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A biography by Ian Collins: a dissenting view

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this book. It is written of course because John was an important English artist, indeed one of the rising stars of English contemporary painting in the 1940s. But he went to live in Greece and as far as the metropolitan art world was concerned disappeared from view.

Ian Collins, author of this  biography, met John for the first time in 2000, when John was almost 80 and living mostly in London in his old family home. Failing health had forced him to withdraw from his adopted home in Khania in Crete. Collins, as he himself more or less admits, clearly saw this meeting as a career opportunity, trying from the outset to persuade John to let him be his biographer. John refused. Upset by the way in which journalists he had talked to in the past had betrayed his confidence, he had vowed never again to give interviews. Collins persisted, persuading John to let him at least write a monograph on his painting and in the end to give his blessing to the biography project.

A Life of Gifts was published in 2022, 13 years after John’s death in 2009. It was received enthusiastically by the posh press, both newspapers and periodicals. It was in addition awarded the Runciman Prize as the best book of the year about Greece, in the face of competition from really first-rate books by Mark Mazower and Michael Llewellyn-Smith, both of whom have a record of producing ground-breaking books about Greece.

I know people who have enjoyed reading the book. I can see that it might make a racy read if you come to it with little or no prior knowledge.  John had grown up in a world of well-known artists, musicians and writers. His life was colourful and unconventional, much of it spent in the Mediterranean, which, in a certain kind of provincial English imagination, still seems to conjure images of relaxed licentiousness  and general dolce far niente. “Paradise,” Collins calls it. “Chania in the early 1960s was very close to heaven” (p287), as if poverty, cancer, sorrow, the death of children did not occur in such places. Unexamined clichés of the travel industry. But as a serious account of the life of a serious artist, the book  is a non-starter.

It suffers from two unforgivable failings: appallingly sloppy and inaccurate language and a failure to address seriously the manner and substance of John’s work.

How it got past the Yale University Press editors, I cannot understand. It is probably the most badly written book I have ever read. The teacher in me wants to cover every page in red ink and  the warning signs are there, right from the first page.

The story begins with a description of the Craxton family setting off on a summer holiday. We know nothing as yet about any of the people mentioned.

“The two youngest boys (the future painter and politician), baby and luggage went in the back of the Austin 12. Essie had the driver’s seat with Harold beside her, leaving three sons still on the pavement and no more room in the vehicle. One boy (the one who became the Spitfire pilot) was directed on to the tailboard, to sit in an adapted luggage rack with his feet dangling behind them. The last two (the producer and engineer) were sent ahead, to wedge themselves between the bonnet wings and headlamps – each clinging to a lamp-bar for dear and thrilling life.

“In that careless era before the advance of child protection agencies , the Craxtons set off in a wild westerly direction pursued only by waves from amused and startled onlookers, rather than by policemen with whistles and handcuffs. On reaching Chichester Essie celebrated with a few spins around the Gothic crown of the city’s Market Cross – giving all her children a lifelong love of fairground carousels…”

When I first read this I had to ask my wife to take a look at it to make sure my reaction was not totally out of order. Her response: What on earth is he talking about?As you read on it becomes increasingly clear that Collins himself does not know what he is talking about. He does not know where he is going, what he is trying to say sentence by sentence. There is no focus. Random bits of information are bunged in together without any clear relevance,  clogging up the sense. On p3 we are told that the Craxtons were a happy family but did not know that a Tuesday birth was a bad omen in Greece because it was the day Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453. John had been born on Tuesday October 3rd 1922, the day a peace conference had decided that the only way to resolve the contemporary (then) Greek-Turkish territorial disputes was to send Greeks back to Greece and Turks to Turkey, thus killing off Greek hopes of ever reclaiming Constantinople. “By the weekend,” we are told, “London shared the mood of mourning” – because Marie Lloyd the music hall star had died! 

This is the first mention of anything to do with Greece in the book. 

In the very next sentence we learn that Harold Craxton, John’s father, “wore his erudition lightly under a Homberg hat.” A classic schoolboy howler, never mind the total absence of any connection with the preceding asides about Greece. And such howlers abound, zeugma and elegant variation, in particular. “Pursued by demons, with an opium habit and a revolver in his pocket, (Kit Wood) leapt under the Atlantic Coast Express…” (p50). A German fighter plane opens fire on a lane where John’s sister Janet is walking with some friends, “…sending Bim into a hedge, Janet into a barn and Sylvia into hysterics…” (p60). On p224 we get, “…though the drinks in their hands and the chips on the shoulders were even more lethal…”

On page 176 it takes less than one line for a British military motor launch to be transmogrified into “the water-borne chariot” (p176). On p338 we are told, “A Conté pencil devotee also played with any wacky pen…”. On p172 we hear that “the passenger’s sore throat was cured by boiled camomile flowers.” In both cases he is talking about John. A page later (173) he becomes “an English painter with a passion for archaeology” who “gauged the lie of the land in the nearest coffee-house – the main social haunt of masculine Greece, with strong coffee and ouzo served in the cloistered shadows to the clack and slap of komboloi beads, playing cards and backgammon counters.”And then there is just plain gibberish. “The creative conversation paused for swimming, just when benighted Britain was braced for one of the coldest winters on record” (p170). “John alighted on to this milieu like a butterfly – leading to light friendships with society hostesses…” (ibid). “If Hydra had been the toast of creative philhellenes from the mid-1950s, a glass brimful of inspiration and enjoyment had now passed to Chania” (p287). 

“The Australian painter Sydney Nolan and his wife Cynthia stayed for several months…, John being impressed by the obsessive working method of a questing artist that entailed hundreds of drawings scattered over the studio floor as he built up to the big picture. Half the world away, an exile was getting to grips with the spirit of his homeland via images gathered from Greek mythology, animal bones and meditations on First World War slaughter of Anzac forces at Gallipoli” (p246). Commenting on the death of John’s patron, Peter Watson, Collins writes, “A spiritual malaise in the young Peter Watson militated against old bones” (p246). 

Unawareness on this scale makes it difficult to have much faith in anything the author says, either his own judgements and observations or his ability to retell accurately what he has been told by someone else. There is no sign of the built-in shit detector that Hemingway called  the number one tool of a good writer. 

The bad writing is bad enough, but a more serious failing when you consider this is supposed to be the biography of an important artist is the absence of any serious attempt to examine his work.

The art critic, Andrew Lambirth, reviewing the 2014 Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition of John’s work, organised by Collins, wrote,  “…it is after all the work that lives on after the artist, whatever fond memories may all-too-briefly exist in the minds of his friends and intimates… We need to determine just how prominent a place Craxton should occupy in the history of the period… We need to go now below the superficial narrative of the man’s life to penetrate the meanings and boundaries of his art.”

“Going below the superficial narrative of the man’s life” is something A Life of Gifts signally fails to do. Superficial narrative is all we are offered and with very little psychological insight. A reader, commenting on the Goodreads website, picked up on this. While thoroughly enjoying the book, he wrote, he had one caveat: “I did not feel I knew John Craxton quite well enough; he remained ephemeral and slightly out of reach, I wanted those extra personal touches and perhaps a bit more of his vulnerabilities to bring him closer.” 

We get endless, almost gleeful catalogues of what appear to be entirely trivial and ephemeral homosexual encounters, like notches on a tally stick. Were all these relationships entirely without significance? They are recorded as almost without affect, like the daily movements of a man’s bowels. Why do we need to know about them? 

There is loads of name-dropping, visits by wealthy people with yachts who apparently rush off in search of sex with sailors and shepherds. We are given potted biographies of people who barely even have walk-on parts in John’s life. I get more mentions than Richard Riley, his partner of forty-odd years, surely an unpardonable omission in a biography. In fact the book reads more like a Tatler diarist’s account of a glamorous house party than a biography. The man in the middle  remains  curiously unrealised: a natural sensualist and hedonist,  we are told time and again by Collins and by his reviewers.

Whether it was John’s own fault for saying that life was more important than art or David Attenborough’s for making this remark the starting point of his eulogy at John’s memorial service at St James’s, Piccadilly, I cannot say, but Collins has taken it up as the frame into which he is determined to push the whole of John’s life: John was a hedonist, a natural sensualist. The reviewers all took up the cry: clearly it was the impression they got from reading the book.

What is it supposed to mean? That John liked his food, spent his time being tickled in baths like the Roman emperor Tiberius, lolled about in deckchairs in Mastroianni sunglasses, languidly sipping cocktails? And when did he find time to paint?

I do not remember John as a happy-go-lucky, carefree, reckless adventurer always on the lookout for a good time. I remember him as a very private person, sociable, yes, always ready with a story or a joke, but actually rather shy and, I think, quite anxious and restless and uncertain, not entirely comfortable with his own achievement as an artist. When I said once that “At least you have got that wonderful legacy of work to look back on,” he said rather dejectedly, “Oh really, do you think so, it doesn’t seem that way to me.” I think he used the playful face he presented to the world rather successfully as a way of keeping it at a safe distance.

I lived in Khania in 1963 and ’64. I was a 21-year-old English teacher. John was twenty years my senior. I got married there to my French girlfriend. John helped me rent the house next-door to his and equip it for married life. I have still got tables and chairs that he found for me in villages round Khania. 

I do not recognise the Khaniá that Collins describes, with its party atmosphere and “internationalist set.” The old Khaniá harbour neighbourhood where we lived was a run-down slum, overlooked by the red-light district. On the waterfront, where today every single building houses a bar, restaurant or café, there was one café, an old hotel with wooden floors and wire-sprung beds, and in the only break in the houses, where a German bomb had fallen, a homemade shack where the wind howled in winter and a few locals gathered to drink coffee and smoke a narghile. The people who lived here were regarded with suspicion by Khania’s respectable classes. My employer’s niece, a private pupil,  warned me that the harbourside was not a proper address for a young married teacher like me.

Collins calls us the “internationalist set.” To me that suggests at least a modicum of what passes for glamour: bars, cocktails, fashionable clothes and fashionable people. We were half a dozen foreigners: three serious artists or writers, a couple of teachers, occasional drifters and a rather pitiable American drunk. None of us had money and mostly did not hang out together. The world-famous gay pick-up joint that Collins speaks of was either a very well-kept secret or a figment of his wishful thinking. There was no tourism. The sailors who  came into town at weekends from the nearby navy base at Souda were penniless, homesick National Servicemen, paid not much more than the equivalent of £1 a month. John himself lived on a retainer of £40-odd from the Leicester Galleries. He was in no position to offer anyone a good time. 

The average annual per capita income in Greece in the late 1950s was just over US $300. In 1963 Greece had just undergone twenty-five years of war, occupation and political turmoil. The jails were still full of political prisoners. Political executions had taken place as recently as 1952. That very spring of 1963 the left-wing MP Grigoris Lambrakis had been murdered by right-wing thugs, the event that inspired the film Z. Any Greek wishing to get a job in public service or a licence to start even the humblest kind of business had to have a certificate of ethnikofrosini – being nationalistically-minded, i.e. not having any left-wing political sympathies. This was obtainable from the police in the village where you were born and your family’s history for several generations known in its entirety­ to everybody. Greece was not what I would have called a happy-go-lucky party town. But you need to speak the language to see behind that veil, as indeed you still do to understand any country today.

Collins tells us Henry Miller’s 1930s Paris circle was partly re-constituted in Khaniá. The basis for this exaggeration,  the appearance of Fred Perlès, who features as Carl in some of Miller’s books; he turned up in late 1963 or early 1964, I don’t remember which. I knew him reasonably well. He liked to talk French with us. His mother had been French and my wife was from Paris. The Zorba movie people were around for a couple of months, but their presence had no impact on the life of the town. The idea that there was any kind of set is nonsense.

I stayed in touch with John for the rest of his life: 46 years in all. We were neighbours in London too. My wife and I used to go to our favourite Turkish restaurant with him and his partner, Richard. He would sit in the back of our camper van holding my wife’s hand. On the morning of his death, I was on my way to see him in hospital when I was stopped in the corridor  by a doctor, who told me, with tears in her eyes, “Your father has just died.” 

Collins’s book hardly touches on the last twenty years of John’s life. He does not appear ever to have tried to talk about John with Richard, who after all knew him better than anyone and most of John’s friends were dead by the time Collins met him. The only survivor from Cretan days with a real involvement in Greece is me. I speak Greek, write Greek, have been married to the place and am still heavily involved in Greek affairs.  Collins quotes some things I have written but has not spoken to me since I warned him that he was in danger of making John’s interest in Greece sound like a kind of arty Shirley Valentine relationship. Between us Richard and I might have been able to steer him away from some of his dafter interpretations.

In the end – and this is surely a rather odd conclusion to a biography – one is left with the impression that Collins’s goal is somehow to take possession of John Craxton – his own version of him at that. I will not attempt to analyse the psychology of that. But he claims, for example, that he found a doctor for John in his last illness, not a word about Richard’s selfless care for John and it was Richard, not Collins, who had to put up with his petulance and irritability. He claims that John’s friends have become his friends. He has come to love Greece as John did. He does not appear to understand that the Greece that John found so magical does not exist any more. He has tried to take over John’s house in Khania, claiming that his partner, an architect, has “beautifully and faithfully” restored it. Restored it to what? It was a tip when I first entered it in 1963 and a tip when I last visited in 2006. He has tried to get the John Craxton Trust, which pays him a stipend and expenses, to pay his partner to rebuild a literally ruined village house that John had bought some years ago and never used.

At least, I suppose, one can say that the publication of a book illustrated with a lot of photos of John’s painting is good publicity.  The cruel irony, though, is that the book that has finally emerged as the result of his “trust” is one that would have been deeply disappointing to him. Thank God, he did not live to see it.

Time indeed for a reassessment.

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The Agrafa mountains in central Greece are one of the country’s great beauty spots and one of the most pollution-free regions in Europe. They are threatened by a Greek government plan to erect up to 650 wind turbines.

Three quarters of Greece is mountains. Why choose to desecrate one of the most naturally beautiful and historically and culturally important bits?

The proposed turbines will line the further skyline.

Agrafa’s landscapes and role in modern Greek history are unique

Agrafa’s landscapes are unique: a chaos of peaks and ridges cut by deep gorges thickly wooded with Greek fir. Ancient pack-horse bridges arch over its streams, linking the network of footpaths that until the 1980s were the only roads between the villages and tiny hamlets scattered among the forest. Medieval monasteries perch on its crags. In summer its high pastures are home still to flocks of transhuming Sarakatsan sheep.

Greek governments regard mountains as akhrista, useless places, almost literally a waste of space. True to form, they want to plant the first batch of turbines in the beautiful meadows of Nialla



above the village of Vrangiana, Agrafa’s highest. From here they will stretch north and south along the eastern watershed of the Agrafiotis river, silhouetted against the skyline, in an act of environmental vandalism, the equivalent of covering Snowdonia or the peaks of the Lake District in Britain with them or the mountains around Chamonix in France: acts that would provoke universal outrage.

It is not just that Agrafa is one of the great beauty spots of the Pindos range. It is culturally and historically at the heart of the Greeks’ survival as a nation during the long centuries of the Turkish conquest, from the 1400s to the twentieth century.

In Greek the name Agrafa means the “unwritten” or “unrecorded” places, because the Turkish overlords were never able to establish permanent control. And this inaccessibility allowed the region to function as a bastion of freedom and Greekness. Its highest village, Vrangiana, was home to a proto-university in the 17th and 18th centuries. The great brigand freedom-fighter, Katsandonis, had his hideouts here. In more recent times ELAS, the biggest Greek WWII Resistance movement, proclaimed it the capital of Free Greece.

The physical cost to the landscape will be enormous

This is quite simply not the place for such industrial intrusion. The damage will not be just in the eye of beholder, but physical too. The geology of Agrafa is fragile, its strata vulnerable to landslides. It is enough to break the surface bonds of grass and tree root to bring about endless mud and rock slides, as has happened with the attempts at road building. When you consider that every one of the proposed 650 turbines will require its own access route, the potential for irreparable scarring is mind-boggling.

This is not simply a Luddite response to technological innovation.

There are already plenty of wind farms scattered about Greece, on both mainland and islands. There are plenty of remaining suitable sites, in regions of far less environmental and cultural importance.

Remember the diversion of the Akhelöos river and its  colossal environmental and financial cost

And we have been here before. In the 1980s the Greek government embarked on a scheme to dam and divert the waters of Greece’s most beautiful mountain river, the Akhelöos (see my article in The Guardian for December 6th 2000), the idea being to generate electricity and irrigate the ecologically unsustainable thirst of the cotton crops grown on the plain of Thessaly. The project went ahead in defiance of rulings by Greece’s own supreme court and in contravention of several international accords including Natura 2000 and the Ramsar Convention which it had itself signed. For twenty years the work of blowing up the mountains continued until finally in the early 2000s the scheme was abandoned, leaving nothing but unsightly damage and a 130-metre-high dam which serves no purpose:  hundreds of millions of euros in effect burnt on a pyre.

The environmental cost of the abandoned Akhelöos scheme

Who would bet on the Agrafa wind farm scheme not coming to a similarly sticky end?

Yes, the whole region is depopulated and undeveloped. Villages are down to five or ten permanent inhabitants. But the solution is not wind farms which will not benefit anyone local. It is sustainable tourism: walking, climbing, canoeing, mountain-biking, birding, wild flower expeditions, children paddling in the streams, picnicking in the summer shade. Already The Pindos Wayhiking route crosses the region, soon to be joined by The Pindus Trail. These are the Greek Alps. Look at the Pyrenees and the French and Italian Alps, how much money sustainable summer tourism brings in. This is the way forward, not a disfiguring palisade of spikes all along the beautiful skylines.

Greek speakers might like to look at my article  Η ζειδωρη Πινδος in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini for August 12 2018. My book, The Unwritten Places (in English), is available from Lycabettus Press, (Athens 1995) and Blackbird Digital Books(2014).

Just like the disastrous Akhelöos scheme, this wind farm scheme also contravenes accords like Natura 2000 which Greece is signatory to. So, go online. Sign the Avaaz petition. Write to your MEP. Contact the Greek government Tourist Office and tell them how short-sighted and retrograde a step it is to  wreck such a beautiful natural landscape with enormous potential for sustainable eco-tourism: Greek National Tourism Organisation, 4 Great Portland Street, Portland House, London W1W 8QJ;tel. 020-7495-9300; email:info@gnto.co.uk. The directoris Mrs Christina Kalogera, tel. 020-7495-9303; the person in charge of Media and PR, Mr Alexandros Konstantinou, tel. 020-7495-9310.

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Stuff and nonsense. Propaganda and cheap comment, says Smug Mogg, dismissing John Major’s underlining of the idiocies of Brexit. Some gall, coming from the man who talks about the UK as a “vassal” state; who has the nerve to talk about the will of the British people when he can scarcely ever have caught a glimpse of any people from inside that ridiculous carapace he has constructed for himself; who talks about taking back control of our money and our laws, when we never gave it up. We are members of the EU. We have signed up to the rules and conventions that govern the function of a club that over the years has brought us prosperity and peace, a general broadening of our cultural, not to mention culinary, horizons, that has opened up all kinds of opportunity for study, travel and scientific cooperation and that employs substantial numbers of UK citizens in its administration, teaching us that our way is not the only way: a club that has greatly increased the security of Europe as a whole, that has freed the truly vassal states of eastern Europe from the Russian Communist yoke and brought together a whole family of peoples whose values, beliefs and general culture have been formed by the same influences: the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews and the Christians and who, by and large, have travelled very similar paths of evolution.

The sovereignty of the British parliament is no more diminished by membership of the EU than my sovereignty – or anyone else’s, come to that – is diminished by being a member of British political society and accepting thereby a certain loss of freedom in return for the greater collective security and other advantages that accrue to all of us in acquiescing in this tacit agreement. No laws have been “imposed” on us against our wishes by a bunch of hostile “foreigners.” I have yet to hear Duncan Smith or Cash or Redwood or Fox or Hannan or any of the gang, let alone members of the Brexiteering public, name a single law imposed by the EU that curtails their freedom, that in any way prevents them doing what they would otherwise do, except perhaps poisoning the environment or selling rotting fish.

Bhutan demands access to Cornish pasties

As for the fantasy brave new world in which we will make trade deals with Botswana, Paraguay, Bhutan (enormous demand there, apparently, for Cornish pasties made with American beef), El Salvador, the Republic of Sakha (big demand there for frozen sardines)… What a wizard ploy! We’ll be able to import billions of cheap Chinese hairgrips and unrestrained by the shackles of EU regulation ship them straight off to Yakutsk for a penny-farthing profit – for surely Smug Mogg will return our rightful currency of pounds, shillings and pence to us, along with the big white five-pound note, which he himself of course does not even remember.

Propaganda, indeed. We know where we stand with the EU. The cloud-cuckoo-land dreamt of by Mogg and his kind is pure speculation. There is no evidence that it will bring the slightest degree of increased prosperity or freedom or well-being of any kind.

Did the British people vote to leave the EU?

I did not. Neither did a hell of a lot of other people. YES votes were outnumbered by NO votes by a very small margin. And what were the NO votes saying No to?

For the forty or so years since our accession to membership of the EU, the overwhelmingly Right-wing and anti-European press has run an unrelenting campaign of abuse and misrepresentation against the EU. Endless rhetoric about bent bananas and super-states and Murdoch’s injunctions to bare your arse at the Continent at 11am on a Tuesday, headlines like Up Yours, Delors… Information? What’s that? Never a word about the vast sums of money that have come to British farmers, practically all of whom, having voted “Leave,” now whinge daily on Radio Four’s Farming Today about their likely post-Brexit plight. And what would they have done to the landscape without the EU’s hostility to GM crops or neonicotinoids, for example? Never a word of gratitude for the money that has poured into the country’s most ill-favoured regions. You never ever see a billboard advertising the EU’s contribution to any infrastructure projects, as you do in every other member state. You never ever see an EU flag flying on a public building as you do on every mairie in France or Greece along with the national and regional flags. There have been large amounts of money available to fund artistic projects, to fund footpath restoration, to fund the revitalising or study of local tradition or folklore, most of which has never been accessed by English people, for the simple reason that they were never informed it was there. Why not?

The British ignorant of and uninterested in the EU

I walked across France in 2001. As I got on the train for Dover I bought a copy of The Guardian. In it was a survey that showed that British people knew less about the EU and showed less interest in it than the people of any other member state. And Smug Mogg dares to talk about thwarting the will of the British people, dismissing criticism that people did not know what they were voting for as patronising, when it is bleeding obvious they did not know what they were voting for. I am more or less bilingual in French. I speak Greek fluently. I am pretty much at ease in Italian. I have spent a lifetime interested in, following and writing about things European and I could not explain in much detail how exactly the EU works. Your average Joe did not and still does not have a bloody clue…

Leaving aside the fact that referendums are the resort of Erdogans, Mugabes and Putins (who, it has to be said, at least pay lip service to the need for a three-fifths majority before changing the constitution, even though we know they are going to cheat), it is absolutely clear that the “vote” had no more value than a collective fart of general disgruntlement. Fucking foreigners invading our country, taking our jobs, telling us what to do…Spitfires over Dover, scepter’d isles, take back control, great trading nation… The last time we were a great trading nation, half the world had to do what we said, buy what we wanted to sell them or we sent a gunboat to sort them out. Free trade, my eye! Who is peddling the propaganda?

Mogg is a dangerous phoney

Why should we listen to Mogg? The man is a fake from top to toe. No one is born speaking in that ridiculous manner. Normal people standing for election do not go campaigning with Nanny. Nor do they go about strapped day and night into a double-breasted suit that makes them look like an elongated toothpaste tube. Nor do they call their children Number Six in Latin. Is he aware that in doing so he is behaving very like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese who called their daughters Number One, Number Two, Number Three, instead of giving them names? Chuck in a couple of Bentleys, attachment to the Tridentine Mass, a fortune made out of City spivvery, marriage to a very rich woman, opposition to abortion, gay marriage, trade unions, social security… And you are dealing, not with a man of exemplary principle, an affable if eccentric English gentleman of the old school (and, God knows, most of the “gentlemen” whose word was their bond that ran the old City firms were a bunch of selfish adventurers looking after their own interests), but a self-regarding Right-wing reactionary, bolstered by prejudice and lacking in sympathy, complacent and false. What would make a man construct such a carapace for himself: an exaggerated, caricature version of an aristocratic mien, precious, fastidious and pretentious? It would have done him good to wipe his babies’ bottoms or drive a bulldozer. He is a common or garden Welsh Rees and Welsh Mogg cobbled together in aristocratic pretence. Why would you construct such an impenetrable carapace if not to hide and protect a timid, uncertain little self trying to shore up a wobbly sense of worth?

He makes me think of that satirical ee cummings poem about the “successfully if delicately gelded (or spaded) gentlemen (and ladies)”



americans (who tensetendoned and with

upward vacant eyes, painfully

perpetually crouched, quivering, upon the

sternly allotted sandpile

–how silently

emit a tiny violetflavoured nuisance: Odor?


comes out like a ribbon lies flat on the brush

He’s got a concealed ratchet inside that double-breasted jacket. When he wants to emit one of his unctuous know-it-all putdowns he jerks it up a couple of notches and out slithers “a tiny violetflavoured nuisance” accompanied by nothing as vulgar as an odour. Oh no! “comes out like a ribbon lies flat on the brush.” And, as we know, one “may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

If, like his Hebrew namesake, he does really believe the Lord stands beside him and his seed shall be as the dust of the earth…spread abroad to the west and to the east, tous azimuts, in sum…Oh God, that is French, not Latin. Well, we just have to hope his schoolboy Latin is up to it.

When we were children, we knew someone whose first name was Undecimus. Does Smug Mogg’s Latin go as far as that? And if his manhood is up to it, what happens beyond that? In the sixties we were warned about the danger to our virility of Y-fronts.Very little, I should think, compared to that suit!

Ridiculus mus…

Except, of course, these people are not ridiculous. They have an agenda, a rich man’s agenda, which certainly has nothing to do with looking after the interests of the poor and the feeling-left-out whose prejudices and resentments they play to. And which party’s policies, pray, have largely contributed to that resentment? Thatcher’s mania for deregulation and her pitiless assault on the industries that had for generations sustained the finances and the dignity of the northern working class, Slater-Walker’s asset-stripping, big bangs in the City, bestowing a kind of respectability on the even cruder forms of gambling by calling it an “industry… Our Fish, indeed!

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In 1988 I contributed a chapter called The Rocky Spine of Greece: the Pindos Traverse to John Cleare’s book Trekking: Great Walks of the World. John was described as “the outstanding British mountaineering photographer of the post-war era” in the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering (1977). That was compiled by Walt Unsworth, founder of the English mountaineering publisher Cicerone Press. He it was who first published my walkers’ guide to the mountains of Greece in 1986. Walt is no longer with us, but his successor is about to bring out the fourth edition of the guide, written with my friend Michael Cullen.

This edition is to be called Trekking in Greece: The Peloponnese and Pindos Way. It is in essence a description of that original mountain route, the Pindos Traverse, with the addition of a route across the Peloponnese, so that we now have a route that follows the mountain backbone of the entire country from the Albanian frontier in the north to the southern shore of the Peloponnese, an undertaking of around six weeks if you were to do the whole thing. For a really enticing taster you can’t do better than read Jane and Alan Laurie’s account of their even longer walk from the Prespa lakes to the southern Peloponnese.

It is Greece’s first truly long-distance hiking trail. The Peloponnese section is fairly straightforward. A good part of it follows the trans-Europe E4 route which has been cleared and re-signed thanks to the initiative and hard work of Ralph Roost. It is do-able in fourteen day-long walking stages with somewhere to stay every night, so you don’t need to be burdened with a heavy rucksack. For more detailed information, take a look at Michael’s great website at thepeloponneseway.com.

The Pindos Way is a bit more of a work in progress. The terrain is tougher and more remote. There is less infrastructure. You will need to camp some of the time. The route is not consistently maintained or signposted, although you will find detailed route descriptions in our guide. But there are no technical difficulties; you just need to be reasonably fit and a bit more adventurous and self-reliant. And any difficulties are more than compensated for by the extraordinary friendliness and willingness to help of the local mountain people.

PW/Stage 11

The path from Anifóra to Epinianá

This is unspoiled wilderness walking at its best: most definitely one of the great walks of Europe and just waiting to be discovered.

Flowers 4


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Boris Johnson has got a nerve claiming that Tony Blair’s call to arms to oppose Brexit is undemocratic. He is an Oxford classicist by training. Has he forgotten that Athenian democracy was destroyed by people like himself exploiting popular fears and prejudices, deceiving people with false promises and shamelessly buying their allegiance? Has he forgotten that demagoguery – leading people by the nose – is the inseparable twin of democracy?

Can he or any other Brexiteer cite a single law the people of this country live under that was imposed on us against our will? Can they produce any evidence that this country will be more prosperous and in any way freer after Brexit? What exactly is it that we want to do  that we are prevented from  doing at the moment? Where is that 365 million pounds a week that was going to enrich the NHS?

Policing, education, the health service, planning controls, business rates…Which of these has been determined these last forty-three years by the EU? Not one.

Which British political party applauded asset-stripping? Introduced the Big Bang in financial regulation? Advocated every kind of de-regulation? Encouraged mergers and the growth of massive multi-nationals that have no local roots and do not give a damn about the people the daily detail of whose lives is blighted by their activities, justified always, of course, as inescapable economic necessity? Wrecked the mining industry, even if it were ultimately doomed, without the slightest regard for the suffering of those it threw out of work? Pursuing a relentless policy of austerity whose repercussions are felt most keenly by the poor, when it was essentially the rich and powerful who brought about the 2008 crash by their shameless ambition and greed? Who has been selling the family silver, as the Tories’ own erstwhile leader once put it?

We know the answer. The party of Duncan Smith, Gove, Rees-Mogg, Redwood, Lilly, Lamont, Lawson, Sir Bill Cash and Sir Edward Leigh (what the hell did they ever do that deserved such titles?), Theresa May and Boris Johnson. They created the conditions which have led to the disaffection of the huddled masses who are too ill-informed and blinded by their own prejudices to see through the lies and deception they have been fed. And is it surprising they are ill-informed when three quarters of the British press – the most widely read titles at that – have done nothing but rubbish the EU from its inception? Has any other newspaper in Europe stooped to the depths of Murdoch’s Sun when it tried to marshal its readers into dropping their trousers and mooning in the direction of the Continent?

The EU was founded to make war between European states impossible by gradually linking their economies and bringing them together so closely that war would be unthinkable. It has succeeded in that. It has succeeded in making all of Europe more prosperous. It has brought goods to our shelves that had never been seen on them before. It has rescued the countries of eastern Europe from the misery of Russian communist oppression. It has created a sense of togetherness and shared destiny among peoples, whose cultures have been formed by the same influences: Greece, Rome and Judaeo-Christianity. It has made Europe a block of nations to be reckoned with in the world’s councils and given us a collective strength in the face of other big powers, in a dangerous world. There is strength in numbers. These are things that in the long term are far more important than whether we are three pence richer or four pence poorer.

Since when was the Tory party in favour of factory-gate politics, a vote by show of hands following a rabble-rousing speech? “The bosses are locking us out, the bosses are cutting our wages, the bosses are banning tea breaks…The only course is to withdraw our labour. All in favour, show!” That in effect is what the referendum was. Rabble-rousing: no concrete proposals, just wishful thinking and playing on people’s disquiet and resentment – if not, naked racism – at the scale of immigration, in particular, I strongly suspect, inspired by the bloody-minded refusal of Muslims to make any concession to the fact that they live in someone else’s system. None of which has anything to do with the EU.

For democracy to function without becoming merely a tyranny of the majority, certain necessary conditions must obtain. Aside from the vote of course, one must be that society is sufficiently equal and mobile for voting choices to be made on the merits of the case and not according to sectarian or tribal loyalties and the promise of rewards, as happens under clientelist regimes like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Another must be that the electorate has a sufficient level of education to understand the issues and has unrestricted access to unbiased information on which to base its choices.

It is highly questionable whether this last condition was present where the Brexit referendum was concerned, something which should surprise no one, considering that the Brexit ringleaders themselves had not and have not the faintest idea about what the consequences might be. Their antagonism to the EU is visceral, a peculiar mix of John Bullery, little England-ism, lingering disdain for Johnny Foreigner and the ultra-Right Wing ideological head-bangery of people like my old classmate, Patrick Minford. When anyway did this splendid golden age of Free Trade that made us all so rich exist? Unless, as seems to be the case, you include the days when half the globe was pink. And would the Malays accept that they had any say in the matter of where their rubber went and at what price? Did the Indians consider themselves free to buy their railway engines wherever they chose? As for the native English working class who were lucky if they earned £2 a week in the 1940s, where were the benefits of this golden age for them?

The British people have spoken, we are told ad nauseam. Well, some of them have, although it is hard to see that their voice tells us much more than a collective fart would have. And their “voice” is being exploited by a bunch of Right-Wing headbangers or fools and knaves, as Ken Clark and Will Hutton call them, who can’t believe their unhoped-for luck in having the opportunity to implement some of their destructive hare-brained schemes. And why? All because of domestic disputes within the Tory party. Calling the results of such a farcical process democracy at work and any opposition to it undemocratic… It is not very edifying and likely to give democracy a bad name.

I’m with Tony Blair. Johnson tries to dismiss his arguments on the grounds that he is not to be trusted because of his involvement in the war in Iraq? Hardly relevant to any judgement about Brexit. But is it so clear that it was a disaster? Of course it was in a sense, like all wars. But what might have happened if there had been no war in Iraq? Is it so clear that Saddam would not have brought about some equally calamitous situation, as he had already done in invading Kuwait and in fighting Iran? Is it so clear that the egregious level of misgovernment throughout north Africa and the Middle East, indeed throughout the Muslim world, would not have led to the whole region erupting in chaos and destruction sooner or later without any US or British hand in the matter?

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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.

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 remembers how much duller and more limited was the range of products available in our shops, how far more limited were the opportunities for working abroad, travelling abroad, doing business abroad, owning property abroad. Of course far fewer people did either work or travel abroad, even in Europe. You had to have work permits, resident permits, certificates to show you had paid your taxes before you could leave to return home, Customs to go through, even when shipping your own used possessions. The Goves and Borises of this world are too young to have experienced this.

People gripe about the money paid out to build roads in Greece, bridges in Romania…but in the long run it is in all our interests that every member state should be helped to reach the same sort of level of economic development and competence. Not to mention the fact that the UK has itself been the recipient of large amounts of money. Not that anybody anywhere ever advertises the fact or – you could say– shows the slightest gratitude. In eastern Europe, in Greece, in Ireland, you see billboards proudly advertising the EU’s contribution to infrastructure projects. We pay out millions of pounds a day, we are told ad nauseam, and get nothing back. The real figure is around £17 million a day, which works out at about 26 pence per person (Hugo Dixon, IN FACTS), which, even if it were remotely true that we gained nothing in return, is scarcely daylight robbery!

Unremitting denigration by the British press

Have you ever seen an EU flag on display in England? In France every public building flies the tricolour, the EU flag and the regional flag. What is the matter with us? Surly, reluctant, unappreciative, always trying to pull the bedclothes over to our side, as a Frenchman put it to me once: never the slightest acknowledgement that we have ever received the slightest benefit. And no wonder, in a way: from the very beginning three quarters of the British press have consistently rubbished the EU and its precursors, always representing the UK as victim, having one injustice after another imposed upon it, without ever trying to explain how its institutions work or how our relative weight and influence have played out within it. Has a newspaper in any other member state descended to the base vulgarity of Murdoch’s papers: appointing a date and time for a general mooning at the Continent and running headlines like Up Yours, Delors?

There is more to Europe than nationalistic penny-pinching

David Milliband, in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week, made the point that it is actually other factors, not economics, that constitute the most important arguments for the existence of the EU and for our remaining in it. Some of them are pretty down-t0-earth, tangible factors. Our security, most obviously: our remaining free to live, act, think, debate, explore, question, without going in fear of our lives, of being sat upon and repressed by some violent and intolerant force beyond the reach of reason and debate, like Putin’s Russia, for instance, with its long tradition of arbitrary rule and violent repression of all and everything its ruler(s) disapprove of; or obscurantist, authoritarian and equally lawless regimes like those favoured by the followers of Islam – both of them much too close to our borders for comfort.

The EU owes its foundation to the universal desire in Europe to tie neighbouring states together – the big powers, France and Germany in particular – in such a way as to make it well-nigh impossible for them to go to war against each other ever again. An objective which it has been signally effective in achieving: in fact it has done even better than hoped, in roping in and securing the countries of eastern, central and south-eastern Europe most exposed to the dangers of Russian imperialist bullying.

All of these countries, us included, belong broadly to the same cultural family: our ways of thinking and being have been shaped by the legacy of Roman rule in our formative years, by the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks and the influence of Christianity. We may have fought each other, but by and large our histories have run in parallel: the gradual progress towards democracy, wars of religion, struggles for greater social justice and equality as for education and freedom of speech. Some have had their progress interrupted and impeded by Ottoman Muslim rule, in the case of the Balkans, and by the blinkered, mind-numbing brutality of Soviet Communism further to the north. But essentially we are cousins: family. What lunacy to repulse the few friends and kin you have in this uncertain and dangerous world!

I strongly suspect that if people in England still learnt foreign languages in school as a matter of course, attitudes to “foreign” Europe might be rather different. How easy it is today to find thousands of youngsters in other European countries quite able to conduct conversations in English at an early age. Much harder to find English children with any kind of linguistic competence. How many times have French teachers complained to me that it is impossible to find English schools to exchange pupils with, because none of them do French any more. Does Gove speak French? Tebbit? Carswell? Farage? Redwood? Lamont? Lilly? I don’t mean mumble a few words. Can any of them go on French – or on any other EU country’s, for that matter – TV and conduct an interview in French or Greek or German? You get a rather different view of things when you can speak to people in their own language; their points of view do not seem so different from your own, you are much less likely to see them as adversaries, as Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in The Spectator the other week.


Immigration probably has depressed wages in some sectors, especially where the unskilled are concerned. But then one might ask, were the unemployed young English queueing up to go and pick strawberries in Herefordshire polytunnels? Not that I recall. And who would not rather employ a smiling, well-mannered, accommodating Polish plumber with a PhD? Come to think of it, I cannot remember encountering too many smiling, accommodating Bangladeshis, who after a couple of years or three have become more or less indistinguishable from the native English. EU migrants do not blow up people in the name of religion. If Trevor Phillips were to make a documentary about attitudes to England among EU migrants, I am pretty sure it would look very different from what he has discovered in What Muslims Really Think.

Yesterday’s men

That is how Mr Gove apparently sees those in favour of EU membership (his March 6th Sunday Times interview): yesterday’s men and yesterday’s ideas. But when you look at his fellow Brexiteers: Rees-Mogg, Tebbitt, Farage, Lilly, Lawson…Is a dazzling future of new ideas, innovation, reaching out across the world, the vision that first springs to mind?

Project Fear is how they see the arguments for remaining in the EU. I would suggest anyone fearful of giving up so many obvious advantages, to say nothing of the company of one’s peers and kin, is absolutely right. And for what? Anyone who thinks, for example, that there will be less government interference, fewer regulations, more freedom, if things are left to Whitehall, needs his head examining. There is nothing more English than that propensity for – indeed delight in – sticking your nose into other people’s business, wagging a moralistic finger and informing them that they are infringing some pettifogging regulation or other. My guess is that free of the mitigating influence of other Europeans like the Greeks and Italians, who are much less uptight about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, our government will look more and more like a combination of Camden Council and the no-platforming brigade: free rein to the thought police!

‘No Man is an Island’

Mr Gove tried to enlist Tolstoy in support of his position. I am enlisting John Donne in support of mine.

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were…’

Exactly! And the anti’s would do well to remember that. We will be diminished and Europe as a whole will be diminished, if we leave. And, besides, it would be entirely understandable if the rest of Europe felt pretty pissed off at us for causing this loss.

We are in the club. We are used to each other. We are good for each other, with our different strengths. The newcomers will learn, just as it has taken us centuries to arrive at the relatively good and comfortable place where we find ourselves today. If there are things that members do not like, think can be improved upon, then work to bring about those changes with other like-minded members. VOTE TO STAY.

As a postscript:

In that same Sunday Times interview, Mr Gove attributed the existence of the Greek fascist party, Golden Dawn, to the European single currency. That is a shameful slur which could only be perpetrated by someone quite ignorant of the last hundred years of Greek political history. General Metaxas, for instance, came to power by coup d’état as long ago as August 1936; he was an open admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. Colonel Papadopoulos, who was prominent in the 1967-74 Dictatorship, had already made a name for himself as a scourge of Leftists in the 1946-49 Civil War. Michaloliakos, founder of Golden Dawn, has been prominent in far Right politics since the early 1960s. All of this long before Greece came anywhere near joining the EU, let alone the Eurozone.



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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 3,900 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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TODAY, May 9th, Putin is celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by wheeling out his military hardware in Red Square and dropping in on the Crimea, the piece of Ukraine that he has just helped himself to, on the grounds that he is merely responding to the will of the people there and reclaiming what is anyway Russian territory. It is in short a day for nostalgia, sentimental bullshit about our great and glorious, not to say holy, Mother Russia, a day for the kind of ultra-nationalist propaganda that is not in the least concerned about truth and fact and that is such a feature of Russia’s view of itself.

Well… for a start, whether or not Crimea is historically Russian territory rather depends on what view you take of history. Russia has certainly occupied it for the last couple of hundred years, but there was nothing Russian about it before that. Herodotus records Scythian tribes inhabiting the surrounding steppes. The coastal towns were independent Greek city states from around 600BC, later incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, by which time the residents of the hinterland were Turkic-speaking Tatars, ruled by their own Khan, whose capital was at Bakhchisarai: a state of affairs which lasted until Catherine the Great grabbed the Crimea for Russia just short of 1800. Bakhchisarai is a Turkish name, made up of bahçe, a garden,and saray, a palace (see photo). Many towns’ names may have been Russified, but topographical names, for rivers and hills, for example, remain Turkish, albeit in Russified form – Uçun-su (Flying-water), Tepe Kermen (Castle-on-the-Hill). A sure sign of who was there first.

Bakhchysarai 2

Under both the Czars and the Communist regime the Crimea became the summer watering-hole for the ruling classes, and many less exalted Russians moved in as well. Russia has always been an aggressive, expansionist, imperialist state – the workers’ paradise bullshit notwithstanding. And racist, to boot. Just listen to the Russians who settled their Central Asian possessions like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They speak of the natives as wogs.

The Russians are meddlers in other people’s affairs. They occupied a large chunk of north-eastern Turkey between 1878 and the end of WWI, drove out the local populations and imported a whole lot of Christian settlers, posing as ever, when it suited them, as champions of the oppressed Christians of the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Putin is doing what Russia’s rulers have always tried to do. Furthermore, he is by training and inclination a policeman, and a secret one at that – another long-standing Russian tradition under both Czars and Communists: if you don’t like the look of them, lock ‘em up – his nose put out of joint by post-Soviet Russia’s diminished status in the world.

As for the glorious victory over the German Fascists… Again, well… of course there was heroism, stoic endurance and dogged resistance. But are the thousands of Soviet soldiers shot by their own secret police, the NKVD, pour encourager les autres even in such battles as the siege of Stalingrad…are they being remembered and celebrated today? And the Soviet POWs in Germany who returned to their deaths in their motherland? Not to mention all those other many thousands of good Soviet citizens whose last contact with their families was a 3am knock on the door, followed within hours by a bullet in the back of the neck or death by exhaustion and cold in the prison camps of Siberia and Kazakhstan?

Death to Fascism is a slogan you see all over Soviet-era monuments. If by Fascist you mean those people who exercise unchallenged and unchallengeable authority over those they govern, is not this a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, especially when Putin has the nerve to call the new government in Kiev Fascist? If there were Ukrainians who looked with favour on the arrival of the Germans during WWII, it was largely because they were sick of being sat upon by Communist Russia and saw the Germans as potential saviours. As for the new regime in Ukraine, it is there because Ukrainians, especially the young, are sick and tired of being ruled by the old gang, the people who profited under cover of the Soviet Communist regime and profited under its corrupt successor. The ousted president Yanukovich and his like were Russia’s legacy to all the countries of eastern Europe “liberated” by the Red army. Fascist indeed! You can’t even open a beauty salon without paying some nasty racketeer. Do you think a law degree allows you to practice as a lawyer? Not without bribing some gangster.

Sure, you find people who are nostalgic for the old days. They tend to be the poor and unambitious, people who fiddled around half looking after twenty-five cows on a collective farm, asked no questions, received a pitiful wage (but received it), were housed at very low rents (in shockingly horrible circumstances often, from what I have seen visiting just such friends), had their heating and hot water supplied from some central factory through a rusting system of enormous pipes arching over roads, received their pitiful pensions…If they kept their mouths shut and wanted no part of responsibility for any aspect of their lives…If they were content to be ranked, as Macbeth says, in the very lowest file of humanity… Such people do complain about their lives today and regret the passing of Communism. I suspect a large proportion of the so-called Russians of eastern Ukraine come into this category.

And their heads are stuffed full of nationalist propaganda, by their education system no doubt, ably aided and abetted by the Orthodox Church. I like many aspects of Orthodox practice, but they do seem dangerously attracted to the ugliest manifestations of nationalism – the Greek and other branches of Orthodoxy too.

What do Russians know of democracy, of dissent, of acknowledging the right of those who disagree with you to express their opinions too? Three quarters of them were slaves, were somebody else’s property until 150 years ago. They have been ruled uninterruptedly by one kind of authoritarian regime after another, whose only response to dissent is to “disappear” you. If you sit on people brutally enough for long enough, you can destroy their humanity. A friend, trapped for more than forty years in Hodja’s Communist Albania, said to me once: “Hodja had us like rats in a cage. We lost our humanity.” It is not difficult to brutalise people. If you travel in countries where Russia’s writ has run you will see plenty of evidence of that. Just try getting information from the bus depot in Odessa or buying a train ticket at the mainline station in Sebastopol or negotiating with the conductor on a Romanian train: dealing with anyone in any kind of authority you will get the sense that “Off with his head!” or “Off to Siberia!” is the response that still would come most naturally.

When I visited the Crimea in 2009 I was taken aback by the number of Russian Federation flags flying from roof tops in Sebastopol and the presence of Russian folk dance troupes performing on the seaside promenades. Sebastopol is – was – after all part of the Ukraine.

But it was also home – albeit rented – to the Russian Black Sea fleet and Russia has never hidden its aggressive designs on a warm water Black Sea or Mediterranean port. How “convenient” that the ethnic Russian – whatever that means – population should want to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia!

None of this of course justifies just grabbing a piece of someone else’s country. And what will happen to the substantial Tatar population, who most definitely don’t want to be part of Russia? Stalin rounded them up and deported them at a hour or two’s notice to the “stans” of Central Asia in WWII. It is only since the collapse of the USSR that they have been able to return home and they too, it would seem, did not behave in a very gentlemanly way towards the people they found occupying their homes and lands in their absence. A guide in the Danube delta told me that she and her family had fled there to escape the murderous revenge of some of the returning Tatars.

A plague on all their houses one feels like saying. How is this for an idea: let Putin buy the bloody Russian troublemakers of eastern Ukraine and see what he can make of them?

What sort of a lie is a nation living that can build itself monuments like this? As if the humble proles ever received any kind of honour or respect…


Death to Fascism is the slogan on this WWII locomotive by the Sebastopol bus station. Who is kidding who?

Death to Fascism

And here are two photos of Kerch, where Putin wants to build a bridge joining Crimea to Russia. They show Crimea’s Greek connections, much older than those with Russia.


Kerch: John Baptist

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Social mobility is in the news  again. As usual, the best universities are getting stick for not admitting enough students from “disadvantaged backgrounds.” There is disadvantaged and disadvantaged, as we know, but in general this is taken to mean children from poorer, uneducated or non-English families who have been educated in state schools.

That these factors can influence a child’s academic achievement is beyond question, but it is no fault of the universities when children fail to score good enough grades or acquire the kind of general culture that would enable them to profit from a university education. The fault lies quite clearly with the schools and with my generation of well-meaning hippy-Marxist-let-it-all-hang-loose teachers who abolished grammar and structure, who dismissed knowledge and discipline as boring and bourgeois control mechanisms designed to inhibit the flowering of creativity which would shatter for ever the chains that capitalism sought to impose, who strove to make the curriculum relevant to working class children who had a perfectly good and vigorous culture of their own, who lumped together the quick and the slow, the interested and the completely indifferent, in lessons like maths… How long would Arsène Wenger have stayed in his job if he had introduced joint training sessions for the van Persies and the halt and lame?

The results of this approach to teaching in schools are plain to see: mis-spelling and mis-speaking a commonplace, even among those who pass for educated and speak in our names on the radio and TV. In the place of history we act out the evening meal in a Saxon peasant’s hut as imagined by our thirteen-year-old brains. It was already rather shocking in the 70’s when I last taught in this country. It is a lot worse now.

I was a Rough Guide author for several years. All the editors were university graduates, yet they invariably introduced all sorts of errors into the manuscripts I submitted, including misused words, inconsistencies like spelling a place name two or three different ways on the same page. And this was a book about France. You would think that an apparently educated person would be aware whether or not he had a reasonable knowledge of French and, if he did not, would  take care to check, especially when the only trouble it entailed was looking at a map. But no: the degree of ignorance is such that people are no longer aware of their own ignorance and seem to regard precision and accuracy with total indifference.

In the June 16th Observer Brian Sewell berates the BBC and other TV outfits for their dumbed-down, populist approach in documentaries about serious subjects like art and history. The subject is “presented” by some more or less attractive personality, as if any serious discussion, explanation or investigation amounted to a sort of arrogant display of toff-ish elitism and disdain for the hoi polloi.

A dear friend, now dead, had an interview with the head of a girls’ comprehensive in south London. He was looking for a suitable school for his daughter. He had been an accomplished athlete himself and wanted to find a school that took sport seriously. “Oh, yes,” said the head. “We think sport is very important for girls, but we don’t believe in team games and competitive sport.”

All shall have prizes. No failures, only deferred success.

This is the sort of woolly-minded nonsense that has now pushed us well down the league table for educational achievement in the world. And who has benefited from it? Not working class children. Not children from “disadvantaged” backgrounds. Many more of them got into the top universities when grammar schools still flourished. And while grammar schools may not be the perfect answer to our education problems, they were certainly in many ways more effective than what has replaced them.

No skills can be acquired without rigour, discipline, sacrifice. If you are going to learn to play the guitar well, you have got to stay in playing scales when your friends are out partying. The same is true of carpentry, speaking French, playing tennis. If you do not master the basics – and learn to live with the bruised knees and bruised ego that goes with it – you ain’t going to make it.

The friends I have had who left school early have nearly all regretted not having a proper education and striven to make up for it in the rest of their lives. The popularity of books like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Gwynne’s Grammar suggests that many people feel very anxious about their shaky grasp of their language. And that they want to know things, not be fudged off with the second-rate, the easier option. Long live Comrade Gove!

On October 24th 2012 Graeme Atherton wrote in The Guardian: “Access league tables based on the progress HEI’s are making over time across a range of under-represented groups could be a powerful way of using information to influence institutional behaviour.” Quite so! Is he a graduate of a Russell Group university? Now there is a worrying thought.

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Brian May thinks badgers. I think cows. Who is going to speak up for cows and for those who lovingly breed them, raise them, care for them and then have to kill them because the nasty, unhygienic badgers have made them ill?

Cows are useful too. They mow all that grass, for free. They make milk and other, little cows that grow into meat, including that delicious veal.  They stand in meadows flicking their tails and making the English countryside the best in the world, like so many other features of life in England, milk, wine and the education system among them.

Who is Brian May to condemn them to death? Let’s ask the crowd, the plebs, one might say these days. Thumbs up or thumbs down for the cows? The plebs will know for sure; their moral compass is unfailing. They have watched all those lovely David Attenborough films of cuddly baby animals playing and displaying while, safely removed behind the TV screen, mummy bear or daddy leopard rips apart a living salmon or beautiful doe-eyed antelope, without waiting for an official certificate of humane killing.

When the Flood subsided, God told Noah that all beasts of the earth, birds of the air and fishes of the sea, “into your hand are they delivered.” In other words, as is obviously the case, it is up to mankind to manage, husband and generally direct what happens on earth. Including the fate of badgers. They are, after all, only animals.

When I was a child, sixty years ago, there were many fewer badgers and much less TB in cattle. Coincidence?

Killing things is not in itself cruel. Badgers and deer have no natural predators in England. Their populations need to be managed, for their own good. It is just so English to work up a furious lather over animals. Pure sentimentality, in fact: something that only a largely urban nation, that does its hunting and gathering in supermarkets and shopping malls can afford to indulge in.

Aren’t they cute? So cuddly. Just like us. Just like us, they frolic and play when they are young and kill each other when they grow up, although I have not heard that they indulge in grooming young girls and interfering with them à la Savile. But then of course in England we are not too bothered about what happens to children, or old people, come to that: where they die, whether they die alone in retirement homes, far from their families. They are not half as cute as animals. If only Brian May would turn his weepy sympathies to human children…

Does he know that when you find a little lamb with a broken back and no stomach, it is most likely the work of a badger? Badgers, like bears who get a taste for an easy meal of lamb or cow, go for the soft parts. Badgers of course cannot kill cows this way, but bears do; they go for the udders. And what about wolves… I have just spoken with Greek shepherd friends starting their autumn transhumant journey with their flocks. They have to contend with both bears and wolves. Would Brian May be campaigning against men like them who defend themselves and their animals with guns? Wolf and bear cubs are awfully cute.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that given that there is a problem with TB in cattle and that badgers are clearly involved and that there is not any other effective solution in the offing, trying a cull might be a sensible first move. Suppose it worked? That would rattle the superannuated pop singers who have suddenly discovered the infallibility of science.

And as for Ayatollah Steven Grant, CEO of the RSPCA, and his outrageous fatwa against farmers taking part in the badger cull…if you were to substitute for farmers, Muslim shopkeepers refusing to display I-love-Rushdie posters, he would find himself in court for inciting hate crime!

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