Saturday, February 25, 2006

Antediluvian in the way in which he characterised a past era

Emerging from Westminster tube station, about seven o'clock, I saw the Houses of Parliament screened off by a fine grill (presumably to prevent the throwing of missiles) so that the gothic edifice seemed more distant and intimidating than ever. Hardly anyone was about, except for groups of police at various points. Paul Waddingham walked a couple of steps ahead, concerned that we would be late.

I know Paul Waddingham through Alan Nixon (they are brothers-in-law). He is short, with curly hair, pale blue eyes (the eyes of a fanatic). He is very very serious and his interests centre upon politics, economics, current affairs.

Politically he describes himself as a Tofflerist Liberal, although he could probably find a home in any of the major political parties. I was accompanying him to a meeting to be addressed by a former Cabinet Minister. When he had suggested the trip some weeks ago it had seemed a good idea. On a cold evening after a long day at work I wished I had said no. Around Parliament Square, we were soon swallowed up into the network of small streets and alleys that characterise the area away from the ceremonial thoroughfares. Several times we got lost in dead-end streets and had to retrace our steps.

Eventually we arrived at a pub, a typical London tavern, jolly and lit-up in the otherwise dark and cold surroundings. Paul Waddingham paused, unsure where to go next. Two men, dressed in long dark coats (the kind favoured by city professionals) noticed his hesitation.

"Are you looking for the meeting?" one of them asked. Paul nodded. "Upstairs and to the right" the man told him.

We went into a side door and up rickety stairs to the first floor. On a small landing stood a mature-looking young woman, in sober sensible clothes, appraising us with a level gaze. She was a door-keeper (both in professional terms and, tonight, literally minding the door).

"You can go in if you can find room" she said.

Following Paul, I went through a doorway into the upper room of the pub. This entailed pushing our way through the mass of people packed into what was obviously the pub’s upstairs dining room (Victorian deep red walls, cream paintwork, hand coloured prints on the walls). Most of the people looked like professionals (dark suited) in the their forties and fifties, although there were many who were older and about twenty or so who looked like teenagers. Men outnumbered women by about two to one. There were very few black or asian people present. Paul was shameless about the way in which he elbowed through the audience, leading the way so that we were eventually near the front, looking over several rows of chairs (every seat filled) to the top table where a very tubby man in heavy black glasses stood, holding papers, waiting expectantly (he was obviously the chairman).

We all waited expectantly, until it was half an hour after the meeting was scheduled to begin. In such a crowded room (easily a hundred people) there was nothing to do except stand motionless. A text vibrated onto my mobile - it was from Helen B asking: How is the nutter‘s rally? (she is very sceptical about Paul Waddingham and his enthusiasms).

We waited another twenty minutes, and I began to feel tired. It was at that point a frisson of expectation went through the room, and the crowd parted (only possible by crushing people into even more confined spaces) as the former Cabinet Minister moved up to the top table, the audience clapping and cheering. He was much older and shorter than I expected, bony head with little hair, glasses, frail body that seemed to be held up by his dark grey suit.

The large chairman with the black glasses said the speaker needed no introduction, then proceeded to introduce him (at some length). More clapping, and the diminutive speaker grinned around the room, antediluvian in the way in which he characterised a past era. Then he began to speak…

When the former Minister appears on Question Time, or Newsnight or the Today Programme he gives the impression of being belligerent, blinkered, hopelessly out-of-touch. This was not how he appeared when addressing the meeting. He was friendly, relaxed, and (hard to say this) charming. I had expected to be subjected to a certain amount of hectoring, but actually he was very reasoned, logical, and made his arguments step by step. Even if you disagreed with him (a blonde woman standing in front of me ostentatiously walked out, leaving her partner behind) you could understand how he had arrived at the conclusion. This was such a change from the usual “trust me I’m a politician” line that I was very impressed.

Most interesting thing he said: however incompetent western governments become, the economies of Europe and America will remain buoyant because the economic rise of China is keeping the retail price indexes in check, delivering painless low inflation.

After the meeting Paul Waddingham wanted to stay and talk to some people he knew. I felt tired from standing nearly three hours and left him to it. I got lost on the way back to the tube station.

Monday, February 20, 2006

He always was a bad loser

Saturday, and we gathered in Emily's house before going bowling - an event I had not been looking forward to. On the drive down I had harboured the faint hope that we would go to some country pub where there would be antique nine-pin alley in the corner of the bar and we could pass the time drinking ale, listening to the locals, very occasionally playing a game of traditional skittles. But as I feared, it was the energetic ten-pin variety we would be playing.

The presence of Gary Spencer meant that we would have to take it very seriously and be organised into teams and play to win. I was resigned to a noisy and fast-moving evening on top of what had already been a tiring day. As well as Gary and Carol Spencer and their four year old son, there was Emily, Julie, Marie-Astrid and her four year old daughter, and myself (whenever I questioned the desirability of bowling, I was told we had to go because the children wanted it, implying that it would ruin their evening if I didn't go along).

Emily lived in a modern chalet-style house in a suburban village location. The house was detached, but was so close to its neighbours that it might as well have been terraced. Downstairs there was a combined lounge and dining area with a kitchen to one side. The big room was furnished completely in white and cream (cream curtains, huge white sofa, white carpet - all immaculately clean). On the walls, and on shelves and ledges were examples of ethnic art (Innuit, Benin, Maori) which were trophies brought back from her annual long distance holidays. We sat on the low white sofa and chairs, round a long glass coffee table loaded with various Thai and Indian dishes (Emily and Marie-Astrid were in the kitchen, getting more food ready).

"She obviously doesn't have a dog" I said, looking at the pristine furnishings.

"She obviously doesn't have a life, there isn't a mark on anything" said Gary.

Carol gave her husband a warning look, presumably afraid Emily would hear. We sat in silence for a while, listening to Philip Glass's Metamorphosis 2, which was playing in the background. The children talked quietly to each other.

"I'm looking forward to tonight" said Gary. "I've been getting into shape recently. I've been doing two hundred sit-ups a night. I do them during Eastenders. I've booked my holiday in Gran Canaria and I'm going to sort my body out ready for it. I'm going to show the world..."

Carol Spencer looked sceptical.

After the meal we drove to the outskirts of town and the bowling arena. Big, bland and featureless on the outside. Inside it was dark split flooring leading down to the dazzling lights of the bowling aisles. Raucous noise of the bowling almost drowned the loud music (Texas Sleep, Leo Sayer and DJ Mech Thunder in my heart, Coldplay Talk). On one side of us were six people aged in their early twenties, all wearing the same white t-shirts which glowed in the fluorescent light, the two girls with blond pony-tails and white baseball caps. On the other side were four men of profound geekiness (ill-fitting clothes, metal-rim glasses, high-fives every time one of them bowled).

We split into two teams of four, and started playing. Three games had been booked, Gary saying this should take us an hour and a half. The children used a metal chute to bowl (this was surprisingly accurate). Against my expectations (and in variance with previous times I have gone bowling) I was extremely good, scoring mostly strikes and half-strikes. My team soon had a commanding lead. I could tell I had played well when Gary Spencer suggested abandoning the last game half-way through as it was "getting late" (he always was a bad loser).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The labour necessary to keep up such a show must be immense

Saturday, and because Marie-Astrid is a Baptist of a particular sect (one that keeps the Sabbath on a Saturday) there is a limited number of things she can do. One permitted activity is to go out and look at nature. So an open day at a local garden represented a welcome diversion in what, to me, seemed a long and serious day.

It was a weekend when Marie-Astrid’s four-year-old daughter was with her (she alternates custody of the child with her ex-husband). We drove to the garden in my car, following a circuitous route down into a wooded valley where the little village was located. A home-made sign at the gates of the manor said “Garden open in aid of Church Fund”.

We went in and parked in a lumpy field. About twenty other cars were also parked there, and the attendant who took our £3 said visitors had been brisk over the afternoon. Grey skies, damp clammy feel to the air, half-hearted birdsong as the light gradually grew fainter (not exactly growing dark, but drifting inexorably towards dusk).

We more or less had the garden to ourselves as we walked around. Along curving gravel paths, through undulating topiary, into (and out of) a carefully arranged shrubbery. Overhead were tall trees - ash, silver birch, hornbeam – the side branches lopped so that the trunks went straight up and then widened into elegant canopies, big drops of moisture occasionally falling onto our heads.

By a series of small rustic bridges we crossed and re-crossed a busy stream, the rocks covered in moss and lichen. To the right there were lawns with areas of yellow aconites and white snowdrops (a hand-made sign apologising that the snowdrops were late this year). To the left were paddocks, with trees beyond.

In the distance we could see the house, a 19th century interpretation of 18th century neo-classicism (a revival of a revival of a revival). The building had a secretive air, accentuated by the drawn blinds and the fact that you couldn't walk up to the front facade because the lawn was planted with bulbs. The owners of the house have a tenuous link with royalty (hardly worth mentioning, except that later, when we described going to the place, everyone was aware of the connection - even the most removed association with the royal line seems to excite people).

Despite her promises earlier in the day Marie-Astrid's daughter complained she was tired and had to be carried by her mother most of the way.

The path led up a slope and past a row of pet's gravestones, and then through an iron gate in a wall to the church (a public building, but away from the rest of the village and appropriated into the area of the estate). The church was small, without a tower, mostly medieval construction but incorporating a lot of Saxon stone work. The village was the scene of recusant activity during the religious wars of the sixteenth century (a period known locally as The Big Gap) centrered on the church and manor house.

In the porch of the church were a number of Saxon stones. Taken out of context, these lumps of ashlar had been preserved and put on display, informing us (insofar as stones can speak) of the great antiquity and continuity of the place. Continuity gives its own strength. In this country we venerate the past not because it is admirable (often far from it, given the murderous record of the ages) but because of the sense of self-confidence and identity it bestows. Who are we? We are the people who, over a thousand years ago, made these stones.

Back through the iron gate into the gardens again, and into the walled kitchen garden. There was a dovecote in the distance, but Marie-Astrid was beginning to get tired (still carrying her daughter) so we just carried on walking. One middle-aged couple approached the dovecote but stopped when masses of doves began to emerge in a state of panic ("Come away before there's another incident" the woman said loudly to her husband).

The kitchen garden was enclosed by high brick walls, and against the south facing wall was a row of substantial 19th century greenhouses, packed with exotic plants (including a display of orchids in full flower). Everything was immaculately presented. The labour necessary to keep up such a show must be immense (not just the exotic plants but the whole ensemble of landscape garden, flower garden, kitchen garden and hothouses).

From the walled garden we went round into the stable yard and through a passage in the back of the house into the inner courtyard (the house is a square built around this court, further emphasising the sense of mystery, of penetrating through one barrier only to find another one put up). Almost filling the inner court was a marquee where teas were on sale.

I bought a tea for Marie-Astrid and a glass of milk and small iced cake for her daughter. Because I felt cold I had a cup of coffee (for some reason coffee always makes me feel warmer than tea). The marquee had been put up over the courtyard's flower beds, with an ornamental fountain in the middle.

We sat there for a while and I felt completely relaxed and comfortable, despite the damp air. In a corner the women serving the teas clattered about with their urns and pots and cups and saucers. It was impressive how much effort had gone into getting everything looking perfect for just a few hours on a damp Saturday afternoon in February.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

Recently I have been reading Generation Kill by Evan Wright. It is an account of the invasion of Iraq seen from the point of view of the frontline troops, as interpreted by journalist Evan Wright. I bought the book at the airport in New York, when I was returning from staying with Robert Leiper. It was an impulse purchase, and I mainly bought it because it said on the cover "...the new face of American war". I reasoned that the Iraq war was the most important on-going event in the world at the moment, and therefore I ought to take an interest in anything "new" about the conflict. The jacket claim proved to be a misleading statement however, as the work turned out to be a fairly conventional account of warfare.

What was remarkable about the book was the sense of immediacy of the writing. Evan Wright was an embedded journalist, and traveled with a United States Marine Corps platoon as it captured bridges, drove through urban ambushes, shot up Iraqi villages. Among the troops Evan Wright inveigles himself so that they at first ignore him, then tolerate him, and finally include him as a target for insults (indicating his acceptance).

Once on a level with the platoon he records their conversation with a Kiplingesque feel for the colloquial expressions of fighting men. He is careful to avoid satirising the platoon members, although one detects a certain level of irony in the way in which he reports verbatim the opinions of the private soldiers (are marines "soldiers"? or are they "marines"). They have many opinions about the way in which the war was conducted, the primitive conditions in which the Iraqi people live, the degeneracy of modern American society (how the war was intended to support the high living standards of the American middle classes, how it was a racist adventure waged by white people against non-whites, how Justin Timberlake represents the nadir of American morality).
Despite the excellence of the writing there was the impression that the book was a little contrived. Evan Wright never ever reveals his true thoughts. And there seemed to be a pre-conceived theme of lions led by donkeys (the officer referred to as "Captain America" was a one-dimensional figure - surely no-one could be that incompetent?). For a graduate in medieval history the author is curiously uncurious about the history and culture of the country through which he is passing. No parallels are made with previous historical episodes, so there is hardly any context. With more effort he could have written his own Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Several times Justin Timberlake is identified as a motif for the decadence of American youth as opposed to the more sterling qualities of the United States Marine Corps. The platoon(s) examined in the book are mostly comprised of teenagers and people in their early twenties. One of the more surprising things that comes out of the book is the enthusiasm with which the troops enjoy killing people (not sure why I should be surprised at this, as it is what they are trained to do - perhaps I was expecting the act of killing to be veiled in euphemisms rather than described so graphically). Despite the great size and power of the American military machine America is not a martial society, and the army does not symbolise the nation in the same way as the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom or the army in France or pre-1945 Germany. Americans tend to value individualism and rebelliousness to authority. In that respect Justin Timberlake is more representative than the average USMC marine.

Early on in Generation Kill Evan Wright refers to the novel Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield which records the heroic Spartan clash with the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Possibly Evan Wright has sub-consciously absorbed the style of Gates of Fire and translated it into the setting of modern Iraq (Wright is as good a writer as Pressfield). For all the descriptions of military squalor, cynical attitudes and lethal incompetence, Evan Wright portrays his subjects in an idealised and heroic mode.

Another literary parallel would be the Alexiad of Anna Comnena (I’m thinking of the episode when the crusaders arrive in Constantinople – a brutal Western intrusion into an effete and autocratic Eastern city). A couple of years ago I found an old and battered novel Private Angelo by war journalist Eric Linklater. It was a fictional account of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944. As Linklater was a participant in the campaign I was expecting it to be filled with realistic detail. Instead it was a sentimental and entirely unconvincing portrayal. Although I finished the book (as per my rule of finishing every book I start) I did not enjoy the experience. Not to be compared with the writing of Alan Moorehead.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bitterly cold recently

The weather has been so bitterly cold recently that the horses need their coats.

One of those Americans who are not really very American

Lunchtime I went to Ricos. Ham, cheese and tomato ciabbatta; cherry and sultana flapjack, cup of coffee. George Michael tape playing in the background.

Hardly any other people were in the cafe, except for the table right next to mine (they are small square tables, with low wooden chairs, everything cramped together in the small space). First a man sat down, then a woman - both aged in their late forties, early fifties. Why they chose the table next to mine, when there was so much space free, is beyond me.

The woman had a loud voice with a strident edge to it. From her conversation it was clear she was a social worker ("...I've got a domestic violence case on at the moment, one of those where it's six of one half a dozen of the other, it's pretty horrendous really..."). She was very bitter about the way she was treated at work ("I'm good at my job" - said with considerable emphasis and defiance, as if the fact had been questioned in the past - "...but they have to keep changing things. Graeme just looks at what's on the computer, not what's happening on the ground. They have all these graduate trainees running round but what use are they...").

The man had an American accent, but was one of those Americans who are not really very American - you meet lots of them in the United Kingdom, and it's only when you go to America you realise how un-American they are (I don't mean "un-American" in the McCarthy sense, I mean they are more European in their tastes and outlook). He commiserated with the woman about her job ("I've had positions which are just ticking the boxes all day"), and talked about his legal work. There was a weary air to his mood, indicating that he was bored with everything.

"Are you alright for time?" the woman asked him, "I've only got two files to read this afternoon, and I can't really be bothered with them." But the man said he had to go. They got up from their table and walked out the door, leaving lots of unanswered questions (how did they know each other? what was behind the desultory way they talked? were they lovers at the end of their relationship?).

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Finance and the world economy

During the week I left work early and met Gary Spencer. We drove across to Newmarket (Gary had traded his Jaguar for a new sports Saab - it’s a nice car, but not comparable with a Jag, which made me wonder whether his business was not doing so well). Night had fallen by the time we got there, a black night with no moon or stars.

We entered the gates of the Jockey Club and parked the car. As we approached the entrance I noticed we were being watched from a window in a side wing by two burly men in black suits (security?). From the freezing night we entered a warm, hushed world where everything seemed to be flawless. Long corridors, the walls displaying portraits of racehorses, led to a room that had been laid out with chairs arranged in four rows. In the corridor outside (wide enough to act as a reception area) the other guests were talking and drinking. We had arrived a little late and the meeting was about to start, so we took our glasses of wine into the seminar room and sat down (as Gary requested, one of the staff brought us in two cups of coffee).

The presentation was on finance and the world economy. Bonds are out for this year, Japan is in, Germany is one to watch as their economy may be a rising star. China is booming on the basis of manufacturing, India is booming on the basis of services (particularly in partnership with United Kingdom companies), America is doing well despite the debt situation.

Halfway through the evening there was a break and we went into the next room, a large and well-appointed sitting room, where a buffet meal was served. The food was very good and had a quality of dissolving in the mouth, so you got lots of flavour but hardly any texture. Loading my plate with sandwiches and pastries (I was very hungry) I went to join Gary Spencer warming himself in front of the big open fire. Above the fireplace was the famous Stubbs painting of the racehorse Gimcrack. On either side of us were long sofas occupied by elderly financial advisors. Almost all the other guests were in their late fifties or early sixties apart from one teenager with gelled hair and spots on his face (widely spaced spots so that they resembled the stars of a constellation).

“Obviously a trainee” said Gary Spencer dismissively. I reminded him of when he had been a trainee and had been snubbed by the higher echelons of the bank he worked for. He had been so galled by this treatment that he had left the bank and set up his own consultancy (everyone expecting him to fail).

Taking advantage of the break I walked along to the toilets - some distance from the seminar room, then up one step and through a heavy door. This lavatory was, in its old-fashioned way, magnificent. I was particularly impressed by the big ceramic sinks - so impressed I took a photograph.

Above: I was particularly impressed by the big ceramic sinks (notice the paper towel which I accidentally dropped on the floor - I'm not normally untidy).

Returning to the meeting I passed a display cabinet with various horse-related items, including the hoof from a mummified horse found at Sakkara in Egypt. This object demonstrated that the horse has been revered for thousands of years. Nowhere is equine reverence more profound and sincere than at the Jockey Club.

Friday, February 03, 2006

It is possible that bird flu is already in the country and infecting people and the evil lying government that we have is suppressing the news

On Wednesday I received the following e-mail from Gary Spencer about a mutual friend (more his friend than mine):

I received a call from Mark Sands last night.
Roy is critically ill in intensive care at The ***** Hospital in *****.
He developed a yet as unidentified virus and now has a collapsed lung and his body is in a state of trauma.
He is in isolation and is constantly sedated.
All we can do at this time is wait and hope for the best.

This morning Gary sent me the following e-mail:

I went to see Pam last night and the news about Roy is very good. The doctors are 90% sure they know what the virus is and are just waiting for the results of a test to confirm this. They think it is a virus that is picked up from birds that attacks the lungs, the body normally takes 7 days to start producing the antibodies to fight it, it appears Roy has started to do this. The doctors have taken a blood sample to analyse to se if these antibodies are present and this will also confirm if the virus is what they suspect. Having had a trachiotomy (I apologise if that is spelt wrong) on Thursday the doctors were able to bring Roy almost fully out of sedation and he was able to communicate with Pam by pointing to letters on a sheet of paper. He appears to have started the recovery process and is out of danger. Pam thinks in 2 - 3 days he may be moved from intensive care to a high dependency ward at which time he would be able to have visitors.
All in all thinks are looking a lot brighter after a very worrying week.

I sent the e-mail:

"They think it is a virus that is picked up from birds" - is this bird flu???

And I got the reply:

This has been asked, but they will not confirm it, I guess that they do not want a panic.

So it is possible that bird flu is already in the country and infecting people and the evil lying government that we have is suppressing the news because they want to avoid criticism for not preparing early enough.