There was a time when 'bankers' was another word for 'wankers', giving the followers of Onan a bad name. A posh word masquerading for the vernacular.
'Bankers' is in my mind because I have just watched the first part of Lucan, the ITV dramatisation of John Pearson's book The Gamblers which profiles the late James Goldsmith, John Aspinall and Lord 'Lucky' Lucan, self-styled members of the Clermont Set.
Rory Kinnear, who plays Lucan, says the play portrays him as a generous, kindly man who lost his way when he lost custody of his children. Lucan, of course, went missing after killing his children's nanny in 1974, mistaking her for his wife.
I think the actor may have been trying to mitigate criticism of the play by members of the Lucan family and the family of the murdered nanny, for I found most of the Clermont Set - as dramatised - detestable. Selfish, conniving, ruthless, with an embedded belief that the natural order of things gave men like themselves special privileges without obligation. To put it another way: shits.
Years ago, when I read The Spectator in the cherished delusion that I was improving my mind, I'd read about these special people who occupied this other world, in the column High Life by Taki Theodoracopoulos. Quite what the fascination was I no longer understand because I haven't given a thought to either The Speccy or to Taki for many years; and restrospective honesty shouldn't be trusted too readily.
But in the way of connecting one thing with another, a plausible mental past-time but not always reliable either, I'm inclined to see the international jet-setters and trend-setters that Taki loved to gossip and bitch about as representatives of the same class as the Clermont Set, monstrosities who thought they had grand seigneurial rights to lord it over those lower down the food chain. 'Bankers', in other words.
The damage inflicted on the world by predatory alpha males, as they regard themselves, is all too evident. Google up the BBC and see for yourself: Lloyds Bank fined £28m for the mis-treatment of its own staff, pressurising them to hit targets or else; RBS fined £61m buy US regulators for violating sanctions against Iran betwen 2005-2009; HSBC fined nearly two billion dollars for laundering money for drug lords and 'rogue' nations; Standard Chartered, who paid more than 670 million dollars to US regulators for violating sanctions against Iran. And so on.
Ironic that America should be acting as the arbiter of justice in this when it was US banking, finance and insurance institutions that blitzed the world's economies which in turn led to the Credit Crunch. Last night I revisited Charles Ferguson's film documentary Inside Job, which lays out the case against these institutions and the Ivy League figures who spoke for them - Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan among them. The scale of what happened remains dumbfounding.
What was doubtless portrayed at the time as the freeing up of capitalism became an unregulated free-for-all that would have horrified Adam Smith whose notion of enlightened self-interest in The Wealth of Nations, as far as I am aware, did not include the wrecking of national economies.
Perhaps David Icke has a point. The rulers of the earth are in reality scaly monsters disguised as human beings.
Wednesday, 11 December 2013
There was a time when 'bankers' was another word for 'wankers', giving the followers of Onan a bad name. A posh word masquerading for the vernacular.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
Nelson Mandela wasn't the first Black leader to advocate non-violence, of course. Dr Martin Luther King Junior and others in the United States in the early 1960s took that path in Mississippi and Alabama. The Freedom Riders, the lunch counter protestors, walked into life-threatening danger without hitting back. And before them Gandhi was the trailblazer in India.
When Mandela was released from prison in February, 1990, plenty of people here and I dare say in South Africa looked askance at the hero-worshipping of an African National Congress leader who had been part of the armed struggle against Apartheid: once a terrorist always a terrorist. But the world had changed during all the years that he had spent behind bars. More to the point so had he.
Did he have a sudden conversion like Saul on the road to Damascus? I doubt it. Probably, Mandela's path towards truth and reconciliation was a long one; I dare say there were many dark nights of soul along the way. But he learned about the fears of his oppressors, studied their culture, saw the future through their eyes. While everyone outside the Republic was rowing about economic sanctions or writing eloquently about the blood bath that was to come, Mandela cleared his head of such snagging abstractions.
How much the presence of big figures such as F W de Klerk, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bishop Desmond Tutu and events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism helped change the mind-set in South Africa before Mandela's release I'm not qualified to say. Nor can I assert that his release caused the wind of change to blow more forcefully through hearts and minds in Northern Ireland over the next decade. But something happened that encouraged people to step away from entrenched positions and build a bridge across troubled waters. This has actually happened in Londonderry/Derry.
I remember Denis Healey once saying that Northern Ireland was an intractable problem that defied solution. Plenty of others, I was one of them, felt the same way about South Africa. As for the USSR, well in October 1962, when I was a schoolboy of 13, along with almost everybody else I felt the doomsday clock ticking down towards nuclear Armageddon as John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev faced each other down over Soviet missiles in Cuba and American missiles in Turkey. In my lifetime I have been privileged to witness the unbelievable.
Freedom from tyranny changes people, not always for the better, because once the shackles of oppression are removed people are apt to have expectations that outsiders don't find spirit-stirring. I found this out myself during a couple of talks I gave in Prague in 2006 and 2007. The former was in a high school, the latter was in Charles University. I need not have mugged up on the glories of the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution or the humanity of Vaclav Havel. The young people I addressed were, or so it seemed to me, bored with all that. They were more interested in the latest high tec gadgets, the sexier symbols of Western democracy - the material symbols of liberty that had little interest for me. I felt like hapless Franz in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
I asked a South African colleague at work if his country had made any real advances after Nelson Mandela's term as President. He admitted there were social and economic problems but said the country was changing for the better and encouraged me to go to Cape Town and see for myself. Mandela, it seems to me, astutely avoided setting himself up as a cult figure in the way that Stalin did, who remained in charge for 30 years. Mandela led from the front for long enough to allow the country to adjust to the idea of wholesale change. And then stepped back.
His death at the age of 95 came as no surprise. He had been out of public life for a long time. But as long as he was alive he was something to live up to, I suppose, like a loved uncle you don't want to disappoint. Now that he's gone, it's up to a new generation to make the best of the opportunity that Mandela's generation gave them. I hope they don't cock it up - as the Yugoslavs did after the death of Tito.
Friday, 22 November 2013
In his book The Death of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German Paul Morley with a big handlebar tash, attributed the decline of Western culture to adherence to the values of the Greek god Apollo, the deity representing the things of the mind.
Nietzsche, if you subscribe to this kind of generalisation, thought the West should lean more towards the spirit of Dionysus, the god representing the things of the heart, spontenaity, music, dance, what A A Milne might have described as "here we go and there we are".
Those whose idea of pleasure is to chunder on the streets of foreign holiday resorts may not be what Nietzsche had in mind as followers of Dionysus; for all he had to say about Apollo, he was a high-minded chap who thought the highest cultural expression of his time was the music of Wagner. Music, he thought, was mankind's truest, deepest, expression.
As an old bastard whose priapic years are in the yellow leaf or the minor key, I tend to think that everybody has a little Apollo and a little Dionysus in them. Put another way, we all have a double helix of D 'n' A tendencies. Those who profess to follow the straight and narrow are likeliest to go astray.
Which brings me to the Reverend Paul Flowers. Suspended by the Labour Party, suspended by the Methodist Church he served in Bradford, pursued for back payment by the drug abuse charity the Lifeline Project, arrested by the police, the 63-year-old minister, a florid-faced, less rotund version of the late actor Richard Griffiths, could be said to have let Dionysus get the better of Apollo.
As a public figure he's not turned out to be much of an example to the more troubled among his flock. Instead of rising above his basest instincts he appears to have given in to them, indulging in behaviour which, officially, he would not have approved of. What he got up to as a Bradford Labour councillor and latterly chairman of the Co-op Bank will merely serve to confirm the public's worst opinions about politicians and those associated with banking.
The only thing that surprises me is that anybody is surprised that a man with no experience of banking or finance was permitteed to become the chairman of a bank on £132,000 a year.
Valley-dwelling Bradford, in my experience of public affairs over the past 30 years, has been a haven for mediocrity, self-deception and duplicity. In 2004, the council and its associates managed to persuade themselves that the city was a worthy candidate for European Capital of Culture - the accolade just awarded to Hull. The evening the short list was announced these people gathered in a room in City Hall with buckets of champagne on ice to celebrate Bradford's inclusion. Bradford wasn't chosen. They later drowned their sorrows and their embarassment in a pub across the road.
Anyone reasonably intelligent could have told them that their campaign, high on prattle and low on substance, was unlikely to fool the judges. But the reasonably intelligent were kept well away from this PR campaign. Bradford, as usual, heard what it wanted to hear.
Is Bradford doomed to go on making the same errors, mistaking appearance for reality? Paul Flowers has been described by political opponents as plausible. Well, yes, chaps of that sort are nothing else but plausible; being plausible is how they make their way. It's the job of public officials to see through plausibility to make a judgement about substance.
But these days we don't like to make judgements of any kind, do we? There but for the grace of Paul Flowers's god and all that. The facade of democratic accountability too often masks hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. I am reminded of the concluding lines of Robert Lowell's poem For the Union Dead:-
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013
In spite a sore throat and incipient cold the only thing to do when I turned off the news was to google up the music of John Tavener, who died today. But before that I listened to Andrew Marr's Start the Week broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday morning which included John Tavener talking about the poetry of George Herbert and, briefly, Dante.
As I sat hunched and wrapped up before the computer screen listening to the frail voice of a dying man my mind went back many years to a comfortable front room, in a friend's rented ground floor flat, where I ignorantly listened to a vast array of classical and modern music. I didn't hear Tavenver's Song of Athene, The Protecting Veil or Song of the Angel then because in 1970, 1971, he hadn't written them. But such was the spirit of the time in that house, near the Thames in Fulham, I was being prepared, I think, in my chaotic way, to be touched by music like this.
The real miracle of the modern world perhaps is that in spite of the cacophony of prattle that invades our private contemplative places, in spite of the daily anxieties and worries piled like faggotts on our eyes and ears, in spite of all the distractions and feelings of unworthiness and irritation that wear away at us, any one of the above pieces of music can, within seconds, make us feel calmer, better. If the best music is healing then the music of John Tavener is healing to the fractious spirit.
In the cathedral/mosque of St Sophia in what was Constantinople, there is a Byzantine mosaic of the face of Christ - at least I think that's what Andrew Graham Dixon said it was in his television series The Art of Eternity - the eyes of which gaze steadfastly into yours. The look on His face is not dreamy or fluffy in a heavenly sort of way, but firm and unyielding. The face seems to say, 'Enter here and do not be forsaken'. The gaze is as steady as the sustained drone which supports the high cathedral sounds of Song of Athene, composed for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The word iconic is one of the most misused these days; stripped of its spiritual connotations, it means landmark or merely memorable. But the icons of the Greek and Russian Orthodox religion also imply timelessness, that place beyond the the time of seasons, the time of clocks and watches and international datelines. It is God's time. T S Eliot's image for this in The Four Quartets is the still point of the turning world, the point at which past, present and future are one. This regenerative hum is the thought-feeling that John Tavener's music generates. It is not a place of mirrors for self-reflection or self-admiration, but the eyes of that mosaic in St Sophia gazing unflinchingly through the centuries or, as Dante imagines at the end of The Divine Comedy, the spinning wheel at the heart of Creation whose motion sends out waves of love.
Toshy as that will seem to some it is an approximation of what I think John Tavener's music does. George Herbert, who deliberately sought life's untrodden ways, asked just before he died that if his unpublished poems were thought to be of no help to anyone they should be burned. Judging by the comments posted on a seven-minute YouTube excerpt of The Protecting Veil, Tavener's music, like the best of Herbert's poetry, is a bright unflickering candle in the dark.
Saturday, 9 November 2013
Lest we forget, the 1914-18 World War spluttered and then erupted as a European war first. An iron network of alliances dragged Austria into the arena with Serbia, then Russia joined Serbia and Germany joined Austria. France had an alliance with Russia and Britain had guaranteed Belgian neutrality.
Had the governance of Europe rested in the hands of an organisation such as the European Union, conceivably the war to end war would not, could not, have occurred. A nice idea in theory until one remembers that attempts to hoop the continent together under one rule have usually resulted in war. Charlemange, the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon, Hitler, was there ever a time when part of Europe was not been scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars?
Nearer our own time, after the re-unification of Germany in 1991 and the disintegration of Yugoslavia a year or two later, was it not Germany's hasty recognition of Slovenian independence that lit the fuse that blew the six states of Yugoslavia into warring factions and tribes? When the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace prize the other year, like the little old lady who swallowed a fly I too wondered why.
Conservative tub-thumpers fond of pointing to the years of peace in our time, since 1945, cannot attribute that to the evolution of the European Union, which started out as a little acorn in the 1950s. What has sprouted from Brussels since the old coal and steel agreement between France and Germany has been cunningly nurtured in spite of wars all over the world some of which involved European politicians and military men, financiers.
In my 64 years British armed forces were sent out to Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan. We've lost count of the dead and the maimed of those conflicts - including our own soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Nevertheless, over the next day or two and throughout 2014 - the centenary of the Great War - I expect I shall have to endure poppy-wearing apologists telling me how lucky I am to be living at a time when nationalism in Europe is slowly being dismantled for the greater good of all.
And so, on the eve of Armistice Day, I look back on the iron network of alliances that dragged first Europe and then most of the world, almost unwittingly, into war as a prophetic spectre of our own day and age under the blue flag with the golden gas-ring of stars.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Ever since Lady Caroline Lamb declared that Lord Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know", poets have had a lot to live down to.
Either by temperament or vocation they must booze, brawl and fornicate to excess, occasionally spouting verses by heart. They must fall in and out of love, break up homes, not care a damn about money or possessions, be vain, touchy and proud. What they must not do is be ordinary or grandly heroic.
Unacknowledged legislators of the world? I've never cared for Shelley's assertion. I would not care to be a citizen of a country ruled by any of the poets I have met or known. And the best ones I have read had no interest in running anything other than guns, a betting book or a gauntlet of disapproving bourgeois types.
The passionate fondness I had for Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Bukowski had nothing to do with bad or inconsiderate behaviour that I wished to emulate - at least not beyond the age of 30. I have never been a drug addict or a violent drunk. There is a passage from Yeats's poem The Circus Animals' Desertion I once had the facility to quote that sums up my literary passion:-
Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of...
I once asked Alan Bennett if all writers, especially famous ones, were shits. Actually, the epithet I probably used was "bastards" as I was interviewing him for a family newspaper in which bastards were occasionally permitted, but shits never. In fact I've just found the article and this is what was reported:-
"Why do so many writers turn out to be four letter words as human beings?"
"It's not true of Chekhov, who was good in his life. Not true to Kafka either. But to put words on paper is a presumptuous thing to do; you are shouldering people aside to do it. To be a writer at all seems to be a defect because it's an immodest act. I suppose if writers were more or less at one with their work it would be less interesting."
In the afterword of James Andrew Taylor's warts and all biography of the late poet, novelist and broadcaster Vernon Scannell, Walking Wounded: The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell, there is another quote from Bennett which stems from Philip Larkin's line, They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Bennett says:-
"If your parents do fuck you up and you're going to write, that's fine because then you've got something to write about. But if they don't fuck you up, then you've got nothing to write about, so then they've fucked you up good and proper."
Taylor says Scannell's parents and the "exquisite miseries of his time in the army" gave Scannell an "inexhaustible wellspring of emotional experience on which his poetry could draw." I'll say. Between 1948, when he was 26, and his death in 2007, he had 51 books of poetry and prose to his adopted name (his real one was John Bain) and countless broadcasts and readings.
From the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s he was a literary star whose appearances at poetry and jazz evenings all over the country sold out venues, including London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. The BBC and various magazines always seemed to be offering him opportunities to broadcast or publish for payment. Lucky four letter word.
Yet there was a side to Scannell's character that I did not know about until this week when I read through Taylor's eye-opening book. In 1992, in a review I wrote of his fourth and final volume of memoirs Drums of Morning I said:-
Behind the mask I sense a man of little or no faith; one who is grateful and sometimes ashamed to have endured.
In one of his last poems Scannell wrote We are betrayed by what is false within, a perceptive line that sums up his own Jekyll and Hyde conflict out of which he made poetry.
I met him at the 1984 Ilkley Literature Festival and over the next six years or so had a periodic acquaintance that included a couple of visits to his small terraced house of Millstone grit in North Street, Otley. He was willing to talk literature with anyone who had a feeling for it and to me at least, for a while, was disposed to be a kindly encourager, though I did not push it. I took an interest in several of his books and reviewed them.
One of them was Argument of Kings, his third volume of memoirs in 1987. In it, apparently for the first time, he admitted to deserting from his regiment in North Africa during the war and being imprisoned in Alexandria, and then doing it again after the Normandy D-Day landings.
He made this public seven or eight years after Mrs Thatcher's Government awarded him a Civil List pension of £700 a year for services to English Literature. Oh what a lucky man he was, you might think.
And yet Vernon Scannell, the man with the refined middle-class, quietly spoken, voice, was a lifelong alcoholic subject to mood swings that turned him from a genial companion into a fist-swinging maniac. In pubs he fought men, at home he punched out women, just as his father had occasionally punched out his young son. Although he repined his behaviour in his diaries and sometimes in his poems, he didn't make a sustained effort to change it.
I wasn't aware of this when I talked to him because he didn't let on. Neither did I know until I read Taylor's book that he was a bigamist, a jailbird and a serial deserter from situations he didn't like or found onerous. He walked away from his family just like he walked away from the Army, although in the end his various lovers appear to have forgiven him - because he was a poet, a man of letters.
Had he been a humble brickie or a milkman it might have been different. Andrew Taylor's researches allowed him to chroncile the discrepancies between Scannell's version of events in his fiction and autobiography and recorded fact. From a fairly early age Scannell had persuaded himself that imagination was every bit as valid as authentic experience or the memory of it.
"The poet's only allegiance is to the truth, not to a formal dogma, but the truth as he sees and feels it. To speak the truth is style," he wrote.
Speaking the truth in his poetry but living a lie in his life became a sub-text in his stories. He reacted to the insecurity of his self-doubts and shame by getting pissed and lashing out, and later blacking out all memory of it. I don't know if he struggled to reconcile his principled attitude to poetry and the unprincipled opportunism of his life; it gave him something to write about, if nothing else.
Vernon Scannell was the sum of his own contradictions. He hated sentimentality in literature, yet his diaries are full of it; he is forever lamenting his minor literary status or seeking to assure himself of love for his latest flame, even into his sixties. In the way he talked about literature he did his best to embody generosity and largeness of spirt - which is why so many women seem to have fallen for him - yet he could be jealous and petulant about his peers if he felt over-shadowed by their fame or good fortune.
In spite of all the negatives, though, Scannell's life could be seen as the triumph of hope over experience. He had a goal - to be a poet - and, as Alan Bennett put it, shouldered people aside to achieve it. In his own terms he made something of his life. Towards the end, in 2007, propped up in bed at home in North Street, sustained by Schubert and chilled Guinness, he defied cancer to write by hand his last poems.
I once wrote of shouldering people aside because I thought that was probably necessary; but, as the song goes, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. I don't think it's a necessary part of the job description to be a four letter word to write something worthwhile. Especially not in this age.
Friday, 11 October 2013
Hoping for the Government to do something about the price hikes in the cost of energy is like a man in jail hoping that those who banged him up will do something to get him out.
Bad as those hikes are, worse is yet to come...and is set to keep on coming for many years, as good old Britain borrows more billions to comply with the European Union's carbon capture directives.
Ed Miliband signed up to these in 2008 when, as Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, he put through Parliament the Climate Change Act. According to Christopher Booker and Richard North, who know their EU from their elbow, this piece of folly commits this country to forking out £18 billion a year for 37 years until 2050 on measures to reduce carbon emissions in the belief that this will prevent polar bears from wandering down the high street in Great Yarmouth.
Gentle skimmer, 37 times £18 billion comes to, er, £666 billion, a devilishly large number of billions for a country more than a trillion quid in debt.
Why hasn't David Cameron challenged the Labour leader to own up to his role in this nightmare in the House of Commons? For there is a direct correlation between the cost of climate change policies and the escalating costs of gas and electricity. The eight major energy suppliers are simply passing on their costs to the consumer to boost profitability.
More to the point, why hasn't any politician made this point? The reason isn't hard to fathom. All the major political parties signed up to the Climate Change Act. Until a few years ago they were vying with one another to be greener than green lest the righteous brothers and sisters of the eco movement, biting their nails over the future of the planet - Prince Charles famously declared humanity had but seven years to do it - won the support of voters.
Happily all that has gone grey about the gills in spite of the best endeavours of the Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change and its network of fervant believers in academia and the media. Climate change has been a fact of nature since the world began, millennia before the ancestors of Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg built bonfires to roast a leg of raptor for supper.
In happier times, before the Conservatives thought up the wheeze of flogging off public assets, you could bob along to a properly designated shop and pay your gas or electricity bill. More, you could talk to somebody face to face if you had a problem. Energy prices, like the rates, used to fluctuate. Not any more.
Until such time as Britain has the sense to begin divorce proceedings against the EU and find a way out of the sinking ship, the price of power is going to keep on rising annually. We are being covertly coerced into using less electricity by people whose index-linked incomes paid from the public purse mean they will never have to choose between heating and eating.
Meanwhile, forget about switching power suppliers, they're all part of a cabal playing follow-my-leader. Instead, think of ways of generating your own power. Nikola Tesla, the man who popularised Alternating Current against Edison's more expensive and limited Direct Current, maintained that electricity could be provided free of charge by tapping into the energy generated by nature. Evidently, his idea was not well received.
Hence that devilish sum of £666 billion.
A less charitable spark might conclude that the current media fright about the darkness that awaits when the power runs out is just another media scare - like salmonella, mad cow disease, manmade global warming. If it has an ulterior purpose can it be to make us pay the inflated price hikes coming with a feeling of almost gratitude for having power at all?
I wouldn't be surprised if we were being worked on in this way. It's like boxing: make your opponent worry about your jab, then hit him with an unxpected uppercut.
In the words of T S Eliot...
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters.
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury...
So begins East Coker (hah!), the third section of Eliot's Four Quartets. When I was a boy coke was something that only arty people snorted. For everybody else it was an alternative domestic fuel to coal. In those days you could be poor but warm in winter. Now you can be relatively well off and cold, as the statesmen and rulers, chairmen of many committees and distinguished civil servants, burn your money.