The greatest hits

Today, Saturday, The Guardian has a supplement for its second centenary:

Good to revisit the glories of yesteryear: the take-down of Jonathan Aitken (He lied and lied and lied), cash-for-questions (A liar and a cheat), Edward Snowden, Murdoch’s phone-hacking, the Panama papers …

Like most pop-music top-lists (compare the changing face of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums) , that coverage is tilted towards more recent history. Unlike such ephemera, a little anthology like today’s supplement rubs in the dystopias we have witnessed: Sarajevo, Haiti, the fall of Saigon, Rwanda, Eichmann. Interspersed are more uplifting moments: the end of the Berlin Wall, the election of Obama, seven pages (in the original, sadly not here) of San Seriffe.

At the foot of page 27, moment #65, is a classic Steve Bell cartoon from 1992:

There’s one in urgent need of an update.

For any who don’t recognise the Ur-source, that’s the Wobblies’ Pyramid of Capitalism:

I can be precise as to when and where I first encountered the Manchester Guardian. It was in the home of Alan Tuck, post-master at Wells, Norfolk. The Tucks lived at the bottom of Two Furlong Hill: Adrian Tuck was my contemporary at primary-school. For me, the son of a Daily Express reading house, that far-flung, exotic paper was something of a revelation. As soon as I was old enough, and certainly at TCD, The Guardian (Manchester being elided in 1959, but not from the trend of Neville Cardus’s cricket columns) was my arm-candy. Usually folded with Douglas Gageby‘s Irish Times.

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£840 a roll? Cheap at the price!

Yesterday I was forced into a video call.

Now, I’m quite happy with FaceTime on my ageing Mac, but this one involved a commercial operation. So I had, at their request, to instal a sodding Microsoft application, Skype and some Cisco thing. Which reminds me: some urgent deletions needed from hard-drive.

Then, for an extended period I was looking at talking heads (nice guy, by the way) and myself with my book background.

I’m not posh enough to have a ‘library’, so this is my ‘book-room’. Such terminology makes me feel more egalitarian.

Oh, and this is a working operation: what you see is what I get down from the shelves on a regular basis. Which is why there is precious little ‘order’. For the record, the three bays are (approximately) English history (Scottish and Irish out on the left-hand wall), European history, and American stretching into other nationalities

Vaguely then, this was the back-drop (face edited to protect the guilty):

Now you should, quite literally, see the point I’m driving at. It’s an agglomeration of decades of reading and acquisition. The Oxford histories (top left) came on marriage. There’s stuff from my time at TCD (high up on the side-shelves are Latin texts from even earlier). Even an odd Mr Man books from the childhood of one or other (or all three) daughters.

When we were first married a neighbour (this is metropolitan Essex, just so we all appreciate the context) asked ‘Had I read them all?’ The answer, strictly, would have been, ‘Not exactly’, on the basis that many books are there for filleting and reference, rather than a consecutive ‘read’ — those would be the fiction, now corralled on a couple of unseen bays.

At that stage of our lives we were probably unique among the locals by not having a car. The neighbour in that previous paragraph obviously did. In the moment of that conversation, my mind noted that our bookish expenditure, in capital and continued acquisitions, was likely to be not dissimilar from that of others on personal transport. And we didn’t have to polish the brute every Sunday.

Just now, from those American strips, I saw this:

Which must be the predicament of every locked-down politician, on television ‘remotely’, trying to look cultured and ‘smart’.

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Under a bushel

The London Evening Standard had an Ipsos MORI poll, flags it in yesterday’s sub-headline:

Downing St Sleaze and Questions Boris Won’t Answer

Tory lead slumps in exclusive Standard poll as ‘Drip Drip’ of claims continues to hit Party

That’s tasty, even steamy stuff. All the other pollsters are reckoning on a Tory lead of 9-12 percentage points.

What I ought to find odd is the Standard (or would, were I not aware of the paper’s ownership and leanings), having the poll bought and paid for, then hides it at the bottom of a complicated page 4-5 spread. This is the entire text relevant to that poll:

But Ipsos MORI found the Tories on 40 per cent, down from 45 per cent in March, three points clear of Labour who were on 37 per cent, down from 38.

The Liberal Democrats were on eight (from six), and the Greens unchanged at five. The data will dismay Labour MPs because they suggest Sir Keir Starmer has so far failed to capture voters getting disenchanted with the Government and the Prime Minister. Optimism about the economy is at its highest since August 2014, with a majority of 51 per cent predicting things will get better in the year ahead, against 36 per cent who think they will get worse.

Backing for the Covid vaccine roll-out remains sky high, with 86 per cent praising the Government for doing a good job, including 85 per cent of Labour supporters. Two thirds of people think the Government is relaxing coronavirus restrictions at the right speed. A fifth, 21 per cent, think the pace of unlocking it is too fast, and only nine per cent think it too slow.

Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos MORI, said: “Conservative supporters are feeling slightly less enthusiastic this month, which is feeding through into vote share, although there is little sign of much switching to Labour.” Former No 10 chief of staff Lord Barwell said Conservatives should beware a “tipping point” in the opinion polls. He told Today: “I suspect some people in No 10 will be worried about what else there might be to come. This morning’s headlines are an example of that.”

⬤ Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,090 adults across GB by phone from April 16 to 22. Data are weighted. Full details at [That link should lead you here.]

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Count – chickens – before – hatch – your – don’t – they.

Which is to be re-arranged into a well-known phrase or saying.

Dear Old Dad treasured the evaluation he was given: brusque. He certainly could be. I’d guess two terms would be consistent on my professional records: arrogant and cynical.

I’m certainly cynical about the Great Public Opinion Scam. Ford had, doubtless, market-researched the Edsel; Coca-cola had evidence before launching “New Coke”.

Today at, Paul Goodman consoles its addicted readership:

With less than a fortnight to go until the local elections, the Conservative lead over Labour has stretched to nine points, its largest total for a year. 

And then gives reasons, in this most foetid of political moments, why sleaze won’t count:

Case against: the Tories were on their 18th year by 1997, and will be on only their 14th by 2024 (if the election due that year doesn’t come before).  Furthermore, the Prime Minister, by embracing and delivering Brexit, has given his party an entirely new start.

I’m a cynic, but the problem there, dear Paul, is — back in 1997 — instant media and revolving news cycles of SkyNews, social media and whatever were just getting into their stride:

Times have changed,
And we’ve often rewound the clock,
Since the Puritans got a shock,
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today,
Any shock they should try to stem,
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

Boris Johnson certainly hopes — nay, expects — Anything Goes, as he plays fast-and-loose, giving his party an entirely new start. To be compared and contrasted with the litany of his behaviours, as brusquely listed in today’s leader in The Observer. My cynicism and arrogance are sufficiently well-ingrained to remember The Observer consistently getting it right, while the mainstream Tory press didn’t. David Astor on Suez, anyone?

Declaring the Great British Public will conform is arrogant in the extreme. In my arrogance, I’m assuming across England, barely a third will turn out for local elections. London may get into the forty per cents. “Police and Crime Commissioners” (and I still don’t know how they commission crime) will be all of a fifteen-per-cent return. Even the Hartlepool by-electioning will probably not make it to half-marks (the constituency hasn’t clocked better than the high fifties since 1997). All that’s assuming social distancing has cut through enough to ensure much greater postal voting than usual.

I’d arrogantly assert that those who do vote will be among the more ‘aware’, the ‘better informed’, followers of the news-cycle.

So here is your regular and cynical reminder: on 7 June 2017 (the day before the 2017 General Election), pollsters gave Tory leads of:

  • Panelbase – 8 points;
  • Kantar – 5 points;
  • ICM/Guardian – 12 points;
  • YouGov/Times – 7 points;
  • ComRes/Independent – 10 points.

The outcome was 2 points. And Theresa May lost her majority.

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They do these things better in Belgium

The entire Belgian coast amounts to some forty-odd miles, all the way from Knokke to De Panne.  In better times, one can do the whole trip, via Zeebrugge, Blankenberge, De Haan, Oostende (not forgetting Westende), and Nieuwpoort, by light railway — the Kusttram. Effectively, between not-quite-France and not-quite-the Netherlands.

Kusttram at Oostende

One trundles along, at rather more than a decent pace, stopping repeatedly. Choose a stop-over for foddering (or, since this is Belgium, for a beer-break) and one can achieve the return trip in a day. All for (as In recall) about €7.50 — but Belgium has a thoroughly-enlightened approach to integrated ticketing, so a wider and longer spell seems even more reasonable.

Don’t be fooled: you’ll see more than the sandy shore. For all sorts of excuses (mainly this is a working transport link, not just a visitor attraction) the route repeatedly swerves inland and into urban developments.

So why am I musing on the Kusttram?

For two causes:

  1. this lock-down is getting me down;
  2. Terry Wilding, from Potter Heigham.

The former is obvious. The latter needs explanation, and it comes from an article in the Eastern Daily Press:

Mr Wilding, a former tram driver, presented the plan at a North Norfolk Labour Party meeting in Cromer last year after working on it for about three years.  […]

The 150-mile route would take in stops including King’s Lynn, Wells, Sheringham, Holt, North Walsham and Caister. There would also be stops at Cromer, Worstead, Stalham, Sutton, Catfield, Martham, Hemsby and Ormesby.

Mr Wilding said Derby-based Bombardier would be a good choice of manufacturer for the light trains. He said 18 would be needed to run a service with trains leaving every 30 minutes across Norfolk.

Mr Wilding said: “It is difficult to estimate the cost of installation of a light rail system, but as most of the land is farmland there would be less interference with the local infrastructure, so I believe it would be built for less than £1 billion.”

There’s another reason why this deserves attention. Just now the Belgian Kusttram is the longest single tram route in the world. Los Angeles is about to supplant it with the K-Line extension. National and East Anglian pride deserves to top the lot.



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Morality — like taxes — that’s for the little people

That’s Steve Bell on a previous ‘scandal’ involving David Cameron — the Panama Papers. The ordure didn’t stick then …

To be honest, I really cannot understand the Greensill/David Cameron scandal.

No: that’s not quite true. I understand it in so far as a capitalist waved Big Bucks at a political has-been. And the political has-been leaped through hoops.

What beats me is how the thing was meant to work. Again, I’ve got part of it: Greensill was borrowing money from European banks on the basis of unpaid invoices. The European banks, sniffing a healthy profit, didn’t do sure diligence, and heaved out squoodles of that very fluid money. Except, as the Financial Times and other worthy sources discover, by simply asking the names on the unpaid invoices, those unpaid invoices were duff. Even the FT then felt free to deploy the F-word. Not that one: ‘fraud’.

Now along comes something very different.

What Cameron was pressing on the Secretary of State for Health, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer amounts to pay-day loans. The government would agree to Greensill advancing the pay of NHS employees on a weekly, even daily basis ahead of the usual salary dates. What’s not entirely clear there is — who pays? Do the payees pay through a small discount? Or do the employers pay to provide the employees with this service?

Either way — and this is where I lose the thread — this enables Greensill to claim they have such an arrangement, and go running back to those European banks to offer credit in the form of bonds. Which Greensill can then provide as loans to needy industrialists — in particular a very needy steel manufacturer, who curiously was also the predator named on those unpaid (and duff) invoices.

But, as David Cameron and his acolytes say, all this is legal and above board.

Except — and here comes another one — Cameron was looking for the persons on the NHS pay-roll. Here’s today’s Sunday Times with that bit of this seedy story:

He was writing with a pitch from “one of the businesses I now work with”: Greensill Capital, whose Earnd app was being piloted in several NHS trusts. By offering daily payment, he explained, “it addresses one of your key priorities: helping all NHS employees’ welfare, morale and wellbeing”.

He also reiterated Greensill’s claim that the pandemic had created a moral case for a product, which, until that point, the NHS had not used widely. “This is of such potential importance in contributing to the priority of doing all we can to help NHS employees at the current time,” the former prime minister added.

All he needed was for NHSX to speed up the process, and grant it access to the data of NHS employees. As Cameron put it: “Our ask is about electronic staff records, as Earnd will be much slicker if it can obtain access to employee data … I think some help from you would go a long way.”

That is dangled before Matthew Gould (who was at St Paul’s School with a certain George Osborne), erstwhile Cameron’s ‘director of cybersecurity’, now head of NHSX, the health service’s digital arm. Once upon a time I’d have wasted an hour linking these bods/mates/cronies with a spider-chart.

Read that how I may, it seems to mean that Cameron was asking for Greensill to access any data the NHS had on it 1.3 million employees.

OK: the individual employee had to sign up to this wonderful App. Greensill could see their data (and could ‘sell’ them other services?). Meanwhile Greensill was recruiting other public figures — Lord Hogan-Howe, the former Met commissioner gets a name-check in that Sunday Times piece — to expand the system to other parts of the public service.

Short of having a benevolent Nigerian e-mailing me to offer free money, I have rarely come across anything so rancid. This magic App is now well-and-truly bust:

owing undisclosed sums to at least five NHS or taxpayer-funded entities.

Lex Greensill is — for the time being — free and able to move on to other activities. Somewhere along the way the public purse may be picking up those tabs.

Meanwhile …

In other news, a desirable farm-house property features in the latest issue of Country Life

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put his country house in Thame up for rent, a house which comes complete with swimming pool and tennis court.

Strutt & Parker are seeking £4,250 pcm for Grade II-listed The Old Farm House, which is set at the end of a single-track lane in North Weston, a few minutes’ drive from Thame, in Oxfordshire.

It seems that Lloyds Bank hold a mortgage on this property, in the names of the owners, Alexander Boris Johnson and Marina Claire Wheeler (That Mrs #2). This, then, was (2001-2008)the constituency seat of said Boris Johnson while he was MP for Henley.

So provided, cash-wise, on parliamentary expenses.

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Notker the Stammerer

Here’s a hero for the day, if not for these times.

Notker was a monk, and later the abbot, at St Gallen, tucked away high up in the north-east corner of modern Switzerland. Legend has it St Gall, the monastery’s founder, was another of those diasporan Irishmen (and a few women) who spread out across pagan Europe in the darkest of the ages after the Western Roman empire was snuffed out.

That image comes from the seventeenth century, but identifies 6 April AD912 as the date of Notker’s death.  For all that he was ‘balbulus’ (diminutive of balbus, so ‘the little stammerer’), Notker had quite a reputation as a scholar, with a strong sideline in hymns.

His real achievement was the building of the abbey, and the town associated with it — including a defensive wall.

He must have been a bit of a lefty agitator. When the Emperor Carolus Crassus (‘Charles the Fat’), grandson of Charlemagne, came a-visiting, the Emperor spent some considerable time chatting with Notker. The Emperor’s chaplain felt snubbed, who then tried a bit of oneupmanship on Notker, something like:

Chaplain: Tell me, since you’re such a know-all, what is God doing right now?

Notker: H-h-he is d-d-doing now what he has always d-d-done, and w-w-will d-d-do as long as this world shall last.   He-h-he is p-p-putting down the p-p-roud and exalting the humble.

The late ninth-century version of “Up yours, smartass!”

Notker’s special legend is that the devil came sneaking into the abbey, in the form of a dog. In that roundel above, our sainted hero is giving the Devil a good bashing, using (and breaking in the process) the staff of St Columbanus.


Not forgetting Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) was born on 6 April 1483, and expired on 6 April 1520.

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Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?

I’ve always taken that to be from George III Hanover. The context was the publication of Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, in 1776.

By the way, has anyone else noticed some similarity between Gibbon (as right) and Ian Hislop? Have they ever been seen together in the same room? Aha! Proves my suspicion.

I once saw that quotation attributed to the Duke of Cumberland. Which would be distinctly odd. ‘Butcher’ Cumberland died in 1765. A more likely claimant to Hanoverian literary ignorance is the Duke of Gloucester. Oh dear! Another problem: this one from page 139 of The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes:

The Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, permitted Mr. Gibbon to present him with the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When the second volume of that work appeared, it was quite in order that it should be presented to His Royal Highness in like manner. The prince received the author with much good nature and affability, saying to him, as he laid the quarto on the table, ‘Another d-mn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?’

OK: that’s moved the benchmark to 1782, and the second volume of Gibbon. The Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (nothing beats a dukedom except duplication) was William Henry. If every royal family was as dysfunctional as the descendants of George II, it would keep cable TV in business full-time. Oh, hang on!

Our William Henry set his heart on Maria Walpole, the none-too-long widowed relic of James Waldegrave, Earl Waldegrave. The Countess Waldegrave was not deemed A-OK for royal acceptance, on the grounds that she was born illegitimate. The two married in secret, and added to the general ordure of Hanoverians.

All things considered, William Henry was probably dim enough to say that to Gibbon.

Phew! Got that out of my system!

What is gnawing at me this chilly morning isn’t the bedroom habits of royalty, so much as the price of books.

Sean McMeekin’s new book, Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II, which I was nibbling at in that earlier post has a recommended retail price of £40.  For that one gets a door-stopper of 768 pages. Fair enough for  fair amount of scribble, scribble, scribble — especially as nobody of any sense wanders into a bookshop and casually drops four tenners for what Amazon will dispense for less than two-thirds of that price.

And, I’d suggest, there is the sum-total of a murky business. Because the new norm is discounting of books, the national price is set substantially higher to protect the royalties.

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I’ll give you a clue

Cn. Pompeius caught with his trousers down:

That’s your clue where this post will end up; but meanwhile, here’s a second one:

Caesar: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Antonius: Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman and well given.

Not many will get that one.

There were two main political parties in Rome: the Optimates (‘the best people’) and the Populares (‘the people’s party’). Any noble Roman would be of the former. Julius Caesar rose to power through the other lot. If you don’t believe that interpretation, look at Antonius’ speech over Caesar’s will (back end of Act III, scene ii).

Ultimately, when they do you down, when the knife goes into your political back, it’s your own side doing the business. So Boris Johnson’s potential assassins are on the benches behind him, in the press and media which most loudly supported him.

Enter, stage right …

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, columnist for The Daily Torygraph.

This evening he has put up a piece for the Speccy‘s Coffee House website. Very frothy coffee from the first sip:

The biggest question facing Boris Johnson at this evening’s press conference was so-called vaccine passports. Plans for his scheme were briefed to the weekend press. The Sunday Telegraph even published a government-supplied image of what a passport would look like (above). Today, No. 10 released even more plans — hence the questions. But bizarrely, the Prime Minister was unable to admit to this vaccine passports, and pretended to be confused by the questions.  This matters. If he cannot acknowledge his flagship scheme, leaving such an indefensible gulf between what what his government has just published and what he has just said, he may already be in some political trouble.

There’s considerable umbrage on the Tory Right, and wider still among the more libertarian sort (which, not surprisingly, embraces former-DPP Keir Starmer) over these ‘vaccine passports’. Or, as Nelson sharpens his stiletto:

[Johnson’s] ministers use ‘vaccine passport’ as a euphemism but even this sounded awful to him. He referred to his plans as ‘Covid status certification’. But a certificate doesn’t have someone’s photo on it. What he is planning is a digital identity card – but loaded with personal health data, so a bioidentity card.

When he has warmed to his topic, Nelson refines his spadassinicidal [*] tendencies with ‘vaccine passports’ as:

it’s a roadmap to a ‘papers, please’ society.

Quite ruthlessly Nelson lists the questions the lobby-veterans offered Johnson — and how each time Johnson hedged and prevaricated and — quite blatantly — misled.

As Nelson’s coup de grace, in goes the dagger:

What does this mean? What’s the point of spending £2.6 million on a new communications centre if the PM is going to refuse to properly communicate? If the Prime Minister cannot level with the public, if internal debate about this has been banned in his cabinet committee, where will the scrutiny come from?

We had enough questions asked about vaccine passports today to know that the PM cannot, or will not, answer them. Given the ferocity of the debate ahead — and the depth of concern in his party — this bodes ill.

I’d suggest Nelson confines his piece to the ‘vaccine passports’; but his tone implies wider and deeper concerns about prime ministerial veracity. This way lies the base of Pompey’s statue.


[*] spadassinicidal? Borrowed from Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche, book III, chapter 6. This citation suggests what was not allowable in print in 1921, and how Sabatini left it to the imagination:

“But they mean to make up for lost time—sacred name!” cried Danton. “Challenges are flying right and left between these bully-swordsmen, these spadassinicides, and poor devils of the robe who have never learnt to fence with anything but a quill. It’s just ——— murder. Yet if I were to go amongst messieurs les nobles and crunch an addled head or two with this stick of mine, snap a few aristocratic necks between these fingers which the good God has given me for the purpose, the law would send me to atone upon the gallows. This in a land that is striving after liberty. Why, Dieu me damne! I am not even allowed to keep my hat on in the theatre. But they ——— these ———s!”

Not an entry in the OED, I admit; but

a spadroon, A sword much lighter than a broadsword, and made both to cut and thrust

 was good enough for Walter Scott in Woodstock.

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Synchronicity: then and now

One can wait ages for a bus, and then three come along together. Though that’s no longer true of Britain, ten years into Tory transport policies: in this great city of York, after mid-evening you’ll need a taxi.

Though, in York, we can warm ourselves in the waiting by musing on a scandal as the Liberal Democrat administration pay off an unwanted Chief Executive:

CALLS have been made for the leader of City of York Council to resign after a damning report into the handling of a £400,000 payout to the former chief executive.

Labour has called for Liberal Democrat council leader Keith Aspden to step down – claiming an independent report into the payout reveals “a major scandal and a significant misuse of public funds”.

But the Lib Dems have hit back – saying they “make no apology” for changes to senior staffing and accusing Labour of carrying out a “personalised witch hunt during an international pandemic”.

Thinks the little virus: “They’ll sorely miss me, were I gone”.

Crazee name! Crazee guy!

Last week I ran into reviews of Professor Sean McMeekin’s new book, Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II.

The essential thesis seems to be that WWII was the brainchild of Joseph Vissarionovich, engineered in the Western hemisphere by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and in the East by Stalin’s non-aggression Pact with Tokyo. Since the latter dates from 1941, and the Japanese military invaded Manchuria in 1931 other historians (notably Antony Beevor) might not concur. Moreover, as I hear, McMeekin reckons Stalin was the main beneficiary of the conflict — even at the cost of ten percent of Mother Russia’s children.

But those were not the names in my frame, and this is a strange coincidence.

Here in The Sunday Times I read Max Hastings reviewing Nuclear Folly by Serhii Plokhy. Don’t all rush: it’s not published for another ten days.

Though, to be honest, I lived the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I’m not convinced I need an action replay. If anything, Hastings’ review ticks most of the check-list already fixed in my mind:

Both sides suffered huge intelligence failures. The Americans were slow to spot the Soviet build-up. When they considered air attacks, they failed to understand that the nuclear weapons on Cuba were already armed and operational.

Khrushchev was astoundingly naive in his failure to anticipate the violence with which the Americans would react to such a challenge on their doorstep. At a Kremlin presidium meeting after the crisis broke, a badly rattled Soviet leader said: “We do not want to unleash a war. We want to intimidate and restrain the USA via-à-vis Cuba.” When he belatedly saw what he had started, he retreated with a haste that disgusted his generals, dooming his leadership — he was deposed in 1964.

But, ‘Serhii Plokhy’? What brought that name to my mind?

Aha! I’d already met Professor Plokhy, courtesy of The Guardian, telling us that:

Boris Johnson’s decision to increase the cap on British nuclear stockpiles by more than 40%, from 180 to 260 Trident nuclear warheads, might easily be interpreted as a manoeuvre inspired by domestic politics, rooted in the Conservative party’s longstanding love affair with nuclear power and the recent politics of Brexit. But the decision has broader significance. It reflects the rapidly changing international nuclear environment, and will make it significantly worse.

In that article, Plokhy suggests parallels with :

… the period preceding the Cuban missile crisis, when there were no mutually binding arms control agreements and various countries, the UK among them, were competing to outspend one another in building nuclear arsenals.

On which I heartily thank the US electorate for giving us Joe Biden in place of ‘the other fella’. So — no: I don’t see us reliving Cuba Week. Even if, I’m sure, Boris Johnson would enjoy the opportunity to posture. Then again, to borrow Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of Dan Quayle,

Prime Minister, you’re no Harold Macmillan.

Whoops! Nearly lost the thread!

Plokhy squares the circle by turning up in The Observer, reviewing McMeekin’s book. In part I found my own disquietudes reflected in that review:

McMeekin’s portrayal of Stalin as the pre-eminent figure of the war does not come without cost. The Soviet dictator emerges as much more powerful than is suggested by his dismal diplomatic and military performance in the early stages of the war or by his inability to negotiate any geopolitical preferences with the western allies at Yalta beyond the territories already occupied by the Red Army first in 1939-40 and then in 1944-45. The image of Stalin as consistently dominant in the war is achieved by projecting the power he acquired at the end of the conflict back into the war years as a whole.

Where Plokhy is more positive is with comments like:

… while attention is focused on Stalin, he is not the only leader whose actions are re-evaluated in the book. As McMeekin writes: “The roseate glow of the ‘good war’ has saved its victorious statesmen from the scrutiny applied to their World War I counterparts who led the men into the trenches.” It was Roosevelt and Churchill who, according to McMeekin, turned “the conflict into Stalin’s war”. He notes Churchill’s “mercurial approach to statecraft” and criticises Roosevelt for prioritising Stalin’s needs in the war by adopting a “Germany first” approach. The assistance offered to the Soviet Union through Lend-Lease was 50 to 100 times more than that given to Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of nationalist China, America’s key ally in the war with Japan.

I’m not steaming off to invest forty quid (yes, indeed!) in this tome. Worthy it may be; but the trick of singularity didn’t work for Malvolio. 

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