Raising a glass towards the west

Encounter-2

Something reminded me of an article by, I thought, Angus Wilson, which I’d seen in a very old issue of Encounter. I believed it began with something like, ‘Among the things that have irritated or depressed me this week’, and included the self-satisfied smirk on the face of some minister or other.

In the end, resisting the magic of fallible memory and resorting to the dangerous magic of the internet, I found it in an issue from January 1962, headed ‘Fourteen points’, and beginning: ‘I find that the following things have made me angry recently’. These included almost every photograph of the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary (Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home) and almost any photograph of those Cabinet Ministers who are usually labelled ‘well-groomed’.

Angus-Wilson-Oxford-Times

(Angus Wilson)

The historical context was interesting—in the late sixties, Stephen Spender (one of the co-founders and the then literary editor) resigned, to be succeeded by Frank Kermode, who also resigned, once it was evident that the magazine was covertly funded by the CIA—and I was impressed by the fact that I’d remembered it at all; impressed even more, perhaps, by there being only fourteen points. That in itself made me feel quite nostalgic. Could anyone of sound mind get through a week now with only fourteen items in the news to depress or irritate them?

There was a New Statesman column by Helen Lewis some weeks back, with the header, ‘In all of my adult lifetime, I’ve never felt more despairing about the quality of our politicians.’ That’s a little too long to fit onto a T-shirt but I can’t disagree with it—and my adult lifetime has been going on rather longer than that of Ms Lewis.

Now the latest issue arrives to remind me that yes, the wrong people have the upper hand pretty well everywhere, in a world stuffed with deliberately hostile environments, and the lunatics are indeed in charge of the asylum.

But now the referendum results come in, confirming the exit polls, and there is finally something to raise a glass—glasses—to. Would this make me feel any more positive about another referendum here? Probably not, unless it were actually necessary, intelligently designed, and the whole process managed infinitely better than the last botched and ruinous effort. Still, when it’s done properly. . .

I remember William Butler Yeats, in his Autobiographies, remarking that, ‘In Ireland harsh argument which had gone out of fashion in England was still the manner of our conversation.’ Was still, is still. Today, though, the glass is readily raised with admiration and relief towards the west: well done, Ireland! Sláinte!

 

 

Something to be resisted

Hands-off-pensions-G-Jane-Atkins
(Photograph: Jane Atkins, via The Guardian)

At the kitchen table, the Librarian is looking at the newspaper. ‘What a bloody mess.’ Perhaps the word wasn’t ‘bloody’. A comment on the times: I have not the faintest idea what she is referring to – there are just too many candidates, even sticking to the United Kingdom: the Brexit fiasco (or the fiasco of the level of comment upon it); the Labour policy on Brexit fiasco; the transport fiasco; the benefits or homelessness or education fiascos; the prisons fiasco; the higher education fiasco; the housing fiasco; the local council cuts fiasco; the tax evasion fiasco; the fracking fiasco; the foreign policy fiasco; the Tory leadership fiasco. I surrender.

In fact, she’s referring to the higher education fiasco: a fiddle here, a twiddle there. Either you acknowledge the benefits—to everyone—of a population as well-educated as possible or you don’t. So either you fund higher education properly or you don’t. And, of course, even in the higher education sector, there’s more than one bloody mess. This one—the forthcoming universities strike—is coming up fast.

The Guardian reports that ‘Universities UK (UUK), which represents university employers, has proposed that in order to overcome a £6.1bn deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the fund should switch from a defined-benefit scheme that gives a guaranteed retirement income to a riskier defined-contribution plan, where pension income is subject to stock market movements.

A UUK spokesperson said the proposed pension changes were a necessary step, made in the best interests of university staff, to put the USS on a sustainable footing for the long term.’

‘Necessary’, ‘best interests’, ‘sustainable’. Nice, but not actually true. Try this:

‘University employers have provoked the largest vote for industrial action ever seen in the higher education sector. They have done this by overseeing what they present as a financial crisis for the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), and by threatening enormous cuts to the pensions of hundreds of thousands of university staff. None of this is necessary. It is the result of the misrepresentation of USS finances, and the desire of a new breed of university managements to cut their pension liabilities and thereby ease the financing of new buildings and campuses.’

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/30/university-staff-are-right-to-be-striking

Yes, this kind of behaviour, this kind of pretext, is becoming all too familiar—and is something that needs to be resisted. As it will be.

 

Blue writing on the wall

unknown artist; Writing on the Wall

(The Writing on the Wall, Unknown artist: Southampton City Art Gallery)

I’ve been thinking a bit about blue just lately. Not just because of capricious and mercurial weather, clear brilliance lurching to rain or snow or hail but also because of the death earlier this month of William Gass. He wrote a book some forty years ago called On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry and offered a strikingly honest answer to the question of why he wrote: ‘I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.’[1]

I never read much of his work, apart from a couple of stories, and was occasionally guilty of mixing him up with William Gaddis, whose gargantuan novel, The Recognitions, I wrestled with decades ago, but Gass did write a very distinctive essay about Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy and I was familiar with that.[2]

Then came the recent excitement over the plan to reintroduce the blue passport for United Kingdom citizens. Predictably, while the Prime Minister referred to it as an expression of ‘independence and sovereignty’ that reflected ‘citizenship of a proud, great nation’, and other right wing politicians made similar noises, neither they nor the tabloid press made clear that Britain could have simply retained the blue passport while in the EU, nor that it was the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher that elected to adopt the burgundy EU passport in 1988—though never obliged to do so. Several commentators have pointed this out while wondering about the fuss over such a detail, prompting the Daily Mail, for example (26 December), to huff: ‘How typical of such people to deride something that will be a potent, everyday symbol of Britain’s independence from the EU come 2019.’ Yup.

Blue-passport

Passport size is mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the UN. Most of the recent changes to British passports have been at the behest of the United States, sometimes via the EU, and this includes its imposition of more stringent photo requirements and biometric features, as the historian James Baldwin explained last week:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/22/blue-passports-taking-back-control-imposed-league-of-nations-burgundy-passport-eu

Woke up this morning with the passport blues. Was it really worth inflicting this scale of damage on the country to change the colour of something that its government chose thirty years ago? Blue, bleu, blau. George Dangerfield wrote of the occasion when David Lloyd George, addressing a group of bankers at the Guildhall, assured them that, ‘In the matter of external affairs the sky has never been more perfectly blue.’[3] The date of that confident assertion? 17 July, 1914.

So this is where we are; this is what we’ve come to. The sense of an ending—and let’s hope the ending is just of 2017, a year remarkably light on laughter but heavy on bad manners, bad faith, bad politics and bad economics.

In Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, A. S. Byatt wrote of the god Loki that he was ‘the god of endings. He provided resolutions for stories – if he chose to. The endings he made often led to more problems.’ Loki was, of course, the trickster, a figure that recurs in countless stories in most cultures, from creation myths to cinema screens, from Brer Rabbit, Crow and Puck to the Pink Panther and The Joker.

In ‘Thoughts on Myths’, a final section of Ragnarok, Byatt comments: ‘But if you write a version of Ragnarök in the twenty-first century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil, or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.’[4]

Stone-wall

Indeed. The Librarian drew my attention to two online items this morning, just to confirm that the writing is truly on the wall—one from a Conservative politician who evidently shouldn’t be allowed near social media without medical supervision, both for her sake and for ours; and one from the current President of the United States.

And that writing on the wall? Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. As Daniel interpreted those words for the king, Belshazzar: God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it; thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting; Thy kingdom is divided. and given to the Medes and Persians.[5]

We’re currently a little light on Medes and Persians in this neck of the woods but, apart from that slight anomaly, it’s clearly a Brexit thing.

References

[1] Interview with Thomas LeClair in Paris Review, 70 (Summer 1977).

[2] William Gass, ‘The Neglect of The Fifth Queen’, in Sondra J. Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1981), 25-43.

[3] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 358.

[4] A. S. Byatt, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2011), 44, 167.

[5] Daniel 5, 26-28.