Still in the EU

The latest anti-Brexit march – No to Boris, Yes to Europe – sneaked up with a lower profile and had a slightly different theme to previous events, triggered in part by the Conservative party’s leadership election. We assumed it would be less busy than the previous march; in that we were correct, and arriving just about midday meant we spent less time hanging around, but it was still quite busy. We noticed quite a few sellers of merchandise; no doubt Peter Tatchell has written an article somewhere condemning the commercialisation of these events. The weather turned out much better than predicted and as a result, despite regular hydration, I had a headache last night, and this morning discovered quite a sunburnt neck.

We found ourselves close to the front of the Lib Dem group, which was still towards the back of the march and took about an hour to get going. Like Brexit itself, PlacardWatch seemed to be running out of steam; although there were some topical slogans in Latin (literally, “Brexiters, go home!”), and Cats against Brexit. We did, at least, make it to Parliament Square this time; but the square itself was full, Billy Bragg was on stage, and we couldn’t find any agenda or list of likely speakers, so we decided to call it a day. Pending the collapse of the government in the interim (and who would bet against that?), we’ll be back in October.

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Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Book Review: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard
Interestingly, after reading this, I discovered on Goodreads that two friends had already rated this with five stars, and I agreed with them. The book is perhaps not comprehensive, coming to a conclusion in 212 CE, with Caracalla’s extension of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman empire; therefore it omits the later decline, fall, division, etc. But within its scope, the book feels definitive.

Beard chooses to begin with Cicero’s revelation of the Cataline conspiracy, before returning to chronology. The mythical foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus clashes immediately with the story of Aeneas, and the evidence for the ancient Kings of Rome is thin, too. Beard does her best to make sense of the legends, but the archaeology only dates back to the Republic, where there’s a reasonable foundation for ancient lists of consuls. The wars and skirmishes with Rome’s neighbours, and later further afield, lead to the increasing power of Roman armies; these are essentially private militias, and promised post-service settlement for increasing numbers of retired soldiers strains the later Republic. The discussion of reforms and reaction from the period of the Gracchi through to Julius Caesar is particularly well done, and makes this history much clearer to me. From this there follows the Civil War and the rise of Octavian / Augustus, and a new form of government and politics in which the army is explicitly state-sponsored. Beard highlights that the transfer of power from one Emperor to another was often peaceful, with relatively few interventions.

But it’s not just war and politics; Beard covers domestic life and death, social structures and practices, slavery, and the extent of the Roman world. Inevitably, she reminds us, evidence favours the well-off who had possessions that might be preserved; and it’s very obviously a male-dominated society too, though gravestones in particular provide some eulogies to wives and mothers. The level of the writing is pitched right, avoiding assumptions about the reader’s knowledge but never patronising.

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The Butterfly Effect

Book Review: A Vineyard in Andalusia, by Maria Dueñas
For holiday reading I decided I wanted something sufficiently detached from the present, so this work sale book fitted well. Despite the title, the story begins in Mexico: it is 1861, and Mauro Larrera has just found out the war in the United States has lost him a shipment of mining equipment. Living close to the edge, he is financially ruined by this loss, but he is determined to keep up appearances as a wealthy mine-owner, borrowing from a money-lender on eye-watering terms while he considers how to recover.

He decides to seek short-term opportunities in Cuba, but eventually finds his way to Spain, having become the owner of a dilapidated house, a local vineyard and winery, in Jerez. Initially he intends to sell the properties, but various complexities arise.

An entertaining mixture of researched historical authenticity and well-trodden literary tropes, the story contains a number of surprising twists as it proceeds to its almost-but-not-quite predictable conclusion. The only anachronism I spotted was the use of the word “micro-organism”, which was first used in 1880, though it’s possible that’s a translation error rather than a literal in the original. In any case it doesn’t detract from the atmospheric quality conveyed by the book.

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Stockholm Syndrome

Fri 7th: I have spent the past day and a half off work with a cold, and although it is clearing, I still feel a bit under the weather. It’s an early start and I am surprised by roadworks on the M4, which impose a 50mph speed limit for almost all of the journey to Heathrow. Fortunately we’ve allowed plenty of time. The self-service bag drop is an innovation and proves counterintuitive, as no peeling is required before fixing the baggage labels. As with all self-service options these days, staff are on hand to assist, perhaps a little patronisingly. The flight is smooth and the transfer to the hotel works as expected, with the small hiccup that the ticket machines for the Arlanda Express are reluctant to accept some cards. Once settled, we take advantage of the good weather to go for a walk around the old town, Gamla Stan.

Sat 8th: The forecast suggests a few good days, but less good by midweek, so we go to Drottningholm Palace. As well as the palace itself, we see the Chinese pavilion, the entertaining Guards’ “tent”, and the Palace Theatre.

Sun 9th: We visit the Royal Palace; after lunch we catch the popular Changing of the Guard ceremony. They do like military bands in Sweden. In the afternoon we wander around Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen, before taking in the Modernamuseet and ArkDes.

Mon 10th: Another good day, and, especially as many museums are closed, we head to the open-air Skansen park. In some ways it reminds me of Beamish open-air museum, and there is some common intent, but Skansen is older, more varied (taking in architectural examples from all over the country, including from Finnish and Sami communities), and incorporates an extensive Nordic animals section. I have mixed feelings about zoos, but this seems to work quite well as an educational as well as an entertaining experience. We see owls, bears, boar, moose, seals, reindeer and wolves, as well as domesticated animals.

Tues 11th: The weather is more cloudy, and we take a day trip to Uppsala, where we see the Linnaeus museum and the Gustavianum museum, with its impressive Augsburg cabinet and anatomical theatre.

Wed 12th: We’re looking to get round the indoor options, so it’s the Historiska museet in the morning, which proves quite interesting (especially the prehistory sections), and the Nationalmuseum (which is an art gallery) in the afternoon. Although there’s the obligatory Canalettos, it contains mostly lesser-known artists. A couple of interesting Akseli Gallen-Kallela pieces appear in the later rooms.

Thurs 13th: Weather-wise, this is the worst day by far. We start at the Vasamuseet, which houses the recovered wreck of the seventeenth century Vasa. I was anticipating something more dumbed-down and interactive, but it’s much more impressive. In contrast, in the afternoon we visit the Nordiska museet, which isn’t bad but is underwhelming in comparison, not really using its space all that well. Finally we explore the Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde museum; there’s a temporary exhibition of paintings from Grez-sur-Loing and some intereating contemporary photography, but overall it’s quite a small museum.

Fri 14th: The weather is indifferent and we start with a morning tour of the Stadshus, before heading on to Vaxholm, where we see the interesting Hembygdsgårds museum (in a couple of rooms attached to the cafe) before going on to the castle and defensive works. As we exit the castle exhibition, the weather has improved substantially and it’s bright sunshine again.

Sat 15th: It’s a time-filling last day, so we begin at the Rosendals Trädgård, before moving on to the well-stocked Medelhavsmuseet and finally the Strindberg Museum, before heading off to the airport. The flight departs slightly late yet arrives early, but there’s an inordinate wait for the baggage to arrive, and in the end we’re quite late back.

Overall, public transport was good and cheap; visitor attractions were priced comparably with London, and food and drink was expensive. We managed some good budget meals (Georgian, Swedish and Mexican); though not among the cheaper options, Pelikan and Magnus Ladulas were particularly good.

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Back in the day

Book Review: Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos, by Isaac Asimov
I first read this book as a teenager in the 1980s, and I was prompted to put it back onto the to-read list a few years ago when I visited Lisbon, triggered by the mention of Henry the Navigator. It turns out my memory was not quite right – it was the Phoenicians who first noted the appearance of the Sun in the north of the sky, thus demonstrating they had reached the southern hemisphere (because no-one would have imagined such a possibility); and Henry himself in fact never left Portugal.

The account of various stages of exploration of the Earth’s surface is reasonably comprehensive; perhaps some more detail could now be added about deep ocean trenches. But in its exploration of other horizons, the book has not dated so well. It was first published in 1982, and so rides on the same wave as such broadcasting epics as The Ascent of Man or Cosmos; it just about covers the Voyager encounters with Saturn, but of course there is no mention of their later flybys of Uranus or Neptune, nor the various rovers that have landed on Mars, the Cassini mission to Titan, or the New Horizons encounter with Pluto. It’s a reminder how much planetary science has achieved in the last 40 years. The sections on time and energy may not require much updating; the section on matter halts at neutrinos, and inevitably doesn’t cover any of the more recent achievements in particle physics, such as the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Also irritating, for me, is the constant explanation of metric units; clearly it’s written for an American audience. But not only that, the metric units used are a mix of CGS and SI units; while this is easier to handle, it still grates a bit. All told, this book was a bit of a disappointment, and I can recommend it for historic interest only.

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B*llocks to Brexit

I think it’s fair to say the EU election results were better than I’d feared. It is, of course, difficult to draw a clear conclusion from the results on the Remain/Leave debate; hand-waving arguments allow both sides to claim victory. I think we can assume that 9% for the Conservatives indicates the level of support for Theresa May’s deal and that 14% for Labour is a representation of the true Corbynistas. Yes, it was a good result for the Brexit party, but not that good; they did little better than UKIP in 2014. It was a good result for the Lib Dems and Greens – something that Laura Kuenssberg seemed quite unprepared for in the BBC’s results programme – and an unambiguously bad result for Change UK. When they began, I’d have liked them to have done better, but Change UK have made such a mess of things on so many occasions that they desperately need to get themselves a party machine, or merge or form pacts with other parties, and whilst there’s an obvious subjectivity to the interpretation, I think Change UK cost the Lib Dems a seat in Wales, to the advantage of the Brexit Party.

The polls continue to have wide variations, and supporters of a given view will point to the recent poll most favourable to that view; of course I particularly liked the YouGov poll putting the Lib Dems in first place, but even then, predictions show the largest number of seats go to Labour, in third position. (The modelling clearly struggles to reflect reality, because it’s unlikely the Brexit Party would contest all seats, and it’s difficult to imagine them running a hard enough campaign to split votes and unseat Brexiteers such as John Redwood). It’s starting to look like a battle between the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems, if you insist on a two-horse race, or more likely a 4-5 party system (with almost all Green votes being wasted under the current system). The case for electoral reform speaks for itself.

I went to the Lib Dem leadership hustings in Winchester yesterday, as I didn’t feel I knew enough about Ed Davey or Jo Swinson to make an informed choice. Though there was some visible active campaigning on behalf of both candidates, the event was a measured and courteous session.

  • Davey talked more about policy specifics and delivery; Swinson was more focused on personality
  • Swinson was able to point to a significant media profile
  • Davey seemed to have a more combative style
  • Davey mentioned LGBT issues a couple of times, Swinson never mentioned them
  • Neither is interested in a coalition (for now); Swinson was perhaps more open to electoral pacts
  • Davey was strong on tackling climate change and also highlighted the Greens’ far-left economic policies
  • Davey pointed to the failures of our housing system but seemed to have muddled proposals for solving it

It’s not an easy decision; I left feeling that either candidate would do. It’s not simply a question of appealing to party members, but of appealing to the wider electorate. It may not be the central measure, but, especially if the polls move further in the Lib Dems’ favour, there is a possibility the leader will become Prime Minister, which is not something the Lib Dems have really had to consider in living memory.

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The Aftermath

Last night I went to Reading Film Theatre to see The Aftermath. The overall atmosphere is melancholic; the story takes place in Hamburg, in the winter of 1945-46; the Germans are still digging out human remains from the city ruins left over from the fire-bombing of 1943. Colonel Morgan, a British officer managing reconstruction, has decided to ask his wife to join him. As a British officer he has requisitioned an impressive and undamaged house, but he also wishes the German occupants – a widower architect and his teenage daughter – to stay in the house rather than join a camp. This provides an obvious source of friction and events develop, in various ways.

Overall, the sense I had of the film is that it’s about damaged people who have suffered unbearable losses, and explores the ways and risks of repairing that damage. It’s clear from the outset that the colonel has seen the reality of war, and feels that it is now his duty to treat the defeated Germans with respect and humanity, unless and until proven otherwise. His wife initially displays overt hostility to them, but learns that the loss of her son in a bombing raid can be matched to losses on the other side, including Herr Lubert’s wife. It is not clearly explained how Herr Lubert avoided military service; this, possibly, poses an explanation of sorts in the delay of processing his de-Nazification papers. His daughter mixes with an insurgent group, possibly based on the Werwolf and its imitators. Of course, she has known nothing but Nazi propaganda all her life. Other British military personnel convey the more conventional, tasteless, uncultured attitude of victors: “we won, you lost, get over it” more or less sums it up. By the end of the film, there may have been some healing, but there is also further loss. I felt some suspension of belief was required for the wider plot, but human nature is often unpredictable and drawn to unlikely scenarios, and it certainly felt quite authentic in much of its portrayal of the period.

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