rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Angels of history

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 44 days from the election, the United States inches closer to a precipice. Just thinking through the possible ramifications makes me nauseous in the half-light of these pre-breakfast hours. The turbulence of the country’s 19th century history is back, in the early 21st century, at the beginning of the end of its global hegemony. Only this time round, the consequences cannot be localised. Civil liberties and the planet now depend on a few million unlikely and swing voters in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Another heroine died last week. I was not old enough to remember Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers, brandishing that little pistol with all the menace of a dessert spoon at a society dinner. It was only when she played opposite Miss Piggy in the Great Muppet Caper that I was first struck by her knowing, indulgent look – a look that seemed always to say, ‘Yes, but come on, it’s only a party game’. Her Lady Holiday, who had her ‘fabulous baseball diamond!’ stolen, with the pig falsely framed for the heist before Kermit and friends rallied to save the day, was just the latest in her line of characters of towering chic.

I saw her stealing the stage at the Albery, in June 2004, as Mrs Venable in Suddenly Last Summer. In those days I tended to scribble my notes blindly in the dark auditorium on a print-out of one of Michael Billington’s theatre review. The curtain lifted to reveal an enormous, searing space, thumping like a factory with a piercing, dissonant monotony (‘the vast garden-jungle set inside a circular drum’).

Hot, waaaay hot!” Rigg oozed.The one-act play is a brutalising stand-off between her with her daughter Catherine, Victoria Hamilton, shaking and twitching with each drumbeat of horror at what she has witnessed. Rigg delivered Williams’ lines like a lyric pugilist-poet, verbal jabs, doubling back, reeling you in. “Most people’s lives—what are they but trails of debris, each day more debris, more debris, long, long trails of debris with nothing to clean it all up but, finally, death.”

Bader Ginsburg said her ‘most fervent wish’ was to be replaced on the Supreme Court only under a new president.A forlorn sentiment, ringing with the pathos and tragedy of one of Tennessee Williams’s own imagined menageries.

Un omaggio

This reflection on the life of my boss, Giovanni Buttarelli, was originally posted on https://iapp.org/resources/article/memoriam-giovanni-buttarelli/ and has been repatriated here, a year to the day since he passed away.

I don’t have many photos of me and Giovanni. Just as well, because his svelte poise only threw into ever-starker relief the balding squatness of my advancing years. I found one, though, captured when with the assistance of my (surly) two year old, I had rushed a document for his signature before he went through the security gates at Brussels airport.

He was entitled to be confident, and not only because of his debonair demeanour. He had a global fan base, the extent of which we are only beginning to fathom, as the tributes come flooding in. But a more important endowment was his self-doubt. He concealed it expertly, but I believe it was what made him intensely sensitive to what other people thought and said, and what gave him his insatiable hunger always to do more and do better.

Thanks to him, our floor was suffused with the smell of proper coffee. “No coffee, no meeting,” he warned his personal assistant, arriving in the office one morning. On another occasion, she was scandalised when I said he had asked me for another tazzina. That would be his fifth of the morning, she said. No way. I will make him a decaffeinato.  

“We need to be more communicative,” was one of his refrains. But not too communicative: “We have to speak in an institutional language,” he would say if my drafts got too fruity. Overall, he wanted data protection to descend from its ivory tower, and demonstrate its relevance and value in the real world. He likened arid legal opinions to recitals of the Mysteries of the Rosary, which he would recall in monotone solemnity:

Nel primo mistero gaudioso ricordiamo l’annunciazione dell’Angelo a Maria Vergine…

Nel secondo mistero gaudioso ricordiamo la visita di Maria Santissima a Santa Elisabetta...

He worried about parochial jargon being a barrier for reaching out to non-specialists. Data protection was about showing respect for people. It was not an absolute right. It does not block technological progress or public safety or other things that society cares about; it’s essential for ensuring these things are done responsibly and sustainably. Take risks, don’t hide behind consent, but own those risks. Data protection lawyers, Giovanni would say, should not be like the Trappist monk from Non ci resta che piangere who appears from nowhere to harangue the unsuspecting Massimo Troisi with a reminder of his mortality: Ricordati che devi morire! Engage with the policy and be persuasive.

Giovanni’s priority as Supervisor was to be more ‘conversant with technology’. So in the first year of his mandate he went to Silicon Valley. He left convinced that the biggest challenge was not compliance with arcane data protection rules. Rather it was the assumption, across boardrooms, venture capitalists and garage start-ups, that the only way for digital services to be profitable was to track people, profile and target them. Giovanni began to pepper his talks and articles with the mantra of ‘the dominant business model’, before it became cool to do so. Only latterly did he have the chance to connect with fellow traveller Shoshana Zuboff when at the beginning of this year she came to Brussels to unveil her monumental exposé of “Surveillance Capitalism”. At his last public event, a high-powered powwow on privacy and competition that he co-hosted with the German Federal data protection commissioner, each of his fellow panellists echoed the phrase. Giovanni’s diagnosis was no longer eccentric and ‘out there’, it had become the new orthodoxy.

Giovanni was a policy entrepreneur. He spotted opportunities and threats on the horizon before others did. In 2015, with the data protection world absorbed with the GDPR negotiations and the judgments in Schrems and Google Spain, he pitched the concept of ‘digital ethics’. He argued that artificial intelligence and smart-this-that-and-everything challenged not so much privacy as the basic, universal and inviolable right to human dignity. He got the world talking about ethics and technology at the 2018 international conference of privacy commissioners. Now chatter about “ethics and AI” has become so commonplace it risks descending into banality.

Giovanni, following his predecessor Peter Hustinx, saw – again long before it became cool – that privacy in the age of digitisation was inseparable from market power and therefore competition enforcement. It was in his garage, setting off to deliver a speech to antitrust lawyers, that the idea of a ‘Digital Clearinghouse’ was hatched. It would bring together all willing enforcement agencies with responsibilities for digital markets. By July this year, he would share a platform with an outgoing Secretary General of the European Commission who called on multiple regulators to act as if they were single regulators, and predicted that the convergence between privacy and competition would be ‘a running theme’ for the next five years.

Giovanni was alone in 2017 in telling us that the novel obsession with ‘fake news’ pointed to an underlying, systemic data protection problem. Data protection was not just about the individual – it was a core safeguard for societal cohesion and democracy itself. It is now cool to say this. There is no greater compliment to the man than that he has others now reading from his playbook.

It was on such broad canvasses that Giovanni painted. But what most engaged him were the finer details of legal texts; he was a magistrate probing arguments, teasing out potential ramifications. Watching him in action from close quarters was a great privilege. He would not impose his views but lead you through legal quandaries to a satisfactory conclusion. For several brain-sapping weeks in early summer 2015, he convened marathon sessions with the EDPS’s best lawyers to pick over three competing versions of GDPR, by then into its fourth year of negotiations (the Commission’s original proposal, the European Parliament and Council amendments), along with the EDPS’s own extensive opinion from 2012. The result was a GDPR mobile app juxtaposing the different texts with the EDPS’s advice on how to resolve the discrepancies.

Privacy was his last profession and he practiced what he preached. He did not burden his closest colleagues with his personal affairs. And he never meddled with mine, except after I told him my wife was expecting again and he advised us to go buy ourselves a TV. There was no need for him to pry, because I know he cared.

The world was robbed of Giovanni too soon. His mind was awash with ideas. Recently he was finalising a ‘manifesto’* for the future of privacy. In one of his last messages to me, he said, to paraphrase, “This had better be the best document of all time. I want the whole world talking about it. Balls of steel.” Then, after a pause, “You too are playing with your future with this document. Get it wrong and you will end up in la merda.” In our final conversations, we spoke about the climate crisis and how technology instead of being part of the solution had instead become part of the problem with its carbon-emitting data-madness and reckless natural resource extraction. He had plans to visit China.

I wish I could remember more. I wish I had written down all his obscure Latin phrases and his tawdry Roman dialect expressions. But he has left us with plenty to be getting on with. So many words. Parole, parole. Some receding, others lingering, like ghosts at cockcrow.

Grazie, caro Consigliere.

* Giovanni Buttarelli’s manifesto, Privacy 2030: A New Vision for Europe, was published posthumously in November 2019.

Beyond the new Five Evils: Imagining a post-pandemic democracy


This is a sketch of an idea for a possible way ahead. Any comments are more than welcome so this post can be improved.

The global disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic is on a scale not seen since World War II. The pandemic has made the air cleaner, the streets safer, and forced us to spend time with our closest family members and/or find inventive ways to keep up relationships with other family members and friends. Restrictions are now slowly easing in many countries. It is not clear for how long. The reality is likely to be the globalisation of the SARS virus and its multiple mutations for years, even decades, to come. Subsequent waves of the virus are inevitable, but further near total lockdowns may not be tolerated by certain societies. Cataclysmic events necessitate rebuilding but not necessarily according to pre-cataclysmic plans.

There is a case for a coalition between people and organisations that want a more equitable, sustainable and resilient future for our democracies. It can begin with discussions across disciplines on three big broad fronts:

  • Deconcentrate markets and release sovereign democratic societies from dependence on benevolence of a handful of private digital monopolies that limit the scope for safeguarding privacy and other civil liberties
  • Using a mix of incentives, prohibitions and sanctions reorient work towards activities that respect the natural environment and empower the most vulnerable
  • Rebuild the public sphere and independent journalism, require information and communication monopolies to comply with public service standards

Economy and society

Certain industries and professions are suffering badly. The picture is mixed. The crisis could cull services of general societal benefit while entrenching those whose effects are deleterious to democracy, freedom and justice. Independent journalism was already reeling from Facebook and Google, who as advertising  intermediaries suck revenue out of news and, as social media companies, drove traffic to low-quality, outrage-inciting click fodder that sucked competition and trust out of the news.  With COVID-19, journalism is now in a critical condition.

Selective government interventions, lacking any intellectual cogency, create numerous absurdities. They provide free subsidies to small businesses selling vaping merchandise, while forcing independent dentists to stay closed leaving their patients’ teeth to rot.

Ultra-mobility enabled by fossil-fuelled travel seems not so essential after all.  Yet governments have been receptive to the airlines’ clamouring for bailouts. Similarly, the crisis exposes the overblown scale of the meat industry– yet the US administration has ordered meatpacking plants to stay open and slaughter animals that noone is going to eat.

The pandemic has not been a social leveller.  Office workers can work from home. People doing manual work cannot. Lower paid workers are told by governments to go to work and expose themselves to the virus on public transport.

Monopolies gain strength, at least relative to their competitors. Investors have decided since the onset of the crisis that the digital gatekeepers represented the safest haven for their money. Facebook has set up its own ‘oversight board’ to ‘moderate content’, where it suits them, on the digital public space that they own and control and that most of the connected world has no realistic option of avoiding.

American and Chinese digital monopolies are seeking to control the infrastructure of the internet, particularly around the Global South.  Mergers and acquisitions are the typical response to sluggish growth. Some antitrust and data protection enforcers have explicitly conceded an unwillingness to enforce the law during the pandemic.


The crisis has demonstrated the value of internet connectivity, as well as exposing the digital divide. The ability for people to remain in constant contact and hold virtual meetings, to broadcast news and entertainment has been priceless.  Connectivity has provided a lifeline for society in a lockdown. The dangers of allowing this infrastructure and applications to be controlled by a handful of private companies are now self-evident.

However, the crisis has exposed the breathless hubris of far-out technologies like ‘AI’ and ‘blockchain’. They cannot, after all, save the world. The hitherto burgeoning facial recognition industry has been snookered by face masks. But surveillance technologies are being deployed to enforce the lockdown. There are extraordinary images of drones that broadcast social distancing and roving robots that tell people to get off park benches.

Policy makers have been mesmerised by the idea of COVID-19 mobile apps when less than 70% of the global population own smart phones with mobile internet access. The elderly and children are almost by default excluded from this unproven solution. Accordingly, this has not been driven by epidemiological evidence or demand from frontline public health professionals. We hope it serves as more than a convenient distraction from failure of the state to provide basic necessary healthcare and precautions to all.

Google and Apple’s announcement of API to support only certain contact tracing apps has enabled them, as indispensable digital monopolies, to usurp the role of democratic state in as the purported guarantor of the right to privacy.

Democratic institutions

A generation is now reaching maturity who formative years have been against the backdrop of the financial crisis of 2007/2008, the rise of populism and techno-authoritarianism and retreat of democracy, the digitisation of almost everything, the first terrifying signals of global warming and environmental degradation, and now the great pandemic.

The de-globalisation and uncoupling of industrialised economies was already well underway, but has been accelerated by the pandemic. Supply chains had become too leveraged and vulnerable to shock, while governments slashed budgets and taxes for the already well-off. Sovereign democratic states are fully entitled to assert and rebuild self-sufficiency, but it cannot be at the cost of solidarity between those states. The transparency and accountability scorecard of governments has varied wildly.

The 21st century is likely to be defined by how the United States and China get along. The European Union project is facing the latest and greatest in a line of shocks stretching back to its aborted attempt to write its own constitution, now nearly two decades ago.

In spite of the unprecedented crisis, policymakers remain more concerned with preserving the hermetically sealed sanctity of their specialisms. Monopolies and markets, over here. National security, over there. Fake news and free speech, over there. Human rights, over there. Education, over there. Healthcare, over there. Environment, over here.

A new Beveridge?

The architect of the post-World War II welfare state in Britain, William Beveridge, targeted what he called the ‘Five Evils’ of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. The five evils a post-COVID globally-minded democratic society needs to target remain broadly the same. They require updating, however, because each of these ‘evils’ are the product of excessiveness, recklessness and the absence of democratic control.

  • Want: excessive wealth and market power are complicit in the perpetuation of poverty and malnourishment – inexcusable in an age of such abundance.
  • Disease: healthcare and medicine is the most lucrative of activities yet health inequality is growing.
  • Ignorance: corrupt government and the weakening or capture of democratic institutions, including the media, alongside the opacity of algorithmic dissemination of digital content, perpetuates prejudice, obfuscation of where real power resides, and scepticism of scientific knowledge.
  • Squalor: the result of disdain for and degradation of our natural environment.
  • Idleness: not so much people without employment as the absence of genuine value creation inherent in highly remunerative professions in finance, technology, consulting and public administration.


Rebuilding more just and sustainable democracies during and after the crisis requires addressing all of these interlinked challenges. Moreover, it requires working against the grain of increasing polarisation – not only between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but also within progressive movements. Algorithm-driven social media stokes these divisions, encouraging inane virtue-signalling and tone-deafness to alternative opinions that lack the requisite degree of ideological purity.

The first step could be a simple one: a beginner’s guide on why and how you should stop criticising your friends and allies.

Work-life imbalance

flowerThis COVID Spring is replete with pathetic fallacies. You can hear the birds, streets are safer for walkers and cyclists, the sky is no longer striated by aircraft fumes. In New Delhi children have seen a blue sky for the first time in their lives. Human have been forced to leave nature alone and the collective senation is staggering, like the Hebrew slaves emerging from Babylonian captivity in the final scene of Verdi’s Nabucco.

Meanwhile the crisis is going to produce many casualties beyond the actual lives lost. Journalists are being sacked. Pubs and breweries will fold. Funding and sponsorship will dry up for artists. The novelty of the crisis induces monumental lapses of judgment that expose the weaknesses in role models – some will be ignored, some never forgiven. Inequalities will grow starker, monopolies and autocracies more entrenched than ever.

The pandemic is also tipping back the balance of power in the workplace. CEOs sit prettier than ever. Office employees with contracts can hunker down amidst digital paraphernalia until it all blows over. Small businesses can be kept afloat by government largesse. Gig economy workers have nothing. Low paid manual workers still have to bus and tram to work and so more likely exposing themselves and their families to the virus.

Work-life balance had become a mealy-mouthed nostrum of the 21st century employer in the Global North, but in these curious times there is scant appreciation for people with caring responsibilities expected to work from home. People I hardly know except by their voice on the end of a digital connection – mostly men – may have nothing else worth doing in their lives other than work. My wife and I put on our professional voices muting out the background noise. I scamper away comedically from our three toddlers shutting doors behind me to find a quiet room within range of the wifi signal.

Endless virtual meetings run by people with no idea how to structure and chair and keep to an allotted time or how to allocate work efficiently… voices droning in the background as I boil pasta, empty the dishwasher, take a shit, fumble for the remote control to display Netflix or CBeebies, scramble for a connection to the afspraak with one of the kids teachers.

We pretend to hold it all together gracefully, because with the video disactivated and the sound muted you can hide the chaos around you. If the staid men in their silent, Empyrean home offices can detect what is going on, they are too discrete to comment or too aloof to care. (I should not bite the hand that feeds us.)

A good employer might say – Take care of yourself and your nearest and dearest. Think of your physical and mental health before anything else. I hear this a lot less since the lockdown. Some people having to look after kids or elderly parents or family members with handicaps cannot follow such soothing advice in these extraordinary times – they may have demanding clients who themselves are strugging to keep their heads above water – so they are forced to work at night.

These sleep deprived souls are already teetering on the edge of breakdown. Others may have the luxury of being able to slack off work – but while they are slacking, their lonelier, less encumbered – probably more male – colleagues are stealing a march. And who can blame them?

Even in lockdown a full-time job is a full-time job. But schooling just one child or creching just one toddler is also full-time job. Cooking and cleaning up after a family is a full-time job. Something has to give. (I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this blogpost.)

I am guilty too – my wife does more than her fair share of housework and childcare, even though her job is more important than mine. We feel like we are failing on each and every front. Still we keep on.

Privacy in the time of Corona

southkorea‘History is bunk’ – so said Henry Ford, allegedly.

He was wrong.

Privacy is not ‘bunk’ either, but its debased currency in public policy debates certainly is.

The current unfolding catastrophe has the rights to privacy and data protection under siege (or in lockdown, if you prefer) because, of course, all problems in the world would be solved if only we could ditch those constraints on the use of others people’s personal data.

It’s now “privacy or combat the corona virus” just like – in our now forgotten world of a few weeks ago – it was “privacy, or AI-driven digital growth” and “privacy, or [insert the thing you want to do]”.

The allure of dualisms is their simplicity, a quality we sorely miss in real life. I got thinking about this when I saw this local parish bulletin by Michele Loi, which is well worth reading, and this excellent twitter thread initiated by Paul-Olivier Dehaye.  We are having these wearying discussions because privacy has become a proxy for digital regulation; because data is collected all the time and we don’t know why or for whose benefit. We do know, however, that there are a small handful of companies and governments with the power to collect and use the data at scale, and that they are scarcely to be trusted.

So now, with a global emergency, we have an opportunity to make the data work for the general good, to use it protect our fellow human beings against a devastating virus.

Noone is seriously questioning whether we should suspend an individual’s right to be left alone and to be treated with dignity. We live in society so that we can look after one another. Such caring can require intruding into someone’s intimate sphere – metaphorically and digitally speaking, and ironically at the same time as physical proximity becomes taboo.  We consent to the intrusions if we believe authorities in charge are democratically accountable for their actions, that certain rights and freedoms can be temporarily limited or even suspended when necessary, but that certain rights – to life and to dignity – are always held inviolable.

I would suggest that those who claim privacy stands in the way of saving human life fall into one of three categories:

a) the mischief-makers (they want to profit from the crisis and in process rid themselves of turbulent regulations),

b) the under-informed (this is no cardinal sin – the laws on digital privacy have become far more complicated than they should be), or

c) the blinkered legalists, who think that reverence for the prolix prescriptions of the GDPR outweighs the need to combat the most serious global emergency since 1945.

Whoever is pushing this proposition, it is a dangerous fallacy.

The way privacy has been written into law may be bunk, but privacy itself never has been, is not and never will be. So stop worrying about privacy. Start worrying about governance, the rule of law and democracy. Those are the key battlegrounds for life and liberty in these surreal times. COVID-19 is democracy’s test run for the true reckoning facing our species in the coming decades: global warming.

The Hours

Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers: bleak hill-sides soften and fall in.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf was living in Rodmell, West Sussex when, on an early spring day during Britain’s darkest hour in 1941, she filled her overcoat with stones and threw herself into the nearby River Ouse. She was 59, and it was her third and successful attempt at suicide.

When I was young, I walked the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne, laden with tent, book and light wallet, an ancient thoroughfare over emerald hills dotted with round barrows and hill forts, a soft quilt laid on clay and chalk. On a sunny day the folds and creases of the Downs separate the variegated patchwork of the Sussex Weald from the twinkling English Channel. The South Downs Way crosses the Ouse at the village of Southease. This is where Woolf’s body washed up a few days after her disappearance. In high summer when I was there the river didn’t seem capacious enough to envelope and extinguish a human life, however despairing.

Last summer I read Woolf’s slim 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway. It rewards a swift reader able to take it in over a few sittings and be swept along in its rare currents – not the way I did: 15 precious minutes per day for several weeks, hunkering down in the toilet to evade mercurial toddlers and dyspeptic responsible adults. Woolf’s prose swoops and soars, the narrative voice a butterfly alighting from one of its multiple subjects to another, holding a microphone to their lonely thoughts.

It is one of the finest novels of the 20th century, and probably the finest to be set in London. ‘Fear no more’, the refrain in Clarissa’s mind echoes the heartbeat and the striking of the hours by Big Ben. (Henri Bergson’s theories of time were then in fashion.) The clocktower serves as the epicentre of the novel whose chimes in 1924 may still have been in earshot of each of its scenes forming an elliptic arc of narrative and geography – Westminster, Regents Park, The Strand.

The inevitable but still shocking climax is the suicide of poor, shellshocked Septimus Warren Smith. Unlike in Ulysses where Joyce eventually joins the paths of the two protagonists in the riotous brothel of the Circe episode, Woolf only once and fleetingly brings Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus together, and even then the one is unaware of the other. When she hears of his suicide she is initially put out that such unpleasantness should intrude on her party (‘with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on’). A short while later Clarissa seems attracted to the notion of oblivion that Septimus has now achieved, the lights going out at last.

I completed my reading while on holiday in Dębki, a Polish seaside resort on the eastern banks of the Piaśnica river as it empties into the Baltic Sea. The river formed the Polish-German border between the wars. A sign declaring ‘GRANICA’ in the severe, sinister font favoured during the period is still there on the northern bank of Lake Żarnowiec as a reminder, from which point the river resumes its course for another 10 kilometres before emptying into the sea. Here, one afternoon, my six-year-old and I rented a kayak adorned with a crocodile face and drifted downriver, weaving between other carefree holidaymakers, skirting the reed-beds in the company of dragonflies, pond skaters (or ‘water spiders’, as she called them) and the occasional swan. Later I returned to the place of embarkation to collect the bicycle. I cycled along an embankment as the sun sunk towards the horizon over hot empty fields. I pictured the uneasy peace in the area precisely 80 years ago, while Hitler and Stalin plotted their horrific double invasion and the Polish regime scrambled despairingly for international support. Within weeks the Nazis would launch their onslaught over that border. Poles undoubtedly had a sense of foreboding but noone could have predicted the scale of barbaric cruelty about to befall them. We kayaked downriver from the site of the first mass executions of Poles by the Nazis. Poland’s allies Britain and France sat on their hands.

Borders of the imagined communities of nations have shifted over the centuries in these parts like the sands along the duney northern European coastline. Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Belorussians and the neighbours have had their lives upended for centuries according to the vicissitudes of the ruling classes and their wars and marriages.

England knows nothing of this, though its immigrants and asylum seekers – those now ostracised by the xenophobia that at once fuels and is legitimised by Brexit – certainly do. Instead, the society rests on class distinctions that are the accumulation of a millennium of largely stable land ownership, insulation from revolutionary shock or foreign invasion (except for William of Orange’s invasion by invitation in 1688) and absence of population displacement. Such class distinctions explain Clarissa’s fey insouciance towards Septimus’s torment.

By contrast, in Septimus’s wife Rezia, Woolf depicts an unbearable loneliness where her vain words briefly illuminate and fade like sparks at night-time, reminders of the visible world that only proves its continued existence at daybreak: ‘at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it.’

…she feared time itself … the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence…

Clarissa, by contrast, is nonchalant, airy, too comfortable to be capable of empathy.  (Note Woolf’s sardonic interjection as the character’s recalls to mind an erstwhile kindred spirit: ‘If I ever have a moment (she will never have a moment) I shall go and see Sally at Ealing.’)

Historians are haunted by the spectre of the 1930s. In the novel, there is a chill augury in the scene of a band of boys with their guns marching up Whitehall.  Clarissa’s adolescent devotee, Peter Walsh, imagines them ‘as if one will worked legs and arms uniformly, and life, with its varieties, its irreticences, had been laid under a pavement of monuments and wreathes and drugged into a stiff yet staring corpse by discipline.’ The unspeakable cruelty of the Second World War began on the plains of central Europe while England filed its nails. Clarissa Dalloway, attractive, pampered, earnest and narcissistic, embodied her nation.

There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.


In memoriam to Clive James

On WH Auden’s ‘The Cultural Presupposition’.

‘Happy the hare at morning’ – is a fine beginning to a poem.  And the ‘rampant suffering suffocating jelly’ sounds like the sort of pointless insult Boris Johnson would fling at Jeremy Corbyn.

The poet surveys the inevitable decay and demise of all things. Art is humans flicking the bird at fate. ‘How comely are his places of refuge and the tabernacles of his peace’ – Auden parodies the Psalmist as an unsubtle reminder that religious paraphernalia are attributions of our own necessary comforts to an imagined Being – ‘The new books upon the morning table, the lawns and the afternoon terraces!’ (Yes, that couplet is plainly a Psalmodic pastiche.)

Then the poet takes a darker turn – most of his early poems are dark echoes and premonitions of war and cataclysm: ‘The galleries are full of music, the pianist is storming the/ keys, the great cellist is crucified over his instrument.’ Crucifixion returns us to Scriptures and the New Testaments horrific pivot, more horrifying still for the image of the ritual slaughter of someone on his very device of artistic diversion.

The final evocation of music as serving to drown out the cries of death, ‘that none may hear the ejaculations of the sentinels’ and the ‘sighs’ of the great mass of the expendable poor, ‘the thud of their falling bodies.’

‘Privacy 2030’, Giovanni Buttarelli’s ‘manifesto’

manifMy presentation of ‘Privacy 2030: A vision for Europe’ at IAPP Data Protection Congress, Brussels, 21 November 2019

What would Giovanni have said if he was still with us?

Well, first of all he would have noted that this event has coincided precisely with the
future-fictional setting of Bladerunner.

Now here we are, Brussels, 21 November 2019, and reports of imminent tech dystopia
are greatly exaggerated; at least in Belgium.

Shortly after Giovanni asked me to work for him, I would learn that there were three
moments in the now very congested privacy calendar where he would want to shake
things up, say something new – qualcosa di fico.

Two of these moments were IAPP moments: in springtime Washington DC around time
the cherry blossom briefly adorn the National Mall; and here in grey, soggy, autumnal
Brussels, when the people take refuge in cafes and strong dark beers.

Trevor Hughes and Omer Tene would always offer Giovanni a platform for his insights,
and it spoke to a deep mutual affection between them.

A year ago, he was here and announced his intention to publish a manifesto on the
future of privacy and digital society, looking beyond the GDPR.

So he would be grateful to the IAPP for publishing this week ‘Privacy 2030: A Vision for
Europe’, and to his seven eminent ‘fellow travellers’ – Omer, Maria Farrell, Malavika
Jayaram, Jules Polentsky, Rocco Panetta, Marc Rotenberg and Shoshana Zuboff – for
contributing their own reflections on the big theme.

He would have been moved that the first lecture in his memory would be delivered by
Commissioner – soon to be Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager.

There was a special chemistry between these two great thought leaders, though they
come from very different backgrounds, at opposite ends of Europe. It is clear that much
of what he believed in will be continued by her as she tackles the huge challenges ahead.

Giovanni’s three children Serena, Gianluca and Eleonora are with us today, and in their
charming company you sense their father’s calmness, lucidity and Sphinx-like
inscrutability, in this still traumatic period of coming to terms with such a loss.

Among the myriad Buttarelli awards, foundations and even meeting rooms being
proposed, it is Serena, Gianluca and Eleonora who will be the ultimate custodians of
their father’s legacy. And I want to thank them for their moral support in this project.

The manifesto is a meditation on the big challenges and a call to action.

It talks about the power of big companies and governments to do things with data and
technology. And it talks about the vulnerabilities of children, low paid workers,
migrants who have those things done to them.

It makes the link between digitisation and the environmental crisis. Our insatiable
enthusiasm for throwaway devices and generating more and more data is actually
increasing our carbon and biodiversity footprint precisely at the moment we are
supposed to be urgently reducing it.

It proposes ways the EU can empower people and address genuine social and
environmental problems.

It reflects what you could call ‘late style’ Buttarelli.

‘Late style’ in an artist is when she ‘constructs an alternative universe which somehow
helps us understood the world we live in now.’ If you read his blogposts, speeches and interviews over recent years, you see that
Giovanni wanted to call out things that were wrong.

But, at the same time, he retained a fervent pragmatic optimism for an alternative
future, and especially for the role of Europe in constructing it.
It may be the fate of most manifestos never to be implemented – but the good ones will
at least get people talking.

And indeed, the one instruction he gave me was to be provocative.
He warned that unless it made the cover of Time magazine, I would have failed and
could pack up my belongings and leave the building.
Well, Giovanni, if you’re listening it has not yet made Time magazine, though it has
featured in the latest MLEX data and security daily briefing. Baby steps.

So this is my last ghost-written tribute to Giovanni. And the best tribute I can offer him
is to help keep you talking about him long after he is gone.

I hope his manifesto will do just that.

Reading the ruins, or, Wait until we drop down dead

There are bad times just around the corner,
We can all look forward to despair,
It’s as clear as crystal
From Brooklyn Bridge to Bristol
That we can’t save Democracy
And we don’t much care.

The incessant heat and cloudless skies of this long summer have turned the dank and fickle Low Countries into the parched monotony of the Mezzogiorno. My Italian colleagues call this weather delizioso but it’s now conjuring the bleak prospect of the altered climate of our children’s generation.

The arseholes are in the ascendant, and the longer their arseholeyness prevails, the more inured we all become, a vortex of increasing susceptibility to ever more egregrious assaults on justice and dignity.  Trump brings his vitriolic demonisation of immigration and the free press to the gardens of Buckinghamshire and the British Prime Minister can do nothing but gurn and fawn. White supremacist Steve Bannon is given respectful attention on breakfast TV while an anti-Trump protester isn’t allowed to answer a string of aggressive questions. Essentially a Dickensian fraudster, Jacob Rees-Mogg gets daily airtime for being the living lanky parody of a stereotype. He erroneously cites an obscure chapter of English history to peddle the bullshit narrative of the UK being a ‘vassal’ state of the EU (King John, a French-dialect-speaking descendant of William of Normandy gave homage to the French him at Le Goulet with respect to his French territories – how the hell does that analogy work for a cack-handed Tory Brexit?).  The next journalist forced to interview him to boost ratings should be asking him to explore more the immediate historical precedents of the 1930s.

Trump, Bannon, Farage, Johnson, Rees Mogg, the Roma-baiting Matteo Salvini, and even Corbyn and his cult of followers, are all seemingly characters from a comic strip. But as they debase and further delegitimise politics they bring us closer to something resembling Fascism in the oldest democracies in the world. Fintan O’Toole, one of the best journalists chronicling our deepening malaise, wrote two weeks ago:  ‘Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed.’

I heard this morning for the first time in a long time Noel Coward’s There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner. It made me laugh out loud with lines like

From Colwyn Bay to Kettering
They’re sobbing themselves to sleep
The shrieks and wails
In the Yorkshire dales
Have even depressed the sheep

I assumed it was composed in the 1930s as a flippant and witty presaging of World War II. In fact he first released it in 1952, so two years before the end of rationing and five before Harold Macmillan would say that most people had ‘never had it so good’. In any case, the lyrics reward regular revisiting.  (I will never forget Kenneth Tynan’s account in his memoirs of his chance encounter with Coward at a New York restaurant: ‘”Mr T,” he said crisply, “you are a cunt. Come and have dinner with me.”‘)

Lastly, a tribute to Croatia who dumped England out of the World Cup and now are all that stand between a tedious and cynical French team and la Gloire.   I was sat during Arsenal’s inaugural season at the Emirates Stadium just above the away fans during a Champions League tie with Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian contingent sustained an apocalyptic din throughout the match, polar opposite to the cafe-latte-imbibers among the home crowd.  The people in my stand were largely silent and brooding, especially when Dinamo took a shock lead in the first half. Eventually when the Arsenal fans managed to muster a song, the travelling zealots turned to face us in unison and chant with admonishing fingers, ‘Ingleesh pussies! Ingleesh pussies’.

Such atavistic spirits could be harnessed to produce a surprising result this evening in Moscow.

Trump’s base base


Source: Barna Group 2013

“…and the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously.” Second Book of Kings 9:20

Every day I wake up to notifications from across the Atlantic of some fresh wickedness perpetuated by the United States Administration, occupying the airwaves as the evening moved west across the plains and prairies of North America. This parade of shocking news has become relentless all because of the festering ego of one orange man of German descent.

History has become more like an almanac, a series of extraordinary headlines forming layer upon layer of quickly forgotten outrage. Today we have abducting children from their parents at the Mexican border, lying about crime in Germany, provoking China into a trade war, and flouncing out of the UN Human Rights Council.

We have forgotten for example the shooting in Parkland Florida and Trump’s weasel offering of “thoughts and prayers”. On the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme following the massacre there was an interview with Patrick Carolan from the Franciscan Action Network. Gun violence is a right to life issue, he said. Trump in fact doesn’t enjoy support of vast majority of Christians. Those who support him are Christian in name only. They are not following the teachings of Jesus. They are obsessed with abortion which is only one ‘right to life’ issue, and one which is clouded by complexity and other compelling rights, notably the right of a woman to be in control of her own body. Trump wins 81% of the white evangelical and most Roman Catholic votes. It is hypocritical for leaders to offer prayers and thoughts without action.

Carolan was echoing the Epistle of James which has become more relevant than ever to the millions of people who espouse Christianity but act like self-interested monads, who make it a tenet of faith to reject the theory of evolution yet subscribe in effect to a brutalist, unforgiving strain of social Darwinism. To say that whatever befalls you is God’s will is no different from saying that evolution, or unbridled ‘markets’, determine the way creatures must be.  The right to have a gun does not supersede the right to live free from fear of violence.   “Stop pretending you’re Christian and start acting Christian. Stop worrying about what Trump says. He has nothing to do with being Christian or person of faith. We are not a moral nation if we allow children to be shot. You are not acting as people of faith if you oppose gun control.”

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2: 14-17.

A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals were hardly more familiar than atheists with the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ was the conclusion in a 1989 study (The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90’s, George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli). In 2012, a Christian polling firm (whose chart is pasted above) found evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees more than those of Jesus.

These are the people who form the base of Trump’s support. Everything he does is calculated to ‘shore up the base’. This is a new alliance of convenience – they deserve one another. These putative Christians have their plenipotentiary in the pasty presence of Mike Pence, adoring and silent at the President’s side. Even if they balk at Trump’s moral decrepitude they lionise him as if he were a modern day Jehu, the psychopath anointed by the prophet Elisha to destroy the House of Ahab. If we are lucky Pence is Saul, before the Road to Damascus, looking on approvingly at the stoning of Christian martyrs.  But these are not lucky times.

What the Church and perhaps the whole world needs now is a new generation of fire-breathing prophets, scruffy, raw and unrelenting like their Old Testament predecessors, acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly before the Lord, to clear the Temple of its hypocrites, thieves and apologists for child abduction.