Saturday, 22 January 2011


A millionaire friend who flies his own autographed aeroplane and winters in Thailand counsels me against nostalgia. What can I do? The past is my planet and they do things better there. I am only attached to the 21st century for rations and accommodation, and my idea of hell would be to live in Thailand and have the responsibility of running an aeroplane. It was bad enough owning a boat. The past has a beginning and an end but the present has only a beginning, which merges into the future, and that is somewhere I have no wish to go. Indeed, I often wonder if it will exist. Life comes without guarantees. Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot murdered and enslaved millions but it was the kindly Allies who fire bombed Tokyo and Dresden and dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Life was more fun in the past. Now our entertainment veers from the coarseness of Connolly to the disaffected graduates who dispense the humour of dissatisfaction. I have been reading a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee. Author Karen Abbot recalled old vaudeville acts:

“The man who guzzled hot molten lava and belched up coins, the man who swallowed a goldfish and a baby shark and asked the audience which should reappear first, the man who lit gunpowder on his tongue, the man who discovered that his sneeze made audiences laugh and worked it into his routine, honing, over the course of a year, the mechanics of twitching his nostrils and cranking his jaw, the exaggerated intake of breath and sputtering of lips. A performer called 'The Human Fish' ate a banana, played a trombone, and read a newspaper while submerged in a tank of water. Another had a 'cat piano,' an act featuring live cats in wire cages that meowed Gregorio Allegri's Miserere when their tails were pulled (in reality the performer yanked on artificial tails and did all the meowing himself).

"Alonzo the Miracle Man lit and smoked a cigarette, brushed his teeth and combed his hair, and buttoned his shirt - miracles since he had been born without arms. Louise and June were particularly fond of Lady Alice, an old dowager who wore elegant beaded gowns and performed with rats. The runt settled on the crown of her head, a miniature kazoo clenched between teeth like grains of rice. He breathed a tuneless harmony while the rest of the litter began a slow parade across Lady Alice's outstretched arms, marching from the tip of one middle finger to the other. The girls never understood how Lady Alice controlled the rodents - their own animals weren't quite so obedient - until one day she revealed her secret: a trail of Cream of Wheat slathered on her neck and shoulders.

It is in the past that the explanation of the present lies. I have often wondered why the sensitive Americans I know, cultured, kindly and generous, should be so badly led. Gore Vidal exposed the criminal leadership which was endemic.
Even the avuncular Franklin Delano Roosevelt was heir to the huge Delano opium fortune.

James Bradley, in his book “The Imperial Cruise”, paints a terrible picture:

"Franklin's grandfather Warren Delano had for years skulked around [China's] Pearl River Delta dealing drugs. Delano had run offices in Canton and Hong Kong. During business hours, Chinese criminals would pay him cash and receive an opium chit. At night, Scrambling Crabs - long, sleek, heavily armed crafts - rowed out into the Pearl River Delta to Delano's floating warehouses, where they received their Jesus opium under the cover of darkness. The profits were enormous, and at his death Delano left his daughter Sara a fortune that she lavished on her only son.

"The Delanos were not alone. Many of New England's great families made their fortunes dealing drugs in China. The Cabot family of Boston endowed Harvard with opium money, while Yale's famous Skull and Bones society was funded by the biggest American opium dealers of them all - the Russell family. The most famous landmark on the Columbia University campus is the Low Memorial Library, which honors Abiel Low, a New York boy who made it big in the Pearl River Delta and bankrolled the first cable across the Atlantic. Princeton University's first big benefactor, John Green, sold opium in the Pearl River Delta with Warren Delano.

"The list goes on and on: Boston's John Murray Forbes's opium profits financed the career of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company. Thomas Perkins founded America's first commercial railroad and funded the Boston Athenaeum. These wealthy and powerful drug-dealing families combined to create dynasties."

The past warns us of future dangers. Fifty years ago, Eisenhower warned the nation that a ballooning military-industrial complex could not co-exist “with the peaceful intentions of our nation”.

Thomas Jefferson went further. He said: "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”

Do not knock the past. It was the nursery of the present.