On being a European

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian by birth, a European by instinct and vocation, an author and poet who became the most translated writer in Europe in the 1930s, a Jew, an exile, a refugee, who in spite of two world wars and exile continued to write and travel and argue – until in 1942 he and his wife took their own lives in Brazil.

He championed international cooperation, championed culture and the intellectual life – his aspiration that they might bring Europe together, and triumph over petty nationalisms.

In the World of Yesterday, ‘one of the canonical European testaments’, he tells the story of his life and times from school days to 1939. Curiously in the UK he never achieved the fame he found in Europe.

Maybe that should change.


On Europe…. 

‘It will be decades before that other (trusting) Europe can return to what it was before the First World War…….bitterness and distrust have lurked in the mutilated body of Europe.’

As more became known about Hitler and his ready resort to violence ‘the conscience of Europe’ chose not to take sides, because all violent acts were within Germany…. (my italics)

After the First World War, ‘The orderly German nation did not know what to do with its liberty, and was already looking for someone to take away it away again.’ (Today the guardians of that liberty hold sway, but the threat is always there, from neo-Nazis, and from political parties such as Alternative fur Deutchland.) 

In Austria in 1937, before the Anschluss, few at least publicly made the connections with 1914 – no-one wanted to. Zweig describes vividly a traditional Christmas in Vienna in 1937.

All the while a new power out there, aiming to seize government, ‘regarded all idea we valued as outmoded – peace, humanity, reconciliation…’

He compares the English with Austria, Germany, or France – they lived more quietly, more content, thought more about their gardens.

(We lose so much if we deny ourselves that European focus – if we imagine the values we hold sacred are specially English, or British. Reading Zweig reminds us what it was like living through that remarkable period from 1900 to 1940. We are part of Europe, our outlook and culture – and origins. The rest of the world sees us as European – we are foolish to think otherwise. )

On government – and the people …

In the run up to 1939 (and too often true today): ‘ … 10 or 20 people (in Downing Street, the Quai d’Orsay…), few of whom had ever shown any evidence of any particular intelligence or skill were talking and telephoning and coming to agreements which the rest of us knew nothing about.’

Zweig ‘knew that the vast majority always go to whichever side holds the balance of power at any given moment.’

On armchair revolutionaries… 

Zurich in 1916 – the Zurich of Dada – Zweig had never met such an impassioned and varied mixture of people and opinions. Since his death Zweig’s been accused of being a coward for not coming out more strongly against the war. His comment about ‘coffee house conspirators’ gives the answer – his disdain for ‘professional revolutionaries raised from personal insignificance merely by adopting a stance of opposition’.

(There were many such – and there were as I well recall in the 1970s when I was a trade unionist –Father of Chapel of the Penguin Books NUJ chapel, and they are still very much out there today – and will be in every generation. )

On the arts… 

The poet Rilke, a friend of Zweig’s – ‘Can there ever be such pure poets again…all they wanted was to link verse to verse perfectly in quiet yet passionate endeavour, every line singing with music…. can that kind of poetry exist in our new way of life… which chases out peace of mind like a forest fire?’

On being a refugee, in England…. 

‘I, the former cosmopolitan, keep feeling as if I had to offer special thanks for every breath of air that I take in a foreign country, thus depriving its own people of its benefit…’ Zweig had ‘trained his heart to beat as a citizen of the world for 50 years… On the day I lost my Austrian passport I discovered, at the age of 58, that when you lose your native land you are losing more than a patch of territory set within borders.’

On being Jewish….  

Jews used to have ‘an inviolable faith in their God’. But they were many peoples, multiple languages, now thrown together – what did they have in common? And they asked – ‘what is the reason for this pointless persecution.’

The questions asked by Job.  [‘Why did I not perish at birth, an die as I came from the womb?’  (3:11). ‘What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?’ (6:11)]

After the Anschluss – his elderly mother enjoyed walking – but now ‘no Jew must sit on any public bench’. She no longer had a place to rest. And that was almost the least of the strictures which took down and took apart Jewish life in the city.

And at the last….

A confession- ‘I do not mourn for what I have lost – the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy..’

And yet – ‘But in the end every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.’


Zweig has many lessons for us, as a European, a Jew, a citizen of the world, a man of culture and intellect, with many flaws as have all of us – but just maybe someone to champion in our own times, when uncertainties are greater, and crises seem – and are – closer to hand, when there’s a sense that the post-war consensus might just break apart, and we need reminders, we need a champion or two.

Keeping sane amid the chaos

How (if you’re me!) to keep measured and sane amid the chaos.

For starters, two reminders from a Buddhist meditation handbook:

‘…one shouldn’t have a great deal of desire… one must be content, which means whatever one has is fine and right.’ ‘Whatever one has is fine and right.’ (My italics.)

‘The place where we stay should be free from a lot of activity and a large number of people… (we should reduce) our involvement in too many activities.’  Now there’s a challenge.

Then there’s something I’ve loved since childhood – watching cricket. I enjoyed England’s decisive and exuberant victory over Pakistan in the second test match that ended yesterday. Always good to head out to Lords or the Oval, or stand on the boundary at Cranham cricket club … (A friend reminds me of the joke – ‘God gave cricket to the English so that they should have some sort of idea of eternity ‘ – that was certainly true of the first test match. I was there.)

And moving out beyond the cricket field – out further into the wild, and the wilderness, into the countryside, to the coast, to the mountains:

(‘What would the world be, once bereft /Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left…’)

walk (or run) in the meadows and beech woods

head off down to Cornwall and walk around Penwith from St Ives, via Zennor and Land’s End and Porthcurno, to Penzance (carrying a tent and heavy rucksack in the hot sun a small downside, likewise the heat exhaustion!)

puzzle over the wild flowers (betony abundant in Cornwall – a small sense of triumph identifying it!)

listen or watch, or maybe both…

– two buzzards wheeling above me on the coast path near Treryn Dinas just east of Porthcurno, piping much of the time, occasionally they come together and there’s a scurry of wings, and they resume their circling. The following morning, 7.30, I’ve struck camp, and I’m on my way, light rain, grey out to sea, and they’re back there, ahead of me, still slowly circling

– the owl which I disturbed in the woods later that morning – it took off maybe only two or three feet away from me, a vast and silent presence, and a powerful absence, disappearing into the light at the end of the green tunnel behind me

– the sound of a soprano, yes, a soprano, from the Britten opera being performed at the Minack theatre a mile away, it was 9pm, and I was tucked away in my tent, trying to sleep…

– a yellow snail (a ‘white-lipped banded snail’), and a red-winged fly – the small and surprising things, which puzzle, and take the mind down from the high and inflated places to the simple and beautiful

– and back in the Cotswolds, a lesser spotted woodpecker now a regular visitor to the bird feeder and the birdbath in the garden, and the goldfinches

– and the long warm summer evenings, the stillness, and the small party which headed out onto the common at midnight to look for glow-worms

There is hope for the world yet.


Zenpolitics, and the world, six years on

It’s not a bad idea in these tortured times to remind myself why I began this blog. ‘What is zenpolitics,’ I asked. My answer? ‘Taking the trash and hyperbole out of politics and trying to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are.’

Six years now since I wrote that, and it’s even harder now. The Brexit campaign has focused all the uncertainty in British politics but instead of providing resolution has brought animosity, and potential chaos. Politics should always be about gradual not sudden change – not a thought everyone shares, I appreciate – it’s a subject for another time, another post.

But now we have an elephant in the room, as someone said. We are all obsessed and divided and old-style political discussion has gone out of the window. A good thing?

Referenda do damage, they polarise, the original subject of debate gets lost in hyperbole, in distortions, it too readily becomes a protest vote. They’re prey to propaganda, to manipulation. Referenda were a distant and unlikely possibility six years ago. Now they are subverting the parliamentary democracy which gives a forum for rational – and emotional – debate, which falls prey to all sorts of issues and irregularities, but nonetheless gives a sane and measured and balanced way forward.

In the US it’s no better, and potentially worse. US presidential elections reflect a traditional divide, they have a slow almost two-year (if not a four-year!) build up, and they are multi-issue. But this time it’s a protest vote, whipped up on the one side by special interests with vast amounts of advertising spend at their disposal, now turned on its head by Donald Trump, and on the other side by an equally disillusioned younger and streetwise population – both sides equally out of step with Washington politics. In the US and the UK vast numbers of people no longer feel a part of the traditional democratic process.

Behind all this are the challenges of globalisation and new technologies – the decline of traditional industries, a switch from a unified and organised and socially cohesive labour force to a fragmented and lower-paid workforce engaged in lower-paid service industries, influenced and exacerbated by massive trade imbalances with China – resulting in a growing divide between those who benefit from these changes, usually educated and skilled, and those who do not.

And out of this we have alienation, discontent – and, given a forum, we have protest. And we have the blind (and Tory economic policy under Osborne has to fit under that heading) who fail to see the

impact of that alienation, and how it has to be directly addressed. And the manipulators, who turn it to their own purposes – anti-immigrant sentiment, or neo-liberal economic agendas.

Blind – we’ve all been blind. Back to my original zenpolitics aspiration – ‘trying to look at people and politics… the way they really are’. More than ever that has to be the aspiration. And it’s now, with so much emotion and obsession, that much harder.

All the while, the other big issues haven’t gone away – the refugee crisis, Syria, IS. Population movements in Africa, where the population explosion is hitting hardest. Russia and Ukraine. China and the South China Sea. And suddenly, almost but not quite out of the blue, we have Turkey, an attempted coup, and a profoundly foolish but populist regime which will lead Turkey further down the road to either chaos or autocracy.

And here in the UK – we now obsess with Brexit, where the very best outcome will be that we achieve something close to our existing economic performance, and the worst – better not to contemplate.

There are bigger issues, much bigger issues, out there, and we have turned foolishly inward.

I wanted with zenpolitics to take the emotional out of politics. But we need emotion at times to drive the engagement we need to have to put our own world, here in the UK, back on to a saner track.

But above all we need to, and I repeat, ‘see things as they really are’. In a world of fractured and misleading debate that is a mighty challenge.

The absurdities we’re living through…

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. I’m about to head off walking the Cornish coast path… And not listening to Andrew Marr, or reading the …whatever it might be.

The world must go on.

But absurdities we’re living through still strike home.

The BBC’s James Robbins, on the subject of a meeting of European foreign ministers, with Boris Johnson present for the first time:’Today’s meetings are bound to be odd, when the man who compared the EU’s ambitions to create a super-state to those of Adolf Hitler, sits down with the 27 other ministers.’

I’ve been imagining Johnson meeting with John Kerry, more pertinently with Barrack Obama, more pertinently still with black African leaders. ‘Piccaninny’ has been a expression he’s used in the past.

Brexit Secretary David Davis: EU migrants who come to the UK as a departure date nears may not be given the right to stay… there might have to be a cut-off point if there were a ‘surge’ in new arrivals …

A comment calculated to disturb: hardly likely to give those already here any confidence. Or businesses who rely on immigrants for the EU, now or in the future.

Liam Fox looming over reports that Australia would like to sign a free-trade agreement with the U.K. As if we don’t have successful trade arrangements with the Australia already. Rejoicing it seems over starting all over again to get to the place we started from.

They are an unholy trio, and Theresa May has shown a perverse streak in promoting outsiders who Cameron wisely distrusted into the most public positions of all in her new government.

God help us all. Maybe Mrs May had that in mind on a recent Sunday at Sonning parish church.

Missing the tide

We had Boris quoting Julius Caesar. He might have tried another quote, this time Cassius to Brutus:

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.’

Only we’re not. The European tide is turning in our direction, and what do we do – we hide in the sand dunes.

The politics of the Tory party mean that departing Europe (and, yes, I mean Europe, not just the EU) at precisely the wrong time. We’ve not been the only country drawing back from a federalist agenda. In Germany they’re having the same debate but not as yet with the same foolish consequences. Take Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, as an example. ‘Originally a European federalist in favour of an ever-close union (he) has concluded that the referendum signifies that Europe will not stomach yet more centralisation.’ (The Economist.) In Schauble’s own words, ‘Now is not the time for visions.’

On the other side of the argument we have members of the German SPD, Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, who want to push harder for closer integration: the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, argues for ‘refounding Europe.’

The debate illustrates how much Germany is pivotal to the debates about Europe’s future. It would have been Merkel and Cameron, Germany and the U.K., pushing for a wiser, less hands-on, less intrusive Europe, and yet a Europe that took forward the European ideals of openness and cooperation.

Schauble would like to see Europe concentrate on a few problems, and solve them – good examples would be the refugee crisis, or a Europe-wide energy grid. And if the commission fails to act ‘we must take control and solve problems among our governments’, an inter-governmental not a supra-governmental approach’, moving power from the Commission to the Council of Ministers. (See The Economist’s Charlemagne column.)

This is the process we should have been a part of, working with Germany, putting federalist ambitions out to grass. Instead we have two characters, Fox and Davis, who’ve survived on the fringes of British politics for a few years, pushed into the limelight to negotiate an exit from an organisation that it’s transparently in our interests to be a part of.

The best outcome will be that we negotiate something pretty close to what we have now. But in the meantime we’ll have lost the opportunity to influence the EU, and we’re all the poorer for that.

A cabinet of curiosities

To quote my last post: ‘…the …outright lies which fuelled the Leave campaign….’

One of those who lied is the new Foreign Secretary. The French Foreign Minister recently referred to the lies of the Leave campaign. When asked for a response Boris Johnson referred to ‘the inevitable plaster falling off the ceilings of a few European chancelries’ in the aftermath of the Leave vote. I love the phrase, it’s glib, it’s fun, it’s evocative – and it doesn’t justify for a moment the mendacity of the Leave campaign, and Johnson’s own battle bus. Lies are lies.

Liam Fox and David Davis were always good for quotes in the Leave campaign. The former especially. Mainly of the ‘that’s wrong’ variety, when some hard truth came from an expert source on the Remain side. My guess is that Theresa May in giving them key positions (heading up Brexit negotiations and international trade) has said to them – ‘now deliver’. And it will be they, not the middle-ground compromisers who the Tory right would have slated in the event of a soft Brexit, who take the flak. It’s a the highest risk strategy imaginable. But otherwise her party will remain split. And for them Europe as an issue will never go away.

A resolution, maybe, of decades of Tory party divisions. At whose expense?

‘Take the flak.’ Someone somewhere sometime soon the line is going to find themsleves facing some very hard truths.



I put up posts on my blog – my attempts to understand this crazy passage of history we’re living through. So I look at both sides, and I’m aware of how out of touch the city-types, the establishment fogeys, the unversity-educated, the social media users were. And how there are real, justified causes of resentment and anger that we hadn’t understood.

At the same time…

To understand is not to excuse the way the Leave side put over its case. And sometimes real venom is in order.To quote a letter to the Daily Telegraph…

‘I share with many of my peer group a visceral, all-consuming, white-hot fury at the toxic drip of misrepresentation, outright lies and barely disguised xenophobia which fuelled the Leave campaign….(The) people who got us there have made the UK an uglier place and we will never forgive them.’

To try and understand is not enough. Not entirely a zenpolitics statement, but zen is neither passive or accepting.

Truth isn’t indivisible

…it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Truth, as seen in the context of the referendum.

It’s suspect, handed down from above, seen as establishment truth. People came to distrust all facts as ‘handed down’. False information, rumour, scandal came to have the same status as facts.

Deliberate manipulation of the news, by mis-statement (the NHS £350 million), or by presentation (the infamous UKIP refugee advertisement).

The Remain campaign tried to fight fantasy with fact, ‘but they quickly found that the the currency of fact had been badly debased’.  (Katharine Viner.) Facts were labelled as Project Fear and ‘quickly neutralised by opposing facts’.  ‘This is a disastrous mistake that ends up by obscuring truth, and echoes how some report climate change.’

The BBC were, sadly, a prime example of this tendency.

Viner also refers to the way that many news organisations have ‘steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward ‘junk-food news’. Chasing readers, chasing advertising, and for online readers chasing clicks. What is equally worrying is the mixing of the two, apparently hard news with sex and scandal.

Hard news has to function in the same way – as scandal. Minimise the effort required of the reader.

Truth isn’t sufficient unto itself. It needs a helping hand.

Wearing blinkers

The news media took over the referendum, the two were made for each other. But whereas it was banner headlines for the tabloids, reinforcing opinions and prejudices, social media worked in a different way.

Katharine Viner in a long article (‘How technology disrupted the truth’, 12th July) in the Guardian focuses on the social media ‘filter bubble’ and the way Facebook is designed to ‘give us more of what they think we want … our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to re-inforce our existing beliefs’.

Viner as a Remain supporter couldn’t, the morning after, find any comment on Facebook from anyone happy with the result. And they were out there – with a vengeance. Many of us I know had the same experience. Despair and tears.

Social media also reinforced opinions and prejudices, but in a subtler and entirely private way. Compare the tabloids: everyday I could check the headlines on news-stands if I chose. And still do. But no-one but me knew what my Facebook pages were saying – unless I chose to share.

Many Remain supporters were too much inside their own bubble, protected from the anger and resentment in town and country. They underestimated what was driving the Leave vote deep down. In that way social media may have had a significant influence on the referendum outcome.

None of this justifies the way the tabloids set out to inflame, distort and misdlead. But they were tapping into something at a deeper level which many social media users just didn’t understand.

Two separate worlds. They didn’t connect. Do they now?

Wimbledon, Cameron, China, Chilcot – a few thoughts for our times

Wimbledon: Andy wins in style, and for once an afternoon watching a Wimbledon final doesn’t extend into the evening. I’m remembering Federer against Nadal, was it five years ago – rain breaks and five sets…

Andy mentioned that the prime minister was in the crowd and asked almost as a throwaway – who would want the PM’s job? Should we just occasionally give politicians a break? Even the PM? He’s made a life-changing (for all of us) mistake, but he’s kept his cool, and laughed when Murray made his comment. I almost felt I could forgive him.

And tomorrow (13th July) he’s out for ever.


Other thoughts for our time…

‘Few middle-class Chinese people say they want democracy.’ (The Economist) Three possible reasons. For one, memories of Tienamen Square: economic freedom it seems doesn’t require political freedom. For another, the Arab spring – the dangers of insurrection.

And Brexit, yes, Brexit.  ‘A sign that ordinary voters cannot be trusted to resolve complex political questions.’ Another good subject for discussion. One riposte – only ordinary people can be trusted.  And who are ordinary people these days. The proletariat is no more, and they weren’t it turned out very good at dictating. And the Economist’s big feature is on China’s new 225 million middle class. And then we have readers of the Daily Mail.


One conclusion from the Chilcot Report: politicians should beware commitments which catch up with them later. Applies to Cameron of course. But Brexit supporters have put out all sorts of promises and expectations – with little chance of delivering on them. But you can get away with promises.

Also, beware plans based on best-case scenarios, which is what Blair and Bush worked to…They may get support in parliament (2003) – win elections – and indeed referenda (2016) – but they can come back to hurt and haunt you.


Mendacious campaigns – which side in the referendum debate was more mendacious?Unwise forecasts (which nonetheless could be right) based on Treasury models from the Remain side, which weren’t believed. But not mendacious. Promises with almost nil substance on the other side. Given they were presented as probabilities if not truths by the Leave side – I’ve no problem with the word mendacious in their case.

If we delay invoking Article 50 – how favourably will other countries respond? We’re still – the Leave side are – in a dream world, laced with false expectations. The EU countries’ point of view? Keep Britain trading and halfway prosperous, yes. But at the same time demonstrate that you don’t get way with being a turncoat. And remember too, the cards are all in your (the EU’s) hands.

To take just one example. Paying in – we stop paying – and yet we expect the same benefits.  Absurdity. The something for nothing culture – which the Brexit side in other circumstances rail against.


And finally – ‘groupthink’. ‘When Mr Blix’s inspectors failed to find any WMD the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) gripped by groupthink put it down to the Iraq’s talent for subterfuge’. We reinforce each others’ opinions, if one of us believes, we make it easier for the others. We’ve been gripped by groupthink these past few months. The ‘somehow it will all turn out right, because it always does’ school of thought. Nearly always. Sometimes. Or, more realistically, never….