Monthly Archives: January 2020

A very unstable review

I have not read Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book A Very Stable Genius. Indeed, I doubt I would bother, apart from a quick flick. I have read several reviews: none were entirely impressed or sufficiently enthusing to make me want to spend time, money and effort acquiring a text which seems to add little to what we hear otherwise about the on-going three-ring circus that is the Trump presidency.

Even so, I was taken aback by the assurance with which Justin Webb began his piece in today’s The [London] Times:

I would so like to read a book about what the Democrats are up to. Why they seem so keen to fade angrily into history as their nation burns around them. Why they are so cross with each other that Hillary Clinton said, this week, that she could not at the moment commit herself to endorsing Bernie Sanders if he gets the nomination. This is real history, folks. This is where the talents of investigative reporters ought to be focused.

But I digress. Instead of that book we are presented with another of these breathless inside-the-Trump-White-House takes. The good news, I suppose, is that it is worth reading because we have years of Donald Trump still to come. The bad news is, well, the same.

The first of those paragraphs amounts to “Nothing to see here, folks! Look over there!”

The second and we have years of Donald Trump still to come anticipates the outcome of the first Tuesday after the first Monday this November (that’s Election Day).

All this under the all-revealing sub-header:

uncouth, unhinged, but holding on. Donald Trump’s behaviour is awful, but the prissy tone here almost tempts Justin Webb to side with the president

Almost? Aw, c’mon! Webb falls for the whole Trump schtick. We learn that Trump is a.k.a. the orange-skinned one — now where have we not had that revelation previously? Then to the confirmation hearings on Justice Kavanaugh, and we are told to feel for Trump on very specious grounds:

You may remember that Kavanaugh came to the Supreme Court via a set of Senate hearings that count among the most dramatic seen in Washington. Trump backed him in spite of allegations of sexual assault, made to senators on live TV by Christine Blasey Ford.

The authors are sniffy about the Trump fightback. They point out that the allegations were serious and credible. It is obvious that they believe her, or want to. But of course what she said was not proven and for many Americans (including the mothers of sons who might one day face similar unproven allegations at university or in later life) the matter was not settled.

What about the mothers of daughters who might one day face similar sexual assaults at university or in later life? Trump has personal form here. He has on his charge sheet:

26 incidents of “unwanted sexual contact” and 43 instances of inappropriate behaviour.

Next up, Trump’s confrontation with his military élite:

He does not, the book tells us, get on with his generals. We already knew this, because quite a few generals have fled the battlefield of his administration. One scene in A Very Stable Genius has received the full open-mouthed horror treatment on America’s left-wing TV channels: the shocking moment he derides America’s generals as “dopes and babies”, and says: “I wouldn’t go to war with you people.”

Err, no, Mr Webb. No US general has fled the battlefield: don’t over-egg your pudding. Several have quit government service because their Commander-in-Chief was intolerable. But that has to be topped by another Webb hyperbole:

Hilariously, given the left’s previously uneasy relationship with American military might, the generals are now regarded by the Democrats (and enemies of Trump, like the authors of this book) as stable geniuses whose every move is judicious and internationalist.

Do come off it. The fresh account of the meeting in July 2017, in which secretary of state Rex Tillerson stands up to Trump when none of the generals dare to, is meant to make the reader fall even harder for the square-jawed chaps in uniform and despise the draft-dodger-in-chief.

The hilarity is side-splitting. There might, perchance, be very good reasons why square-jawed chaps in uniform wouldn’t spit on the deck or talk back to the captain.

According to the book, this is the argument that Trump makes: “He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a ‘loser war’. That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander-in-chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war. ‘You’re all losers,’ Trump said. ‘You don’t know how to win any more.’”

Trump is being told how to ‘win’ in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Since last November he has Frank Wuco whispering in his ear. Wuco is another graduate of shock-jock radio. He is prone to any variety of conspiracy theories: that Obama was not US-born, that former CIA Director John Brennan converted to Islam, that Hillary Clinton’s one-time aide Huma Abedin is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, that former Attorney General Eric Holder was a Black Panther member. So Wuco knows how to deal with Afghanistan:

My preference would have been to have dropped a couple of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons over Afghanistan the day after 9/11 to send a definite message to the world that they had screwed up in a big way.

Wuco is now senior adviser at the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Trump would somehow go even further than Wuco:

On Aug. 20, Trump repeated his talking point that the U.S. military could kill 10 million people in Afghanistan within a week, adding “this is not using nuclear [weapons].”

A variation of that was he could win the Afghan war in just 10 days by wiping out Afghanistan but did not want to kill 10 million people.

If anyone is in doubt that Trump is a nuke-enthusiast, let it be recalled he has suggested their use in weather control:

Donald Trump has reportedly suggested on more than one occasion that the US military should bomb hurricanes in order to disrupt them before they make landfall.

According to US news website Axios, the president said in a meeting with top national security and homeland security officials about the threat of hurricanes: “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?”

“They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?”

Quoting unnamed sources who were present at the meeting, Axios report that the response from one official was “We’ll look into this.”

There’s another official who knows his/her place and refrains from deck-spitting and back-chatting.

Eventually Webb winds his way to a querulous conclusion:

Can he do “almost anything”? Will he, if re-elected in November? A former official is quoted: “This is a presidency of one . . . unleashed, unchained, unhinged.” A constitutional expert adds: “The law has no force without people willing to enforce it.” So who are they? Where are they? A Very Stable Genius, like all these books, ends with this plaintive thought.

A rather dodgy book, but a very unsatisfactory review — except for a Rupert Murdoch vehicle.


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Sartor Resartus

a.k.a. ‘the tailor retailored

Admittedly, for a modern reader, Carlyle’s convoluted (deliberately so) expression is tough going. Here’s his starter:

Considering our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about, with more or less effect, for five thousand years and upwards; how, in these times especially, not only the Torch still burns, and perhaps more fiercely than ever, but innumerable Rushlights, and Sulphur-matches, kindled thereat, are also glancing in every direction, so that not the smallest cranny or dog-hole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated, — it might strike the reflective mind with some surprise that hitherto little or nothing of a fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes.

So, unless it’s ‘required reading’ for one’s present course of study, good luck with that.

Instead, let us ponder on this:

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of the Washington Post, had no reason to be suspicious when he received a WhatsApp message from the account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in May 2018.

As a result, and as the whole world now knows, Bezos was well and truly hacked. Not the greatest of the fall-outs being the exposure of Bezos’ infidelity, and the collapse of his quarter-century-long marriage. And, somewhere along the line, a correspondent of the Washington Post was brutally murdered by thugs employed by the royal alleged hacker-in-chief.

One’s sympathy ought to be entirely with Bezos. Except:

7 Ways Amazon Uses Big Data to Stalk You (AMZN)

That’s worth a read, too.

The up-date on that Guardian scoop is, if anything, even more eyebrow-lifting:

Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, said in a letter to Bezos that the alleged breach of the billionaire’s phone “appears to be part of a growing trend”, citing reports that Saudi Arabia had acquired cyber-hacking capabilities from Hacking Team, based in Italy, and Israel’s NSO Group.

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Keeping my spirits up

Just had an entertaining exchange with ‘terence patrick hewett’ (one of the few, we precious few, readers of the wit and wisdom purveyed here). The profound topic was neeps. Read it here.

By coincidence I was pursuing the topic of food and drink, courtesy of time-travelling Ian Mortimer. To be precise, this from the late seventeenth century:

Distilling is an ancient art but unknown in Britain until the late Middle Ages. Even then it was not employed for recreational drinking but for medicinal purposes. Apothecaries distilled concoctions in which plants had been dissolved in order to obtain their essence. Sometimes they produced ‘strong water’ or aquavitae, which is close to pure alcohol. It was the Dutch who gave us our first recreational spirit. In the late sixteenth century people (including English soldiers in the Low Countries) took a liking to drinking genever (gin) distilled from the juice of juniper berries.

That’s worth prodding (the Prod bit comes along in a moment) and probing.

The gin phenomenon

When I served my adolescent apprenticeship behind the public bar, there was only one usual gin — Gordon’s. Which was, invariably served with Schweppes tonic water. We could, already, have a debate on why one of those comes with the possessive apostrophe and the other without. But allow me to pass swiftly on.

Any pub worth its salt will now offer dozens of gins, each dignified as a local product or infused with any additive one might conceive. I can easily see the attraction to a producer of gin: it can be sold direct from the still, while whisky is required to be vatted for several years.

Everyone to their own: my occasional pre-prandial is what I started on, six decades gone.

The hard stuff

I’m happy with Professor Mortimer’s linkage of gin with the Dutch influence.

The rude English soldiery were deployed in the Netherlands in the ‘Eighty Years’ War’ in 1587 — that was after the English garrisons at Zutphen and elsewhere had ‘defected’ to the Spanish (odd how such things are elided from English history). So it is credible a taste for gin began there.

There is some proof in The Merry devill of Edmonton (a bit of dubious Shakespeareana from c. 1604):

HOST: Ha, my Castilian dialogues! and art thou in breath still, boy? Miller, doth the match hold? Smith, I see by thy eyes thou hast been reading HOST. Ha, my Castilian dialogues! and art thou in breath still, boy? Miller, doth the match hold? Smith, I see by thy eyes thou hast been reading little Geneva print: but wend we merrily to the forest, to steal some of the king’s Deer. I’ll meet you at the time appointed: away, I have Knights and Colonels at my house, and must tend the Hungarions. If we be scard in the forest, we’ll meet in the Church-porch at Enfield; ist Correspondent?: but wend we merrily to the forest, to steal some of the king’s Deer. I’ll meet you at the time appointed: away, I have Knights and Colonels at my house, and must tend the Hungarions. If we be scard in the forest, we’ll meet in the Church-porch at Enfield; ist Correspondent?

That may have been a rib-tickler at the Globe, but the reference to reading little Geneva print needs explaining to us moderns. ‘Geneva print’ was italic, rather than English black press. The implication here is that squinting at this alien type face was akin to being drunk on gin/geneva. Philip Massinger is recycling the Merry devill metaphor, specifically to mean the drink, in The Duke of Milan, usually dated to the early 1620s:

If the bells
Ring out of tune, as if the street were burning,
And he cry, “’Tis rare music!” bid him sleep:
‘Tis a sign he has ta’en his liquor; and if you meet
An officer preaching of sobriety,
Unless he read it in Geneva print,
Lay him by the heels.

Along the same lines, there’s the good English term ‘boozing’. That’s around by the late sixteenth-century: it’s certainly in Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penilesse (1592), when he hears the complainants against play-houses — that thesps keep customers away from pubs:

if there were no Playes, they should haue all the companie that resort to them, lye bowsing and beere-bathing in their houses euery after-noone.

The OED attributes the derivation as another Dutch import, and again at the time-moment I’m addressing:

Middle English bousen, apparently < Middle Dutch bûsen, early modern Dutch buizen to drink to excess, corresponding to German bausen in same sense. The origin is not quite clear: Kluge takes the German verb to be derived < baus , Middle High German bûs blown-up condition, tumidity; but the Dutch seems directly related to buise a large drinking-vessel. Both verb and noun occur (once) in Middle English; but they seem to have become generally known in 16th cent. as words of thieves’ and beggars’ cant, whence they passed into slang and colloquial use.

Illicit stuff …

There’s a further implication there. ‘Geneva print’ would be the small type used in protestant prayer-books and tracts imported — illegally — through the Netherlands. As I appreciate, both gin and puritan propaganda were the contraband smuggled into English south and east coast ports. Kipling (dating it a century or more later) made a story of that:

If you do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
You’ll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood —
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark —
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie —
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

That sets another hare a-racing: not just ‘geneva’ (for the lower orders) but French brandy arrived via those early booze-cruises.

Sadly, none of the writers I have immediately to hand (e.g. Lisa Jardine) abase themselves to discuss Dutch drinking habits. ‘Jenever’ or ‘Geneva’ (and hence ‘gin’) is clearly known in English well before its supposed invention by Franciscus Sylvius de Bouve (1614-1672). Still, I wondering whether the Dutch of the seven United Provinces took to gin as the patriotic alternative to (French) brandy. Meanwhile, in England the distinction remained more class-based.

1608 and all that

There’s one last winding to this skein: whisk(e)y.

Here again there are sources other than the estimable Ian Mortimer. If distilling spirits for human consumption only became commonplace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we must puzzle at the Scottish Exchequer, in 1494 (Vol x, p. 487), accounting for about a fifth of a ton:

eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae.

I doubt that James IV of Scotland needed that amount of spirit for embrocation. Scotland, then, had a distilling tradition by the fifteenth century. We can argue whether Brother John of Lindores Abbey was the only true begetter or was merely applying what was common practice. And also wonder whether the saintly monk had provided for medicinal purposes, only for his royal customers to apply it for (in Mortimer’s term) recreational drinking. We can certainly see the Scottish Court liked the product, from a succession of later purchases.

I have finally arrived at my hero of the hour: Sir Thomas Phillips. Of whom very little is firmly established. Fortunately he crossed the horizon of the Great Theo Moody who wrote his doctoral thesis from the records of The Society of the Governor and Assistants, London, of the New Plantation in Ulster – the combine of London liveried companies that financed the Planation of Ulster.

Phillips was one of the conquistadors,  the ‘servitors’ who put down Tyrone’s Rebellion (‘the Nine Years’ War’ of 1593-1603). For his services Phillips was knighted, received his coat-of-arms in October 1600, and was enfeoffed with a large land-holding in and around Limavady. His immigrant, dour, less-than-strict-Covenanter, Scots-Irish tenants would have needed a touch of home to warm their cockles of a chilly Derry night. On April 20th 1608, King James I granted Phillips a licence to distil — and this, claims the Bushmills Distillery, is why it puts that date on every bottle.

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The word of the day: page 858 of my Concise Duden.

Simply German for ‘press’, ‘pressure’, and so ‘print’ and ‘printing’.

How did I get there?

Where does that take me?

Well, a couple of imponderables.

Did the Germanic word come across into [Old] English? There are, after all, a series of words connected with the idea of drep (a stroke, a blow) and drepan  (to hit, smite, overcome, even kill) which is there in Beowulf:

Þonne ic sweorde drep ferhðgeniðlan.

In my immediate and present context, Druck has a specific context:

Scan 1.jpegWhat to do with a redundant medieval mill, complete with water wheel? The burghers of Basle turned it into an extra-ordinary hands-on museum. Well, it didn’t need much ‘turning into’. The building seems to have become redundant as the old wheat mill of Klingental monastery and adapted to make paper around 1453.

Hold it right there!

image.pngIn 1439 Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (one can see how he became stuck with a place for a recognisable name) put together a number of existing technologies: the press, oil-based inks, but — above all — using a mould to make lead characters in negative (rather than wooden, hand-carved blocks). The last item there is the true ‘invention’, rather than an application of existing knowledge. Moveable type anticipated mass-production and interchangeable parts by three centuries.

Printing was such a revolutionary technology emigré Germans spread it across Europe with astounding rapidity. And one of their first stop-overs, straight up the River Rhine, was Basel.

The explosion of education wasn’t entirely the direct result of printing — though the two went hand-in-hand. Something had already happened to break the absolute monopoly of ecclesiastical schools. Literacy was already spreading through society, and with it the need for paper.


It’s such a universal commodity that it comes as a small wonder to find the word appears in English only in the mid-fourteenth century. Chaucer, an early adopter, has it in his Troilus & Criseyde, so in the 1380s:

Youre lettres ful, the papir al ypleynted,
Conceyved hath myn hertes pietee.

Paper (rather than parchment or papyrus) originated in China, and was then adopted throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Islamic Spain, the Al-Andalus, was using and making its own paper from the eleventh century. From there the making of and use of paper escaped over the Pyrenees into France. One version has twelfth-century Arab prisoners near Ferrara producing the highest quality of paper: again that was applying existing technologies — stamping hammers driven by a water-mill to pulverise animal skins and rags, sizing, and ‘inventing’ the watermark by impressing them into the mould from which the paper was drawn.

Basler Papiermühle

The entire story of paper and all its uses (the toilet area is especially instructive) is told in the three stories of the Paper Mill.

In the basement we start with the steeping of rags. This was very unhealthy, and therefore the place where women were employed.

The process continues with pounding and then skimming the mush into moulds, draining them off, and drying a sheet at a time. This is a hands-on bit — and the Paper Mill plays it up with water-marking to suit the moment. We were there at the time of the World Cup, so footballs were a favoured motif. A bit of cheating, then: the drying process is accelerated by heating, so the eager-student can be despatched with her/his ready-made sheet o.f personally handmade paper.


In the floors above one can explore the act of impressing slugs of type onto paper, marbling paper (this one always gets me — oils onto fluid, a discreet stir, a quick drench — and a thing of beauty is produced) — watching antique machines (and some not so)  at work. Finally, at the top of the mill, there is book-binding and the final product. The whole publishing process in one place: unmissable,

The take-away

No museum is complete without a catch-penny souvenir shop. Across the alleyway the Paper Mill does the tourist-fleecing proudly, and painlessly.

We came away with more Druck that is our norm. All nicely wrapped. She had her calligraphic pen and ink. I had my drafting pencil (for crosswords). And then there were the greetings cards: chose one from a selection of classic fonts —


I came away with that and Fraktur. They frame up nicely.


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The optics of fibre

Time for a bit of electronic Luddism.

This blog comes to the wider world — all two dozen of you — courtesy of Virgin Media. Or should that be Liberty Global (the parent company), originally of Denver CO?

Our relationship with Virgin goes back several iterations. In the beginning there was Cable London and a basic lightweight coax cable (rough laid and unprotected, 2-3 inches below the soil level of our front garden, and awaiting the first severing spade). That was taken over by Telewest, which merged with NTL. That was re-branded under the omni-present Virgin label a few years later. When we removed to Redfellow Hovel, we took that contract with us — and, to be fair, the delivery speed has improved rather faster than the increases in billing costs.

Right now our street is having a minor re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme. York is a guinea-pig for a full fibre to the Premises (FTTP) broadband network. This is the third set of excavations in the last few months, so — like it or lump it — we are used to the noise and inconveniences.

This is despite the street being (apparently) served — at least adequately — by Virgin Media, BT and other hangers-on. Added to which, the Big Brother behind York’s UFO (huh!) is TalkTalk — the spin-off from Carphone Warehouse (shoveller of cash to the Tory Party) and regularly Which? magazine’s worst-rated provider.

A moment of reflection

I remember, when British Telecom was being privatised — so that’s all the way back to 1984. Lest we forget: privatisation, which was the other event of the Thatcherite era, was not a ‘manifesto’ commitment. It sort of ’emerged’. The 1979 Tory manifesto promised only:

to reduce waste and bureaucracy in order to improve efficiency. Although the nationalised industries were seen as prime examples of inefficient enterprises, the Conservative Party manifesto from that year only stated the desire to return the recently nationalised aerospace and shipbuilding concerns to private ownership.

By 1983 the Tory promise was to privatise a range of operations, and specifically British Telecomms. After 320 hours of parliamentary debate (the biggest single time commitment on any measure since the Second World War) the Tories had their Telecommunications Act 1984.

Common carrier

One — to me, convincing — argument was that BT, privatised or not, should become a ‘common carrier’. This is a common law definition: a ‘common carrier’ is obliged to convey goods and persons from place to place, for a fee, and is responsible for loss or injury. The ‘common carrier’ has limited powers to refuse transactions, and is subject to official regulation. A taxi company is a ‘common carrier’. So, to my surprise, is Disneyland in the US.

Had that simple decision been good enough, doubtless there would have had to be excavations for BT to lay fibre-optic cable. And from time-to-time to rip it out and replumb the cable lines. In other words, a competent installer would have popped down a manhole to pull out the old and replace with the new. As a bonus, rural broadband would have been included as a statutory obligation.

The myth of competition

Instead, our street is about to get a second or third bit of infra-structure, each installation duplicating and triplicating and eventually multiplicating the original.

My present installation is delivering telephone, cable television and broadband down a single cable. The power and water suppliers want me to install remote metering. I could — and probably will — have a video entry feed for the front door. I’m suffering age-related deafness, so a bluetooth speaker and earphones makes sense — and uses the in-house wifi signals. There’s the Freeview digital terrestrial feed to each tv receiver: that’s already providing many times Bruce Springsteen’s 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) from 1992. I remember trying that, c.1994, in a New York hotel: even then The Boss had understated. We inherited a satellite dish, so I rigged a Freesat feed, which takes the number of options into many hundreds. One way and another, I can watch rugby with a Welsh commentary, and camogie in Scots Gaelic. If that generates excessive ennui, there’s always the cable movie channels. Enough, already.

How is this FTTP service going to improve my lifestyle?

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‘Extreme forms of government sooner or later become unacceptable’.

Thus Ian Mortimer, unexceptionally introducing 1660 in The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain.

Marston Moor

  • Lies a few miles west of Redfellow Hovel, here in York.
  • Pass it regularly on the way to #2 daughter and family in Harrogate.
  • Always spare a passing thought — though the memorial (as left), along the Tockwith Road is not visible from the parallel A59.

Just now, though, we need to by-pass Rachel Sylvester, writing a piece for today’s [London] Times:

The enduring divide in British politics is not between left and right, liberal and authoritarian, or an open or closed approach to globalisation; it goes back to the English civil war and the clash between Roundheads and Cavaliers. The tension is as much about character as ideology and pits the revolutionary puritanism of Oliver Cromwell against the fun-loving individualism of the royalists. As Isaac Foot, the Liberal MP and nonconformist father of the Labour leader Michael Foot, once put it: “I judge a man by one thing: which side would he have liked his ancestors to fight on at Marston Moor?” This is the question that Labour members should now be asking as they prepare to vote in the leadership contest.

Sylvester’s essential thought, after some contrived character assassinations, is that:

Policy and personality matter in a leadership contest but so does attitude. There is every reason for the left to feel sorrow after a devastating defeat but if Labour wants to win again its next leader needs to rediscover some joy.

Of bungs, bongs and embuggerances

That, of course, is all part of the Murdoch and Boris Johnson assuring the masses all is going to be for the best in the best of all possible #Brexits.  Yet, we all, individually and collectively, will be marked down for treason, unless we each bung a bob for a Big Ben bong to scrape together a mere half mill.

So let there be no lingering memory of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen:

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!’

The brooch had come undone as she spoke, and a sudden gust of wind blew the Queen’s shawl across a little brook. The Queen spread out her arms again, and went flying after it, and this time she succeeded in catching it for herself. ‘I’ve got it!’ she cried in a triumphant tone. ‘Now you shall see me pin it on again, all by myself!’

What comes to my mind is the mythical angel who manifests itself to declaim: Be of good cheer! Look up! For — lo! things could get far worse! So we were of good cheer. We looked up. And — lo! things surely got worse.

Yep: no matter how they are dressed up, those trade figures, the economic slowdown, the dismal industrial lack-of-growth and the promise of more imminent redundancies are distinctly uncheering.

The Isaac Foot dichotomy

I recall encountering that through a polished review, by Ian Gilmour in the London Review of Books. Gilmour’s topic was Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations, the English Civil War and the Passions of Prosperity.

Gilmour ahems! with a neat dig at John Dryden — composing his apprentice effort, Heroique Stanza’s, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory of his most Serene and Renowned Highnesse Oliver Late Lord Protector of this Common Wealth, in September 1658, then turning his coat to smooze restored Charles II Stuart barely two years later. Gilmour then sketches:

… the downs and ups not just of Cromwell’s reputation but that of the Roundheads from the 17th to the 20th century. Until fairly recently Civil War feelings remained high. ‘We are Cavaliers or Roundheads, before we are Conservatives or Liberals,’ the historian Lecky pronounced in 1892. And not long afterwards, Isaac Foot, the father of Michael and a firm Cromwellian, used to ‘judge a man by one thing: “Which side would he have liked his ancestors to fight on at Marston Moor?”’

How can I deny TCD-man William Edward Hartpole Lecky? And that is the fount whence Sylvester drinks her fill.

Swings and roundabouts

Here it becomes personal, pointed and perverse. A distant ancestor, on 22 November 1645, John Piggott of Abington Piggotts, just into Cambridgeshire, ‘compounded for delinquency‘ under the Parliamentarians. In other words he was fined a year’s income on his estate, some £203 value per annum. To earn that penalty suggests Piggott was not just known for his Royalism, but had been ‘out’ in the King’s service — possibly even at Marston Moor (2 July 1644).

Nor can I ignore the horrific atrocities Cromwell and his ultras inflicted on Ireland — and, yes, there would seem to be collaterals from the family involved there. At least one Piggott was with James II Stuart at the Battle of the Boyne.

On the rare occasions I’m in Westminster,  on the corner of Parliament Square and — err — Abingdon Street, I can see the statue of Cromwell one way, and the small bust of Charles I Stuart on the back wall of St Margaret’s the other. Doomed, for as long as masonry survives, to exchange stony stares. Abingdon Street was named for James Bertie, a major landlord in Oxfordshire who inherited huge estates from his mother, machinated them and his family connections for political power under the Restoration, as a mate and supporter of Charles II Stuart, and so was ennobled as Earl of Abingdon. To those that have shall be given.

Closer to the real business?

Where Rachel Sylvester’s effort becomes more than a vamp on ancient divisions comes here:

One former Labour frontbencher argues that a naturally Roundhead party is most successful when it is led by a Cavalier. “There’s a sense of ‘eat your greens’ and a disappointment with society that’s always been there on the left so it needs to be balanced by mood of positivity and modernisation at the top.”

That is certainly what Harold Wilson did when he promised to harness the “white heat of technology” in 1963. The monarchist, who is said to have been one of the Queen’s favourite prime ministers, smoked a pipe in public to burnish his man-of-the-people credentials but in private preferred cigars. Mr Blair, who also won three elections, embraced the City, championed the “conservatory-building classes” and liberalised the licensing and gambling laws. His ally Peter Mandelson famously declared that New Labour was “supremely relaxed” about people being “filthy rich” so long as they paid their taxes. The party’s electoral strategist Philip Gould wrote that Blairism was “rooted not in Labour’s traditional industrial heartlands but in the sprawling suburbs of an emerging middle class”.

I don’t instantly recognise the former Labour frontbencher with the herbivorous advice, but the said to have been one of the Queen’s favourite prime ministers is plainly lifted from Peter Morgan, particularly the 2013 play, The Audience. The text of the Broadway version is here. In the spirit of first as tragedy (the context below is 1964) and then as farce (post-#Brexit Britain — and the ‘trade deficit’, which is rarely mentioned for obvious reasons, is now £6.5 billion), I extract this from Morgan:

Wilson: “Not done.” “Not acceptable.” “Don’t bring your children.” “Don’t bring your wife.” “DO wear top hat and tails”. (A beat.) I don’t even own a top hat and tails.

Elizabeth: Whatever did you get married in?

Wilson: A church. (Stops, apologises …) Forgive my impertinence, ma’am.  I’m a simple man, intimidated by my surroundings. (Hesitates …) My nerves are also an indication of the hopelessness of the situation.

Elizabeth: Which situation?

Wilson: The one I find myself in. Four seats! Whatever am I to do with a majority like that!

Elizabeth: The danger of winning a protest vote is — you tend to inherit the mess which people have protested against.

Wilson: And what a mess those Conservatives left us. What a diseased and poisoned appendix of a small and unrepresentative section of society. And what havoc they wreaked. Soaring land and house prices. Race riots. Sex scandals. Large-scale unemployment. Rejection from the EEC and an annual trade deficit of £800 million.

When Sylvester cites Philip Gould, she is on the button. There’s much froth about Labour ‘losing’ its northern ‘heartlands’. That’s a truism yet to be proven in any longer term than the Boris Johnson/#Brexit honeymoon. For all that, the natural Labour voter no longer the former industrial ‘working class’. Such died with the Thatcher purge. Today she/he is the low-paid, low-esteemed suburban commuter, lumbered with massive student debts, living in a shared rental, spending several hours each day to-and-fro a city-centre employment as a over-qualified technician, paper-pusher, or auxiliary, and with an income not far above legal minimums.

As Mortimer, in that link with which I headlined, continued:

The collapse of the [Cromwellian] Commonwealth is thus perhaps an inevitability. Its demise is helped by economic turbulence, which makes people question whether Puritanism [or, read Boris Johnson’s Kraft durch Freude] is truly the right and godly path.

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