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The immense parlez-vous of American government

In the early summer of 1941, John Maynard Keynes was sent by Churchill to negotiate with the American government the developing terms of the Lend-Lease agreement between Britain and the USA. The war was not going well for Britain at the time, and money was short. It wasn’t helped by American insistence on Britain selling UK-owned assets held in America, to American businesses, at knock-down prices. The American government, especially under the suspicious leadership of Henry Morgenthau, secretary to the Treasury, wanted Britain to continue fighting the war, but not be in any position to use American aid or money to rebuild economic capacity for after the war.

 

Morgenthau and Keynes at the later Bretton Woods Conference, 1994 (Morgenthau uncharacteristically using a bit of paper)

With this unstated aim, the Washington system of government proved to be an absolute asset. Keynes, bewildered by his need to negotiate simultaneously with three different officials, four different departments, and 23 separate political players, spent much, much longer in Washington that he expected (he said in a letter to a friend after his return to England “I always regard a visit [to the USA] as in the nature of a serious illness to be followed by convalescence.”1. Keynes wanted to brief his employers, so on 2 June 1941 he wrote a long letter to Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the middle of advising Wood about the status and content of negotiations, he warned that the American way of doing things would hamper his efforts:

The other main criticism which must strike one’s attention here relates to the organs of government. To the outsider it looks almost incredibly inefficient. One wonders how decisions are ever reached at all. There is no clear hierarchy of authority. The different departments of the Government criticise one another in public and produce rival programmes. There is perpetual internecine warfare between prominent personalities. Individuals rise and fall in general esteem with bewildering rapidity. New groupings of administrative power and influence spring up every day. Members of the so-called Cabinet make public speeches containing urgent proposals which are not agreed as part of the Government policy. In the higher ranges of government no work ever seems to be done on paper; no decisions are recorded on paper; no-one seems to read a document and no-one ever answers a communication in writing. Nothing is ever settled in principle. There is just endless debate and sitting around. But this, I suppose, is their characteristic method. Suddenly some drastic, clear-cut decision is reached, by what process one cannot understand, and all the talk seems to have gone for nothing, being the fifth wheel to the coach, the ultimate decision appearing to be largely independent of the immense parlez-vous, responsible and irresponsible, which has preceded it.

…I have already stayed here longer than I intended. But things move very slowly owing to the dissipation of authority, the reluctance to settle anything in principle and the fact that all important matters are conducted orally. But I am still hoping that another fortnight will see me through—for better or worse.2

Any further comment necessary?

  1. Keynes Papers (Personal Papers/80/9): letter to P. A. S. Hadley, 10 September 1941 []
  2. John Maynard Keynes, ‘Letter to Sir Kingsley Wood, 2 June 1941’, in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, ed by. D. E. Moggridge, vol. 23: Activities 1940-1943, External War Finance, 30 vols. (London; New York: Macmillan; Cambridge University Press, 1979), 103–113. Emphasis added. []

Adrian Gill’s Three-Act Farce

A. A. Gill died today, three weeks after announcing that he was living with, and dying from, multiple cancers. His colleagues, friends, and some enemies, are paying tribute to his personal kindness and his writing ability. I pray for him, and all his family.

As we prepare for Advent 3, and the world is full of ItFeelsABitLikeXmas hashtags, I thought I would reproduce this article he wrote for The Spectator in 1997, which I have treasured (and often preached on!) ever since then:

‘A Three-Act Farce’ by A. A. Gill (The Spectator, 8 November 1997, p 36)

The truth is that Christmas dinner is potentially the worst meal of the year, unless you are American, in which case Thanksgiving is worse. Convention, sentimentality and the Germans have contrived to invent a hybrid meal that flouts good taste, digestion and the resources of even a well-appointed kitchen. For a start, the modern turkey is a hideous bird. It doesn’t matter if it’s bronze, black, white, free-range or had a public school education, no amount of tricks and stuffings and handy one-to-ten tips is going to make it taste anything other than turkey. Then there are the 27 side dishes and bits and pieces that have to be produced with it: potatoes and sprouts and carrots and parsnips and chestnuts and sausages and bacon and bread sauce and cranberry sauce and gravy. And that is before you even get inside the bloody thing; then there’s more sausagemeat and sage and onion … No one, not even Keith Floyd, would invent that as a main dinner course from scratch. There are far too many strident flavours that contradict one another and the textures are all the same.

… The truth is that anyone who knows anything about cooking wouldn’t touch Christmas dinner with a ten-foot Christmas tree. That leaves the rest of you who gird your loins and get out of a warm bed at four in the morning to stick your hand up a cold, dead, bird’s bum and try to fit 27 pans onto four gas-rings. This is the worst bit about Christmas dinner: it’s cooked by people who don’t do anything more demanding in their kitchens than open a packet and throw the odd plate from Boxing Day to Hallowe’en, but come December suddenly decide to climb an epicurean Everest. And you don’t get a practice run — it’s not as if all these ingredients are familiar; they only come out once a year.

And yet and yet — even as I write this it rings hollow. Every year I say it’s going to be beef or pork or goose or venison or anything else followed by apple pie or trifle, but I know that when it actually comes to it I’ll lose my nerve and, just like the foolish folk who don’t know any better, I’ll be flogging round the shops on the 22nd looking for a bronze bird and a proper stilton and be up until three a.m. picking through currants, because if you eat anything else it’s just another day and Christmas isn’t just another day, it’s Christmas. …

There is one good thing about Christmas dinner and appalling mess and work and the people you have got to share it with; it proves that God has a sense of humour. I mean, who else’s deity would contrive to celebrate the holiest day of the way that way? Hindus get lentils, Muslims get fresh air; the Jews have boiled eggs in salt water. We Christians get a three-act farce where you have to wear a paper hat.

Actually there is one thing you should eat at Christmas; it’s the original fast food. It only takes a second but is harder to prepare for than anything: a sliver of unleavened bread and a sip of wine. Oddly in all the Christmas articles I’ve had to write, this is the first time I’ve thought to recommend it.

May he rest in peace, and rise to the glory of the Lord’s Table.

5 Reasons Why ‘Arrival’ Doesn’t

Amy Adams, experiencing something profound

Amy Adams, experiencing something profound

I was really looking forward to it, especially after the Good Doctor™1 enthused so greatly about it. But, during and after seeing it last night, I realised that Arrival is a very poor piece of work indeed, and this is for five reasons, most of which involve spoilers2

  1. It is INERT. There is no dramatic progression. The movie just hangs there, like one of the aliens’ pebble space craft (seemingly carved out of larva). The major conflict, in the first half of the movie at least, is what is Forest Whitaker going to be able to say to his (clinical) supervision team? We are told that Louise and Ian (Adams and Renner) are brilliant people, but as alway in popular films, we never see them being brilliant, other than that beloved trope of Hollywood, the dawning realisation close-up. It is inert because it wants to trumpet that most impossible of sci-fi clichés, the wickedness of a linear understanding of time – and because all time, space, events are present, here and now, there is no engagement with an audience which is, unforgivably, sitting in a theatre and watching the movie spooling out chronologically, linearly.
  2. It is PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNBELIEVABLE. How does a human being deal with the psychological trauma of being able to see the whole of their life laid out before them, expect to be able to make choices, to get out of bed in the morning, to decide on whether to have coffee or pancakes for breakfast? If it has all happened, then nothing matters, and if nothing matters then what is the point of living? The only psychologically convincing response to such an experience is madness or annihilation.
  3. Louise Banks is notSTRONG FEMALE CHARACTER. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown right from the moment she arrives in Montana – we can tell this because of her furrowed brow and her stumbling walking. This is a woman in crisis. And she is both the only woman and the only person in crisis. Jeremy Renner is reduced to being concerned, good natured, and aw-shucks in the background. It is Louise who has the intuitive (feminine?) break-through as to the nature of the aliens’ language and thought-processes, and she does that by being semi-hysterical for 3/4 of the movie. And if language rewires brains, why is she the only one given eldritch insight into the future? Dr Ian seems to be as adept in interpreting the logograms as she is, so why doesn’t he have an insight? Oh, that’s right he does: that Louise (as a woman to fall in love with) is more interesting and significant than alien encounters – first contact becomes the background and means to hooking up, the world’s most expensive Match.com encounter.
  4. Unforgivably, it is another example of KILLING OFF A CHILD TO VINDICATE AN ADULT. Louise’s daughter dies in the first five minutes of the film, and then grows, and is cute, and says portentous things, and dies, over and over again through the movies. It is an egregious example of the Plot Moppet trope, the child that only exists to propel the plot (such as it is in this film) and to “grow” the adult protagonists (see also Nic Cage’s execrable film Family Man.). And calling the girl “Hannah” to flag up and justify the time-scheme? Really, why didn’t they just call her “Visual Aid No. 1”?

Finally,

  1.  (See what I did there?) It tells us that the UNIVERSE IS ALL ABOUT HOW WE FEEL ABOUT OURSELVES. It doesn’t tell us anything new compared with the (not so) great sci-fi films of the past: Solaris (both versions) or  Contact or The Day The Earth Stood Still. Aliens come from out of a clear blue sky, and humanity, forced to work together, overcome all divisions, until, in this instance, the Chairman (?) of the People’s Liberation Army gets to whisper sweet nothings in Amy Adams’s ear. If Contact was the rearrangement of the cosmos to deal with Jodie Foster’s daddy issues, and Interstellar was The Railway Children in space, then Arrival is daughter issues over a static, furrowed and frankly unengaging hour and a half of cruelly chronological time.

Sigh. When will we get another sci-fi film that really does deal with what might be, rather than ways we can feel better about ourselves and our choices?


 

  1. of the BBC’s Flagship Film Programme []
  2. “He’s a girl, she’s a bloke, it’s a sledge, he’s a ghost” – come on, the spoilers in this film are flagged in the first voice-over narration! []

The medicalization of morality

The medicalization of what have previously been considered moral issues is a broader cultural phenomenon. This trajectory is irresistible—who wants to be the last asshole standing, issuing condemnations rather than solicitude? But here we see the sly logic by which democratic nonjudgmentalness gets turned to advantage in unregulated capitalism, with the aid of an expansionary psychiatric establishment. To capital, our moral squeamishness about being “judgmental” smells like opportunity.

Matthew Crawford The World Beyond Your Head, (2015), p. 107

Crawford is speaking specifically of gambling and the thanatos principle which is built into corporate controlled gambling in the U.S.  But his insight applies more widely. 

A Nice Cup of Tea

A_Nice_Cup_Of_TeaI’ve been back in the UK for three weeks now, and have been enjoying the ease in getting, and the ubiquity of, a nice cup of tea. Which made me think of George Orwell. So, for my daughter, spending her summer in Utah, and with whom I have had many debates about the proper method for making a nice cup of tea1:

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilised the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

George Orwell, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, in As I Please (1943-1945), ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol. III of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, IV vols., (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), pp 40-43. Originally printed in The Evening Standard, 12 January 1946.

  1. step ten is the controversial one! []

The Love of Learning

Gladstone' LibraaryThinking about the academic year that has just concluded, and thinking about the academic year that is soon upon us (August term at VTS begins on 13 August!), I cam across this passage from the Mishnah today, which I think should be incorporated as the official Student Learning Outcomes for the Virginia Theological Seminary:

The Learning of the Law

Greater is [learning in] the Law than priesthood or kingship; for kingship is acquired by thirty excellences and the priesthood by twenty-four; but [learning in] the Law by forty-eight.

And these are they:

  • by study,
  • by the hearing of the ear,
  • by the ordering of the lips,
  • by the understanding of the heart,
  • by the discernment of the heart,
  • by awe,
  • by reverence,
  • by humility,
  • by cheerfulness;
  • by attendance on the Sages,
  • by consorting with fellow-students,
  • by close argument with disciples;
  • by assiduity,
  • by [know-ledge of] Scripture and Mishnah;
  • by moderation in business, worldly occupation, pleasure, sleep, conversation, and jesting;
  • by longsuffering,
  • by a good heart,
  • by faith in the Sages,
  • by submission to sorrows;
  • [by being] one that recognizes his place and that rejoices in his lot and that makes a fence around his words and that claims no merit for himself;
  • [by being one that is] beloved, that loves God, that loves mankind, that loves well-doing, that loves rectitude, that loves reproof, that shuns honour and boasts not of his learning, and delights not in making decisions;
  • that helps his fellow to bear his yoke, and that judges him favourably, and that establishes him in the truth and establishes him in peace;
  • and that occupies himself assiduously· in his study;
  • [by being one] that asks and makes answer,
  • that hearkens and adds thereto;
  • that learns in order to teach and that learns in order to practice;
  • that makes his teacher wiser,
  • that retells exactly what he has heard and recalls a thing in the name of him that said it.

Lo, thou hast learnt that he that tells a thing in the name of him that said it brings deliverance unto the world…

?both, 6:6, The Mishnah, Herbert Danby, trans., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), p. 460

The Hours of the Day and Night

The first hour of the night is the praise of the demons; and at that hour they do not injure or harm any human being.

The second hour is the praise of the doves.

The third hour is the praise of the fish and of fire and of all the lower depths.

The fourth hour is the “holy, holy, holy” praise of the seraphim. And so I used hear, before I sinned, the sound of their wings in Paradise when the seraphim would beat them to the sound of their triple praise. But after I transgressed against the law, I no longer heard that sound.

The fifth hour is the praise of the waters that are above heaven. And so I, together with the angels, used to hear the sound of mighty waves, a sign which would prompt them to lift a hymn of praise to the Creator.

The sixth hour is the construction of clouds and of the great fear which comes in the middle of the night.

The seventh hour is the viewing of their powers while the waters are asleep. And at that hour the waters (can be) taken up and the priest of God mixes them with consecrated oil and anoints those who are afflicted and they rest.

The eighth hour is the sprouting up of the grass of the earth while the dew descends from heaven.

The ninth hour is the praise of the cherubim.

The tenth hour is the praise of human beings, and the gate of heaven is opened through which the prayers of all living things enter, and they worship and depart. And at that hour whatever a man will ask of God is given him when the seraphim and the roosters beat their wings.

The eleventh hour there is joy in all the earth when the sun rises from Paradise and shines forth upon creation.

The twelfth hour is the waiting for incense, and silence is imposed on all the ranks of fire and wind until all the priests burn incense to his divinity. And at that time all the heavenly powers are dismissed.

The End of the Hours of the Night.

From S. E. Robinson, “Testament of Adam,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth, vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, 2 vols. (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1983), 989–95.

Baby Boom Politics

Baby Boomers who are younger or female tend to vote for the Silly Party.

Baby Boomers who are older or male tend to vote for the Stupid Party.

Then there are the Independents, proud of the fact that they don’t know which is which.

P. J. O’Rourke, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way…And It Wasn’t My Fault…And I’ll Never Do It Again (2014), p. 226

The dangers of scholarship

We should do well to take warning from the madness of the French patristic scholar Père Hardouin, who became so intoxicated with the discoveries of textual criticism that he ended up believing that, with the exception of his six favourite authors, the entire corpus of the Greek and Latin Fathers was the work of an anonymous group of medieval forgers.

C. H. Lawrence, “St. Benedict and His Rule,” History 67, no. 220 (January 1982): 186

Angels are scary!

Angels in the Middle Ages had little tolerance for human frailties. Take this anecdote told by an eleventh century chronicler. According to Ralph Glaber, a certain monk at the church of St. Germain in Auxerre habitually spat and dribbled while praying at the altar of Mary. His unseemly conduct in such a holy place prompted a terrifying rebuke from an angel, who appeared to him in a vision as a man dressed in white garments. “Why do you shower me with spittle?” the angel asked in annoyance. “As you see, it is I who receive your prayers and bear them to the sight of the most merciful judge!” Upon waking, the monk was beside himself with fear and vowed to exercise more rigorous control over his comportment when he prayed. He strongly encouraged his brethren to do likewise.

[From From Scott G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition, c.900–1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp.1-2; original source: Rodulphus Glaber, Historiarum libri quinque 5.1.7: ed. and trans. John France, in Rodulphus Glaber: The Five Books of Histories and the Life of St. William (Oxford, 1989), p. 224.]

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