O Tannenbaum

‘your leaves are so unchanging…’

People crave certainty, and now we have at least a way forward, so there is a little hope that the green leaves of the political Christmas tree may not change kaleidoscopically for the next few years and at least we’re going to get Brexit done and forge a path into the future where we’re all more or less facing in the same direction. The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief that the nightmare is reaching its end.

I’ve never been an ‘activist’, in the sense that I waved flags, shouted myself hoarse in Trafalgar Square, or screamed obscenities at MPs going about their lawful business in The Palace of Westminster. Why? Because not an iota of difference is made by barbarians except by force. And the force is not one of argument, dialectic, discussion. It derives from emotionally fueled and mostly irrational thinking which if repeated often enough they believe that it turns the axis of opinion so far that we the bystanders become nonplussed as to precisely where the truth really lies, yet have little real choice but to go with the flow.

In 2016, we were all subjected to a tsunami of warnings so barbaric that some were persuaded into believing that should this leviathan called Brexit – unthinkable, unendurable and without precedent – economic and cultural suicide was the eventual abyss into which we would all fall, with cries of ‘I told you so’. More presciently, a transcendent anger began to grow like a dirty, defiant snowball into an incredulity that people could be so pig-headed as to reject all that advice that looked in those far off days to be a racing certainty, leading to snarling vituperation, infighting and blind rage.

Brexit created its own sideshows. The Extinction Rebellion movement, fuelled by juvenile enthusiasm and a series of half-truths steered by skilful shadowy manipulators who as the howling and screeching and missed schooling so amply demonstrates is going to make a few people a lot of money. Momentum, what a masterstroke of deception. The cleverly constructed buttress surrounding a mediocre but susceptible political nobody metamorphosing into near god-like adulation of a man from the liberal, “woke” metropolitan heartlands with his own National Anthem. These events are not unconnected and they are mirrored across the continent. Friends in France are woefully stranded over Christmas because of a deliberately disruptive, almost callously direputable rail strike. Wildcat picketing was smirkingly advertised as an electoral promise in the UK. They were all battlegrounds for a paradigm shift-a shift in cultural identity not seen since the 1960s, when great social upheaval spearheaded by the young, set the bedrock for the Thatcher years, and lest it be forgotten, Enoch Powell had a spectacular tidal wave of populist following after the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in April 1968. Less than five percent would have clearly understood both the rage and adulation engendered by his quote from the Aeneid – he was, after all, one of the finest classicists of his generation. He was sacked, not because of the contents of the speech but because Edward Heath saw him as a potential rival. He may have represented the atavistic, perhaps unreasoning fear of a generation increasingly populated by unfamiliarly dark skin, but the new arrivals were doing exactly what we did to them, initially having a reluctance to assimilation into a culture not their own. We failed to teach and to welcome hence learned the colonial price which one day would have to be repaid. And yet, many have made their home here successfully and those who have not or will not find themselves at the fringes of a society which simply tried to offer them all this country could afford in terms of opportunity. Entitlement is not enough. Human rights are not enough unless partnered with responsibility and willingness to adapt to which most people who have lived abroad will readily attest.

But, this is not true for all. The majority notwithstanding, a wave of Muslim immigrants, some imprisoned for terrorist offences, many equipped with zeal and determination do not assimilate but the great difference is that a number have no desire to do so, a willingness to ‘play the deradicalisation game’, to seek their own hegemony based upon false and unrealistic perceptions of their faith, and who regard their own legal systems as superior to our own, which was not the case in 1968. Herein lies the dark, subversive difference.

This resonates with many of the problems identified in Ian Acheson’s 2016 review including Muslim gang culture, prisoners advocating support for Isis, Factional divides between supporters of different extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, aggressive conversions, self-styled prison “emirs”, intimidation of prison imams whose desire is to propagate a moderate form of worship and the availability of extremist literature have proliferated like bindweed.

A British jail has been severely criticised for its deradicalisation policies – a so-called imam suggesting that the Queen is an enemy of Islam and must die.

This used to be called treason and the perpetrator found his head on a spike.

How could such polarity be allowed to happen? Brexit is a symptom, not a cause. Whether we like it or not, we are one nation, all of us immigrants, all of us were once strangers in lands we have learned to call our own. Those in power, often holding on by their fingernails, have signally failed to recognise that there had been a seismic shift, the leaves of our own Christmas tree had never changed hue so spectacularly as in the last few weeks, yet remained green. Europe had turned on her axis and more and more European governments, many with the spectre of colonisation hanging like outriders in their own pasts have been reaching back into the roots of their own national identities, flawed as they sometimes were. 

I am no more an Islamophobe, Christianophobe, Judaeophobe or any other kind of phobe. Let all men be subject to the dictates of their own conscience, fearless in the face of those who disagree, bold enough to confront sloppy logic, intimidation and barbarity, not by howling down those who disagree, nor by flags and anthems whose only real purpose is to cow and to frighten their enemies, and inspire loyalty in their allies, which came as rather a shock to the British Labour movement since it seemed that the voices of quiet reason ultimately prevailed.

I was reminded of ‘The Red Flag’ sung by Labour at the end of every party conference. The lyrics in full make interesting reading. To the tune of ‘O Tannenbaum’ whose leaves didn’t change colour, except became a little bit unpredictably bluer this Christmas.

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

As it says, “a soft answer turns away wrath”, sadly absent in these lyrics. It seems we are an ideologically hawkish species for which such an attitude becomes virtually impossible. Inspired by such moral selfishness, I wish the House, with its absurd, medievally confrontational agendas, a very happy Christmas, in the hope that they would learn together and let us all go forward, as one nation, in a spirit of compromise, a willingness to listen to ‘the other’.

And the grace to admit when we are wrong.


The gentleman financier was perturbed. This was unusual – he seldom worried except when the Bentley gave trouble starting in cold weather or one of his children needed to be vaccinated. 

His wife, the archetypal Mrs Longsuffering, was used to his moods – or ‘preoccupations’ as she preferred to call them. Under normal circumstances, any financial concerns he may have had would be amply dissipated after his country had shaken off the tyrannical shackles of the European behemoth with its rapacious, unrelenting greed and love of regulation only bettered by a regimental sergeant major. And yet, a pencil-thin worry line had unaccountably appeared above the bridge of his aquiline, patrician nose.

He awoke at four a.m, reviewing in his quite prodigiously organised mind the events of the last few days. He was politeness personified, and was regularly seen tramping amiably around his mostly rural constituency, blessedly free of council estate wastelands where rotting bicycles and unlaid concrete paving stones competed for position amidst unmown grass and empty beer cans. Rumour had it that he was frequently accompanied by an elderly lady and a small boy, similarly attired to himself. His days had been spent in civilised debate, for the most part, uninterrupted by hecklers, both the growling and the shrill. He greeted mothers with babies who smelt almost permanently of vomit and food banks, elderly retired colonels, complexions made florid by more than a passing acquaintance with Uncle Johnnie Walker and sullenly mutinous young men in need of a haircut who lacked both manners and political acumen, with an equanimity born of having attended some of the most prestigious educational establishments his country could offer. His opponents bayed like distant bloodhounds, but they troubled him less than a spot of dandruff on his Savile Row suit. For the most part, they were invariably and almost universally complaining that that their tuition fees were too high and their grandmothers had had to spend several hours lying unattended on hospital trollies. Their bile had been thickened by hours of sociology seminars conducted by purple-haired lesbians hankering after long-forgotten days of secondary picketing.

He would rise shortly, exercise the dogs, eat a healthy breakfast – Cook knew what he liked – the narcissists dream of voting for himself slightly tarnished by a new poll released only yesterday which, unthinkably might return a no-name opponent with the eagerness and political ability of a basset hound to the House upon whose benches he had languidly reclined some months previously.

Meanwhile in a constituency flanked by two prisons, one for men, the other women – both possibly having transgender facilities – a candidate of a different stripe was naggingly troubled, mostly, by the possibility of a ballot box beating. Almost all the polls suggested a downhill cruise to yet another victory. He lived in a modest dwelling, cycled assiduously, grew root vegetables and the homeless man in the opposite doorway had been given a Harris tweed jacket. His immediate neighbours appeared to consist of a twitter of chic little outlets with curious sounding names, many of which appeared to sell some kind of expertise, providing brand partners with tailored, communicative and strategic representation. His speeches were carefully choreographed by a squadron of acolytes who scripted his remarks to the few, not the many, and who only allowed him to speak to the benign and the certain whose commitment to the cause was full-throated and unwavering. What could possibly go wrong? Yet, there were clouds. Not storm force, but bigger than a clenched fist, presaging a downpour which he, with all his legendary activism and skill, seemed unable to dislodge from an otherwise sunny mental horizon.

Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story where an entire democratic process for the election of a President was pared down by a computer to the opinion of one solitary voter.

If. Just imagine…

Opsimathy for Dummies

I love words. I think that despite having feet like violin cases, I am the only person I know who once used the word ‘terpsichorean’ in a text message. Big, fat, impressive words, the fatter the better. Today, I learned a new one – linguists will smile pityingly – opsimathy. An opsimath is an individual who begins, or continues, to study or perhaps even learn new stuff late in life. The notion of being a toothless old lion and quite over the hill is both distasteful and inevitable  – one still thinks of oneself as about thirty something who’d quite like to drive a Ferrari and ski the Poubelle couloir in Chamonix.  Tempus, however, fugit. The word is derived from the Greek ὀψέ (opsé), meaning ‘late’, and μανθάνω (manthánō), meaning ‘learn’. Not really a surprise, I’m just being showy-offy about knowing a word or two of the language of Plato and his best student, Aristotle. As the Emperor Augustus once famously remarked  “a radish may know no Greek, but I do!”

Opsimathy was once frowned upon by clever men from Oxford who ‘know all that there is to be knowed’.

…as any fule kno

 It was used as a put-down with implications of feckless indolence or, more brutally, laziness, and considered less effective by them as teach us, otherwise known as “educators” derived from the Latin for ‘lead forth” as ‘any fule kno’. – thank you, Nigel Molesworth – than the mightily effective work reception class teachers do in early learning. What a gargantuan sentence that was. So sorry. This is a trend that is slowly being turned on its head. Which is really rather comforting for folk like me It seems that clubs or societies exist for us. The emergence of these “opsimath clubs” has demonstrated that opsimathy has shed much of its negative, sneering nuance, and that this approach may, in fact, be almost desirable. Oh. Nice to be so ‘woke’ innit.

Grandma Moses

Notable opsimaths include Grandma Moses, who learned to paint when she was 78. One of her paintings was sold forty five years after her death for $1.2 million. Rabbi Akiva the “Chief of the Sages” who, according to the Talmud, began studying from a place of total lack of education and illiteracy at age 40, and Cato the Elder, who learned  Greek when he was 80.

Which does give me some hope. Where I live, I am basically an illiterate, even having trouble reading the Cyrillic letters. A local four-year-old does better than me. Perhaps a good start might be to learn to ask ‘how much is it to the bus station?’ in the local language.

Nevertheless, hope, as they say, springs eternal. Can’t see myself taking up fine art – my ex-wife was an artist and teacher; it was said of her that she could teach a chimp to paint. The only chimp she couldn’t teach was me.

Perhaps a new, exciting and totally different opportunity may yet present itself before the neurons, pickled in whisky, gently fail and the world simply looks benign and meaninglessly woolly.