THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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An enemy of sanity

An Enemy of the People starring Matt Smith extends at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre | West End Theatre.

Enemy of SanityThings are better in my world. The Misses P are back in my life and that was the only real reason (my divorce having gone through with goodwill on both sides) for me to be sad. The ex-Mrs P is remarried and I sincerely wish her and her new husband every joy. 
 
Last night the Misses P took me to the theatre as my birthday present. The birthday was last month. The actor who played my favourite modern Doctor Who, Matt Smith, is in the final week of an extended run of Ibsen's "Enemy of the People."
 
Not that Ibsen had much to do with it, beyond the hyper-naturalism of the acting, the Norwegian names of the characters or the fact that no-one cares what happens to any of the miserable Nordic mofos in the dreary plot.
 
The production was modern, featured some badly-performed Clash and Bowie, and led to a deranged political rant by the leading character to open an audience participation town-hall meeting. 
 
I was not convinced that the audience participants were genuine but my daughters assured me they were. A gent from Northern Ireland immediately behind me launched into a terrifying speech about filthy privatised water versus the angelically-pure stuff that flowed from our taps when morally-flawless public servants were in charge. His thinking was not even reality-adjacent. It sounded like he'd never met a non-Marxist in his life. And he was by no means the wackiest loon to stand up.
 
We're in an election year. I sat with my head in my hands, unable to look at the theatre-going madmen engaged in a Highland Games of lunacy; tossing ever greater rhetorical cabers and cheering each other on while pumping clenched fists in the air. 
 
People like them must find The Guardian far-right. I told myself repeatedly that "nothing is less representative than a West End audience". London's theatre-loving young bourgeoisie could not be less like the British people I keep trying to love. 
 
I thanked the Misses P for their gift as we parted. I had loved being in their presence, even if the play had driven me first to boredom, then to sleep and finally to despair. I anxiously urged them to remember that they live in a better world than they were born into. That life-expectancy keeps rising, poverty keeps falling and that their lives are well worth living and becoming more so by the day. 
 
Then I stood waiting for a taxi on the other side of the street as the actors, including Mr Smith of whom I was so recently a fan, came out to sign autographs for adoring theatre-goers who might as well have been Mao's Red Guards for all their attachment to Enlightenment values and a free market economy.
 
I've never slunk before, but there was no better verb to describe how I went home. What kind of world has such people in it? 

Apollo in transit

I am a practical man and a problem-solver by nature. Some say I lack emotional intelligence. Perhaps I do. It's an attribute I find hard to take seriously. When someone claims it, in my experience, it can often be translated as "Hey! I'm dumb but I'm nice". 

That's not to say that I don't have emotions. In the months since last November, I've had too many of them – or perhaps just too much of the same one. Either way, it hurts and doesn't achieve much.

I made a new friend online in recent months. We volunteer together on a trivial pastime project entirely unworthy of our skills and experience. We are both widowers, both retired and of the same generation. He was an engineer. I was a lawyer. We have nothing much in common but get along well. I was excited when he told me his name appears in the NASA Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Like me, he was a boy at the time, so didn't work on Apollo itself. His credit is for a later technical contribution.

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Earthrise, by Bill Anders | Image Credit: NASA

Those who worked on the Apollo Program are among the few government employees I have ever admired.  The astronauts were (and still are) my heroes. My new friend gave me access to the operating manual for the Saturn V rocket and other such wonderful documents. It's hard to explain how much pleasure I took in looking through them. Suddenly it was Christmas 1968 again and I was an 11 year old boy waiting anxiously for AOS (acquisition of signal) from Apollo 8 to confirm that the SPS (service propulsion system) had ignited to achieve TEI (trans-Earth injection).

NASA alway did the best TLAs (three letter acronyms).

My new friend also recommended From the Earth to the Moon, a late-nineties TV series (currently available on Amazon Prime). At the time of its original release on HBO, I was working crazy hours in a demanding career. Any TV I saw was chosen by a wife and daughters with no interest in such stuff. When I organised a trip to Cape Canaveral during a Florida family holiday, they ganged up on me as we were about to set off and told me I was going alone. I was upset but, hey, I had one of the best days of my life.

I'm enjoying the show – including the appearance in the story of my namesake Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator who oversaw the first seven Apollo missions. It's pre-woke and tells the story straight. Yes it portrays the society of the time in which an astronaut could say affectionately to his worried wife (without her flying off the handle, or even looking miffed); 

You take care of the custard. I'll take care of the flying 

But it doesn't use the phrase "toxic masculinity" once.

The costs of this epic endeavour were not just the billions extorted from American taxpayers or the strains put on the astronauts' families. Three men: Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee laid down their lives in grisly fashion on the launchpad during a routine test. As so often in such epic tales, it's not the fallen heroes who are remembered. The glory goes to the ones who come home in triumph. In my book, those men are among the greatest heroes Mankind has ever known. 

One particular scene in the show may (time will tell) help me to gain some perspective on my woes. Two characters – Harrison Storms, an executive at North American Aviation and Joseph Shea from NASA – walk in a park and discuss their fates. Both had been scapegoated for the Apollo 1 tragedy. The script puts these words into Storm's mouth;

You know in my years in flight tests I saw a number of crews slam into the desert floor. Too many. I loved those guys and each time that happened I wanted to die. But I’ve learned that you’ve got to let go of the "what ifs". They’re meaningless and they’ll kill you

In the next episode the script attributes these words to Wally Schirra, commander of Apollo 7, when asked by a documentary-maker how he felt about the Apollo 1 disaster; 

You mourn the loss but you don't wear the black armband for ever.

Maybe Captain Schirra lacked emotional intelligence too. Or maybe he was just wise enough to play the cards life dealt him and not waste it on regret. 

By the standards of most humans, let alone real heroes, I don't have a problem worthy of the name. Someone I love stopped loving me. It happens. It seems to have happened to me a lot, so perhaps there's something wrong with me. If there is, I can't identify it and – at 65 – it's unlikely I can change it. So it may be time to let go of of the "what ifs" and stop wearing the black armband.

I'm not sure the Apollo 1 story would have given me that insight if it were not for the fact that it also woke memories of my young self – a boy full of hopes and dreams – quite a few of which came true.


The morality of public “service”

I was brought up to respect policemen. I still do. Even a libertarian state would ask good people to put themselves in harm’s way to enforce its few laws. The harm they do is rarely the fault of the (mostly) good policemen enforcing our current monstrous state’s thousands of bad laws. 

The same can be said for judges. They have an honest, important and necessary job to do that is foundational for civilisation but also apply and interpret thousands of laws that should simply not be. Their hands are dirty but it’s not their fault. Our soldiers too and perhaps (though here it gets murkier) even some of our civil servants.  

Though my conscience might still (just) handle being a judge (and relish the chance to lean hard toward Liberty in interpreting our laws) I couldn’t be a civil servant, soldier or policeman in modern Britain any more than I could be a politician for a mainstream statist party. I could not serve a gangster state that interfered with the citizenry’s freedom while violently extorting from it the money to pay me and hope to sleep at nights. 

Which raises the awkward question, who can? Being a judge, a soldier or a policeman is noble enough (and a civil servant harmless enough) in principle but to choose such a career serving the states we have now is morally questionable at least. Watch the French police currently beating up the gilets jaunes, for example. You’ll need to scour YouTube as the MSM is oddly reticent on the subject. These thugs are not conscripts. Each studied, applied, trained and freely signed a contract. Why would a decent human choose to do that job?

We have been watching Kiefer Sutherland’s Netflix show “Designated Survivor” and enjoying it well enough. I view it as the entertaining  tosh it is intended to be but wince at its po-faced portrayal of its heroes. They are cynical foes of Liberty and (literally) murderous enemies of the Rule of Law but we are expected to see them as paragons of selfless virtue. Given the boundless power of modern Western states, and the extent of their control over our personal lives, just who else would we expect to work for them but narcissists and sociopaths?

A children’s home (or church trusted by parents with their children) needs to be particularly alert to the possibility of child abusers wanting to work there. A powerful state should be similarly so about sociopaths. Neither our children’s homes, churches nor governments seem to have shown any such concern. I fear the abusers are now in charge of recruitment. 

This at least partly accounts for the relentless “mission creep” of the modern state. It certainly accounts for “Conservative” ministers, surfing smug tides of Liberty-minded rhetoric, interfering in the minutiae of our lives indistinguishably from openly authoritarian Labourites. There was a time when a moral man like this would become a civil servant but the people who staff our state now lack — almost by definition — any moral scruples about its rôle.

Please tell me I am wrong in this pessimistic analysis. If not, how can we hope peacefully and democratically to roll back the power of the state? If we can’t, then how does the story of our civilisation end?


La Bastide Saint-Antoine

Bastide means either a fortified village from the Middle Ages (a small bastion, I guess) or a small country house - a Manor House perhaps. This particular Bastide may once have been the latter but is now a cathedral of French cuisine. We had planned for the dinner last night in Cap d'Antibes to be our grand culinary farewell to the Côte d'Azur but, having extended our stay to compensate for the time taken by our overnight excursion to Italy, we needed another.

I have eaten here before and knew what to expect. For my wife, new to this scene, the ceremonious approach in such a great restaurant was at first mildly amusing. In such surroundings in London one would still make an effort to dress up, but in the relaxed South of France "smart casual" was enough. Jacques Chibois is the chef-proprietor, which actually means something in France. Here they don't go in for the aggressive branding of the anglosphere mega-chefs, with chains lightly bearing (and sometimes debasing) their names.

He is no occasional visitor here but wields his own knives. Formerly head chef at the Gray d'Albion Hotel in Cannes, he worked in London and New York having first served his time (among other greats) with the area's culinary hero – the late Roger Vergé. Vergé now has a square named after him in Mougins, where his restaurants were and I imagine Chibois hopes to be remembered in the same way by his adopted home town of Grasse. He spent years searching for a suitable country house in an olive grove "in the style of the Colombe d’Or in St Paul" to establish his own restaurant.

We checked out the a la carte menu, mainly for the delectation of Mrs P II, but opted for the "menu Dimanche en Fȇte", as chosen by the great man himself. Each course was matched with wine selected by his sommelier. Gentle reader, any eloquence on my part would only torment you. It was superb. All I can say is – if you ever get chance to do so – go and try it yourself. Even if it means cutting your stay in the area by a couple of nights to save on hotel costs to pay for it, just do it. You will never spend a better €400+ with aperitifs and (as we did) with cheese.

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The heat was excessive today so the short drive there and back required the roof up and air-conditioning on full blast. It was so hot that the restaurant called us before we set off to say that the famous terrace was unbearable and to ask if we minded eating indoors! I imagine we might have coped with some shade, but it would hardly have been fair to the staff, who were – unlike their guests today – very properly dressed indeed!

Our plan today is to pack for an early departure tomorrow, then cool down in the pool shared with our neighbours. Tomorrow we say a fond farewell to our Mougins home. I am authorised by my friend the owner to say that if any of you would like to stay here yourselves, it's available to rent and you can contact him through me. It's a two bedroom villa in a gated development adjoining (and with direct access to) the Royal Mougins Golf Club. His paying guests can make use of his membership there. Even if you're not into golf, there's an excellent restaurant and spa facilities.

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I am not seeking to become an "internet influencer" on the backs of my small group of readers. I hope this small promotion – made entirely from the heart and not for gain – does not increase the number of irritating emails I receive from people wishing to use my blog for their own commercial purposes. It is and always has been a not-for-profit personal venture and I have no desire to change that. Besides, my political blogging is often provocative enough to drive customers away, rather than draw them in!


Book Review – In Focus: The case for Privatising the BBC

In Focus: The Case for Privatising the BBC – Institute of Economic Affairs.

I have been reading another of the books I snagged at the recent Think! conference organised by the IEA. You can read it too, online for free. It's a well-researched, well-reasoned piece of work. It won't please those on the Right or Left who rage at Auntie's perceived bias because it reaches a nuanced conclusion. Yes, the BBC has a bias but it's not a crudely political one. It's the predictable bias of the kind of middle class professional person who chooses to work in a public service broadcaster. In the chapter "Why is the BBC biased?" written by Stephen Davies of the IEA, he explains why people with views as radically divergent as, say, Owen Jones and I all feel that the BBC is against us;

...certain views are marginalised and either misrepresented or even ignored. It is not a straightforward matter of either left or right views being treated in this way. Rather, all views that are not in the conventional wisdom are slighted, even if they are widely held among the public. Examples from the right would be support for radical reform of the welfare system or the NHS; from the left, it could be the popularity of public ownership of utilities ... Certain views are clearly represented as being uninformed or exotic, such as scepticism about man-made climate change, hostility to immigration or doubts about the benefits of formal education. Sometimes this judgement may be true, but to simply ignore and disregard a view is actually counterproductive if your aim is to inform. 
 
In addition there is an intensification of the structural tendency of the modern media to see political and intellectual divisions in binary terms. This leads to many perspectives being simply ignored or misrepresented. In the last 30 years for example, it has become part of the conventional BBC view that opposition to the EU is definitively located on the right. This means that the continuing and at one time prominent socialist critique of the EU is simply not represented. On the other side, opposition to immigration is thought to be associated with other views conventionally placed on the right, so that left-wing opposition to labour migration is airbrushed out, despite being common among many Labour voters. At the same time, the strong support of most free-market advocates for freer immigration is ignored and glossed over. In other words, the very existence of certain kinds of combinations of views is simply ruled out, and they are not even considered, despite being perfectly coherent intellectually and widely held.
The last discussion I had on immigration, for example, was just this week with a new friend who is an active member of the Labour Party. He is of the same vintage as myself and is a "Old Labour" socialist from the provincial working class that founded the Party. He is uncomfortable with the "Metropolitan elite" now in charge and is more scathing about identity politics than any Tory I know. He is firmly in favour of restricting immigration; believing that it has reduced working class wages. I, on the other hand, would be in favour of open borders if we could first abolish the welfare system that distorts the labour market and attracts unproductive immigrants. For so long as that system exists, I favour a liberal immigration policy that actively encourages skilled workers to come here, regardless of their origins, but offers no welfare benefits to first generation immigrants unless and until they have paid a minimum contribution into the system.
 
Neither of us fit the simplistic right/left BBC narrative, so our views never feature. He and I haven't talked about the BBC yet, but it would be perfectly understandable if we both thought it was biased. That wouldn't matter so much if the BBC was not (a) funded by state force and (b) the provider of 75% of all television news viewed in the UK. Though the internet is undermining its near-monopoly it still shapes the views of most voters, who rarely ignore its narrative. Hence Auntie's conniptions at the result of the EU Referendum. A decision was made on the basis of opinions outwith her conventional wisdom. It's from "out of left field" as our cousins across the pond say and must be wrong, or mad, or both.
 
So who are these people who choose to work for a public service broadcaster, bringing their unconscious biases with them? 
The initial factor is the very narrow and restricted background of BBC staff, both of presenters and producers. The proportion who are privately-educated (and, by extension, upper-middle class) is several times the national average (Milburn 2014). Generally they come from professional backgrounds rather than commerce or business, much less from working-class households. Much of the critical comment on the narrow base from which the BBC draws its senior staff emphasises the lack of ethnic or gender diversity; but, while there is undoubtedly something to this, it is swamped by the social origins phenomenon. The women and ethnic minorities who do work for the BBC in roles such as producer, presenter and senior manager are likely to come [my emphasis] from the same kind of educational and social background as their white, male colleagues.
 
What this naturally leads to is a common shared set of beliefs and attitudes, deriving from common or shared experience. In a very real sense the conventional wisdom referred to earlier is the shared outlook of a specific social group or formation. The problem, of course, is that, in the absence of challenges or dissent from people from a different background, all kinds of beliefs remain unquestioned, with the status of 'obvious truth' or 'common sense' attached to them. These kind of unexamined assumptions exist at the level of general principles rather than particular issues. Examples might be that it is always good to help the less fortunate or that most social problems should be understood as having structural causes rather than being explicable through individual agency or action, or that business activity is a zero sum game. Moreover, once a particular set of attitudes becomes widely shared within any organisation, it tends to attract people who share them, and so the situation becomes self-perpetuating and reinforcing. 
Then there is the fact that no-one who disapproves of an organisation funded by force would dream of applying for a job there. This is a problem for all state organisations, not just the BBC. I could not live with knowing that every penny I "earned" had been taken by force from my fellow men. I would be as ashamed of working for the Government or the BBC as I would be to work for the Mafia – and for the same moral reasons. I derive my self-respect from taking care of myself and my family and from being a burden to no-one. I am proud of the fact that every penny I have earned came from voluntary transactions with clients who had plenty of other choices. That is why it's difficult to get classical liberals of any stripe into Parliament, Whitehall or the BBC. The self-selected political and administrative classes comprise people who have no moral objection to living parasitically on their fellow-men. We can't expect such people to favour a smaller government, privatisation of the BBC or less state intervention in private life. If they did, they wouldn't be there.
 
Some may go into politics, the Civil Service or the Beeb with the honourable goal of relieving the burdens of oppressed taxpayers. Few stick to that objective. They will find most of their colleagues bemused by them while they are junior, fearful when they are senior and downright hostile if they come near the levers of power. If not independently wealthy (and why would they work in such mundane roles if they are) they will find themselves under financial as well as social pressure to conform. Their advancement is very likely to depend upon the approval of people who share the conventional wisdom.
 
This is an interesting book and worth a read. I would love to hear your views on it, gentles all. 

The self-righteousness of cyclists knows no bounds

 

I have adequate self-esteem and a burning desire for justice but I just cannot compete in these respects with certain urban cyclists.

My brother-in-law got a £50 fine for parking outside a charity shop on Chiswick High Road for the few seconds it took him to run in a box of donated goods. Or as he might have put it (if he were a prig) "doing the world a favour." I read later the camera that snagged him is one of the highest-yielding bits of kit in the capital (congratulations, Hounslow Council). He paid up and moved on. I doubt he has thought about it since.

Casey Neistat likewise got a $50 fine for riding outside an available bike lane. But he didn't shrug his shoulders. Oh no! He got on his blazing white steed bike and rode into battle.

City bike lanes take up space that could otherwise be shared with other road users. This, in order to protect the smug, entitled "...I am doing the world a favor here..." asses of cyclists. Yet Niestat took offence on an epic scale. He is one of those people memorably dubbed by one of my favourite bloggers, Leg-iron, as "the Righteous".

The video is funny if you are not one of the people whose property he deliberately rides into to make his point. Mainly it's funny because of his incredible sense of grievance. Talk about #firstworldproblems. He's lucky he didn't hurt himself. He's even luckier he didn't get fined for some US equivalent of 'criminal damage.'

I don't always sympathise with policemen. Our own British "bobbies" have sold their souls to "the Righteous" and now seem engaged more in suppressing thought-crime than in anything actually useful. The officer at the beginning of the film however strikes me as a good guy doing his best. I certainly admire his restraint in the face of the whining of this major league prig.

4440588147_a4da68c573On my riverside walk last Sunday I discovered a sign almost as ignored as those that say "keep left" on the stairs in London's tube stations. It's also two words too long for London's literates, apparently. It reads "No cycling".

No laws kept those two-wheeled prigs out of the Thames that day. Only my sense of proportion. Mr Niestat could do with some of that. If you disagree with me, I shall cheerfully do that walk again with a video camera and an extra spoke for their wheels. It should make for every bit as amusing a film.


OTT or what?

Granita
The Last Ditch is not going to become a food blog. You should still look to Sicily Scene and others for your culinary fix. However, I thought this photo of a few spoonfuls of granita served in a tower of ice might amuse you. Bruno Oger's presentation of food is certainly imaginative. The tower is hollow, about the size of a piece of drainpipe and is illuminated by an LED standing on the plate beneath it. It looked impressive when eight of them were carried in procession to our table last night. If you get the chance to sample M. Oger's food, I recommend you seize it.


Anyone but Murray? Not today.

ShanghaiMasters4 Mrs P. and I had a pleasant time at the Qi Zhong Tennis Center today. On a beautfully sunny afternoon, we watched Melzer and Paes narrowly defeat Fyrtenberg and Matki in the final of the Shanghai Rolex Masters doubles competition.

Then in the late afternoon/early evening, we watched Andy Murray comfortably take the mens' singles title of the tournament in straight sets. It was odd, so far from the childish nationalisms that poison our home islands to hear the Chinese announcers introduce Murray as "from Great Britain" in English, but as "an Englishman" in Chinese, while his fans all displayed the Saltire. The only Union Flag on display was behind his personal entourage. Now he's at a level to be in line for the big sponsorship deals that come with popularity, it seems his camp would like the English on his side.

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I am not of the "anyone but Murray persuasion" because of his supposed anti-Englishness. I was rooting for Federer today for other reasons. I find it irritating that someone so blessed with talent as Murray appears neither to appreciate nor enjoy it. He makes angry, whiney noises as he plays; he changes rackets or fiddles with his shoes after every mistake, as if there must obviously be an external cause. He scowls at the ball boys and girls (aspiring players themselves no doubt); gesturing to them peremptorily in marked contrast to the smiles and polite nods of other players. He never seems pleased to see anyone, in fact. I don't think he's so much anti-English as generally misanthropic. Compare and contrast all that with the charming smiles and easy manners of Federer; a man whose success no-one resents or envies because he is as gracious off the court as he is graceful on it.

Pressed by the Chinese master of ceremonies to explain why he never smiles, Murray played for sympathy and said "I'm shy."  Then, adding "...but I will try hard for you...," he put on a sickly Gordon Brown grimace. At that moment I thought that, if I were the marketing director of Rolex, I would be hoping Murray will never wear in public the watch I had just presented to him. In fact, I would be hoping he would agree to endorse some competitor's product.

ShanghaiMasters6There is no denying that Murray played the better tennis today, for all that the crowd cheered his opponent's every good stroke, while politely clapping his. Federer had played a match yesterday while Murray rested (one imagines in a darkened room with a duvet over his head). At the ripe old age of 29, Federer seemed tired and rather resigned in the face of the Murray onslaught. There were flashes of brilliance and some really quite extraordinary rallies (men's tennis is much improved from the boring era of grunts and aces when I tired of it) but for the most part he seemed almost ready to lose.

Federer is one of the greats of tennis and I am glad to have seen him "live" (and experienced the warmth he generates in his fans). There was a fin de siecle feel to it all though.

The game was over all too soon and we were watching the crowd warm more to Federer as he ventured a few words of Chinese, while laughing unsympathetically at Murray's embarrassing claim to be shy. If you want those sponsorship millions, Andy, you had best apply the discipline of your sports training to developing (or faking) some social skills. Otherwise, no matter how many tournaments you win, you will always be a loser.