I think it’s the finest capital city in Europe..
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
I’m trying to find the quote from an old writer about the things that a fulfilled man must do with his life. It included going to war**, yet many people who have been in actual combat found it horrible and suffer still, despite the intensity of the experience and the irreproducible camaraderie induced by your lives being dependent on each other. They are a smaller group than everyone who actually served in uniform- for every single combat marine in the US Pacific campaign there were about 19 other members of the armed forces in logistics, engineering, supplies, catering, transport and so on.
So this is the second, in a short series
The Chindits in Burma, 1943 –
At the time of writing, today’s patient is still alive – 99 going on 100. A tall distinguished looking fellow, he had a relatively ordinary job back in civilian life, and is pretty healthy, despite the need for various operations. He is always quite happy to reminisce about his time in Burma with the Chindits.
If you want to know how tough these guys were, and what they suffered behind enemy lines, mostly in the jungle, read John Masters’ quite extraordinary – and horrific – account of having to shoot their own wounded. My man has numerous stories – fighting naked because of the damp and the ever present dysentery (this is different from their slightly crazy founder, Orde Wingate’s, propensity for wandering around naked); waiting for air drops knowing that the Japanese would also benefit from these clues to their location; having, amazingly, colleagues killed by an airdrop landing on them; hand to hand fighting with knives, in the jungle; blowing up Japanese installations when you’re a long, long way from safety….how do you return to ‘normal life’ after experiences like these?
And they were pretty effective, not just for morale at a time when Japan was looking like a most formidable enemy. This excellent account of the 1943 Operation Longcloth tells you what you need to know. Although David Stirling started developing the unique capabilities of the SAS in 1941, Wingate’s not dissimilar long range, behind enemy lines work – with the added challenge of much larger numbers of men – was pioneering and not universally accepted. As he said at the time “If we succeed, we shall have demonstrated a new style of warfare to the world”.
The Japanese were the most brutal of opponents, as everyone knows these days – although I believe that Japanese schools still play down the extent of this – and compared to urban fighting in Europe against opponents with possibly similar values, the risk of capture was too much to contemplate – hence Masters’ impossible decision – not unlike ISIS in recent times. To quote John Hutchin, a veteran of the campaign, on how he was left behind by his fellow soldiers suffering from exhaustion with three days’ rations and a clip of ammunition.
“I’ve only got one nightmare left, and that is being left”
Hutchin in fact made it, but many didn’t. To contemplate that as my patient does, and the near impossible nature of their mission, from a vantage point of 74 years later, as one heads for centenarian status is something that I – as someone who has never been to war – can barely comprehend.
**though this quote from Ilya Radozhitskii’s campaign memoirs, relating to Napoleon’s disaster in Russia, resonates here: A military career, thus, occasionally presents experiences that do not exist in civilian life. The war reveals all of the human horrors and miseries that make our souls tremble, but they also elevate us amidst these dangers. He who has not been to war has not learned how to despise death. The ordinary tribulations of civilian life are nothing compared to the calamities of war where neither sighs nor tears could change anything. Their source soon runs dry and the warrior’s heart hardens like steel with which he brings death to the enemy.
When I graduated in 1986 I spent a lot of time as a junior doctor admitting elderly patients to hospital. So if my patient was 90 they were born in the Victorian era, and the men would frequently have served in the First World War, with the stories to go with that. The last WWI veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, died in 2009. They’re all gone, along with their astonishing oral histories.
These days the average Second World War veteran is 90ish. There are still plenty of them, but they’re disappearing rapidly. A few years ago in the US, it was estimated that they were dying off at 600 per day. So when I get in a patient – male or female – in their late 80’s or 90’s, I always ask them what they did in the war, and they certainly have stories to tell.
I thought I’d summarise just a few of them. These remarkable pensioners are living history. Bear in mind that these are the most ordinary and unassuming of elderly citizens, living out their retirements without much money, in an average British town. You would not notice them in the street.
The Battle of the River Plate, December 1939
Here’s the Wikipedia summary:
The German panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee had cruised into the South Atlantic a fortnight before the war began, and had been commerce raiding after receiving appropriate authorisation on 26 September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (the last from the New Zealand Division), found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Uruguay in South America. In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Admiral Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical; her fuel system was crippled. Ajax and Achilles shadowed the German ship until she entered the port of Montevideo, the capital city of neutral Uruguay, to effect urgent repairs. After Graf Spee’s captain Hans Langsdorff was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure.
My patient was on HMS Ajax, I think. He recalls the early skirmishing and the battle, but his fondest memory was something different. When the ships got into neutral Montevideo – which then and now had various links with Britain, the sailors all piled into the bars to get hammered. The surviving crew of the Graf Spee did the same thing. After all, they had 72 hours to kill. With the tension out of the situation he recalls just how jovial it was, and how well the Germans and the Brits got along. A sort of “Christmas in the trenches” in sunny South America. He told me all this about 70 years after the event, and the memory was still vivid.
The Graf Spee is still there. Its captain, Hans Langdorff, a decent man in the way he treated prisoners, shot himself 6 days later, lying on his boat’s battle ensign in a Bueno Aires hotel room. The bronze eagle from its stern has been salvaged, and to my knowledge, no-one knows what to do with it.
“I am a very good dancer, I sing extremely well, I am a half-decent cook, I have written a wee bit, I like walking, but I’m comfortable in my own skin and I am surrounded by some wonderful people, a great family, my wife, people who love me.”
In fact, Gerry’s only positive achievement is probably that he once made Eddie Izzard seem funny, for the first and last time:
Thomas Cole was an American painter of the famous Hudson River School, though slightly bizarrely, he was actually born in Bolton, Lancashire. Famous and successful in his day, he did the obligatory Grand Tour to Italy in 1842, six years before he died at the age of 47. He had the requisite technical skills, certainly, but if you had to pin down what made him special, it was, I think, a sense of grandeur and otherworldly numinosity. A kind of large scale American version of Caspar David Friedrich, with a touch of the classicism and ethereal light that Turner and Claude Lorrain had mastered.
To a degree he is the victim of the kind of snobbery that relegates him to second tier status in the art world. If you were to dilute him down to the most basic elements, you might end up with someone like the gifted commercial sentimentalist, Thomas Kinkade.
In any event his Italian paintings are terrific, and here’s one of them:
Which came to mind when I stumbled upon a magnificent landscape by Edward Lear, ‘nonsense author’, of the pyramids at Giza. I had no idea what a great artist he was. Having explored his stuff a bit, I found this:
I’m not sure where it’s held these days, but note that it’s almost contemporaneous with Cole’s work. Lear had a long life and spent about 5 decades travelling on and off, mainly in Europe, at a time when that was obviously a bit more arduous than today. Both paintings are magnificent.
Before them both though, in 1826, was Camille Corot, with a much simpler style, but the same magical effect:
You can of course still see this scene, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, only a few miles from the city centre. The Roman engineering of the Aqua Claudia and associated structures is astonishing, but the photographs can’t compete with painters.
To be honest, Bruegel turned out great landscape after great landscape. Coming as he did, from the Low Countries, one suspects that if he hadn’t made a long and arduous trip to Italy and back, over Alpine passes, from 1551 to 1555, then it might be that we’d still have lots of quirky peasants and scary devils, but zilch in the way of towering crags, dark forests and Alpine meadows. It would have been our loss.
So I’m recommending this one for a topical reason: it’s November and it’s deep into autumn. Try as we might in our modern times, unless we have free global travel and lots of time off, we can’t escape the seasons, for good or bad. Someone could write a modern day Georgics on this. The increasing use of strange devices like SAD lamps tells us that despite Christmas good cheer and all that, going into winter is still tough.
As an aside, on November days like today, with clear skies, skeletal beauty in the garden, and rich twilight, then a painting like Millais’ 1856 classic, Autumn Leaves actually makes the whole thing appealing.
Back to the master though. If you visit Vienna’s amazing Kunsthistorisches Museum, you can enter the Bruegel room and see some of the seasonal paintings (also Prague and New York). Everyone has seen Hunters in the Snow, and the summer ones are charming and fun, but it’s February (The Dark Day) and November (The Return of the Herd), that to me are the most evocative and genuinely powerful. Man toiling against a harsh nature, outwith the relatively settled calm of the snowbound landscape of the depths of winter.
By a strange coincidence, today’s Daily Mail, of all publications, had a fascinating piece on how the shepherds in a remote and very inaccessible part of Georgia, Tusheti, bring their sheep down from the high pastures (10,000 ft!) for the winter, via the thoroughly hair raising Abano Pass. Which is exactly what Bruegel’s peasants are doing with their cattle in this landscape, and the main reason why the painting has been identified with November. It’s incredible to realise that large swathes of rural Europe are essentially the same, culturally and economically, as they were 400 years ago.
Looking at the painting, as a study of structure it’s endlessly rewarding, with cunning obliques, horizontals, verticals and blocks of muted colours. As a Bruegel geek though, I have to say it’s in the specifics that I get the most pleasure. Looking at the two details below, there’s a classic barely visible Bruegel village with its identikit church, and buildings so dirty and muddy that they blend into the surroundings. The other shows a couple of late season boats on the river as it expands into the freezing estuary, with in the foreground an absolutely echt Bruegel motif – the gallows and the executed, rotting on the wheels high above the ground.
A stunning painting.
There’s even a song to go with it – Tom Waits, always reliable