Before and after

Allen_Tate Tate-Memories

Allen Tate remembered his young self wondering (he was born in 1899), ‘What effect could a war in Europe have on me? No more than the news of a thunderstorm over at Deer Park. I could not know that August 5th, 1914, was the end of the nineteenth century, and that four years later, when I entered college, I would be in a new world so different from the old that I would never quite understand it, but would be both of it and opposed to it the rest of my life.’[1]

That ‘before and after’ sensation is more strongly established now, though there are still people apparently believing—and sometimes being encouraged to believe—that at some unspecified point in the future everything will go back to ‘how it was before’. Meanwhile, the global death toll has passed 700,000, with a Covid-19 fatality every 15 seconds.

Writing from China of the point in late January at which ‘nationwide self-isolation began’, Wang Xiuying observed: ‘it was said that Chinese people fall into two groups: cat types and dog types. Cat types were likely to suffer less from the quasi-house arrest that drives dog types mad.’ Not just Chinese people, I suspect, fit neatly into these two categories


Unsettlingly, Wang Xiuying also writes that ‘Liberal sentiment in China is at a low ebb. The pro-democracy cause has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times?’[2] That’s surely a question that will engage more than one future generation of Americans.

And yes, here in the UK, despite frequent confirmations of the lethal mismanagement of our government’s response to the pandemic, along with corruption and cronyism which is now not only unchecked but frankly undisguised, we can at least be grateful that we’re not in the United States. It took me a while to remember that my uncle used to live in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife left Portsmouth in, I think, 1953 and went to Canada. After some years there, with two sons by then, they moved down to Oregon. I didn’t know him well enough to be confident about his likely allegiances but I suspect he was a moderate conservative, so probably a Republican back when that party was still a serious and respectable one. As a decent and civilized man, though, I can be sure he would have been appalled by armed thugs in the streets of his home town attacking and teargassing peaceful protesters and strongarming them into unmarked vehicles—and both puzzled and distressed by a President mustering a private army and fomenting civil unrest.

Requiescat in pace, Peter.


[1] Allen Tate, Memories and Essays Old and New 1926-1974 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1976), 17.

[2] Wang Xiuying, ‘Diary’ (dated 2 April), London Review of Books (16 April 2020), 37.

Flickering optimism


(Vera Brittain and her brother Edward, 1915: )

‘Words of grief become almost meaningless in these days, they have to be used so frequently. But one does not feel any the less. Sorrows do not grow lighter because they are many.’[1] This is Vera Brittain, writing in June 1915, less than a year into the First World War, in which Brittain’s fiancé, younger brother and two close friends were all killed.

It’s a little over three months since the first death from Covid-19 was reported in the UK. We are 50,000–60,000 deaths further on from that now. A smallish island off the west coast of Europe which has seen the second highest total of Covid-19 deaths in the world. Second only to the United States, so little more needs to be said—except, perhaps, that this government’s domestic approval rating is the lowest in the world, nestling beside Mexico’s and below—below!—that of Donald Trump’s America.

There have been several notable shocks to the system in the last week or two – in this time of pretty constant shocks to the system. Perhaps the first was the Health Secretary claiming that the UK government did the right things at the right time – which surely took the breath away of any sentient being who had been paying attention. Secondly: the Prime Minister asserting that he was proud of the way this country and his government had dealt with the pandemic.

The third thing was an article in the New Statesman by Edward Docx—together with some of the responses to it on the letters page of the next week’s issue—about intensive care consultant Dr Jim Down and his colleagues dealing with the pandemic at its absolute peak of deaths from Covid-19 in hospitals, in harrowing and quite impossible conditions, with breathtaking and humbling courage, skill and devotion. It was a devastating article which should be – but, alas, won’t be – read by everybody.

New Statesman (29 May – 4 June 2020), 24-33.


(Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro)

The fourth thing was watching again the superb Raoul Peck documentary centred on the remarkable James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, which blew me away the first time and—well, well—blew me away the second time too. I felt just as sickened as the first time around by the footage of racist cops beating Rodney King, and by that lonely walk of Dorothy Counts through a rabid mob of white folks brave enough to scream and spit at a fifteen-year-old girl. I found it worryingly difficult to distinguish recent footage of murderous racist violence from historic footage of murderous racist violence—and very hard to differentiate American police and armed militia.

The fifth thing was footage and stills of, and commentary on, the toppling and sinking of the statue of Edward Colston in my home city of Bristol. My initial doubt about the way in which it happened centred on whether too much had been given away to reactionary elements in this country and beyond. I think now that the positive responses and effects since then have clearly outweighed that consideration, helped by some lucid and insightful pieces by historians, notably David Olusoga:

Hannah Rose Woods has a good piece too:

So even now, in the midst of a pandemic, with our flailing government and with appalling scenes in the United States still streaming across our screens, it’s hard not to feel a flicker of optimism that something might finally be changing for the better, that George Floyd’s killing will not simply be remembered as yet one more police killing of a black individual – because enough people have decided that they will not allow that, and are acting on their decision.


[1] Entry for Thursday 10 June 1915, Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913–1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz, 1981), 206.