Posts Tagged ‘France’

It seems like Donald’s election is causing a few problems for American companies doing business abroad, if this is anything to go by.

Just made us laugh to be honest … and struck us as a very funny piece of marketing given Trump’s approval rating in Europe, which would struggle to register on any opinion poll.

 

trump-label

 

Meanwhile, we see a petition to the UK Parliament to stop Britain offering him a State visit, as that means he would have to be met and looked after by the Queen, has currently reached over a million and a half signatures.

Will anything ever get through his thick skin? Probably not.

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partridge-in-a-pear-tree

The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days after Christmas). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse “five gold rings”.

Anonymous broadside, Angus, Newcastle, 1774–1825

 “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas. There are many variations in the lyrics. The lyrics given here are from Austin’s 1909 publication that first established the current form of the carol. The first three verses run, in full, as follows:

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me
a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French Hens,
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, each adding one new gift and repeating all the earlier gifts, so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor, as in:

4 Calling Birds
5 Gold Rings
6 Geese a-Laying
7 Swans a-Swimming
8 Maids a-Milking
9 Ladies Dancing (or Prancing)
10 Lords a-Leaping
11 Pipers Piping
12 Drummers Drumming

Variations of the lyrics

“Mirth without Mischief” (1780)

The earliest known version of the lyrics was published under the title “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball”, as part of a 1780 children’s book, Mirth without Mischief. Subsequent versions have shown considerable variation:
  • In the earliest versions, the word “On” is not present at the beginning of each verse—for example, the first verse begins simply “The first day of Christmas”. “On” was added in Austin’s 1909 version, and became very popular thereafter.
  • In the early versions “my true love sent” me the gifts. However, a 20th-century variant has “my true love gave to me”; this wording has become particularly common in North America.
  • The 1780 version has “four colly birds” – “colly” being a regional English expression for “black”.

    This wording must have been opaque to many even in the 19th century: “canary birds”, “colour’d birds”, “curley birds”, and “corley birds” are all found in its place. Frederic Austin’s 1909 version, which introduced the now-standard melody, also altered the fourth day’s gift to four “calling” birds, and this variant has become the most popular, although “colly” is still found. (Especially in our household.)

  • The “five gold rings” may become “five golden rings”, especially in North America. In the standard melody, this change enables singers to fit one syllable per musical note.
  • The gifts associated with the final four days are often reordered. For example, the pipers may be on the ninth day rather than the eleventh.

Scotland

In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o’ merry corn.

Faroe Islands

One of the two “Twelve Days of Christmas” Faroe stamps

In the Faroe Islands, there is a comparable counting Christmas song. The gifts include: one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese and fifteen deer. These were illustrated in 1994 by local cartoonist Óli Petersen (born 1936) on a series of two stamps issued by the Faroese Philatelic Office.

France

The French folk song “La Perdriole” (“The Partridge”) is a cumulative song with the same kind of lyrics and a similar (but slightly different) melody. One variant iterates over the 12 months of the year (“Le premier mois d’l’année”, etc…). Another version may be found in the Rondes et chansons de France, Vol. 10. It iterates over the first 12 days of May (“Au premier jour de Mai”, etc…)

Origins and meaning

The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from a children’s memory and forfeit game.

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr), to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.”

(Which is why we are supposed to take our Christmas decorations down on the 6th of Jan, even though in our household we never do, we like the pretty lights too much!)

The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. One hundred years later, Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described how it used to be played every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake (also known as “King’s cake).

Writing around 1846, Edward Rimbault stated that “[e]ach child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake.”

Salmon, writing from Newcastle, claimed in 1855 that the song “[had] been, up to within twenty years, extremely popular as a schoolboy’s Christmas chant”.

Husk, writing in 1864, stated:

This piece is found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years. On one of these sheets, nearly a century old, it is entitled “An Old English Carol,” but it can scarcely be said to fall within that description of composition, being rather fitted for use in playing the game of “Forfeits,” to which purpose it was commonly applied in the metropolis upwards of forty years since. The practice was for one person in the company to recite the first three lines; a second, the four following; and so on; the person who failed in repeating her portion correctly being subjected to some trifling forfeit.

“Twelve days of Christmas” was adapted from similar New Years’ or spring French carols, of which at least three are known, all featuring a partridge, perdriz or perdriole, as the first gift. The pear tree appears in only the English version, but this could also indicate a French origin. According to Iona and Peter Opie, the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge and the red-legged variant was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.

Cecil Sharp observed that “from the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the ‘merry little partridge,’ I suspect that ‘pear-tree’ is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England”; and “juniper tree” in some English versions may have been “joli perdrix,” [pretty partridge]. Sharp also suggests the adjective “French” in “three French hens”, probably simply means “foreign”.

(The French are very foreign, of course.)

In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the “Ten Days of Christmas”, as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was also widely popular in the United States and Canada. It is mentioned in the section on “Chain Songs” in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Indiana University Studies, Vol. 5, 1935), p. 416.

There is evidence pointing to the North of England, specifically the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, as the origin of the carol. Husk, in the 1864 excerpt quoted above, stated that the carol was “found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years”, i.e. from approximately 1714. In addition, many of the nineteenth century citations come from the Newcastle area.

civilianThere is a truth, an unavoidable elephant-in-the-room truth, a glaring shining searchlight of truth, that the leaders of the world are choosing to ignore as they rage against IS/ISIL/Daesh and the collected nasties of Iraq and Syria.

And it is this.

We are fully aware that Daesh are hiding among the civilian population. They are hiding there not to deter attacks on themselves, but because they want large numbers of civilian casualties from the current and the upcoming bombing campaign to help to establish their credibility in their current ownership of their nascent caliphate, and also to attract recruits to buttress those casualties they have taken.

This is also true: it is entirely impossible to use pin-point attacks against Daesh. Cross-hairs on grainy black and white video on the nightly news of laser-guided weaponry only tell half the story. Sure, we can neatly attack specific buildings. What we cannot know for sure is who is inside them. The most “guided” bomb is still indiscriminate. Just ask the four women driving out to the fields to tend their vegetables near Raqqa who were blown to smithereens because they had covered their faces against dust and heat, so the fighter pilot thought they were fighters as he unloaded onto them.

As we are already seeing, the more we attack those we oppose, the more we will inevitably slaughter those we are claiming to defend. Some in the civilian population in Raqqa are pleading with the UK, for example, not to join strikes against Syria. They will fail. The politicians are not listening to anyone but themselves.

This is also true. Thanks to the disgraceful realpolitik calculations of Putin and others, the Russian bombing campaign against Daesh forces fighting Assad in Syria has already morphed into a wider assault on the entire rebel force, and not just Daesh. Larger numbers of casualties among whatever civilian population is still trapped in Syria have been taking place already, and further deaths are inevitable.

This is the truth no one cares to state. The more we attack Syria and Iraq to dislodge Daesh, the more civilians will die, possibly in their tens of thousands. Men, women, children. Entirely innocent of any crime.

And it gets worse. If we put boots on the ground as well, which would require a massive troop commitment or none at all to be a success, we will drastically radicalise the entire local population who will resent our occupying force more than they even resent the lunatics in charge of them now.

This is the truth. Our Middle East policy is a complete and utter failure and has been for decades. As soon as a ready and willing market in modern armaments became freely available to anyone prepared to buy them – often from us – the situation changed radically. We turned playing with a tinderbox into running around inside a permanently roaring brushfire.

Our bureaucrats and politicians should never try to decide between one tyrant and another based on inadequate information and half-assumptions. We were wrong to support Assad’s father as “sort of” non-religious bulwark against the lunatics around him. The result was a brutal civil war in Lebanon, apart from anything else, and one that could well be repeated. We were wrong to support the Shah for so long that when he was replaced it was inevitably with the worst possible band of brigands. We were wrong to initially support Saddam as a bulwark against Iran. We were wrong to then invade Iraq in pursuit of oil security and to punish Saddam for his adventure in Kuwait. We were wrong to attack Libya. We were wrong to allow Eqypt to slide into a worse fascist dictatorship than it was before.

Any opportunity presented by the Arab Spring was squandered.

syria photo

Now, once again, we stand at a crossroads. The West and Russia simply should not be lumbering around the Middle East like blinded, enraged giants.

Here’s the ultimate truth. Only the Sunnis and Shias can sort out their problems, and until they get serious about doing so anything we do will merely exacerbate the situation, make ourselves more hated, invite more attacks on our own countries, and slaughter innocents who cannot understand what they ever did wrong. Don’t believe me? Count the bodies the length and breadth of Yemen. Thanks Saudi Arabia. Our lock-step ally. (Well, for today, at least.)

These are the truths. We all know them to be true. But we smother the truth with our anger at the hatred of us that we do not understand, but also with verbiage and slogans and posturing.

Tell these truths to anyone and everyone who will listen, and shout them in defiance at those who will not.

It is going to get worse before it gets better. How much worse depends on each and every one of us.

 

tuni-MMAP-mdThe so-called “Arab Spring” was hailed at the time in the West as the beginning of a creeping democratisation of the Middle East, belatedly joining most of the rest of the world on the faltering path to democracy, separation of powers, and so on.

What is clear is those expectations were vastly overblown.

What happened in Egypt was one nasty dictatorship was replaced by an even nastier one when “democracy” elected a Government unacceptable to the military, to the capitalists, and to the West. In Libya the West got rid of Gadaffi but a lack of central leadership meant we replaced him with a series of vicious tribal warlords controlling their own little chunk of the country. We fomented an uprising against Assad in Syria and ended up with a brutal civil war and IS. In the deeply conservative Gulf States any change has been entirely negligible. If nothing else, the West has learned that involvement in the Middle East is always a matter of herding cats.

But there is one shining example of success. In the cradle of the revolutions that swept the Arabic-speaking world, the secular party Nidaa Tounes has now won the largest number of seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary election, defeating its main rival, the Islamist party Ennahda, according to two analyses of results across the country. The Islamist party has apparently accepted the result with good grace. “We have accepted this result and congratulate the winner,” Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda party official, told Reuters. Zitoun said the party reiterated its call for a unity government, including Ennahda, in the interest of the country.

North Africa expert Michael Willis, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford University, said the decline in Ennahda’s electoral popularity reflected public discontent with their handling of the economy. “On the doorsteps, the economy was the main issue. Nidaa Tounes is seen as having the expertise to get the economy back on track.” Nidaa Tounes is 10 percentage points ahead of Ennahda. It has won 83 seats, with roughly 38 percent of the popular vote, to Ennahda’s 68 seats, representing about 31 percent of the vote, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported after tabulating its own count of 214 of the 217 parliamentary seats.

A parallel tabulation conducted by a Tunisian election observer organization, Mourakiboun, placed Nidaa Tounes at 37 percent and Ennahda at 28 percent. Those figures were based on a random sample of 1,001 polling centers across the country, with a margin of error of 2 percent and 1 percent on the respective totals.

Young Tunisians, in particular, engaged enthusiastically with the new political process.

Young Tunisians, in particular, engaged enthusiastically with the new democratic political process.

Officials from both parties said that although premature, the counts matched their information.

Official results have not yet been released, and parties are restrained by law from announcing their own count before the election commission does. Provisional results are expected on Monday, but final results will take at least 48 hours.

Early results also showed a surprise gain for the party of the Tunisian tycoon Slim Riahi, who ran a flashy campaign that included handouts and pop concerts. Some of the smaller political parties fared badly under a new voting system, in particular Ettakatol, a coalition partner in the former government.

Nidaa Tounes, led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, is an alliance of former government officials, liberals and secularists that was formed in 2012, largely in reaction to the post-revolutionary chaos under the Ennadha-led government. It was sharply critical of the Islamists’ performance and ran a campaign for a modern, secular society.

The results, if confirmed, would be a blow for Ennahda, which won a large popular vote and 89 seats in 2011 but struggled to manage rising insecurity and a sliding economy.

Tunisians filled polling stations on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, expressing a strong desire and some trepidation that, after months of political turmoil, the country would turn a corner nearly four years after a revolution.

Officials said the provisional turnout was nearly 62 percent, which election observers said demonstrated Tunisians’ support for democracy.

24The elections are the second in Tunisia since the popular uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and set off a wave of change that was later dubbed the Arab Spring. They will bring in a new Parliament and government for a five-year term. Presidential elections are scheduled for next month.

The immediate return for Tunisians in maintaining a lid on tension and achieving a peaceful transition will be, of course, yet more tourism dollars flooding into the country. The country has also maintained close relations with Europe, and with France and Italy in particular, with growing mutual trade.

colloseumAn island of sanity in troubled north Africa, it is also an exceptionally interesting and beautiful country, with a fascinating history of civilisation going back thousands of years, notably being the home of the Carthaginian Empire which was so dominant in the Mediterranean area in centuries before Christ, and it was later occupied by Rome which made good use of its vast fertile soils to produce huge amounts of cereals, plus olive oil, figs, and more. Various waves of conquerors including Ottoman, Arab and French have created a multi-layered and outward-facing culture.

The country lies within a couple of hours flight from the major population centres of Europe. No-one could begrudge them this “peace dividend” and let us hope they continue to provide a beacon for sanity for the whole Arab-speaking world. Indeed, the rest of the region can learn much from Tunisia beyond its peaceful transition of power – it also has a large number of women MPs, a highly progressive code of individual freedom for women, Islamic extremism is rare (although not non-existent), the country enjoys a relatively open low-tariff economy, and it is accepting of Christian and most significantly Jewish minorities.

Today, we salute the Tunisian people for their fortitude and commonsense. When we rail and wail at the inability of much of the region to behave intelligently, let us look to the example of Tunisia, and hope.

This very important article in Vox, based on Russian research, reveals an apparently staggering level of support for ISIS in Europe, and in France in particular, where one in six people report supporting the extreme terrorist Sunni group that has been slaughtering Christians, Shias, Sunnis who don’t agree with them, and anyone else who gets in their way.

And the level of support rises as respondents get younger.

 

Very, very worrying.

Very, very worrying.

 

We somewhat doubt the veracity of the research and wonder if people are confabulating “ISIS”, “Gaza” and “Hamas” in their minds. In any event, it’s a sad and sorry finding even if it’s only partly accurate, and the radicalisation of Islamic youth is one of the most distressing and tragically predictable outcomes of the growth of so-called “identity politics”, which is now playing out throughout the West, and increasingly in a new black-white divide in America, as well.

But despite this survey it would be wrong to see this phenomenon as something unique to young followers of Islam. Indeed, as one of the sources quoted in the article remarked:

The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally. At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

It is so. This isn’t a religious thing. It’s all about contemptuous disenchantment and disempowerment.

That said, the fact that we actually find most interesting in the graph above is the much LOWER figure – virtually negligible, in fact, in polling terms – in Germany.

In our analysis, this can be explained by three simple factors.

Whilst there is racial tension within Germany – particularly where the Turkish immigrant population is concerned, it is less of a problem than elsewhere.

Even with the persistent (if small) growth in Neo-Nazi skinhead violence, the vast majority of Germans utterly reject the balkanisation of politics based on race. Given their recent history, and the efforts the State makes to prevent racial abuse or anything that smacks of it, this is laudable and not at all surprising.

Another differentiator, of course, is that much of the Islamo-fascism currently being exhibited in the world is explicitly anti-Israeli and by extention anti-Jewish, and expressing sentiments that could possibly be interpreted or misinterpreted as anti-Jewish in Germany is still well-nigh impossible, again for very obvious reasons.

The third reason, and this is very significant, is that the German economy is significantly wealthier and more successful than the British, or the French. There is plenty of education and work to be had, and both are the perfect balm for the vast majority of young people, of all racial backgrounds, who might otherwise be led into more extreme conclusions about society.

Recent riots in France were painted as "Islamic" by commentators, in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Recent riots in France were painted as “Islamic” by commentators, but in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator says, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the perfectly fertilised and endlessly productive seed bed for extremism of all kinds, whether you look at 1789 France or France last year, 1917 Russia, 1933 Germany, 1970s Northern Ireland, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, or America, France and Britain today.

And where that unemployment falls most onerously on any particular racial or religious groupings, particularly a grouping that considers itself as a minority, then you have a recipe for immediate and predictable disaster.

But even when that miserable judgement is made, it is the generalised “anti politics” trend that concerns us most – even more than any passing fad for Islamic extremism that threatens us today.

The simple fact is that when people perceive their leaders as corrupt, when people perceive them as petty, when people perceive them as habitual liars, (with plenty of evidence), when people perceive them as lacking in required levels of intelligence or leadership skills, then they do not blame the individuals as much as they blame the system. And variously, they turn (and they can turn very quickly) to revolutionary creeds – Marxism, Fascism, religious extremism: whatever is around and easily grasped as a panacea, really.

Anti-democrats don't start out carrying a sign saying "crush democracy". They know it frightens the horses. And they can be alluring - Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster.

Anti-democrats don’t start out carrying a sign saying “crush democracy”. They know it frightens the horses. And they can be superficially attractive – Josef Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster, for example.

This is precisely why we have frequently labelled America a ‘pre-Fascist” state* – not because we believe there are organised groups of people seeking to subvert the American constitution and replace it with some Hitler-style figure – there are such groups, but they are still largely fringe dwellers, and there are also big money groups that wield far too much malign financial power over the political system, such as the Koch brothers, but their influence is still basically visible and trackable – rather, it is because the fracturing of America into potentially warring tribes is so very palpably obvious when viewed from a distance, matched (equally obviously) by an increasingly careless disregard for civil rights and privacy from the authorities.

A frightening realisation that often comes later in life is that democracy, in all its expressions, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. The very thing that makes democracy so worth preserving – freedom of opinion and the resulting freedom of speech – is the very weapon that can tear it down.

History teaches us, again and again, that there is a tipping point when a majority of people despair of the system and when they do they are prepared to consider a replacement – any replacement. Or it can be a highly motivated minority, with good organisational skills.

Shorn of the wonderful, soaring rhetoric of its core principles by the behaviour of its key players – our political leaders, and the media – democracy simply seems increasingly and hopelessly out of touch and irrelevant. All it needs is a half-credible populist to repeat the people’s complaints alluringly, and the complaints are worldwide, and they are devastatingly simple and enticing:

“I don’t trust them”, “They’re all just in it for themselves”, “They don’t know what to do”, “They’re just taking the piss out of the rest of us, and we’re paying”, “They don’t care about us.” “What can I do? They won’t listen to me.”

At one and the same time, powerful cabals in business and the military foolishly consider they can take advantage of such unrest to position themselves to take over as “a strong voice”, to run things (skimming off the top, of course) while the hubbub of dissent dies down, until – inevitably – they realise they have seized a tiger by the tail, and they can’t control it. “Temporary” restrictions on freedom become permanent, and apply to these fellow travellers as much as they do to the rest of us. They imagine themselves isolated from the crackdown by their money, except – as they invariably discover – they are not.

Anti-politics. It is louder in the West than we can remember at any time since we started paying attention in the 1960s.

“They don’t care about little people.” “Just a bunch of snouts in a trough.” “They’re all stupid.”  “There’s no real difference between them, anyway. It’s all a game.” “I just don’t trust ’em. Any of ’em.”

Indeed, as we write these phrases, it is all we can do to stop from nodding in agreement. They are so seductive.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

Except if we are seduced by them, we will hate what comes after. As Winston Churchill supposedly famously remarked:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, it’s just better than all the others.”

Actually, and somewhat ironically, the most famous defender of modern democracy might not have actually generated those words, although in his lifetime he did say a lot about democracy, especially when its survival was threatened with the horrors of German and Austro-Hungarian Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism (amongst others), and Soviet-style “marxism”.

Churchill did say something like this in the House of Commons on  11 Novem­ber 1947) but it appears he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, page 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

So, although these are Churchill’s words, it is an amusing historical footnote that he clearly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democracy. We wonder who did. Anyhow, here are some orig­i­nal things that the great man did say about democracy over 70 years in public life:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insurance.” That is the future — insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and con­stant which threaten us here at home in our own island.
Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­racy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point.
House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­racy” to be inter­preted? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­ily, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­racy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and together decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­racy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”
House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

Stirring stuff. And how unlike any modern politicians that come to mind, except, perhaps, the trio of dead American heroes, JFK, RFK, and MLK. Little wonder that they seized the imagination so thoroughly, and are still revered to this day, even though their feet of clay have been comprehensively documented. They talked about the principles of Government, not just the outcomes.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept that breeds a system.

In today’s world, once again – and urgently, in our view – we need to make the argument for democracy itself. Not for nothing do the appalling leadership of extremist Islam, epitomised at its most horrible by ISIS, reject the very concept of democracy at the very same time as so-many of their co-religionists seek to acquire and embrace it. ISIS and others of their ilk know they are engaged in a death struggle for their narrow view of the universe against the very principles that democracy uniquely espouses: the principle of protection under the law whoever you are, whatever your creed, sex or colour, true justice that is separated from the government and which can hold the government itself to account, freedom to express oneself fearlessly, genuinely participatory government, the rights of women and minorities to be treated as equals, and much, much more.

For our own internal stability, and in defence of those who dream of democratic freedom everywhere, we need to make our passion for democracy loud and clear, recapturing why we believe it to be superior to the alternatives.

Even if we don’t care about personal freedom, let us carol from the rooftops that it has been shown to be more economically successful – and more sustainably – than any other system.

Even Communist China, containing fully one-third of the world’s
population, enjoying its hugely successful democracy in chinaexperiment in State-directed capitalism, is increasingly recognising that it cannot endlessly stifle the opinions and behaviour of the governed.

They have recognised that they can release a gale of innovation and improvement by asking the opinion of their own people (a truly alien view for the whole of Chinese history thus far) and thus they are taking faltering steps to introduce more freedom into their system without triggering a cataclysm of change.

As just one measurement, the level of openly critical comment in China today is measured in vast multiples compared to even ten years ago, as is the nationwide passion to tackle corruption, which has been endemic in China since time immemorial.

How ironic that the People’s Republic of China – until recently a vile and periodically vicious autocracy – is cautiously embracing a belief set that we seem essentially content to see wither on the vine. Certainly when measured by the public behaviour of our elite.

If nothing else, our leaders and opinion formers should be arguing for the success of liberal democracy as an economic vehicle – not, please note, arguing in favour of unfettered capitalism – as the proven way forward for humankind.

The evidence is that democracy spreads wealth better than any other system, to the widest possible number of people, even while it grapples with the excesses of the runaway freight train of capitalism. Democracy actually restrains the worst features of capital’s behaviour – environmental vandalism, for example. (And if you want to see the results of capitalism that is not fettered by democracy, both in terms of economic failure, cronyism, violence, and environmental vandalism, just have a look at Russia today.)

But more than mere words, more than argument, we need to make democracy work for the governed.

As a beginning, we need to act with utter ruthlessness when evidence of corruption or rorting the system is uncovered.

Sad Statue of LibertyWe need to be deeply suspicious of centralising power, and passionate and enthusiastic about devolving power to the lowest practical level concomitant with effective decision-making.

(For this reason, we are tentatively in favour of Scotland voting for its independence next month, despite acknowledging that it might not appear to be a sound decision economically, at least in the short term. Not that we think it will.)

We must watch our security services and police like hawks, ensuring that the work they do is effective, but that their understanding of the proper limits on their powers is thorough and genuine.

We must defend and encourage media diversity, because a plehtora of opinions expressed openly is the best possible way to generate the ideas we need to successfully navigate our new century and beyond. Anything that compresses media ownership into fewer and fewer hands, blithely covered up with promises of editorial independence that everyone knows are false – is actively dangerous. NewsCorp, and those like unto it, are bad for the health of democracy. “State-owned” news outlets – unless protected by the most rigorous legislation – are a contradiction in terms, wherever they are.

We must encourage bi-partisanship, not because we want our democracy reduced merely to fudge and lazy compromise, but because the public needs to see – to witness – people of good faith working together on their behalf or the social compact with the governed will collapse.

It follows that the role of Opposition is to oppose what it truly believes to be wrong, rather than simply “everything”, and that Government should habitually respect and consider the opinions of those who disagree with it. The impasse between Obama and the Congress in recent years was an economic annoyance, to be sure. But it was a political catastrophe.

Where disagreement is genuine, then the debate should be conducted with civility. Even when one considers another person foolish in the extreme, misguided, or lacking perception, the skill is to make that point in such a manner that they will at least consider you may be wiser or in possesion of a better idea, and also so you may carry public opinion with you. And so that the public can see your good intentions, and not just your muscular antagonism.

We “dumb down” our debates at great cost and at our peril.

If something is “dumb”, the people know they can do without it. When politicans dumb down their discourse, when they are relentlessly trite or scathingly negative, encouraged, aided and abetted by a media that has an increasingly – vanishingly – small attention span, they are not playing some clever stratagem.

In risking a backlash against democracy itself, they are lining themselves up to be thrown in a prison, or worse, by the tidal wave that replaces what they blindly thought was inexorable and irreplaceable. They are beating ploughshares into pikes, and putting them into the hands of those who – when they aren’t even offered complex, thoughtful or educated opinion to consider – can see no reason why they shouldn’t adopt simpler ideas expressed in slogans.

working mensAs democracy swept across Europe in the mid-late 19th century and into the 20th century, it was buttressed by wise souls who ensured that every village, every town, had facilities for the dis-semination of ideas and knowledge, for the edification of the working poor, (such as with the Working Men’s Institutes of Britain), so that they would become participatory members of a new compact.

The privileged who led these conscious efforts to uprate the skills and learnings of the poor were driven by belief, not by an empirical calculation that they were providing a safety valve for the expectations of the people. They believed that a government of all cannot exist if the all is disenfranchised through ignorance or lack of opportunity. So they set about creating the knowledge that would let people fully participate.

Yet today the efforts of those great communicators have been hijacked. Today they are largely directed into providing an endless diet of sport, or reality TV, or mind-numbing time-consuming soap opera and unedifying “popular” drama. Modern media resembles nothing more than an electronically-delivered diet of “bread and circuses” – a tactic for mind control, remember, employed by the Roman dictatorship very successfully for 400 years. “Don’t worry about how we are governing, or who for – here’s a load of bread and a free ticket to watch the gladiators. Come back tomorrow for more of the same.”

And today, devoid of any understanding of why democracy matters, the governed have essentially lost interest, and satiate themselves instead on a diet of moronic “entertainment”.

Ask yourself: where are the civics classes in our schools and universities? Where are our unions, who taught people not just how but why they should defend their rights? Where are the rhetoricians, stirring our minds with ideas and concepts? (Answer, making a “Ted Talk” to their fellow intellectual and financial elite.) Why have our political parties shrunk to be miniscule mockeries of their former selves, with memberships so ludicrously small as to make them nothing more than stripped-down bureaucracies, homes for duelling apparatchicks?

Un-engaged and uncomprehending, the people are ripe to be captured by that simplest and most terrifying of ideas.

“It’s all their fault. Let’s go get ’em.”

Who “they” are varies from theatre to theatre, of course. Alarmist? Look at that graph at the top of the page again.

Democracy is not the natural form of government for humanity. Violence is. Democracy has been hard won with the stout arms and often the lives of millions, for over 2,000 years.

Democracy will not persist if it is dysfunctional. Democracy will not persist if it is not protected. Democracy will not persist if we lose the argument.

Think about it. Discuss.

 

*For history buffs, there is a famous quotation, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

  • Many variants of this exist, but the earliest known incident of such a comment appears to be a partial quote from James Waterman Wise, Jr., reported in a 1936 issue of The Christian Century that in a recent address here before the liberal John Reed club said that Hearst and Coughlin were the two chief exponents of fascism in America. If fascism comes, he added, it will not be identified with any “shirt” movement, nor with an “insignia,” but it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.
  • Another early quote is that of Halford E. Luccock, in Keeping Life Out of Confusion (1938): When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
  • Harrison Evans Salisbury in 1971 remarked: “Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in It Can’t Happen Here that if fascism came to America it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'”

My apologies, Dear Reader, for the break in transmission. This has been occasioned by a multiplicity of factors, including a French train strike, a French air traffic controllers’ strike, and the ingestion of vast quantities of exceptionally good cognac to relieve the tension caused by said exposition of the inalienable rights of the working class to withdraw their labour in pursuit of a just outcome.

Only once, I assure you, was yours truly heard to mutter “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.” Other than that, international solidarity was not breached. But please don’t tempt me to get started on the quality of mercy demonstrated by platform comptroleurs at Toulouse station. Just don’t, OK?

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Still, all’s well that ends well, and God bless travel insurance. Which is how you find your faithful correspondent the day before his [expletive mumble deleted] birthday seated at a delightful dining table in front of an open window blessed with a Juliet balcony, through which wafts not only a cooling breeze (the weather is spectacularly warm, suddenly) but also the myriad sounds of arriving ferries, chirruping swallows by the thousand, and an endless stream of Italian boys on motorbikes revving their sewing machine engines louder and louder until the local girls (or even better, the non-Catholic visitors from Germany and points north) notice and bestow a curious look upon them. Ah, the joys of youth.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me tell of you of my only confrontation thus far with fascist architecture. Because confrontation is the word.

Milan station is widely lauded as a marvel of a building: big doesn’t begin to cover it, nor yet massive.

As one of the main train hubs of Europe it can be excused sheer scale, perhaps, but the style and tone of the place is a horrible reminder of the worst of times past. The Italians started building it back in 1908, but didn’t get very far, thanks to the intervention of WW1 and a few economic crises. That was, of course, until the arrival of Mussolini, who, with the benefit of diktat and threatening to shoot any workers who disagreed with him, managed to turn the original plans into a giant, monolithic celebration of national (read: Roman) identity, complete with stylised ancient warriors, eagles, and the rest of the nonsense paraphernalia of the era.

It is a horrible building, a cathedral of nationalistic hysteria, and like the medieval cathedrals in their day it served but one purpose – to be greater than the individual human spirit, to be a statement of state power, overwhelming and crushing the spirit of the one into the purpose of the many. “The state is everything” boasted Mussolini, and he meant it.

What makes it so horrible is that one can feel the siren call of its ridiculous posturing. Its vast ceilings cry out to be photographed, its vaulted arches and endless vistas are mesmeric, they entice the eye and the heart despite yourself.

Standing in Statzione Centrale, Milan, it is all too easy to understand how the tens of thousands packed into the Piazza Venezia could believe the silly man crammed into an ill-fitting uniform to be their saviour, and also how, when his posturing proved hollow and deadly, they could turn on him so utterly and execute the fleeing dictator in Dongo, just up the lake from where I sit now.

We called in on the ferry a couple of days ago, and the Italian crew still gleefully pointed out that this was where their ultimate home-grown rogue was captured and executed along with his mistress and members of his puppet Nazi-supported regime. They paid the price, ultimately, of all those charlatans who propose deceptively simple solutions to complex problems, but not before they had inflicted terrible suffering on those around them, which was then visited, with the invariable justice of God or history, on themselves; as it must surely be, lest the universe spin off its axis with the tragic madness of it all.

Beginning and end, in the space of a couple of days. Sadly, it had taken Italy, and Europe, much longer to see through his lies and conceits.

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To happier matters. It is axiomatic, of course, that Benito made the trains run on time, unlike his benighted French counterparts, which is how we had found ourselves by and by in the tiny hamlet of Varenna on Lake Como, part of the “golden triangle” of villages about equidistant between Como at one end of the lake and Colico at the other, surrounded by spectacular Alpine peaks, and delighted to be at ground level, and not clambering around incautiously upon them.

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Determined to get as close to real mountains as I am ever going to get – being convinced beyond reason that embarking on any incline greater than 5% invites a hideous death, cast from some rocky outcrop by a momentary mistake to smash, alert and awake, into the blessed ground we should never have left in the first place – let’s be frank, if God had intended us to leave sea level he would have given us crampons on our feet – we headed wide-eyed for the far north of the lake.

Colico is not famous for much, except, perhaps, for the best ice cream I have ever eaten, or maybe it was merely the location, nestled as the gelateria was in patch of shade and towered o’er by yet another peak. At this juncture the lake itself was home to innumerable para-sailers in a regatta – my apologies for the shaky boat-deck photo – and on occasions it seemed, too, as if they were somehow in awe of the snow-clad peaks that surrounded them, and were urging their kites to fly them higher and higher, to the pinnacles themselves, and beyond. It must be something to do with grandeur: it just seduces us as moths to a light. Perhaps this is why in cities all over the world we can now be encouraged to pay good money to tour sports stadiums even when no sport is happening. “Wow, look at all those seats, Dad!” “Yes, son, and so many.” Curious.

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No exposition of a few days in Italy would be complete without a delerious discussion of food. Cognisant of my upcoming never-to-be revealed birthday, we decided to splurge on a visit to the famous Cava Turacciolo, which in any other world would be merely an interesting little wine bar, but which, arriving by ferry in Bellaggio on a picture perfect evening, offered itself to us as a mysterious Aladdin’s Cave, packed to the gunwales with rare local wines collected lovingly, and dispensed expertly, by Mario and Norberto and their crew.

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We had been alerted to the Cava by other travellers, and it did not disappoint. A mere two rooms, plus a connecting corridor, seemingly tunnelled out of the hillside and blessedly cool, to nurture the hundreds of precious bottles of vino rosso and bianco that were crammed onto its walls, which girdled us like a cocoon.

We had arrived early, still not au fait with the Italian preference for doing nothing significant until at least 10pm, which meant we were blessed with Norberto’s close attention, as he described each wine he suggested to us in minute detail, taught us what to search for in the nose and taste – disagreeing gently when we argued for caramel as opposed to what he announced firmly was liquorice – and holding forth wisely on the various ancient methods that had gone into each bottle.

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With one, apparently – the Sfursat, 100% Nebbiolo with the grapes allowed to dry for three months before pressing – the story, and the experience, amounted to an insight into the whole of the surrounding society. Wine had been made this way, Norberto explained, in luxuriously tiny amounts, for over 500 years, by artisan producers working in their own homes. All the wine made thus, which demonstrated an incredible alcohol content and a clear aroma and taste of cherries – you will pick it up most clearly on your gums, he patiently intoned – is drunk locally, and unknown in the outside world. Pity: it was entrancing.

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A dedicated red wine drinker, I surprised myself by preferring – of everything we tasted, and there was plenty – a discrete gently oaken Chardonnay from the Lake Garda area, called Bellavista Alma Terra.

It offered itself politely, blushingly, and pacifically, like a Victorian miss in a crinoline dress taken at the flood by a rampant Lieutenant … pale straw in colour, perfectly balanced, fresh and inviting and completely more-ish. I wanted to buy a bottle of what we had tasted by the glass, and settle in contentedly for the evening, but Norberto clucked disapprovingly. “Buy some to take home” he muttered, remarking that it was “fruity and refreshing” almost as if those words were criticisms. “Here you have a chance to taste something … Special.”

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So we did. We invested in the cheapest edition of a range – Amarone – that runs to bottles costing hundreds of Euros. It had been teased and coaxed from grape varieties we had never heard of, and presented a deep, mysterious burgundy in colour – almost black – with huge pepper and plum flavours, and a head-numbing 16% alcohol. From Verona it was – Romeo and Juliet country – and it immediately made one want to stand on the table and sing Nessun Dorma, or take on the the whole world to right wrongs and slay dragons. Little wonder poor old Tybalt ended up run through by a rapier. If the locals were getting shit-faced on this stuff it’s surprising any of them were left alive by the end to tell the tale.

So the wine flowed – a little too fast for Norberto’s taste, but we explained with equal patience that we were Australian, and he simply nodded sadly and politely – and then, in this temple of grapes, the real surprise.

Food.

Lovingly prepared compliments to the wine – bitingly bitter and huge green olives, a plate of achingly sweet ham so thinly sliced as to be almost ethereal and dressed with twin breasts of buffalo mozarella so fresh they were still molten in the centre, twinned with a spread of blissfully rare, sliced roast beef dressed with Parmesan and Balsamic vinegar, followed by a buckwheat tagliatelle drowning in cheese and dotted with potatoes – who knew? – and finally a selection of cheeses selected for their capacity to lift the roof off your mouth, and your preconceptions.

Not a crew to shy from strong cheese, one concoction nevertheless defeated us: in the way that one is first defeated by, say, a fiery Thai salad, one is bruised but fascinated, and determined to return to fight another day. A seemingly innocuous mixture of goats’ and ewe’s milk, it was simply too pungent to be approachable. Next time.

As one contemplated the last few days, one was struck forcibly by how Norberto and his team were the very antithesis of the statism so glorified by Mussolini and his ilk. Hard-working individuals, modest, unprepossessing even, and dedicated to principles of excellence and courtesy, with a passion bordering on the obsessional to create experiences – the marriage of the perfect wine with the perfect sliver of rare roast beef – that are utterly ephemeral in their nature, and yet are what, in reality, make life worth living. That make enduring “society” worthwhile. There was nothing of the showy arm-waving fairground balderdash of Mussolini in Norberto’s quiet certainty. His was a world that mistrusts big and celebrates miniature, a world which knows that in honest precision, and care, and dedication and sheer hard work, mortal man can sometimes touch the face of God.

I asked him if he bought in his beef ready cooked, and he looked horrified. “No, no!” He almost wailed. “Oh,” I said, abashed, “do you have your own cows?” He snorted, “I would have no time to look after the wine.” Ah.

He explained that he chose the beef from a local he knew well, but always cooked it himself. No-one else could cook it the way he did. I pondered how he had. It was somehow gently pink all through, with no signs of caramelisation on the outer, yet it was clearly roasted and not slow-cooked in water. No high-faulting modern cooking methods here. I asked him how he created the flavour, and yet kept the beef so ineffably moist, so that it literally fell to pieces on the tongue.

He smiled gently. “Magic.”

Just so. Ciao.

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Like many others, this is how I will choose to remember Lance Armstrong.

Like many others, this is how I will choose to remember Lance Armstrong.

Like everyone else, I have watched the train wreck that is Lance Armstrong’s last 18 months with horrified fascination and deep sadness.

First of all, let us hope that this doesn’t result in cycling being dropped off the map of world sports, for example at the Olympics. I think the dope testing regime in cycling now is so strict that the sport is probably as clean as it or any other sport is ever going to get.

What is interesting in this story (as told to Oprah Winfrey) is Armstrong’s insistence that he didn’t feel like he was cheating: he took growth hormone and so on to ensure a level playing field, implying everyone was taking it at the same time. Many of those guys are still racing … hmmm. Something may have to be done about that.

An event like no other on Earth, Le Tour enthralls, amazes, and entertains. Let us hope it emerges stronger, not weakened forever.

I really enjoy watching the Le Tour especially, and with what is asked of those guys it hardly seems credible that they don’t do something out of the ordinary to boost their oxygen carrying red blood cells.

And the list of what’s banned and what isn’t always strikes me as somewhat arbitrary.

Why is it – morally – OK to get a massage that gets extra oxygen to the weary muscle tissue but not to take a pill that has the same effect?

I am not making a judgement either way, I just find the whole controversy fascinating and confusing.

I also think the wilder criticism of Armstrong should be tempered by the fact that he is responsible for founding and promoting one of the biggest and most effective cancer charities in the world.

When the balance of his life is weighed, I suspect that will be his legacy, not this embarrassing and sorrowful end to his amazing career.

I wouldn't walk down it, let alone drive, let alone cycle down it at 80+ mph. No thank you. Nu-uh.

I wouldn’t walk down it, let alone drive, let alone cycle down it at 80+ mph. No thank you. Nu-uh.

Let us also say, it is highly unlikely that his doping enabled him to be as good as he was. Perhaps it enabled him to be a little better, or stay at the top a little longer.

But anyone who ever watched his steely determination in whatever terrain type in the Tour de France will know: he was a champion anyway.

He didn’t used to beat the other cyclists, he destroyed their determination to compete, he was all-conquering, he was the best that perhaps there ever was. Even Armstrong himself seems to understand this belatedly, with comments like “I didn’t know what I had”.

What a shame it all got ruined through a dreadful lapse in judgement. He has paid a high price. So has his sport.

Baldrick: “What I want to know, Sir is, before there was a Euro there were lots of different types of money that different people used. And now there’s only one type of money that all the foreign people use. And what I want to know is, how did we get from one state of affairs to the other state of affairs?”

Blackadder: “Baldrick. Do you mean, how did the Euro start?”

Baldrick: “Yes, Sir, if it please you, Sir.”

Blackadder: “Well, you see Balders me lad, way back in the good old 1980s there were many different countries all running their own economies and using different types of money. Oh, the messy, wild fun of it all!

On one side you had the major economies of France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, known to those of us in the know as “the rich bastards”, and on the other, the weaker garlic-munching dago-type nations of Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, and of course, the Irish, who aren’t dagos but are drunk and feckless.

So one fine day, my little dung heap, they all got together and decided that it would be much easier for everyone if they could all use the same money, have one Central Bank, and belong to one large club where everyone would be happy and laugh all day. This meant that there could never be a situation whereby financial meltdown would lead to social unrest, wars and crises”.

Baldrick: “But this is sort of a crisis, isn’t it Sir?”

Blackadder: “That’s right Baldrick. You see, there was only one slight flaw with the cunning plan”.

Baldrick: “I see, Sir. And what was that then, Sir? Can you explain it in a simple way for someone like me
to understand?”

Blackadder: “Certainly, dear fellow. It was complete and utter bollocks to begin with”.