On Monday I read that Gordon Brown was about to launch a ‘£500 billion bank gamble’. By the time you read this, he may have done so, but it is quite possible that few will have noticed, or cared. These colossal expenditures or promises of expenditures or of possibilities of expenditure have become the same as most government initiatives under New Labour — designed for the headline, and then reannounced from time to time. They are like the victories in the permanent war between the super-powers constantly trumpeted in Nineteen Eighty-Four — apparently enormous, but semi-fictional. To understand what is happening, one must remember that, as in a real war, the main participants are permanently exhausted. How could they possibly remember what they decided last week, or have time to implement much of it? One of the most able civil servants trying to sort everything out is Tom Scholar, the Treasury man who handles the ‘tripartite’ (Bank, Treasury, FSA) arrangement. On a recent Monday, I gather, he had agreed to dine with his parents. He was kept late at work, of course, and then turned up in jeans. ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘why did you bother to go home and change?’ ‘I didn’t,’ he explained, ‘I haven’t left the office since Saturday.’
The government always tells us that it is doing everything for the sake of ‘hard-working families’. This is extremely annoying, for two reasons. First, what about lazy families? Why should they be ignored? They may well be nicer to their children than the hard-working ones. Second, the credit crunch has exposed the fact that hard work has not been the way to wealth in the past 15 years. People in the West have got richer mostly because of risk. They took the risk to borrow heavily against their houses and were rewarded, until last year, by a huge increase in their value. Work, beyond that required to pay the interest, had nothing to do with it. The problem turned out to be that the borrowers tended not to think of this as risk at all, but as something intrinsic to the nature of property. Now, thanks to Gordon Brown and the banks, they will have to be very hard-working indeed to survive.
Jacques Séguéla, a confidant of President Nicolas Sarkozy, says that if a man does not wear a Rolex watch by the time he is 50, he is a failure. I am 52, and unfortunately never knew this until now, so it is too late. But perhaps I intuited that I would never make it, because a long time ago I stopped wearing any sort of watch. I tended to break or lose them. Worse, I allowed myself to be dominated by them. If you do not have a watch, you worry less. And when you are outdoors in daylight, you can work out the time by the position of the sun and the nature of the light. I have tried to refine this, and can now guess the time within 15 minutes of accuracy, which is all right for most purposes. I note that, despite his Rolex, Sarkozy managed to be 13 minutes late for the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Armistice [see Notes, 22 November] last year. President Mitterrand, by the way, never wore a watch. Was France worse governed?
It is interesting that even Amnesty International decided that Hamas, as well as Israel, had been committing ‘war crimes’. This briefly presented a problem for the BBC, since it had to dilute its preference for covering of all the evils committed by Israel. It quickly solved the problem, however. The missiles used by Hamas, it reported, were ‘unsophisticated’, and so, implied James Naughtie, it was somehow understandable that they hit civilians. Suddenly, ‘unsophisticated’ bombs acquired an old-world charm, like obsolete agricultural implements, or carthorses. Come to think of it, almost all Islamist terrorism, including September 11 itself, has been technically ‘unsophisticated’. It is not easy to see what advantage this gives to the civilian population which experiences it.
The people who best understand and most detest the Western media’s adulation of Islamist terror groups are Arabs from the secular Left. One such was Kassem Jaffar, who died last week. Kassem was part of the Lebanese Shiite diaspora, born in Nigeria. He graduated from the American University in Beirut in the 1970s, and latterly lived in London, writing for London-based Arab papers such as Al-Hayat and Al-Wasat. He served on the board of Al-Jazeera and was an adviser to the Qatar government. Kassem’s anger with Israel and the West was not of the existential or fanatical kind encouraged by the Islamists. In fact, he was not anti-Israel. He criticised only its opportunism in seeking an accommodation with Syria at the expense of his own country. In his view, Lebanon was destroyed by sectarianism, and he was coruscating, though coolly analytical, of the way Western reports romanticised Hezbollah and played down its murderous extremism. You could learn more about the Middle East in half an hour of Kassem than from an eternity of Jeremy Bowen, but now, aged 53, he is gone.
In the first of Jeremy Paxman’s television series The Victorians, which tries to see that age through its paintings, Paxman focused on Frith’s Derby Day. The picture of the picture was spliced with film of a recent Derby, to illustrate the point that, now as then, a rich variety of human life is present. The choice of film proved this better than Paxman could have known, because, to my delight, the camera happened to fasten on a top-hatted man and his wife whom, of all the people I know, I can most easily imagine as Victorians. They were Nick and Victoria Mills. Nick was a country vet of worldwide renown, and our neighbour. He was, as the Daily Telegraph put it, a ‘sex therapist’ to racing stallions, assessing and improving their fertility at stud. He was also a brilliant anecdotalist and a hugely energetic polymath, delighting in rugby and racing, and in any scheme which strengthened the relation between human beings and the natural world. He was a moving spirit in saving the unique garden of Great Dixter after the death of its owner, Christopher Lloyd. In between the making of Paxman’s film and its showing, Nick died suddenly, aged 54 — another death far too young. More than 800 people turned up to the country church for his funeral. With his public spirit and gusto and intellectual curiosity, Nick Mills would have been an ideal subject for Frith. By this little televisual chance, he sort of became one.
Why has the noun ‘harm’ lost ground to its plural? Experts now speak of the ‘harms’ done by alcohol, tobacco, drugs and so on. I wonder if it is something to do with money. If harm can be put into several categories, research into it can be paid for out of several departmental budgets.