What’s baseball bat in French?

Batte de baseball, I know, I looked it up

Call this a sop to my American past, but I think that, in everyday life, a baseball bat offers certain ballistic advantages that a cricket bat doesn’t.

The cricket one is heavier, but, since the force of impact equals mass times velocity squared, it’s speed that’s at a premium. And, when swung with grim intent, a baseball bat travels through the air so much faster.

What does this recondite information have to do with the price of tea in China? Nothing. But it has something do with my Christmas shopping.

We always spend Christmas at our little house in the Burgundian woods, out of range for some essential supplies. So each time we go we stock up on some condiments unavailable there and, at Christmas, also Bramley apples, essential to stuffing a goose (the French have no equivalent).

However, before we get to that stuffed goose we have to drive halfway across France, and that’s where the baseball bat comes in. As another sop to my American past, I’d prefer a gun but, France being what it is, I’ll have to settle for a palliative.

For there’s a distinct possibility that our way may be blocked by rioters taking a dim view of les anglo-saxons motoring through their beautiful countryside. I, in my turn, will definitely take a dim view of louts endangering my vehicle, person or wife (not necessarily in that order).

Hence I’ll have to stock up not only on marinated grape leaves, Stilton and sumac, but also on the aforementioned piece of sports kit. This although my only previous experience buying one was as embarrassing as it was comic.

It was 1984, and I had just moved from Houston to New York, where I found that my car, and by extrapolation my person, was a target for abuse.

The car itself, a much-dented Chevy, was unremarkable, but the word ‘Texas’ on the number plates clearly had a vast offensive potential. People hissed Oedipal m-words, flashed obscene gestures, spat on the car’s bonnet in slow traffic.

Impervious to Tolstoy’s sermon of non-resistance, I finally had enough. Fearful of carrying an illegal pistol, I bought a baseball bat and stuck it under the bench seat. But the weapon never saw the light of day because soon thereafter I got a company car.

That left the Impala sitting idly in the driveway awaiting a buyer, or perhaps a wreckage crew. But then my company car broke down just when I had to drive out of town to meet an IBM client. So the Chevy had to be brought back into life.

Realising that the sight of the jalopy would permanently damage my company’s reputation, not to mention my own, I parked it as far from IBM’s front door as the spacious car park allowed. That way, I figured, we’d have to take the client’s car when we went to lunch.

Now I don’t know how IBM is at present, but at that time it was the most conservative company around. Not only did it have the strictest dress code of suit and tie, but white was the only colour acceptable in a shirt.

The executives’ monochrome personalities tended to match their attire. Their idea of a joke was to ask “Warm enough for you?” on a sweltering day. A real knee-slapper, that.

Anyway, come lunch time I suggested we go out for a bite, and my earnest client readily accepted. “But,” he said, “do you mind if we take your car? Mine’s being fixed.”

My ploy having failed, I had to offer a lengthy explanation as we walked half a mile to my banger. “Sorry about the state of the vehicle,” I said, “but my company car is being fixed too. This one’s my wife’s.”

The client assured me he understood, and off we went. Alas, I had to brake rather sharply at one point, and the baseball bat rolled out from under the front seat.

“Your wife must be one tough lady,” remarked the client, perfectly deadpan. I must have turned beetroot red, not something I do often.

The embarrassment was such that in the intervening 34 years I never once have been tempted to shop for a baseball bat again. Until now.

On the remote, nay practically nonexistent, possibility that potential French rioters are reading this, I’m hereby putting them on notice.

If they block my way in a threatening manner, I won’t even slow down – human flesh actually improves traction. And if they do force me to stop, I’ll come out swinging, putting Babe Ruth to shame.

My priest will approve, and if he doesn’t, I’ll quote Augustine’s De Civitate Dei on the subject of just war. The French police may be less forgiving, but, as Teddy Kennedy once said, I’ll drive off that bridge when I get to it.

P.S. Brigitte Macron’s family owns the Jean Trogneux chain of sweet shops started in their home town of Amiens. The original shop is known for its macaroons (macarons in French), which delicacy is almost a homophone of Manny’s surname.

Could it be that it was this phonetic affinity that led Brigitte to commit that famous statutory rape 26 years ago?

Anyway, having tried those celebrated macaroons at Amiens, I can testify to their superlative taste. It would be a shame if the rioters razed or torched those outlets, as they’re trying to do. France’s First Foster Mother would be upset.

Don’t take rioters at their word

Paris Is Burning: different place, same song

As fires, tear gas and stun grenades turn Paris, the world’s most beautiful capital city, into a combat zone, the urge is strong to understand why.

Why do people take to the streets in a country whose legal system leaves plenty of room for peaceful protest? Is it really just because they don’t want to part with a few more euros to fill their cars?

In general, why do people start or join revolutions? Or why do countries go to war?

Granted, at times violence may be necessary and, if you believe Messrs Augustine, Aquinas et al, even moral.

The Greeks fighting against Xerxes, the Romans against Hannibal, anybody against the Bolsheviks or Nazis could all cite unimpeachable reasons for resorting to violence – they knew they could die, but they were certain some things were worse than death.

However, many, perhaps most, conflicts between countries or especially people within the same country lack such noble reasons. They do have plenty of noble slogans, but that’s a different thing altogether.

For example, why did American colonists rise against George III, one of history’s least tyrannical monarchs? Was it really because of taxation without representation?

But taxes (including duties on tea, that party drink so popular in Boston) were even higher in the metropolis, and many Englishmen weren’t represented either.

Moreover, directly the revolution succeeded, taxation skyrocketed. Americans then realised they didn’t like it even with representation, but it was too late to do anything about it.

If the French thought Louis XVI had scaled the heights of despotism, they were quickly disabused of that notion once their revolution conquered. They didn’t get their liberté, égalité, fraternité. They got hundreds of thousands perishing to revolutionary violence inspired by considerably less attractive desiderata.

By the same token the Russians overthrew the unquestionably tyrannical Nicholas II to hasten the advent of an earthly paradise created for the benefit of workers and peasants. However, both groups, as well as the rest of the country, were then promptly enslaved and had to die in their millions to realise how false their original slogans were, how little they had to do with real life.

And so on, so forth. Each time we look at a violent clash we wonder why it occurred – only to find as often as not that the stated reason isn’t the reason. It’s at best a pretext.

The on-going mayhem in France was supposedly inspired by public revulsion against new fuel taxes. On the face of it, that was a perfectly legitimate grievance, especially considering why those new taxes were to be introduced.

Manny Macron is wholly preoccupied with pan-European, pan-planetary and presumably pan-Galactic issues. Such lofty concerns leave him no time for tackling lowly domestic issues, such as millions of Frenchmen living from hand to mouth in la France profonde.

Whenever there’s a conflict between high and low, Manny will go high any day. Hence he’s prepared to squeeze the poor out of their cars for the sake of preserving the planet, presumably ours. I don’t care if your supermarket is 10 miles away, Jean-Pierre, he seems to be saying. Walk, it’s good for you.

Alas, people who can neither travel to a supermarket nor afford decent groceries find little consolation in how pristine the air will be in the next century.

Keep your planet, Manny, they seem to be saying. Just don’t rob us for trying to get about – and in most of France the car is the only possible transportation.

The grievance was legitimate, but the mode of its expression wasn’t. When they are unhappy with the government, poor people don’t set buildings and cars on fire, smash shop windows, deface statues – not of their own accord.

They need to be organised and led to do those things, and that’s where professional malcontents move in, those of the right, left or centre, it doesn’t really matter.

They slide over the ostensible issue and tap deep reservoirs of resentment, envy, fear, jealousy, hatred – all those maelstroms bubbling in the depths of the subterranean sulphuric swamp of the human psyche.

When thanks to their efforts an eruption occurs, the original grievance is buried underneath. No concession on the part of the government will quell the unrest, not quickly at any rate and certainly not for ever.

Having played hard to get for a couple of weeks and insisting that, unlike his predecessors, he wouldn’t surrender to violence, Manny then did just that and announced that fine, no hike in fuel tax if that’s how you want to play it.

That was missing the point. The riots had acquired a life all their own, and it was no longer about the measly extra €50 a month to fill that antediluvian Renault. “We want lower taxes tout court!” screamed the rioters, now properly primed.

However, they then contradicted themselves by demanding that the wealth tax that Manny had abolished be reinstated. Let’s remark parenthetically that in purely economic terms that measure made a lot of sense – similar steps have led to a brisker economic activity everywhere they were taken.

That’s the essence of trickle-down economics: stimulating wealth producers to produce more wealth makes everybody better off – eventually. Alas, that last word undoes all the others.

Eventually? When is that? Ten years from now? Two? To hell with that! We want to make the rich pay – now!!! (Il faut faire payer les riches – in French politics this mantra is heard more often than any other.)

Trickle down? That means the rich pissing on the poor! We want Macron’s arse (Macron, on veut ton cul)! screamed the rioters, and they didn’t mean that in the nice, Alexandre Benalla sort of way.

Nothing but a complete redistribution of wealth would do, explained the ring leaders. Now we’re talking – the language of a communist revolution, or a fascist one if you’d rather. This is where the two converge, smudging along the way all the technical differences between them.

That’s why the rioters were equally encouraged by the Trotskyist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the fascist (okay, populist) Marine Le Pen, who profess mutual hatred. But then so did Stalin and Hitler, which didn’t prevent them from amicably dividing Europe between them in 1939-1940.

It’s no use pretending that all the fun was caused by the new taxes on diesel. Manny can scream “No new diesel tax!!!” till he sounds like Luke Armstrong on a bad day, it won’t make any difference.

Revolutions, big or small, aren’t about getting what the people want. They are about smashing what the people hate. The true animus of any uprising is always negative.

Love may be inscribed on the bumper sticker, but it’s hatred that’s in the driving seat. A car thus propelled will crash sooner or later, but those who revved it up don’t care.

Shake your spear, baby!

These wax figurines are easier to accept as Antony and Cleopatra

A word of avuncular advice: when you pay an exorbitant amount for a Shakespeare production in London, do your research.

Before parting with £120 for two tickets to see Antony and Cleopatra at the National, I had followed my own advice, but only halfheartedly.

All I had done was scan the reviews, which had all been gasping with delight, and there I was last night, perched in a stone-like seat designed according to the Suvorov principle of “train hard, fight easy”.

If for Stanislavsky the theatre began at the cloakroom, the NT show began with the captions displayed on either side of the stage, saying that “this production is captioned for the benefit of the deaf, deafened and hard of hearing”. At first I thought ‘deafened’ was redundant, but I realised in due course that the sound effects had just such an effect.

Now you would have thought that at my advanced age I’d know better than to trust critics. Had I been less credulous I would have realised that this production is but another exercise in vulgar vandalism.

The advertising poster showed the eponymous characters wearing neutral costumes, which cleverly disguised the fact that the production was in modern dress. Most Shakespeare plays are these days.

I struggle to understand why. That is, I can’t identify any fathomable artistic reason for this abomination. Other reasons are limpidly transparent, all based on the director’s ideology and hubris.

The underlying statement seems to say that Shakespeare is timeless and – that dread word – relevant. In the past, directors used to rely on the sublime text to reconfirm Shakespeare’s transcendence. Today’s lot must feel the Bard needs help, for otherwise the paying public might miss the point.

The problem is that theatre even at its best demands at least some suspension of disbelief.

We must accept that the sketchily painted backdrop is indeed Ranevskaya’s cherry orchard; that Nora’s doll’s house has four walls, rather than just the three we can see; that Hamlet is actually only thinking about being or not being, rather than speaking out loud.

The play may be classicist, romantic, modern, absurdist or surreal but, if it’s written by a great playwright and staged with talent, taste and sensitivity, we’ll accept the narrative as life unfolding before us.

There may be an initial effort involved, but no longer than for a minute or two. After that our lives morph into the action; the passive viewer becomes an active participant, not just a chap expecting an entertaining night out.

When the text is sublime, most of the job has already been done. The greater the play, the lesser the original effort required to believe it.

All the production staff have to do is refrain from doing harm, implicitly taking some sort of theatrical Hippocratic oath. If they have genuine talent, they can add something to the play. But their first responsibility is not to subtract from it, not to make suspension of disbelief difficult.

Here I’m acutely sensitive to the possible shortcomings of my own imagination, which must be lamentably inferior to the critics’ own powers. For I found it impossible to believe I was looking at Octavius Caesar, when all I saw was a young black man wearing a double-breasted suit and moccasins with no socks.

That sort of thing goes over big in SW1, or rather used to in the past, when it seemed ‘cool’. But here we have this lad with his accent some 500 miles north of SW1, delivering lines like: “Let not the piece of virtue which is set betwixt us, as the cement of our love to keep it builded, be the ram to batter the fortress of it.”

Doesn’t the director realise how tasteless this incongruity is? The costume doesn’t have to be Roman or for that matter Elizabethan; it can be neutral and generic.

But we’re supposed to be looking at the Roman emperor, not a mock-Sloanie layabout. All I saw was a grossly miscast actor who couldn’t enunciate his lines properly.

The actress playing Cleopatra was black too, as were half the supporting cast. My literal mind struggled to get around the artistic message being conveyed there.

The protagonist, as her surviving busts show, wasn’t black at all. She was a Ptolemaic monarch of Greek origin, and as aristocratic as they came at the time. No doubt her Greek and Latin sounded as patrician as she was – Cleopatra may have used sex as a political tool, but she certainly didn’t sound like a London slapper one could meet in a City wine bar.

And, in this case, not a good-looking slapper at that, and I’m not talking about the combination of lines and curves the actress possesses. A real actress may not be a beautiful woman, but she’ll make us believe she is.

For example, Vanessa Redgrave was almost 50 when she played Cleopatra. And yet her mastery was such that we saw a beautiful young woman who bewitched Antony, and Caesar before him.

Sophie Okonedo is roughly the same age now, but one couldn’t believe great men would fall under her spell. She came across as rather common mutton straining to act like tasty lamb. And to her credit she honestly didn’t even pretend to be regal.

If the director wanted to use this occasion to strike a blow for racial integration, I’m sure there are cries of approval to be heard in London’s better postcodes. Yet in aesthetic heaven, there’s only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Transsexualism got an airing too: Agrippa, that stern warrior, was played by a woman. That was supposed to mean something profound, but I’m not sure what.

Ralph Fiennes, the good actor playing Antony, was the only cast member who could deliver his lines comprehensively. In fact, he was the reason I wanted to see the play in the first place: having seen his Prospero a few seasons ago, I knew he could do Shakespeare well.

But the director Simon Godwin wouldn’t let him. Rather than coming across as a dramatic hero with the odd touch of sardonic humour, Fiennes played a vaudeville comedian at heart who occasionally had to pretend something tragic was happening in his life.

But at least one could understand what he was saying, which in the context of that production was no mean achievement.

And speaking of production, the usual bag of tricks one nowadays expects in a Shakespeare play was dragged on and emptied with relish. Rather than a great play, we saw a multi-media presentation, complete with radar scanners, computer screens, jets roaring overhead, the whirring of helicopter rotors and giant backdrop videos of rioting Africans.

The production was supposed to last three and a half hours. We lasted one and a half, and even that was going some.

As a civically responsible person, I felt like reporting that act of gross vandalism. But  our arbiters of taste all thought the production was brilliant. So I felt like a burglary victim in today’s Britain: nobody would have been interested in my complaint.

Libertarians have it easy

$10 million for one night’s work. How much is that per concussion, Tyson?

Simplistic (as distinct from simple) philosophies attract – and corrupt.

Whenever someone reduces the whole complexity of life to a straightforward proposition or two, people feel grateful. They no longer have to think for themselves.

Just apply the ready-made stencil to the problem at hand, cut away everything that sticks out and the problem is no more.

But then a curmudgeonly pedant points out something that stubbornly resists the excising scissors. Suddenly Bob’s no longer your uncle – and Fanny is emphatically no longer your aunt.

True to character, I propose to cast myself in that spoilsport role today, using the boxing ring as my battleground.

Boxing is very much in the news following the heavyweight bout between the American Deontay Wilder and our own Tyson Fury. The two pugilists manfully slugged their way to a draw, with the latter twice picking himself up from the canvas to withstand more battering.

(Allow me to paraphrase: Mr Fury was twice knocked unconscious, suffering two concussions and each time taking multiple additional blows to risk lasting cerebral damage if not instant death.)

Whenever boxing attracts public attention, it attracts public debate. Should such brutal displays be banned? Or should people be allowed to do as they please, provided they hurt no one else but themselves?

Matthew Syed jumped into the debate swinging with libertarian haymakers. In turn, I’ll try to point out gaps in his defences, but without landing the knockout blow of advocating a ban.

For what interests me here isn’t so much boxing qua boxing as the weakness of any dogmatic libertarian argument, however it’s applied.

Mr Syed shows enviable erudition in pointing out the historical provenance of boxing in classical antiquity and quoting nineteenth century accolades for “the science of sweet bruising”. Yet he also acknowledges that boxing is a dangerous sport.

Fighters get killed in the ring. Barring that, they suffer brain damage. Having taken thousands of punches to the head, they develop things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s at a prematurely young age.

My Syed is aware of this: “The lasting harm of boxing can be gleaned from any number of interviews with former champions, the slurred words and slowed speech as instructive as any medical report.”

But then he throws a libertarian counter: “They [the fighters] know the risks, they recognise the dangers and are willing to encompass them.” And oh yes, many of them are grateful to boxing for the life they otherwise wouldn’t be able to have.

It’s true that one doesn’t immediately see how Messrs Fury and Wilder could have split $15 million for one night’s work in any other way, at least legally. It’s also true that the choice of this profession was their own, and it was made freely.

However, now we appeal to antiquity, all the same arguments would apply if Messrs Fury and Wilder wielded gladii, not boxing gloves – provided they hadn’t been forced to become gladiators.

Granted, the likelihood of death or serious injury would be even greater, but statistical probabilities shouldn’t be allowed to affect the core principle. If two adults freely agree to kill each other, who are we, libertarians, to object?

However, if we’re horrified at this suggestion and insist that gladiatorial combat is an inappropriate public spectacle, then we acknowledge that the libertarian argument has its limits.

Once we’ve agreed on that, the issue becomes eminently debatable. A line can be drawn, and it’s up to us to decide exactly where. Entering into our consideration would be, inter alia, such retrograde notions as the inviolability of the person and the sanctity of life.

Assuming that Mr Syed wouldn’t enjoy the show of two gentlemen trying to kill each other with their swords, he seems to see a qualitative difference between that and seeing them trying to kill each other with their fists.

I don’t – but then, though I don’t believe in progress, I do believe in civilisation. Etymologically opposite as this word is to militarisation, it presupposes the existence of a social and cultural arrangement wherein grievances are settled peacefully, not with brute force.

Since propensity for violence is demonstrably part of human nature, the role of civilisation can be defined as a never-ceasing effort to discourage the bad parts of our nature, while encouraging the good ones.

Conversely, casting civilisation aside and allowing the bad parts of our nature to triumph is sheer atavism, a throwback to a time when people expressed themselves with the untrammelled brutality that always accompanies unchecked freedom.

Viewed in that light, any violence hurts not only its immediate victims but society at large. For example, European society was for all intents and purposes killed by the Great War, even though a relatively small number of Europeans perished in the conflict.

Downscaling from there, two young men bashing their brains out don’t just hurt themselves. For they aren’t the only ones exercising their free choice to engage in atavistic savagery.

The reason Messrs Wilder and Fury were paid all those millions is that throngs of panting viewers around the world enjoy the show of two feral men suffering repeated concussions. They love the sight of blood in the ring – and beyond.

I don’t know if they still do it, but in the old days the proud holders of ringside seats at Madison Square Garden would come equipped with newspaper sheets to protect themselves from the scarlet spray. They knew what was coming – and looked forward to it.

One would find it hard to argue that boxing civilises by encouraging the good side of human nature to come to the fore. Hence I’d suggest that the damage done to the viewing public, and therefore to society, is greater than that suffered by the two sluggers.

It’s the public, not so much the boxers’, health that concerns me.

It’s true that most professional boxers would find it hard not only to match their income in any other occupation, but indeed to earn any income at all.

For example, Mike Tyson’s IQ is just over 70, and I suspect most boxers have something similar – that’s before they take thousands of blows to the head. This isn’t a good qualification for remunerative employment in our value-added economy.

Moreover, since these men are innately violent, one could feel relieved that their natural tendencies are manifested in a roped space 20 by 16 feet rather than in the High Street, where Christmas shoppers could otherwise find themselves on the receiving end of crosses and uppercuts.

So yes, boxing isn’t without its positive effects. But these are barely noticeable compared to the heavy blow it deals to civility, and therefore civilisation.

Whether or not it should be banned is a separate argument, and one I’m not prepared to make. Too many unrelated variables would go into a decision of this sort, such as the encouragement it would give to some central authority to ban anything it sees fit.

My task is merely to point out the inherent weakness of the undiluted, unvarnished libertarian argument in this and most other instances. Life is too complex to lend itself to simplistic reductions.