This year I stuck to what remains my greatest discovery: go on holiday in January. Having been mulling on empires past and present, I headed to Vienna, spending a week among the buildings, collections and other remains of the Habsburg Empire. I finished the week in the imperial family crypt. The public entrance to the Kaisergruft feels uncomfortably like that of an underground car-park. But then there they all are — casket after casket and row upon row of Habsburgs.
In this carefully ventilated place you pass the family’s earliest members, then the tomb of Charles VI (with a crowned skull staring mockingly from each corner) and the vast bronze double tomb of Maria Theresa and her husband, sculpted on top as though awakening into celestial glory. Then past Franz Joseph and Sisi (fresh flowers) and on to the most recently positioned coffin. One of the vault’s last spaces, it holds the son of the last Emperor. When he was born, in 1912, Otto von Habsburg could have expected to inherit one of the greatest empires in Europe. There is a photograph of him at the age of four in Franz Joseph’s funeral procession. After the collapse of the empire and his own father’s early death he ended up as an MEP and died in 2011. No editorialising is needed to reflect on that fate. But what a mockery it makes of all human plans.
On landing at Heathrow I turned on my phone and received a text telling me of the death of a friend and former colleague in a terrorist attack in Kabul that I had been reading about that very morning over breakfast. I have written about him elsewhere and only mention it here to note how strangely our minds work. One of the first things that came to my head was a version of that line from The Tempest: “Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him.” It is so odd, when we know how vulnerable we are, that we still think of certain people as more impervious than others to human wickedness. Why should someone with brilliance, ambition and youth be more impervious than anyone else to a suicide bomber and his gunmen accomplices?
***Necessarily gloomy thoughts remain, but I am lifted out of them slightly by speaking at a couple of schools. One is a state boarding school in Norfolk called Wymondham College. With links to the nearby US airforce base the school has inaugurated an annual Lincoln lecture, in honour of the US President whose family headed to America from up the road. I spend the afternoon before my speech speaking with the pupils. They are not only engaged, ferociously bright and charming, but a number are readers of Standpoint. There is hope after all.
Nevertheless I would recommend them — and anyone — to do whatever they can to avoid watching television. This is not to say that there are no programmes worth watching on DVD. But television, as in the thing that sits gapingly in the corner, has become such a poison. Take the following two examples which I would have missed had it not been for the work of a popular news website.One is a clip from a morning breakfast show in which two grown-up interviewers interviewed a recently ousted contestant from a “reality” TV show. For the duration of the TV interview the guest giggled on the sofa as the interviewers, leaning forward and speaking as though schoolgirl to schoolgirl, tried to find out if the boy had kissed the girl. Anyone who thinks this degradation goes no farther should think again.
For, poor simpleton though he may be, the male bimbo is clever enough to know he has to be careful. Considerable income can be generated by drip-feeding the details of such lives to the industry which survives on such people. Reveal a kiss to one, pose semi-naked for another, say “She’s the one — I think I’m going to marry her” to a third, and sell the wedding photos to a fourth.
In another reality show covered in the press another male bimbo flirted with two female bimbos, appearing to play one off against the other. Then I read that one night the male bimbo disappeared into the lavatory with one of the female bimbos where, out of view of the cameras, the programmers promised that a “steamy session” had taken place.
Almost everything that is wrong with our society can be drawn from the fact that in 2014 this is the entertainment which the British people are given — and apparently want. When did we become a society of couch-bound Peeping Toms? And is there anything the rest of us can do to opt out? I don’t know what measures readers would advise, but I have taken to reading Trollope.