Boxing Day morning 

Sun shining this Boxing Day morning, horses out exercising on the Kempton Park racecourse below me, and a brisk walker, who I assume is a jockey working out a little Christmas stiffness. No traffic on the roads just yet, give it an hour or two and the punters will converge hoping for a new hero, maybe Thistlecrack, or a triumph for an old, Cue Card, or for another, at longer odds. The King George VI Chase puts Kempton Park on the calendar, the map and the news one day of the year.

I’m sitting here, with my freshly-squeezed orange juice, looking out, and listening to a Christmas present, the wonderfully inappropriate, for a bright morning, new and latest and last album from my hero, my anti-hero and my muse, Leonard Cohen. Back in 2009 at his London concert he referred to years of searching among the world’s great religions – ‘but cheerfulness kept breaking through’. I’m not finding too much that’s cheerful this time around, but I’m loving it all the same. 

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
/If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame /If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame /You want it darker /We kill the flame 

Well, the sun’s shining, thine, good Lord is the glory, and time for that orange juice, squeezed through the state-of-the-art orange-squeezer my son gave me yesterday – a labour-creating not a labour-saving device. The work of mine own hand, not mass-produced. And all the more satisfying for that. Like listening to vinyls, and having to leap up every few minutes to flip the disk – stops you taking the music for granted, relegating it to a background sound. 

Discussion over breakfast of the Obama legacy between father and daughter. This is the Collier family, and I like it. 

Happy Christmas, one day late, everyone! 

One final rant

And one for the road – a final rant on the subject of Brexit. Last of the year, I promise. ‘We’re all Brexiteers now.’ In the Cabinet, and across much of the Tory party. It’s a brave Tory who stands out. There’s been a coup, but coups don’t just happen. This one has been building many a year, and an eminence behind it has been Daniel Hannan, blogger, writer, arguer, obsessive. Though it pains me to say it, he’s done a brilliant job. Given the fact that he read history at my college in Oxford some 25 years after me, I guess I should be proud of him. That’s not easy.

The Guardian’s Long View piece of Hannan back in September makes fascinating reading. His case against the EU was ‘an upbeat argument of direct democracy and free-market capitalism’. He showed in conversation ‘no anxiety at all about the manner of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, or the scale of the diplomatic and economic challenges facing the country’. A current (Remain voting) Cabinet minister is quoted as observing that there’s no guarantee the agitation will now stop. ‘None of these people are builders, they are destroyers.’

In an earlier post, back in the summer, I referred to a Hannan article in the Telegraph painting a picture (‘rosy’ wasn’t in it) of what Britain would be like in 2025 if only we voted Leave. It was a post-Imperial paradise. Destroyers too often are dreamers.

The Guardian puts the by comparison ruthless and contrarian UKIP view: ‘the narrow Hannanite case for Brexit – mostly about deregulation and sovereignty – was a sideshow to the main event: a chorus of economic and cultural discontent’.

Back in the summer we often heard the sovereignty argument, in the crude form of ‘take back control’, but it wasn’t because people longed for a deregulated, free-trading economy – rather, they’d been bought into another Hannan obsession, disparaging elites, scorning expertise.

Let the people speak, another obsession – but only if they’re on message. The role of the press in ensuring that they are, including the regular exposure the Telegraph has given to Hannan, continues to be unexamined.

And Hannan all the while remains blissfully unaware of how immigration ultimately won the day for his side. (To quote the Guardian, his book Why Vote Leave ‘contains (but) a single sentence on immigration’.) Of course he doesn’t – he’s well aware. But such has been his obsession, all arguments, however unpalatable, were means to an end – and now he’s achieved that end, and a bizarre bunch of outsiders are now insiders.

Every day the chaos unfolds. We want free trade – but without a customs union. We will trade under WTO rules, but short of negotiating tariffs across the board, a task for a decade, and a recipe for many a disaster, we will have to accept arrangements as they stand. EU tariffs, EU quotas. Supply chains are international these days, manufacturers import and export components all over the world, as well as finished items. Motor manufacturers buy on a just-in-time basis, and for them tariffs and the delays they cause could be disastrous. A ‘ bonfire of regulations’ would mean exclusion from many areas of trade which require such regulations, on an EU and worldwide basis: there can be no such bonfire.

Absurdities pile on absurdities.

Back to Hannan, and a UKIP view: ‘So locked up in his own world that he can’t see what’s on the end of his well-formed aquiline nose.’ A little unfriendly, but probably spot on.

He muses on ‘the natural intelligence and fair-mindedness if the British people’. He grew up in Peru, and if there is such a thing as an old-school expat mentality, then Hannan has it. In Roger Scruton’s words, ‘the expat mentality is belonging to the old country, and the inability to accept that it is changed beyond repair.’

The Guardian article is the best explanation I’ve yet encountered of how a subversive element can insinuate and propagandise, and use leverage within parliament and press to stage what is more or less a coup, seizing a moment – and finding itself despite all the flummery to the contrary caught in the headlights.

Silence of the land – Iceland and England

Cranham. Foggy nights, but no icy chill. We’ve the window open, and an owl calls on and off through the small hours. And the next night. Distant, and then closer. There’s an almost palpable sense of distance in the silence. Back in west London, the mist closes in, shrouds the last quarter moon, and this time it’s the song of a robin, sustained through the night.

There’s always that background of traffic noise in London. I read recently of an Icelander returning home, and wanting the sound of traffic for company. It gave him reassurance that there were people nearby.  

Iceland is of course a land of supreme quiet, but Reykjavik functions as a thriving city, with traffic noise, rush hours, building sites. (And music, good food, atmosphere, warm welcomes – and high prices!) We escaped three times …. 

To swim in the Blue Lagoon, where the steam and cloud and chill damped down any hubbub.  

To geysers and waterfalls, where a flurry of tourists takes the mind off silence. But not quite – snow shrouded the waterfalls at Gullfoss, and, yes, there were tourists, but we each had our own silence, and I stood and watched the glacier waters smashed into foam by the rocks, and disappear into a chasm in the earth. 

To a hillside a hour’s drive from the city, where on a full-moon night we hoped to see the Northern Lights. The sky was opaque rather than clear, and thicker cloud drifted across too frequently. We failed, no aurora. But I felt the silence of the land, with snow on the mountains, a lake nearby, and the sea beyond, and a sense that nothing separated me from the North Pole, nothing separated me from emptiness. Looking up it seemed as if the sky turning above me was more real than the earth on which I stood. 

With the silence came aloneness. This is what I seek out (not all the time, lest you wonder!), and it’s what others flee from. There must be music all the time, or radio, or voices in the next room. Someone mentioned, and I sympathise, that noise tempers tinnitus.  

Iceland was only settled in the 9th century. Isolated communities of a remarkable sophistication given the circumstances dotted the shores, especially to the west and north. The Norse gods and then the Christian God were omnipresent. Silence would have been, and still is, borne in on the wind and rain and snow. Silence lives within the winter ice and the year-round ice-caps.  

Heimdall (I’m quoting from the Prose Edda) understood silence: 

‘He hears the grass growing on the earth and the wool on sheep…’ 

And now Aleppo

There is no permanence on this earth. Rome, Constantinople, Delhi. And now Aleppo.

Rome, the sack of Rome, by Alaric in 410. Having stormed the city his soldiers pillaged rather than torched. He didn’t attempt to rule – he didn’t have the resources to do so. But the damage was done. Over years and decades Rome crumbled, literally – invincibility and old imperial order forever undermined.

Constantinople, in 1453, the foreboding of the inhabitants when the Ottomans finally breached the walls – their sense that seemingly God-given civilisation had come to a brutal end, after more than 1100 years.  (Compare also Alexandria when it capitulated to the forces of Mohammed, 800 years earlier.)

Delhi, in 1857. The recapture of Delhi, last remnant of Mughal civilisation, under which Hindu and Muslim, and indeed Christian, had successfully coexisted, by British forces seeking to revenge the Indian Mutiny. The aftermath was brutal.

We imagine permanence, and most of us will be spared that moment when walls come crushing done, and our faith (or simply our belief system) is crushed by another. But we ought all to be aware. Beware arrogance. One irony is how Erdogun, as president of Turkey, now acts out all the arrogance of power, even though Istanbul should be a reminder of what might befall him.

Aleppo. Aleppo, which has somehow survived intact over 3000 years, and which we now destroy in our own time. And we are in great part to blame. We made promises to the rebels of support we did not – arguably, we could not – provide.

We assumed our Western democracy has history on its side, and many of us still do, despite the terrible aftermath of the Arab Spring. Aleppo had its own unique dynamic, driven by lifestyles and habits and emotions both traditional and modern. We assumed that the modern, in terms of politics, would somehow emerge victorious, while tradition, in terms of daily life and custom, would remain intact.

We assumed inevitability, and we were wrong. We would be the champions of democracy, but if it is destined (and there are no certainties in history) to advance, and that advance be permanent, it will be by increments. Not by armed force, or by revolution.