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.