The First Casualty of War

When my dear pal visited me on Thursday she brought some truly scrumptious home-made Empire biscuits.  They used to be called German biscuits but in 1914 all things German became unpopular and they were rebranded Empire biscuits, much as the royal house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was redubbed the House of Windsor.  There is a Beyond the Fringe sketch in which a young man is seen playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano.  His father appears behind him and says, “That music you are playing, Jeremy, is by Beethoven.  Beethoven was a German.  We are at war with Germany.  That is something you are going to have to work out… later on.”

And in the postlude to A Room with a View, E. M. Forster mused on how his characters might have evolved during the Great War.  The sensitive but passionless Cecil solves the Beethoven problem by asserting that Beethoven was, in fact, Belgian.  Beethoven himself was not above such apparent manifestations of xenophobia.  As Donald Francis Tovey puts it, “When quiet was restored after the bombardment of Vienna the native language of Bonaparte became unpopular and attempts were made to purify even musical German of Italian elements.  Hence what Sir George Grove calls ‘Beethoven’s German fit’.”  Thus, for example, in the slow movement of the Sonata in E flat major Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”, Andante espressivo becomes In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck.

Now we are having a “Russian fit”.  Another pal of mine was due to attend the Russian ballet in Glasgow last week. Cancelled.  And the Munich Phil sacked Maestro Valery Gergiev.  Roman Abramovich distanced himself from Chelsea; he fell before he was pushed.  It’s interesting that the Chelsea fans still give him vocal and visual support from the grandstand.  As Bob Shankly is oft misquoted to have said, “Football is not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.”    

Sheku Kanneh-Mason played Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto – most beautifully – in Glasgow last week.  Shostakovich is just fine in the current climate because he was a dissident.  And besides, it is more likely to be living performers than dead composers who are liable to be sanctioned.  I am sure it is better to be economically sanctioned than to have a gun pointed at your head.  But governmental emergency measures, even economic ones, can be blunt instruments, and even the most peace-loving individuals can be harshly treated.  Didn’t the US intern all the resident Japanese after Pearl Harbour?    

To Sunday lunch at Dunblane Golf Club, the course waterlogged and closed, but still looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.  Cousinly party of seven, representatives of the enormous diaspora of our extended family.  It was a convivial occasion, even if conversation inevitably turned to the international scene.  The Kremlin have expressed suspicion that the US have been perfecting biological weapons on Ukraine territory.  The West declares this is a lie, a piece of disinformation put about in order to justify an escalation in the deployment of more sinister weaponry, for example, the use of chlorine barrel bombs which proved so “successful” in Aleppo.  Did not Mr Blair make a similar assertion back in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, when he said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes?  When the journalist Andrew Gilligan said the intelligence backing this claim had been “sexed up”, the government was incandescent with rage, directed against the BBC, precisely because it was being alleged that the so-called “dodgy dossier” was being deliberately used as a piece of disinformation.

Perhaps Mr Blair really thought Saddam had WMD at his disposal.  Perhaps Mr Putin really thinks the Americans are perfecting biological weapons in Ukraine.  Who can tell?  It is a truism that the first casualty of war is the truth.  It is said that the Ukraine crisis has entrenched Mr Johnson’s position in No. 10, by effectively burying Partygate and the Sue Gray report.  That may be true in the short term, but in the end, if you can’t trust somebody’s relationship with the truth, you can no longer have any confidence in the veracity of any statement they make.  I trust the BBC, or at least parts of it, more than I trust the government.  I tend to believe what I hear from the lips of Lise Doucet and Orla Guerin.

On Sunday evening, in a further attempt to take my mind off doom and gloom, I watched the Baftas from the Royal Albert Hall.  Ah, the glitz, the glamour!  Bond – filmic Bond – is sixty years old, and the timeless Shirley Bassey sang Diamonds are Forever.  After that, not having been to the movies for over two years, I can’t say much of it touched me.  Emma Watson has an extraordinary presence.  I wonder if Mr Putin likes the Harry Potter movies.  Does he see himself as Harry, or as Lord Voldemort?                                  

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