Phoenix flips Putin the bird

The murder of Arkady Babchenko produced thousands of angry articles, including my own, around the world.

That the murder was staged as part of a police sting operation has also produced thousands of angry responses, this time with both Babchenko and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) on the receiving end.

The accusations are varied. Those by Reporters Without Borders represent almost the whole gamut, proving that this august organisation ought to be renamed Reporters Without Minds.

The first arrow was fired at the SBU: “it is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive… for the stunt”.

This suggests that any police force running a sting operation somehow transgresses against morality – even if crimes are prevented and lives are saved as a result. This is simply nonsense.

Ever since the fictional Sherlock Holmes staged his own death to nail a sniper who had been stalking him, there have been thousands of real cases where a death was faked.

For example, in 1976, the Texan billionaire Cullen Davis was found not guilty of attempted murder.

Rather than heaving a sigh of relief, the vindictive billionaire compiled a list of everyone involved in the trial, starting with the judge, and hired a hitman to sort them out. He hadn’t done his due diligence properly, for the hitman was an FBI plant, part of an elaborate operation.

Pictures of the supposedly dead judge smeared with ketchup were taken. The ‘assassin’ showed them to Davis as proof of a job well-done (“I got the judge for you, okay?”) and collected his payment. As the envelope was changing hands, Davis was arrested.

Whatever next? Are we going to accuse the war allies of perfidy for landing in Normandy, having first deceived the Nazis into believing the landing would happen in Pas-de-Calais? You have to admit that the allies ‘played with the truth’ more deviously than even the SBU.

What else? Oh yes, Reporters Without Minds strongly hint that this operation somehow exonerates Putin of all his crimes, past and future. This sting, they explain, “would not help the cause of press freedom. All it takes is one case like this to cast doubt on all the other political assassinations.”

Presumably, the cause of press freedom would have been helped only by Babchenko’s real death. Rather than cooperating with the SBU, he should have painted a target on his back and gone to his death with the same heroic resignation as Reporters Without Minds doubtless would display under similar circumstances.

And how much doubt will be cast on other political assassinations? In the real world, as opposed to the virtual one inhabited by Putin’s revolting sycophants?

Must we now doubt that Anna Politkovskaya was killed for real? Boris Nemtsov? Natalia Estremirova? Sergei Magintsky? Alexander Litvinenko? Paul Khlebnikov? Atyom Borovik, Yuri Shchekochikhin? Anastasia Baburova? Pavel Sheremet, Babchenko’s friend and another journalist taking refuge in Kiev, murdered by a car bomb in 2016? Is Flight MH17 still doing its rounds?

Or do the Mindless Reporters deny that Putin’s regime is capable of murder, including political assassination, in or out of Russia? If so, this gives a whole new meaning to the word no-brainer.

Why do they and other critics full of moral indignation think Babchenko agreed to expose his wife, children, elderly mother and numerous friends to the shock of his death? Is he a callous, heartless cynic with no regard for the misery of others?

Hardly. This is a man who adopted five girls, saving them from the horror of Russian orphanages, where malnourished children are dying in droves. Rather than as a heartless cynic, he is known to his friends as a noble, kind, generous man.

So why did he do it? At his posthumous press conference, Babchenko said he had no other option, and I believe that’s what he thought.

Here are the facts, as we know them. Babchenko had been receiving death threats for years, some coming from Putin’s insiders, such as Marina Yudenich. In spite of that, he courageously continued to publish articles scathing of the criminal regime under which he had to live.

Babchenko only fled Russia when he found out that he was about to be arrested and tried, which in Putin’s Russia means imprisoned – political defendants are always convicted, with the verdicts predetermined in the Kremlin. Chances are, he wouldn’t have survived incarceration (remember Sergei Magnitsky?).

Then, about a month ago, the SBU told Babchenko that a $40,000 contract had been taken out for his assassination. And not only his: apparently, Babchenko headed a list of 30 Russian émigrés slated to be ‘whacked’ (several had already been killed). The SBU then devised the sting and asked Babchenko to play along.

He agreed, and as a result Putin’s hitman has been arrested. He is being interrogated even as we speak, and it’s conceivable that he’ll blow the whole conspiracy sky high.

But even if he doesn’t, saving Babchenko’s life is good enough by itself, especially if there was indeed no other option of protecting him.

Not being as familiar as Babchenko’s critics evidently are with the intricacies of police procedure, I can’t judge whether or not other options existed. In America and Britain, for example, people can get police protection involving a change of address, identity and sometimes even appearance.

But the Ukraine is neither America nor Britain. The country is crawling with Putin’s spies, and collaborators, always willing to lend a helping hand. They definitely number in hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. Given such demographics, going to ground is more difficult there than in America or Europe.

One way or another, the operation has shown that Putin can’t have his own way in the Ukraine. It has saved dozens of lives possibly and Babchenko’s definitely.

Rather than being criticised, the SBU and Babchenko ought to be congratulated on a brilliant operation, yet again exposing the enormity of Putin’s fascist regime to everyone – except those who won’t see.



The murderers among us

Arkady Babchenko, RIP

One of the best Russian journalists, Arkady Babchenko, has been murdered in Kiev today. He was shot three times in the back.

Babchenko was only 41, and for the last 18 of those years he wrote brilliant, witty articles about the fascist junta ruling Russia.

Before then he had served in the army, fighting in two Chechen wars. Babchenko’s war dispatches earned him wide renown not only in Russia, but also abroad.

He was one of the most brilliant critics of Putin among journalists, but not the only victim. Until today, 43 Russian journalists had been murdered on Putin’s watch. Now there are 44, and counting.

At first they tried to get him not with a bullet but with an equally lethal court verdict. But Babchenko found out that a ‘legal’ case was being prepared against him and fled Russia in 2017 – especially since the ‘legal’ proceedings were accompanied by a torrent of death threats.

He and his family were penniless for a while, and his articles always ended with pleas for help accompanied by his account number. I curse myself for not having offered any, not out of stinginess, but out of laziness and hatred for any financial transactions involving bank transfers. A lame excuse, I know.

Eventually Babchenko settled in Kiev, where he got a fair amount of remunerative work in television and print. When he died, he was no longer destitute.

The Ukrainian police are looking for the murderer, but he was only the finger on the trigger. Whoever he is, and the police have several clues, the real murderer sits in the Kremlin.

The actual hitman is only his accomplice, one of many. For Russia is ruled by a gang of criminals, and you can find an accessory to this murder by picking at random any member of the ruling elite.

And not only them. The hands of every supporter of Putin’s kleptofascist regime are dripping Babchenko’s blood on the floor. It’s their faces that are reflected in the surface of the congealing red puddle.

Many of those faces belong to British and other Western ‘useful idiots’ to Putin. What are they feeling now? Pride in their ‘strong leader’? Joy that yet another enemy of their beloved monster has been eliminated? I know it isn’t shame; ideological fanatics are incapable of feeling that emotion.

I could name some of them, but won’t: I’ve done so often enough. Anyway, they know who they are. And I know what they are: evil. For supporters of an evil, murderous regime are themselves evil and murderous – just as everyone involved in a crime, however tangentially, is a criminal treated as such in the courts.

In the good tradition of British civility, one is supposed to eschew strong words and give even such scum the benefit of the doubt. They aren’t evil, but misguided. They aren’t scum, but ignoramuses. They aren’t accomplices to multiple crimes, but idealists.

Well, the time for civility has passed. It has been ticking away with each subsequent crime and now it has run out. They no longer deserve to be called even useful idiots. No one is so idiotic as to be so useful to fascists for so long.

Thus let’s call them what they really are: evil, murderous scum. And let’s not look for mitigating circumstances, claiming they are good family men, Christians, honest and intelligent in every other respect, nice dinner companions or whatever.

Someone involved in murders, directly or indirectly, is himself a murderer. All else is but background noise. It may sometimes be quite interesting, but it’s always completely irrelevant.

Just think: any evil dictator is balanced on the very tip of a pyramidal structure. Immediately below him are members of his regime; below them are their moneybags and other active supporters.

As we go down the pyramid, each lower tier gets wider until we reach the lowest and the widest one: the body of advocates, admirers and fans. Remove this tier, and the whole structure collapses.

They live among us, we chat with them, run into them at parties – we shake their hands. Having done so, let’s scrub and scour our own hands clean, hoping to get all the blood off. Now including Arkady Babchenko’s blood.

RIP. Or, as the Russians say, may earth be his down.

Abortion isn’t just about abortion

Were they debating abortion? Probably not.

Not so long ago abortion came up at a party, and I mentioned that I’m opposed to it.

That offhand remark caused not so much indignation as consternation.

“I’ve never met anyone who feels this way,” gasped an impressionable girl attending one of our better universities.

“Why on earth would you oppose it?” asked her much older boyfriend (aka lucky bastard), who isn’t much given to moral reflection. “And don’t give me that bullshit about the sanctity of human life.”

The way he put it suggested he was familiar with that argument, but dismissed it as being utterly ridiculous. That says something about him, but much more about the state of our civilisation.

For if the very idea of human life being inviolable is ridiculous, then our – by which I mean Western – civilisation is no more. What passes for Western civilisation now is an awful impostor, a murderer who has moved into his victim’s house and claimed it for his own.

That initial exchange showed that my interlocutor and I didn’t just have different views on this matter. We inhabited different civilisations, different moral, spiritual and intellectual universes.

Hence any further discussion was pointless, but it continued anyway. My opponent, passionately supported by his barely post-pubescent girlfriend, recited the usual litany based on the old device of reductio ad absurdum.

What if a girl gets pregnant after being gang-raped by vicious degenerates? Seduced/raped by her father/uncle/brother or all of them together? Would I still object to abortion then? Now that you mention it, yes, I replied.

But please don’t make it sound as if the best part of the 200,000 annual abortions in Britain result from rape, incestuous or otherwise. Most of them are caused by the mother (or also father, if known) not wishing to cramp her ‘lifestyle’.

So what, objected my opponent. It’s the mother’s body, and she can do whatever she pleases with it.

This is another illustration to the statement I made earlier. For opposition to abortion, or to any gratuitous taking of human life, is but one aspect of the civilisation first murdered and then looted posthumously.

Another aspect is intellectual. People used to know what constituted a valid argument and what didn’t. Sequential logic was its legitimate tool. An example wasn’t. And polemic was a game that had certain rules, to be followed by both parties.

That doesn’t mean that, at a time when the sanctity of human life wasn’t yet seen as ridiculous, everyone made nothing but sound arguments. Like any game, a polemic could be played well or badly; it could be won or lost. However, both winner and loser played by the same rules.

Any violation of such rules constituted a rhetorical fallacy, akin to one contestant in a fencing competition tossing his rapier aside and grabbing an axe instead.

My brave opponent didn’t even realise he was committing a gross rhetorical fallacy. The Romans called it petitio principii, we call it begging the question (which expression, incidentally, is routinely misused by modern barbarians to mean ‘raising the question’).

Petitio principii is using the desired outcome of an argument as its premise. In this case, the whole argument boils down to deciding whether a foetus is indeed part of the mother’s body, like her appendix, or a sovereign human being, like her child.

If it’s the former, then yes, she can abort it: not many people raise moral objections to appendectomy. If it’s the latter, then she’s committing infanticide, and many people still illogically object to that.

Yet my interlocutor, along with the civilisation he inhabits, is ignorant of such basics. He didn’t realise that what he was saying amounted to the statement even he would recognise as false: because a foetus is only a part of a woman’s body, it is only a part of a woman’s body.

But a foetus is wholly dependent on his mother, is another ‘argument’.

Quite. And a baby three months old isn’t? He’ll survive famously even if left to his own devices? No? Then what’s the moral (or come to that logical) difference between killing a child three months before delivery (the legal cut-off point for abortion in England) and three months after? None is immediately obvious. So this argument doesn’t work, does it?

And why have a legal cut-off point at all? Does a foetus become a sovereign human being at six months plus one day, while remaining an equivalent of the appendix at a mere six months? Having a legal limit is tantamount to a tacit acknowledgement that even before delivery a foetus is a human being endowed with the right to life.

He’s obviously not yet a person in the full sense of the word. But, at the risk of taking modern barbarians further out of their depths, one might invoke Aristotle’s (and then Aquinas’s) teaching on the subject of potentiality and actuality.

A foetus isn’t a person actually, but he is potentially. In this he differs from any animal, vegetable or mineral – or for that matter from the appendix. An appendix may become inflamed and life-threatening, but it’ll always remain an appendix. A foetus, on the other hand, may become Aristotle or Aquinas and will definitely become a person.

Conception thus doesn’t produce a person, but it does produce a human life that will eventually become a person. And human life must be assumed to start at conception because no other point can be determined with reliable accuracy. Hence abortion at any point of gestation is tantamount to the gratuitous taking of human life.

In the old civilisation now dead, abortion wasn’t subject to such discussions. It was axiomatic that human life was sacred and that was all there was to it. Why waste intellectual energy on trying to prove a self-evident point?

No reason at all. However, all the axiomatic presuppositions of Western civilisation died along with it. Yet that’s not all that died. Also biting the dust was the ability to think rigorously.

That ability was an offshoot of the same civilisation that produced the notion of sacred human life. The West has no alternative to the culture produced by that civilisation, nor to the religion and morality on which it was based. Neither do we have an alternative to its thought. Our choice is between its thought and none.

None is modernity’s evident choice. That’s why it’s pointless arguing the issue of abortion with modern barbarians. They’ll dismiss the Christian argument contemptuously, and they’ll be unable to follow the purely secular argument of the kind I proposed above.

The only thing that surprises me is that the Irish held out for so long. They were clinging to the coattails of the corpse being lowered into its grave – and now they’ve let go.

Two thirds of their population voted for abortion on demand. Had the Irish waited another few years, the vote would have been closer to 100 per cent. As it would be in England.

Lett it be

A fine example of fascist brutalism, a style popular in Riga. This statue celebrates Red Latvians.

Journalists often deceive themselves when claiming they learned a lot about a country after visiting it for a few days.

They don’t look for knowledge. If they did, it would take much longer to acquire. What they look for is the confirmation of their pre-existing bias, and in this mission they usually succeed.

My flying visit to Riga had no autodidactic purpose: I was simply curious to see how the place had changed in the 45 years that I hadn’t seen it. That curiosity was satisfied: it had changed a lot – and not at all.

But then I fell into the journalist’s trap, thinking I had learned everything there was to know about the place. However, clutching the edge of sanity with my white fingertips, I stopped myself just in time from claiming to have learned everything.

But I did learn something, which achievement was facilitated by a long life sporadically linked to Latvia. After all, for my first 25 years I lived in the USSR, of which Latvia was then a part. And for the past 14 years Latvia has belonged to the EU and Nato, to which Britain also belongs – to the former, one hopes, not for long.

Hence it was important to see whether Latvia had changed enough to be an integral part of the West, to whose defence the West is committed according to Article 5 of the Nato treaty. Or had it remained Soviet at heart?

My impression is that the changes have been numerous but mostly superficial.

There are many mock-Western restaurants, whose waiters stop just short of asking you to taste your water before pouring it. The Gothic and Art Nouveau buildings have received a lick of paint. Tourists swarm everywhere, stolid Germans and drunken, tattooed Englishmen, typically of the kind who pronounce their favourite word to rhyme more with ‘book’ than with ‘buck’.

Yet, as the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Hard though the Latvians tried to erase the civilisational stigmata of their Soviet past, they still have a long way to go. And even the external scars are still there for all to see.

This, although the Rigans have tried to get rid of them. Statues of communists starting with Lenin have been removed, streets have been renamed, the university is no longer named after the leading Bolshevik Pyotr Stuchka (ne Pēteris Stučka).

Yet passing by a theatre I caught sight of the memorial plaque informing those wishing to know that “the great proletarian writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of Soviet literature” assisted the production of his plays on that very stage.

If in 1991 they managed to pull down the 30-foot statue of Lenin disfiguring the city centre in my youth, how hard would it have been to remove a small plaque commemorating his acolyte? Not very, is the answer to that. But they haven’t.

And then there’s another 30-foot statue, honouring the Latvian Riflemen. (That’s what Latyshskie strelki means in English, not the more romantic but ignorant ‘Latvian Sharpshooters’ favoured by Anne Applebaum.)

Solzhenitsyn called them ‘the midwives of the Bolshevik revolution’. And, leaving obstetrics aside, they certainly did play a key role in protecting Lenin’s cannibalistic regime.

The Latvian Riflemen units were formed in 1915 out of the socialist volunteers who had fought against the tsarist troops during the 1905 revolutions. When the Bolsheviks usurped power in 1917, the Latvian Riflemen formed the most professional core of the ragtag bands going by the name of the Red Army.

They defended not only Lenin’s revolution but also Lenin’s person, serving as his bodyguards. And Col. Jucums Vacietis of the Latvian Riflemen became the first Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, working hand in glove with Trotsky (for which cooperation Stalin had him shot in 1938).

I don’t get the logic of it. Why remove the statue of Lenin but keep in place one of his dogs of war? When queried, the Latvians say that some of the Riflemen were actually on the White side.

Quite. And some Waffen SS officers tried to save Jews. Should we then erect a monument to the Waffen SS? Also, considering that the monument in question was erected in 1970, you get no prizes for guessing whether it commemorated Red or White soldiers.

Then there’s the unmistakable style of the granite statue, which can be best described as fascist brutalism. Back in the Soviet Union (or for that matter in Nazi Germany) this aesthetic perversion was highly productive in art, and not only depicting military personages.

Riga proves this versatility. Take one of those granite Riflemen off their pedestal, dress him in mufti, put him in an armchair, and what do you get? A monument to Jānis Rainis, Latvian national, not to say nationalist, poet adorning one of Riga’s central parks.

One doesn’t have to be an art expert to see what kind of ideology produced the two statues. And a bit of expertise would even reveal that they are the work of the same hack. I didn’t know his name, but Google helpfully provided it: Dzintars Driba.

Another telling detail: all street signs are exclusively in Lettish, which language is totally incomprehensible to anyone not born in Riga – and even quite a few of those who were.

Yes, Lettish is the state language of Latvia, but then French is the state language of France – and yet announcements on the Paris Metro are both in French and English. This, though even linguistically challenged visitors can figure out what, say, Place de la Concorde means. Not so with, say, Marijas iela.

This is of course a spurious comparison, for in France this is purely a linguistic matter. In Latvia, it’s a political one. For when Latvia split away from the USSR, speaking Lettish became one of the requirements of citizenship.

One nation, one language sounds like a good idea, and I wish we had that in London, where one has to be a veritable polyglot to negotiate one’s way through many a service outlet. But Riga is no more London than it is Paris.

In both Russian and Soviet empires it was steadily Russified. Russians now make up a third of the country’s population, and half of Riga’s. And half of them never bothered to learn Lettish, which now makes them disfranchised, in Latvia at any rate.

They are welcome to vote in Russian elections, and many do – for Putin. In fact, Putin’s share of the vote among that group is even higher than in Russia proper: close to 85 per cent.

Those Russophone Latvians never learned Lettish for the same reason many Raj administrators never learned Hindu: they assumed that, if the colonials had anything important to say, they’d say it in English.

Now those Russian Latvians feel like the English who never left, say, post-colonial Kenya: as barely tolerated aliens.

They have my sympathy, for Putin doesn’t want them either, not really. He just wants to use the supposed plight of the Russian diaspora as a pretext for re-occupation, the way Hitler used the Sudeten and Polish Germans.

This brings us to the only genuine interest I have in Latvia. It’s that Article 5 again.

Latvia was welcomed into both Nato and the EU in 2004, which was either a noble gesture or an irresponsible one. It was noble if the West was truly committed to protecting Latvia from Russian aggression. It was irresponsible if that commitment was at best tepid.

Putin recently had an instructive conversation with Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of one of those window-dressing opposition parties. “Do you realise,” asked Yavlinsky, “that your policies are pushing the world to the brink of war?” “I do,” replied Vlad. “And we’ll win it.”

Since the West isn’t going to attack Russia, such a hypothetical war could only start if Putin attacked the West. And the likeliest target would be the tripwire Baltic countries.

Would the wire be tripped if Russian tanks swept into Latvia? Would Nato honour Article 5 and go to war? Are we prepared to die for Riga any more than we were prepared to die for Danzig in 1939?

I don’t know – and neither does Putin, which is why he hasn’t yet given the marching orders. But I suspect, and so probably does he, that Nato would do nothing beyond perhaps filing official protests and imposing more sanctions.

If our suspicion is correct, then inviting the Baltics to join Nato was criminally irresponsible, for it exposes the three countries to the same brutality they suffered at the hands of the Soviets in the ‘40s, when a fifth of their population was exterminated. If our suspicion is wrong, then the whole world is in danger.

Yet there’s no doubt that Nato would respond with everything it has if Putin attacked, say, Denmark. Why not Latvia then? Aren’t we supposed to defend our own?

Because, and it pains me to say so, Denmark is indisputably our own and Latvia isn’t. Nato leaders won’t say this out loud, but they all realise it. So does Putin. So, after my trip, do  I.

From USSR to EU and back

Anyone still thinking the EU is anything but an awful, unworkable contrivance should visit Riga.

Whose deranged mind decided it’s possible to a create a single federation out of 28 (30? 40?) European countries? Having spent four days in Riga, I can testify that this mind wasn’t only deranged but also evil.

It’s possible to create a federation out of different countries – provided they have something in common, a little area where they overlap.

What I mean by an area isn’t shared geography, even though that helps. However, much more important are shared culture, history, behavioural modes, social responses, aesthetics – all those things that add up to civilisation.

Hence some bright European sparks must have got together and decided that, say, Greece and Holland have enough in common to blend naturally into a single country.

I suppose an experienced sophist could argue the toss, referring, for example, to Greek philosophy and its input into our religion and culture. And indeed a peripatetic Westerner visiting Athens might be impressed by treading the ground trodden 2,500 years ago by peripatetic philosophers.

But then he’d look for more up to date evidence of kinship, only to find none. Greece and Holland, though both technically speaking European, haven’t much more in common than either has with Mongolia.

They may be forced under the same umbrella, but neither will be home and dry together. There’s no umbrella big enough to cover both.

If you agree, then let me tell you: Athens is more of a European capital than Riga is. Yes, Greece has had a chequered history, punctuated by foreign occupation, most recently by Nazi Germany.

But, even though Nazi Germany took over Greece’s land, it never took over Greece’s soul. I’m sure that no foreigner visiting Greece in 1972, 27 years after the liberation, would have said that the country still remained Nazi.

Well, this visitor, here in Riga 27 years after the country left the Soviet Union and 14 after it joined the European one, can argue that the country remains Soviet to its core.

It’s not the Latvians’ fault. Communism corrupts nations so absolutely that its effects will linger for at least as long as communism lasted – and I’m being generous. Twice as long would be closer to the mark, and that’s provided the country makes an honest effort to cleanse itself.

The first thing one notices about Riga is how dingy it is, and I don’t mean its physical plant. Quite the opposite: the medieval Old Town is lovely, the city centre boasts more Art Nouveau buildings than any other city in the world, and the parks separating the two are beautifully landscaped and maintained.

True, Riga’s Gothic churches aren’t a patch on those in France, but then whose are? And Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture isn’t exactly Gaudi, but then whose is?

Yet one central park stopped me dead with the notice above. My first impression was that it was some kind of inside joke. Surely children don’t drive?

Oh yes they do. And I don’t even mean grown-ups driving like irresponsible children, zipping through the streets at 70 mph in their clapped out jalopies with mufflers shot or non-existent – there are plenty of those in Riga. No, it’s tots, some as young as three, actually driving their electric go-karts through the park.

I pointed them out to my wife, and her reaction was that the cars were paddled. Yet she realised they weren’t when one three-year-old hit a kerb and then reversed out with the élan of a get-away driver. Obviously Latvian standards of ‘elf and safety aren’t quite like ours.

Riga isn’t exactly dingy in any physical sense, even though veering off the beaten track of Gothic and Art Nouveau areas landed me smack in the middle of the Soviet suburbs of my Moscow childhood.

Still, Riga’s dinginess isn’t in the buildings. It’s in the people.

They don’t look, act, walk or deport themselves like Europeans. Language apart, they are indistinguishable from the inhabitants of the bad outskirts of Moscow.

Speaking statistically, in terms of GDP per capita, Latvia is better off than most Eastern European countries and certainly than Russia. Yet in the four days we didn’t see a single well-dressed person, male or female.

I mean M&S or Gap well-dressed, not Bond Street or Savile Row. Yet Riga has many of the boutiques one finds in those streets. Who shops there? Certainly not the equivalents of the Russian Mafiosi – those chaps shop in London and Paris. And evidently no one else.

Then there are the 20-stone, misshapen women, some of them still young, one sees everywhere. I’m sure they don’t add up to half the female population, but one could be forgiven for getting that impression. There are plenty of obese women in any European city, but nowhere do they dominate the human landscape to the same degree.

The number of falling-over drunks is also far greater than in any European capital I’ve seen, although some places in England may compete with Riga in that respect. But drunks are different there: they’re simply barbarians who can’t think of any other way of having fun. But have fun they do, if you can call it that.

In Riga people clearly drink the way the Russians do: not to have fun but to forget, ideally to die. One can almost see the abyss of despair into which they’re falling with every gulp. Many drinkers are down-and-outs on their last legs.

“There’s nothing else for them to do,” explained a woman we chatted up. “There are no decent jobs for them to find, so those who have anything on the ball just up and leave. Those who stay drink.” She herself prefers New Zealand as her holiday destination, to get as far as geographically possible from her native city.

There are boozers and off-licences at every corner in Riga, sometimes more than one per corner. Yet I’ve found only two bookshops in the whole city, each the size of a typical newsagent in London.

I’m sure there must be more, but it’s hard to walk through the centre of, say, Paris for five minutes without catching sight of a sizeable bookshop. The Rigans’ interests must lie elsewhere.

Even the way they try to be Western is touchingly childish. We stopped at a rather chi-chi restaurant for a late-night snack. All we wanted was their celebrated tuna tartare and a glass of wine.

The celebrated tuna tartare turned out to be mostly avocado, while my request for two glasses of the house white raised the curtain for a major production. The wine waitress delivered a long soliloquy, talking about plonks in the terms normally reserved for women: “Lovely legs… full body… beautiful nose…”

I wanted to say, “For God’s sake, we aren’t ordering Meursault here. Just give us two glasses of plonk, will you?” Instead I said, “Pinot grigio is fine. And no, I don’t want to taste it first.”

The last time I visited Riga was in 1973. The place was then as unmistakeably Soviet as anywhere in Russia – and in many ways it still is. I don’t think it has much in common with Western Europe; in fact, Riga comes across as a little girl trying to walk in her mother’s shoes and looking silly for it – or, more menacingly, as a little boy trying to drive.

But then who says the EU has anything to do with Europe? Like any other socialist Leviathan it just wants to swallow as many countries as possible. Latvia fills the bill perfectly. So would Mongolia for that matter.

A lament for missing fathers

First a confession à propos the Royal Wedding: I don’t like pomp and circumstance – and I don’t just mean the piece by Elgar.

This phobia has two explanations, one my own, the other my wife’s.

Mine is predictably kinder. Since I believe that our God-given free will makes each of us sovereign and unique, it pains me to see multitudes ready to abandon their individuality and join a loudly braying herd. This, I feel, wastes the advantage of being human.

My wife, on the other hand, insists that as a consummate egotist I simply can’t stand any event in which I’m not the centre of attention.

To prove her wrong, I declined the invitation to ride next to Harry and Meghan in the wedding limousine.

Such modesty (uncharacteristic, according to Penelope) is mainly caused by consideration for the feelings of the young couple. After all, they would be upset to hear the multitudes ask one another  who are those people in the car with Alex Boot.

Also, this particular event evokes painful memories of having missed, inadvertently, my son’s wedding back in the nineties. I genuinely was unable to attend, which I believe put the jinx in: the marriage ended in divorce a few years ago.

To start off on the right foot, any wedding ceremony – private or public – should include, besides bride and groom, best man, bridesmaid and priest, a full complement of the parents still living.

When a father isn’t there, the ceremony misses an essential element – no matter how many millions scream themselves hoarse and wave flags all along the route of the wedding cortege.

That’s why I still feel sorry about having been unable to attend my son’s wedding all those years ago, even though I was invited. Why, in an odd sort of way I even blame myself for the subsequent divorce, albeit 20 years later.

Not that it makes matters any better, I felt rotten about it then and for years thereafter. In a way I still do. That’s why I sympathise with the feelings of another man who, though like me far from being a perfect father, is a father nonetheless.

For him his child’s wedding is a step towards self-perpetuation through generations to come, which is a momentous event in any man’s life.

That’s why seeing his child getting married without him in attendance must be sheer torture. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he dropped a tear into his drink. Alas, circumstances conspired to keep him away from his child’s new beginning in life.

His sadness is probably matched by that of the young couple, who know that something vital is missing from the festivities – something that no jubilant crowds could possibly replace.

And, to make matters even worse, Meghan’s father won’t be there either.

Are Remainers actually stupid?

A typical Remainer, arguing against Brexit

The answer is yes, effectively. The qualifier is necessary because, though most Remainers have few tools in their intellectual box, some have plenty. It’s just that those tools stay in the box whenever the subject of the EU comes up.

Hence neither group relies on reason when arguing the issue of the EU in general or Brexit in particular.

I can testify to this, having been drawn into many an argument along those lines both in England and in France, against both casual acquaintances and close friends (this second group of Remainers are exclusively French).

Some of my opponents have been genuinely stupid and ignorant, yet some of the French in particular are brilliant and erudite. Yet even those who possess rational minds refuse to apply them to the issue at hand.

This means that EU champions approach this problem exclusively from an ideological angle, or else from a purely emotional one. Neither is indicative of any systematic rational process.

That’s why arguing with Remainers is both easy and impossible. It’s impossible because one can’t argue against ideologies inspired by visceral emotions without any rational input. It’s easy because there are plenty of rational arguments against the EU and none for it.

Applying a crude version of the Socratic Q&A method blows every pro-EU argument out of the water. It’s simplicity itself.

Q. Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, said almost 400 years ago: “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Do you agree that unnecessary change is to be avoided? A. Yes.

Q. Thus you must think that being (or staying) in the EU is necessary? A. Yes.

Q. Let’s explore this. The British constitution is founded on the sovereignty of Parliament, isn’t it? A. Yes.

Q. Therefore transferring all or much of this sovereignty to a foreign body constitutes a fundamental change, doesn’t it? A. Yes.

Q. And yet you maintain that this change is necessary? A. Yes.

Q. (and this is always the clincher). In that case you must believe that the EU is the best or even only answer to some vital questions involving our nation’s wellbeing. Do you mind telling me what they are?

That’s where Remainers and other EU fans drop into the bottomless hole they’ve dug for themselves. For I’ve never heard a single answer to this question – not even from my brilliant and erudite French friends – that holds water better than your average sieve.

When they bother to answer it at all (usually they don’t), they cite reasons that are demonstrably false either logically or factually or both.

“We need to trade with Europe.” Why is it necessary to destroy national sovereignty for this reason? After all, Britain became the greatest trading commonwealth in history without compromising her independence.

“The EU is all about free trade.” That’s simply a lie. First, the EU is free of tariffs only among its members. Vis-à-vis the rest of the world it’s a protectionist bloc, which is rather the opposite of free trade.

And, as the pronouncements of the founding fathers of European federalism, such as Jean Monnet, show, their aim from the 1940s onwards wasn’t economic but political: the creation of a single European state.

“We need to travel to Europe.” So how did we manage to do so for centuries before 1992?

“The EU has maintained peace after the Second World War.” Nonsense. It has arguably maintained peace between France and Germany, the two countries that created the EU for their own benefit.

In any case, the EU only came into existence at Maastricht. So did it maintain peace between 1945 and 1992 retroactively? And in the face of Soviet aggression, the security of Europe was upheld by Nato’s nuclear shield – c’est tout, or das ist alles if you’d rather.

Actually, in those situations where the EU could have kept or restored peace, such as during the Yugoslavian bloodbath, it pathetically failed to do so.

And so forth, in the same vein. No argument in favour of the EU exists that can’t be destroyed in a few seconds flat by an averagely intelligent teenager, even a Scottish lad who may initially think that EU is the way he greets his friends.

Such thoughts have frequently appeared in these pages, so why repeat myself? Two factors have acted as triggers.

One was the joint press conference delivered by three political has-beens Nick Clegg, Nicky Morgan and David Miliband on why we need ‘soft Brexit’, meaning, for those of you who aren’t fluent in stupid and pernicious, no Brexit at all.

I was especially surprised to see that Dave Miliband was taken off the mothballs for that occasion. That made me see in a new light the incident involving Dave, then Foreign Secretary, and the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.

Dave meekly mentioned the abuse of human rights in Russia, to which the former KGB officer replied, in the style unique to Russian diplomacy, “Who are you to f***ing lecture me?” Much as I detest Lavrov, the same words crossed my mind too the other day.

The second trigger was provided by that awful woman with learning difficulties, and my frequent target Rachael Sylvester of The Times. Every paragraph in her article proves that her failing is actually the absence of a mind, rather than the refusal to use it.

One sentence in particular caught my eye: “The problem is that Brexit is a revolutionary policy being implemented by a reactionary prime minister, and the people who lit the touch paper on this insurgency are disruptors without a plan.”

‘Revolutionary’? ‘Insurgency’? God help us all, the girl must be out of her mind, provided – and this is a generous proviso – she has one.

If anything, Brexit is a counterrevolution, reversing the deadly effects of the Maastricht revolution that subverted British sovereignty and constitution. And vapid, vacuous, vacillating Mrs May ‘a reactionary prime minister’? Let’s have a drink, Rachael, I’ll show you what reactionary means.

As to a plan, it’s as simple as truth itself: restoring British sovereignty. Nothing more and, emphatically, nothing less.

Demands for a detailed, itemised plan for the aftermath of Brexit are just a knavish Remainer trick, typologically similar to the one used in the US many years ago by opponents of a federal judge who banned pornography.

“Define pornography!” demanded pornographers. “I can’t define it, but when I see it I know it,” replied the judge.

Of course the consequences of Brexit aren’t predictable or plannable in every minute detail. Brexit is an aim in itself, it’s not a guaranteed way of increasing our GDP, nor a guaranteed way of reducing it.

The Remainers’ plan, on the other hand, is clear-cut: joining a single European state by a series of camouflaged, incremental steps, thereby destroying Britain’s sovereignty altogether.

Those who don’t understand this are fools; those who support it despite understanding it are knaves. And some, including by the sound of her Miss Sylvester, are both.

Allahu Akbar from Paris to Indonesia

Repeat after me: this has nothing to do with Islam

When I heard of the knife attack in Paris, near l’Opéra, I immediately wondered what was playing that night. Was it Wagner?

One can see how even a basically nonviolent man can develop uncontrollable homicidal tendencies after hearing just one act of any of the Ring operas. But that was just the first guess, one admittedly out of the left field.

The second guess proved spot on: the murderous knifeman accompanied each thrust with the scream ‘Allahu Akbar!’, which has become de rigueur under such circumstances. A closer examination revealed that the murderer was from Chechnya, a republic that these days exports terrorists high and wide, from Boston (remember the Marathon?) to the Middle East.

It’s interesting that the Chechens, while traditionally Muslim, used not to be particularly pious. For example, they could match their Russian enemies drink for drink.

They fought Russians to protect their independence, not their faith. However, the Chechens’ religiosity was heightened courtesy of the two wars thrust down their throat first by Yeltsyn, then by Putin.

I witnessed the first one, or rather its by-product, by visiting a refugee camp on the Chechen border in 1995. My prior life had resembled not so much a bed of roses as a clump of nettles, but even so I was unprepared for the gruesome misery I saw in that converted school, where hungry and ill people were piled up on mattresses 60 to a room.

I heard stories, later covered in Western papers, of whole villages massacred and torched, of innocent people tossed out of helicopters at 300 feet, of tortures, rapes, torture. One old woman died before my very eyes: after seeing her whole family perish to Russian brutality, her roommates explained, she no longer wanted to live.

The only help they were getting, explained the man who ran the camp, came from their “Muslim brothers in Saudi Arabia”, and that was the first time I heard a Chechen refer to his faith. But then people finding themselves in extreme circumstances often turn to God. We hugged when I left, even though I’m not often given to sentimental gestures.

The Chechens became even more devout after the second war, that one launched to entrench Putin in the Kremlin. But this time something else happened: Putin eventually managed to install his close ally Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechnya’s supremo.

Now Kadyrov represents another strain of traditional Chechnya: full-time banditry. The Russian government fought Chechen raiders throughout the nineteenth century, but only with variable success. Whole armies were involved, led by such heroes of Napoleonic wars as Generals Yermolov and Paskevich.

Putin, on the other hand, chose to act according to the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them. Or, in this case, make them join you. The birds of a feather stuck together, and make no mistake about it: they are birds of prey.

Kadyrov’s gangs have been given the freedom of Moscow, where they’ve largely monopolised the traditional nice earners of organised crime, with the government turning a blind eye (when not actively participating). In exchange, the Chechens carry out little assignments for the Kremlin, such as ‘whacking’ dissidents, journalists and political opponents.

The relationship is symbiotic, and Kadyrov recently announced that he regards as a personal enemy anyone who’s against Putin. And believe you me, you don’t want to be Kadyrov’s personal enemy.

Meanwhile the newly radicalised and Islamised Chechens have formed a river feeding the raging sea of Islamic terrorism. You can find them murdering (often in the ranks of ISIS), suicide bombing and extorting all over the world. For the first time in their history the Chechens regularly scream ‘Allahu Akbar!’ as a battle cry, not as a prayer.

The slasher of l’Opéra, whose name hasn’t been released, managed to stab five people before he himself was shot by the police. One of his victims died, two others are critical. All we know so far about the murderer is that he was 21 years old and a naturalised French citizen.

The police had known all about him, and he was in their database of Islamic radicals. But, in the good tradition of police forces all over the West, they could do nothing about it until the Muslim actually killed somebody. Prevention may be better than cure, but not when it goes against the grain of multi-culti diversity.

Intern or, Allah forbid, deport any Muslim radical, and there will be not just demonstrations but barricades in the street, manned, no doubt, by the entire faculty and student body of the Sorbonne. The events of 1968 will seem like a picnic by comparison.

ISIS claimed responsibility for this one, saying that the attack was a retaliation for whatever it was they felt like retaliating against. Obviously, outrages calling for revenge abound, for another ISIS gang has just used suicide bombers to blow up three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.

Bombs being more efficacious than knives, they scored a higher death toll: 11 dead, in addition to 40 wounded. Those Indonesian Christians clearly had a lot to answer for.

The picture is almost complete, but one critical piece is still missing, until later today at any rate. So far we haven’t heard any Western leader, not even young Manny, announce that the murders neither had anything to do with Islam nor could have possibly done so. Islam, as we all know (especially those of us who haven’t read the Koran) is a religion of peace.

The murders are always the work of mentally unbalanced loners – presumably like those who overran half of Europe back in the old days. If the murderers only knew how un-Islamic violence is, they wouldn’t shout ‘Allahu Akbar’.

I wonder what they should shout instead. Long live diversity?

Two guesses why she’s a star

The great pianist Myra Hess wouldn’t be a star today. She’d be teaching music at a girls’ school

This is a follow-up and illustration to my previous posting.

As the attached clip amply demonstrates, Khatia Buniatishvili, shown here to perform with the eminent conductor Zubin Mehta, has no conception of musical phrasing, no subtlety of expression, not much idea of tempo discipline, no understanding that the piano is neither a percussive instrument nor a pop one, and no discernible link with the culture that begat this music.

Yet she’s a major star in the international concert firmament, and the same clip provides a compelling reason, actually two of them, for that lofty status:

Can you figure out what they are? If you can, you’ll understand why I regard vulgarity as the dominant feature of modernity.

Save orchestra, kill music

The musicians are out learning their rap scores

Vulgarity is both modernity’s joy and its lethal weapon. Where violence fails to snuff out our civilisation, vulgarity succeeds.

Modernity ignores Dostoevsky’s wish (proffered in his Karamazovs): “Yes, man is broad, too broad indeed. I’d make him narrower.”

No, the broader the better, modernity screams. We’re all created equal, aren’t we? So we’re all equally capable of grasping the fine points of either man or God. And if some people don’t seem to be so capable, then it’s just a matter of access, the opening of paths.

How you provide broad access to the good things doesn’t matter, as long as it is broad. Of course the problem is that the door can be flung so wide-open that, as the masses stream in, the good things slip out. Only vulgarity remains.

By way of illustration, witness the Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer. The maestro has come up with an insight that should be put into encyclopaedias under the entry VULGARITY, n.

Mr Fischer correctly diagnoses the life-threatening condition: classical orchestras are dying out. They must be saved at all costs, and the cost Mr Fischer proposes is – euthanasia.

In order to broaden their appeal, he suggests, classical orchestras should stop being so obtusely classical. Fine, the odd Beethoven symphony wouldn’t do any harm, but orchestras must also play jazz and contemporary music, and I don’t think he means James McMillan or even Schoenberg.

While jazz combines musical and cult appeals, the other genres Mr Fischer must have in mind eliminate the musical element altogether. Their audience is attracted by the odd cocktail of cult, hypnotic eroticism of a simian variety and applied pharmacology.

How can that be reconciled with the kind of music that appeals to the higher reaches of the human spirit and sense of beauty? Don’t ask me; ask Mr Fischer.

All I can tell you is that in a society proudly proclaiming vulgarity as its claim to grandeur, there’s no place for real music. That’s why it’s dying out, all life being squeezed out of it by the Zeitgeist.

And no one wishing to survive handsomely can buck the Zeitgeist; he can only submit to it. That’s what the music establishment has been doing for at least the past half a century. Rather than trying to elevate the public to its own level, it steadily lowers itself to the public’s.

In doing so, it caters to the broad masses for whom discrimination is a swear word. Hence the performance scene is dominated by musical nonentities, cut off from the culture of which music is the highest representation.

More and more, the concert scene is dominated by performers who rely on extra-musical appeal. We get stars like Yuja Wang who combines the musical sensibility of an average music-school pupil with quite an attractive body, which she bares almost entirely on the platform.

The public loves it. Job done. Except music dies a little every time the comely Yuja strikes a piano key.

At the other end of the spectrum, music dies a little more when someone like Yevgeny Kissin delivers his robotically competent performances, conveying the music’s form while ripping its soul out. The public no longer knows the difference.

As to orchestral performances, they’ve become social, rather than musical, events. Music plays second fiddle, as it were. If you doubt that, I suggest a comparative tasting test.

Choose any Beethoven symphony and listen to its recording by some of the great conductors of the past, such as Furtwängler (above all), Mengelberg, Klemperer et al. Then put on any performance of the same piece by any conductor playing today. You’ll instantly know what I mean – and if you don’t, well, perhaps this isn’t really your genre.

 I dare say jazz played well is preferable to classical music played badly. But what does it have to do with symphony orchestras? I’m not suggesting that jazz should go back to its origin in the brothel, but surely we have enough dark, smoky clubs for jazzmen to strut their syncopations? And as to other ‘contemporary music’… well, don’t get me started on that.

Mr Fisher still hasn’t learned that lowering orchestras down to vulgar levels will eventually make music fall through the floor. And having symphony orchestras perform things like pop or rap will give music a mighty push on its way down.

If orchestras can only survive by killing music, they don’t deserve to survive. Only Karamazov’s advice can help music linger on, and reducing the number of orchestras would be a good start.

For example, London has five major orchestras that collectively deliver a performance practically every day. There aren’t enough Londoners who genuinely love and appreciate music to put that many bums on seats – the slack is being taken up by posers who think their social standing will improve if they’re seen at the Southbank.

 If we had just one orchestra, two at most, performances would be fewer, getting tickets would take an effort, which should filter out those who don’t really belong in the hall. The remaining orchestras will then have a sporting chance of surviving.

 Mr Fischer’s fees will be smaller, but that’s a worthy sacrifice for the sake of art, isn’t it, maestro? Apparently not. So go ahead, Mr Fischer, start booking rappers.

May I suggest Stromzy, the inspiration for Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury?

The Most Reverend Chap has admitted to being jittery about officiating the forthcoming royal wedding. However, he derives the requisite courage from Stromzy’s line: “I stay prayed up then I get the job done”.

Now this line, and especially the context in which it’s delivered, should appear in encyclopaedias under the rubric VULGARITY, n. See also HERESY and SATANISM.

Here’s the verse in question: “One time for the Lord// And one time for the cause// And one round of applause// One time for Fraser T Smith on the chords// I feel we got one// I stay prayed up then I get the job done// Yeah I’m Abigail’s yout, but I’m God’s son// But I’m up now, look at what God’s done// Now I rule tour, look at what God did// On the main stage runnin’ ‘round topless// I phone Flipz and I tell him that we got this// This is God’s plan, they can never stop this// Like wait…”

So it’s God’s plan that sends Mr Stromzy runnin’ ‘round topless all the way to the bank. That’s what he stays prayed up for. I’d suggest that, if there is a plan involved, it comes not from the Lord but from another Genesis personage.

I don’t know if the good Archbishop actually listens to this foul gibberish or only says he does to put more bums on pews. Nor do I know which is worse.

Any Christian must proselytise – that’s what Jesus demanded. That means carrying Christ to the uninitiated, who may then go to church looking for God but only finding rap din and female priestesses wearing slit clerical skirts (there’s actually a designer specialising in the kind of clerical garb that accentuates the female form).

Oh the good old days, when church figures and musicians knew they shouldn’t pander to vulgar tastes and pagan creeds – no matter what the short-term benefit.

Hence the Protestant Luther with his “Hier stehe ich, ich kann kein andres tun” (Here I stand; I can do no other). Hence also the Jesuit Matteo Ricci: “Simus, ut sumus, aut non simus” (We shall remain as we are or we shall not remain at all).

How about them for inspiration, Your Grace? Maestro? No, I suppose not. Rap is so much more inspiring, if in different ways.