Sunday, November 10, 2019

My Log 770 Nov 10 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 205: Reminiscing again: comparing today’s Tory ministers with some of the past; and marvelling at the continuing success of the British Tory party

I have been watching the Brexit shenanigans in Britain with close attention for many months, and I could not help but think, “Here they go again, those Tory grandees, carefully raised in life through their special system of schools, universities and clubs to believe that only they have the right to rule their nation.”
You could feel the attitude every time the then-Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in tones of withering contempt to the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. It was all there, underneath the polite Tory façade, just as it has always been: I could have been listening to Harold Macmillan or one of his ministers, talking on the same subject almost half a century ago, describing the ruination that lay ahead for the nation should they ever have been foolish enough to vary from the Tory pathway.
I spent 11 years of my life as a resident of Britain, observing the breed from close up, and I think one of the best descriptions of them was given recently by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European politician, who said, “everyone understands English, but no one understands England.”
Echoes of the historic attitude were heard in the remarks by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, on accepting the challenge to a new election . “I will be proud to be the Prime Minister,” he said, “but I have to warn that it will be very different because we have not been born to rule.”
I don’t want to give the impression there is nothing admirable about this entrenched Tory attitude to life. What is admirable was on display when the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had to make a graceful speech of farewell on the occasion of the retirement from office of John  Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a man that in other circumstances Johnson may well have relished the thought of burying, so detestable does he appear to find him.   He slithered though this address with immense gracefulness, drawing many laughs, and even a big belly laugh from Bercow himself, winding it up with a play around the word “ministrations”, the significance of which I only later came to understand when I heard a play-back of how Bercow himself had used the word frequently while admonishing  members. It was an elegant display by Johnson, a man who appears to be almost toxic to most of the political establishment, who are to be heard denouncing how uncomfortable and unsuccessful have been Johnson’s recent appearances in Parliament. At those same times I have found myself thinking that the man may be a vulgar pretender, but I can imagine him going over big with the Tories main base voters. “Enough of delay and prevarication,”  is Johnson’s message. “Let’s get Brexit done. That’s what everybody wants, and I am going to do it.
The Tory party’s  merciless, steely assumption of authority which enabled them half a century ago without a qualm to deliver their poorly equipped colonies to make their way in a cruel world economy,  goes along with a civilized overview that has made Britain one of the most admired democracies in the modern world, the place that all dissenters could retreat to when things became too hot at home. 
In the 1960s, when I worked there as a foreign reporter, Britain was full of movements pushing for independence in their colonies. I interviewed numerous young protesters who later became respected world figures --- Kenneth Kaunda, of  Northern Rhodesia, now called Zambia, Julius Nyerere,  Tanganyika, now called Tanzania, the Sardana of Sokoto, of Nigeria, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, now called Guyana, and so on, all unsuccessful leaders in waiting.
The Macmillan government had taken office to replace the disgraced government headed by Sir Anthony Eden, (1st Earl of Avon, KG, MC, PC --- oh, yes, they stitch themselves up with numerous titles and recognitions of their worth, these grandees), which had made the rookie mistake of joining France and Israel in invading Egypt to try to turn back the nationalization of the Suez canal, the sub-plot here being that of course a nation of wogs, as the British thought of them, could never be trusted to run such a complex organism as an international canal. This was a last-gasp for the old-style colonialism.
They adjusted almost immediately to the new-style colonialism, and part of that adjustment was that when Britain believed it could make more money out of trading with Europe than with the colonies, it was time to drop the colonies.
This was the task undertaken with effortless ease by Harold Macmillan (1st Earl of Stockton, OM, PC, FRS, a considerable stitch-up), who lives in my memory as the only speaker I have ever seen to deliver a tongue-in-cheek joke with his actual tongue in his actual cheek.
He had supreme self-confidence coming from an internationally successful business family descended through his grandfather, a crofter on the Scottish Isle of Arran, something he never tired of boasting about, and his sang-froid was world-class. It enabled him on one occasion, after having just sacked five ministers at a single blow, to go to London airport en route for Russia, to dismiss the problem “as a little local difficulty” not worthy of serious attention.
On another more famous occasion when Nikita Khrushchev made one of his turbulent appearances at the United Nations, and took off his shoe during one speech with which to bang the lecturn for added emphasis, Macmillan could be heard to murmur, “could we have it in translation?”
He might have been more severely dealt with in modern times. Here is John Crace, a humorous political commentator on The Guardian, talking about the present Prime Minister: “Then there is Boris Johnson himself, a byword for untrustworthiness, duplicity and laziness…”
He went further on a later occasion:
The lying then became so out of control, that the lies started backing up on each other so that he couldn’t even connect them into meaningful sentences. He accused Corbyn of dithering when he could barely hang on to a single thought. Unable even to realise just how badly he comes across.
“Johnson fails both as a serious politician and as a comedy performer. At a newcomers’ open-mic night he would have been booed off in under 30 seconds. Still, he had got all his lies in and that’s what really counted. And with any luck, some of them might have been believed.”
And there was I thinking how skilfully (and unfortunately, from my point of view) Johnson was handling matters in Parliament!
I only once in my career ventured, more or less by accident, into this astonishing world of British upper-class assumptions. It occurred on the only time I ever travelled first class, on a British ship from Montreal to London to take up my new job, the ticket having been bought by the company. At the first-night captain’s cocktail party, my wife and I decide to look in, just for fun, so we could laugh at all the toffs. There, we were buttonholed by a fellow who was returning from a session as British Army representative to the NATO office. One of his former appointments had been as commander of the Commonwealth troops in Korea, and he was returning home to take over the northern command of the British Army.
This was Lt-Gen Sir Michael West (GCBDSO & Two Bars, quite an impressive military stich-up this, with two bars to the old DSO). He seemed to be a man of immensely impressive enthusiasms, the most recent of which was for James Michener’s novel Hawaii, presently reading, that he pronounced to be absolutely one of the great ones. To our surprise Sir Mike and his wife Cynthia sought us out on later occasions, and by the time we were due to arrive, he suggested we could have an interest in renting a small apartment they kept in London that they would have no immediate use for over the next year. He invited us to meet on the following Monday, where, in an atmosphere of riotous cheer, fuelled by several of his generously-mixed martinis, we agreed on the business deal, and haled off downtown to Wheeler’s, one of the posher restaurants in London for a further riotous occasion.
The afore-going describes every one of the several visits they paid to us in London over the next year, after which he invited us to visit him in Yorkshire at Christmas. This was the sort of man who, finding himself expected to live in an ugly ancient sone pile in the Yorkshire countryside, announced he would do so only if he could have central heating installed throughout. Having done that he decided to paint the exterior of the pile of stone --- pink.
He did his with no further trouble from his superiors except, that after his death fifteen years later, his biography in Wikipedia confirmed he was a friend of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, and was a witty and unconventional soldier with a taste for jazz and partying.
I once asked him why the British generals, unlike the French, never threatened to take over power in Britain.
He thought for a moment and then said, “We have discussed it from time to time, By the end of our first whisky we have all dissolved in laughter.” After a moment’s more thought he added: “I think it is that if I raised my arm and said, On to Whitehall, chaps, no one would follow.”
Lower down, after listing his considerable military achievements around the world, the biography comments:
“West was often routinely provocative and, as a relatively junior officer, he regularly challenged US President Dwight D. Eisenhower's planning and was ‘invariably’ found to be right.[2] Despite his successes and influence, West was thought to be too unpredictable for the highest levels of command and he retired in September 1965.”
Whatever the army brass might have thought of him, to me Mike West seemed like the sort of guy you would like to have in your corner if you were facing a fight.
I’m not sure the same could be said of the rest of his class, unfortunately. We may be given the chance to find out if Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister for the second time, confirmed by vote of the people.

Monday, November 4, 2019

My Log 769 November 4 2019; Chronicles from my Tenth Decade:204; A remarkable event, bigger than any game, happened at the weekend when South Africa, with a black captain and five black players, won the Rugby World Cup

I had looked forward to the Rugby World Cup, held in Japan, for at least two years, always convinced that I would never make it. Just two months before I was ready to turn 90, I was so convinced that I began to write these Chronicles, just as something to keep me occupied.  Well, I made it, not only to that major turning point in life, the big Nine-Oh, as I often think of it, but far beyond, almost two years beyond, when the competition began at the beginning of October.  Past the early days of the tournament, when my favoured team, the New Zealand All Blacks (photos of which back to 1905, assiduous readers may remember, since I have often mentioned it,  I had pinned to my bedroom wall as a kid of six or seven), opened the tournament  with a magisterial performance in defeating the South African Springboks, then right on to that unexpected  day when the All Blacks rolled over and played dead in face of a superb semi-final display by England, a game that not only left the All Blacks to play for third place, but also, as it happened, drained the remaining life out of the England team, so that in the fateful final  against the South Africans, they in turn were overcome just as completely as they had overcome the All Blacks.
Out of deference to my readers and their admitted lack of interest in Rugby,  that is almost the last word I will have to say on the actual games played. What has interested me more is something the meaning of which has imposed itself more forcibly since the overwhelming  Springbok win on Saturday. That is, the spectacle of their captain, Siya Kolisi, an extremely black African, holding up the victor’s Cup in triumph, and subsequently making a brief but  extremely apposite little speech about the beyond-Rugby meaning to his nation of this triumph.
To fully understand that, one must know something of the history of South African Rugby which until the defeat of the Apartheid regime, was the acknowledged sport of white south Africa, with the tough, dominant South African Boers having, as the rivalry developed, shown themselves of such merit that hardly anyone could beat them. Few games were played between the nations that became the two great rivals, New Zealand and South Africa, and I got into being a major fan when I was just nine, in 1937, when South Africa, a brilliant all-white team of mostly Boers, beat the pants off us.
The South African team was called the Springboks for the first time during a tour in Europe in 1906; the All Blacks gaining their nickname a year before that, either from their being dressed all in black, or because some commentator, marvelling at the quality of their game, wrote that they had never seen any players like these New Zealanders,  who ran and passed as if “they are all backs”.
New Zealand did not have an intimate relationship with South African Rugby during the dismal years in which the self-governing Boers were moving slowly towards the lunatic solution of apartheid (which I  heard Henrik Verwoerd, their Prime Minister in the 1960s describe at a press conference as “good neighbourliness”, to which a few minutes later  I heard Pandit Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister reply sharply, “I wouldn’t like to be his neighbour, then”).  During all those decades British-raised nations like New Zealand soporifically accepted the restrictions the South Africans insisted on placing on the membership of teams, not only their own teams, but also the teams that opposed them.
By 1949, when I was a young reporter covering a trial match whose purpose was towards choosing an All Black team to visit South Africa, I distinctly remember that the outstanding player at the trial was a fellow called Taylor. But never mind his ability, he was considered not to have the qualifications needed to visit South Africa because he was a Maori. There were many other fine Maori players --- I remember especially the greatest payer I have ever seen, the immortal Johnny Smith, who arose to fame as a member of the Kiwis team gathered from the New Zealand Army abroad, who dazzled the New Zealand public with his play when they toured the country ---- players who should have been eligible for that tour to South Africa, but were excluded because of their race by the New Zealand Rugby authorities --- a distinct black mark against that passing grade that New Zealanders like to give themselves on the subject of race.
This injustice toward the Maori players in 1949 stuck in my craw, and when four years later I found myself working on a small weekly paper in Coventry, England, alongside an English-speaking South African, fresh off their so-called education system, I was so disgusted by the contempt with which he spoke of the black population of his country, as to as make of me a lifelong opponent of that particular form of pseudo-religion, and to decisively
kill off any wish I might have had to visit that beautiful but troubled country.
By the 1960s, a decade  of intense political agitation in Britain that gave rise to Harold Wilson’s Labour government, I had seen a bit more of the world, which consolidated in me a humanitarian impulse towards disbelieving any racist propaganda, under whichever disguise it is offered.
Of course my judgment of South Africa is no doubt too severe. Although I keep reading from recent visitors that apartheid still exists there in that the white population is still in control of anything that matters, even by the 1980s  --- I have to keep reminding myself how long ago that was, almost 40 years --- there were the occasional signs of change in that country. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s continuing involvement with South African sport had led the African nations to boycott the Montreal Olympic Games. The following year a Commonwealth conference passed the Gleneagles agreement  pledging their members “to discourage contact and competition between their sportsmen and sporting  organizations, teams or individuals and those from South Africa.”
Before a Springbok team was chosen for the next rugby  tour of New Zealand in 1981, the captain Morne Du Plessis,  the scion of a leading South African sporting family, whose father had preceded him as Springbok captain, recognized the impossibility of their continuing  racist ideology in the modern world, and thus withdrew himself from the game.
Just in time, because that 1981 tour should never have been allowed to take place. New Zealand radicals, at last, were ready for it: every game had to be played in the face of massive public protests, in stadia surrounded in barbed wire entanglements, and in an atmosphere of brutal police  behaviour against peaceful citizens, whose main weapon usually was a loaf of bread, used as a mock sword. The final match was bombed from the air by a light plane dropping bags of flour on the game.
After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela testified that this near civil war reaction in New Zealand had been a considerable influence in maintaining their morale in their struggle for freedom, and by this time most moderate South Africans had tired of being considered the polecat among the world’s nations.
And so down to this weekend and the decisive South African victory, under the first black captain, a young man who came from an impoverished township not far  from Capetown, brought up by a 16-year-old mother and a teenage father, a boy who gained a scholarship, it seems, and thus an education, largely because of his skill as a sportsman. The story of Springbok victory in 1995, at a time when only one member of the black or colored majority was included in the team, is relatively well-known. Nelson Mandela refused the wish of his sports committee to strip the Springboks of their name because, he said, the Afrikaners still controlled everything, the army, police, economy and political power, “and we need to win their support.” Magically, they won the Rugby World Cup.
This weekend Francois Pienaar, the Springbok captain recalled that moment in 1995 when he received the cup from Mandela as a great moment, but one that was even less in its meaning for South Africans than this more recent victory. Kolisi himself  struck the same note in his remarks after the final whistle, saying that the result meant more than just a Rugby game. “I want to thank all South Africans for their support, on the farms, in the taverns, in the communities and in the cities.  We can achieve anything if we work together as one. “
In the team of 15 players, five were of African origin. At last, after thirty years of trying, culminating in a much- criticized system of quotas for black players, the moment had arrived when the team could be said to represent the nation as a whole.
As Kolisi told a recent  interviewer: “Yes, we do have many different races in our country, and 11 different languages. It is one of the positives of our country. It’s really beautiful (and) that’s why we are called the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ ” he said. “Winning is very important for our country. It just shows that when we decide to work together for one goal or as a team and as a country, we can make anything happen.”