La Grande Illusion: Journal Secret du Brexit by Michel Barnier
I started reading this when it came out a couple of years ago and only finished it very recently. God, it nearly killed me. Despite a genuine interest in the subject matter and great admiration for how Barnier managed to keep the EU 27 together (honestly, there is a man who has worked with every politician in Europe and who used that contact book) and deal with the UK, this is a really, really boring book. It’s like an excellent briefing note or textbook. There is almost no gossip or personal detail. Even Covid barely gets a mention.
Barnier is wearily aghast by the rotating cast of characters the UK sent to negotiate. He is unfailingly polite though one does get the sense that he does not like David Frost. But the only person who really seems to get on his nerves is Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s right hand man. He seems to have been busy attempting to shaft Barnier and Barnier was roused to genuine ire. That’s it really. There was the (pretty limited) thrill of seeing people I knew from the Commission years ago now elevated to stratospheric heights including one woman who went out with a good friend of mine for a while. I asked him whether it was the same person and he confirmed that it was. She was not a native English speaker and at their unhappy breakup apparently her final words to him were, “Thanks for improving my English anyway”. Well, she’s using it to good effect now.
There was a funny story about when Chirac (before his elevation to President) came to some event Barnier was hosting in Savoie (Barnier’s home turf, he loves Savoie). First question to Chirac from the audience was from an irate woman who upbraided him and said that what he was saying was in contradiction to his actions in Paris and did he think that they were incapable of reading the newspapers in Savoie and knowing what was going on. “Who is that woman?” hissed Chirac to Barnier. “She’s my mother,” said Barnier apologetically. At the very end he tells us that his mother-in-law was a strong woman from North Ossetia. Clearly the forceful older lady was a theme in his life.
Barnier is a big, big fan of Charles de Gaulle. Steve Barclay, third Brexit negotiator, decides in 2019 to serve up to Barnier a bit of CDG wisdom. Barclay’s calling on the EU to be flexible and says “The great political leaders have always respected the need to take risks. And it is General de Gaulle who said, ‘a real statesman is someone who is ready to take risks.'” I’m not quite sure what Barclay was hoping to achieve by this but when he met Barnier in Brussels, Barnier said that he was particularly touched by his reference to the General. So far so good. Then he said that he did not accept the use of the phrase here, the risks were too serious for posturing. The parties were speaking of preserving peace on the island of Ireland and the integrity of the single market. He goes on to say that there are two things that Mr. Barclay should know about the General. Firstly that he implemented the Treaty of Rome when he became President and was very in favour of the common market. And secondly that the General was very fond of Ireland and had personal and family ties to Ireland. So there. I paraphrase.
Twitter is a big feature of the book and a lot of engagement takes place over Twitter and in my view that is, at best, unhelpful. I think the demise of Twitter might be a real help to diplomacy.
Nano Nagle: The Life and the Legacy by Deirdre Raftery with Catriona Delaney and Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck
Herself got me this for Christmas. It was one of those presents where you think, “Thanks?” It took me months to get started and it took me months to finish it when I got going. Mostly this was because this is a pretty academic text. Each chapter is a bit like a scholarly article in itself. The authors did a lot of research and we heard about it. There is a lot of digging around in old convent archives, checking through invoices and the like.
Surprisingly little is known about Nano Nagle’s own life given that she lived in the 18th century, was from a prominent, wealthy Catholic family (which took some doing at the time given the disincentives for wealthy people to remain Catholic) and was the foundress of a religious order. So her life is pretty much disposed of in chapter 1. Here’s a picture of the woman herself from the Crawford gallery. Or an imagined picture anyway as I note that she died before the artist was born.
I had possibly heard previously that Nano Nagle was a cousin of Edmund Burke but it came as a surprise to me all over again. His mother was a Nagle. From our friend Wikipedia “Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland. His mother Mary, née Nagle (c.?1702–1770), was a Roman Catholic who hailed from a County Cork family and a cousin of the Catholic educator Nano Nagle“. I said as much to herself who had texted me that she was reading Burke’s “The Sublime and the Beautiful.” I was naturally anxious to point to his Cork roots from where, clearly, his genius sprang. Response from herself: “Appaz, he’s a colonial tool or something. So stay humble.”
I digress. The book itself was mostly about the 19th and early 20th century expansion of the order and, honestly, the scales fell from my eyes. These women, what they did with nothing: their enterprise, their hardiness, their devotion. They were asked to set up a school on a Friday and they often turned up within the week to set up in deeply unsuitable premises (for living and schooling) and enrolled hundreds of children. There were the nuns who only had a board for a table and two beds and almost nothing else. The combing of the archives indicated that people left lots to the nuns including odd things like a chandelier which can’t have been at all practical. I hadn’t previously realised that nuns’ dowries can’t be spent, in case they leave, but the interest on the dowries can be spent and invest it and spend it they did building convents and schools all over the world. Some crazy bishop brought them to Newfoundland giving no indication of the likely hardship so one can only imagine the surprise in the mother convent in Ireland when they received a letter from one of their sisters there indicating that she would have to end her letter as the ink was freezing in the inkwell.
The order was set up not to take money for educating children and they basically stuck to that. Their focus was on the poor. The Mercy nuns (I am a Convent of Mercy girl) were more willing to take fees although they started out similarly. In fact their foundress, Sister Catherine McCauley, served her novitiate in the Presentation Convent on George’s Hill (something not much covered in my Mercy education). The French orders were seen as a bit of a step above (the Ursulines, the FCJs – where my mother went – and the Sainte Union) but the Irish orders provided education to everyone and went all over the British Empire.
I read an article by Polly Devlin quoting Carmen Callil who apparently said “If you’re convent-educated, you have no self-confidence at all”. Honestly, I have to say, that I feel that’s a bit true for the later 20th century in any event. I cannot in all honesty say that the Mercy nuns instilled in me a great sense of confidence. But I feel now that this is a bit reductive and ignores an astounding legacy.
Ironically Carmen Callil attended a Presentation Convent where Germaine Greer also attended. In the book blurb the latter is quoted:
I’m more like them than I am like my mother. I owe them more in a way because they loved me more and they worked harder on me than my mother did. They really loved us. I realise that now, although I didn’t realise it at the time.
A couple of weeks ago, I was passing George’s Hill, one of the earliest established Presentation Convents where the archives are now kept. It’s in a part of Dublin which remains very deprived. As I cycled along a crocodile of small boys and girls, little working class Dubliners chatting animatedly and holding each other’s hands went into the school two by two. Although I imagine Nano Nagle would have been surprised by the diversity of the group and the tracksuits, it is still recognisably her order doing what she set them up to do more than 300 years ago. How’s that for a charism?
Madly Deeply – The Alan Rickman Diaries edited by Alan Taylor
I found these quite disappointing. They got good reviews but they are quite dull. A lot of famous people I went to dinner with which fine, but not fascinating. The bits I found most interesting were where he talked about his own family and the death of his mother. But mostly it’s a pretty boring recitation of where he was and who he’s meeting. I hadn’t quite realised how peripatetic actors’ lives are.
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries (Volume 1): 1918-38 by Chips Channon edited by Simon Heffer
OK, now, this is 1000 closely written pages and it is only volume 1 of 3 – just so’s you get the picture. This man is a prolific diarist. Weirdly, I was slightly reminded of Alan Rickman’s diaries as there is a lot of name dropping. Honestly, you go through 1918 learning the names of millions of French aristos as he climbs the social greasy pole only to find them completely irrelevant as he heads off to England and ingratiates himself into a new social milieu. For an Irish person, England is more rewarding as the names are all familiar (that’s the English ruling classes for you). He himself is an American. He marries a Guinness heiress. His brother-in-law to be comments that the Guinnesses are the Medicis of our times. Indeed.
I was a bit torn about this book. You can’t read 1,000 pages of someone’s diary entries without beginning to feel some kind of affinity or relationship with them. He is awful but then you are seeing him from the inside and things he would confide to his diary are not necessarily what he would say. Nevertheless, I read it in tandem with the Nano Nagle book and their lives are almost comically opposed.
Still, he is on the inside. He has a ringside seat for the abdication (having just managed to ascend to the tip top of the social scale by having the King for dinner, you can only feel for him as it all tumbles about his ears); he is a major appeaser, loves the Germans and had a fantastic time at the Berlin Olympics where he was a VIP guest. So, not a man without flaws, but a good eye for details and the inside track on everything. If I am feeling strong I may go for volume 2.
Occasionally, it is (unintentionally) very funny. I give you this extract from an entry from December 1936:
I woke from a deep dream in which I had travelled to Paradise, and there most unexpectedly found Wallis Simpson enthroned with the Archangel Gabriel at her side – and, lo! – his face was that of Lord Cromer, and the Archbishop, look as I might, was nowhere to be seen. You see Chips, she greeted me in the nasal drawl that is as attractive as it is irritating, if I couldn’t be Queen of England, I’ve got to be the next best thing, for I’m Queen of heaven?
I found the editor a bit irritating from time to time also. While the footnotes are indispensable and it is clearly a labour of love, there was something about the tone that irritated me. Take these two on Irish matters:
George de Valero (1882-1975), who had changed his name, whether legally or otherwise, to Éamon de Valera by the end of the nineteenth century, was a New York-born Irishman who came to prominence during the 1916 Easter Rising; he avoided execution because of his American birth. He was President of the Executive Council of Ireland from 1932 to 1937, and Leader of Fianna Fail from 1926 to 1959. He was Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, of Ireland three times between 1937 and 1959, and President of Ireland from 1959 to 1973. De Valera used the abdication as a moment to end the Irish Free State and create a republic, removing from the Irish constitution the notion of a ‘King of Ireland’.
Personally, I’ve never heard of George and I thought that “whether legally or otherwise” was a bit snide.
A war of independence in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 was then followed by a civil war in which one Irish faction attempted to wipe out the other. Ireland was poorly equipped economically for independence and these higher taxes were a part of the attempt to make ends meet.
I mean, although admirably pithy, does this not look like it’s slightly glossing over the role of the former colonial masters in all of this?
The Other Guinness Girl A Question of Honor by Emily Hourican
I only read this because it is a fictional re-imagining of the life of Mrs. Honor Channon, Chips’s wife over approximately the same time as volume one of his diaries covers. I cannot recommend. The author, was obviously working from the same source material as I had recently read so there weren’t many surprises. I didn’t really think it worked as a book and, to be honest, Honor seems just as enigmatic at the end as she did in Chips’s diaries and very, very saintly which I consider a bit…unlikely. I mean, she may have been but it doesn’t really convince.