‘I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade’.
So, famously, W. H. Auden begins ‘September 1, 1939’. This was the day on which Germany invaded Poland. The British and French declarations of war followed two days later. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the final stanza:
‘Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.’
We are, of course, slurring our way towards the close of a low, dishonest decade, not for the first time. And a lot of us are feeling ‘beleaguered’, for sure. But the point on which you catch your clothes—or your skin—is those damn pronouns. ‘We’, ‘’us’, ‘them’. And ‘the Just? Us, obviously, though, again, query ‘us’ (itself usefully contained in the words ‘dust’ and ‘Just’), and note Auden’s use of ‘them’.
‘There is no mystery about the Cantos, they are the tale of the tribe’, Ezra Pound wrote towards the close of the decade of which Auden was writing, ‘—give Rudyard credit for his use of the phrase’. But which tribe? He meant, I’d say, the collective human tribe; and was echoing a talk given by Kipling thirty years earlier.
We are, it seems, reverting to tribes again. ‘Everybody’s shouting “Which side are you on”?’, Bob Dylan sang on Desolation Row. It’s a topical question, for sure. One of the songs performed by Natalie Merchant and her guitarist Erik Della Penna in an outstanding show in Bath the other evening was the song Dylan probably alluded to, Which Side Are You On?, its lyrics written in 1931 by poet and activist Florence Reece, its melody borrowed from either the ballad Jack Munro or the hymn Lay the Lily Low. Reece’s husband Sam was an organizer for the mineworkers’ union in Harlan County, Kentucky, which was locked in a fierce struggle with the mine owners, who hired men, including a sheriff, to intimidate Reece.
The lines of battle would have been starkly drawn then, as they were in the context of Auden’s poem. For the bosses or for the workers; for or against fascism, genocide, armed conquest. And now? Pretty clear, you’d think—but no, seemingly not. You couldn’t make it up, I hear people say. End of days, the Librarian comments, watching the news from America or, nearer, groups of zealots wielding disproportionate power or divulging ‘the will of the people’—a slightly risky business since just 37% of the electorate actually voted to leave the European Union.
‘Probability? Nothing is so improbable as what is true’, Ambrose Bierce wrote in a critique of the realist novelist, William Dean Howells. ‘It is the unexpected that occurs; but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely—one might almost say the impossible.’ And, in an ‘Author’s Note’ to her huge novel of the French Revolution, Hilary Mantel remarked, ‘The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.’
I seem to come across half a dozen lucid, intelligent articles a week that set out or summarise where we’ve got to and how—and the dangers that we—the people and the democratic process which defines and enables us—are facing. And I know that, for the most part, their only readers are those who already know some or all of this stuff and will have reached similar conclusions. But what of the others?
One of the most baffling and frequently recurring questions is ‘just what would it take?’ And, in the United States, for instance, the answer seems to be that nothing Donald Trump might do, or leave undone, would disappoint or alienate his core supporters. Even after the recent Presidential trip to Europe, when he attacked his European allies, trashed the British Prime Minister’s policies and prioritised Mr Putin’s assurances over the painstaking work and unambiguous conclusions of his own intelligence services, nearly 80% of Republicans ‘approved of his handling of the Russian president at the post-summit press conference’, while 85% ‘think the justice department investigation into Russia’s meddling in US elections is a distraction.’
The former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, was quoted as saying that, ‘They couldn’t care less about what happened in Russia. They love this guy, they think this guy’s for them. These are low information, emotional voters and they like what they see in the president. They think he’s working for them.’
The phrase ‘low information’ rang a bell. One of the most striking ironies about the EU referendum is that a great many of those who voted in what would turn out to be the bitterest and most divisive electoral contest in living memory appear not to pay much attention to politics at all. The endless revisiting of Brexit ‘heartlands’ by journalists that still want to understand and explain it is not particularly enlightening but I’ve been struck by the number of times that people are quoted as saying that they don’t follow current affairs, that politics is ‘nothing to do with them’. The related irony is the widespread belief that their votes don’t really make any difference in General Elections—largely true given our antiquated electoral system and the huge proportion of ‘safe seats’—but that in this one case, the ill-conceived and worse-designed referendum, their votes actually did make a difference.
But I was remembering too a passage in Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America, where she’s citing a 1923 essay in Vanity Fair by the hugely influential journalist and political commentator, Walter Lippmann. ‘Education and the White Collar Class’ stressed the importance of widening access to higher education: without it, America would be left with ‘a literate and uneducated democracy’. Churchwell points out that ‘the distinction between literacy and education was crucial: what would happen to a nation in which voters could read, but weren’t well informed?’ What, indeed? ‘An uneducated but literate democracy would, Lippmann warned, elect the incompetent, the corrupt and the fascistic.’
We have in this country a largely literate democracy but not, I tend to feel, a very well-informed one on the whole. There are several reasons for this: some gaping holes in the standard educational fare, the poor quality of much of the national press, the increased distancing of government from people, the emasculation of local councils, the sheer noise of social media and the apparent illusion that because there’s so much available information it must somehow be absorbed into the mind—or simply through the skin perhaps. Then the effect of recent administrations has tended to produce indifference, a widespread lack of interest in the political process and an inability to take seriously what are genuine threats, now that there are factions in positions of power perfectly willing to see this country crash and burn rather than their view of it not prevail.
In the wake of the First World War, Pound wrote:
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor. . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
‘Liars in public places’: surely never more so than now. We are all—or rather, some of us are—wearing that tee-shirt.
 W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 245-247.
 Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New York: New Directions, 1970), 194; see too Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 294.
 Rudyard Kipling, ‘Literature’, in A Book of Words (London: Macmillan, 1928), 3-8. See Michael André Bernstein, The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 7-8.
 Ambrose Bierce, ‘The Short Story’ (1897), in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories, edited by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 2000), 259.
 Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), x.
 David Smith, ‘Solid support: why Trump voters don’t care about Putin controversy’, The Guardian (Saturday 21 July 2018), 26.
 Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 109, 110.
 Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, IV, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 551.