Month: July 2019

An Age of Great Pretenders

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

That’s the way Charles Dickens described his world as he opened his epic description of the confused world in which he lived, and the great French Revolution exploded. We haven’t quite reached Dickens’ point of ignition in his 1859 Tale of Two Cities, but with U.S. President Donald Trump’s trumpeting south of the 49th Parallel about to be joined in chorus by vaudevillian Boris Johnson, newly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, our world is getting close.

We remember other times when major nations had bouts of insanity and elected leaders of doubtful morality and boastful national pride. We remember the control the people of Germany and Italy gave to their leaders in the 1930s for the promise of restored national glory, better lifestyles – and trains that ran on time.

Some of us are old enough to remember how we grew up shaking our heads that the people who elected such leaders could be so easily deceived. And, we assured ourselves, “it could never happen here.”

As we voice that assurance and re-assurance, we do so in ever softer voice as we witness what could never happen in our world – happening.

In the U.S. we see a Commander-in-Chief President who appears to be searching for a reason, however remote, to launch a “total destruction” attack on a middle east nation; who thinks and speaks racist observations and believes women who have complained about his wandering hands and intent are all lying or envious. He seems convinced the world rejoices when he spits out social media messages, apparently unaware the world is laughing at him, not with him.

On the other side of the Atlantic sits newly sworn Prime Minister Boris Johnson, elected a few days ago by the Conservative Party of Great Britain. In the UK, the party with the most elected seats forms the government with its leader is automatically the PM. (And, yes, that means the Tory Party membership, comprising roughly .02 per cent of voting age population, elected Johnson PM.) 

So be it, Boris is in until he solves the Brexit problem or he’s defeated in Parliament on a confidence motion and forced to call a general election.

Media in the UK has already taken to referring to his “predictably slapdash” speeches as “pifflepafflewifflewaffle” and is still laughing at his acceptance speech promise to “deliver, unite, defeat” – a phrase to which he hastily added “Energize” to change DUD to DUDE.

I leave you with a Guardian assessment of his first brief speech as PM: “The Tory MPs who backed him, the party members who voted for him so overwhelmingly, the media cheerleaders who hail his accession – they all know exactly what he’s like. They don’t believe him – they just willfully suspend their disbelief. They cannot say they were taken in by a plausible charlatan – they choose to applaud the obviously implausible, to crown the man they know to be the Great Pretender. They go along with the fiction that Johnson is a Prince Hal who will metamorphose into the hero to lead England to a new Agincourt while knowing damn well that he will always be a Falstaff for whom honour is just “a word.”

It would be safe now to think Trump-Johnson and add “interesting and scary times” to Dicken’s version of a world in angry turmoil.

A Masterpiece of Confusion

“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece” was first used by Shakespeare in Macbeth. I’m sure he won’t mind me borrowing it for a few minutes while rattling on about the great divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

It was one of those marriages that started with loving intensity between nations that had spent centuries killing each other’s young and pillaging border towns at will. It was after the largest of blood baths – WW2 – that some of the more sensible leaders who survived that fracas decided if they could all get together as trading partners, they could proposer, live longer and enjoy more of the freedoms they always seemed to be talking about but never achieving.

So, it began with the big boys – Germany, France and England – leading the way and no shortage of other countries clamouring for a seat at the ever-richer table. Life was good, but not without problems.

There were minor issues when bureaucratic experts from the larger nations tried to exercise rules for the size of potatoes and the acceptable curve in bananas, but such irritants were either quietly deep-sixed or laughed to oblivion.

And there was one factor among the major concerns that seemed to be working but was causing major complaints: immigration. One of the most enjoyable benefits of belonging to the EU was the virtual disappearance of border checkpoints plus a new fact of life that “foreigners” from an economically deprived state could find work and live in other EU nations.

Great Britain became a favourite destination and Brits of what we call “the older generation” were not impressed when they found their favourite pubs and restaurants, parks and favoured seaside resorts, flooded with strangers having more trouble with English than a northern Scot.

The politicians listened and tried to assuage the rumbling concerns. But they couldn’t get rid of the fear that a lot of Britons were no longer feeling British.

In June 2016, then Prime Minister David Cameron decided to bring matters to a head via a referendum. It would ask a simple question, a “yes” or “no” to stay with the EU and sort out the problems. Or leave.

The decision was close – but clear: some 13,266,996 million voted to stay – 46.6 per cent of the vote. But, 15,188,406 million – 53.4 per cent – voted to say goodbye.

Prime Minister Cameron resigned as PM and leader of the Conservative Party to be replaced by Theresa May who had supported the “stay” side in the referendum.

She surprised parliament and the country by calling a snap general election. She said she was preparing for her first conference with EU leaders and needed a show of people strength behind her. She won the election but with a reduced majority and the need to ally herself with a rump party to stay alive in Parliament.

Three times she returned from Europe with what she thought was a progressive deal. But none of her proposals received EU or British parliamentary support, and she finally admitted defeat and said she would resign and clear the way for a new Tory leader and PM. And more divorce settlement proposals.

Those events are scheduled for next Tuesday, July 23, with Boris Johnson, expected to replace her. He is a flamboyant, high-ranked politician who is being described as a President Donald Trump clone. The experts are forecasting Johnson in No.10 Downing Street will spell the end for the Conservative government — and the historic Tory Party.

As I wrote when I started this piece — confusion now hath made his masterpiece.

(Anyone interested in detailed chaos in high government can find it described at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-49008826. A fascinating and frightening tale.)

When Rabbit Pie Helped Save a Nation

When my first wife and I packed our modest earthly acquisitions in 1948 to head halfway ‘round the world in search of a future with promise, food rationing was still being strictly enforced in the UK. It was one of the major factors in our family debate, “should we stay, or should we go.” A soon-to-be second mouth to feed tipped the scales when, one month, we gave up our meagre meat ration for a double ration of bottled orange juice for Joyce. We left with some heavy concerns for our future.

It was 1954 before rationing ended in the UK and we enjoyed everyone of them, but eased our guilt by sending modest food parcels home pre-Christmas.

While far from being gourmets or diet conscience diners, our income (read lack of) precluded over-indulgence. But we could, if we spent cautiously for a few days, afford a decent Sunday roast once in a while and pretend we were rich. And after a while we didn’t even miss what had been our faithful fill-in during those meat deprived war years – rabbit in pie or roasted, in stew or sliced and stuffed between two slices of unbuttered bread.

To ask a Victoria butcher if he ever got any rabbit was to invite a strange look, and a head shake. I understand it’s a little different these days, but not much. You can find rabbit if you can find a good butcher. But it’s easier to find lamb chops.

So, it was with a mild degree of surprise a few days ago to view my evening dinner menu at Berwick Royal Oak and read that “Rabbit Pie” was one of the two dinner choices. We live well at Berwick with a main dining room, a Bistro and an in-house “village pub” to feed us, each with a different menu. The main dining room is full service; the Bistro casual “build your own stir fry or pizza;” the Shield and Dragon pub is casual with fish and chips as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Rabbit Pie: If you are of British Islands birth and lived through the troubled years 1939-1954, when we survived on a tough government imposed and enforced diet, you may remember the old ditty the BBC used to play endlessly when imported meat supplies were diverted to the military – or were lost in transit by the shipload courtesy of the U-boats.

On the Net readers can find a painful and I think ridiculous explanation of the ditty made popular by The Crazy Gang and designed to boost British morale when we thought air raids would never end. The “jingo” interpretation has the farmer as a German, the rabbits as the English running away presumably to be able to fight again another day. I prefer my theory that it was an effort by people of goodwill who thought there were better ways to feed a hungry nation in dire distress than by killing rabbits.

I remember that on wartime Saturday afternoons I would spend two or three hours helping small farmer Bill Dellahay “harvest” rabbits, skin them, clean them and wrap them in a soft damp cloth to take home to my mother who had assisted the local midwife in the delivery of Bill’s firstborn son. Bill was convinced my mother’s post-natal care saved his wife and son.

When I got home on Saturday evening with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and clean, well-wrapped rabbits, my sister would be dispatched to bring three neighbouring wives around. Each would be presented with a plump rabbit leaving two for mother.

While today that might seem overly kind, my modern readers should understand our fridge was a walk-in pantry. Shelf life was short. A walk down Bottrill Street around 2 p.m. on a given Sunday would tantalizingly confirm that three rabbit pies or casseroles were approaching perfection in coal-fired ovens while a fourth simmered in what would eventually be rabbit stew.

And the Berwick Rabbit Pie? A little embarrassing, so let’s keep this to ourselves. Fighting an attack by my old enemy gout, I sat pre-dinner with the offending foot elevated watching depressing news and fell asleep. Dinner was long over. My home-made sandwich could not be described as great. And my friends tell me, gleefully, the rabbit pie was “pretty good.”

But I’ll wager they could never be as good as Bill Dellahay’s wartime treats when we briefly laughed at rationing.

Snake Oil and Democracy

In customary style on June 12, The Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee, succinctly described Boris Johnson’s appeal to Great Britain’s Conservative Party to elect him their new president and thus, automatically, UK Prime Minister. It was delivered, she wrote, with “charm, the magic; the charisma was well polished.”

And then, before Johnson supporters could reach for their ballot papers, she added: “His snake oil of choice is optimism so miserably lacking in politics now, radiating out of him like sunshine. All fake, all sun-ray lamp that turns off in private, but it outshines his rivals and dazzles anyone willing to ignore everything we know about his rotten-to-the-core character.”

In the UK and online, The Guardian and its reporters and columnists support the old and proud philosophy of honest journalism; “get it fast, get it first, but first, get it right.” (For the record I’m a Guardian subscriber, but am not on the payroll and never have been. I think that online or in print, it’s among the best in the world. And, I’m happy to be able to read it for a few pennies a day.)

What attracted me to the Toynbee column and a few days later (June 24) a piece by Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, was the similarity, although never mentioned, in the public portrayal of Johnson with USA President Donald Trump.

Here’s Max Hastings on Johnson: “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in contempt for truth.” And later in the same article: “Dignity still matters in public office, and Johnson will never have it.

Yet his graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later.”

Substitute Trump for Johnson and nothing else need be changed.

The same rule can be applied to Hastings’ note that Johnson, like Trump, has had a “lurid love life.”

Hastings: “We can scarcely strip the emperor’s clothes from a man who has built a career, or at least a lurid love life, out of strutting without them.” He forecast that, if Johnson should win the PM’s job, “the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it.”

For Canada, stuck between “absolute unfitness of Trump” ruling just to our south and the pending possibility of an “absolutely unfit twin” in charge of our mother country, life could be about to take another interesting but unhappy turn.

The UK, once the mightiest of Empires will soon to be Brexit divorced from Europe; Scotland is still fretting for full separation; Wales must wonder if it should leave or stay; Ireland might ask if anyone is interested in a homecoming for the northern counties. And England would be a small left – alone country in a world where what we call western democracy wobbles on its foundations in the old world and the new.

In “the old country” the once world power is considering asking a man with a well recorded embarrassing conduct record to shuffle it off stage. In “the new world” United States of America Republicans have already made one bad leadership decision and are considering repeating it, believing a man whose main interest in life appears to be his own fame and gratification can win back lost leadership respect.

Quo Vadis? is all we can wonder.