Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Rousseau and the General Will

The concept of a Social Contract; namely, that the authority of the state is derived from the theory that we, the subjects, have in some sense promised to obey it; was already a commonplace of political philosophy by the time Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his book on the subject in 1762. But Rousseau’s social contract was not with any government as such, but with an abstract concept which he calls the “General Will”. As he puts it in chapters 6 and 7 of Book 1, it involves “The total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community”, and “Each one of us puts into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the General Will”. (I am using Maurice Cranston’s translation for the Penguin Books edition).
Bertrand Russell found the concept of the General Will “obscure”, so I would like to explain it by the following analogy. Supposing I was a member of a sports team; football, cricket, rugby or whatever; and I was asked what I hope for in the next match, I would reply that I wanted the team to win and that I personally should play brilliantly. Any other member of the team would of course give the same answer. In Rousseau’s terminology, my desire to play well is my “private will”, and the desire for victory, which is shared by all members of the team, is the “general will”. If I play in a team game, I commit myself to giving the success of the team priority over my personal ambitions. In any team, someone who plays just for his own glory, not for the good of the team, is not respected and is bad for morale. A member of the team who does not do his utmost to ensure victory for the team, may, as Rousseau says, be legitimately compelled to do so
A moment’s thought shows that this applies to the team captain just as much as to anyone else. The sole purpose of his position is to help the team to victory, and it is quite wrong for him to be swayed by favouritism or personal prejudice in his choice of tactics or team selection. Any captain who behaves like this is unworthy of his office and should be replaced immediately.
The notion of the General Will applies even more strikingly to armies, where a soldier is expected to surrender even his own life, if necessary, for the greater cause; and the army commanders must not be motivated by the search for personal glory. Similarly, the duty of a government leader is simply to be the “first servant” of his people, and must never choose policies on the basis of private ambition, favouritism or class interest. (Of course all politicians try to portray themselves like this, and many may even believe it to be true!)

The General Will is therefore “what is best for the team/company/state”. But how is it to be determined? Who ultimately makes the decision on what tactics or policy should be followed to ensure success? It is clearly unwise to entrust this to a hereditary monarch or self-appointed dictator. Rousseau believes that ultimately the most important decisions should be entrusted to the people. They will never reach unanimous agreement on what should be done, but we trust that the majority will choose the right way. This is the underlying assumption of democracy (democracy in our sense: Rousseau uses the word slightly differently). If the majority gets it wrong, however; electing a wicked or incompetent leader or voting for a disastrously bad policy; then the whole system has broken down and nothing can be done.

The question must be, however, how far this doctrine can realistically be applied to a state. For a start, Rousseau insisted that the social contract to serve the General Will must be entirely free and unforced. This obviously applies to a voluntary organisation like a sports team, and it can be applied to an army made up entirely of volunteers, but it cannot apply to a conscript army, and it is extremely questionable how far being a citizen of a state can be seen as a voluntary act. Then again, the General Will of a sports team is simple and straightforward (namely, to win matches), but the General Will of a country is much more complex and difficult to ascertain: in a large country like France or Britain, whatever policy may be adopted is bound to benefit some groups and disadvantage others, and cause deep antagonism. Rousseau was aware of this: his ideal state was no bigger than an ancient Greek or Italian Renaissance city, with at the most only a few thousand citizens, with a simple economy and no deep divisions between rich and poor. He thought that the larger, an hence more diverse, a state was, the more likely it was to be governed dictatorially.

One final sinister point. When Rousseau says that a recalcitrant person who refuses to subordinate his personal desires to the General Will, the expression he uses is that such a person “shall be forced to be free” (Book 1, chapter 7). This is an unusual definition of freedom; similar to the attitude of religious believers who say that someone who disobeys God’s command is not being free but is merely “a slave to sin”, whereas serving God is “perfect freedom”. Rousseau says in chapter 8 that “to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom”. This definition has proved very useful to dictators ever since: both Hitler and the communist leaders were speaking in a Rousseauist sense when they claimed to have “liberated” their people: treating independent thought as wicked perversity and mindless conformity as “freedom”. Hence Rousseau can be seen as the father both of democracy and totalitarian dictatorship.

(There is a later entry which deals with explanations and definitions of other terms used by Rousseau, and also one describing his year living in Staffordshire)

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Roaches

The Roaches is the name given to an impressive series of outcrops of rock on the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire, just north of the town of Leek.

From the summit, there are magnificent views over the surrounding countryside.

The Roaches has always been very popular with rock-climbers.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Budapest just before the end of Communism

In October 1983 I went as a reporter to the Gymnastics world championships in Budapest. The first thing the guidebook told me was, “There is no such thing as a Hungarian race”. Hungary is a land right on a busy crossroads, and its history consists of an endless series of invasions, about one every other century: Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Avars, Magyars (who gave the country its incomprehensible language, completely unlike any other in Europe), Turks and Germans, and even obscure and forgotten peoples like Alans and Gepids, all of whom seem to have left something behind. The people you see on the metro, speaking Hungarian, range in appearance all the way from Germans to Turks. More recently, Russian armies have invaded three times; once at the end of the Second World War, and twice, in 1849 and 1956, to crush revolts. After the first World War there was famine and a violent communist revolution that was soon crushed by a violent counter-revolution. There was a large Jewish population until 1944, when the Nazis shipped them all to Auschwitz, deeming this a better use of dwindling resources than fighting the Red Army which had already reached the Carpathian mountains. Soon after this last fling of the Holocaust, Hungary was occupied by the Red Army and a communist regime was forcibly imposed. In 1956 Khrushchev sent the Red Army in again, to crush the government of the reformist communist Imre Nagy: an invasion paralleling the invasion of Tsarist troops in 1849 which crushed Kossuth’s rebel government. It is all very different from the history of Britain, tucked away behind its barrier of sea on the extreme fringe of Europe and seldom attacked.

I got a press pass for the gymnastics very easily, since hardly any British journalists could be bothered to cover the event. The entire British contingent, gymnasts, journalists and supporters, were lodged together in the Buda Penta hotel; a fairly lavish and new affair just behind Castle Hill, in the centre of old Buda on the west bank of the Danube. Rather to my disappointment, it wasn’t on Attila Street. As well as being close to the interesting areas of the city, it was next door to the last stop on the metro line which led direct to the Nepstadion, where the tournament was being held, so it was impossible to get lost.
I was given a press dog-tag, complete with photo, which got me into most places, a presentation bag of various small gifts, and a stack of information sheets prominently labelled “propaganda”. By the end I had an enormous accumulation of press handouts, and had to leave most of them behind, since they would have filled my suitcase. The British press contingent was extremely small; limited in fact to me, Frank Taylor of the “Mirror”, a couple from the BBC, and John Taylor (the former Welsh rugby star) for ITV; which corporation had decided at the last minute not to screen the event, but let him go along anyway, with several hundred pounds’ worth of expenses and nothing to do. This extreme British apathy towards the event was presumably the reason I got my press pass so readily. Frank Taylor told us some interesting stories, notably how he had been in the plane crash in Munich in February 1958 which killed half of the Manchester United football team: Frank survived at the cost of a badly smashed leg. In the press room I was surprised to find journalists reduced to one-finger typing, interspersed with curses as they ripped out sheets of paper and screwed them up in disgust. When I looked closer I discovered the reason: Hungarian typrewriters did not have the classic "qwerty" keyboard; there was a Z in the middle of the top row, and lots of extra keys for the numerous accents which the Hungarian language carries on its vowels.

The Hungarians had gone to great lengths to impress. Apart from all the deluges of printed information, lunches for journalists cost under £1, drinks were very cheap, and there were frequent handouts of local wine and fruit juice. The biggest press event was a reception at the university on Saturday morning: over 300 journalists had been invited, but only about 80 turned up, and there were huge mounds of well-presented food left uneaten. Our hotel arrangements were only Bed & Breakfast, but the breakfasts were so vast that we filled up plastic bags with food for consumption during the day. With this and the meals on offer at the stadium, I never got around to trying the local restaurants, which were supposed to be very good. John Taylor told me that on arrival he attempted to change £300 at the airport, but the girl at the desk simply laughed at him and said he would never be able to spend all those forints – which indeed he couldn’t. Prices were so low that I found it difficult to spend more than a pound a day, and there was a complete absence of Russian-style foreign currency shops. Overall, Hungary seemed a good place for a cheap holiday

What emerged very strongly from the gymnastics tournament was how very much all the Eastern Europeans hated the Russians. Over 90% of the audience were desperate for the Chinese to defeat the Russians, and made their feelings felt very loudly. It was the noisiest gymnastics event I have ever attended. It all reached a climax on Sunday morning when we all felt one of the Chinese had been robbed of the gold medal on Rings by bad judging, and there was an anti-Russian jeering campaign lasting a good twenty minutes. The Chinese coach was wildly cheered when he put in a protest, and howls of execration greeted Boris Shakhlin, the chief judge who was also unfortunately chosen to present the medals. The lights were then turned down for the Soviet national anthem, which was almost drowned in a storm of jeers and whistles. No doubt the Hungarians had been longing for years for an opportunity to do this with impunity, and they could now blame it on the ill-mannered western tourists.

Budapest was a very easy city to explore. The entire British contingent, gymnasts, journalists and supporters, were lodged together in the Buda Penta hotel; a fairly lavish and new affair just behind Castle Hill, the centre of old Buda. Rather to my disappointment, it wasn’t on Attila Street. As well as being close to the interesting areas, it was next door to the last stop on the metro line which led direct to the Nepstadion, where the tournament was being held, so it was impossible to get lost. The metro system, besides being very simple by London standards, cost only one forint to use (less than 2 pence: and many of the locals didn’t even pay that, but simply went in through the exit. The first time I used it I followed them, and then it occurred to me that surely I ought to be paying something to use the system!); and anyway many of the places to see could be reached on foot from the hotel. The city is in two parts: Buda (the Roman Aquinium), built on a series of hills on the west bank of the Danube, and containing most of the older buildings; and Pest, on the flatter east bank, with the main shopping areas around Vaci Street and Engels Square. The best views are from the Citadel, on the next hill to the south of the centre, particularly from by the huge statue of St. Gerald. I found a rather battered Roman arena in the north of Buda, and a museum in the old palace on Castle Hill which contained a great deal of Roman material, much of it better than any Roman remains in Britain. The Danube frontier was, after all, much more important than Hadrian’s Wall. There was an even better museum in Kalvin Square, with an astonishing collection of relics of the various invaders, and also the Hungarian crown jewels, in a glass case under armed guard. The cross on top of the enamelled Crown of St. Stephen appeared to have got squashed at some stage. I also found, in another part of the old castle, a Museum of the Hungarian Working Class, which I didn’t visit, and the Hungarian National Gallery, which featured lurid 16th- century altarpieces and wildly patriotic paintings of the last century (“Prince Hunyadi defies the Turks”; 20ft x 13; etc.). Whilst wandering round the city I found a genuine Turkish bath under its dome.

Probably because of all those invasions, Budapest hardly looks an ancient city. Much of it was destroyed in 1945, and there are very few old buildings left. Even the places which look old, such as St. Matyas cathedral on Castle Hill, and the nearby Uri and Fortuna Streets often prove to be reconstructions. The existing bridges are all postwar. It is still very pleasant. From Castle Hill you can wander along the surrealist pseudo-mediaeval Fisherman’s Bastion (a long way above the river!) and look north to the parks on St. Margaret’s Island, or across to the huge bulk of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the peculiar 19th century Parliament Building, which has the only Gothic dome in the world. But really the most notable thing about Budapest was that it wasn’t in the least like Moscow. The atmosphere was much more reminiscent of Paris. The people looked very westernised in their dress, the shops and markets were well-stocked and prices very cheap. There were many advertising posters, but a complete lack of exhortations to fulfil the 14th Five Year Plan, and I could find no photos of the national leadership anywhere. The cinema was offering “Jezsusz Chriszt Szupersztar”, and local bookshops featured the whole gamut of Western culture from Wittgenstein to John Lennon. I am not sure which of these caused Vladislav Rostorotsky, the world’s greatest gymnastics coach, to be found early in the morning waiting for the main bookshop on Vaci Street to open, and then to load up his trolley: presumably with books not available back in the U.S.S.R.

All-in-all, Budapest was quite different from my previous experience of communist capital cities. The sudden and bloodless collapse of communism in eastern Europe was only six years away, though I foresaw this sensational development no more than anyone else did.

Postscript: Some years later I met a Hungarian who had escaped as a teenager in 1956 and had lived in Britain ever since; unable to return to his homeland until after the communist regime fell. In the course of conversation he suddenly told me, “You know, I still get angry thinking about the Treaty of Trianon”. This was one of the treaties signed in 1919, after the First World War. Amongst other clauses, it gave Transylvania to the Romanians, much to the resentment of the region’s Hungarian minority. Once again, we in Britain have no equivalent grudge.

The Boxer Rising

My grandfather’s sister Ethel Shilston left for China to serve as a missionary in September 1899. She had previously a teacher of the deaf and dumb. She arrived in Peking (now usually known as Beijing) just in time to be caught up in one of the most crucial events in recent Chinese history: the Boxer Rising.

The Boxers were a secret society, whose full name has been translated as “The Society of Virtuous Harmonious Fists”. They were the focus of an increasing wave of resentment at Western penetration and exploitation of China in the nineteenth century, which the moribund Ching Empire seemed powerless to prevent. In the summer of 1900 the Boxers struck in Peking, forcing the Europeans back into the Legation Quarter, which was then under siege for 55 days, from June 20th to August 14th. A few Europeans were killed, the most prominent being the representative of the German Empire, as well as an unknown number of Chinese Christians. The Chinese Imperial government appeared divided: the real power behind the throne, the aged Dowager Empress, eventually coming out in favour of the Boxers, who were then supported by soldiers from the Imperial army. To counter this, an Eight-Power Alliance was formed between six European powers plus the Americans and Japanese, and a multinational army of 55,000 formed to relieve the missionaries and diplomats trapped in the legations; two-thirds of the troops involved being Russians or Japanese.

By the end of June 1900, Peking was cut off from the outside world. My grandfather recorded in his diary a report that the Legations had been stormed by the Boxers on July 5th and all the Europeans massacred; it was even said that the Europeans had killed their own women and children to save them from falling into the hands of the Chinese. Not surprisingly, my grandfather marked this diary entry with a heavy black line in the margin. On July 18th the “Newcastle Journal”, the local paper, even printed an obituary notice for Ethel Shilston, describing her as “a type of the best class of modern Englishwomen”, being “strikingly handsome in feature”, combined with “intellectual attainments of a high order” and “an amiable disposition and a charm of manner”. It was not until August 23rd that the family received a telegram saying that reports of the massacre were false, and that the siege of the foreign legations in Peking had been relieved a week earlier.
Directly after the breaking of the siege, Ethel Shilston sent a long letter to her family describing what had happened. My grandfather received it on October 11th, and transcribed long extracts from it in his diary. They run as follows:-

“Many times I have thought of writing but everything looked so hopeless that I had not the heart to do it. We have lived on rumours of the troops coming which have again and again been dashed to the ground.
“Night after night the sky was ablaze with the fires of foreign houses. It was awful to see them and to pick out whose it was.
On the 19th June we heard that we must leave the city within 24 hours. I believe the Ministers would have sent us off and we should have been massacred by the Boxers but God overruled and we were saved at the cast of a man’s life, and that man the German Minister.
The day the German Minister was killed there was a perfect panic among the foreigners. They rushed here leaving valuables, stores, clothing all behind, and as soon as the houses were empty the Boxers burnt them. I wonder if so many nationalities ever lived in such close quarters before. Tents are all over the lawn, people sleeping on all the verandas and everywhere one hears different languages spoken.
On June 20th fighting with the regular troops began and we all set to work to help with the fortifications. We ladies sewed up everything we could tear up for earth-bags, then going out to supervise the coolies filling them. Day after day there was heavy firing, bullets whizzing and whirring over our heads and shells bursting. A hospital had to be opened and day by day the wounded were brought in. It was dreadfully sad to see them.
The Boxers’ first idea was to burn us out. On June 22nd they set fire to some buildings close to the south stables. All hands were called to the buckets; men and women making two lines from each well to pass along the water; the bullets raining in all the time. Next day to the north, behind Sir Claude’s house, the great Imperial Chinese College was set on fire.
Oh, the excitement and the horror of those days and then the fierce attacks at night as if the horde of Boxers were upon us. We had to undress in the dark for fear of attracting bullets to our house, and many nights we partly kept our clothes on, waiting to be called to fly into the church as a last refuge. Night after night we are aroused by their fiendish firing and shelling, and to make things worse a thunderstorm is added on one night. Oh we shall never forget that night. Everyone dressed and sat talking in the dark until a vivid flash of lightning showed up the forms. Now the boom of thunder, now the crack, crack of bullets, now the bang of an explosive shell.
On July 1st I was called to duty at the hospital, so since that time my hands have been very full. I am very glad to have it to do, as it keeps one from thinking so much about the troops that do not come.
Our stores gradually came to an end. We manage to live on horse-steak and rice, horse soup, and tinned fruit (small portion each) and rice.

Then, on August 16th:
The Sikhs were the first to get in. While the Japs and Russians were engaged in bombarding one of the gates, they slipped in unobserved and ran for our Legation. We were at the gate to meet them. Oh the cheering and the clapping to see those fine stalwart men in their picturesque turbans laughing and cheering too. It almost made us cry for joy. Last night I went onto the city wall and saw five of the gates blazing away”.

In May 1902 Ethel Shilston married a fellow-missionary, the Reverend Ernest Box, in Tientsin, and they went to live in Shanghai. She must have been one of the very few people able to read their own premature obituary notices!

After the rising, the western powers imposed an enormous indemnity on China and insisted on the execution of prominent supporters of the Boxers, but the Ching Empire was permitted to continue. It survived for barely a decade before it was overthrown in a revolt and replaced by a Chinese Republic. Before this, however, the two allied powers who had most to gain from the collapse of central authority in China, namely Russia and Japan, had fallen out over the spoils. In 1905 the Russian Empire was disastrously defeated by the Japanese both on land and sea, confidence in the government of Tsar Nicholas collapsed, there was a nationwide call for reform, the crew of the battleship "Potemkin" on the Black Sea mutinied, and the first-ever Soviet was formed in St. Petersburg. The Tsarist regime only narrowly survived what Lenin called “The dress-rehearsal for revolution”. All this could be seen as a spin-off of the Boxer Rising.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


The word "misericord" means "mercy". Misericords can be found in many old churches. If the seats in the choir stalls are folded upright, they appear as small ledges, to give the monks something to rest back on during very long services. Misericords are usually made of oak, often carved into wild and comical shapes - apparently just for fun!

Here are some from St. Laurence's church in Ludlow.

The bottom one of these is always a favourite: it is known as "The devil making off with an alewife". In the centre you can see one devil playing the bagpipes while another carries across his shoulder the unfortunate alewife (still with a pot in her hand), while on the right she is falling headlong naked into the mouth of hell. You wonder whether she was really some well-known local character who was notorious for giving short measure or some other offence!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

P. G. Wodehouse and Psmith in New York

We generally associate P. G. Wodehouse with the farcical adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, so it comes as a surprise to find that one of his early novels, "Psmith, Journalist" gives a fairly realistic picture of crime and social problems in New York before the first World War.

Psmith, a monocled Etonian, features in several early Wodehouse stories, but in contrast to Bertie Wooster, he is by no means an upper-class twit. He is highly intelligent, full of ingenious stratagems, never once loses his supercilious calm even in the direst of emergencies, and appears entirely unencumbered by any moral codes. Furthermore, he describes himself as a socialist, and displays his democratic credentials by addressing everyone impartially as "comrade". In this particular novel, published in 1915, Psmith is visiting New York, where he finds himself running a peculiarly dreary magazine called "Cosy Moments", alongside Billy Windsor, a young journalist from the Midwest. They decide to launch a campaign exposing the appalling conditions in the New York slums, in consequence of which the leading slum landlord, a man by the name of Waring, decides that they must br forcibly silenced.

Quite by chance, Psmith and Billy win the friendship of a certain Bat Jarvis, the leading gangster in the city, who seems to have been closely modelled on Monk Eastman, a real-life mobster of the period. When hired thugs corner our heroes in a tenement building, Bat Jarvis's men come to their rescue, and Jarvis himself drives out more thugs who have come to the editorial office to beat them up. The New York police prove hopelessly corrupt: gunmen who attack Psmith and Billy are arrested, and immediately afterwards released without charge. Then Psmith and Billy are themselves arrested on blatantly trumped-up charges: Psmith manages to talk his way out, but Billy, lacking Psmith's savoir-faire, is sent to prison. Finally Psmith is "taken for ride" in what was shortly to become the classic mobster style; driven out into the countryside to be shot; and is saved only by a lucky coincidence. After this episode, the slum landlord gives up, a truce is arranged, and Psmith returns to England.

P. G. Wodehouse lived for many years in New York and loved it, but was clearly not blind to the city's seamier side. I have outlined the plot of this novel in detail because it comes as a surprise to discover that Wodehouse was able to tackle such matters as poverty, official corruption and criminal violence, and it makes us wonder what he might have achieved had he not later decided to write just farces.