Sunday, 27 May 2012

St Peter's College, Oxford 1965 - 1968




In a previous Blog ( 9th April 2011, "Sponsored Mobility" ) I wrote about how the 11+ put me into a Grammar School and how that school put me into Oxford, first selecting me for its Oxbridge preparation group and then selecting my subject of study (PPE) and my college (St Peter's). Thus social mobility, 1960s style.

St Peter's was an interesting choice, targetted by my school on the grounds that it was easier to get into than one of the colleges basically reserved for boys from top public schools. It also had an abysmal ranking in Oxford's internal college league table, another reason why it might be easy.

My school may not have known that it also had some commitment to "widening access", though perhaps not in the sense we now understand it. St Peter's Hall was founded as a Private Hall in 1929 "to commemorate the life and teaching of the Right Reverend Frances James Chavasse ...formerly Lord Bishop of Liverpool"with the object " (a) To maintain and promote education, religion and learning for and among students generally of whatever religious persuasion and especially to give aid to students in straitened or reduced circumstances ..."

This from the college statutes(* See footnote). In practice, Pot Hall (as it was known even after it became a full college of the University in 1961) provided university places for the sons [it was single sex] of Church of England clergymen, especially those of an evangelical persuasion and lacking the private means to send their boys to top public schools and thence to top Oxbridge colleges.

When I arrived in 1965 the sons of the clergy were still there and it rather depressed me to discover how modest were their academic achievements - Ds and Es at "A" level whereas I had three shiny grade As. True, St Peter's had recognised my academic abilities by the award of an Open Scholarship worth £60 a year on top of my full maintenance grant of £370. And my circumstances were straitened - £60 + £370 raised my income significantly above that of my mother who had about £250 a year.

As a Scholar I was expected to read lessons at services in the College chapel and lead grace at the beginning of meals [ Benedictus, Benedicat ...], and one of the first things I had to do on arrival was excuse myself by writing to the Master of the College, Canon Julian Percy Thornton-Duesbery, an Evangelical and prominent Moral Re-Armer. He was also a supervisor of the right-wing, evangelical Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) which opposed itself to the "Marxist" Student Christian Movement.

The year before I had arrived, Thornton-Duesbery had published a defence of Moral re-Armament (MRA) against the criticisms of Tom Driberg, a Left Wing Labour MP, and this may be his Principal Publication. MRA had a dodgy history, like every American evangelical movement, and its founder, Frank Buchman, was perceived to have been soft in the 1930s on Fascism and Nazism.

Now we begin to get to the point.

In the first place, as an unbeliever, I had had to identify myself as an outsider the moment I arrived at St Peter's. I could never be a "College Man" and I have only ever attended one College reunion - I tried hard but the weekend get-together incorporated no less than five periods of religious observance.

More importantly, the College statutes make no reference to "research" but rather to "education, religion and learning". Thornton-Duesbery was not an academic either in the sense it was then understood and even more so as it is understood now. He was a clergyman (one might say, a hereditary clergyman - his father, another Evangelical, was Bishop of Sodor and Man). And the fellows of St Peter's - the academic staff - included other men who were not obviously academics. There was a full time Chaplain, funded on the books, and there was Claude Wingfield Hope Sutton.

Claude Sutton interviewed me, rather sleepily, for my place at St Peter's. I remember he asked me a question about Nazism and Fascism. Only later did I discover that his interests in those subjects had been - as it were - practical rather than academic. I can't get much off Google, but I can tell you that in 1936 he had published "Farewell to Rousseau: a critique of liberal democracy". It was rumoured that he had been interned in the War as a Nazi [ I can find no Google evidence]. He did publish articles in journals like Philosophy which are now academic but which in the 1950s were more like journals of elevated opinion.

So one reason for St Peter's abysmal league table position was the fact that as a Private Hall up to 1961 it had pre-occupied itself with religion and politics and had a staff (now paid from public funds) which still partly reflected that fact.

Jump forward nearly 50 years.

Oxford is a University with a world-class reputation for teaching and research. But on its fringes there still cluster private Halls and Foundations with other goals. Of Oxford's current 44 college tally, six have recognisable religious agendas. I take from the University website:

Blackfriars - Permanent Private Hall, Dominican Friars
Campion Hall - Jesuit academic community
St Benet's Hall - Permanent Private Hall originally founded by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey
Regent's Park College - trains men and women for the ordained Baptist ministry
St Stephen's House - Anglican theological foundation
Wycliffe Hall - Evangelical with the majority of students preparing for ordination in the Church of England

St Peter's Hall belonged to this group of basically parasitic colleges, but converted itself into a "regular" college in 1961. The legacy of the past was still there during my time as a student from 1965 to 1968. The remaining private halls and foundations listed above sometimes appear in the newspapers when some internal sectarian squabble spills over.

So whatever universities are for, it would be a mistake to think that they are just about teaching and research, even nowadays and even in our top universities.

_________________
* The Statutes do get worse, "(b) To train, cherish and encourage candidates for Holy Orders in the Church of England or...intending to labour for Foreign Missions with which the Ministry of the late Bishop James Hannington was particularly identified; (c)To diffuse sound information and teaching of and in Christian principles and doctrine in conformity with... the 39 Articles of Religion ..." and so on.

In other words, my Grammar School had packed me off to a religious foundation. And - like many other colleges - one where the aim of broadening access had to be reconciled with the aim of giving a leg up to those with a link to some place or person, in this case the late Bishop Hannington. In other Oxford colleges, such aims were furthered through a system of Closed Scholarships which could only be awarded to descendants of so and so or inhabitants of such and such. In the sixties, there were hundreds of Closed Scholarships. I don't know if the system has been reformed.

Postscript 8 May 2013: And just in case you think things have changed, this recently arrived in the post:



Postscript 11 October 2016: A revised version of this blog piece, combined with sketches of my home and grammar school, appears as the chapter "Social Mobility" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), available from the usual online suppliers.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Paolo Gabriele: What the Butler Saw

With any luck we are going to have a Show Trial at the Vatican. They've arrested the Pope's Butler, put him in the Inquisition's cells, and no doubt hope to bring him white-faced and repentant to a quick trial.

Hang in there, Signor Gabriele, tell everything you know, loud and clear for the world to hear.

Meanwhile, I am going to have to brush up my Italian to read Gianluigi Nuzzi's book - based on the documents Gabriele is alleged to have leaked - on crime in the Vatican....

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Hereditary Principle for Dummies

In managed democracies like the United Kingdom well brought up politicians never ever name-call voters. They may call each other by all kinds of cruel and unnecessary epithets but the voters must always be Respected. Mr Gordon Brown greatly assisted his own downfall by name-calling Mrs Duffy. "Bigot" he muttered and, whether accurate or not, it destroyed him as a Man of the People.

The trouble with this principle of Respect is that it allows the electorate as a whole to bask in the complacent sense that it knows best and is always right, even when it changes its mind from one day to the next (the day after a General Election, for example). Moreover, this intellectual superiority requires of the voter no arduous study of history or politics or economics, no knowledge of capitals and presidents, no familiarity with maps or statistics. It is the hereditary birthright of anyone destined to become a Voter.

Today, the Guardian reports its own Poll which finds that when asked what they think should happen when Queen Elizabeth II abdicates or dies, 10% think the country should become a Republic; 39% think that Prince Charles should succeed to the throne; and 48% think that Prince William should become King.

There is, of course, a broad constituency of William fans. All the girls who wanted to marry him but didn't and now want to marry Prince Harry. The many fans of Princess Diana and haters of The Other Woman. The readers of Mills and Swoon novels. But perhaps most importantly of all, in this case, all those who have watched and voted in one too many television talent contest - I understand there are many such though my own familiarity is confined to the Eurovision song contest though I find it hard to imagine Prince William in that context. His father, perhaps, on drums, but not the son unless perhaps as backing vocals in some boy band (Eurovision boy bands can accommodate the balding not-quite-so-young)

In any case, all these people who have given their solemn opinion (subject to revision if William cheats with Another Woman), all these people have decided that they want a hereditary head of state but not Charles. Yes, the head of state should descend in the blood line of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas; but, No, not the one whose turn it is.

It is rather as if a taxi driver approaching the rank was obliged to pick his passenger from the waiting queue, but at liberty to choose the totty at Number Two in preference to the old git at Number One.

My own choice is unambiguous. A Republic and, if we aren't allowed that, well then Charles (on drums if necessary) because the newspapers and the BBC will not flood us with quite so much drivel as they would if it was William.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Adrian Beecroft, Vince Cable and the Foyle's Bookshop Strike 1965

"Bonkers!" (Vince Cable), "Socialist!" (Adrian Beecroft). Today's ding-dong over employment law has an endearing, pantomime quality.

Mr Beecroft, who we had never heard of, but who is a venture capitalist and major Conservative Party donor, was entrusted by Number Ten ("Hapless!") with the task of reviewing employment law. Number Ten redacted his least palatable proposals before releasing his report but even then there is plenty to disagree about, notably Beecroft's support for "No Fault" dismissal.

For some reason it all reminded me of my first real experience of the world of work back in 1965 at Foyle's Bookshop in the Charing Cross Road.

I was 17. After A levels in summer 1964 I went back to school for the Autumn Term to do Oxbridge Entrance (I already had a place but was after a Scholarship) and then needed to work to raise funds to buy all the things on my Oxford college's required list - gown, mortar board, dark suit, white bow tie, that sort of thing.

Christina Foyle interviewed me, as she interviewed everyone (including the shop lifters). Here is my Contract of Employment.



I was set to work in charge of Foyle's Postal Library, supplying romantic fiction to dowagers in rural areas and banned books to serious readers in the Republic of Ireland.



Foyle's sought to recruit people like me who were not going to stay and acquire employment rights. Many staff were recruited outside the UK. In those days, you needed work permits and Foyle's had a production line for obtaining them. Probably ninety percent of the staff were students or young people "in transit". Nowadays, that's true of most restaurants and bars in London but in 1965 it was not so common. At the time, I thought Foyle's was Dickensian. Now they look more like pioneers of the casualisation of labour.

It happened that in a given week too many new workers might arrive or too many old ones fail to leave. And some people might be about to pass the six month period after which they acquired additional statutory employee rights

This is where Mr Ronald Batty entered the scene. He was the store manager and Christina Foyle's husband. He walked the shop floors sacking people. He inspired genuine fear and on Fridays there were always people in tears, many of them pretty girls.

I had never really seen pretty girls before and I became serially infatuated. I had absolutely no idea how to approach them or relate to them and I was terribly burdened by my own circumstances - on Boxing Day 1964, just a week before my start at Foyle's, my mother with whom I lived had been taken in an ambulance to a mental hospital.

Technically, people held work permits that restricted them to employment with Foyle's. But even then I guess it was possible to work illegally. Nonetheless, I was affected by the girls in tears and I did not like the ruthless atmosphere.

Nor did other people. Some of them, inspired I think by a charismatic Australian, Marius Webb, had started a clandestine branch of the Union of Shop Distributive and Alled Workers (USDAW). It had to be secret because Foyle's did not recognise Unions and Mr Batty would simply have sacked you. I became responsible for collecting Union dues in the building which housed the postal library and wholesale order departments. There must have been meetings too but I don't recall them.

After a few months, I found myself another job in local government and nearer home. It was a stupid move which I have always regretted: at Foyle's, I was meeting the kind of people I should have been meeting at my age and with my aspirations. If I had stuck it out, I might even have got myself a girl friend.



Soon after, USDAW called an official strike at Foyle's for Union recognition, better pay and other things. It was wildly popular - all kinds of people came forward to say that they had once worked for Christina Foyle and could they please give a large donation to Strike funds. Private Eye did a lovely and very funny piece.

On Saturdays I used to go and join the picket line. And when it was all over in July The Daily Worker put two pretty girls on the front page - a tradition which nowadays only The Daily Telegraph keeps up.









Monday, 21 May 2012

Grapes and Gripes: Wine and the EU

Afghanistan, France, Greece ... so much to think about that a clear headed Blog has eluded me.

So I will write about what stops me loving the European Union wholeheartedly.

First, the charade of a Parliament which transports itself back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg for no better reason than that French amour-propre requires it - or, at least, that the French government is too afraid of the Burghers of Strasbourg who trouser a lot of €uros from this nonsense. Not to mention the removal companies who ship lorry loads of documents back and forth.

Second, wine labelling.

If I drink a bottle of German beer, I can read on the label the contents - water, barley, malt, hops (in that or some other order - I am drinking wine right now). If I eat a bar of Belgian chocolate, I am informed in amazing detail about its contents and calories. Ditto for a pot of French jam.

But when it comes to a bottle of wine, from anywhere in the world, all I get is "Contains Sulphites" or, alternatively, "Contains Sulfites". Since they all contain sulphites or sulfites, I am none the wiser.

So why is it important to label chocolate and jam in obsessive detail, an achievement of EU-wide legislation, and at the same time leave us in ignorance of what's in our wine?

For you can bet your liver it ain't just grapes and sulfites.

Not so long ago, I wanted a glass of red wine with my meal in an unfamiliar restaurant. Looking at the unfamiliar wine list, I asked the waiter to suggest a wine which wasn't oaked. I prefer my wine without creosote. He looked blank but went off to read the labels. Five minutes later he returned mystified: none of the labels on his red wines indicated whether they were oaked or not - no mention of "fûts de chêne" which you sometimes see on French red wines as if it was some kind of desirable thing instead of a way of disguising the taste of inferior plonk.

I settled for the cheapest Italian red which was pleasant and without creosote.

But why can't we know these things? If wine was decently labelled, I would be able to work out what it is in red wines which sometimes gives me a headache. I suspect too much sulfite. I suspect the creosote. But maybe there is something else, like the bulls blood which (used to be?) used to "clarify" the wine.

All I know for sure is that the EU has for some mysterious reason funked wine labelling. Perhaps it is the legacy of the days when the Austrians improved their white wines by adding anti-freeze*, which is a turn-off even for those hardened to creosote.

____________
*True. The scam was brought to light by an officious tax inspector who was puzzled by the vast amounts of ordinary anti-freeze bought by wine producers, even in the mildest regions.

Friday, 18 May 2012

There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch! Just Claim to be a Monarch!

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee lunch for fellow Monarchs is in the News because she has invited at least two people who one really shouldn't sit down with: the chap who rules Bahrain and the chap who rules Swaziland. They behave in beastly ways towards their subjects.

But this is an unbalanced reaction. I can find at least four guests (eight when you include their wives) who no one would claim are horrible to the people they rule over:

HRH King Simeon II of Bulgaria
HM King Constantine of the Hellenes
HM King Michael I of Romania
HRH The Crown Prince of Yugoslavia


I know they read different newspapers in Buckingham Palace but I didn't realise they were mostly dated before 1950. Perhaps the Foreign Office should have a word. Or perhaps it is Foreign Office policy to seek the restoration of the monarchy in these countries (which in the case of Yugoslavia also means restoring the country itself). Mr Hague?

Monday, 14 May 2012

Ferdinand Mount, The New Few or a Very British Oligarchy

Inequality in Britain has increased, is increasing and ought to be reduced. This is now part of the British political consensus, with no one against except for the nastier kinds of self-made men.

In respect to those, Mr Mount (he could call himself Sir Ferdinand but chooses not to - the title came from an uncle) voted in 2010, moving his money from Bob Diamond-geezer's Barclays to the Co-op.

That may not seem bad for a former head of Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Policy Unit (1982-84), though in reality Mr Mount was not a Thatcherite and is perhaps best described as a life-long, old-fashioned "One Nation" Tory, formed in the schools of Eton and Christ Church.

As such, he is very much in favour of things like the London Living Wage campaign (pp 263 - 68) which aims to raise wages at the bottom. Equally, he is in favour of shareholder vetoes over executive remuneration which would damp down wages and bonuses at the top without the need for legislative capping.

Mr Mount's economic oligarchies are made up of new men - the bankers at the forefront. He has nothing to say about old money, but old money is still up there on the Sunday Times Rich List. Think only of the Duke of Westminster, who through the Grosvenor estates owns the posh bits of London.

Mr Mount is also agin the new political oligarchies which over decades have weakened local government, the political parties, the House of Commons and installed Sofa Government in their place. Both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair very much wanted to have their own way and the outcome is what other writers (though not Mount) call a "democratic deficit".

Mount sees things moving the other way under the Coalition government though, ironically, the vote against elected mayors in most English cities suggests that those who vote aren't in favour of more democracy. Ditto for the rejection of proportional representation.

Popular rejectionism also shows in attitudes to economic oligarchies and economic inequalities.

Voters of the middling kind didn't much like "Equality of Opportunity" since there was a risk that the 11+ would move their own children down rather than up. Faith schools now shelter anxious parents from such risks.

Voters of all kinds are generally rather impressed by those who can command very large sums of money for doing little or (in the case of the Lottery) nothing. Leave aside occasional outbreaks of Fred Goodwin-rage and there seems a great deal of tolerance for paying millions to footballers who don't actually score many goals and singers who - well, I won't say can't sing, - let's say, singers who can belt out popular tunes.

So I think the malaise is deeper than Mr Mount allows. He comes across as quite an optimist and also as someone who doesn't ask that very much should change. The book is an easy read, and good in parts - on local government and, perhaps surprisingly, on the 2011 urban riots.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Greece votes for the Colonels.

Who bankrupted Greece? There are really only four candidates.

1.The Bond Markets / The Banks. They lent Greece excessive amounts of money, knowing that it was not going to be spent constructively and that therefore there was a risk of default.

2. The Pasok (Socialist) government who thought it was a clever wheeze to borrow money to provide benefits to voters, tax free.

3. The Voters who did not trouble to ask where the money was coming from for all these benefits being showered on them and who carried on paying no taxes and (if they were public servants) not going to work.

4. The EU / IMF / European Banks who imposed Austerity on Greece as the price of Bailouts to enable it to repay (part) of its Debts, reinforcing an economic downturn which makes it less likely that Greece can repay even part of its Debts.

I actually don't know which story to buy into. Nor do Greek voters who have split their votes from far Left to far Right. In those circumstances, it will be tempting for someone to impose a Story and with a heavy hand. The Colonels did it in 1967 (with support from the Church, if I recall correctly: for the church it was all about banning miniskirts).

At the moment, we don't know who will do it this time. My guess is that Greece will default (even more than it has already defaulted) before we discover the answer.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War

This is a lively, well-written book which even though published by the best kind of university press (Harvard 2011) has a polemical, one-sided style and content which will no doubt attract commentary and criticism.

What the book does, most valuably, for an English (or West European) reader is to point out that the First World War was a war between Imperial powers, the strong among which all had designs on the territory of the weakest, the Ottoman Empire. In addition, Russia also wanted to seize territory from the second weakest Empire, Austria-Hungary - and from non-Imperial Persia.

Russia aimed to seize Austrian Galicia (Eastern Poland, Western Ukraine) and, after initial successes, failed; it did not succeed until 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved up Poland. That success proved enduring: Galicia is now part of modern Ukraine.

At the same time, Russia aimed to seize Eastern Anatolia (Western Armenia)and, more importantly, Constantinople and all such territory as was necessary to control the waters between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It made remarkable advances into Turkish territory as late as 1917 but never succeeded in either aim. Indeed, when the Bolsheviks finally made their peace with Turkey, the Turkish borders were extended eastwards into what had been Imperial Russian territory (Kars and so on).

Russia also lost the control it had achieved over northern Persia, though it tried again unsuccessfully at the end of World War Two.

Russia's Imperial drive was partly motivated by its perennial anxiety, border insecurity. With by far the longest land borders of any country, Russia always faced the problem of enemies across the border. Its Imperialist response was always to push to expand the borders - east (into Mongolia and China), South (into Persia and Turkey) and East (into Austria). At no point does it seem that anyone realised the paradox and futility of this behaviour, as if by making your borders even longer you could solve the problem of long border insecurity.

Mc Meekin writes from a position sympathetic to Turkey (he is a Professor at a Turkish university, Bilkent). He shows in a very interesting way how the Russians manipulated Armenian nationalists in their own expansionist interests, and abandoned them when it suited. Along the way, they certainly gave the Ottoman Turkish authorities cause to be wary of their own subjects.

But in emphasising Imperial predatoriness, he perhaps underestimates the real drive for autonomy and independence among national or quasi-national groups of the old Empires. In a similar if exaggerated way, apologists of Milosevic's Serbia (like the late Sean Gervasi), see only the predatory dismemberment of Yugoslavia by American imperialism, aided by their European allies, and fail to see the genuine drive for self-determination among increasingly reluctant and abused parts of the Yugoslav Federation.

In emphasising Russia's successes on the Eastern front, with consequent high morale, McMeekin has a bit of a problem with the overthrow of Nicholas and then the Bolshevik revolution. If the senseless butchery of Verdun and the Somme did not lead the citizens of France or Britain to string up their leaders from the lamp posts, how come Russia had a revolution when it was winning?

McMeekin does not answer this by pointing to failures on the Western front - the loss of Poland and then the Baltics. Rather, he suggests that the Tsar fell between two oppositions: those who believed he and his ministers were not prosecuting the war vigorously enough (because they were basically pro-German traitors)and those who believed that Russia should not be prosecuting the war at all, because it was an Imperialist war. In this scenario, the Provisional Government of March - October 1917 is an energetically pro-war government which came to power at a time of increasing war-weariness in the Russian heartlands. The Bolsheviks seized the opportunity this created with the call for Peace linked to that for Bread and Land.

There is a great deal of unfamiliar material presented and discussed in the pages of this unusual and very readable book.

Ken Livingstone's Bus Pass

I listened to Ken Livingstone's post-defeat speech. Looking back over his career, he pointed with pride to his role in the introduction of the Free Bus Pass and expressed his surprise and pleasure in now being himself a proud carrier of one.

There are two things here. First, that the major figure in London political life over decades thinks that Free Bus Passes are a defining issue in the management of a city of eight million people. In reality, they are no more than small electoral bribes. Second, that a man who is not short of a bob or two himself is not embarassed to flash a Free Bus Pass, paid for out of the taxes of Londoners.

True, Mr Livingstone also talked a bit about housing, in fact, about council housing. It was rather vague and spoken of as if on a par with bus passes. Again, two things.

First, all political parties in the UK have conspired over decades to make housing a scarce good in the interests of landowners, landlords, middle class homeowners and building companies. It doesn't have to be like that. There are wealthy countries (Germany is the obvious example) where housing - like food or clothing - is plentiful and cheap.

Of course, the politicians have successfully created huge obstacles to change so that there is little hope of serious restructuring: they have created the Daily Mail voters and they have created the NIMBYs towards whose interests planning legislation has always been tailored.

Second, London's housing is impossibly expensive because prices are driven up at the top end, with effects lower down, by non-resident purchases by international companies, wealthy Russians, wealthy Middle Easterners and so on.

In other places - the Channel Islands, Monaco - this kind of situation is dealt with by creating two housing markets: one for locally born or naturalised residents, one for all the rest. It would be a big and bold political step to do the same in London, with council housing or social housing (like Peabody)forming part but not the whole of local market housing.

There is an additional problem. London sprawls because of low rise housing, much of it squalid. Most of South East london should have been demolished over the past 50 years - compulsory purchase orders and sensible five to ten storey blocks of flats built to replace the terraces of Brixton, Streatham and all the rest. But by now, anything big and bold is off the agenda, short of a nuclear bomb.

Big and bold is beyond our reach. The sad thing about Ken Livingstone's farewell speech was that it was complacent and parochial - and could not be otherwise.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

News International and the Vatican: Compare and Contrast

There is no Wapping City State. As a result, the executives of Rupert Murdoch's business empire - and even Mr Murdoch himself - can be held to account for criminal wrongdoing. Of course, they can afford fancy lawyers and, more importantly, they can threaten politicians with eternal damnation in the pages of The Sun or The Times.

True, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are not the most robust and impartial police and prosecuting organisations in the world, but where there is a will there is a way. In the last week, in another case, the CPS has had to make a U-turn on a decision not to bring proceedings against a Metropolitan police officer recorded, at length, racially abusing a suspect

It is not just criminal activity which can be held to account. If those at the top turn a blind eye or show wilful ignorance, then they can be declared unfit to run large businessess - with all that entails for the likely success of take-over bids and so on.

In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has got the Vatican City State. Thanks to Mussolini, who created it in 1929 in a dodgy deal with the Church, the Church's top officials are outside the reach of the ordinary civil and criminal law of any country. They have got a territory, a bunker, where they can hide.

The benefits have been fully exploited over the decades and account, in part, for the frustration of the Republic of Ireland's government in trying to hold the Church to account for decades of sexual and physical abuse of children. There is no co-operation from the Vatican and no way of getting at Vatican archives. We can get at James Murdoch's emails but not at the Pope's.

At this very moment, the Vatican is engaged in a cover-up of a series of scandals (including a murder) partly exposed in recent leaked documents (the Vatileaks scandal - see my previous Blog). Whistleblowers are being exiled, documents shredded and goodness knows what else. No one can stop this happening.

The solution is simple. No one would grant Mr Murdoch a Wapping City State and no right-thinking person would have granted the Roman Catholic Church a state of its own. Mussolini's deal must be undone. Italy should re-incorporate the territory of the Vatican City State and make clear that the Church's headquarters officials are subject to Italian criminal and civil law.

Since there is an awful lot of work to be done to clear the Augean stables of the Vatican - opening the archives to researchers and investigators, going through the records of the Vatican Bank, interrogating those known to have been involved in criminal activity and in covering it up ... the list is very long - then in those circumstances Italy should be able to call for assistance from other member states of the European Union.

Meanwhile, it should park its tanks in St Peter's Square.

Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience

Russia was an empire, but (except in the case of Alaska) no oceans separated its centres of power from its colonies - only marshes, steppes and desert. The colonies were on the periphery - Siberia, Central Asia, Transcaucasia, the Baltics - but also in the heartlands over whose Russian peasants their masters - though often of the same race and speaking the same language - exercised an uncertain dominion. Russia's colonial history in many respects reflects this specific and unusual geographical character of the Empire.

Alexander Etkind comes at this subject as a University teacher of Russian Literature and Cultural History.

In the past (quite distant now), his subject matter would have been fair game for writers and intellectuals receiving no specific state subvention for their work. They would have produced belles-lettres, sometimes idiosyncratic and unreliable. Professors aim for something different and so Etkind pays his respects to the theorists of cultural history who matter in his world - Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin - though he largely spares us Derrida.

But having paid his respects, I am not sure that it makes much difference to what he writes. He starts from a Bibliography to die for (pp 257 - 82) and turns in some virtuoso performances, for example on the fur trade. But overall the book is a collection of sketches from an academic's album: seminar papers ("In this chapter, I will re-read these novellas together with two lesser known non-fiction texts by the same authors..." (page 214), biographical entries for little-known writers, "compare and contrast" literary essays,and - at worst - plot summaries and cabinets of curiosities. It is modern belles-lettres, with an academic cover story, and perhaps no worse for that.

On the other hand, Etkind does miss the opportunity for an integrated narrative of Russian colonial experience when he throws away a very interesting and important idea in just two pages (pp 143 - 144). He reprises this idea in his Conclusion:

"the Russian Empire demonstrated a reversed imperial gradient: people on the periphery lived better than those in the central provinces. The Empire settled foreigners on its lands, giving them privileges over Russians and other locals. Among all ethnicities in the Empire, only Russian and some other eastern Slavs were subject to serfdom..."(p 252)

This idea struck a lot of chords. Not so long ago I read Nicolas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers ( 2005). He shows how religious heretics (schismatics) originally exiled to the Caucasus to keep them away from the Orthodox in the Russian heartlands ended up both enjoying very obvious privileges, such as exemption from military service, and being relied on by the Imperial administration to provide valuable services to the Empire, for instance maintaining postroads and post stations on the Imperial periphery. At one and the same time, the heretics were outcasts, privileged and indispensable.

The Caucasus was also home to communities of foreign (mostly German) sects - Wurttemburgists, Mennonites - who were allowed enough autonomy to put their energies to long-term productive use. In the settlement of [H]elenendorf (after 1914, Elenino / Eleneno) in predominantly Muslim Elisavetpol guberniya, Wurttemburgists - who had arrived as far back as 1818 - produced wine and marketed it through a company of some importance, Concordia. The community survived until 1940 when Stalin exiled these Germans to Kazakhstan. There were a score or more communities like Elenino.

In another direction,the striking fact that peasants in the heartlands lived worse than those in the "colonial" periphery could be seen as critical to understanding both the collapse of the regime in 1917 and later (1918 - 21) features of War Communism.

In relation to the collapse, it was workers and peasants in the Russian heartlands who disproportionately provided the manpower to fight the First World War and who bore the brunt of German assaults. They were on the sharp end of the failings of the Imperial regime, not least the class (Estates, Ranks) system which made officers completely foreign to their men.

In contrast, and by way of example,for almost the whole war period, Russian Poland was under German Occupation. The subjects of the Tsar got on with their lives under German Occupation and parts of the civil administration were devolved to them. In the East, the Germans were not defeated - and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, they took control of even more Imperial territory (the Baltic provinces, Ukraine).

The Bolshevik re-conquest of Russia in the East - Ukraine, the Don and Kuban,Central Asia, Siberia - which involved the defeat of all the opposing "White" forces by the end of 1920 - also deployed soldiers recruited primarily from the Russian heartlands from among poor workers and peasants. As the Red Army moved south and east, into areas richer in food and other products than the heartlands, so it requisitioned produce for the centre - for Petrograd and Moscow. And, at an individual level, soldiers looted or acquired on favourable terms food and other goods which they shipped back home by post. In a very crude and violent way, there was a redistribution from the wealthier periphery to the poorer centre.

Under Stalin, that redistribution from periphery to centre became larger and even more lethal, culminating in the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932 -33 [ see my review of Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows in a previous Blog].

So I think that Etkind in the idea of the "Reversed Imperial Gradient" touched on something which could perhaps have been developed at much greater length and which might have integrated some of the disparate material in this interesting book.