Is There no Balm in Gilead?

You know the old gag: I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.  It certainly pertains to me.  In my opinion I’ve become less opinionated.  With regard to ethical issues, I have taken on board the advice of Oliver Cromwell, to consider in the bowels of Christ, that I may be wrong.  I can see, for example, that people who support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy deploy arguments as powerful as people who support the rights of the unborn child.  The only thing I felt sure about in this debate was that the medical profession in this country has been manipulated, and has allowed itself to be manipulated, into ticking box 2C – if memory serves me right – in a form designed by Lord Steel et al in 1968.

Nevertheless, one day last week when the BBC Radio 4 newscaster announced, “Within the last hour, the United States Supreme Court has overturned the historic judgment Roe v. Wade…” I did feel a visceral stab of dismay.  Maybe that was because I had just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s 2019 Booker Prize winner, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, 2019).  Terrific book, very funny in a black way, and also a real nail-biter.  The Handmaid’s Tale was being readied for publication in 1984 (the Orwellian influence is clearly discernible), and in 2019 we find that Gilead, the USA dystopia, is worse than ever.  Life for a woman in Gilead resembles life under the Taliban.  And now life imitates art.  President Trump front-loaded the Supreme Court with right-leaning justices who have altered the law.  I thought, naively, that it was the business of judges to interpret law, and not to make it.  Surely the court’s decision is political, rather than legal, just as a doctor’s ticking box 2C is making a judgment that is moral-ethical, rather than pathological-diagnostic.  I remember the first time I visited the United States, in 1982, being met by my American uncle at JFK in New York, who said, with profound irony bordering on sarcasm, “Welcome to the land of the free.”

One of the defining characteristics of occupying a dystopia is that you don’t know it.  The ruling elite makes sure of this.  Hence Winston Smith’s task is to obliterate unpalatable truths in the memory hole, and women in Gilead are rendered illiterate by being denied access to books.  The current dystopia we are constructing for ourselves here and now is characterised by the obliteration of human communication.  When we make contact with any corporate organization our first port of call is liable to be a robot, who is keen to ascertain that we are not a robot. 

“Please state in a few words the reason for your call.”

“Well, it’s a little complicated.  You see, to let you understand…”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch that.  Do you wish to alter the terms of your policy?”

The robot is keen that your problem, whatever it is, fits neatly into a template.  If it doesn’t, it can’t cope.  But it won’t tell you.  Things just grind to a halt.  Say you buy a concert ticket on line.  You go through the rigmarole of making the booking, presenting credit card details, proceeding to the check-out counter, and pressing “Proceed”.  And nothing happens.  The problem is simple to solve.  You haven’t ticked the box to say that you have read the terms and conditions.  So you retrace your steps and tick the box (without reading the terms and conditions).  Hey Presto. 

Now this relatively straightforward scenario has become a model for all sorts of interaction.  Even if your interlocutor is not a robot, he will exhibit robotic behaviour, and if your request or enquiry is a little out of the norm, he will cease to function on your behalf.  It simply isn’t what he has been programmed to do. 

Another aspect of this kind of interaction, or lack of it, is the absence of the courtesy of acknowledgment.  You submit an enquiry electronically to a financial institution, an insurance company, a publishing house, the Inland Revenue… You press submit, cast your bread upon the waters, and hope for the best.  After a week or two you grow doubtful as to whether your message-in-a-bottle has reached dry land, and you send out another bottle.  Did you get my message?

Stoney silence. 

Not every human enterprise has been puddled by this noxious pollutant.  Aviators remain good communicators.  I can still remember the poetic mantra twixt control tower and London shuttle while I sat in my Chipmunk at the holding point at Glasgow Airport, number two to a Trident 3.  “You’re clear to London Heathrow via White Nine Amber One, to cross Lanark and Talla at flight level 55, and to climb when instructed by Scottish Radar to Flight Level 230 today.”

The pilot would read it back, word perfect.

“Read back correct.”

It wasn’t just a courtesy.  It was a matter of life and death. 

But for the most part, in our society, human communication is being rapidly eroded. You can’t get an appointment with your GP, you can’t buy a train ticket from somebody at the station ticket office, and you can’t ask a bank teller to effect a financial transaction.  That is our peculiar dystopia, and we don’t recognise it.  The next dystopia is never like the last dystopia.

Is the USA really morphing into Gilead?  You might argue that it already has.  Margaret Atwood makes the observation that The Testaments is not really a futuristic novel; she made a point of depicting nothing that doesn’t already exist.  The way out of Gilead is escape north to Canada.  I did that in 1982.  I hired a car and drove up through New York State across to Ontario via Thousand Island Country.  Very beautiful.  I went round Lake Ontario, through Margaret Atwood’s home town Toronto, and headed for the border at Buffalo.  A Canadian looked at me dubiously and said, “Why on earth are you going back down there?”   

It’s Good News Week

The following is a calypso, after the style of Cy Grant, on BBC’s Tonight, anchored by the imperturbable Cliff Michelmore.

Shortly after my father, as a young man, joined the City of Glasgow Police, he was involved in a fracas in a public house, during which he injured his hand.  After the battle, he received some attention, and advice from a senior officer.  “Son, next time you’re in a rammy, use your stick.”  Which US President was it said, “Talk softly, and carry a big stick”?  In the 1930s, when Winston saw what was happening in Nazi Germany, he declared that we had to rearm, not in order to fight, but in order to parlay.  Preparation for war was the sole guarantor of peace.  Now the new head of the army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, is glooming us up about the imminent possibility of World War 3.  British troops “must be prepared for battle in Europe once again”.  Boots on the ground.  Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  That a military man should ask government for more manpower and weaponry is de rigueur.           

Last week the Prime Minister made a surprise visit to Kyiv to pledge the imminent delivery of more big sticks.  Kyiv must have seemed a more attractive destination to him, on the day, than Doncaster.  It’s a photo opportunity he clearly relishes, and carries off rather well.  “Volodymyr, good to see you!”  “Ah!  Boris!  Welcome!”  He pledged a lot of stuff, arms, training, economic assistance.  Mind, President Zelensky might do well to take any promise from the PM with a pinch of salt.  The PM’s opponents say he is making the script up as he goes along, chiefly to divert attention from intractable difficulties at home.    

I wonder which member of the government originally came up with the Rwanda wheeze.  When I first heard about it, I thought it was a rather belated April Fool’s gag, in very bad taste.  We are going to export our refugees the way we export our plastic detritus.  Out of sight, out of mind, like landfill. We associate Rwanda with the genocide of 1994, against the Tutsi.  Not at all, said the government.  Rwanda is an up-and-coming nation with a fast-growing economy.  And the people-traffickers must be deterred.  This is an example of cognitive dissonance: Rwanda is an attractive destination – look at these nice pictures of plush hotel bedrooms – and it is an unattractive destination, otherwise the traffickers, and the refugees themselves crossing the channel at great personal risk, will not be deterred.

Lord Geidt, erstwhile ethical advisor to the government, has resigned.  At first, the government was rather coy about publishing his letter of resignation, but they really needn’t have worried, because Lord Geidt himself was rather coy about expressing the reasons behind his action, other than saying he had been put in an “odious” position.  I thought “odious” was an unusual choice of word.  He might have called his position “invidious”.  It’s one of these words that gets bandied around without anyone being quite sure what it means.  I would say that being in an invidious position is like being in what the psychiatrists call a “bind” or, worse still a “double bind”.  It doesn’t matter what you do; you are in a “lose-lose” situation.  You are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Now “between a rock and a hard place” is another strange expression, as if you can’t think of another synonym for “rock”.  But I digress.  In fact, “invidious” comes from the Latin for envy, invidia.  If you are in an invidious position, you are likely to excite envy in others, and thus, ill will.  Now that is odd.  Surely an invidious position is unenviable. 

But Lord Geidt did not say his position was invidious.  He said it was odious, or hateful, from the Latin for hatred, odium.  That is a strong word.  He was being asked to rubber-stamp as ethical a course of action that he considered unethical.  In order to do so, you need to go beyond the realm of cognitive dissonance and enter the realm of doublethink.  Either that, or you resign. 

What else is going on at home?  The trains grind to a halt this evening.  Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t believe the government wants to keep them going.  Rather HMG wants everything to seize up so as to sow class division.  Some of the unions are even calling for a general strike.  Would that be the first since 1926? 

And the problem posed by the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, and a hard border in the Irish Sea, continues to bamboozle Westminster.  It’s like trying to solve the ancient problem of trisecting an angle using only ruler and compasses.  It is manifestly impossible. 

Now that Brexit is beginning to bite, I rather suspect that some of the old school Tory remainers who were purged from the party must look back upon the SNP’s paper of 2014, Scotland’s Future, with a certain nostalgia.  A politically independent Scotland within the Union of the Crowns, a shared currency and bank of last resort, and an open border.  What’s not to like?  Had that been the case, it seems very unlikely that the rump of the UK would have chosen to leave the EU.  But of course that is mere conjecture.  That opportunity is gone.  At the time, Alex Salmond passed a remark that has since been widely, perhaps wilfully, misunderstood.  He said that the chance for independence was a “once in a generation” opportunity.  He wasn’t choosing that it be so.  He was merely saying carpe diem, seize the day, because the day may not soon recur.  He might have quoted the words of Brutus in Julius Caesar Act IV scene III:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune,

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

No point in crying over spilt milk.  In modern parlance, we are where we are.  Energy crisis, soaring cost of living, inflation, recession (= stagflation), and, apparently imminently, a general strike, and World War 3.  How is the government responding to all this?  Is anybody in government up to the task?  Cometh the hour, cometh the man, or woman.  Or are they merely responding to each impending crisis with back-of-a-fag-packet formulae?  I see that a Google software engineer has been suspended because he has gone public with the notion that his Artificial Intelligence Device – like HAL in 2001 – has gone sentient.  His going public was apparently a breach of confidentiality.  Whose confidentiality?  The device’s?  Maybe Google suspended him because they think he’s crazy, or maybe because they think he’s right.  I myself don’t believe that machines can be like us, although I do strongly suspect several prominent politicians are turning themselves into machines.  As soon as you surrender yourself to the whip, you become a machine.  Winston again, back in the 30s:  “So they go on, in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

The European Court of Human Rights, to which we remain a signatory as it is part of the European Council rather than the European Union, has for the moment stopped the flights to Rwanda.  One way out for the government is to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile in our hospitals, the frail and elderly are stacked up in the departure lounge, with nowhere to go, while the ambulances are stacked up outside “A & E”.

Drip, drip, drip.                            

East, West…

A convivial luncheon, last week, in Kilbride.  East or West?  West.  But I believe the honest burgers of the Ayrshire coastal town, home of the world’s tastiest potato, prefer to leave the compass bearing out.  That bespeaks a certain self-confidence of the sort that characterises other Scottish townships, Kippen, Bridge of Allan, and, of course Edinburgh.  Perhaps the residents of East Kilbride would call it smugness.  West bespeaks urbanity, gentrification, and style; east is disadvantage, squalor, and despair.  Just think of Glasgow.  Or war time London.  When the Luftwaffe bombed Buckingham Palace the (then) queen said, “Now we can look the East End in the eye.”  The west’s sense of superiority over the east is seen globally, in macrocosm.  West is freedom, east is oppression.  This has little to do with compass bearings.  Australia is firmly in the west.  Still, in New Zealand, the association of “westness” with enlightenment and sophistication is less apparent.  Inhabitants of West Auckland are known as “westies” and here the term implies a certain rough-neck, hick, frontier spirit.  Meanwhile the east-west divide has become less apparent in London, where obscene wealth and obscene poverty live cheek by jowl, after the fashion of the huge, sprawling Gotham Cities of Latin America.   

Luncheon in Kilbride (sic) was a convocation of people who have been playing music together for over half a century.  Two bassoons, two violas, flute, piano, percussion, and voice.  I wonder if anybody has composed for such a combination?  Perhaps we should commission a work.  Then again, perhaps not.  Inevitably, the conversation turned to matters musical.  Apparently, said a bassoon, there is some evidence that the production of sound within the belly of a Stradivarius results in a mysterious molecular realignment in the ancient wood, which enhances the beauty of tone.  This, I said, might explain why, when I (a viola) take my ersatz Strad out of its dusty case, the sound is dead, though I suspect that might have more to do with my own molecular mal-alignment, than that of my instrument’s pine belly, and maple back.   

Anyway, I did dust off the Strad, and went to play a concert yesterday with the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra.  It nearly didn’t happen, decimated by Covid as we are, our composition even more chamber-like than usual.  Only two violas.  Eek!  Even our conductor was hors-de-combat.  The conductor of the Stirling Orchestra stepped in at short notice, with great effectiveness, and fortunately the other viola player is very accomplished. 

The concert was in aid of Ukrainian refugees so we started with the Ukrainian National Anthem.  A stark reminder of the east-west divide.  Then, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Max Bruch’s Concerto for Viola and Clarinet, David Breingan’s Jubilee 70 (world premiere), and Schubert’s Second Symphony.  That was a lot of music.  If I were paid by the quaver, I would be a rich man.  The Schubert went like the clappers.  I had the sensation of being on a train travelling so fast that I couldn’t discern the names of the stations through which we clattered. 

The Bruch concerto was very beautiful.  I hadn’t heard it before, though having played the chamber pieces for piano, clarinet and viola, I recognised the idiom.  In the programme note, I read that the first performance, in 1912, fell rather flat.  The critics called it “bland, soft, unexciting, over-polite and unmodern.”  Well, I do wish we heard more music that was bland, soft, unexciting, over-polite and unmodern.  I suppose to your “average” concert-goer Max Bruch is something of a one hit wonder, the one hit being his G minor violin concerto.  But there is a vast repertoire out there – not just Max Bruch – that is unheard, and unknown.  I used to think that the combination of talent and industry in the arts generally would inevitably find its way in the world, but I no longer believe this to be the case.  Thomas Gray knew that full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.  We tend to think that the great pillars of musical history – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert – were somehow inevitable, but it’s not true.  They could have been snuffed out.  They could have produced – and no doubt others have produced – a body of work that never came to light.  What giants have been lost to history? 

A quorum of the Kilbride Octet reconvened for the last concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s season in Glasgow.  The RSNO went out with a bang, and Beethoven 9.  Oddly enough, the first concert I ever attended in my life ended with Beethoven 9.  It was in Glasgow’s St Andrews Hall, before it was burnt down – obviously – and I think I was aged about nine.  I don’t suppose I made much of it, though it says something of Beethoven’s universal appeal that I think I was conscious of being present at a remarkable event.  I remember being impressed around the same time when I heard the opening of the Pathétique Sonata.  I remember being overawed by the look of the music on the printed page.  All these thick black lines of hemidemisemiquavers.  They just looked so angry.

The RSNO’s rendition last week was terrific, though I admit I was rather unreceptive.  I was distracted, not so much by the fidgety child sitting in front of me (who might, after all, have been my doppelgänger) as by the child’s parents who wouldn’t cease from fidgeting with their mobile devices, as incandescent as my sense of mounting rage.  I got into a mood. 

Alle Menschen werden Brüder…

Aye, right. 

Situation Normal – All Fouled Up

Every weekday I take (sic) two newspapers from the village shop.  I suppose I could say I get, or acquire, or buy two papers, but the posh expression is “take”, even if it sounds as if I’m shoplifting.  If I were serving you a cup of coffee I might similarly say, “Do you take milk?”  But oddly enough it’s slightly posher to say “Do you have milk?”  So in Glasgow I say “take” and in Edinburgh I say “have” so as not to be a cultural anomaly. 

The newspapers in question are The Herald and The NationalThe National is subtitled, “The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland”.  Its tone can be rather strident.  Frankly, it can be an organ of propaganda.  But then, nobody else is fighting for that particular political corner.  The word propaganda, rather like pornography, has a pejorative connotation.  We tend to think of propaganda in terms of “fake news”.  When Mr Putin says he is ridding the Donbas region of Nazism in a “military exercise”, the west thinks this is propaganda.  When the west says the Kremlin locks up Muscovites for 15 years for calling the military exercise a “war”, Mr Putin would I dare say call this propaganda.  Mr Lavrov says that in arming Ukraine, the west is prepared to fight to the last Ukrainian; I suppose he must mean the west is prepared to carry out a military exercise to the last Ukrainian.

What exactly is propaganda?  Where the devil have I put my dog-eared Chambers?

n. propagan’da a congregation of the Roman Catholic Church, founded 1622, charged with the spreading of Catholicism (de propaganda fide, ‘concerning the faith to be propagated’ – not a plural but ablative singular): any association, activity, plan, etc., for the spread of opinions and principles, esp. to effect change or reform: the information, etc., spread by such an association. 

There is nothing inherently vicious in holding an opinion and expressing it honestly.  I suppose we should only turn up our noses at propaganda if it is devious, if it pretends to be unbiased, or it propagates untruths.  In constitutional matters The Herald purports to be neutral, but it is often accused of favouring the Unionist cause.  I would say The Herald letters column is pretty even-handed.  There are well-known correspondents on both sides of the argument who get a fair hearing. 

I do the cryptic crosswords of both papers.  I’m not proud of it.  It’s a therapy for fretfulness.  The National crossword is more challenging than The Herald’s.  This was not always the case.  But following the demise of the compilers MCC and MYOPS The Herald’s puzzle became anonymised and simplified, to the extent that any competent cruciverbalist can regularly solve it in less than ten minutes.  It isn’t really a cryptic crossword at all.  The National crossword is more difficult, but it doesn’t always play fair.  I was bamboozled on Saturday by 23 across:

It’s a mess! (5)

I thought the answer was NAAFI (as in Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes) but it didn’t quite fit.  The solution turned out to be “snafu”.  Snafu?  Where the devil is my dog-eared Chambers?

Snafu (U.S. slang) n. chaos. – adj. chaotic.  (situation normal – all fouled or f***** up). 

I must start using that.  “How are you?”  “Snafu.”  As with the Inuit and their many words for snow, it says something about the state of our society and culture that there are so many alternative words at our disposal for snafu.  I seem to recall that Jack Straw when he was Foreign Secretary once remarked about some political initiative, “We made a right Horlicks of it.”  And somebody else said of the same thing, “It was a pile of pants.”  Interestingly, snafu is indexed in my 1962 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, and refers me to two and half dense columns of synonyms under the heading “disorder”, including muddle, chaos, anarchy, disaccord, ectopia, disharmony, nihilism, littering, sluttishness, slovenry, neglect, discomposure, dishevelment, convulsion, welter, hugger-mugger, imbroglio, jungle, omnium gatherum, huddle, seething mass, shambles, farrago, mishmash, hotch-potch, Babel, bedlam, ravelment, Gordian knot, frenzy, pandemonium, hullabaloo, pudder, pother, Saturnalia, spill and pelt, bull in a China shop, draggletail, tatterdemalion, Mohawk, snafu, topsy-turvy, skimble-skamble, haywire, inextricable, orgiastic, Dionysiac, harum-scarum, pell-mell, higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter, harum-scarum, at sixes and sevens…

etc.

Reading this litany gives one a flavour of The Herald letters page.  Most letters take the form of a complaint, issued from one Disgruntled of Duntocher, draped in a Union flag, or Curmudgeon of Cumbernauld, draped in a Saltire, both dismayed at the general snafu of the nation, the nations, and the world.  “Words fail me”, keens Disgruntled (though they seldom to).  “I despair…” says Curmudgeon.  Of Disgruntled, Curmudgeon says, “He should hang his head in shame.”  But Disgruntled has no time for Curmudgeon, or “others of his ilk” (there is apparently a clan of Curmudgeons). 

On the whole, I think the letters pages of The Herald are more satisfactory than those of The National, because you hear opposing views, while The National can be something of an echo chamber.  This is not entirely the fault of The National, which I suspect would happily print Disgruntled, but that Disgruntled is unlikely to write in, because he doesn’t take The National.  There is dissent in The National, but it is liable to be dissent about Scottish Government policy, or, especially last week, Royalists versus Republicans.  But the constitutional issue is taken as read.

I read The Herald letters page every day (and occasionally contribute, as Bombastic of Breadalbane), but I have never seen Disgruntled argue so convincingly as to change Curmudgeon’s mind – or vice versa, just as I have never heard, nor expect to hear, a politician on Any Questions or Question Time confess to his opponent, “You know, I never thought of it that way.  Thou hast persuaded me.”  That is not to say that the whole exercise is futile.  People do change their minds.  They just don’t like to admit it.  When I was in General Practice the management gurus afflicted us with the “Quality Outcomes Framework” (QOF), a grotesque Myth of Sisyphus designed to waste the time of doctors and patients alike.  I put a sign up on my surgery wall saying “The QOF must be destroyed”, and, like Cato the Elder in the Roman Senate urging the necessity to annihilate the Carthaginians, I ended all my remarks at medical meetings with the mantra, “And by the way, The QOF must be destroyed.”

Well, in due course, it was.  But I never expected its creators to own up to its uselessness.  They said, of course, “The QOF was of its time.  It has served its purpose.  Time to draw a line, and move on.”  Well, that was enough.  Sometimes you have to choose success over victory.                                    

My Anhedonic Life?

A recreational weekend.  Life in the fast lane?  Did I go clubbing?  Did I have fun?  I suppose it depends on your definition of fun. Julia Roberts’ Vivian Ward, the “tart with a heart” in Pretty Woman (but can one use that expression anymore?  The compassionate sex industry professional) is flown in Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis’s private jet from LA to San Francisco to attend the Opera.  As they board the aircraft, she says, “In case I forget to tell you later on, I had a good time.”

I remember my father once saying to me when I was a young man, “You don’t get much fun.”  I think by that he meant I didn’t play much sport, for he was mad keen on sport, football, boxing, golf, and badminton.  I probably thought the best means of defence was attack, and I probably replied, “Well what about you?  You spend all day catching crims…” (He was a cop) “…and then go to Civil Defence in the evening…” (It was at the height of the Cold War.) Periodically he would take me along to the Police Training School to try and improve my badminton.  I could see his disappointment at my lack of hand-eye co-ordination.  Actually I wasn’t that bad.  I played for my school.  But I was nothing like him.  The best and most devastating badminton smash I’ve ever witnessed.  Perfect timing.  I remember he once told me that the Second World War had been a terrible waste of his time, because joining the RAF and going abroad for years effectively ended his badminton career.

I don’t think he was right about the fun.  If anything, I had rather too much of it.  I would party until 3 am, snatch a few hours’ sleep, get up, and go and run in a 10 k race.  I wasn’t exactly disciplined.  Still, twenty years later, a caustic femme fatale took a cool look at my life and remarked, “Where’s the fun?”  Left me speechless.  You can tell it rankled. 

Back to my fun weekend.  On Saturday morning, I wrote to The Herald.    

Dear Sir,

I heard an anecdote in the sauna of my local gym, from a guy recently returned from Finland, whose Finnish hosts popped over into Russia to fetch a magnum of cheap vodka, not to drink, but to pour over the hot coals of their sauna.

Having painstakingly read the Sue Gray report, I find this to be an apt metaphor for Partygate: people living in a highly unusual hothouse atmosphere, amid an alcoholic haze.  Sue Gray’s report does not take long to read because it is of necessity very repetitive.  It is in its way a prose poem, using monotony as a literary device, her condemnation all the more powerful for its understatement.  For each event, the restrictions that were current at the time are laid out, and then the event described.  Booze is all-pervasive, and it is surely booze that defines an event as a party rather than a work meeting.  Would you expect your doctor, your teacher, your policeman to drink while on duty?

But the real question the Sue Gray report raises is this: do we need No. 10 at all?  I don’t mean that the PM shouldn’t have a pied-à-terre in Whitehall, or that he shouldn’t hold a Cabinet therein.  But do we need No. 10 as, in Ms Gray’s words, a “small Government Department”?  What is its function?  What on earth are all these special advisers doing, other than sending WhatsApp messages to one another?  It is said that they were all working incredibly hard to get the country through the pandemic.  But it was the scientists who prepared a vaccine, the pharmaceutical companies who mass-produced it, and the NHS who delivered it.  No. 10 made up a few rules which manifestly didn’t apply to SW1A 2AA. If the whole shebang were to be closed down, would any of us notice the difference?   

Yours sincerely…

Now all I had to do was sit back until Monday morning and see if they would publish me.

Then two dear friends of mine appeared on the doorstep and we repaired to The Lion & Unicorn for luncheon.  There was much laughter, particularly over the reminiscence of a friend who had the unusual habit of snorting a line of Creamola Foam.  In its powder form, I suppose.  Now I have never done that.  Maybe that is why I don’t have fun. 

A post luncheon stroll betwixt the Carse of Stirling and the Highland Boundary Fault Line.  It was very warm.  Hurrah, at last.  Then tea and biscuits.  Asked, what is my favourite biscuit, I said Time, but they were no longer available.  My friend consulted that font of all human knowledge, Professor Google, but failed to find Time.  Time was no more.

To Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the penultimate concert of the RSNO’s current season.  I had expected to hear Nicola Benedetti give the Scottish premiere of Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto, but alas Ms Benedetti has sustained an injury.  Noa Wildschut stepped in at short notice and played the Mendelssohn, very beautifully, with some unaccompanied Bach as an encore.  Then the RSNO played the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, a romantic dream, a neurotic vision, descending into chaos and madness.  The orchestral balance achieved by conductor Fabien Gabel was perfect.  A fun evening?  I thought so.

Sunday lunch in Glasgow, and a visit to the Art Galleries in Kelvingrove.  I hadn’t been in since before the first lockdown.  Good to be back.  There was a recital on the magnificent organ of the grand hall.  I saw some dreadful driving on the M80 on the way home.  Two black Golf GTIs doing about ninety, tail to tail, within six feet of one another.  I blame the war in Europe.  Unleash the dogs of war and you will have, in John Buchan’s phrase, “a general loosening of screws”.  Not much fun in the fast lane, if you ask me.

Monday morning.  Picked up The Herald.  I’m in, unedited, first up, with a banner headline.  Would we actually miss No. 10 if it were closed down?  One thing I’ve noticed about being published is that, while it is gratifying to see my work in print, I tend to think retrospectively of the process as de rigueur.  But it can’t be denied that being rejected hurts.  Maybe I have the melancholic outlook of the glass half empty man.  Every silver lining has a cloud.  Now I must get tomorrow’s Herald and look out for the angry riposte.  “No doubt Dr Campbell is blind to the shenanigans going on behind the door of No 6 Charlotte Square…   No doubt he would rather the bunting currently festooning his village comprised Saltires rather than Union flags…”

But I get ahead of myself, rather like the man who gets a flat tyre out in the boondocks and while walking to a remote cottage for assistance conjures in his mind the hostile reception he is going to get, to the extent that when the door is opened to him, his first remark is, “You can keep your f****** jack!”

Before I forget, I had a fun time.            

The Last Piece of The Missing Jigsaw

Apparently one of our political leaders made reference recently to the last piece of the missing jigsaw, and there was widespread hilarity in response to his gaffe.  The expression after all, should simply be the last piece of the jigsaw.  As a figure of speech, it usually refers to an elusive piece of information which, once apprehended and fitted into that which is already known, allows you to solve a conundrum and present a composite theory, and a complete picture, of something.  It’s the sort of thing Hercule Poirot might present before a group of well-to-do people, each harbouring a guilty secret, in the environment of a country house library, or the dining car of the Orient Express.  Voilà.  Problem solved. 

But what could the last piece of the missing jigsaw possibly refer to?  If you have that one piece and, say, 999 others are missing, how could you possibly reconstruct the entire solution to the puzzle?  Quite impossible, I would have said.  But then I’m currently reading Written in Bone by Sue Black (Doubleday 2020).  Professor Dame Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist who, amongst other feats, can sometimes reconstruct entire identities on perusing a piece of bone no bigger than a fingernail.  Most of the time, she is afforded more generous material to work upon, and her reconstruction, for the benefit of the police, of a complete skeleton, or several skeletons, from a plastic bag of bones dumped in a loch, does indeed resemble the completion of a jigsaw puzzle rendered more difficult by the ravages of time and nature.  I guess a forensic anthropologist needs the fastidious attitude of mind, the sedulous attention to detail of the jigsaw enthusiast.  I know some jigsaw buffs who like to turn the pieces over and solve the puzzle without reference to the pictorial aid.  That seems incomprehensible to me, but then I’ve never done a jigsaw in my life.  I’m a crossword geek.  As J. Alfred Prufrock has measured out his life in coffee spoons, so have I lived mine out in the half-lit world of amateur cryptography.

Written in Bone is a gruesome, if fascinating read.  But putting the work of Sue Black to one side, it strikes me that that last piece of the missing jigsaw might refer to an illusion of enlightenment, an hallucinatory “Ah-ha!” moment when you think you are placing the final piece into a constructed pattern that doesn’t actually exist, other than in your own febrile, fetid imagination.  The great scientists know that when they cry “Eureka!” they might have constructed a model that, while it is complete, self-consistent, and beautiful, may yet bear little relation to reality. 

I have known patients who have had a Eureka moment while reading a medical textbook, or perusing the Internet.  They’ve brought in the literature with them.  “That’s me, doc, to a T.”  It’s particularly true in the field of mental health.  DSM-5-TR is now so vast that it would be strange if you couldn’t find yourself, or somebody like yourself, therein.  People have described to me a profound sense of relief when they have discovered that, during all these wilderness years, they had never known that they were on the spectrum.  It’s like a confession followed by absolution.  They are off the hook.  It’s the last piece of the jigsaw.  Now it all makes sense. 

It is said that when you are a medical student you develop a serious illness at least once a week, when you encounter it in the literature.  Possibly because medical students have constantly to stuff their brains with facts, the diagnoses are often neurological; last week, Parkinson’s, this week, Alzheimer’s, next week, a brain tumour.  I was never afflicted in this way.  Quite the contrary.  I was ever in a state of denial.  I am like the professor of cardiology at the heart conference, who succumbs to a myocardial infarction, a bottle of antacid parked by his bedside.   

We might use the jigsaw, present or absent, as a metaphor for what used to be referred to as “the human predicament”.  The pursuit of happiness, or fame, or wealth, or gratification, or goodness, or serenity, or love, or a foe, or whatever pursuit it is that we deem to be important, can seem like the perusal of entrails to be ruminated over, a rune to be deciphered, an acrostic to be solved.  If only we could find the key.  The trick of life.  We search for it in religious texts, belles-lettres, and self-help books, seven billion souls in search of a diagnosis.  But nothing appears to fit the uniqueness of our own particular conundrum which, in any case, seems to be changing all the time.  Yet still we search.  Tomorrow I will wake with buoyancy and hope, full of beans.  I will discover the secret formula to my personal fulfilment, and I will say to everybody that it seemed such a small thing, and yet it completely turned my life upside down.  Now it all makes sense.

The last piece of the missing jigsaw.                              

Claire de Lune

Driving home from Glasgow yesterday evening I chanced to hear on the seven o’clock news that a total lunar eclipse was scheduled for 0436.  Planet earth would then intrude twixt sun and moon.  I imagine if such an event had occurred fifty odd years ago, when twelve earthlings actually walked on the lunar surface, the sight from their point of view – of a solar eclipse – would have been startling.  In a lunar eclipse from our standpoint here on planet earth, the moon assumes a bloody hue, apparently the reflection of a grand integral of all the earthly sunrises and sunsets, and in addition, if the moon is closer to us than usual, it will appear unusually large.  A Red Blood Supermoon.  Mindful of observing this phenomenon, on hitting the sack to grab some shut-eye, I set my internal alarm.  Thou shalt wake at 0430.

So it was.  Anxious to avoid any unfortunate publicity (“Neighbours telephoned police when an elderly gentleman in a state of undress was observed, keening to the moon…”) I threw on a few clothes and went out.  It was almost broad daylight, the dawn chorus already full-throated.  Alas the cloud cover was what aviators used to refer to as ten tenths, more recently eight, or even, in the spirit of exaggeration, nine okta.  Nothing to see here.  No bloody moon.  Actually, from a previous sighting, I would say it’s not red, more a salmon pink.  I went back to bed.

I’m fond of the moon.  I sat up all night in 1969 watching the one small step.  Magnificent desolation.  But I wouldn’t much like to visit.  The moon looks friendlier from afar.  I have a sense of gratitude that we don’t have to endure pitch blackness every night.  Then there are the tides.  It wouldn’t be the same, on an Ayrshire beach, alone, at night, without the sook of the bai.  The moon gives us the tides just as the 23 degree declination of the earth gives us the seasons.  Wouldn’t life be dull without time and tides?  The metaphysical poets knew that the moon caused the tides, even before Isaac Newton told them how and why.  In A Valediction: of Weeping, John Donne addressed his mistress:

O more than Moone,

Draw not up seas to drowne me in thy sphere…

I’m not sure if Newton knew that the moon is actually moving away from us, albeit at an almost imperceptible rate.  I expect he did.  Didn’t he tell Halley when to expect the next appearance of his comet?  The moon’s subtle estrangement by stealth comes about because tidal friction is gradually slowing down the earth’s rotation about its axis; consequently the moon is slowly drifting away to conserve the angular momentum of the earth-moon system.  It is the reverse process of that of the pirouetting ice skater, who contracts her profile in order to spin faster.  Had he known this, Donne might well have worked up another of his “conceits”.  How might it go?

What subtle harm doth we inflict ’pon thee

That thou shouldst ever from us seek to flee?

If poets are now less inclined to force disparate ideas, as in a particle accelerator, to collide with one another, maybe it’s because C. P. Snow was right when he said our society is blighted by the “two cultures” of science and art, like the earth and the moon, moving ever apart.  Ever since Beethoven composed his Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Opus 27, number 2, moonlight has become romanticised.  Donald Francis Tovey who wrote extensive commentaries on all the Beethoven sonatas was dismissive of Op. 27 No. 2’s name.

People whose musical taste is confined to favourite single movements may be contented to listen only to the first movement of this profoundly tragic work, and thus the popular title “Moonlight” sonata (or, as the Germans call it, “Moonshine”) may seem tolerable… But moonlight will not suffice to illuminate the whole of this sonata, nor even to constitute its dominating impression.  And if you do not understand the other movements you will have but a shallow idea of the first.

Personally, I can’t be bothered with this style of utterance, in which some arbiter of taste tells you that your response to a work of art is shallow and vulgar.  How can Sir Donald know the intensity of somebody else’s experience? It’s sheer snobbery, pure and simple.  I heard the RSNO play Sibelius 5 in Glasgow on Saturday night.  The opening to the last movement always reminds me of the protracted take-off run of a 747, or an Airbus A380.  All that hasty scurrying as the enormous machine accelerates to flying speed, giving way at last to a serene calm as we get airborne and the undercarriage retracts.  I don’t know what Tovey would have made of that.  Sibelius himself thought of a flight of swans, so I can’t be too wide of the mark. 

The attendance at the concert on Saturday was sparse.  Where was everybody?  Watching Eurovision?  Slava Ukraini.  I have a notion that the Kremlin will have great difficulty in concealing the result of Eurovision from the Russian people.  They will just have to put on an air of indifference and declare that Eurovision is decadent western Eurotrash.  They could assume the tone of Donald Francis Tovey.  Mr Putin is very displeased with Sweden and Finland, poised to join NATO, and Mr Lavrov has been passing dark remarks about universal “consequences”.  Meanwhile the heavenly bodies continue in their more or less unaltered courses, indifferent and unabashed.  Yet perhaps the moon will at length grow weary of our endless bickering and strife, and find some way of escaping our gravitational pull, to leave us to stumble alone on the beach of a pitch black night, beside an ominously silent, sullen ocean.  

Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra

Something went twang in my lower back on Friday morning – not for the first time – and I found myself lurching about, my posture the contour of a half-clasped knife.  I blame myself.  Poor posture – too much lolloping around.  Our practice physio used to tell me off when I slouched in front of the computer.    It was bad timing on Friday as I had a full day, entertaining guests to morning coffee, a bucolic stroll, lunch, and a trip to Glasgow in the evening for a concert.  I got through it.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played a programme in Glasgow City Halls entitled, “A very British Adventure”.  Grace Williams, Anna Clyne (the composer present), Dowland, Britten, and Vaughan Williams.  The viola player Timothy Ridout played Britten’s Lachrymae, and Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi.  Like all great string players, Ridout is completely relaxed.  The viola seems to suspend itself in front of the player, of its own accord, in situ.  I hold on to mine for dear life.  That’s probably why I’ve got a sore back.

The playing and singing on Friday was of the highest quality.  Yet the hall was two thirds empty.  Are we a bunch of philistines?  I’ve just finished reading the pianist András Schiff’s memoir Music Comes out of Silence (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2020).  It is very high flown.  Schiff reveres Bach and Beethoven.  I don’t think he thinks much of Lady Gaga.  And he doesn’t appear to suffer philistines gladly.  A bit pompous, a bit snooty perhaps? 

Being as stiff as a board come Sunday evening, I had little energy left but to sit and stare at the telly with a glaikit expression on my face.  I watched the BAFTAs.  The Academy bestowed its highest honour, the Fellowship, on Sir Billy Connolly.  I was reminded of a time back in the 80s when I worked for six months in Brisbane, Queensland.  I think it may have been on Hogmanay 1985 that, wandering amid the various festivities on the banks of the Brisbane River, I chanced upon the Scottish singer and entertainer Andy Stewart, on tour, no doubt, in the twilight of his career.  Of course I instantly recognised the stocky, kilted figure, the rather old-fashioned style of the White Heather Club, the songs, many of them, like Scottish Soldier, of a militaristic flavour so suited to Stewart’s charisma, that could be stirring, almost rabblerousing.  I recall he made a reference to the Falklands “conflict” – still very raw.  He belonged to a cadre of entertainers who would be wheeled out back home in Scotland to celebrate “the bells”, people like the lugubrious John Grieve, and the cadaverous Duncan Macrae and “the wee cock sparra”.  The man hit the boey, though he wusnae his farrah.  We would watch them at the close of the year and say, “That’s really terrible.”  Now looking back, we think of it as a golden age.   

Andy Stewart didn’t make a connection with Brisbane.  I guess the whole package was completely alien to a casual audience of predominantly youthful Australians.  If at that time they had responded to anything Scottish at all, it might have been to Annie Lennox of The EurhythmicsSisters are doing it for themselves was current.  I recall feeling embarrassed for Andy.  The end of an era.

I had a similar fin-de-siècle experience last night watching the BAFTAs.  Billy Connolly wasn’t present at London’s Royal Festival Hall to collect his gong, but he appeared in a pre-recorded message from his home in Florida.  He has Parkinson’s disease (he previously said that he very much wished Parkinson had kept it to himself) and he has been retired from the stage for two years.  He was very pleased and happy to accept the award.  He told a little anecdote that wasn’t meant to be particularly funny, but rather to illustrate how the world has changed over half a century.  In Shetland he had lost an earring and had gone into a jeweller’s shop to find a replacement.  The jeweller couldn’t understand that he was seeking an item for himself, and not for his lady.      

I think Sir Billy did well to stay in Florida, to speak from a position of retirement, and to speak naturally, without any sense of performance.  Clearly the British Academy of Film and Television has moved on.  Their accolade to the Scottish comedian was polite, formal, and brief.  What it lacked was a sense of love.  For that, you needed to have listened earlier in the day to Sir Michael Parkinson and Dame Judi Dench, on Paddy O’Connell’s radio show Broadcasting House.  But of course Michael and Judi are octogenarians.  Already, Connolly belongs to a different world.  I saw him in his pomp, performing in Auckland, a couple of years after I saw Andy Stewart in Brisbane.  He occupied the stage solo for over three hours and the time flew; it felt to me like about twenty hilarious minutes.   

As for the BAFTAs themselves, they were almost completely incomprehensible to me.  That is not surprising, as I watch hardly any TV, so I didn’t know any of the actors, and I didn’t know any of the shows.  And I didn’t care.  Normally I’m rather attracted to a bit of glitz and glamour.  But this left me completely cold.  I suppose I, too, belong to a different world.  The future is a foreign country!             

Log Off!

I have some sympathy for the Conservative Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton, lately retired, whose hanging offence has been that, in the chamber, he was observed viewing porn on his mobile, not once, but twice.  Once he was identified, in relatively short order, he had the wrath of the female of the species descend upon him, the whip was withdrawn, and the opposition parties inevitably ganged up on the Tories to demand an explanation as to why it had taken so long.  Mr Parish reported himself to the Commons Select Committee on Standards, and was minded to tough it out, but, no doubt oppressed by the weight of the opprobrium, he chucked his hand in and resigned.  The din of censure did not abate.  There was even consideration of the idea that Mr Parish had broken the law, and ought to be reported to the police.  I don’t like to see a man being kicked when he is down. 

But what exactly is pornography?  Here is a challenge: construct a dictionary definition.  This is the Oxford Dictionary of English:

Pornography noun, printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.

But is that right?  Compare it with the definition from the same dictionary of “erotica”:

Erotica – erotic literature or art.

Erotic – relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.

All this would imply that pornography is merely a somewhat more explicit form and rendition of erotica.  Erotica is classy; pornography is coarse.  Erotica can be high art.  We established this in 1960 in the case of the Crown versus Penguin Books in 1960, vis-a-vis Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Before 1960, Lady C was mere pornography.  There was a notion amongst some elements of the small c conservative establishment in 1960 that giving Lady C the green light would open the floodgates to every manner of thoroughly filthy fellow wielding his lewd pen, and indeed from such a perspective this prediction turned out to be quite accurate.  I remember that great puritanical reactionary Malcolm Muggeridge prophesied that in next to no time sexual coitus would be portrayed on screen and in film.  At the time, even the most liberal minded poured cold water on such an idea.  Then in 1970 the film Ryan’s Daughter portrayed the act of love in a most tasteful fashion, and rather obliquely, utilising the so-called Pathetic Fallacy to convey sexual climax as a surge of wind through the forest canopy.  Remarkably, at the time this caused something of a sensation. 

But it won’t do merely to say that erotica is high, and pornography is low.  Pornography is a pejorative term, and not merely because it denotes bad erotica.  Here is Chambers:                        

Porno(o) in composition, obscene. – n. and adj, porn, porno, coll. shortenings of pornography and pornographic… pornography (Gr. graphein to write) description of prostitutes and prostitution: obscene writing, painting, and the like (Gr. porne, a whore).    

It is this invocation of the world’s oldest profession that gives a sense of why the female members in the chamber were so outraged.  Prostitutes are, by and large, victims of abuse.  Pornography is meretricious. 

Yet poor old Mr Parish stumbled on to that website the way he might have mistaken a bordello for a citizens’ advice bureau.  He was looking for something about tractors!  That conjured in my mind images of provocative femmes fatales draped across various marques of agricultural machinery.  Flagrant delectation aboard the combine harvester. 

But then, fatal error: he revisited the site.    

Now there are going to be all sorts of enquiries relating to sleaze, misogyny, predatory behaviour and the like.  All well and good, but it seems to me that, with regard to Mr Parish’s fall from grace, it would be quite simple to prevent a recurrence.  Just get all the sitting members to switch off their phones while in the chamber.  That is de rigueur in all sorts of venues – the school classroom, the concert hall, the opera house, the theatre, the cinema, any place in which a group of people convene in a communal act of interactive concentration.  But if you watch PMQs any Wednesday lunchtime you will see dozens of MPs preoccupied with their devices.  What, aside from damsels aboard threshing machines, are they all looking at?  And if the trolls’ tweets are so malign and so toxic, why on earth would they bother reading them?  For pity’s sake, log off.  Twitter is puerile.  If Mr Musk wants to spend $45,000,000,000 on a “platform” that has no existence in reality, good luck to him.                

I thought Mr Parish was dignified in defeat, graceful in cancellation.  I admit that doesn’t count for much.  After all, even Mr Lavrov sounds very plausible, especially when he speaks in remarkably fluent English.  Still I think the body politic should cut Mr Parish some slack.  He put up his hand and said, “Mea culpa.”  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

There will a by-election in Tiverton and Honiton.  I wonder if Mr Parish might be minded to stand as an independent candidate.  He had a majority of 25,000.  He must be doing something right.                 

A Foreign Country?

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

It is the opening line of The Go-Between, a novel by L. P. Hartley, published in 1953.  As the Americans are wont to say, “We do things differently than here.”  Why does Leslie Hartley’s arresting opening line remind me of that of another book, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913?

Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?

“The past is a foreign country” has slipped into common usage.  We reminisce about how things were in our childhood and youth, as opposed to how things are now, and we are wont to say, “It’s a different world”.  If you woke up one morning and found you had been transported by a time machine back into the past, you would be a cultural anomaly.  And the further back you were transported, the more anomalous you would become.  Indeed, if you had the misfortune to wake up in the medieval world, you would be so anomalous in the eyes of the inhabitants of that world that you might be burned at the stake before lunch. 

Before lunch!

That notion fits with the thesis of the psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the world is becoming progressively less violent.  Hold that thought. 

Cultural change seems to be accelerating, so that even the world that existed barely more than a single generation ago seems unrecognisable.  How would today’s young people cope in a world without mobile phones, the internet, and social media?  Could they prime the coin box in a red telephone kiosk, dial a number, and press Button A?  Could they enter the British Linen Bank between the hours of 11am and 3 pm to lodge a cheque?  Could they read a book, written on paper, between hard covers? 

Yet I would not identify the switch from analogue to digital as the biggest cultural change of my lifetime.  I’m not at all sure that this trend to live a life of virtual reality will last.  I think – to be honest I rather hope – that the whole thing might evaporate.  In the same way that young people have taken the lead in issues relating to climate change, environmental protection, and preservation of species diversity, that same generation might suddenly decide that the whole digital thing is a bubble, and log off, permanently, to embrace a real life of flesh and blood, in a tangible elemental environment of earth, air, fire, and water.  They might quote, as their mantra, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, as it appears on the frontispiece of Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, Egdon Heath:

A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!

So, if technology per se has not been the biggest cultural change in the last fifty years, what else would you choose?

The widespread availability of efficacious methods of contraception – that has to be a contender.  Sexual mores – at least outside those of the upper classes – have changed.  The pill became available in 1960.  There is that famous stanza from Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty three

(Which was rather late for me)

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

But, like digital technology, that too might be a blip.  See Margaret Atwood’s blistering short piece A Slave State? (2018) in her collection Burning Questions.

No, I would opt for two interrelated changes that have occurred in this country during my lifetime, and which indicate real cultural change: the abolition of capital punishment, shortly followed by the abolition of corporal punishment. 

They are related.  Their abolition is a signal of the realisation that violence solves nothing.  The wielding of the tawse in Scottish schools was a normalisation of brutality, necessary if you were going to train young men to skewer straw effigies, and then disembowel living people, with bayonets.  One of the things Winston pointed out during his wilderness years in the 1930s, was that the frequency and the severity of corporal punishment was increasing in German schools.  The abolition of the tawse was the abolition of the dictum that might is right.  That has been the greatest cultural change of my lifetime.

At least I thought so, until February 24th.

But then I discovered that L. P. Hartley was wrong all along.  The past turns out not to be a foreign country at all.  It turns out to be all too familiar.  We can go back eighty, ninety years, and feel right at home. The 2020s are turning out to be remarkably like the 1930s.  As for Steven Pinker’s assertion that violence is on the decrease, well, the jury remains out on that.  Another cliché closely linked to the past qua foreign country is one that started doing the rounds with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989: “History is at an end”.  We had thought that chilling names like Lidice, Babi Yar, Auschwitz, and Srebrenica, had all receded into the past, and that indeed we would need a concerted educational effort to keep these names alive, lest we forget.  But now we have Bucha, we have Mariupol.  They have brought the past back to life, vividly.

I’ve been listening again to Winston’s wartime speeches.  They are completely contemporary.  He used to deliver them in the House of Commons and then cross the road and record them for the benefit of the BBC and the general public.  I have a notion that en route to the studio to record his most famous peroration, “We will fight on the beaches…” he may have stopped off for a cordial or two.  “That ish th’resolve of‘s Majsty’s Guv’men, every man of ‘em…”  We had thought of it as a jolly inspiring “ra ra” call to arms, but in reality it spells out, graphically, how to go on to the end, “subjugated and starving” – beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, hills…  you alter tactics as you move from disciplined defence to scattered insurgency.  But Winston did his utmost to prevent an “unnecessary” war.  He wrote a piece on April 3rd, 1936, contained in his collection Step by Step, entitled Stop It Now!  With a few alterations of nomenclature, it might have been written last week:

Practically the whole of the German nation has been taught to regard the incorporation in the Reich of the Germanic population of neighbouring states as a natural, rightful and inevitable aim of German policy…  The financial and economic pressures in Germany are rising to such a pitch that Herr Hitler’s government will in a comparatively short time have only to choose between an internal and an external explosion…  It is an issue between Germany and the League of Nations… It therefore concerns all nations, including the German people themselves: but it concerns them in different degrees.  The countries which lie upon or near the borders of Germany are in the front line.  They see the wonderful roads along which four columns of troops or motor vehicles can move abreast, brought to their own frontier terminals.  They dwell under the flickering shadow of the most fearful sword ever wrought by human agency, now uplifted in flashing menace, now held anew to the grindstone.  Those that are more remote from the German arsenals and training centres have naturally a greater sense of detachment.  But none, even though protected by the oceans can, as experience of the last war proved, afford to view with indifference the processes which are already in motion. 

The desire of all the peoples, not perhaps excluding a substantial portion of the German people themselves, is to avoid another horrible war in which their lives and homes will be destroyed or ruined and such civilisation as we have been able to achieve reduced to primordial pulp and squalor…

Stop it!  Stop it!!  Stop it now!!!  NOW is the appointed time.