The right to free education

This is another in a series of excerpts from my new book How the Future Worked, available on or on Here I talk about bribery in Russia and the role it played in my education.


Papa played the baksheesh system considerably better than Alfred Brendel plays the piano, but the trick was in finding someone in a position of influence to bribe. Had I decided to read chemistry or a related subject, it would have been no problem, what with my uncle a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences and my father quite well known in that industry. But languages? Who the hell did we know in languages? No one, as it turned out. But it just so happened that Papa’s old girlfriend knew this chap, a medical doctor of sorts, who serendipitously was head of the outpatient clinic at the very university I wished to enter.

Did he ‘take’? Of course he bloody well took; what did you expect the poor chap to do, live on 175 roubles a month? A contact was made and, after playing hard to get for three seconds or so, Dr Palatnikov agreed to mastermind my ascent to the ranks of the Academe for the very reasonable sum of 500 roubles, about Papa’s monthly salary. For that paltry remuneration, and believe him, he was only asking for so little out of a genuine desire to help an obviously worthy young man, Dr Palatnikov agreed to act in the capacity of general contractor, wherein he would undertake to establish a confidential contact between Papa and the appropriate examiners, with whom Papa could then make separate arrangements. Dr Palatnikov didn’t think the separate arrangements would go over 200 a pop, unless of course those thieves had upped their fees from last year, which he wouldn’t put past them.

As we found out later, the thieves not only hadn’t upped their fees from last year but actually had to kick half of them back Dr Palatnikov’s way. The latter’s professional credentials might have been weak but, as often was the case in Russia, he had more real power than his official status would suggest, since it was up to him to decide how many sick days professors were allowed to take, and how many free holiday vouchers they were entitled to receive. Power in Russia, as you’ll have plenty of opportunity to see, doesn’t derive from money or position; it’s roughly the other way around.

The 1,300 roubles Papa had to pay in total went not only towards offsetting the imperfection of my CV but also towards covering my nonexistent academic attainments. My English, though decent, was certainly not up to the highest standards; my literature was weak in formal terms, even though I had been a voracious reader for 13 years; my history of the Communist Party was frankly pathetic, and my really strong subjects, drinking, carousing and hustling chess, cards and pool cut no ice with the examination board.

Making up the deficiency of my training in the month remaining before the first exam was a clear impossibility; the prospect of spending a month pestering girls in the street and drinking with my best friend Volodia Anikeyev was a sheer joy. So while other applicants were buried in textbooks I placed implicit faith in Dr Palatnikov’s organisational talent and was buried in things that offered greater tactile delights, if less enlightenment.

The good doctor delivered, thus proving yet again that vice can always triumph over virtue, at least in this world. While my performance at three out of four exams was surprisingly not bad, meriting at least a four, if not necessarily the straight fives I did receive, it was the oral exam in Russian literature that made me appreciate fully Dr Palatnikov’s clout within the academic hierarchy.

Though widely read in the Russian classics, I was a bit of a dilettante, in that I knew only what I liked and, more to the point, didn’t know what I hated. As the luck of the draw would have it, the book whose literary and social significance I was expected to enlarge upon was Gorky’s The Life of Klim Samgin. That I hadn’t read the book was, in Russian parlance, ‘half the trouble’; but the fact that I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what the book was about spelled trouble with a capital T, as I wasn’t even in a position to cover my ignorance with the smokescreen of verbiage.

This sad state of affairs became obvious to the examiner, a mousy little woman in steel-rimmed glasses, after 10 seconds of my incoherent mumbling. ‘All right, young man,’ she said, ‘it’s obvious you need some help. The Life of Klim Samgin is a what? Starts with an N?’ ‘A novel!’ I exclaimed, happy to be engaged in some kind of dialogue. ‘Good, good, good,’ she said contemptuously and took her glasses off. ‘Now what kind of novel is it?’ she asked, squinting myopically. ‘Starts with an E.’ ‘Epistolary !’ I was on a roll, but her contempt for me deepened perceptibly. ‘No, no, no, have another go.’ ‘Enigmatic? Effervescent? Ephemeral?’ Desperation was setting in.

‘Listen, young man,’ my torturer said. ‘I have neither the time nor the inclination to go over the entire vocabulary of the Russian language you possess. That might keep us here for an hour. I’ll give you another clue. The second letter is a P.’ ‘Eponymous… Epic!’ I exclaimed in a flash of revelatory zeal. ‘Excellent!’ she smiled, which almost made her look like a woman. ‘Now tell me frankly,’ she glanced at the examination sheet, ‘Boot. Have you read the book?’

You know how it is. At some point a man must recover his honour at whatever cost. Honour can under certain circumstances be more valuable than life, which explains the charge of the Light Brigade and my answer to the mousy creature’s question. ‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘And I can promise you that I will never in my whole life read, whatever the provocation, anything produced by that crushing bore Gorky.’ ‘A literary critic, are we?’ the woman became sarcastic again. ‘Dismissed!’ An English sergeant major would have a lot to learn from a Soviet professor.

I walked out into the hall, where Anikeyev was waiting for me or, to put it more precisely, for the drink I had promised to buy him if he stuck around. ‘How did it go, old man?’ Only noonish, but his speech was already slurred.

I replied with an obscene Russian colloquialism that can be roughly translated as ‘I don’t think I did at all well, actually.’ ‘Oh, well,’ said Anikeyev who had just been expelled from our night school for drink-induced absenteeism, ‘those are the breaks. How about Palatnikov though? The last-ditch man?’ ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘if the old bastard delivers on this one, I’ll lose whatever illusions of justice I have.’ ‘If you have any left,’ said Anikeyev affectionately, ‘you’re even a bigger arsehole than I thought you were.’

Ten minutes later, a man with a Chaliapin-quality basso announced the results: ‘Avilova, 4; Astafiev, 3; Astakhov, failed; Batyuk 4; Bauman, failed; Bolin, failed; Boot, 5…’ – and my faith in justice was for ever lost, a small price to pay for guaranteed admission to one of Moscow’s better institutes.


The right to free housing

This is the first in a series of excerpts from my new book How the Future Worked, available on or on


Next time you hear an expert from one of the better universities, or, worse still, a journalist, claim he understands the Russians, ask him this question: ‘Have you ever lived in a Soviet communal flat?’ And if he answers ‘no’, call him a liar, throw him out of your house and refuse ever to talk to him again. Unless, of course, he recants, which he probably won’t.

The communal flat is the microcosm, it’s the distillation of the Russian spirit, the stage for tragedies and comedies compared to which Shakespeare’s plays are soap operas and everyone else’s are commercials. The communal flat is the forge of character, the smithy of taste, the educator of souls, the judge and the jury. More important, the communal flat was my childhood.

Nabokov’s memory spoke to him in continuous narrative, a carefully woven fabric of a Bach fugue arranged for the romantically minded by Busoni. Much as I admire both Nabokov and Bach, my own memory speaks in the modernist staccato bursts of discordant sounds, in images more worthy of Kandinsky than Metsu. The memory is thus divorced from the rest of me, but it would be wrong to let the rest of me interfere. After all, one’s memory is a sieve that retains what’s needed and lets the rest run down the drain. What settles between the holes is the stuff of which understanding is made.

Thus the communal flat of my childhood comes back to me in a potpourri of sounds, a kaleidoscope of images, a bouquet of smells. Oh, the smells of my native land! Both Pushkin and Lermontov described them in glowing terms, making it clear even to a neophyte that they never darkened the threshold of a communal flat.

A Bordeaux wine taster would perhaps be able to analyse the bouquet better, but for the time being you’ll have to make do with my nasal memory. It comes back with sweat, bodies that go unwashed for weeks, underwear that goes unlaundered for months, outer clothes that have never seen the inside of a cleaner’s, sauerkraut, stale urine, dried sperm, condensed vomit, cheap cigarettes, alcohol vapours and decaying teeth. That was the communal olfactory background against which individuals could smell their own lives.

In our flat there were 22 of them. They were divided into six families, each occupying one room and sharing the kitchen, lavatory, bathroom, corridor and telephone. These days class-conscious Englishmen, who can’t help noticing that I don’t move my lips when reading and sometimes use words of more than two syllables, remark accusingly that I must have been upper-middle class back in Russia.

That’s God’s own truth. For not only did my mother try to protect me from egalitarian influences, but the flat, indeed the whole building in which I grew up, was decidedly upmarket. Most tenants there had degrees from decent universities, held responsible jobs and sneered at the equivalent of the lower-middle class.

Those people could only dream of such luxury. Their lives were circumscribed by the so-called ‘corridor system’, in which dozens of rooms (each housing a family), one kitchen, one bathroom and one lavatory hid on either side of a smelly winding corridor perhaps 300 to 500 feet long. Our poor relations lived in one of those. I liked to visit them because in their corridor one could ride a tricycle around numerous bends at most satisfying speeds.

The lower classes looked even upon the corridor system with the same expressions one sometimes notices on the face of a rubbish collector driving his lorry through an exclusive neighbourhood. They lived in communal barracks at the outskirts of Moscow, not what you’d describe as fashionable suburbs. Their lavatories were outside and consisted of a hole in a wooden frame erected over a pit and enclosed in an unheated wooden shack.

In winter, when outside temperatures plunged to minus 40C, certain activities you take for granted became life-threatening. Predictably, just like during the American westward expansion, human ingenuity defeated the elements. Our heroic compatriots would do their business onto newspaper sheets spread over the floor of their rooms. They’d then carefully fold the paper, discreetly put it under the bed and dump it into the outhouse on their way to work in the morning.

They worked in places like the Red Proletarian Factory or Car Depot No. 6 and went there by public transport, where their odours intermingled. Someone with a reasonably sensitive nose needed a gas mask to enter a Metro train on a hot day, but entering was the easy part.

The real trial came when the train suddenly jerked to a stop, and all the short-sleeved passengers grabbed the overhead rail not to fall down. In doing so, they’d raise their arms, thus adding a certain armour-piercing quality to the already pungent smell of their bodies and clothes. Typically, they had no bathrooms at all and several times a year washed in communal baths, whether they needed to or not. This was seen more as a social occasion than a hygienic imperative.

Communal apartments of one type or another were by no means a rarity in Russia. In my time, about 90 percent of the urban population lived in them. Now, 40 years later, 15 percent still do, according to the official data. Unofficially, the number is much higher for, say, a one-bedroom flat housing three generations of the same family doesn’t fall into that category. It would be classified as a ‘separate flat’, whereas most Russians, when hearing an unqualified ‘flat’ mentioned, would still assume that it’s a communal variety.

Now, history may indeed repeat itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce. However, the first event in the flat that I recall coherently comes back to me as a detective story, and that’s how I’m going to tell it.

Grandpa walked into the room and beckoned us to the door. Sensing that something important was afoot, Mama, Papa, Grandma and I followed him to the kitchen without arguing. As our room was next to the front door, to get to our destination we had to walk the entire length of the corridor, unlit for considerations of fiscal prudence. Bumping into the handles sticking aggressively out of the doors of the other five rooms, we passed the bathroom, then the lavatory, executed a neat 90-degree turn and found ourselves in the kitchen. By contrast it appeared to be brightly lit.

The view was familiar: two gas cookers with eight rings between them, one assigned to each family, two up for grabs (the nightly battles for those two were worthy of Dostoyevsky’s pen at its most dramatic); six rickety tables for preparing food and washing dishes afterwards; two clothes lines hung with faecally stained underwear quite past laundering. Some of our 17 neighbours completed the scene. In the tradition of the Russian characters so aptly described by the classics and enacted on the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre, their mouths were smiling but their eyes weren’t.

Grandpa, incidentally, was himself an actor at that famous theatre. By the time I was born his personal repertoire had crystallised to one role only, that of Stalin, whom he impersonated in The Chekists and other Moscow hits. In the past he used to play other roles as well, such as Schiller’s Karl Moor (after whom a famous London journalist is named), and according to Mama, if no one else, his performances had been brilliant.

Like most actors, he was histrionic off-stage as well, a tendency that showed in the semi-circular sweep with which he pointed at our own kitchen table. There, between two dirty plates and a half-finished cup of tea with a cigarette butt in it, lay a lock of hair plucked out of Grandpa’s thick mane. He was waiting for us to guess who the perpetrator was…

The Kalashnikov isn’t by Kalashnikov

Back in the USSR, the post-war years saw a madcap drive towards establishing Russian ‘priority’ in matters scientific and technological.

Polzunov invented the steam engine, Kotelnikov the parachute, Mozhaisky the aeroplane, Popov the radio, Petrov the electric bulb, Lodygin the electric arc, Tsiolkovsky the rocket, the Cherepanovs the locomotive.

And anyone disseminating information that disputed those indisputable historical facts had to be re-enlightened at the educational facilities under the auspices of The State Administration for Camps (GULAG for short).

Though today’s Russian children are allowed to know who James Watt was, that drive hasn’t necessarily ended, except that this time the rest of the world has been taken in as well.

Only a week was left of 2013 when Mikhail Kalashnikov died at 94, the ‘K’ in the series of weapons based on the original AK-47 rifle. By far the most popular post-war infantry weapons, the Kalashnikovs have killed considerably more people than all WMD combined, and Gen. Kalashnikov’s demise was consequently eulogised in countless obituaries the world over.

However, they all omitted a rather significant detail. Kalashnikov didn’t really develop the Kalashnikovs.

Hugo Schmeisser did, except of course his original customer was Hitler’s rather than Stalin’s army.

Schmeisser, however, broke even in popular perception by being credited with the German MP-40 machine pistol, such a ubiquitous star in war films. However, that ‘Schmeisser’ was developed by others, and Hugo’s only contribution was the magazine. But the magazine had his name on it – hence the confusion.

The ‘Schmeisser’, incidentally, was far from being as popular in combat as in the post-war cinematography. It was used mostly by the Waffen-SS and officers in the Wehrmacht. Grunts usually carried bolt-action rifles that had several times the ‘Schmeisser’s’ 70-meter effective range, but of course fell far short of its rate of fire.

Long before the war the Germans realised that fire fights in modern mobile combat seldom presented targets farther than 300m away. This led to the idea of combining the features of a submachine gun and a bolt-action rifle.

The gun itself came about later, but already in 1924 Hugo Schmeisser developed the firing selector switch, a version of which is now used on all assault rifles. The hybrid rifle itself, Schmeisser’s StG44, went into mass production much later, in 1944, and the Germans only had time to make 450,000 units.

About 50 StG44s, 10,785 sheets of technical designs and, critically, Schmeisser himself along with his whole team, were in 1945 shipped to the town of Izhevsk in the Urals where they were made to work in harness with Soviet designers, including Kalashnikov. Schmeisser and his men were allowed to go back to Germany in 1952, by which time their work had been done.

Only in 2009 did Kalashnikov acknowledge publicly that in designing his rifle he had been ‘helped’ by Schmeisser. Privately, this was an open secret not only to experts but to anyone who saw the photographs of the StG44 and the AK-47 side by side.

The two guns look like dizygotic twins, if not exactly identical ones. Of course in their fine tradition of veracity the Russians have always claimed that this was where the similarity ended. It wasn’t.

All the key features of the AK-47 were copied from the StG44, if occasionally at one remove, with such features as the trigger, double-locking lugs, unlocking raceway and the high-tolerance system had been first reproduced in other rifles and then transplanted into the AK.

The long-stroke gas system and layout of the StG44 were copied faithfully, as was the banana magazine and the stamped-receiver manufacturing process. However, only in the 1959 AKM modification did the Soviets begin to use stamped sheet metal, something Schmeisser had been doing from 1943.

Long-stroke gas pistons, high tolerances and the magazine specially designed for stubby hybrid rounds simplified the maintenance of the gun, making it less likely to jam. This made the Kalashnikov ideal for the poorly trained Soviet army and also for millions of barely trained paramilitaries all over the world.

Approximately 100 million AKs have been produced and in 2006 Russia accounted for only 10 percent of the production. The rest were made in China and elsewhere, usually without the benefit of a licence.

In fact the Russians had been unable to patent the weapon until 1997. And in his adult life Mikhail Kalashnikov was never associated with the designs of any guns other than the AK and its knock-offs. Now you know why.

I apologise for the surfeit of technical detail but, as I’m sure you realise, my purpose is more general. It’s to show that, like energy in the First Law of Thermodynamics, the Soviet Union hasn’t really disappeared. It has merely been transformed.

It’s the same ulterior motive that animated my new book How the Future Worked, just published by RoperPenberthy. This is an anecdotal account of my life in Russia, written in as entertaining a form as I could manage.

The book, however, only masquerades as my memoir – it is actually less about me than about Russia, albeit as seen through my eyes. For the next few days I’ll be running excerpts, along with effusive praise by others – and will continue to do so until you buy the blasted thing.

You can get a copy on, which is better than getting it on

Multiculturalism strikes again

Do you like couscous? I do. I like all sorts of ethnic foods: curry, Peking duck, sashimi, frog’s legs, snails. I bet you too enjoy some of those delicacies although, if you’re English, probably not all of them.

It’s not just food either. Some Arab architecture is sublime, though you have to go as far as southern Spain to find it. Belly dancing too has its fans, and I can join their ranks after a few pints of Kingfisher – although in full sobriety I may prefer ballet dancing instead.

Ancient Indian texts uncover some eternal depths of human nature. Muslim, especially Persian, graphic arts can be lovely, and those Japanese watercolours can put me in a sweetly melancholy mood.

In one of those moods I sometimes sigh and think oh, if only this were all there is to multiculturalism. Why, I’d be waving the multi-culti flag as vigorously as any LibDem or Labour front-bench warmer.

Unfortunately, much as we all may admire the outward manifestations of Eastern cultures, we’d do well to remember that their inner essence is at best alien to the West and at worst actively hostile to it.

This isn’t to say that, say, Muslims are always wrong when castigating the West. Godlessness, moral decay, all-pervasive decadence, disintegration of the family, unspeakable lewdness everywhere, materialism – I’ve heard Christian conservatives fume against those very things. Why, I’ve done a fair amount of fuming myself.

Having said all this, the West may be a rotting structure, but it’s the only one we have. Good, bad or indifferent, it’s our life, our family, our culture – it’s, well, us. And Eastern cultures, love them or hate them, are, well, them.

I shan’t quote Kipling on the subject of East and West, but he had a point. It’s debatable which culture is better. It’s undeniable that they are incompatible.

Former RAF officer Mark De Salis tried to bridge the two civilisations in his own person. An executive of an oil-related engineering company, he worked in Libya for six years and enjoyed every minute of it.

Four years into his tenure Mrs De Salis moved back to Cornwall. On general principle, this would suggest that the marriage was rather loosely knit, and indeed Mark acquired a girlfriend, Lynn Howie, a divorced mother of two from New Zealand.

By all accounts this was no casual fling: the couple were looking forward to a life together. In fact, Lynn flew all the way to Libya to spend some time with Mark.

A few days after her arrival the couple went for a romantic picnic in the dunes, where they were found the next day – shot, execution-style, in the back of the neck. The motive for their murder is being investigated, but the authorities plausibly believe that an unmarried couple living in sin had proved more than the delicate Muslim sensibilities could bear.

True enough, the Judaeo-Christian Eighth Commandment also proscribes adultery, and those of us who accept scriptural authority and yet transgress against it repent, hoping that God won’t punish us. Yet we tend to assume that, should God decide to ignore our entreaties, we’ll be punished only at Judgment.

Muslims, by the looks of it, aren’t prepared to defer chastisement or indeed delegate it to Allah. They seem to favour direct and immediate action by humans. The nature of the action varies from the Quran to Hadith.

The former is more lenient: “The woman or man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment”. Quran 24:2

Now a hundred lashes may kill, but not in each case. That’s why, according to Hadith, which plays the same role in Islam as Talmud in Judaism and patristic texts in Christianity, Mohammed later hardened his position:

“So the Prophet ordered the two adulterers to be stoned to death, and they were stoned to death near the place where biers used to be placed near the Mosque.” Sahih Bukhari 6.79

Stones must have been scarce around the sandy picnic site 50 miles from Tripoli. So the faithful had to resort to 9mm bullets as an acceptable replacement. No doubt they felt good afterwards: Allah had been served.

These days one can’t open the papers without reading about similar acts of faith committed by Muslims, and not just in their own countries. Beatings, lashings, torture, forced marriage, kidnapping, murder, banishment to native villages are the menu from which British Muslim subjects order punishment for infidels and apostates.

It’s essential to realise that, unlike our home-grown criminals who aren’t certifiable psychopaths, the righteous Muslims don’t think they’re doing something wrong. This is what their religion demands and they are faithful to it.

We should remember this when extolling the virtues of multiculturalism. Mix our civilisations all you want, but they’ll never form a homogeneous solution. The fractions will remain strictly separate. 

“Mark was a good guy,” remembers the victim’s friend. “He had no argument with Libyan people, he liked and understood them.”

I’m sure Mark De Salis liked Libyans. But perhaps he didn’t understand them as well as he thought – of which he was served an awful reminder.

Couscous, anyone?



It’s time we took Christ out of christening – well done, Your Grace!

As a confirmed modernist, I welcome the new, indeed New Age, version of the ‘christening sacrament’ adopted by the Church of England.

Why the quotation commas? Because it’s not just the text of the ceremony but also its name that has become outdated. I think ‘initiation piss-up’ would reflect Zeitgeist much more accurately.

It would also avoid offending Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Shintoists, Buddhists, Hinduists, Zaraostrians, animists, pagans – and above all atheists, who justifiably take exception to the ‘christ’ in christening.

The New Age text does say “Do not be ashamed of Christ”, but you must agree this is so much better than the obsolete “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.”

It’s really not on to have faith in anything, other than the proposition that it’s not on to have faith in anything. And confess? To whom? This presupposes the existence of someone superior to us, which we know can’t possibly be the case.

As to Christ’s crucifixion, this is open to both historical and ecumenical debate. Who are we to claim Christ was crucified when 1.6 billion Muslims say he wasn’t?

Next thing we know, someone will claim we’re right and they’re wrong, and where will we be then? Of course such an intrepid heretic would be arrested, but the cause of multiculturalism would suffer nonetheless.

However, there’s nothing offensive about not being ashamed of Christ. In fact we shouldn’t be ashamed of anything at all, not even committing crimes. Whenever we go wrong, it’s the fault of society, so let society be ashamed, not us.

Then compare the old “Do you reject the Devil and all rebellion against God” with the new “Do you reject evil?” Even if you’re an old fogey full of moth-eaten prejudices, you’ll have to admit that the new version is much more inclusive, and less reliant on uncool superstition.

The Devil really only exists as a figure of speech, as in “What the devil d’you mean?” And even in such constructions it’s being replaced by a more progressive, contemporary and therefore laudable ‘f***’.

Believing in the Devil who’s the prince of this world is like believing in the tooth fairy, Father Christmas, ghosts and national sovereignty – no self-respecting adult would hold such childish notions. But anyone – man, woman, other – will be happy to reject evil.

In fact, I was talking to my friend Dick (Dr Richard Dawkins to you) the other day and I asked him if he rejected evil. “Course I bloody well do for chrissake,” he said, implicitly undermining all accusations of militant atheism.

“Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour” wasn’t just replaced in the new version, it was simply dumped – and quite right too.

The word ‘God’ is by itself judgmental – it presupposes adherence to a certain belief system that has little support among scientists, such as my friend Dick.

And sin doesn’t exist as such; the concept has been superseded by the EU Convention on Human Rights. Of course any transgression against it must be  repented and severely punished, but this goes without saying. So quite rightly the new version doesn’t say it.

“Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? Do you submit to Christ as Lord?” asks the old version and thank God for the new one, which eliminates most of the offensive potential: “Do you turn to Christ? And put your trust in him?”

It’s historically and logically incorrect to refer to Christ as Saviour. If he was indeed crucified, and 1.6 billion Muslims can’t be wrong when assuring us he wasn’t, then he couldn’t even save himself. You call that Lord, which is another word for manager (“Christ was born a manager,” according to that old book, or words to that effect)? You call that leading by example? Any manager of a sales department who himself couldn’t sell would be sacked faster than you can say ‘incompetence’.

Also, focus group research has shown that many parishioners, especially women, take exception to the word ‘submit’. A woman must not submit to anyone, the very idea is grossly offensive. If she submits, this means she is raped, and I don’t care who the rapist is, a stranger, her husband or God Almighty. Way to go, sisters!

“Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?” This is another empty phrase that has been justifiably eliminated. The way? The truth? Give me a break.

This comes dangerously close to fascism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, absolutism, nationalism, little-Englandism and many other imprisonable offences. There is no one way or one truth. We all decide on our own way and our own truth, that’s what modernity is all about.

As to ‘the life’, it doesn’t exist outside our own bodies. Life is given to a person when his/her/its Dad’s sperm fertilises his/her/its Mum’s ovum, and that’s all there is to it.

Well, not quite all: as my friend Dick says, an even better life may be produced in a test tube or else by cloning, and he’s of course right, but an initiation piss-up is hardly the time to comment on every possibility.

All in all, Archbishop Welby must be applauded. His business background is standing him in good stead: he knows how to maximise sales opportunities. His Grace realises that, for people to walk into Christian churches, Christ must walk out.

If you’re an Anglican, I hope you feel particularly proud today. So please join me in this little prayer: “Our parent, who may or may not be there somewhere…”



When Kim fell out with Jang

Accidents will occur in the best-regulated families, said Mr Micawber. But of course, Dickens’s idea of familial accidents was formed in Victorian, which is to say pre-Marxist, times.

The Communist Manifesto was only two years old when Wilkins Micawber stepped into literature and, though the pamphlet had helpfully laid out the theory of bestial brutality, Marxists hadn’t yet had enough time to act on it.

Now they have, and they’ve been taking full advantage ever since their historical debut in 1917. This hasn’t been adequately covered in Western historiography, possibly for brevity’s sake or else out of squeamishness.

Thus accounts of Bolshevik ghoulishness tend to mention that so-and-so (or thousands of so-and-sos) was ‘sentenced to death’, ‘executed’ or ‘shot’. However, as often as not this was merely shorthand for rather more Baroque excesses.

Russian historians, especially those who themselves barely avoided finding themselves on the receiving end of such excesses, were more forthright. Perhaps the first, and certainly the most influential, of them was Sergei Melgunov. 

His book The Red Terror, published in the West while Lenin was still alive, documents thousands of such niceties as skinning people alive, rolling them around in nail-studded barrels, driving nails into people’s skulls, quartering, burning alive, crucifying or castrating priests, turning them into pillars of ice by pouring water over their naked bodies in freezing temperatures, stuffing officers alive into locomotive furnaces, pouring molten pitch or liquefied lead down people’s throats – and of course torturing thousands to death.

Western intellectuals shrugged and, for the most part, went on describing the Bolsheviks as fellow liberals out to stage a highly commendable social experiment. It took decades for them to remove some benefit of the doubt from the Russian Marxists and acknowledge grudgingly that, well, perhaps they weren’t as nice as all that.

North Korea’s hereditary dictator Kim Jong-Un was never given such a benefit, at least not to the same extent. Yes, he was often described as a utopian, what with words like ‘evil’ having been more or less excised from journalistic or scholarly vocabulary. But it has been acknowledged that his version of Marxism gives a bad name to the version practised and preached on every Western campus.

That has had a liberating effect on Kim: unlike Russian Marxists yesterday, or those on Western campuses today, he needs no subterfuge. He can openly act on his typically Marxist cannibalism without worrying what the world will think.

It’s against this background that Kim set out to vindicate Mr Micawber, but adding a more modern twist.

You see, he had a bit of a problem with his uncle (by marriage) General Jang Song-Thaek. The good general was widely regarded as second only to Kim in the North Korean pecking order, but in Marxist dictatorships being second is a miss as good as a mile. Only Number One matters, and he was growing increasingly unhappy with Jang, particularly his being in China’s pocket.

China is of course North Korea’s greatest (only?) ally, and it was Jang’s job to keep the friendship going. However, he wasn’t to forget which side his bread was buttered – by all means, get close to the Chinese, uncle, but not so close as to make Kim doubt where your real loyalties lie.

Somewhere, somehow Jang overstepped the line and so had to go. But, to extend literary parallels, Kim is no Lady Macbeth. He’s a Marxist.

Therefore he was never likely to tell his uncle, “Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once.” It was he, Kim, who was to decide both the order and the manner of anybody going anywhere.

Clearly, a man with his own power base couldn’t just be dismissed. He had to go rather permanently, to make sure he’d never come back. Thus Jang was charged with treason, tried by a kangaroo court, or whatever animal lends its name to a travesty of justice in Korea, and sentenced to death.

A quick bullet was called for, but where’s the fun in that? Like in pre-Christian Rome, death can be turned into nice family entertainment.

To that end Jang and his five associates were thrown to be devoured by 120 dogs starved for three days. Kim, his brother and 300 senior officials were enjoying the show, with all but Kim also learning a lesson about the likely consequences of bad behaviour.

It took the animals a full hour to sate themselves and complete this combination of business and pleasure. Kim’s reaction wasn’t recorded, but I’m sure he thoroughly enjoyed himself, proud of adding a whole new dimension to the idea of dog food.

Now I’ve heard of family squabbles, but this is special. I wonder what Mr Micawber would have said had he witnessed the fun.  

For once the French are learning from us

The French have taught us gastronomy, Gothic architecture, scholasticism, advanced sexual variants, the use of long words that sound weird, tax avoidance, how to stay thin in spite of gorging ourselves (I haven’t learned that particular lesson) and how to sound sophisticated by slipping into the conversation the odd je ne sais quoi or tout court.

They haven’t yet taught us that the ‘s’ is actually pronounced at the end of fleur de lis and coup de grâce but I’m sure they will, given time. It won’t be long before our socially aspiring countrymen will learn that grâce and gras, as in foie gras, sound different in their native habitat.

But I’m relieved to see it hasn’t all been a one-way street (sens unique). The patriot in me rejoices when reading the news of five young Frenchmen arrested for brawling on a London tube train at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve (you can enjoy the action on YouTube). When in England, do as the English do, and all immigrants should learn this time-honoured rule.

Young Brits of either (or, to be more precise, any) sex know exactly what festive occasions are for: you get pissed and, before passing out in your own vomit, start throwing punches or whatever else comes handy: bar stools, trash bins, bottles, caution into the wind. So it’s only polite that young Frenchmen living or visiting here should follow their hosts’ customs – and politesse is after all a traditional French trait.

Moreover, they also learn from us even in their own country. For example, even 10 years ago there were no tattooing and/or piercing parlours in provincial France, but now they are spreading like chanterelles after a summer rain.

Also, French youngsters now routinely get drunk on weekends – and not just on wine. More and more often they fall into alcohol-induced coma after consuming gallons of vile concoctions the Brits have perfected, if not invented.

Good old lager is also becoming a favourite coma-inducer, and it’s good to see that the EU is succeeding in its stated goal of encouraging cultural exchange. A French friend was commiserating the other day about the growing lager consumption in his native land, and he even chuckled politely at my feeble pun ‘à lager comme à lager’.

He was also polite enough not to suggest that the French are picking up English habits, so it fell upon me to elucidate the point.

It has to be said that when I pass a group of French youngsters in our local village, they still say “Bonjour, Monsieur”, rather than an equivalent of “You wha’, mate?”, so cultural exchange isn’t as brisk as all that. Barroso and Rumpy-Pumpy have work to do, but we can rely on them to do it.

My friend José Manuel Barroso, of course, learned all about internationalism during his youth, profitably spent in the Portuguese militant-communist underground. It’s good to have a man like that working tirelessly towards our common goal: thorough elimination of national, cultural, economic and social differences across Europe.

Before long French youngsters, who drop their aitches naturally, will be shouting “On me ‘ead, son” during their kickabouts, while the English will learn how to enunciate “Sur ma tête, mon vieux” or some such.

Meanwhile the French seem to have learned how to get drunk and then brawl on public transport. One step at a time – or une étape à la fois, as the French may or may not say.



Absolute power attracts absolutely

This paraphrase came to my mind the other day, at lunch with a French friend whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of months.

“Are you still negative about Putin?” he asked with an avuncular, indulgent smile. The expression communicated what words didn’t: to my friend harbouring such feelings was a sign of harmless eccentricity, a little quirk one normally associates with people on the cusp of old age.

“What exactly has happened in the last two months,” I asked, “to make me change my mind?”

“Oh, he’s making Russia great again.”

I shan’t repeat at length what I recently wrote about both Putin and the very idea of national greatness (22 and 26 December). The gist of my comments on the former is that Col. Putin is running a fascist state politically and history’s greatest crime syndicate economically, while on the subject of the latter I argued that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good’.

What fascinates me is the attraction of power, especially when wielded with much violence. Like the more primitive girls going weak at the knees over wicked, violent men, intellectuals seem to have that funny feeling down there when observing a tyrant in action.

Putin isn’t the only love object in recent history to benefit from such sensual cravings. To illustrate the point, here are a few things The Times said to explain its decision to name the KGB colonel as the paper’s Man of the Year. In brackets I’m listing other names that could easily replace Putin’s in these panegyrics.

“He is vain, reactionary and not a little paranoid, but he has accumulated unrivalled authority and used it to unmatched effect.” [Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao]

“He succeeded in one of his most enduring ambitions: to bring Moscow back to the international high table.” [Ivan the Terrible, Stalin]

“The Putin stare has become a fixed feature of his ruling technique…” [Stalin, Hitler]

“[Putin] has consolidated power so completely and wielded it so deftly that he is not only unchallenged at home, but indispensable abroad.” [Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao]

“But it is abroad that his narrow and nationalistic world view has proved most effective.” [Stalin, Hitler, Mao]

“Mr Putin craves respect on the world stage and for good or ill has earned it.” [Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro et al]

I didn’t choose the parenthetical names arbitrarily: all such things not only could have been said about the gentlemen in brackets, but at the time actually were.

Lenin, Stalin, Hitler were all portrayed as strong leaders badly needed by their own countries and the world at large. Not only giftless hacks, but great poets, writers and thinkers hailed the ‘strong leaders’ just as millions were dying gruesome deaths.

Fellow travellers from all over the world, such as our own Fabians Shaw, Wells, the Webbs et al, flocked to Soviet Russia in the midst of the greatest democide in history; British aristocrats, including some royals, greeted Hitler with the Nazi salute.

Amazingly, even some of their own subjects, including those who themselves were prime candidates for torture and execution, gasped their girlish adoration for the murderous ghouls. For example, the great Russian poets Blok, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva hailed the revolution with exalted ardour, while Pasternak continued to love Stalin quasi-erotically even after millions had already been murdered.

It may be tempting to talk about this in the language of psychobabble liberally borrowed from Freud and Jung, or else to refer to something of more recent provenance, such as the Stockholm syndrome. But I’ll resist such temptations, merely praying that God save us from ‘strong leaders’, at least at peacetime.

What we need instead is a strong society guided by a strong Church and governed by strong, just laws. The nineteenth century wasn’t spared an abomination like homomarriage, to use the first example close at hand, because, say, Gladstone was strong, and nor did it happen last year because Cameron is weak.

It’s just that in Gladstone’s time such a thing was unthinkable, whereas now society can’t come up with a universally acceptable explanation of why perversion shouldn’t be accepted on an even footing with normality. Another word for this is decadence, and decadent societies are the pots in which the scum inevitably rises to the top.

A healthy society doesn’t need a strong leader unless the country is at war. In fact, in such a society the leader is almost irrelevant. His personal characteristics only come into play when his society is feeble and ailing.

For example, every Russian schoolchild knows that Ivan IV (the Terrible) was mad whereas, until Alan Bennett’s play and the subsequent film appeared, only Englishmen with a keen interest in history had known about the madness of George III. The difference is that in some societies mad kings are, and in some they aren’t, allowed to create mad kingdoms.

We shouldn’t ask whether or not the leader is strong; instead we should ask what particular sickness in our society makes us crave a strong leader and admire those we perceive as strong, such as the transparently evil KGB colonel.

In the case of today’s Western intellectuals, such as my French friend, the answer is obvious. We’re all watching our societies collapse around us, and we’re sufficiently horrified to deceive ourselves into believing that a stronger leader than Obama, Cameron or Hollande would arrest the disaster.

He wouldn’t; no one can. A strong leader taking over a decadent, corrupt, amoral society will only succeed in making it more decadent, corrupt and amoral – while enriching and empowering himself and his cronies.

Instead of awaiting the advent of a strong leader, we should pray that our society becomes so strong that it won’t be hurt by a weak one. Supplementing prayer with action would be even better.

New year, new prizes

In 1938 Time Magazine chose Adolph Hitler as its Man of the Year, with Heinrich Himmler and Lavrenti Beria narrowly missing out.

In 2013 the cognate of that publication, our own The Times awarded the same honour to KGB Col. Putin. This doesn’t quite match the bold step of 75 years ago, but comes close enough to deserve a separate comment, which will come in due course.

Meanwhile I’d like to nominate a few worthy individuals for similar honours to be awarded on this blog later this year. These still being early days, additions to the list are possible, and I’ll welcome your suggestions.

Bringing Society Together in Two Words. The front runner is my friend Dave, aka the Right Honourable David Cameron.

Ever since Mr John Major, as he then was, spoke of the coming delights of classless society, every subsequent PM has pledged allegiance to the same goal.

The usual stratagem is levelling downwards, which in all honesty is the only direction in which it’s ever possible to level. To that end our PMs introduced economic measures designed to pull the upper class down to the middle level, the middle class down into the deserving poor territory, and the deserving poor down to the undeserving bottom.

However, Tony Blair was the first to realise that the real divide isn’t just economic but also cultural. And the most visible (audible?) sign of it is the way people speak.

So Tony set out to bridge that gap within his own highly elastic person. To that end he mastered the art of producing the glottal stop and dropping his aitches. A man of a strictly compartmentalised mind, he’d use the newly acquired diction when talking to a TUC audience and only reverted to his normal speech when delivering Pall Mall addresses.

Now Dave, the self-acclaimed Heir to Blair, has shown it doesn’t take two separate audiences to make everyone feel at home. This morning he made a passionate TV plea to Scotland not to get out of the UK.

What places Dave at the top of the queue for my prestigious accolade is that he produced a highly creditable glottal stop in the middle of ‘Sco’land’, while narrowing the diphthong in ‘out’ to make it sound like his normal superposh ‘ite’. If this isn’t bringing society together, I don’t know what is. Eat your ‘eart ite, Tone, old boy, djamean?

Fair’s Fair award also has a frontrunner: Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine. You’ve heard me mourn the demise of masculine singular pronouns, which makes English the first hermaphroditic language in history. Yet, while banging on about this development I have, to my shame, ignored the iniquity of it all: after all the feminine singular pronouns are thriving.

Well, Sarah not only spotted this outrage but effectively corrected it with one sentence: “As someone who lived on their own from the age of 17 in a not terribly salubrious part of Brighton, I…” Old and embittered sticks-in-the-mud like me would moan that the singular antecedent ‘someone’ would call for a singular, in this instance feminine, possessive pronoun ‘her’. But Sarah is right: ‘their’ is better not only linguistically, but also morally. Aren’t you proud of our wordsmiths?

Truth in Politics At Last has a dead cert already, and the year has barely started. Explaining his unpopular decision to shun the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia, the Ukraine’s president Yanhukovych has cited the true reason: footie in general and John Terry specifically.

In Yanukovych’s view, the ball Terry cleared off the goal line in England’s 2012 Euro Championship match against the Ukraine was in fact over the line. England went on to win 1:0, thereby knocking Yanukovych’s fiefdom out of the Championship.

Even though the UEFA doesn’t fall under the aegis of the EU, the President got so disillusioned with European federalism that he chose Russian federalism instead. And if you as much as hint that the $15-billion bribe Yanukovych received from Russia had anything to do with the decision, he’ll ‘whack you in the shithouse’, to use his friend Putin’s phrase.

It’s to Putin that my Right Man in the Right Place award will probably go at the end of the year. The good colonel has taken an early lead by choosing to hold the Winter Olympics at a Black Sea resort with a subtropical climate.

Sochi is also close enough to the epicentre of terrorist activities in Russia, and those suicide bombers are capable of striking even farther afield, in places like Volgograd, never mind their own backyard.

But then those athletes who suffer grievous injuries in the likely bombings will be able to make an instant switch to the Special Olympics category, and Col. Putin must be commended for anticipating such a development.

The Sale of the Year award won’t go to Harrod’s or Selfridges – these emporia are likely to be edged out by our government’s promotion ‘Buy a Romanian and a Bulgarian, get a Ukrainian, Serb, Moldavian and Macedonian free!’.

The governments of Romania and Bulgaria are peddling their passports to their neighbours who aren’t blessed by membership in the EU. This is what Christian charity is all about: their new citizens can then become new recipients of our largesse – share and share alike. Isn’t that wonderful? 

Nelson Mandela will be hard to beat for my posthumous Proving that God Doesn’t Exist award. The late leader was the only candidate for the slot of Christ on earth. But Christ was supposed to have risen after death, which Mandela hasn’t done. This proves he isn’t Christ, and we already knew that no one else was. This means there’s no God, and if you dispute this unassailable logic I’ll have to tell Richard Dawkins where you live.

Happy New Year!