“This may be the last stage of imperialism – having appropriated everything else from its colonies, the dead empire appropriates the pain of those it has oppressed.”
Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain
Ricardo Blanco’s Blog is not, as a rule, a place in which I vent my political views or biases, but today I will make an exception. As a Welshman and a European, I need to express my rage and grief at what is being foisted on us.
To all those who wallow in the Imperial dream and who seek to re-float that pompous and grandiose vessel and bathe in the simulated splendour of an odious nationalism, and all the rascally villains whose pockets are so well-lined that crashing out of Europe will not harm them, and the sorry and misled millions whose poverty and ignorance led them to vote for damnable Brexit, and all the hatred and racism and violence that has been and will be unleashed by it, I dedicate this day my profoundest contempt and sorrow.
Listening to the audiobook of John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies as I drive home from work, I am startled by an extraordinary passage in which George Smiley is reflecting with his protégé Peter Guillam on their past as spies, and the reasons that guided him through the Cold War. At one point, near the end, the normally composed George Smiley utterly loses his cool, in what would appear to be a tirade against Brexit and Brexiteers, and little Englanders of all description:
‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’
It is impossible to ignore Teresa May’s ‘citizen of nowhere’ jibe lodged in there.
Are these the views of the fictional George Smiley, or are they shared by his creator, John Le Carré? The answer is not hard to find. In an interview with the BBC from 7 September last year to mark the launch of the new novel – a kind of coda to The Spy who came in from the Cold – Le Carré said:
“It was terribly hard to write this book during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, and I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of the sense of aimlessness which has entered into all of our minds – we seem to be joined by nothing but fear,” he said.
“Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.”
Yes, George has abandoned the UK, and lives in Freiburg. He feels alienated by Brexit Britain, as so many of us do.
Alienated and bewildered. How to account for the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘a pantomime toff with unpleasant hard-right convictions’ according to the New Statesman, is the favourite of Conservative Party members to be their next leader, and thus, presumably, our next prime minister?
Desperate times indeed. Within the European Union, Britain would have been able to help shape the destiny of Europe, as George Smiley envisaged. Russia, for example, doesn’t give a toss about little England, but would listen to the UK within a powerful European Union. Outside of the EU, we will be marginalised by world leaders, ignored by the developing world and become an offshore tax haven for billionaires floating off into the North Atlantic. Goodbye to George Smiley’s ‘new age of reason.’
When I check in for my flight to Santiago at Buenos Aires aeroparque, the young woman at the Aerolineas Argentinas desk, who I assume must be new to the job, stares long and hard at the cover of my passport. She screws up her face. I can tell she doesn’t like what she sees. Immediately three possibilities come to mind: she believes the Malvinas belongs to Argentina and disapproves of my passport on principle; she disapproves of its faded state, the extremely faint image of the lion and unicorn, not to mention the words accompanying them; she disapproves of me. Or a combination of these. She asks her colleague – as though I’m not there – whether the bearer of such a document (which she waves beneath the other’s nose) requires a visa to travel to Chile. Her colleague shakes her head. The first woman seems disappointed, but checks in my luggage and dismisses me. Haughtily.
I am beginning to think about the state of my passport as a metaphor of some kind. Following on from Alastair Reid’s theory of ‘Being a Stranger’ (see selected previous posts), I start wondering whether whatever is happening to my passport can be made to happen to me, so that I too – my identity, that is – might gradually fade to a point of being barely discernible, thus achieving the ideal state of the stranger: of not belonging to anywhere. Which reminds me – though I would rather not be reminded – of Teresa May’s comment that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
I cannot, at this moment, with all the shit that is going down around the globe, think of an statement with which I agree less, or a mindset capable of producing such an utterance with which I could feel more at odds.
I missed the film Welcome to New York, a thinly disguised account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, when it was released a couple of years back, but watched it last night with Mrs Blanco. The film stars Gérard Depardieu as ‘Georges Deveraux’ and the first twenty minutes of the film are pretty ghastly, with a lot of fumbling and groping, forced laughter, ice-cream smearing and buttock-slapping, climaxing in a display of loud, ursine grunting from the gross and panting Depardieu, who hasn’t even bothered to take off his raincoat. Later, we are treated to the formidable sight of the actor stripping in a police cell, his stomach unfurling from his pants like a mudslide, under the bewildered gaze of a police guard, who, as Depardieu struggles to pull on his socks, is heard to mutter ‘quite a workout’. But the later scenes between Depardieu and his wife Sophie (played by an exasperated Jacqueline Bisset) are fraught with a compelling and awful tension. In one their arguments, the Bisset character tells Depardieu that ‘the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference’.
But I have begun with a digression, since the comment that the Bisset character makes to her chronically sex-obsessed husband reminded me of something John Berger wrote, in an entirely different context:
The opposite of to love is not to hate but to separate. If love and hate have something in common it is because, in both cases, their energy is that of bringing and holding together – the lover with the loved, the one who hates with the hated. Both passions are tested by separation.
And, of course, separation can lead to indifference, or else arise from it. Indifference to the object of one’s emotions, whether originating in love or hate, leads to, or is born of, separation.
In and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Berger wrote of his stay in Livorno during the late 1940s. The city was war-scarred and poor, and Berger learned, he says, for the first time, ‘the ingenuity of the dispossessed.’ And he writes:
It was there too I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion.
Which brings us back to Depardieu, in his role as a fictionalised Strauss-Kahn. In a peculiar little intro to the film, the actor tells reporters he was moved to take the part because he doesn’t trust politicians and ‘hated’ the person he was playing in the film. Now, I don’t entirely trust this contrived little vignette, but concur fully with Berger’s aversion. I have an instinctive distrust of anyone who wants to exercise power, whether in politics, local government, or institutions such as ‘The University’. Welcome to New York is about the gross misuse of power (Do you know who I am? Deveraux asks the terrified hotel cleaner before sexually assaulting her). The arrogance of that question! It speaks of the assumption of power allowing ugly minds to prosper in the exercise of self-aggrandisement. But it is a question that every tin Hitler wants to ask, across the spectrum, and which might better be re-phrased: Do you know who I think I am?
Late September: the tourists have abandoned the beaches, and only a few resolute locals and French day-trippers can be found on a Sunday at Colera’s platja dels morts, where we spend a delightful couple of hours reading and swimming. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable mid-20s and there are occasional overcast days, even rain. The vendimia draws to a close, country roads still dotted with tractors pulling trailers overladen with purple grapes (mostly garnatxa, although more farmers are experimenting with different varieties now, including the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot).
In the midst of all this activity, we have elections, purportedly to declare an independent Catalan state.
The plastic hoarding that Bruno the dog is so fond of urinating against – Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of parties promoting a vote for independence at the elections held yesterday – was installed at the top of the village around a month ago. The result of yesterday’s election – with all the votes not yet counted – is that while the pro-independence parties have gained a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, they did not receive 50% of the actual vote. Which means that if this were to be treated as a de facto referendum – and the Independentistas claimed it was – then they have failed (even though they are, of course, claiming otherwise).
I have three main concerns about Catalan independence. The first is whether Catalunya will remain a member of, or be automatically admitted to, the EU. From the threats offered by both Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish president and – on a recent visit to Madrid – David Cameron, the same attitude is being taken by the larger states as was taken over Scottish independence: that there is no automatic entry and Catalunya will have to join the queue for EU membership.
Secondly it’s disappointing, although not surprising, that all of the faces of the candidates – 135 of them – are white. There are a lot of non-white people in Catalunya, especially in Barcelona, with its large Asian, Maghrebi and Latino population. In the country areas there are many sub-Saharan Africans, working almost exclusively in agriculture. Many of them do not have papers. They are politically invisible. And frankly there doesn’t seem to be much hope of the new Catalan state, if or when it exists, embracing pluralism to any significant degree. ‘Race’ is likely to take on major significance in the Iberian countries over the next 20 years. Which is all a bit worrying within the context of the independence movement: do we really need more nationalism at a crucial time like this, when European countries should be embracing a more internationalist and pluralistic identity? Does regional and linguistic identity really need to be framed as ‘nationalism’?
Thirdly and perhaps of greater concern to most Spaniards of all denominations: what would happen to Barça football club in an independent Catalan state? It would not be able to stay in the Spanish Liga, as it would not be in Spain. Would a new ‘Iberian league’ come into being, to include teams from Portugal, perhaps? Or would the great Barça be reduced to weekend features with the likes of Vilanant, Vilafant, and Vilajuïga?
Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the village ajuntament, I plodded up the hill, Thursday being one of the two days on which the village hall opens its office to deal with citizens and their affairs. Once inside the ajuntament complex, I notice that on the door of the office itself, a scrap of paper is pinned to the woodwork, declaring that during the months of July and August, office hours will take place on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings instead of Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Fair enough.
So today I take myself up the hill, and once again the office is closed. A friendly face at the village shop tells me that today is the assumption of the most Holy Virgin, the day on which the Virgin Mary was allegedly scooped up to heaven. For this reason the whole country must stop in its tracks. However, as a regular visitor to Spain and other Latin countries, I am used to this, and do not so much as flinch a northern European muscle.
Digression: Xaloc, the name of the tax, sounds like a Mexican god, but is in fact, I recall, the Catalan name of one of the sea winds (it comes from the Arabic word shaluq, meaning south-east). A Catalan fisherman’s saying goes: Vent de Xaloc, mar molta i peix poc / Xaloc wind: big sea and few fish. Is this how the term came to be adopted to refer to a form of taxation?
My adventure in trying to pay my civic dues could be represented as a flow chart, or else in bullet points, as follows:
i. Ajuntament office hours are on Mondays 10-12 and Thursdays 16-18.30,
ii. in July and August, when they will take place between 14.30-16.30 on Mondays and 10-12.30 on Fridays,
iii. on Fiesta days during those months, when they will be cancelled altogether.
These are the kinds of qualifications that would send Angela Merkel and any self-respecting northern European Eurocrat into palpitations. It is exactly this kind of thing, don’t you know, which causes these idle Mediterranean countries to crash their economies. No sense of civic duty, no sense of Hard Graft.
On my way down through the village, I see something on the wall that I have never before noticed (and I have been coming to this village, on and off, since 1988). Now, the changing of place names is a well known phenomenon in all countries with an historical tendency to regime change: we once spent an afternoon in La Línea de la Concepción trying to track down my mother-in-law’s birthplace, before realising that the street names had undergone at least two revisions since 1926. Here is what I saw:
What would the Generalisimo have made of it all? Well, the answer is clear: it was with the dictatorship that my little tale begins. Franco was directly responsible for both maintaining a crippling adherence to Catholic dogma and a ludicrously top-heavy bureaucracy that Spain has been struggling to free itself from over the past 40 years. And the more feast days, clearly, the more devout your subjects.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Perhaps nowhere on earth is the contiguity of past and present more strikingly evident than in Mexico. An ancient wall, cracked from an earthquake, stands before a pair of ascending high rise towers, from one of which emanates a constant hammering and pounding that echoes across the hot afternoon. Through the crack in the ancient wall modernity surges skyward, oblivious.
My last night in Mexico City I watch the Mexican cup final in a taqueria with some friends. The match is between Leon and Pachuca. The second of these is known as Pachuca la airosa (Pachuca the windy) and its football team has a curious history. It is the oldest club in Mexico, having been formed in 1901 by Cornish miners who had arrived in the area to work in mines owned byWilliam Blamey at the end of the nineteenth century. The team was augmented with locals who took to the game, and became one of the country’s leading clubs. It is in the Mexican Premier League and has won five championships as well as four CONCACAF Champions’ Cups, the 2007 SuperLiga and one Copa Sudamericana. One detail that truly impressed me was that the dish for which Pachuca cuisine is famed – harking back to those miners – is a variety of Cornish Pasty, known locally as pastes. On Thursday night, despite the howls of disapproval around me (I was evidently in a hotbed of Leon supporters), the pasties won 3-2.
Next day, at the airport bar in Mexico City a very besoffen German with a shaved head engages me in conversation in unstable English. Europe is finished, he tells me, thanks to the dictatorship of Brussels. Ve haf many dictators in Europ, ze last was Hitler, and before that ze Swedish Gustavus Adolphus and ze other was, er, er . . . – he seems in actual physical pain, struggling to remember another European dictator. Napoleon? I suggest. Ja, ja, Napoleon, he says, relieved at what is evidently a gargantuan struggle against alcohol’s tendency to obliterate memory. But now ve haf Brussels and all is finished.
The gist of his argument, as far as I can make out, is that Europe was better off as a collection of independent nation states with their own laws and their own currencies. So you are against any idea of a federal Europe? Ja, he says, nodding his shiny pate with extraordinary vigour. I want to point out that it was precisely because of the continual warmongering between these independent nation states – his own in particular – that the idea of a Federal Europe emerged, but I fear that his grasp of such a concept is imperilled by the dispatching in rapid succession of two more tequilas. What has he been doing in Mexico? I ask. I haf been doing my work, which I do, he tells me, helpfully. He explains that his plane to Geneva leaves at 9.00 pm and he likes to be the last on board, in order to make the others wait. This amuses him greatly and he guffaws into his empty glass. I leave to catch my own plane. I glance at the departures board on the way. There is no 9.00 pm flight to Geneva listed.
I don’t usually post about politics, but I spotted this on Facebook, and thought it worth sharing.
As we hear more every week about waves of parasitic immigrants and social security scroungers who ride on the back of ‘hardworking families’ et cetera, it is nice to be reminded that these are not the only ones to play the system.
On a related theme, I came across a letter in The Independent the other morning, in which Barry Richards of Cardiff took the Tories to task for not paying interns. Apparently the Conservative Party is “trying to be a responsible employer”. As Mr Richards remarks in his letter:
A “responsible employer” would show care for its employees and ensure that they receive a fair wage capable of supporting a decent standard of living. But then the Tory ethos, from the aristocracy and landed gentry through to today’s stockbroking, City elite has always been to build wealth and power off the backs of other people’s work at the lowest cost possible.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose . . .
Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here.
I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:
One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.
Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.
But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”
Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.
This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.
I receive an email from Médecins Sans Frontières saying that the Libyan National Army Security Service in Misrata are sending them people to treat who have been tortured, simply to patch them up into a state where they can be tortured some more. This is shocking, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The fact that people who have endured violent oppression are likely to inflict exactly the same kind of treatment on their oppressors – now they have become their captives – seems sad but horribly predictable.
According to The Guardian:
The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières has added its voice to the chorus of concern by announcing that it had halted work in the coastal city of Misrata because staff were being asked to patch up detainees during torture sessions. “Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation,” said MSF’s Christopher Stokes. “This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”
I rarely use this blog for notices of this kind, but because I support MSF this captured my attention, and I thought I would share it. Not that there’s a lot anyone can do.
So as the year comes to an end we move inexorably towards a future that sees Great Britain isolated from Europe, estranged from the USA (who quite frankly never gave a damn anyway), reneging on promises to be the ‘greenest government ever’ as George Osborne, that most grotesque of Tory self-parodies – if he didn’t exist someone would have invented him – as the liberties of common people are eroded palpably and cynically by a government that is now setting out plans to shoot demonstrators, should the need arise, a plea already put forward by Jeremy Clarkson in respect of strikers. And as a sad afternote, rather than reprimanding their star boy racer (apparently Clarkson’s boyish frolics in motor cars are so remunerative that the BBC considers him an asset of greater importance to them than their own integrity) he was let off the hook completely, as he was, after all, ‘joking’ about shooting people in front of their families. Actually Clarkson and Osborne represent for me two examples of manhood that will do very nicely for today’s blog, two facets of the hideous tragedy of our culture at the start of the second decade of the new millennium.
But fear not. “Potentially the use of firearms” will be justified at demos, but only “as a last resort”. The use of firearms with live ammunition could be justified against arsonists when life is being endangered given the “immediacy of the risk and the gravity of the consequences” as the legal annexe to the police riots report phrases it.
All of this connects in my mind with the talk that Helena Kennedy delivered at Cardiff University last month, in which she spoke articulately and without sensationalism about the gradual erosion of democracy in our society and the shadowy forces that continue to underpin politics in the UK.
But none of this should come as any surprise. Needless to say the British government has extensive practice at shooting its own citizens. We executed 306 ‘cowards’ in World War One, shot 13 in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and if I had time and was not about to visit Grandpa I’m sure I could furnish a much fuller list, so the odd ‘demonstrator’ (or striker) isn’t going to count for much. Though it does raise the question of how precisely police are going to identify and isolate a single dangerous individual in a crowd of demonstrators and ‘neutralise’ him when, on current form they cannot identify and isolate a single ‘terrorist suspect’ correctly, as evidenced by the unlawful killing (shamefully recorded as an ‘open verdict’) in 2005 of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.
Again, Clarkson provides rather a good spokesperson for the Big Society espoused by the Old Etonians in charge of us now. A man-child, who, along with his two sidekicks, like to strike a quasi-macho front as they engage in feats of motorised derring-do (how close we came to death on that escapade, chaps) while remaining a reactionary in the traditional mould, one of whose defining characteristics is the notion (shared by the worst aspect of the ruling classes, along with venture capitalists and psychopaths) that a chap should be allowed to do what he wants, and anyone who decides to stop him is a sissy. How Big is that?
Clarkson is an obnoxious boor, but the butt of my greatest loathing remains, and will remain, George Osborne. Having been forced to attend an English Public School in my early teens, I know this kind of fuckwit very well. I carry an indelible memory of the type around with me, which reminds me of everything I most despise about Britain; its odious class system, its hideous hierarchies, its smarmy and pervasive xenophobia and, clambering onto its upper crusts, phalanxes of snooty locker-room bully-boys with daddies in the city. Osborne’s disdainful behaviour – surely indicative of the kind of government he stands for, and indeed the kind of social attitudes which the electorate sanctioned, more or less, in last year’s elections – is perhaps best encapsulated by this story, written by Candida Jones and published in The Guardian newspaper – not, incidentally my favourite read – which describes Osborne’s behaviour on holiday in Corfu in the summer of 2008, when the Tories were still in opposition:
How George Osborne ruined my day at the beach in Corfu
It was mid-afternoon on August 14 and we were on Kalamaki beach – a glorious bay on the north-east coast of Corfu where the intensely blue sea was so still it resembled oil rather than water. Barely a wave lapped the shore as I relaxed with my husband, brother and children. There were families throwing balls, people chatting in warm, shallow water and children with snorkels dragging small fishing nets. The scene was idyllic. The focus for most of those playing in the sea was a long, rickety, wooden pier. Children were jumping from it, dangling their feet in the water and playing tag. My three-year-old daughter was learning how to dive off the end when a motor boat appeared.
I was alarmed by the speed at which it approached. Parents stopped and watched, and I began to collect our little ones around me as I could sense danger. The boat kept coming and I began to worry. Surely no one would drive a boat through crowded water and, anyway, where was it going? Couldn’t those on board see that there was nowhere to moor as the pier was packed with children playing? Several parents, in several languages, complained loudly that this was an inappropriate place to bring a motorboat. It carried on without any apology from those on board and the bathers made way – the diving games stopped and children were hurriedly helped down from the pier and sent to the beach to play.
A very smartly dressed family disembarked and marched towards the shore. Leading the way was a man in blue shorts and white polo shirt, wearing deck shoes, which he clearly didn’t intend to get wet, followed by a couple of children, also dressed smartly and not for the beach, a woman, whom we assumed was their mother and was carrying a picnic basket, and a nanny, who brought up the rear and was carrying the bulk of the bags. I could tell immediately these people were English, by the way they were dressed and their seemingly superior manner. I felt embarrassed that a typically informal, relaxed and inclusive Greek afternoon was being so rudely interrupted by one small, well-turned-out, organised, English family.
I recognised George Osborne as he led the way. Shouts continued from the parents, which made the Osborne family hurry, but none of them looked back or exuded the air of bashful apology one would expect. Osborne, hearing the protests, simply said, addressing everyone, “It’s a pier, that’s what it’s for.” He said it loudly, angrily, without looking at any of those whose afternoon he had spoiled.
Of course he was right. It was a pier, and that is what they are for, but that day it was full of families having fun and the boat brought the fun to an end. But what galled people most – lots of us discussed it afterwards – was the way it had happened. No backwards glance, no apology, no hint of embarrassment. It wasn’t very Greek at all; indeed it was extremely English in that old imperial way. The Osbornes had to be somewhere, quickly. Perhaps Oleg Deripaska was waiting to talk about money?
As readers of The Vagabond’s Breakfast might recall, just over thirty years ago I stood trial at a crown court in London, charged with theft and fraud. I had been working as a milkman, and in the freezing winter of 1978-9 I drove my little milk float from the depot in Dalston, along the icy roads of north London to Highbury and up the Holloway Road, delivering milk and butter and eggs and bread to the good people of Finsbury Park. Alas, from time to time my customers would be short of a few quid to pay their bill; alas, from time to time the odd few pints of milk and a half-dozen eggs went walkies from the back of the float. The outcome was, after several frozen weeks, what with my bad hand and one thing and another, I chucked the job in. A few days later I was picked up by plainclothes cops while returning from breakfast at my local cafe in Shoreditch, and hey presto, I’m in the nick being charged with this that and the other. A ‘milkman of ill repute’, quipped my arresting officer, introducing me to a colleague in the charge office of Dalston police station, before threatening me with a good kicking and telling me he was going to send me down. That I did not go down was due principally to the good offices of my barrister, a young Glaswegian with a cheeky face and a bit of an attitude by the name of Helena Kennedy. The details of the events in court are still etched in my memory, especially the way she turned one of the prosecution witnesses, effectively, into one of ours, in a moment of staggeringly inspired guesswork.
Last evening I met up with Helena again, for the first time since our appearance in court and my unconditional discharge in January 1981. I did not think for a moment that she would remember me, but – quite unaware that we would meet – she greeted me like an old friend, kissed me on both cheeks, and recited one or two details of my trial that only someone with a phenomenal memory could possibly have retained. Then she told me that mine was the only case of fraud she had ever taken on, which made me feel rather special.
Helena was in Cardiff as a guest of the University, where she delivered the Haydn Ellis memorial lecture. She purportedly spoke on Globalisation and the Individual, but in fact covered just about everything: the Human Rights Act, the erosion of democracy in our national institutions, the dismantling of legal aid, the diluting of the founding principles of the national health service, the role of workers in helping decide the salaries of corporate directors, the increasing social divide, the obscenity of the banks, and her support for the Occupy movement. It was an inspirational lecture, and for once I felt proud to be associated with the institution at which I work, for having invited her. Helena is a national treasure. If only there were more like her.