Uncooperative circumstances

PGW-Ethel-Paris-Review    Tolstoy-1897-Wiki

(P. G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel via Paris Review; Leo Tolstoy via Wikipedia)

‘Unfortunately, however, if there was one thing circumstances weren’t, it was different from what they were’, Bertie Wooster reflects with his usual keen insight into the nature of things, as he bowls along with Jeeves in the old two-seater on the way to Totleigh Towers.[1] There is too a warning from Tolstoy in Kutuzov’s reflection that, ‘With his sixty years’ experience he knew how much dependence to put upon hearsay, knew how apt people are when they want anything to arrange all the evidence so that it appears to confirm what they desire, and how ready they are in such circumstances to overlook anything that makes for the contrary.’[2]

So this is where we are. ‘We find ourselves in a fantastical place: deep in the mire of post-Brexit politics before Brexit has happened’, James Meek writes. ‘Brexit used to be about leaving the European Union. The contest for the Tory leadership [ . . . ] has been a glaring signal that quitting the EU may not be the referendum’s gravest outcome.’ And he adds that ‘the true winners in a Johnson victory are the insurgents who have worked inside and outside Parliament to make their version of the ideas propelling the Brexit cause into a ruling ethos for the nation.’[3]

Simon Heffer, noting that Amber Rudd, ‘apparently desperate to retain her cabinet seat, suddenly became reconciled to a no-deal Brexit’, comments: ‘Many former Remainers did a Rudd some time ago and decided to support Johnson, their ambition trumping anything that might hitherto have impersonated a principle.’[4] And certainly such phrases as ‘the public interest’ and ‘servants of the people’ are looking pretty outmoded these days.

We have had, today, Dominic Raab—now Foreign Secretary, it seems—claiming on the BBC that negotiating a good trade deal with the EU could be ‘much easier’ after a no deal Brexit. I’ve tried reading that slowly, quickly and upside down – but nothing really helps. (He is also busily talking up the fiction that the EU’s ‘intransigence’ has been the real obstacle to those fabled sunlit uplands, something already gleefully embraced by our sycophantic and xenophobic press.) We have, then, Monsieur Johnson lumbering towards the no-deal Brexit that his richest and most influential backers so desire. We can expect the pretence at negotiation, carefully scuppered in advance, the pained recognition that we can’t negotiate with these people, then the general election to secure a mandate to cut us free from that awful European Union, which has held us captive for so long.

This, Martin Kettle opined recently, ‘is a hard Brexit coup dressed up as politics as usual.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/25/power-brexit-boris-johnson-radical-conservative-party

‘To call this a coup is wrong’, suggests Matthew d’Ancona, on the basis that, apparently, no rules have been broken. ‘But it is certainly a hostile takeover.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/29/boris-johnson-vote-leave-eu-exit

Well, the significant number of people who have, from the beginning, seen the whole Brexit business as a right-wing coup are unlikely to have been shaken in that belief by recent events, not least the make-up of Johnson’s cabinet and some of the other figures implicated in The Project. Still, the mystery remains. There was, unnecessarily and unwisely, a referendum on staying in the European Union or leaving it. It was an advisory and non-binding referendum, narrowly won in crude numbers by those voting to leave, that total representing just over one-third of the electorate, while two of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. The vast majority of those who voted (and those who didn’t) knew nothing whatsoever about the European Union (surely including the majority of British MPs) and never gave it a moment’s thought from one month’s end to the next. (I gauge this by remembering just how little I myself knew – and I follow politics and have been known to study history.) Yet, three years on, it has consumed people’s lives: many Conservative Party members would willingly suffer financial damage, the loss to the union of Northern Ireland and Scotland, the destruction of their party to secure this separation. Individuals in streets and pubs and markets, microphones thrust in their faces, declare that the most important thing of all is that we should leave the EU by 31st October.

Rob-Ryan-poster

(Rob Ryan poster: https://shop.robryanstudio.com/ )

The most important thing. Not the climate crisis, the millions in deep poverty, the crises in health care, social care, education, transport, housing and the rest, the relationships with the United States, Russia, Iran but – leaving the European Union.

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’ And the conservative thinker Allan Bloom observed: ‘It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.’[5]

I take some comfort from the fact that it doesn’t seem normal to me just yet.

 
References

[1] P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1937), in The Jeeves Omnibus: 1 (London: Hutchinson, 1990), 217.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 1214.

[3] ‘The Two Jacobs’: James Meek on Post-Brexit Britain, in London Review of Books, 41, 15 (1 August 2019), 13-16.

[4] Simon Heffer, ‘A great betrayal’, New Statesman (26 July – 1 August 2019), 29-31.

[5] Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974), in Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 25; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 75.

 

An unfamiliar tribe

Harry-Banana

(Harry dealing with Brexit in the only sensible way)

I could just read; or fool around on the internet. The Librarian could, as befits the dignity of her profession, continue to play on the kitchen floor with a tabby cat and a yellow catnip banana. Instead, unwisely, we tune in to the Conservative party leadership debates. Dear God, they’re depressing. We deserve better than this, the Librarian says, flourishing her empty glass with obvious urgency. We do, yes – and are unlikely to get it. Indeed, the latest results have just been announced: the one hundred and sixty thousand members of the Conservative party—and thus grotesquely unrepresentative of the nation as a whole—will choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to assume the position of Prime Minister of this country’s sixty-six million citizens.

Unsurprisingly, the debates were poor stuff. All that relentless concern for the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, climate catastrophe – and this from Tories, who thus nodded through the hostile environment, the bedroom tax, Universal Benefits, arms sales to the Saudis, airport expansion and much, much more. And, crucially, they all support Brexit and claim that ‘we’ must, absolutely must, leave the EU on or by 31 October.

It was, yes, like watching the antics of an unfamiliar tribe, at least one remove from the ordinary universe. While it’s frankly puzzling that anybody would consider giving a position of any responsibility to Boris Johnson, to be told repeatedly that he’s the favourite to become the country’s next Prime Minister beggars belief. I remind the Librarian that a large chunk of the country has turned mad dog in recent years but she, reasonably enough, reserves the right to continue to be astonished.

Robert-Graves Siegfried=Sassoon

I think briefly of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon around the time of the latter’s famous protest against the conduct of the First World War. ‘We discussed the whole political situation’, Graves recalled. ‘I told him that he was right enough in theory; but that every one was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that it was hopeless to offer rightness of theory to the insane.’

Somewhere, a hundred years pass. . .

 

 

 

A word from the white rabbit

White-Rabbit

The Librarian and I take turns to swear at the television news, the scarcely credible nonsense unfurling across the screen, as the Prime Minister calls off the vote on her Brexit deal to give her time to ask for changes that the European Commission has already said are not on offer.  I confess I’ve lost all patience with ‘the will of the people’ and ‘defending democracy’ white noise. When ‘the will of the people’ involves one-quarter of the population and a little over one-third of the electorate; when ‘respecting the result of the referendum’ means respecting a referendum foolishly conceived by a lazy and complacent Prime Minister, moronically designed and tainted by blatant misrepresentation, malpractice and illegality, my affirmation is a little slow and reluctant. As for ‘defending democracy’: well, yes, I’m all for it – but I think that train may just have left the station.

And now the European court has ruled that the UK could cancel the whole Article 50 process without requiring the approval of the 27 other EU member states. Yes, all this could go away: Bobby Ewing could step out of the shower and we could still be a privileged – with our special deal, with all its opt-outs and rebates – and grown-up member of the European Union. There’s no time, apparently, to arrange another referendum before March when we’re scheduled to leave the EU, so I’d suggest a shortcut. Find someone sensible and canvas him or her. Shorter cut: ask me.

Lately, the only commentator on the Brexit shambles that I can actually engage with is Marina Hyde. Too many of the others seem to respond as though a country disembowelling itself but pausing every so often to argue about whether or not the knife is sharp enough is something to be rationally assessed. Hyde at least recognises and confronts the unremitting lunacy of the affair.

https://wwwtheguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/brexit-soap-opera-jacob-rees-mogg-nigel-farage

Wait – was that a white rabbit?

‘When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen’s off with her head’

yes, Grace,

‘Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head’

I am feeding it.

 

 

Gammon and spinach. Ha!

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896; Autumn Leaves

(John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856: Manchester Art Gallery)

Autumn Leaves. Autumn, on the contrary, now definitely arrives in a flurry of contradictory weather, though, really, we need to borrow the American term, ‘fall’.

‘Let us stop this war’, Edmund Blunden wrote, ‘and walk along to Beaucourt before the leaves fall. I smell autumn again.’[1]

‘But, my Marguerite, how strange it all is!’, Colette wrote to her friend Marguerite Moreno, ‘I have the fleeting confidence of people who fall out of a clock tower and for a moment sail through the air in a comfortable fairy-world, feeling no pain anywhere . . . ’[2]

‘What are the chances’, the Librarians wonders aloud, ‘of an adult standing up and saying: This Brexit business was a terrible, terrible idea, which everyone surely realises by now, if they didn’t know already. So let’s just scrap the whole thing.’ Not good, I think, the chances are not so good. I recall the note I came across a few days ago, from a William Faulkner novel: ‘They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will when their desires become words.’[3]

Magpie

I was also remembering the magpies in the park last week. It began with an evident squabble between two birds, who kept fluttering a few feet off the ground, jabbing at one another and coming to earth again: a couple of minutes later, they were racing around above my head, one obviously pursuer and one pursued but keeping only inches apart, however abruptly the lines of their flight paths veered and soared. But the most striking thing was the way in which the dispute spread and the speed at which it did so: at least two more pairs were scuffling with one another almost immediately, while more and more magpies kept arriving, then gathered in groups of three or four in the branches of surrounding trees. And all the while, their distinctive chatter, more than twenty of them by the end, scattered over four or five locations. They all had something to shout about, they all insisted on outshouting others and weren’t above getting physical if they disagreed.

Doctor-maggotty

I stood on the path for a good ten minutes, thinking: magpie Brexit? In Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, the local doctor is a magpie by the name of Dr Maggotty. He has the disconcerting habit of shouting ‘Gammon!’ or ‘Spinach!’ and, ultimately, ‘Gammon and spinach! Ha ha HA!’ Why does that last ejaculation oddly suggest a sly commentary on our current political woes?

Still, I’ve always liked magpies and been impressed by their acumen, as well as the wealth of folklore and superstition associated with them. Patrick White’s biographer reveals that, by the end of his second year at university, White realised that he didn’t have ‘a scholar’s mind’ and wouldn’t get a brilliant degree. ‘This discovery hurt him at first’, Marr writes, ‘and he was nagged by a sense of intellectual inadequacy until he came to see that he had another kind of intelligence, a “magpie mind” that found ideas as he needed them and seized any image that caught his eye.’[4]

Magpies-Bagpipe

Then, very recently, in the Jonathan Williams festschrift I was reading, I came across the writer and folklorist Gary Carden’s remark that, over the years, he had ‘often searched for a fitting icon or symbol’ for Williams. Carden focused on Williams’ ability to perceive talent and to spot what others missed. ‘Finally, I can pick my icon’, Carden announced. ‘Jonathan is a magpie!’ He wrote of watching a magpie stalking through a landfill site and extracting something that caught his eye, to carry home and give it ‘a choice setting’, while Williams, he added, did much the same thing, having ‘waded through the wreckage of our culture’, sometimes finding ‘the real thing’.[5]

Indeed, Williams published his first book of essays under the title of The Magpie’s Bagpipe (1982) – and the avian theme continued with his second essay collection, Blackbird Dust (2000).

‘Gammon and spinach! Ha ha HA!’ Hold that thought. I am certainly holding that thought.

 
References

[1] Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 90.

[2] Letter of 11 June 1925: Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 90.

[3] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 967.

[4] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 128.

[5] Gary Carden, ‘The Bard of Scaly Mountain’, in Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens, editors, Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, (Westport: Prospecta Press, 2017), 49.

 

 

The plural of referendum is – Herodotus?

Herodotus

(Herodotus asking ‘What??’)

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, David Runciman’s ‘Too Few to Mention’, a review of Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again), assesses the arguments for and against a second referendum and concludes that ‘the likeliest way to overturn the referendum result is to wait until one party or other has taken clear ownership of its consequences. For that to happen, Brexit has to happen too.’ He adds: ‘It is possible that at some point a second referendum will be appropriate, once a new status quo has been established, to see whether people would prefer an alternative. Until then, however, conventional electoral politics will have to decide our collective fate.’

If you regard the whole Brexit business as a nose-to-tail blunder of epochal proportions (and arguably a very twenty-first century right-wing coup), this makes grim but convincing reading. Of course, the offhand incompetence displayed on an almost daily basis by those charged with seeing the whole sorry process through is itself extraordinary and I know that a great many people have been reduced to a state of rigid boredom as it drags on. Others still retain enough energy for outrage or forceful questioning – but this is generally of a rhetorical kind, with no real expectation of satisfactory answers. It’s not a new phenomenon, that of people reacting and indeed voting according to criteria that exclude facts, reason, logic and the rest: everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent, I suspect, the relevant question being the degree to which we’re conscious of doing so. What does seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon is the general realisation—by analysts of the reasonable, the rational, the logical—that this is actually the case. Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump, for Brexit, for political extremists in Hungary, Germany, Denmark? Hmmm. ‘How anyone can still be voting Tory,’ the Librarian remarks, as we listen to the results of the English local elections, ‘is baffling.’ I acknowledge and share that bafflement. But here we are.

Still, looking back at the EU referendum, I am strongly reminded of Herodotus writing about the Persians: ‘If an important decision is to be made, they discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.’[1]

Yes. I don’t think we advanced beyond the discussion-when-drunk stage. But I still don’t expect a second referendum.

 

 

Reference
[1] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 56. Cf. Tacitus, Germania, in Agricola and Germania, translated by S. A. Handford (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 120: ‘They debate when they are incapable of pretence but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake”

 

 

News, percentages, violin solos

Jordaens, Jacob, 1593-1678; An Allegory of Fruitfulness

Jacob Jordaens, An Allegory of Fruitfulness (1620-9)
© The Wallace Collection

Another week, another cornucopia of good news. Worrying noises—surely the first ever—from the White House. A Hollywood scandal rippling out, worsening and darkening as it does so, women everywhere rolling their eyes, taking in the film world, industry, local and national government, science, academe, business, retail and every media outlet going, unable or unwilling even to feign surprise. ‘Wait—you’re saying that some men in positions of power actually misuse that power to exploit and sexually abuse women? Truly?’ Meanwhile, for the delectation of the British public, talks in Brussels (official slogan: ‘Down we go!’) have paused to allow both sides to parse thoroughly the words ‘deadlock’ and ‘impasse’.

On Thursday, The Times Literary Supplement arrives. The NB column on the back page discusses a recently published ‘literary plebiscite’ called Goodbye Europe: Writers and artists say farewell. At one point, I read: ‘Fifty-two per cent of British voters chose to vote Leave.’

No, they didn’t. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted on the day of the referendum may have done but this represented around thirty-seven per cent of the electorate. So nearly two-thirds of the British electorate did not vote to leave the European Union. None of this changes the result: however ill-advised it was to call a referendum at all, with no safeguards—such as requiring a true majority of the electorate or agreement among all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and amidst a blizzard of misinformation, the result was what it was. Still, I object to the constant swilling about of such phrases as ‘the will of the people’ and ‘the British people have spoken’ to imply a collective, wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder-with-linked-arms determination to exit the EU. I confess that I tire too of the constant pretence that the referendum itself—and the recent General Election—were centrally concerned with ‘the Nation’ or ‘the British people’ when they were merely chapters in the continuing story of Conservative Party infighting. But that’s another issue.

Wodehouse

Thankfully, there are brighter spots in the world, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, which I happened to be reading (aloud) last night, where it cheered me to find the Reverend Sidney Pirbright described as ‘A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist’; and Bertie Wooster’s brisk review of Miss Eustacia Pulbrook’s violin solo: ‘It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos, of seeming to last much longer than it actually did.’

Indignant violinists, please note: Mr Wodehouse is not currently on social media.

 

This sceptic isle

Arthur_Burdett_Frost

(Arthur Burdett Frost, via Old Book Illustrations)

In a letter of 10 July 1972, Sylvia Townsend Warner detailed, in a letter to William Maxwell, that day’s sequence of events. A telephone call from her cousin Rachel, ‘to tell me she had long suspected she was under a curse, and had now been assured by an expert that she was’; then a visit from the parson, ‘to ask how I was keeping and could I let him have a large kettle for the Youth Club’s canteen. I couldn’t but consoled him with strawberries.’ Another telephone call followed, ‘to ask me if I could adopt two frogs’. Again she had to refuse, ‘three cats made this garden unsuitable for frog conservation.’ She concluded: ‘All this before mid-day. This island is inflexibly lunatic.’[1]

STW_Gdn_stw.com

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via http://www.townsendwarner.com)

It’s a suspicion that never quite goes away and one I revisit constantly, generally with less good temper than Sylvia, often remembering too the words of Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, to Nora Manning, in As Good As It Gets: ‘Sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.’[2]

Yes, this island did seem to be increasingly well-stocked. And yes, it still feels more divided than ever. But there are some encouraging signs.

My own particular elite metropolitan bubble, the city and county of Bristol, comprises four electoral districts, totalling 323,840 voters.[3] Some bubble. And are all those voters affluent, middle-class Guardian-readers? Probably not. There are surely plenty of angry white men of the kind that howl at Jeremy Corbyn when he shows insufficient enthusiasm for murdering millions of innocent civilians (‘strong on defence’, as the saying is). Nevertheless, though we had three Labour MPs until Thursday, we now have four. All four. Four out of four.

And yet, and yet. Remarkable as that election result was, it’s still only foreplay—and we need consummation. Evidently, even after the past few years, after it all, many millions of people still voted for the Conservatives—and just the last twelve months have seen this Party of Austerity hold an unnecessary referendum followed by an unnecessary General Election, at a cost of well over £200 million of public money. Does this ring no alarm bells in the minds of the faithful? ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point’, Pascal wrote, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know’.[4]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via the BBC)

Ah but now we have heard that trumpet call to arms: Stability! Certainty! Though, come to think of it, I recall Ivor Gurney writing to Mrs Matilda Chapman, 21 April 1915: ‘But nothing – nothing is certain, but uncertainty.’[5]

Of course, he was writing in the middle of a war.

 

References

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 234.

[2] This line is for Andrew, who likes it, I know.

[3] Figures taken from The Guardian ‘General Election Results’ supplement, 10 June 2017.

[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 158. I recall that the Duchess of Windsor chose the first five words as the title of her memoir. Make of that what you will.

[5] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 18.