‘I have some sad news,’ says the Estonian politician, as we sit down to dinner. ‘War has broken out.’ The pain in his voice is palpable. For this patriotic man, and many like him, Russia’s invasion of Crimea has reawakened memories of an era everyone here hoped was over.
Wandering the cobbled streets of Tallinn, Russia seems a long way away. You could be in Bremen or Lubeck. Yet Tallinn’s European heritage is only half the story.
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[/audioplayer]If Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of the Crimea brings to an end the Pax Americana and the post-Cold War world that began in 1989, what new European, or even global, order is replacing them? That question may seem topical in the light of Russia’s seemingly smooth overriding in Crimea of the diplomatic treaties and legal rules that outlaw aggression, occupation and annexation.
Next week is ‘Hug a Slug’ week.
Well, come on, you did believe it for a couple of seconds. We’ve all grown so used to the fog of humourless eco-rectitude that has settled over our gardens that you probably didn’t even blink. No right-thinking (let alone left-thinking) person these days would dream of paving their front garden (bad for drainage), using a bag of peat-based compost (very un-green) or a nice toxic pesticide.
My aim as a hospital visitor is to cheer, befriend, have a chat, do something to disrupt the bleak monotony of the modern hospital day. Some patients talk amiably while others are grumpy, demented patients kept on wards for months and who won’t shut up. Many conversations lead nowhere. Some days the pillow talk is dull, so I paid attention when someone in the chaplaincy mentioned a lady who’d been in Auschwitz and still had the camp tattoo.
Where are the threats of a boycott, the calls for isolation, the outraged letters to the Prime Minister? Where are the rainbow logos, the delegations of human rights activists, the declarations of solidarity? On 16 March Bangladesh is to host the T20 World Cup, one of the top limited overs tournaments in international cricket. All the top cricketing nations, including England, will participate. Yet the competition has not attracted so much as a bat squeak of protest from gay rights campaigners, despite the fact that Bangladesh has an appalling record of institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that heading to interview the Transport Secretary I would end up stuck in traffic — so by the time I reached Patrick McLoughlin’s office, I was running a few minutes late. The normal punishment for tardiness is to be left languishing outside a minister’s office. But McLoughlin does things differently. When I arrive, his door is open and he urges me to come straight in.
As befits a man who used to earn his crust as a miner, McLoughlin has a big physical presence.
The first gay marriage will be conducted this Easter, and those who still object to the idea find themselves in a minority. The majority, according to polls, can’t see what all the fuss is about.
How far we have travelled in a relatively short period of time. Until 1967, the punishment for homosexuality was a year in prison, or chemical castration, which was the option taken by Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park codebreaker.
It was one of those weeks. On Monday, I was in four countries: I woke up at crack of dawn in Austria, took my first plane in Germany, my second in Switzerland, and was back in Blighty by lunch. The next day, I travelled up to Scotland to play the sodomitical Duke of Sandringham in the new historical blockbuster Outlander. Then I had a day off, so went from Glasgow to visit chums in Balquhidder, in Stirling, a village of 150 people, which has its own loch, snow-covered mountains, burbling rills, Highland steer, Rob Roy’s grave, and a sublime restaurant.
For Henry James it was ‘the repository of consolations’. Wordsworth, an earlier visitor, called it ‘the eldest child of liberty’. Ruskin, a self-professed ‘foster child of Venice’, dedicated his life to study of its buildings. Wagner and Browning died there, and Stravinsky left instructions to be buried there, in the island cemetery of San Michele, near the resting place of his friend and mentor Sergei Diaghilev.