The Taboo of the Tombola

Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came for . . .” is perhaps a tad overused. But on a rainy bank holiday Monday in the English countryside I did wonder whether people would take the warning seriously in a version beginning, “First they came for the tombola . . .” I was worrying about this during a church fête. In particular the thought came after winning — for a down-payment of only £2 — a half-bottle of damson wine, a whole bottle of Prosecco and some shampoo. All brought a surge of excitement, though all but one are destined to be recycled as gifts.

The reflection was spurred by this and the fact that elsewhere in England, not far away, chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw had stumbled upon various modern British taboos. The investigation into the “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham schools revealed fundamentalist efforts to stop “un-Islamic activities” taking place in British state schools. The list included music, Christianity and, perhaps surprisingly, tombolas — something to do with gambling, though I don’t quite see how it can be gambling since my personal experience suggests that winning at tombolas is a dead cert.

However, we live in an appeasing age, and although I doubt that the country as a whole is ready to give up music, in dark moments I can easily see it giving up the tombolas or raffles (another target of Birmingham’s Islamist push). Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Perhaps we will not surrender  anything and dogged British common sense will prevail. After all, here we were, in a rectory garden, eating ice-creams, throwing wellies and listening to a brass band in the pouring rain. As I left I bumped into a friend bringing her youngest child along, both wearing sou’westers for the fête. The mother pointed out how sorry they were to be so late, particularly as it was necessary to show even more support, given the weather. That is the spirit of undaunted survival.


The following week in London there is a lecture to honour Dr Henry Kissinger.  I had accepted assuming it was a lecture by Henry Kissinger. As it transpired it was a lecture in front of Henry Kissinger, which is altogether less exciting. Especially as this particular lecture was given by a Chinese academic of the utmost speciousness talking about something called “spiritual humanism”. The concept turned out to be shorthand for a glib ramble over serious philosophy. Thus we were treated to facts such as that the “golden rule” can be found in Immanuel Kant, the Christian Gospels and Confucian thought. A little of this can go a long way and he certainly saw it all the way home. Fortunately we skipped questions and went straight to some concluding remarks from the nonagenarian Dr K.

“When I was a young man,” he began — pause — “a century ago”. He recalled his grandfather, who had been 75 when Henry was a boy. “I remember thinking, this is a different type of person. This is someone who has always been 75.”  What followed was, fortunately, no reflection on what we had just heard but rather a reflection on parts of his own career and some current thoughts on China. The hall was spellbound, as he talked of Nixon and Chou En-Lai.  Alhough he conceded that it was possible China’s current attitude towards the West was simply an attempt to get through the next ten years, he did not think this was so.

As I watched him weighing up these delicate strategic balances I tried to think of any other ninetysomething who might do this. On the way out Kissinger greeted the magnificent George Weidenfeld and I reflected that, yes, there are others.


I am in New York and the Hamptons as the Bowe Bergdahl story breaks. It is hard to think of a news story in recent years with a harsher trajectory. American prisoner-of-war is released. Public celebrations are planned. Disquiet emerges over the Taliban leaders swapped in exchange. Then accusations emerge that Bergdahl was a deserter or even a Taliban sympathiser. And suddenly the bunting literally comes down and the whole nation feels as though it is darkly brooding.

There is something ugly about all this, certainly. The ease with which crowds can sway is always ugly. But it is deep too. A few weeks later, as large parts of Iraq fall to ISIS, related questions resurface. What have we spent the last 13 years doing? Why have the most powerful and technologically superlative military powers in history been unable to beat or do much more than hold at bay a rag-tag collective of Islamists? The Western way of war appears to have failed.

So what now? Retreat would be the usual option. But it does seem, from Baghdad to Birmingham, that wishing the world away isn’t easy any more.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"