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?

 

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.