(Harmen van Steenwyck, Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life: National Gallery, London)
The name on the local builder’s van parked just outside our window recalls a nineteenth-century book title. ‘“Socially and politically mean one thing in the end,” said Beauchamp. “If you have a nation politically corrupt you won’t have a good state of morals in it, and the laws that keep society together bear upon the politics of the country.”’ I’ve not actually read George Meredith’s novel, Beauchamp’s Career, but was happy to lean on Roy Foster, clearly familiar not only with Meredith but also Trollope, Disraeli, George Eliot, Dickens, Mrs Humphrey Ward and others, together with a raft or, rather, flotilla of critics, biographers, diarists and historians that had any bearing on his subject.
1871 was the date of the Meredith novel. A long way back—Victoria, Gladstone, the opening of the Royal Albert Hall, trade unions legalised, Stanley bumping into Livingstone, a UK census total (2 April) of 26,072,036—in some ways, at least.
In the early eighteenth century, E. P. Thompson remarked, ‘High politics was a predatory game, with recognized spoils, and [Robert] Walpole is to be distinguished chiefly by his systematizing of the means of corruption, with unusual blatancy.’ Through much of the nineteenth century, with England seen as primarily an industrial nation, foreign visitors went North to visit the ‘real seat of English power’, while London was regarded a place of idleness and corruption.
As economic power failed, the perceived centre of the economy shifted south. The last years of the nineteenth century brought ‘a new urban world to the fore, the world of inner London.’ Imperial designs increased as manufacturing aspirations declined – and London was the heart of the Empire.’
‘Unusual blatancy’ then: impunity now, with little attempt to hide the corruption, lying and hypocrisy that characterises the current English government. And Emerson’s 1836 remark that ‘The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language’ is still germane.
My younger daughter comes over from Barcelona: the first sighting for eight months. While she’s here, my elder daughter comes for dinner; the four of us together, first time in a long time.
How are you?
I’m all right, I say. Apart from my eyes, ears, teeth, leg and back.
(Leave it there, man, leave it there.
I leave it there.)
All too soon, politics edge in. Then and now, sitting at a dinner table, sitting down to a keyboard, I think, though briefly: don’t just rant about bloody Tories. Surely everyone in this country with a half-decent view of the world now rants about bloody Tories. Or is that too sweeping? I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative party was a serious and respectable political organisation. I knew reasonable, intelligent people who voted for them. They were the law and order party, the party of economic moderation and stability, the party of patriotism and national pride. Not my party but – respectable. All that’s gone, of course. They’re well on the way to becoming like the Republican Party in the United States, a cult, utterly divorced from truth, honesty, justice, fairness, the national interest, democratic principles and the rest. All those Conservative MPs had their chance, they had several chances – but chose not to take them. Any claim to moral authority or ethical standards is now long gone.
I think of Elizabeth Bishop writing to her friend Pearl Kazin in 1953, mentioning a piece in Darwin’s Beagle journal about a Brazilian complaining that English Law gave the rich and respectable no advantage over the poor. ‘It reminds me of Lota’s story about a relative, a judge, who used to say, “For my friends, cake! For my enemies, Justice!”’
(Mabel Frances Layng, The Tea Table: West Park Museum, Macclesfield)
Cake, yes. Having it, eating it. Could we say ‘no advantage’ now? Hardly, when rich men frequently bring libel actions against investigative journalists who have looked into their dealings with offshore accounts, tax havens, foreign agents, cyber hackers, purveyors of fake news and the like, in an attempt to shut down those journalists’ researches.
The day descends. Russian forces continue their genocidal campaign in Ukraine. In India, Jignesh Mevani, a prominent campaigner for the Dalit community, is arrested for tweeting criticism of Prime Minister Modi. Police clash with Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem. In the US, car crashes have been overtaken by guns as the main cause of death among children and teenagers. In France, the far right are in serious contention for the Presidency, while Leave and Tory voters in this country apparently favour Le Pen by a margin of some 13 points. In Singapore—which currently ranks 160th out of 180 territories in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index (behind Belarus and Russia – yes, really)—Terry Xu, the former editor of the Online Citizen, has been jailed for three weeks for defamation over a letter published on the site that alleged corruption among government ministers. And here – we read the headlines, watch members of parliament defend the indefensible (not least the latest vicious and absurd proposal to traffic refugees to Rwanda) and wonder how we ended up here.
No, of course we don’t really wonder, because we already know. We know. But the knowledge hurts.
 R. F. Foster, ‘“Fatal Drollery”: Parliamentary Novels, Outsiders and Victorian Political History’, in Paddy & Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 139-170.
 E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 214.
 Alan Howkins, ‘The Discovery of Rural England’, in Robert Colls and Philip Dodd, editors, Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920 (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 65.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 51.
 Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 255. ‘Lota’ is Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom Bishop lived in Brazil for fifteen years.