Sunday 1 June 2014

In Praise of 'The Spectator'

I decided to subscribe to the Spectator earlier this year, thus gaining unfettered access to their website as well as getting the magazine delivered to my doorstep every week. Now, yes, I know you can get much of the Speccie's online content for free anyhow and, if you're canny, you can find your way around their paywall most of the time, but I thought they were worth paying for and I wanted to support them. As it's been sunny, I've sat outside this weekend reading this week's edition pretty much from cover to cover, something that's only reinforced my feeling of satisfaction at having subscribed. 

[Unfortunately, in a moment of madness, I also subscribed to the London Review of Books. You probably already knew this, but it's full of Marxists!]

I thought it might therefore be to fun to quote a sample of the pieces on offer [extracts only] from this week's edition, using this blog's subtitle ('...and other matters') as a cover.

...logic doesn’t enter into it. [Michael Gove's critics have] cast Gove as a right-wing bogeyman — a cross between Thomas Gradgrind and Slobodan Milosevic — and nothing can disabuse them. He could fly to Nigeria tomorrow and single-handedly save the 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, and the next day a letter would appear in the Guardian signed by Rosen, Morpurgo and Grayling, accusing him of ‘Islamophobia’: ‘Doesn’t the Education Secretary realise that such acts contribute to a sexist, imperialist narrative in which only a white male authority is capable of “saving” innocent children from so-called “terrorists”?’

Here’s a question for you loyal readers: if a hubby asks his wife to cook him a hearty meal of goat meat and she serves him lentils instead, is he within his rights to beat her to death with a stick, as a New Yorker who is on trial this week did? Mind you, Noor Hussain is not a native Noo Yawker, he comes from Pakistan. But he’s as American as, I guess, not apple pie but lentils, which got him in a spot of bother to begin with.
Once upon a time immigrants had names that ended in vowels, like Cuomo or LaGuardia; now they’re called Hussain, Hamid, Rodriguez and Hernandez. The hubby’s defence is that he comes from a culture where it is appropriate conduct to murder the wife if she gets the menu wrong. His lawyers are busy digging up similar cases in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and in Africa, where women have been murdered for less. Like serving goat meat medium rare, rather than well done. Oh, I almost forgot, the victim also had it coming to her because, as Noor was beating her to death, she ‘disrespected me’, calling the hubby a motherfucker. In Saudi she would have been stoned to death for her language alone.
The couple met in Pakistan and they married before immigrating to the great city of New York. The hubby was naturally unemployed but kept himself busy beating his wife regularly and rather viciously. After years of abuse she was confused and served lentils instead of goat. It was as good a reason to be killed as one can think of among those being allowed inside the US nowadays.  

Unfortunately Russian banya visits are no longer de rigueur, as the heat tends to excite my low-level eczema, but I still relish trips to Russian restaurants, mainly for their salad, pickles and vegetables. I enjoyed roast duck at the grandiose Empire on Nevsky Prospekt.

Recently, I have given a couple of talks about Margaret Thatcher in the United States. It is surprising how often different usages of English words make life difficult. In three of the stories I like to tell, the key words are, respectively, ‘torch’, ‘larder’ and ‘cocks’. In the first case, I was aware that the American for torch is ‘flashlight’, but I did not know that the word ‘larder’ is unfamiliar. As for ‘cocks’, well, I learnt from the looks of suppressed dismay/mirth, that the British meaning of ‘male hens’ is, at best, vestigial. The trouble is that the American word ‘rooster’ just cannot be made to come out of the mouth of Mrs Thatcher, so I have had to drop the entire story. 

Because the deep, underlying story of last week is clear: the British public have made the connection between the EU and mass immigration. They do not like the latter and they blame it on the former. For years polls have continued to show that the vast majority of the British public want immigration reduced. The figures are always similar and we are — it is important to note — never talking about a minority opinion here. One recent poll showed that 77 per cent of the public want immigration reduced, while 78 per cent said that England is overcrowded and a staggering 85 per cent say that immigration is placing too much pressure on public services. It takes an absolutely blind political class not to see what the public can most certainly see.
Unfortunately for the Conservative party, they appear to be led by just such people. 

Like many propagandists, he [Ken Loach] came from a cosy background. At Oxford, a friend of mine who was up with him remembers ‘a dandy, a Noel Coward figure. Never have I seen such a transformation.’ It’s not that uncommon. Joe Ashton, the former Labour MP who came from true proletarian stock, once mocked Tony Benn’s idolatry of working people with a remark that was intended to wound: ‘If he knew anything about them, he would know there are as many shits among the working class as any other group of people.’

There have been three great revolutions in government in modern history, the authors argue, all led by the West. In the 17th century, an English royalist called Thomas Hobbes outlined a vision of government that turned fledgling nation states into trading empires. The methods were bloody, but western Europe surged ahead. After the American and French revolutions, liberal reformers rejected regal patronage, replacing it with more meritocratic, accountable government — the ‘night-watchman state’ of John Stuart Mill. The third revolution happened ‘when liberalism began to question its small government roots’, eventually leading to the Webbs, Beveridge and the founding of the welfare state. Since then, this model, while successful for a while, has gone way beyond its founders’ intentions.
‘Beveridge worried,’ the authors recall, ‘that the welfare state would collapse if it subsidised idleness or tolerated abuse.’ His blueprint ‘applied strict time-limits on the dole’ and was designed to make sure ‘the rich didn’t receive benefits intended for the poor’.
The key problem we face, as our disgraceful public debts attest, is that vote-chasing governments have ‘repeatedly shifted the cost of funding existing entitlement programmes on to future generations’. This might make sense when, as during the post-war years, ‘western populations are growing and everyone knew their children would be richer than they were’. But as our populations age and living standards stagnate, it looks a lot more risky — especially because borrowed money is being increasingly used to cosset the old and subsidise the idle, rather than spent on infrastructure and schools. ‘There’s nothing progressive about that,’ as Micklethwait and Wooldridge neatly conclude.
That’s why we need ‘A Fourth Revolution’ — to rein in the state, prevent it doing harm and restore western competitiveness. Thatcher and Reagan only managed a ‘half-revolution’, the authors conclude. Welfare spending was 22.9 per cent of GDP in 1979 but still 22.2 per cent when the Iron Lady left office in 1990.

Harry’s Bar is a dull pale box. This is remarkable in Venice, which is a hospice for dying palaces, held up aching over the world’s most charismatic puddle; Harry’s is a transgressive anti-palazzo. It is a world-famous restaurant, the jewel of the Cipriani brand, and it is very conscious of this honour; it sells branded tagliarelli and books about the meals it served 30 years ago to the rich and famous; it is into auto-iconography, like the city it lives in. For this, and so much else, I blame Ernest Hemingway. He ate here after shooting birds in the lagoon and doesn’t the world know it? Some men fought against Hitler. Others ate against him.

Its boldest move, though, was its version of The Great War (‘Episode 46: A Christmas Truce’). Harry and Paul appeared as a range of eyewitness characters: Private Harry Tibbs, 1st Battalion, Devonshires, with his incomprehensible rustic accent; pukka, moustachioed Lieutenant Rajiv Shrandi of the 2nd Rajput Cavalry (‘We were chatting away to these German scallywags and one of them is touching me on the face and hands. I don’t think he’d ever seen a dusky fellow before…’); Lieutenant Hans Schulman, 6th Bavarian Reserve Division (‘We vere so starved of ze fairer sex. And because zeese Highlanders vore skirts I observed some of my men acquiring ze trouser tents. Zis I vished to discourage so I improvised a game of fussball…’).
Like so many of the best Harry and Paul sketches, it combined superb acting, a take-it-or-leave-it understatedness (respectful of the viewer’s intelligence) and a shrewd eye for detail. Everything about this spoof was exactly right and perfectly judged: the accents, the cut of the veterans’ ill-fitting suits, the antimacassars on their armchairs… It sent up the programme and the period, yet simultaneously cherished it. No wonder Bafta has never given their series an award: these are the kind of subtleties that resonate with middle-aged, middle-class viewers out here in real Britain but which go whoosh over the bien-pensant metropolitan chattering classes’ heads.

The last time a party other than Labour or the Conservatives failed to win the popular vote in a national election was in the 1906 general election. How did the country vote then?
Liberal 2,565,644
Conservative 2,278,076
Labour 254,202
Irish Parliamentary 33,231
Independent Conservative 26,183
Independent Labour 18,886
Social Democratic Federation 18,446
Scottish Workers Party 14,877
Free Trader 8,974

Did Simon Heffer’s new book come out on St George’s Day? If not, it probably should have done. If we ever needed someone to defend what’s left of our national culture from the massed armies of lefties, foreigners, proles, riff-raff, illiterates, young people, thin people and David Cameron, he would be our man. For three decades he has fought the good fight, a squat colossus of unquenchable fury, his red hair forever threatening to burst into flames, just because it can. He is one of the marvels of the age...
...When he mirrors my own prejudices, though, Heffer can be quite brilliant. ‘Brilliant in its figurative sense, meaning extremely clever or superlative talent, is a much over-worked adjective… some newspapers apply it to so many columnists, series, special offers or free gifts that is remarkable that their readers have not been blinded.’ He is sound on ‘refute’, the misuse of which I have long felt should be punished by death. 

It was the genius of the caliph al-Mansur, brother of the first Abbasid caliph, Abul Abbas, ‘the Slayer’, the scourge of the Umayyads, who conceived of the idea of a new capital and selected the site. Separated by hundreds of miles of desert from the lands of Syria and Arabia, it stood in the middle of the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. Lying on the Tigris river, Baghdad faced east towards the Iranian plateau and central Asia. The Tigris and nearby Euphrates linked it north with upper Syria and Asia Minor and south with the Gulf of Basra and further to India and the Orient. Al-Mansur also chose the design — it was to be ‘the round city’, a geometrically perfect circle, protected by giant walls pierced by equidistant gates, from which ceremonial avenues led to the centre. The scheme was monumental in scope.
On 30 July 762, al-Mansur laid the first brick. Tens of thousands of labourers toiled on the site, excavating foundations for the public buildings around which the city was to evolve, and within a mere four years all was ready. Al-Mansur had supervised every detail of the construction himself and had kept meticulous records and strict financial discipline, in character with his parsimony and punctiliousness. But the caliph was also intolerant, and prone to fits of extreme violence. After his death, his son al-Mahdi discovered a hidden chamber in the palace grounds where al-Mansur had dispatched dozens of the descendants of Ali, rivals to the Abbasid claim of supreme authority.

As a British occasional watcher of American movies and TV series, I have become sick of the near inevitability of extreme violence, extended gun battles, and careering motorcars. It is almost as though such episodes have become part of the form a movie takes. Greek tragedy requires the unities of place, time and action. A Hollywood blockbuster requires gunfights, gratuitous violence and fast driving. And a kind of glory, too. Glory breathes through Rodger’s video.
I wonder if continual exposure to such cinematic fantasy has conditioned a national culture in which a really good story calls for these elements: and in which, if a man’s own personal story runs out of road, he will choose a denouement in which many die violently, and he himself dies either as part of the action, or after dramatic courtroom scenes lead to his (violent) execution.
We British tend quietly to take a lot of pills, or throw ourselves under trains.

In any truly representative Labour shadow cabinet, there would be a place for the fine Bassetlaw MP John Mann. But the current shadow cabinet is drawn overwhelmingly from the affluent south-east, especially London — and more than one third of the top 14 posts are held by MPs who were privately educated. Mann blamed Ed Miliband and this ‘metropolitan elite’ for the party’s dismal showing outside London. He is right, of course; and next door, in Newark, he will be proved right again.

A peat-bog the size of England was discovered in Congo-Brazzaville.


  1. Funnily enough I`ve just bought it today...instead of a few papers for the month.
    Too many good writers-Murray, Delingpole, Liddle, Moore, Young-for me to ignore.
    Never see this lot on the BBC, so good to support them...

    1. Yes, Radio 4 would be improved immeasurably by having a fair sprinkling of 'Spectator' writers adding to the mix.

      'Costing the Earth' could alternate between Tom Heap, Alice & Miranda, & James Delingpole.

      'Thinking Allowed' could alternate between Laurie Taylor and Douglas Murray.

      'The Media Show' could alternate between Steve Hewlett and Rod Liddle.

      'Midweek' could alternate between Libby Purvis and Julie Birchill.

      P.S. I'd forgotten how entertaining Taki is too.

    2. Great idea-with even a tag team double hander...Peter Hitchens v Medhi Hasan on "Sunday"...and let Ed Stourton wring his hankie out over the poor somewhere else at his own expense.

  2. This is an interesting comment from Sue Sims, quoted by Peter Hitchens on his blog, vis a vis Michael Gove:

    'I've been teaching English, mainly in the maintained sector [NB this means the state sector], since 1975, and see this all at first hand. First, the syllabuses set by the contemporary exam boards do indeed contain a reasonable number of ‘classics’. As ‘David Wiseacre’ noted, GCSE pupils following the most popular English Literature specification of the largest board, AQA, can study 'Great Expectations' if their teacher so desires; alternatively, they could read 'Pride and Prejudice', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Animal Farm' or 'The Withered Arm and other Wessex Tales' (short stories by Thomas Hardy).

    ‘The first thing to note, however, is that many comprehensive schools don't offer English Literature at all, or only to top bands. Hence the Government, years ago, introduced a compulsory literature element into the other main English GCSE(s), requiring the study of Shakespeare and a text from 'the English literary heritage', plus a text drawn from another culture (which includes the USA). So all's well? Not really.

    ‘Teachers faced with a hostile set of teenagers, many semi-literate and for whom reading is alien, will choose the easy options - not because we're lazy, PC or left-wing, but because we have to help our pupils get some sort of qualification. Shakespeare is compulsory, certainly, but it's assessed by 'controlled assessment' - an essay written over three or four hours in class time, where the title is set by the teacher (following general exam board themes). Thus it's not only possible but highly probable that a teacher with a low-ability class will teach, say, 'Macbeth' by showing them one of the film versions, reading and discussing two or three scenes relevant to the essay being set, and providing the class with a template for answering the question.

    ‘What's more, even when one's teaching English Literature to more motivated pupils, there's a temptation, succumbed to by a majority, to choose the shortest text going. Hence 'Of Mice and Men' - one can actually read the whole thing in class in three weeks, obviating the need for pupils to read it on their own (which many won't do). Ditto 'Animal Farm' (four and a half hours’ reading); and the Hardy short stories are a Godsend, as one can choose just two of the stories, set the controlled assessment on them, et voilĂ !

    ‘Gove (or his advisors) is trying to prevent this minimalist approach to GCSE English. Most English teachers are horrified by it, for a whole variety of reasons, ranging from a fear that the new syllabus will be unteachable to disaffected pupils (which it will, of course, though it's not just English which suffers from that problem) to annoyance that many easy options have been removed. I'm neutral now, no longer teaching GCSE, but can understand both Gove's determination and my colleagues' outrage. It will be interesting to see whether the new criteria make any difference to the undeniable ignorance and apathy of most young people towards our literary heritage. Personally, I doubt it.’


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