An ethical dimension/ unethical dementia

Robin-Cook-Guardian

(Robin Cook via The Guardian)

I’m old enough to remember Robin Cook’s ‘mission statement’, more than twenty years ago now. Of course, we know how things worked out there but still, but still. ‘Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.’ And, towards the close: ‘Today’s Mission Statement sets out new directions in foreign policy. It makes the business of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office delivery of a long-term strategy, not just managing crisis intervention. It supplies an ethical content to foreign policy and recognises that the national interest cannot be defined only by narrow realpolitik. It aims to make Britain a leading partner in a world community of nations, and reverses the Tory trend towards not so splendid isolation.’
https://www.theguardian.com/world/1997/may/12/indonesia.ethicalforeignpolicy

Goodbye to all that, then. In Yemen, where war has been raging for several years, the latest atrocity is the dozens of deaths and injuries in a Saudi-led coalition attack on a bus full of children. An official Saudi press agency statement termed this ‘a legitimate military action’.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/09/dozens-dead-in-yemen-as-bus-carrying-children-hit-by-airstrike-icrc

Of an earlier offensive, the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell observed that, ‘The problem for Britain is that we are complicit in this attack. It is part of the coalition that supports Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/13/britain-complicit-saudi-arabia-war-yemen-hodeidah

You could say that. You could, indeed, say more than that. Several months ago, David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, remarked that the British government ‘has been one of the strongest backers of the Saudis and their Gulf-led coalition. It has provided largely uncritical support for Saudi’s role in the war, as well as selling the Saudis £4.6 billion of military equipment over this period, seemingly ignoring its own rules about not selling arms when they are likely to be used unlawfully.’ As for British ministers, they ‘insist that staying close to the Saudis and offering advice privately is the most effective way to influence Saudi actions, alongside military advice and practical support through arms sales.’
https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/23/britains-policy-saudi-arabia-has-worsened-suffering-yemen

Well, well. Try this. ‘For many civilians, the realisation that one’s nation might be immoral or duplicitous was profoundly disturbing’, Trudi Tate writes, discussing Rudyard Kipling’s story, ‘Mary Postgate’, having commented a little earlier that, ‘Widespread literacy made it easier to spread lies.’ Yup. And she cited an essay by Sigmund Freud, ‘The Disillusionment of the War’, dating from 1915.[1]

Freud begins by writing that, ‘In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form.’

Take away ‘of wartime’ from his opening sentence and the essay could have been written this week.

sigmund-freud

Sigmund Freud
(‘when they were yung and easily freudened’—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
Sometimes a psychoanalyst is just a psychoanalyst)

I see I marked another, later passage, about how, when a village grows into a town or a child into an adult, the earlier forms become lost in the later; but that it’s ‘otherwise with the development of the mind’. Succession, Freud writes, also involves co-existence and every earlier stage of development persists alongside the later stages. It may well happen, he suggests, that ‘a later and higher stage of development, once abandoned, cannot be reached again. But the primitive stages can always be re-established; the primitive mind is, in the fullest meaning of the word, imperishable.’[2]

So this is where we’ve got to. Our current, carefully selective and discriminating arms trade policy appears to boil down to this: ‘If they have the money, we’ll sell to anyone that asks.’ Appendix 1, no doubt, reads: ‘when, as is bound to happen, you use the weapons we’ve supplied to slaughter civilians, with a particular appetite for children, we agree to say nothing whatever about it. So long as your cheque is in the post.’

 
References

[1] Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 39, 5.

[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, Civilization, Society and Religion, Penguin Freud Library Volume 12, edited by Albert Dickson (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 61, 73.

 

Bees, tea towels, staying at home

tolpuddle-martyrs

With a new tea towel to prompt me, I should at least finally commit to memory the names of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It was a part of, let’s call it, a bulk purchase of Radical Tea Towels, made by the Librarian on our recent trip to Manchester. With limited time at our disposal, we hared off to the People’s History Museum – or intended to. Twenty-minute walk, my note said. Perhaps, if you’re a champion athlete, know the city like the back of your hand and don’t start off by coming out on the wrong side of Manchester Piccadilly station. After fifteen minutes, we made our way back to where we’d begun and climbed into a taxi.

Match-Girls

We might have stayed the night in Manchester had the Librarian not already been committed to a professional trip to London and Oxford the next day. So we arrived back in Bristol around midnight in order that, on Finland’s National Sleepy Head Day, I might roll out of bed at five o’clock, an hour earlier than usual.

Suffragette-Teatowel

’We went to Europe’, Flannery O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in 1958, ‘and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life.’ Yes. I recalled the painter Hurtle Duffield’s initial reaction as his Greek lover persuades him onto a flying boat for the first leg of their journey, in Patrick White’s The Vivisector: ‘In the air he huddled in his overcoat and longed for his abandoned house; nobody would coax him out of it again. In any case after childhood, or at most, youth, experience breeds more fruitfully in a room.’

We are home now, anyway, in the resurgent hot weather. The bees are entranced by African blue basil, lavender, roses and Skylover. The gabbiest magpie of the four regulars perches on the fence and sounds off. The neighbour’s cat is still digesting the news that the recent arrivals in the house beyond our back wall have rabbits in a hutch by their kitchen door. We, in turn, are digesting the news that, after several years of quiet, those recent arrivals subscribe to the new twenty-first century conventions: make as much noise as you can. Still, the hot weather will pass; windows will close; the novelty of careering loudly around a shared house and garden will wear off.

Birds

So we are left with the recent news items which have—certainly not comforted but, perhaps, diverted—such as Government ministers drawing up plans to investigate whether the government’s own policies are to blame for the sharp rise in the use of food banks.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/01/revealed-ministers-plan-to-research-effect-of-policies-on-food-bank-use

Could they possibly be connected? As has already been pointed out several times, this is something of an ‘is the Pope Catholic?’ query. I remember thinking the same thing when, two or three months ago, after the deaths of many unarmed protesters, there was a headline on the BBC website: ‘Did Israel use excessive force at Gaza protests?’

And one which has caused extreme discomfort: the assault on Bookmarks, the Bloomsbury Street shop.
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/aug/05/far-right-protesters-ransack-socialist-bookshop-bookmarks-in-london

There have been a good many recent attempts to suggest that we are seeing a rerun of the 1930s and, usually, I find the differences far outweigh the similarities. But masked thugs attacking a radical bookshop? That brings us a little closer, I think.

Summer ended: autumn begun.

Henry, George, 1858-1943; Autumn

George Henry, Autumn: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC)

First day of August. ‘Very lovely with calm lake,’ John Ruskin wrote at Brantwood of Coniston Water in 1884, ‘but the roses fading, the hay cut. The summer is ended. Autumn begun.’ It seems a little early. Still, in February of that year, Ruskin had given his lectures on ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ and the details of weather that he’d entered in his diary in the intervening months tended to focus on darkness, fierce wind and heavy rain.

As Jeeves conveys the seasonal news to Bertie, at the opening of The Code of the Woosters: ‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’ Literature not being his strong point, Bertie can only reply, ‘Season of what?’ John Keats—he of To Autumn fame—probably wrote the poem in the second or third week of September, in 1819, a more autumnal sort of date.

So here, in a manner of speaking, we all are (as Ford Madox Ford often had Henry James say). Not that we have a very clear idea of where we are, though the general direction of travel is, alas, only too obvious. There seem to be increasingly loud hints and assertions that this country might end up with no EU deal ‘by accident’. That is to say, we might be moving in the direction that the extremists have been angling for from the outset, a result to suit their ideologies, their unsavoury friends and perhaps their business plans too. I heard one of them, a notable reactionary, say on the radio a week or two back, apropos of something or other: ‘this is not what the people of this country voted for’. Careful with the negative there, I thought, since 63% of the British electorate didn’t vote to leave the European Union at all.

Yeovil-early-morning

Jonathan Franzen once referred to ‘the one benefit of being a depressive pessimist, which is the propensity to laugh in dark times.’ There’s something in that though the laughter, like much else, is wearing a little thin of late. Even not particularly literary people have taken to quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ (‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity’).

Certainly, I’ve more or less given up on the Labour leadership: the last few years should have resulted in nothing remaining of the Tories apart from some unsavoury stains on the floor. But that would have required an opposition to oppose instead of sniping, posturing and bitching among themselves, endlessly inventing new pretexts for internal wrangling.

I look back to Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes: 1941, since the Second World War seems to be the period that so many people in this country are still totally and curiously fixated upon. ‘As a nation’, she wrote, ‘the British wear disaster more gracefully than they do victory.’ Well, that was then and this is now; and while there’s absolutely no danger of victory I strongly suspect that there will be no visible signs of grace when the magic moment comes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pronouns, tales of the tribe and which side are you on?

Stone-wall

‘I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade’.

So, famously, W. H. Auden begins ‘September 1, 1939’. This was the day on which Germany invaded Poland. The British and French declarations of war followed two days later. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the final stanza:

‘Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.’[1]

Sept 1 NYT

We are, of course, slurring our way towards the close of a low, dishonest decade, not for the first time. And a lot of us are feeling ‘beleaguered’, for sure. But the point on which you catch your clothes—or your skin—is those damn pronouns. ‘We’, ‘’us’, ‘them’. And ‘the Just? Us, obviously, though, again, query ‘us’ (itself usefully contained in the words ‘dust’ and ‘Just’), and note Auden’s use of ‘them’.

‘There is no mystery about the Cantos, they are the tale of the tribe’, Ezra Pound wrote towards the close of the decade of which Auden was writing, ‘—give Rudyard credit for his use of the phrase’.[2] But which tribe? He meant, I’d say, the collective human tribe; and was echoing a talk given by Kipling thirty years earlier.[3]

We are, it seems, reverting to tribes again. ‘Everybody’s shouting “Which side are you on”?’, Bob Dylan sang on Desolation Row. It’s a topical question, for sure. One of the songs performed by Natalie Merchant and her guitarist Erik Della Penna in an outstanding show in Bath the other evening was the song Dylan probably alluded to, Which Side Are You On?, its lyrics written in 1931 by poet and activist Florence Reece, its melody borrowed from either the ballad Jack Munro or the hymn Lay the Lily Low. Reece’s husband Sam was an organizer for the mineworkers’ union in Harlan County, Kentucky, which was locked in a fierce struggle with the mine owners, who hired men, including a sheriff, to intimidate Reece.

Merchant-Tour

The lines of battle would have been starkly drawn then, as they were in the context of Auden’s poem. For the bosses or for the workers; for or against fascism, genocide, armed conquest. And now? Pretty clear, you’d think—but no, seemingly not. You couldn’t make it up, I hear people say. End of days, the Librarian comments, watching the news from America or, nearer, groups of zealots wielding disproportionate power or divulging ‘the will of the people’—a slightly risky business since just 37% of the electorate actually voted to leave the European Union.

‘Probability? Nothing is so improbable as what is true’, Ambrose Bierce wrote in a critique of the realist novelist, William Dean Howells. ‘It is the unexpected that occurs; but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely—one might almost say the impossible.’[4] And, in an ‘Author’s Note’ to her huge novel of the French Revolution, Hilary Mantel remarked, ‘The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.’[5]

I seem to come across half a dozen lucid, intelligent articles a week that set out or summarise where we’ve got to and how—and the dangers that we—the people and the democratic process which defines and enables us—are facing. And I know that, for the most part, their only readers are those who already know some or all of this stuff and will have reached similar conclusions. But what of the others?

One of the most baffling and frequently recurring questions is ‘just what would it take?’ And, in the United States, for instance, the answer seems to be that nothing Donald Trump might do, or leave undone, would disappoint or alienate his core supporters. Even after the recent Presidential trip to Europe, when he attacked his European allies, trashed the British Prime Minister’s policies and prioritised Mr Putin’s assurances over the painstaking work and unambiguous conclusions of his own intelligence services, nearly 80% of Republicans ‘approved of his handling of the Russian president at the post-summit press conference’, while 85% ‘think the justice department investigation into Russia’s meddling in US elections is a distraction.’

The former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, was quoted as saying that, ‘They couldn’t care less about what happened in Russia. They love this guy, they think this guy’s for them. These are low information, emotional voters and they like what they see in the president. They think he’s working for them.’[6]

The phrase ‘low information’ rang a bell. One of the most striking ironies about the EU referendum is that a great many of those who voted in what would turn out to be the bitterest and most divisive electoral contest in living memory appear not to pay much attention to politics at all. The endless revisiting of Brexit ‘heartlands’ by journalists that still want to understand and explain it is not particularly enlightening but I’ve been struck by the number of times that people are quoted as saying that they don’t follow current affairs, that politics is ‘nothing to do with them’. The related irony is the widespread belief that their votes don’t really make any difference in General Elections—largely true given our antiquated electoral system and the huge proportion of ‘safe seats’—but that in this one case, the ill-conceived and worse-designed referendum, their votes actually did make a difference.

But I was remembering too a passage in Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America, where she’s citing a 1923 essay in Vanity Fair by the hugely influential journalist and political commentator, Walter Lippmann. ‘Education and the White Collar Class’ stressed the importance of widening access to higher education: without it, America would be left with ‘a literate and uneducated democracy’. Churchwell points out that ‘the distinction between literacy and education was crucial: what would happen to a nation in which voters could read, but weren’t well informed?’ What, indeed? ‘An uneducated but literate democracy would, Lippmann warned, elect the incompetent, the corrupt and the fascistic.’[7]

Lippmann

We have in this country a largely literate democracy but not, I tend to feel, a very well-informed one on the whole. There are several reasons for this: some gaping holes in the standard educational fare, the poor quality of much of the national press, the increased distancing of government from people, the emasculation of local councils, the sheer noise of social media and the apparent illusion that because there’s so much available information it must somehow be absorbed into the mind—or simply through the skin perhaps. Then the effect of recent administrations has tended to produce indifference, a widespread lack of interest in the political process and an inability to take seriously what are genuine threats, now that there are factions in positions of power  perfectly willing to see this country crash and burn rather than their view of it not prevail.

In the wake of the First World War, Pound wrote:

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor. . .

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.[8]

‘Liars in public places’: surely never more so than now. We are all—or rather, some of us are—wearing that tee-shirt.

 

 

References

[1] W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 245-247.

[2] Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New York: New Directions, 1970), 194; see too Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 294.

[3] Rudyard Kipling, ‘Literature’, in A Book of Words (London: Macmillan, 1928), 3-8. See Michael André Bernstein, The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 7-8.

[4] Ambrose Bierce, ‘The Short Story’ (1897), in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories, edited by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 2000), 259.

[5] Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), x.

[6] David Smith, ‘Solid support: why Trump voters don’t care about Putin controversy’, The Guardian (Saturday 21 July 2018), 26.

[7] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 109, 110.

[8] Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, IV, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 551.

 

Reading, rallying, resisting

Demo1

Rereading The Solid Mandala, I come across this snatch of dialogue between the two brothers, Waldo—competent, rational, self-professed writer of genius who hasn’t actually written anything much—and Arthur, regarded as mentally challenged, ‘short of a shingle’, a hopeless burden on his brother.

‘He said: “One day perhaps I’ll be able to explain – not explain, because it’s difficult for me, isn’t it, to put into words – but to make you see. Words are not what make you see.”
‘“I was taught they were,” Waldo answered in hot words.
‘“I dunno,” Arthur said. “I forget what I was taught. I only remember what I’ve learnt.”’

A good many people forget what they’ve been taught, of course. And a fair number seem not to have learnt anything much: some of them, oddly, are in important political positions.

Patrick-White-Speaks

White, in contrast, learned and remembered an extraordinary amount. And, in the last twenty years of his life, he became increasingly active politically, both writing and speaking, against the depredations of developers and local politicians, cultural provincialism, the mining and export of uranium, the continued mistreatment and exploitation of Australian Aborigines, hostility to immigrants, the Vietnam War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

White-Hiroshima

(Patrick White and Tom Uren, Hiroshima Day demonstration, Sydney, 1984)
https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/26/the-activist-a-list

So I read Patrick White on the train, en route and coming home again. In between, in the company of wife and elder daughter, I move slowly from Regents Park to Trafalgar Square, along with a hundred thousand other people [update five days later: I was far too restrained: more like 250,000], of all kinds, classes, ages and nationalities (quite a few Americans). It was tremendously encouraging to see so many individuals and families opposing racism, misogyny, the forcible separation of young children from their parents, serial untruths, environmental vandalism and the degradation of the office of United States President – and restating the case for decency, truthfulness, peace, justice, honesty, equitable treatment of individuals: all quite reasonable standards and expectations, you might think, and so inevitably trashed by rags like the Daily Mail.

Demo3 Demo2

Still, it may finally have dawned on a few more of those people who have been mouthing the words ‘US trade deal’ with semi-religious fervour that, while the United States has historically been an ally of Great Britain, this President is not. His main concern is to fracture alliances, treaties and agreements, and to separate nations if he can from positions of collective strength to positions of individual weakness, so they can be more easily bullied and exploited. And on we go.

 

Squeaky toys, Punch and Judy

Nobody-for-tennis

(Nobody for tennis?)

The weather continues hot, certainly by British standards. I recall the opening of Samuel Beckett’s first novel as ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it’, pausing there because I can’t remember what comes next (my copy is in a box ‘at another location’, as they say in the storage business), except that it places Murphy somewhere in London, a hundred and twenty miles from my desk. But certainly, as far as is possible, I sit out of it.

If I need to go out, I go as early as I can. In the park, small groups, especially the ones with small children, arrange themselves sensibly under the trees,. A few reckless or uninformed individuals sprawl asleep on unprotected slopes of grass. Small dogs race after balls and squeaky toys. A man and a woman are sitting together on the bench beside the path I’m walking down, with home almost in sight. A terrier races back towards the bench with a rubber ring between its teeth. “Good boy’, says the man. ‘Good girl’, says the woman. Good grief, I think, even the dog has gender issues.

Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, has been and gone, largely drowned here by the roars of football fans and the smack of racquet on ball at Wimbledon; and muffled too, perhaps, by uncertainty about what precisely independence signifies, truth, equality, liberty and happiness having become so oddly complicated of late.

‘And the American dream isn’t dead, either – we just have no idea what it means any more.’ Sarah Churchwell wrote in Behold, America, reviewed in this week’s TLS.

Behold-America

Brexit, alas, is not dead either: but then nobody—whether unemployed metal workers, rural Tories, billionaire fixers, market traders, Scottish trawler men, barstool economists or, indeed, the people supposedly in charge of the process—ever really knew what that meant and certainly couldn’t agree on what it meant.

‘The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered’, Edward Dahlberg once wrote. Reviewing the latest sequence in our long-running Punch and Judy show, one can only nod and raise a glass to the man Jonathan Williams called ‘the Job of American Letters’.

 

Flaming June

Flaming_June_Leighton

(Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, Museo de Arte de Ponce)

Yes, June has flamed, is flaming still. Devotees of sweltering heat and football have clearly struck gold. Personally, my appreciation peaks around 22 degrees Celsius and steadily declines thereafter. But then, retired, if not always retiring, I’m lucky enough to have the option of shopping early before sitting at the kitchen table with a notebook and a pot of tea, reading Patrick White and offering advice to the magpies.

Disconcertingly, for a day or so, while heat waved outside the kitchen windows, White’s Voss and his companions, embarked upon their doomed expedition across the Australian interior, had been halted and confined to the shelter of a cave by incessant rainfall.

‘Now, from time to time, the rain would lift, literally, he felt, of something so permanent and solid. Then, in the stillness, the grey would blur with green. In the middle of the day the body of the drowned earth would appear to float to the surface; islands were breeding; and a black dust of birds, blowing across the sky, seemed to promise salvation.’

But soon enough, more familiar climatic conditions reassert themselves.

‘By the time the sun had mounted the sky, their own veins had begun to run with fire. Their heads were exact copies of that same golden mirror. They could not look into one another for fear of recognizing their own torments.’

Even painful sufferings in the deserts of Australia might seem to offer a kind of relief from the dispiriting spectacle of recent news: caged children in the land of the free (‘That’s a concentration camp’, the Librarian observed as we watched the images beamed from Texas – as, of course, it was), the blustering cowardice of our Foreign Secretary, new evidence of Britain’s complicity in torture and rendition, the Tory ‘rebellion’ on the Lords amendment, which ended, not for the first time, in a handful of feathers on the floor, anti-democratic or frankly racist developments in Hungary, Turkey, Italy – and always, down there in the dust of the arena, Brexit’s heavy boot on this country’s neck.

Magpie-0618

This week’s New Statesman arrives. Concluding her column, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, Helen Lewis writes: ‘I’ve spent my adult life believing that politics matters. But Brexit means I can’t stop thinking . . . what’s the point?’

Indeed. Still, the magpies have grasped the fact that if they stand on the edge of the seed tray they can reach the fat balls comfortably without having to balance on that unstable frame above them. Learning from experience, as they say. A cabinet of magpies – why not?