Thursday, May 31, 2007

Amazing as it may seem, a senior Wehrmacht commander wasn't such a nice guy after all

This story, has been reported in various guises. The gist of it is:
Erwin Rommel's reputation as one of Nazi Germany's few chivalrous generals has been blackened by a new documentary film which depicts the legendary "Desert Fox" as an unscrupulous commander who spearheaded Hitler's attempts to take the Holocaust to the Middle East.

He helped set up an SS unit dedicated to the extermination of Jews in Palestine and, the article ends:

The documentary makers argue that the role Rommel played in supporting the Nazis' plans to export the Holocaust to the Middle East was largely forgotten after the war because of the field marshal's later alleged involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler...

Post-war Germany capitalised on the notion of Rommel as a chivalrous Nazi commander. However records show that he ordered his non-white prisoners to be fed less than whites and that he ordered unarmed black prisoners to be needlessly shot during the making of a Nazi propaganda film in 1940. In 1970, the Germany navy named a destroyer after him.

I can see why the image of the chivalrous warrior was so appealing. The problem is that it depends, in part, on his own assessment (Rommel once claimed that his military campaign against the British was a chivalrous affair and the nearest thing to "war without hate" - well if you say so, general), ignoring the rather significant context in which Rommel 'did his duty' and the enduring stereotype of the 'good German' . This latter was something which Allied propaganda encouraged, partly in the hope of driving a wedge between the Nazi leaders and their soldiers and partly because large numbers of people were well aware that not all Germans were evil.

The idea of Rommel as a 'good German' remains popular in Britain; a curious example of who people come to believe their own propaganda if it offers a more comforting view of history.

I may have even helped perpetuate it myself in a small way. The following is one of the better Dornan stories from World War II: my grandfather met Rommel during the desert campaign. He was an army doctor and, at the height of the campaign, the medics on both sides were forced to set up their field hospitals wherever possible. Due to the fluid nature of the campaign there was always a risk that the front would shift decisively and they'd find themselves on the wrong side of the campaign.

The story goes that one day a convoy drove up to the hospital, and to the astonishment of the medics and patients out stepped Rommel. He spoke to the German patients, thanked the British officers for their care (shook hands? saluted?) and departed. They waited to be taken prisoner, but no other Germans appeared. It was possible that Rommel himself had crossed into British lines; it would however have been deeply unsporting for a bunch of medics to take him prisoner under the circumstances.

A couple of observations here: it shows Rommel in a fairly good light ('thank you, for looking after my soldiers, Captain Dornan') although one imagines a bona fide war criminal like Keitel would possibly have done something similar under the circumstances.

The other is that while I like the story, I've no way of assessing its truth. For one thing my grandfather - another William - died ten years before I was born. The other is that the Dornans do have something of a habit of embellishing our anecdotes (Irish family, see). "It's not a bad story, but it can be improved with the retelling" is something of a mantra.

With this latter in mind, I was delighted when someone I knew in Cork quoted back a similar version of this story to me; down to the detail that it involved an Irish unit, or at least Irish soldiers serving in the British army. I doubt the person who told me this story would have remembered it were it not for the fact that it involved the chivalrous desert warrior Rommel.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

More popularity

There's a guest post by me up at Harry's Place. Go there if you enjoy hurling brickbats. The error in the Greek is entirely due to the fact that Venichka hit the wrong key whilst I was dictating it to him. It's the way all my posts are written and it is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. I may have to look for a new valet.

Choice insults so far:

The post is boiler-plate leftist drivel.


Despite gleaning not a little sense from Bill's stream of consciousness, I am left wondering what precisely it was that Flashman did to him. And if I knew, which party I'd sympathize with. I bet he wears his school-tie as a belt.

UPDATE: The Greek's fixed, and agreement on the unsuitably of public school teachers comes from the admirable Rowan Pelling in the Torygraph. I would, of course, have mentioned it, even were it not for the praise for the CPSA: "the funniest website of all time".

That said, I have now fallen into a reverie in which the teacher who used to delight in toying with my hair whilst telling me "What you need, Dorners, is a big black woman" is transplanted into a Hackney school.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Je vous aimez... moi non plus

Interesting little lingusitic/formal conundrum here. If you met Sarkozy, would you call him 'tu', 'vous' or 'chou'?

I haven't much to add to the debate except this observation. In Jules et Jim, as I remember, the two title characters address each other as 'vous' throughout. Jeanne Moreau gets a 'tu', however.


A moment of unintentional slapstick

Lord knows, I have no intention of turning this blog into one of those tedious tales of my everyday life thing. My everyday life bores me rigid and I have no intention with boring the rest of you with it. But I feel I must recount the following cautionary tale.

Passing one of the local offies with a bag of groceries this evening I decided to stop in to pick up a four pack. I had previously been well disposed to the place since the owner once asked me for proof of age, but tonight I saw another side to the place entirely. I found the fridge where the cans of beer were; it was one of those sliding door things. I pulled the door back and, because I was holding a shopping bag in my right hand used an elbow to wedge it open. Then I bent down to extract a four-pack of Becks with the left. As I did so, some slight movement of the elbow promoted the door to snap shut like a trap, bashing into my temple.

Braving this danger I managed to extract the Becks. To my horror I then found that it was was one can short. Despite the suspicion that this might be a trap I opened the door again and replaced the Becks. By now I was pretty determined: no infernal fridge was going to deny me my beer, so I opened the door again, wedged it open with my elbow and went for the Grolsch instead. Whereas I'd had to reach down for the Becks I had to reach up for this. But as my hand closed round the beer the same thing happened. The trap snapped shit and for a second time my head was nearly sliced open.

Still I had the beer and went to the till. Astonishingly the man behind the counter seemed unconcerned by the killer fridge he had in his shop, and instead began a cheery chat about the weather and such things. By now I was starting to see through him. I coldly took in his friendly chat, the charity tin for the Children of Iraq (like they ever have to worry about being decapitated by a beer fridge), his previous past 'oh you look so much younger than you are' shtick and I realised these were all a pose, designed to make people think he was a caring, friendly shop keeper rather than a black-hearted villain with Procrustean leanings.

As he handed over the change I smiled coldly. I had the measure of the scoundrel and my terrible revenge was now beginning. Pocketing all the dosh (ha! take that Children of Iraq and your fridges of terror) I walked home for the second part. Tomorrow I shall unleash the feared Health and Safety Executive on this man and free London for ever from this menace.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My dignity vanished as the spicy sauce dripped onto my trousers

Britain: a nation of drunks who are too fond of internet filth, according to one or other of the guide books that always says something that offends people whose self image is so fragile than any criticism of their country upsets them. I'm firmly in the 'what's wrong with that?' camp on this topic.

But the book also says we're too taken with celebrity culture. I concede that point. Look at some so-called serious websites, HP, Norm, Shuggy, it's all Hitchens this, Fisk that. There's no escape from these people, they've even got their own fan sites. I blame television, myself.

It's bad timing for Dave Hill, who's started a tour round Britain to see if he can capture the mood of the nation. Personally, I think it's like trying to capture the nature of love, but good luck to him.

Incidentally, it does occur me that there might be good reading to be had from someone touring the country looking for love. I wonder if, cough, any blogger is sad or desperate enough to do that. Not for me of course, fretting about being single is best left to girls. There's all that booze and internet smut out there for us chaps, see.

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EDW: George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron lived as he dressed - beautifully if not happily. Regrettably his iconic status has detracted attention from his poetry, at least in Britain. It might owe something to the relative ease with which his works can be translated, or his massive influence in other countries (Russia especially: no Byron, no Pushkin; no Puskin, Russia would be a different place), but he only receives his dues abroad.

In an attempt to redress the balance let me urge you to read Don Juan, Beppo or some of the lyric verses. You'll find everything you need there - love, sex, hatred, idealism, despair, rebellion, sin, hypocrisy, blasphemy, religion, melancholy, wit, fashion, literary criticism, beauty, terror and decay. The very quintessence of life, in fact. Moreover, it's written with such zest, verve, elegance and wit. Byron was moreover a supreme master in the use of rhyme which, as thousands of amateur poets prove, is not as easy as it seems.

Sadly poetry in English since his death has tended towards the introspective, self referential and the belief that obscurity is, in fact, a form of subtlety and intelligence. I blame Wordsworth for this (partly because I can and partly because The Prelude marks the moment where it all went wrong).

I'll stop before I become boring on the topic. Instead a couple of Byron's finest.

What men call gallantry and the gods adultery
Is much more common where the climate's sultry.


But - Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Confederacy of Gobshites

Some of you may have noticed there are elections in the Smoke-Free State this week. A ghastly business on the whole; just imagine dozens of mediocre charlatans wandering through some god-forsaken backwater feigning interest in the staggeringly petty parochial concerns of their constituents, and promising endless sweetners to them, and you'll get the idea. But if the Irish pretend to be interested in British politics, then you can pretend to be interested in Irish politics.

So, a guide to the whole business.

Parties: Lots to choose from, without much in the way of policy differences. Much better to pick the candidate who went to your mother's funeral or cleared the way to let you plonk a hideous bungalow on a local beauty spot. But the following are worth bearing in mind.

Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are both republican parties. This leads to endless arguments about which is more truly committed to Ireland and its people. Fianna Fail shows this commitment by trying to be in power all the time, accepting gifts from successful businessmen and refusing to field candidates in the north of the country. Sinn Fein shows it by killing people for 60 years after Fianna Fail had given this up, accepting money from wealthy Americans who don't have a clue what the country's like and playing a leading role in the partitionist government in the occupied six counties.

Fine Gael tries to ensure its policies are identical to Fianna Fail's. The difference is that it won the civil war and then lost out in most elections since. Labour is a left wing party that cunningly adopts right-wing policies because no one votes for it outside the cities anyway. The PDs believe in having arguments and disagreeing with its opponents. This is clearly a bad thing in politics. When all else fails, they launch another crack-down on the poor. The Greens will magic sufficient electricity that doesn't come from oil or Britain's nuclear power plants if elected, because wishing for something and it being possible are the same in politics. The Socialists provide knock-about entertainment by caring about the poor and having lots of policies, all of which are complete bollocks.

Issues: on no account mention the following: a political culture of short-sighted pandering to parochial interests which leads to a major city having no drinking water for several months; the fact the economy is way too reliant on construction, house prices and personal debt and will be more fucked than George Best's liver if things go wrong; abortion.

Do mention: isn't it grand we're all rich (apart from a few stragglers)? The roads and hospitals are fucked, even though we're so rich, but we'll fix them without making the massive investments needed or giving the civil servants a colossal kick up the arse. This is much easier if you're in opposition, but it's pretty much the government's pitch too. If they spend loads of money and things are still bad, it probably means no one could do any better, right? That money was just resting in my account.

Otherwise: if you are a mucker living in an especially backwards stretch of bog, you can greatly enliven the process by electing some dubious, shameless or simply laughable character so the rest of country can laugh at you for being a backwards mucker who elects such characters to represent you.

Me? Although this is the only Irish election I'm likely to get the chance to vote in, I can't really be arsed to fly back to Cork to vote. I notice the unionists seems to have stopped fielding candidates down there; a particularly poor show. They'll never undo Home Rule if they continue like that.


Monday, May 21, 2007

I've I didn't know better, I'd say they were breeding

I spent much of the afternoon wandering through various bits of the London borough of Camden. I didn't meet any picturesque nutters or have long chats with eccentrics, which is just fine by me. However I did notice one disturbing trend.

Now anyone who's spent more than five minutes in central London of an afternoon will have noticed the hordes of brightly dressed types handing out, well more forcibly impressing onto you, various free evening 'newspapers'. But now they're spreading outwards. I saw loads of The London Paper (I'm not playing their pointless lower case games, do they real imagine that hip, young types are scared by a few capital letters on the masthead?) hawkers trying to give copies away to the various Japanese students, teenage Italian goths and terminal alcoholics you find washing round Camden town. That's pretty desperate, thought I. I carried on my wanderings.

Later I saw them again (presumably another crowd of paper pushers) targeting people outside Swiss Cottage, Finchley Road and West Hampstead stations. When you consider almost everyone they met there at six in the evening will likely have passed through central London - and therefore had to literally push past a vast array of free paper people, and had ample chances to pick up discarded copies on the tube - you must concede they're really desperate if they are hoping that people who have, unaccountably, passed up their earlier opportunity to pick up a free paper will miraculously change their minds and think 'Why, yes. I think a fix of The London Paper will, after all, make my journey home more pleasant'.

It's the Mrs Doyle school of marketing. G'wan, g'wan, g'wan, g'wan, g'wan, g'wan, g'wan... repeated until your will is crushed and you take one anyway. It strongly suggests (more than easily rigged figures) the rag isn't getting enough people to pick it up, read it and therefore convince advertisers they've got a great space to sell stuff to people.

Now I'm not an expert but... no, hang on, I actually know something about this. For all the money and effort spent in an attempt to force every single person in greater London to take a copy of the thing, there's precious little money spent on actual, you know, journalism that people might want to read.

Even the most vacuous and brain-dead Londoner will quickly tire of the pathetic, bite-sized, anodyne news and features content. Their eyes will glaze over, making them utterly unreceptive to the 'buy this, it's really great' bits which, presumably, the paper needs to survive. And so the management will start ever more desperate attempts to hand out the paper in the hope that sheer weight of people clutching the thing will someone cancel out this problem in the eyes of the advertisers.

Remember, London will never be free until the last pigeon is strangled with the last copy of The London Paper.

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Few things more ridiculous than the British public in a fit of sentimentality

Everyone might be sad about the destruction of the Cutty Sark, but you have to ask what the people in charge of the boat were thinking. You can't just leave a wooden boat lying about unsupervised. I know they sent someone round to check it every half hour or so, but that's frankly irresponsible. Don't they know there are lots of bad people like arsonists wandering the streets looking for a bit of wood set fire to? Just because people feel sorry for them doesn't mean they shouldn't be prosecuted. I must find a radio phone in to express my outrage and attempt to form a lynch mob.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Damnit, they're right after all

I give up. The Daily Mail, and other prophets of doom, who claim the country is going to the dogs were right after all. Where once Britain celebrated virtues such as tolerance, decency and intelligence, it has now degenerated into feral savagery, vulgarity and loutish ignorance. I'm afraid I can no longer deny it in the face of such over-whelming evidence: Littlejohn’s Britain has just topped the Sunday Times bestseller list.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sentences you should never find yourself writing

This is one such, from Giles Coren.

I went for an end-of-season dinner with my Fives Club to celebrated promotion to the First Division for the first time in 25 years, and had a brilliant night.

This obscure public school sport is played by hardly anyone, yet there is apparently a league. That people continue this in adulthood suggests there is a whole world of furtive, guilty, sweaty nostalgia of which I was ignorant until now. Nor is it the one-handed version much enjoyed by Swinesend's self-abuse club.


Down with this sort of thing

To be clear, the Bible is not obscene. Sure there's all that sex and violence, and incest and other unpleasant things. But it's not as if Bible bashers pick and choose, now is it?


Friday, May 18, 2007

They'd have done the same for Diana

In the shop just now, I spotted the cover of the latest Playboy. It was a picture of Anna Nicole Smith: a special tribute edition. It seems the best way to honour her was reprinting all the old pics of her. Classy.

The cover, and the wonderful phrase 'graveside bukkake' here.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Man bites dog

Sometimes, just sometimes, what you think - hope, even - would be a statement of the bleeding obvious is actually newsworthy. In this case Irish Independent reports a curious defence from a clerical child abuse trial.

Priest 'more interested in betting than child'

A PRIEST accused of helping his friend to sexually abuse a young girl was more interested in gambling than children, a court heard yesterday.

It's a truly strange, and disturbing, case. One BBC report includes a suggestion the priest was having a sexual relationship with the man accused of carrying out the abuse.

PS: Nice to the see the Indo has finally joined the 21st century with its website. During my time at the Irish Examiner any suggestion that the website might possibly be a wee bit archaic fell on deaf ears. (Okay, it wasn't my responsibility, but I did make my views known.) Could someone there please take the hint now?

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Arkan was a great one for corporate team-building away days

Of all the things which fill me with horror, the very idea of organised fun is one of the worst. I've never been a great one for joining in with group activities and am firmly of the view that if you can get people doing the hokey-cokey you can get them to goose-step and 'sieg heil' too. It may only be a semi-serious point, but it's something that Dionysus's party people knew full well: if you cajole, convince or coerce people into losing their self consciousness in the interests of fitting in with group behaviour, you are ensuring they take no responsibility for deciding what is a fitting way to conduct themselves. And from then it's only a short step to who knows what horrors... dancing along to YMCA with all the gestures, possibly.

What set me going on the topic was this. The stuff about Tory politics you can take or leave. What interested me was the discussion about Philip Zimbardo's new book The Lucifer Effect subtitled How Good People Turn Evil.

Now, it's terribly bad form to start commenting on a book you haven't read (but it usually takes me around 18 months to get round to reading these things) so we'll go with Danny Finkelstein's summary for now:

his answer is that any one of us is capable of dreadful behaviour depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our concentration on the personality of evil people, on their dispositions, is a mistake. We should think instead of the situation.

At least half of The Lucifer Effect is devoted to an account of one of the most disturbing experiments conducted by a social psychologist – Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment... The great social psychologist Stanley Milgram had once wondered if he could find enough people in the whole of America to behave as the Nazis had. Experimental work had persuaded him that he could find all he needed just in New Haven. After the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo agreed.

This is the point that interests me: we could, all of us, under the right set of circumstances find ourselves doing abhorrent things. I think it's a topic that has been relatively under-explored outside of academia, probably because it forces us to confront some unpleasant facts about human nature and ourselves. You can see this collectively, in the difficulty many countries have in facing up to the worst aspects of their past (Britain included). Still, I've long thought that while films like Schindler's List help explain what happened in the Holocaust, a film exploring how the ordinary people who became guards at Auschwitz came to do what they did would be far more effective in preventing a future atrocity.

But amidst all the recent debate about William 'Send the Kids Down't Pit' Wilberforce, and whether an apology for slavery is or is not a worthwhile thing (and the raw nerves it touches), it's easy to forget that most people were able to tolerate slavery for a long time because all that nice trade, cheap sugar, rum, cockles, clothing and eastern European hookers and extra dosh sloshing around the country gave them an easier life.

Only, I don't need to look to history or foreign countries to find examples of what I'm talking about: you'll find it all in the recent history of Northern Ireland. I know at least one friend of mine regards my interest in Northern Irish matter as a boring obsession, but if what went on within his own state, within his own lifetime isn't the most pertinent and troubling example of what I mean, it's not just his short attention span I'd worry about.

It was people pretty like himself and myself (my family background: Ulster Protestant, Irish Catholic and English) committing, or often excusing, these acts a few miles away in a collective madness. You all know the sort of thing I mean, and depending on your perspective and nationality the first ones you thought of will probably have been committed by the side you least identify with. But here's a full list: all prompted by idealism; fear; an unexpected and quite exhilarating sense of power and – sometimes – pure, primal savagery.

The thing is very few of these acts would have been committed by individuals if it wasn't for the role that their chosen group identity permitted them to play. In such circumstances it's worth reminding ourselves that might have been me, make sure that it never is.

Of course, there are many who prefer the opportunities for whiny, petty, aggrieved victimhood that the Troubles gave them. But though I think it's dangerous nonsense, especially from the dreaded Plastic Paddies, the worst of it is that I don't really blame them for doing it. It's probably what I'd do under the circumstances. And this, I think, is the most disturbing thing of all. It's unlikely that humans will never accept what monstrous things we might do until it's too late.

This is why, the semi-serious point on which I started, offers some small comfort. There are worst things in the world than being a non-joiner in, a sneering, cynical cad or serial lurker in kitchens at parties. Why you might be forcing your own idea of fun on people who would, left to their own devices, want nothing to do with it.

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Now let me doff my trilby

To Elegantly Dressed Wednesday.

Or in this case, it might be Eerily Dressed Wednesday, or Evilly Debonair Wednesday.

His Holiness has come for your soul, and don't you forget it.

Now my alarm at his undead, gonna-be-around-for-ever appearance (like Paisley or Mugabe) may be somewhat unfair. So let's pause to consider his record.

On the plus side Ratzinger has won plaudits for his dress sense (no, not those Hugo Boss outfits he used to wear as a boy) and surprised many with his better than expected PR skills and philosophical and theological exploration of love.

And, depending on whether you think these are plusses or not, has upheld traditional doctrines and has led an lengthy investigation into something which cannot, actually, be investigated because it's existence was only ever pure speculation before deciding that one "traditional" Catholic teaching was most likely a crock of shite someone made up on a whim.

On the negative side he has upset amongst others gays, Protestants, Muslims, and, most recently, American Indians.

Pope Benedict XVI told Latin American bishops in Brazil that American Indians had been "silently longing" to become Christians 500 years ago.

To be honest, though, whilst I think he's a silly old fool (and he probably thinks I'm going to hell) I can't take this much more seriously than I do the Duke of Edinburgh's occasional outbursts. It's what he believes, after all, and there's no point being Pope unless you really, sincerely think the Catholic church is the way to salvation and that those who cut themselves off from its teaching are cutting themselves off from God.

But it's easy for me to laugh, I'm not someone who has ever thought like this. His comments on the Spanish invasion of the Americas shows the danger of zealots, be they religious or political (or both, if you use the term literally). The idea that your beliefs are so right, so perfect that it doesn't matter what crimes are committed to impose them because, ultimately, it's in everyone's interests is one that has led to unimaginable suffering time after time after time.

His other things are a problem only if you're one of the mere billion or so who take Catholicism seriously. And with that in mind, what will really interest me is how the Catholic Church's teachings and actions affect the fight against AIDs.

Elegantly Dressed Wednesday button


But to start off: something nice.

Britain's oldest man shares his memories of WG Grace playing cricket. Or more precisely, seeing WG Grace.

"He faced a few balls and everyone gave him a big hand, but the thing I really remember is the lunch and the tea, and that there was plenty of sunshine,” Allingham said.


No doubt many four-year-olds today who are lucky enough to see Ricky Ponting, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ashley Giles* play also remember only the sandwiches and the weather.

It's worth noting, of course, that he was at both the Battle of Jutland and the Somme.

This is the sort of thing that fascinates me about history, no matter what the subject there are people like Allingham whose memories provide a slender thread that leads us back slowly into all the complexities of the past. And it's this indirect connection that keeps us fascinated by leading us back into the passions and hopes that produced the world in which we find ourselves.

Except to keep up the metaphor , if you follow the thread backwards, it can lead you read back into the labyrinthine horrors and beasts of the past and set us to fighting old battles again. It's a danger of caring too much about the past, this unappeasable wish to change things that happened long ago. So with this is mind, let's not make Henry Allingham a myth, rather enjoy all his memories. He'd probably rather talk about cricket and how he can't find his way round London anymore than World War I in any case.

*Just thought I'd improve upon the original article. It's a natural instinct.


And so it begins with a confession

I'd earmarked this blog with the intention of doing something with it late last summer. As my records show, I had written at the time: "A new low, even for me. I wake up, I find I'm fully clothed. Fine, it's happened before. But I'm underneath the bed clothes. Oh well. It's broad daylight. But of course. I'm clutching a toothbrush in my hand."

There is no better frame of mind in which one could start to grapple with the pains and complexities of existence, only it's not the sort of thing you really feel like doing. Especially when you have to go to work. So it was not until last night when (and you might want to read something into this) a light supper of a salad washed down with green tea left me utterly unable to sleep. Luckily, in those hours I was able to decide on the sort of things I was going to say on this and - more importantly - what I wasn't going to say.

More on this later.