STOP PRESS: SCHIZOPHRENIA: WHO CARES?, the story of my son’s long battle with illness, is now available as a Kindle e-book, under the new title, SCHIZOPHRENIA – WHO CARES? A Father’s Story. Click on “books” in the sidebar for details of how to obtain it.
See Cycling the Danube: Budapest to the Black Sea
BREXIT: no man is an island. DONNE, TOLSTOY AND OBAMA BACK REMAIN!
Gove gets it wrong
In an interview with the Sunday Times on March 6th Michael Gove tried to invoke Tolstoy’s name and renown to back the Brexit case. He was reading War and Peace, he told us, and was “irresistibly reminded” of the EU by Napoleon’s “grotesque imperial overreach” in wanting “to impose a single unified bureaucratic model on Europe.” “And in the end it did not work out so well for him,” he concluded with obvious satisfaction.
I wrote to the Sunday Times, pointing out that this was a rather tendentious reading of the novel. (A letter incidentally that the Sunday Times edited in such a way as to make me appear to be saying the exact opposite of what I had actually said: an error for which, it has to be said, they apologized.) Mr Gove could just as well have found support – in the very first pages of the novel, as it happens – for a rather unflattering view of the UK’s role in the EU. At the aristocratic soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna, with which the novel opens, conversation turns to what can be done to stop the advance of the dreadful vulgarian Napoleon. “Russia alone must save Europe… Whom…can we rely on…? England with her commercial spirit will not and cannot understand the Emperor Alexander’s loftiness of soul…The English…cannot understand the self-abnegation of our Emperor who…only desires the good of mankind. And what have they promised? Nothing. And what little they have promised they will not perform…”
English objections mean-spirited and penny-pinching
Tolstoy’s characters’ words remind me irresistibly of the reasons why Britain decided not to join the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the EU (minutes of the Cabinet meeting, June 6th 1950). The first, never quite made explicit, is that it was a French initiative. The second strongly echoes Anna Pavlovna’s strictures: we were not going to sign up to some ‘lofty’ statement of principle, like the good of mankind or the unity of Europe, without knowing exactly what was in it for us: would we be one pound richer or one pound poorer? Loftiness of soul, self-abnegation, the good of mankind…this kind of talk cuts no ice with our “commercial spirit.”
We like to think of it as pragmatism. Others see it as a kind of unadventurous, small-minded and selfish stolidity. “What have they promised? Nothing. And what little they have promised they will not perform…” We are not to be trusted; our word is not our bond. The French call us perfide Albion; the Greeks find us hypocritical. We do not like it, but clearly they see something in the way we habitually behave. Who was it called us a nation of shopkeepers? That is not to deny what is good about us; but we nonetheless have habits and character traits, just like everybody else, and they are not always particularly admirable or attractive.
Significantly, much of the current debate about IN or OUT of Europe is being conducted in just such book-keeping terms. Of course it matters whether or not membership is an economic disaster. But very clearly it is not and never has been. For one thing: why on earth do you think that so many ‘migrants’ want to get into Europe generally and into the UK in particular?
EU has broken barriers, brought prosperity and reunited a divided Europe
Anyone old enough to remember how it was before our membership of the EEC ……
For the whole story, click on Archives April 2016
Tim Salmon: writer, translator, photographer…
Writing is what I do for a living, or so I say. It seems a bit rich, since it provides only the most meagre of livings even for the best of writers. I have written mostly about other countries, especially France and Greece. I have written guidebooks, cookery books and accounts of my own travels as well as contributing to the classier English newspapers like the Guardian, Independent, Times, Observer, Telegraphs and Sunday Times and magazines like Time Out, Country Life, Great Outdoors, The Countryman and London Review of Books. I have done translations from and into Greek and French. I have done radio work for the BBC, taken part in some TV shows and made a documentary about transhumant shepherds which was shown on Swiss and Greek TV, which is where the man in the photograph comes in: my old friend Tsiogas, owner of flocks in the mountains of Greece and a significant force in my life – of which, more later.
It is the Greek, Roman, Mediterranean world that I am most interested in: southern and eastern Europe, the lands where Latin and Greek are spoken, the world that my classical education introduced me to. I am interested in the history and the physical remains of the ancient civilisations but it is the world of today that attracts me particularly: the ordinary life of ordinary people, especially country people. And I like to hear about it from the horse’s mouth: from the people themselves, in their own language. It is no good hearing stories of other lives in your own language. For one thing, the people whose English is good enough to be able to tell you tend already to have been distanced by their education from those whom I want to call the “real” natives. Secondly, and more importantly, English, my native language, has developed in other climes, subject to other influences: it does not, cannot, adequately describe the Greekness of Greece or the Turkishness of Turkey or even the Frenchness of France. It acts as a filter, eliminating the really interesting detail and nuance. Alas, there is a limit to the number of languages you can master in a lifetime, as I am discovering as my interests extend eastward to the Black Sea and central Asia.
If I had to list my main writing interests, the list would look something like this:
- the mountains of France, Greece, Turkey
- transhumance and pastoral people, especially the Vlachs of north-west Greece
- the back-country areas of France, Greece, Turkey
- the back-street areas of big cities like Paris, Athens, Istanbul
- the Black Sea, especially the once-Greek ports of Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and Turkey
- the Turkic-speaking countries of central Asia
- walking and cycling
This last, I know, seems an odd bedfellow, but it is an illness from which my dear son has suffered for many years.
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