Monthly Archives: May 2018

A rose-red city half as old as …

Me to grandson: This is called the Treasury.

Grandson: Indiana.

Quite usually, young Jake is a person of very few words. But he makes each one count.

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‘The Thucydides trap’

This had me going:

Thucydides original argument was:

It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.

The journal, Foreign Policy, in a 2017 essay by Graham Allison, extrapolated that to:

The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.

Of the cases in which war was averted — Spain outstripping Portugal in the late 15th century, the United States overtaking the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, and Germany’s rise in Europe since 1990 — the ascent of the Soviet Union is uniquely instructive today. Despite moments when a violent clash seemed certain, a surge of strategic imagination helped both sides develop ways to compete without a catastrophic conflict. In the end, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Which invited me, blind, to nominate the twelve nasties. Without reading Allison, I immediately hit on half-a-dozen very obvious examples:

  • the wars of the 16th century, where France felt put upon by the rising power of the Hapsburgs to its east;
  • the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century;
  • the British attempts to build coalitions against Napoleonic France;
  • the Russo-Japanese War;
  • Bismarck’s nation-building and the progress to the First World War;
  • the need to contain and expunge aggressively-expansions Nazi Germany.

Having failed to complete a list, I cheated, and compared my effort with Allison’s original:

So half marks. Beta-minus. My Anglocentric perspective hadn’t seen the Pacific War outside the context of the prevailing War in Europe. And I’m not entirely convinced that the Crimean War was somehow a Russian threat to Anglo-French interests: more that all three northern powers were squabbling over the decay of the Ottoman Empire, with access through the Bosphorus as the main prize.

Why not, though, add the whole late-20th century, Near Eastern mess as an example? The Arab counties in 1948 saw an opportunity to crush a western-style democracy in Israel — and failed. The continuing success of the Israeli state presents a continuing contrast to the successive failed states in the Arab world. And the biggy — yet unresolved — is the Armageddon of Sunni versus Shi’ite. Don’t push me, though, on whether Israel (about the only Westernised state which has religious determinants) remains as democratic as it aspired to be.

Yet Allison’s whole thrust is the boding Sino-American tensions. To which I’d wonder: Hey! If China is going to expand industrially (and that’s the only way it can assuage the Chinese greed for a consumer society), how far does China press its commercial rivalry with the US? Especially, when for any foreseeable future, the US is the sweetest consumer market on the planet?

Change of tone …

Last December the Lady-in-my-Life and I had a week in eastern Sicily: Catania, up Etna to the snow-line, Siracusa and Noto.  It was largely my conceit, because I remembered my study, in the original, of the Thucydides.

The trip, particularly the Siracusa bit, fulfilled its promise. The Duomo has a grand baroque façade. Once inside, it is a Doric temple. It is, in large part, the Temple of Athena ordered by tyrant Gelon to celebrate his triumph over the Carthaginians in north-west Sicily: and that was 480 BC. Anyway up, that’s a staggering concept.

Down-town, where the island of Ortigia looks across that narrow channel to the main island, whiffing the fish-market next door, is the minimal ruins of the Temple of Apollo. That didn’t survive so well, because it provided the masonry for the walls built to defend the Athenians against the Spartan besiegers.

And then we took the bus circuit to the out-of-town Greek theatre. What we see today is the later reconstruction: the amphitheatre is 450 feet across. There are — what? — sixty-nine rows of tiered seating. It is vast. And here, once Aeschylus was pronounced in its original.

And behind the theatre is a parkland. And in the parkland is the ‘Ear of Dionysus’, a vast artificial cave. Allegedly this was a prison, and here 7,000 wretched Athenians, taken prisoner when the Peloponnesian War dragged to its end, were worked to death, and perished.

And, dear old Thucydides, there’s nothing ‘inevitable’ about that.

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Now, that’s odd …

The Hill has a story:

The Koch Network is using its immigration initiative LIBRE to back a number of Democrats that are working to find a permanent legal solution for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.

The mega-donor brothers are known for their regular backing of conservative causes, donating millions of dollars to back GOP candidates, but NPR reports that the LIBRE initiative is raising money to protect Democrats who have shown a willingness to work on finding a legislative fix for DACA while also backing stronger border security initiatives.

At the very least, this one qualifies for St Luke (15.7):

I say unto you that likewise more joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

A cynic might strain for something more.

And here it is: relations between the Koch outfit and Trump became strained during the Presidential Election campaign. The Koch largesse did not open to Trump to any great extent. That is itself peculiar since the Koch combine is heavily into minerals and fossil fuels, and Trump was promising the earth, or at least that part which can be excavated as coal.

That accepted, a Kochian libertarian attitude to recent immigrants fits neatly with a Kochian need for disposable, cheap labour.

On we find a ground for grievance:

The dinner chat [at Mar-a-Lago, 8 April 2017] was among the first meetings between David Koch and the president since Trump, in late December, ejected from his West Palm Beach golf course a golfing foursome that included Koch. The billionaire industrialist had been planning to tee off with one of Trump’s most critical biographers, Harry Hurt III, but Trump refused to let Hurt play the course. Course officials made clear to the rest of the party that they could either play without Hurt or leave with him, according to sources familiar with the incident. David Koch was not the target of Trump’s ire that day, said the sources.

But the president did clash during the campaign with David and Charles Koch, who together spearhead arguably the most influential network of donors and advocacy groups on the right.

The Koch network, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade trying to mold the GOP to the brothers’ brand of libertarian-infused conservatism, sat out the presidential election out of distaste for both Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Charles Koch once likened the choice between Trump and Clinton to choosing between cancer or a heart attack, while Trump in turn boasted that the Kochs could not influence him because he didn’t “want their money or anything else from them.”

Charles Koch has yet to talk to Trump since the election, according to people familiar with the situation.

Bill Koch, on the other hand, hosted a Trump fundraiser during the general election (after donating to his rival Marco Rubio during the GOP primary), but Koch does not participate in his brothers’ network. In fact, for years he battled his David and Charles Koch for control of Koch Industries.

Charles and David Koch prevailed, and Charles Koch continues to play the leading role in helming the company, as well as the brothers’ political network.

Bodes well.

Oh, and before we lose sight of the main event, it’s worth checking that earlier story, on why Hurt’s Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump (all the way from 1993) could rankle with the Orange One: the book —

revealed among other things that Trump was accused of “rape” by his ex-wife Ivana Trump in a sworn deposition during their divorce proceedings.

Donald Trump has denied the allegation, as well as other parts of the book, and Ivana Trump herself later said that she did not intend for her use of the word “rape” to be interpreted in “a literal or criminal sense.”

On Friday, Hurt approached Trump on the practice tee at Trump International Golf Club, and congratulated him on his victory in last month’s presidential election, according to an account that Hurt posted on Facebook on Saturday.

Trump responded by criticizing Hurt’s biography as untrue, to which Hurt replied “It’s all true,” according to both Hurt’s Facebook post and a transition official who was briefed on the incident, but did not want to be identified discussing a testy exchange involving the president-elect.

Trump told Hurt “you’re out of here,” according to the transition official, while Hurt wrote on Facebook that Trump told him it was “inappropriate” for him to play at the club.

As the late Tom Wolfe rendered it:

“I am not a socialite.” Masters of the Universe existed on a plateau far above socialites.

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More of the same? More of J. O’C.?

I found another item folded into that copy of Barrack-Room Ballads.

It isn’t quite Kipling — or, to be more precise, I’ve checked out my Definitive Edition and find no match. Kipling is none too difficult to mimic; and this one doesn’t quite have the authentic ring. Still, it’s a more than competent effort.

On that basis, I’d suggest it deserves to be given a longer lease of life than this crumbling piece of ephemera allows it. So here, presumably by ‘Anonymous’, is:

Make your own arrangements

When the depôt soldier’s dinin’ on three quarters of a pound,
If there’s too much bone to please ‘im, or the meat is extra tough,
‘E ‘as got a chance of grousin’ when ‘is orficer goes round,
‘E can draw upon the mess-book, if ‘is rations ain’t enough.
But it’s make your own arrangements! Make your own arrangements!
When you’re cut orf from the column, an’ supplies are running low,
It ain’t no “too much fat, sir!”
But it’s bread — an’ glad of that, sir!
O it’s bake your own arrangements — out of flour — as you go!

When the depôt soldier’s on parade ‘e sparkles an’ ‘e shines.
When the depôt soldier’s drillin’ ‘e must make each motion “tell.”
When the depôt soldier’s marchin’ ‘e must march on drill-book lines.
‘E ‘as got a drill-instructor, an’ ‘e does it very well.
But it’s make your own arrangements! Make your own arrangements!
When the camp is rushed at midnight, an’ you’re fallin’ in — to die!
O there ain’t no drill-rules set there,
But it’s take your gun — an’ get there!
When you make your own arrangements, you must grab your belt an’ fly.

The depôt-soldier’s grounded in a systematic drill;
‘E also knows wot’s “rendezvous” an’ wot is “bivouac.”
‘E knows the use of rifle-pits, the proper way to kill —
‘E understands the principles an’ the’ries of attack.
But it’s make your own arrangements! Make your own arrangements!
When you’re dodgin’ tons of boulder, climbin’ mount’ins under fire,
An’ the drill-book won’t assist you
Till the fallin’ rocks ‘ave missed you!
So you make your own arrangements — an’ you climb a little ‘igher!

When the depôt soldier’s wantin’ with ‘is orficer to speak,
‘E must ‘alt two paces from ‘im, an’ salute before the start.
An’ ‘e mustn’t try to argue, an’ ‘e mustn’t give no cheek;
An’ if ‘is Captain slangs ‘im — ‘e must take it in good part.
But it’s make your own arrangements! Make your own arrangements!
When you see ‘im lyin’ wounded, all the circumstances change.
An’ you don’t ‘eed no instructions;
An’ you don’t need introductions:
But you make your own arrangement — an’ you get ‘im out of range!

When the depôt soldier sickens, when the depôt soldier dies,
‘E is buried by ‘is comrades in the regulation style,
‘E is covered by an ensign of the regulation size,
An’ ‘e gets a firin’ party made of thirteen rank an’ file.
But it’s make your own arrangements! Make your own arrangements!
When the Colonel reads the service by a guard-room lantern light.
When in silent rows you’ve laid ‘em
In a trench your bay’nets made ‘em,
And it’s make your own arrangements when you bury in the night.

Can we draw any conclusions?

Mine would be that this is more the South African War than India. It’s very much akin to Kipling’s The Absent-Minded Beggar and the like. My assumed time-frame for this scrap (about 1898-1899) puts it too late for the First Boer War (1880-81) and a trifle too early for the Second, bigger War (October 1899 to 1902).

Clearly, too, it derives from first-hand experience. When I introduced the classic Anglo-Scottish ballad to lower-school classes, we would draw up a list of characteristics. One was the lack of empathy and emotion: the harsh facts of life are invariably treated quite objectively — it’s the Walter Scotts who embroider with sentiment.

Anyway, I offer Make Your Own Arrangements to all and sundry. I don’t claim for it any deep literary merit. I trust that, entrusted to these little electrony things it may have better chance of lift than the faded and fragile cheap paper on which it currently exists.

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The East Coast Mainline (ECML) from London, King’s Cross, to the North and Scotland ought to be one of the simplest franchising operations (and in that apparent simplicity may rest its essential fault).

I’m starting from a personal prejudice, but I’m facing real insanities:

  • Under nationalised British Rail, there never was enough finance to do the decent thing, and bring the British rail system up to the better continental provision.
  • While some pruning was undoubtedly required, the Beeching axe went too deep into the real timber.
  • In the Thatcher years, the entire network was starved of funds, and declined into a national disgrace.
  • The British government’s interpretation of EU Directive 91/440 (separating operations and infrastructure) was masochistic to an extreme.
  • The first privatisation measure — the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Act 1993 — was an ominous fore-runner of the ‘King Henry VIII’ measure to which each subsequent government has happily aspired. The Minister was granted the authority to sell off any and every bit of land and loose property in sight.
  • The 1992 government of John Major disdained common sense, and went for the over-complex plan conjured up in considerable ignorance (but with stacks of neo-liberal ideological purity) by the Adam Smith Institute.
  • The 1993 Railways Act generated the most labyrinthine and bizarre structures imaginable: something like a hundred different companies, and a slew of regulatory bodies, all intended to insult the ministry from inevitable fall-out.
  • Robert Adley, who knew something about railways, properly anticipated rail privatisation as a poll-tax on wheels. Not only have fare-hikes been ruinous, and indefensible, but the contracting franchisees have made every effort to fleece and exacerbate the public. It is no longer allowed, on the whole, to buy a ticket from A to B: it has to be a specific company’s service. All  kinds of anomaly apply: I discovered (for one example) that a return from north London to Gatwick Airport was beyond debate: it had to be two separate transactions, at two different fares. Just yesterday I found that Stansted Airport to York was considerably more expensive than Stansted Airport to Peterborough and Peterborough to York, even though I’d be using exactly the same route and riding exactly the same trains.

And that brings me to the immediate problem:

  • The first franchise (seven years from April 1996, first extended to 2005, and then let run until 2007 — by which time Sea Containers was in administration) for the  ECML was awarded to Sea Containers, as the Great North Eastern Railway. To be fair, for a decade GNER ran a decent, customer-friendly operation, as a dark-blue and gold livery and the slogan The route of the Flying Scotsman. Then Sea Containers went bust, and we had the first assertion that there had been ‘over-bidding’ to win the contract.
  • The second franchise (from December 2007) went to National Express East Coast. The transition to a grey-and-white livery signified a change to something far more mundane than GNER in its pomp. From the start it seemed clear that National Express’s bid of £1.4 billion was way over-the-top. That lasted just two years.
  • By November 2009 (with a General Election looming) it was time for a direct intervention by government. So we got the third iteration: Directly Operated Railways, selling itself as East Coast. This generated quite an amount of customer-affection (encouraged by loyalty schemes and imaginative engine-namings) and repaid a billion to the Treasury over the period of the franchise.
  • Since direct-operation was anathema to the Coalition government, there was then a further franchising auction. The winner was branded as Virgin East Coast (VTEC), but the reality was 90% ownership by Stagecoach, on the promise of £140 million investment in the route, and £3.3 billion to the Exchequer over the eight-year deal. Those numbers raised eyebrows among the more astute bean-counters. So we got the aggressive red Virgin branding and the usual Bransonesque hullaballoo. Very quickly the gilt was coming off the gingerbread. Corners were cut: promises were delayed. Within two years passenger numbers were dodgy, and revenues down 11%. Two years after grand announcements, the Hitachi-built Azuma Class 800 trains remain a ECML mirage.

Now we are entering the second age of Directly Operated Railways on the ECML. After the previous permutations of names, we track back to 31st December 1947 and London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). In Britain this is how ‘progress’ works.

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The ebb and flow of power

This one interested me:

It echoes one of the earliest lessons taught me, by page 84 of Michael Foot’s biography (volume 1) of Nye Bevan:

Forgive the pencilled underlining: that book has been with me since 28 May 1964 (as it says on the fly-leaf).

The little superscript ‘1’ takes us to Hansard, where Nye’s description of elusive political power takes us all the way from Tredegar to the green leather benches of the Commons:

I have spent now more than a quarter of a century of my life in public affairs, and as I grow older I become more and more pessimistic. I started—if the House will forgive me this personal note—my career in public affairs in a small colliery town in South Wales. When I was quite a young boy my father took me down the street and showed me one or two portly and complacent looking gentlemen standing at the shop doors, and, pointing to one, he said, “Very important man. That’s Councillor Jackson. He’s a very important man in this town.” I said, “What’s the Council?” “Oh, that’s the place that governs the affairs of this town,” said my father. “Very important place indeed, and they are very powerful men.” When I got older I said to myself,, “The place to get to is the council. That’s where the power is.” So I worked very hard, and, in association with my fellows, when I was about 20 years of age, I got on to the council. I discovered when I got there that the power had been there, but it had just gone. So I made some inquiries, being an earnest student of social affairs, and I learned that the power had slipped down to the county council. That was as where it was, and where it had gone to. So I worked very hard again, and I got there—and it had gone from there too. Then I found out that it had come up here. So I followed it, and sure enough I found that it had been here, but I just saw its coat tails round the corner.

‘Tis the old story …

I’d guess, on second thoughts, I’d heard it somewhere a couple of years earlier than buying that biography — in a long-lost Penguin paperback, George Woodcock on Anarchism:

[Anselme] Bellegarrigue appears to have been a man of some education, but little is known of his life before the very eve of 1848; he arrived back in Paris on February 23 from a journey in the United States, where he had met President Polk on a Mississippi steamer and had developed an admiration for the more individualistic aspects of American democracy. According to his own account, he was as little impressed as Proudhon by the revolution that broke out on his first morning back in Paris. A young National Guardsman outside the Hôtel de Ville boasted to him that this time the workers would not be robbed of their victory. “They have robbed you already of your victory,” replied Bellegarrigue. “Have you not named a government?”

Which brings us back to contemporary realities.

The Great Mistake

There was this referendum, Thursday 23 June 2016, when the Great British Public were invited to opine on:

Despite the 51.89/48.11% ‘majority’ to ‘leave’ (with 27.79% of the electorate abstaining), since then we have been stuck with a ‘decision’ which showed nothing as much as how the UK is fragmented, by social class, by nationality, and by distance from Westminster:

Add to that the failure of any political party to achieve a majority in the 2017 General Election, and we see why we need to revisit Nye Bevan’s pursuit of power, responsibility and democratic accountability. And not to accept, as Bellegarrigue wouldn’t, that the appointment of a ‘government’  ended all discussion.

Sooner or later, the Big Issue of how (and even if) the UK breaks with the EU will come back to the Commons. Then we shall see if, indeed power have been stripped from the Cabinet Room (and the party Whips) to the House of Commons (and individual MPs’ consciences).


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A decent pastiche

A pub, a very decent one, for a liquid lunch with the Lady in my Life.

Shelf of books — those Oxfam rejects which are supposed to set the mood. The mood in this case being ‘pretentious and venerable’.

The locale would be one of those ‘knock apart a decent ageing boozer and build something cheap, faster, and ostensibly older’. Except this is in the basement/kitchen of what is in any case a fine eighteenth century pile.

Anyway, here I have in my hand an 1898 Barrack-Room Ballads. Sadly, only a Fourteenth Edition. Grand autograph across title page:


If only Laura had been a trifle neater: this was an ‘un-cut’ original, and her knife work has left very ragged edges. On the other hand, this is a copy that has been well-loved, and annotated. The page-marker is a flyer for London theatres, with A Runaway Girl at the Gaiety, and Her Royal Highness at the Vaudeville. Nothing, so far, to suggest this hasn’t been folded into the book since it was bought bran-new:

Scan 1.jpeg

Oh, look, a cousin of Donald Sinden!

However, the real find is pasted into the fly-leaf:


Once upon a time I could invoke upon myself the furies of any Staff Room’s young feminists by admitting a penchant for Kipling. Believe me: he — like Jessica Rabbit — wasn’t bad, but many just drew him that way. And the girls hadn’t bothered to understand what is the context of:

a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

And, that pasted clipping — accompanying a fair lunch — is also a decent pastiche.

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