Revolution at my doorstep

Not quite Paris, c. 1789, but there’s still time, especially if the cops walk away

Paris, certainly. Marseille, but of course. Bordeaux, probably. Lyon, definitely.

But Toucy, our sleepy village in the sleepiest part of northern Burgundy? Surely not. One just can’t see it as a hub of revolutionary activity.

In fact, the other day I made a smug, self-satisfied remark to that effect, displaying Schadenfreude at its most supercilious. However, Penelope, who lived in France for 10 years as a girl, suggested I shouldn’t hold my breath.

This morning we drove to Toucy market, to find I was wrong in having overestimated the bucolic placidity of the locals.

The centre of Toucy is adorned with a statue of the great lexicographer Pierre Larousse who was born there. And adorning the statue were a dozen or so gilets jaunes, banging on plastic buckets and making la mère of all ruckuses.

I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but the sentiments must have been in line with the messages on their placards. Most of them evoked the memory of the slogans aimed against Marie-Antoinette in 1789.

All said rather uncomplimentary things about Manu, which is the French contemptuous diminutive of Macron’s Christian name (I anglicise it to ‘Manny’). This, although ‘Le Roi Macron’ had taken exception to being so addressed because that insulted not only him but also the very institution of presidency.

I didn’t notice any dismay expressed about that venerable office; just the heartfelt desire that it should be occupied by someone other than Manny.

One poster explained the nature of the problem: “We want to live, not to survive”. (The translation inevitably loses the charm of the original: On veut vivre, non pas survivre.)

Another one emphasised that the demonstrators were sick and tired of being taken for a ride (Marre de se faire plumer, literally “We’ve had it with being plucked”). Yet another specified the ride: rubbish collection tax rose 25 per cent last year, preceded by similar hikes in fuel taxes.

That message struck a chord deep in my heart, for I’m directly affected.

For example, during the 18 years that we’ve been in the area, diesel prices went up and down, but they were consistently 25 per cent lower than in London. Now they’re 15 per cent higher, and I’d happily add my voice to the chorus of “Manny out!”

The general sentiment among the gilets was that Manny’s policies left much to be desired, and his personality even more. It’s possible that the wicker basket for his head has already been woven, waiting for its cue to slide under the guillotine.

Now much as I sympathised with the demonstrators, I was a little wary of their tendency to burn cars. Having parked around the corner, I didn’t fancy the prospect of walking 12 miles home.

That fear evidently wasn’t shared by the two policemen observing the proceedings. Since they were national rather than local, they must have been forewarned that disturbances were coming.

As I was queuing up for my beef cheeks, which everyone knows is the best cut for boeuf bourguignon, les flics cut menacing figures. But then they relaxed, realising that no autoda was on the cards, meaning, and I’m translating loosely in jest, that no cars were likely to be burned.

They turned their backs on the bucket-bangers and began to scrutinise the estate agents’ boards with a manifest lack of interest. Eventually they walked away in the direction of the fruit stands.

Revolution or no revolution, we have to have our coffee

Clearly they knew their rural protesters well. As those strapping officers haggled about the price of clementines, the revolutionaries took the weight off their feet. They sat down at the outside tables in a local café and inundated the staff with orders for coffee, croissants and pains au chocolat.

Croissants are, after all, the stuff of life and fuel of any self-respecting revolution, especially in rural France. But how long will our local protests remain a scene from a French vaudeville? How long before burning cars illuminate Toucy and other local villages?

One can understand Manny’s desire to transform himself from a presumptive king of France to the emperor of Europe, sort of a present-day Charlemagne. Displaying the nose of a bloodhound, Manny must have sensed the inner imperative of today’s democratic politicians.

Woefully unfit to do their jobs, they live in constant fear that they’ll be found out. Hence the desire to put some serious mileage between themselves and their voters, who just might hold them accountable.

That’s why Manny, along with most of his European colleagues everywhere, sees the EU as a godsend and a most welcome employment opportunity for life. Manny is more bolshie than most because he has indeed been found out.

If the demonstrations have reached Toucy, you can imagine what’s happening in urban centres. The French do have form in expressing their discontent with their rulers, and who says they’ve lost it?

It must be time for Manny to go into hiding and change his name. May I suggest Manu Egalité?

How to talk your way out of prison

“No, Eliza, if the rine in Spine falls minely on the pline, you can go to jile.”

As often happens with great breakthroughs, the recent one in jurisprudence has gone barely noticed.

Yet Judge David Hale’s ruling in a drug-dealing case not only blazed new legal trails, but also opened up dizzying new horizons.

Two drug dealers guilty of possessing cannabis with intent to supply were spared jail because His Honour found their “grammar and pronunciation” to be at a much higher level than normally expected from drug dealers.

Admittedly I haven’t had the privilege of meeting many, indeed any, drug dealers. Yet on general principle I doubt they set the locution and elocution bars at a vertiginous height. Therefore the two criminals in question didn’t really have to evoke the memory of GK Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh to get off.

In fact, the only sample of their linguistic attainment provided in the newspaper report is rather inconclusive: “Mad flavours from 10 tonight – let me know for more details.”

Now, should I ever feel inclined to trade in illicit substances, I should fear no punishment whatsoever, for I could express the same, admittedly rather basic, thought even better.

I would have found a better adjective than the slangy ‘mad’ to describe the enticing flavours, and I would definitely have said ‘contact’ instead of ‘let me know’. After all, it’s up to the seller to let the prospective buyer know about the wares available, just as it’s up to the prospective buyer to contact the seller with any inquiries.

Yet it’s of course commendable that two youngsters are better-spoken than the chaps one hears conversing behind King’s Cross Station after dark. Moreover, as a writer I welcome the value our legal system attaches to the tools of my trade.

However, I do wonder if Judge Hale considered the full legal implications of his momentous ruling. For, if decent locution can be seen as an extenuating circumstance, it follows logically that speaking badly should be regarded as an aggravating one.

One can just hear a colleague of Judge Hale delivering a sentencing statement along these lines: “Young man, normally what you did doesn’t call for a custodial sentence. But because you use double negatives and glottal stops, and because you drop your aitches, I have no option but to send you down for life with no possibility of parole.”

That, however, would be regarded as class, and quite possibly racial, discrimination. After all, a poor chap who says ‘I’m, like’ instead of ‘I said’ is a victim of society, which, and not he, should hence be held responsible for whatever crime he committed.

The upshot of this is that, since all criminals speak either well or badly, none should go to prison. There has to be a logical hole somewhere in this conclusion, but I can’t spot it offhand.

Judge Hale’s ruling also casts a new light on another case. Some 20 years ago, a drugged-up aristo I knew, a man educated at a good public school and Cambridge, used a replica pistol to knock off a convenience shop.

I can vouch from personal experience that he spoke with perfect diction and impeccable syntax, and yet the poor man had to serve a year in prison and for ever carry a blot on his CV.

His year of captivity can’t be returned to him, but the least we can do is demand that his criminal conviction be excised from his record: I’m sure the two dealers spared jail couldn’t match his Sloanie vowels.

Sentencing them to community orders, Judge Hale explained that he didn’t want to “fetter the prospects” of either man by sending them to prison. One prospect that may soar unfettered is that they’ll graduate to flogging opiates rather than cannabis, but obviously their superior locution precludes this, otherwise likely, possibility.

The Judge then proved his knowledge of such matters by explaining to the relieved youngsters that, although “cannabis may be an experiment that you find pleasurable”, they could be “desperately affected” by it.

That, though undeniably true, misses some of the point. For the chaps were guilty not of finding cannabis pleasurable, but of finding it profitable. Chances are they sample what they purvey, but that strikes me as being beside the point in the context.

The Times article reports on the case in the spirit of journalistic objectivity that in some circles may be seen as moral anomie. The only quality judgement is reserved for the alma mater of both criminals, the Bishopston Comprehensive School in Swansea, “which is rated excellent”.

Even though I know nothing about that school, on this evidence I disagree with its rating. The school may have been moderately successful in teaching two lads how to speak proper, like. However, it didn’t teach them not to peddle drugs, which I’d describe as a gross failure.

In conclusion, I have a piece of avuncular advice to anyone contemplating a career in crime. Learn your grammar and keep your aitches where they belong – you just may be able to get away with murder.

A happy new year?

Since over the past several days my glass hasn’t been allowed to remain either half-full or half-empty for more than a few seconds, I defy the stock definitions of optimist and pessimist.

Nor can I claim the possession of a crystal ball, much as I’d like to own such an appliance. However, using the modest logical faculties I do possess, I find it hard to think of 2019 with anything other than a sense of foreboding.

Everywhere one looks, the options we seem to face span the range from barely acceptable to downright catastrophic. However, since a short piece doesn’t afford the luxury of looking everywhere, let’s just cast a quick glance at a few things off the top.

Such as Brexit, to start with.

All options to the positive side of barely acceptable are off the table, having been removed by a staggeringly weak and inept government. That’s why even discussing them is a sign of infantile idealism divorced from any conceivable reality.

However, just to keep the record straight, a decisive, resolute, intelligent government, of the kind no Western country is currently blessed with, could have shifted the realistic range of options far towards the plus end.

That could have been done by leaving the EU directly Article 50 was invoked and without paying any exit fees, at least not straight away.

The EU could have been told that any divorce settlement involves not only a restitution of liabilities but also a division of assets. Once Britain left the EU, the two parties could have begun a dispassionate, fact-based analysis of both the assets and the liabilities, aiming at achieving an equitable arrangement.

Meanwhile, Britain could have invited the EU to enter into a free-trade agreement, of the kind two civilised sovereign nations can both profit from. Yet civilised sovereign nations can also compete with one another.

In that spirit, Britain could have created the most favourable conditions possible to attract foreign trade, businesses and capital – and stimulate the domestic variety. Red tape could have been rolled up and tossed away, tariffs relegated to the past, taxes on income, business and capital drastically reduced – well, any economic primer will teach how that’s done.

(It gives me a petty, hubristic pleasure to see the word ‘Singapore’, which I’ve been using in this context for years, beginning to crop into the economic narrative of our respected columnists.)

That way Britain would have gained a competitive advantage over the EU, nullifying whatever punitive measures that pernicious contrivance could devise.

Such measures would definitely have been imposed – as an organisation pursuing political aims only, the EU would happily cut off not only its economic nose but indeed its every economic limb to spite any dissident state undermining its desiderata.

However, a bold move along the lines of the one I’ve mentioned would have taken the sting out of any spiteful actions, making the EU think twice before destroying, say, 10 per cent of German car exports.

Alas, that will remain an unfulfilled fantasy firmly lodged in the subjunctive mood.

The barely acceptable end of the Future Very Indefinite range includes limping out of the EU somehow, either without a ‘deal’ (but with many unilateral concessions, as I hope everyone realises) or with Mrs May’s ‘deal’, which is one contiguous unilateral concession tantamount to leaving one foot stuck in the EU morass.

After that the vector plunges towards the catastrophic end. This could take the shape of holding a second referendum or simply crawling back to the EU tail between our legs and submitting to eternal vassalage on terms inferior to those we had before.

The range of political options available internally follows the same path. The very realistic thought that a year from now we may well be missing Mrs May is enough to give me sleepless nights, or would be if that glass remained half-empty or half-full.

Any way you cut it, a well-meaning and generally benign nonentity at the helm is preferable to an evil nonentity bent on revenge and destruction. Yet Corbyn’s premiership, which started as a remote possibility, first graduated to a probability and is now almost a certainty.

People everywhere, and perhaps especially in Britain, vote not so much for as against. They look at Mrs May’s craven, incompetent, divided government and don’t weigh it against the available alternative. They want it out.

The root of the problem was identified by the American comedian George Carlin, who once quipped: “You know how dumb the average person is? Well, I’ve got news for you: half the people are even dumber than that.”

Applied to politics and couched in more scholarly vocabulary, this observation points at the systemic drawback of universal franchise. Yet things are what they are, and universal franchise is getting more and more universal.

The voting age is bound to be reduced to 16 and, if we follow the (serious!) recommendation of Cambridge’s head of political science, possibly to six. One way or another, for as long as the ability to vote responsibly and intelligently isn’t seen as a necessary qualification, our dumbed-down electorate will make evil ghouls like Corbyn inevitable.

The very possibility of a Corbyn government has already made many wise investors seek greener pastures elsewhere. When he does take over, an economic catastrophe will follow within weeks – as the same economic primer will tell you.

But even in the unlikely event Mrs May hangs on, our economic prospects are bleak, and not because of Brexit qua Brexit.

Leaving the EU properly could have spelled an economic boom, along the lines I drew in the subjunctive mood. But leaving it chaotically and without a clear picture of the future, or, even worse, staying in is bound to have dire economic consequences – with dire becoming catastrophic if followed, as seems likely, by the arrival of a Trotskyist government.

Skipping over the continuing degradation of our education, medical care, defence and law enforcement, let’s look at something lighter, or not, as the case may be.

The Times chess columnist Raymond Keene enthuses about the self-teaching artificial intelligence programme AlphaZero. It’s currently thrashing every other chess software that in its turn can thrash any human player, which Mr Keene sees as having far-reaching implications.

Favourably comparing the programme’s creator Demis Hassabis with Sir Isaac Newton, Mr Keene enthuses: “If the lucubrations [sic] of AlphaZero can be adapted to medicine, or even politics, and the same level of excellence attained, then it may be seen to have exerted a transformative influence over modern life in many varying areas.”

I’m afraid Mr Keene’s enthusiasm is as ill-advised as his misuse of the archaic word ‘lucubrations’. He clearly sees nothing but positives in an area alive with the sounds of dystopia.

Artificial intelligence can indeed exert a transformative influence over modern life, but it takes an inveterate optimist not to see a concomitant potential for disaster. Call me a luddite, but I have nightmares thinking of machines deciding what’s good for us in politics.

Grandmaster Keene’s experience has taught him to see life’s little challenges strictly in intellectual terms. That works admirably in chess, which is free of moral connotations. (Yet many of his colleagues bemoan the dominance of computers, which they believe is killing the game.)

Politics, however, is largely a moral exercise, and in this life morality can never be off-limits to human fallibilities. Perfection in politics is not only unachievable but indeed undesirable simply because it’s not objectively definable. Checkmating the opponent is the perfect end to a chess game, but what passes for it in the game of politics?

One side’s meat is the other side’s Novichok, and no one will ever accept a computer’s mediation, nor especially diktat. Sooner or later people will throw their clogs into the works, bringing the machine to a sputtering halt and sinking our world into a blood-soaked chaos.

A statesman of only average intelligence can still achieve greatness if he’s blessed with integrity and strong moral character. Yet in the absence of those no machine throwing up a perfectly intelligent solution will help.

However, even as it’s pointless trying to explain to the electorate that not any alternative to a bad government will be better, and many can be worse, it’s no use suggesting that advances in science and technology are replete not only with positives but also with negatives.

The same chemical that boosted agricultural yields also murdered millions of people; the same energy that can heat your house can also incinerate it; the same poison that kills toothache can also kill the whole body.

The difference boils down to moral choice, and the ability to make it freely is God’s greatest gift to man. An attempt to override this ability by computerised perfection can only guarantee that most choices will be bad and some evil.

All in all, I’m looking forward to 2019 with trepidation. Which, however, in no way diminishes my heartfelt hope that your personal new year be happy, successful and healthy.