Friday the thirteenth

Alfred-Rethel

(Alfred Rethel via oldbookillustrations.com)

Friday the thirteenth, appropriately enough, and a great many people now have precisely the government they deserve. Sadly, the rest of us, who deserved something infinitely better, also have that same government.

At least we are in Bristol where, now that this country is officially a lunatic asylum, we can at least claim to be in a small island or oasis of sanity (four seats: four Labour MPs).

Does this help? Less than you might think. . .

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’—Lawrence Durrell

 

Cheerful notes from literary history

Boat.Upturned

(The Ship of State)

The United Kingdom (as it’s currently known) goes to the polls tomorrow and I wish I felt a little more confidence in the British electorate. An astonishing number of people seem willing to ignore the threats to the survival of the National Health Service, working families forced to go to food banks, teachers having to use their own money to buy stationery and food for their pupils, homeless people dying on the streets. The obvious question is: do they not know or do they not care?

Thinking back to the much-quoted comment on the 2016 referendum—that people don’t mind being lied to if they like the lie they’re being told—we’re seeing now, unsurprisingly, the corollary: people do mind being told a truth if they don’t like the truth that’s being told.

In Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers, there’s a police ‘Reward’ poster headed: ‘Have you seen this chicken?’ It’s the criminal penguin in an absurdly obvious red rubber glove doubling as chicken comb. Wallace, never the sharpest tool in the box, exclaims at one point when the penguin has donned the glove: ‘It’s you!’

WrongTrousers

In Steve Bell’s cartoons of late, Boris Johnson has adopted ‘the scarlet rubber gauntlet of integrity’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/picture/2019/dec/09/steve-bells-if-boris-johnson-gets-ready-to-fight-the-election and Johnson in person has been no more convincing than the penguin. Yet many have, it seems, chosen to be convinced. There has, of course, been a relentless and sustained media onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn, for several years now, mainly in the trashier Tory papers—Sun, Express, Mail—but with some substantial if less hysterical help from the Times and the Johnson outlet, the Telegraph, collectively representing the Labour leader as a threat to western civilization. But I don’t know – he doesn’t despise ordinary people, doesn’t hide from interviewers or nick their phones and doesn’t lie through his teeth. Is he just too old-fashioned?

Frankly, the Labour manifesto seems to me the only chance our failing country has to reverse its precipitous decline—and if you think their manifesto’s too radical, then it’s just as well I don’t get to enact mine.

11 December. Surely there are some cheerful notes from literary history?

‘On Monday 11 December [1916]’, D. H. Lawrence sensed ‘a terrible wave of depression in Cornwall with people in Penzance market saying England was beaten, as the news came of the fall of Asquith and his replacement by Lloyd George. For Lawrence this was the death-blow to the liberal and decent England he had cared about . . . Now finally the old England was gone, replaced by the “patriotism” of Horatio Bottomley and the demago­guery of Lloyd George.’[1]

(Two years later, Lloyd George was returned to power at the head of a coalition government with 478 ‘Coalition’ MPs, the vast majority of them Conservatives. John Maynard Keynes famously asked ‘a Conservative friend [Stanley Baldwin], who had known previous houses, what he thought of them. “They are a lot of hard-faced men,” he said, “who look as if they had done very well out of the war.”’)[2]

Okay, try another one. In his essay ‘Welsh Poetry’, poet and painter David Jones wrote that, ‘In the Brenhinedd y Saeson, “The Kings of the English”, which is a Welsh version of a Latin chronicle, the scribe, in an entry for 11th December 1282, after noting that the Lord Llywelyn had been killed on that day, adds these significant words” Ac yna i bwriwyd holl Gymry y’r llawr, And then was cast down all Wales, to the ground.’[3]

Scream

Perhaps not that one either. Wait, though, tomorrow—Election Day—is the birthday of Edvard Munch, painter best-known for, ah, The Scream (several versions). So that’s encouraging.

 

 

Notes

[1] Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H, Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 345.

[2] John Maynard Keynes. The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 133.

[3] David Jones, Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 61.

 

Election mode

Géricault-Raft-Medusa

(Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa: Louvre)

Now is the winter of our disconnect. Or not.

‘Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus’, the twelfth-century monk Bernard of Cluny wrote, ‘These are the last days, the worst of times: let us keep watch’. His poem, De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt for the World) was around 3000 lines long, in an elaborate metre with many internal rhymes. It attacked various failings and abuses in the contemporary world, interspersed with rapturous descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem.

We are in election mode. Or the end of days, some say. ‘Leading politicians openly lying through their teeth’, the Librarian observes, watching the evening news. ‘When did that change?’

I don’t know the answer. I’m old enough to remember politicians resigning when they were caught out and shown to have lied to their colleagues and the electorate. But now – they don’t seem to bother much. I recall a piece in The Guardian a few weeks back by Catherine Fieschi. ‘We need to stop asking why voters believe populists’ untruths and why they let themselves be repeatedly swindled by them – because they don’t and they aren’t. The purpose of populist lying is not to be believed. Only very belatedly do we seem to be grasping that the politics of lying and shameless behaviour are powerful elements in populism’s corrosive ideology.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/30/europe-populist-lie-shamelessly-salvini-johnson

Yes. I feel: no more excuses. This is where we are. The Tory press, i.e., most of the British press, is frothing away about internal Labour struggles, or the time Mr Corbyn had a postcard from a Hamas leader, or the dangers of taxing rich, tax-evading bastards properly, or how Marxist-Trotskyist-Maoist-Leninist something or other was. And yes, I’m immensely tired of quarrels over ideological purity or who is betraying the revolution or who said or did what to whom and when. I wish Her Majesty’s Opposition had opposed instead of sticking their hands in their pants, I wish they’d formulated the proper response to Brexit, the Tory project to make this country smaller, poorer, meaner and nastier but far more vulnerable to predatory foreign companies.

Knit-your-own-cat

And yet – this is where we are. On one side: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Raab, Patel, the hostile environment, dismantling and flogging off of the NHS, a weakening of workers’ rights, food safety and environmental standards; a little more broadly: Farage, Banks, Cummings, all the dodgy friends and backers; a little more broadly still: Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Modi, Orbán, Duterte, Salvini, the AfD, the Bannon playbook – and Putin. On the other side – by this time, I hardly care as long as there is another side: but let’s say a Labour Party that I have a few quarrels with, the Greens, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats (that I have more quarrels with): still, a lot of people that I could be in the same room with while still managing to keep my dinner down.

Anyone that thinks that there is ever – ever – going to be a political party that they agree with in every particular is deranged or simple-minded. ‘Elsewhere’, Marina Hyde observes, ‘imbecility remains a key battleground, with debate over which party is fielding the more extravagantly or malevolently stupid candidates.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/08/boris-johnson-control-tories-election-campaign-leader

Indeed. Nevertheless, there can no longer be any difficulty about which side you’re one and which one you wish to be associated with. A pretty stark choice. This will be the one you’re stuck with – only for a few decades but still. . .

 

 

Differences and pretexts

Crows

To his brother Julian, two months after the end of the First World War, Aldous Huxley wrote that freedom ‘is the only thing in the world worth having and the people who can use it properly are the only ones worthy of the least respect: the others are all madmen, pursuing shadows and prepared at any moment to commit acts of violence. The prospects of the universe seem to me dim and dismal to a degree.’[1]

The Guardian recently reported the results of a poll jointly conducted by academics from Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh. They found that a majority of voters in England, Wales and Scotland surveyed ‘believe that the possibility of some level of violence against MPs is a “price worth paying” in order to get their way on Brexit’: of the Leave voters who took part in the study, this was true of 71% in England, 60% in Scotland and 70% in Wales. And all this just a little more than three years after the murder of MP Jo Cox by an extreme right-wing terrorist who shouted ‘Britain first!’ Perhaps even more depressing, the majority of remain voters also felt that the risk of violence towards MPs was worth it if it meant the United Kingdom would stay in the EU – 58% in England, 53% in Scotland and 56% in Wales.

(As a cheering footnote, voters overwhelmingly felt that the potential destruction of the country’s farming and fishing industries would also be a price worth paying for getting the result they wanted in the Brexit negotiations.)

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/24/majority-of-voters-think-violence-against-mps-is-price-worth-paying-for-brexit

To-West-Bay-Trees

‘The point to be made about the GREAT TRADE ROUTE’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to E. C. Cumberlege of Oxford University Press on 27 October 1936, ‘is that it is not the book of a meditative gentleman who stands before ruined temples and pours mournful soliloquies on old unhappy things, but as it were the testament of a man usually of action who has spent a long life not only on writing and study but on digging, editing, carpentry, cooking, small holding, fighting both literally and metaphorically and in every kind of intrigue that could advance what he considers to be the cause of good letters…’[2]

Great Trade Route was published by Oxford in January 1937 (and by Allen and Unwin in the United Kingdom). ‘But no sort of civilization is possible’, Ford writes there, ‘when difference of opinions can be considered a pretext for murder . . . or even for physical violence.’[3]

A good many political and social commentators have lately been asking: ‘What sort of country do we want to be?’ Or, perhaps more realistically: ‘What sort of country has this become?’ The answer to the first question must be: better than this. And the second? It’s complicated – at least, we hope so.

 

 

Notes

[1] Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 173-174.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 264.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 291.

Ditching

Richards, Albert, 1919-1945; Anti-Tank Ditch

(Albert Richards, Anti-Tank Ditch (1939): © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)

In the last few years of my walking to work every day, it became almost as dangerous as crossing the roads. This was only partly to do with the chronic neglect of paths, pavements and walkways by the local council, financially starved as it was by central government; as much, or more, to do with the traffic on the pavement. Almost hit by heedless kids on scooters one morning, I was then almost hit by their mother, who was cycling briskly along the middle of the pavement. Then I had to avoid a small boy fiddling with some game and blind to the world. I remember thinking that it was hardly surprising if heedless kids raised by heedless adults turn into heedless adults themselves. But why, I wondered, sidestepping another heedless fool fiddling with his music selection, do more of these people not simply tumble into ditches? The answer, of course, is was that we have too few ditches. There is so much . . . material, of various kinds, that could be, that should be, tumbled into ditches. I thought then that one of my first reforms, when the time comes, will be to introduce far more ditches.

Old English, of Germanic origin, I gather, related to dyke and, more broadly, both to the trench and the mound of earth produced by the digging.

It was apparently Lord Curzon, ex-Viceroy of India, ‘surely one of the most brilliantly pompous men in England’, who said: ‘We will die in the last ditch before we give in’, when confronting the Parliament Bill which would lessen the power of the House of Lords. This was in May 1911, at the luncheon table of the splendidly-named Lord Willoughby de Broke, who, George Dangerfield commented in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, ‘had quite a gift for writing, thought clearly, and was not more than two hundred years behind his time.’[1] The Conservative party would soon divide into Ditchers and Hedgers, the hardliners who refused any compromise and the realists who believed that accepting some reform might avert or at least delay defeat.

A few years later, the narrator of Violet Hunt’s 1918 novel (with many details of interest for those readers closely acquainted with her lover, Ford Madox Ford) remarks: ‘For I suppose we aristocrats are, literally, in the Last Ditch!’[2]

Immodest-Violet

Ditches were on many people’s minds just then, not least those of the survivors of the Western Front. Eric Leed pointed out in his celebrated study No Man’s Land that the soldier was treated ‘as his society customarily treats a corpse – buried, forced to lie immobile in a pit or ditch.’ He is ‘identified with the earth, with pollution and corruption.’ He added that ‘The most unsettling feature of the landscape of war, for many combatants, lay in the constant transgression of those distinctions that preserve both order and cleanliness.’[3]

A hundred years on from the Great War, anyway, ditches are suddenly topical again. Our current Prime Minister, declining to return to Brussels to request an extension beyond 31 October of the United Kingdom’s exiting the European Union, said that he’d ‘rather be dead in a ditch.’ So, somewhere, a ditch is surely being prepared, or furnished or perhaps, as we say far too often these days, curated in readiness for that performance.

 
Notes

[1] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Constable, 1936), 43, 42. The title of his third chapter is ‘Their Lordships Die in the Dark’.

[2] Violet Hunt, The Last Ditch (London: Stanley Paul, 1918), 14.

[3] Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 17, 18.

 

Coups, cakes, canvases

executioner-with-axe

Boris Johnson’s crude assault on parliamentary democracy has, unsurprisingly, provoked hours of interviews, comment and analysis unspooling across various screens, plus the reliably depressing vox populi, shifty Tory ministers hastily backtracking on their previous opinions and a few suited spear-carriers bleating that it was really just business as usual. Among the worst moments was a rather revolting interview, through which the Prime Minister girned and smirked and waffled his way, making it painfully obvious that he thought this whole government thing a bit of a lark. It was, I suppose, the old Bullingdon Club habit: you have a rip-roaring time and smash the place up and somebody else comes along the next day and pays for the damage. Of course, we’ll be the poor sods picking up the bill on this occasion, for decades to come.

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Deux ouvrieres dans l'atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom)

(Vuillard, Two Seamstresses in the Workroom, 133mm x 194mm
National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)

We escaped for a while to more civilized things, catching a train to Bath to buy a few books, have coffee and cake, and look at some pictures, the small and appropriately intimate exhibition of around thirty paintings and lithographs from the earlier part of Édouard Vuillard’s career—had I forgotten or did I never know that Vuillard’s Two Seamstresses in the Workroom is tiny? Walks, blackberrying and wine can also help to stave off reminders of the state we’re in. What else is there to do? Sign the petitions, join the protests if you can, cultivate or maintain a sceptical mind. ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport once observed, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’

I notice that today is the birthday of Raymond Williams, novelist, literary critic and cultural studies scholar. I always think of Williams as a representative figure in a tradition of historical and cultural analysis of which I was almost entirely ignorant until I began a university course as a mature student, never having been exposed to it at school, nor anywhere else. Had that tradition—radical, questioning, clear-sighted—been more widely taught and more centrally positioned, we might all be in a more secure place now, with an electorate rather better-informed about some of the matters that so closely affect them.

The Bank Holiday last week reminded me of the May Bank Holiday on which we went to Clodock, the parish church of St Clydawg, some of it dating back to the 12th century, though the present tower dates from the 15th century and the interior underwent a lot of restoration in the 17th century. On one wall is a decalogue – the ten commandments –which was repainted most recently in the late 1980s, dedicated to Williams (who died in January 1988) by his wife Joyce. They’re now buried together in the new churchyard there.

Decalogue

In a recent column, Nesrine Malik wrote that, over the past few years, there had been many, many opportunities for Trump supporters to see exactly who and what they’d voted for: ‘There really are no more excuses. A Trump voter in 2020 is a voter who can no longer plausibly pretend, to themselves or others, that their reasons are down to economic anxiety or some “left behind” resentment.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/26/trump-2020-democrats-identity-politics

And in this country? Are we there yet? Three years ago, many people could reasonably claim that they were frankly lied to and more generally misled (true), that they knew next to nothing about the European Union or what ‘leaving’ would actually entail (also true). But now they do know. Yet the Conservative Party is ahead in the polls and, as John Harris comments today, ‘too much of the country remains uninterested, and plenty of other people have concluded that Johnson has done the right thing.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/30/parliament-johnson-prorogue-democracy

Thank all the gods there are, then, for Marina Hyde:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/30/sajid-javid-dominic-cummings-prorogation-government

 

 

Listening to Cassandra

Sandys, Frederick, 1829-1904; Cassandra

(Frederick Sandys, Cassandra; Ulster Museum)

Voting ends today in the Conservative leadership contest, ‘a curious spectator sport’, William Davies wrote recently, ‘(save for the 160,000 electors with Conservative Party membership cards) in which the first contestant to accept reality is the loser.’[1]

Neither candidate had many brushes with reality but it was hardly to be expected that they would. Their more febrile supporters are not interested in that kind of thing. For the rest of us, since the depressing facts about the overwhelming favourite—a proven liar who squandered grotesquely large sums of public money, whose views change in accordance with what his audience wishes to hear and whose only loyalty seems to be to himself—are widely known and rarely disputed, the real point of interest is how he can still command so much support and what are the real motives of those supporting him? As for what comes next – there are, there have been, many incisive and compelling pieces but their only audience, I suspect, has been among those already thinking along similar lines, who ‘follow politics’ and know something of the relevant history. And beyond that? The name ‘Cassandra’ comes to mind.

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. The god Apollo offered her the gift of prophecy in return for her sexual favour, an arrangement which she agreed to – but she evaded him once he had bestowed it. Apollo supposedly then spat in her mouth, rendering the gift useless, since her predictions would never be believed. So she foresaw the fall of Troy, the fatal role of Paris, the disastrous entry of the wooden horse into the city and more – but nobody listened. Abducted by Ajax, she fell as prize to Agamemnon, bore him twins and, when taken back to Mycenae, was murdered by Clytemnestra – along with Agamemnon.

Cassandra

(Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Cassandra in the BBC series Troy: Fall of a City)

So a good many commentators may have read the runes correctly, diagnosed the sickness correctly and, in all probability, predicted the results correctly – but another god has spat in their mouths and termed them part of ‘Project Fear’.

As for the original Cassandra: there are several versions of her too – but try a taste of Anne Carson’s:

‘Bear me witness:
I know that smell. Evils. Evils long ago.
A chorus of singers broods upon this house,
they never leave,
their tune is bad, they drink cocktails of
human blood and party through the rooms.
You will not get them out.’[2]

I think she may be on to something there. Best listen to Cassandra.

 

Notes

[1] See his ‘Short Cuts’, London Review of Books, 41, 14 (18 July 2019), 9-14.
[2] Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in An Oresteia, translated by Anne Carson (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009), 54.