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Halfway to wisdom
December 2017 / January 2018


(Illustration by Michael Daley)


Learning to say “no” is a great wisdom of age. I’m still not halfway there. Some months ago a book festival asked me to speak on a panel about Brexit. As my most recent book is not remotely about Brexit I explained that they must have misunderstood the title. They claimed not, and insisted I should come. With a book to sell I foolishly said “yes”.

On the day I slept in for the first time in my adult life, encountered the worst delays of British rail and arrived halfway through the panel in time to be thrown a question about my thoughts on pharmaceutical patenting post-Brexit. This is not my subject, and I said as much, only to realise that much of the hall, as well as the rest of the panel, had clearly been waiting for their sacrificial Brexit victim, upon whom they could pour all their rages and frustrations. As the subject of my latest book didn’t come up once and one of the other panellists had recently confided to me that they had found a way to stop Brexit I soon began to find the whole thing unappealing as well pointless. I fear this showed, deeply.

There are many reasons for the Brexit ennui. Apart from everybody having become an expert on everything, worst is the confidently specific predictions of the critics. To talk with confidence about the future has always invited scorn, but today it should invite aggressive opprobrium. Who knows what on earth the rules of causality are these days? Did anyone anywhere ever predict that Harvey Weinstein would bring down the British Defence Secretary? Yet still people confidently pronounce on the financial situation in the second financial quarter after Brexit. The only positive thing is that opinion polls show that the public understands that while we may have a couple of rocky years, the long-term outlook remains positive.

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Some people have compared the recent Westminster sex scandals and the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. But the important element is undermentioned — which is the degree of fragility all this visibly produces in politicians. Nearly all the MPs I have encountered in recent weeks have been more than ordinarily nice, indeed almost beseeching. This seems wrong — as well as unwonted. I am all for the power of the press, but events such as these exacerbate an already troubling inversion of power. Watching what used to be Fleet Street moralising over often distinctly minor sexual advances is a strange sight. It is true that in a secularised society it is not at all clear where moral authority does, or should, lie. But from what I know of journalists the press is a very unlikely candidate for the task.

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One thing I can pronounce upon with confidence is that I know a bogus hunger strike when I see it. Although the UK’s terror threat remains severe, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, recently announced that he was going to abstain from solids in solidarity with two terrorists in Guantanamo Bay.

Saudi-born Mohammed Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani (an assistant to Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and Yemen-born Khaled Ahmad (who fought against the US at Tora Bora) are both at present on hunger strike. As a result Watson said that nothing would pass his lips either. Other than water. For 24 hours. Coincidentally, the announcement came just two days after Watson announced that he was planning to go on a slimming diet. The world is full of strange news these days. But who would ever have thought that two members of al-Qaeda would help Tom Watson lose weight?

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Londoners often take for granted just how much there is to see and enjoy. As I have learned first-hand, almost no other city in the developed world can boast quite so much. On one recent Friday I attended a lunchtime recital of Brahms’s First Cello Sonata, then in the evening went to the Wigmore Hall to hear the German singer Max Raabe. Anybody who has not heard him should head to YouTube immediately. Although he occasionally does some contemporary songs, his specialism is German popular songs from the 1920s and ’30s. The crime-scene tape that remains around this whole scene is lifted slightly by the number of songs by Jewish composers and lyricists which Raabe includes. While he often performs with his Palast Orchestra, for this night it was just him, his pianist and a solitary pre-war era microphone into which Raabe sang and whistled.

I don’t think I have ever heard an audience listen so intently to any singer. Raabe’s voice is so supple, his diction so perfect that — like his witty introductions between songs — not a single inflection gets lost. The silence after the 1910 Liebesleid (“Love comes, love goes”) was a moment of veneration, the sigh of pleasure after the song from A Day at the Races (“Tomorrow is another day”) one of the deepest contentment.
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