Category Archives: Personal

Taking The Cake

With Alyssa, Alexis & Ashley: October 2016

If I had wanted to bake the cake for my seventieth birthday party myself, I would not have been allowed to do so. For reasons of liability insurance, a catered event at Troon properties does not allow privately created confections, the risk of food poisoning (and consequent lawsuits) being presumably too great. That was fine with me, and the manager and I agreed that ‘Baked With Love’ (who had provided the cake for my sixtieth birthday party) would be an excellent choice as authorized purveyor of dessert comestibles to the St. James gentry. I thus made my way into Southport that same afternoon, cheerily greeted the owner, and presented my request.

But I was to be rejected. She did not recall the order of 2006, and dourly told me that she could not meet my request, as she now only baked for ‘regular customers’. My first flippant thought (apart from the Pythonesque ‘this is a cake shop, isn’t it?’) was that you can’t get much more regular than every ten years, but as I made my way through the door (having been recommended by her to try a couple of alternatives), another thought occurred to me. Would she have been entitled to reject my request if I had said that I was planning a gay wedding? Or the annual solstitial celebrations of the Southport Atheists’ Society? Don’t small business proprietors like her have to be very careful these days?

Now my first instinct is that a family-owned small business – or even a larger one – should be free to develop and market its products as it thinks fit, with as little government intervention as possible. As an example, Neuwirth Motors, the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/RAM dealership in Wilmington, North Carolina, advertises its business every night on the local TV news programme with the relentless slogan: ‘Where God, Family and You come first!’  Apart from the fact that I am uncertain how one can have this unusual trinity all in first place, and I do not understand what role the Almighty has in the selling of motor vehicles, this does not worry me unduly. (I do not take the micro-aggression too personally.) All it means is that I am permanently discouraged from even considering Neuwirth as the supplier of my next means of private transport, as I would feel very uncomfortable walking into a dealership where I might get quizzed on my understanding of the Thirty-Nine Articles before I was let in to the showroom. But that is fine. There are many other reputable car dealers in Wilmington (although, sadly none for Lexus yet, which could be the subject of another whole blog), and I occasionally wonder how many prospective customers the dealership loses rather than gains through its evangelism, and whether the top honchos at Chrysler approve of  ̶  or even encourage  ̶  this marketing technique.

Yet that is surely not enough. I am too reminiscent of the landladies’ signs of ‘No Irish. No Blacks’ in the streets of London when I was growing up, and am sharply aware of the prejudices that have been exerted against minorities in this country – especially in the South, where I now live. It is clearly unacceptable for someone to be turned away from a business because of who he or she is (or appears to be), and I strongly deprecate such practices. But should a proprietor be forced to participate in a cultural undertaking to which he (or she) is strongly unsympathetic? If I am employed as a registrar of marriages, and gay unions are legal in the state where I work, my beliefs indisputably should not be allowed to interfere with my civic responsibility, and entitle me to refuse to administer such an event. But as a private entrepreneur, may I decline to ice a cake that celebrates such an occasion? Alternatively, irrespective of whether I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, should I be able to decline the order of a cake from a well-known Ku Klux Klan member? Or only when that person requests an objectionable but legal slogan on the cake itself? Or never?

Even the U.S. Supreme Court struggles over these matters, and how far the push for free speech can be extended into a legal resolution. It is perhaps regrettable that these disputes find themselves in legislative territory, as they could in many cases be avoided by good manners. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that racist speech can be hygienically cloaked in etiquette, but that sensible persons do not go out of their way to upset other people. I would not try to prove a point by wanting an irreligious message iced on a cake, and going round the bakers of Southport trying to find a willing purveyor. (I doubt whether I would find one.) And I know that if I paraded heathen bumper-stickers on my car around Brunswick County, I would be bound to get key-scratches on it before you could say ‘Billy Graham’. I was brought up more on a philosophy of ‘Live and let live’ (homespun proverbial), ‘It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it’ (the Reverend W. Awdry), and ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’ (from my Wearside grandmother). (I should add to that the acquired and very un-English technique of confronting anti-social behavior the first time it occurs: this sometimes causes immediate friction, but offers the best chance of changing such behavior. I seriously regret the occasions when I have not done that, but have had no second thoughts about the situations when I have followed the principle.) But so much of today’s discourse is about rights and entitlements and grievances and identity and micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation and oppression and victimisation that contrary values are bound to provoke some stepping on other people’s toes.

A pluralistic society (not a ‘multi-cultural’ one) is supposed to be able to deal with such conflicts, recognizing that private beliefs may not be reconcilable but should be allowed to exist so long as they do not break the law (no polygamy, for example). As Isaiah Berlin wrote: “That is why pluralism is not relativism – the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of man’s subjective fancies.” But when private values invade the public space too boldly, tensions arise. And we see a lot of that these days. From the traditional right, for example, come jingoistic flag-waving, ‘right to life’ protests, demands for freedom to carry guns, pressures for prayer in schools, and calls for ‘creationism’ to appear in science text-books. And from the left, claims for broader abortion rights, demands for hunting bans, and appeals for strident minority entitlements, including special legal accommodations for all manner of tribes and ‘communities’, including unauthorised immigrants. All these complemented recently, of course, by the question of whether religious attire should be allowed to conceal one’s features in public spaces.

Some believe that these twin pressures can lead to authoritarianism. Isaiah Berlin again:   “ . . . some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity. So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. . . .  One cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.”  That the pressures inevitably express a dawnist yearning may be an exaggeration, but they certainly make that space in the middle more precarious. In a pluralist society, one should be able to engage in discourse with strangers without knowing their ‘identity’, or their ethnic origin, or their religious beliefs, or their political persuasions – or even their sexual personae and preferences, namely all the attributes that belong in the private sphere, and which should better be uncovered gradually as two persons begin to explore each other’s territory, without stereotypes or prejudice. But the gently regal ‘Have you come far?’ has more often been replaced by the brusquely interrogative ‘Where are you from?’ As I like to respond: ‘We are all out of Africa’.

(Note the following item from the New York Times of December 25: “Before 2003, believe me, my neighbor didn’t know what I was. No one could ask, are you Sunni? Or Shia? Or Muslim? Or Christian?” [Mosul Christian Haseeb Salaam])

The outcome was that I ordered my cake elsewhere, at the Side Street Bakery in downtown Southport. See http://www.downtownsouthport.org/side-street-bakery/.  And very good it was. I had my gâteau and ate it, too (well, not all of it). The party went off very well, I believe, and everybody seemed to have a good time. My playlist of ‘The 100 Best Soft Rock Songs, 1960-2000’, relayed by the magic of Bluetooth from my iPad to the sound system, was soon drowned out by the chatter of the guests. About fifty friends attended, but sadly none from the UK. My brother and his wife were regrettably not able to make it, but Sylvia, Julia and I were delighted that our son, James, travelled from California with his eldest daughter, Ashley, for the event. (His wife, Lien, had to stay home with the twins.) Here are Ashley at the Beach Club, she and James, and she and I at the party location, the Founder’s Club at St James.

I also set up, on the back of the menu, a topical quiz, which turned out to be far too hard. (If you are interested, see here.)

All in all, apart from certain political developments, a satisfactory year. I completed my doctoral thesis, and successfully defended it. I signed my book contract, and supplied the publisher with the typescript at the end of this month, so that the item should be available in time for the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I also learned – though not yet officially  ̶  that I had been elected a Vice-President of the Whitgiftian Association, the administrative body of my alma mater. Not an earth-shattering achievement, but one that gives me pleasure, as it reflects some measure of how I must have contributed to the success and reputation of the school. Unless, of course, it was all a hoax. This was, after all, the year of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and the appointment of Wonderwoman to be the ambassador for women’s empowerment to the United Nations. That prompts me to recall a classic Private Eye cover, from April 1980, just before we emigrated to the United States. It can be seen here: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-479. Doesn’t that take the cake? On that note I wish all my readers a very happy 2017.

P.S. For all the thousands of eager readers around the world who are pleading for the next installment of Sonia’s Radio  – be patient! I know the suspense is almost unbearable. As one reader wrote to me: ‘Sonia’s Radio makes The Old Curiosity Shop seem like press releases from the Department of Work and Pensions’. Quite so. The saga will be resumed next month.

As is customary, the Commonplace entries for the month appear here.

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Doctor in the House

The London Eye

The London Eye

Towards the end of July, I made another visit to the United Kingdom – my first for two years. The primary purpose of the trip was to defend my doctoral dissertation at the University of Buckingham, but I intended to complement the ordeal with some more research at the National Archives at Kew, and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as see some old friends, and make personal acquaintance with some contacts that I had established through email introductions. I arrived soon after the Brexit referendum took place, so post mortems on the result, and on the process, were high on the agendas of those I spent time with.

After landing at Heathrow, I took my rented car round to Croydon, where I met for lunch my first host, David Earl, and a few old friends at Croham Hurst Golf Club, and then went to stay with David and his wife, Mieke. Mieke, alas, had recently broken her hip in a fall in her native Netherlands, but she was still her irresistibly ebullient self. Unfortunately, during that initial weekend, my back started convulsing with agonizing spasms, with the result that I was lying immobile on the floor by Monday morning. This necessitated attention being diverted from Mieke’s condition to mine (a phenomenon she bore with good grace), and, after I had illicitly taken three of her (non-opioid) pain-killing pills with no effect, it was David who came to the rescue by acquiring some simple heat-pad strips. Their application had a truly miraculous effect within a matter of hours, thus enabling me to continue my journey to Battersea that afternoon. On the Saturday, I had also managed to drive out to Oxted to see another pair of very old friends, Peter and Pia Skeen (Peter having been my best man back in 1976). They generously fitted me in while waiting for their son, Torsten, and his family to arrive from Dubai that afternoon, and sensibly agreed that they would pay closer attention to their personal schedules when my next visit was impending.

I spent a few days with my brother Michael and his wife, Susanna, in Battersea. Susanna has been undergoing a very arduous treatment of chemotherapy for breast cancer, but if anyone has the indomitability and will to beat it, it is she. (She was scheduled for surgery the day I left the UK, August 9.) I was received with the utmost hospitality, and enjoyed some deep discussions on many topics with Michael, who has an excellent brain – especially on financial matters – and who in my opinion expresses more insight and common sense than several economists who have won Nobel Prizes. (You know who you are.) I encouraged Michael to write up his thoughts. Meanwhile, the days of that week were spent in the National Archives, at Kew, a drive of about thirty minutes away. I was able to inspect several files there – too late for my thesis, of course, but research does not stop for artificial timetables  ̶   on Guy Burgess, on the ISCOT programme to decipher Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1943, on GCHQ, on the Kuczynskis, and on miscellaneous other MI5 and Foreign Office material.

While at Kew, I was privileged to have a meeting with Chris Mumby, Head of Commercial Services at the Archives. Last year I had written to him, expressing my interest in the process of digitisation, and explaining how difficult it could be for a remote researcher to identify and inspect important files. Those that have been digitised are available for a very reasonable fee, but constitute only a small percentage of the total, while a request for the digitisation of any thick folder (for personal purposes, though with universal benefit) is penally expensive. I was also intrigued by the arrangement The National Archives had made with Taylor and Francis, a company that makes selective documents available to subscribers, and how that contract related to the Archives’ own initiatives. Finally, I had expressed my astonishment that everyone was allowed access to Kew for free – even foreign residents like me. The Archives bear certain statutory obligations, but the more successful they are in attracting visitors, the more their support costs go up, at a time of static budgets. Could the Archives perhaps not charge admission fees, and perhaps establish a tax-free charity that could allow well-wishers to make donations to alleviate operating costs? I found a very professional and attentive ear in Mr. Mumby, and have every sympathy with him and his colleagues in their challenges. Enough said, for now.

I also met for dinner an old friend, and a new acquaintance. I have been collaborating with the screenwriter Grant Eustace (see http://www.granteustace.co.uk/) , with whom I used to play rugby at the Old Whitgiftians. He has produced a script based on aspects of my thesis, and I was pleased to meet him again, as well as his charming wife, Janie, at a restaurant in Kew, where we could exchange laments about dealing with the worlds of publishing and of other media. (A Hollywood producer had chanced upon my writings on ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but regrettably nothing came of it.) The next evening, I went up to Westminster to meet Andrew Lownie (see http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/) , who published a very well-received biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, last year. It was Andrew who introduced me to a vital document, released to the National Archives last September, which essentially proved my emerging hypothesis about Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow in 1940. Andrew and I have exchanged insights and findings on Burgess and his murky dealings with such as Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Ball, and it was productive to sit down face-to-face at last. I had to express some disappointment: when his book was published last year, I sent him a comprehensive list of observations and corrigenda. This summer, the work was re-issued as a paperback, but, while it contained some corrections, and some expanded Notes, no indication was given that the text had been changed. Moreover, while some of my emendations had been incorporated, rather sloppily some had been overlooked, and the author had not added my name in the list of Acknowledgments. Andrew has apologised. He has had his own struggles with the publisher. And we remain on good terms.

On Saturday, Michael, Susanna and I took a trip out to Chiswick Park, off the A4, one of those extraordinary lungs within Greater London’s boundaries. Unfortunately, Chiswick House itself, ‘one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian design in England’ was closed on the Saturday, but we were able to take a leisurely stroll around the gardens.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House

Several renowned names are connected with the House: as the website (http://www.chgt.org.uk/) declares, somewhat enigmatically: “Leader of fashion and political activist for the Whig party, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire referred to her home at Chiswick House as ‘my earthly paradise’. Her parties and political breakfasts at Chiswick were renowned and notable guests included the politician Charles James Fox who later died in the Bed Chamber in 1806.” We are left to guess what he was up to earlier – before breakfast, presumably. I present a photograph of Michael and Susanna at the fountain, for the record.

Michael & Susanna

Michael & Susanna

The next day, I made my way to Oxford, where I would stay at the Holiday Inn, within ‘Park and Ride’ access to the town centre. Most of Monday and Tuesday were spent in the new Weston Library of the Bodleian, where I had arranged to study the files of Sir Patrick Reilly and Sir Joseph Ball, as well as letters that Sir Rudolf Peierls, the sponsor of, and collaborator with, the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, had written to various scientists during the course of Fuchs’s arrest and conviction. All three sources were as revealing because of what they did not say as much as for what was explicit. I also was shown round the new library  by Jessica Brown of the Development Office, and specifically led to the carrell that I had donated a year or two back .

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The fixture is a slightly ostentatious but genuine gesture of appreciation for how Oxford has helped in my career: I do not believe I recognised it at the time, but Harold Macmillan’s 1975 observation that an Oxford education should teach you to detect whenever someone is telling you obvious rot (a dictum that he claimed he learned from the philosopher John Alexander Smith) has remained with me ever since, and has stood me in good stead in my life.

My supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, lives in Woodstock, just north of Oxford, and he kindly invited me for cocktails on the Monday, so I was pleased to see him again, and meet his charming wife, Linda. After more research on Tuesday morning, I repaired to my old college, Christ Church (known as ‘the House’) where Simon Offen, of the Development and Alumni office, generously entertained me to lunch, after which Cristina Neagu, the Keeper of the Special Collections in the Christ Church Library, showed me a fascinating array of old texts that have only recently been closely examined.  She also took me into the tower of the library, where an extraordinary camera (known, I think, as the ‘Graz’ machine) allows delicate documents to be photographed quickly, safely, and accurately, thus contributing to a series of world-wide collaborative projects after the images are passed to the Bodleian for publication (see http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/library-and-archives/digital-library). I also bumped into the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd. Professor Martyn Percy, who gave me a warm and enthusiastic welcome, after which we discussed, among other things, our shared lack of genealogical propinquity to the Dukes of Northumberland. That evening, I dined alone at The Trout at Godstow, only a few minutes away from the Holiday Inn, which has always been one of my favourite hostelries ever since I first went there in 1966. And the following morning I made my way to Buckingham for my viva.

I was honoured to have Sir Anthony Seldon and Professor Christopher Coker as my internal and external examiners, respectively. Moreover, I was gratified, immediately on entering the examination room, to be told that my thesis had been accepted – without any recommendations for changes. While this left the notion of the ‘defence’ of my thesis hanging in the air, it was the best kind of surprise. Thus “Confronting Stalin’s ‘Elite Force’: MI5’s Handling of Communist Subversion, 1939-1941” is now in the record books, although I have requested a suspension of promulgation of the text pending my attempts to convert it into a book. I enjoyed some interesting exchanges with my examiners, but the whole process was over in about three-quarters of an hour. At the end, knowing that Sir Anthony’s first teaching assignment had been at Whitgift School in 1983, I asked him whether he had encountered my father, Freddie, who, although having retired by then, was still active as historian and archivist, and would have taken a very strong interest in new members of staff. ‘F.H.G. Percy!’, he exclaimed. ‘That great man! (or words to that effect)’. He had never connected my name to his. [Late in August, I received a very generous note from Sir Anthony, which ran: ‘Many congratulations on an excellent Ph.D., and in memory of your distinguished and great father.’]

Then back to Battersea, to celebrate with champagne. The next morning I was off to the House of Lords, as Lord and Lady Young of Cookham had kindly invited me on a tour of the Houses, and to lunch. Aurelia, Lady Young has been a close friend of Professor Glees since childhood, and the Professor had introduced me to her (via email), as he believed I might have some insights into the history of her father, the Croatian sculptor, Oscar Nemon, based on my researches into the treatment by MI5 and the Home Office of émigré Jews in the late 1930s. Diligent readers may recall my reference to this wonderful lady in an earlier piece, to be found at http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/some-reflections-on-the-north-downs.

Lady Young

Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

I was delighted to see the several busts crafted by her father in the Houses of Parliament: for some reason, I had never toured the place (was it not open to the public when I was growing up?), and it was very enjoyable to sit on the terrace with the London Eye in view. Lord Young, who has had a distinguished career in politics, is now a whip in the House of Lords. He was also at Christ Church, graduating shortly before I matriculated, so the photograph here probably represents our sharing memories of Christ Church personalities rather than his Lordship’s seeking my opinions on the security implications of Brexit.

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

The next day, I drove down to Dorset, to stay with another couple of old friends, Brian Wizard and his delightful wife, Sue, who own a very attractive cottage (actually, joined cottages) in Tarrant Monkton. Brian and I worked together in IT back in the 1970s, so we share a lot of memories of the software business, its heroes and its villains. Like me, Brian is very impatient of bureaucratic bumbling and obfuscation, and likes to write letters with a view to dismantling evasiveness and irresponsibility, so I was pleased to catch up with his latest exploits. The Wizards’ property rolls right down to, and then bridges, the River Tarrant, and as the photographs show, is a beautiful example of the art of country gardening.

Hotspur

Hotspur

Brian Wizard

Brian Wizard

Observant watchers may notice that Brian (notwithstanding his other excellent attributes) is a little challenged in the stature department: this feature, however, does enable him to walk around his cottage without stooping, while I am always in danger of bumping my head. I have thus asked him to consider raising the roof for my next visit. He and Sue regaled me with a very generous dinner in compensation for my discomfort.

On Saturday, onwards to Stow-on-the-Wold, a journey that reminded me that the British road system is quite good so long as you are travelling on radials from London. Still, it was a glorious drive through Cranborne Chase, followed by a rather boring patch until I arrived in the Cotswolds. There I was to stay a couple of nights with Derek and Maggie Taylor, Derek being a contemporary of mine at Christ Church, and the recent author of a couple of books (see www.derekjtaylorbooks.com ), about whom I have written on this blog. The Taylors had arranged a dinner where I was to meet an acquaintance whom I had not seen for almost fifty years – another House man, Nigel Robbins, who lives down the road in Cirencester with his wife, Stephanie. The next day, the three of us drove out to Snowshill Manor, an exquisitely situated house that was once owned by the eccentric collector Charles Wade.

From Snowshill Manor

From Snowshill Manor

In the evening we dined at the ‘Hare’ in Milton-under-Wychwood. There is little doubt in my mind that, if I ever returned to live in the UK, it would be somewhere in the Cotswolds. But English winters, after fifteen years in North Carolina? No, thank you.

So what about Brexit? Well, at my age, one tends to socialise with people whose views tend to echo one’s own, but I listened to – and read – a variety of opinions. First, some paradoxes. It seems bewildering to me that the European Union has been represented – both by some Remainers as well as by certain Leavers – as an exemplar of free-market global capitalism. (In his new book ,‘The Euro’, Joseph Stiglitz repeatedly makes the astonishing assertion that the problems of the euro are attributable to the ‘neoliberal ideology’ of its designers). The European Union is in fact a closed club, a customs union, with expensive barriers to entry, and the use of the euro imposes a number of stringent rules.  Some pro-EU observers assert that the nation-state is irrelevant in an era of globalisation, but, by the same token, the attempts of the Union’s regulators to maintain economic ‘stability’ will be as futile as those of an individual country. I also found it extraordinary how many Remainers drew attention to the loss in funding that would occur with Brexit, as if the Union were a rich uncle, and other countries were simply panting to hand over their hard-earned surpluses to subsidise British social projects. I was astonished at how many of the chattering classes, intellectuals, artists and luvvies, saw Brexit as the end of civilization, as if all cultural ties and links to Europe (of which Britain would still be a member) would have to be sundered if Article 50 were to be invoked. I was intrigued that, on the troublesome immigration issue, the more attractive business climate, the cultural pluralism, and the native language of Britain all conspire to make Britain a more attractive destination for entrepreneurial young persons. (I cannot see English plumbers looking for work in Gdansk or Bucharest.) I was appalled at the lack of preparation by David Cameron’s administration for the outcome of an ‘Exit’ vote in the referendum, something he should explicitly have considered even though he regarded ‘Remain’ as a foregone conclusion. My impression of Cameron, incidentally, was not improved by reading Sir Anthony Seldon’s book on the ex-Prime Minister, the paperback version of which came out shortly before I arrived.

Somewhat emotionally, I believe that it was timely and courageous to attempt an exit now, rather than later. (“Very bold, Prime Minister”, as Sir Humphrey would have subtly admonished.)  If the answer to the Union’s challenges is more integration, not less, then getting out as soon as possible is the right response. Even the Union’s stoutest defenders now recognize that the Euro is mortally wounded, and any efforts by the Eurocrats to make exit highly painful and onerous, and scare off any other pretenders, will only confirm how unaccountable and unresponsive the European council and parliament are – what has been called ‘the democratic deficit’. With a belief that budgets and political programmes are best exercised at the national level, and that part of our British democratic process has been [sic: can this continue with the implosion of the Labour Party?] ‘throwing this lot out and letting the others have a chance’ (would there ever be an official opposition in Brussels that was for decelerating the ‘European Project’?), I suspect something messy, but not nearly as dire or as wonderful as either camp would claim, will emerge. As for taking back control of legislation, however, I must confess to some doubts whether the British civil servants and parliament are any better than their EU counterparts, if the recent laws on hate-crimes are any indication. James Alexander Smith, we need you now. (I am more interested in Brexit than in the appalling saga of the US presidential elections, by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

Monday afternoon saw me spending an enjoyable couple of hours in Burford, where, among other things, I bought a copy of Clive James’s elegiac Sentenced to Life, and then I made my way to a hotel near Heathrow, so that I could return my rental car in good time the next morning. In the exit-lounge, as I waited to board, a young man offered me a seat, which I graciously declined. Have I suddenly become that old? It seems only a short while ago that I was offering my seat to the elderly. I shall be seventy in December: maybe everything up until this point has been achievement, and now begins the slow trudge downhill. But enough of gloomy thoughts: too much Clive James, perhaps. Better to relax on the plane  ̶  a little sparkling wine, and keep decline at bay by tackling the Times’s Saturday crosswords. Meanwhile, I mentally prepared myself for what I should do if an emergency message came on the intercom: ‘Is there a doctor on board?’, planning to rush over to deliver a soothing lecture on Isaiah Berlin and Guy Burgess to the afflicted passenger, but, mercifully for all, no call came. Instead I sank back to watch a Classic Movie – not ‘Doctor in the House’, but, from the same era, a piece of frothy nonsense titled ‘Funny Face’ (1957), which I had seen for the first and only time soon after it came out. It was redeemed, of course, by the bewitching Audrey Hepburn. I recalled several of the scenes very clearly, and the show put me into a nostalgic mood. ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan’, and, after an unnecessarily long layover in Charlotte, I was overjoyed to see my ever-lovely wife and daughter waiting at Wilmington Airport to drive me home to Southport.

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

A very rewarding two-and-a-half weeks.

P.S. Susanna’s operation went well. She returned home to Battersea on August 14, and is recovering steadily, despite considerable discomfort and pain.

P.P.S. I have just spent several hours processing about 5,000 responses to my posts that had accumulated on my website since the beginning of 2015, and which I had carelessly ignored. This was no easy task: I had to inspect every individual response. Most were software-generated. The system did present them in batches of twenty, each of which I could mark, and then ‘block-process’ as spam, but some of the posts were hundreds of lines long, containing  dummy and real urls, requiring dozens of clicks to process each. Probably only 1% were genuine posts, with most of the rest coming from vendors of cheap merchandise, or people trying to sell me web optimisation services, and some bewilderingly not appearing to have any purpose at all. But when a responder shows his enthusiasm for ‘The Undercover Egghead’ by titling his response ‘Cheap Ray-Bans’, or another tells me how ‘utterly beneficial’  he found my piece on ‘Richie Benaud, My Part in His Success’ for his ‘True Religion Outlet’ posting, the haphazardness and futility of the exercise became clear. Presumably their originators believed that their posts would appear on Search engines without my having to ‘approve’ them. If I did miss, because of the purge, a sincerely targeted comment from any of my readers, I apologise. And if I had had the sense to mark each item of spam as such as soon as it arrived, I might have avoided the problem.

August’s Commonplace entries appear here. (August 31, 2016)

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My Experience With Opioids

One of the many paradoxes of life in the USA (like the sudden nervousness of the Republican Party about ‘open-carry’ laws that would allow rifles to be brought into the convention being held in Cleveland this week, or the driver with a ‘God Is My Pilot’ bumper-sticker who weaved his way illegally across lane dividers in front of me outside Wilmington a few days ago) is the country’s approach to drugs. While many states are now making the growth and sale of cannabis legal, the increase in the use of opioids is having a devastating effect on the overall health of the country’s citizens. In the USA in 2014, 28,600 persons lost their lives because of opioid overdoses. Where I live, in Brunswick County, I learn that more than half the candidates for positions in golf course maintenance withdraw when they learn that they will have to undergo a drug test.

Operating machinery under the influence of drugs is obviously a real risk. When I was working for IBM in Croydon in the early 1970s, when my colleagues and I went out for a jar or two at lunchtime at the ‘Porter and Sorter’, we probably would have failed any drug test, had it been applied, before operating any of the bank of machines that occupied an acre on the basement floor of Cherry Orchard Road, the beauty of whose environs had inspired Anton Chekhov to write perhaps his most notable play after he came to visit ‘for the waters’ in the late 1880s. (The data centre comprised an impressive range of computing power in those days, although it would have been eclipsed by the iPad that anybody casually uses today.)  Moreover, Thomas Watson Jr. would probably have had a fit if he had known that his male managers, salespersons and systems engineers no longer wore blue suits and white shirts, let alone went out to the pub at lunchtime. But, for recreational purposes, I have never ingested or inhaled anything stronger than a particularly nasty Balkan Sobranie in 1968, apart from the inevitable very occasional overindulgence with the grape or kindred spirits when celebrating such events as the Queen’s Birthday.

Yet I did have one life-changing experience with opioids. It all started in 1972, when I suffered a career-ending tumble on the rugby field that was diagnosed as a prolapsed disk. During the next year, all manner of treatments were tried. The most absurd was the encasement of my trunk in plaster of Paris, in an attempt to stabilise and straighten the spine, a remedy that was extremely uncomfortable and certainly not conducive to romance. I turned the condition into a party trick, encouraging persons not in the know to punch me in the stomach, rather as Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first director of SIS, would shock his audience by stabbing his wooden leg with a pen-knife when provoked to ire. When the plaster was taken off three months later, however, my scoliosis was just as bad as before, and my pain no less intense.

Eventually, in April 1973, I was called to hospital – to New Cross, where a large ward (immortalised by Chekhov in his 1892 short story, Ward No. 6) was occupied by patients suffering from a range of conditions, from herniated disks, like mine, to rheumatoid and other forms of arthritis. (One or two of those poor people were in dreadful pain.) There I was prescribed a regimen of three weeks’ bed-rest, which involved exactly that: minimal activity, lots of reading, talking to other patients and learning a lot, and inevitably chatting up the nurses, which had a very beneficial therapeutic effect  ̶  on me, I hasten to add. (I trust I did not offend any of the sorority through my attentions: I was still single then, and flirting with medical attendants was not then a criminal offence.) At the end of the three weeks, my back pain had diminished, but the rest-cure had not worked completely, so an operation was called for. With 50% of such cases going to an orthopaedic surgeon (and thus staying at New Cross), and 50% being destined for neurological treatment, I found myself in the latter category, and was sent to the Maudsley Hospital at Denmark Hill.

A day or two before I had the laminectomy, I was given a radiculogram (or maybe a myelogram), which involved a coloured dye being injected into the spinal column for better diagnosis through X-Rays, and thus guidance for the surgeon. This did not go well. I was not very excited about the prospect of the procedure when it was described to me, and I somehow managed to faint while on the trestle I had to lie on during the process, and fell to the ground. Whether the test was successful, I do not know, but I felt awful the next day, and was in such a state before the operation, with a headache, and my blood-pressure high, that the thought of an operation was really depressing. A couple of hours before the procedure, however, I was given my pre-medication. I was soon floating above the clouds, the warmth of the sun was gently embathing my whole body, and I was feeling a bonhomie towards all living creatures that would have made the Pope appear a curmudgeon. I could not have been more comfortable as I was wheeled into the operating theatre.

For part of the mixture administered to me was a generous helping of Omnopon. You can learn more about the compound Papavaretum at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papaveretum: it appears that this opioid derivative is no longer used so frequently, because of side-effects, but it certainly worked for me. (I did not know what it was at the time.) And when I surfaced from the general anaesthetic, the first thing I heard was a soft voice encouraging me to wake up, and, when I opened my eyes, I found that the voice belonged to a most beautiful nurse. Perhaps I had landed in heaven after my trip through the clouds . . . But no, the environment was real, and I was taken to my personal ward in the Intensive Care area.

For a few days, I started to recuperate. But then, I suddenly started to be racked with appalling pains across my body, and a splitting headache. My temperature soared. While I was waiting for the surgical staff to be apprised of my condition (it took several hours to convince anybody I was really suffering), I lay there in agony. It felt as if a hot iron was gradually being moved up my spinal column to my brain. Then everyone suddenly sprang into action – with cold compresses, ice, fans, and massive penicillin injections every four hours. I had contracted MRSA, although I was never told as much at the time.

I could never stand injections, and I dreaded being woken up at four in the morning for the next dose. I would tense up, which made the process even more painful. Yet the beautiful nurse knew how to minimise the insult to the body: she would slap me on the buttock before administering the injection, which made it much less of a shock to the system. I thus hoped that she would be on duty as much as possible. Eventually, my fever came down, and the aches disappeared. But when the doctors tested my sciatic nerve, they found that the problem had not been addressed. I was much worse than I had been before the first operation (which had actually been performed by a trainee registrar). I would have to undergo a repeat – this time by the top surgeon himself.

So I prepared myself for another major operation. The beautiful nurse (who had been very kind to me) had by this time gone off for a long holiday in Greece, so I doubted whether I would see her again. But at least I had another pre-med to enjoy. That would be some compensation. I lay back, accepted the pre-med, and waited for the floating to re-start.

But it never happened! No clouds! No sun! No resolution of all the conflicts of the universe! I had been swindled! I even asked the nurses whether they had the prescription right. Yes, they had. The doctors had realised my parlous state before the first operation, but had judged that I was quite capable of undergoing the second without any artificial sedatives. And so it went. I was wheeled in, and went through the whole process, again, with ten days’ bed-rest before trying to move. (Customs change. When I had my last back operation in Connecticut in 1998, they had me walking around in hours, and out of the hospital in a couple of days.) It was not a simple outcome, as it happened. I contracted repeated infections on my spine, when the sutures refused to dissolve. I underwent further operations, and was eventually released from hospital in September 1973, having been admitted in April, but had further complications  ̶ and operations – that endured until the following year. I never played rugby again (nor did I get to Carnegie Hall), but was able to play squash and cricket for quite a while. And that was my experience with opioids.

And what happened to the beautiful nurse? Reader, I married her. And we look forward to our fortieth wedding anniversary in September of this year. Chekhov wrote about the whole episode  in . . . oh, well, perhaps not.

Scan0026

Croydon, September 24, 1976

This post appears before the end of the month, as I am leaving for the UK on July 21. A report of my trip will appear at the end of August. This month’s briefer than normal set of Commonplace entries appears here. (July 20, 2016)

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The Myth of Buying Market Share

A few years after I became an analyst/consultant at the Gartner Group, I was introduced by one of the DBMS vendors to the thoughts of Geoffrey Moore, who had some original ideas about the challenges of high-tech companies in introducing their disruptive products to mainstream buyers. His book, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (1991) quickly became a classic in technology circles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Chasm), and I adopted his ideas in evaluating and guiding the strategies of companies in my bailiwick. Some CEOs claimed to be familiar with the theories, and even to putting them into practice, but since the distinct message in the early years of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle was ‘focus’, they understandably struggled to keep their companies in line. ‘Chasm’ thinking requires a proper marketing perspective, but independent VPs of Marketing in technological start-ups are a bit of a luxury, and VPs of Sales always think of Marketing as something that supports their Sales Plan, rather than of their Sales Plan as something which realizes the Marketing Plan. Trying to close a deal to unqualified and unsuitable prospects is frequently an exciting challenge for such types.

As my career at Gartner wound down, and I considered retirement, I chose to move to a small software company in Connecticut. I was quickly brought down to earth: as a Gartner consultant, I had earlier been engaged by the company for a day’s work, at quite high fees, during which the managers attending dutifully wrote down all I said, and nodded appreciatively. When I became an employee, however, and started suggesting (as VP of Strategic Planning) to the CEO how she might want to change some of the processes (such as not having the R & D plan changed each month after the latest visit by a customer or prospect to the development facility in Florida), I was swiftly told: ‘You don’t understand how we do things around here, Tony’. That was not a good sign. So I picked up my thinking about Chasm Crossing, tried to talk my CEO out of an acquisition strategy (devised to show muscle to the Wall Street analysts, but in fact disastrous), and reflected on how financial analysts misled investors about markets. I had learned a lot from the first software CEO I worked for, back in the early 1980s, but he was another who didn’t understand the growth challenge. ‘Entrepreneurial Critical Mass’ was the term he had used to persuade his owners to invest in an acquisition strategy that was equally misguided: I had had to pick up the pieces and try to make it work.  (This gentleman was also responsible for bringing to the world the expression ‘active and passive integrity in and of itself’ to describe the first release of a new feature, which presumably meant that it worked perfectly so long as you didn’t try to use it.)   My renewed deliberations now resulted in an article, titled ‘The Myth of Buying Market Share’, which explained how completely bogus estimates of ‘market size’ misled CEOs and investors into thinking that all they had to do to be successful was to pick up a portion of a fast-growing ‘market’. I believe it was published somewhere, but I cannot recall where.

I reproduce the article here. I have not changed a word: it could benefit from some tightening up in a few places, and some fresher examples, but otherwise I would not change a thing, even though it is now sixteen years old. At the time I wrote it, I contacted Geoffrey Moore, and sent him the piece. We spoke on the phone: he was very complimentary about my ideas, and we arranged to meet for dinner in San Francisco, where I was shortly to be attending a conference. I vaguely thought that I might spend my last few years actually putting into practice some of the notions that had been most useful to me in my analyst role, and wanted to ask Moore about opportunities at the Chasm Group. So, after the day’s sessions were over, I approached him, introduced myself, and said how much I was looking forward to dinner. He was brusque – dinner was off. Obviously something better, somebody more useful, had come along. I was for a few minutes crestfallen, but then realized that I would never want to work for someone who behaved that rudely. I resigned from the software company a month later and began my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Since then I have never touched the industry again, apart from one day’s work for another small software company in New Jersey that desperately needed help, and wanted to hire me as VP of Marketing after I did a day’s consulting for them. North Carolina beckoned, and I have never regretted getting out when I did.

After receiving a fascinating observation from a reader (via Nigel Rees), I have posted an update to my piece on ‘The Enchantment’. The normal set of Commonplace items can be found here.                                                                                                                   (January 31, 2016)

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Refugees and Liberators

In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, I spent a few weeks with a German family in Hesse. They were very hospitable to their young English guest, although I believe the parents may have taken advantage of his naivety. The father of the household had survived the Russian Front, which was no mean achievement, and he was understandably rather dour and uncommunicative about the whole experience. His wife, however, tried to propagandise me, claiming that they (i.e. German citizens in general) knew nothing about the concentration camps, and that they believed that they were some kind of ‘holiday camp’ where the Jews were being sent. (I cannot recall her exact words in German, but that was the distinct impression she left with me.) She also made some cryptic remarks about ‘Mittel-Deutschland’ and ‘Ost-Deutschland’, which I vaguely thought at the time must refer respectively to what was then the German Democratic Republic, and the land within the 1937 borders of the German Reich that had been given to Poland after the Potsdam Conference. I was too shy (or too polite) to challenge her on what appeared to be a nostalgic wish that the old boundaries might be restored at some stage. (The Federal Republic of Germany had not at that time even recognized the German Democratic Republic.)

I thought of this Frau when I read a recent New York Times piece titled The Displaced, in its Magazine of November 8, by one Jake Silverstein, which was designed to highlight the fact that nearly 60 million people had been displaced since World War II, and that half of them were children. It was supposed to be an innovative article, using some kind of 3-D technology, an app, and some cardboard Google glasses (none of which I experimented with), but the introductory comments caught my eye. The article reproduced a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR35432.html , but several aspects of the way this photograph was introduced seemed questionable to me. Silverstein describes the picture as follows:  “ . . . a girl of about ten  . .  is standing behind an enormous pile of belongings, which have been rightly packed for a long journey. . . . Both [the girl and her younger brother] look directly at the photographer, who took this picture at Dessau, as scores of Germans displaced during World War II began returning home.” Under the photograph runs the description: “A camp in Dessau, Germany, in April 1945, for displaced people liberated by Soviet troops”.

What is going on here? These phrases provoked so many questions in my mind that I hardly knew where to begin. A camp set up in April, 1945, when the war was not over until May 8? Germans displaced in World War II – by whom, I wonder? Did Germans not cause massive displacements themselves? Returning home? From where? What was their ‘home’, and why were they not ‘at home’ beforehand? And those Soviet troops ‘liberating’ German territories? If they were true ‘liberators’, were the Soviets really encouraging ‘displaced’ people to return to their natural habitat? So perhaps these people weren’t German, after all, as the caption suggested? And might they in fact have been running away in fear from the Soviets, whose reputation for murder, rape and pillage made them, for some, an even more obnoxious threat than the Nazis? For these were, indeed very confused – and confusing – times.

I posed such questions to the Public Editor at the New York Times, as it seemed to me that the paper’s editors must have considered these questions. If they had not, this was surely an example of careless journalism – laziness and superficiality. And I thought the matter important as the episode was being used as a banner for a brand new publishing exercise. Yet, after one perfunctory acknowledgment, the Times has gone silent, and ignored my messages. It presumably either thinks its statements are defensible, or that the whole issue is completely unimportant. I thus decided to document it all myself. I thought the best way of approaching the topic was to attempt to answer those journalistic standbys: What? When? Where? Why? How? Who?

What:

That the photograph shows refugees of some sort, there is little doubt. Yet they do not possess any air of desperation: they look healthy and calm, and do not appear to have been abused.  They are surely not Prisoners of War, or slave laborers. Members of the group in the middle distance are smiling, and the size and volume of the possessions strewn on the street suggests that they have made their way to the camp with some form of transport, perhaps a horse-driven cart, or a man-pulled barrow. They have surely not travelled far, but how can Silverstein know that they are preparing for a ‘long journey’? Is the location really a camp? It is difficult to say. The atmosphere is very different from that of most of the other photographs in this group that refer to the Dessau camp, but the texts of the latter appear very unreliable, indicating, for example, families of healthy-looking Soviet ‘refugees’ who are about to return to their homeland. How Soviet families, for example, were allowed to find refuge from the Soviet Union in the German Reich, and yet apparently flourish, is a question that is deeply inexplicable, one which Magnum superficially brushes aside. And clearly, not all images in the set are taken inside the camp, even though they are captioned as such.

That the Central European problem of Displaced Persons (DPs) was massive is unquestioned. The historian Michael Jones has reported that the number of DPs that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had to deal with increased from 350,000 at the end of March 1945 to over 2 million by early May.

When:

The date of April 1945 must be wrong. It appears that Silverstein just plucked it from the website where the photograph appears, without thinking. The caption for it supplied by Magnum runs as follows: ‘Dessau. A transit camp was located between the American and Soviet zones organized for refugees, POWs, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern Front of Germany that had been liberated by the Soviet Army.’ Since the surrender document created for the Germans was not signed until May 8, it would have been very unlikely for refugee camps to have been set up in April so close to the combat zone, what with fierce fighting still continuing in the neighborhood. Dessau is about fifty miles downstream from Torgau, also on the Elbe, renowned for the certainly staged encounter between US and Soviet troops on the Elbe, which did not take place until April 25. It occurred after a US officer had met a Soviet counterpart on the west side of the Elbe, at Leckwitz, which is about halfway between Torgau and Dresden. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, but the fighting was still intense: between April 16 and May 8, Soviet casualties were over 350,000, of which 100,000 were killed. At that time, there were about 250,000 German soldiers in the zone between the approaching GB-US and Soviet lines. A desperate attempt by German troops and civilians, fleeing from the Soviet forces, to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, about sixty miles north of Dessau, started on May 6, thus showing that the area was in turmoil right up until the surrender was signed (in Rheims on May 7, and ratified in Berlin the following day).

In fact, an explanation below another photograph expands the time-period: it says that ‘Cartier-Bresson . .  took the photo between 21 April and 2 July 1945, between the American occupation of the city and the arrival of their Russian replacements’. This latter date is certainly a more reliable, yet still dubious, pointer to the time: the US forces vacated Dessau some time in July. Magnum does the cause of scholarly research no favors, however, by assigning the same erroneous caption to all forty-one photographs it displays in this album.

Where:

Whereas the boundaries of the occupied zones (Soviet, US, GB, and France) had been set at the Yalta Conference in February, both British and US forces actually advanced up to 200 miles (to the ‘Line of Contact’) inside what was legally the Soviet zone, and did not withdraw until early July 1945. Thus Dessau, which is situated just south of the River Elbe, and west of the River Mulde, was well inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation.  Yet the Magnum captions again distort the facts:  by stating that the transit camp ‘was located between the American and Soviet zones’, they suggest that Dessau was the permanent boundary, and misrepresent the coordinates of the American zone. Moreover, Magnum encourages this view by captioning photographs of refugees crossing the Elbe as follows: ‘The river deviding [sic] the Soviet and American sectors. Refugees making way to refugee camps’, and ‘A pontoon bridge between the border zone crossing of refugees. The river was the line dividing Soviet and American sectors’. Unfortunately, this was the impression many refugees had at the time – that by crossing the Elbe they would reach the safety of the American zone, when in fact Dessau was just about to be ceded to the Soviets.

That there was a camp at Dessau is plausibly confirmed by other sources: it may have been set up on the grounds of an existing Nazi concentration camp. ‘Working for the Enemy’ claims that ‘The Dessau camp is listed by the Red Cross International Tracing Service as having existed from November 1944 until 11 April 1945, with an inmate population of about 340’, suggesting it was dismantled just before the Americans arrived. It cites witnesses who state that a ‘death march’ out of Dessau started around April 11, as Allied troops approached it from all sides. The SS wanted to deliver the inmates to the International Red Cross in Prague. No doubt the same camp facilities were eventually used by the Americans – and then the Soviets.

Why?:

The emphasis in the New York Times article is on ‘displacement’, more specifically on ‘scores [sic!] of Germans displaced during World War II’ who ‘began returning home’, with the suggestion that such people had been ‘liberated by Soviet troops’. This vague assertion is not helped by the Magnum rubric, which describes the refugees as ‘political prisoners, POW’s, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern front of Germany’. Since the photographs include images of ‘Soviet and Ukrainian refugees awaiting repatriation to their homeland’, one might well ask why such persons had ‘returned’ from the Eastern Front. It is palpable nonsense. Yet, examining the single photograph used by Silverstein, one might pose other penetrating questions. If the refugees are indeed German, why had they been displaced, and by whom? Hitler’s policy of Germanization of the lands bordering the Reich involved resettlement of German citizens from the homeland into vanquished territories, but also involved the recall of remote German communities (such as in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). At the same time, Hitler imported thousands of foreign captives to work as slave laborers within the Reich: they had certainly been ‘displaced’ and wanted to return home, whether it was to France, Poland, Ukraine or even the Soviet Union. It was a very messy time. As Christopher Snyder has written in Bloodlands: “German men went abroad and killed millions of ‘subhumans’, only to import millions of other ‘subhumans’ to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing ‘subhumans’.”

But to speak of the Germans in terms suggesting that they were the primary victims of displacement is an insult to all the other groups of non-Germans who suffered far greater privations, not least, of course, the six million Jews who lost their lives, and thus had no chance of returning ‘home’, wherever that was. Certainly, many Germans suffered when the terms of the Yalta agreements were executed, with Soviet and Polish troops taking their revenge on Nazi massacres and destruction by murdering and abusing Germans in such areas as Silesia or Pomerania, which needed to be cleaned out to make room for Poles whose eastern boundaries had been ceded to the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s death, however, his successor, Admiral Dönitz, used radio broadcasts to warn the German nation that the primary menace was the Bolsheviks, with the result that Nazi armies in the East continued hopelessly to fight the Soviet forces, in an effort to give an opportunity for thousands of civilians (and soldiers) to flee towards the West.

Dönitz specifically intended to drive a wedge between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union, believing that the democracies would come to the realization that Bolshevism was the enduring foe that they would sooner or later need to turn against. At the same time he encouraged a massive exodus of German citizens from their homes in the east, whether their domiciles had been destroyed or not. In fact, the Germans recognizably stalled for time over the process of signing the surrender document, in the hope of allowing more refugees and troops to escape the Russians. Thus to talk of such as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) returning ‘home’ would be a gross distortion.

A few weeks later, when the Potsdam conference was over in August 1945, the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the new western border of Poland was solidified. The Soviet troops prepared for these new boundaries as they advanced. As Antony Beevor writes, in The Second World War: “As Stalin had intended, ethnic cleansing was pursued with a vengeance. Troops from the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies forced Germans from their houses to push them across the Oder. The first to go were those on pre-1944 Polish territory. Some had lived there for generations, others were the Volksdeutsch beneficiaries of the Nazis’ own ethnic cleansing in 1940. Packed into cattle wagons, they were taken westwards and robbed of their few belongings on the way. A similar fate awaited those who had stayed behind or returned to Pomerania and Silesia, which now fell within the new Polish borders. In East Prussia, only 193,000 Germans were left out of a population of 2.2 million.” It is thus very difficult to judge why and how any group of such German refugees could be said to have been ‘displaced’ in the sense of casualties of war. And it would not appear that the refugees in Silverstein’s photograph had undergone such stern privations.

How?:

Were such people indeed being ‘liberated’, as the captions claim? The term ‘Liberators’ originated in the Yalta agreement, where Declaration II stated that the leaders of the Allies ‘jointly declare their mutual agreement to concert during the temporary period of instability in liberated Europe the policies of their three Governments in assisting the peoples liberated from the domination of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.’ For reasons of political unity, it was incumbent to consider all victorious powers as ‘Liberators’, rather than ‘Occupiers’, but two major problems ensued. First, it suggested that Germans themselves needed ‘liberating’ from Nazi oppression (rather than being complicit agents in the brutality), and second, it assumed that Communist totalitarianism was indeed a force for freedom. As the Oxford Companion to World War II states: “The German advance into the Baltic States in 1941 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous occupation of the previous year. Yet it brought terrible impositions and murderous policies of its own. Similarly, the western advance of the Soviet armies in 1944-5 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous German occupation of the previous years; yet it brought reprisals and totalitarian policies that were no less vicious than those it removed. Liberations that did not liberate are not worthy of the name.”

Juozas Lukša, a CIA-trained Lithuanian resistance fighter, makes a similar point from the benefit of direct experience, cited by Edward Lucas in his book Deception: “In 1940, the Russians had come marching into our land to ‘liberate’ us from ‘capitalist and Fascist exploiters.’ In 1941, the Germans had marched in after them and thereby ‘liberated’ us from ‘Bolshevik bondage’. And now, the Russians were back again – this time to ‘liberate’ us from ‘the tyranny of Nazi hangmen’. But since we still recalled how they had gone about ‘liberating’ us the last time, we didn’t think we had any cause to rejoice.”

What is unarguable is that millions of ethnic Germans outside the new borders were persecuted, with as many as 100,000 killed arbitrarily, and with thousands committing suicide rather than falling prey to the vengeful and pillaging Soviets. Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland (which had been appropriated by Germany in October 1938, as part of the Munich agreement) before the war) were given only a few minutes to pack and flee. Hundreds died en route from Poland and Czechoslovakia. And many more who found themselves in the Soviet zone tried desperately to reach the zones of the Western democracies – which is probably what the Magnum photographs show.

Who?:

So can the group illustrated by the New York Times be identified with any confidence? Interestingly, the Magnum Archive includes another photograph of the threesome, presumably taken very soon after the first, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR227694.html. Here the railway is in view, and one can also detect that a third child is lying on the bundle of possessions. While the young girl strikes a defiant posture, the expressions on the faces of the background group (is one of them wearing an army uniform?) suggest that they are in good spirits, and are expecting a train to take them away soon, probably westwards. Given the pictures of returning Ukrainians and Russians, however, one cannot be absolutely sure that they are not going eastwards. Again, their condition, and the size of their bundle of possessions, indicate they have not suffered much, and have probably not travelled far, and were not expelled in haste, to reach Dessau. But many of the other Magnum photographs are enigmatic. The image at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG547X4I claims to show Belgian and French forced labourers, who, again, look remarkably fit. Moreover, they are carrying a poster of Stalin. Another image, at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDYQFCXU, purportedly shows ‘a Soviet child, who was deported with his parents, returning to his homeland’. The child incongruously is carrying an umbrella. What in fact happened was that all Soviet citizens returning from captivity in Germany were either murdered, sent to the GULAG, or ostracized. An umbrella would not have helped them. Cartier-Bresson was a Communist sympathizer, and many of the photographs have a propaganda feel.

One inescapable conclusion from the photographs and the historical accounts of the time (including the horrifying escapes at Tangermünde, which can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YDN9lcS6tI ) is that most of the ‘displaced’ persons who thought that they would reach a safe haven after reaching the western side of the Elbe were probably unaware of the boundaries agreed at Yalta, and were soon to be horribly disillusioned, as the Western powers had to cede the territory to the Soviets. How many of them, as native Germans, succeeded in escaping from the Soviets to the real American, British or French zones 100 miles away or more would be a story well worth investigating.

Conclusions:

Apart from the obvious fact that one should be very careful in reproducing, or citing, information on the Internet, the publication of this piece by the New York Times indicates to me that its journalism can occasionally be amateurish, and its editorial supervision inadequate. The paper claims that ‘we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing.’ So what happened here, with the casual reliance on a third-party source, and no apparent fact-checking? Moreover, the reaction of the office of the Public Editor has, frankly, been deplorable. It should either acknowledge there was a problem, and admit it publically, or inform me that it thinks the information was correct, and that my complaint is thus rejected. Certainly, if a message that children are always innocent victims in times of hardship and privation was intended to be communicated, the piece transmitted it. But I doubt whether that proposition would ever be contested by anybody.

For an established newspaper reporter, however, lazily to select a photograph which he thought might dramatise his case, and unthinkingly use the descriptive text provided by a website that has clearly been influenced by propaganda, without performing any of the slightest checks of fact verification, or investigating the political and military environment in which the photograph was taken, is simply unacceptable. The issue of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, and the righteousness of their respective causes, and what they are escaping from, and how they might be liberated, is obviously very topical. (The week that this item was posted, the New York Times reported that the city of Ramadi had been ‘liberated’ by Iraqi government troops, but suggested at the same time that some citizens might prefer life under Daesh.) If the newspaper wanted to make a pertinent case about the plight of such displaced persons, however, a far more careful exploration of the context was necessary to give guidance on reasons, identities, victims, oppressors, homelands, statuses, etc., instead of making a shallow and factitious emotional appeal to its readership. The irony of ‘Refugees’ trying to escape from their ‘Liberators’ has been lost on the New York Times. Yet the newspaper seems to think nothing is awry.

⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰

(Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Jake Silverstein is in fact the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The current issue of the Magazine indicates he has at least twenty persons with the word ‘editor’ in their job title. But who edits the editor-in-chief?)

Sources:

Working for the Enemy edited by Billstein, Fings, Kugler and Levis

The Oxford Companion to World War II

The Times Atlas of the Second World War

Bloodlands by Christopher Snyder

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

The End by Ian Kershaw

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

Armageddon by Max Hastings

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones

Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas

(December 31, 2015)

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The Congenial Richard Dawkins

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book titled something like ‘Why Darwin Is Wrong’. It wasn’t a creationist text, but a popular science-based analysis. I can’t find the volume on abebooks (which doesn’t appear to list anything before 1981), but I recall quite clearly two of its major objections to Darwinian thinking, so far as the author understood it. One, that the notion of ‘The Survival of the Fittest’ (which was actually coined by Herbert Spencer to describe Darwin’s natural selection) was tautological, and thus meaningless, since what was ‘survival’ but another way of saying that an animal was ’fit’?  Two, that if the energies that contributed to survival took place after the animal had passed on its genetic material to its offspring, there would be no mechanism by which more adaptive traits would endure in the species.

I thought at the time that these points had merit, yet I was not completely discouraged from accepting that natural selection was the most plausible explanation for evolution, even though the exact mechanisms by which it occurred were still somewhat mysterious. I was, however, dismayed by another misconception, namely the way that the Theory of Evolution was frequently misrepresented as something purposeful by even the most knowledgeable of experts. I can recall the great David Attenborough, in Life on Earth, explaining certain phenomena in terms such as: “Thus, in order to survive, the bats had to develop radar.” This notion of purpose in Evolution is obviously nonsensical, and I have occasionally had to write to the Science Editor of the New York Times to point out where their journalists mistakenly ascribe this sense of an objective to adaptive changes. After all, did certain winged birds develop their flightlessness in order to make their life less hazardous? And what was the timescale according to which such adaptive changes worked? How long would it take for various initiatives to fail or succeed before the lack of ‘fitness’ wiped out the species? At the same time, as Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch showed, describing the researches of Peter and Rosemary Grant on the Galapagos, small changes in the dimensions of finches’ beaks could rapidly take place in the light of changing climatic conditions and food supply.

Then Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene came along and changed everything, showing that the gene, not the individual organism (as Darwin believed) was the unit of natural selection. I have enjoyed Dawkins’s books since, although I found his first volume of autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, rather scrappy and chippy. Now I have just finished his sequel, Brief Candle in the Dark. This is a new Dawkins. I think his PR firm must advised him not to be so offensive and controversial, because he positively oozes congeniality, and is nice about nearly everybody, and not nearly as scathing about religion as he used to be. (There must be a social meme in such superstitions that aids the survival of certain groups, a sad but unavoidable truth.) He also turns out to have almost as many friends as did Denis Healey or Lord Weidenfeld, and appears at times unbearably smug. As a curmudgeon myself, maybe I preferred the traditional Dawkins.

He has some fascinating new insights about the evolutionary process. I was interested to see what he had to say about the hot topic of epigenetics (defined in Chambers as the ‘gradual production and organisation of parts’, which is the study of how gene behavior is affected by environmental factors), and how he contrasted it with preformationist thinking (i.e. that, in essence, a homunculus was inside every human embryo). It seemed to me lately that some neo-Lamarckians, interested in promoting the notion of the passing on of acquired characteristics, have latched on to the term of ‘epigenetics’ to assist their cause. A footnote (p 402) from Dawkins is worth citing in full: “Don’t by the way be confused by the fact that the word ‘epigenetics’ has recently been hijacked as a label for a fashionable and over-hyped idea that changes in gene expression (which of course happen all the time during the course of normal embryonic development, otherwise all cells of the body would be the same) can be passed on to future generations. Such transgenerational effects may occasionally happen and it’s a quite interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon. But it’s a shame that, in the popular press, the word ‘epigenetics’ is becoming misused as though cross-generational transmission was a part of the very definition of epigenetics, rather than a rare and interesting anomaly.” Thank you, Professor. Just what I was looking for.

In one area however, I wonder whether Dawkins has got it wrong. I recall, at about the same time that I read the book on Darwin, taking in another work that pointed out how quickly scientists make analogies between the human body and whatever the current state of technology is (i.e. a pump in the 17th c., a clock in the 18th , an engine in the 19th , a computer in the 20th ). I thought that it might have been Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, but I can find no trace of it there, and in those pre-spreadsheet days I did not keep track of every book I read. No matter: I think the point is valid. And Dawkins falls into the same easy motion. On page 382, when discussing the possible source of language, he makes the claim that ‘the human brain must possess something equivalent to recursive subroutines’ (an ability for a computer program to call itself and then return to an outer version of itself), a feature he says exists in Algol 60, but not the original IBM Fortran  language he used. Such a feature in human genes, which he calls ‘macro-mutation’ might have come about in a single mutation, and could have been responsible for the ability to create the phenomenon of language syntax. In reducing a complex organic process to a mechanical one, however, I believe Dawkins makes a categorical mistake. A computer program is only an artifact of the entity that he is describing, namely the human brain, which is a far more complex phenomenon than the strings of ones and zeroes that comprise a language compiler. His comparison is therefore merely crude reductionism.

But then Dawkins compounds his error. He goes on to write: “Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick. And once that trick has been implemented, hierarchically embedded syntax immediately becomes possible and capable of generating indefinitely extended sentences.”  First of all, if it is a design feature, it is not a trick. The trick – if there were one – would be an inherent flaw in the software where recursion did not work properly all the time – either by faulty implementation, or by a deliberate clandestine approach that made aberrant decisions based on some external circumstance or internal control data. After all, we each one of us know now about the Volkswagen Emissions Control Software, which gave false readings when the engine was being tested under laboratory conditions. Similarly, the implementation of a compiler program that claimed to allow recession could disable the function, or cause it not to work properly, depending on, for the instance, the date or time of day, the machine environment, or the particular iteration or count of the software execution.

He thus fails to distinguish between the design statement for a compiler that allows recursion, and the instantiation of that design in code. Moreover, no software is a perfect implementation, which causes the analogy inevitably to stumble. And by hinting at the notion of design in computer languages (what he signifies as the ‘trick’), Dawkins inadvertently undermines his analogy, since that notion of an architect has no role to play in evolutionary development, natural selection being an essentially haphazard process. Too many of his metaphors (for example, the arms-race, p 340; or ‘if we think of natural selection as a sculptor’, p 359) contain this notion of design at work, and thus weaken his whole argument, since the congenial atheist would assuredly deny the role of any ‘Designer’ in the process of language evolution. While many of the mechanisms by which genetic change occurs are still mysterious, that does not mean they are mystical. Following up on this theme, Dawkins later goes on to praise Chomsky’s idea of the language-learning apparatus being genetically implanted in the brain – which also strikes me as a bogus concept, since so many languages have implementations of syntax that are utterly antithetical and incompatible with other schemes. This is the weakest part of Dawkins’s theorizing.

Still, it was all a stimulating and enjoyable read, if you can put up with Dawkins continually reminding you how clever and successful he has been.

P.S. The New York Times informed me, on November 25, that the Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, Pakistan, sells a thousand copies of Dawkins’s atheist treatise ‘The God Delusion’ each year. Not many people know that.

New Commonplace entries appear here.                                                                                                     (November 30, 2015)

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Magna Carta and Pluralism

“Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States. It is old, it is English, and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke for current needs.”                                                                                                      (Tom Ginsburg, in NYT, June 15)

Regular readers will recall my old Oxford pal (indeed the only Oxford pal with whom I stay in regular contact), Derek Taylor. Whenever I am in the UK, I try to look him up at the Old Stables in Stow-on-the-Wold, although, if he hears I am coming over, he does sometimes abscond sharply to his retreat in Spain. Derek has now published a second book, titled ‘Magna Carta in Twenty Places’, which appeared in the UK in time for the octingentenary, and in the USA at the beginning of July.

If history is arguably all about sex, power, wealth and religion, I would assert that we pupils got short shrift in 1950s Britain. Sex was obviously a taboo subject, and religion was only slightly less shy-making, as I suspect the masters were probably a bit embarrassed about all the absurd Catholic-Protestant clashes that endured through the centuries. Moreover, they had to be sensitive to the fact that the religion of their charges could have been all over the map, even though Whitgift School had been founded by an Archbishop of Canterbury, and – quite correctly – such beliefs should have remained a private affair. (I remain amazed, however, that so many obviously smart and educated persons, encouraging their pupils to think inquiringly, should have accepted all the superstitions and mumbo-jumbo of religion so unquestioningly.) Thus my recollection of History was a set of dreary topics that did not string together, with major wars interspersed with boring descriptions of devices that peasants used to till the land. ‘One damn thing after another’, as Arnold Toynbee said of history, but I always wanted to know how things had arrived at where the current textbook started off, and what motivated all the agents in the drama. No wonder my mind wandered, wondering whether the rain would interfere with cricket practice.

Derek obviously had a great teacher, and, what’s more, unlike me, he paid attention. He dedicates his work to Stan Revill, who must have been a marvellous man to learn from. Derek brings the evolution of the Magna Carta alive by visiting twenty places, from The Wash to Washington, D.C., from Acre to Angoulême, that either affected its creation, or were influenced by its reality – and myth. He starts off in fine and typical style with a wonderful inspection of Ernest Normand’s iconic depiction of the scene at Runnymede, which ‘represents the classic myth of “bad” King John, the “upright” barons, and Magna Carta as the “birth of democracy”. He has a deep knowledge of the time, and the leading actors, and brings a journalist’s keen eye for today’s physical world to bridge the realities of life eight hundred years ago with the often forgetful world of the 21st century, equally dissonant in so many ways, but in a very different manner.

Magna Carta had been mythologised, and misunderstood, according to Derek, but he reminds us that it does represent the rule of law, and the assertion that even despots should be subject to it. It’s a strong lesson to citizens of the UK and the USA in particular that we should be grateful that we have term limits, and impeachment processes, and regular elections that give us a chance ‘to throw the current lot out’, as opposed to so many other countries around the globe. (Isn’t that what President Obama has been saying this week in Africa? Although his address to the ‘Muslim World’ a couple of years ago made the same Cameronian mistake, as Western pluralism should be inclusive of Muslims, like anyone else.) I am not competent to judge Derek’s historical analysis: from my reading of the July 2015 issue of History Today, a special edition on the Magna Carta, I would say his opinion of King John is a little more indulgent than that of Sean McGlynn’s, while his textual analysis is more incisive. Derek’s version of America’s adoption of the Carta’s symbolic value is close to Alexander Lock’s interpretation. But Derek’s narrative is much livelier. (A third piece in the magazine, by Graham Seel, head of history at St. Paul’s School, explores a canvas by Charles Sims of King John at Runnymede that hangs in St. Stephen’s Hall. Derek does not mention this work, but it provides a fascinating contrast to Normand’s more familiar and romantic creation. It would be an absorbing exercise to compare the two.)

Derek writes with tremendous verve, and has a fine ear for well-balanced sentences. He has been slightly let down by his publisher, who sadly did not ensure that the legend on his map corresponds to the chapter titles identifying the places, and I would have liked to see a bibliography. No doubt these issues will be addressed in the forthcoming paperback edition. (Every reviewer has to find at least one quibble.) Never mind. Derek’s is a fine accomplishment. His book is a wonderfully entertaining account for anybody – especially those whose impression of the Charter may have been coloured by romanticised schoolboy lessons or by pious hyperbole from politicians. Please take a look at http://www.derekjtaylorbooks.com/ and order your copy.

I have been taking a particular interest in Britain’s form of liberal democracy recently, as part of my doctoral thesis addresses the question of why it was not strong enough in the 1930s to provide a coherent and vigorous philosophical antidote to the twin horrors of totalitarian Fascism and Communism. (For the time being, I shall leave my analysis for the thesis.) Thus I was intrigued by David Cameron’s recent pronouncements about promoting ‘British values’ in the face of Muslim extremism. I can’t help feeling that Cameron is still caught up in all the misguided multi-cultural jargon of the Jenkinsite 1970s, what with his references to the ‘Muslim community’ and ‘Muslim leaders’. For the essence of a modern pluralist society is that we should not compartmentalize – and thus stereotype   ̶  large groups of individuals into separate ‘communities’ , nor should we look for self-appointed ‘leaders’ to represent their interests. I am an atheist, but I am not a member of the ‘atheist community’ [I think you mean the ‘AHAA community’, namely Atheists, Heretics, Apostates and Agnostics. Ed.], and I do not look to ‘atheist leaders’ to represent my interests. I have an MP, or a senator, or a representative to do that for me, and I know he or she will not share all my beliefs, but it is his or her job to speak for all his or her constituents. And what about those members of a ‘community’ who ‘intermarry’, or reject the faith they were brought up in? They will feel marginalized and lost. Moreover, is it not true that some of those ‘leaders’ are the ones responsible for the mayhem, as the government of Tunisia is finding as it tries to clean up the mosques of radical influences?

I also noticed that an imam from Leeds told the BBC that he found Cameron’s speech redolent of ‘us versus them’ thinking, and I believe he is right, in that respect, at least. Religious beliefs should be a private affair: the secular laws of the land should apply to everyone (no tolerance of local shariah law, or Jewish courts, or Christian prayers at civil events, for example) and we should recognize the fast-growing trend of an increasing proportion of the population (in the UK and in the USA) defining themselves as religious non-believers, as well as more and more citizens who are offspring of so-called ‘mixed marriages’ (a term I deplore). Such persons are left out of these dim and depressing artificial sociological categories. Cameron needs some fresh advisors, and some fresh advice. Dismantle the Ministry for Communities! Stop stereotyping! Don’t listen to self-appointed ‘Leaders’! Respect Individual Rights, not Group Rights! Coldspur has Spoken!

The normal set of Commonplace items are available for inspection here. (July 31, 2015)

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Surveying Lake Tahoe

 

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Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a travel piece about Lake Tahoe, that body of water that straddles the California-Nevada border. The article included an astonishing claim – that the lake contained enough water to cover the whole drought-ridden state of California to a depth of fifteen feet. At the time, I found it hard to believe, but was too busy to perform the research and calculations that would verify or refute this assertion. So I was not surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, the paper issued a correction that stated that the lake would cover the state to a level of fifteen inches, not feet.

Is this still credible? After all, Lake Tahoe is the size of a small English county, 191 square miles, something between Rutland and the Isle of Anglesey. California is almost 164,000 square miles, almost double the area of Great Britain. Lake Tahoe must be very deep, right? Well, its average depth is given as 1000 feet (its maximum being 1644 feet), offering it a volume of 36 cubic miles (1000/5280 *191). The multiple of California’s area over Tahoe’s is 858.6 (164,000/191). Spreading Tahoe’s water over the area of California gives 1.164 feet (1000/858.6), or about fourteen inches. So the revised claim is fairly accurate.

So I got to thinking about other freshwater lakes. The largest in North America, Lake Superior, is 31,700 square miles in area, not as deep as Tahoe, but still providing 2903 cubic miles in volume. The greatest in the world in volume is Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which, while only 12,248 square miles in area (one and a half times the area of Wales) contains 5700 cubic miles of water, as its average depth is 2500 feet, with the deepest section reaching over a mile (5387 feet), well above the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. Thus, if the 15-inch claim is correct, the water in Baikal could cover the whole of California to a depth of 200 feet (5700/36 x 1.25). Perhaps President Putin could spare some for those long-suffering Californians? (While in California, one of the books I read was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Frazier quotes Dr. Sergei V. Shibaev, director of the Siberian Geophysical Survey at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in downtown Yakutsk, as saying: ‘But all other rivers in Yakutia are extremely pure, with reserves of water for all mankind. There is a deficiency of freshwater on the planet, as is known. We in Yakutia have freshwater here.’)

I thought I should check out Lake Tahoe. As it happened, we travelled to San Jose, California, in June, to visit our son and his family, now consisting of five – wife Lien, Ashley, now three years and eight months, whom regular readers will recall from ‘An American Odyssey’, and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa, whose second birthday we celebrated while we there there. We broke our visit to spend a few days in South Lake Tahoe, a drive of about four hours away from San Jose, and ascended the gondola (a ski-lift in winter) to a height of about 9000 feet, where I was able to take the pictures below. Yes, you could easily fit Rutland into the lake – including Rutland Water, Europe’s largest man-made lake when it was constructed in 1971 – and, with a highpoint of 646 feet, the county would easily be submerged in Lake Tahoe. Truly multum in parvo, as Rutland’s motto goes.

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Lake Tahoe, looking North towards Nevada

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Looking West towards San Francisco

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Julia and I at Lake Tahoe

Meanwhile, Ashley and the twins gave us great pleasure: we hadn’t seen them for eighteen months. After some initial shyness, they took to us very well. It is astonishing to me that Lady Ashley, at that age, could be so facile with an iPad and iPhone. I do not believe such skills are ‘in her blood’ or ‘in her DNA’, as that would mean a magical transfer of genetic material some time between the birthdates of her four grandparents and her arrival on the scene, but she has taken to them with complete confidence. (Her father’s working for Apple, and her mother’s aptitude in the same area, may have something to do with it.) However, I was able to introduce her to some new gadgets – a ‘non-scrollable, foldable, combustible information delivery vehicle’ (commonly known as a ’newspaper’), as well as a ‘single-function photographic device’ (a ‘camera’). Ashley was intrigued by both items, as she had clearly not seen either of them before. I present a few photographs of our visit.

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James, Lien, and the girls at the twins’ 2nd birthday party

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My three grand-daughters and I

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The girls overpowering their father.

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Sylvia and I at Father’s Day Dinner at Morton’s

A few new Commonplace entries for the month, to be found here.     June 30, 2015

 

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Remembering Mr. Popper

In the early 1950s, Mr. Popper travelled each day from Hampstead in North London to Coulsdon, Surrey, where he taught arithmetic at St. Anne’s Preparatory School. I was a pupil of his, and enjoyed the kindly way that he encouraged us to develop facility in the rapid manipulation of numbers. I was only about seven or eight at the time, and did not understand why Mr. Popper spoke with a thick accent. On one occasion, however, my parents invited him and his wife to come to supper: they were always welcoming to new members of staff, and my father (a schoolmaster himself) in particular had an interest in the backgrounds of everybody. I do not now recall whether I witnessed the event myself, or whether my parents told me about it afterwards, but Mr. Popper was so overcome by the occasion that he burst into tears.

My father must have explained that Mr. and Mrs. Popper were Jews, and had suffered so much, that the tranquility of suburban life in 1950s England, compared with what they had lost back in Austria (or was it Czechoslovakia?), and the relatives who had disappeared in the Holocaust, must have suddenly made him distraught. This was the first time I had heard about Jews, and gained some understanding of what happened to them under Hitler. My father did not explain things naturally: as an only child himself, I believe he thought that my brother, sister, and I should discover things ourselves. I remember that he bought me a stamp album, and an envelope full of stamps to be sorted and inserted. There was just one page in the album titled ‘Germany’, and I recall being confused about all the different manifestations of stamps from that country – the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, the stamps with Hitler on them (denoting the Third Reich), and some even earlier, featuring a heavily whiskered gentleman. How could I sort these out? I did not venture to ask my father, and he did not want to volunteer the information. It was not until some time after, when I discovered a Stanley Gibbons catalogue in the public library, that I understood there were several different countries involved, and I could bring some order to the collection.

I did not think of Jews as a separate group of people then, and have rarely thought so since. Most of the boys at school were somewhat menacing (and the rest probably rather weird), and one treated all of them with suspicion. So long as one avoided the bullies, or those who ridiculed you excessively, you didn’t think twice about where they came from, or what their religion was, or how odd their names were. They were just boys. And people like my parents did not mix much: in the corner of our street were various neighbours with whom they did not socialize: not the Ks, as they were Catholics, or the Ws, since Mr. W worked in advertising, and was not a professional; not the Ls, who came from the North, and were thus provincial; nor the Hs, who lived next door, but turned their noses up at us, as their house was somewhat grander, and they moved in better circles. Thus we mixed solely with my father’s and mother’s old school friends and their offspring, and a few scattered relatives (not many of those either.) Above all, we were cautioned never to mix with anybody who was ‘common’, which might mean poor pronunciation and vulgar talk, inappropriate dress, as well as nasty habits like chewing gum, or reading the Beano or the Dandy, or even getting interested in soccer rather than rugby football. We knew where we belonged. Strange as it may seem, that was how life was in 1950s England – strictly compartmentalized in a fashion that Orwell so neatly described. Yet my parents were very hospitable to Mr. and Mrs. Popper.

I thought of Mr. Popper when recently reading Madeleine Albright’s moving memoir about her roots in Czechoslovakia, Prague Winter, where on the one hand, all the Wilsonian nonsense about self-determination of nations, and, on the other, Hitler’s odious racial theories, came to a head. What on earth was the definition of a Jew at that time? As Albright writes: “According to the laws of the republic, Jews had the right, but not the obligation, to declare Jewish nationality. Roughly one half did, while the remainder identified themselves as Czechoslovak, German, Hungarian, Polish, or other. Although the Jewish population made up less than 1 percent of the country, it accounted for more than a third of capital investment and 10 percent of students at university. It was hardly a monolithic group; the rate of marriage outside the faith was the highest in Central Europe, and there were constant debates about worship obligations, ethics, language, social customs, dietary restrictions, and politics. With Hitler next door, many Jews with relatives living elsewhere used those contacts to emigrate. Several thousand moved to Palestine. Still others sought, often in vain, to obtain visas for travel to the West. Thinking to improve their chances of obtaining passage, some converted to Christianity or obtained forged certificates of baptism – which were readily available from the growing (and ecumenical) anti-fascist underground.”

This confusion is echoed in a message sent by the British ambassador in Prague to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, on February 15, 1939: “I was informed that there is a difference of opinion between German and Czecho-Slovak Governments on the interpretation of expression ‘person of non-German Volkszugehörigkeit’ [translated here as ‘race-participation’] in article 3 of optional [sic] Agreement insofar as it applies to Sudeten Jews. Germans contend that it applies to Jews of every description. Czechs contend that it applies only to those Jews whose mother-tongue is Czech, in other words that the majority of Sudeten Jews, whose mother tongue is German, are not entitled to opt for Czecho-Slovakia. The matter is to be referred to mixed commission provided for in article 13 of Agreement. I have thought it well to bring foregoing to you though the point is perhaps academic as even if Sudeten German Jews are allowed to opt they will be threatened with losing their citizenship under decree No. 15 – see my dispatch No 54.”

It is difficult for a reasonably enlightened citizen of a pluralist democracy in 2015 to imagine that politicians seventy-five years ago seriously thought about, and discussed, people in this manner. But they did. And some still do: the New York Times (echoing the absurd U.S. Census Bureau) can think of people solely in terms of pseudo-racial categories. Moreover, in the past couple of weeks, I have read the obituaries of three persons in the New York Times who touched this Jewish question: Peter Gay (the historian), Elisabeth Bing (the childbirth expert), and Anne Meara (the comic actress). The families of both Gay and Bing, growing up in Germany, did not realize they were Jewish until Hitler declared them so. Anne Meara was born a Catholic, but converted to Judaism a few years after marrying her Jewish husband, Jerry Stiller. I also recall Victor Rothschild, an agnostic, requiring his fiancée, Barbara Hutchinson, to convert to Judaism in order to please his own grandmother, as Jewishness is carried only matrilineally, and Grandma would have died on the spot if she thought her grandson was marrying outside the faith. What nonsense!

That is why the terms ’Jew’, ‘Gentile’, ‘Semite’, ‘co-religionist’ all have no meaning for me. I suspect I have ‘Jewish’ ancestors somewhere, but who cares? To confirm this point, Albright concludes her study of Nazi and Communist oppression of Czechoslovakia with some words from the great Jan Masaryk, half-American son of the country’s founder and someone far too level-headed to be a successful politician. They were addressed to his companion, Marcia Davenport, in 1947:

“You’re no more full-blooded what you think you are than I am. I must be Jewish somewhere, though the presentable story doesn’t say so. And you? How the hell do you know who you are?

I don’t.

And neither does anyone else who comes as far back as he can tell, from the parts of Europe that were the battlegrounds of the Napoleonic years. You think you have no Czech ancestry. You’re wrong. Some forefather of yours came through there as a conscript in the Russian armies, and if he didn’t leave a souvenir on some local slečna, then it was the other way round and some Czech in the Austrian army had a bit of fun with some pretty girl in Galicia whom they married off to your great-grandfather. You’re like everybody else whose people fled to America in the eighties and nineties – all the villages and synagogues with the family records were burnt up in the pogroms. Nobody knows anything . . . As for the nobility with  . . .  their thousand-year genealogies, there you get into the fun-and-games department  . .  My father was the son of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian housemaid, who were serfs. I can’t prove what the blood of their parents was and neither can anyone else.”

How right Masaryk was! Sadly, the great humanist met his reward the following year by being defenestrated by Stalin’s creatures, in one of their shabby attempts to stage-manage a suicide. The reasonableness of him and his kind could not avert the horrors of Hitler or Stalin. We all too loosely use the term ‘inhumanity’ to describe behaviours that are plainly human in origin. The pain and suffering of Mr. Popper and his relatives were indeed very real, and I dedicate this piece to their memory.

(As I was completing this piece, I read a searing and very positive review of Nikolaus Wachsmann’s history of the Nazi concentration camps, KL, in the Times Literary Supplement of May 22. Jane Caplan writes: “Behind the numbing totals that are the stock-in-trade of Nazi history lie the individuals whose suffering is incapable of calculation.” Indeed.)

A small set of Commonplace entries for the month can be found here.         (May 31, 2015)

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Richie Benaud – My Part In His Success

“So. Farewell

Then Richie Benaud,

Unbeaten Australian

Captain and much-loved

TV commentator.

 

Dust to

Dust.  Ashes to

Ashes.”

So began E. J. Thribb’s moving eulogy to Richie Benaud in Private Eye. I was saddened to read of the death of that most urbane and modest of cricket commentators, who seemed to be a permanent part of ‘Test Match Special’ each time I returned to the UK. It was forty years ago this summer that I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting to the great man, at an occasion which may have been forgotten by all other participants, if any of them are still around. It was an event that deserves a mention in the archives of the Summer Game.

My fellow slow-bowler in the Old Whitgiftians Cricket Eleven, Bob Horn, had invited me to substitute for him in a team of ‘Cricketer Cup’ players designated to play a team of Internationals. (The Cricketer Cup was sponsored by the Cricketer magazine, and was a knock-out tournament between independent schools that was played each year.) Believe it or not, this match had been arranged to celebrate the millennium of the Little Missenden Parish Church, in Buckinghamshire (all very Wodehousian). Why this particular church deserved such recognition, I have no idea, but Wikipedia confirms that the Saxon foundations of the establishment were shown to have been laid in AD 975, which confirms that the match must have been played in the summer of 1975. Now Bob Horn had an excellent pedigree: he was in Holy Orders, editor of the Church Times, an Oxford man, who played frequently for Surrey IIs. And I? Well, I was a complete unknown quantity, having, after an undistinguished cricket career at Whitgift School, and then blossoming somewhat at Christ Church, Oxford, made my way up from the Old Whitgiftian Fourth XI to a regular place in the First XI. But Bob must have had confidence in me to recommend to E. W. (‘Jim’) Swanton of the Daily Telegraph, the non-playing captain of the Cricketer Cup team, that I would be a worthy substitute for him. I did have to telephone Jim – at his house in Broadstairs, I recall – to gain his approval, and receive instructions as to how to proceed to the game.

Now description of such events could rapidly fall into Tinniswoodian farce.  (‘What possible interest can it be to know that E. W. Swanton wears maroon corduroy underpants and has in his study the complete collection of the records of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas?’ – Tales From A  Long Room, p 76) But Mr Swanton was kind and inviting (though I did hear ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ playing softly in the background), and put my mind at ease about the challenge ahead. Thus, a couple of weeks later, on a beautiful June day, I took a day off work, and drove up to Amersham to check out the cricket ground early. There was no one around, so I parked my 1969 Hillman Imp carefully behind a large oak-tree, and waited for everyone to arrive. When they did, everyone seemed to know everyone else – except me. There were Lords with their Ladies, and distinguished cricketers, including the Test Players Tony Lewis and Richie Benaud. I swore I espied Lord Lundy in the background: he must surely have returned from ‘governing New South Wales’, and had no doubt encountered Richie Benaud there, and plucked him out of obscurity. I suspect some of the aristocrats had never consorted with anyone in trade before, but no one asked me what I did (or even spoke to me for a while, as far as I recall), and admitting that, for a living, I administered databases in Wigmore Street would probably not have been a good conversation-starter.

I don’t recall much about the match, except that the Cricketer team batted first, and did not do very well. I went in Number 9, and notched up a few runs, but the highlight of my innings was playing a maiden over from Benaud. Benaud was fresh from his triumph at Old Trafford just fourteen years earlier, where a remarkable spell of 6-70 (including the bowling of my Old Whitgiftian captain at that time, Raman Subba Row, for 49) won the Ashes for Australia [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOLY6k1vq3A] .  He threw everything he could at me – leg-breaks, flippers, googlies, doosras, and one or two other concoctions I could not name, all in the space of six balls, yet could not dismiss me, as I refrained from trying to hoick him over mid-wicket, and kept my castle clean. I don’t think he was ever the same again, and soon abandoned the playing of the game to concentrate on his career in broadcasting.

Before lunch the great Jim (cryptonym ‘Gloria’) Swanton had addressed us in the changing-room: ‘We’ll wear our blazers, shall we?’, assuming that each would have brought his I Zingari or Free Foresters tribal uniform with him. Of course, I had no blazer, and that made me stand out as well. Anyway, I did get a bowl later, and Peter Marson (then one of the cricket reporters on the Daily Telegraph) turned down an absolutely cast-iron LBW appeal by me and the wicket-keeper, and the All-Stars won by about eight wickets. Afterwards, we listened to many highly amusing anecdotes about M.C.C. tours from Tony Lewis, while Benaud was the sole celebrity who chatted to me. We discussed bowling (I suggested that he was too square-on, and should raise his left shoulder a bit), and sundry other matters, including, if I remember correctly, Clive James’s use of metaphor and allegory. A charming man. I leave the final words for Peter Tinniswood, from The Brigadier Down Under, pp 12-13:

“Dear, dear Richie.

What a welcome he gave me when I left intelligence in his dinky little pigeon hole that I was staying at the same hotel as he.

He has literally showered me with courtesies and considerations.

I must be the only man privileged to have seen him ‘at his toilet’ as he bathes himself in asses’ milk and sprinkles his exquisite body with that rarest of rare perfumes, Essence of Sproat.

He showed me also his superb and dazzling wardrobe, which is under the personal and constant supervision of the Keeper of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dame Zandra Rhodes, second son of the immortal Wilfred.

But the highest honour of all was when he allowed me to attend the midnight devotions of Australian cricketers round the hotel consecrated barbecue.

Words cannot describe the ecstacy [sic] that overcame me as I listened to the ravishing plainsong of Rodney Marsh and the stirring tones of that finest of all evangelical preachers, the Rev. Dennis Lillee, as he launched into his celebrated sermon.

‘Take heed, all ye unbelievers  . . . . “ [We regret that we have to cut this extract short, as this is  a family-oriented blog.  Chief Webmaster, Coldspur Enterprises.]

The normal set of Commonplace entries added for the month.         (April 30, 2015)

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