Read This and Stop Asking Me to Start a Blog, Sean Gabb, 12th January 2004

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 117
12th January 2004

Nothing Much, but Written Anyway:
Read This and Stop Asking Me to Start a Blog
by Sean Gabb

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I had a wondrously lazy Christmas. My wife’s family came over from Slovakia, and we spent much of the time, when not eating and drinking and sat watching Czech DVDs, driving round Kent in my new motor car. On Boxing Day, we drove to PC World, where I bought a nice new scanner in the sale, then to Richborough, which was the main Channel port in Roman times.

According to a plaque on the beach a few hundred yards from where I live, Julius Caesar landed at Deal in 55BC. When Claudius invaded in AD43, he probably landed at Richborough. As a landing place, it makes more sense. It is more sheltered, and ships could probably come right up to the shore. I say probably, because the sea has retreated over the past fifteen hundred years, and Richborough is now about a quarter of a mile inland. Over the next few centuries, the port grew into a substantial town, with a triumphal arch in the centre to celebrate the conquest. For some reason I do not presently know, visitors did not sail directly up the Thames to Londinium, but landed at Richborough and then travelled overland—mostly along what is now the A2. This strikes me as less efficient than travelling all the way in by water, but I do not doubt that the ancients had sound reason. Today, only the walls of the main fortress survive—these built, I suppose, in the 4th century, to keep my strong northern ancestors from invading—and the foundations of the main central buildings.

The site is now managed by English Heritage. Happily, it was closed on Boxing Day, so we could all squeeze through a gap in the fence without having to pay anything to this generally bad organisation—it is on my list of things to abolish if I ever stage my March on London. For the next hour in the fading afternoon light, we walked over the ground plan of the ancient town, while I gave an impromptu lecture in mingled Slovak and English about the town’s importance.

Looking over the ruins, I was as ever struck by the impermanence of human achievement. By the 4th century, that triumphal arch must have been reassuringly weathered. It stood not as testimony to a recent conquest, but as part of a stable landscape in a province about as Romanised as much of Gaul and southern Italy. The invasion and the early resistance were as far removed in time and moral climate from that present as the Civil War is from us. Britain was a rich and sheltered province. Londinium may have been the third biggest city in the Western Empire—smaller only than Rome and Carthage. The higher classes spoke Latin. They worshipped the same gods as the rest of the Roman world, and switched to Christianity at the same time as everyone else. The province had its proportionate share bishops and martyrs and rebellious generals. In Pelagius, it also gave the Roman world its last notable champion of individual freedom.

Yet all this passed. Population declined and trade withered. The cities died, and the villas were abandoned. The barbarians invaded and probably found themselves advancing into a desert of silent ruins. Britain faded from history. It was in Britain that Constantine the Great declared himself Emperor. Writing 200 years later in the city that he rebuilt and that was renamed in his honour, Procopius – one of the most sceptical and factual of ancient historians – regarded Britain as a distant, mysterious island, filled with monsters. Is something like this now about to happen to us? No people has a perpetual title to the territory it occupies. The title is established and maintained by force. It lapses through weakness – either the weakness consequent on natural misfortune, as may have been the case with the Romanised British, or the weakness consequent on decadence, as perhaps is the case with us.

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I was also struck by the horror with which most people from elsewhere in the Empire must have regarded this island as they landed at Richborough. Imagine you are a bright young man from Syracuse or Ephesus. You had a good legal education in Beyretus and you now have a junior position in the bureaucracy. You expected a posting to somewhere in the Mediterranean. Instead, you have been sent to Londinium. You take ship to Massilia, landing in the usual hot sunshine. You travel overland through Gaul, noting the gradual drop in temperature. Finally, you arrive at the Channel, where a storm is in full blow. In colour, in temperature, in its motions, the sea here is unlike anything known in the Mediterranean world. You wait shivering under lead grey skies for the weather to clear enough for a safe crossing. You get across to Richborough feeling more dead than alive. You cannot get warm. On the road to Londinium, you are repeatedly soaked and frozen. Hid in mist when not by the skies, the sun never appears. The day starts late and finishes early. With no heavy plough to unlock their fertility, the Kentish lowlands are dense forest. Londinium has the usual amenities, but life and business must be shut away indoors for much of the year. The wine and oil are expensive and usually rather poor. You dream of home, where trousers are a fashion statement not a requirement.

I can appreciate the strategic needs that brought the Romans here. I do not envy those who had to come here and help govern the place. Life is bad enough today, even with cheap heating and glass windows. I do not agree at all with the panegyrics written to the English weather. It is ghastly. I rather prefer Central Europe. The winters there may go beyond anything we suffer in England, but at least there are reliable summers. I much prefer the Mediterranean. The only reason I regret the fall of the British Empire is that we have lost some very nice places to settle. For all my gratitude to whatever force had me born an Englishman, I do not love my country’s weather.

Which brings me after this interminable ramble to my main point. Today was my first day back to work. I took the railway train to London, and made sure to gather up the discarded newspapers before getting off at Charing Cross. For reasons I cannot be bothered to spell out, I prefer not to buy newspapers. Instead, I let others suffer the full moral contagion, and make sure the only dirt on my hands is the physical sort. Over the holiday, I had deliberately ignored the news. I was aware that a British probe to Mars had disappeared. As I am just old enough to remember the assumption that we would have much the same role in exploring space as we had in exploring the world beyond Europe, I was saddened. However, I then heard the probe had contained a message from Tony Blair to any Martians who might be found. A pity about the £40 million it cost the taxpayers to send the probe. But at least any Martians there will not now hold this country in the hatred, ridicule and contempt that Mr Blair has attracted for us on this planet. Indeed, the crash did them a service: not even the fossilised microbes that may be all there is on Mars deserve half a second of his grinning face and of the murderous drivel that issues forth every time his lips move.

I was also vaguely aware of the 57 “crack downs” announced by the Government for the new year. There was something about a “tough new law” against parking more than 18″ from the kerb, and an emergency powers bill so widely drafted it lets the authorities declare a totalitarian police state if enough of us neglect to pay our parking fines. I doubt if this will get through on first attempt. But large parts of it will, and the rest will follow within five years. Whatever horrors it may finally visit on the Islamic world, this war on terror must be a delight for all the domestic tyrants in Britain and America.

But let me return to those newspapers. The headline in Metro reads “Net sends child porn offences up 15-fold: New fears over video phones”. Little get reported in the news except as some agenda of control—certainly nothing on the front page, unless there has been an earthquake or a flood. Sure enough, I read down two column inches and found the claim from some group of meddlers: “Pay-as-you-go third-generation handsets, expected to take off in Britain this year, will make users impossible to trace”. I got to this via references to “net perverts” and “sickening photos” that I thought most journalism courses said were out of place in news reporting. But the agenda plainly has little to do with protecting children. Anyone seriously interested in child welfare would not be fussing over the statistically insignificant number of sexual predations in this country, but would be campaigning to have Mr Blair brought to justice for all the children who were killed or had their arms and legs blown off in his war of aggression against Iraq. No doubt there are people who think the former more reprehensible—though I suspect they are more worried about the enjoyment it gives to the paedophiles than about the suffering of the victims. But the real agenda is to do with ending private communication. I do no not think anyone knows what to do with all the information gathered, but many do seem genuinely disturbed that any communication should be entirely off the record. Though on this occasion the paedophile angle seemed more appropriate as a means of getting the story on the front page, it might easily have been Islamic suicide bombers, or drivers sending each other pictures of speed cameras.

Turning to The Daily Mail, we have the main headline: “For sale: deathtrap cars for illegal drivers”. Apparently, there are no checks of identity when people buy motor cars at auction. This is thought a terrible thing, because people without driving licences can buy vehicles and go out and kill other road users. After inches and inches of horror stories about what has allegedly happened and what may happen in future, we come to a quote from Ann Widdecombe about the need for a change in the law requiring identification. The agenda here, I suppose, is identity cards. The more we need to show identity, the more convenient it becomes to have some generally acceptable means of identification.

Further into the same newspaper, we have an article about how the churches have been wrong these past 2,000 years about the sinfulness of lust. Simon Blackburn is a lecturer in Philosophy at Cambridge. After a four year investigation of the matter, he concludes that “reciprocated lust can lead to pleasure”. Who can still believe that modern universities are a waste of space? He blames the “early Christian preachers St Jerome and St Thomas Aquinas” for failing to agree with him.

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To be honest, even I cannot connect this story with an agenda of control. The only reason I can find for including it is as light relief from all the other contents of this dreadful newspaper. So instead of denouncing its authoritarian agenda, I will content myself by sneering at the gross ignorance of a journalist who can believe that Thomas Aquinas, a real university professor who died in 1274, was either a preacher or contemporary with the early centuries of the Christian faith. Was this a gloss introduced by the journalist, or did he lift it from the original news release? Or was it the fault of the sub-editor? I do not know. All I do know is that the error is repeated in an opinion piece about the report by Christina Odone. She cites Dr Blackburn as claiming that “leading Christian thinkers—such as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas—for giving lust such a bad name that pope Gregory the Great felt compelled to include it among the Deadly Sins in the sixth century”. That Gregory was inspired by a man who wrote 700 years after his pontificate began is a surely a miracle that needs drawing to the attention of a Roman Church that has yet to canonise him. Anachronism aside, no one involved in producing or reporting this study appears to have read Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which in its generalities on sexual conduct can be taken as pretty clear guidance.

Now, my dear readers, you can laugh at me and call me a pedant. Perhaps I am. But I do think it reasonable to expect newspapers not to show ignorance of what should be matters of common knowledge. Expecting them to tell the truth about the present is, I readily grant, too much to demand. But the distant past, is surely another matter. Also, Mrs Odone did once edit The Catholic Herald. I know this because, while I have never made a habit of reading it, she did in the early 1990s commission me to write a series of articles for the newspaper when I was in Slovakia. She put my name consistently as Jean Gabb on the articles, but I never thought to blame her for this, as my bank still cashed the cheques. Getting my name wrong is a mistake anyone could make, and that many have. Disagreeing with the core doctrines of her Church is a matter for her own conscience. But her manifest ignorance of scripture is a matter that I do think worthy of comment.

On the facing page from this embarrassing mess, however, I find something of which most definitely to approve. This is “Global warming or global fraud” by Melanie Phillips. She dismisses the global warming claims thus: “Much of the research behind this theory is specious, anti-historical and scientifically illiterate. If the world’s climate is, indeed, warming up beyond normal patterns, this could be due to natural reasons rather than the actions of mankind”. She follows the line of reasoning taken by Bjorn Lomborg in his Skeptical Environmentalist, which I know pretty well as I have just summarised it for a French policy institute. But it is a well-written demolition of a set of claims that by comparison make errors about the dates of Thomas Aquinas of very little importance.

On the whole, though I still would never think of spending money to get it, I looked up from The Daily Mail more contented that I had thought likely.

Then again, one good article does not absolve the media from wallowing in corruption and ignorance. Just about everyone in this country in positions of influence or power is trash, unworthy of his nationality. And while elections to office and competition for market share are no longer free enough for us to be blamed for having given these people their positions, our unwillingness to go and tear them down again is poor comment on us. Perhaps we have the media we deserve as well as the government we deserve. Everything that used to make us better than other peoples is going or gone. All that will soon make us different is the ghastly weather. Except they are probably more disgusting than we have become, I almost think the time right for another barbarian invasion.

So, there it is. I feel better for that rant. A happy new year to all my readers!

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