(James Salter and Robert Phelps, via Narrative magazine)
On 12 June (close enough) 1975, in a letter to Robert Phelps, James Salter wrote: ‘Why is it so difficult to assemble those things that really matter in life and to dwell among them only? I am referring to certain landscapes, persons, beasts, books, rooms, meteorological conditions, fruits. In fact, I insist on it.’
Why is it so difficult? The temptation for a lot of readers would be simply to answer: ‘Money.’ But it’s rarely simply a question of money.
Towards the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, asks: ‘Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.’
The four main characters in Ford’s novel are not short of cash and ‘everybody has the wrong thing’ gets a little closer to the real point. In what may—or certainly should—be a defining moment in the election campaign, the Prime Minister answered a nurse who had asked why her net pay had not increased in the past eight years by saying: ‘there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.’ Apart from the sheer offensiveness of that response, the untruth was also very striking. As several commentators have pointed out in the past few days, if we’re talking about banks or controversial weapons systems, there certainly is a magic money tree, to the tune of tens—or hundreds—of billions of pounds. It is always a matter of choices, always a matter of priorities. (And these days, when a politician refers—with furrowed brow—to the need to make ‘difficult choices’, you know they mean ‘choosing to make life more difficult for you suckers’.)
We don’t pay nurses properly or seriously tackle the housing crisis or sufficiently fund education or social care or local councils not because there isn’t sufficient money to do so but because the government chooses not to.
Obviously, some voters believe or assume that the government’s current priorities are the right ones. Others think that the important things are the ones that identify a truly civilised society: education, health, housing, the environment, social care, a humane welfare system, public libraries, pavements that you can actually walk on, stuff like that.
Can it change? Of course it can. Will it change? We should have a better idea, come Friday morning.
 Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre, foreword by Michael Dirda (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 143-144.
 Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 181.