Jan Morris

Sad to learn of Jan Morris’s death, although she was a great age. She was probably the greatest of all travel writers. I never met her, but we corresponded when she and I were both writing books about the British Empire. I was one of the few academic historians willing to appreciate her somewhat romantic view of the whole enterprise, on the grounds that she was expressing an aspect of it that was common at the time, and so which helped explain it.  I can’t put my hands on my review just now – it will have been in the early ‘70s – but I remember comparing Pax Britannica to an account of the stuccoed surface of a dilapidated building. She was happy with that. Later she wrote me a postcard complimenting me on The Lion’s Share, which she said she’d been reading in the bath and found so engaging that she couldn’t get out until the water had gone cold. I think that’s the best review I’ve ever had. I must see if I can find the pc when I get back to England. 

Of course she was a ‘he’ then. Halfway through her ‘imperial’ trilogy she changed sex, and wrote a book about it: Conundrum. I read it – all except the middle chapter, which described the operation. This was a man who had been in an elite Army regiment, climbed Everest with Hilary and Tensing, and fathered five children. Amazingly, and touchingly, his then wife, Elizabeth, stayed with her and has survived her. Jan also became a passionate Welsh patriot, living in the north-west of Wales until her death. It pains me that I never got around to visiting her there. RIP.

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Fascinating article here on Trump’s anti-science ‘cult’ and its responsibility for the spread of Coronavirus in the USA.


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Hot Bovril

It’s not getting any better, is it? Both Britain and Sweden seem to be experiencing ‘peaks’ in the virus just now, with only flickering hopes of a vaccine in several months at the earliest. The Swedish statsminister, Stefan Löfven, is scheduled to broadcast to the nation at 7 o’clock this evening (CET), which alarms me slightly; the only occasion I recall the British prime minister doing that previously was to announce that ‘we are now at war with Germany’. That seems unlikely today. Denmark – Sweden’s traditional enemy – can still be pretty irritating, but I can’t see a casus belli there. 

Nonetheless things seem pretty serious. It looks as though we should be planning for a long-term – maybe even permanent – lockdown. For people who have to work in crowded environments, or enjoy company, that’s going to be very hard. Luckily I fall into neither category. Isolation provides the perfect conditions for a writer; my sambo is here in my bubble with me; and other family and friends I can reach via the internet. Thank God – or whomever – for Zoom.

It’s starting to get cold here, with flurries of snow. Luckily I have my long-johns; and yesterday we ventured into the city to buy (among other things) some Bovril, from Taylors and Jones, the wonderful English butchers in Hantverkargatan. A cup of steaming Bovril is just what one needs after a long walk in the cold. Kajsa claims it’s no different from buljong, but there must, surely, be more to it than that?

We’ll see what Stefan has to say this evening. Kajsa’s guess is that he’s going to admonish Swedes to do the right things. Apparently there are no laws in Sweden to enable the government to enforce  lockdowns. It all depends on the individual’s sense of social responsibility. This is a free country, after all! Doesn’t that go against at least one stereotypical view of ‘socialist’ Sweden? But there’s no doubt that people here are  more aware of their social obligations than they are in – say – Britain. There’s hardly any littering, for a start.

7.30 CET: It was much as Kajsa predicted. ‘Keep to the rules for the sake of your fellow Swedes.’

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Boris and Boats

Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday of a £16.5 billion increase in defence funding has surprised and shocked many people, especially at the height of a national health crisis in which there would seem on the surface to be rather more deserving recipients of his largesse – like children going without their school dinners. I wonder whether Dominic Cummings would have approved? Maybe the new policy has something to do with the latter’s departure.

Apparently most of this money is going to the Royal Navy, in order, as Johnson puts it, to ‘restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe’ (https://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-vows-to-make-uk-foremost-naval-power-in-europe-with-boost-to-defence-budget-12136302). That seems to me to be far more Johnsonian than Cummingsy in its emphasis. In the sixth edition of my The Lion’s Share (published last month) I have quite a bit on Boris’s and other leading Tories’ obvious imperial nostalgia (pp. 323-36), reflected especially in their ambition to take advantage of Brexit to turn Britain – or to turn her back – into a ‘global’ rather than a merely European power; for which a revivified Navy would seem to be a prime desideratum. The oceans, after all, are global; and the idea of Britannia ‘ruling the waves’ has a longer pedigree than the image of her as ruling an ‘empire’. Navies were also romantic – Nelson, Jolly Jack Tars, and so on – which may be thought to tie in with aspects of Johnson’s character; and don’t necessarily require soldiers to keep them going, or ruling places, which might have conflicted with his professed  libertarianism. Johnson always denied wanting to revive the British Empire in a literal sense: ‘Heaven forfend’, he once wrote, and indeed it does seem rather ludicrous; but the global status signalled by all those warships with their fluttering Union Jacks may have appealed to the old-fashioned Etonian, Hornblower, buccaneering  side of him, in a way it wouldn’t to a less history-obsessed and more down-to-earth sort of politician. It’s a way of ‘making Britain Great again’, if only in appearance. And appearances are all-important to Boris’s kind. 

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Democratic Caviar

I’ve always considered caviar to be almost the quintessential upper-class delicacy: enormously expensive, the best sort coming from sturgeons that only swim in the Black Sea, and bought in little round jars labelled in Cyrillic letters. For some reason it was always associated in my mind with champagne, and posh wedding parties. It was also very much an acquired taste; looking like blackberries but not half so nice. In fact I loathed it; which was all to the good, for someone who couldn’t afford it anyway. (I don’t like champagne, either.)

Coming to Sweden I was surprised to find ‘kaviar’ sold in tubes, like toothpaste, and with a toothpaste-like consistency; like what we call ‘soft’, as against ‘hard’, roe. It is not at all upper-class – in this form, anyway – but is fed to children, spread on toast or biscuits, or on boiled eggs. It’s also cheap.

Is this the Swedes’ way of democratising it? It doesn’t say much for democracy if so. It still tastes horrible to me – oily and fishy; and I wonder whether it’s one of those foods, like Marmite in Britain or peanut butter in America, that you have to be weaned on to, straight from the breast, in order to be able to stomach it in later life. When it’s squeezed out of the tube it looks uncannily like slugs, which is another thing I find revolting. Slugs are my least favourite of God’s creations; even ahead of sturgeon’s eggs.

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Bye-bye Labour. (This time I mean it.)

I finally resigned from the Labour Party last week, after being warned that I was in danger of being disciplined for ‘anti-semitism’ on the basis of a blog I wrote some time ago arguing that the problem of anti-semitism in the party was less serious than was being made out (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/28/anti-semitism-and-labour/). That seemed to be regarded as almost as egregious as holocaust denial. 

But that it was almost certainly true is evidenced by none other than the recent Equalities Commission report on Labour anti-semitism, which was universally presented by the press as having found against Labour; with the results that (a) the life-long anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn was suspended by the new party hierarchy for his continued ‘denial’; and (b) constituency parties were formally instructed never to raise or discuss the issue again. In fact the Report showed almost no evidence of Labour anti-semitism at all, with even the tiny number of examples it offered being highly debatable. (The old Ken Livingstone slur was one.) Here is the Middle East correspondent Jonathan Cook’s account of the whole affair: https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2020-11-07/ehrc-labour-antisemitism-corbyn/. In my view it’s unanswerable.

But that’s water under the bridge now. The reputation of the Labour Party will probably never recover from its popular image, entirely unfounded, of having been ‘30%’ anti-semitic at one time (the real figure was 0.3%); and the reputation of British Jewry may never recover – as I wrote recently (https://bernardjporter.com/2020/11/01/plots-and-paranoia/) – from the suspicion that it may have ‘conspired’ to prevent a left-wing government coming to power, and hence have helped bring about the appalling political situation in which Britain finds itself now. 

I find this infinitely depressing. I’ve tried to transfer my political feelings over to Sweden, where I’ve just been admitted to Vänsterpartiet (the Left Party); but I find I can’t shake off my concern for my other national identity (still), or my utter despair at its apparent descent into a pit of falsehoods, propaganda and lies; taking my beloved Labour Party, of which I was an active member for nearly 60 years, with it. How do Lefties in Britain who are without the comfort of a foreign asylum to flee to, cope?

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Capitalism and the Rain

For four years now I’ve regarded Trump as the perfect personification of the country he’s been leading into its end-capitalist stage. The greed, the amorality, the boasting, the lack of regard for human life and welfare by the side of profit, the Barnum & Bailey showmanship, the mafia-like corruption, even the bankruptcies: all would feature in any fictional character one would like to invent as representing ‘The Way we Are Now’ (see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/10/26/philip-green/). Of course, it might appear unbelievable if this character were to appear in a novel; but that is – was – the nature of the beast. Trump was a larger than life president, a caricature of even the worst qualities of capitalism; but if the present time does represent the final stage of capitalism before it collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions, as Marx predicted and some Leftists still hope (I don’t: I’ve too much to lose), Trump would be the perfect man to bring the curtain down on its Götterdämmerung.

But of course there are other Americas, one of which appears to have mercifully prevailed last week; and other forms of capitalism. Capitalism is (though this is an imperfect simile) rather like the rain: a force of nature, enormously beneficial at best, but easily perverted, and needing to be controlled and sheltered against if it is not to soak us and flood us all out. Both of its most distinguished historical theoreticians saw it like this: Adam Smith, whose free marketism was far more interventionist than Trump’s (or Reagan’s, or Thatcher’s), and Marx, who denied that any form of intervention – ‘bourgeois liberalism’, or what we would today call ‘democratic socialism’ – could ever finally stem the collapse. If Joe Biden lives up to his billing, therefore (Bernie would have been better!), we might see Marxism finally discredited. More Trump would have had the opposite effect.

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Welcome Back, America

Well, what a relief! We celebrated last night with a bottle of champagne. It wasn’t quite the delirious occasion that Obama’s first victory was (I was in Kentucky then); but that turned out to be a little disappointing in the end – not entirely his fault – and in the meantime we’ve had the nightmare of four years of Trumpism to measure any success against. And whatever our doubts about how transformative a Biden-Harris administration can be, we should be allowed our little moment of naïve optimism in the meantime. When the effects of the champagne wear off, we can return to the struggle. Or rather, the Americans can.

Except it’s not just their victory, is it? Apart from almost the whole world seeming to rejoice in the result – my own predominant image of the USA, which I know well, has changed overnight, from den of iniquity to shining city on the hill (almost) – it also has practical resonances for us. For America was not alone in its ‘Trumpism’, although the populist nationalism that he represented took different forms in different countries. In Britain of course it was ‘Brexit’, represented by the clown Boris and the snake Nigel; both of whom – Nigel especially – have been cosying up to Trump in recent years. He had his admirers in Turkey, Hungary, Israel and even Sweden too. In all those countries (except Sweden) a version of Trumpism has been the dominant power in politics. Rupert Murdoch – the owner of Fox News, the main propaganda agency of Trumpism in America – has his fingers in many other national political pies, including of course Britain’s. How this will affect them is hard to predict as yet. Farage will lose the £10,000 he wagered on a Trump victory. (What odds did he get, I wonder?) Murdoch is apparently rowing back on his support for Trump – as of course the vile old opportunist always does when he sees one of his stocks going down. (He did the same with the British Tories in 1997.) Fox News earned the ire of Trump by confirming his defeat in Arizona early. Bibi Netanyahu was apparently the last international statesperson to congratulate Biden formally on his victory, and most Israeli commentators expect the latter to take a different line on, for example, Israeli settlements and Palestine. Boris Johnson has sailed too close to Trump’s slipstream – Biden has referred to him as the ‘British Trump’ – to make it easy for him to tack over to the new dispensation. A Brexit-compensating trade deal with America is widely thought to be less likely than it was under Trump in view of the part-Irish Biden’s openly expressed concern for its impact on the Good Friday agreement. I wouldn’t like to speculate on the election’s relevance for Turkey and Hungary. I just don’t know enough about them.

I don’t know enough about America, either, despite longish periods living there, to feel qualified to add to the commentary on the effect and significance of these events there, beyond what American critics have already provided in abundance. All I can contribute is a bit of context. First of all is the observation (again) that Trumpism is – was – not only an American phenomenon, but part of an international reaction, based on genuine but only partially formulated and understood grievances, fuelled by ignorance and stupidity and exploited by unscrupulous elites. Secondly I’d suggest that underneath all this lies – here comes the ideology – the inexorable historical self-destructive decline of capitalism, just as our old friend Marx foretold, although in forms he could not possibly have predicted. (Trump personified late, corrupt capitalism to a T.) Whether Biden’s glorious victory can slow or reverse this trend remains to be seen. I fervently hope so; but not with any great confidence. Even if the Donald can be dragged kicking and screaming out of the White House next January, Trumpism’s not going to disappear, is it? In the meantime, thank you so much America, for reviving your foreign friends’ hopes; for a while at least.

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Enjoy the Nightmare

As an election junkie based in Sweden I’m following proceedings day and night; this time on my laptop via CNN. I have to say their reporting and analysis are superb – when they allow the reporters and analysts on. The only problem for me is the interminable ‘commercial breaks’, which don’t actually carry the commercials that I presume American audiences are shown. Instead they repeat over and over an advert for one of CNN’s own programmes, called ‘Quest’ – or it may be ‘Quince’ or ‘Queer’ – ‘on Business’, featuring the most irritating man I’ve ever seen on TV – I think he’s British – cavorting ridiculously around a maze which is meant to symbolise the commercial world, before turning on a fountain in the centre with the cry: ‘What a profitable day!’ I can turn the sound off, but not the picture without the risk of missing some fascinating analysis of postal votes from the suburbs of Detroit, or wherever. Still, excellent work, CNN, if it’s not all ‘fake’, as Trump seems to think.

It looks at present – midday Thursday Swedish time – as if Biden might win, although it’s by no means certain. That of course adds to the fascination of the event for people like me; so long as we put out of our minds the crucial importance of this election not only to America but to us in Britain and the rest of America’s declining world-wide empire. Best to view it like an American football game; which is how it’s presented on US TV. Several commentators are saying how ‘enjoyable’ it is.

I’m looking forward – if I’m allowed to – to the aftermath of the count, and the behaviour of the Donald and his disciples if they are ‘cheated’ out of their rightful victory. But I confess I’m glad that I’ll be viewing it from a distance. Looking out from our sunny island home over the bay and beyond the trees (below, pic taken just now), it all seems sorta crazy; a bit of a ‘mardröm’, as we Swedes would say. Let’s hope we all wake up soon.

Of course it’s what we might have expected of the final stage of a collapsing late-capitalist system. Especially if Trump – the very personification of late capitalism – wins again. More on this later.

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The War of the Worlds

HG Wells is mainly famous as a writer of science fiction, but his novels on domestic subjects, although rather more tied to their period (the early 1900s), are worth reading still. He wrote of course as a Socialist, of the Fabian kind. A work of his that has come to my mind as I prepare, nervously, for the American Presidential election, is his 1908 novel Tono-Bungay, featuring a crooked salesman who reminds me of one of the two contenders in the current race. 

The villain of Tono-Bungay – George Ponderevo – comes a cropper in the end, as wicked capitalists so often do in Victorian and Edwardian novels. One American historian some years ago (Martin Weiner, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980) suggested that this literary tradition was one of the factors that held British capitalism back in the twentieth century, by contrast with America. Thatcher loved that; it encouraged her artistic philistinism. The USA must have a similar tradition of anti-capitalist novels; but nothing I imagine powerful enough to take on Ayn Rand. Which is why I’m not at all confident of Trump’s career following the trajectory of George Ponderevo’s; and will have my bottle of Southern Comfort close at hand to give me – well, comfort – as I follow the results over the next few hours, days, weeks or months on TV. 

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