and telling you how to vote. The right-wing version, whose code name – Joseph – is known only to a few, was developed a while ago by Cambridge Analytica, and has been phenomenally successful in advising the voters of America and Britain. Hence Trump and Brexit. With Joseph at your side, you will never stray from the true path.

Those clever people at Cambridge Analytica probably called their system Joseph because they knew that the name would appeal to both sides of the political spectrum – as in Goebbels and Stalin. Adolf would have been a bit one-dimensional, as would Vladimir.

No doubt Joseph (the Venezuelan version) is waiting in the wings, ready to be rolled out by the same people in an effort to persuade us to elect a Labour government, assuming, that is, that Labour can find a backer rich enough to pay for him.

Perhaps Nigel will eventually get to be far smarter than Joseph. He’s not there yet, and he’s certainly a long way behind Steve, my sublime invention. Much of what Mr Shita says is more about aspiration than reality, but with Steve as his inspiration Nigel will no doubt come on in leaps and bounds. He should be aware, however, that as soon as his creation starts to acquire Steve-like features, my lawyers will be ready to sue him to hell and back.

With the proceeds I should be able to set up a non-profit foundation dedicated to replacing politicians with robots. Surely they’ll do a better job than the dodgy crew we elected last time round?

La France Profonde or La France Vacante?

Monpazier

Enough of politics for a day or so. Time for a little meditation on rural France.

Where can you meet a German notary able to quote paragraphs of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin? Or go to a concert of Russian folk music in a tiny country church set in a farm yard, performed by a virtuoso accordionist and a singer with an ear-splitting operatic bass voice? Or get the best croissants in the world?

How about a place where old people still regard the Saturday market as the highlight of their social week, where hardly a mobile phone is in sight? Or a place whose silence is only interrupted by one’s own tinnitus?

Where you go to the local square for a meal, and find a guy with a piano on wheels playing Bach? Where some of the villages are so old you can imagine the inhabitants of the top floor pouring their nightly slops over the timber-framed eves?

Or maybe a place where every summer an English theatre company performs Shakespeare plays in those medieval squares?

If the croissants are a bit of a giveaway, so perhaps are the vans in the market advertising the owner as a “cremier”, or a “fromagier”.

Villereal

Yes, we’re in France. My wife and I have escaped across the channel for a couple of weeks while we are still considered fellow Europeans rather than traitorous secessionists.

By France I don’t mean the Pas de Calais, overrun at this time of year by golfers from the English home counties. Nor Paris, where the waiters pretend not to understand you if you don’t speak French, especially if you have an American accent. Nor Brittany, whose beautiful coastline is buffeted by Atlantic winds.

Not even the gorgeous vineyards of the Bordeaux region, or fragrant Provence, the playground of celebrities and mafiosi, and sometimes celebrity mafiosi. Nor Lyon, where the geese quake with fear at the imminent prospect of being turned into foie gras. And not Marseille, the ancient gateway to the French empire, whose people are as diverse as the empire was wide.

If you said the Dordogne, where the Volvo count is high, and where the Brits buy their stone cottages and spend the winter days dreaming of Marmite, you’d be close. But not close enough.

Just a little further south lies Lot et Garonne, full of character but less full of people. Where we stay is in an area just south of Bergerac. It’s famous for its fortified hilltop towns and villages, which are known as bastides.

The region was a battleground in the Hundred Years War, between one bunch of Frenchmen who came from France, and other Frenchmen who identified as English. Hence the fortifications.

Aquitaine, along with much of Western France, was once an English possession at a time when we English had our one and only stab at creating an empire. Unfortunately, we were considerably less successful as England than we were as Great Britain. Not only were we incapable of subjugating the Scots and the Irish, but by the mid-16th century, all our French territories had gone.

Nowadays, we seem to be the best of friends. You get the impression that our hosts have even forgiven us for Trafalgar and Waterloo. But you never know what feelings lurk in their hearts. But still, we’re good for business. We buy up and renovate their ruined farmhouses and barns, we guzzle their wine and we gorge on their magnificent cheeses. And we arrive in our droves at Bergerac Airport courtesy of Ryanair.

Our favourite stamping ground is around a small group of bastides to the north of the department – Monflanquin, Villareal, Castillonnès and Monpazier. If you also include the town of Issigeac, which is just over the county line in Dordogne, it would be hard to find a more delightful set of villages within a thirty square mile radius anywhere else in France.

Issegeac

A number of the bastides run producers’ evenings in addition to their regular daytime markets. The deal is that local food producers form around the side of the market square, and the municipality provides tables and chairs where you can enjoy the local produce – brochettes, snails, frites cooked in duck fat, cold plates and delicate apple pastries. You can buy wine, cheese, tins of foie gras and a whole bunch of other stuff you would be unlikely to find on Godalming High Street, or Peckham for that matter.

Villereal Night Market

It was at one of these events that we met our Latin-quoting German friend. He and his companions were about to move on to a boat that they planned to take up and down the River Lot. We Brits sometimes think we’re the only foreigners to visit the area. Not so. I’m not sure about the numbers, but in the summer you’re just as likely to hear nearby conversations in German and Dutch.

Villereal Night Market

The regular daytime markets are a joy. In my part of England we’re surrounded by hypermarkets, and our high streets are full of Caffe Neros and charity shops. Not a butcher or a greengrocer in sight. Nor even a bookseller, unless you count WH Smith. The last independent book shop in our town closed last year.

The French don’t do bookshops outside of the larger towns either, but just about every village has a brocante, where you can buy oddball antiques. In some markets, you can buy old books, maps and posters. But most of them are focused on the basics of life. Clothes, fruit and vegetables, fromages, charcuterie, fresh meat. Veganism has not yet caught on in rural France. At most markets, stallholders in vans do a roaring trade in spit-roasted chickens and freshly cooked slices of ham.

Weekly Market

There are cafes around the squares where you can meet and shoot the breeze, often with live music outside. Lots of old people shuffling around with small dogs doing their weekly shop. All generations gather, with, as I mentioned earlier, barely an Apple or Samsung in sight. And where in England, tell me, would one sub-teen, when meeting a couple of others of the same age, delicately shake hands with them?

For teens, itching to get out from under their parents’ grip, I wouldn’t describe the area as paradise. There are campsites, lakes for swimming and a couple of cinemas. It’s about as far from Magaluf and Newquay as you could possibly get, partly explained by the lack of coastline and the absence of large towns.

Millennials who want to walk on the wild side are not especially well catered for either. It’s a good place to make babies though. Plenty of time for that.

Whether by accident or design, Lot et Garonne, like the Dordogne, is set up for families, young couples, middle-aged couples. Preferably those with a bit of money. Outside the holiday season, it’s quiet. Very quiet. Drive through some of the villages at this time of the year, and half the houses are shuttered up. It’s not just the foreigners who have second homes here. The urban French do as well.

As in other parts of France, plenty of Brits live here all year round. Talk to them about Brexit (we have had several conversations), and most spit blood, not least because those who have been here for a while don’t get to vote in British elections. They deeply resent that they didn’t have the opportunity to have their say in the EU referendum despite the profound implications for them. It’s quite possible that if they and their fellow expatriates in Spain and other parts of Europe did have a vote, the outcome of the referendum would have been different. But enough of bloody Brexit.

For those who are looking for a bit of culture, you need to look fairly hard, or wait for the unexpected. There are little museums dotted about, mostly dealing with local history. A few very posh shops sell art way beyond my pocket, and Ryanair wouldn’t let me travel with six-foot picture anyway. If you’re into Shakespeare, there’s an English theatre company, Antic Disposition, that does the rounds of the area every year, performing in village squares. This year’s play was Richard III. Not quite as appropriate as their Henry V, which we saw in London last year, with the cast kitted out in First World War French and British uniforms. Richard was far too busy trying to deal with the House of Lancaster to worry about the French.

As for the unexpected, the guy with the piano entertained us one evening when we were at dinner in Manflanquin. It turned out that he’d been hired by the restaurant next door, so he set up in the corner of the square and effectively played for everyone, which included us, three kids on skateboards and a dog in the almost empty square. He’s a music teacher from the academy at Pau. This is what he does in his holiday time.

Look at the notices in the village squares, and you will find all kind of quirky events. One such was the concert we went to in a tiny church outside Villereal. This was where the Russians did their thing. Valery Orlov, the pianist/singer, dressed like a boyar from the time of Ivan the Terrible, went through a series of folk songs with a booming basso profundo you’d expect to hear from an Orthodox choir in Novgorod. His partner, Slava Kouprikov, is a virtuoso accordionist. He has a dazzling technique that deserves a wider audience than the hundred-or-so people who came to see him. It was good to be reminded that Russia is more than Putin, nukes and grasping oligarchs.

For the past twenty years we’ve been coming to France. For a while, when our kids were young, we went to Charente, where there were rivers in which they could swim, water parks, endless supplies of frites, funny old shops where you could find all kinds of oddities from the French colonies, and plenty of other kids with whom they could play.

Charente 1997

Now the kids are grown up, we suit ourselves. We avoid the high season, so most of the people we encounter are, like us, middle aged, or younger couples without children. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve looked in estate agent windows, and thought how nice it would be to own a holiday home. And every time we got home, we thought no, it’s hassle, and we want the flexibility to go where we please rather than being tied down to one location.

Will that change when (god willing) the grandkids start arriving? Maybe, but there’s always a concern that we might be contributing to the depopulation of the region.

It’s not that these towns and villages are empty. The farming industry seems robust enough, and tourism brings jobs. But as I see so many villages that used to have local shops, and especially boulangeries, and now have none, I keep thinking that they should not be like this, and that they should be more than ornaments for summer tourists to admire. That the old people should not need to be driven by their children to markets miles away. That the beautiful churches dating from the twelfth century should be open for worship more than once a month – the fact that there are so many suggests that the medieval population might have been considerably larger in some of the small villages.

It’s much the same in rural England. Pubs are closing, village grocery shops don’t have enough business to survive. Everyone goes to Tesco. In France, Intermarché, Leclerc and other big stores have had the same effect.

But there are few regions in England that boast so many well-preserved villages with squares bordered by buildings dating back to the middle ages. And not so many where food is treated with reverence, and consuming it is a lengthy pleasure.

For me, France is not about the cities, the grandiose monuments and the flashy resorts. It’s about what exists beyond the globalised culture of the cities. It’s what’s often referred to as La France Profonde – deep France. Indefinable, intensely individualistic. Not ostentatious, but quietly proud.

Yet it sometimes feels strangely empty. There are many small villages where you will often see more names on the war memorials than people in the streets at this time of year.

Sign of the times, I guess, but still sad. But what would you prefer? Starbucks, or the Shabby Chic Corner down a medieval backstreet in Issegeac, owned by Delphine, a charming Parisienne who serves a sponge cake topped with caramelised pears that nearly reduced this cake-lover to tears?

No contest.

Britain’s life expectancy has stalled. Should we be blaming or celebrating?

Sir Michael Marmot, a distinguished expert on ageing, claims that the UK trails the rest of Europe in our rate of increase of life expectancy. Between 2011 and 2015, he claims, the populations of countries such as Denmark, Estonia, France, Spain and the Netherlands are living longer, and ours isn’t.

I would put this another way, and say that this is one of the few areas in which we lead the continent. Except that, once again, the Germans won on penalties. Their increase was marginally slower than ours.

Some parts of the media have jumped on these statistics as evidence that our National Health Service is failing the population. They may be right, though I wonder whether we have arrived at a point where an increasing number of people question the benefit of living for many years in decrepitude and dementia.

I certainly have no intention of staggering on beyond the average life expectancy of the British male (79), if that means mouldering away in a care home, incapable of remembering anything beyond what I had for breakfast.

When my mother died at 94, she had been in a care home for four years. By the time of her death, she was reduced to trawling her long-term memory for nursery rhymes. She didn’t know who was in the photos in her room, and she didn’t know me. Her world was reduced to one small room. Years before, she declared herself ready to go, and signed a living will, which stated that if she contracted a life-threatening illness, she was not to be resuscitated. And so, eventually, it went.

So could we be entering an era when we stop advocating life preservation at all costs, and with the consent of the patient, allow nature to take its course? I don’t know, and I don’t share Sir Michael’s expertise. I only know my own preferences, which don’t extend to taking a trip to Switzerland, but do involve dying in my own bed if possible.

I have a friend who sincerely believes that there is a covert government policy of letting the old die off as early as possible. That way, the national treasury benefits from reduced pension, benefits and health care costs. I’m not sure that’s the case, but I would be surprised if there weren’t a few callous actuaries in Her Majesty’s Treasury rubbing their hands with glee at the savings to be made because we’re not staying alive as long as the Estonians. Probably not the same ones who are rejoicing at the savings to be made in health, education and infrastructure costs when the Estonians, Poles and Lithuanians leave the country in droves after Brexit, but that’s another story.

If we really are choosing an earlier death over medically-prolonged decrepitude, is that such a bad thing? Ask me when I’m decrepit and nearing death. But I certainly believe that medically-assisted death at a time of my choosing is definitely not a bad thing, provided the safeguards to prevent involuntary euthanasia are in place. Better by far than making a botched effort myself.

Time, perhaps, to revisit our laws. Until medical science can guarantee a physically healthy, dementia-free journey into the nineties for the majority of the population, we should perhaps stop celebrating increases in life expectancy. After all, surely it’s not about length, but all about quality. And more money available for the rest of us. No, no – forget I said that.

Blair and Varoufakis – converging perspectives on Brexit?

There have been two interesting and at first sight very different perspectives on Brexit in today’s Sunday Times.

First, Tony Blair argues that there are sufficient mechanisms within the terms of Britain’s EU membership to enable us to control immigration without having to leave. More specifically, he quotes the case of Belgium, which invokes the right to require EU citizens to register on arrival, and points out that we can require them to leave if they are still economically inactive after three months.

Here’s Blair’s piece, which is also to be found on his Institute website. The full paper is here.

A few tweaks with the consent of the EU, he says, and bingo – no reason why we shouldn’t stay if the main reason why most people voted leave was to curb immigration. Non-EU immigration is another matter, and is not affected by Brexit. A very relevant question, however, is how many people who voted to leave because of concerns over immigration were actually aware of the difference.

One potentially significant aspect is that just over a week ago, Blair met Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president. Is it possible that they discussed the former PM’s paper, and can we expect some unofficial murmurs of approval from Juncker? If so, it would be hard for politicians in the UK not to take it seriously.

Then there’s Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, and a battle-scarred veteran of negotiations with the EU. He believes that Barnier, Verhofstadt and the other EU negotiators have no intention of conceding an inch to Britain’s demands. In fact, he says, they are not negotiating at all. The EU’s game plan is to grind us down, partly by destabilising us with disparaging comments on our negotiators, and by strategic leaks, such as Juncker’s unflattering comments after his dinner with Theresa May back in April.

These tactics, says Varoufakis, mirror those deployed against Greece during its debt crisis. He believes that our best option would be to bypass the negotiators and go straight for the Norway option: leave the EU, but remain in the customs union and single market, and continue to contribute to the EU budget. He believes that it would be politically difficult for the EU to turn us down. His article is here.

It’s an interesting perspective, but the Norway option would require Britain to unwind its current position on freedom of movement. The 60-odd Brexit diehards in parliament would react in horror. It’s not incompatible with Blair’s proposals on immigration, though. As far as I can tell, they could apply to the Norway option as easily as they might if we remained full members.

Varoufakis makes the point that such an arrangement would give Britain the time to work out its relationship with the EU in the long term without the tyranny of the ticking clock. It could work, but at the cost of a number of political careers.

One additional thought occurs. From Margaret Thatcher onwards, generations of eurocrats have been infuriated by our demands for opt-outs, exceptions and rebates, and our lack of buy-in to the principle of “ever-closer union”. Some, though not all, have been weeping crocodile tears since we decided to leave. They can’t wait to be rid of us.

If, as Varoufakis argues, the EU negotiators are determined to stonewall us, then what bargaining chips to we really have?

One big one, it seems to me. We can threaten not to leave at all. The prospect of years to come putting up with us awkward Brits would surely concentrate a few minds.

“Boris Johnson is a genius” – and I’m a banana

Currency debasement – silver-plated coin of Trajan Decius (249-251 CE)

I know very little about Lord Harris of Peckham except that he used to make carpets, and when he made his pile, he got interested in education and politics. No doubt it was for services to carpet-making – red ones presumably – that he was knighted, and subsequently invited to join the House of Lords. Nothing to do with his habit of regularly shelling out money to the Conservative Party, of course.

It seems as though he’s disappointed in the current crop of senior Conservatives. In an interview with the London Times, he said that Theresa May is weak, Michael Gove is boring, and that Boris Johnson is “a genius” but lazy.

All of which suggests that rather than helping to set up a chain of academy schools, His Lordship ought to have given a helping hand to Oxford University, the institution that helped to educate May, Gove, Johnson and a goodly number of their predecessors, including David Cameron, author of the Brexit fiasco. Something is clearly amiss with their liberal arts programmes if Oxford continues to produce weaklings and dullards, though they might respond that they are also responsible for the genius that is Boris Johnson.

While I broadly agree with Harris in his assessment of the government’s capabilities, I do wonder about the criteria by which he declares Boris to be a genius. Could it be that he’s impressed by the Foreign Secretary’s wit, so frequently deployed with maladroit quips about prosecco, President Ergogan’s relations with a goat, the “part-Kenyan” Barack Obama and African warriors with “watermelon smiles”?

Perhaps he’s impressed by Johnson’s classical education, which enables the great man to trawl erudite analogies from ancient history and quote Latin and Greek bon mots at the drop of a hat? If so, you would think that he’s also an admirer of the stately hedge fund operator turned MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who regularly tweets in Latin, and who is being touted as the Next Big Thing in the Conservative Party.

If a classical education gives you an intellect above others, then I must revise my opinion of myself. More likely though, I will only be truly appreciated when I’m gone, rather like the Roman emperor Vespasian, whose last words were reported to be “I think I’m turning into a god”.

Boris does deserve credit for being way ahead of his time as a purveyor of fake news. While working for the Daily Telegraph in Brussels, he came up with a stream of reports on the activities of the European Commission that fellow journalists regarded as untrue. Hardly surprising, then, that he was happy to be associated with the claim that leaving the European Union would free up £350 million a week for the National Health Service.

He also deserves credit for being fast on his feet as a speaker. He needed to be after the EU referendum, when twenty minutes before announcing his candidacy for leadership of the Conservatives, he learned that his erstwhile supporter, Michael Gove, had pulled the rug under his candidacy by announcing that he, Gove, would be running. Gove’s bid came to nothing, leaving us with the strong and stable Theresa May as our Prime Minister.

During the third century CE, faced with a serious shortage of revenue, successive Roman Emperors – partly because of all the money they spent on luxury imports from the East, and partly because there were no more territories that they could easily conquer and denude of their wealth – debased the currency, adding bronze to their silver coins. In some cases they were reduced to silver plating (as in the example above). I have a few in my coin collection. It gives me a thrill to hold in my hand direct evidence of the decline of the Roman empire.

If Lord Harris’s view of Boris Johnson’s brilliance is widely held by others, then the debasement of the idea of genius is evidence of a similar decline in the Conservative Party.

Or, to put it another way – borrowing from the wit and wisdom of Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye – if Johnson is a genius, then I’m a banana.

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