Last Sunday, as I drove the 200 odd miles up the motorway to the incomparable Gladstone's Library near Flint, in north Wales, I listened to one of Alastair Cooke's Letter from America. The boxed set of CDs frequently accompanies me on long journeys, and I'm often struck by how Alastair's musings, sometimes now half a century old, offer insights pertinent to the present time. The first one to play that afternoon had been prompted by the dinner that Ronald Reagan had been embarrassed into giving on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1982. Cooke was reminiscing about the time when, with his first American press pass, he had covered Roosevelt's appearance and speech at Harvard University's 400th anniversary celebrations in autumn 1936. The deeply conversation elite of that university would have preferred not to have a President at the event at all, certainly not a Harvard man and very particularly not FDR. Four years earlier the newly elected President had astounded all by doing a complete political volte-face. Instead of continuing with the party theme of de-centralization and giving more powers to the individual states, Roosevelt put the nation's finances firmly back into the control of the Federal Government. FDR had, Cooke explained 'lifted his eyes' to see the bread queues outside the rusting steel mills and launched his New Deal programme, intent on directly improving the lot of the forgotten millions of jobless and the 25% of families country-wide who had no money coming in.
Sadly when I muse, my thoughts stay in more prosaic territory. Delan-what? Don't know that I've seen his full name written. Sounds a bit Italian. Roosevelt - surely that's Dutch? Thanks to the programme, I did at least know what party he was from (I can really be a bit wooly about American politics). By a serendipitous quirk my first google search for his name brought up this New York Times article I think sometimes that my laptop will default to all things HK no matter what I search for ... but here I've got a forebear of the President, Mr. Gladstone, opium wars and the HK handover all in one. I had, of course, read about Gladstone's antipathy towards the retention and development of Hong Kong, or rather its promotion of opium addiction as a means to trade for all the consumer goods the west - and Britain in particular - wanted from the great closed empire.
And what was I doing at Gladstones? .... oh, blood and gore, hackings and choppings. Part of HK's rich (feminine) history. Mr. Gladstone would, I think, raise a critical eyebrow about the use of his Library for the retelling of such tales, but I doubt the story would have surprised him. His idealism did not blind him to the realities of human nature.