On the Move

Kurdish migrants , Kobani

Today is World Refugee Day. Having left Paris for warm and welcoming Southern arms, I have some sympathy with migrant populations and I have nothing but admiration for the strength and courage of those who flee from war zones. This post came about because my Bing wallpaper today was a dynamic graphic of refugee movement since the turn of the century, produced by Carnegie Mellon. The graphic showed two obvious and frankly frightening trends – a massive unidirectional exodus from the war zones of Iraq, Syria and Libya, also huge numbers from sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East and even northern Russia, an inexorable funnelling to the Shangri-Las of Europe and North America.

Migrant evacuation Porte de la Chapelle, Paris

Migration pattern. The European section glows redder with time.

Setting aside any pedantry over what constitutes a refugee or a migrant, the sheer numbers involved and over such a short timescale have never been seen before. Nobody is moving to Nigeria or Mozambique. No floods of ardent Muslims are being welcomed in Riyadh, Kuwait City, Bahrain or Doha. The Promised Lands are now Germany, Sweden, France, and the USA and Canada, rich with decadence, grown fat on the wealth accumulated over generations, with enough to spare for the pitiable hordes, the new Ellis Islanders swarming like desperate locusts over increasingly porous borders.

Europe has no answers; it is sophistry to suggest that she does. In the UK alone, there are estimated to be well over a million illegals, defined in one of several ways – entering the country undetected in a clandestine way, such as being smuggled in on a lorry from Calais. Or, entering the country legally for a short visit, for work, study or family visiting, then simply overstaying their visa and disappearing into the ethnic population to which they belong. Thirdly, if an asylum claim has been denied, the asylum seeker may simply fail to leave the country, again melting into obscurity within an ethnic ghetto.

Britain’s rather murky colonial past rarely hands her the moral high ground – activities in nineteenth century India, for example, opened the floodgates to large populations, most particularly after the Second World War. People arrived, impoverished and hungry, from Pakistan whose citizens provided a ready supply of labour for the engineering and textile industries, also doctors and other medical personnel. These second and third generation British citizens are roughly the same in number as the undocumented illegals.

In 2017, Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society wrote a seminal work :“The Strange Death of Europe”. He explores two factors that explain why European civilisation as we have known it will not, indeed cannot survive. The first is the combination of mass migration of new and often highly fecund peoples – many young and often male –  into the continent together with Europe’s negative birth rates. This was the underlying motive behind Angela Merkel’s open door policy – new blood means new labour and tax revenues to take care of an increasingly geriatric population. We are not supposed to make mention of the fact that a disproportionate number of refugees are Muslim, nevertheless it is a fact and it should be borne in mind that blindly opening Europe’s doors to those whose objective is to create parallel societies within it is naive and foolish. Switzerland has just rejected a proposed law preventing mosques from accepting money from abroad, and compelling them to declare where their financial backing comes from and for what purpose the money will be used. According to the proposal, imams also would have been obliged to preach in one of the Swiss national languages. This kind of laissez-faire is unlikely to prevent further ethnic and religious upheaval since most of the money for new mosques comes from those with well-defined Salafist – or expansionist – agendas.

The second factor Douglas Murray describes is “the fact that… at the same time Europe lost faith in its beliefs, traditions, and legitimacy”.  These two ideas cannot be separated, one is responsible for the other. He holds up a flat, brutal mirror to her soul , exposing her as she plays fast and loose with modern values acquired at great cost, allowing the infidel hordes to just roll over her. She has become too exhausted and guilt-ridden about the colonial past she once fought so fiercely to develop and is now the great, obese albatross that would sink her under the weight of her own historical sins. I would add a third. Europe has not just lost her way in terms of historical religion, but there is now at her core a void, a black hole which engulfs culture, opportunity and the ethics of hard work as her galactic namesake devours stars.

It was not so very long ago when a failed harvest meant starvation right here in Europe; indeed in some parts of the world, it still does. We don’t make as many things to sell any more, we hawk our expertise, our services, our intellect, and we take our pleasure where we can, but the wave of accelerated consumerism, buttressed by the tidal pull of gigantic Amazon warehouses, on which we so precariously ride, unfailingly ends in economic disaster. Then, it is we who will be the new economic migrants. But, by then, there will be nowhere for us to go. 

Mind the Gap

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Mind the Gap

A number of people predicted disaster as the two biggest kids in the world met up in Singapore for a little playfest the other day. Donny the Cheeseburger King met up with Kimmy the Basketball Fan, who has a really, really deep voice, so he must be past  puberty, I think. After Donny’s recent beasting at the G7 – somebody accused him of being ‘a toddler who put Lego in his mouth’ – everybody said “It’ll end in tears before bedtime. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.”

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Donnie gets a beasting from Auntie Angela and friends.

Turned out the kids got along famously and agreed that a few of the toys were a bit dangerous and Kimmy offered to stop with all that. Donny even suggested later on that the beaches up North were great, a missed real estate opportunity, even though he’d only seen missiles being fired from them. Which was nice. I can’t wait to see the plans for the Pyongyang Trump hotel, spa and golf course. Why am I talking about this today? Early this morning a train slid off the rails in the southwestern suburbs of Paris. No, I live in the west, quite a way away so I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Before dawn a landslip caused by heavy rains led three carriages of a Paris suburban train to slide gently off the rails and nearly overturn, slightly injuring seven people, according to France’s transport minister. Was that a train wreck? No, not really. This, on the other hand, was. In October 1895 a train crashed through the wall at Montparnasse and partially tumbled to the street, producing the most iconic picture of a railway accident in history. The cause? Both mechanical failure and human error. Most things are. As long as everybody minds their manners in the media and allows the children their wee moment of glory, chances are there won’t be a repeat of the second of these. Let’s hope so, shall we?

Bad Enough

People keep telling me I ought to write a book. But, am I nasty enough? And, will I need a morality clause? Just in case my work offends someone?

Screen Shot.jpgMany of the great and not necessarily good, in all fields of creative, scientific or mathematical endeavour seem not to have been ‘nice people’ in the usual sense. Unassuming, amiable types, attuned to the frequencies of their fellow-man, seem not to be so very numerous amongst those who excel. Perhaps to be able to create anything extraordinary makes one just a little bit of an outlier, a tad abnormal, and it is thus hardly surprising if creative types were not rather odd in other ways, too. Why would one expect an Einstein, a Bach, Pushkin or Dostoyevsky to be just like the man next door who dutifully mows his lawn and is pleasant to the postman and to those walking their dogs? Work which tends to get remembered, quoted and widely read is often the product of peculiar ways of thinking, so we might expect such people to be unusual in other ways, too.

Screen Shot 2.jpgLeo Tolstoy was the son of a rich landowner, losing both his parents when he was still a young boy. He was brought up by his aunts and was privately taught at home until he was sixteen when, as a wild and undisciplined youth, he entered Kazan University to study languages and law. His teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn”… He wrote about his youth in a small book, published in 1882. “ I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that people praised my conduct and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man. So I lived for ten years. Fortunately, he was self-aware enough to turn his life around and after a profound spiritual awakening became a paragon of social kindness and virtue in his later years. After the phenomenal success of Anna Karenina, he gave most of the profits away to local beggars, to the absolute consternation of his wife.

Screen Shot 1.jpgIsaac Newton, whose cosy little anecdotes about apples that remind us all about gravity was an irascible, mean-spirited and vindictive man, not the rosy-cheeked, bewigged individual our teachers portrayed him to be. Cold, calculating, cunning and quick-tempered, he argued bitterly with contemporaries Leibniz and Hooke until their deaths. He was described thus in a biography of 1995: “Newton did not marry. He did not, with a single brief exception, form any warm friendships. Though generous enough with his time and money when he had both to spare, he did not give with tenderness – either to relatives or acquaintances. He lived the extraordinarily narrow life of a dedicated autodidact, hardly ever travelling outside London, Cambridge, or his father’s rectory at Woolsthorpe. He was not given to lightness of manner, nor did he show any capacity for self-irony. When angered, he became unbalanced and, it must be said, vindictive and petty.”

In his defence, he may have been on the autistic spectrum or a sufferer of bipolar disorder. Though his personality didn’t endear him to almost anyone at all, it served his career remarkably well; ruthlessness is a surprising bedfellow to success. In his later years he became Master of the Royal Mint and hanged people for counterfeiting, deaf to all entreaties for clemency. As a good Christian, he prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and one poor soul was not only hanged but disembowelled under his orders.

Roald Dahl, the much beloved children’s author, had a strange, stiff, Nordic childhood, beset with loss. He was beaten at Repton, perhaps by the man who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning Queen Elizabeth in 1953. In adulthood he was appallingly promiscuous, by modern standards a racist, sexist, a bully and a liar. He was also one of the world’s most successful children’s writers. It’s not hard to imagine Dahl breaching his morality clause, especially with a Twitter account.

Being a good person, or even a tortured individual, isn’t the same thing as being a good writer.

The seraphically beautiful Virginia Woolf was once described as a genius whose mind, according to one of her biographers ‘acted in a way in which ordinary people, who are not geniuses, never let their minds run.’ She suffered a mental breakdown – perhaps an early bipolar episode – in the same year as her mother died, at thirteen years old. When she was fifteen, her surrogate mother also died. We might charitably suppose that this so scarred a sensitive adolescent that her subsequent behaviour was at least understandable. She was, it seemed, capable of extreme nastiness, snobbery and antisemitism. Her rival, Katherine Mansfield, was dismissed as “a civet cat that had taken to street-walking”. She objected to her mother-in-law’s “Jewish voice” and observed that her husband, Leonard, came from a family of “nine Jews, all of whom, with the single exception of Leonard, might well have been drowned, without the world wagging one ounce the worst”. She drowned herself in 1941.

The list goes on and in no particular order of depravity: Patricia Highsmith, whose mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, was an alcoholic and an antisemite, Philip Roth was sexist, or at the very least, anti-feminist, William Burroughs was an occultist, a junkie who accidentally shot his wife in the head; she died shortly after. His subsequent wrestling with guilt and self-loathing was apparently the fuel for his creativity. The poet Philip Larkin is now widely viewed not just as racist, misogynist, porn-addled, two timing, alcoholic, foul-mouthed and viciously right-wing, but also, for good measure, just dreary. A morality clause would have deprived us of The Talented Mr Ripley, American Pastoral, Naked Lunch and The Whitsun Weddings. Unfortunately, nasty people make great art.

But good, and great, writing (or any art or science) isn’t the special preserve of the cads, the mountebanks and the rotters; not every author is Harry Flashman in disguise. Having a “beautiful soul” doesn’t shut down all talent, even genius. Chekhov and Keats were good, brave and noble men, along with many others.

Screen Shot 3.jpgThere seems to be a thin blue thread of childhood dysfunctionality running seamlessly into adulthood that so many highly talented people suffered from, also, no doubt, so very many others whose accomplishments were more mediocre. Those who know me well will catch a faint resonance here. Adults often spend the rest of their lives trying to patch the gashes in their souls, the great gaping gunshot wounds suffered in early years. Shall I write a book? Perhaps. Not sure I’m bad enough. Yet.