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

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Reflections on "Big Bad John" by Jimmy Dean.

© William Morris Agency (management)

I am listening to this song today and remembering how I used to make my daughters (and any other children who found themselves in the back of my car) sing along to it on road trips. 

I probably first heard it – played to me by an uncle who took informal responsibility for my musical education – not too long after it came out in 1961. I'd have just started infants school. I heard it a lot over the years that followed.

Given the size of said uncle (and all the other men in my family) I knew that one day I'd grow up to be the size of the song's hero.

The boy Tom was a serious, thoughtful little chap and thought that one day he'd have to aspire to be that way – metaphorically.

It was a daunting prospect and good reason to enjoy the rest of a carefree boyhood while it lasted.

The only mine I ever went down didn't collapse on me. I never faced such a test of courage. Who knows how I would have fared? I might well have been one of the other miners: praying, my heart beating fast and fearing I'd breathed my last. Still, the song embodies for me the ideal of what it means to be a "proper man".

Today, that's "toxic masculinity" and is to be despised. "Courage" is now used as a word to describe public whingeing about one's first world problems – real or imagined.

Mr Paine the elder, a wiser gentleman than he knows, has often told me over the years that we have to die in the end, because the world changes until we no longer fit in it. Perhaps, when your highest ideals are looked down upon, it is time to move on?

Maybe so but I still love the song. YouTube does not permit it to be presented here, but follow this link to hear it. If your woke education permits, enjoy!


I have still not found my lost faith but if I do and make it to Heaven, it will be like the place I took Mrs P II tonight. The one fixed point in this trip to the Côte d'Azur was, as it has been for me on every such trip for over twenty-five years, the Restaurant de Bacon at Cap d'Antibes.

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If it's not a cheap place, that's partly my fault. When a kind client took me there to Sunday lunch for my first visit, it was a local institution; too far from Cannes to pick up trade from the various festivals and trade fairs held there. It was even further from Nice. The local bourgeoisie in Antibes and the wealthy types with villas on the Cap knew it well enough but that was it.

Over the following years I took many clients and contacts there from all over the world. As I returned each year with a new batch of guests, I would see my former guests hosting other tables. On one such occasion, every table was hosted by someone I had introduced. Except, that is, for one presided over by the bemused gentleman who had first taken me there. He was mildly irritated, I think, that I had spread his secret local knowledge so widely.

One family vacation we met a Russian client there who had brought his family to Antibes for their holidays so he could take them to "the Bacon". One Christmas in Chester I was telling my family that "the best restaurant in the world" was in Cap d'Antibes. Our waiter asked me if I was talking about the Bacon and when I replied "yes" he said that he had trained there and would call the owner to tell him what I had said.


The strange thing is that I loved it before I learned (on my recent diet) to love fish. I never willingly chose to eat it anywhere else. As we drove there in the evening heat, with Speranza's roof open to the moist air, I began to worry that I had built it up so much that Mrs P II might be disappointed. When I realised that, the old gentleman who took care of me so assiduously on that long-ago first visit having sadly passed away, the family had sold it to a new owner, I was even more worried. I need not have been. His spirit lives on. The food is as good as ever. The wine list is as spectacular as always. The service is just as impeccable.

Our waiter spoke such good English that we did not at first believe he was French. In all my years abroad working with speakers of the world's most widespread language – ESL – I have known lots of people who have achieved commendable fluency. I worked with lawyers for whom English was a second or third language and yet they functioned in it at a level most natives could not hope to reach. Yet I never met one like this young man, who could pass for a native. French cuisine's gain is French espionage's loss!

Sated and happy, we drove the long way home along the coast, rather than taking the autoroute. This allowed Mrs P II to get a sense of the South of France. It's not all Russian billionaires, bling and super yachts. There were also ordinary French families walking together through Juan-les-Pins and young people from all over Europe partying vigorously on the dark beaches as we passed. I played "Where do you go to my lovely?" by Peter Sarstedt to explain to her how a young me had first heard of a glamorous lifestyle unknown to my happy but modest childhood. He sang of Juan-les-Pins as we drove through it and I smiled. 

Tomorrow is our last full day on the Côte d'Azur. On Monday we are back on the road, heading first to Beaune.

If I had a hammer


...I would be hammering The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and the BBC for bombarding me with nonsense about the late Pete Seeger's 'idealism'. Even his ideological chums over at the New Republic acknowledge he had been a Stalinist stooge.

He and his musical colleagues sang anti-war songs in 1939-41 because, in the Soviet Union, Stalin had decided that an alliance with the Nazis was a good idea; and the order to support Stalin had gone out to every Communist Party in the world; and Pete Seeger was, in those days, a good Communist. And so, he picked up his banjo and leaned into the microphone, and his vocal warblings and his banjo plunks were exactly what Stalin wanted to hear from Pete Seeger.

"In those days" Really?! In an interview in 1995 he said;

I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.

Of course he backed off a little in his enthusiasm for Uncle Joe Stalin. Gosh darn it, he even wrote a song;

I'm singing about old Joe, cruel Joe
He ruled with an iron hand
He put an end to the dreams
Of so many in every land
He had a chance to make
A brand new start for the human race
Instead he set it back
Right in the same nasty place
I got the Big Joe Blues
(Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast)
I got the Big Joe Blues
(Do this job, no questions asked)
I got the Big Joe Blues . . .

That was in 2007 so Seeger may have been the last to notice that Stalin "ruled with an iron hand". I was living in Russia at the time and - trust me - the news had been out there for a while. He may also have underestimated his ex-idol's achievements. The world before Stalin may have been a "nasty place", but the world after was not "the same nasty place". The nastiness bar had been raised. Maybe, if you are inclined to see totalitarian power as a chance to make "a brand new start", it's best not to look to you for moral judgement?

Mark Steyn, before Seeger's death, commented drily on Seeger's propensity to be on the side of anyone at war with America at the time, but to recant later.

I can't wait for his anti-Osama album circa 2078

Mr Steyn also pointed me to the concise dismissial of Pete Seeger by James Lileks;

"'If I Had A Hammer'? Well, what's stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they're about a buck-ninety, tops."

That's rather Tom Lehrer's point in the video above, of course; "Ready. Aim. Sing".

I also found a highly-critical article by one of Seeger's fellow-leftists;

Who the hell was Pete? He came from a distinguished family of musicians and academics afflicted with self-conscious class-consciousness; his father, Charles Louis Seeger, although from an old Puritan patrician line, joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World in the 1930s, a form of ostentatiously slumming solidarity that predicted much about his son's future. Pete was a professional musician from a young age, Harvard dropout, assistant to folk archivist Alan Lomax, and dedicated political activist. He knew everything about folk music, except what it is.

No rebel then, our Pete. He was as in mindless a thrall to his parents' ideology as the most conventional Tory of the Shires.

The biggest smile I got from the Seeger tributes today was at the Leftist New York Times leaping to his defence by claiming that he had criticised Stalin “at least as early” as 1993. It rather reminded me of the moment a Russian colleague was asked by a client to whom he had complained of "Western exaggeration" about Stalin how many he thought he had killed. When he answered "no more than a couple of hundred thousand", the client paused meaningfully before saying "so that's OK then?"

Trust me, I know idealism when I see it - not least because I am old enough to be painfully self-aware. Idealism was far down the list of Pete Seeger's problems - some way below his lousy voice, poor musicianship and spoiled rich kid leftism. Tom Lehrer was, if anything, far too kind.

Drawing a (dotted) line

Until the Great Writ of habeas corpus runs again in the land that conceived it; until the presumption of innocence applies once more and "suspect" means only what the dictionary says; until the right of silence applies again, I cannot promise not to write here. But a line has to be drawn, at least for a while.

I can say nothing useful until the coalition government has had the chance to make those changes and many more. So far, they have spoken and written fair words, but handsome is as handsome does and they have already one very black mark against their name. I cannot quite believe that they have already used the very "control orders" (house arrests of innocents) whose introduction to Britain inspired me to start this blog.

As it happens, there are also changes in my own life I must deal with. Great, sad changes that make blogging - at least for a while - seem a very paltry thing. So forgive me if I fall silent for a while.

Leadership, set to music.

I am at a "leadership retreat" in St Petersburg, where we 80 or so attendees are supposed to learn not just about our industry, but how to be better leaders. The presentations so far have been interesting and the company is fascinating. Tonight we dine in some Russian palace or other. I am lucky to have such a life.

Browsing my RSS feeds before dinner I came across this video of a talk by conductor Benjamin Zander. Watch it, and I think you will agree that this man is a real leader.

h/t Café Grendel

Apropos of nothing in particular

A new friend in Second Life introduced me to this video today. Country music can be embarrassing, I know. My daughters mock me relentlessly for my "redneck" tastes. I can handle it. Sometimes a good country song is just so real, that you have to love it (however much you think you shouldn't). This song is a case in point. The emotion in the singer's face is more authentic, I suspect, than all the faux sentimentality in a year of British TV news.

Look down on country music if you will, but I think this is an honest song, well sung. Hang your prejudices on a chair back and give it a listen.

Show of Hands at the Royal Albert Hall

Link: Royal Albert Hall | Royal Albert Hall.

SteveandphilWhat a room! It was my first time there and I have to say that the Albert Hall is worth a visit in its own right.  Show of Hands put on a good evening's entertainment too, together with an assortment of guests (including Tom Robinson of TRB fame - an unexpected reminder of student days).

I went to see the concert entirely on the strength of Show of Hands' YouTube hit, "Roots" and their latest album, "Witness," but I enjoyed most of their other stuff too. Phil Beer is a great musician and Steve Knightley is a gently charismatic performer. The unofficial third member of the group, Miranda Sykes, is hugely talented. Her solo rendition of "Perfect" was an unexpected highlight. However, the evening left me with mixed feelings.

I have a weakness for folk music but am often repelled by the English variety. At its worst it tends to nostalgia, whingeing and naive soft-Leftishness. I love "Roots"  in part because it is an assertive, if not actually an aggressive, song, It's not the usual maudlin lament for poorer, nobler times.

Reading through the posts on various folk websites, I can see the song provokes strong feelings. Many folk fundamentalists cannot mention it without dark and unjustified references to the BNP. These are people who can only love an England that was never there. The unhealthy confusion of patriotism with xenophobia is one of the main things wrong with modern England. She can never prosper until her people can love her again, without shame.

I had briefly hoped "Roots" was a sign that might be about to happen. Certainly, when Steve Knightley sings

I've lost St George in the Union Jack; it's my flag too and I want it back

there is a real frisson. The song almost has the potential to be a revolutionary anthem against the Scottish Raj. One could imagine Gordon Brown being lynched from a Westminster lampost while an English crowd sang

Haul away boys, let them go
Out in the wind and the rain and snow
We've lost more than we'll ever know
Round the rocky shores of England

Any revolutionary fantasies were soon quelled, however, by the sight of the crowd. The SOH fan-base is made up of all the Guardian-reading aunts you have ever known. It's a family entirely composed of be-fleeced or be-cardiganned mumsy teachers. And that's just the men. Our relief when the house lights went down turned to amusement as acres of steel-grey hair shimmered gently in the footlights. And then, dear God, they started to move to the music. The song that brought us there poses a question;

The Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts
It's in their blood, below their belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?

The answer seems to be that they have rhythm, while we twitch in an embarrassing manner.

Mrs P and I felt like intruders. We had sat down, uninvited, in an enormous staff room during an NUT strike meeting. We had a childish urge to shout obscenities, not least because these kindly, boring people  were lamenting the loss of the country they had themselves destroyed. Is that harsh? Perhaps. But I would bet good money that a majority of those swaying spastically in the Albert Hall last night vote Labour. They were not girding their loins to retake England for free-minded yeomen, alas. I suspect their nostalgia is more for 1946, when the dreams of Labourism had yet to be shattered.

As we set off into the night to find a taxi, they boarded their buses back to the provinces, or picked up their Audis from the car parks. They were not comfortable in London. We know how that feels. We remember being just such awkward provincials once.We are glad we aren't any more.

They couldn't wait to get back to their England. The quest for ours continues.

Tom Paxton

I have always liked a lot of Tom Paxton's work. This, despite the fact that he's an addle-brained leftist and that I personally saw him sign a petition in support of the IRA when I was a naieve youth waiting backstage for his autograph at the no-longer-with-us Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Those were the days when he could still fill such a venue.

This piece (a free download from his website, where you can find many other of what he calls his "short shelf-life songs") is a rehash of his Vietnam classic Lyndon Johnson told the Nation.

It pains me to say that it works pretty well, as unfair as it is.