Saturday, 15 May 2010


It has taken Germany over a century to win the war. Bismarck failed, the Kaiser failed, Hitler failed, but a mousy little woman called Mrs Merkel has pulled it off without so much as a blow. Right Mark!!!!... and into the heart of Brussels for the second time.

This time they achieved victory by buying Europe rather than bombing it and by happy coincidence it has happened as Britain created the first coalition government since the last war.

This is a parliament I have been longing for all my adult life. I am Coalition Man. One party government means you only get a third of the talent available. Heath, Blair and Brown wrecked this septic isle.

By the same token I was desperately afraid the Liberals were going to join the exhausted Labour party. That would have meant England had lost the other war it has been fighting for a millennium with the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots.

The Saxon dog would have been wagged by a tartan tail shaped like a leek and reeking of whisky. I have more Welsh friends than I have English and I am a quarter Scots. Nevertheless when I lived in Wales I was violently opposed to devolution. Now I live in England I am in favour of Home Rule for both Wales and Scotland. If only to get rid of James Naughtie and all those Kirsties.

In Celtic countries nepotism rules and deviousness is an art form. A Welsh proverb exults: "I'll never starve: I've got a cousin on the council."

We had a neighbour on Anglesey who wanted to buy outright the drive she shared with the farm behind her cottage.The farmer refused for years. When one day one of his pigs ate her window sill she saw her chance.

She told us: "I put a stamp on a piece of paper and went round to the farm. I said, 'Your pig has eaten my window' and Jones farmer he said, 'Duw, that's going to cost me.' So I says, ' Not as much as it's going to cost you to fill in all those potholes in the lane.' 'Duw,' he said again, and I see he was worried at the thought of spending money. So I whipped out my bit o' paper and got him to sign over the stamp a bill of sale for the drive."

That sort of devious mind you don't mess with.

I spent forty years writing stories for the dailies and the national Sundays about corruption in Welsh local government at operatic levels. Anglesey, in my thirty years there, was investigated four times by the Fraud Squad. Limitations on the number of caravans per site did not seem to apply to a Chief Clerk of the Council, now deceased, who owned a sprawling site the size of a small town. Owners of a failing hotel applied several times in vain for planning permission to turn it into a block of flats. Sold at the bottom of the market, it was bought by an estate agent heading a syndicate made up of councillors. Within a month the hotel became a block of flats. The agent went on to take a plum job in the council.

The headmaster of a Welsh school had praise and rewards heaped on him until he left to take over a school owned by English RAF families. Overnight, planning permissions for extra classrooms were routinely denied and every obstacle imaginable put in his path.

We simple Saxons have had a narrow escape.


Five hundred years ago the Mayor of Bordeaux gave up his day job, went home and invented the essay, the progenitor of the newspaper column and the blog. In doing so he opened the way for Addison, Steele, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb and the great Dr Johnson. The newspapers we read today grew out of the pamphlets they wrote.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote like an angel. Stefen Zweig said of him: "Here is a 'you' in which my 'I' is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished. The printed page fades from view; a living person steps into the room instead."

He leaped from the page and sat at your side. I have shared that feeling since I was ten and took his Essays out of Withington library in the belief they were a text book and would help me in English lessons. They have been on my shelves ever since. Now, thanks to E-Book, the best present I have ever had, I can carry them about with me in a magic wallet and still have room for Gibbon, Herodotus and Homer. I am armed against every vicissitude. There is still room for Shakespeare and an anthology of verse and it would be the work of a moment to download, at half price, the current bestseller. Not to mention the several million out of print books which are free on the internet. The E-Book is the most important contribution to literature since Montaigne wrote that first essay and every bit as important as the creation of movable type. It is one of the joys of living in the Space Age that you can carry your home about with you. The library, the radiogram and a combined telephone and camera all fit snugly in a pocket.

What would Montaigne have made of the E-Book? He would certainly have written about it. As it was he had no difficuty finding a subject. He chose the one on which he was the greatest living expert. He chose to write about himself. He explained it by saying: "If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not make essays, I would make decisions, but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial."

He wrote about little things. Like the custom of wearing clothes, drunkenness, lust and fear; how we cry and laugh at the same thing; of cowardice, of letting business wait for the morrow; of smells and age; of anger and of not to counterfeit sickness. He wrote of cannibals, of whom he rather approved. He said, "Each man calls barbarism what is not his own practice" and so much more. He wrote about great things like friendship. His essay on the death of his friend Etienne de La Boetie is one of the most moving tributes I have read. He also wrote: "The sage lives as long as he should, not as long as he can."

If he was odd, his father was odder. As soon as Michel was born his father had him taken to a peasant's hut where he stayed until the age of eleven. Thus he would know when he took over the family estate, that peasants were not chattels, they were people and must be cared for. He learned to appreciate their rough humour. He told of commiserating with a woman who had been raped by six soldiers. She told him there was no need for sorrow. "It is the first time I have been pleasured without sin."

When he at last came back to the manor, the family and the servants spoke to him only in Latin so that he would be fluent at a time when fluency in Latin attracted the best jobs at court.

He wrote so well that when, in the 20th century, an American scholar Marvin Lowenthal wrote an "Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne" he explained the apparent oxymoron by using Montaigne's own words from his essays and letters. He may have been concerned by Montaigne's threat: "I will gladly come back from the other world to give the lie to anyone who will shape me other than, even to honour me." The result was a dazzling piece of scholarship. I have had three copies over the years. Two were mislaid, the third I pursued all over the world before tracking it down in New York. My most treasured possession is the two volume Nonesuch edition of Sir John Florio's translation of Montaigne, the gift nearly half a century ago from a much loved and missed father in law with which he welcomed me into his family.

If I can manage to stay alive overnight, I will be 81 tomorrow. To mark the day I have bought myself the most recent attempt to pin this dazzling butterfly to paper. Sarah Bakewell's "How to Live: A Life of Montaigne" is a gift to be treasured. It is the first full life in fifty years. It tells the story of his youthful career, sexual adventures, friendships and love for his adopted daughter. The story hangs on the most important question he asked "How to Live" and the commonsense answers he gave. "Don't worry about death"; "Pay attention"; "Be born"; "Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted"; "Survive love and loss"; "Use little tricks"; "Question everything"; and finally "Let life be its own answer".

I think if I had been given such a book and Lin Yutang's "Importance of Living" I would have needed no others.