what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Scintillating writing

Left the Sirnea valley (1,400 metres up) not a moment too soon – with heavy snow being forecast even in Bucharest and the southern plain. But not before I had made a special trip to buy 4 kilos of the pungent home-made burdurf from my neighbours down the hill – for my money the place they make the best cheese in the Balkans. Initially with a strong cheddar taste, it matures into a variety of classic cheeses – depending on where you keep it. I’ve known it as a variant of an Italian Parma but, when stuffed into jars and kept in the cellar, it comes out as a juicy, pallat-blowing Pont L ‘Eveque French cheese. I felt like an urban coward as I abandoned the hardy villagers to the winter conditions – and excused myself with reference to the lack of water (from which several other houses too high up the hillside were also suffering) and also with my hacking chest cough .
Morning did indeed dawn with blustering winds and snow blanketing the cars. So the planned visit to a Black Sea workshop is off.
Instead I immersed myself in Chris Hitchins’ Hitch 22 - a Memoir which had arrived last year in Sirnea and whose first half covers exactly my own period of growing up and coming to political consciousness in Britain. I made no reference to his death last month – partly because I was somewhat offended that it eclipsed the obituaries of Vaclaw Havel. Whatever one may think of the man, he was a magnificent writer who captures so well in this book the nature of Britain the 1960s and 1970s - whether it was the totalitarian system run by the pupils of schools who have groomed the offspring of its governing elites for their on their own future roles; or the atmosphere and values in the local branches of the Labour Party in those days.
He became an early activist in the International Socialist movement (whose people I fought in the labour party) but then, sadly, became an apologist for American interests. In that sense, he continued the great English intellectual tradition of the earlier part of the century of switching sides. Terry Eagleton’s review of the book is a good summary of what his enemies think -
The Oedipal children of the establishment have always proved useful to the left. Such ruling-class renegades have the grit, chutzpah, inside knowledge, effortless self-assurance, stylishness, fair conscience and bloody-mindedness of their social background, but can turn these patrician virtues to radical ends. The only trouble is that they tend to revert to type as they grow older, not least when political times are lean. The Paul Foots and Perry Andersons of this world are a rare breed. Men and women who began by bellowing "Out, out, out!" end up humiliating waiters and overrating Evelyn Waugh. Those who, like Christopher Hitchens, detest a cliché turn into one of the dreariest types of them all: the revolutionary hothead who learns how to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz.
That Hitchens represents a grievous loss to the left is beyond doubt. He is a superb writer, superior in wit and elegance to his hero George Orwell, and an unstanchably eloquent speaker. He has an insatiable curiosity about the modern world and an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, as well as an unflagging fascination with himself. Through getting to know all the right people, an instinct as inbuilt as his pancreas, he could tell you without missing a beat whom best to consult in Rabat about education policy in the Atlas Mountains. The same instinct leads to chummy lunches with Bill Deedes and Peregrine Worsthorne. In his younger days, he was not averse to dining with repulsive fat cats while giving them a piece of his political mind. Nowadays, one imagines, he just dines with repulsive fat cats.
The novellist, Blake Morrisons is a more sympathetic reviewer -
The best parts of the book are those dealing with his parents – his mother, Yvonne, who committed suicide when he was 24, and his father, a former naval officer known as "the Commander". Yet even here, the polemicist is in danger of eclipsing the memoirist. "I had once thought that he'd helped me understand the Tory mentality, all the better to combat and repudiate it," he writes of his father. "And in that respect he was greatly if accidentally instructive. But over the longer stretch, I have come to realise that he taught me – without ever intending to – what it is to feel disappointed and betrayed by your 'own' side."
Hitchens began to leave home almost from infancy. A precocious child, whose first words came out as complete sentences ("Let's all go and have a drink at the club" was one of them, allegedly), he was packed off to boarding school at eight – a strain on the family budget, but if there was going to be an upper class, Yvonne wanted her son to be part of it. By 10 he knew all there was to know about dictatorships. But though beaten and bullied, he was never buggered. And there were books, starting with War and Peace and moving on to Wilfred Owen and George Orwell. When a housemaster warned him that he was in danger of "ending up a pamphleteer", he felt encouraged.
1968 was a heady year to be a student. He appeared on University Challenge, spoke at the Oxford Union and dined with government ministers. But he also held forth from upturned milk crates, organized sit-ins and was charged with incitement to riot. The spirit of the times was intoxicating but there were limits: sex and rock'n'roll were fine, but not long hair (an affront to one's working-class comrades) or drugs (a "weak-minded escapism almost as contemptible as religion").
At Oxford he met his first Americans, including Bill Clinton, who took his dope in the form of cookies rather than inhaling (and whom he accuses of snithving to the American authorities on the US draft-dodgers). Clinton aside, Hitchens admired these Americans, and he began to have a recurrent dream of finding himself in Manhattan and feeling freer for it. "Life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry," he writes. In truth, every door in London seemed to open to him. But the contradictions of his journalistic career were troubling ("with half of myself I was supposed to be building up the Labour movement and then with another half of myself subverting and infiltrating it from the ultra-left"), and perhaps that's what attracted him to the US, to which he flew on a one-way ticket in 1981 – here was a chance to quit the British class struggle and be wholly himself.
There's a lot to argue with here. But to take issue with Hitchens you will need to be formidably prepared (as widely read, widely travelled and rhetorically astute as he is) and to forget the idea that he "only does it to annoy", out of contrariness rather than conviction. You'll have to sharpen your invective, too. Humour is one of his deadliest weapons and there's plenty on display, some of it gently directed at himself
For those who want to hear the text itself, Utube has serialised the entire book (although I can't get any sound!)

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