Ambition and Greatness

Some days ago I was tempted to write a blog called ‘Et tu Boris’  but the comparison of Boris’s betrayal of David Cameron and Brutus’s betrayal of Julius Caesar doesn’t really hold. Brutus was a reluctant assassin, a late convert to the cause of preserving the Roman Republic from tyranny, and Boris, as far as I know, has never worn a toga. But betrayal it was, in Boris’s case, and I am one of the many who believe, as former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, argued today in the European Parliament, that Boris brought about Brexit, and thereby potentially brought down his country, and the European Union with it, largely to serve his own Prime Ministerial ambitions. How otherwise can one explain his ruthless dishonesty with the facts – the nonsense about 350 million pounds flowing weekly from Britain into the EU’s coffers, and the putative invasion of Britain by a million Turks? In my eyes he has lost all credibility as a decent man, though I don’t doubt that he is a clever one.

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Boris Johnson has written about Churchill, and wags have suggested that he sees many of the great man’s qualities in himself – wit, independence of mind, brilliance, and oratorical originality – and for both Churchill and Johnson politics were and are but one facet of a wide-ranging career. Churchill, like Johnson, wasn’t always taken seriously, and had similarly clownish ways when it suited him.

But, consider May 1940, when Neville Chamberlain only narrowly won a vote of no confidence tabled in the House of Commons, when many MPs of his own party voted against him. Churchill spoke passionately in defence of Chamberlain. Deciding that a coalition government was needed Chamberlain sought the support of the opposition party, and when he met with the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, as well as with Churchill and Halifax on the 9th May, he was informed that they would support a coalition only on condition that he would not continue as Prime Minister. Chamberlain was willing to resign but had to advise the King on whom he should ask to form a Coalition Government.

Chamberlain greatly preferred Halifax. As Foreign Secretary, Halifax was the obvious choice, and it was said (a relevant consideration in 1940) that he enjoyed the confidence of the King. He was a more predictable, more widely admired politician. So, Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax met to discuss whom Chamberlain should recommend to the King. Churchill gave Halifax the opportunity to put himself forward and would have been ready to support him. For reasons that are still not wholly understood, Halifax demurred, claiming that as a member of the House of Lords he would not be able to lead the country effectively (though historians point out that there were mechanisms that would have allowed him to speak in the House of Commons, if not to vote there). He also doubted that he had the bellicose qualities that the times demanded and that he would have the support of coalition partners. So, it remained to Churchill to offer himself, and in due course, according to Roy Jenkins (in his biography of Churchill), he became the greatest Prime Minister the country has ever known.

Nothing captures the British attitude to leadership more dramatically than the symbolic dragging of the elected Speaker to his chair in Parliament after his or her election. We do not like our leaders to show eagerness when they assume power.

Boris Johnson, as we have seen, clothed himself in the most convenient policies, told the most effective and appalling lies, and has now set about elbowing his way to the top job.

Greatness was thrust upon Winston Churchill, whilst Boris Johnson is thrusting his shabby mediocrity upon us.

 

 

 

Jaw-Jaw is better than More-More

There’s nothing more valuable in the world than human conversation. History, after all, is largely made up of conversations that have gone well or badly wrong. Marie Antoinette’s remark about cake was an inexperienced faux pas that eventually led to her losing her head. Cordelia’s naïve, sweetly inept counterblast to the sensible remarks of her sisters, the admirable, rational, pragmatic Goneril and Regan, didn’t do her or anyone else any good, either, though of course King Lear isn’t strictly history. The Reformation was one person saying one thing, and another one another, neither of them true, but it might have been something different if they’d taken tea together and talked it through. A good conversation (at Reception or the Check-In counter, for example) can gain you the world, even love if charm is all you possess.

The absence of conversation engenders prejudice, misunderstanding, hostility and war. The job of the diplomat, I am assured by my friend, diplomat and travelling-companion Federico, is to ensure that conversation never ends, however bitter the words. Bullying tyrants, sneering oligarchs, braying bureaucrats, never listen to a word you say. For them, conversation is simply command. Let’s not forget Churchill’s dictum that ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.’

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And what are books other than conversation? As someone once put it, literature is simply gossip written down, a remark that doesn’t disparage the finest of the finest literature (even the dreary stream of consciousness monologues of Virginia Woolf are a form of one-sided interiorised gossip). Gossip is the forensic examination of human motive, intent, and moral value. What would hairy cave dwellers have had to discuss  other than other people, and who was going out with whom? And what, otherwise, explains the success of Facebook? The great glory of books, though, is that we can be witnesses to the gossip of people of many different kinds in faraway places, remote from our own particular cave. If your head is stuck in a book, you’re not distancing yourself from the world, you’re immersing yourself in it.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate a little, but it isn’t utter nonsense and I’m putting forward this thesis in defence of another one – that one shouldn’t do too much on holiday.

I am no philistine, and I’ve trudged through the greatest galleries in the world, the most important cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and temples, and the most challenging ruins. I know my Prado from my Prada. But one can have too much of a plan. One mustn’t see too much and do too much. Not for me the early morning start for some faraway temples. Far more important is conversation,  and every proper holiday should contain a lot of it, conversations with taxi drivers (always the most politically informative), conversations with waiters and waitresses, ticket inspectors, barbers, masseurs and shop assistants, and above all conversation with one’s friends, especially those with whom one is travelling. There is much more to learn from people than from the inanimate, and it’s very much less tiring.

 

95 Today!

My mother is 95 today, and undiminished. Of course, she’s incapable of a marathon, but with the aid of a walking frame, and the motorised buggy she drives around Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, she’s perfectly capable of fending for herself, as well as providing for an ever-growing menagerie of stray cats – ‘the breakfast club’ as she calls it –  mostly strays on the make who’ve recognised a good deal when they’ve seen one.

Mentally she’s as acute as ever, and as provocative, mischievous and argumentative. She’s an avid reader, a critical viewer of the afternoon soaps, and still up to the demands of University Challenge and Mastermind. If she complains about anything, it is only of the boredom of old age, but there is clearly much to keep her entertained and exasperated.

Dressed for this year’s Easter Bonnet competition.

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Though most of them have chosen intellectual retirement, my mother likes to discuss the political and cultural issues of the day with the other elderly residents of the community where she lives in Salisbury. She’s an outspoken atheist, socially liberal, politically Conservative, pro-EU, refugee-tolerant, and she’s quick, indeed eager, to see dishonesty, self-interest, pretension, arrogance and insincerity in almost everyone in public life. She loved Margaret Thatcher and loathes Tony Blair (at least she has loathed him consistently, whereas I only loathed him after he got started with Iraq). She can’t bear false piety, or affectation. She hates pomposity, and officiousness. She can’t bear whining.

There are also a few things that she likes. She likes animals. She likes poetry and music. Above all, she likes her own country. She has travelled widely, but late in a long life has formed the view that British is always best, whether it’s a matter of gastronomy, landscape, politics, justice, or kindness to animals. Garlic, above all, must be avoided. She likes a drink or two, and would drink a little more if it weren’t that a single glass topples her.

Her low opinion of human nature has led her to see innocence only in animals, and she’s quicker to write a cheque for ailing donkeys than for the conventionally underprivileged human. I differ with her on the question of human nature. She sees the world as a worse place than when she was born: I see it as a better place, and getting better all the time. Animals, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t moral beings capable of good or evil.

My mother was born Grace Evelyn Tizard in Portland, Dorset, on the south coast of England. Her father was a quarryman, her mother a domestic servant brought up in a harsh Workhouse School in north London. She inherited from her mother the conviction that good things only come from hard honest work, and that laziness and luxury sap the soul. I have, in turn, inherited those views. ‘I want never gets’ was the constant refrain of my childhood.

She won a scholarship to Grammar School in the mid-1930s, and joined the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service when war broke out in 1939. She’d long thought that war was inevitable, and had no time for Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. She spent the war years calibrating guns and assisting with the development of radar on the cliff tops of southern England and Wales.

In 1944, despite her admiration for Churchill, she voted Labour, for the first and, so far, the only time.  The war years were hard, but possibly the happiest years of her life. As for many women of her background the war was liberating, bringing new, wider possibilities in its train.

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On demobilisation she studied at a teacher-training college in Cheltenham, and from then until the 1980s she taught at a number of state primary schools. She was a firm but fair teacher and had no problem with discipline.

She met my father, an Army Major, in 1954 and they enjoyed a happy marriage until his death in 2003. She was undoubtedly the more articulate, thoughtful and opinionated of the two, and he the more conventional. Since his death, my mother has expressed her opinions without restraint, and she cares little for others’ opinion of her. If there are those who disagree with her, they must make their case intelligently, and expect to see it demolished if it’s weak. I share her approach on such matters.

She is a woman of strong views. On a good day that can be invigorating. On a bad day…..well, it’s her birthday, so let’s put that aside for the moment.

If she can avoid physical dependency and retain her wits and wit, she’ll gladly live to a hundred. Fingers crossed.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step

I was thinking of this loathsome cliché when I was bicycling in Hungary a week or two ago. (Apparently it’s one of the sayings of Confucius.) Each day in the saddle began with a first and easy revolution of the pedals, and then another 40,000 or so, every one a little more difficult than the last. I can’t say that this glib little saying, which kept coming to mind in the most irritating way, offered a moment’s consolation, knowing that I had another 85 km to go. I can assure you that it’s the last ten thousand that make a journey difficult, not the first.

A single step

Yes, I do understand what this silly truism is trying to say, but I just don’t find it inspiring.

  • If it’s saying that a journey is easy because it’s just a lot of little steps, then that’s obviously untrue. Difficulty has to do with the total number.
  • If it’s saying that you can begin a long journey without a commitment to completing it (because it’s pretty easy to give up after the first step or two) then that’s not encouraging either, and not always true.
  • If it’s saying that you can begin a long journey without knowing where you’re going, then that’s patent nonsense. A long journey needs a good plan and the determination to complete it.
  • If it’s saying that you should begin a journey without thinking of your final destination, then that’s foolish.

If setting out to do something valuable depends on your assenting to this cosy platitude, then I would question your motives.

Imagine Winston Churchill in May 1940 wondering whether to fight on and resist the Nazi domination of Europe.

‘I’m in two minds,’ he might have said, swigging a tumbler of brandy. ‘Can we really take on the German juggernaut or shall we make a coward’s peace?’

And someone lowly but presumptuous raises a timid hand and says, ‘Mr Churchill, just remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

‘What a splendid thought. Never occurred to me. We will fight them on the beaches…..’ And so on. And the wheels of history turned the way they did.

Not likely!

The fact is that a journey of a thousand miles usually ends with exhaustion and not always where you wanted to be, even if it’s a worthwhile trip. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Here’s some similar-sounding silliness that’s equally banal:

  • A large number begins with a single digit
  • The longest novel begins with a single word
  • The most potent drink begins with a single sip
  • The biggest explosion begins with a tiny spark
  • Death begins with your very first breath
  • Idiocy begins with a single small cliché
  • Obesity starts with a single grain of rice
  • A journey by train begins with the purchase of a ticket

…and so on.

Yuk!

Reach for the sick bowl.

Sir Nicholas Winton (1909 – 2015)

No one I can think of in recent times has united the Czech Republic (where I live) and the United Kingdom (where I am a subject) as warmly in admiration as Sir Nicholas Winton, who died on Wednesday at the age of 106.

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In December 1938 the young Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker/banker who worked in London, Paris and Berlin, abandoned a planned skiing holiday in Switzerland to join a friend in Prague who had become involved in work with Jewish refugees. During the nine months that followed, before the outbreak of war curtailed their efforts, he and his co-workers saved 669 Czechoslovak, mainly Jewish, children. Bureaucratic and legal obstacles were many but Nicholas Winton nevertheless succeeded in arranging their travel to the United Kingdom and the raising of 50 pounds and individual sponsors for each child, which British law then required if they were to settle in Britain.

The children left from Prague’s Main Railway Station on the Kindertransport trains, where today they are commemorated by this sculpture of Sir Nicholas and two children:

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They arrived some days later at Liverpool Street Station in London, where they are commemorated by another sculpture:

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Until 1988 Nicholas Winton’s work was not widely known. It came to light only when his wife discovered a scrapbook containing details of many of the children he had saved. Subsequently, when many of the children had been traced, they and their children in turn, were able to celebrate his achievement. He was a man of principle, determination, and modesty, all three of these great virtues.

Nicholas Winton

In 2014 the Czech Air Force brought Sir Nicholas to Prague where he was awarded the Czech Republic’s highest honour – the Order of the White Lion. At the same ceremony Nicholas Soames received this honour on behalf of his grandfather Sir Winston Churchill, who shared with Sir Nicholas at least the virtues of principle and determination.

Churchill

Yesterday’s blog (Mild Electric Shocks) seems somewhat flippant in retrospect. I’d forgotten that Friday was the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s funeral. Turning on the television just after clicking Publish, I saw the BBC was re-broadcasting the whole black-and-white event.

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I remember that day, 50 years ago, quite well. I was a 7-year-old boy at an uncomfortable boarding school in the English Midlands. We were given the morning off so that we could cluster around the school’s only (rather small) television to watch the funeral procession and the service at St Paul’s. The Headmaster’s wife, who wore a pronounced moustache, and whom we called Peeps, kept a frightening eye on us to make sure we appreciated the event’s significance.

In my seven-year-old mind Churchill was the ‘pugnacious British bulldog’, teeth clenched on a wet and revolting cigar, growling our enemies into submission. He stood for Victory and for British Supremacy rather than anything more complex. By the time of his death in 1965, of course, British influence was in decline and the country felt anything but supreme. On that wintry day, I suppose, Britain was burying its Imperial past forever. Not that I noticed that at the time. The (deliberately?) out-of-date map of the world that was used for our geography lessons was still preposterously red with British possessions.

The fact that I was aware of Churchill at seven was because my parents were both involved in the War Effort, and reminiscences of the War were a daily diet from infancy. Odd though it may sound, I suspect that the War years were my parents’ happiest. My father served in North Africa, and Italy, fighting a shooting war on the front line, and my mother on the gun parks of Southern England, calibrating guns.

The grainy, grey film that was broadcast again on Friday shows a gritty, grey London, dark from a hundred years of pollution (now so much cleaner). But otherwise, in its essentials, little has changed.

How different the world might have been if Lord Halifax had not stepped back from the Prime Ministership in May 1940 (which he need not have done, whatever he said at the time). It is probable that Halifax would have reached an agreement with Hitler, and Britain would have existed in the shadow of a Nazi Europe until such time as the Soviets swept across the continent (as some historians have suggested the endgame might have been).

But Churchill chose the impossible path, and won.

Things don’t change in their essentials. Coverage of Churchill’s funeral still looks good, even if it needed a little re-mastering. And although technology (business IT to be precise) occupies many of my waking moments, it hasn’t really made any difference to what is most important.