Friday, 20 November 2009

The world we live in

A few of today's headlines:

Worried pimp 'called off rabbi's drug-fuelled orgy'

Court hears rabbi so exhausted after days of cocaine-fuelled partying that pimp grew worried and cancelled supply of girls

Gang 'killed victims for their fat'

Four people arrested in Peru for murdering up to 60 people to sell their fat to cosmetic clinics in Europe, police claim

MPs' standards chief quits over expenses disclosures

David Curry claimed almost £30,000 for a second home that his wife banned him from staying in following an affair

Government deficit now increasing at £3bn a week

Twitter urges Murdoch to be open

Bears queue to use indoor toilets

You couldn't make it up. (Except the last one, which I did.)

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Down to earth idealist

I recently mentioned that for a while in 1950-51 I lodged in the same Hampstead house with Rowland Kenney, without realising that he came from my grandmother's native Saddleworth, or that he had led a distinguished and varied career including intensive involvement in the early Socialist movement and, during and after the First World War, as a British diplomat.

A leading trade unionist (John Hodge, who was Minister of Labour during the 1914-18 war) grandly entitled his autobiography Workman's Cottage to Windsor Castle. Rowland Kenney might well have called his Underground Navvy to High-Flying Diplomat - instead, he called it Westering (1939). Kenney, who was born in 1882, was one of a large family of mill workers in a small Pennine village on the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire. In those days, poor children were sent to school when they were three, before being put to work part-time in the cotton mills aged ten or eleven. Any other path was unusual, and most of the Kenney children went "through 't mill". Rowland loathed the harsh working conditions and insanitary atmosphere, and determined to escape into the fresh air at the earliest opportunity.

Always a sensitive, introspective and thoughtful boy, he was physically tough as well – given his vivid descriptions of continual beatings by teachers and fights with other boys at school, he had to be. So when he was 15 he seized the opportunity of a job as a chain-horse lad in the London and North-Western Railway's Lees station, near Oldham, and during his eighteen months there he says his life broadened out in many ways. By now he was steeped in the idealistic socialist writings of Robert Blatchford's Clarion ; intellectually agnostic, he warmed to the aesthetic beauty of the King James Bible and, though an unbeliever, attended church services so as to enjoy the stately language and the music. At the same time, he yearned for the open road: the first part of his memoir is aptly titled "Vagabondage".

So, chucking up his steady job, he did casual work of many kinds – including a brief spell underground as a tunnelling navvy, the most arduous occupation of all his many temporary adventures. Farming in Lincolnshire and work as a carter was followed by 18 months in Mumps goods yard, Oldham – then a most dangerous place which would make the hair of today's effete 'elf 'n safety' obsessed generation stand on end. Rowland's job was as a capstanman – working with boy assistants ("nippers") to slew round the turntables transferring fully loaded wagons from one set of railway lines to another. A false move or miscalculation of a fraction of a second's timing could result in severe injury or even death for the operatives. But for that very reason – the skill involved, and the exhilarating sense of power which resulted - he delighted in the task.

All this time he was reading and reflecting, becoming more aware of his intellectual aspirations and his emotional needs. His experience of heavy labouring had not coarsened him, but made him more intense. He was seized of an overwhelming desire for knowledge – a need to know. He went to spiritualist meetings, where he was told by a young medium that he would always be possessed by the urge to keep moving on – as his future life proved. He found the burgeoning urges of sex a puzzle – the Lancashire folk of the late nineteenth century, he says, had a stark horror of expressing emotions of any kind, and to speak of love would embarrass both speaker and hearer alike. It was taken for granted but not mentioned. It was not until he was living a bohemian life in London that Kenney met and later married a Norwegian girl.

The hazardous perils of Mumps were followed by a spell as a casual builder and then – thanks to one of his older brothers – more regular employment, first as that doyen of working-class respectability a commercial traveller, and later as manager of a Manchester booksellers' and stationers' branch shop in Preston. But despite having achieved a modicum of security, Rowland Kenney was still restless and absorbed in his idealistic socialist politics. The second part of his memoir is called "Crusade". He attended many meetings in Manchester, and got to know the leading members of the infant Independent Labour Party. Soon he was offered a job managing the publications section of the Party's National Administrative Council, and in 1910 he began a new life in London on the modest salary of £3 a week. It was less secure than his previous employment, but he never hesitated.

This new work brought Kenney into close contact with the founders and leading members of the ILP and – as always happens when one encounters one's idols at close quarters - he soon became somewhat disillusioned and sharply critical of them all. Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden all possessed a copious dose of vanity, he says, and the first two disliked and distrusted each other to a degree which sometimes made their working together extremely difficult. The puritanical Snowden, though he could be bitingly sarcastic, was the one who Kenney admired most for his uncompromising socialism – although he ended up in the House of Lords after a lifetime of calling for its abolition!

Before and during the 1914-18 war, when he was first editor of the Daily Herald and then involved in other journalism, Rowland Kenney was at the centre of London left-wing bohemian life, and tells many interesting stories of the people he knew in those days – not least the egregious Frank Harris. Another once hugely influential, though now largely forgotten, socialist writer was A.R. Orage, editor of the New Age. It was through him that Rowland Kenney later became deeply involved in the esoteric philosophical movement centred around G. I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. And Kenney was also friendly with the gentle anarchist, Prince Kropotkin.

Partly because his wife was Norwegian, and he had spent some time in that country, Kenney was asked by the Foreign Office to undertake a wartime mission to help familiarise the Norwegians with the Allied case and to counter German influence in Scandinavia. Subsequently he was sent to Poland to gather information on political and social conditions there for the British delegates at the Paris Peace Conference. He got to know the Polish leaders, Pilsudski, Paderewski and Dmowski, and was horrified by the extent and intensity of Polish anti-semitism. He reported to the British delegation in Paris, but did not stay for the signing of the Versailles Treaty and was seriously injured in a plane crash while returning to England. This badly affected the rest of his life, but nonetheless between the wars he pursued a successful career as a Foreign Office diplomat.

A strange turn of events for a one-time underground navvy and goods yard worker! It's a shame that Rowland Kenney and his fascinating life story are now largely forgotten. He was that rare being, a hard-headed idealist. But then, Pennine grit will out.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Note to posters

Recently, some anonymous spammers have been adding off-topic comments, commercial advertisements, etc., to old posts in the Arena and the Burrow. These will be immediately deleted, so please don't bother.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Adrift on a sea of claptrap

In a pungent article in today's Independent, Adrian Hamilton lambasts the empty rhetoric spouted by Western leaders at the recent Berlin Wall (demolition) celebrations. Sarkozy, Clinton, and –needless to say – Gordon Brown uttered meaningless platitudes about 'freedom' and the West's role in promoting it. Brown's "you know that while force has temporary power to dominate, it can never ultimately decide" takes the biscuit for sheer nonsense – the hastiest glance at history tells us it simply isn't true.

Our purblind Prime Minister loftily proclaimed that "an Africa in poverty, Darfur in agony, Zimbabwe in tears, Burma in chains, individuals, even when in pain, need not suffer for ever without hope". As Hamilton points out, all this Pollyanna-ish flim-flam churned out by his Whitehall speech writers flies in the face of reality. It wilfully denies the inescapable fact that, far from exerting themselves effectively to right these undoubted wrongs, Western leaders are tumbling over backwards not to rock the boats of petty tyrants, dictators and mini-Hitlers all over the world instead of putting pressure on them to reform.

Unfortunately, little of all this is the result of conscious hypocrisy or of deliberate lying. The reality is even worse – that our leaders sincerely believe most of the hifalutin nonsense they spout about 'democracy' and 'freedom', whilst blithely ignoring the damage they are doing to these concepts both at home and abroad. For most of the past decade – ever since the '9/11' Twin Towers atrocity – they, and much of their electorates and the media, have lived in a paranoid state of false consciousness, misconstruing much of the actual state of world affairs and chasing will-o'-the-wisps such as a shadowy 'Al Qaeda' alleged to have the power as well as the will to launch murderous terrorist attacks on the American and European civilian populations. So, ostensibly to prevent this, the West has launched murderous attacks upon the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rationale of which are now being increasingly questioned. Whether it is already too late to retrieve a firmer contact with reality and tackle the outstanding issues which are making the world such a dangerous place remains to be seen. But judging from the flowery phrases uttered at the Brandenburg Gate, the chances are not very bright.

In these uneasy days, I am increasingly drawn back to Matthew Arnold's superb poem Dover Beach (1867), in which he laments the ebbing Sea of Faith, hearing "its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/retreating, to the breath/of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear/and naked shingles of the world/….And we are here as on a darkling plain/swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/where ignorant armies clash by night."

The dwindling faith of which Arnold wrote was religious faith. Now, it is our previously taken for granted faith in democratic values, principles, and practices which is visibly shrivelling when confronted with our leaders' self-deluded posturings and verbal acrobatics which defy a very different truth.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Time to stop digging

It used to be the received wisdom that when you find yourself in a hole, the sensible thing to do is to stop digging. Nowadays, however, the new orthodoxy is that when in a hole, you should dig ever more frantically until – with luck – you re-emerge at the Antipodes.

With scarcely a break in the serried ranks of government and opposition until the other day, when Kim Howells took upon himself the honourable role of the little boy who pointed out that the emperor was naked, the lunatic policy pursued by the denizens of Westminster Walter Mitty Land with regard to Afghanistan has been to redouble our futile efforts to bring Western-style 'democracy' to a country whose proud people have never bowed their necks to a foreign invader, or to foreign notions, in a thousand years. Afghanistan has always been a thorn in the flesh of its neighbours, including the erstwhile British Raj and the Russian Empire. As the gateway to India, it was the focal point of the 19th century 'Great Game' between the two great powers. Successive British and Russian attempts to invade and subdue the warlike and lawless Afghan tribes in their mountain fastnesses have always ended in disaster for the invaders.

The history of all this is an open book to any who cares to read. So why should we imagine that the present Western incursion into Afghanistan will end any differently? Listening to idiotic politicians and well-meaning servicemen prattling on about how we are performing an essential service to the Afghan people by bringing our alien and unwanted notions of freedom and justice to them, and so it is obligatory upon us to remain for as long as it takes to achieve our purpose, would be comical if it were not so tragically sickening.

As the procession of coffins returning through Wootton Bassett gets longer, grieving wives and mums mumble through their televised tears that their brave boys were heroes – but isn't it time now to bring the other lads home, because we don't really know what they are there for? The mood of the country is turning increasingly negative, with a tinge of defeatism creeping in. So the Prime Minister yet again defiantly dons his fake Churchillian mantle and sombrely tells us that the 'mission' remains essential for our home security. His repeated assertion that British troops fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan make terror incidents at home less likely is absolute tosh – the reverse of the truth, in fact – and the crass politician or civil servant who first dreamed up this glib mantra deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered. For the plain fact is that young Muslims born and growing up in Britain are being antagonised, and radicalised, by the spectacle of British troops fighting their co-religionists in faraway places.

If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, Gordon Brown insists, fundamentalist Islamists and that shadowy entity, Al Qaeda (whose existence – like that of God - is always assumed, but never demonstrated, by Western leaders) will take over Pakistan and its nuclear weapons – and then the real balloon may well go up. So the Afghan 'mission' must not fail. And it is for the benefit of the Afghan people – we are their liberators, not their invaders. Strange, then, that the Taleban, who were almost wiped out by the first onset of American and British troops, are now steadily increasing their hold over more and more territory.

Brown, however, has neither sent adequate reinforcements nor equipped the unfortunate soldiers already there with the weapons and armoury they need to do their assigned job successfully. And now, while still insisting that we must remain in Afghanistan and triumph there, he has started to hedge his bets by making the sending of more troops conditional on the Karzai government in Kabul rooting out corruption. This is asking the leopard to change its spots with a vengeance. What we would term 'corruption' is not an Afghan aberration, nor, in their eyes, a malpractice – it is endemic in the way of life of those regions, where business is customarily accompanied with 'sweeteners' – backhanders – which are regarded as a normal part of any deal by all the parties involved. To expect a government, or a people, to abandon its customary cultural practices in the name of bringing them 'democracy' which most of them do not want is as purblind as the flatteries of King Canute's courtiers. And for Gordon Brown of all people to make such a demand is consummate hypocrisy from someone whose own government, and that of his predecessor, has been riddled with corruption and venal behaviour on the part of politicians – the classic case being the abandonment, on Tony Blair's personal instruction, of the BAE Systems fraud investigation over Saudi contracts. Sauce for the gander?

It could well be that the Brown 'condition' is a cunning pretext for an early withdrawal on the ground that the Afghan government is not fit for purpose, and that therefore our 'mission' cannot succeed. If so, it would be the first glimmer of sanity in an otherwise manic policy – and also, of course, gives the lie to his incompatible argument that our remaining there is essential for Britain's own security.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a shameful and troubling episode in our national history. Launched on false or at least flimsy pretexts at the behest of a frightened and bullying power-drunk ally, they have been little short of disastrous in performance and even more so in diminishing Britain's world reputation. And they – Afghanistan in particular – are far more dangerous than most people, including those involved in running them, seem to realise. There are no wars without consequences. It is not simply a matter of either 'winning' or else calling it quits, bringing the boys back home, and resuming normal everyday life as if the whole thing had never happened, or was just a friendly football match. The material carnage and the stench of death left behind will be as nothing compared with the legacy of lasting bitterness against the West, and Britain in particular, which this latest post-imperial adventure will leave in the hearts and minds of Iraqis, Afghans, and their fellow Muslims around the world – not least here at home. We have stirred up a hornets' nest. How these negative emotions will work out in the future remains to be seen. But the outlook is far from rosy.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Anticant remembers…..

The Battle of Hampstead

It is sixty years since Anticant came to London as a young man to start an interesting job and become a part-time Bar student. After some months lodging in stuffy South Kensington, he decided to move up to the fresher air of hilly Hampstead, which reminded him of his north country Pennine home.

He found a vacancy in a small, solid, square detached house near Belsize Park. Across the front of the first floor, four large arched windows let copious sunshine into what had originally been the best bedroom, and which now became Anticant's spacious bed-sitting room.

The owner of the house was a rather grand lady, Mrs Constance M. (Anticant thought of her as "Connie", but would never have to presumed to address her as such.) Her husband, a local solicitor, had died untimely, leaving Connie a widow in her late forties. She took in three gentleman-lodgers to make ends meet, looking after them efficiently and sometimes a trifle brusquely – she almost certainly considered being a 'landlady' beneath her. She regarded herself as part of the Hampstead cognoscenti, and gravely informed Anticant that nobody who was anybody lived "on the wrong side of the Finchley Road". (In later years, Anticant did so for several decades.) Despite long sessions of sunbathing in her pretty back garden, Connie always seemed tense and hyperactive. Possibly she was sexually frustrated, but Anticant did not choose to explore that avenue.

The other lodgers were all interesting in different ways. There was a jolly young Dutch naval officer, attached to the embassy, courtesy of which he supplied Anticant with bottles of cheap rum. There was a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman of distinctly bohemian cast, who wore a flowing cloak and a low-crowned wide-brimmed hat of the type favoured by artists in the 1890s. His name was Rowland Kenney, and he was indeed far more distinguished than Anticant realised until much later. Mr Kenney was a major figure in early 20th century socialist politics, and had been the first editor of the Daily Herald. He had served as a British diplomat in Scandinavia and Poland, and had written books about all this, including an autobiography, Westering. Even more interestingly, he was a brother of Annie Kenney, the Saddleworth-born mill girl who was one of the earliest associates of Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters in their epic fight for womens' suffrage, and who, with Christabel Pankhurst, had caused a national sensation by serving a short prison sentence in 1905 after refusing to pay a small fine for making a disturbance at a meeting addressed by Liberal cabinet ministers Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey at Manchester's Free Trade Hall. Sadly, Anticant had no idea of Mr Kenney's past, or of his connection with Saddleworth, while they both lived in Connie's house, and it was with much regret that he later realised what a unique opportunity he had missed for some fascinating conversations and mutual family reminiscences with the old gentleman.

After Mr Kenney left – or before he arrived; it doesn't really matter – there was a retired colonial civil servant of immense dignity with whom Anticant sometimes went for Sunday morning walks across Hampstead Heath while Connie was preparing lunch, for which we were under strict instructions to be back by 1 'clock PROMPT. This gentleman affected a monocle, and spoke in an accent so refined that he would have pronounced it "refained". Our failure to return punctually after an especially sunny stroll to the Spaniards Inn and back led to a memorable scene which threatened to erupt into a veritable Waterloo. We did, in fact, overstep the mark badly, only getting back to Connie's forty minutes after we were due. She was absolutely furious; the excellent lunch over which she had spent immense trouble while we were gadding about was (in her eyes) ruined, and she told us off in no uncertain terms.

Anticant bowed meekly before the storm, but the stately ex-governor (or whatever he was) did not. He rose from the table, drew himself up, fixed his monocle firmly into his eye, and declared: "I" – he pronounced it "Ay" – "have never been spoken to like this before, and Ay have no intention of putting up with it at may tayme of life!" Whereupon he stalked out and betook himself to the nearest pub for a beer and sandwich, leaving Connie gasping like a fish and Anticant giggling up his sleeve. Unsurprisingly, the pompous gent. moved to other lodgings shortly after this epic brouhaha.

All this happened more than half a lifetime ago. But it stays vividly in Anticant's memory, not least because he passes by that house quite frequently on his journeys to and from the Hampstead hospice where he is now a day patient. Driving past, he looks up at the four arched windows and reflects on all that has transpired since his year's tenancy of that charming room. Connie is long dead, and probably nobody except Anticant even remembers her in that road where she once reigned supreme in her hospitable house and sunny garden.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

You couldn’t make it up…..

72,234 people signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to resign immediately. Here is his response:

"The Prime Minister is completely focussed on restoring the economy, getting people back to work and improving standards in public services. As the Prime Minister has consistently said, he is determined to build a stronger, fairer, better Britain for all."

HA! HA!! HA!!!

Political fatheads

Three items of recent news typify the inane incoherence of current political thinking (or what passes for it).

First, elections: Having squandered much treasure and many young lives on fruitlessly endeavouring to ensure that the Afghan people were given the chance to vote “honestly”, the Americans and British are now wringing their hands about “corruption” and a “failed state”. They are fine ones to talk! If they looked nearer home, they would find both in their own back yard. Does anyone honestly think that George W. Bush, with his hanging chads, the stopped Florida recount, and the wafer-thin award by the Supreme Court, was really the legitimately elected president of the USA in 2000? And can a British government with an overall majority based upon just over 35 per cent. of the votes cast at the 2005 election (on a 60 per cent. total poll) credibly lecture Afghans or anybody else about the virtues of democracy? Phooey!

Next, politicians versus experts: While it was quite funny to see the normally laid-back Alan Johnson going ballistic because one of his scientific advisers had had the temerity to question the logic of his refusal to accept advice to downgrade the classification of cannabis – presumably because that wouldn’t have gone down well with Sun and Daily Mail journalists (some of whom, it’s a pretty safe bet, are personally familiar with more arcane illegal substances), the logic of his “scientists are all very well, but ultimately these are political decisions” stance rang pretty thin. The usual clap-trap was then pumped out about ‘having scientists on tap but not on top’. He was promptly backed up by the Prime Minister, whose message amounted to “our minds are made up – don’t confuse us with the facts”. Obviously, Postman Pat has no intention of going down into history as Postman Pot.

Finally: David Cameron’s abject wriggle out of his ‘cast-iron’ promise that the Tories would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. There’s no point, he says, because it’s too late now. And – needless to say – it’s all the government’s fault. The way in which all the mainstream parties duck and weave to ignore the obvious desire of the British people to have a direct say about our continuing membership of the European Union is contemptible. Even more contemptible is their failure to initiate, less alone to sustain, an informed debate about the pros and cons for the UK of belonging or not belonging to the EU. Such a debate is long overdue.