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The best people all hated Wellington. Byron mocked him, in a French accent, as "Villainton". Goya painted him a a pop-eyed hysteric.

If I'd been around at the time I'd have hated him too. A professional military man and (inefficient) Tory Prime Minister- what's not to dislike?

I own a portrait of Wellington. It's a 19th century print my mother picked up at a house sale for 'arf a crown in the late 50s. I've been carrying it around with me and hanging it on walls ever since.

The English prefer their heroes to die at the moment of victory, like Wolfe or Nelson. Wellington, disobligingly, lived on and on.

Tennyson's Ode on the Funeral of the Duke of Wellington is a monument to technical virtuosity and incredibly boring.

"Let us bury the great Duke with a sound of lamentation.
Let us bury the great Duke with the sound of the mourning of a mighty nation."

I'm dropping off already- and it goes on like that for pages and pages. I've never yet managed to read to the end.

It's a Times leader wrenched into verse.

In Sergei Bondarchuk's Waterloo, while Rod Steiger's Napoleon is wrestling with his bowels and sweating horribly and failing to eat a hearty breakast, Christopher Plummer's Wellington is taking a nap under a tree with the Times spread over his face.

That's the essence of Wellington: he was incredibly cool- in every sense of the word.

He didn't care about personal popularity either. The self belief was awesome.

When a celebrity girlfriend threatened to name him in her kiss and tell memoirs unless he stumped up a large sum of money his response (which has passed into the language) was "publish and be damned."

He was very quotable. And quotable not merely because he was witty. He had absolutely no time for cant.

For instance:

"People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling- all stuff - no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children- some for minor offences- many more for drink."

And here's my favourite:

"Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won."
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I put on my CD of high class carols- sung in German no less.

"Depressing." says Joe.

"What? Silent Night depressing? Go drink some beer..."

Silent Night was what the German soldiers were singing on Christmas Eve 1914. The British soldiers joined in and soon enough they were lobbing tinned food from trench to trench and shouting out "Merry Christmas, Fritz", "Merry Christmas, Tommy". Then someone got up his courage and walked out into No Man's Land and someone from the other side met him halfway and after that for the whole of that Christmas Day there was fraternising and beer-drinking and football the length of the Western Front. And the High Command got into a terrible strop and threatened to shoot anybody who didn't return to the trenches to be shot.... So the unofficial truce came to an end and the war went on for another four years.

What's up next?

"O Tannenbaum" aka the Red Flag.

The Bolshevik irregulars stormed the Winter Palace....

So what's this anyway- the 20th century's bloodiest hits?

How about a nice Basque lullaby to put us in mind of Guernica?

I switch the CD player off and go watch Ant and Dec.


Dec. 14th, 2005 11:48 am
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Whatever happened to the misers?

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries people loved their misers. There was a whole literature about them. They were mean, they stank, they hid guineas in dung-heaps, they made pies out of long dead sheep. Mr Boffin in Our Mutual Friend is an avid collector and consumer of miser-porn. Daniel Dancer, John Elwes, Vulture Hopkins- these guys were famous.

There were famous fictional misers too- Scrooge, Silas Marner, Uncle Ebenezer Balfour.

But then along came the 20th century and misers- both real and fictional- dropped out of sight.

So why don't we have them any more?
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In ye olden days I swear the leaves were mostly gone from the trees by November 5. I asked Ailz if I were making this up and she said, "No, it's official. It's got something to do with the climate getting warmer and wetter."

Also in ye olden days it was the custom for kids to make nasty scarecrow figures and trundle them round in wheel-barrows, door to door, chanting, "Penny for the guy" or, "Please to Remember/The Fifth of November/ Gunpowder, treason and plot..." This seems to have entirely died out. Today's kids go trick or treating instead.

But bonfire night is still a goer. I was lying in bed last night wondering how many thousands of pounds it was taking to make the night go fizzle, pop, krump around me. The noise started early and ended late and there'll almost certainly be a repeat performance tonight.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Parallels are being drawn between the gunpowder conspirators and Al Quaeda, but there's a difference; Guy Fawkes wasn't just a terrorist, he was a revolutionary. If the plot had succeeded it would have been followed by a coup d'etat. This, of course, is supposing that it ever had a chance of succeeding and wasn't, as some historians allege, a government conspiracy designed to make everybody hate the catholics and ease the passage of repressive, "anti-terror" legislation.
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I'm between two fires. There's death metal pounding out of Joe's bedroom and Mozart wafting up from downstairs, where Ailz is watching a DVD of Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni is the first text in the first unit of her Open University course. The other texts are short pieces by Hume, Rousseau and de Sade.

I read the Rousseau and de Sade yesterday. Rousseau is a soppy date. Sade is much more bracing. Amusing too.

The de Sade isn't one of his sexual marathons but a cute little piece in which a dying man persuades his confessor to embrace the libertine life-style. At the end, after he has won the priest round to his way of thinking, the dying man announces, "Six women more beautiful than sunlight are in the room adjoining. I was keeping them all for this moment. Take your share of them and, pillowed on their bosoms, try to forget, as I do, the vain sophisms of superstition and the stupid errors of hypocrisy."

(Don't you just love that idea of saving up women for a special occasion? I wonder what they were doing out there in the ante-room- reading lifestyle magazines?)

The death metal has stopped and Joe has left the building. Donna Anna has the field to herself.

I took my new found knowledge to the tutorial this morning, but found I didn't need it. Instead of looking at the texts, our tutor decided we'd have fun with syllogisms. "All dogs have four legs. This table has four legs. Therefore this table is a dog." That kind of thing. I guess the idea was to get us thinking like philosophes.

Then, when we'd finished with syllogisms, we looked at pictures of Napoleon. He's unit 2. Apparently Napoleon crossed the Alps on a mule- which the painter David turned into an Arab stallion. If it had really been a stallion and it had really reared up on its hindlegs as David has it doing, Napoleon (who was a poor rider) would have fallen off into a crevasse.


Dec. 28th, 2004 01:08 pm
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The tsunami puts our man-made disasters (Iraq for instance) into perspective. Politicians disappear from the news broadcasts. Nothing they have done or could do is half as fearsome as this. We see the same footage over and over again: big frothing waves chase holiday-makers through hotel gardens, people huddle in the shelter of a wall until the water sweeps them away, a train that the sea caught broadside lies wrecked in the jungle while a voice-over tells us that some its carriages have still to be found.

I don't like to watch. It makes me feel cheap in every sense of the word. This isn't stuff one should be viewing from one's reclining armchair with a mince-pie in one's fist.

They interviewed a man who was in a fifth floor room when the sea hit his hotel. He said he didn't see how anyone on the beach could have survived. "Afterwards," he added, "we went downstairs and took pictures."

Would I have taken pictures? I hope not.
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I was watching the BBC's end of year arts review and Mark Lawson pointed out that all the art he and his team were looking at- books, films, plays, exhibitions- was in some way, directly or tangentially, about Bush.

We are living in the Era of Bush. The Age of Bush. The Bush Era. That is what the historians will call it.

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We are very new.

I find this a comforting thought.

When I consider the seediness, depravity, cruelty and greed of humankind, I reflect that we are only beginners. We are still practicing; we haven't worked it out yet; we have time to improve. We have been around in our present form for a few million years- nothing in evolutionary terms- and civilization- the attempt to live in a civil society- is a very recent development.

We have only had writing for about three thousand years.

The written history of my own country goes back (and then only patchily) for two thousand years. If we want to know what happened before that we have to get out our spades and trowels and dig.

Two thousand, three thousand, four thousand years- these are ridiculously brief stretches of time. We have emerged from the forests, blinked and looked around a bit. That's all we have had time for. We are still little more than beasts.
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So now the BBC is giving us a history of the War on Terror. It begins in 1945- with a guy called Strauss who was the guru of the neo-cons and a guy called Qutub who decided that the Islamic nations needed to be rescued from the corruption of Truman's America.

Strauss and Qutub were ideological twins- puritans, at war with the liberal individualism. Strauss reckoned that a nation could only save its soul if it rallied to church and flag- and it could only be trusted to do that if it had an ENEMY.

The Soviet Empire was a dandy enemy. When it collapsed (having proved itself a lot less dandy than the neo-cons argued) a new Enemy had to be found. And there was Bin Laden just raring to step into Brezhnev's shoes.

The story of the past half century is the story of a struggle between liberalism and puritanism. Everything else- however epic- has been a distraction- a sleight of hand designed to take our gaze away from what was really going on.
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That's the third time I've seen Bill Hickcok shot. First time was in Little Big Man, second time was in Wild Bill, third time was in Deadwood.

Clearly there's something iconic about this particular death that we keep having to revisit it.

The facts are these. It was August 2, 1876. Hickok was playing poker in Nuttall and Mann's Number Ten Saloon in Deadwood when a loser called Jack McCall came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. "Take that!" he grunted. McCall's motives are unknown. At the trial he defended himself by alleging that Wild Bill had killed his brother and he'd been executing frontier justice. It got him acquitted.

But McCall never had a brother.

Bill was killed on the spot. The combination of eights and aces he was holding has ever since been known as the Dead Man's Hand.

The grave marker read. A BRAVE MAN, THE VICTIM OF AN ASSASSIN. When the body was disinterred three years later it was found to be pale and hard and untouched by putrefaction- for all the world like that of a catholic saint.
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We talk as though the decades of the 20th century were separate entities. The Fifties were guilty of that. The Seventies were good because of this. There was a TV show I watched last night called I Hate The Sixties. It involved a shower of right-wing ideologues sounding off about Enoch Powell and tower blocks and promiscuity and radical theology and the pill as though these disparate phenomena were all the work of some evil genie called the Sixties who had come out of nowhere and imposed his will upon a hitherto right-thinking nation.

Where's historical progression in all of this?

The Sixties- it's a meaningless idea. It's a arbitrarily designated stretch of time in which all sorts of different things happened. Bad things, good things. Of course what everyone means by the Sixties is Mick Jagger and Mary Quant smoking dope on the King's Road with flowers in their hair. It's an ethos, it's a dandyism, it's a whiff of patchouli. Flimsy, fatuous and fun. But the drive of the programme was to suggest that Jagger and Quant were somehow personally responsible for racial ugliness in Wolverhampton and the mistakes of the town planners. A butterfly flapped its wings in Chelsea and Dr Beeching axed the rural branch lines.

What the rightists really hate is the ending of hierarchy and authority and deference. The words reality and illusion got bandied about a lot. The old ways = reality, the spirit of the Sixties = illusion. Ah, get with it boys. Life's an illusion. There are better dreams and there are worse dreams.

Love, freedom, flowers in the hair- it's as good a dream as any.


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