Friday 31 August 2007

Princess still dead: clear the schedules

I never thought I'd find myself in agreement with former Living Marxism editor Mick Hume, but his column in today's Times on the 'mourning sickness' that still surrounds Diana Spencer, 10 years after her death, is spot on.

I turned on Radio 4 around midday today, expecting to hear a bit of light consumer news on 'You and Yours' as I prepared my lunch, but instead found myself listening to the Diana memorial service. I hurriedly switched to Radio 5 Live, and was astonished to find the station carrying the very same service. And it was being broadcast simultaneously on BBC 1.

OK, so it may have been just about excusable to clear the schedules 10 years ago, to cover the shock news of the Princess' death, and for her funeral a week later - but a memorial service, after all this time, live on three BBC channels? The thought crossed my mind that this was another stage in the BBC's grovelling campaign to win back Establishment approval after the storm in a teacup over the royal temper-tantrum affair.

Can a writer's claim to greatness be undermined by their politics?

On Sunday the New York Times carried a long article by Fernanda Eberstadt about Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Among other things, the article is a reminder that being a great writer of fiction, even a Nobel prize-winning one, is no guarantee against holding perverse political views.

Saramago aroused controversy a few years ago by naively and offensively comparing conditions in the Palestinian territories to Auschwitz. The veteran novelist is also a longstanding member of Portugal's notoriously hardline Communist Party. Before I read Eberstadt's article, I had regarded this as an understandable response to growing up under Salazar's quasi-fascist regime, when the communists were the main opposition force, and a recognition of the Party's key role in the 1974 revolution which saw the dictatorship overthrown and Portugal's overseas colonies liberated.

What I hadn't realised was Saramago's complicity in the communists' rather less glorious role in restricting press freedom following the revolution. Saramago was appointed deputy director of the formerly fascist Diário de Noticias, a newly-nationalized and Communist-dominated newspaper. According to Eberstadt, 'under his sway, people claim, it became an unofficial organ of the Communist Party. Many Portuguese intellectuals’ dislike of Saramago stems from this period.' She quotes book distributor Jorge de Azevedo:

For Saramago, black is black; there were no different viewpoints, no debate. He was hard on people working at the newspaper who were not party members; he made life extremely difficult for them. Because of this, he has a tough image that remains.

Do a writer's political opinions and activities affect our assessment of their imaginative writing, or is it possible (as with Evelyn Waugh, D.H.Lawrence, etc) to maintain a separation between the two?


Along somewhat similar lines: there's a piece in today's (London) Times about Arthur Miller consigning his week-old son, who had Down's Syndrome, to an institution and then concealing his existence. I'm a huge admirer of Miller's work, but this comment from his biographer Martin Gottfriend still makes me uneasy:

All that theatre people care about are the works themselves...In England, where Miller is considered an equal of Chekhov, all they care about is that Miller is a great, great playwright... If he wrote Death of a Salesman and that’s all, that would be enough...He could be the worst son-of-a-bitch who ever lived, but he still wrote those plays.

A third way between fundamentalism and atheism?

As mentioned here and here, the public reaction by religious believers to the recent spate of books in defence of atheism (by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al) has often been characterised by defensiveness and a sense of victimhood. So it's a relief to see a Christian writer offering a more thoughtful response, as John Cornwell did in an article in yesterday's Guardian. I reviewed Cornwell's excellent memoir Seminary Boy here, and the article is a taster of his forthcoming book-length riposte to Dawkins (Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge).

Cornwell's main argument is that Dawkins reductively confuses all religious belief with fundamentalism and overlooks the part played by doubt (but also what he calls 'doubt of doubt')in the faith of even the most fervent believers (he cites Graham Greene, but also more surprisingly Mother Teresa, as examples). Between the authoritarian extremism of some religionists, and Dawkins apparent desire 'to eliminate belief with a dollop of science', Cornwell advocates 'a third well-tried way':

which is to tame religion of its excesses by encouraging believers to respect, and to coexist with, all those they regard as dissidents and heretics, as well as agnostics and atheists. The fact that religionists already do this in vast numbers, in many parts of the world, notably most of Europe and North America, brings us to what I see as not so much a flaw as a vacuum in Dawkins' thinking: he simply does not get the point of pluralist societies under secular auspices. Nor does he credit believers with the capacity to be pluralists and democrats, even though members of the great world religions have contributed to the formation and preservation of pluralism, and resistance to its opposite - totalitarianism - in the modern period. Dawkins' failure to accept that religious believers are capable of respect, a healthy measure of doubt and latitude of imagination, needs examination.

It's refreshing to see this restatement of a liberal, pluralist strain of religious belief, with its reminder that believers can be allies in the fight against intolerance and totalitarianism.

There was another thoughtful discussion of the nature of belief earlier this week, in Darcey Steinke's New York Times review of Mary Gordon's memoir about her mother. Like Cornwell, Steinke wants to propose a third way, this time between religious books which 'insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone' and 'gleeful repudiations of religion' like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great : she believes that Hitchens' definition of religion 'is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity'. Steinke suggests that Gordon's nuanced account of her mother's complex and often contradictory faith offers an alternative approach to understanding the persistence of belief.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Bad faith?

When I wrote here about Carmen Callil's book Bad Faith (about anti-semitism and collaboration in France during the Nazi occupation), I had no idea of the furore that had already been caused by the link she makes between the Holocaust and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Saturday's Guardian review section carried an interview with Callil, which mentioned the apparent cancellation of an American launch party for the book after pressure from 'a pro-Israeli lobby group.' The interviewer, Emma Brockes (who nails her own colours to the mast in describing 'the idiocy of this response') asks Callil if she regrets including the line. This is Callil's answer:

No! I wish I'd said more. I don't see why Jews shouldn't be monsters. Jews can be monsters; they're not sacred people. And I think Israel behaves monstrously towards the Palestinians, I don't care what you say. Quite truthfully, I said what I meant in the book.

Actually, this is what Callil said in the book, and it's what has caused such controversy:

What caused me anguish as I tracked down Louis Darquier was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people. Like the rest of humanity, the Jews of Israel 'forget' the Palestinians.

To my mind, this goes beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, which Callil has a perfect right to voice. As I said in my previous post, it's the attempt to psychologise that policy and to see it as a 'passing on' of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis (which, at however subterranean a level, draws some kind of parallel between the two events) that I find unacceptable. The attempt by the Guardian article to paint Callil as simply the victim of a heavy-handed attempt to silence her criticisms of Israeli policy obscures all of this.

As I said before, it's a shame that such a powerful and necessary book has been diminished by this unnecessarily tendentious attempt at contemporary relevance in its final paragraph.

The consequences of abandoning Iraq to the extremists

There's surprising support for President Bush's comparison between Iraq and Vietnam from William Shawcross, in this week's Sunday Times. Shawcross, most famous for his castigation of Nixon's and Kissinger's policy in Vietnam and Cambodia, now thinks that he and his fellow opponents of the war in Indochina were naive to claim that the region would be better off without the Americans: 'Such naivety was horribly wrong, and I have always thought that those of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath.'

Shawcross draws parallels between the way that ingrained opposition to the war in Vietnam prevented some commentators from facing up to the consequences of US withdrawal and the way that 'too many pundits' hatred (and it really is that) of Bush (and until recently Blair) dominates perceptions'. He goes on:

Many armchair editorialists seem to dwell more on the American abuses at Abu Ghraib (quickly stopped and punished) than on the horrific, deliberate mass murders committed by the terrorists, both Sunni and Shi'ite. Far too many Muslims have died in Iraq, and the vast majority have not been killed by American or British soldiers. They have been killed by other Muslims.

Shawcross thinks it ironic that calls for a withdrawal of troops are gathering strength at a time when America is making real progress against Al-Qaeda in the northwest of Iraq and Baghdad:

Local insurgents have been revolted by Al-Qaeda atrocities - decapitating babies, slicing off people's faces with piano wire, using chlorine gas tankers and vast car bombs as weapons of mass destruction to kill as many innocents as possible - and have rallied to the government.

Shawcross believes that the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq would be even worse than in Indochina, and would match the horrors in Darfur:

Why do the horrors inflicted by Islamic extremists in Darfur seem to appal us, more than those in Iraq? Because, I suppose, in an orgy of self-deluding hypocrisy, we prefer to blame the United States. We should grow up.

On the other hand, there's this excoriating reaction to Bush's historical comparison from Hitch. Take your pick.

Art and inspiration in St.Ives

We're just back from a week in St. Ives. It was our third annual visit, following a number of years of late-summer escapes to North Norfolk, and the Penwith peninsula has begun to supplant that magical stretch of land between Burnham Market and Blakeney in our affections. Having explored most of the 'sights' - Zennor, Land's End, Minack - on previous trips, we spent more time in St. Ives itself this year - apart from a couple of journeys out along the rugged coast road to St. Just and Sennen Cove.

We made the statutory visit to the Tate, which was showing a fascinating if rather uneven exhibition - If Everybody Had An Ocean - inspired by the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. One of the strengths of the exhibition was the links it made between the southern Californian inspiration for many of the artists and the wide surfing beach of Porthmeor, visible through the glass frontage of the Tate building.

Disappointingly there were very few examples of work by homegrown artists on display. Last year we caught a major retrospective, including some key works by my favourite St.Ives modernist, Patrick Heron. We also visited his grave in the churchyard at Zennor, and drove past his former home, Eagle's Nest, perched high above the village and looking down on Tregerthen, the site of D.H.Lawrence's ill-fated attempt to found an artistic community before suspicions of spying sent him packing to Italy. (St.Ives has other literary associations too. H. spent her early childhood holidays here, staying in a hotel which turns out to have been the holiday home of Virginia Woolf's family, and which finally this year had a plaque to acknowledge the fact).

Driving through the slate-grey tin-mining village of St.Just (which begins to rival St. Ives as a favoured spot for artists) we were tempted by posters advertising an exhibition of engravings by Eric Gill, at the Great Atlantic Gallery. Many years ago I laboured over a long-forgotten thesis on the work of the Welsh artist and poet David Jones, like Gill a Catholic convert and a member of his lay religious-artistic community at Ditchling.

The Gill prints were interesting, but the real highlight of the visit for me was stumbling upon the work of Jenny Grevatte: unfortunately, her paintings weren't on display, but the catalogue of a forthcoming exhibition and a booklet featuring reproductions of her stunning landscapes and still lifes impressed and inspired me. Like Heron, she cites Bonnard, Vuillard et al as influences, but I thought I detected similarities with David Jones' work. I'm now on a quest to track down other galleries where Grevatte's work is on display.

Friday 17 August 2007

Friday afternoon musical and other musings

My latest musical purchase is Rufus Wainwright's Release the Stars. A colleague thought it was 'my kind of thing', so I made a point of watching his Glastonbury appearance on TV. He looked even more out of place in the mud and rain than Arcade Fire - Rufus is definitely not an outdoor kind of guy - but I was impressed enough to buy the album. I know his rather nasal voice and the lush orchestration are not to everyone's taste, but the boy certainly has style.

Stand out tracks for me so far are 'Sanssouci' (love those swooping chord changes) and 'Going to a Town', though I wince when European audiences cheer the line 'I'm so tired of America' - as they do when Arcade Fire proclaim 'I don't want to live in America no more' ('Yes you do,' says H. when she catches me singing along) on 'Window Sill'. At the risk of sounding pompous about a mere pop song, I wonder if American bands realise they're playing into a reflexive anti-Americanism with this sort of thing? Maybe it's just me, getting old: after all, I pogoed along with the best of them to the Clash's 'I'm so bored with the USA' thirty years ago (!) at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

Speaking of which: Graham over at Harry's Place has a competition going on to choose one song to represent each decade from the Fifties to the present. His choice for the Seventies is the Clash's 'White Man in the Hammersmith Palais'. As a man of the Seventies myself, I'd probably have gone for something by Bowie - trouble is, what? You see, as the responses to Graham's appeal have shown, there was more than one Seventies. It would be much easier, of course, to select a song for each year. This would be my choice (highly idiosyncratic, I admit):

1970 T.Rex 'Ride a White Swan'

1971 T.Rex 'Hot Love'

1972 David Bowie 'Starman'

1973 David Bowie 'Jean Genie'

1974/5 - not sure, as these years were a bit of a rock 'n' roll hiatus

1976 Sex Pistols 'Anarchy in the UK'

1977 Clash 'White Riot' ... which point my inspiration, not to mention my memory, lets me down.

While we're on the subject of the Clash, let me tell you about my two near-encounters with the band. Once was after the afore-mentioned Cambridge gig, when some fanzine-editing friends asked if I wanted to accompany them backstage to meet the guys. Being a shy young thing, I hesitated and missed my chance (mind you, on another occasion I said 'yes' to the chance to meet the Buzzcocks backstage - Pete Shelley was very nice - and managed a brief 'interview' with support band the Slits - they weren't nearly so friendly - for good measure ). On another occasion I was travelling down to London from Worcester on a half-deserted train, when Mick Jones got on at Oxford (where the band had been recording). Again I hesitated and the moment again passed me by.

And then there was the time I was working in Basildon and found myself standing next to Alison Moyet in W.H.Smith, which was soon after the time I saw Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode waiting for his girlfriend outside the office building where I worked (oh, and I once performed at the same Boys' Brigade camp concert as that other doyen of the south Essex scene, Vince Clarke, long before he formed Erasure, and have the photos to prove it). Other missed rock 'n' roll opportunities: when I was 16 I was offered a ticket to see Bowie on his 'Ziggy' tour and passed it up because it was a school night - can you believe it?

When it comes to accidental meetings with famous people, there's a nice story over at Drink Soaked Trots today about Christopher Hitchens bumping into the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Back home, after weeks on the road, he’s out at a restaurant with the missus and the daughter and who does he find himself seated right beside but the Archbishop of Dang Canterbury: I lean over. “My Lord Archbishop? It’s Christopher Hitchens.” “Good gracious,” he responds, gesturing at his guest—”we were just discussing your book.”

It's the 'My Lord' bit I love: Hitch is an old charmer, really. My own chance encounter with Rowan Williams came a couple of summers ago at Land's End. We were just walking away from the awful themed visitors' centre when there he was, white beard blowing in the wind, out for a casual stroll with wife and child, seemingly unrecognised by the holiday crowds. I must admit to having an annoying habit of spotting famous people when we're out and about: whether it's Terry Waite in the Strand, Michael Portillo on his mobile at Embankment station, George Alagaiah shopping in Oxford, Emma Watson (Hermione in the Harry Potter films) at the next table at Browns in the same city....I told you it was an annoying habit.

Mention of Land's End reminds me that another period of silence will ensue here after tomorrow, as we'll be spending next week down in the south west, not far from here:

Pilgerian rhetoric avoids hard questions about Chavez

Jon Pilger doesn't tell us what he think of Hugo Chavez' Castro-esque attempt to become president for life, in his defence of the Venezuelan leader in today's Guardian. Nor does he address his hero's recent attempt to ban foreigners who dared to criticise his leadership. He does, however, make passing reference to Chavez' censorship of the media, but in a way that deploys some familiar rhetorical tricks in order to evade the real issue.

The key tactic is to damn those who criticise Chavez by associating them with the bogeyman of US neoconservatism: what Pilger labels 'the old Iran-Contra death squad gang, back in power under Bush'. Never mind that the closure of RCTV was also condemned by neutral human rights organisations: the fact that the US has joined in the criticism somehow makes that criticism illegitimate. Another tactic is to suggest that those who were censored were somehow undeserving of their freedom of expression: they are an elite who 'remind me of white South Africans'. We've seen this argument used before in relation to Venezuela by Richard Gott, and with regard to Turkey's so-called 'secular elite' by Jonathan Steele. Pilger also suggests that RCTV abused its freedom to stir up opinion against Chavez, so what did they expect?

A third tactic, and one that as a long-term supporter of social justice in Latin America I find particularly objectionable, is to cover Chavez' autocratic regime in glory by associating it with Allende's short-lived government in Chile and with such mythic figures of the Left as the murdered singer Victor Jara. But Venezuela in 2007 is not Chile in 1973, and Chavez with his long-winded, self-congratulatory speeches and his alliance with the reactionary theocrat Ahmadinejad, is no Salvador Allende.

Of course, the purpose of these rhetorical tactics is to enable Pilger, like his fellow Chavez groupies Richard Gott and Tariq Ali, to avoid responding directly to the widespread criticisms of their idol. I'm prepared to accept that some of Chavez' reforms have made a material difference to the poorest in Venezuela, just as it's undeniable that Castro's regime in Cuba has managed to provide something like universal health care there. But surely the history of left-wing regimes - from Stalin to Castro via Mao and Kim il-Sung - is that socialism without liberty and democracy soon or later becomes a deformed and oppressive caricature.

Does Pilger think that censorship of the media, curtailing opposition opinion and centralising power in a single leader and political party are compatible with democratic socialism, or not? I think we should be told.

Don't you know who I am?

Two stories today about the perils of being famous - but not quite famous enough.

Bestselling author Stephen King was mistaken for a vandal when he turned up unannounced at an Australian bookshop and started signing his name in books. Said bookshop manager Bev Ellis: 'When you see someone writing in one of your books you get a bit toey (nervous).' Speaking as someone whose name appears (in very small print) on one or two academic tomes of minor interest, the closest I've come to this is sneakily rearranging the books so that mine are to the fore, in those neglected corners of bookshops where such arcane publications are displayed. Being even less recognisable than King, I'm unlikely to share his experience of being pursued out of the shop by an apologetic manager and told (as King was by Ms Ellis): 'Well, if we knew you were coming we would have baked you a cake.'

More worrying than King's experience is the case of Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel peace prizewinner, UNESCO goodwill ambassador, Guatemalan presidential candidate and figurehead for indigenous rights, who was mistaken for a bag lady by staff at a 5-star Mexican hotel where she was waiting to give an interview. According to The Guardian: 'She was wearing a Mayan dress, the traditional attire of indigenous people in central America, and the hotel's response was also traditional: throw her out.' The article concludes: 'Commentators noted the irony of upmarket resorts discriminating against real Maya while trying to attract tourists with fake Mayan architecture'.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Chavez takes steps to stay in power indefinitely

The authoritarian tendencies of Hugo 'don't-call-me-a-dictator' Chavez are on display again this week. According to the New York Times, the Venezuelan president is on the point of announcing a constitutional reform that will 'allow him to be re-elected indefinitely'. The report goes on:

The removal of term limits for Mr. Chavez, which is at the heart of the proposal, is expected to be accompanied by measures circumscribing the authority of elected governors and mayors, who would be prevented from staying in power indefinitely, according to versions of the project leaked in recent weeks.

According to the country's communications minister Willian Lara, Chavez is unlikely to face much opposition from the National Assembly, where all 167 lawmakers apparently support the president. In true Orwellian fashion, Mr. Lara went on to explain that the aim of the change is 'to guarantee to the people the largest amount of happiness possible'.

I wonder how the 'Hands Off Venezuela' campaign, and their supporters in the trade union movement, who shamefully supported Chavez' recent censorship of the media, will respond?

Dawkins and Hitchens beat Pope to top of religious book charts

Also in The Observer on Sunday, a piece on the recent boom in books about religion, which reports the surprising news that (according to Amazon) the most popular 'religious' book is currently Dawkins' The God Delusion, with Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great in second place, knocking the Pope's new tome into third place and Paul Coelho's new-age twaddle into fourth.

The article includes an explanation of this latest publishing phenomenon from Anthony Grayling:

I think 9/11 has changed the nature of the debate tremendously...A decade ago people wouldn't say 'I'm a Christian' at a dinner party. You would no more speak about your religious belief than you would your sex life.

But after 9/11 we no longer think people should be treated differently or given exemption from certain laws because they believe something. Secularists are now saying, 'OK, believe in what you like, believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden if you want to, but don't force your beliefs on us or our children, and don't expect preferential treatment.' To allow religious organisations more privileges and influence than a political party or trade union, for example, is to distort public debate. People are waking up to the fact it is anomalous.

That's as neat a dismissal of all the nonsense about a new 'aggressive secularism' as you're likely to read.

Preachers stir up hate: police blame the media

I was on holiday when the story about Channel 4's documentary 'Undercover Mosque' broke. I didn't see the programme and haven't read all the coverage, but I thought Andrew Anthony's article in Sunday's Observer had it about right. He points to the absurdity of the West Midlands police assuming the role of TV critics when they should have been investigating the instances of alleged hate-speech and incitement to violence reported by the programme. As for the claim that these were shown 'out of context', I agree with Anthony that it's hard to see how any amount of contextualising could have made this kind of hate-filled rant (from Abu Osamah, one of those featured in the programme) acceptable:

No one loves the kuffaar! Not a single person here from the Muslims loves the kuffaar. Whether those kuffaar are from the UK or from the US. We love the people of Islam and we hate the people of kuffaar. We hate the kuffaar!

As Anthony comments:

what conceivable context could make these quotes acceptable or reasonable? Was he rehearsing a stage play? Was it a workshop on conflict resolution? Or perhaps it was the same context in which a spokesman from those other righteous humanitarians, the BNP, might attempt to aid community relations by repeatedly stating that his followers 'hate Muslims'.

Apparently the assistant chief constable (security and cohesion) of the West Midlands, Anil Patani, believes that Channel 4's programme 'had an impact in the community and the cohesion within it.' As Anthony says: ' "We hate the kuffaar" is not a statement best designed for community cohesion, but whose fault is that - Abu Usamah's for saying it or Channel 4's for recording him?'

As I say, I haven't seen the programme, but Christopher Hitchens has:

And there it all is: foaming, bearded preachers calling for crucifixion of unbelievers, for homosexuals to be thrown off mountaintops, for disobedient and 'deficient' women to be beaten into submission, and for Jewish and Indian property and life to be destroyed. 'You have to bomb the Indian businesses, and as for the Jews, you kill them physically,' as one sermonizer, calling himself Sheikh al-Faisal, so prettily puts it.

There may or may not be grounds for prosecuting the preachers shown in the programme, but surely the police's response to this programme is a particularly odd example of ignoring the obvious and looking in the wrong direction in the fight against terrorism and religious extremism.

Monday 13 August 2007

Holiday reading 2

As I've mentioned before, I seem to have gone off taking 'light' reading with me on holiday, but for some reason I chose some particularly heavy, not to say downright gloomy books this time.

I started with the Italian writer Bruno Arpaia's gripping novel The Angel of History, which describes Walter Benjamin's flight from Nazism, first to Paris and then to Spain, where he committed suicide in disputed circumstances. Arpaia intercuts his fictionalised but convincing account of Benjamin's journey with the invented narrative of an exiled Spanish Republican soldier whom he imagines meeting the philosopher in the Pyrenees. I'll perhaps have more to say about this book another time, as I'm planning to read Jay Parini's novel on the same theme, Benjamin's Crossing - and there's a new short memoir by Carina Birman on the same events - obviously a continuing source of fascination for writers.

A few years after Benjamin's abortive crossing, a very different exile made his way over the Pyrenees to safety in Franco's Spain. Louis Darquier, the subject of Carmen Callil's Bad Faith: A Story of Family and Fatherland, was a French anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. Anne, his daughter by his marriage to the Australian Myrtle Jones, another deluded fantasist, was abandoned as a child in England, and grew up to become Callil's psychiatrist. After Anne's premature death, Callil pieced together her family history and produced this immensely detailed and powerful book: both a sad personal story and a devastating account of French anti-Semitism and its tragic consequences. For the most part Callil holds her disparate threads together - Anne's childhood in Oxfordshire providing a pastoral counterpoint to the intensifying horror on the other side of the Channel - but occasionally the accumulation of detail, whether of family history or collaborationist intrigue, overwhelms. And there's an unnecessarily tendentious attempt at contemporary relevance right at the end, when Callil compares the French forgetting of Vichy with more recent 'forgettings'. She writes:

What caused me anguish as I tracked down Louis Darquier was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people. Like the rest of humanity, the Jews of Israel 'forget' the Palestinians.

I'm not Jewish, but if I were I imagine I would find this attempt to psychologise Israel's policy towards the Palestinians and to 'explain' it with reference to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, both simplistic and offensive. Given the long and deep-rooted history of anti-Jewish prejudice that Callil uncovers in the book, surely a more logical contemporary link would be with the persistence of anti-Semitism and its capacity to resurface even in the twentieth-first century, in France as elsewhere.

There were World War Two, and Jewish, connexions with another book I read while on holiday: David Edmonds' and John Eidinow's Wittgenstein's Poker, an account of the notorious clash between Wittgenstein and fellow exiled Austrian Jewish philosopher Karl Popper in Cambridge in 1946. Using this encounter as a lens, the authors explore the philosophical differences (and commonalities) between the two, as well as the Viennese intellectual milieu from which they emerged. Although no philosopher myself, I've always had an instinctive sympathy for what I understood of Wittgenstein's later ideas, but my recent reading (including this book) has made me wonder whether there might be some connexion between his emphasis on language games and 'forms of life' - and the po-mo cultural relativism that I've come to dislike so much.

Conversely, Popper's reputation as Mrs. Thatcher's favourite philosopher has always made him an object of suspicion for the Left, but I suspect that recent events might have renewed interest in his pioneering analysis of totalitarianism. I note that Wittgenstein's Poker was published in 2001: I'd lay a bet that it was before September 11th of that year, otherwise the authors would surely not have made this comment to explain the lapse in popularity of Popper's ideas:

Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received wisdom. The attacks on dogma and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance and humility - these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate.

The events of 9/11, and the rise of political Islam, have re-opened that debate, so that the authors' next sentence is perhaps prophetic:

If a resurgence of communism, fascism, aggressive nationalism or religious fundamentalism once again threatened the international order based on the open society, then Popper's works would have to be reopened and their arguments relearned.

On which note: I also read Occupational Hazards, Rory Stewart's account of his time as a civilian administrator in post-liberation Iraq. Stewart comes across as a sympathetic character, and I came away from the book with a more nuanced and less condemnatory view of the Coalition's attempts to build democracy in the wake of Saddam's defeat. It's difficult to be critical when you haven't faced the day-to-day pressures experienced by Stewart and his colleagues, but I was still left with doubts about his attempts to bring so-called 'moderate' Islamists inside the political tent. Under instructions from Baghdad to build a secular, liberal democracy, Stewart despaired of finding local leaders who endorsed these principles. The Iraqi Communist Party hovers in the margins of his narrative, and at one stage he reflects that he might have allotted them a greater role in his provincial council, but concludes that this would have been an ideological compromise too far. But would it have been any worse than including, as he did, the Sadr movement with its conservative, patriarchal and authoritarian politics?

For light relief, I read Rupert Everett's memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. It's a rare treat to come across an actor who can write as well as Everett, and the early chapters in particular are a hilarious and outrageous account of how an upper-middle-class boy swapped boarding school and hunting trips for the demi-mondes of sex, drugs and the theatre. Just occasionally the endless parade of celebrities and the continuous pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure becomes wearisome, but the book is an entertaining insight into the continuing interdependence of the louche worlds of celebrity and the upper classes.

Italy: holidays, media, politics

We've just got back from a couple of weeks in southern Italy, where we caught the tail-end of the heatwave and had the best holiday weather we've experienced in ages. We've been to Italy nearly every summer for about 20 years now, ever since H. lured me away from my love-affair with the Greek islands: after visits to the Lakes and Tuscany, we returned a number of times to southern Sardinia, and for the past 5 years we've been to Puglia.

Apart from half a term's evening classes, my Italian is self-taught, but I can get by, and I can just about make sense of the local media. Buying a newspaper in a foreign country is always difficult: you don't want to be caught with the local equivalent of the Telegraph or Mail. In my younger, more radical days I used to buy l'Unita, now the mouthpiece of the Democratici di Sinistra, but formerly the organ of its predecessor the PCI, the only communist party it was cool for us Marxism Today types to support. Now I tend to read the more mainstream left-of-centre la Repubblica, though I was disconcerted to read recently (in Ian Thomson's superb biography of Primo Levi) about the paper's 'suspect anti-Semitism'.

Both newspapers, and the Italian press generally, are notable for their in-depth news coverage and for cultural sections that put the British broadsheets to shame. By contrast, Italian TV remains uniformly dire: wall-to-wall dubbed US imports interspersed with 'light entertainment' shows untouched by any concern with gender equality. My favourite - because it's so awful - is Rai Uno's daily summer breakfast show, Una Mattina Estate. A glamorous female presenter introduces a succession of male 'experts' in suits and ties, who stand behind little tables (reminiscent of Nationwide or Blue Peter circa 1972) and discourse about holiday health risks, or kitchen equipment, or the fruit or vegetable of the day (I've watched whole programmes dedicated to onions), before the weather forecast is read out by an air force colonel in full dress uniform.

The best books in English for understanding contemporary Italy, especially its complex political landscape, are those by Paul Ginsborg, a British historian who teaches at Florence University and is close to the DS. Italy and its Discontents is an ideal introduction to recent Italian history, while his History of Contemporary Italy traces the roots of the present situation back to World War Two and its aftermath. Ginsborg's book about Berlusconi is also recommended, though I found his recent foray into the theory of political activism, The Politics of Everyday Life, rather bland and disappointing. For a less academic and more popular survey of Italian life, you could do worse than look up the writings of my college near-contemporary Tim Parks, who went to Italy to teach English, married an Italian and stayed on. Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education offer fascinating insights into daily life in modern Italy, while A Season with Verona charts the often alarming experience of following Parks' local soccer team.

Both Ginsborg and Parks discuss the divide that persists between north and south in Italy. This year we met an otherwise charming family from Bologna whose views of their southern compatriots were characterised by hoary stereotypes. We've always found southern Italians warm and courteous: and their habit of greeting you with 'Salve' rather than 'Ciao' makes those school Latin lessons seem a little less irrelevant.

Arrivederci, Italia. A presto.