Great hacks of our time (8): Conrad Black

Private Eye used to refer to him as the ‘sinister Canadian’, and in truth Lord Black’s life is a riot of intrigue, money, business, politics, religion, prison, history, women, enemies and quite a few other things. But it’s his writing that I’m here to praise (start here, and here).

Black has written numerous books, the latest of which is a unique take – we are assured – on the Trump phenomenon. Unique in part because Black has also been extremely wealthy, and has known and liked Trump for years. He understandably doesn’t buy into the ‘reality TV/idiot/monster’ meme beloved by the majority of the media. He knows whereof he writes.

And boy does he write well, with instantly recognisable prose, and a penchant for extreme and obscure vocabulary in the manner of Bruce “The Brute” Anderson (1, 2) and the dean of  this sort of thing, the pleasingly enduring R Emmett Tyrrell jr.

Conrad on religion:

I am not touting religious practice (though I am a practitioner, having long ago lost faith in the non-existence of God, but respect all even semi-rational religious views, including atheism). It need hardly be said that horrible acts have been committed in the name of religion. That is the problem when mere people interpose themselves between the terrestrial life we all know and the spiritual life which is elusive, personal, largely inexpressible, and the subject of much doubt, some of it informed and intellectually respectable doubt. Yet, in Marxist parlance, the commanding heights of society have been seized and occupied by militant atheists, with the complicity of the usual sodden camp-following of those who have no convictions and are easily moved by a tide of fashionable unquestioned wisdom, no matter how mindless and unrigorous. The inheritors of the crusade for reason have largely become crusaders for intolerance and for the repudiation of the Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization. This force which inspired Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and illuminated the works of Shakespeare and even Descartes, much of it subsidized by the Christian Church, is now effectively led by those who despise Christianity as superstitious and shaming bunk.

Conrad on Mueller and associated matters:

If this all sounds like the Hound of the Baskervilles chasing its tail, that is because it is that and more: The hound has caught its own tail and devoured itself from behind to the point that it has become a deformed biped. In résumé, original Obama appointees Mueller and Rosenstein (the latter of whom named Mueller to his present post as special counsel — at the improper behest of Mueller’s friend and protégé Comey, after Comey leaked an improperly removed and self-addressed document — and recommended Comey’s firing as FBI director) are examining whether Trump-Russian collusion occurred, based on allegations in a dossier that Comey has testified did not implicate Trump, and that was composed and paid for by the Clinton campaign. Reduced to its simplest terms, the Trump-haters who control the media are asking the nation and the world to believe that the continuation in office of the constitutionally chosen president of the United States depends on a file prepared by unanswerable Kremlin sources incentivized to defame the president who were retained and paid by the president’s election opponent — a file that the person Trump fired as head of the FBI (Comey) on the recommendation of the sidekick of the special counsel in not investigating the Clinton side of the uranium controversy in 2014 has testified does not implicate the president now being investigated by Comey’s mentor Mueller

Conrad on the justice system:

I fear we are losing the capacity for proportionate response to misbehaviour, to temper justice with mercy, to forgive the penitent, and to remember that we are all sinners, living to some degree in moral glass houses. We are slipping into the practice of consigning moral, ethical, and even legal questions to a sort of Manichaean lottery, where those who are not legally convicted of egregious offences, but are tripped up, caught out in naughty or tawdry behaviour, however sincerely the misconduct is regretted for moral as well as tactical reasons, don’t make the cut, are ruthlessly reclassified as bad and cast out like Old Testament lepers…..In treating those who seriously misbehave but are not criminals in this arbitrary and severe way, the majority is dispensing with the system of moral gradations that is inherent to all serious religious and moral and penal theory. We are all good and bad to varying extents at different times. If we draw a line before which all is permitted and after which everything leads to chastisement and damnation, we unjustly divide people into the good and the bad. This is not only unjust to the losers; it is an unearned psychic enrichment to the winners. Instead of striving to behave ourselves generally as well as we can, people are effectively encouraged to game the system; to get away with what they can and to join in the group self-delusion that in throwing the book at those who cross the double line, we are dispensing condign punishment to them and affirming the virtue of the unpunished.

A classic Conrad footnote:

Note: Thanks to my friend Ron Radosh for pointing out that the comparison between Steve Bannon and King Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell, which I mentioned last week, was made by Bannon himself. But this was in an article by Michael Wolff, who is completely unreliable and knows nothing of Tudor history. I do not believe Bannon really compared himself to someone who undermined his predecessor (Cardinal Wolsey), supported the false conviction and execution of the queen (Anne Boleyn), and was then executed himself for proposing another failed marriage (to Anne of Cleves). None of it makes any sense and I say it is piffle.

I should leave the last word to another great – and highly prolific – contemporary commentator and historian, Victor Davis Hanson. In previewing Black’s new book, he summarises the point I wish to make, rather brilliantly:

Finally, Black is a singular prose stylist of what in the ancient world would be called the Asiatic, or florid and decorative, style—multisyllabic and sometime near archaic vocabulary, ornate imagery, melodic prose rhythms, diverse syntax, and classical tropes of deliberate understatement, juxtapositions of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words, and plentiful metaphors and similes. In the modern world, few in English write (or can write) any more like Edward Gibbon or Winston Churchill, but Black does so effortlessly and with precision. So it is often a treat to read an Isocrates or Cicero in modern English.

Conrad Black
Conrad’n’Barbara
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Great landscapes: Albrecht Dürer

I’d always thought of Dürer** as more of a portraitist, miniaturist and woodcut person – yet here he is with a landscape in watercolours. Dürer’s career was astonishingly early on in the development of technically advanced and accurate art – he died in 1528, so 78 years before a fellow Northern master, Rembrandt was born. One gets the impression that he was pretty confident in his skills, and probably a touch egotistical – his self consciously Christ-like and brilliantly executed self portrait tends to hint at that. Fame and riches came rapidly.

Early in his career he did the obligatory travels, including Italy, though much of his itinerary is surmise and shrouded in uncertainty. Prior to that he did quite a few watercolours, including the justly celebrated Willow Mill. The latter is a good example of the difficulty in reproducing art both in books and online. Here are two online versions of the same painting. Pretty different:

 

For what it’s worth, I think the second is the right one, though the first one is maybe more appealing.

In any event, the subject of this blog is Dürer’s simple landscape of the river Pegnitz, by Nuremberg, his hometown. He was about 20 when he did it. In fact, although it’s a pretty accomplished piece, it isn’t necessarily anything special in terms of technique or subject, but it has, to my subjective eye, something. Which is a hallmark of art which you actually like, rather than art which you’re virtually obliged to praise (numerous examples, from the Mona Lisa downwards). I particularly like its evocation of a sort of prelapsarian rural age of tranquility and bucolic comfort – a far cry from the Jeremy Kyle peasants of Bruegel, 60 years later.

pegnitz
Albrecht Dürer, Wire drawing mill on the Pegnitz, near Nuremberg. Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, 1490-1494

In fact the closest works that create a similar ambience for me are, perhaps bizarrely, the Nutwood landscapes created by the great Alfred Bestall for the endpapers of the long series of Rupert the Bear annuals (seriously). See what I mean?

bestall

Four hundred years after Dürer’s  youthful gem, here’s what the Pegnitz looked like in Nuremberg itself. Also vaguely prelapsarian and idyllic, given the intrinsic joys of Bavaria, and the fact that World War 1 was still 15 years off:

Nurembergsynagoguec
…that’s a large synagogue on the skyline. A different Germany then

 

** if you’re interested in Dürer, then this monograph by Norbert Wolff is one of the best art books that I’ve read. Outstanding.

The SNP: decline and fall (17)

I haven’t bothered to write on this since January. Not because there hasn’t been stuff, but it’s getting tedious just documenting new episodes in the already massive catalogue of Nat failure. There’s no shortage really, Eck still hoovering up the roubles on Russia Today, despite recent events, Humza’s general hopelessness, the mysteriously poorly photographed Zoomer march on Glasgow with outrageously exaggerated attendance (which the SNP decided not to attend, wonder why?), the pathetic writhing about how Scots love the EU (they don’t). The list goes on. In fact the SNP obsession with banning things that most voters like is producing negative feedback, amusingly.

Instead I draw the attention of anyone who is interested to a nuanced piece by former SNP insider, Alex Bell, who in recent times has painstakingly deconstructed the whole SNP edifice of winging it and make believe.

Here he is on Miss Sturgeon’s situation:

She has led the devolved administration into a showdown with Westminster. Holyrood says No to the post-Brexit divvy up of powers, Downing Street says Yes. All that matters now is what the Supreme Court says, and what Westminster concludes when the deal is put to the Commons.

We can be pretty sure the court will rule this is a matter for the sovereign government – Westminster – and so force the deal on Holyrood. It is impossible at this stage to say what Westminster will do, given so much is still unknown, and what is known is so confused.

Yet the SNP’s grip is slipping. Not least because Sturgeon is staking her reputation in a fight over devolution, which isn’t even her party’s policy.

The Tory government wants Westminster to hold power over matters such as agriculture and food standards because British nationalists think they’ll need to cut deals in these areas in order to strike new trade partnerships across the world when out of the EU.

Sturgeon and Holyrood, except for the Tory MSPs, want powers returning from the EU to go straight to Edinburgh.  So we are not getting a constitutional crisis over independence and not because Scotland rejected Brexit.

Instead it’s a crisis over devolution. This is, then, not her fight. If she wins, all she has done is secure the devolution settlement. If she loses, she looks too weak to fight her big cause, independence.

All of which sounds terribly dull and fairly inconsequential, but it’s really a reflection on how the Nats’ general policy is to pick fights, lose them, and pick some more. There is no vision being built. Poor Andrew Wilson, a nice, normal person, was tasked a long time ago with producing a coherent long term economic strategy for independence, to replace Eck’s failed oil bunkum. It’s yet to appear.

Alex goes on:

Yet the last thing the indy cause needs is another referendum any time soon. Asking the same question and expecting a different answer is the pop definition of stupid. In the years since the last vote, not a single bone has been added to the skeletal case of 2014. Yet Sturgeon is in the odd position of having weaponised her own supporters.

Doh.

It’s a great piece, and has a painful, if truthful punchline for the current First Minister….She’s in a bad place, and it won’t end well.

stursalm
M&S need some new models

War stories…. World War Two edition (4)

The old man lived alone in a council flat. Access in and out was tricky, and he was, as the saying goes, becoming ‘off his legs’. He was 90 years old, and totally with it mentally.

I asked my usual question: “what did you do in the war?”

This certainly animated him. He told me that he’d been a gunner on an escort vessel in the North Atlantic, escorting the merchant navy convoys, that prior to this policy of escorting, had been decimated by a ruthless and highly effective U-boat campaign. It had clearly been very tough out there, often in 30 foot waves, freezing cold, and at risk of being torpedoed at any time, but he was exhilarated just talking about it.

“Did you actually see any Germans?”, I asked. He laughed and said very rarely, but there was one occasion in particular that sprang to mind. Depth charges had hit their mark, and the German submarine had to surface. The sea was relatively calm. The crew came out on deck and put their hands in the air, attempting to surrender. We Brits were generally pretty chivalrous about that sort of thing. Lots of crews did surrender.

“What did you do?” I asked, wondering how they transferred them on to the ship sitting much higher than the German crew.

“I shot them all. They’d been trying to kill me”.

Ouch. 

It all brings to mind the legendary Curtis LeMay, a pilot himself who led from the front, who masterminded the incredibly brutal – but possibly necessary – bombing of Japanese cities in World War 2:

Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.

Truly, one man’s war crimes are another man’s good soldiering. The dilemma is with us to this day.

uboat surrender
…what would you do?

Appeasement 2018, and DH Lawrence

The insult ‘Hitler’ has been casually tossed around in 21st century politics for years, with each use  provoking the most cringing of faux outrage, and simultaneously  diminishing the power of the comparison. Similarly, the term ‘appeasement’ has been invoked for all sorts of decisions ranging from pragmatic to cowardly, with numerous references to Neville Chamberlain’s deluded performance of 1938.

But while we genuinely seem to be lacking a new Hitler (pace Trump haters), appeasement is indeed on the prowl. Here is DH Lawrence, back in the late 1920’s, pondering the flaccid state of the nation and its so-called intelligentsia between the wars. It is taken from the chapter entitled The End of Old Europe (primarily relating to Hitler’s rise to power), in Paul Johnson’s invaluable Modern Times. Read it, history really does repeat itself.:

They want an outward system of nullity, which they call peace and good will, so that in their own souls they can be independent little gods…little Moral Absolutes, secure from questions….it stinks. It is the will of a louse

Photograph of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence in Chapala, Mexico, 1923
Lawrence – prototype hipster?

Harsh words, but remarkably apposite to much of what we see today. So the reason why the Second Amendment is under attack again in the US (ha!), why Israel is criticised for defending its borders (not that I’m supporting excessive force), why the national armed forces are intended to be subsumed into an amorphous inchoate EU force etc, is so that wet middle class people far from the action can “in their own souls…be independent little gods”. That kind of sums up a certain bien pensant leftie to me. The absolute peak of such appeasement in recent times has been the utterly ineffective Iran Deal, created primarily to give Obama (and the hapless John Kerry) some sort of artificial legacy. The ‘will of a louse’ indeed.

To be honest, writing blog posts like this always feels a bit smug and a bit sour – it’s not something that gives you much pleasure – but we live in difficult times, and Lawrence’s quote is just too good to ignore.

It’s probably the best thing he wrote.

 

 

Sunday/triduum

tangere1
Fra Angelico, Noli me Tangere, 1440, San Marco, Florence.

 

Fra Angelico was one of the very earliest truly great painters. For a discussion of this masterly and blissful gem, see here and here. His genius transcends both the centuries and the artistic niches: “the great American artist Mark Rothko had been struck by the incredible light in Angelico’s works: an “inner” light that is stronger than the opacity that is intrinsic in the fresco technique.” And Rothko – talented though he was – was a very different sort of artist. He nevertheless identified something both real, and rare.

Saturday/interlude

This is a blog favourite (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), albeit regarding a very enigmatic subject

HoH
Jacob Isaaczs van Swanenburg (who taught Rembrandt) – The Harrowing of Hell, early 17th century. Look at the bottom left

….if you want to know more about this most mysterious day in the calendar, go here, and here

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. 

 

War stories…. World War Two edition (3)

Wien_-_Neue_Hofburg
The Heldenplatz and the Hofburg today

 

This elderly lady was actually a sort of a colleague of another one of my patients. She was a 94 year old nun, still bright and active. The nuns lived in a convent by the North Sea, in an enclosed order. A very happy and tranquil group. They’re still there today.  She spent her days – when not in prayer etc – making greetings cards. These were decorated with dried flowers which she flattened by placing them between the pages of a book and sitting on it for a while.

As a young girl, her father was a big cheese policeman in the town where she lived. She was used to big civic events and tagging along.

One day her father took her and the family to a huge public meeting, and she was introduced to the star attraction, shaking his hand. The atmosphere was apparently buzzing, big things were happening, the children were told.

The date? 15th March, 1938

The location? The Heldenplatz in Vienna, still there in front of the remarkable Hofburg Palace.

The event? The culminating rally of the Austrian anschluss

The star attraction? Adolf Hitler.

Yes, that Hitler. Six degrees of separation indeed.

hitler-vienna-1938
80 years ago this month…