In recent months the American Secretary of State John Kerry has chalked up an extraordinary number of airmiles toing-and-froing between Washington and Israel. On returning to his plane after one recent trip, and having claimed to have got Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to direct negotiations, he was apparently applauded by his staff. What a disgusting image — all those employees applauding their own boss while he pulls some “aw-shucks, guys” face. While wishing the talks well, though believing them doomed, I remain bewildered by the impetus and urgency.
I recently did some rather bleak sums. If you add up the most inflated death tolls claimed by every side in every war involving Israel since — and including — 1948 you get somewhere in the region of 60,000 deaths. That is a lot of death and a lot of grief for a lot of families over the course of almost seven decades. Yet when I check the death tolls in the Syrian civil war I see that around that same number of people have been killed there in the last year alone and almost double that in the last two years.
So why is Kerry’s plane making all those flights to Tel Aviv? Oughtn’t the more pressing policy be to try to stop the killing in Syria? Or, now, Egypt? Everyone used to say that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was the toughest problem in the world to crack. But it surely can’t be as hard as Syria since the US is not even attempting to do anything there. Perhaps we might encourage Kerry to consider how loudly his own staff might applaud him were he to arrange direct negotiations between President Assad and the Syrian opposition.
Spending August in deep countryside, I have the unimprovable company of Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson. As I have never read it all the way through before, the days pass joyously in the company of this most wonderful of men.
I do not miss the news from town. When it arrives it is all about Twitter. As I understand things, around half of the British public spent the summer threatening to rape and murder the other half. I do not know if anyone was actually raped or murdered as a result. But it seems to have provided an excellent opportunity for a number of public figures to come out in opposition to rape and murder, as well as the threat of both. Although I suppose one should always expect the worst, I still think it a low mark at which to set the bar.
Perhaps the most moving event of the summer was the story of the white-throated needletail. This bird is, I have learned, a native of Asia. So when word got out that one had strayed so far off its commute as to have landed on Harris, swarms of “twitchers” descended on the Hebridean isle.
No sooner had they arrived than the creature, displaying that same sense of direction which had caused its fame, flew straight into one of the mammoth wind-turbines which the Scottish Executive has put up in order to ruin all remaining areas of natural beauty.
There must be photographs of the bird’s last moments but, perhaps out of consideration for public feeling, none has so far surfaced. I think this quite wrong. I do not deny they will be upsetting. I suspect they will show the poor creature glancing shyly over its little shoulder as it heads, unknowing, into that greatest migration of all.
But good must come from tragedy and it seems to me that we unionists will have missed a trick if we do not lay this tragedy at the door of the Scottish “first minister”, Alex Salmond. Perhaps a reader could do a Julian Assange and leak the images of the white-throated needletail’s final moments? Of course this might rebound and result in some form of public statuary similar to the “Animals in War” memorial (“They had no choice”) which makes me grind my teeth every time I go down Park Lane.
My one engagement in August is a debate at a weekend festival in the Oxfordshire countryside. Though the setting is wonderful as are the people I meet, anyone wanting to know what has gone wrong with such festivals can find it summed up in one word: “yurt”. The fields are full of them, inhabited by people of all ages still trying that free-love, drop-out thing, 40 years too late and at the wrong Woodstock. I hear an intake of breath as I warn the audience of the terrible damage done by optimism, and extol the need for restraint in society. I recognise that I am as welcome as a temperance preacher at last orders and rush back to Dr Johnson.