Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Log 684 Jan 16 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 119 The English may not all consider themselves reticent and tinglish, to quote Ogden Nash, but they do follow many ancient rules, especially in Parliament

 I seem to remember a poem by Ogden Nash that goes something like this:

Let us pause to consider the English
Who, when they pause to consider themselves,
Come all over reticent and tinglish.

Very amusing, but based on the prevailing myth of British stiff-upper-lip rectitude. My conclusion, after living among them for eleven years, was that such myths by no means apply to all the English; rather, my experience was that if one sat down in a bus next to a working-class English person, more often than not within five or ten minutes he or she would have told you all the main facts about his or her life, including what was wrong with the husband or wife, as such, what were their own main physical ailments, and the trouble they were having with their drug-addicted 25-year-old son.
I remember an occasion on which trans-Atlantic seamen went on strike. Since Montreal was their usual first North American port of call, at the height of the strike I went to Liverpool in search of their union headquarters. Eventually I  discovered it upstairs from a smallish café down near the waterfront. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, and could hear a tremendous racket from above wafting down the stairs that sounded like a contentious strike meeting in a full hall was under way. Taking my courage in both  hands, I crept up the stairs, hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be one of these unions that hate the press, in which case I might expect a rough reception. But I needn’t have worried. All I found upstairs were three or four people  engaged in a passionate discussion about their local football team. So much for English reserve.
Yet, as I pause to consider the English in this epoch-making Brexit year, a good place to start would be with the Speaker of their House of Commons, John Bercow, a Conservative Member of Parliament who has held the Speaker’s chair since 2009, and who has made it known he will resign from that position midway through this year.
I think Bercow could be described, if I may use a vernacular phrase (and one that he would no doubt rule unParliamentary), as a mischievous little buggar.  It is said that when he first got into politics he was an extreme right-winger, and when he first stood for the job of  Speaker he won it without the support of many members of his own party, but he has since become the first Speaker since the Second World War to have been re-elected three times.
Speakers of the British House during my eight years  as a reporter covering the House, tended to be of the stuffy, ultra-conservative mould, always, unless my memory betrays me, wearing the long white wig.  Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, MP for the rock solid Tory constituency of London and Westminster, affected an advanced upper-class persona as he called the house sternly to order. And he was followed by the first Labour Party man elected to the office, Dr Horace King. I don’t remember anything especially interesting about either of them, except the way Hylton-Foster had of saying after holding the result of a vote  in his hands, “I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it,” the use of the “I  think…” being a slight affectation.
Anybody who likes a good show should Google John Bercow, who really puts on a performance, making longish statements to any member he is wanting to call to order for some reason, his statements peppered with all sorts of friendly advice, or admissions that he has known the member for years and has a great affection for him, but he is getting out of control and really must learn to behave himself. He is obviously a man of considerable wit, but also one who takes seriously his job of representing the interests of the House of Commons, and its members. On one of the brief sequances of him in action that can be found on the Internet,  he leapt to his feet when a speech by the Prime Minister was being interrupted by shouts from seated members, and said in an ascending tone, “Order! Order!! The honourable member for X knows  what high regard I have for him, and he  usually behaves well within the standing orders of the House, but I must call him to order because he has been interrupting from a seated position. The Prime Minister must be and will be heard.”  Then, catching out of the corner of his eye a Member who is standing in the hope of catching his eye, he says, “When I am standing, you are not. So sit down,” revealing a tradition that I did not know existed.  It is a lot of fun, and he thoroughly enjoys it, it seems. On the other hand, not all Members take warmly to his lectures and to his rigorous judgements as to what qualifies and does not qualify as a Point of Order.
Just last week, against the wishes of the government, he allowed a Conservative party member, Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney-general, and one of the rare British politicians who, thanks to having a French mother, speaks French, an interest that has caused him to cast a carefully critical eye over his party’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, to move a motion which requires the  Prime Minister, in the event of her losing the vote on her withdrawal deal (which she indeed lost yesterday) to return to the House within three working days with a Plan B. Bercow’s allowing this motion to be debated at all was treated by most Conservative commentators as tantamount to an arrogant takeover of the process by a Speaker who does not know his place, and with threatening the government’s control of the House.   Bercow’s response, which I quoted a couple of days ago was to the effect that he was not there to ease the life of the Executive, but to defend the interests of the House of Commons, which I thought was a remarkable statement of a Parliamentary function based on the many generations of British political history.
Arrogance from Mr. Speaker, cried his critics, putting the Prime Minister into an unacceptable strait-jacket, giving her only three days to act when she had no doubt been looking forward to using all the time between now and March 29 --- the date of the implementation of the Brexit, to stitch up some sort of acceptable deal.
Mrs. May is not a woman given to compromise; in fact, as Bercow apparently has realized, the insoluble problem Britain now finds itself trapped in has arisen entirely from the manner in which she has approached the deal-making with Europe, laying down first her so-called “red lines” that were non-negotiable, and then arrogating to herself a sort of mystical connection to “the will of the British people” as expressed in the 2016 referendum.
Bercow’s allowance of Grieve’s motion has, within days, proven to have been a master-stroke, providing at least an apparent route forward  in a process that appeared to have run into a brick wall.
I can still remember Bercow yesterday on receiving the vote. “The ayes to the right 202, noes to the left 432. .So the noes have it the noes have it,” he intoned.
Then he shouted “Unlock.” This arises from the fact that when a vote is called, Members have eight minutes to get into the right lobby for the vote. A bell sounds across the Parliamentary estate. Party whips stand at the entrance to each lobby, attempting to direct their flock through the correct door and intercept and dissuade members going the wrong way. After eight minutes  the Speaker cries, “Lock the doors,” and thereafter any Member who has somehow strayed into the wrong lobby is irrevocably caught.
Meanwhile at the exit to each voting lobby, tall wooden desks are slid into place at which clerks sit, ticking off the names of members as they file past.  One teller from each side now heads to the exit of each lobby. The job of the tellers is to count members leaving the lobby. They do this out loud, without the aid of technology.  The results are first announced by a teller for the winning side, as the four tellers line up before the /speaker. They then hand the paper to Mr. Speaker who, repeats the result and then shouts, “Unlock!”
These are the arcane, but somehow reassuring rules of Parliamentary voting procedure, which twice within two days have produced remarkable votes in the mother of Parliaments.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Log 683 Jan 11 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 118; Leadership of capitalist world moves from bizarre to berserk. Britain and US grind to a halt under eccentric leaders

I hope you will pardon me for saying so, but it seems to me that the politics of our Western (which is to say, capitalist) world, which have always been held out to us as the most reasonable, the most tolerant, the most humane, the least violent and the most successful ever practised, have in the last few years become not merely bizarre, but frankly  berserk.
Anyone who doubts this should look for a moment at the governance of the United States of America, which Americans never tire of calling the wealthiest, most powerful and most advanced republic that has ever existed, but whose government has staggered along  for most of the last thirty years under the leadership of, first, a dim-witted former Hollywood actor, who seemed to have fallen into dementia in his last few years in office (two terms);  followed by an undistinguished father-and-son act, the son especially being a man with no achievements either intellectually or professionally, whose only previous experience running anything had been a failed baseball team (three terms); and finally it lies in the hands of a narcissistic, impulsive, petulant and inexperienced, business tycoon who managed to survive his repeated bankruptcies, and became well-known primarily for playing a role in a television reality show (one term so far.)
If you are not convinced by this catalogue of disastrous leaders, examine the situation in the United Kingdom, where a scion of the privileged classes, anointed in office as it seems such people always are, decides to hold a referendum on the question of whether Britain should or should not cancel its 40-year membership of the European Union, a vote he held with the intention of putting in their place the radical right-wing members of his Conservative party along with their campaign to leave the Union. This bold exercise in party management entirely blew up in his face, when discontented voters, whose needs had been long neglected by a string of Conservative governments, voted to leave, not at all the result he wanted.
The Prime Minister in question, David Cameron, cheerfully threw in his towel, resigned from politics, and left it to someone, anyone, who cared to take on the job, to stick-handle, as they say in hockey, through the ensuing mess.  
So arrives in office unexpectedly an undistinguished minister called Theresa May, who could hardly believe her good fortune at being catapulted into the top job, since she had been a notable failure in her previous job as Home Secretary. She was actually in favour of Britain staying in Europe, but she wasn’t about to let a small thing like that stand in her way, so she set about with a will, announcing that from now on she was treating the result of the referendum vote as a sacred trust because it represented the voice of the people, however damned silly she may previously have thought it.
She’s a bit of a ditherer, is Mrs. May, and she spent a long time trying vainly to emulate the governing style of the man she so very much admired, her failed predecessor David Cameron, the nineteenth graduate of Eton College to have been British Prime Minister,  and who, in a peerless demonstration of the art of inclusion, had surrounded himself in his Cabinet office with fellows he had known at school. He was perforce required through the exigencies of politics to include in his Cabinet as deputy PM a graduate of the less elevated private school (known as public schools, in Britain) Westminster, and to name a bounder from St.Paul’s private school as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  But these appointments being  more or less forced on him, he took care to surround the beggars with sounder chaps from the old school, his own chief of staff, his Chancellor’s chief economic adviser,  the Cabinet Office minister, and the Chief Whip, all coming from his dear old school (as, indeed at the same time did the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Mayor of London and the political editors entrusted with reporting on the world of politics for the BBC,  as well as the major Conservative newspapers, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The  Sun).
Eventually the lady got around to negotiating with the EU the terms of Britain’s exit, but by the time she had her deal ready to put before her nation, the ministers she had given the job of negotiation to had quit --- one after the other, count them, one, two three --- saying her deal would be no good for Britain. This did not for a moment deter the determined Prime Minister, who, after a debate in Parliament in which it became clear that she could not muster the votes needed to approve her deal, decided to cancel the promised vote in December, and delay it until the second week of January. Meantime, she said, she would try to get clarifications and understandings from the Europeans that would make her deal acceptable to the House of Commons.
After the holidays, when Parliament resumed, it appeared she had received no clarifications sufficient to quell the objections of her parliamentarians.  It is quite clear that if all members of her own party could be depended upon to vote for her deal, all would be well, but when the required 48 Tory MPs declared by writing letters to the necessary authority within the party requesting a  challenge to her leadership,  she won that vote, although no fewer than 100  MPs, almost a third of the total number,  voted against her continuing leadership. In normal circumstances, this would have led to a resignation, but Mrs. May is not the resigning type. She has ploughed on against all discouragements, and as I write, within two days of the vital vote, it appears to be certain that she will lose. Of course, one can never be entirely certain about these things. The elderly French-Canadian man who reads the newspapers alongside me in the coffee shop downstairs, still has complete faith that she will fulfil the finest of British traditions, namely, that she will, somehow, muddle through. But that opinion --- also expressed on TV over the weekend by a reporter from the New York Times in discussion on the BBC, --- is held by a diminishing minority.  Meantime, in two procedural votes, Mrs. May  has been defeated: and again, these defeats have not persuaded her to quit.  In one of these votes, MPs decided that in the event of her deal being beaten she would have only three days in which to produce a  Plan B (no such plan has ever been mooted to this point). The very holding of that vote aroused a controversy against the speaker, John Bercow for even allowing the vote. I heard his response: “I am not here to represent the wishes of the Executive. I am here to represent the wishes of the House of Commons,” an amazing declaration of independence that might almost restore one’s faith in democracy.
This morning, within two days of the vote, apparently, Mrs. May has declared that the defeat of her deal would be catastrophic for Britain.. Addressing the electors by way of a Sunday Express article, she declared: “When you turned out to vote in the referendum, you did so because you wanted your voice to be heard. Some of you put your trust in the political process for the first time in decades. We cannot – and must not – let you down.  Doing so would be a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy. So my message to parliament this weekend is simple: it is time to forget the games and do what is right for our country.”
So there she stands, a leader who can’t persuade her followers to follow her, declaring her undying faith in the glory of democracy.
You can’t deny it, with Britain and the United States in the throes of joint crises that have virtually brought their governments to a halt, things are not looking good on the capitalist side of the equation.  Donald Trump, a leader whose progress through politics might be compared to that of  the traditional  bull in a china shop, has ---- like a kid denied his favorite toy --- held a large part of the United States government closed down now for almost three weeks because the Congress won’t pay to build his promised wall along the Mexican border, and people in high places must surely be wondering if the time has not come to move him aside, if possible.
The answer to these two dilemmas will come in the next few weeks, one hopes.
Meantime, all I can say is, to fall back on my current mantra, “Wot the hell, wot the hell,  toujours gai,toujours gai.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

My Log 682 Jan 9 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 117; I meet the world in the coffee shop every day; a mother and son from India, a Chinese family from Texas, café workers from Korea, China and Peru; it makes me think about my own life

This week I met in the coffee shop a young woman who hails from Karnataka state in the south of India, and who has come here briefly with her son of 18 to help settle him into enrolment in political science courses as a student at McGill University. A couple of days later I met the son, who seemed like a very nice lad, with an air of some confidence, and it got me to thinking back on when I left home in the year 1948, which happens to be almost exactly 70 years ago. I had been living with my family until I was 20, my family consisting of my parents and the three our six siblings, our eldest three having already married and moved into their own homes.

Immediately I look up Karnataka: 61 million people; twice the size of New Brunswick, so, crowded, rather; GDP per capita  just over $2400 US equivalent (Quebec’s 20 times larger); moderate winters, highest ever summer temperature 45.6 C; Bangalore, the major city, 9 million pop., in recent years renowned for its hospital and as a hi-tech centre; a state with, apparently, a rich history and mythology. How any of  this may have affected an 18-year-old is hard to say, but that his family can have him study abroad suggests they live far above the per capita average income levels. While the winter will be the lad’s overwhelming challenge, he might be impressed that while his state has 10 more or less officially recognized languages, Quebec has been tearing itself apart for years over just two. He has promised to get in touch with me if ever he feels he needs someone to talk to  (although I can hear my readers asking what can a 90-year-old dodderer  possibly have to say that could interest an 18-year-old youth? Good question).
My move at roughly his age was  only  about 130 miles north to the city of Dunedin, a move that certainly cannot compare with the one = our young friend is making from the heat of southern India to the deadly winter cold of Montreal, something he can scarcely even have imagined. 
For myself, I am almost embarrassed to recall how gauche and unprepared I was to take on the world at the age of 20 when I left home. The first day I got into a room in a miserable boarding house shared with a working man who came home late at night in a slightly inebriated condition, arousing in me feelings of trepidation which quickly became a painful homesickness. I quit that room almost immediately, moved into a friendly working-class home where I began to be more at ease, until I was  suddenly kicked out on the grounds I was showing too much interest in one of the two rather appalling  unmarried daughters.  But this place had cured me of my homesickness, a disease that disappeared within a week or so of leaving home, never again to re-appear.
Then I took a room in the home of a nasty, conservative widow whose hatred of the Labour Party, which I supported wholeheartedly, took the form of holding up newspaper pages and jeering and cackling at the latest statements of the Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, a self-educated Scottish working man.  She would have been better off cleaning her house occasionally, but I cultivated the posture of being above it all, keeping myself to myself, lying for hours on my bed when not working, reading and writing letters to my future wife, who lived at the other end of the country, and whom I had recently met briefly when she was visiting Dunedin.
Only one of my four children has ever shown much interest in my early days, and then only recently; but he confesses himself puzzled by the fact that I left my family at an early age --- in fact, I left the country entirely two years later --- and never bothered to return until 25 years later, and then only briefly, moving back to Canada within 18 months.
We married when I was 22, she 25, soon after she returned to Dunedin to be with me. We married because when we decided to go to Australia, the shipping company would not allow us to travel in the same cabin while unmarried. So we gathered the parents, had a truncated church wedding to please our mothers, and took off.
Life was quite different when we took a small, ground-floor apartment in the small North Queensland town of Mackay, a centre of the sugar cane industry. In this hot climate people were accustomed to having snakes in their rafters, and slithering around their streets, along with every other awful creature under the sun, crocodiles being a regular presence in the tidal river estuary.  All food had to be in cupboards whose legs sat on cups full of poison, to keep the ants away. If we trod on a cockroach while obeying a bathroom call overnight by the morning the carcass was gone, cleared away by lines of these tiny Argentinian ants.
I found the people in Australia almost as strange as the animals. It was still the era of White Australia, the official Aussie immigration policy, then only slowly giving way to allow non-white Asians to study at centres of higher learning, but otherwise kept intact by the prohibition of the native Australians from living in the cities. 
Six months was enough: our next abode was a tiny adobe house in a newly-created Indian village in the Punjab, 85 miles north of Delhi, to which we had been attracted when, against all the odds, I received a reply to a letter I wrote (oh, the follies of youth!) to Pandit Nehru, the remarkable man whose books I had read and admired. I have written about this experience in an earlier Chronicle, so will not weary the reader with repetition. Suffice to say, the searing pre-monsoon heat, combined with the insanitary conditions --- the butcher would cut off a piece of meat by holding it with his toes, and the milkman always poured our milk through his dirty old dhoti that looked like it had never been washed  --- these all did for our health, so that after a few months, with great regret for ourselves and the many friends we had made among our Indian neighbours, whom we were supposed in theory at least to be helping build the New India, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and escaped the likelihood of approaching debility by retreating to Kashmir, a gorgeous valley in the midst of a political crisis from which it has never to this day recovered, so that we were almost the only tourists at the time, and could hire a houseboat complete with servants, cooks, and food, for a minimal sum, which allowed our health to recover in good order.
Our next permanent place of residence was London, in north Kensington, the slummy part, not far from Wormwood Scrubs prison. We lived upstairs from a young doctor who entertained us with a recital of burps, belches and other noises as he washed himself each morning in our communal bathroom before he went off to minister to his patients. I don’t remember much about this apartment, but I do remember that by taking the No.11 Ladbrooke Grove bus southwards you could travel from the slums into the poshest part of London, along one street. This was so offensive to my egalitarian instincts that it immediately produced in me a distaste for English life, a distaste that, in spite of my intense admiration for many aspects of it, I was never able completely to overcome after living among the English, on two separate occasions, for eleven years. It is that class-based structure that has always grated on me.
Eventually we moved into a Scottish castle that had been given to the nation by Lord Lothian, a pre-war British ambassador to the United States, for use as an adult education college. My wife and I lived there for almost nine months, me as a student, she as a teacher in a nearby mining village, Newtongrange, which I helped her to reach every day by taking her to the bus, and picking her up again, on our tandem bicycle, on which we had just made a tour right around France. These months in Newbattle Abbey College when I was one of only 16 students attended to by four tutors, I still number among the golden months of my life, an interlude of pure pleasure in which we enjoyed intimate contact with our fellows of a type that, for the first time since leaving home three years before, took us back to the way we were brought up, as part of a community whose members were known to all of us and with whose lives we were closely intertwined.
  We went from the beauty of the Scottish countryside to a crowded house in Coventry which had been turned into 16 one-room apartments, with a common bathroom, and each with one small electric stove for cooking. This was going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Most of our neighbours in this overcrowded building remained unknown to us: for the first time, we were rubbing up against the anomie of modern urban living. We got to know only one young couple, Tandon and Prabha, from India, en route to Sweden, where Tandon was going to work for Ericcson, the electronics company in Sweden. Prabha, though essentially idle and slightly overweight from lack of exercise was incredibly beautiful. We seemed to be attracted to each other, and on my afternoons off, I would go upstairs and spend time playing mahjong with her. Of course, I ached to touch her, but was far too proper, nervous, timid, use whichever adjective seems appropriate to the case to do anything, not even touching her hand. But it didn’t go unnoticed by my wife, and she never forgave me for it, even recalling it during a disagreement we had fifty years later, bitterly commenting, “Oh, yes, I remember how you used to look at Prabha.”  It came right out of left field, that one, but I really couldn’t deny it. We never saw them again after we left Coventry to emigrate to Canada, and I have often wondered how they made out.
And so here I am, taking my coffee downstairs every morning, meeting this mother and son from India one day, another day a Chinese engineer working in Houston, Texas, and visiting his wife and family who are living in Montreal for six months until he can come back and work here.
The four people who run the coffee shop make it like a minor United Nations: the owner and a charming  young waitress,  are from China; a second  waitress from Korea; and a late-30ish Peruvian is working part=time in the coffee shop while upgrading his skills in graphic design in an effort to fit himself for work in his chosen profession. 
The world is present there and it is a way to overcome the dramatic anomie that comes from my living on the fifteenth floor of a high-rise apartment building in which I never meet even one of the many people who live on the same floor.
Such is life I guess.