The Best Of Enemies
“This must have been the first oration by a book-burner at Cambridge University for some centuries”
While most of us acquire best friends in our lives, some of us also acquire best enemies. My very best, in a strong field, is Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University. After years of opposition in numerous debates, a couple of years ago we were uncomfortably on the same side against Richard Dawkins. Happily, last month in Cambridge, we were back on opposing sides. The Union had asked us to debate the compatibility, or otherwise, of Islam and Western liberalism. I was joined on my side by the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, while Ramadan was joined by a man who had burned The Satanic Verses in 1989 and explained why he would do it again.
Though this must have been the first oration by a book-burner at Cambridge University for some centuries, the students naturally did not reserve much contempt for him. Some of it was instead focused on the eminent former leader of the VVD party and one-time European Commissioner. It is astonishing how ignorant “open-minded” people can be. Bolkestein first began addressing the issue we were debating in 1990, long before most of his countrymen thought there was any problem. Today everything he said is thought by nearly everybody there. Ramadan condemned Bolkestein as the creator of Geert Wilders, but the fact that people like Bolkestein addressed this issue then is the only reason a truly bad political reaction has not occurred in his country. It all ended with Ramadan inviting his opponents to become true liberals like himself, allowing me to remind him that a true liberal would not have found it so hard to condemn the stoning of adulteresses, as he had a few years back.
The Dutch elections a few days later brought few surprises. But the way things are sold is always interesting. Prime Minister Mark Rutte portrayed his party (the VVD)’s loss of a quarter of its seats as a great rejection of what everyone now calls “populism”. The fact that Wilders’s party merely came second was written up as though all The Netherlands’ problems had been solved. There seem in all these present events to be two potential ways out for the political elite. The first is to double down and decide that they have been in the right and must continue to educate and correct an ill-informed public. The second is to move towards that public. There were signs in the days leading up to the election that Rutte was attempting the second. For instance, there was his government’s sudden crack-down on Turkish politicians campaigning inside the Netherlands for the upcoming Turkish referendum, and also that strange pre-election pronouncement that newcomers to the country should “behave normally or go away”. But neither of these things solves the issue at hand. They merely find more or less eloquent ways to raise the problem. If one were to get onto policy suggestions the Rutte cupboard is as bare as those of all his European counterparts. And the public is left with the idea that its representatives believe a bit of tough talk before an election is all that’s required to allow them another four or five years at the helm.
There is an inbuilt problem with reviewing, is there not? The reviewer, sated with wine, food, words or music can end up approaching in a spirit of intolerance and even hostility what customers or audience approach in a spirit of generosity.
I wondered about this after reading a couple of reviews of the The Winter’s Tale at ENO. This magnificent new opera by Ryan Wigglesworth includes a ravishing new score, the best set design and direction I have seen in years, and a cast of the most committed and talented singers any opera house could acquire. After an opening night in which most of the audience’s hands were sore with clapping, I read some reviews over the ensuing days (including summaries by reviewers who were not there) claiming that the whole thing had been received coolly by the audience. It seems to me that, especially during times such as these, anybody who is creating rather than just Twittering is to be savoured and cherished, their work approached in a spirit of encouragement and hope. And yet much of the opera-reviewing class appears to approach it in a spirit of despoliation and grudge.
To St Mary The Boltons for the memorial service for my agent, Gillon Aitken. Two of his authors, Sebastian Faulks and Helen Fielding, gave funny and moving addresses, remembering a man who — carefully rather than coldly — always held back his inner life with a restraint that is now unusual. While young, Gillon had studied Russian and translated Pushkin, leading to rumours which he did little to dispel. So what a fitting final nod it seemed that one of the pieces sung at his memorial should have been Geoffrey Burgon’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis, memorably used for the closing credits of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.