Remembering my palazzo and my life in Venice

Yesterday a friend contacted me from Australia asking advice on where to stay in Venice. As I searched my emails I was taken back to the eight weeks I spent living in Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel writing a book in February and March 2003. It’s a time that in retrospect marked a turning point in my life (there have been many others). Palazzo  Soranzo Van Axel was built between 1473 and 1479 and is one of the few palazzos in Venice with a double courtyard. Supposedly it features in the film of Casanova, but I’ve never seen the film. I found the extract below in an email I wrote to a friend in the US, urging him and his wife to come and stay. They did.


“I’m sitting now in a room that is 30 feet by 30 feet with a 20-foot high wooden ceiling. There are two nine-feet tall windows ahead of me that look out onto the 15th century courtyard that includes a fountain and an olive tree. To my right is a 12-foot high French window that opens onto a terrace. Beyond the terrace I can see the top of the marble covered Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which Ruskin (his book beside me) described as one of the two finest buildings in Venice in the Byzantine-Renaissance style. I can see the back of a statue of Christ, who stands arms outstretched at the front of the building. Beyond him blue sky. Amazingly the sun has shone for 10 of the 11 days I’ve been here. On the one day the sun didn’t shine it snowed, huge snowflakes. So much sun is, I think, unusual. Rain and mist are more normal at this time of year.


Inside the room is a huge and friendly wooden lion, a six-foot long model of a Venetian galleon, a stone pieta where I can see the agony of Mary and feel the limpness of Christ’s body, a grand piano, a stuffed heron, the bust of a Roman god (perhaps Neptune), a pot of blue hyacinths that fill the room with their gorgeous scent, and a bowl of Sicilian oranges. The music playing is one of Bach’s solo cello suites. Around midday I switch to string quartets (either Beethoven or Schubert) and as the sun goes down to jazz.

I live like a monk, alone. In the mornings I read for an hour (first American Pastoral, now Rachel Ray (more Trollope)), then I walk either to the Fundamente Nuove (to look across the lagoon to the Dolomites) or to the Rialto market to gawp and shop (returning, as I go there, by traghetto).  When I walk to the Fundamente I walk first to Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where sometimes I go into the church and look at the Bellini triptych that includes the death of St Sebastien. Then I would walk alongside the Ospedale, conscious I am walking through a Canaletto painting almost unchanged from the day it was painted. Some mornings I’d see a boat taking a corpse to San Michele. When I reach the lagoon I am in a Turner painting with its big sky, swirls, and colours. I drink a cappuccino and watch vaporettos arriving from and departing for all parts of the lagoon.

When I return I breakfast on porridge and marmellata di arancia amare , which I though meant “much loved oranges” and was disappointed to learn means “bitter oranges,” on fresh rolls and then work until 12.30. Next I take a walk, perhaps with a cappuccino, then lunch, then work for another two hours, and then walk for an hour and look at something interesting—yesterday Carpaccio’s stunning narrative pictures in the Scuola di San Georgio degli Schiavoni. I was the only one there, like being alone in the Sistine chapel. Then I work for another two hours, beginning to drink wine towards the end. Every third night I eat out in highly selected restaurants (Venice has many bad ones). I particularly like grilled eel.”




Farce in the Suez Crisis

The Suez Crisis was a tragedy and a farce, and so is Brexit; indeed, it’s likely to be a much longer running tragedy and farce than Suez.

In an attempt to limit casualties, the British government tried psychological warfare–but it didn’t go well, as Barry Turner explains in his book on the crisis.

“Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, who was in charge of this side of operations, cheerfully acknowledged, ‘if anyone likes to say that the performance of my Psychological Warfare Branch was ludicrously bad, they will find nobody agreeing more fervently than I’

He discovered that the fiendish device for distributing the [propaganda] leaflets had only ever been tested in Britain. The barometric pressure in the Middle East was such that instead of exploding at 1000 feet, the leaflet container held together until it was about 6 feet above the ground. Fergusson had no trouble in imagining the consequences if innocent Egyptians were wiped out by a bulk consignment of messages of peace. He solved the problem by adding a weight of sand to the container, thereby acquiring the distinction of being the only person ever to dump sand on Egypt.”

The British government was sensitive about what its military action was called. They strenuously tried to avoid the war, preferring “police action.” Nobody was fooled, but it led to some farcical interactions with pantomime overtones.

“On Cyprus, the journalist James Cameron confronted Keightley [spokesman for the British Army] with the contradiction. I said, well I’m buggered if I’m going to call it a Police Action, I’m going to call it a war.

And Keightley said, ‘If you do, we’ll hold up your reports forever.’

Which they did. But then, during a Press Conference, General Keightley himself used the expression ‘limited war’.

So I said: ‘I see it is a war at last.’

‘No it’s not,’ said Keightley.

‘But you just said it was.’ ‘Did I?’ asked Keightley. ‘Did anyone else hear me say that?’

‘Yes,’ shouted about two hundred correspondents.

‘The General never used the words “limited war”,’ insisted his staff. ‘Yes, he did,’ insisted the correspondents.

‘Well, if you think this is a war,’ General Keightley concluded amiably, ‘you’ll bloody well have to prove it’ – and left.

‘So I decided to leave too – to go back to London where I could call a war a war and really blow my top. But they wouldn’t let me. They kept me there till it was all over.”

The army tried another spokesman:

“The job of putting over the military story was handed over to ‘a delightful but utterly vague colonel’, who opened one conference with the memorable words, ‘Yesterday, I promised I would get you the answers to some of your questions. I will start by giving three answers. And the answer to Question One is “I don’t know”.”

suez cartoon


“He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbour to his side goes hungry.”

The Prophet Mohammad: “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbour to his side goes hungry.”

Martin Luther King: “I said to my children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”

Aristotle [paraphrased by Edith Hall}: We cannot as twenty-first-century citizens fully achieve the actualisation of our own Aristotelian dynamis until we make part of our work ensuring that everyone else on the planet is given the education and support that allows them to fulfil their potential as well. For we will never be fully what we ought to be until the human race can do so in entirety.


The simple choice: a painful Brexit, a pointless Brexit, or no Brexit

Leaving the European Union is not a negotiation, said Tony Blair on the radio this morning, but a choice. And the choice is simple.

The first choice is a painful Brexit. If you have spent 40 years building legal, trade, and economic relationships with Europe then separation is going to be painful. Britain might recover and even prosper in the long term, although that’s a gamble, but there is no denying pain and disruption for years. For many Brexiters this choice is fine: they don’t care about disruption, and they are confident about the long term. There is a logic to this choice, even if the Brexiters don’t lay it out truthfully.

The second choice is a pointless Brexit, a relationship with Europe like that of Norway. You have access to European markets as now, but you continue to pay into the Union and you accept the rules of the Union without participating in making them. This might seem a compromise, but pointless is a better description.

The third choice is to decide not to leave, but such a decision could have legitimacy only if taken again by the people, who might, of course, chose a painful Brexit but would know the consequences, although probably the tides of misinformation would mean they wouldn’t. Blair supports this third choice, and so do I.

Both Tories and Labour have tried to fudge the simplicity of the choice, but the moment where they have to declare their choices is close, although Article 50 will almost certainly have to be extended, leaving us in continuing agony unable to tackle the issues like climate change and inequalities that really matter.

It’s a pity that Blair ruined his reputation by joining the Iraq War and taking excessive fees for speaking and consulting. He’s much more of a thinker and leader than anything we have now.



The Suez Group, forerunners of the European Research Group: blusterers careless with facts and consequences

Britain is in the most terrible mess after the government yesterday failed by a huge majority to win parliamentary approval for its deal on leaving the European Union. Nobody knows where to go from here, and unless something is done Britain will crash out with no deal with consequences that are not clear but thought by most to be disastrous. We have reached this mess of being deeply divided over something that most people never thought much about in large part because of the European Research Group, a collection of fanatical Tory members of parliament obsessed with getting Britain out of the European Union no matter what the consequences. As I read Barry Turner’s book on the Suez Crisis, the last disaster on the scale of Brexit to hit Britain, I learnt about the Suez Group and realised that they were forerunners of the European Research Group.

The Suez Group were right-wing imperialists who believed that that ~the loss of Egypt would be a disaster of the first magnitude to Great Britain.” Its leaders were “Captain Charles Waterhouse, a backbencher who had once held minor ministerial posts with no great distinction, and Julian Amery, son of Leo Amery, a cabinet minister in Churchill’s wartime administration.” Amery’s brother John was hanged for treason after acting on behalf of the Nazi Party.

“Amery and Waterhouse,” writes Turner, “were made for each other. Both were political blusterers, immune to strategic and economic realities, who were convinced that higher powers were intent on destroying Britain’s imperial heritage with dire consequences for the mother country and for the rest of the world.”

I could substitute Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson for Amery and Waterhouse in that sentence and would not need to change another word.

The Suez Group thought that Britain should not remove troops from Egypt despite Britain not being able to afford them and colonial times being over. “When Captain Waterhouse rose to speak [in Parliament] it was to prove himself the master of the grand, emotional gesture devoid of intelligence. ‘This is not a sell-out,’ he roared. ‘It is a give-away.’ And with characteristic disregard for veracity he plucked out of the air the figure of £500 million as the value of ‘stores, plant and buildings . . . we have handed over to the Egyptians’.”

This inevitably makes me think of the promise of Brexiters of £350 million extra each week for the NHS.

As the Suez Crisis developed, Julian Amery wrote to the Times:

“The dismissal of General Glubb from the command of the British-paid Arab Legion and the stoning of the Foreign Secretary in the British Protectorate of Bahrein attest the bankruptcy of the policy of appeasement in the Middle East. These are the ineluctable consequences of the retreats from Palestine, Abadan, the Sudan, and the Suez Canal Zone.

We are now very close to the final disaster. The challenge to our influence in Jordan and on the Persian Gulf, if left unchecked, must lead to the break-up of the Baghdad Pact. Our oil supplies, without which we cannot live, would then be in immediate danger; our communications with other Commonwealth countries would be threatened; and all Africa would be opened to Communist advance.

In the glare of these dangers only a complete abandonment of appeasement can save the situation .

. . In recent months the Government have been charged with failing to give leadership. They now have the chance, as they have the duty, to confound their critics and promote a rescue operation to save Britain from disaster in the Middle East.”

Appeasement is a potent word now–and is used by Brexiters–but it was even more potent then. The Suez Group were important in pushing Anthony Eden and the government to take the disastrous decision to invade Egypt–just as the European Research Group have been important in pushing David Cameron to hold the Brexit referendum and in blustering with false statistics and promises to ensure that people voted for Brexit.

I won’t live long enough to read a proper history of the Brexit Crisis, but I believe that history will judge the European Research Group as harshly as it has judged the Suez Group.

From the Suez disaster of 1956 to the Brexit disaster on 2019: Britain’s steady decline

As Britain continues with a suicidal, farcical disaster I thought that it would be a good time to learn more about the Suez Crisis of 1956, the last major disaster to hit Britain. By coincidence rather than design I’ve finished Barry Turner’s readable (and often tragically amusing) book Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War on the day of the “meaningful vote” on whether Parliament should accept the deal to leave the European Union negotiated by Theresa May and her government. I plan to go to Parliament Square this afternoon to attend a rally for a People’s Vote and be there when the result of the vote is announced.

Turner summarises Suez thus: “It has often been said of the Suez war that it was a military success and a political failure. Rather, it was a military failure and a political disaster.” There is a direct link with the European union, which I get to at the end of this blog.

The crisis was prompted by Colonel Nasser, the leader of Egypt, nationalising the Suez Council, which had been built by the French and was owned by an Anglo-French company. Both Britain and France were outraged.

Britain had until the rise of nationalism in Egypt run the country in a high-handed way as if it was part of its empire. The British, who continued in their colonial manner, failed to understand and head off what was happening in Egypt. The Americans understood much better. President Eisenhower, who was commander-in-chief during the Second World War and knew first-hand the “cruelty, wastefulness and stupidity of war’, was always against any military action–and made this very clear to Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, whose name will be for ever bound up with the disaster of Suez. (Theresa May talked yesterday in Parliament of the judgement of history: I can’t think that she feels sanguine about how history will treat her, although, as Eden showed, our powers of self-deception are vast.)

Right from the beginning Eden intended military action to overthrow Nasser, and his motivation was in part, as with Brexiters, his misplaced conviction on the importance and power of Britain and its then empire. The empire, he said, “is our life; without it we should be no more than some millions of people living in an island off the coast of Europe, in which nobody wants to take any particular interest.” Or as a Tory delegate to the 1948 Conservative conference said, “We are an imperial power or we are nothing.”

There was also a collection of conservative MPs called the Suez Group, who could not accept Britain’s decline and insisted on military action. This group (and I’ll post a blog on them tomorrow) fills the same space with many of the same ideas that European Research Group fills in the Brexit debate.

This was 12 year after Britain “won” the Second World War (actually the Russians and Americans had won it), and another part of Eden’s motivation was to show that he was just as strong a leader as Winston Churchill. But ‘We are in the hands of a weak man who is trying to prove that he is a strong one,” said a recently retired civil servant. Yet, like the military, Churchill, the great man, “was seemingly unable to understand that Britain no longer had the capacity to play the world power.” And of the “18-strong cabinet, nine were Etonians and 16 had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Those, like Eden, who had served in the Great War, six in all, were given to tiresome monologues on Britain’s glory days.” If “we accept Nasser’s refusal . . . Britain is finished,” said Harold Macmillan, the next prime minister.

Yet after the war Britain was nearly bankrupt–and its priorities were wrong: “By the end of the Second World War, Britain was spending more on law and order in Palestine than on domestic health and education combined.” The NHS had begun eight years earlier and was not costing less, as its founders insisted it would, but more.

Another motivation was access to oil, which came through the Suez Canal from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But much to Eden’s frustration, as it might have provided the excuse he needed to start military action, Nasser didn’t block ships from coming through the canal. And this was also the time when large tankers were appearing, which could not pass through the canal anyway but could bring oil round the Cape in not much longer than it took to travel via the canal.

The Americans were strongly against military action and forced the British and the French to hold an international conference and then seek a resolution from the United Nations. Knowing that the longer military action was delayed the less successful it would be, the French resorted to double-dealing. In great and successful secrecy they hatched a plot with the Israelis for the Israelis to invade the Sinai peninsula–the French and British would then issue and ultimatum for the war between the Israelis and the Egyptians to stop otherwise they would intervene. The French very much wanted rid of Nasser because they believed wrongly that he was the driving force behind the rebels in Algeria, their country. The Israelis wanted more territory. Eden and the British were brought into this plot late in the day but seized it as providing a route to military action.

At the end of October the Israelis invaded. A resolution was brought to the United Nations calling for peace, and a resolution for military action was vetoed. Eden acted without UN agreement:  “Pierson Dixon [British ambassador to the UN] could hardly bring himself to believe that it had come to this, that Eden, one of the principal architects of the UN, should now be seeking to destroy its legitimacy.”

“The [ultimatum issued by the British and French] seems,” observed a private secretary to Eden, “to have every fault. It is clearly not genuinely impartial, since the Israelis are nowhere near the Canal; it puts us on the side of the Israelis; the Americans were not consulted; the UN is flouted; we are about to be at war without the nation or Parliament having been given a hint of it. We think AE has gone off his head.’

Others thought that Eden had “gone off his head,” and Chicken and I reflected that that phrase that we heard often when younger has disappeared. Eisenhower called Eden, skipped the small talk, and started with “I can only presume that you have gone out of your mind.”

Action began with a drop of paratroopers and looked “uncannily like the last throw of old-fashioned colonialism,” which in retrospect it was.

The Labour Opposition, which had not been consulted (just as Theresa May has not consulted them over Brexit), was appalled. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, said in Parliament: “a tragic terrible week . . . by far the worst week, for the world and for our country, since 1939.”

Much of the press was not impressed: ”The Economist referred to a ‘strange union of cynicism and hysteria’ in government; the Spectator warned of a ‘terrible indictment’ that Eden would face; while the Observer spoke of ‘folly’ and ‘crookedness’. ‘Not since 1783’, thundered an Observer leader column, ‘has Britain made herself so universally disliked.’”

The military action had a farcical element to it, which I’ll describe in another blog, and under condemnation by the UN, pressure from the Americans, and a dive in the value of sterling, which at the time was seen as sacred, Eden called off the action, to the annoyance of the French.

A sick man, Eden insensitively went on holiday to Jamaica. Later he lied to Parliament (saying there was no plot with the French and Israelis) and resigned, a disgraced and broken man. Malcolm Muggeridge called him ‘a grisly parody of Churchillian war leadership; a Benzedrine Napoleon and pinchbeck Foreign Office Machiavelli all in one’. Eden’s friend Noël Coward said he was ‘a tragic figure who had been cast in a star part well above his capabilities’. (Theresa May as well is doing a job beyond her capabilities.)

Turners’ judgement is that “The real indictment against Eden was not so much that he was devious or dishonest but rather that he did not understand the country he was governing.” That too might be said of Theresa May.

The Suez Crisis had many consequences–the hastened decline of Britain, continuing unrest in the Middle East, and to bring the story back today the failure of Britain to play a more positive role in Europe.

During the build-up the Suez War, John Foster Dulles, the clever American Secretary of State, argued that for Britain worried about being a declining power ‘their answer is to be found in increased European unity so that they will have together the strength which they need to be a powerful force in the world comparable to that of the Soviet Union and the United States, and more able to carry out their own policies’.

‘Europe will be your revenge,’ the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told the French prime minister on the day the Suez operation was halted. The failure in Egypt and in Algeria brought General de Gaulle back to power in France. Never keen on Anglo-Saxons, whom he saw as duplicitous, de Gaulle turned to Germany and creating what became the European Union.

The British were unimpressed by these developments, although Churchill was one of the first to argue for European union, and turned away. This is the judgement of Noel Annan, one of the wisest civil servants of the time, who described the British rejection of Europe as ‘the most ruinous diplomatic decision taken by my generation’.

“Many were the excuses that were made. Ministers spoke of our nuclear alliance with America; our devotion to free trade with all, not just six, European countries in the OEEC; our devotion to GATT; our commitment to the Commonwealth; and the doubts of the chiefs of staff . . . The Foreign Office thought nothing would come of Messina [one of the conferences to create the union]. To the despair of [Belgian foreign minister Henri] Spaak Britain sent an undersecretary of the Board of Trade to represent Britain at the conference. Spaak came to London to see Rab Butler: the warmer Spaak became, the colder was Butler’s reception. ‘I don’t think I could have shocked him more when I tried to appeal to his imagination if I had taken off my trousers,’ Spaak said to his directeur du cabinet Robert Rothschild. At the eleventh hour the Europeans tried again and sent the Dutch foreign minister to Butler. To be lectured on Britain’s moral responsibility to lead Europe by such a little nation was too much. ‘I got very bored with him,’ Butler later told Michael Charlton.”

The Foreign Office didn’t perceive this for what it was, the formation of an immensely important thing in Europe, from which we were voluntarily excluding ourselves.

All this will be in my head as I stand in Parliament Square this evening waiting for the result of the “meaningful vote.”

suez iraq

Suez 1956, Iraq 2004: parallel disasters

The invasion of Egypt in the Suez Crisis in 1956 was a disaster and so was the invasion of Iraq in 2004. Barry Turner in his very readable book on the Suez Crisis draws a parallel between the two disasters.

“There is enough in common between Suez 1956 and Iraq 2004 to tempt a comparative study. In both cases the Arab leaders were demonised as prospective Hitlers; in both cases the danger they represented to the rest of the world was exaggerated and, when it turned out to be largely mythical, other reasons were created to justify military action; and in both cases the war fever was brought to boiling point by a collective memory of the consequences of trying to appease dictators. Finally, in both cases the underlying motive was to achieve regime change.

The only conclusion at this stage is that after a half century, it is staggering how little understanding there still is between the West and the Arab world.”