Scandi Noir

An eccentric Danish inventor builds his own submarine and takes it out into the Baltic. With him is a female Swedish journalist, who’s writing a feature about him. The sub mysteriously sinks. The Dane is rescued, but there’s no sign of the journalist. He claims he put her off on an island, but later changes his story – to what we don’t know; the police are keeping stum – and she’s nowhere to be found. They search the sunken sub, and find no trace of her there, but do find evidence that he may have sunk the sub deliberately. The Danish police arrest him for suspected murder. All news dries up – Danish sub judice rules, one assumes. In the meantime it’s revealed that he’s also working on a private space rocket, which may be relevant – we don’t know.

A case for the old Kurt Wallander, surely? Or does it seem too far-fetched? But it’s all true. (Google it. The submariner’s name is Peter Madsen.)

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Cricket Nostalgia

I misspent much of my youth watching county cricket. (Maybe not misspent. Where else could I have learned about skill, subtlety, chance, patience, honour – in other words ‘playing the game’?) At that time Essex didn’t have a single venue, but travelled around the county, holding ‘cricket festivals’ in Romford, Brentwood, Ilford, Leyton, Chelmsford, Colchester, Southend and various other municipal parks. I cycled to all of them, on my trusty Rudge Pathfinder. Seating was carried around the county in lorries, plus a scoreboard mounted on the side of a van, and a double-decker bus converted into a toilet. There was a printing tent, where detailed scorecards were kept up to date by old-style type setters, with future scores and wickets left for us to fill in as the game progressed. They always progressed for three days. This was real cricket, not the instant sort that was introduced later, for people with restricted attention spans. I carried my own scorebook – the lines printed green on cream paper – and kept up with the game, entering in runs, no-balls, wides, wickets, wicket maidens (the best – you joined up the dots with a big ‘W’) religiously. During the breaks for lunch and tea I ran out with the other boys (only boys, I think) to plead with my heroes for their autographs. On rainy days we sheltered under the trees, waiting for play to resume. It didn’t matter. We were in Elysium.

My greatest heroes were Trevor Bailey and Douglas Insole. Both of them died recently – Bailey in a fire at his home in Southend, Insole just a few days ago. Bailey was a legendary all-rounder: a great defensive batsman – they called him ‘Barnacle Bailey’, though I once saw him straight drive a six over the sightscreen – and a cunning medium-pace bowler. His most famous feat was a heroic stand he shared in with Willie Watson to save a Test against Australia. He later became a fine radio commentator. Insole was an unconventional batter, who was sadly neglected by England, I always thought, though he got a few games, and scored a century against South Africa; a cavalier stroke-player very much in the mold of Dennis Compton – and the antithesis of, or complement to, Bailey. He captained Essex, and later became a distinguished cricket administrator.

There were others: Dickie Dodds, an opening batsman who always tried to hit his first ball for six, went prematurely white-haired, and retired in protest against having to play on Sundays – he belonged to some odd religious sect; Ray Smith, a bowler who went in at number 11 but often scored the fastest century of the season from there; Ken Preston, a fearsome quickie; Roy Ralph, a fat ex-tailor who only came into the team at the age of 40 when it was realized he was also a cunning spin bowler; Michael Bear, an average batsman who kept his place because of his phenomenal fielding, which was reckoned to save the side 40 runs a game… I may add more as I remember them. But for the moment it’s only Insole and Bailey who come into my mind as I reminisce about those blissful days in the sun. (It’s only the sunny days I remember.) And this wonderful verse by Francis Thompson; modified to fit my memories of Essex (Thompson’s were of Lancashire):

For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,

To and fro: –

O my Insole and my Bailey long ago!

(‘At Lords’)

That brings tears to my eyes too, as I ‘near the shadowy coast’ myself. Younger and non-cricketing readers probably won’t understand.

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Trumping and Repeating (Trivial)

Anders Borg, ex-Finance Minister, is in the news in Sweden for exposing his penis and grabbing other people’s crotches (here it’s called ‘Trumping’) at a drunken party. (See https://www.ft.com/content/c7ce0f46-7a88-11e7-9108-edda0bcbc928.) If only our British scandals were as harmless.

It was only after posting my last piece on this blog, on ‘democracy’, that I noticed I’d said it all before, a mere six months ago: https://bernardjporter.com/2017/02/05/is-democracy-to-blame/. Sorry. Is this dementia creeping up on me?

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Brexit and Democracy

Is it democracy? Is that where the fault lies, if such it be? Brexit was a democratic decision, albeit narrowly. Trump was elected by enough of the people, at any rate, to satisfy the ground rules of American democracy. Is democracy – the will of the people – inherently fallible?

Henrik Ibsen seems to have thought so. ‘The majority is never right. Never, I tell you.’ Anti-democrats from ancient times onwards have always feared so, and for the same reason as Ibsen. ‘For who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population – the intelligent ones or the fools?’ (This is Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People.) We have ample reason to think that many of those who voted for Brexit did so for ‘foolish’ reasons: misinformed, irrelevant to the main issue, or stupid in other ways. The same can also probably be said for the other side; but because they were mainly more intellectual (not the same of course as intelligent) they’ve been better able to spot and point out the fallacies coming from the other side. Which is only to say that majorities are not to be depended upon on anything. Relying on them, even to express their own wishes, let alone their best interests, can have unfortunate and even fearsome outcomes. The best you can probably say for democracy is that – as Churchill once put it – it is ‘the worst system of government: apart from all the rest’.

But it can be refined. One of the problems with our present Anglo-American so-called democracies is that they are crude. Votes are taken infrequently, and counted and represented through a method that doesn’t necessarily reflect the real desires of the voters. In both Britain and America this is mainly the fault of the ‘first past the post’ constituency system, which – as in the present and all recent British cases – can endow parties that garner only minorities of voters overall with disproportionate power. Proportional representation, modified in order to represent local interests too, would solve this: albeit at the cost of perpetual coalitions, which would force governments to compromise in line with the popular will. (I’ve written about this before: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/.) Even when referenda are called on ‘single issues’, those issues are usually muddied with others, as was clearly the case in the Brexit referendum, when many people voted not so much on the European issue as because they were dissatisfied with ‘austerity’, or resented extra-European immigration, or were fed up with the Conservatives, or with ‘Westminster government’ generally. (See https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/)

Furthermore, often the information supplied to the electorate in order to guide their choices is unreliable, due to lies and deception (that £350 billion for the NHS; our unfree press is of course much to blame for this); or to simple ignorance on the part of the general population; compounded by no less ignorance on the part of the ‘experts’ arguing for one side or another. Who really knew what the effects of Brexit would be? I was a pretty well-briefed Remainer, but have been as surprised as anyone by some of the outcomes of the vote. It’s only now that the true implications of Brexit can be glimpsed. Wouldn’t it be better to have a new vote on the basis of this new knowledge, than still to rely on a vote taken in almost total ignorance? The argument, by Brexiteers, that this would be ‘undemocratic’ because the ‘will of the people’ has already been expressed is self-evidently risible. Any true democracy should be able, firstly, to decide issues on the basis of full and untainted evidence, and, secondly, to change its mind. That’s the problem with the crude, direct, instantaneous form of democracy that was represented by the referendum.

Actually our (British) system of government, deficient as it is in many regards but wise in this one, was supposed to deal with just this problem by making it obligatory for acts of state to be effected only after several debates and votes in Parliament, and then with the possibility of their being withdrawn later on. Certainly that applied, and should apply, to existential acts of state, which EU withdrawal clearly is. At the time of the EU referendum a majority of MPs were Remainers, and would have voted that way in the Parliamentary debates that followed if they had not voluntarily given up their constitutional right to do so. So the ‘checks and balances’ implicit in the British constitution were set at nought. That was because our Right-wing press would have called them ‘traitors’ and ‘undemocratic’ if they hadn’t. In fact the probable result of any Parliamentary resistance would have been another general election, with new MPS elected partly on their attitudes to Europe; but after a more intelligent public debate, and probably a new general election on the basis of that. If Corbyn had won that election, or come as close as he did in the last one, he would have recruited thousands of young voters, endowed with a new interest and confidence in politics, who would probably have turned the tables on the Brexiteers. It’s well known that the young were mainly Remainers, but were out-voted by us old crusties. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/08/06/the-old-have-shafted-the-young/.) A democracy that doesn’t represent those citizens who are most likely to be affected by its decisions – my generation will all be dead by the time Brexit really hits home – isn’t a true democracy at all.

So it isn’t democracy that’s to blame, per se. Only the present forms of it. True democracy requires ‘checks and balances’. The US system is supposed to have these. Let’s see if they can work any better than ours.

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The Old Have Shafted the Young

Vince Cable has it exactly right. I’m ashamed of my generation.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-4764742/Lib-Dem-leader-SIR-VINCE-CABLE-attacks-Brexit-fanatics.html

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The Anglosphere

One of the problems with Brexit is how to replace the free trade we presently enjoy within Europe, but which we might lose – especially after what is called a ‘hard’ Brexit – with something else as profitable. At the beginning of the so-called ‘debate’ over Brexit, its supporters were claiming that there were enough opportunities outside Europe to fill the gap; with some harking back nostalgically to pre-Common Market days, when we had an Empire or Commonwealth free trade area that could, perhaps, be revived. In historical fact that was never a complete reality, and insofar as it was, was declining in any case; and the likelihood of Commonwealth trade fully compensating for our losses in Europe today seems remote. The figures just don’t add up. A US trade deal would seem to be our best hope of a replacement for the EU one, and that would come with environmental and other conditions that many would find unacceptable.

Lying behind this there seems to be at least a smidgeon of imperial nostalgia, and of longing for a union of old and trustworthy friends and relatives to replace one with ‘foreigners’. That’s where I come in, as an imperial historian. The idea of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ union or federation goes back a long way in British history. Some versions of it envisioned the USA coming back into the Empire or Commonwealth, imparting a strength to it wouldn’t have otherwise – British imperialists were fully aware of the potential of America, from the later 19th century on; sharing with us ‘the White Man’s burden’, as Kipling memorably put it, and even perhaps taking over the lead. The Americans after all shared much of their history with us, as well as their political values, and many of their genes. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ federation ideas can be traced back originally, I think (there may be earlier precedents) to Charles Dilke’s influential 1868 book, Greater Britain, by which he meant the ‘settler’ colonies (as opposed to the ‘dependent’ ones). Later, in the early 20th century, when the Empire looked to be vulnerable to foreign competition, it was reflected in schemes floated by Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes and the ‘Round Table’ group of Commonwealthists to turn the existing Empire into a federation of equal states, with a place open for America if she wanted it.

More recently it has come up in the emergence of the term ‘Anglosphere’ to describe this collection of countries, and the claim that its ‘Englishness’ somehow makes it essentially distinctive from the rest of the world. ‘Anglosphere’ is an imprecise word, sometimes denoting a racial or ethic identity – Dilke’s old ‘white’ colonies – but at other times including non-Anglo-Saxon countries that have nonetheless been essentially Anglicized in their institutions, usually under past British imperial tutelage. ‘Cricket’ can be used as a measure of this. But it’s consanguinity that is usually emphasized by present-day users of the term. Australians, Americans and the rest are our ‘brothers’, or ‘cousins’, at least in great part (especially if you add in the Celts); and consequently share the greatest identity with us Brits.

It’s in that sense that the journalist Melanie Phillips uses the word, in a recent extraordinary article in which she looks forward to a post-Brexit revival of the ‘Anglosphere’, in a more material and tangible form than it possesses today. (HTTP://WWW.MELANIEPHILLIPS.COM/OPEN-DOOR-SWINGING-ANGLOSPHERE/.) For her the Anglosphere consists mainly of Britain and the United States; for which two nations she makes claims that would not, I think, be accepted without considerable qualification by any serious historian (apart perhaps from Niall Ferguson). One is that America and Britain are together ‘the mother-ship of political liberty and democracy’, and ‘the foundation nations of western freedom’; the principles of which other nations understand only ‘imperfectly’ at best. Unfortunately (for Phillips), both Britain and America lost confidence in these principles, and consequently in themselves, after the last World War. This was what gave rise to the widespread and guilt-ridden anti-‘Western’ reaction we can see today in the West, and to new and dangerous ideologies: ‘such as moral and cultural relativism, feminism and multiculturalism’, ‘capturing the citadels of the culture such as the universities, the churches, the media and others and subverting from within the west’s core values’.

According to Phillips, joining the EU was – in some way, not fully explained here – a symptom of that. And the reaction against the EU expressed in the 2016 referendum, together with the reaction against conventional American politics that brought Donald Trump to power, were consequently essentially a ‘reassertion of [the] western national identity’ that could revive these Anglospherical principles. ‘With both the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, the door to the Anglosphere’s future suddenly burst open’, writes Phillips; although she’s not altogether confident – especially in view of May’s weakness and Trump’s obvious failings – that it will remain open for long.

It’s an interesting argument for Brexit, by-passing the usual commercial ones; which in any case aren’t apparently all that important for older Brexit voters, half of whom would be – according to a recent poll – quite happy to sacrifice their children’s prosperity in exchange for what they conceive as ‘national freedom’. (See http://www.scotsman.com/news/half-of-older-leave-voters-would-accept-job-loss-for-brexit-1-4519647). The flaws in it will be apparent to any historian: the idea that Britain and America have sole responsibility for the development of democracy and the rule of law, for example, with other European countries being historically resistant to them; an assertion which must seem even more questionable in view of both Britain’s and America’s serious deviations from these principles in recent times, against the more liberal present trends in western Europe. Particularly astonishing is the inclusion of ‘feminism’ among the ‘destructive and dangerous ideas’ that are undermining ‘western’ (by which she means Anglo-American) values today, when most people would see it (though not exclusively) as a logical development of those values. One gets the impression here that Phillips is merely lashing out at traditional right-wing bêtes noirs, like ‘political correctness’, without any thought for their real provenance, or for how they fit into the logic of her general argument. Then, lastly, there is the racist – or at the very least ‘culturist’ – implication of this whole ‘Anglosphere’ thing; which as well as being objectively misleading, can also be dangerous, if it persuades people there is a particular virtue in being ‘British’, either presently or in heritage, as against ‘foreign’.

By other ways of looking at it, British and Americans – and also Canadians and Australians – have at least as much dividing as uniting them, deriving from the material circumstances that influence people and countries probably more than their common historical roots; and making it at least as logical for a people to ally with their close geographical neighbours as with their far-flung ethnic ‘cousins’. Such alliances will also be more productive and creative than remaining, boringly, with one’s own ‘sort’. That’s how British culture, including our political culture, has developed over the centuries: ‘multiculturally’, to name one of Phillips’s other bêtes noirs; and one reason why some of us are happier in a relationship with peoples who might teach us something, rather than with countries we believe – arrogantly – can only learn from us.

(Revised 5 August.)

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Dumbing Up – More

A brief historical coda to yesterday’s post.

Nineteenth-century British Tories were also against educating the plebs at almost every level, beyond what would be required for their strict and natural function in society: which was to labour for the gentry. Anything more would give them ‘ideas above their station’. Later, when some (male) plebs were given the parliamentary vote (1867), Disraeli changed the Tories’ tune, famously proclaiming, in defence of a Bill extending free state-provided elementary education to everyone, that ‘we must educate our masters’. Obviously, for our Telegraph commentator, that can be taken too far, if it educates them in their own oppression.

My early Victorian liberal friend Samuel Laing (see recent posts), who never completed his own university course, also devalued higher education on the grounds that it could make young men (only men at this time, of course) dissatisfied with their lot, and so more radical. He saw a lot of this in the politically turbulent German states. It would be better for them, he thought, if they worked practically for a living, instead of having their young heads filled with airy and potentially dangerous philosophical notions. Marx would have been at university about then. So perhaps Laing had a point.

The DT piece fits in well with the ‘anti-intellectualist’ trend which is taking hold in so many political areas today.

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Dumbing Up

Despite working in the Higher Education sector, I was never one of those who thought that universities were for everyone, or even a majority of people, which I believe is the situation in Britain today; and was especially dubious of the sleight of hand by which Margaret Thatcher enormously increased the number of university places simply by allowing existing polytechnics and other colleges to call themselves universities. That went down well because the title ‘university’ had always carried a certain cachet – less so now that they are so common, I imagine, and in particular following the gross devaluation of the ‘First-class’ degree in recent years. (That’s the market working: if you’re paying through the nose for your degree, you demand only the best.) But by the same token it also got the ex-polytechnics trying to ape the more traditional universities in every respect, so as to seem to merit their new status, rather than preserving and developing the unique modern features that had given them their raison d’etre before. I couldn’t see the value in that.

But I hadn’t reckoned on another effect. That is, apparently, to augment the number of Left-wing voters in British society. Apparently the more highly educated you are, the more likely to vote Labour, or at least Green or Liberal; and to have voted Remain in the last referendum. There’s an obvious lesson to be learned from that. One Daily Telegraph columnist, however, chose another. He used it as an argument for reducing university places again: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/29/left-will-continue-resurgence-long-many-go-university/. The message seems to be that if you want people to vote Tory, keep them ignorant. Well, it figures.

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Norge

On holiday; which releases me, I feel, from the duty of commenting on the farcical political events I’m reading about from Britain and America. We’re presently on a train climbing through high snowfields (in July!) in Norway. Donald, Theresa, Boris, Nigel and the rest seem so blessedly far away.

This blog isn’t supposed to be a travelogue, so I won’t bore anyone with extended impressions of the country. In brief: Trondheim was wonderful, the cathedral in particular – a Romanesque/Gothic gem, this far north. And we managed to see the valley – Verdal – where my man Laing lived, but which suffered a terrible landslide in the 1890s, killing 116 people and probably destroying his farm. He described the valley as more beautiful than anything in Scotland; but he was a utilitarian, and I guess liked it because it’s wide and flat and so eminently cultivable.

Oslo has turned itself into a modern-looking capital city since I was here last, when it had appeared rather provincial. Ibsen’s flat shows what it used to be like. The opera house is a fantastic piece of modern architecture, and a new city library is going up – so the Norwegians are still keeping faith with books. But then they’ve always been a literary people. It must be the dark winter nights.

(OK: the less said about the prices the better – £10 for a half glass of wine! Also the food: mostly rather tasteless fish, apart from some whale meat, which was horrible. But that serves me right, I suppose, for eating an endangered species. Kajsa thinks I’m being hard on the fish. It was better when they served it – surprisingly often, outside England – in an egg batter, with chips.)

We’re on our way by rail to Bergen now, for Grieg. (Our holidays are always cultural. Or, if you like, pretentious.) I would have liked to look up Svendson and Halvorsen too – they wrote the romantic symphonies that Grieg never got round to – but they don’t seem to be so celebrated.

In between the culture, the landscape is as spectacular as its reputation. It’s why the philistine Brits have always preferred Norway to Sweden, as I gathered from my study of British travelogues years ago. It must go back to the Romantics. It conjures up a picture I got from Mary Wollstonecraft’s account of her visit to Norway in the 1810s, where, among the mountains and in a personal emotional turmoil, she describes herself baring her breasts to the elements… I can’t get that image out of my mind. (Not that I particularly want to.)

But for a more sober account of the Norwegian nation, Samuel Laing’s Journal of a Residence in Norway (1840-ish), a reproduction of which is still available, remarkably, through Amazon, is worth looking up. I’m thinking of writing another piece on Laing when I get back, now I’ve seen his Norwegian valley, and – years ago – visited the house in Orkney where he was born. It does sometimes help a historian or biographer to have experienced a subject’s geographical environment. But don’t rely on the Journal as a guidebook to present-day Norway. I don’t imagine the MacDonald’s in Verdal was there 180 years ago.

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Spies

My latest review.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/20/m-by-henry-hemming-review-mi5

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