Sunday, 18 December 2011

Almost an encounter with a fine man : on being near Vaclav Havel

Early in 1990 my wife and I were in New York. We were staying at the Chelsea and one evening returning from a show on Broadway we decided we would go for a drink at the bar of El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant adjacent to the hotel which acts as the Chelsea's unofficial watering hole. As we approached the hotel we noticed  there were many police cars parked outside. My wife counted 22 of them. As we walked  to the entrance of  El Quijote our way was  blocked by policemen. They told us we couldn't go in. We said that we were guests at the hotel. Fortunately the head waiter, who was standing at the doorway,  recognised us and he confirmed to the policemen - I am tempted to write "he told the cops" - that we were guests at the hotel. We made a little more progress towards the bar when a number of  tall and bulky men who were not in uniform blocked our way. Fortunately they looked at the head waiter and he nodded, and they let us by. El Quijote was usually busy at this time but on this evening it was jam packed and buzzing. We asked a man by the bar why it was so busy. "There's some guy called Vaslav or something in." He looked at the woman standing next to him silently questioning her. "It's Vaclav Havel," she said. She nodded toward a table about 10 yards away and there he was sitting smoking a cigarette  with a group of  7 or 8 others.

I learned later that this was not  an official head of state visit to the USA but a private visit which Vaclav Havel had arranged in order to meet his friend Milos Forman and other artists, musicians and playwrights living in New York City who were friends or whom  he admired. This absence of grandiosity confirmed Vaclav Havel's place - he was already someone I admired -  in my pantheon of heroes.  Here was the president of a state - one which was  a symbol  for democracy gained by peaceful means  -  on a private visit not seeking to promote or glorify himself but simply to meet friends and fellow artists. We were told later by Richard, a friend of Stanley the hotel proprietor,  that Vaclav Havel had not asked for the level of security which surrounded his private visit. The New York City and USA authorities had demanded it.

Vaclav Havel, as well as taking a major role in leading the 'velvet revolution' against the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia,  showed humility, dignity, insight and more than anything respect for the democratic wishes of the people  when the Slovaks and the Czechs decided to take their own avenues  and form separate states.  This is what my late father in law would call "statesmanship."

How different this is from the tawdry, pompous two dimensional front bench prigs in the House of Commons who consider themselves our political leaders and who seek to score cheap  points at "PMQ" - as the prime minister David Cameron now calls it  -  in an attempt to get  their show higher  ratings than the X Factor.

Well, Vaclav Havel, the politician,  you were a dramatist too, but you were sincere, humble and one of us.  You died today, and I didn't quite meet you, or did I ?

Jeremy Millar writes, "a lovely story Charles, not sure if I'm more impressed by the proximity of Havel or how you dropped in 'we stayed at the Chelsea.' I guess you were aware of his love of the Velvet Underground and that is probably why he was at the Chelsea too."

Charles Sharpe responds " I can see what you mean Jeremy but be assured what I've written is utterly about a man, Vaclav Havel.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A few words from young grandsons

Grandad, I love Bambi.

Dog got wet.

Many years later Mango gets wet

Are you stupid Grandad ?

What are we going to do about this Nana ?

Voices from the back seat of the car.
S to J : J can I have a wee shot of your tractor ?
J to S : No
S : to everyone in general : I think he said "Yes"
Nana, in the front seat of the car : I think he said "No"
S (sotto voce) : I think he said "Yes."

Monday, 12 December 2011

Clegg, coward or ditherer ? : the questions

Why was Nick Clegg initially deafeningly acquiescent about  David Cameron's and  William Hague's failure to negotiate in Brussels ? Why didn't he insist he should be there in Brussels to be at the negotiating table?
Why did it take persuasion from the few remaining sincere Liberal Democrat parliamentarians before he could, over a day later, admit that he was not pleased with Cameron's and henchman Hague's non-negotiating approach ? Why didn't he voice his disagreement at five o'clock in the morning immediately after the Brussels debacle.
If he is genuine in his opposition to the Conservative government's (that's what it is folks) position on the Euro crisis why did he use the excuse that he "would have been a distraction" for his failure to be in the House of Commons today when David Cameron tried to explain away his negligence in Brussels? Why couldn't Mr Clegg be there to face Cameron up front ?

Well maybe because he and his shameful lieutenants are hoping that if they can stay in power for the full term, we  -   the poor suckers who voted for them because they persuaded us they were utterly opposed to the greed mongering City of London worshipping Conservatives  -  will have forgotten about how they deserted us just for the sake of hanging on to the coat tails of power. Have no illusions however, we'll remember.  When the Liberal Democrat party decided to join in this coalition - sorry -  Conservative  government, the notion of conviction politics was dealt a mighty blow.  We may not know hypocrites when we see them but we certainly do recognise them when we see their self-serving action.
Love him as I do all of suffering humanity, in my view Clegg is not now a distraction, he is, in  political terms, a nonentity. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Dundee Courier and Advertiser Shakespeare Scoop

This is a photie taken by the Courier man when Oor Wullie visited Dundee in 1602 to see one of his plays at the Rep. After the performance he said it would not be a good idea for James to go down to England and be the king as it would cause a lot of shennaniggins in the 20th and 21st centuries. He also predicted that Dundee Football Club would win the Scottish League in 1962 and that just shows that even though he was English he must have been a genius because when he said it Dundee Football Club had not even been invented. He did not however predict that Claudio Caniggia would play for us, so he couldn't have been as great a genius as our own bardie Rabbie who predicted that pandas would spend a while in the zoo in Edinburgh 252 years after he was born. Now that's what I call genius.

Is oor Wullie posin' doon here withoot his pail and dungarees ?
Ye cannae' really tell, cos the photie's cut aff well abin his knees.

Oor Wullie's lookin sae affie auld
Maybe that's because his pow's gone bald.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Love and achievement in foster care : a story from the 1930s

Recently on a professional network to which I belong a question was raised about how well foster carers help the children they look after to be successful at school. The underlying implication which had initiated the discussion  was that for less well educated foster parents the educational achievement of the children they foster was not a principal priority. This being so, it could be concluded, many children in foster care were being disadvantaged. Discussions like these have a high profile these days because of the shift in emphasis in government policy about children since the coalition government came to power in the United Kingdom. There is much more emphasis on children achieving and less on thinking about what children need. This may be a valid stance. I am sure no one - consciously at least -  wishes any child to be disadvantaged or to be left trailing behind life's peleton. I am sure we all desire that all children get all the learning they need to ensure  they develop the capacity to cope well enough with life's vicissitudes.

I tend to go along with AS Neill's view that if parenting adults get the emotional support for a child right then the child's full potential will be freed and educational achievement will naturally follow. This is even more the case for children who are fostered ; children who first and foremost require emotional compensation. The current stress on a child "achieving" may lead to us losing sight of what all children really need and that is a consistent, nurturing and loving relationship with an adult. The latter is in my view overwhelmingly the primary function of foster parents.
Learning from a very wide natural curriculum is clearly necessary for the healthy development of a child but this current emphasis on "achievement" tends to insist that children must achieve in education in those areas which are defined by, and meet the needs of, a minority of powerful adults whose principal intention is that their political and economic interests are served. It may or may not be right that these interests should be served but in the first instance we should insist on aiming to provide all children with a caring, loving environment which allows them to be children, where they are given permission to learn and develop through their own discoveries rather than being enslaved by a curriculum prescribed by a particular political culture. I think foster parents should be freed and supported to provide this environment. I guess I am saying that foster parents should primarily be assessed on their capacity to be consistent, tenacious, tolerant, flexible, sincere, concerned and loving.

Just before the beginning of the second world war the father of a friend of mine saw his father killed by the Gestapo. His mother was taken away from the family home and he and his elder sister never saw her again. The tragedy took place in a central European city and the two siblings were helped to escape from where they lived and were brought to the United Kingdom. At the age of 6, he, and his sister (who was 2 years older than him) were fostered by a family who lived in a city situated in the midlands of England. The foster parents were almost illiterate. There was no history of educational achievement in the foster home and as far as my friend's father could recollect there were no books to be found in the home. The children were sent to a local school and  were soon speaking English. They flourished at this school, as they also did in the secondary school they later attended. The boy  became a distinguished member of the medical profession, and his sister grew up to be an accomplished musician who performed in many of the great concert halls of the world. My friend's father told me that he and his sister were shocked by the material impoverishment of their foster home.  It was barren of things which would provide intellectual stimulus for the young siblings. He often wonders why he and his sister flourished from this unpromising home base and when he does so he comes to the conclusion that it was because of the emotional warmth and the love that their foster parents gave his sister and him.

For the sake of maintaining privacy I have altered details of this story but it remains in essence true. Of course an anecdote does not prove a theory but I think the story demonstrates that together with the children's inherent ability, in this instance, the foster parents' love was enough.

Totnes, 2011