(Thomas Bewick, ‘Dromedary’)
‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’
I suspect that—‘dreary as a dromedary’— we’ve all been there. Not to bask in the alliteration but to glimpse the dromedary’s view of a day: plod, plod, plod – then a nosebag at the end of the day, if you’re lucky.
‘Arras’ used to signify a tapestry, a hanging screen, of the sort that Renaissance heroes or villains were forever thrusting swords through or maids or villains were pressing their ears against to overhear crucial intelligence—until I first read about the First World War. Then it became a battle, most famously—for literary historians—the battle in which the poet Edward Thomas was killed, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. So too was Tommy Nelson (Thomas Arthur Nelson), to whom John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated—they were both partners in the publishing company—while Buchan’s brother Alastair was also fatally wounded there, though not on the same day.
The poet Ivor Gurney was wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen, so two days before Edward Thomas’s death; while Siegfried Sassoon at Basseux on that Easter Monday was close enough to hear the guns at Arras, where Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.
104 years on, though, I suspect we’re largely back behind the arras: eavesdropping, occasionally subject to Renaissance villains thrusting blades through, tragedies of blood, the old stories. . .
Even in a country still largely in denial about the Brexit fiasco—and many people who predicted exactly how this would turn out are finding that there’s very limited satisfaction in being proved right about a disaster, as we’d already learned from predicting more or less how the invasion of Iraq, lacking legality and hard evidence, would turn out—even given all that, I say, there’s been an extraordinary amount of utter nonsense unleashed on us recently.
A highly suspect report exonerating the measures taken by the Metropolitan Police at Clapham Common—notably, male violence against women peacefully protesting the death of a victim of male violence—followed by a widely-criticised report which concluded that there was no institutional racism in this country, all in the teeth of the evidence or rather, picking the teeth of the evidence and carefully ignoring the bits of expert testimony that didn’t fit the predetermined narrative. Then there was— there is!—the ludicrous business of statues, policemen and policewomen milling around a statue of Winston Churchill. And flags. Lots of flags. Very small politicians, sometimes with very small flags, but sometimes with very large ones.
There was a famous meeting at Balmoral, 9 April 1912, attended by Bonar Law, Walter Long, Sir Edward Carson and other luminaries. In the centre of the show grounds was a signalling tower with a flagstaff ninety feet high. The Union Jack unfurled was forty-eight feet by twenty-five. ‘It was the largest ever woven’, the historian George Dangerfield remarked, adding dryly: ‘Patriotism could do no more.’
A little later, he remarked: ‘There was a method in the Unionist madness. Such was the state of English nerves in those days, that violence made a stronger appeal to the public than any other form of speech and action.’
And here we are. Hard to believe, of course, given what we—what some of us, why not all of us?— know and have known but. . . here we are.
I wonder, sometimes, why my only reliable guides to the current state of things are Devi Sridhar, Marina Hyde and Cold War Steve. But I look at the front pages of the national newspapers every morning on the BBC website — and that reminds me.
 Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.
 John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.
 Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.
 Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.
 George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.