Friday 24 February 2023
Publicity about the prize-winning film version of “All Quiet on the Wester Front.” has prompted me to re-read Erich Remarque’s novel. Against the background of yet another modern, (even more) mechanised, war on European soil, it injects a frightening dose of reality which should temper the calls from both sides for a fight until “complete victory” is achieved. This is what the translator, Brian Murdoch, says about it in his “Afterword” published in 1994. “The novel shows us . . . war is not about heroism, but about terror, either waiting for death, or trying desperately to avoid it, even if it means killing a complete stranger to do so, about losing all human dignity and values, about becoming an automaton; it is not about falling bravely and nobly for one’s country (“he was killed instantly” was usually a lie), but about soiling oneself in terror under heavy shellfire, about losing a leg, crawling blinded in no man’s land, or (in those telling hospital scenes) being wounded in every conceivable part of the body.” Here are some of those “telling hospital scenes” “On the floor below us there are men with stomach and spinal wounds, men with head wounds and men with both legs or arms amputated. In the right-hand wing are men with wounds in the jaw, men who have been gassed and men wounded in the nose, ears or throat. In the left-hand wing are those who have been blinded and men who have been hit in the lungs or in the pelvis, in one of the joints, in the kidneys, in the testicles or in the stomach . . . It is only here that you realize all the different places where a man can be hit. Two men die of tetanus. Their skin becomes pale, their limbs stiffen, and at the end only their eyes remain alive – for a long time. . . Other men are in traction, with heavy weights pulling down at the end of the bed.. . I see wounds in the gut that are permanently full of matter.” (Pp243/4, 2011 large print edition, W F Howes, Ltd.) In the novel one of the 19 year old conscripts offers an alternative: “ . . . all declarations of war ought to be made into a kind of festival, with entrance tickets and music like they have at bullfights. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries would have to come into the ring, wearing boxing shorts, and armed with rubber truncheons, and have a go at each other. Whoever is left on his feet, his country is declared the winner.” (Ibid Pp38/8) From what we hear, I suspect President Zelenskiy would be up for this. But Johnson, he of the belligerent speeches but who hid in a freezer to avoid reporters? Fortunately, to counteract the belligerent rhetoric generated by most of our politicians to “celebrate” this first anniversary of the Ukraine war, some commentators are looking for the realistic compromises which will be necessary to bring it to an end. Martin Kettle in Wednesday’s Guardian, writes that: “The last thing that is needed is a crushing victors’ peace that makes Russians believe they and their children are being punished for losing. Magnanimity in victory always makes far better sense.” The Archbishop of Canterbury’s article in today’s Telegraph” is under the headline: "Russia must not be crushed in any Ukraine peace deal." Unfortunately Gordon Brown in today’s Guardian insists that “Putin and his henchmen” should be brought to face justice before an international tribunal for brutally invading another country. He doesn’t suggest submitting himself, Tony Blair, or G W Bush.
Tuesday 21 February 2023
The hypocrisy surrounding the current debates on world politics continues to beggar belief. Heaven only knows what future historians will make of it (if there as a future for humankind, that is). The US Secretary of State (I think it was) sternly orders China not to supply arms to the Russians (on pain of what isn’t clear.) Why on earth shouldn't they? We (ie the US, Nato, the West, the Free World, whatever we like to call ourselves) proudly send arms to the Ukrainians, whom we consider to be, for the time being at any rate, on "our " side. So why shouldn't the Communist Chinese supply arms to their fellow(ish) communist comrades. I am not arguing that I want them to: I certainly don't. I am pointing out the illogicality of the threat. Similarly, Mr Sunak (I think it was), presumably to bolster his belligerence credentials to match those of ex-P.M. Johnson, declares it to be outrageous in our modern age for one country to invade the sovereign territory of another. Quite right too, except that "we" however defined, have been doing that regularly for the past 70+ years. Korea, Vietnam ( to his credit British Prime Minister Harold Wilson kept us out of that one), Iraq, Afghanistan, even poor little Grenada. What’s sauce for the goose. . . There are calls for President Putin to be tried for war crimes, but a succession of US presidents and other western leaders, including our own Tony Blair, remain honoured world statesmen. President Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian army are regarded as heroic freedom fighters defending their territory. Yet when a group of Palestinians fire rockets into Israeli territory in protest the against a group whom they consider to have stolen their land from them, and undoubtedly treats them abominably, they are decried as terrorists. Both President Biden and President Putin are to make speeches today. Both, I suspect, are likely to contain belligerent rhetoric likely to prolong the situation, and maybe take us nearer to nuclear war. I have no idea how we are going to extract ourselves from the present horrendous situation, in which an increasing number of innocent people, mostly young conscripts with little or no choice, are going to lose their lives or be seriously maimed. I earnestly hope that, behind the scenes, diplomats on both sides are searching for the compromises which will bring the slaughter to an end. And when that happens, I hope we shall look to creating a "brave new world" that is somewhat fairer and more even-handed than the post 1945 one has been so far.
Tuesday 7 February 2023
The appalling tragedy of the earthquake(s) in Turkey and Syria, in which close to 5 000 people have died, serves as a sharp remainder of how lucky we are to live in our cosy and comfortable island. True some of us are occasionally upset by floods (which our lifestyles are helping to create) and strong winds, but otherwise, by and large and in the main, and except for unavoidable illness, the only obstacle to our all living a cosy and comfortable life is our inability to organise ourselves sensibly. The re-emergence of Liz Truss and the seriousness which some of our media are treating her fantasy economic policies illustrates how the only real difficulties we face are of our own creation. M/s Truss’s policies are based on two ideas: one is false and the other is foolish. The false idea is that high taxation is holding back our prosperity. The evidence for this is glaringly absent: we are not a highly taxed country. Here are the latest figures I can find for the percentage of GDP taken by governments in tax in some comparable countries. France (46.2%) Italy (42.4%) Greece (39.4%) Germany (37.5%) UK (33.3%) US (27.1%) A full list can be seen here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_by_tax_revenue_to_GDP_ratio Whatever it is that is holding back our prosperity, it is not high taxation. In fact there is ample scope for increasing the tax take so as to properly fund the NHS, social services, care services, education, local government and all the other public services which, as the present crises show, are currently stripped to the bone and beyond. To claim that “there isn’t the money,” and the attempt at the “grown up” disguise that “difficult decisions have to be made” is pure mendacity. Yet the media will repeat it, against all the evidence. And too many people will be taken in. We bring our inadequacy on ourselves. M/s Truss’s second tenet, that we, as a nation, are held back by too much regulation, is foolishness (or blindness) beyond belief. After the misery to the nation as a whole caused by the banking crash of 2008/9, the Grenfell Tower fire, the pollution of our rivers with untreated sewage, to give but three examples, the message is that we need not just regulation, but adequately resourced supervision and enforcement of regulation, to protect our lifestyles. So, as we as individuals and as a society do what we can the alleviate the misery of those suffering acute distress through unavoidable natural causes in Turkey and Syria, for goodness sake let us “count our blessing” and distriute our ample resources equitably to provide a cosy and comfortable life for us all.
Thursday 2 February 2023
I remember from years ago a competition, or maybe in was just a string of letters in the paper, to devise a motto for al the British to use instead of “Honi soit qui mal y pense” which was taken to apply just to the upper classes, or even only the royal family. The favourite which emerged was “Mustn’t Grumble.”. Given the mass strikes of the past few weeks, and scheduled to continue, that could hardly apply today. I suggest “To be fair…” as the contemporary alternative. I believe it is neither Brexit, nor the government’s manifest incompetence, nor inflation, nor even sleaze, which is the root cause of our disatisfaction, but a profound sense of unfairness. For years many of us have been have been disgusted by the government’s contemptuous treatment of our citizens at the bottom of the pile: the disabled, those on benefits, asylum-seekers and migrants, but this has not seeped through into mass demonstrations. Now the relatively comfortable lower middle classes – teachers, nurses, fire and rescue workers, civil servants, engine drivers et al are flexing the muscle that the poorest lack. They are not being treated fairly. Some of the wages allegedly earned by some in these groups, in the region of £40 000 a year, seem to suggest a fairly comfortable standard of living, though I concede the problem young people starting their careers have in buying houses, while we who already own one sit back smugly as our asset accumulates in value. But why should this supposedly “squeezed” middle put up with a falling standard of living, however comfortable, while those at the top are publicly raking in shedloads? Former prime minister Johnson is a prized and much publicised example. As prime minister he received a salary of £164 000, along with two rent free houses, yet he still needed access to a loan of £800 000 to fund his lifestyle. Since being ousted from No 10 he is still receiving his £84 000 a year MP’s salary and has received payments in the millions simply for giving speeches. Even Mrs May gets paid in thousands for a single speech, and has access to over £100 000 a year for life to fund her “office” (as do Sirs Tony Blair and John Major, and Messrs Gordon Brown and Johnson, and possibly even M/sTruss for her 44 day stint. All this is out of the public purse, from which the powers that be argue it is not possible to pay nurses etc a salary to keep up with inflation. But what our politicians take out of the national cake pales into insignificance compared with the millions and sometimes tens of millions which the heads of major industries pay themselves each year in what they are pleased to call their “compensation.” For a brief period during the lockdown months of the pandemic we recognised that it was not he hedge-fund managers and captains of what is left of industry who took the risks and kept the country going, but largely those at the bottom end of the pay rates: the nurses, teachers, refuse collectors, firefighters, post workers and parcel deliverers.. Some of those who now resist paying them properly turned out on Thursday evenings to applaud them. Now the crisis has passed (we hope) and their contribution to our civilised life is downgraded. I suspect the government’s strategy may well be that if they remain obdurate for long enough it will be possible once again to describe these valued citizens as “the enemy within.” Britain is a profoundly unfair society. The progressive parties need to band together to recognise this have the courage to promise to make it fairer. To be fair, this is not an easy ask. The Tories and their supportive press will be quick to trot out the cliché of the “politics of envy,” the fallacy of the “trickle down effect” and the myth of “plucky Britons” waiting to be unleased by the hope of riches. That is why we need courageous political leadership to “tell it like it is.”