Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas with Christina and John

The shade of John Milton, channelled through his statue in a side-aisle and his bust by the bell-tower, was listening in St Giles Church, Cripplegate, as my daughter and her school-fellows sang carols and madrigals this week for Christmas.
“Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.” While I write this, the snow still falls, and the king’s head flowerpot on our garden wall, which in summer is crowned with red geraniums, now wears a mitre of snow.
“In the bleak midwinter,” particularly when sung by sweet trebles and melancholy altos, is the carol most likely to moisten my eyes. It was written by Christina Rossetti, who was a child of December, born on the fifth in 1839 and dying on the 29th in 1894, and who lived, as we do, in Camden.
It was only when I found this pencil portrait of her, drawn by her brother, the better-known artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that I realised what an archetype she was of the pre-Raphaelite female, later more famously realised through the exquisite young lineaments of Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal.
Of the second of these women, muse, lover and briefly wife of her brother, Christina wrote a sonnet called “In an artist’s studio”:

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-green,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

What sent me back to read this again, sharpening its sestet’s twist and turning the whole into a different poem, was the discovery that it was written in 1890. Which is eight years after DGR died, and nearly thirty years after Siddal had killed herself with an overdose, either suicidal or accidental, of the liquid opium to which she’d become addicted, and which must have wrecked her beauty. In one of those strange but glorious eidetic moments I am lifted out of my world and plonked in front of an HD, 3D film of Christina, ageing, balding, fat, remembering (I think) her first visit to Dante’s studio (cold, damp, musty) just after his death. That vivid, Browning-esque line – we found her hidden just behind those screens – such a simple stage direction; that is the catalyst; that’s what transports me there.
I set this down as a debating point against the purists who argue that knowledge of the life adds nothing to appreciation of the work. Seen from the perspective of 1890, when Christina was in decay and just four years short of her own death, “In an artist’s studio” is a profound, piercing and deliberately ambiguous verse drama.
Christina was ferociously – some would say destructivley – religious. Two suitors (near lovers, I suspect) got turned away, one for converting to Catholicism, another because his skimmed beliefs were incompatible with her full-fat Protestantism. She died a spinster.
According to a biographer, “Christina gave up chess because she found she enjoyed winning; pasted paper strips over the antireligious parts of Swinburne's “Atalanta in Calydon” (which allowed her to enjoy the poem very much); objected to nudity in painting, especially if the artist was a woman; and refused even to go see Wagner's Parsifal, because it celebrated a pagan mythology.”
And yet, paradoxically, her verses are sensuously alive to the joys of love and the bitterness of loss. As another of her biographers noted, “her pious scrupulousness seems at odds with the heartfelt emotion expressed in her poetry”:

Downstairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all:
But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
My heart is breaking for a little love.
Though winter frosts are done,
And birds pair every one,
And leaves peep out, for springtide is begun.

I feel no spring, while spring is wellnigh blown,
I find no nest, while nests are in the grove:
Woe’s me for mine own heart that dwells alone,
My heart that breaketh for a little love.
While golden in the sun
Rivulets rise and run,
While lilies bud, for springtime is begun.

All love, are loved, save only I; their hearts
Beat warm with love and joy, beat full thereof:
They cannot guess, who play the pleasant parts,
My heart is breaking for a little love.
While beehives wake and whirr,
And rabbit thins his fur,
In living spring that sets the world astir.

Am I alone in hearing the ghost of the word "grave" haunting "grove" in the second verse?
During her forties, Christina’s pre-Raphaelite beauty was blasted by a disfiguring illness:

I turn from you my cheeks and eyes,
My hair which you shall see no more –
Alas for joy that went before,
For joy that dies, for love that dies...

If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in paradise

When I re-read those lines this week, it struck me that they might be intended to conjure just a little resonance of – could almost be in distant conversation with – John Milton’s great sonnet “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint,” in which the blind poet describes a dream of his dead wife:

And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heav'n without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veil'd, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shin'd
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O as to embrace me she enclin'd
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.

And I thought I found more dialogue with Milton in Christina’s “Echo”:

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream:
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

Oh dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago my love, how long ago!

Such tentative connections, fruits plucked as I wander through the great whispering gallery of poetry and poets, are a kind of consolation at the end of a rather melancholy year. Let’s hope our midwinters aren’t too bleak. Happy Christmas – raise a glass, if you wish, to Christina and John. Both would approve, I think, as long as it’s only the one. Or possibly, one for each.

Monday, 6 December 2010

A strange change from Major to minor (poet)

The poetry of John Major, eh. Now there’s a tantalising prospect. What next? The love songs of Edward Heath?
A few days ago, Sir John gave a lecture at Churchill College, Cambridge. Thanking his hosts for accepting the donation of his papers, he added:
“Those that I’ve held back – personal notes, contemporary thoughts, partial diaries, even poems – will follow in due course. I hope that, taken together, these will add to knowledge, and be of use to historians.”
Can poems help historians? “Poets find the things that last,” according to Holderlin, so there’s always a possibility that Sir John will do for Black Wednesday and the ERM debacle what Homer did for the Trojan War.
However, the auguries aren’t good, given the clues we have to the style of Major’s poetic opera, which seems to belong to the Wisden School. Here’s the start of a piece he auctioned last year for charity:
“The mellow sound of bat on ball
The wherewithal to enthral
On feather bed or fiery track
Talent far above the pack
All on display at a glance
As Colin Cowdrey took his stance.
His style was gentle, full of grace
Delicate as Flemish lace...”

Moving on quickly (as one surely must), it’s the secret poetry of Gordon Brown that I’d most like a squint at. I imagine it forged after the style of a saturnine and embittered William McGonagall:
“It was in the year two thousand and seven, just ere the start of July
That that two-faced back-stabbing bastard Blair was forced to Number Ten to say ‘goodbye’...
Then thought we ripe the time to bask in Brownite sun
But little knew, with Blairite traitors skulking the back-benches round, that our woes had only just begun.
Cruelly drummed from office, now will I begin to repair my unfairly-trashèd reputation
With my new book, ‘Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the first Crisis of Globalisation’...”

According to The Times, in “Beyond the Crash &c,” Brown mounts “a stout defence of the economic policy that led to Labour being labelled deficit-deniers,” and it’s fascinating that his 1990’s doppelganger, John Major, used his speech at Churchill College to try something similar, declaring:
“On the day I became Prime Minister, interest rates were 14%, unemployment was soaring, the economy was collapsing, inflation was 9.7% and the tax burden 36.3%. When I left Office, interest rates were 6%, unemployment was falling, the economy was growing healthily, inflation was 2.6% and the tax burden 36.6%. No other Government had passed on such a sound legacy.”
Poor tepid Sir John, poor torrid Gordon. Both took office after a party rebellion, and both were destined to be belittled and eclipsed in the shadows of their predecessors. Of course, the story isn’t without its melodic inversions: John Major was Richard Cromwell to Margaret Thatcher’s Oliver, and slipped to the throne between the legs of giants. Gordon Brown was Oliver Cromwell to Tony Blair’s Charles I, and strode to the throne over the prostrate bodies of rivals whom he’d bullied or bribed to stand aside.
Hauntingly, when I think about British politics over the past thirty or so years, I do seem to see in its Tory-Labour-Tory cycles a repeated re-enactment of the stages of the English civil war of the 17th century: rebellion, regicide, revolution, commonwealth, tyranny, rebellion.
T S Eliot remarked somewhere that “the civil war in England never really ended.” It’ll be interesting to see how the Coalition collapses, as it surely must. Perhaps when Sir John, in the same Cambridge speech, urged David Cameron and Nick Clegg to plot a course for their alliance which went beyond the next election, he was also trying to persuade them to find a way to break out of the cycle. What would that make them? William and Mary, I suppose.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Take these chains from my inbox

Puzzling phenomenon, the chain letter or email. The principle is the same as the pyramid sell, but the manifesto with the chain tends to protest an innocuous or even virtuous purpose, and sometimes a mystical engine, which only makes it all the weirder that, invariably, just before bidding farewell, the writer pauses to take a stab at blackmail.
You know the kind of thing – a mortally ill child, send on to six mates, a business card and a couple of quid, eternal good fortune; oh, break the chain and ditto your arm.
A friend of mine and I got peripherally caught up in one the other day. Here’s our correspondence:
This came through this morning from a kind, if slightly batty, friend and having a moment to consider such things I thought I’d pass it on.
Of course I did hesitate about sending it, but let me know if you get some money in 4 days time....

“An interesting fact about October 2010: This October has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays, all in 1 month. It happens once in 823 years. These are money bags. Pass them to 8 good people and money will appear in 4 days. Based on Chinese fengshui. Whoever stops this will experience none”
What I like (my friend continued) about this is the generous melding of concepts:
Subject: “An interesting fact”
But what exactly is a fact?
5 Fridays, Saturdays etc – observable, numerical fact
Occurs once in 823 years observable, numerical, ‘well fancy that’ (but to me, unprovable) type fact
These are money bags – um, er, courageous, logic defying, imaginative leap.
Pass them on to 8 good people imperative command with an implicit assumption that I know 8 good people. Off the top of my head I know 5 really good people, 2 quite nice people and one total shit. Though, on further thought, perhaps were I to send him a money bag he might be a little nicer.
Money will appear in 4 days - a definite and impressively specific forecast but not quite a fact.
Based on Chinese Fengshui an appeal for spiritual legitimacy but a little disappointing. I was hoping for Mexican Fengshui.
Whoever stops this will experience none - ah yes the threat. But as the threat of no money is ‘situation normal’ at this end I shall do my best to try to relax.
P.S. Don’t pass this on and something quite good will happen one day (based on ancient knowledge as revealed in the Dagenham Book of the Dead)

To which I replied:
“Your annotations turn this from a rather bizarre drift on a sea of fantasy into something amusing, and who knows, we could all do with a bit of luck, though what do we do if the money turns up in promissory notes for Renminbi, encashable only in the People’s Republic of China during the occasional Leap Month (number 13) of Shí-Sān Yuè?
“The interesting fact about the interesting fact is that it isn’t that interesting, given that in a month of 31 days the probability that you will get a trio of consecutive days making five appearances surely can’t be that remote? December this year, for example, has five Wednesdays, five Thursdays and five Fridays, and these begin auspiciously with Wednesday December 1 and end with Friday December 31; and blow me down, January 2011 has five Saturdays, five Sundays, and five Mondays, and these also begin and end, spookily, on the 1 & 31... surely these are both (or all) more than money bags. Bullion caves?
“Did you send this just to me, or did you find the eight good souls commanded by your friend (and was the friend, by the way, male or female – I’m curious to know)?”
My friend’s answer:
Personally being a superstitious sort I never send daft e-mails in a week with a Friday in it.
The friend is female – mostly.
Sent just to you. Then, moments after hitting “send”, because I have to check just when the £730 bill for my car prang in Greece was paid, I am forced to open my on-line accounts. I don’t want to do this because I am in the red and slipping further that way every week. I don’t want to see the figures.
Then discover the hire company somehow muddled the bill and ended up deducting the car hire from the bill i.e. cost of prang was a measly £130.
But there’s more... I look and find that I have just been paid £630 in unexpected royalties – hey presto I’m out of the red.
The mystic karma of sending the e-mail to one good person worked.
So here’s to my new Mexican Feng Shui business: Mules, ponchos and empty Tequila bottles carefully re-aligned. Rates on request.

But alas, in an email that evening:
Later that same day.... I look at some old e-mails and realise that you paid for the car hire and I reimbursed you so after conversion the repair bill was in fact £630...
Then on way to doctors I find a £5 note on the pavement....
But whilst at docs I break my watch (£30)..
Mexican Feng Shui business – closed due to retrograde cosmic influences.
Must find seven more good people.

The following day I was able to write:
“Well blow me down – I just got an email from Mr Fred Uzoma, who turns out to be my file and welfare officer at World Bank Creditors, who tells me I’ve won US$5-million in compensation (not sure what for, but hey)!!! And another from Mr Simon Dornoo, Managing Director of the Ghana Commercial Bank Ltd, offering me 40 per cent of US$35.4-million which was deposited by two blokes from Enron who subsequently turned up their toes!!!!!”
A few hours later, in my dentist’s waiting room, I did find 15p down the side of a chair.
“Those who believe that the world of being is governed by luck or by chance are far removed from the divine” – Plotinus, Enneads VI.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

It was nineteen years ago today...

The wooden eggs are still there on the roof, a perch for seagulls and an enigma for the young. The vertical metal lettering at the front of the building, however, has been obscured by four fat blue discs.
Lorraine Kelly and Mike – Mike who, for heaven’s sake? I sat with him at lunch in the Camden Bistro while he raged, close to tears, I thought, at the injustice of the auction in which TVAM had been stripped of its franchise. Now I’ve forgotten his name.
Nineteen years ago today, October 16, I was in Plymouth, sitting in an office with Nick Smith, Pete Colebrook and Tom Goodison. It was a grim morning, soot-coloured clouds rolling down from the Hoe. We were watching the internal TV service. Harry Turner, our MD, stepped up to the microphone.
“We’ve lost,” said Tom, before Harry said a word. And we had. TSW was history. So were Thames, TVS and TVAM. We went to a pub called The Bank and got drunk on Mr Bass’s bitter and Mr Bell’s whisky.
Mike Morris. Thank you, Google. Apparently he went off to work for Yorkshire TV. Funny, that. I thought he was one of the best network performers. Couldn’t understand, in the bistro, a week or so after Franchise Day, why he was so upset. The BBC or ITN or Carlton were bound to bag him, I thought. You don’t know, do you?
The ITV Franchise Auction was the last zany, picaresque wheeze thought up by Margaret Thatcher. Even she realised in the end that it was nuts, and apologised to Bruce Gyngell, the TVAM boss. The conclusion of the process was, of course (and as predicted), the consolidation of ITV into the sorry and pointless monolith most of us have now stopped watching, via the destruction of that subtle amalgam of regional identities which was the essence of its brand.
Here’s a story I’ve never told. A year before, I made a film for the ITV network about a Soviet spy, Ruth Werner, aka Ursula Kuczynski, aka Sonia, who’d retired from her trade and was living in East Berlin.
We had a deal with the Sunday Times that they’d run a feature about her to coincide with our transmission. Only, a couple of weeks before the scheduled date, the ITV network bumped our documentary into the following month.
I had the task of persuading the deputy editor of the ST, a guy called Brian MacArthur, to hold back the splash he’d prepared for the front page of the News Review.
Since I was lobbing a grenade into his own schedule, he was understandably cross with me. Very cross.
Remember that this conversation was taking place before our franchise submission was written, let alone lodged with the Independent Television Commission.
Brian’s (extremely cross) parting words on the telephone were these: “I know which ITV companies are going to lose their franchises. And TSW is one of them.”
Weird, eh?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Trust Labour once again? Hmm – do they trust each other?

It wasn’t the elevation of the younger Milliband which surprised me. Given the choice between Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, the extra-parliamentary party, smarting from years during which powerful leaders had been out of its control, opted perhaps inevitably for the more manipulable of the brothers.
No – what stopped me short was a line on the radio in the run-up to the coronation.
We were told that the five candidates, before being placed in purdah and told who’d won, had been obliged to surrender all Blackberries, mobiles, pagers and any other electronic means of communication.
The precaution – if this commentary was true – must have been taken in case one or more of them chose to leak the news.
Aren’t decency and trustworthiness necessary qualities if one is to be eligible to lead a party, a parliament, and a country?
In other words, shouldn’t it have been sufficient to say, “look, we don’t want to rob our lady chairperson, the conference, the media and the country of their moment of theatre, so would you mind keeping the result under your hat until it’s revealed from the platform?”
Doesn’t this IT confiscation betray the running flaw at the heart of Labour’s approach to people management –disable people just in case they behave irresponsibly; don’t believe in innocence until guilt is proven; in extremis, shoot first and ask questions later?
Saturday’s cameo in which the five candidates were electronically disabled was a miniature version of the last Labour government’s policy of imprisonment without trial, the trial in this case being whether they would be honourable enough to wait in the room and resist an itch to pull out the mobile and phone a friend.
As I write this, Radio 5 is discussing the leadership aftermath. Someone has just said that Labour’s “default mode is to unite.”
Ah yes, as it did for all those years under Tony and Gordon.

Monday, 6 September 2010

“In darkness, and with dangers compassed round...”

It’s January 22, 1942. Six years to the day since Edward VIII was proclaimed King, and now the proclamation is to be repeated. Beside Edward is his Queen, Wallis, née Simpson. His brother, described these days by the State-run Press as “the usurper Albert,” is in hiding (Canada? New Zealand?) with his wife and their two daughters.
The honour guard at St James’s Palace consists of Royal Horse Artillery and Waffen SS.
There is jubilation among the people – at least the bombs have stopped falling and the boys are home – but there’s also fear, loathing and anxiety.
Winston Churchill died in the early Summer of 1941. Hitler seized the moment to redouble the blitz, adding what he called “influential” to strategic bombing. Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Buckinghamshire were on the way to becoming wastelands when the appeasers resumed power and the public clamour – “why are we fighting this war?” – caused Parliament to sue for peace.
The invasion, therefore, happened without a shot being fired. There was supposed to be an “amnesty,” but you watched as friends of yours, associates in the struggle, were arrested and publicly tortured to death.
You were yourself imprisoned and expected the same cruel ending. But a young M.P. who’d switched sides, and whom you’d once helped, interceded.
You were released. Not so much to freedom as to be a public spectacle: jostled and jeered by the mob (a couple of times you feared you’d be lynched and torn limb from limb, as Orpheus was lynched and torn limb from limb); at night, youths in their new khaki uniforms shouted obscenities outside your home and pelted the windows and walls and door with shit.
Rumour says (the Press don’t report it) that people are sickening and dying from the winter's viruses all over London, and particularly in your overcrowded slum, because medicines and hospital equipment are being confiscated and shipped to the “Fatherland.”
Friends find you a bolthole, a cottage in the country.
They do this because you are a genius. You put aside your artist’s career to become the government’s arch-propagandist. Your pen stung and your wit wounded. You excoriated the dictatorships that had infested Europe, vituperating the tyrants of Spain, Italy, Russia, and Germany.
More than that, you were a radical. You wanted the House of Lords abolished, the bishops dethroned, the priests unfrocked, the church disestablished. You wanted small government, not big. You wanted free education for every child, everywhere. You believed that an educated people could make reasonable choices and govern themselves and be able to distinguish between true freedom, which meant social responsibility, and mere “licence” (as you called it) – the false freedom to do as one pleased which brought only misery and chaos and led to dictatorship.
Now you are 57, but looking and feeling much older. You are ruined, beggared, frightened and blind.
It is eleven in the morning. You have been up since four. At night, the fire subsides and ashes are spread all over the coals, so when you fumble your way down to the little study in the early hours you can feel for the warmth, and a couple of gentle kicks uncover the coals, which start to burn up again.
In spite of all adversity, you are composing your masterpiece. Not writing it down, because, of course, you can’t write any more. You sit by the little fire, fitting words together, rehearsing them aloud, your voice echoing around the sleeping cottage, memorising, memorising, fifty lines each session. Now, your daughter arrives, with a modest something for you to eat and drink, and you dictate to her...
“... Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev’n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank...”

* * *

For a few days now I’ve been trying to imagine what the world must have been like for John Milton, writing Paradise Lost after the Restoration of the Monarchy, and this, fanciful as it is, was the best I could come up with.
The reason for the exercise is that a few days ago a friend and I walked across country from Amersham to the cottage in Chalfont St Giles which Milton escaped to, for a while, in the mid 1660’s.
Over nine or ten miles, and lunch, and rest stops, we talked about the poet, and his sufferings and his vision, and his extraordinary, beautiful, extravagant book, whose characters and drama and ideas are so powerful that they sometimes seem to escape his control. One thing we agreed on: there has never been, in the history of English literature, so courageous and compassionate a hero as Milton’s Adam.
He could have said, “you silly bitch. Here, God, bin this one: have another rib and we’ll start again.”
Instead, he shuts his eyes and bites the apple. Not because he is lustful, or greedy, or vain or envious of God, but because Eve has already eaten some of the forbidden fruit, and even though it means the loss of Paradise and immortality, he loves her, and cannot bear to be parted from her, or tolerate the thought of her suffering and dying alone.
In Book III, the Son volunteers to die to redeem mankind, but says to God: “Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave... nor suffer my unspotted soul/Forever with corruption there to dwell/But I shall rise victorious.”
Adam, however, has no access to a get-out clause. If he sticks by Eve, all he can look forward to is “the loathsome grave” and the rest of it. But stick with her he does.
Contrast that behaviour with the performance by the “hero” of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, eleven years after Paradise Lost, when he is “for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from Heaven,” and everyone and everything annihilated:
“The Man began to run. Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life!”
Adam realised by Milton: an ancient story; a modern sensibility. What does it teach us? I’m unsure.
Weird excursion, that trip to Milton's Chilterns. At Marylebone Station, early a.m., the banner headline in The Times leapt out at us: “Hawking: God did not create the Universe.” Bugger. Should we turn back? But when we read on, Hawking said: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the Universe going.” To which Milton would have replied: “Sure, but God is the Universe. And the blue touch-paper.”
Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St G is really more like Milton’s Antiques and Bric a Brac. There are a couple of good paintings, one chair the poet purportedly sat on, a few interesting manuscripts, and a whole mass of irrelevancies – miscellaneous weaponry, laundry equipment from the 1930’s, a model railway in a glass case ("cowls, hoods and habits... relics, beads," that sort of stuff). The gardens are pretty, though, and you can picture the ageing poet sitting there, turning toward the sun “these eyes, that roll in vain to find thy piercing ray.”
The wind, continuing crosswise, blew us into another Paradise of Fools, the Fox and Hounds, where we lunched, and where boisterous locals crowd strangers from the bar, forcing you to duck and slide between them to get your beer from the surly landlord or either of his rather miserable-looking helpers. One of these women brought our lunches out to the garden, which was a plus, and then sent us indoors to collect cutlery for ourselves, thus maintaining the great British tradition of ambivalent customer service.
On the way home a public footpath crossed a vast field of dry mud and stubble. A young man on a tractor, with a pretty girl by his side, forced us off the path. At the crown of the field we sat for a while to admire the view. The tractor reappeared, avoided the huge barren spaces all around, bore right down on us and compelled us to move again, and a few minutes later returned from the opposite direction to get us up on our feet and backing away for a third time.
Judging from the lubricious expression on the young man’s face, there was clearly some sort of aphrodisiac effect to be got from harassing these two middle-aged ramblers. His girl looked quite excited too. The Farm, would you believe, is called Upper Bottom.
And just for half an hour or so, but only in miniature, we had an sense of what it must be like to be persecuted.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Gearbox lows and Dolphin highs

That Wintle, he no blog no more. Where he gone? (Ssssh, says you, don’t encourage him).
What happened was this. We went to Greece, to an island called Zakynthos, where, by the way, given the state of the local economy, a plate of calamari costs c. £31.23, and a bottle of wine only slightly less. And we hired a car – Renault? Citroen? can’t remember: some sort of grey mackerel tin, anyway, with an underpowered engine and an unforgiving gearbox.
So that: after two weeks crashing the wretched machine upward into first on every ascending mountain corner, and wrenching down through the box on each anfractuous descent, your blogger inflicted himself with a bad case of right-arm tenosynovitis.
Ever had this? Lower arm and hand swell up, redden and get hot, and the exquisite accompaniment is a pain I’d describe as like a constant toothache in the wrist. If you do get to sleep, you’re woken shortly after by the screech of your own profanities as you turn over. And among the things you can’t do are chop vegetables, sign a cheque or type.
Hence the silence until this morning. Anti-inflammatories have, at last, reduced the size of the wrist, which is thinner, now, than a Cotechino sausage; and the pain has become a mere ache.
Bad trip, then? By no means, although I’ve convinced myself that far from Mount Olympus, in some Grecian fastness, there’s an immense factory churning out the identical dishes which each taverna serves (I recommend, by the way the Magica Luna outside Aghios Nicolaos on the north east coast. The cuisine is satisfying, although it wouldn’t earn a Michelin speck, but the terrace and view are a delight and the owners are charmingly eccentric).
On July 21, on a sailing boat owned by an ex-Kent copper called Roger, there were sudden shadows in the blue Ionian. Then a fin broke the surface, and in barrelling patterns of indigo and silver, for, perhaps, forty-five seconds, dolphins danced among the waves beside us.
I told this story to my neighbour on the plane home. “Did you?” he asked, making a rectangle with his fingers in front of his face, and miming pressure on a button with his thumb, “did you manage to catch it?” Or perhaps he said, “capture.”
When did I stop trying to “catch” or “capture” moments like that on camera? At least twenty years ago, I reckon, when I first looked at a photograph and realised that the image was annihilating my memory of the experience – or sensation – it was intended to preserve.
Set piece pictures, portraits of people, are wonderful things. But for me, any attempt to catch and fix a fleeting delight is oddly destructive of the beauty of the event.
There’s an element here of Kathleen Raine’s argument that in modern life we mistake the meaning of possession, taking it for the material power to make something our own (to buy or to “catch” or “capture” it) rather than the imaginative power to enjoy.
But more than that, what intrigues me is how and why the fixity of the photograph interferes with the fluidity of memory.
For the older I get, the more convinced I become that our memories are restless weavers of fictions.
Fictions are not lies. They are coherent worlds comprised of facts and truthful imaginings.
I think, given a memorable cameo of some sort, the memory goes to work to try to make some sense of it – to harmonise it with a world - or stores it away until the right world begins to form and wants completion.
For example: there was certainly a swan, somewhere, sometime, and a meadow and a grove of oaks.
Sixteen years ago, the day after my father died, we were driving back to the family home. As we came onto Dartmoor a swan broke out of a grove of oaks and flew beside us over a meadow.
This year, making the journey after my mother died, understandably my eyes were keyed as we reached the same tor.
There’s was no swan, of course. But neither was there a grove of oaks, nor a meadow.
And the dolphins, you ask... where do they fit into all this?
I ask that too, and wait to see.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Banksy, Beryl and dubious doorways

Two events on successive days. First, one of our neighbourhood walls acquired a Banksy overnight. Next, the author Beryl Bainbridge died.
The Banksy is sharp and whimsical. Picture and caption (“Make Tea, Not War”) indicate that the “beautiful” generation of flower-empowered potheads who minted the phrase “Make Love, Not War,” is now settling towards a last life-chapter in which their pot is the teapot which chinks on the cup beside the herbaceous border, which is where all the flowers may turn out to have gone.
We are being satirised, ladies and gentlemen.
Beryl Bainbridge was 75, or 77, depending which paper you read.
Is that old, either way? I used to see her drinking whisky in one of the pubs on Camden Parkway. When it was still permitted, she alternated swigs of scotch with drags on a cigarette.
According to The Times, she wrote in her diary on Tuesday, April 18, 2000: “The foundations of our view of the world are laid down in childhood. Save for a few exceptions, like Einstein or Charlie Chaplin, most of us have little room for manoeuvre. It would therefore be an excellent idea if early rather than late we got rid of the notion that life has a great deal to offer.”
All of us who were born in, say, the first fifteen years after 1945 believed we had a great deal to offer life.
We grew up under the shadow and within the reverberations of a huge and perfect story archetype.
This had a villain out of myth: an evil-incarnated, blood-sucking monster whose army more resembled – to borrow Alan Clark’s phrase – a “mobile slaughterhouse” than an assemblage of human beings.
It had a hero – the U.K. – which, as heroes must in that archetype, began by denying and flinching from the challenge (or “call”), and then turned and faced the enemy, even though that choice of road seemed to lead to certain annihilation.
It had a cavalry racing in across the Atlantic at the eleventh hour.
From Dunkirk to Bletchley Park, Pearl Harbour to Iwo Jima, El Alamein to Stalingrad, Douglas Bader to Vera Atkins, every classic story variation played out exactly as it should (and subsequently emerged again and again, on film and TV, from A Bridge Too Far to the River Kwai to Colditz to Tenko to Walmington-on-Sea).
And the consequence was: this generation of children grew up believing in the power of the story not just to move minds, but, in its most moral form, to burst through the surface of things and events and determine the scores in the real world.
We drew story-sustenance from a blending of recent history with tales and poetry out of Grimm and Tolkien, and then Homer and Ovid, Blake, Shelley and Yeats, and swam in numinous depths through Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Ezra Pound’s Spirit of Romance, Robert Graves’ White Goddess and Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
But had we looked over our shoulders, we might have noticed that our parents were marching in the other direction.
They, the survivors of the great narrative, were on a quasi-Maoist crusade: “All Out For The Elimination Of Romantic Ambiguity!”
It’s a common misconception that the children of the 1960’s were its architects.
Our parents were the new barbarians who, almost as soon as they’d drawn breath and put on the demob suits, set about the destruction of great tracts of Britain’s ancient cities and towns, demolishing in some places more streets and buildings than the German blitz had managed to knock over.
Three times in its history the people of Great Britain went on the rampage with hammer, fire and a wrecking ball: once in the protestant revolution of Henry VIII and his son; once in the puritan revolution of Oliver Cromwell, and once in the socialist revolution of Clement Atlee (who will blink, in Elysium, to find himself bracketed with Oliver C, Henry VIII and Edward VI).
Have you ever rambled over the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (Joseph of Arimathea; King Arthur; the Grail) or Corfe Castle (a sacred treasure lost; King Edward martyred, A.D. 978 – “he was in life an earthly king – he is now after death a heavenly saint”: Anglo Saxon Chronicle)?
When you do, you get the impression that the protestant and puritan demolition gangs weren’t just out to dismantle and despoil; they were ransacking the places, smashing everything, in a frantic search for an elusive mysterium that they wanted to snatch away and obliterate.
Now there’s an oblique resonance between the protestant and puritan rampages and the great post-WW II barbarity.
From the Neolithic era to the end of World War II – which is quite a long time – no pubic building, whether of mud, wood or stone, was erected without being painted, incised, engraved, sculpted or otherwise decorated with some figurative or abstract design which celebrated (or propitiated) the essential (or spiritual) phenomena which offer prophesy and protection, and which outlive all physical edifices, no matter how solidly built.
After World War II, all decoration of any kind stops, as if ornament by its very nature were something abhorrent.
As if the destroyers and rebuilders wanted to seal up, or seal off, or block up the passage to an interior zone through which any mysteria might return.
As if they wanted their new world to become a world entirely of surfaces. A panoptikon, in which nothing was hidden, and, therefore, nothing could hide.
So there’s the dialectic set-up. A rising generation mesmerised by the interior domain, symbol and story, and willing it to erupt across the material landscape of phenomena and events. And a preceding, parental generation methodically and brutally trying to stamp interiority out of existence.
Those two moods, maybe, have been in contention ever since. And I would have said the iconoclasts had probably won.
But then I remember the books Beryl Bainbridge peopled with her fantasies, and the blank, white wall in Highgate on which Banksy portrayed overnight an old lady who clutches her whistling teapot and who appears to be standing on a threshold.
That wall, therefore, has become a door, through which we can pass into a world built of memories and imaginings.
All of which of course is just me, yet again, trying to order a chain of probably dubious observations into the form of a story.
Heraclitus said, around 2,500 years ago, “The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings.”
On the other hand, around the same time, but on the opposite side of the planet, Confucius said, “Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows is nearly as good as having a head and feet.”
Postscript - February 25, 2011: the Banksy was painted out a few days after this was published. Thus was the door shut. But I like to think, as the artist contemplates winning an Oscar, that at least one of his doors remains open for you here.

A second postscript (very late – January 17, 2013): another Banksy turned up for a while in Camden, and after being briefly protected behind some sort of transparent plastic, was then obliterated. This is my picture of it:

KT Banksy

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On the trail of comets' tails: Mary, Queen of Shops

At one time there was a nameplate on a door in BBC Broadcasting House which said: “Head of the Spoken Word.” Dylan Thomas, apparently, walked past and murmured: “but just think of the power of the Head of the Unspoken Word.”
That’s not just a good gag, it’s a truth, and one worth flagging up while the BBC, and ITV, Channels 4 and 5, Sky and Virgin, behave as if no factual programme passes the quality test unless every piece of information is recycled every fifteen minutes, with each clue or inference signalled several times more and explicitly spelled out.
Which is why Mary, Queen of Shops (BBC 2, Monday’s., 21:00) is probably the best show around – the stories it really tells are the ones it leaves unsaid.
Here’s the pitch: Mary Portas – “I made my life in high end designer retail” – is on a mission, because the local high street is under assault from the big stores, who are “killing” Britain’s small retailers. Five hundred village shops close every year. “We’ll miss our neighbourhood shops when they’re gone, and I don’t want to live in as Britain that bland.” So Portas is going to “work out a survival plan for our local shopkeepers.”
Only, this is not the programme's main subject at all. The establishments to which she brings her retail triage aren’t run by valiant little businessfolk besieged by superstores; they’re owned by extraordinary individuals or couples who seem to have decided, for reasons which have nothing to do with commercial logic or illogic, and everything to do with some substrate of the psyche that MQoS points to but leaves implicit, to commit financial suicide.
What of the couple who have fled the London “rat race” and bought a general store in a Dorset village? Why do they keep the place as a kind of ramshackle museum of cans, packs and perishables, changing nothing, going nowhere, communicating with nobody, spending thousands more every month than they’re taking? Why the haunted sadness on the woman’s face? Why does she freeze into silence when she encounters the villagers? And why does her husband continually disparage his own tastes and abilities?
Or the woman baker in an affluent London borough. Where is the husband who “hung up his dough hooks” eight years ago? What part in her life is performed by her charming, elegant son, who appears just once in the programme, to tell Mary that his mother no longer wants to play the game? Why does she continuously remind everyone that she’s “been in this business for 36 years”? And why does she keep on turning out the same food that she first turned out 36 years ago? The canteen bread, the cakes and fancies smeared with sticky chocolate or coffee or vanilla? The smiley faces with lop-sided cherry-eyes or chocolate smiles which are symbolically, as it were, iced skulls on her ancient counter?
Here, the real stories are all in the questions that are cleverly left in the air and on the air, for us to argue about and speculate upon as the credits fade.
Nietzsche described in Greek tragedy “something incommensurable in every feature and every line, a certain deceptive distinctness and enigmatic depth, indeed an infinitude, in the background. Even the clearest figure always had a comet’s tail attached to it which seemed to suggest the uncertain, that which could never be illuminated.”
And this, in the cameo of each programme, is what we have here in miniature: the hint of a little comet’s tail of tragedy, of the suffering which is the precipitate of piled up experience and sorrow, and which goes, of course, to make up human drama. Praise to the programme makers for acknowledging, in their work, the “power of the unspoken word.”
If you’re out of the UK, or you’ve missed the show so far, catch it here on the BBC iPlayer.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In praise of the Irish National Font

A week in County Clare, thanks to the hospitality of generous friends, beside the majesty and mystery of Lough Derg, the waters of which, every time you glance back from book, or plate, or glass, or the face of lover or friend, have changed their colours.
The herons lift their great bodies off the stones with one or two wing-flaps, and then retract their necks as they soar, rather as a plane retracts its undercarriage. The swans (albeit bigger) need a long, long run, step and frantic flap along the lake before they get airborne. But once aloft, that creaking, calling sound carries from one shore to the other...
“All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter step...”
We’re near enough to visit (again) Yeats’ one-time home, Thor Ballylee, shut this year after a flood, and Coole House and Park, where he memorialised the swans, and to wonder why exactly the mansion there was demolished (one of our friends, who is real Irish, hints darkly at a potential reason: Yeats and his circle at Coole, as Protestants, she says, were regarded in the early days of independence as “not real Irish.” Yet the tower at Ballylee, as potent a symbol, survives and is cherished).
I’m the grandson of a Dublin woman who was one of a family of fourteen children, and who fell in love with and wed an English sergeant major, so I guess I have some of the contradictions of Ireland in my veins, and while we’re in East Clare I think about them a lot.
How do you, after centuries as a colony, retrieve from the shadows a national identity which has been eclipsed and repressed, and overtaken by momentous transformations – industrial, economic, ideological? Won’t what you retrieve and shape inevitably be some kind of artifice, a construct which will, in turn, throw its own shadows and give rise to new anxieties?
But not to face up to – or face down – the anxieties and the task is to risk a cultural paralysis, and one of the things I love about Ireland is, for example, that every city, town, village and hamlet, having first been named in its familiar form, is then named again in Irish, the letters engraved always in the same Gaelic typeface, which I have taken to calling the Irish National Font – a phenomenon which is altogether more pleasurable than a National Front.
Are these names genuine salvages from the past, or themselves reconstructions, or speculations, or a mixture of the three?
Which brings me to an island in the Lough, where there are the remains of three ancient churches or chapels, which once made up a monastery, and a broken bell tower, and a number of tombs; and on which your author was photographed five years ago, wearing a beret, since lost and replaced, and a beard, since ditto and not ditto, and carrying three-and-a-half stone more than he’s carrying now.
The place name in the English tongue is “Holy Island”, which asserts – to me, at least – the sense of the numinous that its landscape and atmosphere impart (this year, for example, picnicking in sunshine by the shore, among masses of ragged robin and wild yellow iris, mottled leaves showing where the orchids had been, with thrushes singing and reed buntings performing acrobatics nearby).
But the name in Irish is Iniscealtra, meaning, they say locally, “Church Island”, which on the one hand seems prosaically unIrish, bearing the same nominative relation to “Holy Island” as London’s “Marble Arch” does to its Parisian equivalent, “L’Arc de Triomphe;” but which on the other, seems to put the ecclesiastical ruins at an arm’s length, as it were, hinting at a very different (pagan?) perspective from which the churches are an addendum to the island, and not its meaning.
And then, rootling around on the Internet when we got home, I found a third possibility, a contraction (deliberate?) from Inisceltchair to Iniscealtra. Celtchair was a Hercules figure in pre-Christian Irish legend, a hero huge and grey, with a fearsome lance that burst into flames if it wasn’t regularly drenched in blood.
At the end of his story Celtchair kills the black hound Doelchu – on the island? – but one drop of its poisoned blood trickles up the lance, infects him, and he dies.
Let me argue then, that it is not in the resolution of such ambiguities (and shadows), but in their coexistence, that the true identity of the island, and perhaps of Ireland, is to be found.
Footnote, June 9: Back in London, walking on Hampstead Heath this morning, I noticed for the first time a flare of ragged robin among yellow irises on the bank of the Highgate No 1. pond. A little way out in the water, a large black dog was swimming. Well, now. Mr Yeats?
"I had not eyes like those enchanted eyes,
Yet dreamed that beings happier than men
Moved round me in the shadows, and at night
My dreams were cloven by voices and by fires..."
(From: I walked among the seven woods of Coole)
Footnote, June 12: I did not know when I wrote this last that something of further relevance - or coincidence - would unfold from my trip to Eire; I tell the story in a footnote to an earlier blog in March this year.

Friday, 28 May 2010

“Watching the wheels go round”

So, first, a question: what do these countries have in common? Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK?
Answer: all these nations’ entries in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest are sung in English.
I fetch back a recollection of the first EVSC I ever saw, in 1961, when a UK duo, The Allisons, came second with a bright and harmonious number called Are You Sure. What I remember of the other contestants is a kaleidoscope (if you can have a black-and-white kaleidoscope) of language, costume, dance, performance and minstrelsy which ranged from the picture-postcard quaint through the exotic to the bizarre.
I also remember thinking how, as they watched, viewers in each country must be ranking the performances on a spectrum that rose towards “extraordinary” from a base point of “ordinary” which was settled in their own country’s contribution.
What I didn’t twig was that the Allisons, (who may well, with their finger-clicks, Brylcreamed-hair and dinner suits, have appeared outlandish or barbarian to Latvians or Romanians) were unwittingly helping to build a bridgehead into Europe from America; nor that, in two or three years, that bridgehead would become the causeway for a cultural traffic which caused a social revolution.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” and so on, in the years when the initials IT stood not for Information Technology, but for the International Times.
If the Molotov cocktail of the (45 and 33 rpm) youth revolution was fashioned from vinyl, its howitzer was broadcasting; but it’s sorry end for the process that one of its primary obstetricians – television – should have so flattened European musical diversity into homogenised Anglopap that the originally weird and absorbing phenomenon of the EVSC has been reduced to a spectacle which is more grotesque than exotic, and absolutely ersatz, and which ought now, maybe, to be called Europe’s Got Talent.
But didn’t we, sitting in that revolutionary nerve centre, Goode’s Café in Tavistock, Devon, fingering our espresso cups and unsold piles of the IT, chafe at the difficulty of forging an International out of the confusion of European vernaculars and traditions, let alone the world’s?
(We also fretted about the IT’s execrable prose. Some hard-liners argued, though, that “good” writing was elitist, and it was therefore the duty of the proletarian author to be unreadable.)
Already we knew the truism that, throughout history, changes in the systems of production precipitated fundamental changes in the structure of society. Well, the progress of the EVSC demonstrates in vivid cameo how changes in the systems and channels of communication are equally influential, even though broadcasting, for example, purports only to reflect, and not to direct, the evolutions of society.
Around the time that I saw that early EVSC, my father took me to my first General Election hustings. This was at a time when every candidate, if he or she was to have a prayer, had to attend a public debate with his or her rivals not just in every constituency city or town hall, but in every village hall, or church hall or schoolroom.
Our village meeting was packed. I saw spittle-flecked fury and red-faced indignation, fingers pointed and chairs banged, ideological passion, hungry self-interest, and moral outrage.
Political sensibility was local, quick and collective. Party was embodied in the physically present M.P., not an Olympian and absent P.M.
The last hustings I witnessed, now as a reporter, were in a town square in Launceston in the mid 1970’s. As I recall, vegetables were thrown at the Tory candidate and the arrival of the Liberal, Mr John Pardoe, standing on planks across the back of open-top Land-Rover, was attended by a Cornish version of the messianic ecstasy which Monty Python’s Life of Brian satirised in 1979.
Within another decade, the only way a backbench M.P. could hope even to half-fill a meeting (and then just with party subscribers, and not on an sunny or rainy evening) was to invite along a member from elsewhere who was a “known T.V. face”.
This year that last vestige of the hustings, the morning Press Conference broadcast from Westminster, at which journalists were the electors’ simulacra, vanished from the General Election schedule, to be replaced by televised leaders’ conferences in which the ordinary voters in the audience were injuncted to stay quiet.
Back in the 1960’s, public-spirited individuals still used their cars to scoop up the lame, the elderly and the lonely and take them to church on Sundays. The advent of the televised church service provided a reason to leave the lame, the elderly and the lonely alone in their front rooms with the dubious sacrament of the cathode ray.
Meanwhile thousands of the able-bodied stopped going to church anyway, and stayed home to watch Songs of Praise or Highway, “religious” programmes which began with a gestural stab at “worship”, but eventually did what all TV programmes do, which is, turn their subject matter into TV programmes: in these two cases, a travelogue-cum-interview-cum-music request show.
TV wildlife programmes – never quite Paradise Lost, but almost always Losing Paradise – created a huge and benign shift towards eco-consciousness.
On the other hand TV holiday programmes – never quite Paradise Regained, but almost always Paradise Regainable – spawned (or at least, directed) mass tourism.
Only, when the mass of tourists arrived at their destinations they found, for example, that the display of local colour they were seeking – the festival, the parade, the be-costumed ethnic dancing and singing, now sanitised and repackaged as part of the package tour – was curiously empty of zest and integrity and cultural meaning; that, in fact, the 2-D version on the TV screen appeared more authentic than the 3-D version in the flesh.
These are just a few exemplary social effects, randomly chosen, none planned nor intended by broadcasting organisations which were regulated heavily for decades, and then supervised more lightly as commercial pressures multiplied and new technologies (which were themselves not susceptible to regulation) began to transform electronic communication and weaken the dominance of orthodox media.
This latest transformation is radical and radicalising. Now that it’s bedding down, a new series of unintended consequences is working itself out through society.
When electronic interactivity took off from the campus into the secular world, experts and exponents envisaged it primarily as a top-down and paternalist affair – the doctor remotely treating patients, the teacher remotely teaching students, the government remotely soliciting opinions, issuing permits, collecting information and levying imposts.
Unforeseen were the citizen journalist and the flashmob, the back-chat of Twitter and the egalitarian irreverence and candour of the social media.
Already – to return to the electoral theatre – people-powered satire on the Internet has destroyed the huge and hoarding-hogging political poster as a propaganda tool.
With no authority invigilating it, no movement propelling it, no party organising it, no programme shaping it, the world wide web has forged sudden and unexpected ad-hoc coalitions which flourish, dissolve and regroup, using technical and ideological inspiration to debunk the pompous, unmask the liar, flush out the conspirator and destabilise the tyrant.
At the same time, while the monologue afforded by broadcast was the making of presidential-style government, the Internet’s border-agnostic dialogue has, by supranationalising business, left those governments and their presidents impotent to do little more than spray vast quantities of their taxpayers’ liquidity at the conflagrations ignited by 21st century capitalism’s greed and irresponsibility.
Eleven years ago, in a book called Ghostly Demarcations, the American critic Fredric Jameson wrote presciently about the two contradictory forces – one democratic and unpoliced, one oligarchic and uncontrollable – which the Internet has uncaged. “Globalisation,” he said, “... sets the stage for a new kind of politics, along with a new kind of political intervention.”
Recording his support for the notion that the net might forge “a new International,” he added: “the cybernetic possibilities that enable post-Fordism along with financial speculation, and generate the extraordinary new wealth that constitutes the power of the modern business establishment, are also available to intellectuals today on a world scale.”
There’s a trace there of that old, top-down paternalism. For it seems to me that the subversive power of the web reposes precisely in the fact that the multitudes of new actors on its lower stage are not just (or not only) “intellectuals,” but people whose lives are at once more humdrum and less fastidious, more challenged and more volatile.
(And anyway, most left-wing intellectuals, after the fall of communism, happily retreated behind the academic stockade and espoused the IT theory of writing, churning out wodges of impenetrable jargon to explain to each other – but not to the players – the events that brought down the Wall).
The patrician Lord Reith, first director general of the BBC, described the institution in his care as “a potential social menace of the first magnitude.”
Who knows what he would have made of the Internet?
And who knows what songs they’ll be singing in the Supranational Song Contest of a few years’ time?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A new belt for Bunter

“I say you fellows, all the more stickies for us now Wharton’s bagged the top job, eh?” The Fat Owl of the Remove rolled his eyes and rubbed his ample belly with a grubby paw.
“What rot are you jawing now, Bunter?” yawned Bob Cherry, momentarily closing his tattered copy of Hillard and Botting’s Latin Primer.
The boys of the Greyfriars Remove were enjoying the May sunshine under an oak tree by the old tower, some sprawled on the turf, some perched or sat cross-legged on the fallen pillars that were all that remained of the ancient Franciscan monastery which had given the school its name.
“I mean, now Wharton’s been elected head of the National School Assembly, he’ll make sure his chums at the alma mater don’t go short in the jam tart and cake department,” said Bunter.
“Sadly I think the tartlessness of the future will be terrific,” murmured Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur. “Neither can I be foreseeing many abundancies of cake.”
“Eh?! Ow!!!” Sitting up suddenly, an alarmed William George ("Billy") Bunter had banged his unlovely cranium on a fragment of flying buttress.
“Still,” said Skinner. “At least Harry Wharton saw off the oiks from Courtfield County Council School. At blooming last. Talk about bad losers. Now we’ll show ’em who’s boss.”
“I don’t think,” Frank Nugent remarked severely, “that Harry wants to turn his victory into an excuse for a school war. Or a class one.”
“Isn’t that how it usually goes? We’ll see,” said Sidney Snoop. “Hey, Mimble” – Joseph Mimble Esq, the Greyfriars porter, was approaching at an amble, with an envelope protruding from the pocket of his long, black, calico apron – “how do you feel, Mimble, about Greyfriars chaps being back in charge of the Assembly again?”
“Well, Sir, on the one hand, it do seem to be t’natural order o’ things to ’ave you boys on top,” ruminated Mimble, stroking his long white sideburns. “But on t’other, it be a shame, I allus says, that t’lower orders can never take up t’reins o’ t’carriage without endin’ up, in a manner o’ speaking, stabbin’ each other in t’back an’ tryin’ to push each one t’other off t’driving seat. Seems as how us’ll never lairn t’meaning o’ t’word ‘solidarity’. Any road, ’ere’s a letter for ee, Master Bunter.”
Bob Cherry whistled. “Hallo, hallo, hallo – here comes Wharton. But who’s those fellows with him?”
The tall, handsome figure of the Captain of the Remove had turned the corner of the old crypt, arm and arm with a smaller boy, who looked rather like a rabbit, with wide, startled eyes and a cockatoo crest. An older, worried-looking lad trailed behind them.
“That,” said Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, “is young master Mick Pegg, the esteemed headboy of Rookwood School. At rearwards is the boy who is being his deputy, Quince Gable. Greyfriars and Rookwood are now in a sharingness of the Assembly.”
“What?” expostulated Sampson Iffley Field. “Sharing with Rookwood? But we beat them at Cricket. And Hockey. And, and, and Fives, too. They’re div two, and no mistake.”
“Now, now – no more school wars,” repeated Frank Nugent.
“Hmm. That'll be a first,” Field muttered.
“Cripes! Yaree! My postal order! It’s come at last!” yelled Bunter, waving a piece of paper over his head.
“Thank you Bunter, I’ll take that,” said Wharton, sternly. “I’m afraid the Assembly purse is rather short of brass. Almost empty, in fact.”
“But... but... but...” Bunter howled.
“But,” added Mick Pegg, “Quince here has brought you all a present.”
Quince Gable opened large canvas bag and handed everyone a new leather belt.
“I say, thanks.” The Fat Owl struggled to loop the belt through his chequered trousers – but then, no matter how hard he tugged, buckle and strap obstinately remained a good six inches apart.
“Stupid thing doesn’t fit,” he snorted.
“It will, Bunter, it will,” smiled Harry Wharton.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” chortled the boys of the Famous Remove.
Thanks to Tony Hiam’s Greyfriars Website for memories and accuracy checks.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Here comes the coalition

You can speculate about what kind of sentient creature a population becomes when combined into an electorate in the way that entomologists speculate about the collective behaviour of swarming bees, or ants, or clouds of fruit flies.
This creature of the masses wanted to punish Gordon Brown – to continue his endgame – and it did. It wanted to break a two-party system which it saw as increasingly corrupt and self-serving, and perhaps to remind M.P.’s that in their origins they represented the people against the depredations of crown and court, and that now, all but sporting crown and coronet, the M.P.’s were acting as if they had inherited the roles of crown and court. The reminder was duly served, and despite the anticlimactic Lib Dem vote, I think the system has been broken.
Now what? Possibly –
1. Brown and Clegg go into alliance or coalition, the deal being electoral reform at the top of the agenda. As soon as it becomes expedient and publicly tolerable, Clegg detaches, brings down Brown, and a second general election transforms British parliamentary democracy.
2. Labour contrives to ditch Brown (notice that Lord Mandelson did not reject this possibility on the BBC this morning). Alan Johnson, maybe, succeeds to the premiership, and likewise unites with the Lib Dems, presenting a government that seems refreshed. I think this would narrow the space in which Clegg could manoeuvre. We’d still get some kind of PR, but the ensuing split would appear more cynical, and, for the Lib Dems, would be more hazardous.
3. Labour and the Lib Dems fail to get it together, and Cameron becomes PM of a minority government, resisting electoral reform. The SNP and Plaid Cymru (as they have promised to do) demand significant subsidies for Scotland and Wales in return for their votes. At a critical moment, Cameron declares this an intolerable burden on far more numerous English during a period of savage austerity; goes to the country; returns with an overall majority. But the strain this exerts on the Union would be severe, and the outcome, possibly, disintegration.
A long night, my friends. I’ve now voted in 10 UK general elections. This has turned out to be by far the most intriguing – and portentous.
Footnote, May 12: Prediction 4, it turns out, was the right one in the short term. Must have left it out by mistake...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The wrong-side-of-the-rainbow election

High up in Hampstead live the really rich characters, and that’s where you’ll see most Labour posters. The People’s Soviets of Parliament Hill, and Nassington and Tanza Roads (average house price, £2,000,000) are militant for Gordon.
This is a phenomenon which could bear a bit of deconstruction, some time. As might the fact that The Guardian, journal of the left-leaning radical, is the newspaper of choice for lone diners in restaurants serving sushi, the national cuisine of the profoundly conservative Japanese.
Anyway, drop down a few contours from Hampstead (as house prices also drop, by more than a half) to Parks Tufnell and Dartmouth, and the Lib Dems predominate. Descend still further, among the bedsits, scruffy flats and sub-prime territory surrounding Kentish Town and Camden, and you’ll see, it’s true, a meagre scattering of Labour red and yellow, but almost all the windows are blank.
Conservative posters? I’ve spotted about three (one in Pang’s Kitchen, Kentish Town). But this may be psephologically misleading, since in London NW5, if not NW3 (Hampstead), a window favouring the Tories is likely to be sought out and visited after closing-time by a flying brick.
Usually I get a feeling for the result from the pattern of these favours, but not this time. The easiest to predict was in 1974, when I was living in South East Cornwall. While commentators were confidently asserting the return of Ted Heath’s Tory government, every time a phalanx of placards appeared in a field, or a series of placards on sticks along a hedgerow, advertising our local Conservative M.P., the affable Bob Hicks, they got torn down overnight.
The election produced a hung parliament, and after brief uncertainty, Harold Wilson entered Number 10 for Labour. Actually I was among those doing the tearing down (in what was an entirely uncoordinated campaign conducted by dissidents who had no knowledge of each other), so I think you can deduce which way my sympathies lay. That time we were looking over the rainbow. This time we all know we’re on the wrong side of it.
Part of the problem predicting this year’s campaign maybe because during the leader’s debates it became what’s been widely called “The X-Factor” election.
Now, as you know, “The X-Factor” is our modern variant of “Opportunity Knocks”. But the difference is this. Where “Opportunity Knocks” simply searched for naturally talented individuals, “The X-Factor” (like it’s BBC coeval, “Over the Rainbow”) riffs off one of the more recent capitalist scams, which is that anybody who wants to be somebody can only be somebody by being somebody else, viz, a celebrity, dead or alive, whose demeanour, attire, hairstyle, lifestyle, accoutrements, song or act they have to purchase, ape and retail.
This makes it easy for the consumer to identify with and buy into unknown source (contestant) through its resonance with well-known target (celebrity) and has the added benefit of investing the source (contestant) with that other capitalist desideratum: rapid obsolescence.
So in an “X-Factor” election, three contestants step up to the rostrum to pose as somebody they’re not, selling a familiar persona which will theoretically resonate with the audience. “Tonight, Alastair/Adam/David, I’m going to be Mr Fixit, Hod-Carrying Repairman of our Broken Society /Mr Freshface-Plague-on-Both-their-Houses /Parson Thunder, Only-Protector of your Welfare and Work.”
Well hoopla, says you. Wintle’s woken up at last to the fact that politicians are actors. Okay – but in the past there were also the daily leaders’ Press Conferences, at which a mob of aggressive journos interrogated furiously from all directions, trying to tear off the actors’ masks and expose the true nature of the characters underneath.
As they succumbed to television’s clamour for TV debates, the leaders realised they could ditch the Press conferences. So what we’ve had this year has been almost all mask.
We also endured a few one-on-one interviews, most notably Paxman’s. “Jeremy, Jeremy, if I may just, Jeremy, please, Jeremy, let me make my poi.. but Jeremy, no...”
In our post-modern word, the visual always signifies more than the verbal. Paxman and leader sat mesmerizingly alone in the middle of a vast, overlit, empty office space. Every day in London, going hither and yon, I pass on the bus these vast, empty office blocks, built in greedy expectation during the boom, now standing empty in the bust, presumably racking up huge debts for the developers.
In debates and interviews, three words kept going round like a chorus:
“Change.” Meant to be attractive, but contemplated soberly sounds more like an invitation to a good time in a darkened alley.
“Progressive.” Hmm. By some official measures, the UK is now more unequal than at any time since before the second world war.
“Modernisation.” How exactly do you modernise in a post-modern world? In the modern world, modernisation meant things like sanitation, slum clearance, universal suffrage, state education, a health service free from cradle to grave...
And in the post-modern world? New improved surveillance? An end to old-style, fuddy-duddy presumptions of innocence until guilt is proved? Imprisonment without trial in the interests of national security? “Efficiency savings” – a.k.a. automation, offshoring and redundancy?
“One cannot,” says the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson; hang on, I’ll go back to ensure you pick up the double negative: “One cannot, not periodise.”
Just so. We had the Thatcher period, with added Major, during which that period’s contradictions erupted and it imploded. And then we had the Blair period, with added Brown, during which ditto, and, presumably, ditto.
What happens next, I wonder? See you on Friday.

Friday, 30 April 2010

All in the mind? The defeat of Gordon Brown

And so we move to the endgame for Gordon Brown. For a Tent in the French Camp, read a Public Hall in Birmingham. Here was an exhausted man, a prematurely agèd man, grey of face and with red-rimmed eyes, gasping for breath as he spoke, staring with hatred at the young pretender, Cameron, and the younger upstart Clegg, shaking his head and grinning at random his awful, loveless, lifeless grin.
“Pray do not mock me: I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upwards; and, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments...”

Even were he to win, which now appears impossible, somehow he would still have lost. When one of your own cabinet ministers (the personable Alan Johnson) publicly describes you on the eve of the critical and defining debate as “a politician not of this age,” then surely you’re starting to hear the music of your god’s departure in the air.
Shakespearean analogies come to mind simply because there is something Shakespearean in the tale of a man who is finally trapped and destroyed by the one thing he’s always feared and avoided.
When the Labour Leader John Smith died in May, 1994, Gordon Brown could have challenged Tony Blair and fought for the crown. But instead he preferred a secret deal which snipped out an indenture making him the regent of domestic policy and Blair’s heir presumptive.
When Blair stood down in June, 2007, Gordon Brown could have insisted on a leadership election, which he would undoubtedly have won, making him the undisputed chief. But he didn’t. Instead he allowed his minions to bribe or bully potential contenders away from the field – to which, of course, they eventually returned, whispering malice.
And when, shortly afterwards, he was riding high in the polls and being urged to go for an early election and get his own national mandate, he wavered then flunked it.
When a man avoids the battlefield so much and so often, it can only mean, surely, that he is so terrified of rejection that in his own mind he is already defeated?
Which secret, interior prophecy now appears to be self-fulfilled.
Perhaps someone will, one day, write the book or screenplay which explains what happened in his life, and when, to make this fear take root.
Footnote, May 1: Neither during the stormy campaign of 1992 nor during his terminal tempest in 1997 do I remember John Major conjuring the shade of Margaret Thatcher out of Valhalla to stand at his shoulder. Still, since Campbell and Mandelson, the magicians of Blair’s original victory, are now the restoration men trying the shore up Brown, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that TB is suddenly back centre-stage.
Asked by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson in this morning’s Times whether he reckons there should have been a leadership election when he stood down in 2007, he replies neither “yes,” nor “no,” but thus:
“I think we all know who would have won that.”
Which is precisely the point I am making in this blog.
An ending with another bit of Shakespeare? Why not –
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

For Gordon Blair, the tide was at its fortunate flood three times before. But not this week.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

“Bigotgate”: it’s what happens when you compromise

That confrontation between OAP and PM never happened. That’s the important point to grasp.
“Happen” derives from an old English verb, “to hap” – “to come about by hap or chance,” where the noun “hap” means “chance or fortune (good or bad).”
As in the old rhyme:

Were it to hap that we should meet
In some poor northern town,
Arriving, I would grin and greet,
Departing, curse and frown.

So the meta-story was that Gordon Brown, touring Rochdale, happened upon 66-year-old Mrs Gillian Duffy, a pensioner and widow with whom he happened to have a happy and lively conversation, but in an unhappy sequel, when he thought he was unobserved in his car, he happened inexplicably to lose his temper and call her a “bigoted woman.”
And the real story? Of course, the entire Rochdale excursion was confected for the media, up to and including the meeting with Mrs Duffy, who was propelled into the PM’s presence by his entourage, they having auditioned her on the street and established that she was a salt-of-the-earth Labour supporter who wouldn’t spit in his eye.
Which she didn’t.
He spat in hers, metaphorically, when the car doors were shut and he thought the media circus had been switched off.
The problem is that Gordon doesn’t do “spontaneous,” doesn’t embrace, if you like, encounters and events which “hap.”
But that meant all his campaign appearances to date had been cast, structured and scripted, an artifice of which the audiences were not unaware, since audiences aren’t fools (but are easily bored), and a constraint which made the media restless and tempted to satire.
So, the idea gained force among Gordon’s staffers: “let’s have some spontaneity; let’s find the great man some space in which he can improvise” – and they promptly set about structuring the spontaneity, delimiting the space and trying to script the improvisation.
Gordon, as I say, does not do “spontaneous” – not, I believe, because he is either incapable or frightened of it – but because he knows (or I suspect he knows) that what passes for spontaneity in a modern election is even less genuine than artifice and that, with respect to Mrs Duffy, the kind of person who will come up to you for a “spontaneous” conversation in the street, with a hydra’s tentacles of lenses, lights and gun-mikes weaving around your head, must be conscious that the “happening” is really nothing more or less than a performance.
And that, I think, was why he described his interview with Mrs D as “a disaster” in the car and said “I mean, it’s just ridiculous.” He wasn’t referring to that particular interview. He was saying that all interviews in that genre are ridiculous and will be prone to disaster, because they have no integrity, a quality which, in spite of everything that’s being flung at him, I think he has.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse his calling the poor woman a “bigot” – a cruel epithet which brought the day’s two most poignant images: Mrs Duffy on the street, wounded to the quick, near to tears, and Mr Brown in a BBC Radio studio, head in hand, in despair not just at the hurt he’d caused, but at the fact that he’d caused it by surrendering to a strategy of which he’d all along been sceptical.
The scandal – and I suspect that this may also affront Mr Brown’s moral sensibility – is that when politicians publicly meet non party-card-carrying electors, they use them solely as a means to an end. Brown’s staffers didn’t want him to get to know and listen to and care about Gillian Duffy. They wanted Gillian Duffy to be an instrument to burnish Mr Brown’s image and help him back to Downing Street.
And if Gordon Brown has integrity, so has Mrs Duffy. Despite the paucity of her pension (about which she’d protested to Brown), she turned down a newspaper’s cheque for her “exclusive” story because the deal required her to endorse David Cameron.
So there you have the first paradox. Two people, both possessed of integrity, swept into a degraded media spectacle which in different fashions humiliated them both.
And the second paradox? I think the appeal of Mr Clegg lies not entirely in whatever virtues he may possess, but also in the fact that a lot of electors see him as an instrument: a means to an end, which is punishing and damaging the political establishment.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Election 2010 Emergency Meeting – Worshipful Guild of Media Trainers

A crisis had struck the craft of media training, one which pierced to the very heart of its time-honoured methodologies, and that crisis had dramatically unveiled itself during the first of the UK Party Leaders’ Election Debates, declared the President of the Worshipful Guild of Media Trainers, the Worshipful Bro. A DJING-HACK, at an emergency meeting of the Guild, convened in the snug bar of the Lens & Pen Inn, London EC1.
For many years the craft had rested its practice securely upon on coaching clients to observe the celebrated fourfold formula: “IMPACT-ANECDOTE-ARGUMENT-POINT”, memorably described by one of his [The President’s] late and illustrious predecessors as “the unturnable poignard of media engagement”.
Sist. KNIB asked to be reminded what exactly a “poignard” was?
The President explained that it was a kind of medieval dagger.
Sist. KNIB asked why, then, he [the late President] did not simply say “dagger”?
The President replied that he did not know
Bro GRUB: “What about the Wayzgoose?”
The President pointed out that the itinerary for the Wayzgoose was a matter of ordinary and not extraordinary business, and if he might continue to develop his theme, he wished to point out how signally, in the case of each leader at the debate, the anecdote portion of the equation, which his predecessor had called “the beating heart of an unbeatable monologue,” had failed. For example, Mr BROWN had said:
“I talked to a chef the other day who was training. I said in future, when we do it, there'll be no chefs allowed in from outside the European Union.”
Bro. SCRIVER: “When we do what, exactly?”
Bro. SQUINK: “Bang go our biryanis...”
The President continued with a quotation from Mr CAMERON:
“I went to a Hull police station the other day. They had five different police cars, and they were just about to buy a £73,000 Lexus.”
Bro. SCRIVER: “Well, if he doesn’t win he can always get a job with Glass’s Guide...”
The President then added a quotation from Mr CLEGG:
“I was in a hospital, a paediatric hospital in Cardiff a few months ago, treating very sick premature young babies. I was being shown around and there were a large number of babies needing to be treated. There was a ward standing completely empty, though it had the latest equipment.”
Several Worshipful Bros & Sists: “did you know Clegg was a paediatrician?” ... “lucky for him the ward was empty” ... “wonder how he got on treating them?”
Bro. GRUB: The Wayzgoose!
The President, deploying the gavel, said he appreciated that some members were in an impatient and others in a facetious mood, his assistant having erroneously posted the wrong time for the meeting, thus summoning them two hours too early to the bar, but nevertheless he would like to concentrate on the critical issue, viz, whether the widespread mockery and scepticism with which the three leaders’ anecdotes had been received suggested that this foundational segment of the formula was now, not to put too fine a point on it, “shot through and sunk.”
Sist. KNIB said that politicians were always the exception that proved the rule, seeing as how there hadn’t been one since Margaret THATCHER or the late Michael FOOT who’d been capable of stringing sentences into a coherent paragraph or looking folk straight in the eye or opening their mouths without telling blatant porkies.
Bro. SCRIVER, after helping Bro. GRUB up from the floor and onto a chair, said that what you had in the leaders’ debate was a tattered grey parrot, an anxious jackdaw and a startled mynah bird, each perched on his lectern and squawking the phrases which had been dinned into them without the faintest comprehension of structure, meaning or intent – and it showed.
But Sist. MAGGS begged to demur. Mr CLEGG, she said, had fetched up a very telling anecdote. Not the line he’d been fed by his advisers about the sick babies and the empty ward, but, in an exchange with Mr BROWN, this one [consulting notebook]:
GORDON BROWN: I want an MP to be elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote, and I want a House of Lords that is not hereditary but elected on a proportional representation list system. That's what we want to put to a referendum next year.
NICK CLEGG: I'm absolutely dismayed by this. This is something I actually put forward in the House of Commons. We already could have had that law, people already could have had the right to sack corrupt MPs. Labour MPs voted against it. Conservative MPs didn't turn up.

And members of the Guild should also note, Sist. MAGGS continued, that Mr CLEGG had also very effectively "stepped through the proscenium":
NICK CLEGG: I'm not sure if you're like me, but the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.
On a show of hands, members of the Guild voted to retain the formula, but to keep it under constant review.
The President said he was relieved, because if their media training paradigm had indeed collapsed, members would have had no alternative but to call a special conference and reconstruct their methodologies “ab origine.”
Sist. MAGGS said maybe the media training paradigm hadn’t collapsed, but maybe the two-party political paradigm had. Members should watch the ensuing debates with close interest.
The Guild then discussed arrangements for its midsummer Wayzgoose, and there being no other business, the meeting adjourned at 10:30 p.m.
Note to Editors: all quotations from the April 15 Leaders’ Debate are taken verbatim from the BBC Transcript of the broadcast.

Monday, 12 April 2010

On spring, sapphires and electoral silence

We walked for six hours, at first beside a narrow river and then climbing high into the Chiltern Hills. When we set off, there were scarcely any leaves on the trees, but the sun blazed and temperatures climbed, and by evening buds had opened and shoots had shot, butterflies were dancing, fish jumping, and the world was sprinkled green and bright.
It was as if, at last, someone had found the keys to the kennel and the hounds of Spring, unleashed, had burst out in a frenzy.
I’m picking books at random off the shelves, at present, letting my fingers make the choice for a re-reading. Before the walk, last Thursday morning, they reached me down for my journeys on the underground the formidable American critic Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism.
These fingers, perhaps, are curious to see whether their mental equivalents have more luck grasping the meaning of the book than they did first time around (A: only a little).
Bloom writes of the Sefirot (the interlinking orbs of the great figure), that the derivation of the word...
“... would seem to suggest the Greek ‘sphere,’ but its actual source was the Hebrew word sappir (for ‘sapphire’), and so the term referred primarily to God’s radiance. [Professor Gershom] Scholem gives a very suggestive list of Kabbalistic synonyms for the Sefirot: sayings, names, lights, powers, crowns, qualities, stages, garments, mirrors, shoots, sources, primal days, aspects, inner faces, and limbs of God.”
After two pints of Badger, bare head baking in the afternoon sun, up there in the Chilterns, it felt as if we were experiencing something like that. Or those.
This was a company of just three: men of passable intelligence and reasonable curiosity, attuned enough to natural and human affairs.
But what struck me as we parted was that not once, during all those hours together, had any of us mentioned the General Election which Gordon Brown had called a couple of days before.
Neither had anyone in any conversation overheard on underground or overground, or in the crowded pub where we paused for lunch.
Nor did anyone at a supper party two nights later.
Yes, there is all the redounding spout and spume of reportage, verbiage and commentary coming at us from journalism. But elsewhere, or so it strikes me, this is the election that no-one wants to talk about.
Which is suggestive, because after all, everywhere you went before the great climacteric of 1997, when Blair’s New Labour obliviated Major’s Tories, that election was the fizz and buzz of conversation.
It seems we have a new version of two nations here. One consists of the politicians and their colonies of advisers and PR people and bag-carriers, plus the hapless scriveners who are doomed like creatures in a modern Grimm’s fairy tale to spin out more and more and more words to fill the huge and ever-growing caverns of time and space that modern technology has got them (usually by the generation, analysis, serialisation and syndication of bullshit).
And then there’s the rest of us. Turned away, and trying not to mention the 2010 hustings at all.
I suspect the reason is in all in the ethics of the dialogue. By which I mean this: that the way the Labour party, and thence the others, have been abusing the language since 1997, defiling its wellsprings with cynical manoeuvres of spin, distortion, lies and wicked, furtive “briefings”, twisting words to mean what they want them to mean and all the while supposing that their audiences are idiots – that this has left the rest of us, in the other nation, unconsciously or even consciously aware that contact with political discourse is contaminating; that like a cigarette packet, a politician’s manifesto should be emblazoned with some ghastly picture of a diseased organ – maybe a human soul – and a message: “Warning – Politspeak Can Seriously Harm You And Those Around You.”
And a helpline number to a recording of, perhaps, Simon Callow reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.
Our greatest British critic, Terry Eagleton, about as hard-headed an individual as you could find, uses a surprising Biblical analogy to describe political and commercial language. It is, he says, “fallen” – “bleared and smudged with trade, degraded to a mere instrument.”
Which takes me back across the Atlantic to Mr Bloom:
“The Sefirot are primarily language, attributes of God that need to be described by the various names of God when he is at work in creation... At first the Kabbalists dared to identify the Sefirot with the actual substance of God, and the Zohar goes so far as to say of God and the Sefirot: ‘He is They and They are He,’ which produces the rather dangerous formula that God and language are one and the same...”
Steady there. But maybe, all the same, we do need some sort of preventive sign we can make (besides fingers in ears) to ward off evil when we hear a politician speaking.
Footnote 1: in The Times this weekend Ginny Dougary insists that Gordon Brown is a man of depths. Perhaps that’s his problem? A deep man gasping in the shallowness of politics? And I think it isn’t only a love of paradox on my part that makes me immediately think of David Cameron as a shallow man who’s getting out of his depth.
Footnote 2: this morning my daughter told me that she’d had a dream about Nick Clegg (the Liberal party leader). The content was vague, but this is probably a first for any teenage girl – and for Mr Clegg.