Sunday, 14 January 2018

Brexit: hope born in an unexpected place

It feels as though a sea change may be under way in Britain. Just may be. And if it is, it’s not a moment too soon.

Nigel Farage:
not the obvious source of encouragement for the pro-EU side
Even Nigel Farage, former leader of the bizarrely named United Kingdom Independence Party – he’s a fan of Donald Trump and apparently keen on making the United Kingdom even more dependent on US whim than it already is – has now suggested that it may be necessary to hold a second Brexit referendum. Why, he’s gone so far as to suggest that Brexit might be defeated in a re-run vote:

I think the Leave side is in danger of not even making the argument. The Leave groups need to regather and regroup, because Remain is making all the arguments. After we won the referendum, we closed the doors and stopped making the argument.

What he hasn’t yet conceded is that, if the Leave side isn’t making much of an argument, it may be because it doesn’t have much of an argument to make. During the referendum campaign in 2016, both sides advanced wildly overstated claims, but Leave’s distortions (£350m a week released for the NHS, a world anxious to beat a path to Britain’s door to sign trade agreements…) won more votes than Remain’s.

Since then we’ve watched a hapless government, faced by an opposition still sitting on the fence, attempting to negotiate a good Brexit deal with the EU. That process quickly revealed that far from saving any money, Brexit was going to cost Britain a great deal. Equally, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no great appetite around the world to hurry up with trade deals favourable to Britain. The United States has specified that a trade deal would require Britain to drop its food standards and other regulations. In any case, deteriorating relations with Trump now make it look as though no trade deal of any kind. is likely to be finalised soon

Though the inept leaders of the Remain campaign overstated their case, the picture that is emerging looks a great deal closer to what they were forecasting than to the rose-tinted optimism of the Brexit side. That may lead to swinging enough voters away from Brexit to reverse the results of the June 2016 referendum. So one can understand Farage’s concerns.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of this will happen. Nobody in government is ready to call for a second referendum (actually, the third: the first referendum took place in 1975 and confirmed our membership of the EU; another would allow the electorate to reverse the sad effect of the second in 2016). The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has again stated that there is no call on his side for a further referendum either, and it is not Labour Party policy.

Even if there were another referendum, there is no guarantee that Remain would win this time. There is a core supporting departure from the EU which is fiercely attached to its views, and unresponsive to any argument. Remainers can only hope that the necessary 2% or more of voters may have switched to their side of the debate, in the light of real evidence. Given the chance, they might just block Brexit at the eleventh hour.

At most what we have are some straws in the wind. Some cause for hope that we might be able to prevent this toxic step. No guarantees of success, but maybe the beginnings of a change in the climate.

Odd that the glimmer of hope has been given some impetus by Nigel Farage. In general, I’d feel no more inclined to turn to him for encouragement than I would to Trump. But in the rather bleak and deeply confused conditions of today, I’ll take whatever comfort there is, wherever it comes from.

Friday, 12 January 2018

How can others trust me if I don't trust myself?

Trust. It’s impossible to live without. And yet it’s so hard to win.

This all came to mind recently as part of the process I’ve been going through to try to make it easier to get into the United States on visits. Honestly, if a European want to understand how ghastly it is for non-Europeans to get into, say, Britain – you know, those demoralizingly long queues at immigration full of unhappy people combating boredom and jetlag – you need to try to get into the US as a non-citizen or resident. You wind backwards and forwards in long lines between stretched ribbons and, as often as not when you finally get to the front of one, you just go through one process – having your retina scanned and fingerprints checked, say – only to step into the next queue.

Which is what happened to me when I arrived in Boston last Sunday.
Smiles, but not that comforting
Trump and Pence: the men whose trust I need
I have therefore applied for inclusion in the US Trusted Traveller Program. This allows you to use a shorter queue and therefore, one hopes, to get in a little more quickly. It does, however, require winning the trust of the United States government.

Now I appreciate that the US only needs convincing that I don’t plan to engage in any criminal activity. It’s not my intention to carry weapons: I own rather fewer than most Americans (none at all). Nor do I plan to smuggle any banned substances, such as drugs – really not my scene: “drugs cause cramp”, Dorothy Parker assures us, and there are some fairly unpleasant penalties associated with carting them around too. Indeed, I won’t even be bringing in simple foodstuffs: we did travel with bananas once, which we’d forgotten to eat in the plane and dutifully handed over the customs officer when we arrived, by which time they’d been reduced to an unappealing brown mass anyway.

In that limited sense, I think I’m worthy of the US government’s trust, even one headed by the notoriously paranoid Trump.

Trust, though, must cover more than simply a reasonable endeavour to avoid downright criminal behaviour. One can’t help feeling that a trustworthy individual can also be relied on in everyday life. And there, sadly, I’m not wholly convinced I can even wholly trust myself.

For instance, when I was waiting to check in my bags for the flight to Boston, the thought occurred to me that I really didn’t need a winter coat for the flight. I took it off, emptied the pockets into my laptop bag, and packed the coat. That left me feeling pleased with myself for being so farsighted, but only until I got through security and decided to buy something.

That’s when I discovered that my wallet wasn’t in my bag. What’s worse, the pouch where I’d put the other things wasn’t properly closed. I cursed my carelessness.

Doubts assailed me. Had I left my wallet in the coat? Or had it fallen out of the laptop bag without my noticing? Worse still, how could I possibly find out?

The answer, of course, was that there was no way. I just had to spend the next eight or nine hours, until I got my case back, combating the ever-returning fear that I’d lost the wallet. An easy flight turned into a far less pleasant experience.

As it happened, the wallet was indeed still in my coat. I needn’t have worried. But it rather undermined my trust in myself – after all, had I concentrated a little more for a minute or two, I could have spared myself several hours of pain.

Not my idea of a trusted traveller.

Still, I’m glad to say the US has agreed to award me that status despite my own doubts. On the other hand, another shock awaited me as I walked into the building when my interview was to take place. Up there on the wall were portrait photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

It’s odd. I’ve naturally seen Trump on TV again and again since he was sworn in. Practically every day there’s some new appalling revelation about the man. Inevitably, I knew perfectly well that he was President.

And yet, somehow, it was seeing those portraits that really brought it home. I’ve seen Federal buildings with portraits of Obama and Biden before. I’ve seen photos of many presidents. They strike me as entirely mundane sights, just what one would expect. But to see Trump up there – well, it really forced me to realise the ghastly truth: that hideous clown really had succeeded Obama in the White House.

In the short term, it wasn’t as chilling a realisation as the discovery that my wallet was apparently missing.

In the longer term, though, it may have far more frightening consequences.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Trump in a missile crisis: a fearful prospect

Probably the saddest criticism Michael Wolff has made of Donald Trump is that everyone who knows him sees him as a child.

This, Wolff says, means that Trump’s constantly seeking instant gratification. When he wants something, he wants it now. He has trouble understanding that anyone can stand in his way and, if they attempt to, his instinct is to try to bulldoze over them.

Recently, I’ve been listening to a great book by Larry J. Sabato on the The Kennedy Half Century. It’s concerned not only with the short presidency of John F. Kennedy but the long legacy he left behind. It’s a compelling tale.

For all his flaws, 
it’s a chilling thought that Trump now occupies his office
In particular, I was held by Sabato’s description of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union had begun to station missiles on Cuba, only 90 miles off the US coast. That represented a direct, immediate, existential threat to the United States. In turn, that brought the world to the brink of the greatest man-made catastrophe in history. It would have taken little to trigger a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union which would certainly have killed millions and might have left the planet uninhabitable.

Many of Kennedy’s military advisers pushed for an immediate strike on the missile bases. The reasoning was simple enough: the bases are the problem; a surgical strike takes them out; they provide the solution.

But Kennedy’s greatest blunder, the Bay of Pigs invasion right at the beginning of his presidency, had taught him a lesson. He’d allowed his military and CIA advisers to talk him into backing an invasion of Cuba by US-trained and armed insurgents. The operation had ended in colossal and shameful failure, and Kennedy was left looking both dishonest and guilty.

If anything came out of that fiasco, it was the lesson not to be persuaded too quickly by the military and CIA. As my wife pointed out to me when I told her this story, it’s just like asking a surgeon whether an operation is a good idea: that’s what surgeons do, they operate; they’re most unlikely ever to advise against surgery. So it is with soldiers: the military option is the one they’re drawn to most strongly, because it means doing what they do.

During the missile crisis Kennedy, burned by the Bay of Pigs experience, held back. After much debate, he chose a more cautious approach. He drew a “quarantine” zone around Cuba and announced the US would prevent any shipping entering it.

It’s interesting that he avoided the word “blockade” which is generally seen as an act of war, and Kennedy didn’t want to take quite so irrevocable a step that early into the crisis.

He had made his resolve clear, but also showed he was looking for a solution by peaceful means if at all possible. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, reacted to both messages. He ordered ships he’d already sent towards Cuba to turn back and return home. And he offered Kennedy a deal: he would dismantle the missile bases in return for a commitment by the US not to invade Cuba.

Both happened. War was avoided. A small thaw began in the Cold War.

Within a few months the US and the Soviet Union were negotiating a Test Ban Treaty, ending further atomic bomb tests in the atmosphere. It was one of Kennedy’s proudest achievements to see it ratified by the US Senate, one of his last successes before being assassinated.

Sabato points out that the defusing of the crisis was down to a lot of calm assessment of options and highly intelligent decision-making by two leaders. Both had understood that no apparent gain from war would be worth the devastating price it would exact.

But what would have happened with a President in the White House who couldn’t brook any delay in gratifying his desires? Might he not have gone straight away for the military option? After all, that was the one that promised the quickest solution to the most immediate problem. Does a man incapable of deferred gratification see any other option as more attractive?

Trump is sitting where Kennedy sat. Kim Jong-Un is playing the Kruschchev role. That’s not just a measure of the decline there has been in political standards.

It’s also frankly frightening.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Gold at the Epiphany, despite a de-myrrhal

Magis from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

That’s the second chapter of Matthew from the New Testament, telling us of the visit of three Kings of the east to the infant Jesus, on what is marked today by the Feast of the Epiphany.

Well, we had a visitor on the feast of the Kings. Just one, Marie, and not from the East but the West. It’s true that two others, Moira and Barbara, joined my wife Danielle to welcome her, but they live locally. They hardly had to follow a star to find the place.

Moira and Danielle: two of the seven scintillating sisters
Song and dance in 1987
Today Marie lives in Los Angeles. The time when they’d been closest, indeed had worked together in an active women’s group, had been 30 or more years ago.  That had peaked spectacularly in a 1987 spectacle called ‘The Seven Scintillating Sisters’.

They sang a medley of songs, with dancing and little bits of theatre associated with them. The repertoire included several from that wonderful group, Fascinating Aïda, still going and as entertaining as ever today. This raised some religious questions, but only because the one-off, historic performance was originally planned to take place in a Catholic Church Hall. Sadly, once the authorities got around to reading some of the song lyrics, they changed their mind about the hall hire and the scintillating sisters had to find a different venue at short notice.

In the end, it all went well and everyone enjoyed themselves, in the audience and among the cast. Since then our paths had somewhat drifted apart though, with Barbara and Moira at least, they’d also come together again recently. Adding Marie led to much additional joy and merriment, as one would expect from the Feast of the Epiphany. Danielle, who’s French, made sure that the reunion had a fine English feel – as befits a tea in England – with cucumber sandwiches available alongside scones and tea.

Terribly English.
Cucumber sandwiches with French flair
Marie has discovered a new talent, for jewellery, and presented tokens of her work to the others.

“Gold!” I exclaimed.

“Gilded,” she corrected me.

But hey, I wasn’t going to get picky. Someone had shown up on the Feast of Kings and had brought what certainly looked like gold.

Danielle with her Epiphany Gold
Who cares if it's gilded?
I spent the rest of the evening waiting for other visitors bringing Frankincense and Myrrh. It didn’t happen. That was a slight disappointment, but only because I’ve never worked out what exactly myrrh is, and it would have been fun to find out.

Still, gold’s the really substantial one, isn’t it? And we had that. As well as tea with good friends, including Marie whom we hadn’t seen for seventeen years.

A good day. Myrrh or no myrrh. I’m certainly not complaining.

Moira, Marie, Barbara and Danielle
Four of the seven sisters. A joyful reunion. 30 years on.
Toffee was just adding to the fun

Friday, 5 January 2018

Trump and Wolff: a fine tradition of obtuse authoritarianism

Excellent. I’ve taken delivery of my copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury

My Kindle edition of Fire and Fury
Now I'll decide whether or not I read it, not some tinpot autocrat
I previously had little intention of buying it, and couldn’t have until next week anyway, but Donald Trump’s attempts to block publication made purchasing the book more attractive and brought the launch date forward.

Thus we rush more quickly to our fate by lashing out against it…

This experience evokes a strong sense of nostalgia in me. In 1987, during the heady days of the height of Maggie Thatcher’s power, she was more inclined than ever to indulge in spasms of complete battiness. One concerned a rather bad book, Spycatcher by a certain Peter Wright, formerly of the spook service MI5.

Maggie decided that the book represented a security threat to our fine kingdom. She seems not to have cottoned on to the obvious fact that anything the book contained would have been known by our then principal foes in Moscow, probably well before Wright had got around to writing it down.

She set out to ban publication of the book. Since her writ never ran quite as far as she would have liked – which would have been worldwide (at least) – she was only able to block UK publication.

The result was glorious: the book could be bought anywhere in the world, including in Moscow, but not in Britain. You might almost have wondered whether Thatcher was trying to prevent her own electorate reading about the ineptitude of some of our spies, rather than trying to protect secrets from the Soviet Union.

I wasn’t particularly tempted to read the book, but I was damned if the iron lady was going to stop me. I persuaded a friend in the US to buy a copy and mail it to me, which he kindly did. As it happens, I didn’t read the blessed book for years and when I did, I found it turgid and unconvincing. I struggled to finish it. But at least, I’d made it my choice, and not Maggie’s, whether I read it or not.

The point of this story is that Maggie’s fixation with banning the book turned an obscure third-rate work into a worldwide publishing sensation. Just as Trump’s rantings against Fire and Fury have taken the book from 48,449th on Amazon’s list to the number 1 spot.

By the way he has tried to block a book that claims he’s unfit for office, Trump has demonstrated just the kind of incompetence that makes the case against him. In fact, his reaction to the book condemns him far more powerfully than the book itself possibly could: it no longer matters if the book is entirely false, his reaction to it is authentic and visible to anyone. At least, to anyone with the eyes to see. 

There’s nothing new about any of this.

Nearly three centuries ago, Voltaire spent three years exiled in England. Such was his talent, he not only learned English, he mastered it well enough to write a book in the language, a book that sparkles with humour and provocative insights. His Letters on the English would have made the King of France as apoplectic as Trump is over Wolff – only in the French case, most of his officials would have agreed.

The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil.

Resisting Kings? Restraining their freedom to act? Oh, no, Louis XV would have taken a distinctly dim view.

There was worse still.

An Englishman, as one to whom liberty is natural, may go to heaven his own way.

What? There might be a way to heaven that didn’t go through the one true Church? The clergy would have been as incensed as the King.

No wonder Voltaire didn’t publish.

Well, at first he didn’t. But it must have gnawed at him to have a book that good mouldering in a bottom drawer. He gave in to temptation. He published, though only in English.

Still. Voltaire’s natural audience was his countrymen. Could he bear to deny them something that would enhance his reputation so forcefully?

It seems, naughty boy, he’d prepared a translation and adaption which he called the Lettres Philosophiques. And he let a printer see them. And then another. And then, for good measure, a third. Under strict instructions not to publish.

But they could see how well the book would sell. And when they discovered that others held the manuscript they began to fear that one of the other two would publish it first, creaming the most profitable part of a lucrative market.

Eventually, the book appeared. Without the permission legally required, a permission the authorities would certainly not have granted anyway. And Voltaire was in trouble – worse trouble than Michael Wolff because eighteenth-century France had few restraints on the power of the authorities to make their displeasure painfully known. Trump might envy them their unbridled authority but he doesn’t have it.

Voltaire’s friends got him away from Paris and into the deepest provinces. Eventually they persuaded the powers-that-were to leave him alone, on condition he stayed there, kept quiet and behaved himself.

But something had to be punished, if only for the form of the thing. So the authorities seized a copy and condemned it to be shredded and burned on the steps of the Palace of Justice. A sentence that was carried out in all its brutality.

Except that – actually, it wasn’t. The public executioner could spot a market opportunity as well as anyone else. In his hands was a first edition of the Lettres Philosophiques, a book that was selling (clandestinely) like hot cakes. He was going to burn it? Not a chance.

He substituted some inoffensive and far less marketable text for shredding and burning. Keeping the Voltaire work as a nice little nest egg for later.

Three centuries ago it was clear that obtuse autocrats trying to prohibit a provocative book would only make it more attractive and enhance its sales.

Louis XV was an obtuse autocrat. Clearly, we have another such in the White House today. As Michael Wolff points out, “not only is he helping me sell books, but he’s helping me prove the point of the book”.

I doubt Wolff’s book will be as good as Voltaire’s. But it belongs to the same fine tradition. It’s in that spirit that I’ve bought it.

And I, rather than Trump, will decide whether I read it or not.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Attlee: a quiet celebration of a quiet man

It’s far from inappropriate that the anniversary on 3 January passed quietly. It was the anniversary of a quiet man. A modest man, a shy man, but the architect of some of the more remarkable achievements Britain has seen.

There are some things about Clement Attlee that are incontrovertible, a matter of historical record. He was born on 3 January 1883. He led the Labour Party into a wartime coalition with the Tories, under Winston Churchill, in 1940. And, five years later, he led Labour to its first spell in government with a parliamentary majority.

Other issues are more open to interpretation.

It was a key factor in Britain’s war effort that the country was led by a national government – in which Labour played a major role. Indeed, Attlee was described as ‘home front Prime Minister’ since Churchill’s key contribution was on the international scene, above all in securing US support. And yet it must have taken extraordinary courage to join a coalition with the Conservatives just nine years after a previous Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, had split the party and reduced its parliamentary strength to just 50 by doing the same thing.

What was a betrayal in 1931 was essential in 1940. Labour’s role as the voice of the downtrodden and of workers had to be laid aside for a while, to ensure the very survival of a country in which that voice could be heard at all. The mood was perfectly captured in a cartoon by David Low, showing Labour having to turn away from its appointed task for a while, to focus on something more urgent – but it would be back.
Labour leading 'our democratic institutions' in the shelter
But only for a time
In 1945, triumphantly, it was.

Again, few would dispute that major reforms were achieved by the 1945 government Attlee led. Indeed, many would argue that it was the greatest reforming government Labour has formed. The welfare state was launched, with both universal social security – independent of means, available to wealthy and poor alike – alongside the NHS were key pillars of the post war consensus. They’ve survived to this day, though they’re increasingly battered now.

He also ensured that India achieved independence, persuaded as he was that it was time. By doing so, he set in train the process by which the British Empire would be dismantled over the next twenty years.

Other aspects of Attlee’s time in office are more controversial. One was the secret drive to build a British Atom bomb, once it became clear that the US was not going to continue the wartime practice of sharing nuclear secrets with the UK. Another was his determination to preserve British colonial power in certain colonies, even through the use of military force, around Africa, for instance, or in Malaya. What he felt about India he didn’t necessarily feel about every part of the Empire.

Is that inconsistency? Or a willingness to compromise? A readiness sometimes to be pragmatic which led him sometimes to do things we might admire, and sometimes to do things that we might not like so much?

Still more controversial is his attitude towards the left of the Party. Before Attlee formed his government, one of his most outspoken critics was Nai Bevan, clarion voice of the Labour left. It is a tribute to Attlee’s breadth of vision that he invited Bevan to join the government and gave him the opportunity to build the NHS. But the differences remained as powerful as ever and, indeed, Bevan eventually resigned from the government in its dying days, an act for which Attlee may never fully have forgiven him.

The tale of his relations with Bevan give a measure of Attlee. He was a conciliator, and that allowed him to able to lead a government which contained both Bevan to the left and Ernest Bevin to the right. It was all the stronger for it.

As well as the left and right of his own party, Attlee could also work with the Conservatives, as he showed in the wartime coalition. Indeed, he could fight the Tories – though not an outstanding public speaker, his powerful response to the vicious attack launched on him by Churchill during the 1945 campaign was a major factor in giving him the victory – but that didn’t stop him cooperating with them when necessary.

I’m not convinced that someone like that would find it easy to forge a career in the present Labour Party. Given the chance, he became arguably Labour’s most successful leader. But would we give him that chance today?

Ah, well. At least I raised a glass to him on his birthday. A quiet celebration in memory – nostalgic memory – of a quiet man who achieved so much.

Far more than many who are a great deal noisier.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Hopes for 2018. Or are they just blinkers?

One of the aspects of 2018 that appeals to me personally is that it will be my second calendar year in a job I actually enjoy.

That may sound pretty unimpressive but when you’ve spent ten years moving between six jobs, five of which were lousy fits – or, to be fair, to which I turned out to be hopelessly unfitted – finding one that I actually like is a remarkable uptick.

So it’s good to be starting a new year in it.

One of the aspects I enjoy of the job is that it involves quite a lot of work in Italy. Why should that appeal to me? It’s where I was born, but in the course of a long career, I’ve never had the opportunity to work there. Now, however, I’ve been working with Italian colleagues and developing relations with Italian clients, and it’s wonderfully rewarding.

As a child, I spoke Italian pretty well. Perhaps to near-native level. Today – well, it’s half a century on and things get rusty. So one of the things I’ve been doing is working on the language. Reading is one of the best ways of doing that.

Do you know Primo Levi’s book The Periodic Table? I liked it so much that I’m re-reading it. The beauty is that it’s extremely funny, which only intensifies the harrowing poignancy of the life story of a man who was one of the few survivors of the extermination camp at Auschwitz.
Primo Levi: an extraordinary history for an outstanding writer
The book’s title is derived from the profession Levi first chose, long before he became a writer. He was a chemist. Each chapter is associated with the name of an element from the Periodic Table. Near the end of one of the early chapters, Zinc, Levi explains that:

…I had always considered my origins a negligible if curious fact, a little amusing anomaly, like someone whose nose is bent or who has freckles; a Jew is someone who doesn’t decorate a tree at Christmas, who shouldn’t eat salami but does anyway, who learned a little Hebrew when he was thirteen and then forgot it.

That struck a cord, because it is so close to the way I feel about being a Jew myself. If I were more religious it would matter much more but, since I’m not, it remains for me simply a cultural idea – or, more importantly, a cultural emotion – which is far from defining who I am. It’s as essential to my character as is my imposing height (167 cm or 5’7”) or my spectacular hair colour (six decades to get it to this particular white, though it was well under way in just three).

That’s surely how these characteristics should be. Of some interest, maybe, but not the basis for any kind of real judgement. Sadly, for Levi, in the late 1930s, his origins wouldn’t long remain a mere curiosity. As racial laws were promulgated by the Fascist government, walls began to go up around him, with the doors in them closing one by one.

These days, of course, while anti-Semitism is hardly dead, it isn’t the force it once was. Nor is it by any means the main cause for the persecution of people on the basis of what they are, rather than what they have done. Today the groups suffering the most are Muslims or Blacks.

Something that brought this home to me particularly strongly was when I asked a black woman I’d just met, where she was from. It was an innocent question. Her accent said loud and clear that the answer was ‘Luton’, the town to which my wife and I had just moved. That was the answer I was expecting. But that’s not an innocent question to a black person.

She replied, “I’m from Cheltenham”.

Now Cheltenham and Luton are about as far apart as any two towns can be in England. Not geographically, though they’re hardly neighbours. The real distinction is social. Cheltenham is nice, a word you should pronounce ‘naice’. It’s wealthy. It has a fine girls’ school. It has a major British spying centre. It has a Tory MP. House prices are, I doubt not, astronomical.

Luton has two Labour MPs. It’s just a tad dust-blown. Its great advantage is that, for being this close to London, its house prices are amazingly cheap – perhaps a third to a half of the capital’s.

It’s hard to imagine anyone with her accent coming from Cheltenham.

Still, that was her answer, and we chatted a little about the town and her upbringing there before moving on to other subjects.

By the afternoon, she’d got to know me a little better. And suddenly, unprompted, she turned to me and said, “actually, I was born in Jamaica. I came to Cheltenham when I was five”.

All the weight of blackness was suddenly laid bare for me. Ask a white Englishman where he’s from and he tells you. Ask someone black, and there’s a moment at least when he has to be wondering, “are you checking on whether I’m an alien? Whether I don’t belong here?”

The attitudes that would ultimately inflict terrible suffering on Levi are still there. They just have different targets, for the most part, today.

Back to Levi’s book.

The following chapter, Iron, starts with the words:

Outside the walls of the Chemistry Institute it was night, the night of Europe: Chamberlain had returned outplayed from Munich, Hitler had entered Prague without firing a shot, Franco had subjugated Barcelona and was sitting in Madrid. Fascist Italy, a minor pirate, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of catastrophe was condensing like a viscous dew across the houses and in the streets, in careful talk and muted consciences.

Well, we’re not there yet. Reading those words on the brink of 2018 reminded me how much less bad things look today than they did in 1939. But then, they didn’t look so bad in 1930, but the 1939 catastrophe came anyway.

And yet, if we wanted to live, Levi tells us later, if we wanted in some way to take advantage of the youth that was flowing through our veins, there was no other resource… than voluntary blindness.

Yes. That’s what stops us preventing that kind of slide. And yet, if Levi chose voluntary blindness, with what he was facing, what’s to stop us doing the same?

I’m looking forward to another year in a job I like. It should be fun. But is that just me choosing blindness too?